Monday, December 20, 2010

My Mother's Sweaters

I wear my mother’s sweaters. A nice, big, cable knit, olive green, from Land’s End. It’s the kind of sweater you wear when you’re eating soup or getting firewood. She never got wood. She thought this life on the farm was, “A hop in the ass.” Those are her words. She also said, “This is for the birds.” She shook her head and said, “You’ve really got to love this…” when she watched me going out to feed the horses, putting on the rubber boots, camouflage sweatpants and ski mask that makes me look like a burglar, twice a day. I took that as a compliment. She saw my passion.

I can’t wait to look in the mirror when I put on one of her sweaters. With a face like mine, that looks so much like hers, and then in one of her sweaters, I can trick myself. If I stare into my eyes in the mirror, and look really hard, she looks back. I get a fleeting glimpse.

Sometimes I think about dying my hair red to see how much I will look like her. She was a natural blonde like me but she dyed her hair red for so long that I don’t remember her as a blonde. I always used to joke around that I was going to do it to see what kind of trouble I could catch her in, when people mistook me for her. With a name like Cookie, and red hair, she was bound to be in trouble. But I never got around to it. Now I’d like to do it to see if I could channel her, like I do in the bathroom. But I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed when I find out it’s really not her.

When I was in the beauty parlor last week, they took my coat. It was my mother’s coat. I wanted to say, “Be careful with that coat! It’s my mother’s coat and she just died in April!” My father let me take whatever clothes of hers I wanted. I left my sister the Elk’s jacket even though I wanted it myself because it was all covered with her pins and buttons, a real piece of her. But Sharon is an Elk. That’s what they had together. I think about that jacket a lot but I’m proud of myself for giving it up. Especially since no one asked. No one would have even known, there were so many clothes and shoes and pocketbooks to sort through and I was all alone, taking what I wanted. That’s what my mother would have wanted. For me to be good. She could count on me for that.

I worry about what’s going to happen as things wear out. Should I conserve the sweaters and wear the coats only on special occasions? Some things that she gave me long before she died are already wearing out. Hand-me-down sweatpants and sweatshirts, flannel pajamas, things she knew I could always use on the farm because I’m hard on them or because they would keep me warm. The sweatshirts have dark cuffs from dirt that won’t come out, bleach splatters and paint stains, red like the barn and grey like the porch. The neckband on the sweatshirt from Wildwood is loose and hangs like a necklace. What happens when one of these is to the point of no return? Do I throw them away? How can I throw an item of my mother’s clothing in the garbage? I don’t care how messed up it is.

The silence in this house is loud when I think about the loss of her. You really notice it when you’re alone and you stop for a minute. The finality of it. I will never have another chance to tell her how I appreciate the hand-me-down pajamas with the pictures of the monkeys on them. I can’t believe it myself how much I didn’t appreciate these things enough when they were coming on a regular basis. How I took it for granted that they would always come, worn ones replaced with new ones, another kind she rustled up just because I mentioned liking the ones with elasticized ankles. She had a pair! “Here, see if these fit you,” she would say, coming out of her bedroom where she had been digging around.

I want to say to my daughters, “Appreciate me.” Not for my sake. For theirs. I want to warn them to pay attention, to slow down, to savor whatever I do to show them how much I love them. But they won’t listen. They can’t imagine. Just like I couldn’t imagine. I thought I knew what it was going to be like, losing my mother. I worried about it my whole life, in fact. Pictured screaming and crying. And I have screamed and cried. But I never imagined I would feel so powerless, that this would be so final, that I would never have another chance, no matter what I did, and all I can do to comfort myself is wear her sweaters and hope I feel a little bit better by the time they’re all worn out.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A New Low

I’m a garbage picker. I get a big charge out of it when I find something good in the trash. In fact, I’m proud of it. Saving money and helping the environment at the same time by being creative and resourceful is fun. Especially in this economy and because of the mess the earth is in. But even I have to admit that I’ve sunk to a new low.

You can find all kinds of good things in the garbage. Some of my best finds have been an antique cookie jar,
a couple of metal motel chairs with original green paint,
and Jamie’s turquoise swivel-chair,
circa 1950 or so. That chair was a real coup. We found it at a garage sale. We wanted it bad but the sellers wouldn’t budge on the price. They were asking fifteen bucks for it. That was too much money for a single chair in an outdated color and style, no matter that we loved the color and style, at a garage sale.

On Monday evening, around midnight, we happened to be driving home down the road where the garage sale had been and lo and behold, what do we see sitting out on the curb waiting for the garbage pickup on Tuesday morning but the turquoise chair! I slammed on the brakes. Jamie ducked down. I made her get out and help me load it up. Had to drive all the way home with the hatch on the little Geo Storm flapping open but it was worth it. That chair looked great in her bedroom with the cool lime green walls and black carpet and is still going strong in her funky apartment twelve years later.

Here in Virginia, the garbage is a sitting duck because we don’t have garbage pickup—every few miles there is a collection of green Dumpsters for residents to dispose of their household trash and unwanted goods. These are often surrounded by a chain-link fence that is never locked, convenient for night-picking, and have identifying labels: Household Goods, Recyclables, and directions and warnings: No Commercial Dumping, No Brush, County Residents Only.

I’ve gotten some good stuff at the Dumpsters. A yellow coffee cup that matches my kitchen.

A vinyl webbed lawn chair for the poolside that adjusts to four different positions.
Plastic chairs for the horses. Well, not actually for the horses. More like for watching the horses. I keep one in my arena and one behind the barn and this way if you ever want to take a load off, just sit down. After a while they crack from being out in the elements all the time. But I don’t care because I got them for free. Last winter was hard on the plastic chairs. I had to throw one away. I kept my eyes out for a new one. It took me about a week before I found a replacement at the Dumpsters.

One time I picked up a vintage chrome breadbox.
As soon as I put it in the truck, another truck pulled in behind me. He was towing a flatbed trailer filled with junk. I couldn’t tell if he was a metal man, or he was looking for good stuff to sell on eBay or keep for himself, like I do. Either way, he would have liked the chrome breadbox. I tried to make eye contact with him because I wanted to gloat, “Na na, na, na, na, you just missed out on something good,” but he wouldn’t look my way. He strolled over to the other Dumpster and nonchalantly peeked inside, watching me out of the corner of his eye, waiting for me to go. He would have never imagined that he and I were on the same page, garbage pickers, me being in that diesel-taking dually blasting the Sirius radio. He probably thought I was one of the rich people from the lake and he wasn’t about to let me catch him digging in the trash.

It helps to live at lake where all the rich people have huge houses with round rooms and walls of glass jutting out over the water like crystals in a stone. The stuff they throw out… Sometimes you can upgrade. I finally admitted it was time to throw away my white wicker set that I kept on the front porch and that the cats favored as their own personal scratching post. I hated to get rid of it because that set looked perfect on my porch. But it was falling apart so, reluctantly, I loaded it up on the truck. A few minutes later I returned with almost the exact same set but in like-new condition, plus an extra piece for my bedroom that matches the grey-green in my Victorian carpet. It doesn’t make a lick of sense why someone would throw away something that was so good. The rich people.

They’re the ones that probably left the food. It was sitting right there in a perfectly fine Kroger bag, off to the side so someone would see it. I never like to show any interest when I see something someone doesn’t want anymore, but thinks is too good to throw away because someone else might want it, so they put it to the side. Don’t want to look like a low-life if there’s someone around who doesn’t abide by that kind of thing. You know, snooty people. Those ones who are too good for themselves. The same thing the metal man was afraid of. So I looked around. I was alone. I flung another bag into the Dumpster where it landed with a thud and casually walked over to the sack and peered inside. It was stuffed with boxes of cake mix. Poppy seed. German chocolate. Yellow. I stuck a hand inside and took a better look. They were all sealed. But what sealed the deal was when I saw the black walnuts. Two large bags of walnuts. I got excited. Walnuts are expensive.

I quickly pulled out a couple of boxes. Clean. There was a bulk-size box of Gummy Bears someone probably picked up at Sam’s Club and then found herself disappointed on Halloween when no trick-or-treaters came. There were also jars of spices with the cellophane wrappers still intact. I considered inspecting it all right then and there but thought better of it. Someone might catch me and I didn’t want to rush the job. We’re talking food here. So I picked up the whole bag and threw it in the back of the truck just in time. Someone pulled in. It was Effie in her old turquoise pickup truck.

“Hey girl,” she said, opening the gate to her truck and lifting a white plastic bag. “You git any a them tornadas last night?”

“There’s more tornados here than when I used to live in Oklahoma.”

“You musta brought ‘em with ya.”

“Either that or global warming,” I said. “The weather’s been crazy lately.”

“That there’s a conspiracy by the government,” she informed me. “They wanna put folks out of jobs is the reason they’re saying we’re having global warming.”

“Ah huh,” I said.

No use arguing. One thing I learned about country folks is they’re set in their ways. Plus Effie is as cute as a button. Crossing mean rednecks is one thing. Crossing a little old southern lady who drives an old turquoise pickup truck with a spirit catcher hanging from the rearview mirror is another. And good thing too because she invited me to the cake sale down at the church. I wouldn’t want to be excluded from that. In fact, I offered to contribute. Poppy seed, chocolate, yellow, whatever they wanted!

I helped Effie throw out the rest of her trash. Then I hurried home to go through my loot.

I opened up a couple of packages of cake mix and examined the plastic bags. Clean as a whistle. I put it all in the freezer—just in case I missed anything, a little time in the freezer would kill it.

When I made Kurt listen to this story as I was working on it like I always do (I like to read them out loud to him), he said, “So where is this free food you got at the Dumpster?”

I looked at him. “Uh… You’ve been eating it?”

I don’t know what’s lower. Getting food from the garbage or feeding it to people without their knowledge. It’s just not right! Not that I actually got the cake mix out of the garbage. But it was low nonetheless. The question is, why was it so much fun? And where should I put that breadbox?