Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fall Again

Ever since my trip to the beach last January, where the dolphins appeared with their frolicking ) offering of forgiveness, it seems all that squishiness just sucked the mad (and my stories) right out of me. I know there are more stories about growing up in the Viet Nam Era with a Mom who partied hard and a Step Father who laughed off her dangerous antics. Yet, maintaining my bitterness and a good story to accompany it, doesn't make any sense after that pivotal one-year anniversary trip to the sea to say goodbye. Now the question is, can I tell a good story while feeling all warm and fuzzy with forgiveness?

I doubt it, but I want to try. I want to try because there is something achingly healing about remembering. I want to keep writing because I think I have more to say, and because I certainly have more to feel, and because I think they are good stories worth telling.

It is tempting to write about what's happening now, post Go-Go, in the lives of my siblings and my father/step-father, Roger. Those might be good stories, too, but I'm guessing that's just another way to stray from digging up the ghosts of my past for the sake of exorcism and entertainment.

Stay tuned....I think there will be more to come.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I've been trying to write about Go-Go's ease and skill in the kitchen, which were substantial. She was confident, arrogant, even, in her insistence that two shakes was a teaspoon, and a handful, a cup. She refused to measure. I suppose she measured when she baked, but she didn't do much of that by the time I came along, the seventh of eight.

When I was hired as a cook, at twenty years old, in a small restaurant in Seattle, the owner was really impressed that I could make a pot of soup without reading a recipe, or by merely giving it a glance. "You have to cook to taste, she insisted" and Go-Go was in complete agreement.

She liked to throw a party and usually did it by cooking up some big feast to go along with the booze. If more people showed up than she planned for, she would announce "FHB!" which stood for "family hold back." I reminded her of it a year or so before she died and, like so many of my memories, she adamantly denied ever saying it. That's one of those things that used to drive me crazy. I wanted our memories to line up, for her to say "wow, I remember that too," or "that must have sucked." But that would not have been her way, and now I know that just because she didn't remember it, doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Recently Roger called to tell me had given away her baking pans to a friend of his. "What was I going to do with them?" he wondered out loud in our conversation. His nonchalance at one of the things she was good at, sent a searing pain through my heart. It was one more reminder that she, and her beloved tiny baking pans, have passed.

Monday, March 15, 2010

One Year

By the end of last year I was plagued by memories of Go-Go, especially of her final illness and the process of her dying. Every significant date beginning in August, was intensely punctuated by what was happening the previous year during that time.

I made it through the holidays distinctly aware of how weird and sad and peculiar I felt. I undercooked the turkey and burned the squash at Thanksgiving. I invited people for Christmas and then uninvited them – I just didn’t know what I wanted. In the end, we held a simple brunch – cooked by Trish in an effort to ensure the guests would be unharmed.

January came and I announced to Trish that I wanted to go to the beach to do a ritual to acknowledge the one year anniversary of Go-Go’s death. I had no idea what kind of ritual I would do, nor how I would do it, but I brought along some paper, a book of matches, and some shells from her beach in Naples, trusting that I would find inspiration, once there. We drove down the coast and when I saw what looked like a good beach, I pointed and declared, “here”, and Trish pulled into the rutty parking lot and we headed down the trail to Montera Beach.

The weather was gorgeous – a crisp, sunny winter day, warm enough to discard our jackets and feel splashes of sun heating up our turtle necks. We rested on a muddy embankment and while sitting, I asked Trish: “do you think we could see whales in this part of the Pacific?” “No” she said, “I don’t think they would be this close to shore”. With our eyes fixed on the sea we both saw it at the same time; what was unmistakably the fin of a dolphin surfacing and vanishing, and she said, “but you can see dolphins!” We shot up from our perch and right in front of us, we discovered first two, then four, and finally six dolphins frolicking and surfing in the stormy Pacific. I burst into tears, instantly struck by the magic of the dolphins appearing on the one year anniversary of Go-Go’s death.

She loved dolphins! Her child-like excitement was incessant – she watched them for decades, from her balcony in Florida, looking over the Gulf of Mexico. She would begin her mediation early in the morning with a cigarette and a cup of coffee – she insisted morning was the best time to see them, and I usually missed out since the time change often caused me to sleep until noon. Now, a year after her death, it was so clear, this was it, my ritual. At first I murmured through my tears “she doesn’t deserve to come back as a higher life form.” It stung even as I said it, so I was relieved when Trish said, “yes she does, she suffered a lot in her life. And in that moment, and ever since, I knew it to be true - I understood on a very different level, that she suffered as deeply as she partied. My heart broke open and I understood that the things that she did to me, just happened. She didn’t do them to me, she did her life, and I just happened to be there. The shift may seem small, but for me it opened up an ocean of forgiveness.

We followed the dolphins the entire length of Montera Beach, and when the rocky cliffs of the coast obstructed our view, we took our time returning to our perch. Before we left, I ran down into freshly wetted sand and wrote “bye mom” as big as a whale, with my boot prints. The exact moment that I finished the final "M", the tide rushed in so fast I had to race to avoid getting wet, and washed my words away. As we made our way back up the coast toward home, I felt healed, and comforted, and knew everything was going to be okay.

To see more photos from the day:

Monday, January 4, 2010


Trish and Dee and I spent a few days in Vegas last month, and I, without planning to or thinking about it, channeled Go-Go at the Black Jack tables. If a player was doing stupid things like staying on fourteen when the dealer had a face card showing, I would start to mumble insults under my breath, just loud enough for the dealer and my pal to hear me.

Go-Go hated unskilled card players, she hated them. And the drunker she was, the more likely she was to let them know it. To her credit, she was usually playing two hands - often for A LOT of money per hand, and when a player stays on fourteen or fifteen, it screws up the whole table. She would not hesitate to tell them, "you have to hit that", if you don't the dealer stands a better chance of not breaking". I don't know the odds exactly, but I do know that it takes time to grow the courage to hit fourteen or fifteen, or even sixteen, knowing that much of the time you are going to lose your money - there are just more high cards in a deck. But if you don't hit, you lose, too. And Go-Go was not afraid to say "why don't you just stay home and mail your money to the casino" if she felt like a person was not being a smart player.

So we went to Vegas to celebrate my friend Dee's graduation from nursing school and both Dee and I had gambled with Go-Go when she was alive so she knew when we were playing that I was channeling Go-Go. I even had the raspy cigarette voice to accompany my rants, because I am completely allergic to smoke and my voice turned gravely the first day. Plus, the more tired I became, the less likely I was able to control myself. It was a lot of fun to bring out Go-Go and talk crap about the lousy players, and embarrass my pal a little while I was at it.

When you were gambling with Go-Go and she wanted you to stay up and play with her, she would toss you a hundred bucks to finance your playing. She taught me how to play black jack and she did it long before I had any business knowing how. We went to the Bahama's when I was sixteen and she dressed me up and off we would go to the casino, knowing I could easily pass for eighteen, or twenty-one. If she was winning, she thought nothing of tossing me a black chip or two, or three. If she was down, she would "borrow" money until there wasn't any left, but those weren't the stories I focused on last month. I felt like the trip softened me toward her.

I was not happy about Go-Go's gambling habits when she was alive. Because of it, she died completely broke, leaving behind oppressive debt. But for those few days in Vegas last month, I got to remember how much she LOVED Vegas, and how sassy and fun she was to play cards with. And, I got to remember the good times I had gambling with her.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Roger bought Go-Go her first house. It was large and new and looked over a golf course. It was also in an unincorporated township north of the City, which was awful for me, and my older teen age sibling, Scott. Windsor was two miles outside of DeForest, the nearest town: population seven thousand something. Both Go-Go and my Dad were from a small town in Northern Wisconsin, Phillips – a place we spent holidays – I hated it. I hated that my teenage cousins went to Church functions to do their socializing; I hated the hot rod cars, “parking” at the cemetery, and all town people knowing everyone’s business. Moving to Windsor was like being trapped in Phillips, back in time, and never being able to get out.

That first summer we moved to Windsor I ate Sara Lee pound cake and watched television, obsessively. I missed my friends and I missed my apartment complex. I was miserable, cranky, and lonely. I spent a lot of time alone; exploring the neighboring farms, the creek behind our house, the American Breeders Service land, and the country roads our little housing development, sprung amongst. As I explored I would see hick boys in loud, souped up, 50’s style cars and feel like I had been dropped into time-warp nightmare.

Go-Go was in heaven. Roger gave her free reign with furnishing and decorating her new house. She demanded the best of everything and she was decisive about her taste: ivory and gold trimmed Lenox China with gold rimmed crystal stem-ware, service for twenty-four, gold and sterling flat-ware and furniture from the most expensive store in Madison. I used to think she had impeccable taste, well, she told me she did, and I, lacking any other design blueprint, believed her.

Go-Go was a social creature, and in no time at all, she made friends with the neighbors who golfed and drank at the Lake Windsor Country Club. She had a knack for attracting to biggest drunks in town and Windsor was no exception. I developed a similar aptitude. At the end of the summer, I began eighth grade in the small town middle school and began my hellish travails into adolescence, torturing and being tortured by Go-Go.

I’ve been struggling to write about this time in my life. I was in hell and I took hostages. She tried to control me, briefly, but I spit in her face and dared her to ground me, “what are you going to do, chain me to my bed?” I challenged. I started getting high and drinking and staying out late. The more rebellious I became the more desperate she was. We fought violently. One night I came home at one or two in the morning to find every single one of my albums folded and broken in fourths. My music was my solace. She found a way to get to me, and it worked. From that night on, I swore vengeance. I spent countless hours fantasizing about breaking all of her precious dishes and nick-knacks. My rage was palpable and I had no place to put it, except to do numb myself with drugs, alcohol and sex.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

At Four

I am lying underneath a rack of clothing in Marshall Fields. I am four and my mom is in the dressing room. I spend a long time running my hands over the clothes, touching the fabrics, the buttons, and zippers - getting lost in the colors and shapes. I love shopping with my mom. Today we are in Milwaukee visiting my Aunt Marian and Mom is trying to find a new bathing suit because she left hers at home. She goes into the dressing room and tells me not to move and I try really hard to stay put in the swimming suit section but there aren’t any good clothing tents to hide under plus I’m too short to reach them. I go through dresses and that was my favorite because they are easy to see and feel. The hangers slide over the bars like the wheels of roller skates, smooth and well oiled. After dresses I go through the skirts and blouses and eventually find a rack stuffed full of clothes to hide beneath. It is really cool in here. I am a queen and each item of clothing is one of my charges. I tell them all about the important events of the royal family and the castle. I’m getting a little sleepy so I think I’ll close my eyes.

I hear a man bellowing over the loud speaker, “if there is a little girl by the name of Diane Haas, please report to a sales clerk immediately. I am very sleepy but I’m pretty certain that’s me being paged to a sales clerk. I wonder what is taking my mom so long. I duck under the clothes and try to find a sales clerk. I tug on a lady and ask her if she is a clerk and she is startled, “are you the child they are looking for?”

“I guess so.”

“Where have you been?”

“Over there,” I point toward the rack and see now it has a big “Sale” sign above it. She takes my hand and hurriedly scurries to a sales clerk. The clerk puts her hands over her mouth and says “oh my god, here she is” now I’m afraid I’m in big trouble with my mom. Clearly all these people are very upset, and they don’t even know me. “where’s my mom,” I ask?

“Honey, you come with me” and again I am being rushed off to yet another location.

“My mom’s in the dressing room over there” I offer sheepishly.
“Okay, darling, you come with me.”

We are walking and walking and finally she brings me into an office. It smells like metal and cigarette smoke in here. She walks up to a man and announces proudly she has the child, as if her discovery will win her a prize. She tells him she needs to get back to her section. “What’s your name young lady, the man who introduces himself as the manager asks? “Diane” I say weakly, wishing my mom would come. “Well Diane, there been an accident and your mom had to go away in an ambulance but someone is going to come and pick you up real soon.”

I don’t think I knew what an ambulance was but it didn’t sound good. I wished for the comfort of my hiding place underneath the clothes rather than the stale stuffiness of the manager’s office. I now know that Go-Go was taken to the hospital and somehow my Aunt was called to pick me up. If I was frightened I don’t remember, but I had already become accustomed to strange and unpredictable things happening around me, and learned to stuff any feelings I might be having and ride the waves of uncertainty.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Barbeque

The celebration of life memorial potluck barbeque family reunion party gathering was coming to a close. I was too busy catching up with relatives and friends of the family to realize there wasn’t going to be a “memorial.” Not long after it occurred to me I was standing in my sister’s kitchen and my brother shared a conversation with me. He said he was talking to our brother-in-law and said “someone better tell Diane there isn’t going to be a memorial service.” To that I replied, “I certainly didn’t drive two thousand miles in two days for a fucking barbeque.” Everyone laughed. But that’s exactly what I did.

If there had been some sort of public sending off, a blessing, a shared story telling session, who would have facilitated it? I think my years in California and countless “celebrations of life” had me confused with how things are done in my family. I really did imagine there would be chairs set up class room style in the park adjacent to my sister’s house. I really thought we would publicly express our grief and tell stories about how generous and funny and talented she was, and how much she’ll be missed, and what a train wreck she was. That’s what happens at memorials, or celebrations of life, or whatever you call them, isn’t it? Not in my family.

I am still shaking my head at the weirdness of it. People came from all over the country, people who had known Go-Go much of her life, and all of mine. Dottie and Arnie Carpenter came with their daughter Kitty, the one who watched my heel get torn off in the spokes of my sister’s bike, and as it turns out, the one who has a life long crush on my older brother Tom. A bunch of my cousins, my parent's friends from Windsor, friends of my sisters who didn't even know Go-Go came. Roger’s family was there, goofy and strange as ever. Roger’s sister, Aunt Margie could not stop saying “you look just like Pete,” my younger brother. I had a chance to visit with a few of my nieces and nephews and their kids, and that was pretty much the highlight of the day.

When I introduced Trish as my honey, to Go-Go's eighty eight year old sister, Aunt Marian, she put her hand over her mouth and said “ohhhh” but quickly recovered and withdrew her extended hand and reached out to hug her, saying “well, you’re a part of the family then, you get a hug.” I’ve been “out” to my family for thirty years - did my mom never tell her sister? Still, I shake my head at the strangeness.

By midnight everyone was gone and it was over. Trish and I were grateful to spend the night in a tent in my sister’s back yard. It was our first night in the tent and it was glorious to sleep on her cushy lawn and breathe the fresh, clean Midwestern air. With that part of the trip over, we were ready to begin our great road trip adventure.

Photograph by Trish Tunney