Wednesday, December 26, 2012

881. You Go First, No You

We all have a friend like Katarina:  the one friend who you can truly be yourself around, the one person you can tell anything and she won't judge you, the one friend who makes you giggle for no reason.  I have known Katarina for about four years, and I am kicking myself that I did not meet her decades ago.  Where has she been hiding?     

So Katarina calls the other day and casually says she needs to stop by with a “little something for Christmas.”  I pride myself on being a great gift-giver, so I am super-excited for her to come over because I have something for her, too. 

She arrives and we immediately dive into conversation, the type of conversation that never ends but just temporarily stops until the next time I am lucky enough to see her.  We talk about everything and nothing, our words punctuated with bright confetti laughter.    
She hands me a rectangular shaped box, exquisitely wrapped in thick gold paper and finished off with a green silk ribbon.  I hand her a square box with cartoonish reindeer wrapping paper.  There is no bow, as my kids used all my ribbon to set a trap for the cat two days ago.    

“You go first.”
“No, you.”

I begin to tear into the paper and I see beautiful note cards with an ink drawing of a sweet little cottage.  Wow, I think, that house looks so familiar.  After a few minutes, the worn-out synapses in my brain reach full capacity and I blurt out,  

“Katarina!  That is MY house!” 
That's right.  She hired a professional artist to come over and draw my house and THEN have the drawing made into notecards. 

My house.  Drawn by a professional artist.  Who does this for a living. 

I am flabbergasted at her creativity and generosity.  I am completely speechless. 

Her voice breaks the silence.  “Shall I open mine now?” 
I want to snatch the inferior gift I gave her out of her hand and immediately search around my house for something worthy to give her instead, like stacks of cash or perhaps a diamond tiara.  It’s too late.  She already has it open. 

“Oh, MOV, how wonderful!  It’s a … candle.” 
Her face registers only joy and gratitude, yet I feel compelled to justify the candle.    

“Yes!” she nods. 

“Soy-based!  No chemicals!”

“Fabulous!” she agrees.     

“It’s from the high-end kitchen store!” I offer, grasping at anything to make the candle be better than a candle. 
“I know!” she enthuses appreciatively.  “I love the high-end kitchen store!” 

I stare at the notecards.  Of my house.  That a professional artist has drawn. 
“Katarina, I have to tell you:  that is one of the nicest, most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.  I feel bad.  I should have gotten you something better …” 

Why did I not get her a new car?  A car is a good gift.  She could not top that. 
“MOV, don’t be ridiculous!  I love candles, and lemon is a great flavor.” 

“Whatever.  Anyway, I adore lemon!  I do.”  She smiles sincerely. 

“Oh, okay, then.  Good.  I’m glad you like it.”  I grin back at her, almost convinced that a generic candle is as good a gift as cards of my house.  Drawn by a professional artist. 
“How did the artist do this?” I ask. 

“Well, he drove over here to your house and took pictures.  Then he drew from the pictures.”  She shrugs, as if she is saying, Then I emptied the dishwasher, no big deal.
My mind flips back to that day at the end of summer when that strange stalker-ish person was camped out in front of my house with a camera.  I had called the police. 

I decide not to tell Katarina about that. 
“Katarina, thank you.  I love the cards of my house.” 

Maybe now is not the best time to tell her we are only renting? 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

879. Throw It All Away

This time of year does it to me.  When I am in the mall frantically looking for the “perfect” present for all those people on my gift list, I have this overwhelming desire to throw it all away.  I mean, just ditch my list, walk out of the mall with my pocket full of (unspent) cash, go home and throw away all my possessions. 

Do I need two TVs?  Do you?  Does anyone?  How many TVs can you watch at one time?  Do my sons “need” any more Legos?  Does The Husband “need” another scarf/ shirt/ tie? 

Do I “need” a Starbucks card?  Does my best friend? 
My house is cluttered right now.  Since my mom died a month ago, my sister has been mailing me boxes, boxes of old photo albums or faded letters or chipped plates or vintage dolls.  I open the boxes and then immediately get paralyzed.  The boxes are currently stacked in the corners of various rooms, waiting for me to do something with them, something constructive like put the contents away or make a decision about things. 

The only decision I can make is this:  NO MORE STUFF. 
I am feeling clogged. 

A few years ago, I went on a self-imposed spending “diet.”  For Christmas that year, instead of spending money on meaningless junk, I gave everyone a handwritten letter of why they mattered to me.  Granted, the mailman and my sons’ school bus driver might have preferred the cash, but I like to think that they were ripping up my letters in front of me in an effort to respect my privacy and also to not make other mailmen and school bus drivers jealous.
My point is:  stop buying stuff. 

Tell people you love them.  It is enough. 
("Materialism Overshadowing Values")

Monday, December 17, 2012

878. So What Does MOV Really Stand For Anyway?

People ask me all the time what my pen name, “MOV,” means.  They think it is something mysterious and glamorous, or possibly illegal. 

The truth is, “M-O-V” are the initials of my great-great-great-grandmother once removed on my paternal aunt’s cousin’s side of my mother’s family.  Her name was Mildred Orian VanSprakenhausenoyster.   I was almost named after her, but at the very last minute, it was determined that it might be bad luck since she had died on the Titanic immediately after having given birth to triplets three days prior.  All five of the triplets died.  It is not something we talk about in my family.  Ever. 
Until now.   

Mildred was quite a woman, having come over to America on the Mayflower and then having fought in the Revolutionary War, dressed as a man.  She was one of those people that sets an example for others by fighting for human rights and what is right, and prevailing over wrong when she knows that what she believes is right even if she might be mistaken (which she never was).  Also, besides having discovered the cure to the Bubonic Plague (a big problem back then, what with all the rats and everything), she used to date Benjamin Franklin.  Just think, she might have been Mildred Orian Franklin. 
But the relationship was frowned upon by my distant relative Queen Victoria.  Alas. 

Anyway, the point is, I have been writing this blog for two and half years now, so you deserve to know the truth.  I have HUGE respect for my great-great-great-grandmother once removed on my paternal aunt’s cousin’s side of my mother’s family, so that is why I use her initials in my fiction writing. 
And if some so-called “friend” of mine wants to tell you that MOV stands for “Mistress Of Vodka,” I hope you will know that she is just making it up.  Vodka tastes icky.  Especially in apple martinis.   


Thursday, December 13, 2012

877. Hint

"That Time We Thawed the Ice-Cream Cake for Two Hours." 

You're welcome. 


(And while you are here, maybe read my last essay too.  It's funny.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

875. Long-Distance Hoarding

“What about the dolls?” 

It should be an easy question, right?  When your sister asks you about your deceased mother’s dolls and you have no daughters and no real attachment to porcelain dolls in wrinkled satin dresses from the 1940s. 
“We should keep the dolls,” you hear a voice say, and you realize it is your own voice into the phone. 

“Really, MOV?” your sister asks quietly, tenderness in her tone.  “There are probably five dozen dolls.” 
What are you planning to do with five dozen dolls?  Or even two dolls, or one? 

Where will you put them?  Your brain spins, like a child’s toy top, which come to think of it your mom might have collected, too.  You have no room for dolls.  You also have no room for rocks, but your sister just sent you your mom’s collection of geodes and crystals for your sons.  You have no space for extra Christmas ornaments, but a similar phone call last week produced two boxes full of vintage ornaments from your childhood. 
“I said, do you want me to mail them?” 
Your aesthetic could best be described as “Virgo Zen.”  You have a couch, two chairs, and some paintings.  Your whole house would be paintings if you could help it.  You would like to live in an art gallery or museum and lose yourself in the paintings. 

“Dolls are like art, right, Oakley?” you whisper. 
“MOV, I don’t have time for this, I’m exhausted.”  The words float away from you.  She does not sound impatient, just tired.  “The estate guy will be here this weekend to sell everything.  I went on eBay to compare prices and get an idea of their value based on their condition.  All together, we can probably get around $300 for the dolls.” 

What did you expect her to say?  Three thousand?  Three million?  And yet …
“Can you email me a picture of some of the dolls?  Can I have a few?” 

A few minutes later, your phone beeps and you see a Native American doll peering up at you.  She stands next to a broken china doll in roller skates and a Dutch doll with long blond braids and wearing wooden clogs.  There are twenty more photos like this.  Your phone cannot load the photos fast enough.           

You call your sister back.  She answers on the first ring. 

“Well, what did you decide?” 

You want them all. 

You want none of them. 

“I’m sorry, Oakley, I don’t know why this is so hard for me.” 
You choke back tears, you sitting at home in your pristine Virgo living room with your art, while your sister goes through 70 years of someone else’s possessions. 

“MOV, it’s okay.  I will box them up for you.” 
You are paralyzed by indecision.  Why do the dolls affect you so much?  They are not your mother.  But they belonged to her.  You struggle to untangle the emotions from the dolls or the Christmas ornaments.  None of it matters, really.  In the end, they are just things.    

“Oakley, wait—can I think about it and tell you tomorrow?” 


Monday, December 10, 2012

873. Meet My New Girlfriend: Siri

I finally buckled and bought myself an iPhone.  After years of sharing a single flip phone with The Husband, it was time to catch up on the evolutionary tech-fest journey that even my neighbor’s kindergartner had made.      

What I was not prepared for was Siri.  Oh, sure, I’d seen the Martin Scorsese commercials about Siri, but that made me afraid, not informed.  When the guy at the Apple store told me Siri was included on the new iPhone 5, I briefly considered backtracking to the iPhone 4 or even 1.  In the end, he talked me into the iPhone 5 for a variety of reasons (“It’s cool and your friends who are not yet eligible for an upgrade will be super-jealous”). 
At first, I ignored Siri.  I had lived for 30-something years without her (okay, 40-something); why did I need her now? 

But then the Apple store sent me a friendly email informing me that they offered a free iPhone class for Beginners. 
I called the Apple store to sign up, and a chirpy girl name Terri (eerily similar to “Siri”) assured me that there was no level before Beginner (“No, ma’am, we do not offer a Pre-Beginner class or iPhone classes for English as a second language, and by the way your English sounds pretty good to me”), so I was stuck.  I showed up and sat next to a college student who I was fairly sure should have been teaching the class, not asking questions about “How to store my virtual photos in albums” or “How to send my contact a contact” (?) or “What is the fastest way to delete multiple texts”.  He was like that annoying A+ student who always sits in the front making the rest of us feel like idiots. 
“Don’t you just love Siri?” he whispered to me and then gave me a quick pat on the back like I was a puppy. 

I gave a weak nod, and then the teacher Dhan (“Like ‘Dan’ but with an ‘h’,”) said we should “meet” Siri. 
“Press this button, and then you can ask Siri anything.” 

Anything?  Like if the fiscal cliff is real or if it is just a bunch of media hype? 
“Siri, what is the population of Atlanta?” asked the woman to my right. 

A no-nonsense voice replied, “Let me check that for you,” and next thing you know, a screen popped up with all kinds of interesting facts about Atlanta, including the population.  Too bad Siri was not around in the days of Trivial Pursuit because I might have actually won with her assistance. 
Next, I heard Dhan say, “Take a note, Siri” and Siri respond, “What would you like the note to say?” 

Finally, Mr. College Know-It-All requested that Siri give him directions to the closest Starbucks.  Now Siri was speaking my language.  She told Mr. College that “There are 17 Starbucks near you, which one do you want?” and then he selected the one that was inside the Apple store. 

I was puzzled how Siri knew our precise location, but then Dhan told us there was a global locating feature, and if you enabled it, then Siri could give you directions.  Mr. College gingerly took my phone out of my hand, pressed a few keys, and voilĂ !  GPS enabled. 
“You have to be careful, though, because the GPS can be a real drain on your battery.”    

I smiled like I knew what that meant.   

On the way home, I thought I would test Siri and ask her for directions back to my house.  Sure enough, Siri gave me a new route I had never tried that actually ended up saving me 15 minutes. 

Now Siri and I are inseparable.  I whisper blog ideas to her, dentist appointment reminders, and Target lists.  She dutifully writes everything down.  I tell her to call Jennifer, and she asks which one.  If she does not have an immediate answer for me, she coyly stalls by saying, “Let me check that for you.”  And if I miss a turn when she gives directions, she pretends we were supposed to go that way and she adjusts the route (without even once complaining or saying, “How did you not see that sign?!”). 
The only thing she can’t do:  help me find where I left my new iPhone in my house. 

Siri?  Siri?      


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

872. Safe Keepings

My mother was a quirky sort.  You either loved her or you hated her, sometimes both simultaneously. 

She pissed off waiters but the mailman adored her.  Her doctors stopped taking her calls but the gardener would bake her banana bread.  When I met people over the past six weeks that knew my mother, they either rolled their eyes with unmasked exasperation and said, “Oh, your mother,” or they gave me a tight hug and said, “Oh, your mother,” in a tone that is normally reserved for nuns and people who walk on the moon.     
She was a study in contrasts. 

A few days after her death, my brother found her small wooden jewelry box in the dresser next to her bed.  Inside was her vintage charm bracelet, her great-grandmother’s pearls, and some silver coins from the 1950’s.  My siblings and I divided up these items according to sentimental value.  My sister Oakley looked overly-glamorous that afternoon wearing the pearls while changing the cat’s litter box. 
Imagine our surprise a few weeks later to find a large steel safe in the back of my mother’s closet. 

When had Mom bought a safe?!  How had none of us seen it before?  Why had she not told my brother, nor given my sister a key or the combination?  What was in there? 
After weeks of cleaning and clearing out the house, the safe was one of the last things left to deal with.  We would need to open it at some point. 

I called a locksmith.  “What is involved with breaking into a safe?” I heard myself ask on the phone.  As the words escaped my lips, I imagined the locksmith alerting the police moments after we hung up. 
In the end, my brother-in-law convinced us to save the $150 locksmith fee because he could break in with a large drill.  My siblings and I stood around watching him for 20 minutes, his safety goggles flecked with dust and specks of metal. 

I found myself wondering what my eccentric mother had hidden inside, her most precious and treasured possession.  Would it be a gigantic file of previously unknown stocks worth billions?  Her grandmother’s famous apple pie recipe?  The Hope Diamond?  The number of a private Swiss bank account?  Keys to a secret Porsche parked elsewhere? Photos of her puppy from childhood? 
The tension was palpable.  I looked at my sister.  I looked at my brother.  All the mysteries of my mother’s life were about to be revealed to us when we would find out what mattered most. 

My brother-in-law slowly removed the safe’s heavy door.  We leaned in.  For a moment, I was scared we might find a dead cat. 
Oakley reached in and pulled out a single piece of cardboard.  Plain, brown, no writing. 

We fell on the floor laughing.  We laughed until we cried, my mother’s sense of humor reaching us from heaven. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

871. It's Hard

It’s Wednesday morning and the phone rings and it’s your sister and it’s That Call, the one you have been dreading but knew would come at some point.  You are at work, of course you are at work, and you try to talk discreetly into the phone. 

“What did the doctor say?”
Now you are standing in the doorway of your boss’s office and you are calmly telling her that you have to go, you are holding your keys and then you drop them.  They make a loud clanging on the marble tile. 

You are in the parking lot making calls, calls to airlines and rental cars and your husband, and everyone is helpful and efficient while you desperately try to hold it together.  “Please don’t die before I get there,” you whisper to no one. 
The flight is five hours, the longest five hours of your life.  Your insides have been stretched and rerouted and knotted in an uncomfortable way, making food impossible. 

You get there and your sister looks drawn.  Your mom is alive and talking, but she is on her knees hunched over in bed, like she is praying.  That is the only way she can breathe. 
She is lucid, her mind is sharp, it is her body that has deteriorated these past two years, eaten from the inside out by cancer.  Your sister tells you privately that the last x-rays show cancer in 90% of her body, little cancer spots everywhere looking like reverse Christmas tree lights.  You wonder how someone can still be alive this way, but looking at your mom you know that it is sheer force of will. 

You stay with her you talk to her you hold her hand you feed her yogurt.  She says a few words.  Your brother comes then your uncle and lots of neighbors and a handful of random cousins and friends.  They are here to say their goodbyes. 
The Hospice lady gives you a pamphlet called, “When Death Is Near,” and you stare at the title wondering why it can’t be called, “When Death Is Lost and Has No GPS.”  You don’t want to read it, but you do. 

The next few days are a blur with unusual words like morphine, coma, and mortuary tossed around. 
On Monday morning, she dies.    

You were able to reconcile with her four days ago, to say what you needed to and have her nod, but it’s still hard.  She’s your mother and now she’s gone.