XV. The Masks We Wear

All this talk of costumes, Halloween and the paths we take, brings me back to my earliest memories. I’m sure I have the timing wrong and the details are fuzzy now but there’s no one to ask, no one to set me straight; my mother’s memory has been gone for years now.

I was one of six children, in that naturally Catholic way, but we didn’t really have a large family. My father lost his mother when he was sixteen and his father, the year before I was born. He had no siblings and referred to himself as an orphan. My mother had just one brother and my precious grandmother, a story in her own right. Her father had been gone for years. Mentally ill, he and my grandmother lived separate lives, in that naturally Catholic way, without getting divorced. They lived in separate cities for over twenty years until my father pointed out the fact that if she died, her husband would inherit her property. The church be damned, she was divorced lickety-split. While growing up my family included grandma, my aunt and uncle and my three cousins; a tiny family by Italian Catholic standards. It was my grandma and my aunt that taught me the needle arts.

With my aunt I learned needlepoint, crewel and embroidery. Gift giving occasions were marked by wonderful needlework kits that became wall hangings and pillows around our home. My grandmother taught me the proper way to hold a crochet hook and count stitches on a circular knitting needle. I was gifted her leftover balls of wool and angora to make mittens and potholder squares. She always had an afghan in process on her lap that I would examine each time I visited and remark on her progress. Imagine my surprise when I opened my eighteenth birthday present to find my own ivory, brown and rust crocheted throw ready to make the trip to my dorm room that fall. She had managed to hide its construction for months before.

Earliest memory of sewing I am about seven years old watching my mother sew a blue and white damask Martha Washington costume for my sister. She didn’t have a great love of sewing, she learned because it was expected as part of her training to be a good housewife. Apparently the sewing gene can skip generations. My grandmother came from a long line of professional tailors on her father's side. Most of her family sewed expertly, my mother learned but never really enjoyed it.

My father's great grandfather owned a factory that made school uniforms in Leeds, England. As I researched our ancestry, census after census showed professions associated with sewing on both sides of my dad's family. Clearly, I had inherited something because I was fascinated by the process. I loved the feel of the fabrics and the hum of my mom's Phaff sewing machine. It seemed magical to me. Back in those days sewing patterns often came with pieces in the edges of the marker for doll clothes. In an attempt to keep me from underfoot, she gave me that pattern and enough scraps to start me sewing. A passion ensued.

I lived in the same house from my fifth birthday until the week I left for college. All that time I had a best friend living right next door; she was my sewing partner, so to speak. Together we learned to thread a needle and make Barbie outfits by hand. We scrounged scraps from our family sewing baskets and turned rags into doll clothes and costumes. What we couldn’t teach ourselves and my mother was too busy to teach, we learned by riding bikes to the Clearfield Library and checking out books. On lucky days I had the joy of spending an afternoon at my grandmother’s being taught the rudiments of how to work the machine.

Eventually we took classes and saved our nickels to buy yards of cotton seersucker and bits of rick-rack to make summer tops. By the time we reached home economics class in middle school, we were already quite accomplished. By high school we could stitch a lined navy blue blazer with a sailor collar and soutache trim. It only followed that she would go to the Fashion Institute of Technology for a degree in design and I would go to Nazareth College for a degree in business management. That would be the first big hiccup in my life plan.

My father pretty much chose my major. I believe the conversation went something like: “I’m paying for it; do as I say.” Needless to say I hated it. I loved English and History classes and anything in the arts. Everything else bored me. I relieved that boredom by spending my every free minute in the costume department sewing everything and anything for a crazy Head Costumer while eating mint Milano cookies and wearing a blue net hairpiece from the nineteen forties. My parents thought the lousy grades were a result of too much beer and sex, in reality it was the theater costume department.

I met the Costumer my first week at school. There had been a sign posted in the student union looking for volunteers, sewing experience welcome but not necessary. I went over to the workshop one afternoon and asked if they had anything for me to do. She was making witch costumes for a play I’ve long since forgotten, and was wrestling with a huge bolt of black taffeta. She asked if I could cut out a pattern if she laid it out, she was extremely busy and needed all the help she could find. She handed me the actress’s body measurement sheet and a simple pattern for a gathered full length skirt with a set in waistband and a back zipper. Childs play. Little over an hour later when she came to check on me I was ironing the finished skirt and getting ready to pin the hem. Needless to say, she was surprised and delighted. She threw her arms around me and sang, “I am so in love with you; don’t ever leave me.” I didn’t leave her for the two years I was there. I was in the costume department my every free minute; much to the detriment of my school work.

Anyone who knows me now will shake their heads in disbelief when I tell you I was quite shy back then. I didn’t have the courage to stand up to my father and change my major. I had such insecurities about my abilities that I mutely followed the path I was pushed down, no matter how disastrous that would turn out to be, rather than forge ahead on my own. I’m reminded of that every year on October 31st when the worlds of textile and make believe collide and I am afforded one more chance to sew something wonderful for my little girl to masquerade in. I imagine I'll be doing it for quite some time since She refused to learn how to sew; apparently She doesn't have the sewing gene.

I’ve been told, and rightly so, that I have spoiled Her. I have been too easy, I have paid too many of Her bills, I have given Her too many opportunities that She has squandered away. I do it because I want Her to have every chance to find Her calling; to not be stuck in the wrong life. This year, more so than ever, I am cognizant of what’s gone wrong in both our lives and am determined to set things right.

The night of Her accident when I found out about the Girl I was shocked. It seemed so odd to me that we could be so close, yet this huge piece of who She was had been hidden from me. The Husband hadn’t heard, he had left the room; a good thing because he would not have been supportive. There would be blaming and accusations and derogatory comments. None of which I cared to hear. I stood in stunned silence looking at my broken, bruised baby with her clothes cut off and the cervical collar forcing Her head back at an odd angle. I needed a minute to digest the words She had spoken, God granted me a time out in the form of an orderly, come to wheel Her down for an MRI. I was left alone to my thoughts when my phone buzzed. It was The Boy. He had been my support all night, texting me to keep me sane on the long drive to the hospital and answering my frantic texts with just the right words. He was a master at reading me and saying exactly what I needed to hear. I text him: “She has a girlfriend.” His instant answer: “Who cares, Baby, as long as She is happy?” Indeed.

XIV. The Notion Of The North

After spending two weeks rearranging the twenty six letters of the alphabet into meaningless ramblings, I've realized it's not time for me to write about Cincinnati; at least not yet. I'll head North in a different direction.

A week before She kissed The Boy, the two of us traveled to where our union began: Buffalo, New York. We spent the better part of two months planning our trip to the homeland. The travel arrangements were a nightmare, airplane versus automobile being the major issue. She chose airplane. I chose automobile. When given the option to carpool with the Aunts, I weighed the pros and cons. On one hand I wouldn't have to drive or pay for gas and I could spend time with them. On the other hand, I would be confined to a mini van with five children and the thought absolutely terrified me. If I had to listen to two twelve year old boys debating the merits of Family Guy and South Park for several hours, surely I'd throw myself from the moving vehicle and become yet another inconvenient bit of mess for the highway patrol. Verdict: it would be a solo drive.

When the day arrived, I started out excited and early enough, armed with my music and cell phone. Four hours later I was barely out of Washington, DC; I'd hit stopped traffic at every turn and, of course, rain! Glorious. After much cursing and several phone calls to Her it was decided I'd spend the night in Pennsylvania and drive the second leg in the morning. As soon as the sun began its descent I snatched up a hotel room. I could barely sleep because of the anticipation.

The second leg was effortless. Beautiful weather. No traffic. The scenic countryside, rustic barns and windmills reminded me of my love for road trips. The moment I crossed over the New York state line, I cheered at the top of my lungs and clapped just once before planting my hands back on the wheel. I was ecstatic, at the same time, when I entered the Buffalo city limits, nostalgia washed over me. It had been over a decade since I'd been to the city where I, as well as my entire family, came from and the previous visit had been a somber one. It was the last time I saw my Great Uncle before he passed, the last time I communicated with any of my Father's family; but the most tragic of it all, it was the last time I saw my Father. But that's another story for another day.

This visit would be a joyous one. My Great Aunt's 80th birthday, not that she looks a day over 60! Her children had planned a tremendous party to celebrate and we had all assembled from the corners of the globe. She knew my Aunts were coming but My Uncle, myself and She were a "surprise" gift. I was shocked not even the young cousins let the secret out of the bag. The moment she saw us, she held out her arms, clung to us and started weeping. It was difficult to keep my composure. That entire day was full of hugs, smiles, laughter and catching up with family we hadn't seen in years. Being around my Great Aunt and seeing her interact with her grandchildren made me miss my Grandparents even more. I felt blessed to have such a wonderful, loving extended family and wished that I could be closer to them all.

Unfortunately, we only spent a few days in Buffalo. She didn't want a stressful, rushed agenda with sight-seeing, nor did I. Our days would start by having Starbucks in our beautiful hotel lobby with My Uncle from Texas. Then we'd simply drive. Saw the hospital I was born in, restaurants my Grandparents frequented, Delaware Park and the Buffalo Zoo. We found our old neighborhood and casually parked outside our first home, knowing we looked like stalkers and didn't care.

Oh and there was food, lot's of it. Roast beef on salty kimmelweck rolls, pizza from Santora's, Canadian beer on tap. Salen hot dogs with sauerkraut and mustard from Ted's. Friday night fish fry at the old Pine Lodge. And lastly, real Buffalo Wings. I am certain I had wings every day I was there. She fell head first off the vegan bandwagon the day we got there.

Even though I had no memories of the places she showed me I felt as if I was channeling my Father the whole time. It had only been five years since I lost him and just knowing that he had been on the same streets not too long ago, somehow helped with my grief. Our last stalker drive was my favorite. It was the morning of Her flight home. We visited the house She grew up in. Aside from the trees doubling in size and the removal of a swimming pool, according to Her it was all exactly the same. Age hadn't changed the neighborhood a bit. It astounded me.

Lastly, we visited the only place in all of Buffalo that I had real memories of: my Great Grandmother's house, my Nana. It was perfect. I eyed the small little cottage with its detached single car garage and fenced in back yard. In my memory it was still blue, the basement still smelled of bananas and freshly laundered linens, and my Nana was still alive sitting in her kitchen, legs crossed, hands in her lap, smiling. How I wished I remembered Nana's Christmas Eve feast in that house, listening to the family stories told while they had their after dinner coffee and played cards. How I wished I had seen the fish swimming around in the bucket.

After She left I spent the day with my Uncle. It was the first time we had spent any time together without the rest of our family busily chattering around us, I couldn't help but be amused by my Uncle chain-smoking and cursing between inhales and exhales at the plethora of car dealerships along the route. We had day tripped to Rochester to spend time with my cousin and his young family and celebrate his birthday. Then it was on to Niagara Falls because even though I'd driven past it numerous times in my childhood, I didn't remember seeing it. Beautiful is an understatement. The real draw, of course, being the casinos! The Casino: even more beautiful especially because I won $300! I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with him and thanked him for making me richer.

The next day I left Buffalo before the world and the sun had risen. I reached the Pennsylvania border by dawn and pulled into the welcome center. It was desolate. Silent. At sunrise I stood outside the car, sipping my morning coffee, and breathed in the cool air. I was only an hour and a half away and already I longed to go back. I ached for my family to be whole again, my Grandparent's to be healthy, my father to be alive and free from addiction, and to be a part of the history and memories of Buffalo that I was too young to experience or remember.

A long drive gives you a lot of time to think. I was still stuck on Her couch and I needed to get off it. It was time for me to start making my own history, whatever that may be. ~Braticas


XIII. Song of the South

Unlike Her, my circle of friends had closed. It had been such a gradual process over the years that I hadn’t even felt the loss. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention.

When I married my husband I thought him a very social person. He was embraced by the fold of his Southern Baptist heritage and had a church family with a busy social calendar. We attended pot luck’s and Wednesday night dinners, catfish fry’s, barbeque picnics and fireworks displays, always surrounded by plenty of smiling faces. I was the new girl in town; the divorced Catholic Yankee come to turn the head of their Rebel son. I was warmly welcomed for the most part, even if they did occasionally insist on trying to save me. Word had not reached South Georgia that Catholicism was, in fact, a Christian religion. I managed to stay out of their pond and firmly in the Baptismal fount of my infancy while making friends along the way.

We also had a circle of friends from work that had a not-so-heavy social calendar but a ready supply of alcohol and fun evenings around a crackling bonfire. Both groups encouraged our union, as unlikely as it was. On a late September morning , when asked how our date had gone the evening before, that Rebel son threw me over his arm and kissed me soundly in front of a hundred employees on the sewing room floor where we worked, to wild screams and applause. We were married in early December.

I attended a miniscule Catholic church with a priest we shared with two other counties. Yes, counties. St. Williams gave me a family outside of the Baptist house I was living in. There was a dear nurse from Ireland with a brood of freckled children and a ready cup of coffee, another from England that shared my maiden name and families from the North and the Midwest that didn’t think I had an accent. It was a refuge of sorts for me and the place through which we found Nicole.

I didn’t notice when family events replaced those friends, and I can’t say I minded, but those happy dating days were gone. My friends from school had scattered to the corners of the world and I heard from them less and less. The eclectic group of Lebanese, Polish and French Canadian friends from New Hampshire seemed a million miles from South Georgia. I missed the ethnicity of the food and the varied cultures, all foreign to the part of the world I had married into. I missed the connection to people who had known me when.

What I hadn’t realized was that The Husband not only didn’t miss the friends, he didn’t want them and would spend years sabotaging any friendship I made. It wasn’t until seventeen years later that he would articulate to me, during a flood of tears, that he was a loner. He wanted nothing more than for our world to include only the two of us. It would have been fine if we had been the kind of inseparable couple that shared their every like and dislike. We did not.

I recall my parish priest telling us during pre-marriage counseling to embrace our differences, to share our religions. In retrospect, this is the kind of advice only a man who’s never married could give out with a straight face. My husband was a redneck blue collar Southern Baptist Democrat raised in a town with a high school that still had two proms; one black, one white. It still had two proms when we left in the spring of 2000. I was a red headed Catholic Yankee Republican from Buffalo, New York. We couldn’t have been more different unless I had been black. But then we would have had to attend separate proms!

When I read her story about not liking the holidays except for Halloween I knew it was more than just the absent Grandparents. The cultural clash that was our marriage had destroyed both Thanksgiving and Christmas for her and me. I don’t know that she’s consciously aware of that, but I read it in her face at the time.

I was taught to cook by my Italian mother and grandmother, with a little help from Julia Child. I was quite accomplished, mainly because I was good at following a recipe. When I moved to Georgia the food was markedly different and I had to learn how to cook southern style. Our first Thanksgiving I knew I would have to make two dressings; a cornbread dressing with chicken, celery and onion baked in a Pyrex alongside the bird and my mother’s recipe of day old bread with sausage and white raisin stuffed inside the seasoned cavity. I would cook the sweet potatoes in a casserole with marshmallows, rather than halved and glazed with butter and brown sugar. What I didn’t know was that they didn’t eat winter squash in South Georgia and that if the cranberry relish didn’t come out of a can, they would consider it inedible. I found those two things out when I sat down at the table and saw the faces of my guests contorted and grimacing. A lively, unfriendly conversation ensued about the tartness of my cranberry Grand Marnier sauce. My only champion: my eight year old daughter.

In our family we celebrated Christmas Eve Italian style, with the feast of seven fishes. Onion pie with anchovies and chilled shrimp cocktail as appetizer, then shrimp again floured and lightly fried along with smelts; purchased live and swimming around a bucket in my grandmother's basement. Next came breaded oysters, stuffed calamari, eel and finally spaghetti topped with octopus in red sauce. We had that every year of my life until Uncle Dominic died and we didn’t have to have the eel any more. I knew I wouldn’t be making that for my hostile thanksgiving crowd, instead we bowed to their Christmas Eve traditions and I planned dinner for Christmas Day, Prime Rib and Yorkshire Pudding. Who wouldn’t like that?

As I mentioned earlier, we had one priest for three counties so there was only one mass said a week. We alternated times between the parishes. That year Christmas mass would be celebrated on Christmas Eve at five o’clock. My husband’s extended family had gathered at his mother’s house with armloads of gifts and covered dishes. I was told dinner was at six o’clock, which would give me enough time to get to church and back without missing the festivities.

An hour or so later we walked hand in hand into my mother in laws house to a sea of torn gift wrap, dirty dishes and bodies sprawled out in front of the television. They had eaten dinner and unwrapped gifts without us. I was angry, then angrier still when I saw the crestfallen look on Her face. As bad as that was, one of her new step cousins began to show her the gifts Santa had brought. In my family we only opened gifts on Christmas morning but they opened all of their gifts Christmas Eve. Any illusion of Santa and Christmas magic my sweet eight year old held onto was soundly shattered. I remember her tucking herself under my arm and burying her face in my bosom. I knew her well enough to know she was choking back tears.

That’s what really happened to the holidays for Her. After that year we made the six hour trek to my parents whenever we could and she rebuilt her memories of holidays around those beautiful times. Until Diabetes and Alzheimer’s snatched that away too, way before it was time.

I was arrogant enough back then to think I could make this marriage work. So what if I didn’t have any friends? So what if I would never fit in in the South? So what if we couldn’t agree on anything? I loved my husband. I loved his family. I could make this work. Looking back, a network of friends might have helped along the way. If I’d had a best friend to confide in the day I fell in love with The Boy, someone who knew me and my life, maybe I wouldn’t have lost him and everything else.

The Boy:
Italian Catholic Yankee Republican. Only one prom.
Perfect for me. ~DazzledGirl


XII. Kiss Me Goodbye, I'm Defying Gravity

My circle of friends includes four major players; only once have the five of us been in the same room together. They are all my closest friends but not necessarily each others. An unlikely union took place during my highly anticipated and very successful fancy dress party this past December, just a week before the car accident. Everyone came dressed to kill and ready to have a good time. Guests spread through my two story house in little huddled groups. I'd spent the evening bouncing between these groups, trying to be a good hostess and making sure everyone was enjoying themselves, refilling drinks when needed.

I was stationed in my room with a few others when I heard The Baker running up the stairs in her stilettos yelling out my name. A male voice accompanied her, but I didn't quite recognize it. She burst into my room enthusiastically, stepped aside, and showed off the man behind her Vanna White style. I looked up and screamed. Standing before me was The Philadelphian in a three piece suit. He drove down specifically for the event as a surprise. I pulled him to me, squealing and screaming, "Oh My God!" at least ten times. He just laughed. I was in tears. It had been at least two years since I'd seen him. The other guests in my room sat awkwardly and watched this emotional reunion unfold not knowing who he was. At the time I didn't realize the magnitude of this situation. The Baker and The Philadelphian were in my room while the two other important players in my social circle were mere feet away. The Feminist was in the living room; The Artist was on the back deck. The most influential people in my life were making history by being in the same place at once and not a single one of us realized. Not a single picture was taken.

I've known The Artist for six years, The Baker and The Philadelphian for eight, and come August it'll be ten years with The Feminist. I met her at the bus stop on the first day of school after I moved to Richmond. We bonded over angry girl rock and decoupage. Ten years later and she still joke about my love for snakeskin during my sophomore year; I will never live that fashion choice down. That's what friends are for; to remind you of who you've been and where you want to be. I share most of my embarrassing or funny high school memories with The Feminist. Emotionally, she understands me. I can cry on the phone to her after a bad breakup and she gets it, more so than the others. She understands why you would use your ex's body wash so you can have their scent with you through the day. The other's would think it's crazy.

For Christmas this year, she was gifted tickets to see the production Wicked. It graced Richmond's Landmark Theater last month. Since I share the love of elaborate costumes and show tunes, I was chosen to be her date. Lucky me. I was just as ecstatic as she was about the event, even though I barely knew what it was! Waiting three months for the show seemed unbearably long and impossible. But as my life at home and my situation with The Girl began to crumble, the stress, arguments, tears, and loosing my apartment pushed Wicked to the back of my mind. One day I glanced at the calendar and saw it was a mere three days away. The wait was finally coming to an end, but hesitation was creeping in. I feared the emotional strain in my life would prevent me from enjoying the experience.

When the day arrived, I slipped on a classic black cocktail dress with my red patent leather pointed toe flats. The shoes paid homage; it's about Oz, how I could resist? The Feminist and I climbed the hundred steps to our first row balcony seats. As soon as I laid eyes on the stage I was overcome with excitement. We twitched in our seats, chatted excitedly, and counted down the minutes. The lights dimmed. The crowd silenced. I saw those wild monkeys crawl onto the stage and I squealed in delight. (Very quietly of course.) Every costume change I'd lean over and whisper, "Oh my god, I love that one! And that one! I'd wear ALL of these dresses!" I fancy costumes. I get that from Her.

Although it lacked the talents of Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, the overall show was still spellbinding and fantastic. Wicked moved me to tears three times. In those few hours, I was captivated by the story of unlikely friendship and hypnotized by the gorgeous production. The incessant pain, self doubt, and frustration that had been consuming me disappeared for a short time. I was thankful for that. I smiled a genuine smile for the first time since The Girl broke me; something I had to fake daily to make people think I was fine. Wicked was a gift of healing from The Feminist.

Seeing Wicked made me remember how much I loved the theater. It reinforced how I need to change the path I’m on to live the type of life I want. It reminded me how lucky I am to have four very special friends that fill the crevices of my life. It might be ten years until we're all in the same room again but when that day comes, I'll be sure to take Polaroids. ~Braticas