The Power of Rain

It’s raining today. Big, round droplets. The relentless kind of rain that I never experienced before I lived in the south. Before television meteorologist said things like, “Coastal shift” or “Gulf stream.” It’s raining today and it’s going to keep raining. That oppressive kind of rain. The kind that makes you want to stay in bed all day with a good book, or a good tv show, or a good bedfellow.

I like the rain because it helps me feel like I’m not alone. When it’s raining I know I’m not the only one stuck indoors, unable, unwilling, to go on about my normal life. It eases my fears of missing out on anything. Not much happens in the rain.

I remember having this thought for the first time, in Mrs. Nixon’s third grade classroom. It was a warm, fall day in Kansas. The storms were lined up to put on a show. Black skies, lightening, it was the sort of day in Kansas where one occasionally glances out a window, stays close to the weather radio, sits, stiff necked, on the edge of their seat. There was a war raging, 7,500 miles away across the Atlantic. Operation Desert Storm. My sisters’ husbands were there. I hoped it was raining.

It’s funny what the rain recalls, and sometimes sad. But that’s the sort of power it has over us. And I think I’m finally at peace with that.

I hope you’re staying dry today.

M.

The Tinsleys

When I was a kid my mom cleaned houses for a living. One of the houses she cleaned belonged to a husband and wife named Mr. and Mrs. Tinsley. The Tinsleys were very retired, and lived in a large house in Leavenworth, near the public library. I’m not sure what they had done in their working lives, but Mr. Tinsley, who sat in his home office all day, smoking cigars, and swiveling around in an old wooden rolling chair, had the mark of a lawyer, or maybe a CPA. He wore suspenders, and used a cane, on the rare occasions that I saw him get up from his desk.

Mrs. Tinsley could have been a school teacher, or a stay-at-home mom, or even a piano instructor. Maybe she was all those things. Maybe she was none of those things, I just don’t know, I don’t remember ever asking. What I do remember is sitting on the steps that connected the family room with the second level, while my mom vacuumed the upstairs bedrooms, and watching Jeopardy with Mrs. Tinsley, while she sat across the room in a recliner, and offered me fistfuls of those hard strawberry candies, with the gooey centers.

Mrs. Tinsely loved Bill Clinton. Mr. Tinsley hated him. Mrs. Tinsley crouched doilies and read magazines. Mr. Tinsely yelled at the Meals on Wheels delivery woman, and wrote my mother checks every Tuesday afternoon for her services.

Their house was in a row of houses on their street that were all very old. Some had started to fall down, while others were being bought and remodeled. Their house was somewhere in the middle, in dire need of updating, but still working for the two of them. Regardless, they had a formal living room, which I always associated with “rich people,” and I liked to spend a lot of time sitting in the “fancy” chairs in there, reading teeny-bopper magazines, and watching out the big picture window.

Their house even had a large wrap-around porch on the front, with a couple of rocking chairs. Somedays I would pass the two hours or so rocking on their porch. At the end of the street there was a house that had been turned into a retirement home. Or maybe it was less of a retirement home, and more of a nursing home. It had a lot of people in wheel chairs, sitting outside when we pulled up, and in the exact same spot when we left. I often wondered who pushed them out there, and who brought them back in. I hoped someone brought them back in.

It was an interesting dichotomy, trying to figure out how those people at the end of the street, sitting alone all day in wheelchairs in the grass, who were relatively the same age as The Tinsleys, managed to find themselves there, rather than living in their own large home, with a woman who cleaned it for them once a week, and people who delivered their food everyday. It didn’t add up to me, and if I’m being honest, it still doesn’t. Though it’s certainly more sad now, because I’m older and I know what I know. Still…

One of the last times I remember going to The Tinsleys’ my mom asked me to take a bag of trash out back for her. I didn’t usually do much helping when she cleaned houses, but every once in awhile she would ask me to take some trash out, or wipe down a mirror or something menial, particularly if I was following her around being annoying. This day I had the bag of trash in my hand and I walked out the back door, down a few steps, and out the back of the fence to the alley where the trash cans sat. I heaved the trash bag over the fence, into the can, when something shiny caught my eye.

Down the alley was an older woman, with a walker, slowly making her way toward me. She was dressed in sweats, and a shirt that looked like it had been worn for days. She was saying something but I couldn’t understand her. The more I waited, the closer she came, the closer she got to me, I realized she was calling for something, or someone. I wasn’t sure what to do so I sort of just froze at the fence, nervously looking back at the Tinsley’s house, hoping my mom would come out. Before she got any closer to me a woman dressed in scrubs came running down the alley after the woman with the walker. She ran up behind the woman, and put her hand on her shoulder. This scared the woman, and the nurse assured her she was okay, then told her they needed to go back in. The nurse saw me then, and told me that the woman was looking for her missing cat. I was immediately upset for her, and told the nurse that I hadn’t seen a cat, but that I would keep an eye out. The nurse just smiled, and waved my suggestion away, “There’s no cat,” she said, and she put her arm around the woman and they walked slowly back to the house at the end of the street.

Later that night when I told my mom what I had seen, she told me that some people forget things when they get older. What the nurse likely meant, was that the woman was looking for a cat she had once had, probably years and years ago, back when she lived in her own house. This was hard for me to understand at the time, but now, of course, I do.

I’m not sure what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Tinsley, I have a faint memory of my mother telling me of their passing at some point in my teen years, but I always wondered about them. And I’ve often wondered about the woman in the alley searching for her lost cat. I suppose I always will, because if you ask me, we all have our cats we are looking for. And we always will.

M.

Look Both Ways

My mom told me a story the other day about the time I was almost hit by a reckless driver. She was dropping me off at school. I must have been a freshman, or maybe it was early sophomore year. That’s when she was still driving me to school everyday, rather than me hitching rides with friends. The street that runs perpendicular to my high school had a stop sign right across from the entrance I used to go into school everyday. So my mom would sort of roll up to the stop sign, and stop long enough for me to hop out, then she’d make sure I got safely across the street before she turned right and headed to work. The whole drop-off probably took less than 30 seconds, on average, because my mom drove an ugly, beat-up 1984 Chevy Nova, with one door that was primed, but not painted. It wasn’t ideal for my teenage psyche to be dropped off each day, so I tried my best to not be seen by anyone.

The street that I had to cross, 10th Avenue, was pretty busy in the morning. 10th Avenue is one of the main arteries that runs through Leavenworth, and it leads all the way from the city limits, to the road that leads to the entrance of Fort Leavenworth. So one can imagine that every school day, in a high school with roughly 1,200 students, it was clogged up a bit there. Sometimes my mom would be waiting to turn long after I had already crossed the street.

This particular day she did her slow roll to a stop. There were several cars behind us, as there usually were, and I hopped out. The road was busy like normal, so I had to stand for a few seconds before I could safely cross. There was no crossing guard at this section of 10th Avenue. Eventually there was a break in the traffic and my mom watched me step out into the street to cross. That’s when a car from the line behind her jetted out of line, cut her off, and turned right, crossing my path at the moment I was starting to take my leave of the corner. I apparently stepped back, a little bewildered, while my mom screamed obscenities. Then I went on about my day.

I do not remember this moment. To be clear when she asked me about it, I was confused. I have no recollection of ever being “almost hit” at high school. I guess it just wasn’t a big deal to me. But to my mother, to any mother, it would be the sort of heart-sinking feeling you don’t forget.

It’s funny what we remember and what we don’t. What sticks with us. What teaches us lessons. I’ve always been careful when crossing a street. And I’ve crossed a lot of streets alone, even as a child. And maybe there was a reason. Maybe this was the reason. I just don’t know.

Remember to look both ways, y’all.

M.

Old Eckerd and Gov’ment Cheese

I learned about commodities early on. Maybe first grade with Mrs. Heim, the teacher who also owned a dairy farm. Or maybe second grade with Mrs. Parker, the teacher who taught us how to balance checkbooks and pretended like I didn’t toot right next to her at reading time. Either way, what I was taught in school about “commodities” was not the experience I had with “commodities,” and it took me years to work it all out in my head. My trusty Pocket Oxford tells me that “commodities” is: “A raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee.” But when I was a kid and heard the word “commodities” it meant standing in long lines at the Kansas National Guard Armory on Fourth Street for hours on end, in the blistering cold, and the sticky heat, waiting for bags and boxes of government cheese.

What I am talking about is quite simply the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. It is a government-sponsored program that serves low-income households, with one or more assistance programs in place, several times a year, by supplementing household food staples like rice, canned milk, cheese, cereal, eggs, and non-perishable, canned foods. This was all true when I was a kid, though when I Google the program now it seems to be aimed at people 60 years and older. Which is great, because I know a lot of senior citizens who benefit from this program, but I hope they still offer commodities to EVERYONE who needs it, because I know there are still families and young children who would benefit from this program as well.

Regardless, I have a few, sporadic memories of sitting on the cold, concrete floors of the Armory Building (which is now a CVS Pharmacy, but not before it was an Eckerd Pharmacy, so now it’s just called “Old Eckerd,” by my mother, rather than the “old Armory” or “CVS.” And, as if you needed to ask, she just doesn’t trust “Old Eckerd.”) Anywho, Old Eckerd is where we went twice a year to pick up our gov’ment cheese, among other commodities, but oh the cheese.

What does gov’ment cheese taste like, Missy? The best I can come up with on the cheese is this. Go to Kroger, or Food Lion, and buy yourself a knock-off version of Velveeta Cheese, you know the kind that’s in a cardboard box, and you have to lift the lid off, then pull out the silver-wrapped, sticky cheese? Yeah, buy yourself a knock-off brand of that. Then go home, open it up, place it in your shower and go on about your business. Take your showers, but don’t touch the cheese, then around day four cut a slice off and eat it. Yep, that’s what Old Eckerd, gov’ment cheese tastes like.

Listen, I am not knocking this program. It was and still is a very necessary program. And I am happy that it exists, and I was happy to eat the food when we got it, though mainly it was evaporated milk and the absolute grossest peanut butter I have ever had in my life. It’s the same peanut butter they stick in MREs for the Army when they go out to the field, and trust, it is not good. But again, it’s free. And at the end of the month, when your family’s food stamps ran out, and you were between paychecks, it was the best peanut butter you have ever had. Especially on some unsalted, saltines…

And I know, I know, you think I am making this up. But nah. It’s real. So real in fact, that my mom still, to this day, has canned milk in her pantry. I can’t tell you what year it is from, but my best guess would be 1990, pre-Operation Desert Storm. So yeah, there’s that.

Now don’t all of you run out at once and try to get you some pre-Operation Desert Storm, gov’ment cheese. Check with your local “Old Eckerd” for times and assistance. But if you are ever in the market for some recipes on how to make some scratch biscuits from one can of milk and two packets of salt, hit me up. And if you absolutely have no idea what I am talking about, then good on you, and your rich, son-of-a-bitch family.

But for real, educate yourself on the needs of Americans living below the poverty line (https://www.fns.usda.gov/csfp/commodity-supplemental-food-program) and always vote yes for taxes that help kids and senior citizens!

M.

429 Delaware Street

On the corner of Delaware and Fifth Streets in my hometown sits an old, red brick building. The Leavenworth Historical Society calls this building an example of “early 20th Century Revival and Colonial Revival design,” built at the turn of the 20th century. The locals just call it “The Corner Pharmacy.” My mom and I would go down to The Corner Pharmacy when I was a kid, on Saturday afternoons if she had a little change in her pocket, for a grilled cheese sandwich—and if we were lucky—a milkshake to boot. Sometimes we’d stop in for a late breakfast after particularly early basketball games at Nettie Hartnett Elementary. The grill was always piping hot on those Saturdays, with what seemed like a hundred fried egg sandwiches lined up in a row. The Corner Pharmacy was a pharmacy, but it was so much more than that. It was one of the last true relics of small-town prairie life, in a Kansas town that was quickly learning that if it was going to stay relevant, some things would need to change.

If you ask anyone born and raised in Leavenworth they can tell you countless stories about The Corner Pharmacy. The friendly Pharmacist, old whats-his-name, his wife, and teenage son. It was all very Olive Kitteridge from the outside. At some point he’d opened up the diner on the east side of the building and started flipping those fried egg sandwiches for waiting customers. They can tell you, some in painstaking detail, about the black pier frames, and single bay windows extending above the parapet, the wide entablature and decorative cornice, but if you ask what was above The Corner Pharmacy, who sat behind those old bay windows, they might not know. But I do.

In the spring of 1987, I was just finishing up my first year of kindergarten. I had a pretty good handle on my numbers, all the way up past 100. You can ask my mom, I recited them to her ad nauseam while she cleaned the floors, or dusted the wooden window sills, or mowed the yard with the old green push mower. I would walk behind her, believing she could hear me, believing she wanted to hear me, and recite all I had learned. I could count by ones, twos, fives, or tens. Lady’s choice. I was proud. I stuck my chest out, though it still didn’t poke out further than my round belly. I could read. I could write. I was even doing math, a fact that amazed my mother who often said math was her worst subject.

That spring, however, my mother was given an opportunity to finish something she had given up on a long time before, her high school education. On the second floor of 429 Delaware, directly over The Corner Pharmacy, a class was being assembled. A GED class. One for women and men. For those who received assistance from the state, from the government. For people who wanted to better their lives and the lives of their children. And my mom nervoulsy signed up.

I don’t know the logistics of the class. I don’t remember who taught it, or how many times we had to go downtown to the stuffy, carpeted room above The Corner Pharmacy, but I do remember my mother’s scowled face, as she sat on a metal chair, next to another woman, and did math calculations that made no sense to me. I remember sitting under the plastic and metal folding tables, while she worked out the equations, often thrusting her hands below the table to count on her fingers, while the teacher reminded her to try to do “mental math.” I’d count my numbers in my head every time the teacher said that. Hoping to send some of those important numbers telepathically to my mom.

Of course, my mom wasn’t doing kindergarten math. She was doing high school algebra, which if I am being honest, might as well been a foreign language to her, and years later to me. But in that hot room, with a laundry basket of used toys to keep me occupied, and those big bay windows to peer out of, I didn’t know any of that then. I just knew that every time my mother got frustrated, every time she closed the book in aggravation, every time she told the teacher she just couldn’t do it, someone, either the teacher or some other student in the room, would assure her that she could.

Some days I couldn’t stand to watch her make her way through her workbook, so I would sit in those bay windows and watch the traffic below. I would wonder what a “GED” was, whether or not I would have to take the same test, whether or not I would be good at math. I would keep quiet, hold my bladder the whole time, and never interrupt my mother. I may not have understood what was happening, or the gravity of the situation. The way that this had the potential to change my mother’s life. Our lives. But I knew it was important to her, even if I didn’t know or couldn’t remember why. The only thing I do remember, with great certainty, is the day the brown envelope came in the mail. The way she opened it up, smiled down at that piece of paper, said she had done it, she had passed her test, then promptly hid the certificate in her top drawer. Never to be discussed again.

My mom made a decision that day in the spring of 1987, and while all that hard work, those calculations, and late nights may have only amounted to a dollar more an hour at her job, it did wonders for me. It did wonders for my commitment to education, the value I know it can bring to your life. I’m a first-generation college graduate, but I am not a first-generation high school graduate, thanks in part, to the room behind the bay windows on top of The Corner Pharmacy.

M.

The Laundry Room

I was chatting with a friend the other day, when we veered into childhood anxiety—of which we both suffered from—and I remembered that I was claustrophobic for like five years as a kid. I had forgotten about it, because it’s something that I grew out of. In fact, nowadays I feel safest when any door I am behind is closed and locked, but when I was in elementary school I couldn’t deal with a closed door, let alone a locked one.

It started when my nephew, Little Scottie, and I were playing as kids. Little Scottie was my brother’s son. My brother and his girlfriend had Little Scottie when they were teenagers, and because my brother is 14 years older than me, I ended up being two years older than my nephew, which meant we were more like brother and sister, and we treated each other like that too. Mainly teasing and taunting, always picking at each other.

One day, when I was in kindergarten, which would have made Little Scottie about four, we were playing hide-and-seek and I ran into the laundry room to hide. He saw me hiding behind the dryer (I wasn’t a good hider) and when I jumped out to scare him, he grabbed the door knob and slammed the door closed before I could get him. I heard him go running down the hall screaming waiting for me to chase him, the only problem was that when he had slammed the old wooden door shut, it jammed. And just like that I was stuck in a small room.

I immediately panicked. That’s my gut reaction to all situations. I screamed for Little Scottie, but he was no doubt hiding somewhere far away. I looked around frantically trying to figure out what my options were. There was a small window in the laundry room that overlooked the front porch where the adults were all sitting. So I ran to the window, too small to see out of it, and screamed as loud as I could for as long as I could until I heard the commotion of people coming inside wondering what was wrong.

My mom got to the door first and tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. “Missy,” her voice came through the door, “Unlock the door!” I explained through sobs at this point, that the door wasn’t locked. I heard someone say it was jammed then, and she tried the door again but this time used some muscle. Nothing.

Someone, maybe my brother, maybe my nephew’s step-dad, got the idea to come to the window and try to reach in and pull me out. They got the screen off, but I couldn’t get myself far enough up to them, and they were too big to fit far enough in to grab me. It occurred to me then, that this was my life. I’d have to live in the laundry room for the rest of my life. My mom would come bring my food through the window, and I’d spend my days listening to the neighbor kids play on my swing set in the front yard. The sobs came louder and quicker.

“Hold on now, Missy,” my mom’s voice came from the other side of the door, “I’m gonna pull these panels out.” Turns out it was one of those old, wooden doors that had slats in it. So with a little help from whomever that man was, and a hammer, my mom was able to pull the slats from the door until there was a hole large enough to pull me out. Whew! I was free. But that’s when the claustrophobia first started. For years afterward I would cry if I was left in a room with a closed door. Even when I was playing with friends. I’d always eye the door, ask them to keep it slightly ajar.

Eventually my fear subsided, and so did my friendship with my nephew. We grew apart. And three years ago he was murdered in cold blood by a monster of a man, and I never got to tell him that I know he didn’t jam the door on purpose. That I know he was just as scared as I was that day. That I still remember his little red face, matching his bright red hair, and the way he ran up to give me a hug when I was free that day. I can still see and feel it all. The warm sunshine of the day outside, pulsing down on my arms. And I hope he can too.

❤️

M.

Backroom at the Video Store

I’ve been working on an essay about some of the jobs I’ve had in my life, and I was sort of, well, cracking myself up (as I do a lot, while my family looks at me in awe and shakes their heads). I was cracking up because I was thinking about that one time I worked at a family-owned video store that had a “backroom.” Yeah, for real. For those of you who aren’t privy, a “backroom” at a video store is where they kept the “adult” movies. And no, I don’t mean the Bowling for Columbine documentary, I mean porn. Straight up, hard-core porn. We had soft-core too, cause we weren’t animals. We were the only one in town with a “backroom,” and we were popular. Even when Blockbuster came to town, our little video store survived at least a decade or two more because, well, people are gross. (Side note: I worked at Blockbuster when the little video store folded. That’s where I was re-introduced to Jerimiah and we started dating. He was the store manager, at 19. It obviously wasn’t that hard to work at Blockbuster Video.)

Anyway, this little video store was called, “Home Video” and it sat on the corner of Cherokee and 6th Streets, right across from the Water Department, and (when I was there) right below a nightclub that favored a fog machine on Friday nights. Which meant every Friday at 10:00 pm, an hour before we closed, the store would fill up with “fog” and people would scream thinking there was a fire and exit the backroom in a hurry. Then I’d tell them it was probably because God knew what they were doing. Hehe.

Anyway, there were a lot of, oh let’s call them “quirks” about Home Video that made it a unique, albeit bizarre, experience for the two or so years I worked there, which was just after high school, while I was at the local community college. One of them were the owners themselves, Del and Linda. One of the oldest employees filled me in fast about old Del and Linda. Apparently, they were first-cousins from Minnesota. Or Michigan? Or maybe Milwaukee? Either way, they were definitely cousins, and definitly had to sign a letter when they got married that said they wouldn’t have kids. Then they promptly had two kids. Two boys. And by the time I met them they were grown, one was married with kids of his own, and while he was weird (that’s being kind) he was normal-ish. The other one, well, I felt really sorry for him. He sort of crept around downtown Leavenworth. He lived alone in an apartment near the store, but his parents didn’t actually let him work there. I think he was probably on social security, or disability. I don’t know what was wrong with him, but he had trouble walking and standing up straight. But he was my favorite of the two. He was polite and quiet. He just liked to stop in a talk to me sometimes, and I was okay with that. I would even let him shelve movies if he wanted. He’s the one that told me about the other weird thing: Linda’s Disney collection.

Apparently, Linda had a locked room in the basement that was full of Disney products. First release VHS tapes, cardboard cut-outs, special promotional items. And this, he told me one day, was a secret. It was also her retirement plan. She was going to sell off all her stuff and get an RV and travel around the country with Del and their giant Great Danes (of which she allowed to roam free in the store from time to time.) Weird shit, y’all. So of course after that, I made it my life’s ambition to see this “Disney room” in the basement, and would often make up reasons to go down there. I knew that they had cameras EVERYWHERE, they had too. Too many freaks in and out of the backroom, so I was always cautious. I’d have to stock up the candy, or look for more shrink wrap. I’d usually do it when it was just Del and me in the store. One day I finally found the extra room and tried the knob, but it was locked. I wasn’t getting into that bitch.

Usually I was the only one at the store when I worked there, because I worked Sunday mornings, when they had church, and Thursday nights, which weren’t all that busy. But I was also in charge of employees from time to time, like on Fridays and Saturdays when there would have to be at least two of us working the night shift. It was always fun when it was with someone I liked, like my friend Toni. We had a great time working the weekends together. Mainly we watched the video in the backroom, from the closed circuit tv we had under the front desk. That tv had a one-way microphone attached to it, so that we could tell the people back there that we were closing in five minutes. Or, more usually, we could click the microphone on, which made a loud clicking noise, then say in a low, slow voice, “God knows you’re here.”

I watched a lot of people I knew come in and out of that backroom. Teachers, noted members of the communities, friend’s family members and parents. They would spot me from the outside, as the store was all windows on one side, and sort of try to spelunk into the room without making eye contact with me. But alas, I was the one who had to check them out, remember the whole I was there alone thing, so I it was pointless. They would look around when they came out of the backroom, waiting for someone else to come to the front, pretending like they were browsing the “New Releases” until eventually they gave up and walked up. I’d say something smart ass like, “Castaway just won’t do it for you, huh? Not a Tom Hanks fan?” And they would squirm and say they have never watched “one of these movies,” then I’d say, “That’s not what your account shows…” I was kind of a bitch, but I mean, it was menial work for 6.00/hr, I had to get my kicks too, you know?

Of course there were times when I was embarrassed. Like when we’d get a new shipment of backroom movies, and Del and I would stand at the counter on a Friday afternoon and take the tapes out of the boxes, put them in their black rental cases, and shrink wrap the VERY explicit boxes they came in. Linda had nothing to do with the ordering or displaying of the backroom, she was an “outta sight, outta mind” kinda Christian. So it fell on Del and me. We’d both stand there, in relative silence, while Toy Story or Harry Potter played on the television screens in the store, and wrap titles like, “Facial Blasts from the Past,” “Buttman’s Big Titty Adventure,” “Boobsville Caberat: Where the Boys Aren’t,” and “Dumb-ass Fucking Sluts” or what it “Dumb, Ass-Fucking Sluts”? I just don’t remember. I can go on. Want me to go on? No? Okay.

So there it is, my Home Video days. It wasn’t too long, but you know, it was long enough for me to get some good quality fun in, while meeting some unique people, learning about shame (I was researching shame like Brene and I didn’t even know it! Haha!) and to make me realize how gross it all was. So thanks, Home Video. Thanks Del and Linda. Thanks to Lee Anne, who hooked me up with her job when she adandoned me for Boston. Thanks Toni, for the fun times. Thanks Jen and Roger for spending so much time at Home Video it was like you worked there, even though you didn’t. We had some fun.

M.

The Wheel Thing

When I was in fifth grade the cool thing to do was hit up the skating rink. I was a horrible skater. Like very, very bad. But I’d been to the skating rink for as long as I could remember. Leavenworth is a small town, only about 45,000 people or so. Which means on the weekends there isn’t much for kids to do. The teenagers worshipped The Wheel Thing which was the name of the local skating rink. Having an older, cool, teenage sister I was privy to The Wheel Thing well before it was appropriate for me to be, and by the time I was in fifth grade I spent every Friday night there with all the other pre-teens and teenagers.

The Wheel Thing opened up shop in 1970, and by 1986 had switched owners to Kay and Ron Beaman, who up until last year were the sole proprietors and the iconic pair who sold you tickets, picked out your skates, and made you a kick-ass Suicide from the soda machine. Ron even sometimes ran the mic for a limbo session in his rainbow suspenders and funny mustache.

I started going skating “by myself” (sans my older sister or mother sitting on one of the carpeted benches watching me) when I was in fifth grade, and I skated through most of middle school there too.

The Wheel Thing had a large half paved, half graveled parking lot. My mom would whip her old 1972 Dodge Cornett into the lot at dusk on Friday nights to drop me off. I would hop out, my head down, hoping no one would see me in that old beater. I’d sling my purple and white skates onto my shoulder, and race toward the double doors.

There was one entrance door and one exit door. Depending on when you got there on Friday evenings, there could either be a line out the entrance door, down the front steps, or just a few kids waiting inside the hot, stinky corridor between the outside doors and the inside doors. There was a small window on one side of the corridor where Kay would sell tickets. I don’t remember how much it was to skate on the weekends, but I do remember that my mom would give me a five dollar bill and that covered both my entrance, my speed skate rental (if I got really crazy and wanted to upgrade) and usually one soda for the whole night. Afterward I had to reuse the cup at the water fountain.

The corridor was the worse part of The Wheel Thing. If the line was long you had to wait in that small, smelly area, its carpet reeking with teenage sweat and dirty socks. A smell that only a skating rink offers. Not to mention the fact that the second set of doors were not glass, which meant you had no idea how many people were there, if your friends had made it yet, or if your crush had showed up. You had to wait, your skate laces digging into your shoulder, in that stinky, little room, wondering about all the fun that was going on inside. You could hear the muffled music. You could catch a glimpse of neon light under the cracks of the door, but it wasn’t until your turn to pay at the window, when you could crane your neck around to see who was in there. Usually I would spot my friend Melody, who seemed to live at The Wheel Thing, and my heart would jump up into my chest with relief.

The next few hours were always a blur. There would be couples skate, where you would hope a boy asked you to hold holds and slowly skate around the oval rink, your sweaty hands entwined, while older, much better skaters would skate like they were dancing, the boy even skating backwards. Then there was limbo, which always made me fall by the third round. There was that game where the cute DJ brought out the giant fuzzy dice and rolled them and you had to stand on a number until your number was rolled and you were eliminated. You always wanted to win that one because you got a free song dedication and a suicide at the snack bar!

On one of my birthdays, maybe my 12th or 13th, my friends told the cute DJ it was my birthday. For birthdays they would make all of you go out into the center of the rink and the whole place would sing happy birthday to you. They would scream it. I remember standing in the middle of a bunch of sweaty Virgos, my face red from sweat and embarrassment, my fingers pushed into my ears, and a smile across my face. It was the worst day ever, but also the best day ever.

As we got older, boys became more involved with our trips to The Wheel Thing. We would plan our outings with them at school, but not tell our mothers, who probably knew about our plans anyway. It was a way to “date” before you could actually “date.” To be fair, I did the least amount of Wheel Thing dating, I mainly just watched my friends run into the dark corners with their boyfriends and steal kisses. I was usually the look-out, until the one night I wasn’t. I was so nervous the whole time. My boyfriend and I snuck into the back corner, between two pinball machines. He was just as nervous as I was. It was a quick kiss, just to say we had done it, then I worried for hours whether or not I would have to marry him. I didn’t like him all that much.

At the end of the evening, one of the parent’s would pick us up. Usually Melody’s mom, in her Trans Am with the cool t-tops. We would pile into the backseat, our skates jammed at our feet on the floorboard, too many young, sweaty girls in the back. Melody’s mom would jam music, and we would hold our hands and arms out the open windows so the wind could blow our sweat, and our sins, away.

RIP The Wheel Thing, you are in a lot of fond memories.

M.

Worth Leavin’

When I was in high school my mom and I moved into an apartment complex with townhouses. This was the biggest, nicest place we had ever lived in, and it was near the high school and near my mom’s work. It had three levels, including an unfinished basement for storage and laundry. The kitchen, living room, and a bathroom were on the main floor, and there were three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. All the bedrooms were roughly the same size, so my mom took a room on one end of the hall and gave me the room on the other end, next to the bathroom. I don’t remember what was in the middle bedroom. It’s possible it was home to my mom’s small china hutch, the one that houses relics from years past. It’s possible it had a dresser for extra clothes, or maybe my mom’s old green rocking chair. I don’t think it had an extra bed. I don’t think we ever had a bed we would consider “extra.”

I might not remember too much about the second bedroom, but I do remember quite a bit about that townhouse, and the years I lived there. I remember the night someone threw a brick into our neighbor’s glass window and stole a bunch of money from him while he slept upstairs. I remember the way the apartment complex gave way to a trailer park, the “good” trailer park. I remember that when the grass got cut the maintenance men did it so fast, that they missed large portions of it. I remember the rollings hills in between the rows of houses. I remember the playground. The basketball court. The laundry room. The dark, poop brown of the cabinets. I remember the small slab of concrete off the back sliding door where we kept an old, unused grill. I remember the constant feeling of being pressed down, while we lived there. What felt like the inability to catch my breath. The thought that this was it. This was as nice as my life was going to get. The concern that I was in this cycle of poverty, and there was no way out.

It’s a nasty feeling, feeling like you are stuck in a place that you don’t want to be. I would take evening walks around the apartment complex, sometimes down through the trailer park and envision what my life might be. Would I live in a trailer one day? Was it bad to live in one? Some of them looked nice. They had fenced yards, and little pop-up pools. Some had add-ons and car ports. Was this my next step? Did I get married, buy a trailer, have a couple of kids, and work my 40 hours a week, while I watched my husband drink beer with the other men in the trailer park on Sunday afternoons? It all seemed too sad. Too real. Much too real.

I remember walking on the other side of the street one day. There was a subdivision on that side that I had never been through before. The street that separated us was a busy five lane road that ran from one side of town, where the cities of Leavenworth and Lansing met, to the other side of town, ending at the Federal Prison. It wasn’t too hopeful for a sad teenage girl, my hometown. The thing I noticed first about this subdivision, was that unlike my apartment complex, they had a wooden privacy fence running the length of their property, shielding their quiet backyards, and their precious children, from the traffic that clogged up that street.

The more I walked, the more I noticed about the people who lived there. Two car garages meant two parents. Two parents meant more income. More income meant treehouses, and soccer teams, and trips to Florida in the summertime, all things I had no idea about. I pieced together what I knew about my friends’ families. The nice houses they had, the way their mother’s were home all day with stews in crockpots, and at the dinner table at night helping with homework. During this time my mother had developed a gambling addiction, and spent most of her evenings at the casinos in Kansas City. So had my sisters and a few close friends. I was alone a lot of the time, but that was okay by me. It gave me time to dream of my leaving. That was the running joke as a teenager in Leavenworth. Wasn’t Leavenworth really just Worth Leavin’?

I’ve come to see that as a critical point in my life. My walking, my meandering around my hometown. Wondering what would happen to me if I left, more importantly, what would happen to me if I stayed. I knew then, on the day that I walked through that subdivision, that I wasn’t going to stick around to find out.

Sometimes I get sad when I think back to the choices I made. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I stayed. Sometimes I wish I could help other people leave. Sometimes I just want to tell that younger Missy that it is all okay. That she is different, and a little weird, and yeah, maybe she doesn’t belong there, or anywhere, but that it will all make sense. One day.

M.

Anthony Elementary School

I Googled my elementary school today. I’m not sure what made me do it. Maybe seeing all the back to school photos of friends’ kids. Maybe dropping my own child at his first day of his last year in elementary school. Maybe I’m feeling sad, nostalgic, old. Either way, I Googled the old girl and was surprised by what I didn’t remember about Anthony Elementary School, and what I did.

Anthony Elementary School in Leavenworth, Kansas was built in 1950*, funded in part, by a grant from the Ford Foundation. It was named after the Daniel Read Anthony family, who first came to Leavenworth from Massachusetts in 1854 with the first Emigrant Aid Company. The First Emigrant Aid Company was responsible for bringing Free State settlers to vote against Kansas becoming a slave state. Daniel R. Anthony may not be as well known outside of Leavenworth, where he was both a conductor of the local Underground Railroad and the owner of the Leavenworth Times (Kansas’ oldest newspaper) but his sister, Susan B. Anthony, might ring a bell. I knew none of this back then. I have a faint memory of learning about Susan B. Anthony and her family. I have an even fainter memory of connecting those dots in my head when I was maybe a second grader. I remember thinking she was pretty and strong. What I did know about my school was that it was a Title I, low-performing elementary school in the 1980s, smack dab in the middle of the “good” side of town and the “not good” side of town, and it brought a lot of different worlds together.

My mother walked me up to the front door of Anthony when I was a very tall five-year-old. Having a September birthday, I would turn six just two weeks after school started, always making me one of the oldest kids in my class. I would be nearly 19 when I graduated high school. But I wasn’t thinking about high school that day, I was thinking about not wrinkling my dress. I was wondering if my mother would stay with me all day. I was sliding around from sweaty feet in slick sandals.

My classroom was brightly colored. It housed a row of cubes where we’d put our Kleenex boxes and paint, wall hooks for backpacks and lunchboxes, and an upright piano. I didn’t have a lunchbox. I was a free-lunch kid. I didn’t know that on my first day of kindergarten, but by middle school this fact would push my head lower and lower down, everyday, as I moved through the hot food line. On my first day of kindergarten, however, my head was high, albeit full of anxiety. I smiled when Mrs. McKim, my very tall, very lovely teacher took my hand and showed me where my desk was. I followed her, looking back a few times to make sure my mom was still there. She was, standing with the other parents at the back of the classroom, much too close to the door for my liking. In my memory this is when things get jumbled, but my mom remembers it pretty clearly. I started to cry. And I didn’t stop crying for three days.

On day two, Mrs. McKim let my mom come inside the classroom again. They tried to console me, to introduce me to new friends, but I couldn’t see anyone through the tears clouding my vision. On day three, Mrs. McKim watched me walk into the classroom, and just when my mom was about to follow, she stopped her, and closed the classroom door. I panicked. I ran to the door to watch the scene unfold. My mother was crying outside the door, I was crying inside the door. Mrs. McKim, her hand on my mother’s shaking shoulder, told her it would be best to leave. Just leave me there, and walk away. I hated Mrs. McKim for this, for much longer than I should have. It wasn’t until my son went to preschool, and his teacher told me to go, while he screamed and groped for me and she held him back, that I realized what Mrs. McKim had done. And how important it was to do.

That day Mrs. McKim switched her tactic with me too. She let me sit at my desk and cry for an hour or so, then she pulled me aside and told me that I was disrupting the class and would have to go sit in the library, right across the hall, all by myself. A few minutes later I was all alone at a desk in the library. The librarian Mrs. Simmons, was busy walking around shelving books, big kids were coming in and out looking oddly at me. I sat, crying, until it felt like I had no more tears to cry. Then Mrs. Simmons walked in with two of my classmates, Robin and Pam. She walked up to my desk and introduced them both. She said they were girls in my class, and that made them my friends. Pam, whose sweet, chubby cheeks shined in the library light, asked me if I would be her friend. I said yes. Then Robin and Pam stood on each side of me and took me back to the classroom, hand in hand. I never cried again in kindergarten.

A few years ago my sweet friend Pam died. An undiagnosed medical condition, if I remember correctly. She never lost her sweetness, though. Not one ounce, even when we drifted apart years later. I can still see her chubby, rosy cheeks. I can still feel her hand in mine. I still remember her earnestness. Her need to be my friend. Her determination to make me feel safe.

It’s been a long time since I stepped foot inside Anthony Elementary School. An even longer time since I have felt that particular pain. The kind that sticks with you. The kind that shapes you. I may have went to a Title I, low-performing school in an economically diverse area of the Midwest, but I never felt underserved or overlooked. I felt lucky. I felt content. And today I am feeling thankful.

Thanks, Anthony Elementary School. For the teachers like Mrs. McKim, Mrs. Coughran, Mrs. Nixon and Mrs. Heim. Thanks for Mrs. Albright, and Mrs. Simmons, and Mrs. Parks. For Coach Hendee and Mr. Parks. Thanks for the lifelong friendships. Thanks for the blacktop and Oregon Trail. Thanks for the Halloween parades and the fifth grade talent show. Thanks for being a safe-haven, for a painfully shy little girl who is the woman she is today because of the foundation you gave her.

M.

*It’s important to note that Anthony has been through a few renovations, including a major overhaul in 2010, and has survived in Leavenworth, where many of the other schools have been vacated, or turned into housing or commercial spaces. I’ve included a current picture below to show the progress.

Home is Where Your Shit Is

We were driving back to Atlanta last weekend, after being in Southern Missouri for a week, and my husband and I were talking about that word Home, and what it means to us. You see, Southern Missouri used to be our home. We lived there for 10 years. We graduated college there. We were married there. We started our little family there. We made everlasting friends there. His mother still lives in Southern Missouri, and we go back to visit from time to time. And when we go visit we say, as we do when we go to Kansas, that we are going home. But lately, I have started to feel different about Southern Missouri. About all the places I have lived before. And over the last few months when someone asks where we are from, I have caught myself saying that we are from Charlotte. And I have been trying to figure out why.

I mentioned this to my husband, while we shoved our mouths full of road trip food and tried to stay awake in the searing dusk. I told him that I think I give that word too much power. That the older I get the more I realize that I am lost and that I don’t really know what makes something, or someone, feel like home. I told him that we use our home too often as a way to define who we are and what we can accomplish. I told him that seems somewhat limiting. He told he wanted to sleep in his own bed. Truth be told, I did too, but I was more caught up in the places I have called home, and how even when I go back to those places, I yearn to be back to my current home.

Living in Atlanta isn’t so bad. In fact, I had built it up to be this monster of a place, and really it isn’t any different than any other city. It has its “good” parts and its “bad”. It has sweet, kind people. And it has people who scare you a little. It has great drivers, and crazy, aggressive drivers. It is just a lot of people, from a lot of different homes, mixed up together in a tiny area trying to get by. And honestly, it feels surprisingly good to be a part of the ebb and flow of the ATL. It, dare I say, feels like home?

So how can Southern Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta all feel like home to me? The closest I can come up with is the people I am doing this damn life with are my home, and while there are some constants, my husband, my son, my dog, there are other people too. There are the neighbors. The ones in our cul-de-sac now are not that different from the ones who were on our street in Charlotte. We have Mr. Charlie, and Mrs. Kim, and Chris and Christy, and yes even Ginger and Scooter. And they smile and they wave. They check on our house when we are gone, and they pull our trash cans up from the curb if we forget. There are whole communities and lovely people inside each of the places we have called home.

There is my favorite Target, and the one I will go to in a pinch. There is the good Dunkin and the bad one. The clean Kroger and the dirty one. There is that coffee shop at the corner where people sit for a spell and talk about their day. There is that game store that sells comic books and Magic cards. There is IKEA, and TJ Maxx, and Walmart. Dear Baby Jesus, there are the Walmarts.

There are the neighbors who wave and those who don’t. There are the moms in the PTO who are a little crazy, but manage to get it all done. There are the teachers who love your kid like crazy, and the ones you wonder about. There are the post office employees who keep smiling, even when they really want to hit that woman in front of the line who doesn’t know how stamps work. There are the pharmacists who tell the same thing to 100 different people every day. Yes, this pill might make you sick to your stomach. Take it with food, please.

There are the brainwashed Chick-fil-A employees, and the Jesus Saves guys on mopeds. There are the little women who ask which church you belong to and would you like to come to Sunday service? There are dads mowing lawns in New balance sneakers, yelling about gas prices, and how hard it is to start this damn weed-eater, I swear I’m going to buy a new one soon.

There are people asking for money with signs that say, Veteran and Anything Helps. There are the drug dealers who deal in dime bags and the ones who deal in cartel meth. There are the women who wear too much perfume and the ones who insist on make-up to workout. There are the teenagers sneaking a six-pack down to the river, so they can listen to music and make out with that red-headed girl.

And all of these people live in all of these places. And all of these places are home. Someone’s home. And in the end, it doesn’t matter so much which home was yours. Which one you wanted to belong to, which ones you never did. Because for as much as each of these homes is unique, they are also so very much alike. And sometimes we forget that. And sometimes we need a reminder.

“I think maybe home is where your shit is,” I told my husband somewhere between Tupelo and Birmingham.

He smiled. “I think you might be right.”

M.

Going Home Again

Home has always been a tough word for me. Home means sad, tragic at the worst times, ambivalent at the best. I don’t come from a place that is totally electric, or unusual, or even beautiful. I’m not from NYC, or Las Vegas, or one of those small southern towns with quaint shops around a city square, and rampant white supremacy. I am from the midwest. From Kansas. From Leavenworth. Perhaps you have heard of it? Maybe in an old John Wayne western, or a documentary on the military, or a book about famous serial killers? Perhaps you just know it sounds familiar, but you can’t quite place it? Yeah, that’s it. That’s Leavenworth, Kansas.

I left Leavenworth 15 years ago this August. It wasn’t the first time I left, but it was the only time I ever left and thought, yep, I’m never moving back there again. And this year was the first time in those 15 years that I contemplated moving back there again. I’m not sure what it was, the draw to go back home. But it was there, on my mind, when my husband and I were going through possible relocations with his company. Kansas City popped up on the list. Bonner Springs to be exact. Bonner Springs is in Leavenworth County. It is about 20 minutes from the high school we graduated from. Twenty minutes from my mom, and my sisters, and my best friend. And we thought about it. Like really thought about it. Then ultimately we decided against going home again. For good. For now.

But as I type this I am gearing up for a trip home tomorrow. I am gearing up in the physical sense. Washing a last-minute load of laundry. Making sure I have an appropriate outfit for a graduation. Gathering Jackson’s toys. Packing healthy road trip snacks. I’m also gearing up for a trip home mentally. It has been over a year since I have been home. Last year we decided to take other trips. We visited New York City, and Tucson, Arizona, and Chicago, rather than spending time at home. And while those are all lovely places, home still called.

It used to be that when I went back home, I wanted to leave as soon as I got there. I was immediately transported back to that feeling I had in high school. That feeling of being stuck. Of suffocating. Walking the tree-lined streets of downtown made me tense up. Seeing the same old buildings I had grown up with, the familiar people. Unchanging, other than the wrinkling faces and graying hair. After a weekend of being home, I would squeeze my husband’s hand and say, “It’s time to go.” I’m preparing for that feeling again, even though the last time I went home that didn’t happen. In fact, I wanted to stay longer. To enjoy the people and places more. I was surprised and I didn’t take notice of how or why it had changed. And I still don’t know. And I don’t know if this time will be the same, or if I will want to run away after 48 hours. But I’m prepping myself for both.

I don’t know what to do with these feelings about home. How sometimes I want to never look back, and sometimes that is all I want to do. Leavenworth is always there with me. Right on the fringe of my memories. It touches all that I do today, and most of what I write. And well, I should be grateful. Maybe this is me, becoming grateful.

M.