Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Three Dolls

the Bride Doll
I was the girl sandwiched between two brothers, and people gave me dolls. There was a fancy bride doll. There was an olive-skinned Italian doll with hair the color of ripe stalks of wheat with a pretty pink dress and a her-size parasol that opened and closed, with tiny lace trim and it was probably more interesting and beautiful than any doll. There was an Alice in Wonderland doll with pink pouty lips and pale yellow hair and a light blue dress with a white apron. There were twin baby dolls with matching yellow dresses.

Why do people give dolls to little, tomboy girls? They should have given me a stuffed baboon backpack, and a giant wrestling orangutan, and a ride-on wombat to have adventures with. I only remember playing with the bunk bed (that frequently collapsed) and the baby dolls (who I could not tell apart). I had all those other fancy dolls with dresses and shoes that I didn’t play with. They weren’t fun; they were stiff and they were scary. Dolls had their own ideas about sitting with their legs straight or having their eyes open, and they didn’t want to play with me the way stuffed animals did.

Stuffed animals liked all the games. Stuffed animals liked hiding under the bed with me, or making forts, or seeing if we fit inside a cupboard. Dolls were stiff, with plastic limbs and those terrible, terrible, unblinking eyes. Those eyes looked at me forever, and into my soul, where they saw that I was afraid of things like the big crows in the neighborhood behind my house, and then the dolls gave you the thoughts from their empty plastic heads: “Oh, you stupidy stupid! You’re afraid of the dark? You’re afraid of the basement? You’re afraid of crows? You should be. You should be!”

At night they were the worst. I had to lay each one down to make her close her eyes; otherwise they would all watch me sleep. I wasn’t allowed to have the cat in my room at night to keep them away, to keep me safe. The rule was we had to lock the cat in the kitchen. I could maybe even hear him trying to get out, trying to press open the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room, so he could come upstairs and kill those dolls for me, once and for all.  My cat couldn’t kill the dolls in the daytime, only in the nighttime when they were doing the secret evil dolly things, and alive. He had to catch them at it. Only then could they be killed.  

Sometimes, the dolls worked with my parents who were evil kidnappers who hid the skeletons of their victims in the crumbling walls of the basement. Or the dolls drove the getaway car for my grandparents who were really Bonnie and Clyde.  If you could go into my grandparents’ kitchen where all their cupboards were very suspiciously metal, and when my grandparents weren’t watching you could go look under their sink and you would find sacks and sacks of money in the kind of canvas bags that had the name of a bank on the outside because it was money stolen from banks because they were really Bonnie and Clyde.  My Great Aunt M--- who lived with my grandparents had a pink satin bedspread and a fake fireplace with a real electric fake fire and a very large, fancy doll with a real china face; no one was ever allowed to touch or play with the doll but I knew this doll guarded the kitchen and the bags of money under the sink.

The dolls in my room made many bad things happen. The dolls brought lightning. The dolls brought fevers. The dolls made my brother get worms. They locked the bathroom door from the inside on my side so my other brother had to come through my room in the middle of the night, angry and yelling.  The dolls killed the grass in the backyard so there was brown dirt instead of pretty, green grass like the grass next door. The dolls were why the cars drove too fast down my street. The dolls were why there were the big cracks in the sidewalk, thrust up from under the sidewalk so the sidewalk was uneven and so I would never, ever learn to ride a bicycle without training wheels because it was too bumpy, too bumpy. The dolls made it too sunny in summer so the sidewalks burned my feet and too cold in winter so the radiators banged. The dolls made it so my parents weren’t religious enough, so I didn’t know how to pray properly and I didn’t know how to get God on my side to keep the scary things out. The dolls made my room messy. The dolls went in my mother’s closet and stole her scarves and shoes and watched me try them on in my own room and then they didn’t put them back so my mother would notice things were missing and find them under my bed. The dolls were why my mother thought I was sneaky. I wasn’t sneaky; it was the dolls.

When I got big and went away to do more grown-up things like going to college, my mother did things like redecorate my room and, having stripped the wallpaper and repainted the furniture, her redecorating energies came to be directed upon the dolls. She sent my old dolls to the doll hospital. There they got new eyelashes, got the ink from ball point pens cleaned off their bodies, and got the holes repaired where I had stuck them with pins. The Italian doll had her hair restyled (because I had cut it off). The bride doll had her eye repaired (the one that got stuck). When they came back from the hospital, my mother had new dresses made for them: a new blue dress and white pinafore for Alice, a new wedding gown for the bride, a new pink gown for the Italian doll.  Once freshly coiffed and dressed in new frocks, my mother sat the dolls, each with her legs straight in a wide V, on a tidy, new shelf in the room that had been mine.

After my mother died, my brothers and I went to her house to divide her possessions, and my stepfather expected me to take the dolls.  In their new, fancified state they were no longer mine. My dolls were the ones with the ink stains and the pin-holes, the cut hair and torn dresses. My dolls were capable of great evil, and what new powers did these restored beauties have? I left them on the shelf. Maybe they had something to do with my mother being dead.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Dog Diarrhea

Cherry would like you to think that she isn’t crate-trained, so she stands and looks at you, fawn-eyed and faux-sad when you put her food dish in her kennel. “Please,” her eyes plead, “Won’t you hold me on your lap, feed me by the spoonful, and let me sleep on your bed?” Captain thinks everything is wonderful, including dinner, dinner in his crate, treats in his crate, going in his crate, jumping on your bed, putting his butt on your pillows, going for a walk outside, eating grass, eating deer manure, lying in the sun, seeing dogs he knows, and meeting dogs he doesn’t know. Ok, I’ll stop. I could bore even the most dog-loving person with the list of what Captain loves.

Now that Cherry’s an old, sugar-faced dog, I sometimes find her in the morning with a single nugget of poo, pressed into her orthopedic pad, and baked firm from her body heat overnight.  I would always rather clean the pad cover than the carpet (or my own bed).

Except for diarrhea, Captain’s more of a barf-in-the kennel type than a mysterious nugget-o-poo dog. There’s a point where the grass must come up, according to Captain’s digestive tract. Diarrhea, when it happens, is infrequent, but memorable. And it appears overnight, as it did last time.

It was a savory smell, like someone was reheating beef stew. It might have been the soup-stock from the roast chicken the night before, back on the stove, but, then again, it wasn't quite a chicken smell. The way smells carry can be strange and hard to predict; for example, I can smell from upstairs if the door to the basement is ajar, but I'll miss the acrid evidence of my kids burning toast in the kitchen. Sounds, too, move, or don't, in ways I can't totally explain in this house. I can scream for someone upstairs and they won't hear me at all, but if someone goes pee in the bathroom next to the office, I can hear every drip and drop. When a crow walks across the roof I can hear it, but I can’t hear a car on the driveway.

I came down to find the houseguest already at work; she was officially “working from home,” a moderately amusing concept for me, a chronically underemployed person. Only her dog greeted me and my friend called out, ”Oh, I had to put your dogs back in their kennels. Captain had diarrhea all over his kennel and Cherry’s. I wiped him off, but I had to put them back because I didn't know what to do.”

Good morning.

I sent my dogs outside to begin the cleanup, and all three dashed out. The guest was new to being allowed off leash and I didn't want today to be the day she really tested her new freedom, galloping off into the woods forever, but I had a huge mess to deal with.

I stripped the covers off the dog beds and put them in the wash, and put the beds themselves out in the sun. I was already pretty sure I'd gotten diarrhea on my arms. The wire kennels themselves were going to need hosing, so I had to take the pile of stuff that had accumulated on top of the kennels since the last time I had had to do this and put it someplace else. Picture me, in my jammies, chucking packages of wire and zip ties into any available toolbox drawer and throwing a stack of empty boxes into the garage without waiting to see where they landed. Do you have a vision of mania yet?

I dragged the kennels out to the patio only to discover that the hose had been moved from the side of our house to the spigot by the upper horse paddock. There is an ongoing Hose Borrowing War on the property, since a good, unpunctured hose is always in short supply at the horse barn down the hill. I had the choice of moving the hose or moving the kennels, but concluded that the liquefied dog diarrhea water that was going to be coming from the kennels was acceptable on the driveway (where we drive) and not acceptable on the patio (where we eat). So, I moved the kennels one at a time to the driveway, and this was the point where I am pretty sure I got dog diarrhea on my pajama pants. The guest dog bore witness, and correctly surmised that I was not to be messed with, and asked me to please, please let her in the house so she could be with her much-less-deranged owner.

The sprayer nozzle was nowhere to be found—another casualty of the Hose Borrowing War--so I had to do the hosing “I have no nozzle, but I've got a thumb” style, which works great for everyone in the world with well-functioning thumb joints. I am not among those with healthy, well-functioning thumb joints. I collected some preliminary data on my materials science research: big, gooey chunks of dog diarrhea are water-soluble, while dried-on smears of dog-diarrhea are more solid than epoxy.

In my growing irritation, I capped my geyser of profanity to call the dogs. They were not coming. What dog would? They probably thought I was ready to kill them.

I went to the door. Last night's chicken stock was still sitting on the porch; it had been cold last night, but now the sun was warming the pot. I picked it up; I had a new mission! Diarrhea momentarily forgotten, I had soup to rescue. I let myself in.

Captain had been keeping out of reach, but saw his chance to get back inside (where the nice woman was quietly working) and away from the outside (where the other, terrifying woman was cussing and had a hose). He tore into the house, top speed, hitting me in the back of the knees and himself in the head on the soup pot. In the time-expanding magic of a moment of crisis, my mind filled with the image of me tripping and falling, the soup, carcass, pot, limp and overcooked vegetables, and pot lid flying into the house in a wave of savory slime. But I managed to take that soup-saving giant step and regain my footing. The energy of not falling was translated into the mightiest of mighty yells.

Damn that dog! Running into the house, still covered in now-dried, epoxy strong diarrhea. The roar coming from me had the power to stop a bad dog in his tracks, backed by the rage of a lazy housekeeper, not interested in shampooing the fucking rugs, amplified by wet pajama legs from the splash back of the cold hose. There was still dog diarrhea on my arms. It was a fierce, “FUCK!” full voice, the syllable drawn out as long and as loud as I could. And then, both syllables of, “CAPTAIN!”

My houseguest rose quickly and silently from her chair, turning towards me and fumbling her phone. Her eyes were wide. She was on a work call.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Budapest #3 ⅖: The dead bird and Gül Baba Türbeje

On the way down the hill from Gül Baba türbeje, as we stumbled on the large uneven cobblestones, I said that we’d found our dead bird. My son heard me, but said nothing. He knew what I meant.

How is it possible I have not written down the story of the dead bird?

A dead bird
When I was in Italy, I told it over and over. The story of the dead bird is a story I tell so often and to so many people that sometimes, I, too, am tired of telling it.

A couple of years ago, in North Dreadful, one of our dogs found an injured bird on the porch; we think it hit a window. He brought it to us, in good retriever fashion, and surrendered it on command. It didn’t last long, but it was put into service as an artist’s model. This dead bird made a nice addition to a still life: lightweight, odorless and capable of maintaining its pose indefinitely, the only real problem it presented was keeping the pets away from it. Well, and I guess not all the people in the house thought having a dead bird lying around was ok. I started writing the story of the dead bird then, but never finished.

I never tell the story exactly the same way.

Once, on a day when I was a working parent at the co-op preschool, we were scheduled to go on a field trip, by city bus, to the University of Washington to look at the cherry blossoms in the main quadrangle. The co-op was my whole life when we first moved to Seattle; we had moved there, knowing no one, and still living the small, busy life of having very young children. Co-operative pre-school gave me and my kids instant friends, a place to go on a regular basis, and scheduled field trips to all the new things we needed to discover about Seattle:  the Woodland Park Zoo, the aquarium, the Ballard Locks, the Flight Museum, the Space Needle, etc.  Being a “working parent” meant I stayed for school that day, and helped with snack and clean-up and generally providing another pair of hands where needed.

A pre-school field trip is a serious undertaking. The logistics of getting a dozen three and four-year-olds safely to a destination and back are numerous. If you drive, most cars only hold two car seats in the back seat (three are usually too wide). If any family forgets to drop off a car seat, it’s an emergency. If a working parent can’t make it at the last minute, the whole trip may have to be cancelled. Some destinations are too hard to get to, have inadequate parking, or are too expensive. 

But most preschoolers love field trips, and while routine is great for them, the break from routine is great, too.  Our co-op was in a windowless church basement with cinderblock walls and clammy linoleum floors, across the street from a nice little park full of broad maples and tall oak trees, providing a reasonable supple of collectible acorns, and an old, sand-footing playground. There was a long slide coming out of a tall metal tower made of vertical poles, with a conical top, meaning it was a rocket or a jail or a castle depending on the imagination of the users. One block beyond the playground was a city bus stop, so field trips by bus were a good way to go.

The two teachers at the school then were Nancy and Teacher Wendy. Teacher Wendy liked to be known as Teacher Wendy, and she taught the younger kids. Nancy liked to be called Nancy, and she taught the older kids. When she was a child, Nancy’s brother used to tease her and call her Child Nancy and she hated it, so we always called her Nancy and never Teacher Nancy, although having a Teacher Wendy made everyone want to call her Teacher Nancy.

On the day of the dead bird, we had the backpacks full of snacks, the folder with emergency medical forms and a first aid kit, plenty of parents helping, and all the kids lined up, their coats zipped, their name tags pinned on with diaper pins. Nancy waited until she had everyone’s attention and then she opened the door. The kids were allowed to go to the top of the stairs, and then they had to wait. A parent always brought up the rear, and I was that parent on this day.

Next, when Nancy said so, the kids got to run ahead to the corner of the building, and then they had to stop again and wait. It was April; the kids knew the routine. Nancy said ok and they ran to the corner. It was a perfect spring day, with a bright blue sky above and green, green grass below. The daffodils were done, but the tulips were up and open. When the lingering parents, distracted by the lilacs, had caught up to the kids, and she had everyone’s attention, Nancy gave word that they could run to the corner to wait to cross the street. 

It was at this corner that one of the children found the dead bird.

I have told this story to adults at a cocktail party, teetering on high heels and trying not to fling champagne on myself. I have told this story in the dark, around a campfire. I have told this story walking in the fog in the Dolomites, to a new friend worried about her life having meaning. I have told this story to high school math students. I have told this story to another friend as we wandered lost in Venice. I have told this story so often my husband and children don’t listen anymore. But I no longer remember what kind of bird it was.

“Look, Nancy! Look!” said one of the children. He was standing on the curb, pointing into the metal grate of the storm drain.

Nancy stepped up and bent to see. She was not tall, but was taller than her students. It was a dead bird, a songbird. Maybe it was a robin, but I think it was small and brown and bland. Perhaps a sparrow.

“Oh, look!” said Nancy. “It’s a bird.”

Another child asked, “Is it sleeping?”

“No. It isn’t sleeping. It’s dead,” she said.

By now all of the children ringed her, trying to see.

Nancy reached into her pocket—a pocket that always had enough tissues—and, cradling it in a sheet of tissue, lifted the dead bird out of the gutter. All of the children pressed in around her closely. The adults stood back. One child wanted to make the bird alive. The other working parents exchanged a glance, already aware that we were in danger of missing the bus.

“Why is it dead, Nancy?” someone asked.

“Everything dies,” said Nancy. “Maybe it was old, or maybe it was sick. It’s hard to tell.”

“Did it hurt when it died?”

“I don’t know. It was probably quick, I think. Like falling asleep,” she said.

They had more questions. The bus came and went without us. The working parents saw it go.

Nancy registered the expressions of the parents over the heads of the children. “It’s ok, “ she said. “We can catch another bus.”

Some of the children wanted to touch it. Some of the other children really didn’t want to touch it. One of them wasn’t sure. “If you touch it, we are going to have to go back in and wash your hands really well,” she said.

The children nodded gravely.

The curious children stroked the quiet feathers with an outstretched index finger, and came away holding up that finger like it wanted a bandage, or needed kissing, or had wet paint on it.

The child that wasn’t sure said, “We have to bury it.”

This, having been said, could not be unsaid.

Soon, we were all back in the classroom, one line of kids washing their hands under the supervision of a working parent, others kids helping to look through the available small shoe boxes for the perfect bird coffin. A group wanted to go back outside to collect leaves to put in the box. Everyone wanted to see the bird once it was in the box, resting quietly on a layer of last year’s dry, brown, oak leaves.

When it was time to take the coffin back outside, the children lined up again and went up the stairs, this time marching seriously and with confidence, the run out of their legs. A perfect spot was found under a bush next to the church. Everyone took turns (except the parents) digging a shallow hole using a large serving spoon borrowed from the kitchen in the church basement. When the hole was dug and the coffin placed, everyone took turns (except the parents) covering the box with dirt. The dirt lay in a mound over the box. Words were said about the bird.

“I’m sorry you’re dead.”
“Goodbye bird.”
“You were nice, bird.”

It was now time to go to the playground and play.

After that, we came in, washed up, and had snack. After snack, we drew pictures about the dead bird, and every child dictated a small story about it. At the end of the day, we sat in a circle and Nancy shared the stories.

We never made it to see and dance in the falling, magical, pink petals of the cherry blossoms at the University of Washington that year. We had gone the year before and we would go the next year. The co-op preschool was an important part of our lives for many years. But the day of the dead bird was always the most memorable day of preschool.

At some point, as we wiped off the tables and stacked the indoor play equipment so there would be room for that night’s meeting in the church basement, Nancy confided, chuckling, “It’s called ‘emergent curriculum.’ Teaching the kids about whatever really engages them that day. It’s so…obvious.”

Just the other day in Hungary, we didn’t exactly know why we wanted to go see the Gül Baba’s tomb; we had ended up there after not being able to see the big synagogue.  And I didn’t have the moment of recognition until we were headed away from it. Because the street below the tomb is crumbling and uneven and impossibly old and beautiful, and except for the woman trapped in her car, it could have been any time at all, here on this street. It could have been 1654. Except for the car.

Why had she driven up so obviously bumpy a road? Why had we walked down it?

The guy next to her, watching as she tried and failed to make the car go forward or back, said, “Én nem tudom hogy mit mondani.”

My husband turned to us and quietly translated: “I don’t know what to tell you.” She looked pretty stuck.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Budapest #2 ⅔: Looking for Váci Utca

There is a story my mother-in-law likes to tell, laughing until the tears fill her eyes, about my husband when he was a young boy. The story took place on the street, in Budapest.

I dreamed about the story a couple of months ago. In my dream, my husband had written down the story, in Hungarian, for his blog.

My husband left Hungary around the age of 5, with his parents and his older brother. After that, they sought asylum in Austria for a year or so and then, received permission to come to the United States. None of them spoke any English when they came; it had been forbidden. Now, a generation later, everyone in Budapest speaks it.

Growing up, the only people my husband ever really spoke Hungarian with was his parents. Among his siblings, they spoke English unless they were using it as a secret language, to say things in front of other people. There was very little danger of anyone overhearing them and knowing Hungarian.

Spoken Hungarian sounds a bit lit people are making up sounds and are pretending to talk. I always thought that the character of Latka Gravas on Taxi as speaking a gibberish resembling Hungarian. 

My exposure to Hungarian has mostly been overhearing one end of my husband’s phone calls with his mother.  I am only familiar enough with this famously difficult and unique language that I know a couple of weird, mild curses, plus, “Én nem tudom,” which means, “I don’t know,” and “Nagyon jól, which is, “Very good.” I am familiar with the stuff of ordinary conversations with Mom, “Good night!” and “Love you!” but that’s about it.

My husband had asked his mother for a list of things to do when we were in Budapest, and it was mercifully short. It was easy enough to buy opera tickets. We stayed near the Szent István Bazilika and went in on the first day; there were art students sitting on the floor, sketchpads on their laps, their heads tilted up, as they drew the ceilings. We stumbled onto the Labyrinth. It was pretty cool and creepy, though I still don’t understand the manikins in renaissance costumes and the piped-in opera music. Still, we did it; we paid the ridiculous 2000 Ft, used our phones as flashlights, got water dripped on our heads, and checked it off the list.

By the second day in Budapest, I was wondering about that story my mother-in-law likes to tell. Where had that story had taken place? My husband called from Budapest to ask his mother if she knew what street it was on.

She remembered it to be on Váci Utca. We had already found Váci Utca on the Pest side of the Duna, a shopping street with souvenir shops, chain stores, and restaurants. Pretty much the kind of street where you weave between the shuffling tourists and the restaurant barkers, offering “authentic gypsy music and Hungarian food.”

All I wanted was a picture of a street sign. The three of us fanned out, my husband with his camera, and my oldest son and I with our phones. I take so many pictures with my phone I’ve gotten pretty good at snagging candid shots of random people without drawing attention to the fact that I’m getting a photo of them. But there was one photo that got away completely that morning. It was a man, not too young and not too old, with the flushed complexion of a guy who drinks a lot, but that lean, thin look of a guy who works hard, but maybe drinks more than he eats. He was standing on the corner of Váci Utca and Türr Istvan Utca, solemnly wearing a paper Burger King crown. I really wanted this man’s picture, but he had a wild and terrible look in his eye. My husband saw him too, but took a photo of the street name on a different corner.
Váci Utca, Budapest

The old story goes like this: Kís Otti was walking with his brother and mother and father on a Budapest street when a black market peddler whispered to them that he had chewing gum to sell.

People in Hungary had not had chewing gum before. It was new, chewing gum, yet children knew about the stuff somehow. It is children’s business to know about candy, especially new kinds of candy.

Kís Otti paused and said, in a whisper, “Rágógumit akarok!” which means, “I want chewing gum.”

His mother and father pretended they didn’t hear him, and kept walking.

Kís Otti stopped and said, in a quiet, speaking voice, “Rágógumit akarok!”

His mother and father heard him, but they couldn’t buy him chewing gum. It was too expensive. They kept walking.

Kís Otti would not go another step. He said, in a loud voice, “Rágógumit akarok!”

His mother and father had to stop. What were they going to do? They couldn’t buy him chewing gum. It was out of the question.

Kís Otti began to chant in a small, powerful voice, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! 

Kís Otti’s brother Istvan, who stood to benefit from the purchase of black market chewing gum, stood nearby, not smiling, but not frowning, either. Kís Otti kept chanting, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok!”

One stick of chewing gum was 1000 forints. The family had just 16000 forints for the week. Kís Otti’s father thought they should pick him up and carry him away from the black market peddler with the 1000 forint chewing gum. Kís Otti’s mother thought he would never stop chanting.

Kís Otti still chanted, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok!”

Kís Otti’s brother Istvan, looked from his frowning father to his pleading mother, said nothing.

When we got back from Budapest, I was struggling to write the story of “Rágógumit akarok!” on the grounds that I still didn’t have enough details. Didn't they live in another town? Why were they in Budapest? How did they get there? How expensive was the chewing gum?

I called my mother-in-law and she was happy to oblige. Her English is very correct, and her accent is gorgeous and slow, with rolled r’s. They had travelled to Budapest because, as she tells it, “We did not want our little sons to be not aware there was a larger world.” They were living in a small town, “quite close to Budapest,” and had a car, a Moskvich. 

It was a terrible, underpowered car, and struggled mightily on hills. She laughed her way through a reminiscence of driving it into the mountains, a long line of cars following as they struggled up, their finally overheating on a narrow shoulder and their efforts to cool it down by heaping snow into the engine. She told me her in-laws had bought it for them, and they were meant to pay them back, but they, “did not get lucky enough to pay them back.”

Of course, if you know my husband, you know that he got chewing gum, and so did his brother: one piece each. They chewed it all day and wanted to save it for the next day.

As for me, I continue to have new questions. Will I really have to call her again to ask, what color was the Moskvich?