Claire Went There

And wound up here

Archive for the category “childhood”

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.

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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.

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.

hysteria

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.

clay-er

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 Classmates.com 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.

laurie

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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