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It’s My Life

Winners of The Independent’s Memoir Contest


In fall of 2011, The Santa Barbara Independent put out a request for memoir submissions from the community. We received heaps of entries, many of them touchingly personal, some of them funny. After much deliberation, we declared three winners — David J. Lawrence, for his comical take on military mustaches; Cynthia Carbone Ward, for her wistful piece about a childhood toy; and Dairine Pearson, for her heartrending memory of saying farewell to her mother. Read on, and enjoy!

Reclamation

by Cynthia Carbone Ward

He was mine once, and he completed me. I loved his cheery, unflappable demeanor, his unblinking gaze, the mouth that never ceased to smile. There was pink in his cheeks, perkiness to his little black nose, and dignity in his widow’s peak. His four-fingered yellow-gloved hands hung passively at his side, forever empty and unclenched, and he held his arms in a way that suggested a willingness to be hugged. He was a little bit squishy without being plump, and he had long ago lost his clothing but was self-possessed even in his underpants.

I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but my Mickey Mouse appeared to have attained a permanent state of enlightenment. He was downright Buddha-like, and if I didn’t exactly rub his belly, I certainly enjoyed giving him a squeeze now and then, which released a small, satisfying squeak. I realized that he was a baby-toy, and I didn’t tote him around in public, but I liked knowing he was there.

At the advanced age of 7, however, having been Mickey’s owner for as long as I could remember, I came home one day to discover him gone. In an impulsive gesture of munificence that at the same time underscores the difficulties my family had with concepts such as boundaries, privacy, and personal possessions, my mother had given him away to a 3-year-old boy who lived next door. I was outraged and heartbroken. “How dare you?” I sobbed. She seemed genuinely surprised. She hadn’t known how much I loved that rubber Mickey Mouse. Nor did I. In fact, it is quite possible that the theft and giving away of him are what transformed the small glow of my affection into a veritable conflagration. My heart swelled with unprecedented passion for the beloved rubber toy.

“I didn’t realize you still played with it,” my mother said. Her words only made me angrier. Even then I suspected there might be some protocol about asking the owner before giving away her belongings. I suspected, too, that generosity with someone else’s possessions did not carry as many points in God’s book of Genuine Good Deeds. Even more exasperating was the fact that my mother was a legendary hoarder and quite resistant to parting with stuff; I wondered what had come over her and why it had to happen with my Mickey.

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I cried and cried, and the melodrama would have played itself out and whimpered away, but my mother did the next awful thing: She telephoned the mother of the little boy next door and told her that I was terribly upset and wanted my rubber Mickey Mouse back.

Oh, the neighbor gave it back to me, all right. She knocked on the door, Mickey in tow, and asked to speak to me directly. “I thought you were a nicer girl than this,” she said, “and I thought you were a big girl, but here’s your baby-toy back, and you’ve taken it away from a little boy, and I hope you’re happy.” I wasn’t happy at all.

I took Mickey back, but all I felt was embarrassment and shame as he looked at me with his blank, benign eyes and smiled his meaningless smile. I squeezed him half-heartedly and the little squeak sounded pathetic. He had lost his power to calm me and cheer me, and it suddenly seemed he should belong to someone else. He had been my very first toy — or the first I could remember — and when I was a child, I thought as a child, but now I was a big girl and must put away childish things.

Perhaps the gap in me that never goes away has something to do with my abruptly truncated relationship with Mickey Mouse. Which might explain the weird elation I experienced when I saw him lying in a showcase at a thrift store in Solvang the other day. I asked the white-haired woman behind the counter if I could hold him for a moment. “Oh, yes,” she said, “Vintage 1950s!” I told her that long ago I’d owned one exactly like this.

“Twenty dollars,” said the lady. “You can have him again.”

I declined. He was a rubber Mickey, nothing more. I pictured myself bringing him home, stuffing him into a drawer somewhere just to know I owned him. I couldn’t see the point of it. Who needs another object to remind us what’s been lost? I knew I could never reclaim it.

Farewell, Mother

by Dairine Pearson

My mother wasn’t good with good-byes. After my father died in a plane crash when I was 2 years old, all her subsequent partings were tinged with barely hidden fears and worries. As a child, I could feel her dread that the everyday separations like the off-to-school good-bye, or the vacation-trip farewell, could take a turn toward the foreverness of grief.

Multiple losses and her genetic legacy made my mother old before her time. When she died at a still-young 72, dementia had swallowed her whole. A series of strokes had cleared out her best and finest features, each vascular event bringing in its wake a new deficit and a new word starting with the letter “A”: alexia, the inability to read; aphasia, loss of speech; agnosia, difficulty in recognizing objects; anorexia, loss of appetite.

Also anger. Before she was completely decimated by her illness, my mother became furious. Her anger began with mood swings and fierce indignation at unseen slights; deepened with accusations toward her children of theft and abandonment; then blossomed into fury at her caregivers and at the world. I feared her anger above all. What child doesn’t fear a parent’s rage?

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Courtesy Photo

Private-duty caregivers were hired, then they quickly quit, refusing to attend to her variable moods. One told me, quitting particularly soon after being hired, that there was “no excuse” for my mother’s behavior. No excuse, I thought, but plenty of reasons. I pictured my mom walking down a country road of her youth, her back in my view as she walked slowly away, dropping from a large basket all her possessions one by one at the side of the road. She was losing everything.

At the height of my mother’s volatile angry period, her sweet younger sister offered the hope that when my mother got worse, it might be better, because if she were more sick and frail, she might be easier to manage. I appreciated the honesty and bleakness of this prediction, and it came true. Later, she was less enraged although still not at peace. A new A-word, agitation, gripped her at times, and she would search the house frantically and point, but no one knew what she was trying to find.

During my last visit with her, in the season leading up to Christmas, I bathed and dressed her, took her on brief outings, fed her small meals. She had few words left and the effort to understand me or make herself understood was deeply upsetting to her, so we did not talk much. I knew I was leaving soon, flying back home to Santa Barbara, to a healthy loving family, to warmth and hope. I knew all it would take was one more stroke and she would be gone. I knew I was not likely to be in this strange place again, where geographically distant daughter visits and attends to distant demented mother — a regretful, sad, hopeless place. To tell the truth, as my visit neared its end, I looked forward to leaving.

That night, as I tucked her into bed, she seemed more settled for once, no agitation or fear. How does one talk about death to someone in that altered, removed place? How does one talk about love? I knew this was it. Talk now, or never. In that moment, I was convinced of the necessity of expressing something, yet I had no idea what to say. About to say good night and leave her room, I turned back and sat on the bed, asking her gently to listen to me. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I know my words were about dying, and how I was soon to leave and didn’t know how much longer she had, or I had, or what may happen next to either of us. How I was sure, sure that the love I had for her and the love she had for me was something certain, something permanent. And I wanted her to know this: I would always, always hold that love within me. No matter what.

Did she understand what I was saying? She was very still, sitting up in bed. Her shoulders were pulled back against the pillows and her face was alive, animated, searching mine for meaning. Her eyes shone in the light of the bedside lamp, her pale jade, aqua-green eyes. All she could say, she whispered over and over: Yes, yes, yes.

Give a Guy an Inch

by David J. Lawrence

Among my other deployment epiphanies: The deployment mustache is not a shortcut to cool. There’s just something about being half a world away, with severely limited sartorial choices, which compels some men to take grave style risks with facial hair. In brief, it never pans out. Among the reasons is the fact that U.S. military regulations regarding facial hair are so Draconian as to guarantee style disaster: miserly limitations on bulk, length, and width. Who made Charlie Chaplin the standard-bearer for regulation mustaches in the U.S. Military?

Despite these restrictions, however, military members — especially officers — insist on trying to pull them off. Most men either wind up looking like they’ve done a terrible job channeling Clark Gable; they’d only need an ascot, cigarette holder, and a 1940s mid-Atlantic accent to close the deal. Or they wind up reprising 17-year-old versions of themselves; the majority of those trying to rock the ’stache are in their late twenties and thirties. Evidently too much time has elapsed for them to remember their previously aborted attempts at tufty upper-lip smudges.

“Yeah,” they must say to themselves at the beginning of this fur-journey, “It may not have looked that great when I was 17. But I’m a man now.” No. You’re a putz.

I’m not one to talk, though. The night before I deployed, I took clippers to my head. Probably not a good move for a guy with “a forehead so big you could land a plane on it,” as my college roommate used to say. Also not good to do so without running it by the missus. She was mortified. I thought I could rock it like Bruce Willis or Jason Statham. Clearly, I flattered myself. But I’ll give myself credit for thinking on my feet while trying to undo the damage.

“It’s like a calendar on my head,” I pleaded with her. “Every day it’ll grow back a little more,” I continued. “Every time I look in the mirror to shave, or to brush my teeth, it’ll be a little bit longer, and it’ll mean I’m one day closer to being back with you.” None of those things, of course, had occurred to me as I watched huge tufts of my hair go tumbling into the wastebasket I’d placed in the bathroom sink. But the ruse worked.

She didn’t dig my new coif, however. Not by a long shot. And I think she may have begun to mistrust the earnest-sounding reasoning I originally gave her. A week or so after I’d arrived in country, she and I were Skyping, and she noticed my regulation-challenging sideburns. In all the time we’d been married, she never wavered from her firm belief that I had no business “going all rockabilly.” Busted. So, half a world away, I lopped them off. Yessir, those follicular hockey sticks must go. Elvis, as they say, has left the building.

The whole facial hair obsession is compounded by being garrisoned with soldiers from other countries who don’t endure the same crosses U.S. servicemen must bear. Some of these guys look like they’ve stepped from the pages of a Civil War history book. Ulysses S. Grant? You got him. Robert E. Lee? Coming up. George Pickett? Charge! I, for one, greatly envied them.

There were those who looked ridiculous, to be sure. A friend and I were walking to the gym when we saw a morbidly obese Canadian captain waddling toward us. “Wait ’til you get a load of this load,” Tim said. Behold: a neatly waxed handlebar mustache. Bad enough in principal. But on this tubbaguts? To borrow an old Judy Tenuta punch line, it was like being a bad outfielder with a paisley mitt. Tim and I roared with laughter after we’d walked past. I mean doubled-over, tears-in-our-eyes paroxysms of laughter.

“I told you, man,” Tim said, barely catching his breath. “Yukon Effing Cornelius.”

“Snidely Effing Whiplash,” I countered.

“Rollie Effing Fingers,” Tim replied, not wanting to be outdone.

Our sides ached, tears streamed down our faces. “You think that’s bad,” Tim said, finally gaining an element of composure, “you should see the Canadian major who waxes his ’stache and his eyebrows. Seriously. He looks like something out of a Wizard of Oz casting call.”

Maybe those U.S. regulations on facial hair make sense after all. Give a guy an inch, he’ll take two or three — and possibly wax them.

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