She’s From Tennessee…

Once upon a time, my mom and dad and I were driving back to their house from the airport after having picked up relatives visiting them from Germany.  We were stopped at a toll booth, getting ready to pay, when we saw an old turquoise cadillac whiz past us, never slowing down, through the EZ tag lane.  The camera flashed as it took a picture of this car and its plates and we realized that the driver (we’d managed to catch a glimpse of the person at the wheel – a woman) didn’t have the tags required to go through legally.  Someone exclaimed “Whoops! She didn’t have tags!”.  To which someone else declared “What does she care?! She’s from Tennessee!!” (we’d also managed to catch a glimpse of her license plates as she flew by).  We all got giggles that erupted into laughter lasting for several minutes, kind of admiring her moxie.  Lots of jokes ensued.  Honestly, she was probably never coming back.  She probably couldn’t get out of Texas fast enough and that’s why she didn’t give a shit!  Why would she care about some 1.75 toll fee? She’s from Tennessee! Who was gonna chase her down?  Catch her if you can! The carefree image of that driver became a running joke in my family.  We giggle every time we think about her.  Maybe you had to be there.  Yeah.  You had to be there.

Anyway, my parents live on the opposite end of the city from us.  We’re in the southwest and they are in the northwest.  To get to their house, there are various options to choose from and when my father was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, I wanted to be able to get out there as fast as I could when I needed because I planned on being at their house more often than usual.  The fastest way was going to be the toll road.

Now, I have to digress to say that Houston’s freeways and tollways need an entire post to themselves.  If you’ve never been here, they can be rather confusing.  Even if you have lived here practically your whole life, they can be confusing.  Suffice it to say that, in addition to the free public ways of getting around, there are toll roads with rules and regulations , and I thought that finally getting what’s called EZ Pass Express Tags was going to be worth the money in order to get around faster and quicker.  Without tags, you have to wait in line at the actual toll booths and either have exact change to toss in, or you have to wait to get change made, and obviously, that’s not as convenient as just flying on your merry way through the stations.

I was never a fan of the toll roads.  I kinda resented them, for reasons too  long to go through here.  However, I found after I signed up and created an account with the Harris County Toll Road Authority, that they were indeed a mightily easier way of getting around town.  SO much faster!

One of our local news stations, KHOU, concisely explained how it works in one of their articles:

“The state’s TxTag requires you to pre-pay $20 worth of tolls. Harris County’s EZ TAG requires $40 down plus a $15 activation fee. The state doesn’t require you to keep a minimum balance, but if your account is negative when you go through a toll, you will receive a violation.”

(Ahem. A violation PLUS extra administrative fees, to be absolutely clear).

So, this is how it works getting tags so you can zip around with the greatest of ease:
1)  You can walk into one of several EZ Tag stores and buy them in person.  Which of course means finding a convenient location to visit and then waiting in line with a bunch of other people who, like you, would rather be somewhere else, and then dealing with a live person.  And we all know how excited we get with that.

2)  You can purchase them online.  If you choose the EZ Tag Express program, you can download an app on your phone and manage your account from there.  No lines, no fuss, no ACTUAL PEOPLE to talk to.  You simply create an account and deposit money into it and voila! You are on your way! And if you happen to be the absent-minded sort – such as I am – you can even let this app connect to a credit card of your choosing so that your account will be replenished with the agreed upon amount of money when it runs out.  For whatever reason, I decided to set the amount to keep in my account at forty dollars on the regular.  The tolls aren’t that much, really, and I didn’t think, at the time, that I would be using the tollways too frequently anyhow.

I really, really, really, really appreciated that my account would automatically replenish with the set amount whenever my funds ran out.

I set this all up in July of last year, 2017.  And, it turns out, I drove way more frequently on these toll roads because of all the construction on the rest of our freeways; because the traffic flowed easier; and it was always faster.  I breezed around town, wondering why we hadn’t bought the tags sooner.  I could tell guest passengers, like friends I picked up from whichever airport they needed (there are two major ones here located on opposite sides of Houston)  “No worries! I’ve got tags!” and we could just wheel along feeling stress-free about arriving anywhere on time.  I could make it to brunches with friends without wanting to punch myself in the face because I didn’t allow for traffic or lights and I was going to be really late again.  I could drive on over to my parents when they needed me at the last minute for a favor, and then return home without the feeling that most of my day had been spent in the car.  This went on for some time.

Then some bills for toll violations started trickling in….

They were for small amounts, like 1.25, or 3.50, or 6.75.  I can remember sending a check or two.  But, the bills kept coming.  Geez! Another one? I just paid them! These bills must have crossed paths with the checks in the mail.  My husband put some of it off to driving on the toll way in our other car, thinking he was covered too, until I told him that no, I just registered one car.  So, now he knew he could only drive on the toll way in “my” car.

But….the bills kept coming.  Sometimes there were more than one in my mailbox on the same day.  And they started to arrive almost everyday.  I would try to make sense of the bills but, trust me, it’s not easy because some bills had the previous toll violations included along with the new ones and the format was difficult to make sense of.  Things were piggy-backing and I kept thinking there was some mistake somewhere because, as far as I knew, my EZ Tag account should have been replenishing and taking care of these things.  I began to wonder if the toll authorities were perhaps trying to rip me off.  I started getting ticked off with them.  I just KNEW someone had messed up somewhere!   I didn’t even bother opening some of the bills because I assumed that many were duplicates.  And I certainly wasn’t going to pay them until I figured out exactly what I actually owed and which bills were legitimate.  All I knew was someone had messed up and these bills had to be wrong.

In the meantime, there were other more pressing things I was preoccupied with and the bills just got shoved into a growing mound of paper and unopened mail, which got shoved into a box and into a cabinet whenever I needed to make the house slightly more presentable when guests were going to drop by.   Of course, the room may have looked better, but you know that old saying about “out of sight….”

All during this time, I drove blithely about town, singing along with the radio, bobbing my head and keeping the beat as I flew through those EZ tag lanes.

One day, when we finally focused, my husband and I got down to tackling that mountain of paper.  I got up from the dining table and went into the kitchen for something to drink.  When I returned, I found my husband with his jaw hanging and his eyes wide in  disbelief.  He turned to me, almost laughing out of shock, and informed me how much the Harris County Toll Authority said we owed them……

I am not going to repeat the number here.  Let’s just say we were relieved to find out that some of the fines had been reduced and we could pay them a smaller number.  Which I am still not going to reveal.  Let’s just say that it was a lot.

Maybe it was the feeling of guilt and embarrassment for being so irresponsible about opening our mail that we unquestioningly paid our debt, put more money into our EZ Tag account, breathed a sigh of sheepish relief that it was done, and jumped back onto the toll road with the confidence of being completely legal again.

When the next bill arrived, two weeks later, I scoffed and thought that they really needed to get their shit together because this obviously was mailed the day that we had paid our bills.

And when another bill arrived the following day,  I thought, no way could this be happening because I hadn’t even been on the toll road for a couple of days already.

Then it all started over again.  This time I was pretty annoyed and absolutely certain that they were just trying to pull something sneaky and bill me for things we’d already paid for.  I would call them when I had a moment.  Of course, that moment didn’t come for about a month…

I immediately got a live person on the line when I called the authority up this past Saturday.  A very nice, very friendly, very patient woman went through the latest in my account, while I also had up our latest Amex statement in another window so I could let her know what we had already been charged.  None of the numbers that she and I looked at were making any sense at all.  I was confused.  She was confused. We most definitely shouldn’t have been charged that kind of money.  I had money in my EZ Tag account!  I should not be getting bills like this.  Something was definitely messed up.  She excused herself to find a supervisor to get permission to view more information on my account.

She returned to the phone after some minutes to reluctantly and gently inform me that my EZ Tags, the ones that I actually told someone in a toll booth one time (told them cheerfully with a big smile on my face!) I had so that I could quickly roll on through, were EXPIRED.  In fact, they expired THREE DAYS after I had activated my account.  They had expired an entire YEAR ago because of (and I think she was being generous with me) …… a typo.  “It happens to lots of people”, she quietly assured me.

The mortifying thing is that it wasn’t exactly a typo.  Or maybe it was.  Who can say at this point?  But I remember pulling up my account, pushing the “edit” button (took me long enough to work it out too), and seeing the evidence myself.   There it was:  “Activation date:  July 20, 2017.  Expiration date: July 23, 2017”.

“Why the HELL would I do something like that?!” I wondered out loud in astonishment.

“I don’t know”, she giggled , “It was an honest mistake. A typo.  It happens.”

She really was too nice. Too nice to point out that I clearly didn’t know what I was doing when I signed up with the app.

“So I’ve been driving all around town, with expired tags, for a whole year??!!”

“I’m afraid so”.                                                                                                                              There was a quiet pause between the two of us.
“Well…..that certainly explains it!” I said.                                                                                        She clarified how I could fix the problem, after, of course, I paid the latest bill online (which, thankfully, wasn’t anywhere near as much as previously) and she stayed on the line with me until my account was clear.

Then we sat there and laughed.
“I was so CONFUSED!”, she said.
“Me too!”

Obviously, I am a confused and confusing woman.  Clearly.

I sat there a little stunned and a little relieved at the same time, like a patient who has just received a troubling diagnosis.  It’s not great, but it’s good to know what’s gone wrong so that maybe it can be fixed.

But then I couldn’t stop the giggles from welling up as I suddenly had an image in my mind….of myself…flying around town, not a care in the world, obliviously feeling secure in my little bubble of ignorance, careening from one place to another along the tollways, a little scarf (I don’t know why a little scarf; I never wear scarves, but there it is in the picture), blithely waving an arm out the window (yeah, I really don’t do that either, but nevertheless…), crying out in a cheerful, yet slightly hysterical way as I zoom through the lanes, “DON’T WORRY!!! I’VE GOT EZ TAGS!!!!…..”



What do I care, right? Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!






I Often Worry

I often worry. No surprise there to anyone who knows me. I worry about all sorts of things, as all people do. I fall into the category of people, though, who worry too much. Way too much. I know this about myself. I try to deal with it.

I know that parents always worry how well a job they are doing raising their children. They worry if they are screwing their kids up somehow. After all, parents have pretty vivid images of how their own parents raised them and it most definitely affects the kind of parent that they want to be. But, often, there is a huge gap between the parent you want to be and the parent you actually are. And that is, of course, because no two people are ever exactly the same; no two children, no two adults, no two families. That whole “Life is a box of chocolates” thing.  The wishing that kids came with individual instruction manuals thing. Hell, the wish that you had come with an instruction manual!

This piece touched me just now because I often worry as well. I think my husband does too. I wonder how my children are going to remember me, my husband, us.  I wonder how our depression will affect them; has affected them. Because it’s certainly affected everything that he and I have done and do. (Damn you, Depression!!)

I’m curious and anxious about what things look like to them, how things feel to them. Very anxious. Very worried.

Anyway, I enjoyed this piece by Lisa Lim about how things seemed to her.

My Mother Would Walk Miles Upon Miles

By Lisa Lim on Mutha Magazine

“I’d ask, “Mommy, why don’t you have any wrinkles?” “Because I don’t think that hard about things,” she’d answer.” Memories of a mother — and her struggles with homelessness, depression, and varicose veins — in comic form.

via My Mother Would Walk Miles Upon Miles — Discover

Introspective Lesson No. 1

I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I was going to write about everything. I  was going to write about everything I experienced and noticed about the world and its’ occupants. I was going to create compelling stories and powerful essays!
But mostly I was going to write about THEM. I was going to write about all of THEM who thought I wasn’t smart or smart enough. All of THEM who thought I was weird. All of THEM with whom I did not fit in. All of THEM who couldn’t understand me because I was, actually, smarter than them, better than them! They were shallow and cookie-cutter. They were such sheep. Nay, lemmings!  Conformists all. They didn’t realize how incredibly simple minded and crass, ignorant and, yes, shamefully mean, they were. And I was going to reveal it to them. I was going to SHOW THEM ALL.

I was going to shame everyone who made fun of my love of reading, everyone who teased me for being quiet, everyone who called me a bookworm, as if that was somehow a degrading thing, everyone who said I had my head too much in the clouds. I didn’t consider at the time that since they were not avid readers themselves, that this particular form of revenge would be essentially ineffective.  All the stupid, random, bigoted and boorish utterances that fell from their mouths I would document. I had a special fondness for Harriet the Spy.

They would get “theirs” – oh, ho, ho, yes, they would!!! And in doing so, I guess that I was also searching for those who would, in fact, “get” me. Who would understand and appreciate me. I think I wanted to entertain people too, which was strangely contradictory to my mostly shy nature. I also had a special fondness for Carol Burnett and Erma Bombeck.

And, somehow, this writer’s life was going to be an inherently exciting life. Full of travel balanced with hours of fascinating research in really cool libraries. I was, of course!, going to live in a book lined apartment in New York or Paris or anywhere in Germany. I wanted to “make something of myself’ – on my own terms. In other words, with something that I, myself, held in high regard; something creative and interesting and not the same as everyone else around me.

I was different from THEM.

I was therefore BETTER than THEM.

This has always stuck in a nook in my brain, from one of my favorite books:

“But the thing is, you raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences. The goddam ‘unskilled laughter’ coming from the fifth row. And that’s right – that’s right – God knows it’s depressing….But that’s none of your business, really. …An artist’s concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s. You have no right to think about those things, I swear to you.

But I’ll tell you a terrible secret – Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know – listen to me, now – don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is?…Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ himself, buddy.

Zooey. Franny and Zooey , J.D. Salinger

I was a snob.

The Time Has Come

Oh, dear God, my daughter has cleavage….  

She’s only in the sixth grade!

No, no, no, no, no! This cannot be happening!! This is not possible!!

Oh, wait….. I forgot…. It is possible. It has happened before and it happened to me.

I was just hoping that my daughter could evade it a little while longer.

It happened to my mother, her Oma. It seems to be one of those genetic things.

(God knows I tried to keep it at bay with only organic, non-hormone laden, milk and eggs in the house. Maybe I wasn’t so diligent with the cheese? The yogurt? She prefers the Yoplait. Maybe that’s what did it?? We don’t eat meat, so that’s ruled out. I wring my hands.)

No, it’s definitely genetic. She’s inherited it now at the tender age of 12, same as myself:  The genetic history of having people assuming you are older than you are at a young age; of being on the receiving end of hurtful, misunderstood, jealousy, even from those you consider good friends; of people forgetting that you have a face and a personality; of people suddenly seeming to believe you are deaf and blind; of some thinking that your IQ has suddenly been sucked out of your brain in order to accommodate the blood flow to your new extremities;  of becoming horribly, uncomfortably, aware that your body now seems to have an effect – a most unwanted, unprepared for – effect on other people. Adults’ eyes widen and all males’ eyes descend involuntarily. Even your friends start making remarks. Clearly, they are uncomfortable, taken by surprise, with the emerging you. Just as you are. Clearly, they notice you – at an age that you really don’t like being noticed. Especially if you tend to be on the shy side.

You have to become more careful with what you wear and how you move. You need to develop a thicker skin and a warier mind. Hard things to do when you still consider yourself just a kid. When you are, in fact, just a kid.

All of this burst into vivid clarity for me yesterday as we were attending a school event her little brother was involved in.  My friend, whose son is my son’s best friend and on his team, greeted my daughter and myself with, “Look how tall she’s gotten! I hardly recognized her – she’s grown so much!!”. “Grown so much” obviously code, I realized, for, “Oh, geez, she has boobs!” when my friend discreetly turned wide, sympathetic, eyes to me and slowly mouthed “WOW”.  Her oldest, high-school-age son, a really good kid, as all her boys are, didn’t notice me catching his eyes being pulled to her chest as she sat on the ground in front of him. I glanced downward to see what he was nervously, fleetingly, looking at with suddenly flushed cheeks. 

Oh, heaven help me! The cleavage!! Distinct, unavoidable, cleavage. Cleavage that, unbeknownst to her, and somehow invisible until that moment to myself, was declaring itself like a debutante at a cotillion to which the general public was invited.

How I longed to be able to get her to sit up straighter, off the ground, in a chair against the wall, how I wished it would have been cold enough to have offered her a jacket to zip up to the neck. I knew that if I called attention to it, the effect it would have on her: Complete mortification. Tears.

 I need to find a way to talk to her about this without eroding any confidence, any innocence, she has. Were she in high school I think this would be somewhat easier, but she just started middle school. She’s still more concerned with cute things like otters and puppies, with colored pencils and candy, with funny movies, braiding her hair, and getting good grades. She hates attention, even falsely-perceived attention. She’s pretty damn paranoid about attention, frankly. There’s those genes again.

How am I going to talk to her about making sure she’s covered up, about why that shirt is maybe a little too tight even though it feels comfortable, about why that neckline isn’t the best for her, about not accepting any boy’s random request to bend down and pick up a pencil for him, and also, about not agreeing to any jumping jack contests with anyone, especially when you are not in the gym but rather, the school cafeteria….About why the hell she has to start considering, now, at twelve, the lurking, insulting, scary, uncomfortable, unwanted, things that other people may be thinking without leaving her with a sense of shame about her body? Without leaving her with a hatred for her body? Without instilling a crippling sense of self that is incorrectly, unjustly, bound to her body?

How do I do that? Because it’s time….

A Goodbye

This morning my husband texted me and asked if I could pick up the mail one last time from his mom’s house.  It was closing day. He and his brother were headed over with the paperwork to finalize the sale with the buyer.

The sun is out for the second time this week and it’s a gorgeous drive over to her neighborhood. I pull into the driveway, park in the dappled shade of mature oak and pine trees, step out into the familiar front yard, but I can’t head over to the jasmine covered mailbox that sits at the curb in front of her house just yet.

Something pulls me to the iron, maroon-red painted gate that spans the walkway between her garage and her house.  I peer into her spacious backyard, a little neglected now, where once there was a pool that my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I stole some moments in when no one was home.  Years ago.  The image of sun-sparks playing on turquoise water and wet skin flashes past for a second. It is quickly replaced by a vision of our dogs, all three of them, sniffling and snuffling through the leaves at the base of the trees along the fence that stands between her yard and the busy street beyond.  

I glance at the small, concrete, covered back patio and see my sister-in-law sitting at the plastic table in shorts and flip-flops, my husband and his brother standing off to the side on a lazy, humid, afternoon, watching the dogs play (I think my in-laws had brought their doberman over to play with our mutts). I remember us commenting on the bird houses that were collected on the wire shelf along the wall; about how she seemed to love them.

I can almost see myself, bald-headed from chemo, posing with her and my two kids and my sister-in-law, in a corner underneath two tall pines in the back. An image of my little 18 month old niece’s sandals barely covering her chubby toes as she sat in a lawn chair her Nana put out especially for her. Chubby little feet brushing green, bristly, grass under a blue sky. 

I look back up the driveway and remember nights parked here after a movie or a dinner, my husband’s cat, TJ, the only one who refused to stay in the house, sitting on the roof of the car. Poking a paw down through the sun roof left open for the moon.

I’m almost stunned by how many memories are flooding into my head.  I think about how many more memories could flood through my husband’s and his brother’s. 

I can’t help but gaze at the spot at her backdoor that led to this moment. The tan doormat with it’s ivy-colored border and it’s floral motif. The water hose still curled like a sleeping snake next to it.  That stupid, vile, ultimately deadly, hose.

My mother-in-law and I always seemed to have a somewhat, shall we say, tense, relationship. I never felt that I was quite what she had in mind for a daughter-in-law. Oh, there are stories, there are examples, there were resentments, misunderstandings, awkwardnesses. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  I know we had two things very much in common: love for her son and love for her grandchildren.

I didn’t realize how much I depended on her, needed her, appreciated her, took her presence, no matter how it could rub me the wrong way or how much mine could do the same to her, for granted. How much I actually loved her until my husband called me from the hospital that day when she was supposed to be coming out of surgery.

It was ripped out of me, how much I felt all of that; violently ripped out as a scream I barely recognized as coming from myself. I couldn’t contain it even if I had tried, couldn’t hide it from the children poking their faces into the refrigerator just feet from me in the kitchen.  We wailed for what seems like hours.  This was not what was supposed to have happened.  This was not how her back surgery was supposed to have gone.

She’s gone. Physically. She’s gone. Her house still stands. But, it is now gone from our life too. No more Christmas mornings there. No more Thanksgivings. Despite the grumblings over things that families grumble over, the unspoken opinions of each other’s decisions or taste or whatever that somehow leak out the sides, despite everything, burn it all away…I’m grateful that love remains.  I’m grateful that the night before her surgery, my last words to her, which I never before had uttered over the 20 years that I knew her, were “I love you”.

I stand in front of her house, wishing I had spoken them more.  I say them aloud now. “I love you. We love you. We miss you”.  

I get into my car and the classical music station that I was listening to pops back on.  The announcer mentions something about the title of the song about to play. What was that? I push the info button (new technology is amazing, I have to say) to double-check the title.

“Hellos and Goodbyes”.

I honestly felt like she was there, telling me something. Reassuring me of something. 

She knows.