Wednesday, July 29, 2009


In Which I Stall for Time...

Busy day/week/life here at the Magazine Mansion, and more going on than I can articulate. So instead of giving you any news about my planets-in-alignment opportunity, I thought I would cleverly distract you with another sample chapter from my book. A lot of folks wanted to see something about my mom, and I would say this fits the bill. It's not the funniest or sharpest piece of writing I've ever done, but of everything I've written in the past few months, it's the story I'm fondest of, probably because it's the closest I've ever come to capturing the kind of person my mother was when I was growing up.

Also, it has the added advantage of featuring a famous incident (at least in my family) involving my brother and the time Mom tried to put him on a diet.

Hope you like it:

Iron Mom

Whenever my mother plugged in the iron, my brother and I knew we had two choices: Get very quiet. Or get out of the house.

Mom said she did her best problem-solving behind the ironing board, and I guess that was true enough, because when she wasn’t behind that board, she was busy creating whole new problems, problems that never would have occurred to me to worry about if she hadn’t brought them up. She was forever drilling us on potentially life-threatening situations—what to do if we fell through the ice, or were buried alive, or had to escape from the car if it ever flipped over and caught fire. That was the only one that really bothered me, not because I couldn’t figure a way out, but because Mom said, “Whatever you do, run and don’t stop. Just leave me behind.” She might as well have said, “Stand by uselessly and watch me burn to death,” because that was the image that stuck in my head.

But it must have eased her mind in some way, because she did this for years, constantly surprising us with ever stranger and unlikelier scenarios, needling us for instant answers to see if our survival instinct was sufficiently honed. There I’d be, reading a comic book in the back seat of the car, minding my own business as we drove somewhere, when suddenly she’d say, “What would you do if there were burglars upstairs and you were trapped in the basement?”

BB would get all rigid next to me, like one of those pointer dogs that’s finally found a bird in the bushes. “Ooh, I know! Pull all the fuses so when they came down to check the power, I’d sneak out,” he’d say, then give me a satisfied nod as if to say, Beat that.

“Not bad,” Mom would reply. “But suppose you were tied up in the corner? Then what? You think about that for a minute. Now it’s your brother’s turn. MM? Put that down and listen. What would you do if you were trapped in the basement…”

I sighed hugely across her. “Ma, we don’t have a basement,” I said. It was true. All we had was a tiny little crawlspace under the house and I was never going down there.

“Don’t interrupt. Now, listen! What would you do if you were trapped in the basement and it started flooding?” I gave it the moment’s consideration I thought it warranted. Aside from having no basement, none of us could swim either.

"Well?" Mom demanded after half a second. "What would you do?"

“Drown,” I answered. Mom got angry at me for that.

When I was little it seemed like anger—not the need to think or solve problems--was what drove Mom to iron the most. And she could be mad for hours at a time. You only had to look at our clothes to tell this. Everything in our closets, all our school shirts and pants, our jeans, even our t-shirts and underwear, were all starchy-smelling and folded or creased like they had just come from the cleaners. Even though she ironed every day, Mom’s clothes hamper in the living room was almost always full. If she pressed her way through our clothes, she moved on to her own, then Dad’s last of all—construction workers didn’t have a lot of clothes that took well to ironing. When she put the hissing iron to the arms of Dad’s work shirts, even freshly laundered, you could smell the sweat coming off them.

She used to tell us that being a grown-up was more complicated than we ever appreciated, that every day she and Dad had new problems to solve. “But often as not, I’m the only one who wants to solve them!” she’d say mysteriously, her voice rising at the end of the sentence. Then she’d slam something down—a plate or a heavy book, maybe. If that wasn’t satisfying enough, she’d go rummage around in the kitchen cabinets, usually the lower ones, where she kept the big metal pots and pans and could get some good clanging noises out of them. But after a while of banging around in there, she’d come out to the living room, set up her board, plug in her old black-and-nickel plated Sunbeam, and set the dial way over to the side marked “Steam.”

Sometimes she would ask me to read one of her magazines to her, so I’d pick my way through the stories in Reader’s Digest (I liked the humor pieces. Mom was a big fan of the “Drama in Real Life” disaster stories). I’d have to look up occasionally to see what she was ironing, knowing that if she got to my clothes, it was time to go to the bathroom and forget to come back. For Mom, there was a very literal connection between what she was ironing and what she was thinking about, mad or not. When she was working the wrinkles out of your clothes, she was apt to start working some wrinkles out of you. If I was too slow to notice that she was pressing my slacks, I’d have to sit and get an earful about my smart mouth or some pointers on how to make my teachers like me better (these pointers nearly always seemed to involve me talking less and listening more).

Not long after he sent me to the hospital, Mom spent a lot of time ironing BB’s clothes, thinking about all the times he flew off the handle and thumped me, or talked too fast to be understood, or couldn’t settle down at night (for some reason, he kept having bad dreams about being buried alive or trapped under ice). After talking with Dad about it, Mom announced that BB was going to see a special doctor, a psychiatrist. “Oh, like Lucy in the Charlie Brown comics,” I said. “You pay her a nickel and she tells you your problems.”

Dad shook his head sadly. “This one’s gonna cost a lot more than a nickel,” he said.

He was right. The doctor told my parents that BB was hyperactive, which I could have told them for free. My brother never sat still. It was frustrating. You’d be playing Hot Wheels or building a block tower and he’d freak out if a car turned over or a block fell. Then he’d smash up the track and knock down the blocks and then thump me just because. The doctor gave him some medicine—it didn’t work, it made him more hyper than ever. Then he recommended a school in Manchester for kids with special problems--like being a spaz and hitting your brother all the time. On BB’s first day of school, the teacher complimented him on his neat appearance and his crisp, unwrinkled clothes. He got a little better about the spaz thing, too. The psychiatrist had told BB that when he started to get excited or found himself in a stressful situation, he needed to take a deep breath and focus on the problem, instead of just yelling or lashing out. And it worked: I discovered it often took me five or six good insults before I got BB mad enough to actually try to hit me.

But Mom wasn’t done fixing my brother yet. One afternoon, while ironing clothes she found stuffed in the back of BB’s closet, she suddenly said to him, “You don’t wear these clothes because they’re too tight. You’re too big, that’s your problem,” she told him. “I was husky like you when I was younger, but I started watching what I ate. You will too.” That was a great week, the week she started my brother on a diet. The best part was the night he came back from the kitchen with his third helping of chicken and rice and Mom, remembering that she was trying to slim my brother down, snatched his plate away and took it back to the kitchen. “She took my food!” he cried, looking across the table at me. “Now you know how it feels,” I said, stuffing my mouth with a big load of chicken. You wouldn’t think you could smile and chew at the same time, but you'd be wrong.

In the end, the crash diet didn’t work. For one thing, BB started getting up at night and sneaking food from the kitchen. And not just sneaking, but hiding it. One morning, I reached in my dresser drawer for a fresh pair of underpants and knew something was wrong when crumbs fell out of the crotch. I yelled for Mom as I always did when there was a problem with the laundry service. She took one look at the crumbs and began pulling all my crisp, neatly pressed underpants out of the top drawer and shaking them. Towards the back, chocolate chip cookies started falling out.

That’s when BB walked in from the bathroom. He took in the scene, then took a deep breath. He calmly turned to me and said, “So Mom finally found out where you were hiding the cookies, huh?” Even in my rage and indignation, I had to admire my brother’s self-control in that moment of crisis, but Mom still saw right through him. “How could you hide food in your brother’s underwear drawer?” she cried. BB glared at her for one whole second, then collapsed. “I had to!” he cried. “My drawers are already full!” After she made him put all the food back in the pantry, Mom punished BB by teaching him how to load the washer and dryer, starting with my Fruit-of-the-Looms. From then on, it was his job to bring the fresh clothes directly to the ironing hamper and keep it topped off.

A few times a month, we’d find Mom ironing stuff at the bottom of the basket and we knew she and Dad had probably had a big fight, usually over the checkbook, which Dad kept in a secret place and wouldn’t give her. Those times, Mom would get all the way down to the linen napkins that we only used at Thanksgiving, bed sheets for the guest room, and a stack of old cloth squares that had a curious combination of faded black and yellow stains and delicately embroidered initials. “What are those?” I once asked her, when I was 5 or 6, before I was old enough to know better than to talk to her when she had an iron in her hand.

“Handkerchiefs,” she’d say grimly, mashing the iron onto them. “Vintage linen and hand-stitched. They belonged to your great-grandpa. He was a smart man. Good with money. He left quite a bit to your grandmother. He died before you were born. But these old hankies are still good. Someone should get the use of them.” I don’t know who she thought that someone would be, but it wasn’t going to be me. Looking at those old stained hankies, it was only too easy to imagine that with one blow, you’d inhale whatever killed great-grandpa and die all sneezing and bloody. Anyway, I didn’t need a hanky. That’s what long sleeves were for.

Once, in late fall, when the weather turned cold, we came home from school to find the house exceptionally bright. It took us a minute to figure it out, but then we realized that all the windows were bare, although even out here in the breezeway they were all slightly steamed over. BB and I looked at each other, then he crept into the swirling mist coming from the living room while I stayed by the front door. He came back fast, his eyes wide. “The basket’s empty. Mom’s ironing all the curtains now,” he reported. We put our coats back on and played outside until Mom called us in for supper.

That was the day we found out that Dad had no job.

“Well, you’ve had no job before. You just went down to the union hall and got another one, right?” BB said to Dad, as we sat quietly at supper that night. The table had a stiff white tablecloth on it that I’d never seen before. Cloth napkins too. They were still warm and smelled slightly of hot steam.

“That’s true,” Dad said, nodding. He wasn’t looking at anyone, especially Mom. He was staring at his beer bottle, was in fact peeling the label from the bottle, letting bits fall onto his plate. “That’s true, but there isn’t a lot of new work happening in New Hampshire anymore.” He took a deep breath and kept not looking at Mom. “And we don’t have much in the bank right now, so if we want to keep on the way we are, I’m going to have to go sign on with one of the big construction companies doing work up in Maine. Or Canada, maybe. What would you do if we moved there?” he asked.

“Canada?!?” BB cried, looking to Mom, I guess to see if this was another of her disaster scenarios. But Mom just stared down at the tablecloth, smoothing a crease over and over with her hand.

“But what about going up to Springfield? Finishing the cabin and living up on the Hill?” I asked.

Dad looked up then. “Hill’s not going anywhere. We’ll always, always have that. And you know that’ll always be home, no matter where we end up living. It’s just, if I want to make money, I have to go where the work is. And there’s none left for me here in New Hampshire. Believe me, I’ve looked.” Mom got up then, her supper unfinished. She started to go toward the living room and the ironing board that was still set up, the iron still sitting on it. Halfway between the dining room and the living room, she stopped. I could see the hamper was empty. She’d ironed everything in the house, except the clothes on our backs. She walked over to the board, picked up the iron and for a second I thought she was just going to start running the iron across the empty board, which I knew meant she’d finally had the nervous breakdown she’d been swearing we’d drive her to all these years. But she didn’t. Or if she did, it was an unsatisfyingly quiet one, because she just flipped the board closed—one-handed, like the pro ironer she was. Then, holding the iron in both hands, she wordlessly took it into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.

The next morning, it was like nothing unusual had happened. Dad was already gone when we got up for school and Mom seemed fine, if quiet, as she gave us our lunchboxes and herded us out the door to catch our ride. But when we got home that afternoon, things were different again. Not different like Mom had ripped the curtains off the windows, but still, different. For one thing, there were a few dishes in the sink—Mom never let a dish or glass or dirty fork sit for more than 12 seconds in her sink. For another thing, Mom wasn’t ironing.

But she was at the ironing board. Only instead of leaning over a shirt or a pair of slacks or my great-grandpa’s hankies, she had stacks of envelopes and papers spread out all over the board. In one hand, she held a pencil, which she gently tapped on the board. In the other hand, she held a rectangular object I didn’t recognize at first. It was the checkbook. She stared at it, then scribbled something on the sheet of paper in front of her. Then she picked up an envelope, peeked inside, and started writing something else down.

“Oh, you’re home already,” she said, finally noticing us and, apparently, the time. “Well, your father said to say goodbye. He got a call from a work friend and had to leave for Maine right away. He’ll call us tonight, and if he gets the job, he’ll stay up there and come home on weekends, I think.” She looked back down at the checkbook. “I’ll start supper in a minute, but I have to finish something here, so you two can help out.” She pointed at me with the pencil. “There’s some dishes in the sink that you can wash and put away. And BB, go get the laundry out of the dryer. It’s just yours and your brother’s clothes, so please put them away in the right drawers.”

As I walked back to the kitchen and got the step-stool so I could reach the sink, I heard BB say, “You don’t want them in the ironing basket first?”

“No,” Mom said in a calm but faraway voice that made it clear her attention was on the checkbook. “Just fold them and put them away.” As BB went out to the laundry room, I got the dish soap out from under the sink, then climbed up on the stool and turned on the hot water.

Not long after that, I had a dream that we were in the car, all of us. Mom was driving and Dad was in the passenger seat. Then I heard some tires screeching like in the movies and suddenly we were upside down. I heard flames crackling but couldn’t see them. The car was filling with smoke. I couldn’t see BB next to me. Up in front, the passenger seat was empty; Dad was already gone. I should have been scared, but I wasn't. I knew the way out of this: I turned, put both feet together and kicked hard at the passenger window. It exploded in tiny kernels, like it did the time Dad locked his keys in the truck and had to break the glass. I clambered out and started to run, but then I remembered my mother.

I turned and she was still in the driver’s seat, hands on the steering wheel. The crackling got louder, then the whole car caught fire. “You go on,” she called through the flames in a voice that sounded far away, but calm as anything. “You get clear,” she said.

I ran then, my heart in my throat. I ran, even though I knew she was on fire. I couldn’t see it, but I could smell it, like hot steam rising.


Well, there you go.

As for other developments, I hope to have more to tell you soon, perhaps this weekend. We'll see.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wow, I wish I'd known your mom.
That's GREAT stuff, MM. The slightly disparaging comments at the beginning ("... not the funniest or sharpest...") are patently untrue. Seriously.
Just wonderful. I'm not a certified critic but I read a lot and this had me spellbound.
I'm lovin it too.
Waiting for more - and afraid of which way it will go.
I think I may have liked that chapter more than the last one. I especially thought the end was effective since it makes me want to read more of the book.

And, I can't quite place my finger on what's different, but the chapters of your book read differently to me than your blog. I'll just say that I wouldn't necessarily minimize the energy of the first draft. But I'm no writer so what the hell would I know.

Thanks, as always, for sharing more of your writing with us, MM. Good luck this week.
Now why in the world did you go and make me cry?

Solid writing.

Finish the book MM.
It will take a lot of obstacles for me to NOT buy the damn thing when it gets published.
I was really moved by this chapter, MM.
so you leave us hanging on the once-in-a-lifetime thing AND tease with another taste of the book... mean, mean mm.

i concur - something's a bit different in the tone of the book vs the blog but i like it. when's it coming out again?
can't wait for the whole thing
The first chapter you shared was out right funny. This one was DEEP.

I hope you know what I'm trying to say.

I so totally relate to the ironing. It wasn't ironing with my mother. It was cleaning the house. Good god we knew to get out of the way when Mom was cleaning house with the dark cloud hanging over her head. She was a force of nature. :)

I miss her.
Your stories have always, and probably will always, touched my heart.
Wow. Simply that.
your mom sounds like the stronger, more noble version of me that I'd like to be. only I "tidy" instead of iron. I feel for her; her frustration is palpable. thank goodness I know from reading your blog that your folks worked through this and ended up doing pretty darned well for themselves. loving the chapters.
I suppose because having been a reader of your blog for some time now -and knowing of the tragedy involving the death of your parents, reading this chapter gave me a feeling of looking into a crystal ball, somehow the ominous things to come later in your life being presented there. But it also showed the stoic side of your Mom, the ability to take charge of whatever came her way and make the best of it.
Wow, that was terrific. I want more! (And btw, with me, it's weeding. Something about doing a repetitive chore like that lets you think without knowing you're thinking, you know?)
Wow! That was my first reaction. Seems others feel the same. Thanks, and please get that book finished, I'm waiting impatiently.Lizardmom
MM, I really enjoyed both of the chapters you shared with us from your book. Once I started reading, I couldn't stop until I finished the chapter. Keep up the great work!
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