I feel a little naked writing something that the whole world might tune in and see. Actually, I am naked. I am 46 years old and I’m naked and my hair is all messed up and I can’t sleep. This is a totally new medium for me. I have been writing since I was 12 years old and I have been writing “morning pages” since June of 1996, but all that I have written before has been written in long hand, on white lined loose-leaf paper, with a smooth-writing medium ballpoint pen, in blue or black. That never varies. That also uses another part of the brain. The part you use to stare at a tv screen and tap out little words on little keys has either atrophied long ago or never been engaged in the first place. When I write my morning pages I don’t worry about spelling or punctuation and I write in ALL CAPS to make a point and I underline and write sideways in the margins and no one ever reads it anyway. I have six or seven big binders full of that stuff and it is a veritable gold mine of information about my life and my psyche and my irritations and my likes and dislikes and what makes me happy and what PISSES ME OFF!!!! I also use a lot of exclamation points. I actually talk in exclamation points. Not everyone does but I do. I think my whole family talks in exclamation points. It may be genetic. But here I sit because Bob made me do this and I can’t sleep anyway and I was lying in bed thinking of all kinds of clever things to say, things so damn amusing I was making myself laugh, but here I am and I’m not even mildly amusing so maybe I’d better go back to bed and try to be more entertaining tomorrow. I am not going to do this if I can’t at least amuse myself. I want to use family expressions like, “Well I’ll be a suck egg mule!” but you have to be careful not to use those expressions just anywhere. Maybe I can get some of my morning pages and write excerpts from them here. Some of them are pretty goddamn funny. Last summer I went to a writer’s conference on the campus at the University of Iowa, and I took excerpts with me and it had them rolling in the aisles. I also wrote several stories about growing up across the street from the Billingsley’s, a family with four kids just like ours, but we were absolutely Victorian in comparison to them and their lives. Just a fer instance. I once watched the two younger brothers, Bruce and Jay, get in a fist fight in their bedroom when they were maybe ten and twelve. Jay kicked Bruce in the chest where he just happened to have pocketed a handful of loose matches, and the matches struck and started to combust straight up out of the polo shirt pocket, and I had to break up the fight to PUT BRUCE OUT. That’s how it was growing up with them It was a laugh a minute. They are still my favorite people on this earth. I just went to see Jamie in Fayetteville about two weeks ago. All we do is laugh. I have to go. I have to get up and go to work tomorrow as a librarian. I mean I GET to go to work. I love my job. I am known as Conan the Librarian. Or just simply, The Barbarian. I may have the least quiet library in any public school. Remember I talk in exclamation points. It’s hard for me to be quiet long enough to say SSSSHHHHHH.
A PARENTING STORY
If only I had known in 1980 that Pamela was a genius I wouldn’t have spent so much time worrying that she would grow up to be an axe murderer or a disgruntled postal employee. My son Doug was five when Pamela was born and no little sister ever had a more loving or patient or kind big brother. She called him Bubby. We all had worried that he would be jealous but he adored her and was so proud of her from the second she was born.
Doug would get down on his hands and knees right in her face and say something like E-O-E-O-E-O and she would make that noise right back at him even when she was tiny. WE didn’t know he was teaching her to talk. We just thought it was funny. She talked early and well. The only words she couldn’t quite enunciate were living room (she said, quite distinctly, living “loom”) and the word yellow (she would say “lellow”) but there wasn’t anything else she couldn’t say.
Pamela did not sleep through the night until she was 13 months old. There was never a week that I did not call the doctor, poison control, or another new mother, trying to figure out how to deal with her and her escapades. Obviously I was profoundly depressed, even though I didn’t know it at the time, from never getting more than four hours of sleep, ever, and from her constant and continual scaring me to death. The first time she slept through the night, I woke up at daylight, sprinted panic-stricken into her bedroom, grabbed her and screamed, “PAMELA!” certain that she was dead. She wasn’t.
Our first indication that she was maybe a little different came when she was 18 months old and I took her into the pediatrician’s office with a high fever. His name was Dr. David Jubelier. She was almost too sick to hold her head up but as we walked into his examining room, the same room she came to for routine vaccinations, she lifted her little head, blinked her giant brown eyes and said, “I don’t like you Dr. Jubelier!” He looked at her, looked at her chart to verify her age and said, “Most 18 month old babies don’t use the word ‘I’, let alone ‘Dr. Jubelier’!”
When she was two she had to have her tonsils out. They told me she would sleep for hours and hours afterward, and not to be alarmed. As they were bringing her back from surgery, from two hallways away, I could hear her croaking “MAAMAA” at the top of her lungs. She might have been drugged and delirious but she was not going to sleep it off. Not long after that she stacked two kitchen chairs on top of each other to get into our medicine cabinet and chewed up a box of Ex-Lax. I frantically called Poison Control and asked what to do. The man on the other end couldn’t have been more nonchalant. “Lady,” he asked, “just exactly how many diapers do you have?” And a few months later she found Dramamine in my purse and ate four before I discovered her. Again, I frantically phoned the pediatrician, certain this time that her stomach would have to be pumped. Trying to dispel my hysteria and knowing me way too well he said, “Well, Janie, she is finally going to take that nap!”
She was always so funny and cute we could hardly stand to discipline her. Sometimes Doug would egg her on in some way and I would always say, “Doug, don’t encourage her!” One day he was in his usual after school position, flat on his back in the middle of the living room floor, watching cartoons, when I watched her drag in a little wooden chair. She was about two at the time. I was still watching as she dragged it into the middle of the floor, raised it over her head and, to my horror, whacked Doug across the head with it. “Pamela,” I yelled, “what is the matter with you?” She pointed at Doug, writhing in agony on the floor and said, “He encouraged me!” I just never knew whether to laugh or cry where that kid was concerned.
Pamela hated thunderstorms and, living in Oklahoma, we had them pretty regularly. Getting her to bed on a clear night was a trick and impossible on a stormy one. Every night she would get into bed, look up at me and say very seriously, “It not ‘snorm’ tonight. My daddy told me.” Then I would have to spray “Scary Munster Spray” (actually a can of Right Guard with the label taped over) in every corner of her bedroom, to keep scary munsters from coming in during the night. With that child you just did whatever it took to finally get her down.
Pamela is now twenty years old. Our little bohemian is a junior at Stanford University, majoring in physics and minoring in international relations. She is spending her fall quarter in Moscow, utilizing her Presidential Scholarship to study something about the Trans-Siberian Railway that I probably wouldn’t understand anyway. If I’d only known, I could have spent part of that frantic time back then sending her to a Russian tutor.
And this is the essay that might make you cry. Stay with me.
A Touch of Spirituality
In my big Reavis family, we occasionally get together for what my nephew Luke dubbed “laughing parties” when he was little. Our family just laughs. We get together and tell big stories and say, “Remember when. . .” and “How about that time. . .” Every story is funny. Everybody laughs. My daddy was the tenth of eleven children, and I had around 40 first cousins on that side of the family. My three brothers and I grew up in Stigler, Oklahoma where we were kin to what felt like half the town, and when I entered high school, I was there with two brothers and five cousins.
Holly was one year older, beautiful, elegant, feminine, and wonderful at a time when I was boyishly skinny and painfully shy. She counseled me and loved me and laughed at me. I could never get enough of her time or attention but she never seemed to mind. I lived to make her laugh.
Johnny Joe was two grades ahead of Holly and the oldest of three brothers in his family. I was as close to a little sister as he had, and he would give me his undivided attention whenever I needed it, and he may well have been the grand champion laugher in all our family. His laugh was loud and explosive and infectious. Years later, in a bar where he worked, Tuesday nights were “J. J. Laugh Night” and everyone had to laugh like Johnny Joe, so everyone laughed all night. I laugh just thinking about it.
We all had that great childhood together, safe in a small town with aunts and uncles loving us and watching over us and we thought it would never end until on Feb. 10, 1972, my senior year, Holly was killed in a car wreck coming home from OU for the weekend. She was just 19 years old and I lost the best friend I’d ever had.
Years passed, and we all learned to laugh again, and we loved each other and helped each other, or tried to. Then on Aug. 5, 1989, my oldest brother Mike was also killed in a car wreck. It absolutely shattered our family. Even though he was 40 years old, he still seemed like a kid to us. He was so much the big brother and so much a part of us and so adored that it didn’t seem possible that he could be gone.
I had not even stopped crying myself to sleep every night when, in November, I found out that Johnny Joe was sick and didn’t have long to live. It helped snap me out of my depression over Mike’s death and I was all ready to rally around and make the most of the time he had left. I thought we had a lot of time left to laugh. He lived three hours away in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and I went to spend a day with him in January when he was feeling up to having company. When I walked in he said, “What a joy it is to see you!”
We had the funniest day. We laughed about everything and drove all around that beautiful countryside, just Johnny Joe, his roommate Eric, and me. It was one of those winter days when the sky is so blue you think you can touch it, the sunlight is golden and the air is crisp but not too cold. The day was magical.
Before I left that day I made a date to come back March 2, and I did, but it was the day of Johnny Joe’s funeral. I couldn’t believe I had lost my number one laughing partner. After the funeral, I promised Eric I would come back the next weekend to help go through Johnny’s things. Poor Eric didn’t even have any family that lived this side of the Mississippi River.
During that week I had the dream that has given me peace of mind and closure for all three deaths. In the dream I was standing on a hill looking over a body of water where a couple stood on the far shore. Below me I could see Johnny Joe get into a boat that propelled itself across the water. He got out of the boat and was lovingly greeted by the the two figures. And then I could hear, very distinctly, the laughter of all three. It was Mike and Holly and Johnny Joe having a “laughing party” of their own. I told the dream to Eric that weekend, and it helped to heal both our broken hearts. And I’d like to think that when my time comes, there will be three figures to greet me, and we’ll all just laugh and laugh and laugh.