Thursday, November 5, 2009


Within a couple of months of our leaving Salt Lake and my starting work in Santa Barbara my mother, Maggy, called to announce her arrival time at the Santa Barbara Airport. She'd been waiting for an invitation, but this was a good time for her. She'd be staying for a week. Every time I sucked in breath to object she just kept on talking and once she'd given me the time of her arrival she hung up. I stood there with the phone to my ear and my mouth hanging open. Charlie gave me an ominous look and went back to reading the paper.

It was a weeklong nightmare of tension, barely disguised hostility, and passive aggression. I tried to referee, to be diplomatic. But she was at her worst. Charlie began to find excuses to leave when she and I were there. When I went to work, she drove down the canyon with me, criticizing my driving and the horribly dangerous road I had to travel. I gnashed my teeth and slowed down.

When she thought it should be lunchtime she would come and camp outside my office until I could leave with her. Then, after lunch she wanted to shop with me. I was, after all, the personal shopper, whose poster-sized photo graced every entrance of the store and whose photograph was in every ad placed in the News Press. I was supposed to tour her through the store and introduce her to everyone like she was visiting royalty. It was the hardest I ever had to work at that job. At the end of that week I collapsed into a stress-induced coma.

When she left I got sick. It took Charlie and me two weeks to recover and get back to normal. When we were finally able to talk about the visit (without Charlie's attack and my reflexive defense) we agreed that we'd better be prepared for her with some limits, some ground-rules, because she'd do whatever she could get away with. We even wrote them down.

1. Maggy may not come for an uninvited visit more than once a year.
2. When visiting, she must sleep in the downstairs guest bedroom, so that when she gets up at five a.m., she can read the paper, or a book, without waking us. (The oak plank flooring of the upper level creaked if you shifted from hip to hip while sleeping on the futon. It boomed like a drum if you walked, even barefoot).
3. She may not criticize or rearrange the contents of drawers or cupboards, nor ask permission to do so.
4. If she requires a garlic free environment, she will have to stay in a motel when visiting. If she chooses to stay where garlic is used in cooking, she may not complain about the horror of its odor.

Two months later we came home to this message on the answering machine. "Hi, sorry you aren't there. I have a job interview in Santa Barbara in a week. Here's the flight information. See you soon." Charlie and I argued for that entire week. He was furious. I was terrified.

That visit was the first time I knew my future with Charlie was nearing its end. She was more awful than I'd even thought possible--and I knew her well. She aggressively ignored our rules for compatible house guests. She insisted on sleeping upstairs on the futon. She got up at four thirty, instead of her usual five, and made coffee. Then she thumped her way into the upstairs bathroom where she flushed the toilet at least two or three times, before thumping her way back to the kitchen for coffee. She slammed cupboard doors. She slammed the fridge door. She stomped down the stairs, slamming the front door behind her on her way down the drive to check for the paper. Twice she did this. When we finally gave up and got out of bed, her first words to Charlie were, "You sure do have shitty paper delivery." To which he did not respond. She said it again, as if he hadn't heard her.
"I heard you the first time, Maggy."
"Why didn't you respond?"
"It wasn't a question and required no response." He took his coffee and what he could gather up of the ravaged paper out to the patio, quietly closing the door behind him.

I tried to keep her away from the house and in town. I took her to my favorite restaurants. She was impressed that I was well known, greeted by owners, taken to a good table ahead of people waiting in line. Other diners smiled at me, other waiters came to our table to say hi and chitchat. Maggy said, "You must over-tip."

Finally it was Sunday and I didn't have to work. I started planning a way to get her out of the house, so we could have some peace, maybe figure out a way to survive this visit. "How would you like to take my car and get familiar with Santa Barbara? You can do anything you want. Check out the address of the place where you're going to interview. See if it's somewhere interesting."
"That's a good idea. Let's get ready."
"I want to stay here. I have a lot to do today to get ready for my workweek. Charlie and I have some social plans during the week we need to work out. You go ahead. Maybe there'll be a movie playing in town you might want too see."
"Trying to get rid of me, huh? Ok, I can take a hint. I'll call before I come back to see if it's safe."
"Thanks." I handed her the keys and went back to bed.

Charlie had been working with our closest neighbor to clear brush, hoping to save both houses when the fire came. We were at the end of seven years of drought with no end in sight. Charlie's house was pretty well protected, but there was a huge eucalyptus forest, large stands of bay trees, Pacific Madrones with their naked red trunks just down the steep slope from the house which sat atop a knoll. We had old twisted oak stands. Charlie's property boundary bordered on National Park forested land. Charlie's neighbor's place was a thicket of dry brush too close to the house. It would explode in a fire. Our house was stucco and had a tile roof. It was surrounded with rough stonework patio. His neighbor's house was wood shingles and crowded with shade trees. It was serious work. And fire was a certainty. It was when, not if there'd be a fire. So their day would start early and it would be backbreaking. I was going to change our bed, do the laundry, make soup and placate Charlie when he took a lunch break. Due to the nature of the work, he would not be cheery at lunch anyway, but he was going to be especially surly today.

I decided on a huge pot of clam chowder, hoping that there would be some left for early in the week. While I was cooking, a friend of Charlie's, who grew organic tomatoes for the farmer's market, came by with a couple of bushels of fresh picked tomatoes for us. He asked how things were going, and when I told him, he offered to hang around and help with the brush clearing and the mother taming. I invited him to eat with us, but warned him that my mother was unpredictable.

"I'm known for charming the most difficult mothers."
"Good luck, you're going to need it with her." He left the house following the whine of chainsaws. I got ready to make tomato sauce.

Before two-thirty, Maggy was back with a sack of cleaning equipment. When I asked her what she was planning to clean she said, "I wanted to take a shower and the upstairs bathroom doesn't have one. But the mold and soap scum downstairs makes me sick, so I'm going to clean the shower."

I added extra garlic to the red sauce simmering on the stove in the kitchen. By the time she got the downstairs bathroom clean enough for her high standards and had taken her shower, the guys were coming in for a break. I had four beers out of the fridge and ready to open as they walked in the patio door to the kitchen. Mac, the tomato guy, and Jason the hunk across the road who worked for the corrections department as a counselor for the really hard cases, all came in filthy and grateful for the beer. My mother watched and listened from the dinning room table where she pretended to read a magazine.

Mac went to the sauce and took a sip from the spoon on the stove. He made all the appropriate umm, aahh, sounds. I was washing a few of the biggest tomatoes to serve as a side dish with the clam chowder for lunch. Charlie walked over to the remaining basket and selected a tomato. He ran it under the tap, sprinkled a little salt on it and ate it in two or three bites, juice dripping his chin. I felt my mouth fill with saliva and did the same. It was wonderful. They were like the tomatoes I always grew--juicy and full of acid, rich with flavor, tender of skin and warm, just hours from the vine.

Maggy could stand it no more. She slapped the magazine down on the table and walked into the kitchen. She watched me finish wiping juice off my chin and said, "I'm a real, honest to god, connoisseur of tomatoes. Why don't you amateurs make way for a real pro?"

Charlie gave me a look I could only take as a warning. When she moved toward the basket to make her selection, I held my breath. Jason had heard stories from Charlie about Maggy and held back, in the doorway. Mac was the only one in the room who looked fearless and frankly delighted. He beamed at his basket of freshly picked tomatoes, exuding pride from every pore.
Maggy handled them as if she were searching for the one worthy of her attention. She smelled several and rejected them, wrinkling her nose in disgust. At last she made her selection. She held it as if it were a glass of red wine, up to the light, like it might shine through. Then she rinsed it and carefully dried it on a clean dishtowel. She held it to her nose and inhaled deeply. "It doesn't smell like a tomato."

I refused to make eye contact with Charlie--could feel him looking at me, could feel him sending me the message, "You better put a muzzle on her, now!" I kept my eyes on Mac, who, despite this elaborate set-up for a gratuitous put-down, still looked hopeful.

When she was sure the moment was right she leaned over the sink and bit into what looked like a perfect, vine-ripened specimen of an organic tomato. With juice dripping from her chin, she wrinkled up her nose, and spat her mouthful into the sink. Mac looked absolutely stricken. His face was pale, his mouth slightly open, eyes full of disbelief. Her final words were, after rinsing and wiping her mouth, "It tastes just like horse-shit smells. What did you use for fertilizer, fresh horse-shit?"
"No, I used all-organic mulch."
"Horse-shit's organic."