Monday, December 29, 2014

Popcorn on the Floor

I don’t know how or where my mom met Eva.
What I remember is walking three blocks to her house, to sit on her tiny living room floor, watching TV and eating popcorn. Her husband Ivan sat there with us. He smelled like smoke and was always in a white t-shirt, blue jeans and bare feet. He taught me the only way to eat popcorn was with butter: real butter. This was long before shaker flavors, but margarine was sneaking its way onto the American dinner table. Not at Ivan and Eva’s house. I’m grateful to him for that lesson long into my aging years.
If it ain’t butter, don’t bother. I really liked Ivan.
I have to add here….with a bit of a chuckle and roll of my eyes……in an ironic and almost comical way, the slithery ribbon of memory that winds its way throughout the years of my childhood, is frequently rainbow striped. My overly-poetic way of saying: in my young life it seemed, everywhere I turned around, stood a secretly gay man. Living on the down-low is what we'd call it now.
Ivan was one of them.
“He has a….probbbbbblem…..” I heard my mom say to her friend about her husband, and I remembered the puzzled look on Eva’s face as she sucked a lung full and blew smoke out the side of her mouth to avoid losing me and my sister in a cloud.
“A problem?”
That’s all I remember of the conversation. At the time I’m sure I thought she meant…..well, I have no idea what I thought she meant, but at the tender age of maybe 10, my concept of problems didn’t necessarily default to scandalous sexual relationships between men who fussed over ladies hair in the salon where my mom got her hair permed. I’m pretty sure my grade-school frame of reference probably led me to think Ivan had the measles. Or something.
Well. He didn’t have measles, at least that wasn’t the problem to which my mother referred. She was alluding to the fact that Ivan was A) Married and cheating on his wife B) Gay although no one would use that word in that context until a good 20 years later and C) very likely frolicking with similarly inclined men as opportunities presented themselves, read that: getting nasty with boys and that was just not a good thing for a married guy with two kids. And then of course, if all that wasn’t bad enough, Ivan also appeared to have a bad habit of eating popcorn on the living room floor with the neighbor kids and using up all the butter. A man ahead of his culinary time, he loved bacon too. He'd fry up strips of it and add it to the living room floor buffet.
 Choose your sin, Ivan was naughty.
Reflecting back to the day when closet doors were still hermetically sealed and lifestyles hadn’t even become lifestyles yet, the truth was: Ivan was a homosexual man, hiding in a heterosexual marriage and getting what he truly wanted, when he could, on the side. Lest you think my mom (or I) was or am homophobic (another word no one had ever spoken way back then) the answer would be no. But my Dad was gay, too. We’d been through some stuff. We got educated. Don’t get me started. My Dad was a great guy too, but for a while there things were kind of a mess in my family while all the preferences got themselves sorted out. 
Anyway, eventually my mom proved to be right. There was some cavortin’ going on behind the shampoo bowl and Eva had to face the truth about her kids Dad. Of course, Eva ended up divorcing Ivan, despite the fact their names had such a cool ring when you said them together. Ivan and his beloved toy poodle ended up running off with another hairdresser whose Pomeranian companion was, as I recall, dyed pink.

I could go on and on.
 I won’t.
He was just as cool as my Dad and I really, really liked the guy.
I continue.
Eva and Ivan had two adorable little girls, Lindy and Teresa. Truly, they were just cute as could be: blonde and pixie-faced bundles of energy, just a couple years younger than my sister and I. With their Dad moving out of the house and the loss of his income (again, long before issues of child- support and assistance were expedited to keep moms and children in their homes with food on the table) Eva and those little girls were in a sad state of affairs.
Mom sat down on the sofa of our little rented duplex  one Sunday after church and told my little sister and I we were about to begin a really fun, exciting adventure! Eva and the girls were moving in with us!
Our duplex residence was a three bedroom place, half of what used to be a very small neighborhood grocery. A wall down the middle of the place created two apartments and we lived in the larger side. The bedrooms were situated down a long hallway of hardwood. The first was large enough to accommodate a set of bunk beds and a chair, the second just a bit larger in that a dresser could be squeezed into the space and the third, way down at the end of that hallway, was the size of a postage stamp. I remember my mom’s double bed just fit; just. No room to walk around it, you could slide into the room sideways, drop your bottom onto the bed and swing your feet up just-so, without knocking your heels against the door. It was tricky. But cozy, as I recall.
And pretty. My mom had a floral bedspread in a wildly scattered pattern of vivid blues and purples. I’ve no clue how long she had it, but smoothed and tucked around the bed in that closet of a room, it made the room look elegant. The only other details I remember about the room is how tightly that bed was pushed up against an odd-sized window. And the little devotional book, Streams in the Desert, that mom kept on the headboard next to a small lamp. I would venture a guess now, with my adult eyes, it was the one place where she could find respite, and perhaps comfort, after tiring days of working long hours and raising two little girls on her own. Many Saturday mornings I can remember running down that long hall after watching cartoons and jumping on the bed in that tiny room to wake mom up.
Friends were moving in with us. A big adventure!
It was decided that Eva would take my mom’s tiny room. My sister and the two little girls would take the room at the end of the hall and I would have my own space in the remaining room. Mom would take her bedspread and pillow to the front of the house; she would be sleeping in the living room on the floor.
At the time, I doubt I even heard….or cared…where mom or any of us would be sleeping. All my sister and I knew was that our little friends would be coming to live with us and they had a puppy. We had a hamster but we’d always wanted a puppy. Happy, happy days were just around the corner. I wonder now if that’s how my mom felt.
Eva’s dresser stood in the hallway because her room was too tiny. The top of it was covered with her collection of dangly, colorful earrings and cigarette lighters. She never smoked in the house ~ mom’s rules. But the whole picture fascinated me and my raised-in-a-Bible-thumping-church curiosity. My mother was exquisitely beautiful, but conservative. Eva was pretty. She was also bleached, teased, sprayed, polished and decked out in the latest fashions. She had friends who would stop by and try and teach she and my mom to dance. Keep in mind, it was an era where my sister and I were grooving in our stocking feet with the Where The Action Is dancers every afternoon in front of the TV after school. We had some serious moves. The older ladies attempt to learn The Pony in front of God and everyone driving past the living room windows in the evening?
More than a little embarrassing. Those girls had NO rhythm.
I remember two things about Christmas the year we all lived together. In a close brush with death by pine needling, we nearly lost mom in the middle of the night when our cat knocked over the decorated tree and she was impaled by a dozen tiny glass reindeer and a tree full of shattered Christmas balls in various, festive colors. 
 Fortunately, we were able to extract her from the mess and the holiday was saved.
I also remember, Mom gave Eva $100 to buy Christmas presents for her girls that year. She couldn’t afford the $100 she gave to her friend. My mom was always broke and worried about where the rent money was going to come from.
She just did it because it was the right thing to do.
And that’s my point.
My mom taught me to do the right things, even when it would seem to be easier not to do so. I carry those lessons with me today as I find myself making similar decisions. Not because I’m some sort of saint….I’m not and neither was my mom. She had a tough childhood, her share of struggles as an adult and she had plenty of stories of her own. But consistently, through it all, she was a person who endeavored always, to do the right thing.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Rest of the Story:
Ivan, the frilly hairdresser eventually died. His poodle died first, of course. I think they both got hit by cars. No really, I honestly think that’s what happened. Different cars on different days but yeah, the ol’ tire tattoo for them both. The whole drama seems befitting in a way since he was as stereotypically animated and flamboyant a gay fellow as you could possibly imagine. He was just a great, fun guy and I’m pretty sure he would have approved of an exit with a bit of flair rather than something banal like, say, a bad case of the flu. Seriously, though. He was the best. Consider it:  Popcorn. On the living room floor. Drowwwwwwned in butter. Feeding bits to the dog while we ate. What’s not to love about a neighbor/Dad like that? I’ll never forget those fun nights and even though I hadn't seen him in decades, I was sad to hear he died, though heartily cheering the newsworthy manner of his exit.
Eva and the girls? Well, in an unfortunate side note, their dog ate our hamster one ill-fated night when the little stinker managed to sneak out of his cage. They moved out shortly thereafter, though I don't think the incidents were necessarily related. Although we really did like that hamster.

Tragic rodent events aside, Eva squared herself away nicely to raise those two girls, buy a nice little house and eventually move to North Carolina where she retired early for health reasons. No big surprise here, sad nonetheless because she really was a nice lady…… she eventually died of emphysema. Eva had a great laugh and I’ll never forget it. Deep and crusty from way down in her throat, I realize now it was the black-lung laugh of someone who never managed to put down her smokes. Sad. Her life was too short. But I have often looked back to wonder how Eva and her girls lives might have turned out differently if my mom hadn’t opened her heart and her home and her purse to them all those years ago. Mom was a grand encourager and believer in all things positive and wonderful. I think my mom was a turning point in their lives.
She was in mine too. She was a good lady who had a tough, crazy life-story of her own, who ~ I gotta be honest, got a wee bit weird later on in life ~ but it was no big deal. She was my mom. She taught me good things. I tried to do right by her until the day she died.
 No matter what, I just try to do the right thing. I don't always measure up, but I try.

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