FRESH YARN presents:
I do not hail from a family of wise women.
My great-grandmother Maria Steenebeken had 14 children and on her way to America, she accidentally left two behind. I guess this was before they invented the "head count" and it must've been a lot like a field trip gone awry; the bus stops to gas up at a mini-mart, a couple of kids run to the bathroom and don't make it back in time. So for my family, instead of a mini-mart, it was Poland.
One of the lucky ones to make it across was my grandmother, Annie. Despite Annie's ability to leap from shipyard dock to freighter bound for freedom, she was not fast on her feet intellectually. She was mild and without opinion so it at least showed spunk on her part when she later embraced bigotry and paranoia, turning suspicious of answering machines, Connie Chung, men in sandals and birth control. Which brings us to my mother. Emma Lee. Emma's advice to me growing up was not about guarding my dreams, or that happiness was my birthright. I wish I could say it was something like Tennyson's 'Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.' No, her advice was "Stand up straight. It shows off your boobies."
Anyway, The Carpenters would sing about rainy days and Mondays while we helped with the inventory. We were complicit in my mother's dreams, my sisters and I. Here's what we were going to get for just $150 down: Glamour! Diamonds, caviar, pink Cadillacs, a pair of standard poodles named Henry & Orestes, martinis, a two-pack-a-day habit. Glamour spelled o-u-r. My mom did work up to two packs a day, Winstons, but we were a little shaky on the rest of it.
Okay, she never made a dime. First off, she was terrible with money. She'd miscalculate her orders or loan out items, then be too embarrassed to ask the neighbors to pay up. "It's crass to talk about money," she'd whisper. If someone gave her five for a $20 dollar order, she'd say, "No, no, it's no biggie, hon." She'd tally her orders on Sunday nights, sigh, then ask my dad for money to pay the electricity and phone. Come Monday, she'd forget that the check was for the bills and look at it like she'd never seen it before. "Mad money!" she'd squeal, our cue to jump in the Ford Fairlane (a burnt orange Starsky & Hutch piece of crap), and head into town for a shopping spree at Sears. Toughskins and halter-tops. Oh, yes.
But for me, the highlight of Mom's business ventures was when I got to accompany her to her "beauty parties." There's the legend of how Mary Kay Ash, divorced, broke, with kids, took a job as a bookkeeper for a man who tanned hides. People tan hides for a living. It happens. It's Texas. The ambitious divorcee noted how he made the skins of these dead animals so soft and supple. He'd hang them on a clothesline, scrape them and then rub mineral oil into the skins. This disgusting Hannibal Lecter-like tableau actually became the Unique Selling Proposition of her billion dollar cosmetic industry -- Mary Kay's, not my mom's. So my mother would be in the middle of her presentation about hides and how you work the oils up, up into your own skin, when she'd point to me across the room where I'd inevitably be trying to steal a Hummel figurine, one of those cute "windswept girl on skis." She'd point and say, "with the Mary Kay skin care regime (she meant regimen) you can turn back the hands of time and expect skin like that." The women would turn my way and I would blush, not for the attention but because I'd already pocketed the "little boy feeding ducks." Even with this genius selling tool of whoring her own daughters, my mother still lost money.
used the samples on herself and we three girls. The rec room was soon
nothing but product. Product that was our ticket out, man. Suitcases full
of plastic burpable storage canisters and vacuum cleaners and Amway and
greeting cards and more makeup. Saleswomen were encouraged to buy as much
as possible. Many ended up with maxed out credit cards but there were
always these incentives that required buying more products. Mom would
buy more, reach a prize level and "win" a scarf, a brooch or
a small mirrored compact that she would snap shut with the authority of
an Austrian spy. These little trinkets promised a life straight from the
pages of Vogue -- the life of Coco Chanel, of the Left Bank, carafes
of wine and inevitably, when she was an 80-year-old grande dame being
pleasured by the yet-to-be-born Orlando Bloom, a biography would be written
about her called Scandal! I hated these pyramid schemes that sucked
an entire desperate subculture into their empty promises.
was a dark and angry child because of this. I longed for a mother who
was sharp, maybe Jewish, wild-eyed with intellectual rage. This mythical
mother-goddess would hold salon evenings where Philip Roth would feel
her up in the kitchen when no one was looking and Saul Bellow would fall
asleep listening to Kerouac scat before shooting up. Joyce Carol Oates
would bring brownies and they would all roll up their sleeves and talk
As these girlhood dreams raced through my head, Mom would say, "You're such a Capricorn. Lighten up!" She knew I was a fall, not a spring, that corals and mauves would bring out my complexion. Then she'd add that Gloria Steinem was no lady. Anyone who left the house without pantyhose and a bra was asking for it. "You know who's a lady? Lady Bird Johnson," she'd say with the intensity of a thousand trapped, anorgasmic, chain-smoking housewives. Women who married young and rashly, only to find themselves embittered by the ripe age of 32. It was with this confused, unspoken anger that she'd once again come at us with an eyelash curler.
My older sister Tammy did not protest but later in life she joined the Southern Baptists, moved to Tokyo, became a missionary and made it her life's work to tell the Japanese that Shintoism - the religion their very culture and country was founded on -- was wrong and that Christ could kick their gods' ass. All of their gods.
My younger sister hid behind coke-bottle glasses and a show cat named Honey. They traveled from Waco to Houston to Plano, and Valerie would brush that calico to within an inch of its life, the two winning best of show year after year after kitty-cat-filled year. Val grew to be a real looker, eventually moved to Los Angeles and became an actress. And by actress I mean she sells necklaces out of her house. She chose a catastrophic career, I think out of loyalty to our mom.
And me, I'm good. I've tried therapy (12 years, give or take three), and more therapy (Wellbutrin, Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa, Xanax) and things are okay (single working mother in El Segundo). I've been on a journey that's taken me from villas in Tuscany to VIP clubs in London, private jets and 60-foot yachts to the backlot at Warner Brothers. But those were just prize levels to a bigger dream that still eludes. There are similarities between my mother and me. She is terrible with money. I am terrible with men. We have trouble seeing the true worth of these things, so we hungrily consume, then scramble for more. I'm trying to change and these days I've even toned down that slutty look that worked so well for me as a ten year old.
So. Emma. Sometimes blonde, sometimes a redhead -- always unhinged and wickedly beautiful - would load us up and head off to her next party. We'd careen down the highway at 80 mph, no seatbelts, no airbags, just my sisters and I pinned down by a thick sediment of lady makeup and we'd sing to John Denver while gripping the arm rests of the Ford Fairlane in fear for our lives, choking on the fumes of White Hawaiian perfume and cigarettes. There was never a pink Cadillac. Never a poodle.
My mother was needy, narcissistic, often downright foolish. But holy shit, she was fun. And she was there for us, taking us along for the ride and that beats Tennyson, bohemia, wit and wisdom any day. I am grateful for the adventures because the best ones always begin with a complete and utter lack of good judgment.
if my ex-boyfriend feels like staying over tonight.
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