cosa nostra

You Can Dance

Right now I’m trying to get Little Birds off the ground, and it has been a struggle. It’s always a struggle, but these characters are not at all clear yet, and until I get a better sense of them everything is stalled.

Today I had a kind of breakthrough, which doesn’t happen often. I’m writing about it here so I will remember exactly what happened, and also to entertain readers who happen to wander by.

Two of the primary characters in Little Birds are pretty well established in my head (they are  Lily’s children, but you don’t know them), but a crucial third character — somebody entirely new — is missing.  This has been causing me some distress. Of course I did what all writers of fiction do in this all-too-common fix: I found a way to procrastinate and went out to run errands.

Driving home from errands, I decided to turn off the audiobook that was playing (dry, but interesting) and turn on my current music playlist, which is set to shuffle. The song that started took me by surprise because I forgot it was on the list:  Save the Last Dance for Me — the Drifters original recording.  

And suddenly I had that third missing character.   I don’t even know his name yet, but I can see him leaning against a wall, arms crossed, watching people dance.  Or maybe, just maybe, somebody has offered him a fiddle and he’s playing and watching the dance floor.

Where did this come from, you might be wondering.  I had to think about it to sort out the associations, but it ties into my own experiences while I was living in Vorarlberg in my early twenties.  I did a lot of dancing. There were dances, all the time. Simple weekend dances.  Big fancy dances for Mardi Gras or annual celebrations of one guild or another. Big or small they all featured local musicians and dancing. And lots of beer. And schnapps. You’re thinking ump-pa-pa, but no. That’s not what it’s like at all and I’m not sure I can make it clear how un-umpa this experience is, but I’m going to try.

Imagine  a lot of people crowded onto the dance floor, some proportion of them much the worse for beer, still cheerful as they bumbled along.  Some small portion — maybe fifteen percent — were there because they really liked dancing and were good at it. I was in that fifteen percent. 

This is a video from Helsinki, a polka dancing competition.  The music is scaled way way down, but I’m posting this here so you can see the dancing. You can hear the excitement in the audience, and hear them yodeling in appreciation. This captures part of what it’s like. 

In your imagination you have to speed this up some, and also imagine it is happening in a hazy smoky dance hall (ca 1980), and now imagine the dancers are just regular (and somewhat younger) in their nice-casual clothes. But they can dance. Speed it up again. If you’re good at this there’s a lot of improvising, double and triple steps, stamping, things I can’t really describe but I could do, and do well. If I had stayed there I’d probably weigh 120 and be able to carry a calf around, no problem. It’s exercise and cardio exercise all rolled into a single package that you WANT. And that’s the trick, of course. 

One of the chapters in Homestead was meant to capture what this kind of dance was like.  Now, today, while I was listening to Save the Last Dance I had a flashback to the dance I described in that chapter.  This is what happened in real life: Someone I didn’t know asked me to dance toward the end of the evening, when the musicians had had a couple shots of schnapps and they were just on a tear.  I had noticed this guy dancing and hoped he might come ask me, because watching him I knew that I would dance well with him. 

Here’s the thing, in this kind of dancing. If a guy who is strong and lithe and confident puts a hand on your waist and takes your other hand in his, and then he just takes off — and you can follow him — it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. If you can follow him, and then assert yourself a little, and he responds to this … I’m going to say this but you won’t believe me. Better than the best sex.   To this day I remember the feel of the stranger’s arm muscles through his shirt.  I remember the way he smiled down at me, and winked. I remember he didn’t ask and I didn’t hesitate when the set ended, we just kept dancing.

I never saw him again, never learned anything about him, but we were absolutely in sync with each other in a way that is distinctly more than dancing.  There were a lot of unplanned pregnancies in Vorarlberg at this time (and maybe still are, but apparently this kind of dancing is out of favor, to which I say NO NO NO), and I am convinced that some large percentage of them happened after two people click like this on the dance floor.

Now I have to go figure out who this character is. While I interrogate him you can watch this Bruce Springsteen cover of Save the Last Dance. It gives me chills, because: well, nobody can do a song like this better.  After you watch this go look for his Tougher than the Rest. 


old mothers

So, mother’s day.

The farthest back I can trace my maternal line is six generations.

I give you  Rixte Margrethe Tjarcks born 1732 in East Friesland on the Dutch border, died June 1795 in the village of Aurich.

This is not a drawing of Rixte, but it could be. Right time period, right part of the world.  And yes, her name is unusual for us, but it was actually quite tame for her time and place.




Bubble-gum pink vanity, and karma

The one thing about menopause I did not anticipate was a bald spot. Yes. I have a small bald spot at the top of my head. Imagine a day-glow pink island surrounded by white hair. Keeping the damn thing  out of sight requires finagling, and I often fail. It’s a little bigger than a nickel. 
It’s as big as the continent of Asia.
If I mention this to other women my age, I don’t get the empathy I’m hoping for. They say “but you’ve got so much hair” and “only you notice it” and “wear a hat” or they just grin and shrug and sometimes there’s a smirk. Women my age can be merciless. Okay, everybody can be merciless, but women of my age are sharp sighted and willing to go for the pink spot.
I have never been beautiful. At my best I was attractive in a certain way. But I always, always had good hair. Thick to the point of driving hairdressers crazy, naturally curly/wavy. Shiny.
See this photo? Me at seven, an Italian Catholic kid on her way to First Communion. It took an hour to tame my hair so the veil would lie properly. You can see the bulk of it, and that it was doubled up.
Some women will tell you that the good part of menopause is that the hair on your legs thins down to nothing so you don’t have to shave anymore. Sure, except you need that extra time now to deal with your bald spot. Or your new mustache.
Here’s how serious I am: I’d rather have an old lady mustache to deal with than a bald spot.
Didn’t realize I was so vain, did you? In my defense: this was my one vanity. So now, a confession and a demonstration of how karma works.
When I was living in Austria I dated somebody for over a year. Tall, skinny, blond, thinning hair even then. Some years later I happened to go back for a visit just when he was getting married, and he invited me to the wedding. And I went and had a good time. He married a former student of his (yes, I know, bad juju), a very exuberant, very young woman with a beautiful complexion and gorgeous hair. Lots of hair. A lot like mine. She was proud of her hair, too, and she liked to toss it. I never tossed my hair. Honest.
A few years after that when I was back for a visit — and the former boyfriend had achieved complete balditude — I ran into her. She was pushing a baby carriage, and in it was her daughter, about a year old. A pretty baby, but bald as a boiled egg. So I said all the things you say about a healthy happy baby and then I said with an utterly straight face:
“Oh look, she’s got [her father’s] hair!”
The look on her face I will never forget.  I had zeroed in on the one thing about her baby that had to be a disappointment to her and she was shocked at my temerity. She was outraged. She was stymied. She sputtered something about how her daughter’s hair would come in, and marched off.
The day I noticed the bubble-gum pink island at the crown of my head, I truly understood karma.
So please don’t comment to tell me that I look GREAT, because that will only irritate me. Don’t tell me about the hair-in-a-can product that your great aunt Georgia loves. And please don’t tell me to grow old with dignity. There is a long list of things I’m being dignified about. I reserve the right to be emotional about this one thing that has been central to my identity for all my life.  Until ten years ago.
 On the other hand, if you have a magical cure for what’s ailing me, first, quick, get a patent because you are going to be filthy rich. Then tell me about it.

25 years ago just before Halloween

This entry is part 19 of 19 in the series Memoir

There’s a story on the Huffington Post today focusing on miscarriage: Six Women Remember the Babies They Lost. The timing on this story is particularly relevant to me, and the topic is personal.

Twenty-five years ago this weekend I had the first of four miscarriages. At that time there was even less support than there is today for women suffering such losses. I remember trying to talk to people — friends, family members — and being gently told to put it behind me. You’ll have another baby. Focus on the positive. The most common response I got was awkward silence.  I needed to tell someone what had happened, but no one wanted to hear. There were no support groups. There was very little in print. There was no internet and no way to find women who were as isolated as I was in my anger and sorrow.

It seems that finally this may be changing a little, and so I’m taking this chance. Here’s the story I didn’t get to tell.

This was my second pregnancy, planned so that the new baby would come just about the time our daughter turned three in the spring of 1992. I got pregnant as soon as we started trying, and I remember thinking that maybe this time it wouldn’t be so traumatic. My first pregnancy was complicated when I went into labor at twenty six weeks and spent the next two and a half months on bed rest, rousing every three hours to take a medication to keep my contractions down to one every half hour, and shuttling back and forth between home and triage at the labor and delivery unit of the University of Michigan’s Women’s Hospital. In the end we went home with a healthy baby. Going into my second pregnancy I told myself I could handle it if it happened again.

At eleven weeks I got out of the shower and noticed an odd rash on my side. I drew a picture of it because it made me anxious.  

At twelve weeks the rash had almost faded away, and I began spotting. Two days later an ultrasound confirmed that the baby’s heart had stopped beating. They sent me home to wait, because they believed medical intervention was not strictly necessary. The standard line was something like your body will take care of it.

I asked about the rash, and showed them the drawing. They shrugged. No way to know, they said.  Nobody seemed to think it was relevant to the miscarriage. 

Halloween, age two

Halloween, age two

I did as I was told. This was right before Halloween, so for two days I waited and tried to function normally. A  two year old who was excited about her costume and trick-or-treating was a pretty good distraction, but not good enough. We went on a hayride and got a pumpkin. It was very cold in Michigan, so when I got teary I could put my gloves to good use and get rid of the evidence. At night I worked on an elf costume because I couldn’t sleep anyway. She came to sit on my lap in the morning and patted my face. She said, “Kiss it better?” 

hannah-hatI said, “Yes please,” and she kissed my cheek and went away to admire her costume. There was a Hannah Andersen cap — too costly, really, but I got it and added pointy felt ears and a pompom and bells. Very solemnly she considered this thing I had labored over for so long, and then politely declined to wear it. I remember thinking, I should be disappointed. But I couldn’t figure out how to feel anyway about it at all.  

Two days after Halloween I was still spotting, heavily.  I called my midwife and said I couldn’t stand it anymore, I wanted a D&C.  She promised she would talk to the doctor on call at the hospital.

A short while later that doctor called me back. She said, It would be better to let your body take care of it. I was hardly coherent at that point but I was beyond caring what kind of impression I made. Finally  she said, Oh, I get it. You want a D&C for your mind.  They scheduled a D&C for two days later. No, they couldn’t get me in any sooner. Did I want some medication to help me sleep in the meantime? I did not.

Then the next day, very suddenly, my body did in fact take care of it, and left us with a small being curled into itself, maybe two inches long, that I managed to catch before it landed in the toilet. I sat there for a long time considering. Then I went out and showed my husband, and he cried, and I cried, and in the end we buried that would-be child in the back yard of the house we were renting and I remember thinking, how will we ever move away? 

Six months later I had another miscarriage, this time at nine weeks.  I started treatment with a reproductive endocrinologist who specialized in secondary infertility. He looked at my drawing of the rash and shrugged. 

I had four miscarriages in all, and then I stopped trying. There were other treatments that might have worked, but I couldn’t face any more losses.  At home I sat down with a very serious four year old and told her that I couldn’t have any more children. She was very angry, and insisted I go back to the doctor and tell him he was wrong. As much as we tried to protect her from the trauma of the miscarriages and infertility treatment, she absorbed a great deal of it with repercussions that are still felt today. 

roseaOnce the internet became more user friendly for medical research, I started searching dermatology websites and databases for photos of my rash. It wasn’t until 2008 that I found what I was looking for in a medical journal article that came out that year:

Drago, F. et al. Pregnancy outcome in patients with pityriasis rosea. J Am Acad Dermatol 2008 May; 58:S78.

I had an outbreak of Pityriasis Rosea very early in my second pregnancy. The 2008 study:

demonstrates a high risk for fetal loss and for neonatal weakness and hypotonia in pregnancies affected by PR during the early weeks of gestation. Clinicians should alert women who develop PR in pregnancy about the potential risks of this presumed viral infection, although there is no known effective intervention to prevent these complications. Nor is there a clear way to avoid this illness. The detailed study of the miscarried fetus suggested reactivation of HHV-6, rather than primary infection, based on observation in the mother of specific serum IgG antibody but no IgM antibody.

For weeks after I found this — and similar articles — I told my husband, but otherwise kept it to myself. I wasn’t in therapy at the time, but I doubt I would have brought it up to a therapist even if I had been seeing one.  Nobody wanted to talk to me about the miscarriages when they happened, I told myself. They probably forgot all about them. So why raise this subject? 

I’m interpreting the article in the Huffington Post as a cosmic push to record my experience for myself, for my daughter, and for other women who have been or will be in this situation. There’s no way to predict or prevent Pityriasis Rosea, but at least now a woman who loses her child because of it will not be left with questions nobody want to hear, and nobody can answer. I’m telling the story because while other people forget, I remember every one of my losses. I remember the day the bleeding started, the day the heartbeat stopped, and the empty birthday. I remember the look on the ultrasound technician’s face when she didn’t find what she was looking for. I remember my husband saying, what are we looking at? I remember thinking, nothing. We are looking at nothing. The absence of a heartbeat.

I remember that on the due date for that first loss, the most traumatic of them all, my sister-in-law called to say that she was pregnant.  I remember that I started spotting for the fourth and last loss on my daughter’s fourth birthday.  Every Halloween I remember that elf costume and the red cap that I bought, and how I planned to put it aside and use it for the next baby. 

Tomorrow is Halloween. We are out in the county on a dead-end road and never see any trick-or-treaters. And that’s a relief.