Bye bye, Bliss 

Kathryn Eastburn bids adieu to popular Indy column

click to enlarge Memphis, 1972.
  • Memphis, 1972.

My column, Domestic Bliss, was born 10 years ago, when I was relatively newly divorced, learning to be the single working mother of three young boys and a college-age daughter.

Bliss enjoyed a brief run as a real-estate column, an idea lifted from another alternative newsweekly, wherein I visited houses for sale and riffed on whatever associations of homes past or present they evoked for me.

That was fun, but Domestic Bliss quickly evolved into a personal column designed to explore the complications, joys, wonders and frustrations of family. When people asked me what the column was supposed to do, I usually said it attempted to describe the education of a mother.

The column took many turns over a decade, but was always written as a conversation with a friend, mulling over whatever events or ideas tickled my addled brain any given week.

You, dear reader, were the friend. With this final column, I want to thank you for 10 years of patience and friendship, for your indulgence, for listening. Believe me when I say that no one has ever had a better friend.

You wrote back regularly. When you were frustrated or bored with my ramblings, you told me so. When the column transported you back to your own childhood, to sad times when you lost someone you loved, to an embarrassing personal or parental catastrophe, you let me know. Occasionally, you wrote your own Blisses and sent them to me to read. Sometimes, you ran into me at my favorite breakfast joint and asked about the kids. Once, you told me I was prettier than my picture at the top of the page.

Thanks I needed that.

You watched my children grow up, and you watched me pass through my mid-life crisis. Now Domestic Bliss has run its course. The column, the Independent and you have brought me to a new place, where I'm growing books (two, to be exact) instead of kids and a newspaper. It's a late start but, as you know, I'm a late bloomer.

Combing, cutting and pasting my files in preparation for this farewell, I compiled over 500 pages of Domestic Blisses. Some of them were good, some terrible. As with all friendships, sometimes I delivered and sometimes I let you down. You, on the other hand, were utterly reliable.

With grace and equanimity, you let me ramble about everything, from the mundane (warts on my feet, kids' birthday parties) to the tragic (death of a friend, boys going crazy with guns), from the sublime (memories of summer nights, the evolution of a garden) to the difficult (learning to blend a broken family).

Domestic Bliss visited many places, and several themes arose: the refuge of home, the certainty of change, the treasure chest and dark closet of memory. You understood the irony of the column's title: that if we are lucky, moments of bliss arise out of the clutter and confusion of human experience.

Last week, I was sitting and working in my favorite neighborhood diner/bakery (yes, for those of you who don't know, it has reopened). Across the room, an animated mother treated her 8-year-old daughter and two friends to pastries. They chose cream horns and sat happily peeling off the crusty outside layers, digging fingers into the open holes at the ends, scooping out dollops of cream filling.

A brief blanket of sorrow enveloped me as I observed their pleasure, knowing I would never be able to give my kids such a simple, unadulterated treat again. But I quickly remembered the cream horns of my childhood and realized that somewhere in my children's memories, such sweet treats are stored.

I packed up to leave, stopped by the bakery counter on my way out and bought a cream horn wrapped in thin waxed paper. The first bite sent flakes of pastry floating to the floor. The flavor and texture were exactly as I remembered them hard dots of sugar against buttery, slightly salty pastry layers, sweet cream oozing out of the papery shell.

They say you can't go home again, and I know what they mean. But I think going home is all you can do. For you, dear reader, I wish many returns to all things blissful, to ease the passages to places unknown. And I thank you for making my journey sweeter than I could ever have imagined.

click to enlarge Kathryn Eastburn
  • Kathryn Eastburn

A good scare

As my sons grow older, there are fewer occasions when we can actually find something that we all like to do together. They are focused on the business of separating from the fold, and rightly so; pre-adolescents must find ways to strike out on their own. Their muscle-flexing is serious business, not to be taken lightly by an over-protective mother.

Against my better judgment, during Halloween week, I let the boys watch Nightmare on Elm Street 1, 2, 3 and 4. They scoffed at my suggestion that the movies would scare them, shored themselves up with popcorn, turned out the lights and settled down for a marathon gore-fest for two nights running.

Because I had never seen any of these films, I watched all of one and half of another, quickly understanding why kids like them. The victims (children) have parents who are all insensitive, incompetent dopes. When their kids are in mortal danger and come to them for help, they blow them off and return to their cocktail parties or petty bickering with their ex-spouses.

When a kid shows up with bloody slash marks across her forearms, her mother looks at her as if she has been playing in the mud and needs a bath. The kids in these movies survive because of their own fortitude and resourcefulness, no thanks to clueless parents who repeatedly ignore their pleas for attention.

No wonder they love these movies. Along with the impulse to scare yourself to death, the impulse to put down grown-ups is as natural to the pre-adolescent male as spitting or making armpit farts. Understanding this, I left the room during Nightmare 2 and went to bed with a book while my little ghouls stared at two more hours of Freddy Krueger, his withered face, his razor fingers and his bloodied victims.

Around midnight, I was awakened by a body climbing into my bed.

"I'm not scared," said my youngest son. "My room's cold. Can I sleep with you?"

At the foot of the bed, his brothers piled blankets and pillows on the floor. They were cold, too, they said, not scared, and they felt like camping out. After several minutes of readjusting the covers and some discussion of the end of the last movie and how stupid and unrealistic it was, they finally faded, afraid to close their eyes and enter Freddy's nightmare realm, but too exhausted to avoid going to sleep.

The next day, Halloween, they dressed as hideous generic monsters, except for the middle brother, who went as Mr. Bill. Fortified by packs of friends, they roamed the neighborhood, pillowcases in hand, casing lighted houses for treats. They returned home frozen and jazzed, and settled in for the second half of the Nightmare on Elm Street marathon. I slipped upstairs with my book and awaited the fallout.

Around midnight, they crept into my room and resumed their positions of the night before.

"I'm not scared," said the oldest. "I'm too tired to make up my bed."

A sugar high prevented their easy passage into sleep, but eventually all three settled down, and my bedroom was filled with their snores and their sticky body smells. I watched their faces for traces of nightmares but saw only peaceful, oblivious restfulness.

I tried to remember the last time they voluntarily spent eight hours in the same room with me and issued a quiet thank you to Wes Craven and Freddy Krueger for appreciating the value of a good scare.

First published Nov. 14, 1996

Don't you cry for me

click to enlarge Bill Carpenter, aka Daddy.
  • Bill Carpenter, aka Daddy.

July, 1962. The heat of southern Kentucky summer has penetrated the inside of our house for so many days that we sit outside on the lawn, on blankets, after sunset each night.

While we wait for darkness to cool down the sheets of our beds, my mother keeps her fingers busy braiding my younger sister's hair. My brother plays a lackadaisical game of catch with the neighbor boys. Lightning bugs rise from the limp grass, grazing the tips of shrubs and tree limbs, drunk with their own heaviness.

My older sister patiently follows the yellow, airborne glow of a firefly, occasionally capturing one with the lid of a Ball jar.

I lie back, wondering why the evening dew doesn't cover my face and arms the way it coats each blade of grass. Through the outline of the black treetops, the sky glows purple with an orange underglow. I turn over onto my stomach and watch individual droplets of water form, swell and drip down shafts of green.

Our father is with us tonight, though frequently he is not. He is a working man who spends most of his time in a Ford Econoline van, crammed with the goods he sells to grocery stores and drugstores around our part of Kentucky. His natural state is propped in the driver's seat of a car, the window rolled down, his suntanned forearm and elbow jutting out into the passing air. He travels with ease and familiarity down back roads and highways. He has never met a stranger.

My father reaches deep into the pocket of his baggy cotton slacks and pulls out a small cardboard box with a hinged lid. Carefully, he raises the top, and from the felt-lined case lifts out a shiny silver Marine Band harmonica. Daddy taps the top, where the air holes are, across his upper leg a few times, then raises the harmonica to his lips.

His cheeks puff in and out as he blows a spirited "Oh, Susannah," tapping his foot on the blanket to keep time. The verse is followed by the familiar chorus, reaching up into the higher-up holes: "Oh, Susannah, oh don't you cry for me / "Cause I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee."

The thin, reedy sound fills the night air. My sister with the lightning bug jar dances a little jig. My mother smiles a knowing smile. My younger sister and I stare at our father, our mouths hanging open. We have never heard him make music, outside of singing in church, where he mimics a blustery baritone, embellishing with deliberate vibrato.

The stars are out now. Daddy flows from one familiar tune to another: "Home on the Range," "Dixie," "Amazing Grace." We call out songs we want to hear: "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Oh, How I Love Jesus." He humors us briefly, and then cuts into a boogie-woogie tune, huffing in and out, bending notes.

I am amazed. My father is not a man who does things outside of playing baseball, swinging a golf club, working and driving fast man things that don't much interest me. In my life, his primary purpose has been to tease, to flirt, to entertain with jokes and tall tales. His ambition is to be carefree.

Daddy hands me the harmonica and explains the simple scale, how to blow out on the whole notes and in on the sharps and flats. I am a quick student, and eager to please my father, I master "Oh, Susannah" before the evening is gone. The sound of the harmonica mixes with the shrill night songs of crickets and cicadas.

"Time to go to bed, little frog," says Daddy. He returns the Marine Band harmonica to its case and takes my hand. In summers to come he will play it again, though less frequently as the years go by, and finally, one summer, he will drive away from our family to live in a new town, and I will never hear him play again.

When I am 16, I will buy a Marine Band harmonica of my own and will regale my friends with Bob Dylan tunes. Years later, grown up, busy and only an occasional player, I will place harmonicas in my children's Christmas stockings, hoping that one of them will learn to play.

When summer comes and the nights grow warm, I think of the grass and the fireflies and "Oh, Susannah" and the night my father surprised me with music made simply, with just a breath, the notes traveling like thin streams of light through the dark summer air.

First published July 3, 2002

On the sidelines

click to enlarge The Eastburn boys, 1993.
  • The Eastburn boys, 1993.

Here come the mothers, one by one, floating across the vast green field, each staking from a distance her spot on the sideline.

We are an ill-formed team, joined by the years our sons have played sports together. Some of us are old pros, weathered by 12 years of shared games, responsibility for providing the orange slices and the slim but congenial familiarity born of standing together and looking in the same direction.

Some are dedicated veterans. There is the mother who keeps statistics, who always brings cookies, who never misses a game, out of town or not. Some are rookies, averting their eyes as their sons weave, dodge and crash. Most of us count ourselves lucky just to show up, to escape work in time to take in the game, to pause for two hours on a broad green field, watching our sons with proud, loving eyes.

We stand shoulder to shoulder and yell easy passage to a sure, momentary bond.

The fathers come, too. Some join their wives; some pass time with each other sharing shop talk, hearty handshakes and slaps on the back. The mothers rarely take their eyes off the field. The fathers wander easily.

When the mothers first met and began carpooling, our boys were kindergartners. They skipped up and down the long playing fields and sat in the grass mid-game to pluck dandelions. At games now, we remember their long curls, their missing teeth, their funny habits.

On the field, our boys are bigger than us now. They are giants, Spartans, warriors whose clashes are frightening. When they were little and fell, a brush-off and a kiss sent them back to play. Now, when they fall and stay down, the earth shudders and the crowd goes silent.

The mothers frantically scan the field and the sidelines, looking for their sons' numbers, then sigh with relief that the fallen player is not theirs. We watch hollow-eyed as the coach kneels down beside the fallen player, as the father who is a doctor joins him on the field. We watch for movement and scan the crowd for the mother of the fallen giant. We see her inching toward the field, hesitating to approach her boy.

Then the coach and the father scoop him up. His long arms dangle across their shoulders. He hops on one leg across the field as the crowd politely applauds and the mother steps back into the crowd. The game commences and we yell louder, propelled by relief and pride.

On the sidelines, we have learned a lot about people we barely know, whose homes we have rarely, if ever, visited.

We have watched or experienced divorce and remarriage and have had to navigate awkward waters. There is the mother with the rotten job, and there is her former spouse in his new sports car. There is the mother who quietly divorced, whose husband was never at games before and still isn't, but whose life has changed dramatically, as we can see in the clothes she wears, the company she keeps.

On the sidelines, we have witnessed sudden unemployment, the loss of parents, grave illness and grateful recovery.

Our children have survived broken arms and legs, bad teachers, learning disabilities. They have thrived on strong friendships, watchful neighbors and good teachers. On the sidelines, we catch up. Who has had a driver's license suspended? Who got caught smoking pot? Which beautiful girl goes with which beautiful boy?

As our boys gallop up and down the field, swatting each other with sticks, their hairy legs looking thin and fragile beneath their ballooning shorts, we conjure their futures silently and contemplate our own. They lead with their powerful shoulders; we watch young men, but we see little boys.

In our midst, a crowd of our sons' contemporaries is oblivious to us, but we are not oblivious to them. They laugh and wrestle and swear and barely pay attention to their best friends trudging up and down the field. They throw back their gleaming hair, run hands down smooth legs, flash their perfect teeth, and embrace each other with ease. They are masters of this small universe of the sidelines, or any other universe they inhabit.

The mothers watch, shoulders together, staring in the same direction. The game is over and our boys have won. We talk a bit longer. Our boys come hobbling across the field, mud-stained and sweaty. They smile a little and grunt. Good game, we say. Good game.

click to enlarge Family portrait, sans shoes.
  • Family portrait, sans shoes.

The mothers disperse. Like ghosts, we float across the broad green field toward our cars, calculating the date of the next game, how many are left, our team's good luck. It is just past sunset and the sky glows pink, the air tingling with twilight's sudden chill.

First published April 29, 2004

The way it sounds

This is the way it sounds:

Late at night, hours into sleep, you hear the rattle of a key in the front-door lock, the pull, groan and sweep of heavy wood against metal as the door is opened, closed, relocked. Footsteps follow across the hollow, dark downstairs, up the back steps, into the bathroom. Another door groans shut. A rush of water, silence, another short rush. Finally, padded footsteps up another set of stairs, ending in the bedroom above yours.

You listen with your eyes open, tell yourself all is well, then motionless, fall back to sleep. Your daughter is home.

Years ago, you waited up for her and scrutinized the hour of her safe return, the stale smell of cigarette smoke embedded in the fibers of her sweater. Years before that, you stretched out beside her sweet-smelling body, her freshly shampooed hair spread across the pillow. You read stories together. Before you left the room, you arranged her menagerie of stuffed animals around her and ushered her into dreams of adventure in imaginary lands.

Now, though she still calls this place home, she lives most of the year in another city two time zones away. You no longer mentally tuck her in every night before you lock the doors and retire. You gave that up after her first year away.

It is interesting that as she has moved farther away, your life together has become more and more circumscribed by home. When she is here, she cooks and you sit at the counter, reading the paper. You swap stories. You color each other's hair. You trade clothes. You watch your favorite soap opera, hooting over the bad lines, predicting what will happen tomorrow. She nests in the corner of the living room in the big, plum-colored chair, reading for an entire afternoon. You turn on the lamp when the sun sinks behind the mountains and the room grows dark.

Beneath this roof, you have weathered quick-tempered attacks on one another followed by long bouts of silence, boredom and monotony. As a teenager, she found ways to be anywhere but here for as many hours as she could.

Now, you are contented housemates, but only in brief spurts.

Yesterday, you waded through piles of clothes, held her pack upright while she stuffed it with the bare necessities. Then you sent her off to a time zone so far across the world you don't even know what day it is there. She's off on an adventure to a place as magical to you as the Land of Oz.

You manage not to put a damper on things, though your throat is tight. You know that if you try to say anything meaningful or helpful, you will fail. You smile and wave goodbye.

You tell yourself this experience will only solidify her connection with home, but you know it will not. You will not hear the door open in the middle of the night for many months. You will stop listening for it after a few days.

You know that she will come home, and you also know she has taken one more step toward finding her own place in the world. She has a full and complete life you know nothing about.

That's the way growing up sounds.

First published Feb. 5, 1997

Kathryn Eastburn's Domestic Bliss columns dating back to September 1999 are available online, at csindy.com.


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