Good Cindy Hunting

A “back-to-school” shopping commercial the other day brought back memories of the dreaded first day. The desire to fit in, be popular, wear the coolest clothes, carry the best backpacks, try the latest hairstyles … it’s all so nerve-wracking.

Compared to life today, filled with serious “adult” responsibilities, I suppose it’s easier to say life was better back then.

But dear old Mrs. Fuller made sure I experienced a memorable elementary school career.

My second-grade teacher resembled a Muppet. She had reddish-orange, tightly permed short hair, a haggard face with a long, crooked nose and beedy eyes. Her attire reminded one of a gypsy: jangly long earrings, gold bangle bracelets and flowing drapery she passed off as dresses.

In the second grade, we were learning addition and subtraction. Very basic mathmetics. Plus, we began taking spelling tests. Nothing too major at that point.

And while I enjoyed reading and books, math made for a strange and difficult concept for me to grasp. The numbers and symbols on the chalkboard baffled me, terrified me actually and I resisted learning it.

From Brad, the boy who sat behind me, I learned that Mrs. Fuller might be a tad crazy and also, consistently lazy in her grading.

I began testing the boundaries by turning in homework I knew full-well to be incorrect. Sometimes, I would even ride beside a classmate on the bus to school and copy their homework without asking if it was correct. But typically, my method employed the old “pick a number, any number.”

Yet each time, my ditto lesson smelling of toxic blue smudged ink returned with a gold star. Sometimes, a gold star with a plus sign beside it. I’d beam with false pride, just as everyone else in my class who hadn’t applied any sweat into the assignments.

My little games continued.

Not long after, I started brushing off my vocabulary lessons and soon, I was a regular scammer. I lied at every chance I had; it became something of a game.

I even lied at Sunday school and told a sustitute Sunday school teacher my name was Cindy. You can only imagine the suspicious looks she gave my father when came to pick up “Erica.”

But soon, the games came to a screeching halt.

“Boys and girls, next week your parents have been invited to come in and see your work, talk with me about your progress and learn about our lesson plans so far,” Mrs. Fuller announced to the class in her screechy voice.

A trickle of sweat ran down my spine. My parents were nobody’s fool and despite the wool being pulled over Mrs. Fuller’s eyes, my folks would “cut the shit real quick.”

The night of the open house, I yanked my parents around speedily to view my little desk, pictures I had drawn, and all my “star/ star-plus” lessons.

Mrs. Fuller gave a vague, glowing report to them of my incredible work and how well I was doing in school.

“She’s a bright child, but she talks too much,” she said. The phrase “excessive talking” appeared on every report card until the day I graduated high school.

At first, my mom began asking prodding questions of my work and then my father took over. Before you knew it, Mrs. Fuller’s own lies were unfolding as I tried to distract them. My father’s deep Southern voice began to boom in aggitation and like a true Mississippian, he began to repeat phrases.

“Now you say, you say that she’s doing well?” he asked. Mrs. Fuller exposed the whites of her eyes.

“Why, yes, Mr. Warren,” she said, appearing timid.

He walked his tall, lankey frame over to my desk, snatched up my math homework sheets in his fist and walked back shaking them in her face.

“Gold star, gold star plus, gold star … ” he said, displaying each page.

“Yes,” she said. “Why, she’s doing very well.”

“Really?” he said. “So, 5 plus 5 is 15?”

By this point, my classmates and their parents could no longer politely ignore the argument. Other scamming students were discovered and many classmates blamed me for being a sloppy liar.

My father, a math wizard, became my full-time tutor. Each night, we sat at the kitchen table and tried to make quick progress with less than a couple months left in the second grade.

The frustration hit dramatic highs; I would cry and protest that I couldn’t learn it hoping he would just let me fail.

“I’m too dumb,” I would say. Will Hunting would have stormed off shouting: “Do you have any idea how easy this is for me?” 

But my dad remained steadfast in his determination to catch me up.

While I was allowed to pass to the third grade, my math and my reading skills remained firmly at the beginning of second grade.

I was in real deep biscuits and gravy.

After Mrs. Abraham recapped our addition and subtraction tables, she moved on to multiplication. Each day, I dreaded a math quiz almost as much as a vocabulary quiz.

When she would instruct us to rip a sheet in half, I would begin to cry. It was a truly frustrating time for everyone.

“One day, the light will go off and it’s gonna make all the sense in the world,” my dad said over and over.

The phrase haunted me.

I began praying for that light to go off every day. I wasn’t sure if I would see it, if it would feel like when I got hit in the head with a baseball or if I would have the kind of holy miracle like in the Bible.

However it would be, I wanted it. I wanted the struggle to end so I could get back to the most important thing in a child’s life: fitting in.

Half-way through the year, my father grew less patient and started to think I was resisting his tuteledge.

While waiting for my dad to come home from his saleman job one day, I sat staring at that blasted multiplication table sheet and the worn-out stack of flash cards. The idea of facing another frustrating night sitting at the kitchen table lay ahead.

All of a sudden, something clicked. I turned over one flash card, then another, and another testing myself.

“MOM!” I shouted. She came running downstairs, expecting to find me bleeding from the head.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked.

“I understand it,” I said. “I don’t know why I was making it so hard.”

She grabbed my study materials away and began to quiz me. I was right every time. We danced. My dad came home, I showed him, and we danced some more.

By the fourth grade, I was not just passing, but excelling in all subject areas. In high school, I took advanced English and math classes all thanks to my parents who wouldn’t take a gold star to mean anything more than a sticky piece of foil.

Good thing they were there to be my greatest teachers because I never really fit it. One out of two ain’t too bad.

A Great Lakes State of Mind

“I’m actually forced to write about Michigan because as a native of that state it’s the place I know best. ” – Jim Harrison, author

A Mormon once told me they often sensed each other’s fellowship before its confirmed; like twins separated at birth. Sharing a birthplace tends to work in the same fashion, especially when more than 2,000 miles separates you from that Earth you long called home.

In San Diego, my circle of friends includes two people: people I met in San Diego and Michiganders. Somehow, our orbits intertwine and we instinctively ask with knowing smiles: “Where are you from?”

The answer rarely surprises me, but never fails to delight. Why should you care that I’m from Lake Fenton Township anymore than I care you’re from Grayling (as Mr. Harrison)? Because its another tie that binds us together and gives us a sense of belonging, of feeling understood and a bit less lonely in a world that doesn’t know the joy of a hockey game, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a rouwdy game of Euchre or standing on your porch watching a twister headed your way (I promise, very entertaining).

And yet, some things about home never appealed: deer hunting, unemployment, trailer parks, high crime rates, union battles, poverty, snow.

The first Californian to ride in my car amusedly reached in my backseat and picked up a monsterous life-saving combination ice and snow scraper.

“What’s this thing?” she asked, waving it around like a toy.

“Ghost from my past,” I said. At that point, I still had a car lock de-icer on my keychain. If you don’t know what that is – good for you.

Few friends and even fewer family moved away from Michigan after I started life over in California nearly a decade ago.  When I married in San Diego, there were grumblings among extended family. I was not a “bride’s bride,” but I also could not picture hosting my reception beneath the grim glow of community center florescent lighting.

Many phases passed in an out of my California life, one of which included a misguided attempt at being a blonde. Some may wish they were California girls, but I’m happy as a small-town girl living the Pacific Coast lifestyle. I’m an unfinished, unrefined brunette who make a concerted effort at sophistication.

This weekend, I will travel home to help my parents break-up housekeeping so they can sell the house and live pemanently near my brother in Houston. Many emotions swirl around in my head as I try to focus on the enormous task at hand of dissolving a home more than 35 years in the making.

Every nook and cranny, every beam and wall, every sidewalk crack and lake ripple, every apple tree and blade of grass, every firefly and frog, the remnates of childhood forts illustrates the blueprint to my birth, my history, my soul.

The neighborhood virtually remains unchanged – same families, same jobs, same houses, same cars, same twisting dirt road. All elements of that world remains frozen in time as if only for my memory to retain that sense of childhood and of never growing old.

As we discussed the week’s plans a few nights ago, my mom asked if I could handle the food for an impromptu family reunion on Sunday. She listed off what I should buy at VG’s grocery store.

“Potato or egg salad, chips, sandwiches – subs at the party store are good and we can just cut them up … ”

Flashbacks to childhood potlucks struck me. By comparison, my diet today seemed a bit “fru-fru” and produce heavy. 

“Mom, I think I can handle it,” I said. “Just let me worry about the food.”

She hesistated for a moment and then said: “These are Michigan people. Remember? Please don’t get anything weird.”

“Like what? I asked, laughing. “Pretty sure they don’t even sell avocados in Michigan.”

“Yes, like that stuff,” she said. “Never cared for it.”

Its the little things that change us over time ever so slightly. The more time draws out between me and home, the less I look like it as if my fingerprint lines shift from pressure like water against a rock.

A worn page I dogeared in Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” reads like this: “All things belonging to the earth will never change … all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth – these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.”

The Class Clown

I struggled to fit in from day one of Kindergarten. My natural desire to be everyone’s friend rubbed certain wasp-ish types the wrong way. One could not be friends to people of all backgrounds; showed bad breeding.

My parents did not pursue higher education. They were working class people largely from agricultural roots. My mother was a hairstylist and my father was a salesman. If they lost a job here, they got a job there – food was food, a paycheck from here or there still bought it.

When they settled down in Lake Fenton, a township of the City of Fenton, they desired to have my older siblings attend smaller, better schools than those in Detroit. I came along three years later not knowing the difference. People were people.

In grocery stores, if I turned up missing (which happened often) I could most likely be found talking to someone sitting on a bench outside.

“I’ll never have to worry about someone kidnapping her,” my mom would say. “She’ll just leave willingly.”

But school taught me quickly that not all people want to be friends. Some don’t even want to like you and in fact, some people make it their job to bully and hurt you.

I understood quickly that surviving around the sort of kids I went to school with for 12 years required me to care about what they thought.

Most of my classmates’ parents were doctors, lawyers and dentists whose kids were destined to go to Harvard or Stanford to marry scientists and cure cancer.

I was destined to be Erica.

But I discovered my one talent that could distract them from my garage sale clothes (some of which came from my own classmates’ closets) and the strange lunch food that I could never seem to trade away.

I was funny.

Boy, oh boy. I could make people laugh. Laugh until milk shot out their noses. And I had a really bizarre laugh to boot, which I also didn’t know until I went to school.

“You laugh like a hyena,” Kari told me in kindergarten. The first of many times throughout my life that I would hear such a remark.

When Halloween came around in the 1st grade, I felt overwhelming dread.

All the kids in my class talked about the best costume stores, but I knew that my mom intended to “make” my costume.

Of course, our class of roughly 80 were to participate in a “parade” through West View Elementary School’s three hallways. I started having nightmares of coming to school looking ridiculous and everyone would point doubled-over in hysterical laughter.

The week before Halloween, the teachers sent home a note telling parents that we would not be celebrating Halloween on the actual day as it was a mid-week day, but rather on Friday. I brought home the note and showed my mom.

The day of Halloween, she woke me up and told me to come downstairs so she could dress me.

“Mom, it’s not today,” I pleaded. Tears streamed down my face. “It’s on Friday. It’s on the note.”

“Where’s the note?” It was misplaced or thrown away. At any rate, my evidence to support my case was gone.

She dressed me in a black and orange clown one-piece jumper, ridiculous, large black shoes, and she pulled my hair into pigtails.

The make-up application took some time since I could not stop crying. She painted my face white, painted red circles on my nose and cheeks, and drew a black line around my mouth creating a “clown” smile.

My mom dragged me – bookbag in hand – to the front door, pushed me out and shut the door.

I didn’t know what to do.

For a moment, I thought about running to my hideout until school was over and deal with the principal calling my parents. Then he could explain that it wasn’t the day they were celebrating Halloween.

From inside, she said: “Get to school.”

I sighed and walked to the bus stop, which was about a quarter-mile trek. I slogged along in the oversized, clumpy shoes as neighbor pals walked by wearing looks of sincere sympathy.

When the bus arrived, I could hardly stand the burning of my face. It felt as though I were inside Hansel and Grettel’s oven.

I sat down as close to the front as possible, but it didn’t matter. The mean kids in the back taunted and made fun of the “clown.”

“Hey, stupid!” one shouted.

“Nice clown outfit!” another laughed.

My stop was near the beginning of the bus route. I endured an hour of ridicule until I got to school.

As soon as the bus door opened, I ran inside to the girl’s bathroom near the 3rd grade, locked myself in a stall and cried. Soon, one of the older girls came in. It was Sherri from down the street. She had an early morning activity at the school and her mom had dropped her off; she didn’t see me at the bus stop.

I peaked through the crack in the stall.

“Sherri?” I asked.

“Erica?” she responded.

“Yes,” I said. I opened the stall.

I must have been quite a site standing there in the bathroom stall looking like some train-hopping hobo with pigtails.

Sherri could be incredibly mean. I was afraid she would laugh, but surprisingly – she looked sad.

“Erica, what’s happened?”

I explained the misunderstanding with my mom. Tears coated the thick face paint in clear streams.

“Have you been to home room?” she asked. I shook my head. “The bell’s going to ring soon. I’m going to walk you to your class.”

“No,” I pleaded and backed into the stall. But she insisted that we would face the music together. Sherri walked me through the crowded hall of stares and laughter to the other hall down to my 1st grade class.

When I entered the room, it fell silent for a second. Then everyone started to laugh and point. My teacher was facing away from the door. She turned around when the room erupted, saw me and looked confused.

“Stop it, everyone,” she said. “Erica, we aren’t celebrating Halloween until Friday. Why didn’t you tell you mom?”

“I did and I gave her the note,” I said.

The teacher looked at me with disbelief, as if I intended to be disruption.

“Sherri, take her to the girl’s room and clean off her face,” she said, letting out a tone of annoyance. “I’ll let your teacher know where you are while I call Erica’s mom to bring her other clothes.”

In the bathroom, Sherri scraped wet rough, brown fiberous paper towels over my face to remove the costume paint. When enough had been removed, I washed my face with my hands and she handed me dry towels.

She took my hair out of the pig tails and pulled all my long hair back into a ponytail using her fingers as a comb.

When my mom rushed into the office with the bag of clothes, she looked ashamed of herself. She apologized to me and the staff for the mistake.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you, honey,” she said.

I returned to class with white face paint still in my hairline and tried to focus as everyone teased me throughout the day.

When Friday rolled around, I wished so much that my mom would surprise me with something less embarrasing, like a store-bought princess costume. Of course, she had nothing else to dress me in and watching her paint me up again seemed worse the second time around.

The day went by in a fog. I just kept thinking about the day ending so I could go home and hopefully, people would forget. They eventually did, but I didn’t.

Every time I see a clown, I see that black and orange costume and my 6-year-old self being cleaned up by Sherri in the 3rd grade class bathroom.

Guess I had the stomach to be funny, but not as the class clown.

The One That Got Away …

Growing up on a lake in Michigan means you get the best of every season.

In the winters, you ice skate, play hockey and aim to sled fast enough to hit the ice for a great slide. The more adventurous even take snowmobiles for a spin on the ice. (Mom despised snowmobiles and motorcycles and forbid us to ride either.)

In the summers, you take the boat out for a twirl on the lake, get friends to rock a raft side to side in order to launch you into the water and of course, you hunt the creatures in the water – snakes, turtles and fish.

I loved the act of fishing and helped my father clean his bigger catches for pan-fried dinners. I never caught anything big enough to keep: a few sunfish here and there was about it.

One bright, cloudless day, my mother decided we would all go the Genesee County Fair after we finished our morning fishing from the Kendall’s dock next door. We had never gone to the fair before and at 8-years-old, it was a most exciting opportunity.

My dad’s friend, Jack, stopped into the house to join us for our fishing. Though Jack was married, he virtually lived out of his car and kept a well-supplied clothesline across his backseat. He would visit the house, play guitar with my dad, drink whiskey and sing Johnny Cash songs. Jack was gaunt, gravely voiced and has a face like sunworn leather. I painted him pictures, which he still had at his home when he died years later.  I loved Jack.

Jack brought his bait and tackle box down to Little Long Lake, which sparkled like diamonds in the summer sunshine. A slight breeze cooled the sweat on our foreheads.  Daddy made sure all the fishing poles were in good working order before he handed Whitney one and me another.

Whitney could not handle baiting her own hook.

“Worms are so gross,” she would squeal. Anytime she faced an obstacle that made her uncomfortable, you had a limited amount of time before she might burst into tears. My father would give in and bait her hook.

I, on the other hand, was something of a “tom boy.”

I snapped off half of a nightcrawler, snaked it onto the double-barbed hook, dangled it over the side of the dock into the water for a second watching the red-striped bobber ride the ripples and then looked out at the lake. When I found the spot I wanted, I drew back my right arm, followed my hook with my eyes and in one sharp move, launch the hook. The hook and sinker plopped into the water.

Fishing on a lake takes on a great feeling of earthen majesty. Your connection to nature feels immediate as if it courses through your veins. The provincial notions of life spring forth to surround and envelop you.

As we all settled in with our ritual, Brent, the Kendall boy, came down to investigate our use of his family dock.

“Can I fish?” Brent asked my dad.

Brent had a quiet, strange way about him. One day, my mom woke from a nap on the couch to find him sitting in the living room watching cartoons. Another time, he knocked on the front door with a grip of daffodils to sell. She was about to oblige when she scanned the yard and realized the flowers were in fact just picked from our fenceline. Many years later, his mother, Dawn, would recall that as her most embarrasing moment as a mom.

Brent also had zero fishing ability. His Snoopy pole bit the dust the prior summer; the line got caught in a tree over the lake when he didn’t look at his hand before releasing his line. He only noticed when he tugged mightily at the line without looking and it didn’t release from the tangled mess he created above. It hung there for weeks until his dad, Gary, cut it down.

“Brent, no more fishing for you,” his dad said.

My dad firmly said,”No Brent. You cannot fish. These are our poles, but you can watch and stay out of the way.”

Some time passed. I retrieved and cast my line several times. The “click-click-click” of the reel gives one such a calm as to be in a dream.

Suddenly, my line jerked. My arm gave in, I pulled back and realized I had a fish. I reeled in the line some, pulled, reeled in, pulled and then, a largemouth bass jumped up into the air on the end of my line. He was beautiful. He fell back into the water and I screamed: “I got one!”

Daddy and Jack came running over to the dock from the shoreline. I reeled the fish up and the bass struggled on the hook, his gills beating open and shut. I realized the poor fish swallowed the hook.

“Daddy, what do we do?”

“Hold on, baby, Jack has better tools than I do,” he said. “We’ll get him free. Good job, baby.”

He patted my shoulder and I beamed with pride, as I looked down at my bass waiting in the water.

While we both looked at one another from opposite ends of the pole, a flash of silver passed in front of my eyes. In an instant, I felt a piercing pain below my lip that began to tug. I screamed and turned to see Brent, with his back to me, yanking on the line.


He turned around. He froze instantly with his mouth wide open and eyes like dinner plates. He dropped my dad’s unattended pole and ran up to his house.

Jack ran back to help with my fish to discover he had two lines to cut.

“Erica! What happened? Hugh!” Jack yelled.

My daddy came running. When he saw me, he became enraged.

“That damn kid!” he said. “I’m gonna sue his damn parents. &*%?@!”

He swore a blue streak all the while Jack worked on cutting me free.

I suppose I cried, but I can only remember feeling scared. The throb of adeniline pulsated at my temples. After Jack cut me loose, he released my bass who swam off like so many fish tales.

We sped to Dr. Martin’s office, where he met us after hours. He was not wearing a tie or his sheet white doctor coat; he looked like an ordinary man.

“Alright, let’s give this a look,” he said, while we stood in the hall. The office seemed foreign in the quiet absence of babies crying and phones ringing. “Hmm. Alright, dad take little brother into the waiting room. We’ll be out in no time.”

I looked at the short-haired Whitney, who was delivered by a different doctor, and tried not to smile. Her little angel face squinched up and she gave what I recall as her first glaring stare. She never cut her hair short again until she joined the Navy.

Dr. Martin numbed my lower lip, which already looked much bigger than other girls’ and was now swollen from the hook. When the tissue was numb, he threaded the barb the rest of the way through, snipped off the end and pulled the hook out through the inside of my mouth.

The small hole in the bottom right side of my lip healed over time and so did the anger between our house and the Kendalls.

All Dawn could manage to say with a nervous laugh was: “At least there wasn’t a worm on the hook.”

I always felt to blame for ruining the plans for the county fair. We never went to to it in the many years we lived in Fenton. I also long regretted not getting to bring my own fish to the dinner table.

I guess it wasn’t meant to be. But it sure would have made one Hell of a fish tale.