Vanity

Years ago, as a small pile of books accumulated on my shelf, books with my name listed as the author, I thought about the futures of the individual copies. I heard from readers who used the cookbooks constantly, and others who gave copies to friends and family. I pictured the books on kitchen shelves, sharing space with The Joy of Cooking. Some copies would end up in boxes in attics. Thrift stores would hold discarded copies. And one of my favorite visions for my books was they would live on in libraries, in the back recesses of a library’s warehouse.

Yesterday, I was adding books to my Holds in our local library’s computer system and decided to see which of my titles the library still carried. I guess I was looking for reassurance of a form of immortality. I know the library did carry my books at one time because this wasn’t the first time I’d searched for my name. What came up this time? Only a book by another author who had quoted me in her book. If someone, for whatever reason, had wanted to read one of my books or cook something from one of my cookbooks, there was nothing there. It felt like a huge part of my life had ceased to exist. The library won’t purchase books older than two years old, so even if someone had asked them to replenish my books, they wouldn’t.

Funny how a simple vanity search at the local library can bring about almost an existential crisis of sorts.

The Group

I always sat in the seat on the school bus directly behind the driver.  I liked the bus driver and he was fun to talk to, but that’s not why I sat near him.  I sat in the front seat for safety reasons.  A few of The Group rode the same bus I did, and they were always looking for opportunities to hurt me.

This was an unlucky day, though, and I wasn’t able to grab my usual seat.  Barry had broken his leg, and needed to sit by the door so he didn’t have to hobble down the aisle with his crutches.  I felt bad for Barry, but honestly, I felt worse for me as I made my way to the first empty seat about halfway down the aisle.

Two of the dreaded girls from The Group sat down behind me.  The first thing they did as they took their seats was pull my long hair.  Hard.  It brought tears to my eyes, which just made them laugh.  Then they started kicking the back of the seat just to annoy me.

After the bus left school grounds and the driver was focused on driving, one the girls leaned forward and said quietly, “Did you know you’re ugly?  Well, you are ugly.  And everybody hates you.  You’re just a dumb Pollack.”  I tried to just tune it out.  After all, I was used to being called names and told I was ugly.  It was the most common form of attention I got all day.  I hoped today’s harassment would stay at the verbal level.  I knew how things could escalate quickly.

The taller of the two girls leaned forward again and said, “Don’t forget if you tell anybody, we’ll beat you up again.  Don’t tell the teachers, or the principal, or your mother, or the bus driver.  Nobody.”  My stomach felt tight as I wondered what new tortures The Group had planned for me that required my silence.

My shins were still healing from the last time The Group had decided to teach me a lesson in staying quiet.  My mom made me wear knee-high cotton socks to school to cover up the bruises, scabs, and scars on my shins. Even though I’d repeatedly told her that I was getting purposely kicked and beaten by girls at school, she chose to believe I was just clumsy and had a knack for bruising my legs. She even used to tell me she could tell I’d had a good time that day at school if I came home with new bruises. She said it meant I’d been playing. I wonder if Mom ever wondered why the bruising stopped when the school year stopped?  Did she think it was odd that I wasn’t “clumsy” during summer break? Anyway, the girls kicked me in the shins because the damage was covered up and nobody could see.  They also hit me on the back and in my ribs since bruises there didn’t show either.  One of the girls told me that she specifically chose shoes to wear to school that had hard toes so they would hurt me more.  In the eyes of The Group, the bigger the bruises they made on my body, the better.

“You’re ugly.  You’re nothing but skin and bones.”

They just never got tired of it.

I really was nothing but skin and bones, though.  They weren’t wrong in their description of me.  In 6th grade, I was as tall as most adult women, but I didn’t have any muscle on my long limbs.  I wasn’t strong, and I was super-uncoordinated.  I was horrible at sports because my hand-eye-foot coordination was all out of whack from my sudden growth spurt.

The Group loved when our class played games like “Soak ‘em” where the stronger, coordinated kids got to abuse the weaker kids, throwing balls at them so hard, they were knocked down, often bruised and bleeding, or slammed against a brick wall.  Classroom games like that were another chance for abuse, but these particular bruises were considered okay by the teachers since it was all in “fun” and part of a game.  The Group loved pelting me in the face with the hard rubber balls even though it was technically against the rules.  They’d just say, “Oops, sorry,” if the teacher noticed.  I ended up with bruises on my face, and with black eyes regularly.  I could never figure out why the teachers allowed these games to degenerate into abuse of the weaker kids.

In addition to my height and uncoordination, my fast-growing body also showed other signs of impending puberty.  My breasts had started to grow, which just gave The Group something else to tease me about.  I didn’t want to call attention to my budding chest, so even when my mom suggested we go shopping for a bra, I refused to wear one.  I knew it’d just give them one more thing to focus on.

I was frequently surprised when I found the girls often bumped into me and grabbed my breasts.  Occasionally a boy would grab me, but in 6th grade, it was mainly just girls who looked for an opportunity to grab a handful of my tender, sensitive breasts.  Before too long, my chest had become a new place of bruising on my body.

One day while we were on the playground, about six members of The Group surrounded me and dragged me into the tall bushes on the edge of the playground.  Several of them held me roughly while two others pulled off my shirt.  They all stared at my naked breasts and then, one-by-one, they took turns reaching out and touching me.  I fought with all my strength to get away from them, but they were too strong for me.  I ended up crying and pleading with them to stop.  At the time, I didn’t know what molestation was, but I knew what they were doing was something completely different from the usual teasing and beatings.  After they’d all had a turn groping me, they repeated their usual refrain of, “Don’t tell anyone what just happened or we’ll beat you up.”  They all ran out of the bushes laughing and left me alone to put my shirt back on and to stop crying.

When I walked out of the bushes, the playground supervisor was there and the next thing I knew, I was in trouble for being in the bushes.  She’d been on the other side of the playground and hadn’t seen the other girls enter and exit the bushes which were out-of-bounds for playing.  Since tears were so close to the surface from the ordeal I’d just gone through, I started crying.  The supervisor told me to stop crying because “it wasn’t going to work on her.”  She wasn’t going to feel sorry for me and let me off of detention.  She marched me to my classroom and told my teacher what had happened.  My teacher was surprised because I was always a well-behaved student in class, but she agreed to keep me in from recess the next day as punishment.  Nobody knew that being kept in from recess was a godsend.  I was grateful that The Group wouldn’t be able to get to me for a day.  The thought crossed my mind that if I started acting up on the playground, I might miss more recess times.  It was tempting.  But I was a well-behaved, dutiful child who never intentionally broke the rules.  I enjoyed my one day reprieve from The Group on the playground, but I worried that they might try to make up for it on the bus or after school.

When I would occasionally try to tell my mom about what was happening at school, she’d always say, “Sticks and stone my break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  I knew this was wrong.  I knew that the words of my peers were tearing me down and making me feel worse every day.  Probably the fact that the verbal taunts were combined with physical assaults enabled things to go deeper into my heart. You’re ugly. Kick, kick. Worthless. Too smart. Punch, smack. Cry-baby. Too skinny. Kick, kick, hit.  Weak. Too tall. Pinch, pull, smack. Uncoordinated. Clumsy. Hit, kick. Dumb Pollack. Too busty. Punch, hit, grope, kick.

Sometimes they would make up lies and spread the lies throughout the school. The gossip chain was strong. Because it was numerous girls’ word against mine, they were always believed.

They regularly would steal things from me, getting me in trouble at home with my mother who thought I was being careless with my possessions.  They would frequently steal my lunch money in the morning on the way to class, which would mean I went without lunch those days.  They would laugh at me as I sat quietly through lunchtime without food. Sometimes my teacher would buy me lunch.  I think she thought our family was too poor to afford hot lunch every day.

I was afraid to go into the rest rooms because The Group would lie in wait for me.  I’d get beaten, kicked, and groped.  Other kids would witness these things happening, but they didn’t want to become victims, themselves, so they’d just quietly look away and go about their business without saying anything.  Eventually I stopped using the rest room entirely while I was at school, leading to regular bladder infections.  My mom and the doctor had such a difficult time understanding how I could be so prone to bladder infections, and I didn’t know at the time that my lack of regular bathroom use could be causing the problem.

Their favorite nickname for me was Cry Baby.  They would kick and hit me long enough that eventually tears would come, and then they’d laugh and start into their cry baby taunts.  No matter how hard I tried to hold back tears, eventually my eyes would well up from the pain.

The most common thing adults would say to me about the bullying situation was, “You just need to stand up for yourself.”  But I did.  And then would get beaten worse.  It was usually always a group of girls against me.  One skinny uncoordinated girl against a group of strong, tough, mean girls.  I didn’t stand a chance.  Nobody stood up for me back then.  Nobody listened to me about how serious the abuse was every day.  My self-esteem was destroyed.  My body was bruised, beaten, and molested.  And the memories of it still haunt me.  I still suffer flashbacks.  And when I try to talk about it, I still get responses from people that sound just like the responses I received back then. You should’ve just stood up for yourself.  You should’ve been tougher.  You should’ve fought back.  You should’ve told an adult.  I did all of those things, and still it went on for three years.   Fifth through seventh grade.

In seventh grade, I somehow managed to make some friends, and two of them, a couple of boys, started standing up for me when The Group came snooping around, looking to cause me trouble.  The boys got in their faces and told The Group to leave me alone.  Finally, someone stood up for me.  And all of a sudden, it was over.  The Group backed off and even though they were never nice to me, they stopped tormenting me and harassing me.  I will always be thankful for those two boys, the only two people who had ever confronted The Group about their behavior.  I can’t help but wonder if things would’ve stopped sooner if someone else had stood up for me earlier in the process.  But everyone was afraid of The Group and nobody wanted to be their next victim so they all just kept quiet.

The hospital

The latest issue of The New Yorker magazine has a Personal History article called “The Hospital: Finding a Way Back from Suicide.”  It’s an insider’s view of being suicidal and consequently spending time in a psychiatric hospital.  As someone who’s also lived that story, it was interesting to read someone else’s perspective.

I wrote a collection of poems based on being bipolar which included some pieces that took place in the hospital while on Suicide Watch.  But now I’m thinking about maybe writing a short memoir or article of sorts about my own experiences.

Putting those types of things “out there” for others to read is scary.  I have tremendous respect for the man who wrote the article in The New Yorker.  Wow.  So vulnerable and brave.  I feel vulnerable and afraid just writing this tiny blog post.

the packing list

I know from experience how to pack a bag for a suicidal hospital stay so I keep a packed bag (no straps, strings, belts) and leave it in my car “just in case” because my therapist may decide I’m not safe and need to check in to the psych ward (again) where there will be laundry facilities so I’ll only need to pack enough clothes for two or three days since doing laundry will be somewhat therapeutic

so I pack
two or three t-shirts, comfortable
sweat pants or leggings, can double as jammies with a t-shirt
no cords
no belts
no strings
slip-on shoes, no shoelaces
hairbrush and/or comb
blank journal, not wire-bound
several pens
warm sweater or hoody, no strings
slippers
socks
phone and charger, will be kept at the front desk
travel-size toiletries, they’ll have shampoo but no conditioner
toothbrush/toothpaste
a soft blanket, for wrapping up in when the anxiety kicks in or my roommate starts screaming at 3am and the sleeping meds aren’t working and they won’t give out more
a stuffed toy or soft pillow, for hugging while crying myself to sleep

my therapist asks, “What do you mean that you’re packed for the hospital? How do you pack ahead for a psych hospital stay?”
I will show him this list

nightime

the patients seemed to grow more somber
as the night loomed darker and the
nurses wandered from room to
room doling out pills and patience
and warnings and reminding everyone
that bedtime was in an hour so we
needed to start winding down whatever
we were doing which reminded all of us
of our mothers fathers grandparents
older siblings preparing our younger
selves for bedtime as we discovered
that a psychiatric hospital stay is very
much like a return to childhood where
doors can be locked and toys taken
from grasping hands and snacks available
but only if you behave yourself and
other people cook for you and you have
to make your bed before school begins
and classes are required and arts and crafts
frustrate everyone until later when they
realize it was something to do that got
their minds off ending their lives because even
boring activities can be a distraction from
the abyss and you’re glad another day’s over
and you can curl up in bed with your pillow
and blanket and hopefully sleep soundly
rather than waking up screaming like the
night before when your sleeping self had a
glimpse of reality and the abyss the void
the monster loomed once more

I Dream of Mayberry

My dreams
take me back home
to a land of quiet streets
children playing, riding bikes
Dreams of Mayberry on parade

I dream of
neighborhood crushes
talking late into the night over backyard fences
sneaking a quick hand hold, a stolen kiss
enough for pleasant dreams
to see us through the night

I dream of
dogs running free
no leash laws to fence them in
leaving the house to be greeted by
favorite canines with jingling collars
the garbageman’s dog lived across the street
my friends would say,
Oh, you live by the garbageman’s dog!
a local celebrity dressed in fur

I dream of
attending school
with the children of doctors,
lawyers, movie stars, millionaires
our family on our simple cul de sac
a far cry from the mansions of my classmates
entire wings of houses closed off for the season
rooms only used for parties
servants, yard workers, maids

I dream of
our family home
a three-bedroom rambler
on a quiet street
at the bottom of the hill
down the street from the Catholic church

I dream of
Sunday mornings
trapped on our street
by slow-moving church traffic
I thought everyone dealt with
church traffic on Sunday mornings
the church played a role
in our lives each week
even though we didn’t attend

I dream of
childhood confusions
Sunday with my grandmother
in the church on the hill
I committed a mistake
I was only five
evidently it was a sin
the priest felt it necessary
to scold me publicly
I refused to go back

I dream of
swimming and fishing
off Grandpa’s dock at the lake
of chasing tiny fish with a net
of releasing the trout intended for dinner
unwilling to watch the life leave their eyes

I dream of
feeding the ducks
every duck and goose on bay
winging to the child with the dry bread
back in those bygone days
when we could still feed the waterfowl

I dream of
running barefoot at my grandparents’
which wasn’t an option
unless you wanted goose droppings
between your toes

I dream of
trees and water weeds
the weeping willow leaning over the lake
no need for a swing
grab a handful of willow branches
and fly out over the water
laughing as we let go and landed
with water up the nose
while weeds in the water
grabbed at our toes

Grandma’s pancakes

My grandmother cooked pancakes
on a large round griddle

with a spatula that had come through
many meals before

so many hours I spent at her side
begging to flip the pancakes

a large brown ceramic bowl
cold to the touch

stiff peaks of beaten egg whites
folded in carefully

Grandma’s secret weapon
against boring breakfasts

a glimpse into days gone by
only the womenfolk cooked breakfast

only the menfolk got away with
not cooking or cleaning up

these were the years before this budding feminist
shouted it’s not fair to whoever would hear

It Felt Like Confusion

He looked like a teacher or someone’s uncle, the man who tried to molest me in the movie theater. They didn’t talk us through scenarios back then of how to respond to creepy old men sitting next to you and slipping their hand into your chair. I felt afraid, and tried to crawl as far away as I could, climbing halfway into the lap of my best friend on the other side. I finally grabbed her hand and whispered, “Come with me, NOW!” I was horrified and frightened and at a loss for how to respond. Tell an adult. Find an employee. Run. Why didn’t I think of any of those responses? I was frozen. I wasn’t even sure what he wanted. A grown man. I was twelve.

They looked like men who would be friends with our dads, the men who tried to pick us up like we were virgin prostitutes. But we were too young to grasp what was happening. Our mothers hadn’t told us not to sit on the grassy corner of a street to talk and giggle. They never told us that men prowled our quiet suburban streets looking for girls like us. Exchange of money for an exchange of innocence. “How much?” they’d ask and we’d respond with, “How much for what?” We didn’t comprehend the adult game these men were playing. They could’ve been our dads. Two girls braiding daisy chains and enjoying the sunshine on a grassy corner on a quiet residential street. We were naive and so close to danger. Grown men. I was thirteen.

He looked like any other preteen boy, gangly and handsome in a little boy way, the boy who grabbed my breasts every day at school. But I was made to feel guilty for developing early. “Girls with big breasts are easy. They’re asking for it,” the boys whispered to each other. I wasn’t the only one being molested every day in the crowded Junior High hallways between classes. Other girls had breasts, too. We told the school officials, they told us he’s a good boy. A good student. They told us we should be ashamed for enticing nice boys. One woman called my friend a slut. We told our mothers. They told us boys will be boys and to stay away from them if we didn’t like it. Like it? We learned to hold our notebooks clutched protectively to our chests. We learned to wear baggy t-shirts that didn’t show our budding figures. We learned that no one would back us up if we sought help. A teenage boy. I was fourteen.

Upside-Down World


upside down hanging lamp

This is a short excerpt from a project I’ll be working on during the month of July for Camp Nanowrimo. This work currently has no name.  It will be a cross-genre work of fiction blurred with non-fiction, poetry, memoir, prose, stream-of-consciousness, epistolary forms.  And whatever else may work its way in there.


Upside-Down World
by Debi


Friends become enemies. Lovers, exes. Families, estranged. What the hell’s happening? The world is upside-down. My world is upside-down.

I’d lie on my back, hang my head down over the edge of the bed—down over the edge of the world—and the ceiling of my childhood home became the floor. The floor, the ceiling.  Magic.  This was Upside-Down World. A charmed world peopled by people similar to my people. But altered. Different. Stronger. Bolder. I was younger. Ceiling Girl older.

Upside-Down World was sparse. The only décor, an occasional floor lamp (the hanging lamps of right-side up world). The floor (my ceiling) was white, flowing-from-room-to-room. White. Always the same. Uniform. Level. Steady. I sensed something serene about those sparsely furnished and simply colored ceiling spaces. I knew nothing of Zen. But felt the truth. Less was more.

Lying on my back in this house, this home of my grownup years, the ceiling’s slanted. Unsteady. Yes. So is grownup life. No level surfaces. No easy answers. No sure footing. An upside-down world.

Dear Ceiling Girl …

You’ve watched. What did you see? What do you see? Does it make sense? You’ve followed me forever, looking down. A witness. Seen the highs. The rockbottomness of rockbottoms. Can you trace the path, the twisted journey, that led here? I’m lost. I’m here, but lost.  Confused.  I miss the surety of childhood’s future. The hopes. Dreams. Imaginations. Magic. Witchcraft. Wishcraft.

Are you still there, Ceiling Girl? Or did this upside-down world shake your footing, too?

~Me


Technological Autobiography: My Life with Home Appliances


My Life with Home Appliances

by Deborah Taylor-Hough


“Technology serves as a Rorschach over a lifetime, a projective screen for our changing and emotionally charged commitments.”[1]  – Sherry Turkle, Inner History of Devices


my freezerBack in the days before modern appliances, the work of keeping up a home was a full-time job.  From the need to replenish meats and vegetables on almost a daily basis due to a lack of safe food storage options, to washing clothing and diapers at the riverside, housekeeping was a never-ending chore.   I will examine the history of modern work-saving devices, looking at how the development of these items saves time and effort, focusing on stories from my own life and my family’s history and also discuss the role of appliances in the liberation of women from the solitary role of housewife. Continue reading