Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My Mother Busted Me for Going Commando

It was toward the end of a recent visit to North Carolina, and I was down to one pair of clean underwear.

And so I faced a dilemma: Wear my last fresh pair to visit my mother on her birthday? Or save it for the day after, when I'd be flying home to San Francisco? (Wearing dirty underwear, in my opinion, is never a viable option.)

Ultimately, the fear of my airplane dropping from the sky, and my improperly attired body plunging with it, was the deciding factor. The thought of showing my crack in someone's driveway, even posthumously, was just too much. Besides, I reasoned, my mother lives in an Alzheimer's facility. She'll never notice.

When I arrived, my mother, Ruth, was surrounded by two of my sisters, Nancy and Julia. I was wearing a pair of baggy shorts, and I took the chair opposite Ruth. It didn't take long before Ruth grabbed one of my pant legs, peeked up it, and asked me something along the lines of "What are you wearing under there?" Stunned at first by the question, I admitted I was "going commando," and we all had a hearty laugh about the fact that my 93-year-old mother had just busted me for not wearing underwear.

Later, Ruth turned to Julia and asked "Do you bleach your hair?" My mother was particularly fascinated with my shirt, a red Polo shirt with a large exotic bird on it, and with Nancy's Paul Frank monkey-face watch. She looked at us and suddenly said, "I can't believe I gave birth to all y'all." Then she paused and added: "And I kept you, too."

In other words, Ruth was more observant, engaged, and upbeat than I'd seen her in a long, long time.

The afternoon wasn't without its bittersweet moments. Repeatedly, Ruth asked my sisters and me to call our father, who died in 1993. We'd explain that we'd called him just now and gotten a busy signal, or that he was working, or that we'd call him in a minute. Even though the excuses grew easier to make, each one stung just a little.

And then, Ruth announced that this was "the happiest day of my life." That was why it was so important for us to call her husband. She was having so much fun, she didn't want him to miss any of it.

Nancy, Ruth (in Piggly Wiggly T-shirt), and Julia

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How I Met My Mother Out-of-Law

It was a cold January night in 1983. The location: Humphrey’s, a former drug store that had been converted into a sophisticated restaurant/jazz club in Richmond’s Fan District. I’d been fretting over meeting Nick’s mother for over a year. And as soon as we settled into a table for our first meal together, one of my worst fears was realized.

"Alright now,” Polly Parham said, leaning forward in her chair. “Here's what I really want to know: Who's the he, and who's the she?"

How to answer such a question? Stalling for time, I reached for my glass of Chardonnay but my jittery hand knocked the glass over. A stain quickly spread on the white tablecloth.

The waiter, a tall bearded college student, quickly came to my aid. "I'll get a towel," he said.

"I’d rather have a refill,” I responded with a weak smile.  

As Mrs. Parham and Nick chatted with the waiter, I glanced around. A middle-aged blonde at the next table, seated with a blandly handsome man with gray temples, had been staring at the three of us since we entered the restaurant. I decided to nickname her Nosy the Riveter.

She seemed particularly curious about Mrs. Parham. Elegant, confident and glamorous, with beautiful, silver-white hair spray-starched into an impenetrable matriarchal upsweep, Mrs. Parham had glided through the restaurant, posture straight as a swizzle stick, her body bundled up in a full-length mink coat with an upturned portrait collar, still-shapely legs sheathed in sheer black hose, expensive-looking black pumps adorned with rhinestone buckles. She was impressive—a woman who, at 66, was clearly in her prime.
Mrs. P in Paris, 1990

The waiter returned with our drinks. Mrs. Parham took a thirsty sip of scotch and lit a cigarette. And then she returned her attentions to me. "Jim, I hope you don't mind my asking a few questions. As you know, this is all new to me. Until a few months ago, I had no idea that Nicky was interested"

"I don't mind," I replied, taking a sip of wine. "This is all new to me, too." I felt Nosy’s attention on me—or was I imagining it?

"Do Your Parents Know?"

"Do your parents know?,” Mrs. Parham asked. “About you and Nick?"

I took another sip of wine and breathed out. "Nick has met my parents, but they don't know about us," I replied. Mrs. Parham's silence indicated she wanted me to elaborate. "I just don’t think they'd understand.”

"That could very well be," Mrs. Parham said crisply. "But couldn't it also be you haven't given them the opportunity?"

"Mama," Nick interjected, reaching for her hand, "you have to understand, you're not like most parents. You're much more open-minded and..."

"I understand that," Mrs. Parham said. "I also understand that because I'm more open-minded, I'm expected to deal with the fact my son is in love with another man and Jim's parents aren't?" She took a long drag off her cigarette. I could tell Nosy was absorbing every syllable. "It doesn't seem fair to me, quite honestly. I understand what you're both saying," Mrs. Parham continued. "I'm simply asking you to understand what this is like for me, too."

This is going horribly, horribly wrong, I thought. Nothing I've said is making sense. She hates me. This will never work. 

"I come from an entirely different generation," Mrs. Parham continued. "We didn't disclose our secrets. But I suppose that's not the way it is anymore."

I could see the agitation on Nick's face. He was about to respond but I beat him to it.

"Who's the He and Who's the She?"

"Mrs. Parham," I said, unsure what my words would be. "I'd like to answer the question you asked me earlier--you know, 'who's the he and who's the she'?"

"I hadn't forgotten," she answered, lighting a fresh cigarette.

"The truth is, I'm the she, and Nick's the he. And the opposite is true, too. Nick's the she, and I'm the he."

Mrs. Parham looked confused but said nothing.

"What I'm trying to say is, Nick and I don't have to play any prescribed roles with each other," I continued. "We don't have traditions to follow, and we don't have expectations to live up to. We can be whatever we want with each other. And we are. But the most important thing is, we're always completely ourselves with each other. I’ve never had that before, not really, and neither has Nick.”

Mrs. Parham considered my answer. "Nicky, were you not able to be yourself with me?"

"No, Mama," Nick answered. "That's why I had to tell you about Jim."

Mrs. Parham finished her scotch. "I suppose I always knew you were gay, on some level," she said to Nick, sadly. "I hoped you wouldn't be gay, because I knew how much harder it would make your life. And Lord knows, Nicky, you’ve had a hard enough life as it is."

To me, Mrs. Parham added: "Nicky had an enormous amount of responsibility on his shoulders as a boy. He had to help me take care of his father. He had to be his father's eyes when he couldn't see. Nicky would read stories to him. As a teenager Nicky drove his father from one doctor's appointment after another. Nicky was always--always--the one person I could count on."

Mrs. Parham smiled lovingly at her son. "I remember the day after your father's funeral. You and I were sitting outside on the front steps. It was a hot morning, and neither one of us wanted to sit at the breakfast table and follow our routines. You looked at me and said, 'Mama, you and I can keep on being mother and son. Or we can be friends.’ And you were so right. We didn't have to play those roles with each other anymore." She paused, retrieved a tissue from under her blouse sleeve, dabbed her nose. "We could be whatever we wanted to be with each other, too. I suppose it’s like what you and Jim have.”

A jazz trio that been tuning up suddenly launched into Begin the Beguine. Nosy sprang from her seat and led her male companion to the dance floor.

"Jim," Mrs. Parham said, extending her hand, "would you care to dance?"

"I'd love to," I said, rising. As we danced, awkwardly at first but then, to my surprise, extremely well, Nosy turned to Mrs. Parham and said, "I hate to ask, but y'all look so cute together, are y'all related?"

Mrs. Parham smiled sweetly and replied, "I guess you could say I'm his mother out-of-law."

There are two things I distinctly remember happening next. One is the completely befuddled look on Nosy’s face. The other is the feeling I experienced when Mrs. Parham linked her arm through mine as we left the dance floor together.


Postscript: After that night, I quickly became soul mates with Mrs. P (as many people, including me, called her). Nick first witnessed this when he came home from work one day and found Mrs. P and me sitting on top of the bed, watching Mildred Pierce and eating brownies. She died in July 2000.

Friday, July 13, 2012

How to Get Married

If you're casting about for creative wedding ideas, how about asking your dog to be the ring bearer?  Get your uncle to sing to you--during the ceremony. And instead of cutting into a white wedding cake, serve cupcakes--especially a margarita cupcake with tequila frosting.

Nick and I recently attended the wedding of our good friends Natalie Rome and John Pendleton at the Sunriver resort in Oregon. We've attended our share of "I do" affairs in the past, but the 'Pendlerome' mashup was especially creative and touching. Here are just three reasons why, for me, it was an affair to remember.

1. Friends and family were part of the wedding ceremony.

Traditionally, the ceremony is all about the bride and (let's be honest), to a lesser extent, the groom. Not the Pendlerome wedding. On a beautiful lawn at the Sunriver resort, the attendees were seated in two large, bisected semi-circles. Between the circles was an open path for the adorable boys and girls to toss rose petals and, of course, for the bride to make her grand entrance (which she did, in a gorgeous gown that Princess Diana would have craved).

The flower boys and girls strewing petals
Natalie escorted by her fabulous father Don Gaines
About midway through the ceremony, the marriage officiant Micky Lloyd, a close friend of Natalie and John's who is licensed to perform marriages, opened up the proceedings. As John and Natalie were seated, the attendees were asked to come forward with anything we wished to say to the bride and groom, or to just sit and reflect.

Some friends had been asked beforehand to read inspiring quotes about love and commitment. Natalie's uncle Tom Gaines performed a song, which had many (including me) reaching for a tissue. Nick and I popped up and grabbed the microphone, too. I talked about how I'd fallen in love with Natalie when I met her in a cooking class in the mid 90s--she was adorable, smart, and looked quite capable of mischief (and still is). Nick spoke about the moment when we knew we loved John. He'd shown up at our home for a movie musical challenge night, wearing the world's smallest basketball uniform (an homage to John Travolta in Grease) and bouncing a basketball on our living room floor.

Later, Natalie told me they got the idea for including the guests in the ceremony from Quaker wedding traditions (though neither she nor John are Quakers).

Allison, Freckles, Natalie, Micky, and John
When you think of it, a marriage happens not just because two people love one another, but also because their close friends and family members have helped bring them together and have given them support along the way. It felt so right, including us in the marriage ceremony.

2. Their family pet was the ring bearer.

Granted, you don't want to try this with a young pup. And it's a risky proposition with an indoor wedding (what if the dog cocks up his leg on the altar?)

But Freckles, an 11-year-old German Shepherd, behaved beautifully, and her presence added yet more warmth and charm to the ceremony. Freckles has been John's faithful companion for many years and is now much beloved by Natalie and Allison, Natalie's 13-year-old daughter from her previous marriage. When it came time for the ring exchange, Allison (standing beside Natalie during the ceremony and looking so mature and beautiful), retrieved the rings from Freckles' collar.

Allison gets the rings from Freckles' collar

3. They didn't assign seats at the reception dinner!

As a wedding guest, I've never liked being told where to sit and to whom I must sit beside. Too often, it's an effort by the bride and groom to position the fun ones next to, how should I say this?, the tedious ones. I guess you don't want all the laughter coming from one side of the room.

At any rate,  I've gotten into trouble at past weddings by switching around the name cards so I could sit next to whomever I wanted. And if I'm fortunate enough to be invited to your wedding reception and discover that I've been assigned a seat, well, consider yourself forewarned.

Allison Rome, one of my best girlfriends, spinning me around on the dance floor at the reception

Nick, Natalie's sweet mom Sammie Gaines, and me at the day-before BBQ

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving Day, Y'all

I'm well aware today is July 4th, Independence Day, America's birthday. But for me, this day is a summer edition of Thanksgiving for several reasons. As with that November holiday, there are no gifts to buy on Independence Day. The emphasis is on getting together with friends and/or family, eating (and perhaps drinking) too much, and hanging out. My kind of holiday.

Unlike Thanksgiving, however, on July 4th I think about independence--mine, to be specific. At this stage of my life, I have a great deal of freedom. I'm old enough to know what I want and young enough to expend the energy to get it or do it. I'm fortunate to enjoy good health, which is essential to complete independence. My relationship with Nick is an easy one that continues to grow more rewarding, and we don't try to 'control' each other. I've been self-employed for 18 years, so there's no one telling me what I can and can't do. Like everyone else I know, I have money concerns, but I'm not hurting for the comforts of food, clothing, and shelter. 

All that is my way of saying that giving thanks for personal independence is important. It's something to be acknowledged, savored, and celebrated, because it can be fleeting. Without notice, our independence can disappear, often the result of major health or financial conditions. Or it can be taken away, piece by piece, over time, until there's none left.

For example, there's my mother Ruth. She married early (at age 20) and almost immediately began raising kids--a total of five, born over the course of 17 years. She took care of a loving husband during a 52-year marriage, nursed him through his year-long illness, and mourned his death for years. Four years after my father died, Ruth's mother became ill and died.

A few months later, Ruth was at last fully free and independent for what I believe was the first time in her life. To celebrate, in 1998 she bought one of the first Volkswagen New Beetles to roll off the production line using money she'd inherited from her mother. Ruth was never happier than when she was tooling around town in her adorable white car, which--due to its scarcity at the time--got a lot of attention.

I was with Ruth one day when a stranger approached us in the Beetle and asked, "How did you get that car?"

My mother, who was 79 at the time, smiled mischievously and said, "My mother bought it for me."
I combined two of Ruth's paintings, of her Beetle and a purple cow, and Photoshopped them together with her photo.

Sadly, Ruth's independence lasted only a few years. By 2003, her sister was dying, and Ruth was once again in a caregiver role. And then, over the next two years, my sisters and I began noticing our mother's memory lapses.

Upon a doctor's advice, we had to take away the keys to Ruth's beloved Beetle--a wrenching experience for everyone involved. If that weren't enough, later that year, my sisters and I had no choice but to force Ruth from her home of nearly 50 years.

By that point, Ruth's Alzheimer's had progressed, she'd fallen several times, she'd nearly caught the kitchen on fire; you get the picture. Her continued existence in that big house was a disaster in the making. And so, again upon her doctor's advice, we moved Ruth to a retirement community where she could be safe and secure, and we hired our niece Marcy to be her caregiver. Four years later, after Ruth had wandered off at night more than once (perhaps looking for her Beetle), we had to move her again. Today she lives in an Alzheimer's facility where you must press buzzers and punch in codes to come and go--the exact opposite of independence. 

And so, on this 4th of July, as the fireworks rise, explode, and quickly fade, I'll be giving thanks for the independence I enjoy today, because I know that, like fireworks, it can't last.