My sister Sandy and I cleared out my father’s dresser drawer of knick-knacks after his funeral. Some things we set aside for the whole family to go through later and decide who gets what: his wedding ring, personal notebooks, pocket tools, photographs. Some things we threw away: free sewing kits he would never have dreamed of using, perished rubber bands, cheap giveaway key rings. We agreed between us that Sandy’s son, as the only smoker in the family, could inherit the collection of cigars and matchboxes. And I was clearly the logical recipient of this, my own letter to Santa from the mid-70s.
It’s written on the back of a mimeographed PTA circular from 1973, which would fit with when our old dog died. However, that would make me 6, and it’s hard to believe even I was reading Little Women and competently using colons at that age. (Little Women was crossed out because Mom pointed out to me that we already owned a copy). I can’t remember actually receiving a single thing on this list, so it makes it hard to date more precisely: it could have been anything up to a few years later.
Clearly Dad was tickled by the small details: the guess at a precise mailing address on the envelope, the attempt to sneak in a puppy at the end of the list. He himself loved dogs and would have been an advocate for this gift, but he acknowledged that Mom had a right of veto as the actual picker-up of poop.
Sandy and I laughed until we cried at grade-school me, and then I cried a bit more at the thought of him keeping my letter in his dresser for 40 years. To him I think I always remained that droll, precocious child. I miss him and her. And I still want that puppy dog.
American patriot, master of the atom, scourge of the despot. Such was the self-written epitaph of Charles Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons, but it’s not a bad fit to my father. Edgar Alexander McLean was a nuclear physicist, a veteran of WWII, and a tireless campaigner for the local community. But I think he identified most closely with Homer Simpson, an ordinary Dad just trying to get through his days without screwing things up too badly. He could generally be brought to see the funny side of life, and I have fond childhood memories of laughing with him until we could both hardly breathe over episodes of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and more recently The Simpsons. I owe him my sense of humour, along with so many other things.
A weekend of odd symmetries…yesterday in an arboretum in the New Forest, I had just sidled up to Darren on a wooden bench when we heard an angry disembodied voice shouting, “Hello? Hello, can you hear me?” At first I thought we were being told off for a PDA, like on the city walls of York in the early days of our relationship. But after that initial guilty start I realized it must be a walkie-talkie. Sure enough I found one half-buried in leaves on the ground and manged to communicate with the grumpy owner of its twin, who demanded we bring it to him at the entrance. It was a bit annoying to cut short our visit for such a surly request, but in the interests of karma we did unto others.
Today the weather turned brutal. Despite winds of gale force 9, we walked 2 miles along an exposed shingle spit to visit Hurst Castle, and 2 miles back. Part of the fun was laughing at what an absurdly unpleasant experience it was. Arriving back in the hotel room, I realized I had dropped my phone somewhere along the way. So we walked about 2/3 of the way back to the castle, and then home again, combing the pebbles for a plastic item the same shade of blue as a bottled water cap, of which there were many. The phone’s battery had been nearly dead, so after a couple times trying to ring it and being told the number was unavailable, we gave up. But back in the hotel we rang the castle and heard that someone had found it and turned it in. I couldn’t face the 4-mile round trip walk again, so I took the boat to the castle, soaking up quite a few facefuls of spray washing over the prow. The boatman very kindly didn’t charge me, even though I was the only passenger going out. But I gave him nearly the full fare as a tip anyway – knowing me, it won’t be long until I need some more good karma.
My latest poem to be published is a modest effort in a forgotten form: a ‘Little Willie’. These are usually 4-8 rhymed lines about children meeting gruesome ends, and they were popular around the turn of the 20th century. What’s not to like?
My sister Susan told me that there would be a feature on them in Light, the top online journal for funny poetry, so I sent a few off and one made the cut. I was especially tickled to find among the other handful of poets in the feature one XJ Kennedy, a leading authority on poetry in general and funny poetry in particular. So my most trivial of poems so far appears in the most august surroundings.
Susan has 2 poems in the feature also. Does it say something about our family that we both enjoy writing about sibling murder?
My last blog ended with me swearing off female friendship at the age of 12. Of course it wasn’t like that. I did try from time to time – such as in the group dance exercise in gym class.
When I was 12, this had been a hoot. We were allowed to choose our own song, and Lori and I and the rest of our gang choreographed an absurd routine to “In the Navy”, by the Village People. When I was 13, we were all assigned the song “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang, which was less fun, but I was at least put in a group of nice, normal, fairly-clever girls. They were all friends with each other from a different elementary school to mine, but I was on the fringe of being accepted by them. We were all invited over to Becky’s house after school one day to work on our choreography.
It was my undoing. Becky had an attractive older brother; another girl in the group had a crush on him; he was very clearly interested in me. I spent an exhilarating afternoon playing blind man’s bluff and giggling and flirting and was never invited back.
I was discovering around this time how much easier to talk to boys were than girls. Boys didn’t drone on about clothes and makeup. Boys didn’t require subtle compliments. Boys laughed at my jokes. Boys didn’t form clubs I wasn’t allowed to join.
Not until the workplace did I discover how wrong I was on this last point.
So my 2 closest childhood friendships both tailed off when I was about 10. What next? I don’t remember the chain of events very clearly, but I spent some time around then unsuccessfully trying to re-integrate into the clique of sporty normal girls I had hung out with before Phadette. We got along OK on scout outings and so on, but we were never really on the same wavelength. I also spent some time with a new girl, Joy, before she dropped me for the Normals, managing better than I had to assimilate. I seem to remember there was an actual recess club formed which I was blackballed from joining.
The gang where I ended up instead centred around Lori, a fanatic fan of the rock band Kiss. She assigned us each a persona from the band. She was the lead singer of course (Paul Stanley), and I ended up the drummer who wore makeup like a cat (Peter Criss). I had zero interest in their music, but I liked Lori’s cool outsider vibe so went along with her fan girldom. We made an animated music video of little blob creatures wearing the character makeup, which lasted about 10 seconds because we didn’t fully understand the frames per second requirement of animation.
And we wrote silly parodies of their songs. I can’t remember how this started, but it presumably grew out of my book of doggerel written that year, for which Lori drew some of the illustrations. All I can remember now is a few titles: “Detroit, Rock City” became “Pompeii, Rock City”; “I Stole Your Love” became “I Stole Your Fries” after a McDonald’s ad of the time. I think eventually a big stack of these song lyrics was sent to the band, but if Lori ever received a reply, I don’t remember what it said.
The friendship with Lori ended badly. In our first year of junior high, we didn’t have any classes in common. I made a few friends — one quite good friend sitting next to me in several classes due to alphabetic proximity of our surnames. We would pass notes and giggle and have a great time. Then I introduced them, we became a close-knit group of friends, and some months later they turned on me and pushed me out. It soured me on relationships with girls, and I never had another close female friend until college. I preferred the company of boys and dogs. More on that later, perhaps.
It’s easy to blame one’s parents for teaching emotional distance, but my early friendships all taught me that there were parts of my friends’ lives where I was unwelcome. At least the first two could be put down to differences in age and race.
So my best friend in the neighbourhood ignored me at school, and I had to fend for myself. But kids of 5 or 6 are pretty friendly and I wasn’t usually short of people to hang out with at recess. Then around the time I turned 7 I formed quite a close friendship confined to the school premises, to mirror my relationship with Conne at home.
Her name was Phadette, nicknamed Fredi, and she was an African-American girl from the nearby apartment block. She was loud, rude, and very funny, the perfect antidote to my Victorian home life, and she in turn seemed to find me funny and interesting. We spent countless hours playing hopscotch and charades and talking about movies and TV. I think she copied me in some ways, taking up the flute when I did, joining the Girl Scouts, probably picking up some of my droll prematurely-old mannerisms.
Her mother detested me. On the one occasion I met her, at some sort of parents’ evening, she towered over me in a kaftan and turban emanating disapproval of me in my big house in my whites-only suburban housing estate. She never allowed Fredi to come to my parties, except for once when my mother was leader of the Girl Scouts and we hosted the annual troop party. And I was banned from her home as surely as she was banned from my whites-only recreation club, and as surely as I was banned from Conne’s presence at school.
I don’t remember that we ever discussed race – at the beginning we probably didn’t fully understand ourselves what forces were at work in our different lives. But in the end it pulled us apart with a weary inevitability. Fredi started spending more time at recess with the other Black girls from her apartment block and those bussed in from even scarier areas on the other side of the Beltway. I tried to hang with them for a while, watching while they practiced cheerleading moves, but I didn’t understand much of their conversation and couldn’t join in, and they didn’t like me much, so in the end I had to drift away. Coincidentally this was also about the time Conne moved away, so I lost both friends at once.
I did still see Fredi from time to time. She went to the same junior high as me at first. I remember making David’s jaw drop by telling him off for saying mean things about her. But we were never in the same classes, and after a while she left to attend the performing arts school in DC, Duke Ellington. I found her on Facebook just now (it’s an unusual name), but should I get in touch? What is there to say? I’m half afraid of learning there were more reasons than I remember for her mother’s dislike of me.