Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Training Day

My first bra was a hand-me-down.  I have three older female cousins and I’ll never know with whom this one originated, but I do know that it didn’t fit.  My Auntie Jo told me that it was inappropriate for a girl my age to not wear a bra and since I was under her care deep in the heart of Texas for the summer of 1977,  my time had come.  My mother didn’t wear one, so what did I know?
The bra was white cotton, originally. Now grayish with lumpy cups from too many washings.  It felt like cardboard under my t-shirt and the straps pulled on my sunburn. And it itched.
Riding a bicycle barefoot on the country roads in Texas in the summer had been a liberating feeling.  But with this new-to-me recycled bra I felt constricted.  I couldn’t lift my arms without it riding up and then I had to stop the bike and tug it down.  I was always tugging and adjusting and now I was completely self-conscious.  Did it show through my shirt?  The easy freedom of summer had hit a lumpy cotton wall.
Once I was back home, my bra went missing the morning after a birthday sleepover.  The birthday girl was a pain in the ass and had taken it out of my overnight bag.  She told me she was going to hang it on the door of our classroom at school on Monday morning. Never underestimate the psychological torture of being a seventh grade girl. I got to school early to stake out the door.  She didn’t make good on the threat, but she never returned the bra.
I had done some research by this point and I had found that Danskin made a bra that I wanted. Sold in dance stores, this was the precursor to today’s jog-bra. No hooks. No lumpy cups or pinchy straps - I could move!  
With the exception of a brief tawdry fling with Victoria’s Secret in the 1980’s, (I was living in LA, and thus, defenseless.  I even got a membership to Trashy Lingerie with a friend who I will not name, but she knows who she is),  I stayed loyal to the same pullover style until the Mom years.  After breastfeeding three ravenous babies, I self promoted to underwire with strategic padding, and was professionally fitted by one of the blessed Nordstrom bra wizards.  These women are amazing.  They tricked me out with bras that actually fit and were pretty.  And expensive. 


Fire Storm

15 is such an adorable age

Our boys hosted a garage concert on the last day of school. Three bands were slated to play and kids had been invited representing several Bay Area high schools.  I don’t recall ever fully signing on for this, and was silently panicking at the thought of 700 moshing metalheads. I demanded a guest list and again went over the house rules of no booze - no drugs – no disrespectful behavior. Only one mom phoned to make sure parents would be home and I confessed that this was uncharted water for us too. 
As the bands warmed up, our driveway resembled the scene in Bambi when the forest is on fire and all the bunnies and skunks are evacuating in a wild panic.  All wildlife in a 2-mile radius had scampered or flown away.  The sheriff that arrived moments later helpfully suggested closing the garage door. He gave me his card in case I ran into any trouble. I gave him my name and number for my pissed neighbors to call so he didn’t have to drive back. 
The first two bands were lite punk if such a thing could exist.  They were loud for sure but I could still watch Colbert Report without a problem.  Then the hosting headliner band came on, with corpse paint and a plastic skull goblet with homemade corn syrup blood for the full effect.  As their mother I can honestly say it was horrible.  Like a fissure had opened at the end of our driveway and drums as loud as a Hell’s Angels memorial ride and vocals like gargled nails.  My garden wilted.  Paint peeled from the walls. The mosh pit was at full tilt when the garage door opened just a few inches and a kid literally rolled out and the door shut behind him.  I was refilling a bowl with chips and asked him if he was ok. He was holding a broom. He said, “I’m fine.” I went back inside and waited for the phone to ring. 
The first call was from a man who asked if they could please take it inside.  I told him it was in the garage. He asked if they could close the door.  I told him that, sadly the door was closed. When I told him the sheriff had already come by he then claimed to be from the Sheriff’s dispatch office.  I thought it was curious that he had a English accent but told him I’d have the band turn down the amps.  He lightened up and admitted to having been in a band and I told him it was their first real gig with girls.  Those poor girls.
The next neighbor was civil and politely asked if we could please never do it again.  She asked if it were perhaps Satanic Jazz. No, not Satanic, but in that Back Metal tradition of Norse mythology, the earth based pre Christian…… never mind I’ll be pulling the plug soon.  She told me I was a good mother for letting them flex their creative wings and hopefully for all our sakes it was a phase they’d quickly outgrow.  I gave the band a 5-minute warning.
In the end only twenty or so kids showed and the bands were disappointed at that, but clearly they’d earned their stripes by the sheriff coming and pissing off the neighbors.  We earned major kudos from the other parent roadies who had opted to go out to dinner during the concert and were now loading amps and guitars into their sensible hybrids. 
While my older son was dutifully washing the corn syrup blood off the garage floor I heard a rustle in the tree and a mourning dove coo.  One of our cats squeezed back under the fence and reclaimed her perch in the garage. 


Mary Allison Tierney's essay The Gingerdreadman is included in the anthology Mamas Write, available at Amazon, or your local independent bookshop.


Two years ago I had the privilege of participating in my nephew’s birth. When I arrived,  I waited behind the curtain until her contraction peaked and then went in to say hello.  
"You’re a liar and I hate you," she said weakly. 
While it was best that she didn’t witness my first two deliveries, watching me sneeze out my third probably wasn’t the best preparation for this day. With my third I wised up and got the epidural.  It was a significantly more graceful process.  I napped.  I read.  I glanced over at the monitor when I felt my e-friggin’-normous stomach tighten.  “Whoo – that was a doozy!” My sister rubbed my feet and fought with my husband for the cozier recliner
I tried to explain the difference but she wasn’t buying it.  I gently suggested that she get the drugs.  You get numb for a filling, right?  There’s no shame in getting relief ; no extra credit for suffering needlessly.  Of course it was useless. In this Seattle birth center, we had a dula, a tai chi master/labyrinth facilitator/impending grandma, two expecting parent biologists, and me; there would be no drugs today.
I’d never been present for the birth of a baby, outside of my own three. I’ve been the big sweaty groaning mess who couldn’t remember how to breathe.  Playing a supporting role was a relief.  Holding her hand, lifting her knee, offering words of support and encouragement came easily.  I knew my brother in law wanted to be down at the business end where I was, to watch his son’s head crown, but my sister had him in a headlock as her contractions heated up. She wasn’t letting me relinquish my post either, with her knee and hand.
When Oliver Salish emerged, after the feeling returned to my hand, his new grandma and I shared the most biologically bizarre sensation. The unmistakable tingle and ache of letdown. We were both very physically and emotionally immersed in this birth, so this must be Nature’s way of making sure the wee one eats.  Nice to know you can be useful.

Mary Allison Tierney's essay The Gingerdreadman is included in the anthology Mamas Write, available at Amazon, or your local independent bookshop.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Albuquerque Airport

My younger sister and I started flying alone after our parents divorced in 1974. At nine years old, I soon became familiar with the Albuquerque airport.  I would descend the rolling staircase onto the tarmac, holding my little sister’s hand as we walked toward the adobe terminal and look for my father.  He would be inside wearing Ray-Bans, jeans pressed with a crease, a big turquoise belt buckle and new running shoes.  He would pick up my sister, who is seven years younger than I am, and hug me too hard.  Soon enough I would learn that he smelled like pot.
The summer he wasn’t waiting at the gate, arms crossed and Ray-Bans on, I didn’t panic. The gate emptied and we were the only ones left. I searched the faces as we went down the escalator and continued to scan the crowd gathered around the baggage claim. I found a pay phone, expertly dialed “0” before the number, gave the operator my name and it rang forever before she told me to try again later.  I repeated this routine countless times for several hours.
I dragged our avocado green Samsonite into the ladies room, helped my sister use the potty and held her up to the sink to wash her hands.
When he finally picked up, I could hear him smiling at the sound of my voice.  Then I told him where we were. His voice was curt, insinuating he’d been told the wrong date. The tenuous grasp I had on my father was always in jeopardy. I never told anyone about this until I had my own kids. Only then did I panic. 
He rapped his chunky turquoise rings on the Volkswagon’s steering wheel in time with the Flying Burrito Brothers and sipped on the bottle of Dos Equis he had wedged between his legs as we drove north.  Five years later I would feel a chill of embarrassment during Drivers Ed class when I learned that this was actually illegal.  It had never occurred to me that it was a crime.
Summer visits with my father meant backpacking. On the outside of my father’s frame pack hung a large clear thermos of Jose’ Cuervo silver tequila that I gulped by mistake, thinking it was water. I thought I had swallowed the fuel for the propane stove.
My father laughed and told me that the next time we drank tequila together, it would be because I’d turned 18 and he was free from child support payments.  He was buying.  He still owes me.

2007   previously published in The Sun in a slightly edited version
Mary Allison Tierney's essay The Gingerdreadman is included in the anthology Mamas Write, available at Amazon, or your local independent bookshop.

Houdini Toddler

There’s a cold dark place you go when you can’t find your child.  I went there once. This isn’t the run of the mill can’t pick out your kid’s head bobbing in the pool, can’t sift through all the hooded toddlers at the park, just focused on a sale rack for a second and now you’re on your hands and knees at Nordstrom.  This is an all hands on deck, EVERYBODY is looking and minutes are ticking by and your toddler is GONE.  This is when someone gently leads you to a room so you can scream while they hold you.
I stepped into the Toddler Room to pick up my two year old son and in the scramble for lunch boxes and hanging up of jackets I couldn’t see where he might be.  The afternoon kids were settling in for lunch and the hip-height chaos was all around me.  A few seconds passed before I could move into the room and peek around the corner to the area where I usually found him painting. Not there. His teacher saw my questioning look and helped me look.  She opened the door to the outside play area, asking several parents and teachers if they had seen him.
In seconds the entire school was in lock down mode with all able bodies calling his name and looking in the garden, upper school, kitchen, parking lot, office.  This is when it became cold and dark, and I was led by the elbow into an office.  I remember screaming for someone to call 911.
Parents and teachers had begun looking in the creek that runs behind the school and were fanning out into the neighborhood, when a local resident came out of her house and asked if we were looking for the little boy she had in her arms.  He had slipped out the gate in the back of the school and disappeared up a flight of stairs leading to the Homestead Valley Community Center.  Like Popeye’s Sweetpea, skirting disaster at every turn, he had gone past the pool, through a parking lot with a blind driveway, along Montford, a typical Mill Valley neighborhood street with no sidewalk or shoulder, across Montford and up this neighbor’s steep driveway. The fact that he wasn’t run down by an SUV was a miracle in itself.
Ten years have passed since that day, and the two preschool teachers have since retired and moved away. I send them both a Christmas card each year and get one in return.  I know they went to their own cold dark place that day.

2007   originally published in the Marin Independent Journal, edited version
Mary Allison Tierney's essay The Gingerdreadman is included in the anthology Mamas Write, available at Amazon, or your local independent bookshop.

cold steel

We were driving through June fog to fulfill my firstborn’s destiny. He had waited until he was in high school before we’d let him get his ear pierced, which we felt was reasonable and it bought us some time.  Just a quick call to Dad to officially sign off and he was golden.  My husband was on a conference call and not in the mindset to deal with this life altering teen moment. 
Forget it.  You will regret it for the rest of your life.
We were nearing the last Marin exit before the bridge. I pulled off to mediate and call for backup: my younger sister and my husband’s younger stepbrother. Both weighed in heavily on my son’s side.  This being that not only was ear piercing OK, but also that getting both ears pierced was the norm. I got back on 101 and headed for the city in the hopes that my husband would see that this was going to happen eventually anyway, even if it wasn’t today.  I scored a George Costanza parking spot off Haight and my husband called back. 
Okay, one, but make sure he gets the right one, or the correct one, you know? 
Gender identity issues weren’t the problem; now my son was insisting that a single earring was for dorks and that we were dorks. 
Alright, get back in the car. Let’s go back home.
As I turned onto Masonic the phone rang again.
I took a poll in the office and the younger people say that getting just one ear done is a little dorky.  So, I guess two is fine.
Now I had to find another parking spot. 
At Anubis Warpus their piercer didn’t come in until 2. They recommended Mom’s down the street.  At Mom’s the Amazonian pink haired Betty Page wouldn’t do it because my 14 year old didn’t have a picture ID.  Soul Patch doesn’t pierce minors, period.  Who thought a suburban housewife would be the most permissive person on Haight Street?
Since I was with him and it was only lobes, the two men at Cold Steel were lenient. Both were ambitiously modified, each embellished with ink, facial piercings, and earplugs. Our piercer could have been plucked right off the Black Pearl, complete with limp. He was only lacking a monkey. Maybe this was for my benefit, but the pirate made a big point of how he always checks with his mom before he gets anything new done. Except the time he forgot when he got his tribal chin tattoo.
After ribbing my boy about becoming a man today – the other guy insisted ‘that costs extra’- the pirate was all business. Noting that his left lobe was thicker and slightly higher, he dotted his lobes with ink to check placement. The aesthetics were key.  All the while, the pirate was quick to dispense worldly sage advice: Girls have cooties.
Then it was done. With his red curls pulled back in a low ponytail, showcasing the new steel hoops of (young) manhood, my boy needed ‘za.  We celebrated with two slices.  Then he called his Dad.


Mary Allison Tierney's essay The Gingerdreadman is included in the anthology Mamas Write, available at Amazon, or your local independent bookshop.

Joe Clarke

My middle child is all metal.  He is a rock god.  He’s twelve. This past winter, during his second week of cotillion he learned the fox trot.  He’s quick to point out that foxes don’t trot, in case you’re curious.  Cotillion teaches formal dance steps and social etiquette that my kids can’t possibly learn at home.  I was a non Cotillion kid when I was in middle school, mostly because my mother was in her rejection of the establishment phase circa 1976.  Of course it was all the other kids talked about at school the next day – the horror of dancing together in fancy clothes.  But they were grinning like idiots and I knew I was missing out. 

My guy who lives in his black Slayer t-shirt and baggy black jeans with ringlets down to his shoulders cleans up good for cotillion. He had been planning his cotillion attire for two years, since his older brother was forced to attend.  His attitude was much more enthusiastic, provided that I allowed him to wear a camoflage tux with a top hat. Sadly, we never found one. In a navy blazer and khakis he’s still all metal.  A rock god.  James Hetfield in a suit is still James Hetfield. 

That night they learned the art of proper introduction.  When changing dance partners, one introduces themselves, first and last name.  The instructor gave an example:  “rather than ‘I’m Joe’ say instead ‘I’m Joe Clarke’.”  Each time he changed dance partners and was paired with a girl from his school, my son introduced himself, “I’m Joe Clark”.   Bingo.  The girls laughed.  There’s more to cotillion than the fox trot.  Cotillion rocks. 

Mary Allison Tierney's essay The Gingerdreadman is included in the anthology Mamas Write, available at Amazon, or your local independent bookshop.

Salt Point

I watched a beautiful sunset jiggle and dip through the redwood trees that lined a winding two-lane road out the small back windows of an ambulance.  I was strapped down and every few miles the driver would pull over and he and my attending EMT would switch roles, take my vitals and I finally asked, “is there some regulation that you have to switch drivers after so many miles?”
The older of the two, the one who looked like he was maybe 23, looked embarrassed.  “No, it’s just, we both get car sick”.  This cracked me up. 
I focused on the sunset.  I wasn’t dying.  I wasn’t in pain.  I was uncomfortable and sad.  My husband was following the ambulance with our two young boys.  We had planned this camping trip on the last day of school and they were so excited. My achy back I attributed to the packing and the drive.  I had taken the boys for a walk while my husband set up the tent and started a fire for dinner.  I lay down in the tent for a while and when our 4 year old came in for a shoe tie, I sat up and Pop! A warm water balloon leaked into my lap and I knew.  I felt responsible for holding this crew together while I told my husband that we were not having this baby and telling our boys that they were not going to sleep in tents outdoors with s’mores, but that we were now going to pack the truck after 45 minutes of camping and drive for a few hours.
We drove up to the ranger kiosk and my husband says to the female ranger, “We need a doctor, my wife’s not feeling well.”  Just as she is asking what is wrong I push my husband back and lean forward meeting her eyes, “I’m having a miscarriage”.
She tells us to pull over.  The ranger has two teenage sons who take my boys for some marshmallow and fire fun as the local EMTs arrive.
The Salt Point EMT crew is a young outdoorsy woman in her mid thirties and her partner, who is scrappy with a white beard and is a dead ringer for the Burt’s Bees dude in that little postage stamp sized ad in the New Yorker.  He is very gentle and kind and as he takes my pulse, tells me about his wife’s miscarriage years ago and how it was sad but that they went on to have several children. There had been some talk about medi-vacing me out but I nixed the helicopter idea in the bud.  As Burt and the young EMT’s loaded me into the ambulance, I worried that I might be too heavy.
After two and a half hours of a winding road in an ambulance I welcome the cool night air when I am unloaded.  When I see the entrance to the Emergency Room of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, I am immediately panicked about what we will do with our boys. My husband finds me as I am being wheeled inside.  He has called our friend Saskia and she is on her way up from Mill Valley to get our sleeping boys and take them home.  They will wake up in their own beds and tomorrow this will all be over.
Inside the ER, I was transferred from the downy comfort of an ambulance gurney to a steel table with a disposable paper mattress and met the least charming nurse in North America. The queasy ambulance boys said goodbye and wished me well. It was almost midnight on a Friday and the room was chaos.  A curtain was drawn around my table.  To my right I hear the wheezing of an old man and his wife crying.  He’s dying.  Through the gaps in the curtain I can see a young woman across from me who is writhing, screaming, gagging and has my vote for the best string of expletives growled in a single breath.  She is having a really bad night.  I learn later from a nicer nurse that she was ODing on ecstasy.   Somewhere there is a burst of yelling in Spanish and two Hispanic men were being tackled and pulled off each other.  They had been brought in with knife wounds and were still going at it with their fists. Their loss of blood and the alcohol content of what remained were throwing off their aim and they were losing steam.  So was I.
My drama was not even a blip on the radar in this circus.  I was happy to be low priority.  All around me was death and agony.  I kept my jiggly sunset in my mind as the nurse came by to bully me and I cried as the final bits of our former baby made it’s exit.  I was sad and tired and lucky to only have those complaints.  I kept bleeding though and that got their attention.  Bully nurse took one more swipe at me when she asked my blood type and I couldn’t remember. Hers was no match for Miss Ecstasy’s mouth.  I was eased into a wheel chair and taken upstairs to a dark and very quiet sonogram room.  I bled on everything and nobody seemed to notice.  I kept apologizing.  The sonogram revealed a quarter sized bit of placenta attached to the tippy top of my empty uterus and that was what was causing the blood loss. 
I was prepped for a D & C.   It was 2 AM and I was a wrung out rag and had to be helped to take out my earrings and remove my watch and wedding band.  Then I remembered the navel ring.  I couldn’t get it open and the anesthesiologist and surgeon found that amusing so they let it slide.  I asked the surgeon if I could have a pair of scrubs to wear home, since my clothes were trashed and then I gripped his arm and told the anesthesiologist that I didn’t want to remember anything.  They both smiled and assured me not to worry.  I woke up coughing and a nurse reading a magazine next to my bed gave me ginger ale and wheeled me to a recovery room where I tried to sleep, but found this impossible. I heard babies crying, and realized I was in the maternity ward. 
We have a third child now, and the five of us drive through Salt Point every year when we vacation at Sea Ranch and I get a shade less sad each time.  I don’t tear up immediately, like the first few times we drove through, I just get quiet.  I don’t feel like we lost an actual baby, or a person, but rather a hope was lost or a promise was broken.  Less a death than a wish that didn’t come true.  

Mary Allison Tierney's essay The Gingerdreadman is included in the anthology Mamas Write, available at Amazon, or your local independent bookshop.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

awkward beginnings

My writing is suffering from self conscious awkward adolescence.  Zits, braces, unfortunate hairdos, gangly, clumsy, hormonal, too short, ill at ease, trying too hard to fit in.  My writing hasn’t found it’s true self yet.
I keep trying, and every once in a while, by some miracle, I craft a really good line, an observation, or I hit a vein of inspiration, usually just as knives are being drawn in a discussion between my teenaged sons about a borrowed Berzerker t-shirt.  A frantic spousal call from the kitchen inquiring as to whether or not we have a spatula. 
I try desperately to hold on to the train of thought at it chugs away, belching smoke, obscuring my path, and I respond to my daughter’s question about planning her birthday party, by pointing out that her birthday is in four months, and we have plenty of time.  I say this a little too loud, though clenched teeth and then have to lure her back and stroke her head like a scared cat until she recovers and tells me we could look at birthday cakes on the computer. 
I had never written fiction before my friend, Ken suggested I join him in doing NaNoWriMo.  When he first told me he’d written a novel in a month I thought he was delusional.  Then I learned about November. I took the challenge.  The beauty of NaNoWriMo was that I didn’t have to show my work to anyone. Ever.  It is all on the honor system, just word count. The story doesn’t have to be going anywhere. It got me into a habit of writing and not worrying about content. Characters changed names, they died, they kept talking. My childhood room was described in detail for no reason.  A subplot developed that featured one of my beloved second grade teacher’s sad home life after she was done teaching cursive and all the ‘kn’ words for the day. Characters ate out a lot and stood up and walked to the kitchen and made tea, constantly. None of it made any sense but that’s fine because by Thanksgiving I was nearing my 50,000 word goal and then my sister went into labor.  This served a dual purpose: one of my characters suddenly giving birth and my knowing for certain that I did not want a fourth child.  Not that it was a consideration at all but it was satisfying to firmly shut the door on that possibility.  I was able to write the birth scene with detail that I could not have described before, having only given birth myself three times, and not having been able to observe all the technical details.  It’s amazing what nuances you miss when you’re in agony. I now had a doula character with dreadlocks to the backs of her knees and a myriad of catch phrases and technical drama.
It took me a long time to dive in and take my first creative writing class, because I was so self conscious about not knowing how to craft fiction.  Crazy circle of logic there.  I would have not put up with such reasoning from any of my kids but I dog-eared class catalogues for years before I had the courage to enroll.  I found total support, and was rewarded for sharing my work, which I had never had the courage to do. 

Mary Allison Tierney's essay The Gingerdreadman is included in the anthology Mamas Write, available at Amazon, or your local independent bookshop.