Make Your Mess Your Memoir
⏲ 12 minute read
“I like Jane,” my mom said. “She’s so effervescent.”
I nodded. I liked Jane, too. And although, at the age of 12, I didn’t know what the word effervescent meant, I loved the sound of it. It made me think of bubbles and excitement.
I told Mom that from then on, I wanted to be effervescent, too.
We were on a cruise to Alaska with my entire family—and when I say entire family, I’m talking grandfather, his wife, his kids, his kids’ kids (me, my brother, my two cousins), his wife’s kids and their kids. It was my grandfather’s 80th birthday and he was celebrating by taking us all on this cruise.
My grandfather had a lot of money.
Money was an extremely confusing thing to me growing up because there seemed to be so much conversation about its importance but it never seemed to make anyone happy.
Take my grandfather, for instance: he’d brought all of us on this extravagant family cruise but in the dining room where we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner over the course of those two weeks, he sat at a table with my grandmother while the other adults sat at another table and my brother, cousins and I made up the children’s table.
He’d paid for all of us to come on this cruise, in other words, but he didn’t speak to any of us.
That was actually fine with me because I found my grandfather terrifying. My mom’s dad had died before I was born so this was the only real, live example I had of a grandfather and he was nothing like the ones in the Country Time Lemonade commercials.
My grandfather didn’t sit on a porch or tell me I was the apple of his eye. He told me I was stupid. All the time. When he taught me to play Gin Rummy and I immediately beat him, he turned bright red, started banging on the table and then pushed all the cards onto the ground.
“There’s no way you could beat me!” he raged. “This is ridiculous!”
I was shaking. Why oh why oh why hadn’t I just let him win?
Then he seemed to calm down.
“I’m not upset that you beat me,” he clarified. “I’m upset because you didn’t do it with strategy. You got lucky. And that’s lazy. You shouldn’t be so stupid.”
Anyway, that was Grandpa. His third wife, while not horrible per se, didn’t do anything to stop him from raging against children or anyone else. I hated going to visit them in Palm Springs but somehow I was always being sent down there, alone. My brother was much better than me at ducking out of things.
Let’s just say I was thrilled to be at the kid’s table on that trip.
“Oh my God, it was so good,” Jane said when she found me by the ping pong table one afternoon at the end of the first week of the cruise. She ran her hands through her curly blond hair dramatically as she sat down next to me.
She had just been to see Sophie’s Choice in the cruise ship movie theater and was telling me how it had “torn her heart out.” I was listening to her but mostly I was admiring how confidently she was expressing her sadness. She really seemed to own how important her feelings were, how much they mattered, how necessary they were to express. I marveled at this.
I asked her to tell me the plot and when she did, I was even more impressed. This was a deep movie! Jane cared about important things! She was one year older than me and, in addition to all her other virtues, deeply wise.
As we talked, we started hitting the ping pong ball back and forth. I had gotten pretty good at ping pong during this trip. Never athletic, I’d successfully avoided sports for most of my life. When, in sixth grade, we started playing dodgeball every Friday during PE, I’d have my mom write a note saying I was sick and would have to sit out. Every Friday, I stood against the wall and clutched my stomach, convincingly playing the part of the sick kid as pubescent boys hurled balls at my friends’ faces.
But ping pong wasn’t pubescent boys hurling balls at my face. Ping pong wasn’t tennis either. My parents had sent me to tennis camp and I just…sucked. The jury was in: I was not athletic. And this was a major bummer since it was becoming increasingly clear to me that being athletic was a crucial aspect of being popular.
Popularity was as confusing to me as money.
From kindergarten on, I made friends easily and learned to navigate social situations well. But I was not athletic. And no matter how good you were socially, it was hard to bounce back from being picked last for sports teams.
Also, apparently I was shy.
I learned this accidentally one day, when I heard my mom describe me as “shy, like her father.” My ears perked up in horror. I was SHY? I didn’t want to be shy! While I couldn’t control my lack of athletic ability, I could do something about the shyness.
Jane was my Sherpa.
During that trip, I learned to effervesce by osmosis.
One day, at “bouillon,” which was a daily meal on this cruise (cruises serve roughly 80,000 meals a day), Jane and I met two boys—Kevin and John. They were also 12 and 13. She liked John. John liked her. Kevin liked me. And so I, of course, liked Kevin.
What this means, I have no idea. It was all very innocent. I think it just meant we played doubles ping pong and then I would go off with Kevin and she would go off with John and we would all have the sort of deep, meaningful conversations 12-year-olds have?
I do remember that Kevin gave me a very sweet goodbye letter the day the cruise ended, along with some maple candy that I never ate—either because it felt too meaningful to consume or because maple candy just doesn’t taste good or both.
The following winter, I stood at the top of a Squaw Valley ski run.
“You can do it,” my dad said.
But his tone wasn’t encouraging.
His tone said: You have to do it.
Freezing and on the verge of tears, I watched a kid I knew from math class squeal with joy as he pushed off the mountain and tackled one enormous mogul after another, his skis slicing into the mountain as he continued to holler with joy.
I started to cry.
“Oh, come on,” my dad said.
That only made me cry harder.
But I understood the situation. I was at the top. At the bottom, there was warmth and hot chocolate and no scary ice patches that could kill me if my skis happened to slide against them at the wrong angle.
I had to get down.
That’s when my dad started laughing.
My family always laughed at me for being so sensitive. I longed to be tough—or at least to be able to ignore my feelings or push them down the way they seemed to. But it never worked.
The day before, on the drive to Tahoe, I’d started crying because I felt like they were being mean to me. I felt like that a lot.
“Oh, my little actress,” my dad said, referring to me in the third person, the way he always did when he teased me. He caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. “She’s so good at crying when she wants something.”
This, of course, only made me cry harder.
I wanted them to stop being mean to me. I wanted to be like Jane. Sure, she cried when she watched Sophie’s Choice but her crying indicated strength; she was together enough to cry over Meryl Streep’s fictional choices. She didn’t cry out of weakness.
As my crying turned to full blown sobs, I heard the sound.
It was a terrible sound—one of the worst I’d ever known.
It was my dad’s cackle.
It wasn’t a laugh. It never came out when something was actually funny. It was a laugh that said, “You are being ridiculous and everyone knows it.”
And then…the second worse sound in the world: my mom laughing. I understood, even then, why she did it. There was often a strained anxiety in the air—silence or stress—when my dad was around and my dad’s cackle was a rare respite, a sign that happy times might be coming.
My mom’s laugh wasn’t as cruel as my dad’s. But as I listened to their laughter, I felt like they each had a hand on either side of my heart and they were twisting it, the way I sometimes twisted a towel to dry it.
That’s when my brother joined in. His laugh seemed to say: it’s nice to see my parents enjoying each other for once; why not join in?
A light snow fell.
At the top of the mountain, I reminded myself that getting down this slope was actually easier than being in that car.
And so I took a deep breath, shifted my skis the way I’d learned to do in the Squaw Valley Kids Ski School and pushed forward.
And then I fell.
I got up, tried again, fell again.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry,” I ordered myself before falling again.
And that’s when I fell yet again. I took off my skis and walked the rest of the way down.
My dad was still laughing.
I was much better on my own two feet. In fact, when it didn’t have to do with sports, I was one of the most ambitious kids in the world.
I looked at The Guinness Book of World Records almost every day, tracing my hands over the picture of the tallest man (he was standing next to a street sign that was dwarfed by his presence), the fattest twins (they were on motorcycles and wore cowboy hats) and the youngest author (she was six and looked very pleased with herself while leaning back on a white fence).
My obsession with world records only grew when Cindy and Bobby Brady tried to set the world’s teeter totter record on The Brady Bunch. While they had given up before actually setting the record, that was a moot point as far as I was concerned; the local paper had come out and taken their photo. And their family was so proud!
I think that was the part that impacted me the most. Setting a record, assuming it wasn’t a record related to being fat or tall, seemed to embody everything that mattered: it showed that you were the best, it made everyone support you and it brought you a measure of fame.
And so, one summer day, I asked my mom to drive me to my friend Ramsay’s so we could set the world record for longest time on a swing set.
Ramsay’s house was in Sausalito, next door to a park that always seemed to be empty. Ramsay was, like Jane, fearless. When I called to tell her I’d be there in half an hour, wearing the shiny velour jacket we both had and that she should wear hers too, she agreed and said she’d call the local paper to let them know a record was going to be set and they should come cover it.
By this point, I’d not only learned what the word effervescent meant but I’d also really managed to become it. I don’t know whether it was the simple act of making a decision to be different after meeting Jane or if my childhood shyness was just a phase, but no one thought I was shy anymore.
Still, none of my ambitious plans were particularly well thought-out. Ramsay and I, for instance, hadn’t spent a lot of time planning this out or doing any research on, say, what the current record for time spent on a swing set was. We just went in with a sort of blind faith that we would somehow surpass it.
It was the same with my other projects. The week before, I’d gotten very excited about gathering signatures for a petition. But it wasn’t to help animals, a local politician or some other cause that I was passionately connected to. I just liked a project. That project had been inspired by the fact that one day, at United Market, the cashier had informed my mom that they were considering no longer allowing people to pay by check.
My friend Katy was with me when the cashier gave my mom the news and Katy agreed with me that this was outrageous. Surely, we figured, the rest of the community would be up in arms about this concept?
And so Katy and I created a petition and stood outside United Market asking people to sign it. We were very impassioned, but most of the people we spoke to didn’t seem to understand why this potential policy not to take checks was so pertinent.
We came home with one signature, given to us by a woman who probably pitied us.
Katy was also my primary co-producer in the shows I liked to put on and perform in. Our productions were simple. I would usually lip sync a song from Chorus Line and then we would choreograph a dance or two and Katy would recite a monologue or play. Still, we took them very seriously—rehearsing for hours, creating programs and telling each other we were making something extremely special that was possibly going to transform the world.
While we’d occasionally attempt to go wide by inviting neighbors to come, selling tickets and even bags of popcorn, usually it was just an audience made up of our moms.
But that day on the Sausalito swing set, Ramsay and I didn’t have an audience. No one clapped for us. The reporter from the local paper never came. By the third hour, we were bored and tired and just decided to stop.
Then we went into her house in our matching shiny jackets to watch The Brady Bunch.
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