My Brown Barbie

I stood in the Barbie aisle beside my mother in Kmart with a crumpled green ten-dollar bill secured in my grasp. Choosing a doll from the hundred pieces of plastic perfection posed between cellophane and cardboard with my own hard-earned money at ten wasn’t easy. I imagined buying all of them and how I’d play with each. There was blonde Peaches and Cream Barbie – a doll with a cream-colored gown who smelled like dessert, an Island Fun Ken doll with a Hawaiian swimsuit and a pink and orange lay, and Rollerblade Kira. She had long, dark hair like mine and yellow roller blades that sparked when they moved across the ground. I had seen commercials for each.

“Which one do you want?” Mom asked.

“That one,” I said, deciding. I pointed to Kira. “She’s pretty.” I liked her turquoise top and biker shorts, and her neon yellow knee pads. Her skin resembled Mom’s in the summer after she tanned, golden-brown. When I grabbed her from the shelf, the plastic crinkled beneath my pale fingers. I imagined what it would be like to push her along on the kitchen floor and watch her roller blades ignite.

“That’s a great choice.” She smiled. I interlocked my fingers with hers, and we walked to the cashier with the doll pinned between my side and my arm. She was my new favorite, different from any doll I had at home. Special.

In line, an elderly white lady smirked at me from behind her bifocals. I could smell the mothballs on her stuffy pink polyester pants. “Hmf,” she said as she curled the left side of her lip and crossed her arms over her flowered smock.

I clung to Mom’s legs and hid behind them. I didn’t like strangers, especially smelly old ladies with nasty looks on their faces.

Mom tightened her grip on my hand and encouraged me to ignore her. When it was our turn, I placed my doll in the middle of the conveyor belt with my wad of money on top and looked away from the lady behind us.

“Shouldn’t she buy a white doll?” the lady demanded.

“That’s a silly question, isn’t it?” Mom said, her voice sweet like syrup. She batted her eyelashes and gave the old lady a phony smile with too many teeth showing.

The lady huffed and rolled her eyes.

The cashier handed me my new doll in a grocery bag and put the change in my palm.

Mom nudged me towards the exit. Outside she said, “Remember –  don’t let people like that influence you, Danielle. Be smarter.”

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Sunshine – for all the mommas out there

I couldn’t tell you my age but I know I was young: a toddler in Mom’s arms. She sat with me in our shared bedroom at my grandmother’s house and rocked me in the old wooden chair while singing nearly in a whisper.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …”

It was probably after she left my father. She packed a few of our things in a suitcase and we returned to my grandparents. She tried so hard to shield me from feeling broke and broken.

It must’ve been cloudy outside, because of the soft dewy light that hung in the air like mist before a rainstorm. I now know that there is an empty field outside of that window where neighbors parked their cars, a place where I searched for lucky four-leaf clovers as a six-year-old. But on this particular day my world was so small and focused. I only saw Mom surrounded by the light reflecting from dark clouds.

“You make me happy when skies are grey …”

Her voice was like a blanket warmed on the line. There were tears in her eyes over having to be both mother and father. Maybe she didn’t want to move back home with my grandpa and grandma. Maybe she didn’t want to give up on her marriage or admit to being wrong about the man she loved. She had to do what was best for us.

“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you …”

Mom had the softest touch. She tucked loose hairs behind my ears as she sang the words. Just the first verse, because it was her favorite part. Or maybe that was all she knew by heart. I can’t remember anymore.

There are other memories from Grandmother’s house: the claw-foot tub, the hutch with all the Avon bottles, Grandma cooking stuffed cabbage in the kitchen and the smell of onions and ground beef sifting through the house. None are like the memory of Mom rocking me. The biggest lessons come in the smallest moments.

My life is quite different from Mom’s. Justin, my husband, and I are best friends. And we don’t have financial problems like Mom did. But that isn’t to say we don’t ever deal with stressful situations. Right now we are in a transition stage: house is for sale, and another is under contract. We aren’t sure exactly what the future holds, but I know staying strong for my daughters is most important.

“Please don’t take my sunshines away.”

Living in Bushwick

I loved New York. The screeching subways, the sidewalk Mariachi band members wearing shoes made of real alligators, the shopping in SOHO, the twenty dollar drinks at the hole-in-the-wall pubs, and the high-paying jobs by Midwest standards, the good, the great, and the crazy: I loved it all, at least for the moment.

Our first place in New York was a railroad style apartment, which means one room follows the next in a very open style, long and narrow. The apartment had end-to-end original pine floors, exposed brick, twenty-foot ceilings, and it sat on a slant. Like such a bad slant that round things often rolled from one end of the kitchen to the other. The tile in the bathroom had little pink roses on it and was probably the worst feature of our apartment at first glance, other than the four kitchen cabinets we had to cram our things into.

Bushwick, where we lived, was predominantly a Hispanic area renamed East Williamsburg to gentrify it and attract more young, white people. I liked Bushwick better. East Williamsburg mocked the hipster-friendly Williamsburg, where posh restaurants shared walls with dive bars and boutique clothing stores, nestled under the famous blue Williamsburg Bridge. My neighborhood wasn’t anything like Williamsburg.

We bought our vegetables and fruits from cash-only stands on the side of the street. We walked our dog through Maria Hernandez Park where guys played handball and girls watched from outside the court, laughing and chatting. Hands slapped balls, sending them thumping into the cement wall. Back and forth, they played all day long. Sneakers squeaked. Dogs barked. Upbeat Hispanic music blared from boom boxes. 

A thin, elderly man with leathery brown skin who often perched himself on the stoop next to ours became my first New York friend. He always smelled like tequila and cigarettes. Originally from Puerto Rico, he vowed to teach me Spanish. 

“Say hola.”

“Oh-la?”

“Spanish for hello.” He nodded and pulled a Marlboro Red from his linen shirt pocket.

“Hola!”

He struck a match against the brick building and lit his cigarette, taking a long, slow drag. “Muy bien,” he said through a cloud of smoke. He reminded me of a gangster from an old movie: so cool without trying.

More often than not, he told me stories about Bushwick.

“They used to call this street Vietnam,” he said. “Garbage cans with fires in the middle of the street. Drugs. Killings. Muy mal.” 

“Moo-ey mal?” 

“Very bad.”

“I see.” I tried to imagine the streets of my new neighborhood on fire, but I couldn’t. Instead, I saw a stream of people walking by. Some on their way to work, others out shopping or on their way to the bodega: hard-working, middle-class folks trying to make it in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Dreams can come true in New York if your skin is thick enough.“Why’d you stay?” I asked. 

He shrugged and squinted his eyes toward the park. “It’s mi casa.”

Photo courtesy of Niv Rosenberg on Unsplash

Sticky Notes

I bought some sticky notes today, a lesson I learned from Mom.

***

When I was in my early twenties, she worked ten-hour shifts as a hospice nurse. Before that, she worked in the Transitional Care Unit as the Activities Director playing balloon volleyball and chair yoga with sick folks. And before that, she folded and stocked women’s clothes at a discount clothing store. Even earlier, she was the night manager at Video Connection where she got to bring home life-size cutouts of Dick Tracey and Roger Rabbit. Mom worked hard.

She also attended every home varsity basketball game so she could watch me dance, and every football game to see my sister twirl her flag. For dance competitions she made matching bows for all my teammates.

Our tiny house would have been in shambles had Mom not managed it with the precision of a surgeon. She swept the floors twice daily, folded my stepdad’s shit-stained underwear into perfect squares, hand-washed the dishes to a pristine shine, and often she yelled.

Her temper short-circuited daily. She ripped the phone cord from the wall after I dragged it into the bathroom to talk friends one too many times. She threw bills into the air, chain-smoked her menthol light one hundreds, and cried.

She cried too much, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

My mother’s mother and father had both died, so she put everything she had into us, her job, and the house on Custer Drive to keep herself busy. But she wasn’t great at delegating chores, or maybe we just refused to listen to her. I would rummage through the pantry for pretzels and Pop-Tarts, forgetting to close the cabinet and leaving a trail of crumbs that led to the couch. Jim would leave his dirty dishes on the living room end table and used undershirts balled up in the corner of the bathroom floor next to his wet towels. My sister never filled the toilet paper when she emptied it. Instead, she ’d rest the new roll on top of the old. Just writing all this stuff makes me cringe.

This lack of respect and help went on for as long as I can remember, until one otherwise normal day when I walked in from the bus stop two long blocks away, seventeen and too lazy to get my license. I tossed my backpack in the middle of the living room floor next to one of our three miniature Lhasa Apsos, and bent to rub her belly. That’s when the first note stuck to a case on top of the DVD player came into the corner of my vision. Put away after watching. “Huh?”

I stood and walked into the kitchen, at the time decorated with flying geese, Mom’s latest kitchen craze. In the midst of all the geese, yellow notes with permanent marker scribbled on them clung to everything. Throw me away after you drink me on the milk inside the fridge. Don’t leave me open on the pantry cupboard door, and don’t leave your junk here on the counter, cluttered with unpaid bills.

In the bathroom, replace me when empty above the wooden toilet paper holder and flush me on the toilet with the cracked seat.

Take things up with you on the steps, next to my pile of clean clothes. 

“My mom has lost it,” I whispered. But before finding her, I reconsidered my decision to drop my crap in the living room, jogged back to grab it, then scooped up a pile of clothes on my way upstairs and placed them on my unmade bed.

“Mom?” I hollered.

“In here,” she called from her bedroom, the room next to mine.

I found her clipping hot rollers into her hair in the master bath, a cloud of smoke surrounding her and a cigarette burning in the filled ashtray on the back of the toilet.

“Where are you going?”

“Out for dinner with Dad,” she said, smearing burgundy lipstick across her lips.”

“On a date?” They never went out. Especially on school nights.

“Yes. A date.” She added mascara to her eyes, applied some rouge to her cheeks. “You’ll watch your sister. We won’t be long. I need some…time.”

“You okay?”

“Yep. Just great. Why?” Mom sprayed a bit of perfume.

“Oh, you know…the yellow notes. They’re everywhere.”

“Those? Oh, nope. Just tired of yelling.”

Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

Mom’s Pet Cemetery

Seven pets, at least, are buried where my sister and I played, digging and swinging without fearing the future.

The sandbox, swings, and siblings left, tears fell, weeds overgrew. But five dogs, a bunny, and a bird named Lucky remind us of life’s fragility, even after so many years.

Photo by Brandon Couch on Unsplash

Leaving Detroit

“See you soon.” Kiss your husband goodbye in Detroit. He’s going to New York to begin his career, and you’re staying to pack. He’ll come back to get you in one month so you can begin the next chapter of your lives together.

It’s okay to be scared.

Fold your clothes and place them into cardboard boxes. Long sleeves first, because it’s almost summer. If it’s on a hanger, you pack it that way. It will make unpacking in your new apartment easier. Leave out the sweatshirt with the Old English D, because you might need it at night when the cool breeze blows off the Detroit River.

Wrap the kitchen glasses in grocery bags because you can’t afford bubble wrap or newspaper. You don’t have many pots or pans, just hand-me-downs from your mom. You think of keeping one out in case you cook but decide to live on sandwiches, salads, and cereal. It’s only a month, after all. You pack them away and tape the box shut.

Leave the things you won’t have room for in your new life next to the trash chute. Old artwork and chairs from Ikea that won’t fit in the truck, the ripped Nelly Furtado hoodie that carries memories of late nights and laughter in its pocket, and the s-shaped shelf that used to hold photos of friends: someone will take it. Someone will love it or maybe throw it away.

Each day after work, walk the dog around Comerica Park. Try to remember the way the home runs echoed off your favorite players’ bats. Remember the chants for Magglio, Verlander’s no-hitter, and Zumia’s wicked fastball. You wonder if watching the Yankees will give you the same joy. Will you forget how much you loved nestling into the crowd for a Saturday night game?

Remember the taste of the Hebrew National with just mustard, and the way the August sun would drop behind the top of the stadium as you took that first bite. Will New York have Hebrew Nationals or Ball Park Franks? Will the sunsets look different in Brooklyn? Will the sky change from blue to pink and crimson before settling in below the trees? Will the buildings be too tall to see the beauty? Will your neighborhood even have trees to look at, to smell in autumn, to catch snow in winter, and to bloom in the spring?

Before the big move, have your friends over one last time. Dance with them. Sing with them. Reminisce about the late night parties in your apartment. Tell them no one could ever replace them because they are so special. Look them in the eyes and promise you will never let go, even with hundreds of miles stretching between your palms and theirs.

They will promise the same.

But you know you’ve never been very good at keeping in touch from long distances.

When your husband comes home thirty days later, kiss him. Hug him. Tell him how much you’ve missed him. Smell his cologne. It’s the one scent that goes with you from the place you thought you’d live forever.

Remember why you’re going: his career, your future together. Detroit is crumbling, the auto industry has collapsed. If you stay, your s-shaped shelf and the happy faces in those photos may fall to dust with the city. Better to leave now and salvage what’s left.

Watch all your things get carried out: boxes, blue leather couch, old dresser, your favorite vintage lamp. One by one they leave your home and get loaded into the big, yellow truck. The things that can’t fit are the things you have to leave behind.

Say goodbye to the empty space, the parquet wood floors, the echo off your avocado-green wall, the memories of home.

It’s okay to cry.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Changing Horizons

We shared an underdressed kiss standing on the pavement in front of the airport. Bones rattled from February chill; breath turned misty like my eyes.

“Good luck,” I whispered into Justin’s shoulder as I untangled my arms from his back. “Maybe this will be the one.”

“Thanks.” He half smiled. “See you tomorrow.”

Justin boarded a New York-bound plane wearing his only suit pressed into neat lines.

I returned to our Detroit home with cold feet.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Early Nights

I’m standing in the middle of the bathroom with my faded fuzzy pink robe on. My hair is tied in a knot on the top of my head. “I bought a new toothbrush,” I say to my husband as I smear some Sensodyne on the bristles of my new Pulsar.

“Oh yeah?” Justin spits white foam into the sink.

“The bahhery died in my old one,” I say while brushing. “Can you beeyeve I only had it for like a monsh?” I spit. “Those things aren’t cheap.” I grab a flosser and look at Justin. I glide the flosser between my teeth, first top then bottom.

He plucks one contact from his eye then the other in a smooth, fluid-like motion. He blinks and brushes away the moisture dripping from his eyes with his finger. “Did you try changing the battery?”

I look into the mirror and push a wrinkle between my eyes to flatten it. Then I stretch the skin beneath my eyes up and out, looking left then right at my reflection. I barely remember what it’s like to have buoyant skin. “Yep. When I did, some metal piece inside the toothbrush broke.” I apply my prescription-strength anti-wrinkle cream to the thinning skin beneath my eyes, then I slather it on the rest of my face.

“Why did you buy the exact same toothbrush then?”

“It’s the only one I really like. I’m afraid of trying something new.”

“Makes sense, I guess,” Justin says before gargling with some enamel-restoring mouthwash.

“But you know what else?”

He spits. “What?”

“I opened the new toothbrush and some of the bristles are bent back and to the side. See?” I hold up the toothbrush for Justin to examine.

He squints his eyes to see, then puts glasses on his face to see better. “Well they don’t make things like they used to, I guess.”

Our eyes meet in the mirror. Him with his glasses he’s had for seven years, since I was pregnant with our first daughter. Me with my robe I’ve had for ten, since our first apartment in Detroit. I reach for the mouthwash on his side of the sink.

He kisses my cheek. “Wanna fall asleep watching Ancient Aliens again?”

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

These Mountains

I never considered myself to be an outdoorsy kind of person, but this place has changed me for the better.

I’m sitting in an Adirondack chair on my deck, splintered from pelting snowstorms all winter. It’s the middle of July, but a crisp October-like air has raised the hair on my arms. 

***

These mountains sleep like bears during winter. The only sound I hear is the skis. They snore, gliding along the ice. Everything else is quiet. Green moss and wildflowers hibernate beneath the white blanket of snow, which muffles conversations along the trails.

***

The dogs are both resting at my feet. My family is sleeping inside – a modest space of brick and mortar for skiing. I didn’t notice what amazing things lingered beneath the snow when we purchased it.

In the summer, the mountains wake to play.

I hold coffee between my palms, watching the steam dance against the morning light that creeps between the trees. I breathe in the nutty aroma and wait for it to cool. Branches whisper to each other as the creek meanders along the limestone bed beneath it. Shadows shrink as the sun ascends from behind the trees, reflecting light off the gravel. In the distance, trucks ramble along the switchbacks only passing through, never stopping. They don’t know what they’re missing. Neither did I.

Up close, the mountains are a mix of greenery and jutting rocks. If you look between the trees, you see the green carpet that covers the ground and maybe even the occasional animal darting back and forth. But from a distance, the mountains look like turquoise ocean waves when sunlight strikes them. Closer ones are more vibrant and the ones farther back and closer to the sun are washed in light.

Any minute, Husband will clank his cup against the counter, then splash a bit of creamer in and pour his coffee. Kids will forage for food in the pantry, knocking over boxes and rustling wrappers. Dogs will click their toenails merrily against the floor. Toaster will pop. Cartoons will sing.

There is an unexpected energy that ebbs and flows between the hills and valleys: one that reveals what’s truly important.

There is no rush to go to dance practice or work or the grocery store. No pushing or shoving or arguing over toys. No frustration. No stress. We are disconnected, yet connected to each other and to something higher. 

Photo courtesy of Stocksnap.io

What I Remember

I don’t remember how sick Mom looked at the end. Or the number of days I sat watching her cling to life in hospice. I don’t remember what her breath sounded like the day she died. Or the faces of the strangers who stood beside me grieving because my mom had changed them for the better in some way.

But I do remember her beauty. The way her smile always reached her eyes and how she laughed from her belly each and every time. I remember how I wished I had her dark, flawless skin. I remember that her cascading brown hair smelled like coconuts and Rave hairspray.

Her nails always had red or pink polish covering them. She filed the tips to a point.

I remember we didn’t go to church because she said God lives in our hearts. She said miracles are all around us, and if we pay attention we will see them. Her beliefs didn’t fit neatly into one religion. She prayed, but also carried stones in her purse for good health and mustard seed in a charm for faith when she needed it most.

I remember that her good jewelry never sat in a box. Gold rings encircled each finger. Bracelets jangled from her wrists.

I remember her love for nature and that she liked getting dirt on her hands. She didn’t like flowers in a vase because they belonged in the soil. I remember the sound of her flipflops as she padded through the backyard, watering and pruning her garden. She knew how much light and water each of her flowers needed by heart.

I remember that she couldn’t sing and didn’t care. She’d shout the lyrics to any song while driving. She loved Whitney, Madonna, Diana Ross, and the Carpenters. At home, she’d move the couch and play Motown records so we could dance.

I remember her desire to do something more. She kept a scrapbook with pictures, cards, kind words, and trinkets she received from each patient she cared for while working as a hospice nurse. She grieved for them when they passed, but did her part to keep their spirits alive through sharing her memories with anyone who’d listen.

I remember her love for coffee. All day, every day. Never creamer or sugar. Always hot.

I remember her lesson to slow down and enjoy the little things. She always stopped to smell roses, and she always put her bare toes in the sand if she had the chance.

I don’t remember everything, but I remember what matters most.