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Month: June 2013

Up and Down the Boulevard

Up and Down the Boulevard

Bob’s Big Boy, watercolor and pen by Jennifer L. Hotes ©2013

Summer vacation for me began as a passenger on a road trip I loathed to take. Stuffed in the backseat next to my brother at dawn when our classmates were no doubt still sleeping, we were cursed to spend the next two days driving south on I-5 from Washington to California. Like the scenery out the window, the miles were mostly a blur, but I remember a few things after all this time.

Wicked waitress Wanda, worst bathroom contests, melted crayons on a car mat, a lost Curious George that found his way home, a little barfing and the awkwardness of those first miles after getting swapped out of our mother’s life into my father’s. Those stretched minutes as strangers got to know each other all over again.

As the child of divorced parents, I spent nine months in Washington and three months in California. The sort-of-fought-about-halfway point between the two cities where our parents resided was Klamath Falls, Oregon.  If you’ve ever had reason to venture to Klamath Falls, then you know what a perfect setting it is for an emotionally charged hand off between a mother and a father. Like the dramatic scene in a play where everything comes to a head, the scenery grays to nothing, fades beyond recognition and then the act is over. What I remember most about Klamath Falls is the taste of blood in my mouth, where I chewed the side of my cheek to keep from crying as I said goodbye to one parent and hello to another.

The quest for the World’s Worst Bathroom kept the trips interesting. As the miles zipped past, we reminisced about the gas station bathroom that had no operable lights and two overflowing toilets, or the rest stop that we could smell from the car, or the one that had no toilet paper. As we lurched to a stop in front of a bathroom, our hearts raced with excitement and revulsion for what we might find behind the next stall door. We exchanged stories when we recommenced in the car, comparing the men’s room to the ladies’, ranking (literally ranking) the latest rest stop with countless others. It made us laugh.

I didn’t have the kind of family that thought to pack food in the car for the journey and for that I am grateful. Our food stops gave me a chance to stretch my legs and enjoy the pleasure of eating in a restaurant. My favorite stop was Bob’s Big Boy. I loved the chili spaghetti.

Often, though we stopped at local diners, each with their own unique menus and service. One summer, the summer my big brother was being coached to “maintain eye contact when ordering from a waitress,” we were introduced to Wanda. It was that awkward hour between breakfast and lunch when the contents of either menu are not ready and or available. It was a tricky time to eat and required a good deal of questions for our waitress, Wanda. While trying to maintain eye contact, my brother ordered breakfast with a glass of milk. Wanda was not pleased. Others at the table ordered lunch-type items and this made her even madder. After a few trips back to the cook, because the term ‘chef’ would be overreaching, Wanda put in our order. We received beverages, all except the glass of milk. Trying to make good eye contact, my brother asked Wanda again for his milk. She returned to the table, screaming over her shoulder to a coworker, slammed the glass on the formica table top, and thundered away, still yelling about the injustices of her life to said coworker. The milk splashed all over the table and Wanda, looked back over her shoulder and saw the mess. She screamed, “I quit!” and huffed out the door, tossing her apron to the floor.

Before Wanda, Wicked Waitress Wanda as she came to be known by our family, eye contact never came easily to my brother. But, after her, it was nearly impossible.

Often, we spent the night in Redding, California before tackling the last of the drive to my father’s house. One year I was having a borderline obsession with my Curious George stuffed animal. Of course when we stopped for the evening in a Redding hotel I brought him inside. And of course I forgot him the next day. Well, after two hours of driving I remembered him. I cried and fretted, being told we could not possibly turn around and get him. It would set us back hours. Ridiculous.

Not having my constant companion made those first nights at my father’s all the harder, but it was my own dang fault. A week went by and I had all but forgotten George, not really, but I tried to forget him. And then he showed up again. I thought I heard a knock at the door. I swung it open and there stood Curious George on the front porch with a tiny suitcase at his side. It was magical. He’d had his own road trip and was here to share his tale with me. We were both survivors, me and George.

The Price of Living

The Price of Living

The free sofa, watercolor by Jennifer Hotes © 2013

Admit it. The last time you drove past that beat up naugahyde sofa with the  ‘Free’ sign taped to a cushion, you cringed. Your mind imagined five horrible things you would find if you dared to lift up a bottom cushion.Imagine the amounts of Purell you would need if you actually touched the sticky, cracked surface. Don’t worry. It’s not just you. I have no more desire to drag the sofa into my home than if it were a dead mouse, left on the porch by the family cat. But it reminds me how American society looks down on old, slightly wrinkled, dingy things, harmless enough when we’re speaking of a piece of furniture. The real shame is when we dismiss human beings for the crime of growing old.

There was a time not so long ago when I was considered easy on the eyes. (God help me if my relatives fill the comment box with rebuttals. Don’t. Even. Think. About it.) But, now creeping into my mid-forties, I have about as much appeal as that ‘Free’ sofa. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not bitter about my aesthetic decline, it is a small price to pay for the privilege of continued life. I pay it gladly. But, as I age I look back with foggy-eyed sentimentality at the times men wooed me. Once, as a spunky coed out with my best friend, our round of vodka tonics was paid for secretly by someone at the bar. He left behind a coaster, a round coaster with the words of an Irish saying spiraling around the edges in a distinctive, blocky script. Maybe you have heard it before. “May your glass be ever full, May the roof over your head be always strong. And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” The message terrified and thrilled us at the same time. Oh, to be young and adored.

My mother-in-law, Betty Hotes achieved the magic people call, ’embracing one’s age.’ She, the ultimate lady, remained stylish, pleasant and relevant her whole life. She kept up with the latest reality shows, watched NCAA basketball, and monitored the news well into her 90s, not only for her own entertainment, but to keep her end of the conversation with friends and relatives smart, reflective and current. We have a photograph of Betty, dressed in her stewardess uniform as she descended the silver stairs of an airplane. She was a stewardess before airplane cabins were pressurized and more importantly, before passengers were able to consume alcohol. In the picture, Betty’s hair is coiffed to perfection and her creamy skin glows. It is no wonder a young Howard Hughes while sharing a cab with her in New York City during the war flirted. As he exited the taxi he told her to get her pretty self to Hollywood.

The years were kind to Betty. Before it was considered fashionable, Betty attended art school. She drew aerial maps of Europe for our air troops. Later, she went on to marry a war hero and raise six children in an undeveloped Alaska all in her own stylish way. We have a picture of her dressed in a shoulder to toe length fur coat. Her wolf, Mariah sits at her feet and gazes up at Betty with raw admiration written all over her face. If I drew a cartoon bubble above the wolf it would say, “My mommy killed a lot of minks.’

We all admired Betty, Mariah. She taught us much with her years on this earth. She showed my daughters what beauty is. She encouraged me to follow my love of art. She kept faith in God’s plan when everyone else threw in the towel. She spoiled her pets because their lives were fleeting compared to ours. She taught us all how to listen and make the person speaking feel like the only person in the room. She showed us how to gather family, put aside our silly grievances and share moments as kin. She taught all of us how to get our way without raising our voices and lifting a finger. She was nearly ninety-three years old when she died and every one of us that knew her wished we had another ninety-three years to spend with her. Her life still resonates.

In this disposable society, I challenge you to clutch your sentimentality with two fists. Cherish your years and the years of others. Listen to their stories. Write them down. Share them. For in those stories lie the ties that bind us together as human beings.

So, next time you are in need of a sofa, don’t be so quick to turn up your nose at that worn, sagging naugahyde number down the block. Have a seat, try it out. And you may find that the darned thing has another good decade or two left in it.



Finish Strong!

Finish Strong!

original watercolor, JLHotes © 2013

“Finish Strong!” It is my mantra this week. Yes, exclamation point and all. Life has warped to hyper-speed this month, and we are only six days into June. My daughters are nearing the finish line of the school year, my book is midway through a final edit before publication, I am up to my ankles with the planning of a benefit luncheon. There is much to do and I am losing my happy energy and general gumption.

Last night I caught my daughters giving me sideways glances as I grumbled about the mess they had made in the car with their after school snacks. I deserved much worse than dirty looks. My children are smart, conscientious, funny, authentic human beings and I had reduced their existence to a pile of crumbs. Yep. I needed an attitude adjustment.

Just weeks ago I gave my daughters a pep talk about finishing the year strong. I encouraged them to do thorough jobs on their final projects even though they had overheard classmates talk about the shortcuts they planned to take. I told them now was the time to show the depth of their character to the teachers that loved them, be a shining example to their classmates, blah, blah, blah. It was a good speech and I meant every word of it. But, somehow I forgot to apply it to myself.

A year ago I began writing my first novel, Four Rubbings in earnest. I never could have imagined those infant scribblings would one day be picked up for publication. I still can’t believe it. I have a wonderful, sharp-witted editor that felt drawn to the project, understands its layers and cried with the characters in all the right places. I don’t deserve her. And yet tonight I opened my Word document and groused about the wall of helpful comments meant to vault the novel to a higher level. I groused! How rude. You have to be disciplined to write a novel, thick-skinned to let others critique it and a complete idiot not to use the criticism to make the novel better. My book deserves for me to finish strong. I am too close to the finish line to do give anything less.

What if in the final book of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling quit writing when Harry reached that white, nebulous train station? What if in her exhaustion, she left Harry to mill about the station eternally with only ghost Dumbledore for company, well him and that wet, icky Voldemort baby. What then? It would have been awful. We would have written hate mail, bags and bags of it, with real postage stamps! But we don’t have to write to Mrs. Rowling now because she finished strong. She let her characters complete their journey and we loved it.


So, what mile of the marathon are you on? What can I say to help you push forward and finish strong? Maybe all it takes is a reminder of that first mile, the one when you were stiff and cold and the air you wheezed in stung your throat and burned your lungs. You have come so far since then. If you quit now, those miles count for nothing. Keep going. Finish strong with me.


Speaking of strong finishes….count down to number one with me on this funny Vlogbrothers video: