Claire Went There

And wound up here

Smell and the World Smells With You

Several years ago a friend mentioned her new habit of looking waiters and cashiers in the eye when she spoke to them. She said she realized that they were always looking at her, but that she was looking at her bag, or the table, or just somewhere off in space. She was happier now that she was acknowledging and actually engaging with those who were helping her. I, too, had recently become an aggressive smiler – grinning at everyone, all the time, and I was also much cheerier and more open to the people around me. It only took me 45 years or so to adopt this ridiculously obvious habit.

My grandmother on the crazy side had a full-blown facial tic that caused her to look like she was smiling maniacally all the freaking time. She would stretch the corners of her mouth back, show her parted teeth and squinch up her eyes – kind of like The Joker if that helps with the visual. This happened maybe 6-7 times a minute. A minute. And while I can assure you that this woman was most definitely not smiling that much, everywhere she went people smiled at her. I can remember being very little and hearing my Mother and Aunt chuckling because Grandma did not like or understand why the shopkeepers or gas station attendants or anyone really, was acting so damn familiar with her. But she was “smiling;” she looked like the kind of person she absolutely was not.


Grandma looks nice

I have one of those faces that looks bitchy in repose. When all of my features relax, or when I’m concentrating, or not actively engaging my facial muscles, I appear unapproachable or maybe downright mean. There was a time when I cultivated this look. I guess I thought it made me look tough yet sexy, or bad but intriguing like Pat Benatar or Madonna. I made 80s bitch-face for 20 years.


I would smile all the time if I had that “shirt.”

Then one night during my power suit decade, I stopped at a Quickie Mart after work to buy cigarettes (which added to the working-girl-gone-rogue vibe). The cashier rang up my purchase then looked at me with his head tilted and said, “You smell.”

You smell!
What? I don’t smell!
You smell! Smell!
No! Stop!

The cashier then turned to his co-worker and said something quickly in another language that uses lots of hand gestures. The co-worker stepped to the counter and said, “He wants you to SMILE. He says smile!” His friend nodded his head and said “Yes! You smell more and it makes you nice!”

Three things came from that night. First, I tell the story all the time because it’s awesome and sweet and funny. Second, I smile all the time, at everyone. 18 years ago some dude from a faraway land working at a Quickie Mart on a busy road off I-75 told me I smell and has since changed everything about how I greet life and people, and how other people perceive me.

And third, I stopped smoking, because it’s possible that I did smell.


Maybe You Can Call Me Maybe!

Quick, what’s your nickname? You have at least one, right?  Congratulations, someone loves you.

I am among the nicknameless, the not-chosen ones, the ones who leave the “likes to be called” line blank.  I told Coach that I was going to write about how I have never had a nickname and he spent nearly 20 minutes saying “that’s so sad!” and telling me all of his, which I already know. I can tell when someone met Coach by the name they use;  Haji, Wuss, Big D, Cool Breeze, Coach, or his name plus “y.” He’s special and obviously much adored.

Here are the few, very lame, efforts others have made to give me a pet name: Clara, Clarabelle, Clayer, Clairey.

First, Coach is the only one who can call me Clara and get away with it, but even that depends on many factors, like distance, mood and what he wants.  My sister will say or write “Clayer,” which might be an homage to my 2nd grade mis-clap, or is perhaps the way she pronounces it. One friend – one – calls me Clairey. And then there’s Clarabelle, which is truly distressing because…

clarabelle clown

This is Clarabell

And this is Clarabelle

And this is Clarabelle

Who knows how much my lack of a tag would bother me if I hadn’t experienced a crisis in my middle grade years. During recess, I would stand outside against the wall poking at rocks with a stick, and listen to the Mustang cheerleaders practice their cheers. The fascinating “Roll Call” mocked and tortured me the most, and is the cheer that woke me up to my dilemma. In a call-and-response chant the girls would introduce themselves and their pet names. 

My name is Karen! (yeah!)
They call me Care (yeah!)
‘Cause what you’re handling (yeah?)
Is very rare! (CHECK IT OUT!)
Sha boogie, sha sha shaboogie, ROLL CALL!

I spent many tedious hours working through this cheer in case I ever tried out and was chosen for the Mustang Cheer Squad (SPOILER ALERT: didn’t happen). But the second line tripped me up every time.

My name is Claire (yeah!)
They call me Claire (yeah!)
‘Cause no one has ever (yeah?)
Called me anything other than that (CHECK IT OUT!)
Sha boogie, sha sha shaboogie, ROLL CALL!

My last chance at a fun epithet was motherhood – of course I’m mama, mommy, mom, but that’s what I AM, so it does not count. For a while the junior child called me Mamalee, and the more worrisome and random “Mother O’Brien,” neither of which had anything to do with anything at all.

And now my nickname ship has sailed. There is nothing else to call me. Either I never did anything particularly memorable or I am just not very pettable (I know which one it is, thanks).  For 38+ years the Roll Call cheer has taunted me. If you can finish it for me in a way that makes sense AND rhymes, please do so. You’ll be my best friend.

Guano and the Guru

When spring arrives in Washington, DC, all of the pasty faced lawyers, politicians and tag-alongs like to leave the halls of their fluorescent offices and get outside. I worked in a building on the Potomac River and whenever the weather turned, the deck surrounding Washington Harbor was flooded with men and women in power suits, doing important things over salads and martinis.


People lawyer here

One warm spring afternoon, the deck was especially crowded and the servers were busy grabbing extra tables and chairs, scooting everyone closer and closer together. Squeezed in at the table to my right was a young man who was very obviously on a job interview. He was nervous and fidgety and ill at ease. Three jolly lawyer-types were working him over, and his discomfort could not have been more obvious. His chair was practically vibrating against mine.  Sometime during lunch, I felt him jump and his chair knocked sharply into my side. I looked at him with open-mouthed irritation and saw that a bird had just dropped a mid-flight poop on his shoulder, and the poor kid was doing everything he could not to let his potential employers know. His face was red and he was trying to maneuver his napkin to the mess on his suit without attracting any attention at all.


This is bird poop, FYI.

I started to giggle and looked at my lunch mates, but they were oblivious to the panic and hilarity by my side. I looked around at the rest of the tables and was met by the steely blue eyed gaze of a very amused Ted Koppel. Our eyes locked, and still grinning, he lifted his finger to his lips, looked straight at me, and made the “shhhh” gesture. Immediately, I felt the gravity of Mr. Koppel’s wisdom and benevolence, and I understood. I was not to report this development, funny and awkward as it was. This was off the record, young cub. I returned to my lunch, silently reminded by my lunchtime mentor that the misfortunes of others are not always mine to share.


I have no idea if the guy got his job or if anyone ever noticed his defaced shoulder. I noticed, of course, but am only retelling the story here, 20 years later. And as for my 3 second apprenticeship with Ted Koppel, the lesson was invaluable. When he talks to me now from the television, I remember that beautiful day, that petrified young lawyer, and Master Koppel telling me, “Shhhh, grasshopper. Shit happens.”

Then One Foggy Christmas Eve

In an effort to stop failing at this blog, I have enrolled in a memoir writing class. We have weekly assignments, and I am really good at finishing a task as long as I feel like it. I’ve decided to post my assignments from the class here, so I can keep this blog current and also scare myself silly. There’s nothing quite like clicking “publish post” to make me feel instantly vulnerable and full of terror.

The writing for this week was “Write about your most memorable holiday and what makes it special to you” in 250 words. I got 312 words, which means that I can finish a task, but I might not always follow directions.

During Christmas 1993, I was newly separated from my first husband and living with my 2 year old daughter in a tiny, drafty rental house. Christmas sneaked up on me that year, and I had no money, no plans, and zero Christmas spirit. What I did have was an overwhelming sense of guilt, sadness and inadequacy. Christmas felt impossible to me; I was going to let it go.

Next door to me lived a young gay couple, Brad and Greg.  A few days before Christmas they came to my back door with a Christmas tree. “Do you want this?” Greg asked me. “It’s lopsided and we don’t DO lopsided.” They had an old rusty tree stand and 2 boxes of lights. They set the tree up for me and left.

Later that night they knocked again, this time with wine, angel food cake, and a CD of Christmas songs. Around the 2nd bottle of wine, Greg took out the chalkboard easel I had purchased for my girl, and meticulously drew and redrew 8 perfect reindeer on the chalkboard. Brad produced a gold calligraphy pen and some red ribbon. He wrote a note from Santa on construction paper, and at the bottom wrote, “PS, Prancer is my favorite.” Someone tied ribbons on the easel. Someone built a fire. They gave me a crystal bud vase, a flower, and the rest of the cake.

It wasn’t until several years later that I understood what a gift Brad and Greg were to me, and how their generosity and kindness has influenced my own family’s Christmases now. Back then, my girl had no idea how pretty her easel was, and she could not read Santa’s note. Our first tree had no ornaments, but that did not stop her from hauling her rocking chair in front of it, where it became her favorite place until the season was over.  And when I look at that picture and the few others I have from that first hard holiday, I smile, because my new friends gave us Christmas, and that tree was not at all lopsided.

This is Your Brain on 49

I stood at the top of the driveway with Coach, smiling and waving to the second of two couples we were having over for dinner. “Ah shit,” I hissed to him, “what are their names?”  But he didn’t know. The name-remembering and holiday-making and gift-purchasing duties had all been handed over to me many years ago. “Are you kidding?” he hissed back, “how am I supposed to know?”  So, under intense pressure, I simultaneously learned the art of forcing people to introduce themselves and felt certain I was losing my mind.

Oh sure, these senior moments or brain farts or whatever you want to call them are normal. They can happen to anyone, even if you’re 23 and totally sober. Pregnancy makes you dumb, having little kids makes you dumber, and being anywhere over 45 makes you dumber still but in a way that makes others look at you sideways with tiny arched brows.

Add a healthy chunk of nutso to your gene pool, however, and suddenly forgetting your first-born’s name or why you just sprinted upstairs or grabbed a hammer is cause for a multitude of reactions, ranging from fatalistic acceptance to panic-induced wailing.  I’ve screwed up so many things just by being scatter-brained and forgetful and just plain uninterested, that any of my new “moments” are not that noticeable to anyone but me. ..I don’t think.  However, now I know for sure that my mother had some kind of early-onset and extremely aggressive dementia, I am taking extra note of these moments, but in a much more clinical way.


My closest loved ones are not to be trusted in this matter. They don’t know anything and have been laughing and pointing at me for decades! I have a lifetime of people trying to classify or label my way of thinking, patting me on the head, reading me my rights, asking “what-the-hell-are-you-doing?” and “what exactly is your plan?” to believe that they will know when I truly turn the corner to something that can’t be fixed.

So I have developed my own method to determine if my senior-moments are just by-products of my deep inability to pay attention, or if they are indeed signs of my imminent decline. It’s pretty simple actually:  if I know I’m forgetting something, or using a word that isn’t correct but starts with the same letter, or looking for the phone that’s in my hand, then I’m not falling apart. That’s how my method works…if I can use it, I’m not crazy. It’s a beautiful system so don’t point out any of its flaws.

My next plan is to use all of the available Save Your Brain! apps, but only the ones that don’t involve math or geometry, because really…my brain didn’t need it then and sure doesn’t need it now. Then I will drink more tea, sleep more, laugh more, get on my yoga mat, and avoid situations where everyone doesn’t already know each other, and all reality TV.

I know we all have our DNA boogeyman – cancer, heart disease, dementia.  I just found out who my personal boogeyman is and I don’t like him. But I figure as long as I remember what I’m fighting against, that means I’m still here, not there. And I really, really want to be here.

Please pay attention. I’m going to cry now.

In the house where I grew up, you had to do a lot to get noticed.  I was the classic “negative” attention-getter, screaming, lying, and throwing things.  My sister had some other method that I still don’t understand, but which seemed to involve punishing herself first before anyone else got to her. We are girls, so we cried a lot.  However, crying did not necessarily carry a lot of weight in the attention-getting wars, especially because it was literally never possible to out-cry my mother.

You could not out-drama her either, although I did come dang close.  Mom could beat anyone at the pain game. You have a skinned knee? Well shut your pie hole, mama’s kneecap exploded, help her to the couch. Your head hurts?  Turn out the lights child, your mother has a debilitating migraine slash aneurysm, now go outside.  Someone hurt your feelings?  Mom’s devastated on your behalf and can’t make dinner.  My childhood of being out-cried and out-hurt taught me two things: people who cry look stupid, and people who don’t feel good are faking.


I’m the jerk who showed up to work with bronchitis, coughed (loudly) for a while, and went home after everyone understood that I really WAS sick. I’d sooner throw up on my desk than call in with nausea. Something had to really, really hurt before I would ask for help. I actually walked around for 2 days with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and internal bleeding before I let Coach take me to the hospital.  Not to be outdone, Mom showed up to my hospital room sporting a neck brace, whispering to my nurse to dim the lights for her.  I stopped asking for pain meds after that, lest someone think I was another faker…like her.

It wasn’t until a therapist turned my self-labeled “stoicism” into “a possibly fucked up response to living with a narcissist” that I truly learned how to just be hurt or sad or frustrated. I used to hide from Coach when I was upset because I could NOT let him see me cry. Crying looked ridiculous and fake to me – how could I be sure that he was sure that I was really upset? There were so many weird thoughts going through my head when I was sad/mad/frustrated, that I was never quite sure if I WAS faking or if I was truly emotionally bereft. How could I know? I would have these out-of-body moments where I would watch myself sob and think “well…you could stop but you won’t because he isn’t really sure that you’re sad, which you might or might not be, in fact you may be lying and just enjoying sitting on this soft bed with tissue and your man’s attention.”  Honestly, what husband could hope to penetrate THAT labyrinth?

So I finally got my girl-card; I learned how to cry and now I’m rather adept at it, although it isn’t pretty and wears me out. In fact, there are many moments when my children will look sharply at me, convinced that I’m about to break down in a movie or while watching a sports event or eating delicious food.  I do carry tissue and eye drops.  It’s possible that my new abilities are just hormonal fall-out. It could be that being a mom and a wife has softened me and reassured me and taught me how to be loved.  There’s a chance that I have just learned to be nicer to myself and to validate my gut responses.  Getting older has opened my eyes to humanity and suffering, including my own.  I only know for sure that I have a big heart and that a lot of things touch me — deeply.  I take Tylenol at the first sign of a headache and make appointments with my doctor.  I am not a faker and if I’m crying, I might let you watch.

Claire Needs Improvement

Mrs. Cooper was my 2nd grade teacher. She may have been a delightful woman, but in my memory she is brillo-headed and mean.  And while I recognize that most adults don’t look back at their 2nd grade year as a pivotal one, for me the entire year was a lesson in how to handle the awkward situations I was just beginning to create for myself.  2nd grade was when I figured out that I was going to have to think faster than everyone else if I did not want to keep getting caught in the aftermath of my screw ups.

The subject was syllables, and since I considered myself something of a language prodigy, the class exercise was a no-brainer.  “We’re going to go around the room and each of you will say your first name and clap out the syllables.” Fantastic! “Steph-a-nie” 3 claps. “Bar-bie” 2 claps. Jim, Mike, Scott all one clap.  Suz-anne, Jean-nie both 2 claps, a few more names, on down the row, and at the end, me.

“Clay-er!” I shouted.  2 claps!  Mrs. Cooper stopped me – I had interrupted the perfect flow of syllable clapping – “No. You’re name is Claire. One syllable, one clap. Claire.”

Uh, no? I don’t think I had ever heard my name said that way. This was Tucker, Georgia and in Tucker, Georgia, I was most definitely Clay-er.  And thus began my introduction to the classroom stares of open-mouthed kids, who either pity you or want to eat you, depending on your popularity. Never again, I vowed.


Same class, different day, and I had a belly ache. The kind of belly ache that a child learns early on cannot be relieved undetected while sitting on a hard wooden seat. I needed a restroom, only Mrs. Cooper would not give me a hall pass. I tried to distract myself with Dick and Jane but having eaten my sister’s favorite bean soup for dinner the night before, I could not ignore the pressure. It was time.  I grabbed my chubby pencil and made a bee-line for the wall-mounted pencil sharpener.  This small mechanical device held the promise of a loud grinding noise which I knew would be a perfect cover for the loud noises I was desperate to make.  Only my timing was way off, and I made my half-class journey to the pencil sharpener farting loudly, continuously, and uncontrollably.

By the time I made it there it was all over, only there they were – my classmates and their open-mouthed stares. Not again!  I chose the the chubby kid with the big glasses and pointed to her with a wrinkled nose and said loudly “THAT WAS HER!”  Mrs. Cooper quietly walked up to me with the hall pass — which I no longer needed —  and I left the room, free to roam and confident in my ability to both plan ahead AND recover if my plans were foiled.

Oversharing – I did that, too.  Mrs. Cooper sat me down in the middle of my show-and-tell turn when I held up the Tinkerbelle Deoderant my mother had bought for me because “she says I stink.” I made up a family that I did not have, with 6 older brothers (one of whom my Dad accidentally shot), and shared their antics in subsequent show-and-tells.  I sat on the bench outside the principal’s office a few times that year for various infractions ranging from talking in line to throwing my milk carton at the trash can and missing. Each time someone looked at me while I sat on the principal’s bench, I would shout “my dad’s an astronaut!” because that seemed a good way to deflect from the fact that I was sitting on that yellow cushion and eating lunch alone.

2nd grade was the year I received my first “needs improvement” conduct grades, specifically in “self-control.” This made my mother hysterical and my father disgustedly perplexed. I didn’t even know what “self-control” WAS, much less how to improve it.  Had it only been 2010, Mrs. Cooper would have called in my parents and demanded that I be medicated.  But this was the early 70s; no medicine, no extended time, no participation trophy.  2nd grade was the dawn of my learning how to get away with stuff, the birth of my troublemaking side, the year I started making a mess of things and figuring out how to cover up those messes.  Indeed, Clay-er had no self-control and needed improvement.

This is Where I Start

I have a story that I don’t know how to tell.  I can relay the facts and some of the feelings, but there is no appropriate way that I know of to get started.  So, I’ll just begin.

On March 9 of this year, I Googled my mother’s name.  Sometimes I do this, because I haven’t seen or spoken to her in many years – ever since she called my then-9-year-old daughter a “bitch” at my sister’s wedding.  I knew the town where she lived, and had a pretty good idea of her mental state.  I would look her up periodically, just to see if I could find any information.  Was she working?  Was she on or even Facebook?  As much as I knew that I had to stay away from her for my own sake and for that of my family, it’s not easy to be estranged from a parent.  Sometimes, I just wanted to know where she was.

Only on March 9 when I Googled her name, her obituary showed up.  She had been dead for 4 months by then, since November 1, 2012.  No one called or wrote to me or my sister.  There was no deathbed plea to see her daughters, no brief extension of maternal love sent our way, no sad call from my Aunt or cousins, no “you may want to come down for this.”  Nothing.  I even looked back at my calendar to see what I was doing that day  — to see if maybe I could remember feeling something.

This is some hard shit to wrap my brain around, but I’ve gotten very good at living without a mom.  I knew she was in the throes of some kind of mental illness, and I knew that I’d never have a relationship with her, and I knew that she was telling her sister and my cousins that her kids were the most horrible children on the planet.  Still, it hurts.

And then I received her Will in the mail, but only because I harassed the county probate clerk for a week.  My sister and I are not in it, as she left all of her property to my Aunt, and the remainder to 2 churches.  And this hurts, too.

Parental estrangement is a nasty bed of thorns.  In my case my mother and I never quite got along, although she was brilliantly social and friendly to our neighbors and family friends.  My own friends remember her as beautiful  and engaging.  But living with her was a lesson in capriciousness, narcissism, and full-blown hysteria.  There was ALWAYS something not-quite-right with her, which later on became a real, bona fide mental illness.  And not a bumbling, forgetful kind of mental illness, but a mean one.  Some of the mom stories I tell my family and close friends are quite hilarious. There was one that made a therapist’s jaw drop open, but I tell it with a full appreciation of its ridiculous humor, and have never taken it too seriously.


That’s her, on the right, younger and happy.

In fact, that’s how I manage to stay relatively sane – humor.  I think almost everything that happens to me or around me is slightly or outright amusing.  And I think it’s humorous in a really bizarre way that I found out my mother died through Google.  I mean, it’s not funny, but it’s strange and sad, which is enough for me to have a periodic laugh or two at my own expense.  I have a healthy appreciation for the absurd, and this is definitely absurd.

Only, this one is hard.  I keep trying to process that my mother died hating me.  Our estrangement was mutual – I never heard from her, either.  Is this my fault? Was I a terrible daughter forever, or only once I knew she had a full-blown mental illness?  Was it her fault?  I can’t help comparing my own experience as a mom and knowing without question that my kids would NEVER be able to keep me away from them, no matter how hard they tried.  Why didn’t she try?  Why didn’t anyone let us know she had died? I would have gone to her funeral and I probably would have cried. I would have gone.

I’m almost 50 and I feel like I’m 8.   I have more stories to tell, but I had to start here.

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