Last August I wandered into a cigar bar and had a few martinis’ to celebrate my sister Amy’s life on the anniversary of her death. I do not smoke, so the martinis were medicinal in order to control the choke factor of my honey flavored cigar. I also remember her on her birthday in July but the end of a life is significant in many ways and hers is no exception. Death is the best teacher I know. I have met him through friends and family over the years but only once had the privilege to help shepherd someone over and sit by their side as they went. Another one of the many things Amy gave me; she taught me how to live.
So in celebration of life–mine, yours and Amy’s– let’s look at some of what we have lived through so far– besides the basics of surviving the homes we all grew up in which is monumental, because those homes made us mental. Our house, Amy’s and mine, was a particular cornucopia of nuts. It was there we got a first taste of all that life has to offer, love, disappointment, laughter, struggle for acceptance and regret. And of course talking about regrets leads me to bad fashion and particularly those captured in school and holiday photos. The ugly truth is, well we were ugly. Sometimes we merely made ugly choices and Kodak was there to document those precious memories. Ah yes childhood is a proving ground, a place to learn about the ups and downs of the world on a shaky carnival roller coaster.
One memory of a particularly harrowing dip that comes to mind was when my mother, Terry-bell, in trying to save money made me a pair of pants. She hated to sew and unfortunately for me that hatred bubbled out in her choice of fabric, thick green and red plaid scratchy wool. The pants she made had an elastic waist, not to give you the wrong impression there was a waistband, because there was not. What was there was was a bunchy strip where the fabric was folded over a piece of elastic so the pants would stay in place. I cannot say whether she recycled the elastic from our old underwear or not and refuse to even look further to see if it was out of my grandmothers bloomers. Ok, not only was the material an abomination but so was the cut. It seems that what she knew of crotches in pants was that the legs came together. The placement of the crotch in the pants in relation to the human body was not accounted for what so ever. So in wearing said green and red plaid thick scratchy wool pants my pant crotch was almost level with my knee causing me to get caught in the crotch of the pant when I walked. I was already tall then; legs and arms all akimbo, so picture a praying mantis trying to walk in thick wool plaid low slung crotched pants. I was drowning in them. I believe these pants were an early form of birth control and put me at the bottom of everyone’s dance card in the school and outlaying area from Long Island NY to Toledo Ohio.
Yes, my mother made me wear these monstrosities until they had help unraveling in the wash. But other choices that proved embarrassing were not always my mother’s doing. An example is when Amy would don a particular fetching outfit when she was feeling fun and fancy free. It was her homemade super hero garb. It consisted of white long johns belted with a thin red plastic disco belt. There were black sock boots on her feet, and some kind of thin red filmy 1950 lingerie bathrobe tied around her neck by a red silk ribbon used as a decorative bow on the robe for a cape. And those who understand the role and responsibilities of super hero’s know silk capes are a bad call here but hey Amy was only about 10 years old at the time so you have to let that tactical error in judgment go. The cape fell down her back with the arms bodice of the robe flapping out behind her as she zoomed from room to room. She had cobalt blue socks on her hands up to her forearm and a bright red full face ski mask on her head. As if this was not enough she added a jaunty little multicolored Scottish cap with a pom-pom on top. Really it was quite a stunning ensemble.
Now think back to what your particular bad outfits were, a style, bad haircuts, was it a 1980 mall perm like I had? If nothing comes to mind look down at what you are wearing now, because you might be a repeat offender and don’t know it. If we didn’t know we looked bad there were always other confidence crushers in our childhoods we have hopefully moved past. Did you have glasses? A full set of braces so when you ate your sister told you it looked like a train wreck? If you were me you had both of those birth control devices through puberty. When it was time to get my braces put on the orthodontist asked my dad “why does she need them?” My dad replied without a beat “she’s cutting down trees in the backyard and dating a beaver.” Willy-boy was old school in tough love and so were his daughters.
Amy had a beloved stuffed German shepherd with a rubber face. It was an awful looking creature she adored. People in supermarkets would stop my mother looking down on Amy who would be clutching the beast and ask my mom why in the love of god did she have our dog stuffed? It was that creepy. Unfortunately for Amy the stuffed animal became more unstable as Amy grew up and it was not uncommon for her to find that he had hung himself while she was watching “The New Zoo Review”. Siblings are evil, twisted and sometimes very funny while teaching each other about life’s hard knocks and where to hide your stuffed animals. It was a fine balance of humor and torture in our house which I find as I get older is exactly like life.
That balance of humor and torture, of joy and sorrow, yin and yang, The Captain and Tennille is what the show is all about folks. Sitting in the Cancer Bin at the bedside of a brilliant, hilarious, vibrant 36- year-old woman in camouflage pajamas, a feather boa while watching “Shaun of the Dead” and cracking wise is how to live in the process. Sure we survive alright but don’t get out of our box or appreciate the wondrous ride life can be.
Life is about stringing the high points together to make the dips, tunnels and abysses livable and mutable. Which is all they are. My sister Chris told me recently after having not read my writing for a while that in reading it again she realized how much she missed it, that it filled a hole in her she had forgotten about. I could not think of anything to say to that, and still can’t. It is the nicest thing anyone, much less someone I adore has ever said about my work. That is a high point I will remember when I hit another low, I will remember the welling up of gratitude and love from my core for her and hole on tight when life takes another plunge.
Years ago I was walking along 7th Avenue in Manhattan with my roommate Barbara who was dealing with a break-up and talking about how horrible life was. I pointed out to her that there were good things to focus on too, but in the end truth be told none of us was getting out alive. She told me that was the stupidest thing she ever heard someone say. I shrugged it off. Years later she said she finally understood what I had meant. In the end we die, so it’s best to be present and live the best life we know how while we can. We are transitory creatures and so is this roller coaster, so sit back, belt in and enjoy every dip, roll and hair raising spin it takes you on because when the ride pulls in to the platform and the wild eyed Carney with no teeth lets you out you will be glad you did. Amy was.