Saturday, July 14, 2012

Road Trip With My Dead Mother

another rewrite:

Mom had been dead for a while, and we were driving to New York with her in the back of the van.

In the rear view mirror I saw 9-year-old Allie thrust her head forward, face flushed.   “Why does Grandma Margaret have to be right behind me!?”

My wife just showed me her eyes that said, “Your mother.  You explain.”

“Allie, settle down,” I said.  “She’s in the storage area, under ALL the luggage.  At least after this she won’t be on the shelf in the closet any more.  And you can move up closer to us, you know.”

When I was little, riding in the station wagon, I liked sitting in “the way back”, the third bench seat that faced out the rear window - still in the car with my mom, but far enough away to be alone in my bizarre thoughts, narrating my life to some imaginary friend.

My daughter chose the very back seat of the van, and even her discomfort at being so close to her deceased grandmother did not overcome her desire to maintain independence from her parents.

We had picked up
 Mom from my sister in Las Vegas.  Mom didn’t want a regular funeral – or, at least, hadn’t mentioned it recently - so we had a private memorial service around the coffee table at my sister’s house.  My mother’s last years had been in this house where she helped raise my niece.  Mom was then handed off to me and my wife and daughter.  We were assigned to return her remains to her hometown of Niagara Falls to be buried.

First we had flown her to Cincinnati, which would have pleased her only because she loved airplanes and flying.  We packed her in the big suitcase, because (even pre-9/11) we weren’t sure about the rules for putting a heavy, sealed, wooden box of ashes in the overhead.

But we didn’t take her immediately to Niagara Falls. I was gainfully employed so I couldn’t take time all at once to vacation in Las Vegas with my mother’s remains and then run off to New York with her; that’s why we left
 Mom in the closet of our house in Cincinnati for a year.   Now we were driving her to her grave as the first leg of our tour around the state of New York.

Allie never had a sibling and wasn’t used to competing or sharing. I hadn’t wanted her to start distracting me from driving by yelling from the back of the van, “Grandma’s looking at me!” or, “Grandma’s touching me!” or “Why does grandma Margaret have to be right behind me?”  I wished she felt more affection for my mother.

One evening, eight years earlier, when my niece was 9, she and my sister and my mother had gone out to dinner.  My mother had wondered aloud if the bathroom in this kid-oriented pizza joint were clean. 

“Sure, Grandma, you’ve been in there before.”

“I have not,” mom said with arms folded and mouth set firm.

An argument ensued until my niece said, “Okay grandma, you always say that sometimes you forget things.  You probably just forgot being in these bathrooms.”

Mom had glared back, “I may forget the things I’ve done, but I never forget the things I haven’t done.”

That was one of the first clues - a few years before Mom was diagnosed with dementia.  Allie had never gotten to spend much time with her because of the distance between Las Vegas and Cincinnati. As Mom spiraled down, she still knew who Allie was, but Allie didn’t know who Grandma really was.

Until she got sick, she was the grandma that, when visiting, fell asleep in our living room while reading and snored really loudly. She was the grandma that revealed to Allie where Dad had learned to make those horrible puns. But she was also the grandma that taught Dad to make delicious mince pie.

When I was little,
 Mom told stories about growing up in Niagara Falls during the Depression and about her dad who worked on the railroad and her brother who became a big deal at G.E. in Syracuse, NY.

She told us, “When I was 16, my mother walked into my bedroom, said, ‘Margaret?’ and then died from a stroke.  Mom told us that then, anxious to go into the world, she was resigned to taking over housekeeping for her dad and brother. She told us how her dad liked mince pie. She told us about her best friend, Helen, whom she still kept in touch with “back home”. Mom told us she had bought a plot to be buried in there.

So Allie sat in the back of the van with her dead grandma behind her, traveling to Niagara Falls, New York. This was the US side, not the touristy, honeymoon destination in Canada and it looked like it had not changed since the 1930s. Best Friend Helen was still living in the house she was born and grew up in. Some of Mom’s other friends also still lived in town.

We bought a grave marker and buried Mom while everyone told a few stories of the old days. “Margee always made us laugh.  She was smart but had to work to help send her goof-off c-student brother to college because he was a man.  She got stuck in this town an extra couple of years – kind of like she got stuck in Cincinnati this past year.  Margee was adventurous and eventually traveled around Europe after WWII while we all stayed safe here.” They told us Mom was a good friend and beloved.

When I was little, I knew some of that, but mostly
 Mom was just Mom, going to work after my dad left and stuck driving the station wagon, making pies, telling me to eat my vegetables.

Literally and figuratively our family members have not been all that close.   I’ve tried to stay close to my sister and secure Allie’s relationship with her aunt as well as her one cousin on that side.  As we drove away from Nagara Falls, I vowed I would pass on these new stories of Mom to Allie so that Grandma is more than that box of ashes haunting her from the back of the van.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Street Accounting

The first week that I did street accounting down by Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, it did not go well.  The problem was my location, or, really, the location of the juggler who deposited himself beside me. 

I arrived just after dawn on a Monday morning when the chill of the fog enveloped the wharf and when the seafood and sourdough vendors were just setting up.

In a sunny spot I set up a black metal card table and folding chair.  I put a solar powered calculator on the table and laid a fedora, gray with a black band, upside down next to it.

A Chinese man, setting out trays of ice, which would later hold rows of crab, came over and said, “You are too early.  No tourists come by now.”

“I need time to warm up,” I said, spreading my payments and flexing my annuities.  Before, when I did office accounting, I was always early.  Street accounting deserves the same dedication.

I sat and listened to the gulls cry and the water lap against the piers and the fog horns bleat.  I smelled the ocean salt and seaweed.  I watched the fish being laid on ice, their scales shimmering and balanced.

An hour later the other performers started to show up: a few mimes, a human jukebox, a magician, a contortion attorney.  I don’t know if the juggler picked the spot right next to me as a challenge or because he always set up there or because it was shady.

The juggler set up an eye-catching red table.  I took this as a negative sign.  I extended some friendly terms and he ignored me.

The tourists got out of bed, had breakfasts and began to tour around; some bundled against the chill air, some went about in shirtsleeves.  I felt comfortable in my charcoal suit with a starched white shirt and gray tie with black stripes.

The juggler wore seersucker slacks and a loud purple shirt. 

Families, couples, and groups stopped and surveyed the clam chowder, crab salad, grilled fillets being offered.  Some bought snacks, some bought loaves of sourdough, some pondered what they would come back for later.

People stopped and watched the entertainment.  They threw money in guitar cases, hats or cardboard boxes for the ones they enjoyed.  The juggler had put out an antique cash register that was filling up with bills.

My fedora remained empty.

I did not let it stop me.   I balanced books and ledgers left and right, debit and credit, asset and liability.  I gracefully cascaded numbers from the gross receipts to the bottom line.  No one looked. 

Everyone is drawn to the juggler because juggling books is illusion and fantasy.  The juggler took 10 liabilities and 1 asset and made them appear to balance.  He produced impossibly large and heavy bottom lines that were unsupported by sub ledgers.

People applauded and filled the juggler’s till.  It went on like that the whole first week.  On the third day, when I showed up at dawn with my folding table, chair, calculator and fedora, the Chinese man walked over once more.

“Why do you stay?  You don’t get money.”

I took a string of numbers and fashioned a pair of loopholes, trapping my index fingers as in Chinese handcuffs.  “Karma brings equity,” I said.

Saturday and Sunday were busier and the people covered the wharf.  There was such a crowd watching the juggler that some people were forced to the margin and could see only my ordinary street accounting. 

I amortized a loan and made balloon payment animals.  A child begged her mother to give me a dollar and the women did with a scowl as she edged toward the juggler.  The child’s eyes glowed; her mother’s were vacant.  The juggler made some debts seem to disappear.

On Monday the police came; they cuffed and arrested the juggler for fraud.  They asked if I would make a statement and I produced a quarterly report. 

The Chinese man came over and shouted to the tourists, “This is a true street accountant.”  A woman looked over and then brought me her checkbook.  I balanced it effortlessly.  Her face shone as she settled a dollar in my fedora.  More tourists followed. 

There was equity.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wah-Fy Connections

If I had a list of things I thought would surely never happen but then they do, I could cross a one big one off today:

#47: Sit on a bench outside a motel in Yellow Springs, Ohio, use my computer to call my office in
         Beijing, China and interview a woman for an accounting job – CHECK.  DONE.

I had wanted to interview this woman from my office in Cincinnati, Ohio last week, before I went on vacation.  Sitting in a multi-story office building in a large city such as Cincinnati, makes more sense for Skyping across the globe with our subsidiary in China.  Cincinnati is a city that exists in the 21st century.  Yellow Springs is a semi-rural area straddling US Route 68.  I feared that my vacation here in YS would put me too far outside the reach of the world wide web, seeing as the village also straddles the 1950s and 1960s.

 Also, I admit that I just wanted to concentrate on the writers’ conference I am attending and not have work obligations.  The problem was that our HR person in Beijing got sick and so I had to arrange the interview for this week.  Beijing’s time zone is 12 hours ahead of Ohio’s, so the best arrangement was to make the meeting for 9 a.m.  in Beijing, which is 9 p.m. here.

A futher complication is that I am staying in the Red Roof Inn in Springfield, Ohio, a bustling metropolis north of Yellow Springs that has at least two more traffic signals than YS and twice as many gas stations (two in total). 

Just past the check in desk, this Red Roof Inn has an indoor pool, filled most afternoons with a gaggle of children playing Marco Polo. Directly across from the pool is the elevator, into which the wet children troop when their parents bring back dinner. The lobby air is a pungent mix of chlorine and damp, moldy carpet. Each time you enter the elevator, it reeks of the signature scent of whichever fast food the parents just got from the drive thru cluster at the corner. Exiting the elevator you inhale the residual cigarette stench of previous visitors; but your smoke free room has been washed clean by Fabreeze. The view from the window is a dead lawn burned by the Ohio heat wave and beyond that a road and then the Comfort Inn where all the Red Roof residents wished they had stayed.

What I’m saying is that this is not a high end place.  And their wifi connection is less reliable than the non-smoking policy.  I know, these are First World problems and I shouldn’t complain.  I’m just explaining why staying in this particular 2 star joint was an obstacle to my interview plans.  I could not even get to my Facebook account to find out what my friends were eating, so Skype was definitely not going to work.

I was explaining my internet interview dilemma to Mary Thomas, one of the board members who run the conference and a long-time friend of mine.  I said, “Really, what I’d like to do is go back to my room and just have the internet connection fail and then we’dhave to postpone the interview.”

Mary Thomas cocked her head and said, “Well, our motel has quality wah-fy, so you can come on over to mah room and make your call.” It is only Mary Tom’s charming Kentucky accent that made that sound like a slutty come-on.  She cocked her head, not to be seductive but because, at 5 feet tall, she needs to get a better angle to see MY head, a foot and a half above hers.

The Yellow Springs motel is a very quaint little roadside motel with only 12 rooms in a line at the back of the parking lot, right on US route 68.  Mary Thomas took me to her room and said, “Would you like a cold drink?  Maybe a gin and tonic?”  I think she knows me too well.
She grabbed some Cheezits to provide sustenance and said, “Let’s go sit in the gazebo until it’s time for your call.” 

“You’re a wonderful hostess, I said,”

“”Well, it’s not much.  As my sister says, she’s the one who puts the ‘ho’ in ‘hostess’.”

Again, this was all just southern hospitality. There was no flirtation going on; nobody bothers to flirt with me.  Besides, Mary Thomas is good friends with my wife (as I am also) and MT’s daughter was right in the next room. 

Nevertheless, to avoid any appearance of impropriety between a conference student and a board member, when the time came to call, I sat outside, alone on a bench, logged into  Yellow Springs Motel’s very reliable wah-fy and brought them into the 21st century.