In which birthday girl defines “classy macabre.” A guest post.

Seriously, last week I was in some out-of-town parking lot and a woman comes up and goes, “Are you Amy?” My sister Amy lives a billion miles away. I haven’t lived in the same state as her, haven’t been asked by a teacher “are you Amy’s sister,” for decades. So, when it happens now, I take it as a sign to yield to the truth that she’s the best writer with the most dramatic birthdays and more hair than me and WHATEVERWHATEVER. Here is a guest post. By Ann’s sister Amy.

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Amy. By Natalya.

Everything I’ve ever submitted for publication, that’s been accepted, anyway, has related in some way to death. Religion and death, childbirth and death, dreams and their (metaphorical) death; you name a variation of a macabre punch, and likely, I’ve written it already. Even the time I was featured in a fashion blog, it ended up, inevitably, being about my death.

It wasn’t a choice. It’s more like an undeniable consequence of my father’s unexpected premature exit. It’s like being a vegan, or remembering that you’re allergic to latex, or finding an outfit that accommodates an insulin pump; day after day after day, it’s just there, like breathing. Part of maybe every fourth thought.

“When I die,” blah blah blah.

“I hate to spend the money on something that only lasts one summer, but I’ll be happy we did things like this when I’m dying.”

“Wow, WFMT plays the best songs. It reminds me of that song I want for my funeral. What was the name of it again? I totally need to look that up. I don’t want someone to just come along and plug in `Amazing Grace. ‘ What? Are we out of parmesan cheese again? How did that happen?”

It’s like that.

Many years ago, I sang up north at St. Gertrude on Easter morning, with the composer serving as accompanist. The choir was stacked with paid cantors from all over the city, all of us strangers until Jim started rehearsing his song. It’s the kind of rhythm, chord progression, and choral harmony mix that makes you instantly feel like lifelong friends with everyone who has their pitch, which of course in a paid choir, is everyone. It was such an uplifting experience that I took it back to my own conductor and said, “hey, you know, instead of one lone tenor and some tympanis in the balcony, we should really sing on Easter morning. And we should sing, specifically, this.”

He said no. That’s when it hit me: besides being macabre, I’m exclusive. I’m the kind of person who will only sing in a church choir so upscale that the conductor, as much as he loves me, won’t stoop to indulge in a Sandi Patty song, even as a prelude, even for my last Easter above ground. I’m like….classy macabre.

Miller Analogy: What my sister Ann is to fashion, I am to death.

The last time I saw my father was on Thanksgiving night. I had a really, really bad cold, the kind that seems like it must technically be some kind of dangerous pneumonia. I almost didn’t go home for dinner. I lived in Chicago, way up north in east Rogers Park, so it was somewhat of a commute on Thanksgiving morning to my far south suburban home. Normally I was up for a series of long train rides, but I could barely walk. In the end, something compelled me to drag myself out into the cold dark isolated morning and get to the only Metra scheduled before noon that day. We always put up the Christmas tree after dinner. My job was the lights. I basically just laid on the couch watching everyone work. “I’ll make it up to you next year,” I promised my dad as he strung every last light himself. I meant it.

Maybe he would have offered to drive me home even if I hadn’t been sick. It was my first Thanksgiving living on my own, so there’s no precedent. When we got to my apartment complex, he seemed to almost leap out of the driver’s side so he could get to my door and let me out. For the first time, our ride to somewhere I lived didn’t include carrying at least 15 loads of my things packed in backpacks, laundry baskets, and milk crates. I wasn’t moving in or out of college; I was home, and my home wasn’t his. Maybe that sudden realization was what the next few minutes were about.

We were directly under the streetlight at 1459 W. Morse. If you go there today, you can see how it almost makes a spotlight on the sidewalk. A theater lighting crew couldn’t have set it up better. A few panes down the sidewalk, someone once etched “Long Live God” into the wet concrete. “Make sure you bundle up. Chicago winters are cold. That’s why they call it the Windy City, you know. Well, that and the politics. I know you can take care of yourself, but I still worry.” Then he hugged me, for a long time. When it seemed like we were done, he pulled me closer for one last embrace. We both said I love you, heartfelt, not fake. He got into the car, drove away, and exactly one week later, the Thursday night after Thanksgiving, almost to the same hour that we said goodbye, he died.

Were I writing a narrative, the way it actually happened is so immaculate that my editor would insist that I cut or change most of the details to make it more believable. For a sudden death, we had basically a perfect ending.

Classy.

I had a good friend in college, a non-traditional student (31 years old! The epitome of wisdom!) who rode a motorcycle and had worked as a professional photographer before deciding to pursue a degree in ministry. Many years after graduation, we met up at a restaurant and the first thing he said was: “Wow, you even smell the same.” I did. He remembered all kinds of details from the one time he’d visited my childhood home, had collected the best stories from every road trip (we were in a touring company together), and, as he’d been working some freelance hours as an airport limo driver, gave me tips on the little known routes. From that day on, I was hard core side streets. He’d been at my father’s funeral; he’d also been to the funerals of both his parents. We could talk like most people our age couldn’t, yet. Those few hours deposited me on fluffy clouds for weeks afterward. I was only in my mid-twenties, so an encounter with a friend that I hadn’t seen for years, picking right back up as if we’d never spent a day apart, was mostly still the stuff of clichés in which older people spoke. It was a threshold moment; I had one of *those* friends.

People mocked him a little bit for being so cautious. They called him “Mr. Safety.” That’s how I knew, when I heard he’d been in a motorcycle accident, that it couldn’t have been his fault. It turned out that the chance of a piece of flying gravel hitting one’s artery at the exact angle and torque to cause death before the ambulance could get there was something like zero.

My college roommate died shortly after her wedding, right as they planned to start a family. My graduate school professor, who I mentally cursed for giving me a B and scrawling a less-than-supportive note across the top, didn’t make it through the subsequent semester. A good work friend died in the hospital, about seven days after surgery. The best boss I ever had didn’t die, but almost did, didn’t wake up for almost a year after surgery in another hospital, was sent home to die, but survived, albeit with brain damage. A child, due on Christmas day, made it only a handful of weeks, exactly to Good Friday. Classy, and consistently heartbreaking. That’s less than half my actual stories. You can’t make a career out of writing the same random catastrophe over and over, even if it’s true. As Joanne Greenberg once told me, “At a certain point, you have to leave out some of the tragic details, so your reader doesn’t throw your book across the room.”

Over the years, I’ve developed a habit of going through my things pretty regularly and carefully, conscious of not wanting whoever has to come in and clean up after me when I drop dead to have excessive work. I’m not sure, if my father was still alive, that my files would be quite so carefully labeled, so my kids could find things like their social security cards or birth certificates if I suddenly wasn’t there. It seems especially important as December approaches, as I either outlive my father – or don’t. It also seems increasingly irrelevant. My grandmother on my mother’s side just turned 94. My father’s grandmother lived to be 101, 52 years past 49. Were I her, I wouldn’t even be at the midpoint of my life yet.

Were I my father, I’d have exactly five months left.

When my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer a few months after my father’s death, he contemplated out loud what it was like to face a terminal diagnosis, with time and enough energy for awhile to clean up after oneself, plan the funeral, have a few final adventures and a chance to say many goodbyes. Referencing my father’s sudden unexpected fall to the floor, he mused, “that’s the way to go.”

Maybe I will disagree someday, but for now, I think he was wrong. The chance to live life conscious of its impending end, whether it’s a few months or 52 more years, is all we have, really. David Nicholls, in One Day (which you really should read, perhaps right now), writes: “He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph.”

I always assumed that when I got to the last age my father had ever been, the hardest thing would be not knowing whether I’d make it past the day he died. Now, I think that’s probably absurd. Even someone with my bizarre track record of sudden hyper-poetic tragedies wouldn’t have the luxury of knowing, to the day, when fate would strike. Maybe people who follow the assortment of law-of-attraction philosophies are onto something. Perhaps the way to go is to live like 101 is the new 49. I don’t expect to be followed by paparazzi any time soon, but I want to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a classy photograph.

And to that end, I need to go shopping.

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OMG Amy. You are so old and hooray for that. Happy birthday.

One thing a person could do instead of spring cleaning is document the dirt

First of all, wax. I don’t know how to get wax out of fur.

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Fan.

fan

More wax. Waxed.

wax 1

Dining room.

back window

Goblets.

silver nap

Pop music as pornography.

shuffle function

Paintings by Noah Wieder. Light fixture with cobweb.

noah's work

Cords.

cords

Star from Launa. Lucky tiger from Mimi.

star

These are the worst ant traps. I bought them tonight. They were THE most expensive ones, something about a one-way entrance. Well. I moved the paper towel to get better light for the photo, and do you know what, like four of them escaped.

these are not good ant traps

Detail from Coexist by Beau Layman. He might be tired of me posting about this piece.

coexist detail

Corner under the shelf with the radio and the car keys. Baseboard is an easy thing, right, I know that, I am just not buying into that whole belief system right now.

corner

Carbon monoxide detector + nightlight.

co2

Candle man.

candleman

By the front door. I don’t know. Could go to Architectural Antiques, I realize that, and find a replacement. I realize that.

switch

Coexist. Mobile of banana leaves. And then a Brad Widness, an Eric Watercotte. When the summer comes I like this porch area a whole lot. It’s not clean but it’s great.

coexist et al

Aloe from Jake after he killed my catnip.

aloe

Reading Woman by Lynn Pask. Loved.

she

Chicken. Also loved.

chicken

Frink, outlet, balls.

frink, outlet, felt

Steam heat.

steam heat

Balls from Anne. Clouded glass.

balls and light

Stained glass by David Hanel. Makeout couple by Greenmarket Square craftsman.

leaded makeout

pig

Please move these. Please move these before it’s boot season again.

get these shoes out of here

cropped-mystic-golden-hanger.png Upon reflection, I don’t think the shoes belong to anybody at my house. Grant Pladsen, are those your shoes?

April is the pearlest month day LAST: The epiphany, the legacy, the end

So back to Unworn Pearl Sister.

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Wearing the pearls, thanks to Mr. Helpful.

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Losing her mind accordingly.

What did she do? What did she do?!?!?

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Damn right she went to Save Mor. So ready. Just stoked. Stoked like you get with an epiphany. Told her husband (who was SO EXCITED to be hearing more about the pearls) that she’d figured it out, thank you so much for helping because now she had the ANSWER, and the answer was to trade for something better. Break up with the pearls for good and for real by walking into Save Mor and declaring, with bold and mature ladyconfidence, “hello, I have some pearls I would like to trade, not sell but TRADE, for the first thing that catches my eye. My wise and seasoned eye.”

Right? What fun. What peace. What an ending to the Pearlest Month!

But then.

You’re not even going to believe this because I didn’t: Save Mor wouldn’t take them, for trade or cash, because guess what. GUESS WHAT.  “There’s just no market for pearls.”

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Well no kidding, there’s no market for pearls. See also: April is the pearlest month days one through twenty-nine.

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[Editor’s note: This is kind of nitpicky but the sign does say “ANY.” Whatever. It’s fine.]

So now what. Because the month is over, the epiphany has been had and the solution is clearly to get rid of unworn pearls and anything else that makes you lose your mind in any way. But the village pearl-buyer said no. So, now what?!?!

Fortunately for everyone, I have a son who is of courtship age and who happened to be at home when I returned from total defeat at Save-Mor.

hey jake

Lucky lucky lucky lucky kid.

So I’m like, hey, how bout you take these on as a breakup charm?

hey jake got some pearls for you

Like, in case you’re ever in a situation where you like someone a lot but you just know this isn’t IT and you gotta end it. With grace and with dignity.

Perhaps, on such a night, on a hillside under a waxing (or waning) moon, you shall gift these pearls and speak the magic words “do you wanna listen to Aja or The Royal Scam” whilst you light a Marlboro Red.

And next thing you know, couple waxing/waning moons later, it’s over. You are free.

And so is she. She is free to keep the pearls and pass them down thusly with lessons about boys and cars and gifts. And what it means to get it right despite what you thought “right” should look like, back on the hillside. And how to summon the glorious feeling of glamour and summer and potential and a really tight and luscious horn section, upon any occasion, untethered to pearls. Pearls aside. Pearls very much aside.

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The! End! Thank you so much, friends and guest writers and Pearlest Month Street Team. Thank you for helping me not-hate April. XOXO.

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Back where we started. No pearls. But all’s cool.

Next up in small stories about transgression and fashion: I’ll be live-tweeting from Raw Fusion 15 on behalf of Mankato Magazine. Follow me over on @ARosenquistFee to get the goods.

April is the pearlest month day twenty-nine: PAUSE THE FOLKTALE, woman with no pearls got something to say

One fierce final guest post. Please welcome Stephanie Thull.

I must be the exception. Not only do I not own a real strand of pearls – proud owner of a down-to-your knees strand of fakes granted after the departure of my mother’s mother, per my request of all her odd, impartial jewelry that I proudly wear when the outfit presents itself – but no, real pearls are not a part of my life. I want them to be, but really, any eligible milestone that would incur the passing down, or gifting of pearls to my behest, has passed.

30 & pearless

30 & pearless but making the most of it.

Not that I’m complaining, quite the opposite. Instead – Furs.

Yep.

I own furs…gifted and second-hand of course, but, and perhaps this will become some sort of spin-off, but does that really make any difference should you decide to wear the fur in public? Most likely not. I don’t even eat meat.

fakes & furs

fakes & furs

After my father’s mother passed away, my aunts decided to give me the coordinating fur stole and muffler that were the possession of my great grandmother. Positively mink, but not the head and feet kind. Just the basic, Gordon Furs of St. Paul stole and muff, soft, brown and completely useless…

quilt & furs

the quilt is not completely useless, and was the last one Marie made – a way better gift

And furs, like pearls, are complicated articles of fashion. Seriously, find me an occasion where wearing this is appropriate.

sunlit cape

the cape. a glorious find from the thread shed III in sauk centre, mn…$25. i couldn’t not buy it.

Okay, maybe here:

it works great if you're going as a beaver – or mink, i guess.

it works great if you’re going as a beaver – or mink, i guess.

But that is it.

As for the muff & stole…you guessed it, wrapped up stashed away in my closet (I am not even sure if properly stored, I suppose I should ask a furrier).

Much like many a lady’s pearls – neatly stored in their velvet boxes – waiting for the right time, my furs await the fateful winter day they get rustled out from their hiding spot and used as nature intended.

I assume it would be to a funeral.

I assume it would be to a funeral.

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You know that impossibly cool stuff at the St. Peter Food Co-Op & Deli besides the food? The scarves, the finger puppets, the rubber things that turn a faucet into a drinking fountain? That’s Stephanie. She’s the one who acquires and displays that stuff. She’s also the person who acquires and displays the goods in the Arts Center’s gallery shop. So basically if you’re interested in buying or selling or consigning cool goods in southern Minnesota, basically, I hope you own some fur.

Tomorrow: Foiled plans, stubborn legacies, and the end of me talking about my pearls.

April is the pearlest month day twenty-eight: Unworn Pearl Sister had it worse

SO. MUCH. WORSE.

First, she got panicky, as if she’d forgotten something really important. Not a specific thing like when you forget your keys, but in general, bigger. Something meta. Like, she felt as if there was something she was supposed to have remembered to do with her life, but by now she’d lost interest, but that was beside the point because the agenda had been set. Set around her NECK. And as a result, she just about couldn’t breathe, and she felt strongly that she needed some Valium. (This is not in modern times; this is a folktale set in the pre-Betty Friedan epoch). She needed a Valium so bad. Just to deal.

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Seconds later, she went from panicky to stark raving hellcat.

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Like a hormonal imbalance, of sorts, but extreme. Not the weepy kettle-corn-jumbo-bag-eat-eat-eat variety of imbalance. More like: Everything is wrong. I have no control. How did I end up here. How did I let this happen. Get these things off me. Except, oh god, oh GOD, it was what I said I wanted. I asked for this, I hoped for this. And now these pearls and their baggage are making me not-breathe. WHAT. NOW.

That’s the kind of imbalance I’m talking about.

I mean, what did you THINK was going to happen when you wrapped your neck in a set of expectations you’d dreamed up at age, like, eighteen? And now you’re extremely not-eighteen? But you figure you should still want to wear those pearls you keep in a box in the dresser drawer? Do you think you should still want to even possess them?

Of course, you couldn’t have forecasted that, back then. You couldn’t. All you knew, back then, was that here was this boy. Sweet. Smokes. Drives a red Nova, introduces you to the fine fine music of Steely Dan. Gives you pearls on a hillside near the football field on graduation night. [To clarify: It’s your graduation night and he is a waiter (he is older) putting himself through community college (OLDER).] So, this is a thought-through thing. A budgeted-for thing. This is an investment and it means something big, at eighteen.

But that’s not now. Really not. Now the pearls are just a placeholder for a place you’re not going, and if you keep wearing them, I mean if Unworn Pearls Sister insists on wearing them, all she’s gonna feel is like there’s something left undone. A thing just hanging out there, something she’s not doing right, despite that everything else feels pretty good. It’s all fine except those goddamn pearls, you know? So.

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She has a choice to make. And I promise you, she makes it. Coming up.

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Tomorrow: We pause the origin myth for one more guest post. A rebuttal of sorts. 

April is the pearlest month day twenty-seven: Sister with the unworn pearls

At the same time, the very same time as Velvet Choker Sister was dealing with her husband and the nagging and the scissors, Unworn Pearl Sister was dealing with almost exactly the same thing. Can you believe it. How they ended up with such same husbands is unknown. Possibly because they were in the small kind of village that’s always the case with with folktales and myths, and they married same-sized brothers who had arrived one day (from a neighboring village) wearing matching pants and carrying a white rose for one sister and a red rose for the other. Something like that. Or, possibly, the matching husbands were an accidental result of the sisters working through some kind of issue that comes from being raised with labels, like “the choker one” and “the pearl one.” Point being, while Velvet Choker Sister was doing her best to sidestep tragedy, Unworn Pearl Sister’s husband was also at the same time constantly going, “why don’t you wear your pearls?”

She tried to explain. She explained as best she could.

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But guess what. Guess what Mr. Helpful decided to do.

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And you know what happened next. You know. It was worse than literal head-loss, and I mean SO much worse.

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Tomorrow: Worse.

April is the pearlest month day twenty-six: Sister with the black velvet choker

FACT. Revealed: This is a sisterhood story. The sisterhood of 1) the lady with the black velvet choker, and 2) the lady with the unworn pearls.

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The velvet choker sister, you already know of her. You know that story. Right? She wore it all the time. Her suitor-and-then-husband was like, why do you wear that thing ALL the time? Can you ever take it off, ever??? She was like, no, I can’t. You’ll be sorry if I do. SO I WON’T. For years, they had this same conversation.

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It drove him crazy. Not in a fun way.

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So obviously one night he tried, like he reached between her neck and the choker while she was sleeping, just really subtle, and he realized it was a CONTINUOUS BAND. No clasp. A full and seamless circle. Husband took a scissors and he did this.

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BAM. Velvet down. Choker to the floor.

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And you know what happened next. You know. You remember, right, from stories at sleepovers? From your big sister telling you this horrible thing right before she made you summon Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror? You know that her head fell off. It fell OFF.

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Husband freaks. Who wouldn’t. Like she didn’t tell him, though.

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She told him. She tried to tell him.

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Pause. We pause here so you can process this. For a more complete version of the story of the lady with the velvet choker, like if your older sister didn’t do as good a job as she should have of initiating you, you can read it here, on the delightful horror blog Dreadful Dreary.

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Tomorrow: The other sister. Unworn Pearl Lady. The unworn pearl sister speaks OUT.