Thursday, November 13, 2008




There has always been a gun in my father’s top drawer --–always unloaded, always locked. Throughout my childhood it was the unseen but primary marker of his territory. My mother may have covered his dresser with her lacy froth but the secret presence of weapon charged the air on his side of the bed. The slide of that drawer still invokes the scent of leatherpolish and gunpowder, still conjures the soundtracks and shoot outs from the cop shows he watched endlessly. By the time I was ten, watching him clean his pistol, watching the familiarity with which his hand moved across the barrel, around the grip, oiling and shining, I understood that he related the weapon to himself, to our livelihood, and beneath these, sometimes, to something troubling and outside my comprehension. That something was Vietnam. At 18 he joined the Airforce MP’s to avoid the Army. “to watch planes instead of corpses.” as he puts it. Before the war, he wanted to be minister in the Salvation Army, until they specified that a minister’s wife must also take the cloth (or uniform in this case, frumpy, navy wool.) Though very young, Mrs. Dorothy Mosher had aspirations toward pregnancy not the pulpit. It was 1966, if he were killed, she wanted a child. “ We were engaged when he went to boot camp, “My mother says, “They said we’d have a year together after basic training. Then he calls me from the base and he’s drunk and crying, (she laughs) saying they’re shipping him out in three months and do I still want to marry him?” In his first letters home, his voice is morally beleaguered but he clings to his faith, his drawings, and to her. At some point however, he stops mentioning God and sketchbooks. To this day, he does not willingly talk of this period. It was my mother who told me,”He wrote about stepping over corpses in the street. He didn’t believe in God any more after that.” He returned in ‘69 and though Vietnam had killed his goal of the ministry, his stateside visits had made him a father of a more earthy kind. He was 19 and had a wife and two children. Circumstances had made his choices for him, and a good portion of his identity had been invested in the Military Police; he pursued Law Enforcement to support his household.


Donna, my mother and I are working at the Jewish Temple. Cleaning toilets on their knees is the only time I’ve seen either of them kneel in a place of worship. Employed at the backside of the sacred, they bestow a very material sanctity, anointed with Pine Sol and elbow grease. The temple is a large place, the center of the valley’s community, and contains a kitchen, a dinning hall, two baths, the temple proper, and an extensive library. Luckily Mom and Donna have a fast, tag team rhythm and, as with all the homes they clean, they know the place more intimately than their employers.

If cleanliness is next to Godliness this job should make saints of us. Unfortunately it’s dirty work. I have to wonder how the concept of sanctified space would fare if those who worshipped here were faced with the temple’s onslaught of dust, drain clogs, soap scum, and pubic hair on bathroom porcelain. By the time I’ve done a mirror and sink in one bathroom, my mother has completely finished the other. Dirt alone can bring out aggression in this otherwise gentle woman. She goes after grime with vigilante energy, as if she could bring order to her world by making it gleam.

Since I’m slow at the grunt work, she hands me a fluffy rag and sends me off to do the genteel job of wiping the pews. Donna moves the vacuum in tight rings around the altar. The noisy head of the machine passes in and out of colored light that falls from the stained glass windows. A radiant projection of the Hebrew letter Shin slides across the hard plastic surface, extinguishes suddenly in the shadow of the dust bag, then ignites, like the flame it stands for on the indoor/outdoor carpet.
“It’s such a pretty place,” My mother says as she locks up, “ I wish I knew what all that stuff meant.”


The TV is on, volume up. Beneath the screen, a gang of Barbie dolls is tossed in a tag team heap, wrestling with Pokemon action figures. Scattered about are crayons, stuffed animals, barrettes, textbooks, socks, - a flurry of girlhood. Yelling, whining, flattering, my nieces Daneal and Desiree compete fiercely for their mother's attention. Denied, they turn their frustrations on each other and soon resemble their toys, tangled in a multi-limbed pile. My sister Donna sits smoking and doling out exasperated disciplines, engaged with my mother in a bout of friendly, NY style bitching. There is a stack of bills stained with coffee rings by her cup. Her check book is open and there is a direct relationship between the dollar amount she scratches out and the number of profanities that stream from her lips. Her fiancé Roger plunges deep into an oversized recliner, becoming impressively oblivious. The dog runs joyfully over the coffee table and sofa, landing in Roger's lap, spilling chips, soda, and just a bit of blood. After even a short visit, you leave this house with several hand drawn presents, a cheek coated with sticky kisses, and maybe a wound or two.

Stop by on Sunday and you find a passageway blocked by a lumber pile, stuffed animals sprawled beneath beams and plaster like earthquake victims. Visit on Wednesday, the hall is clean and raw. The house is being redone constantly, wall by wall, here, there, as time, whim, and money afford. Projects blossom around purchases - first comes the TV, then the companion furnishings, carpeting, coats of paint etc. Decorating schemes are pulled live and kicking from women's magazines. Décor is egalitarian business here; the kids like a color, they get it, with no regard to notions of taste or utility. Daneal's room has gone from a nicotine “eggshell” to a blue so saturated it seems to both emit and absorb light. If the color is hardly conducive to rest, well, that’s the most negligible function of a 12year old's bedroom anyway. Not to be outdone, Desiree's room has just been spackled with broad strokes of purple and lavender. The effect is more that of a storm at sea than the intended lilac blossoms.

Donna has always had a domestic streak. Even at her teenage, runaway wildest, she sat at the kitchen table, leafing through decorating catalogues while practicing suggestive postures; her body stuffed into blue spandex; her feet bound into shiny, vinyl stilettos; hair teased into a metal-head blend of windblown romantic and fright wig - a hairstyle that resembled, exactly, the feathers dangling from her roach clip earrings. At 14 she was misdiagnosed with Hodgkins Disease. Thinking she has three years to live she went of the deep end and has been in over her head ever since. Foster homes, teen age pregnancies, abortion, abusive relationships. Name it, she's done it, and always come through with her wit, if not all her wits, intact. I see the random creation of her home (and therefore photograph it) as the culmination of the haphazard choices she has made with her body and identity. "It's coming along," she says, rolling her eyes at a half-painted, sheet rock wall. Contrariness has always been Donna's choice mode of expression. She’s got her tough bitch reputation to defend, and often seems to go about motherhood as if forced to baby sit. But she’s pissed as hell if you don’t acknowledge the work and money she puts into the house and girls.

The girls are playing a game with the dog, shrieking as high as possible till the poor beast howls along. “Welcome to Hell, “ Donna says, carrying the bills to the counter and weighing them down with a framed picture of Eddy Van Halen live in Syracuse. “Want coffee?”


Daneal’s walls are covered nearly floor to ceiling with a ragged, glossy lining of boy band pin-ups. A grid map of perfectly hopeless top 40 lust. No matter where she looks, boys look back. Their faces in all purpose expressions –innocent and friendly, tough and slick –that seem to say, “It’s just for you.” Their hands outstretched in gestures of imploring groove. Their smiles so wide, so white, they must glow in the dark.

Laying on her umade bed, Daneal and her best friend Dorane are locked in a competitive, descriptive clamor: “Sky blue eyes, no baby blue, dark, he’s mysterious. No, sunny blonde. No, sandy! So cute! He’s not dating her anymore, it was painful but just look at his smile on the new cover of_____ he’s over it, and he’s really nice, he’s got shiny cheeks, his nose is just right for his face, he’s like that all the time - in every picture he looks the same.” Their frenzied jabber continues till Daneal kills the game by lowering her voice, turning up her thudding upstate accent and saying “like your ever even gonna meet him.”

Dorane retaliates, “They keeping you back for fighting?”
“Nope,” Daneal says, “ almost, but I don’t fight anymore, I don’t have to, everybody knows I’m a bitch and I always win.”

Dorane says nothing. The silence that follows is like confessional note being passed between them. They always get their asses kicked.

Since it’s almost Halloween I ask them if they’ve ever seen a ghost. Doraine tells me of the south field hermit, a small, white, transparent man who lives under a bridge. She has also been chased by a white car with no driver. When using a Ouija board, the communicating spirit spelled out his dislike for her in profanities, then the table shoved itself into her stomach. Really! They tossed that board in the burn barrel and it came back the next day. Not to be outdone, Daneal tells me of the ghost in the house. “Her name is Mary. She didn’t die here, she visits. You can hear her footsteps at night.” Daneal leans forward and asks, lowering her voice as if afraid of invoking the spirit, “Do you think she could be Bloody Mary?”

For those unfamiliar with the legend, you speak the name “Bloody Mary,” three times in a mirror and she appears. Her face is bloody and scratched. The girls say she can reach out and scratch those who call her. I imagine them speaking the name before the mirror, watching their own faces for signs of adult beauty beneath pimples and plump cheeks, terrified that Mary will come but beauty never will.

I put a regional twist on the game, telling them that “Mary” died, mangled by machinery, on the Remington Arm's assembly line and she now visits every house in the valley where factory work has or will cause a death. I’m inclined to believe my own dark bit of local color, as I look out the window. The Arm’s smoke stack rises through the woods, expelling clouds of thick steam over the grey trees,

The girls assure me that they have no plans of working in “that skanky place.” Daneal snaps on the TV and the talk turns instantly back to boys. Men actually. Big ones. Pro wrestlers. Who better than these oiled hulks to drive away lingering ghosts? I have to marvel at the broad tastes of these girls who switch minute to minute from trim teen idols in designer sportswear to keg-chested men in briefs so tight they are virtually sexless.

Not that the girls care for the sport. Though they scream and beat the mattress during the rounds, the moves that fascinate them happen outside the ring, in the soap opera interludes - The love lives of these violent men with good in their hearts and bad women on their arms. Daneal relates a particularly offensive scandal: “He was getting his legs broken in the ring, and she was tag teaming in a hotel room, you know what I mean?” Actually, I wonder if she knows what she means. Swinging a hockey stick, she demonstrates the moves she would use on the “traitoring bitch,” taking out the ceiling lamp in the process, showering glass over the floor and bed. Potential punishments are on everyone’s mind as we sit in the sharpness and the darkness.


I didn't know when I took these photos that Daneal had suffered molestation, that she had seen her mother being abused by her father, that her ideas of body, sex, and love had been twisted before her adolescence set in. When I snapped these shots all I knew was that she hated her body till she danced, especially to Britney Spears. For the length of a pop song she is without a painful past or a drab present. With every angular move, every turn and spin, she is rich, slim, and full of teenage power.

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