Fifty Sh…Candles of Birth

I blame my mother. And Kevin. Blame is a vastly underrated source of dodging real issues or even imagined ones. And as I approach my fifty-fourth birthday, I have issues a-plenty. I pray that perhaps I have even learned to laugh at myself a bit (again, a vastly underrated coping skill).

Kevin and his 1970’s mustard yellow gold van stood proudly in my grandparents’ driveway. He was proud. Early twenties. The van’s interior was blanketed in brown shag carpeting. It was 1982 and the last time I would see him alive. As children, Kevin was the cousin who would grab my favorite, a stuffed toy Snoopy, then proceed to entertain me with a singing, talking, dancing dog. Kevin was also the cousin – that member of the family – who continually experimented and found himself in various forms of trouble in his short life. He was adorable and brilliant. At least to a teenage girl who knew him to be one of the funniest people she had ever known.

Of course the mustard van had a stereo. (I wonder what he named it?) With equal pride, he showed off the van’s original attributes and his customizing fixes to the engine. As if memory needed a soundtrack, “Southern Cross” played as he guided us through the van’s details.


“Southern Cross” is one of those Crosby, Stills and Nash songs you hear just enough to recognize but not enough to ruin it. You know? On my forty minute commute, I prize these summer days when I can drive to drive. My new route is a winding road which passes a lovely lake dotted with cottages, two small towns, a creek which fosters eagles and cranes and my daydreams of fly fishing, and a tavern located on the pine tree-laden intersection of country roads H and Q. Together the signs look like a forest basecamp with equal numbers of four wheelers and pickup trucks . I always wonder at the music at bar HQ. And it’s real name.

As the song played, I remembered my cousin Kevin, whose twenty-one year old diabetic body could not withstand his experiments. And I kept driving and remembering.


Red, yellow, green, and blue zigzagged in a geometric maze pattern, from ankle to thigh. They were not gentle or subtle. I slipped them over the perfectly faded jeans I had reclaimed from my brother. I added my brand new dark green smocked flannel shirt. My mother and I worked on the combination together. It complemented the zigzags of the legwarmers perfectly.

And cowboy boots. Please. Do not forget the cowboy boots.

It was 1978. And I was a thirteen year old eighth grader getting dressed for school. My mother not only encouraged independence, she demanded it. I loved the clothes she and I picked out, but I was deathly afraid of the uncomfortableness of not matching anyone. I had a group of friends, sure. And it was right about this time when those friends changed. I did not particularly enjoy dressing differently but I did enjoy clothes. My mother and I would find marvelous outfits at resale shops – from classic wool suits to gorgeous tweed skirts.

I do not remember ever being laughed at, although the occurrence of laughter was probable. I do remember one choir teacher chiding me for wearing my brother’s faded jeans. Of course that made me both want to wear them all the more as well as feel resolute that I would never measure up in her eyes.

Sigh. Oh, the mind and spirit of thirteen…

I retold the story to a friend who was appalled at the thought of a mother pushing her early teen-aged daughter away from socially acceptable norms for her age. I suppose that could be correct. I am no psychiatrist.

But as I drove the forty minutes to work, I fondly remembered those legwarmers. Smiling I could recall the unease, an awkwardness so deep it had crawled in my blood and bones. I remembered the desire of studying, wearing my clothes and my love for ballet. They were all things which were a part of me but I shared with no one. I had forgotten about those legwarmers. My dear Mother. We are the classic mother/daughter storm of a relationship.

A dandelion, sometimes a lilac.

But the memory answered a question which has haunted me these last five years. I would wonder at, now the comfort of boldness. Where did I ever learn it?

Oh yes. Mother. My mother. What a bizarre part of memory and an even more bizarre fixation of my development. Is that how it all works? Is that how a person develops? Maybe my friend correctly assessed the impact of my mother’s actions to be harmful for a daughter’s social development. (Well, that would answer a few mysteries, personally speaking.)

As I drove, I smiled at the recollection. It made me sit up straighter. My mother in all her terrifying force – at least in the memory of seeing her through my thirteen year old eyes – made my fifty-three year old shoulders jump back, my chin tuck down a bit and the return of a smile I had not seen mirrored to me in decades. It was a return of strength to my battered soul after years of gut wrenching change and after decades of a struggle for acceptance that was torturous.

Now I drove along a northern Wisconsin highway with a smile I had not seen for what felt like forever. And tears. That spirit of my mother comforted me as only her Godgiven gift could.

Fifty-four. Almost. Shhh. Fifty-plus shades, er, I mean candles.. Yeah, that is what I meant.

Lots of love and a kiss to bless,


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