The black sectional couch in our den would squeak and groan as you tried to get comfortable; you’d sink too fast into the cold pleather cushions. The Charlie Brown afghan, with chevron stripes of brown, orange and yellow, rarely left it’s spot draped on the back of the couch (unless it was being thrown over my head in a act of torture by my older brother). It was made by my grandmother – but she wasn’t my real grandmother. The blanket itched the same way the idea of having a step-grandmother itched.
I never knew my mother’s mother, she died the year before I was born. I got to know her through her writing and artwork tucked into the corners of the wooden bookshelves that lined the room. There was a red clay head thrown back howling in pain that had a yellowed note covered in plastic hidden inside the hollow neck. The paper smelled of pomanders. I couldn’t read the handwriting, but it was long and thoughtful and I associated it with my grandmother being in pain; an artist trapped in a life of domestic hell. Her books, a collection ordered from University of Chicago, Great Books of the Western World, lined one shelf, notes were scribbled passionately all over the margins. I would open up the books and quickly shut them; overwhelmed by all the knowledge that I couldn’t grasp and this tortured genius I never met.
Dundee, our sheltie/collie mix, could always be found in the brown bean bag chair by the TV, waiting for one of us to need his love so he could work his skunky sheltie nose under our armpits and press his weight into us. He would share the beanbag with me as I read. I liked to climb up to the top shelves where the raunchy books hid out of sight. The 70’s Joy of Sex with the hairy ape man and the lady with the unshaved armpits was a frequent choice along with my strategically flagged pages of my mother’s paperbacks; Scruples, Valley of the Dolls, Naked Came the Stranger. I would mark the sections about orgies, key parties and dirty sex. My sister, eight years older, had a shelf with the Life Cycle Encyclopedia from which I learned the more basic facts of life along with Go Ask Alice and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack – my 3rd grade summer reading. My abandoned Flicka and Richard Scarry books sat on the lower shelf, buried behind a stack of eight track tapes piled next the stereo.
When my sister was at school, I’d steal her box of 45’s. I can still hear the snap of the silver buckle as I’d open her blue and white checkered case and dump the records on the floor, spreading them around me in a circle. I’d play them all, both sides; deciding quickly if the song was worth the whole listen. I imagined the band members gathered around me, biting their nails, not daring to breath until they see that massive grin spread across my face and I said the words, “We’ve got a hit!.” I was a huge fan of The Beatles- such a huge fan, I pretended I was their manager, Julie Epstein. I’d play every song of the chosen album and give the band my feedback. I’d let them know how they could improve and force them to redo songs over and over until we got it right. We spent a lot of time in the den studio hanging out on the bean bag chairs but touring with the band and being on the road was the best. Rowdy and shaggy with sweat, the boys would all squeeze in the back seat (of the couch). I was pressed up against the door as the boys would fight like children for their space. I usually ended up sitting on Ringo’s lap. Ringo wasn’t too good looking, but he always smelled good, like lemons.
On a shelf by the couch was a folk artsy wooden doll house – a one room pagoda.. Inside were nine tiny bright blue glass roosters with red beaks, a small pink ceramic pig whose broken off twirly tail lay in the corner and a cow that must have been left over from an antique nativity set; the metal base peeking through the chipped lead paint. They were gathered attentively around a porcelain girl in a rocking chair, peacefully reading a book. Every so often, the arrangement would change; sometimes it was by me, perched on the side of the couch, other times it was my brother or sister. We never spoke of it, but it was fun to look and see how the figures had been rearranged.