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Public Assistance, Just That Easy


I find myself in the very uncomfortable position of jumping through a series of higher and higher-held hoops – some of them flaming – to get my little family some breathing room from the state. Uncomfortable, because it REALLY wasn’t supposed to be like this, but justified because, dammit, because I’ve paid into the system for decades.

Just wish they had that swell language assistance for their English forms…

It’s Hard to Be the Cool Mom From 400 Miles Away

I’d never set a goal to be The Cool Mom – shoot, never set a goal to be a Mom, but stuff happens – so I kind of surprised myself when I realized that I missed my kid, but also missed her friends when they all took off for college. They’re quite a collection of characters, and I’ll always be happy to know that their friends have felt comfortable enough in our home to raid the fridge without asking, that they could name and loved all of our pets, and that counted on our family as an extension of their own.

It goes back to their elementary school days. Sure, I always had a full-time job, but found time to volunteer in the kids’ classrooms. And, sure, the girls were mortified when I showed up for their Hallowe’en parties, tricked out in crinolines and a Marge Simpson wig – what else would the Tooth Fairy wear – with little toothbrushes for earrings and a necklace made of floss, handing out sample-sized tubes of Crest instead of candy. And sure, it was fun the time we made Rice Krispie treats in the shape of giant Hershey Kisses, wrapped them in foil and turned the little paper tab into the girls’ Valentine messages.

Fun until I heard another parent as I crossed the playground snark, “What’s Martha-freaking-Stewart come up with THIS time?” as she carried in a box of chocolate-chip cookies, made holiday special with red sprinkles.

Wait a minute! You’re threatened by ME? As a Mom? Can’t be, I’m no role model. I was a cocktail waitress, for Chrissakes. I swear like a longshoreman when I stub a toe and don’t care who hears it! I have a full time job – I’m no kind of Mom.

My kids sometimes thought it was weird as we were working on those classroom projects, but they always were “we” efforts. If one of the kids came up with an idea for a treat or a party or some craft item just for the hell of it, we’d give it a shot together. Witches’ hands made of popcorn for your Hallowe’en party? You betcha! Let’s go buy a box of clear plastic gloves and see how they turn out. But you’re going to help.

Soft sculpture fairy wands for party favors for your birthday? Why not? Home Depot has a sale on 1/4” dowel rods, and I’ve got a bucket of glitter and nowhere else to use it!

Set up a craft table out back just for days your friends want to come over after school? I’m in! I’d never set out to be a Mom’s-mom but, by cracky, once I had the job I was going to take my best shot at it. Other parents may have been snarky about it, but the ones who mattered – my daughters and their friends – loved it.

And that carried on through their High School and beyond. Their friends know us and seem to like spending time with our family.

Strange to think it, but my daughter and I have grown closer in the months since she left for the dorm life; the responsibilities of looming adulthood now on her shoulders, and the  day-to-day cares now hers, not mine. We’re somehow freer to talk (OK, text) about things that matter and – better still – things that don’t. She’s never been one much for small talk, which is one way in which we differ. Both kids have always found it embarrassing that Mom can chat up anyone, anywhere, and <shudder> enjoys doing it. Especially when the chattees were their friends. “Mom, do you think you could dial it back this time when Jessica comes over?”  Sorry, Kitten, but it’s my house, and my rules. People will feel welcome. Always.

And so, it’s come to this. Our first Christmas break from university, and my daughter is home for the month. We’ve seen the parade of her lifelong pals, all back in town from their far-flung academic adventures. All laughing in the living room or crowded around the fire pit in the back yard, swapping stories that are so different from one another’s but with a common thread of shared lifetimes. It makes me very, very happy.  As a bonus, though, there are new friends!  My daughter’s college roommate is here for the weekend. Even though she grew up in Orange County, less than an hour away, she’d never been to L.A.  I’m not judging, but… REALLY?

Anyway, Savannah’s showing her “her L.A.,” and hoping not to scare the girl. She seems pretty sweet, and they went out with some of my daughter’s high school pals this evening – Venice, I think –  hoping she didn’t scare the girl.  Time to forge new familiarities, and I’m glad to be a part of it again.

As a bonus, though, since this was a “new friend” rather than one of the usual old ones, my daughter went on a cleaning binge before her roomie got here. Top to bottom, cleaning products used, surfaces dusted, floors swept and vacuumed. Wow. I took care of the kitchen – I’m fussy about my kitchen – but when the kids were done with their room and the rest of the house, it was like a little Christmas miracle.

I wonder if I can invite more of her college pals into the fold…


The Gift That Keeps on Giving

I receive mailers from my daughter’s school occasionally, reminding me that my teen will feel loved and missed if she gets care packages from home. Naturally, they have a service where all you need is a credit card and they’ll take care of it for you. They even have holiday themes!

I really wanted Savannah’s first care package to be MUCH more meaningful than that, so I sent her all of the crap she’d left in my car.

Moving In, Moving Out, Moving On

OK, so it’s established pretty clearly that I’m nobody’s nominee for Mother of the Year.

I love my kids, no doubt, and would do almost anything for them. At the same time, when so many women rhapsodize about everything that motherhood has done FOR them – fulfilled them, given them purpose, completed them as a person, I’m reminded of everything the role has done TO me – exhausted me, stretched my emotional and financial resources to the breaking point, and given me an ass that can block out the sun.

Regardless your commitment to the role, there’s really nothing to compare to the day that the first one to move out finally does. My oldest daughter, I’m thrilled to say, has moved to San Francisco for college. I’m envious. I love The City and everything about it, so see this as an opportunity to visit more often. I just have to remember to let her know when I’m there.

She’s been gone for six weeks, but it sounds like Savannah’s experienced more in that month and a half than she did during her last year in our sleepy little suburb of Los Angeles. Getting her there, though, was no walk in the park.

Procrastination is genetic, and she IS my daughter. We’d been planning all along to load up a rental SUV and drive her up there on the third Friday in August, as that’s what she’d told me to plan for. Packing was delayed because so many friends were leaving for so many colleges that there were just far too many parties and sad goodbyes. What I’d hoped would be some family time the days before launch turned into just another summer week, except I think I saw my car – and my kid – a total of twice.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon I heard, “Oh, BALLS!” from the kids’ room, but chose to pretend I hadn’t. Parenting 101: If you ignore a swear word, it likely won’t be repeated. Make a big deal out of it, and that’s all that’ll come out of their mouths for a week.  Of course, that works when the kids are eight, not so much when they’re 18.  Within the next few minutes, I heard every swear word my own mother had taught me in Hungarian because she didn’t want me to offend strangers; some three or four times. Then a frantic teen was standing in my doorway, biting her lower lip, “Uh, Mommy?”  Mommy.  Must be major if she’s calling me Mommy. Did she not send her transcripts? Had she misread the acceptance letter? Was there no room at the inn – would she be sleeping of Grandpa’s couch first semester?

Me:  “Yes, Dear?” 

Teen:  “Umm, remember when I told you that dorm check-in was this Friday?”

Me:  “Of course, been looking forward to it for weeks.  I’m picking up the rental car on Thursday.”  All the while, thinking to myself, “Szar. Bassza. Húgy.” (It’s all Hungarian. Look it up.)

Teen:  “Umm, yeah. It’s really Thursday. And Friday they have all the student/parent welcome activities.”

Me:  “Hmm. That’s quite a conundrum.  What shall we do?”

Teen:  “Pack?”

Me:  “EXCELLENT idea!  Need any help?”

Teen:  “I’ll let you know.  Thanks.  You’re being pretty calm, by the way.”

Me:  “I started drinking on Monday, Honey.”

Luckily, all of the crap-crap that she needed to take had been purchased and was piled up in the dining room, so all Savannah really needed to pack yet was her clothes and sundries.  Lovely word, sundries. I let her take that at her own pace, but had to jump in and suggest that she pack fewer tank tops and more sweaters and fleeces. “You grew up in LA, Sweetie. It will likely not get any warmer than the coolest fall day here.”  She almost believed me, too.

Most mothers I know have a really difficult time seeing their firstborn off on this adventure, but for me the biggest challenge of moving day was packing the car. I’d reserved a mid-sized SUV, but all they had were a KIA sport something-or-other that looked like it’d barely hold our suitcases and some mini-van-looking thing that has already slipped from memory. Thank goodness I’ve never lost a game of Tetris, every cubic inch of that car was spoken for.

The day went off without a hitch, and with remarkably few tears. We’re too much alike in that regard, my Savannah and me.

I was a little worried that she’d been too sheltered in our sleepy little suburb of Eagle Rock, which sounds more bucolic than it is, but it turns out that my daughter is far and away the most urban and street-smart of the four roommates in her suite.  They’re from other suburbs in California, but all three seem to have grown up wrapped in cotton batting and sleeping in egg cartons. On their first weekend at State, they had the chance to take a tour of a neighborhood or area of The City of their choice, and the three roomies wanted to go to Golden Gate Park to see the Golden Gate Bridge. Two of them grew up in the Bay Area, FFS, but it was up to my little LA Hipster Princess to point out that the bridge was nowhere near the park.

Instead, she talked them into visiting the Haight. They were all frightened. In the Haight. In the middle of the afternoon.

Since then, Savannah’s found more people outside of her dorm room with whom she has more in common, and has been exploring The City in her free time. We talk about once a week, but she texts me every day with little comments and questions, and sometimes those conversations go on well past dinnertime. It’s odd, but this shared experience across 35 years has brought us closer than when we lived under the same roof. We had always agreed that texting from room-to-room was ridiculous, but it’s become our best communication medium across 384.8 miles!

She’s fitting in nicely in The City, and that makes me very, very happy. It was a freakishly wonderful place for me to spend my 20s, and I’m hoping the same for her – freakish wonder.

Just some days wish she didn’t have to move out to do it. 

Never Trust Anyone Outside Your Gene Pool

No, I don’t like how that sounds either. NATURALLY people who are not related by blood are trustworthy. Most of the time. We’ve all had friends who covered for us when Mom called to check in, not so much lying but stretching the truth more carefully than a Wallenda stretches steel cable across a canyon. “No, Mrs. B, she’s not here. She just walked my little sister down to 7-11 for a Slurpee.  Uh huh, cherry cola.” Sometimes the embellishments bit us in the ass, sometimes not.

Blood relatives are virtually always reliable, with some exceptions. Your siblings and, to an extent, first cousins, should always have your back.  For example, they wouldn’t tell Mom & Dad just how loaded you were the other night when they got you safely home after stopping at the 24 hour self-serve car wash when it was 7°F to hose off the frozen red wine vomit from the side of Mom’s Honda. Heck no. Just don’t try that one a second time, or lips may loosen.

With relatives by marriage – steps and in-laws – the trust factor starts to get a little dicey. Since you weren’t raised with these people, there’s sometimes no telling how they’ll react to confidences. Had an uncle by marriage who, because he and my Dad didn’t like each other, was a very useful ally in keeping the old man on his toes. Once, when the whole family was at my brother’s house for Christmas Eve, Uncle X was bored, probably hammered, and decided to fuck with the Christmas lights – kept turning up the speed on the flashers by degrees until they were set at “seizure inducing.” Pop was already out of his element in someone else’s house, therefore out of control, and he lived for control, and getting more and more agitated. He kept turning the lights back down to “normal people’s levels.” Finally he blew up, scaring the toddlers by shouting at the top of his lungs to “knock it the fuck OFF.” Too bad he directed his rage at my sister’s boyfriend, who happily took the blame by grinning at the old man and not saying a word.

Uncle X was a hoot, but really not trustworthy. He ended up leaving my aunt one morning while she was in the shower by clearing out his closet and sticking a Post-It note on her computer that read, “Sorry, I have to go.” After 35 years of wedded bliss. Up to that point, I trusted him.

Financial Trusts are another story entirely.

Whatever happened to straight-up wills? Last Wills and Testaments? They were pretty straightforward, and if written correctly, with not a lot of wiggle room.  When my Mom died in 1998, there were provisions made for all of her personal property that was of any real value, and everyone behaved in a civilized manner. I got her piano, which was a family albatross whose story is for another day, and nobody’s grief was exacerbated by haggling.  I think we all assumed that the same would happen when Pop passed, and the rest of the estate would be divided evenly among the siblings; easy-peasy.

Nobody counted on Pop’s remarriage a year later to a woman he’d dated 50 years before and miraculously found on the internet. About two years after that happy event – happy for all involved, truth told, because my Dad was so at sea when Mom died, we feared for his long-term survival – Pop and his bride made a driving tour to visit all of us and, it turns out, to lay out what they’d put together as a Living Trust. There’s that word again. Trust.

It seemed pretty simple. Pop and his wife were Trustees, and when one of them passed the mantle of responsibility would be mine in conjunction with the survivor. Pop said the Living Trust was created specifically for his grandkids’ college educations, and that any of us could request money for that purpose at any time.  For whatever reasons he had, my Dad trusted me to take care of things, and being a bit of a control freak myself, I welcomed the duty.

Then he had to go and fuck it up by dying before any of the grandkids started college.

Fast forward to January of 2011. My Dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer after years of respiratory problems and was being treated with radiation. We never talked about his prognosis, and he got decidedly grouchy when pressed with questions about his treatment. In addition to the cancer, Pop had been living with Type II Diabetes for a couple of years and was shooting up insulin twice a day. On top of all that, his harridan wife had a whole laundry list of ails, and the Lazy Susan on their dining room table was a pharmacopeia of geriatric bottles and boxes and tubes. The daily schedule of their meds taxed even an MBA in its administration. Trust me.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Over the first six months of 2011, three trips made to Tucson to help the folks with things like lawyers and doctors and bankers and caregivers and financial planners and more bankers and more doctors and, finally, home hospice. The day after the old man died, back to Tucson for round four – more bankers and lawyers and doctors and financial planners and, finally, funeral director. Many miles logged, many decisions made, much accomplished on my Dad’s behalf. Just me and my pal. Seven to ten hours a day.  The one errand that drew a balk from me, though, was when the ungrateful hag his wife said, “Stop by the Chinese restaurant that your father loved and have the owner come out to the car. I want to tell her what happened.” She didn’t ask, she ordered. That was it.

Swear to god, I didn’t snap, didn’t go off on her (not then), just said “No, Fritzi. Beth can take you over later this week.  I’m exhausted.”  She reacted as if I’d slapped her across her rubbery jowls with a hockey stick.  This was a huge violation of trust to someone who was an only child and had lived with her parents until they died, and had been spoiled by everyone in her life.  Clearly not used to hearing ‘no,’ the mask fell and exposed the base resentment that 50 wasted years had imprinted on her soul.

In other words, it got real ugly, real fast. My last words to her were “Have a nice life.” Trite, but it worked.

Time’s passed, and I haven’t spoken to the woman since the day after my father’s memorial service. Nor do I think I ever will again.

Just this week, I got a letter from Pop’s widow’s attorney spelling out the changes that she has made to the Living Trust. Those changes basically throw my father’s wishes out the window, but are kind of liberating in the process.

I never did trust the old crone.

On the 1st Day of Christmas My True Love Gave to Me, a Parking Spot in Lower Lot B

It was two days before Christmas at around 10:00 am, and I was sitting in the best parking spot at the Glendale Galleria, ready to leave and wondering what I could get for the space. I had dropped the teen off at 6:30 for work at JC Penney and had decided to up the ante on gift-giving at the last minute. Why waste the best parking spot at the mall after all? So, three hours and a couple of last-minute-sale items later, here we are. The sharks have been circling, following slowly to see when I’d make that dodge between cars, keys akimbo, ready to deliver them to retail heaven. Cue Handel’s Messiah

Here’s a fun game, if you’ve won the parking lotto and have a great space at the mall at Christmastime: Put some Christmas music on your iPod, earbuds in, (apparently) oblivious to what’s going on around you. As you stroll back to your car, you’ll notice them. The desperate. The needy. The ones who could not get out the door before 10:00, and are dreading being forced to park on the top level, ¾ of a mile from the Apple store where gift-giving salvation waits. I don’t know about you, but I can smell their fear, along with their hopes, aspirations, and a little of the maple bacon they had for breakfast.

One way to play it is to appear to wander, confused, wondering where on earth you’d parked that blasted car. A key fob is a good prop in this one, as you point it in different directions as though hoping to set off the car’s alarm. Hell, people will smile sheepishly, as if to say, “We’ve all done that,” and move on. When you can see yourself in their rear-view mirror, and know they’re looking, do a little happy dance as you discover that the red Chevy that’s right next to you is, indeed, YOUR CAR!

Another option is stride purposefully straight to your car, hit the key fob so the lights come up and doors unlock so they know the space is about to open up.  You unload your packages as quickly and efficiently as you can.  You know that that guy in the silver 750i is on a tight schedule, and dammit, you’re going to help get him on his way to retail Nirvana and back home again to his loving family post-haste. You slide behind the wheel, bucking up and settling the key in the ignition in one fluid movement when, RATS! You SMACK your forehead, unbuckle and heave yourself out the driver’s door, apparently irritated with yourself for forgetting that Chia Pet for Uncle Steve. At first, your fellow shoppers are pretty cheesed off but ultimately they understand. Some will even smile and wave, although less likely if it is the most awesome spot in the entire mall complex.  If you have the time, this one can be played out over and over and over.

Any of these scenarios works better if you can fake a limp. 

I realize that this all sounds pretty bitchy, but truth told, you’d be doing last-minute shoppers a great service. The holidays are an extraordinarily stressful time, and people tend to take their tension out on those closest to them. Why not give them a total stranger as an outlet to vent their holiday frustration, leaving all the sugarplums and snow angels for their loved ones?

What can I say? I’m a giver. 

Do You Take Food Stamps?

Note to self: If you’re running into Whole Foods for just one thing, do not grab a cart, and under no circumstances go any deeper into the store than needed.

Whole Foods Markets have a well-earned reputation for catering to over-paid and under-motivated cooks. You want that ribeye steak that’s been dry aged by hanging on a rack in ‘specially climate-controlled coolers?  Only $23.99/lb., but now that your friendly “butcher” has removed the crust (read, mold), it’s ready for a quick sear over an open applewood fire and to be washed down with a spunky $50 old vine Zin.  Maybe pick up some nice marinated purple potatoes to throw on the grill and you have the perfectly pretentious meat & potato meal. (Be sure to top it off with a bowl of Blue Mountain Cashew Creamery Organic-Fair-Trade Ice Cream at $11/pint.)

Or you can play the home version of that game and grow your own beef-based penicillin by leaving a $6.99/lb T-bone in the fridge for an extra week, roast up some russets with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a packet of Lipton onion soup mix, and stop at BevMo for a couple of bottles of your favorite hearty red (Buy one, get the second for 5¢). If you’re feeling flush, grab an It’s-It for dessert.

Not to single out Whole Foods, but the chain really is at the forefront of feeding the hipster masses. Trader Joe’s and Sprouts are not far behind. And it’s not always true that you get what you pay for. As the queen of our little single-income family of four, I learned years ago that a good cook doesn’t need WF in their life, and that hipsters in grocery stores are like llamas in bicycle shops. They just get in your way, and usually end up knocking shit over.

Having recently joined the 9% of Californians who’re suckling the public teat, my smirk is a little smirkier as I drive past Bristol Farms on my way to my neighborhood produce market, my neighborhood butcher, or my neighborhood bakery. Being one of those girls who’s good at math, I can calculate the cost per load of groceries that I can bring home in any one of several American or import cars. If you’re paying more than $2.35 per cubic foot of food, you need to re-think your shopping list.

It has a lot to do with being my mother’s daughter. She taught me to understand what was being prepared at mealtimes, and how to stretch it to feed six.

It has a lot to do with Mom growing up during the Great Depression. She was raised eating cuts of meat that are now known as ‘offal’ to the trendy because that’s what they could afford, and growing their own vegetables in New York City on the half-lot next door that my grandfather was smart enough to buy with the house. I really miss that garden.

It has a lot to do with an up-and-down employment history that’s taught this gal the rare beauty of a club deal/markdown/coupon trifecta. “You mean, because it’s the second Tuesday after the Vernal Equinox, I can get that three-pound tri-tip for $4.25? SOLD!”

It has everything to do with understanding the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want.’

A difference, in short, that today’s cats & kittens trolling through Whole Foods on a Wednesday afternoon, pushing their Oliver Peoples retro-chic sunglasses up on their $125 Chop-Chop Salon so-messy-is-has-to-be-intentional pixie-bob-shag know nothing about.

For example, Chia Seeds (salvia hispanica) – unheard of in the US until the smartest man since the inventor of the Pet Rock introduced Ch-ch-ch-Chia Pets in the early 80s – have been eaten in Central America for centuries. Nutrient-rich, low in fat, they carry many health benefits so, naturally, became uber-trendy.  Every overpaid, bearded chucklehead wearing Buddy Holly glasses and a $75 vintage cowboy shirt could not stop paying ten bucks for a four-ounce bag. Until, of course, they went mainstream sometime last April, so the hipsters have moved on. But, the chia seeds have remained, adding texture to your Kombucha tea and causing moderate flatulence for the next wave of adopters, teenaged girls – my older daughter among them.

Not that it’s all obscenely expensive. Because of the nature of their clientele, Whole Foods is actually more competitively priced than the traditional supermarkets in one area; anything soy-based. Fake meats, fake cheeses, fake eggs, and fake dairy products are usually best bought there. (Although, reading that last sentence, fake meats, fake cheeses, fake eggs and fake dairy products are best left along the side of the road somewhere.)

I have one daughter who hasn’t eaten meat since she was 10, so am always on the lookout for a bargain on those products. Which leads me on those rare occasions to Whole Foods Market. And, dammit, to the most beautiful deli case in all of retail.

No, I don’t need those kale & carrot latkes, but they do take Food Stamps, don’t they?