No one’s ever accused me of being balanced. If childhood maps our future beliefs and actions, it’s no wonder I veer to the right when walking down the sidewalk. If I spin, I twirl right. If I dance, my right foot leads. Perhaps my left-handedness dictates this bent, but I know better. I even look like a conservative with my understated pageboy, my Keds, and my sundresses. Now if I chose orthopedic sandals, I’d look like a member of PETA. And dreadlocks on this stark white woman? That might land me a delegate position to the Democratic National Convention.
My kitchen could well serve as a stopping point for Captain America between missions. Years ago, when I began collecting flag-themed items, my friends and family latched on to it like suckers to wool socks. The Schneider house now holds 179 flags and flag knickknacks. After eighty items, I told them I had enough. Apparently they hadn’t. And who can blame them? Finding the right gift for someone proves enough of a chore. Collections narrow the field. Well, it could be worse. I might have launched an endless parade of pigs or roosters. Or cows. At least flags don’t contract crazy diseases or curly parasites. Sometimes they attract the matches of malcontents. But not in my kitchen.
My most vivid childhood memories still frighten me. I entered life in the thick of the cold war. Nineteen sixty-four. JFK’s assassination found me curled safely within my mother’s womb. Had nature’s resolve not eclipsed my mother’s, I might still reside there, “the way things are going these days,” as she always said. Does the unborn child assume its mother’s emotions? If so, fear began to embroider a repeating pattern upon my heart well before the day I emerged with one fist clamped onto my own ear and ripping it halfway off. The uterus in which I grew from two cells to four to eight “and so on and so on and so on” nested inside a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society and the Towson Republican Club. Conservatism entwined with my DNA, enriched my blood cells, oxygenated my brain and—God bless the USA—the flag, the Constitution, and the death penalty. And all God’s people said, “Amen!”
Leavened by Mom’s Christian fundamentalism, my fear rose like a sourdough sponge in a greenhouse. Fear joggled and popped about our congregation like Mexican jumping beans and escorted us just about as far. In Mom’s circles, the cold war forever remained a hot topic. And the Soviet Union? “Let’s face the truth now, Sister Starling, the USSR has probably infiltrated even our own congregation with a ‘change agent’ we’ve been duped into thinking really loves the Lord!”
Yes, we believed in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present God, but we acted like He’d totally lost control over the good old US of A, and if we failed to win it back, He’d be up a creek. Poor God. Imagine His thankfulness for churches like ours, willing to fight His political battles for Him, to “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Somehow, I doubt battling Communism entered the apostle Jude’s mind the day he penned that phrase.
In 1973, a film I viewed at church informed me that in less than two years the Communists would assume complete control of the US government. Graphic depictions of torture, designed to light a fire of terror beneath the derri`eres of God-fearing, law-abiding citizens, bloodied the screen. A sandy-haired, freckle-faced boy regurgitated as a soldier burst his eardrums with a bamboo stick. Other soldiers tied ropes around the four limbs of a father and repeatedly lowered him onto pitchforks while his children watched, screaming. Even now, the nationality of these people eludes me, but Asian faces flicker across my memory.
I believed it real footage of a real event, spots and spatters and lines marring the celluloid like an old newsreel. Yet today I wonder whether actors performed a macabre script. Either way, I guess the purveyors of the film deemed “snuff in the name of freedom” acceptable. “Violence porn” they call it these days.
I’ll never forget standing at the back of the church afterward, shaking uncontrollably from a fear that, having crawled inside of me, proceeded to gnaw away at my innocence, upon which no real value had been placed. The fear tinted my soul the clear red of blood mixed with water and dug sharp roots into the lining of my spirit. Should a nine-year-old possess a working knowledge of the Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati?
“This is a John Birch church,” Betty Christopher said when the pastor suggested maybe congregants advanced matters toward the extreme. And believe me, if my pastor, who considered left a fourletter word, supposed things went too far, they really had slid right off the edge of the rational world. We resided in suburban Baltimore, for heaven’s sake, in a blue-collar neighborhood of people who worked hard and merely wanted to abide in peace. Well, Betty eventually left the church, taking others with her, because that unknown change agent had worked his magic on our ideology. She dubbed us members of the vast left-wing conspiracy, members of the aforementioned Trilateral Commission who also secreted pink cards in our wallets and pocketbooks.
Mom didn’t cry about it. “Good riddance. She was nothing but a troublemaker anyway. What a paranoid.”
I can happily report Mom calmed down eventually. In fact, she’s perfectly lovely and serene and rests in a much stronger, more normal faith these days. My personal theory? The whole thing tired her out, and she believes she paid her dues in full. She’s right. I paid mine by the time I was fifteen, when I picketed an abortion clinic out on Bel Air Road and was declared a particularly foul name for a female dog by a passerby. On that freezing cold Saturday morning, the wind swung down the street with such force it immediately froze my hands to the picket-sign post. Hardly a great reward after giving myself a stiletto-sized splinter while making my sign. The only consolation any of us has on the matter is that at least the babies live with Jesus now. I guess in heaven nobody’s considered an inconvenience.
I have to give my pastor credit, though. He loved us kids. In fact, during church picnics at Muddy Run Park, it was my pastor who swam with us, let us dunk him, and threw us high in the air so we could flip, dive, and cannonball ourselves into exhaustion.
Okay, time to stop the mental rumination before the snooze alarm goes off again. I slide the lever of the clock before it bleeps, pick up the bedside phone, and call Mom.
Her voice comforts more than a down quilt.
“Hi Mom. Have a good night?”
“Fine. Your brother brought me up some dinner, some kind of baked flounder. I always sleep well after fish.”
She’s always so happy to hear from me. I’m one of the few weird women who actually like being with her mom. I extend all the credit to her. I was a mouthy brat between ages thirteen and sixteen.
She persevered. That’s Mom, though.
“Good. Can I drop Trixie off a little early this morning?”
“Of course, dear. Why?”
“Persy cut his hair last night, and I want to get him to the barber before school.”
“How bad is it?”
“Let’s just put it this way: his bangs look like Milton Berle took a bite out of them.”
I wanted to say Steven Tyler, but Mom’s no Aerosmith fan.
“Oh my. I think every little boy does it at least once.”
“This is the eighth time, Mom.”
“Eighth? Are you sure?”
“That isn’t something a mother forgets.”
“My goodness. You’ll have to start hiding the scissors.”
“I’ve been hiding the scissors. He did it with his bowie knife.”
“Oh my!” She laughs. Low and a bit scratchy. Mom had thyroid cancer at the untested age of twenty-one. They scraped her vocal cords to make sure they’d removed it all.
“Better go wake them up. Love you, dear.”
“I love you too. Oh whit—bring Trixie in her pajamas. I bought the cutest little outfit for her the other day at the Hecht Company.”
Of course, they started calling it plain-old Hecht’s years ago. Mom takes a while to align her vernacular with the times.
I possess a fantasy. Ad gurus love to think they know about a woman’s fantasies. Of course, theirs involve strawberries, silk scarves, and sweat. I fantasize about marriage to a man who says bedtime prayers with the kids so I can take a nice hot bath.
That’s about it.
The day I walked in the March for Victory, my Easter outfit hugged my skinny body. Well, it was the seventies. While millions (or so they say) of students protested the Vietnam War, our church group marched down the streets of Philadelphia in support of the troops. I held one end of a banner for WTOW, a religious AM radio station, feeling pretty darned important, not to mention stylish, in my navy polyester-knit dress and coat with white buttons and a patentleather belt. The white vinyl knee-high go-go boots positively puffed me proud.
I don’t regret those times of my childhood. My friends and I thought such activities more fun than the Professor Kool show on channel 2. Which, to be honest, I actually didn’t care for. But I was realistic enough to know the general population frowned on our cause. And to this day, other than my best friend, Lou, and the kids I churched around with, I know no other children who participate in marches, then or now. I still support the troops, by the way.
So here: if you’re looking for a story about someone who grew up in extreme conservatism and ended up a liberal or, God help me, a moderate, shut the book now. I am who I am, and if you can’t read about somebody who thinks different than you, you’re not the liberal you think. Conversely, if you’re reading this for affirmation, go read something by Dave Eggers or Gore Vidal, then think for yourself. But by all means, finish this book, then go tell your friends to buy a copy because, as you’ll see, I need the cash more than ever.
Money is why I still write a column for our local paper, a strip of rhetoric dedicated to the proposition that there isn’t a person alive I cannot anger or offend. It lets me do the blabbering for a change, instead of those annoying Hollywood types who live in mansions and have garages full of Bentleys, closets full of Prada originals, boxes full of Harry Winston jewels, and noses full of high-grade cocaine. Who are they to talk about social justice because they gave ten grand to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate? (Which, in truth, would be the same as me sending in a check for ten bucks.)
The newspaper columnist in me explains my verbose asides. Believe it or not, I don’t always write about national and local politics in my column. Sometimes I write about domestic—as in behind the front door of your house—politics.
Today I will write about making lemonade out of lemons. I have coronated myself the empress of lemonade-making. I pride myself on my lemonade. I mean, when you’re married to a man who’s gone eighty percent of the time and you’re still together, that’s lemonade. That might even qualify as hard lemonade.
All part of womanhood.
Oh sure, the activists tell me we’ve advanced miles and miles. But nobody’s gained more from our liberation than men. Now, not only do they have less responsibility for the household budget, they can get sex more easily before a household even exists. And even most of the married ones don’t lift a finger at home. Who packs the lunches, helps with homework, makes sure somebody’s home for the cable man? We do, that’s who. Let me tell you, there’s not a man alive, other than single or stay-at-home dads, who have a clue whether there’s enough clean underwear in the kids’ drawers for tomorrow. If I’m wrong, I’ll be the first one to applaud.
Now, I may be mistaken, but I don’t expect even the Jesus my old church worshiped would leave all the vacuuming to one person, or that He’d push back from the supper table and hop right on His computer.
It’s not that I don’t like men. I love men. I just think we women have created monsters and then blamed the monsters. It’s time now to liberate the men, to teach them not to merely view us as equals, but to raise us up on the pedestals we deserve, to adore us, to admire us, and at the very least do fifty percent of the housework without our having to ask. Shoot, even dishes three nights a week would be nice. Straightening the den now and again? Putting a new roll on the toilet paper holder? Okay, putting the cap back on the toothpaste! How about that?
I’m a little mad right now. I haven’t heard from my husband, Rusty, in three days. Granted he’s busy singing tenor for a traveling gospel barbershop quartet, Heavenly Harmonies, but would it be so hard to turn on the blinkin’ cell phone before the concert begins and just say hi?
Frankly, I’ll take anger over fear any day. At least anger buffs you up.
Lemons out of lemonade. Hmm. Well, let’s see now. Three days incommunicado may just equal that new light fixture I want for the front porch. Oh yeah. Drink up, Rusty. I just won this one.
God, I’d hate myself to really think of that as a victory. I never for a moment imagined this life. Just bedtime prayers and a bath.
It’s 5:00 a.m. I fire up my computer, Old Barbara by name, and set out to write my column. We women must learn the art of the deal and utilize it whenever possible. Especially with our kids. I’m doing all I can to spread the word.
Don’t let me fool you. Yeah, I sound like I’m all that, but if any of them saw how my son’s hair turned out at the barber’s yesterday, they’d see me for the freak I really am! Trixie, in her smart new Hecht’s romper, did nothing but point and laugh at her brother all the way home, and soft-hearted me decided to show her, and I let Persy eat chocolate-chip cookies for dinner while she ate spinach and dried-out chicken breast.
She kicked up such a fuss I swear fresh vocal nodules accompanied her to bed.