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MCG, a Chicana feminist, for sure, teaches community college English

Monday, September 24, 2012

Isn't She Lovely

MCG's sister today

         Mom was in the middle of the bed naked on her back. She was panting and shouting and shouting and panting. David was on one side of the bed, and my brother and I were on the other. We had been at the river under the Wards Ferry Bridge all that day, swimming and sunning on the hot granite rocks and now Mom was in labor. Someone had to speed off across town when we got home to fetch the midwife, Apple, who now stood at the foot of the bed coaching my mom through contractions
         It was July, the middle of summer, and we were all in the middle bedroom because it was the only room large enough to fit a bed and a crowd of people around it.
         “You’re doing great, Cheryl -- deep breaths,” she said, looking my mom straight in the eye and smiling, then getting up to wipe Mom’s forehead with a damp towel.
         I stood, wide-eyed, against the wall. Music from the radio in the front room floated in on sheets of hot air. I strained my ears to hear which song was playing -- sounded like “Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees. There was no place to sit but the floor, but it was near impossible to see anything from down there. I had tried. Amonie brother stood next to me, his eyes heavy with sleep, but mom wanted us to be there -- wanted us to watch the baby be born.
         Apple turned and smiled at the two of us from time to time, her hand resting on my mom’s knee. She was mom’s age -- twenty-six, twenty-five, twenty-four. We had all come to know her very well in the months that she and mom had spent preparing for this day, buying extra sheets, new towels, Iodine, sterile gauze, a bulb syringe, and hospital scissors. Apple made mom read the book Spiritual Midwifery, and I listened to them discussing it one day in the living room. I picked it up as they spoke and looked at the pictures of women with long hair, straight teeth, and big bellies in flower print dresses laying on their backs in the arms of men with big beards and big smiles. I couldn’t imagine my mom smiling like that while in labor. She wasn’t that kind of hippie.
         I had listened while Mom and Apple talked about the baby being born into a peaceful environment and not traumatizing it with lights, machines, and a parade of doctors and nurses who would poke and prod and talk and talk, and spread all their hospital germs around our precious new life.
         I loved babies, so it all sounded good to me.
         As the sun settled behind the Sierra Mountains and the crickets began to sing, Mom’s panting, groaning, and shouting increased in frequency and volume. My brother continued dozing, his eyelids pulling open when mom’s groans turned to cursing and shouting.
         “David, get the fuck out of my face. Go breath somewhere else. It’s fucking hot in here. Where’s the ice. Quit panting on me,” Mom shouted in between a set of particularly intense contractions.
         David had been sitting behind her on the bed rubbing her back, something Apple thought might help with the back labor, but Mom had forced him off to the side where he attempted to help her with her Lamaze breathing.
         “Why don’t you go in the kitchen and chip up some more of that ice in the ice cube trays,” Apple suggested. “You’re doing great, David -- just great,” she nodded and smiled, her blonde hair shimmering under the single-bulb of light.
         I watched as Apple got up on the bed behind mom and pushed her forward with one hand and rubbed the small of her back with the other. Mom’s curly black hair was wet in the front around her face and at the nape of her neck. I heard the tap turn on and off and the crack of ice from the lever on the metal ice tray -- sounds from the kitchen. Mom groaned as Apple massaged at the pressure that had been building all afternoon.  When mom sat up sweat rolled between her breasts, which were swollen and dark. She had gained so much weight during the pregnancy that she could only wear a Hawaiian muumuu or nothing at all.
         In a lull between heavy panting, grunting, and occasional cussing, I could hear which songs were actually playing on the radio in the front room. I remember hearing “Hotel California,” and later just after birth a Stevie Wonder song.
         Around 10:00 that night, mom felt the urge to push. Still wide-eyed, I could not tear my gaze from my mom’s parted legs. Apple was applying hot compresses and massaging the perineum with mineral oil to avoid tearing. Mom was panting, cussing at David, and groaning with more ferocity than before. I knew the baby was coming. I had read the book too, only in the book the men and women kissed and hugged during the labor. My brother could barely keep his eyes open, so I kept nudging him without looking to make sure he was awake. I didn’t want to be there alone if something went wrong.
         “Okay, Cheryl, it’s about time to push. I know you’re ready, but try to push on my count. I can feel the baby’s head.”
         Mom was only groaning and panting now. Her eyes were closed in complete focus on the moment. David was standing at her side, holding her knee.
         “Push, Cheryl, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”
         And then I saw it, the baby’s head, a head full of dark hair
         “You’re crowning, Cheryl. You’re baby is coming. Ready, Cheryl? Push, push, one, two, three, four, five …”
         Suddenly the head was out and fluids gushed from all around. I began nudging my brother to make sure he was seeing it too, and after a few more pushes the rest of her slipped out too.
         “It’s a girl,” Apple shouted, the first time she had raised her voice the whole day.
         “It’s a girl,” she said again, holding the baby girl up toward the naked single bulb of light.
         Stevie Wonder sang in the distance, “Isn’t she lovely?”
         And everyone seemed to reach for her all at the same time.

Monday, September 17, 2012

David K and the Spaghetti On The Wall

MCG's sister, Zhanna and her dad, David

          My sister, brother, and I all have different fathers. Mine was the abusive one, my brother's was the wanderer, and my sister's dad was crazy. My mom actually married my sister’s dad David before getting pregnant with my sister, which is not the case when she got pregnant with me or my brother. Mom was several months pregnant, just eighteen and already showing when she married my dad, Miguel, or Mike, as he was called, and she never married my brother's dad, Bob, at all. David, my sister's dad, was a weird guy. Even my brother and I found ourselves laughing at him sometimes, and we were only around five and seven when they married.
        Tuolumne was full of weirdos: alcoholic weirdos, PCP weirdos, drug dealer weirdos, child molester weirdos, sit-in-the-bar-all-evening-and-teach-elementary-school-the-next-day weirdos, but David was different. He seemed to like hanging out with my Amonie and me. He read us poems that he wrote himself, poems that we never understood, taught us to play chess, encouraged us to draw wild pictures from our imaginations, and whenever we went anywhere there was a piano, he'd play us a different song that he knew from memory. He cooked dinner too, teaching us to throw pasta on the ceiling. If it stuck there, it was done, ready to eat. When it came time to re-paint the kitchen sometime later, there was a lot of spaghetti to scrape off.
        David was fun to be around but quite a bit of work too. He seemed to need a lot of attention for an adult. There were times when he talked a lot, following my mom around the house as she folded laundry and put it away, trying to rub her belly as she walked by, offering to rub cocoa butter oil on it when she was pregnant to avoid stretch marks which she already had. There were times when he didn't say much at all, when he would just stare at nothing and say nothing for long periods of time. We never really knew what was going on in his head, and as it turns out, the doctor's were having a difficult time figuring him out too. Mom worried that he was being treated like a guinea pig. He was on medication that he didn't take with enough regularity and sometimes he would drink alcohol while on the medication which only made his symptoms worse.
        Because David wasn't the kind of guy that we could take anywhere, was somehow too unstable, and because we probably didn’t have the money anyway, he stayed home when my mom took my brother and me to LA to visit her family for Christmas. She and David had been married for about a year. Mom was finally off of welfare after landing a job as a teacher's aid at our elementary school after volunteering for about a year, and David didn't work, but he did collect Social Security.
        One weekend day, before my mom got pregnant with my sister, I found David wandering around the backyard, talking to himself. At first, I thought he was just putting on a show, but when I got closer to him, I saw a look on his face that I had never seen before. His eyes were darker than usual and very far away. When he saw me, he didn't seem to recognize me at all. He had dark circles under his eyes, and he was mumbling, stringing words together that made no sense at all. I didn't know what else to do, so I called his name.
        He looked at me recognizing his name, his face not registering mine. I knew something was wrong, so I ran into the house to get my mom.
        “Mom, Mom, David's in the yard. He's acting weird; something's wrong.” I said, opening the front door so hard that it hit one of the dining room chairs which sat just on the other side. My brother ran out the door to see what was going on before my mom could react. I could tell from the look on her face that she already knew. I went back outside to check on both David and my brother. They were still outside near the house under the old oak tree, the one that had three two-by-fours nailed to the side of the trunk – evidence of what have must have been the ladder to some other kid's tree house. It was hard to imagine a tree house in that tall tree, but there had been one, and other kids who lived in the house, and someone to build them one. David was still talking to himself, and my brother stood there looking at him.
        Not knowing what to do, we all went back inside. My mom was standing at the kitchen sink looking out the window. I joined her and looked out too. David was wandering down the path between our house and mom's friend Joann's house. I couldn't understand why my mom wasn't doing anything. A little while later, David came back to the house, looking a little less crazy. My mom didn’t do anything, and my brother and I stood there wide-eyed.
        “Michelle, why don't you and your brother go and do something in your room,” mom said, trying to sound upbeat.
        “Come on, Amonie,” I said, walking toward her bedroom. The room doubled as a walkway to the bathroom. It was just off the front room and there was no door.
        My brother sat down on the bed for a minute, and I turned on the clock radio. He kept getting up and looking out toward the kitchen where David sat at the table. I looked too.
        David was holding a metal can of Bugler tobacco. He was a smoker, like most people in Tuolumne, and he rolled his own cigarettes, especially at the end of the month when was running out of money from his social security check. Otherwise, he smoked Winston's. I thought he was going to roll himself a cigarette; maybe that would calm him down. I sat down on the bed, thinking that there wasn't anything too see; then Amonie started to giggle. I jumped up. David was not rolling a cigarette – he was drinking the can of tobacco, tipping it back, as one would tip back a glass with only a bit of liquid left at the bottom. My mom started shouting.
        “What are you doing? David, what, don't drink that!”
        Amonie and I were back in the front room, watching David mumble and drink his cigarette tobacco. Amonie was laughing harder now, and I was whacking him on the shoulder trying to get him to stop and to keep myself from giggling too. I knew what was happening wasn't funny at all, but I could feel a fit of giggles bubbling up inside of me.
        David ended up having to be committed to a psychiatric hospital all the way in Vacaville – even the name sounded crazy. Returning a week or so later, subdued, taking different colored pills, and looking a bit sheepish, but still walking my brother and I to school, trying to get us to play chess, and cleaning up around the house, he seemed to hope that we'd all quickly forget what he probably couldn't remember. He would have to return to the hospital in Vacaville a couple of more times. When he was still in the hospital, I  heard mom tell one of her friends that the police had declared David, 5150, “Crazy,” she said, adding, “a danger to himself and others.”  
     We were in LA at my grandmother's house when my mom discovered that she was pregnant. I was in bed in another room, and I could hear my mother and grandmother talking.
         “How long has it been since you had your period?” asked my grandmother. I could hear the TV playing in the background of their conversation.
         “About two months,” mom answered. She hadn't thought she could get pregnant again since she and David had already been married a year without conceiving. I strained my ears to hear more of the conversation but only heard the TV for a stretch.
         “My grandmother finally spoke, “Feel that, Mi'ja, how hard it feels right there in the middle of your stomach; that's it Mi'ja, the baby – you're pregnant.”
         When we had first arrived in LA and settle in at my grandmother's house full of family photos, knick knacks, beds covered with bedspreads, hand towels, the sounds of Spanish all around us, and the tinkling sound of the bells from the paletero's cart, my mother had shown my grandmother a picture of David and his thick, black, wavy hair pushed back on his head, his olive skin, square jaw, strong nose, and one eyebrow cocked upward, an attempt at looking mysterious with a bit of a smile. Grandma Delia said that he was handsome. In LA, people might have assumed he was Mexican, but he wasn’t.  He was of some unknown European stock -- maybe French, maybe Eastern European. His craziness prevented us from ever being clear about his parentage.

         My sister was a toddler with a mass of curly blond hair when mom decided that she couldn’t take anymore of David’s crazy and his drinking and not getting better. Sometime before they split, David took me to a disco dance held downtown at the Memorial Hall. Mom stayed home with Zhanna and Amonie, and David put on his favorite shirt, the shiny lime-green one that was too tight because he had also gained weight during the pregnancy, and walked me downtown. We could hear the music pumping and see the strobe lights flashing in the high windows as we walked up to the building.
         Inside there were kids of all ages and some lost looking adults. I saw kids from the elementary school, a K-8, and high school kids, many who were only there to stand around and look cool, and some who were there looking after younger siblings. Somehow the memorial hall didn’t look like the same place where the elementary school held its basketball games. The curtains on the stage were pulled back, strobe lights were flashing, and people were hustling, spinning, and turning each other all over the dance floor. On my own with David dancing nearby and later with some friends, I danced to “Boogie, Oogie, Oogie,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and “Copacabana,” one of my favorites, a song about a showgirl named Lola. After a while, I looked around for David. He was still trying to give me my space, which I liked because I didn’t really want to be dancing next to him all sweaty in his shiny shirt.
         Then all of a sudden, I didn’t feel so well. The room was turning side-to-side, and I knew that if I didn’t get out of there I was going to throw up. The music suddenly seemed to grow louder and louder and my vision blurred. David found me stumbling around, and asked if I was okay. I somehow managed to shout into his ear that I felt sick, and he took me by the hand and lead me to the door. Once in the hallway, outside of the main auditorium, David determined that the lights had made me nauseous.
         “Just a bit of motion sickness that’s all,” he chuckled, smoothing his damp hair back off his forehead as he was in the habit of doing. And he hoisted me up on his back where I must have fallen asleep on the way home.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Flour Tortillas with Butter

          I felt like a real Mexican whenever mom made flour tortillas by hand -- something she only did in phases. She made them to impress people, or whenever she needed to demonstrate her Mexicanisma. Mom was so many things all at once --single-mother, wild hippie chick, welfare broad -- and living in a small town away from her East LA neighborhood, sometimes people didn’t notice the obvious. 
         The first tortilla making phase started when I was in second grade. Mom had been working as a teacher’s aide in mine and my brother’s classes, and she decided to teach my class to make flour tortillas -- a cooking project.
         She looked so pretty and cheerful sitting at a low table surrounded by my classmates; she even wore an apron, something she didn’t usually do  at home. In groups of three or four, she showed the class how to pinch off a fist full of dough and roll it into a ball between two hands. This was the easy part, like playing with play dough. It was hard to wait my turn at the math station table.
         After each of the four kids around the cooking station table finished rolling their dough into smooth round balls, mom showed them each how to put flour on the area of the table in front of them, and she showed them how to flatten the dough with the ball of the hand, keeping it as round as possible and how to roll it out -- a couple of turns with the rolling pin on each side, flip the dough over and repeat, a couple of turns with the rolling pin, and flip. Charlie already had flour in his hair, and Amy was asking if she got to eat her own tortilla -- the one that she rolled out herself.
         The kids at the art table were coloring pattern worksheets of designs my mom had drawn for us  -- a couple of the kids were drawing and watching the cooking station, looking up from time to time, or stopping drawing all together when they heard the thump, thump sound of mom’s rolling pin coming down on the surface in front of her and bumping over the dough
         As each child at the cooking table rolled his or her tortilla, making them as big as they could, mom helped repair holes that had been rubbed through the dough by too much force on the rolling pin. Pushing back a curl of hair that kept falling into her eyes with her wrist instead of a floury hand, she scraped dough stuck to the table or rolling pins, adding more flour, or simply scraping the remnants into the trash, and helping that student start all over again. She got up and stood behind Maia, gently guiding the rolling pin, putting her hands over Maia's and pushing and pulling the pin, stopping only to flip the dough and add more flour.
         Once each of the kids were finished turning their dough into a roundish shaped tortilla, sometimes oblong, some with a point jutting out to the side, mom began putting each of their tortillas, one-by-one on an electric skillet on the classroom counter behind her. I could hear her explaining how the skillet didn’t need oil, these were cooked differently than Indian fry bread, that it just needed to be hot -- too hot for them to touch. She told them that they’d know when they’re tortillas were ready to be turned for cooking on the other side when a few small bubbles began forming on the dough as it cooked. All the children watched and Amy winced when Mom picked up the hot tortilla with her bare hands and flipped it over so it could cook on the other side. My mouth watered thinking of the butter that I knew Mom had brought along for us to spread over the top where it would melt into the crevices that were formed by the heat bubbles.
         When it was my turn at the cooking table, Mom let me sit by her side instead of in front of her on the other side of the table. It was funny to see her sitting in a kid chair, her knees sticking out to the sides, almost bumping the table. I had watched her make flour tortillas at home a couple of times, so I already knew that I had to flour the surface in front of me and put a little flour on the rolling pin too. I demonstrated rolling and flipping and rolling and flipping right along with her, making sure not to bump my rolling pin into hers, and pulling back her sleeves when she asked me to because they were sliding down and her hands were white and floury.
         Even though I had finished rolling my tortilla as round and as big as I could before everyone else, I had to wait my turn to have Mom cook it on the electric skillet. At home she cooked tortillas on the griddle of our stove or in a cast iron skillet. I watched as bubbles formed on the tortillas and knew right when they needed to be flipped -- Mom would lift the lightly bubbled and browned tortilla, picking it up carefully with her bare fingers and flip it over to cook on the other side. I watched as my classmates spread butter over their tortillas the way we did it at home, by rubbing the half-opened side of a stick of butter around the warm round surface, the butter melting in its tracks along the way. Mom showed each of them how to roll the buttered tortilla into an easy-to-hold taquito shape for eating. When it was my turn to rub my warm tortilla with butter, the others were already licking their lips and asking for more. Mom smiled, flouring the surface on the table in front of her, the curls around her face bouncing as she worked. I bit into my own flour tortilla the warm, doughy, buttery flavor filling my mouth, and I closed my mouth and chewed.

Monday, September 3, 2012


MCG's childhood home
    Mom said that we didn't need a dishwasher. I was the dishwasher. She sat around the house practically naked when it was hot, and I stood over the sink and washed dishes. I started washing the dishes as soon as I was tall enough to reach the sink. When he could be found, my brother who was younger but about the same size, sometimes did the rinsing.
         “Quit going so fast – you're going  fast on purpose,” he'd whine every time.
         Washing dishes put everyone in a bad mood. There were always too many; the counter space was too small, and the dishes piled up so fast that the two sinks had to be emptied before any washing could even get done. That took nearly the same amount of time as washing them. I'd have to line the cups and glasses on the small space next to the sink and make stacks of bowls, and stacks of plates, and a wobbly stack of pots and pans on the stove behind me. The pots and pans were always crusted with food: dried egg, and lentils, and grease, and cream of mushroom soup, and there was always way too much silverware. I hated washing the silverware. It was usually slimy from sitting at the bottom of the sink and hard to get clean unless each fork, spoon, or knife were washed separately.
         Mom always had to remind me to do the dishes, “You gonna do those dishes sometime today?
         If I asked to ride my bike or visit Amelie she'd ask, “Are the dishes done?”
         The answer was usually, “no.”
         “Do the dishes then you can go,” she'd say sometimes smoking a joint, sometimes, folding laundry, sometimes just sitting in her brown chair doing nothing at all.
         Sometimes she'd find me outside not asking to go anywhere, knowing the dishes hadn't been washed in a day or so, and hoping she wouldn't notice.
         “Michelle, get in this goddamn house and do these fucking dishes,” she'd shout from the door, letting the screen door slam behind her.
         I knew to get inside quick before she started throwing dishes around the kitchen making an even bigger mess.
         If my brother was home, Mom made him help, but it was better if he wasn't. He'd just slow me down with his histrionics.
         When we did do the dishes together, I'd try to wash them slowly, but no matter how slow I went, he couldn't keep up, and the dishes would pile up to the top of the sink, leaving no room for rinsing. If I didn't stop washing glasses, the sink would fill and the glasses, would fall into one another and break, sending Mom in from the front room screaming. If I went too fast while washing the plates, a big stack would pile up in the middle of the sink, and the water from the faucet would splash down on them, spraying water all over us. We made a big enough mess with water as it was, all over the floor at our feet, down the front of shirts, and by the time we finished, my arms would be red and irritated from all the soap and water, especially in winter.
         Sometimes, when Amonie whined enough, I'd suggest that he wash and I rinse.
         “Why don't you wash them, and I'll rinse,” I'd say, handing him the slimy wash rag.
         This was always a mistake because since he knew he couldn't wash the dishes fast at all, he'd go deliberately slow; one fork, the tines, the handle; a knife, the blade, the handle; inside a bowl, the rim, the outside; a plate, the front, the back. I could wash the bowls well with just a couple swipes from my rag, wipe front, wipe back, put it in the rinsing sink; a large plate, wipe this way and that that way on the front, wipe the back, scrub any dried food, and put it in the rinsing sink. For silverware I'd lift four or five pieces at a time, scrubbing the top of each, one at a time, and set them in the rinsing sink.
         It would take a good five minutes before my brother would fill the rinsing sink with dishes before I could run the water, and I'd want to bang my head, or his, on the lip of the sink. Instead I gripped the sink with my hands trying not to scream at him to hurry the hell up which only sent my mom running in to smack me upside the head with whatever was handy on the counter, one time a wooden spoon, a spatula, even a hunk of defrosting meat for rolling my eyes at her when she came running in to tell me to shut up.
         There were some chores that I didn't mind doing. I didn't mind chopping wood to make kindling. On the porch outside the front door, I'd take a medium-sized piece of cedar, prop it up on the wood splitting log, and hack my ax through it several times, the cedar making a satisfying splintering sound with each whack, a slice of strawberry blond cedar falling to the ground. The ax got stuck sometimes on a small knot in the wood, and I'd have to bring the ax, which was now stuck onto the piece of wood, down onto the wood chopping log several times until the knot finally gave way, producing a not so smooth piece of kindling, hard to bundle and carry with the rest.
         I also didn't mind hanging wet clothes on the clothesline out in the yard, as long as it wasn't too hot, or the thistles so high they'd scratch my legs as I walked the length of the line pinning a t-shirt, a skirt, a row of socks, and a row of underwear as I went. We had a washing machine, but no dryer, so in the spring and summer we used the line outdoors, and there was one inside too above the wood stove. In the yard, I liked when a strong wind lifted my hair even when I stood still at the line, and I liked holding an extra clothespin in my mouth like I had seen my mom do. I liked when a gray squirrel on a high branch caught my eye or the woodpecker on the hill pecked away in his favorite tree, the sound echoing around me. Taking the clothes off the line in the heat was another thing entirely, they were hot, and crunchy, especially the jeans which were filled with earwigs that crawled in and out of the pockets when you turned them right side in because the jeans we dried inside out to keep the color from fading. You had to give them a good shake before bringing them in the house and earwigs with them.
         Mom must have hated washing dishes as much as I did because she almost never ever washed them. Sometimes I thought she gave birth to us just so she wouldn't have to do dishes and the other chores that she made us do. She didn't seem to mind cooking dinner, but we were on our own for breakfast and lunch. And on the first of the month she did the grocery shopping in town, going only to the stores that accepted WIC and food stamps. The big store in town was less expensive than the little store but shopping in Sonora was the least expensive at all, but Mom didn't always have car that would make it all the way to Sonora or enough money for gas.
         Bursting through the door one afternoon, after returning home from the big store, Mom called my name.
         “Michelle, I have a present for you,” she said, dropping two paper bags filled with groceries onto the kitchen table near the front door.
         “You do!” I came running from my bedroom. She had her back to kitchen sink, and I hoped she hadn't noticed all the dishes in the sink.
         “Yes, I do,” she said, rummaging through one of the bags then the other to find my gift. She didn't usually have money for gifts, only on birthdays or Christmas when she had time to save.
         She pulled a bottle of Joy dish soap from the bag.
         “Here,” she said, thrusting the bottle into my hands, her smile now gone, “Now you can get on those dishes.”
         “Thanks,” I said, and I went straight to the sink.
         “What, you don't like it?”
         “It's fine,” I said, getting right to work. I cleared the small counter space near the sink, lined up the glasses and cups, made a stack of plates, and a stack of bowls, using the clatter of the dishes as a cover, not daring to sniff or use the back of my hand to wipe at my eyes or nose until I knew she was out of the room.