Photo by Suzi Cook.

Let’s Talk about Spaceships

Things might work if I can talk to my daughter better than I talked to my mom during ABBA’s Greatest Hits Saturday mornings.

By Scott Winter | Writer

My mom’s ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits double-LP opened up to a leafy fall photo of the four singers on a park bench. In Sweden, I figured. The photo in my lap didn’t look that much different from the North Dakota out my window, but the singers looked different, their bellbottoms wider, jean jackets cooler and hair more feathered. I had to wonder, at 7, 8 and 9, who slept with whom, and where I could get bellbottoms like that so I could hang out with that brunette. I was a Mary Anne, not a Ginger, kind of guy. The brunette percolated me. Not the bombshell blonde. And I wanted her in ways that were probably pretty naughty.

My father, the sportswriter, spent most weekends on the road with the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux hockey, football and basketball teams, so our white-and-gold rambler of a home was all ours on Friday nights, when my mom and I would bake cookie sheets of nachos or tinfoil balloons of tongue-scalding Jiffy Pop popcorn. All the Dr. Pepper bottles, the real glass ones, we could handle. We’d curl up together in her queen bed under the newsprint-patterned bedspread to watch Dukes of Hazzard, Dallas and Shan-Na-Na’s Bowser. Then late-night reruns of Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes and Good Times. I’d fall asleep in her arms and not understand her loneliness in those years until decades later.

Saturday mornings belonged to ABBA. Mom supervised the all-morning house-cleaning sessions, a kind of fanatical and extravagant weekly spring-cleaning that I figured was normal. We gave our house the equivalent of a half-day spa, with foot-scraping and face-peel scrubbing by my mom, and behind-the-ears and behind-the-knees featherdusting by me. Mostly, though, I supervised the turntable on the RCA TV/stereo combo cabinet, an eight-feet wide pine structure in our living room that housed dustable rubber plants on each end. I always spun ABBA first, but skipped “Dancing Queen” to get to “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” then lifting the turntable’s delicate needle to my wishes, which were usually “Knowing Me, Knowing You” every other song.

“Not Neil Diamond?” she’d ask from her knees, reaching a rag to the back of the cupboard under the sink.

“No. Come on, mom.”

“Olivia?”

“No.”

She had the greatest hits from ELO and Simon and Garfunkel, Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You,” and the soundtracks to Xanadu and Yentl. And Willie Nelson’s “Stardust.” While cleaning the oven, mopping behind the refrigerator and washing windows, she thumped any surface to that ABBA beat.

Mom was a drummer and track runner in the ’60s until high school beat those out of her, I guess. Feminism, like better music, hadn’t hit western North Dakota, where she grew up on a Rockwellian farm, cleaning chicken coops and biking gravel hills. My photos and memories of the home quarter are mostly of John Deere tractors and Ford pickups, crabapple orchards and fried chicken Sundays. A decade later I’d give my grandfather’s eulogy, and my mother would corner me in the funeral home afterward, angry about the Rockwellian portrait I’d weaved. For mom, the farm was where she unknowingly ate her pet sheep, where her father brought out the best and where her little brother knocked her around pretty good, even when she was pregnant with me. “You were a liar,” she said, and never mentioned it, or anything like it, again. She doesn’t talk about her childhood much at all, and she never eats chicken.

Despite the carnivorous affinity for small-town farm life in tourism literature and country music and political speeches, North Dakota is still the least visited state in the union, even though tourism is the state’s №2 industry. I think about those stats too much. MTV’s Karen “Duff” Duffy, in the early ’90s, pointed them out on Michael Moore’s short-lived show TV Nation, just before network execs axed the show. That’s not the kind of stuff America wants to talk about.

The only family member on my mother’s side who ever really interested me was a guy I never met. From what I overheard on holidays and pieced together otherwise, my mother’s Uncle Don escaped farm life by moving his family in the ’50s to drive a Brinks armored car along southern South Dakota from Rapid City to Sioux Falls and back. He drove the 350-mile drive from bank to bank, loading up and dropping off cash, even before Interstate 90 was built, connecting Hartford to Seattle.

The story goes that one day in the middle of the trip, Don’s truck was found open on the side of the interstate, empty of humans and money. His wife and kids were questioned for months. His phone line tapped for decades. But nobody ever heard from him again, and none of mom’s family ever spoke of him above a whisper.

Unlike Don, mom didn’t have the grades or ambition to escape northwest North Dakota. It took a teen-age pregnancy to get mom away. At the courthouse wedding with strangers outside the judge’s quarters, her new father-in-law, my Jewish grandfather, clapped until mom cried. I don’t know why she cried, because of love or relief or dread, I don’t know. I don’t know much about her and my dad back then. I’ve never asked.

In the spring before the summer of love, my Jewish Canadian father had sex with my Lutheran farm girl of a mother. They were in junior college. Maybe they only got naked once. Maybe at a party. Maybe on a date. Or maybe they’d dated steadily for months. Maybe they knew something big was happening.

Mom started throwing up at home before classes ended that spring and her mother had heard those bathroom purges before, from her oldest daughter. The Johnsons raised three girls, then three boys. The family summered on the farm in the northwestern corner of North Dakota, just 10 miles from the Canadian border, and wintered 50 miles south in Williston, an oil town of 12,000, so that the kids, even the girls, could get a better education. Her full name was Penelope, but classmates pronounced it without the final syllable, stressing it like antelope. Boys called her “Penalty.” Mom never felt like the prettiest daughter, but her oversized eyes offset her oversized teeth. I don’t think she talked or smiled much.

Now, the two oldest girls had gotten themselves pregnant, which is how I’m sure her father saw it — gotten themselves pregnant. And Penelope, too, would have to get married, even to a Jew. Maybe her father saw to it. He didn’t really know this new Canadian boy. And he didn’t even know about the other boy in high school who had raped her.

Dad was a city kid, living in Weyburn, Saskatchewan’s version of Williston, about 100 kilometers north of the border. He had a strange name: Abraham, and no middle name. He’d been a hockey star until he blew out his knee, the hospital stay making him fat. His dreams of playing or refereeing in the National Hockey League were over. He couldn’t even tell his mother, who lived in the provincial mental hospital, slurping soup into her toothless mouth and waiting for Sunday visits. She wouldn’t understand. He’d grown up in an apartment above his dad’s upholstery shop, eating in restaurants on $3 per day, and skipped school to bowl or to cover sports for the local paper. Screwing up in school meant he couldn’t get into provincial university, so he’d have to go to the States for school. Now he’d fucked that up, too.

After the wedding ceremony, they transferred to the big university in Grand Forks, 300 miles east, to get its cheap married housing — basically army barracks that boiled in summer and leaked snowdrifts in winter. Grand Forks was a bigger, more liberal city of 50,000, where real hippies were protesting the Vietnam War, and the other wives in the complex were graduate students in literature and business, but where no anti-war arrests would be made and a women’s studies department wouldn’t show up until 1984. He worked as a sportswriter, increasing his work hours and flunking his English classes until he dropped out. He got a draft number into the 300s, and almost got kicked out of the country for overworking his work visa.

She never enrolled in classes and scored a job as a bank teller to pay bills. She became Lily Tomlin from the movie 9 to 5, moving up the banking hierarchy slowly until her lack of a degree stuck her at a loan officer position. She worked 70-hour weeks, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and some Saturday afternoon hours with me on the bank floor beneath her, running Matchbox and Hot Wheels over the plastic that protected the shag carpet from her desk chair wheels. Even into her 40s and 50s, she would train 22-year-old men with degrees, then end up answering to them and asking them for raises she wouldn’t get.

We never wore seatbelts, and I don’t think that car had any. We had our hands out the windows, minnowing them back and forth against the wind.

She never really made friends at the bank or near the university. She was broke, and she spent weekends cleaning and watching TV, happy to eventually have her own house, away from the university women at married housing. We kept to our cleaning and TV routine. But Mom was gone one weekend, and I stayed with an English guy she knew from the bank. When she came back, she told me she “tied her tubes.” She got mad at me for not asking her about it. Not asking her where she was or what it meant. I didn’t know I was supposed to ask.

• • •

If I cleaned all morning without complaining, mom sometimes would make homemade French fries in the Fry-Daddy, the hot oil splattering pink dots on our hands and arms. Or she’d bake snickerdoodles. Then she’d read romance novels while I ate or rearranged baseball cards.

In summer, once a month, if mom was in the mood, we’d take dad’s 1965 Chevelle out on Highway 2 for what she called “getting the carbs out.” She didn’t take the interstate. She preferred either the safety or the danger of the two-lane roads. We never wore seatbelts, and I don’t think that car had any. We had our hands out the windows, minnowing them back and forth against the wind. We listened to the roar of that 8-cylinder engine or to the “Afternoon Delight” or “Double Vision” on the radio. One time, we made it all the way to Towner, a good 45 miles west of Grand Forks, in the direction of her farm. Towner had a Tastee-Freeze, and we ate ice cream, burgers with root beer floats, then more ice cream. We stayed there all afternoon, barely talking.

On Sundays, I watched TV until my parents got up late. Mom hadn’t really gone to church since she left her parents’ house. She told me once, when I was way too young to understand it, that the Lutheran church had let her down, and she left it at that. But she made us go on Easter and Christmas. Dad never went to the synagogue after his bar mitzvah at 13. I grew up Jutheran, I guess, which basically meant I didn’t go to church. I never asked them why.

Every summer, I spent about six weeks with my grandparents, usually four at the farm, working fields with mom’s parents and brothers, and two in Canada at my Jewish grandfather’s upholstery shop. I liked that place the best. Grandpa took me out to eat every meal at the Dickson Café, where the Chinese owners made the best poached eggs and fried rice I’d ever had. Grandpa bought me baseball cards, and let me clean up the shop, where the whole town brought furniture and car seats to be reupholstered.

I couldn’t understand my grandpa when he spoke, and didn’t know he knew English until I was about 9, but he praised me and smiled at me whenever he looked at me. He kissed me with his rough whiskers, and let me watch him play high stakes cards and bingo.

I also knew he was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, something I’d read about in school. And his wife, my grandmother Fannie, lived in the provincial mental hospital west of town. Years later, I would see Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a set virtually stolen from my grandmother’s hospital, complete with the old or tiny nurses and black orderlies.

Grandpa visited her every Sunday, usually bringing her candy. He’d pat her knee and kiss her for a while, then he’d slip dollars to workers to improve her care, and pass out smokes to the other patients in the ward. My father couldn’t visit with her for more than a minute before he’d have to leave to talk to a high school friend in the ward. I don’t remember my mom ever visiting Fannie, but I’m sure she did.

Grandma slept, as best I could tell, in a basketball court-sized ward of about 50 beds for both males and females. She sat on a couch beside me in gray robes that were once rose or turquoise. Beneath white cotton candy hair, she smiled through her gums and called me Abey, my father’s name. Whether Dad or grandpa brought me, I usually wound up alone with her in a visiting room, where she pushed thick lemon drops and hard, ribbony candy on me.

I don’t remember being scared or lonely. I would tell her about my year in school, about my inability to climb the rope or the net to the ceiling in gym class. About my favorite five girls in my class, especially Kristie Baer, who held my hand at the staff appreciation pancake breakfast. About my favorite ABBA girl or this new guy named Prince who dances really dirty. About J.J., who always says “Dyn-o-mite” on “Good Times,” and how I wished I were black, like Dr. J on the Philadelphia 76ers or Rod Carew on the Minnesota Twins.

I told her everything I told nobody else because I was pretty sure she didn’t understand any of it. She would keep smiling a tranquilized or electro-shocked smile, hug or kiss me, and speak in a mucousy mix of Yiddish, Polish and English. Sometimes she kept repeating “Good boy, Abey. Good boy.” And sometimes she said words I couldn’t understand that scared me because they clearly scared her.

We pieced together later that she had seen much of her family die in work camps. That my dad wasn’t really an only child like me. That two brothers, or maybe a sister and a brother, had died on the ship to Canada in 1948, three years after World War II. Nobody knows what’s exactly true. Maybe she was in a work camp, maybe not. Maybe the Russians were more villainous than the Nazis in her village outside Warsaw. One distant relative knew anything much about the family’s past, but she spoke through foggy Alzheimer’s, and that’s the only relative my father knows about. My grandpa died when my father was 32, and me 11. He always told my father that he was too young to know what happened in Poland. I’ve never been sure that’s true, either, because I could never picture my father asking about something so heavy. That would require a level of confrontation he wasn’t wired to initiate or handle.

Eight years later, when I was a freshman in college, my mother showed up three days early to pick me up from college in my dorm and caught me in my room with a girl. She ignored that and told me Fannie had died and I better come home. She made me call Dad, who was in tears.

“We’re the only ones left,” he said too loudly in the phone. “Just you and me.”

He was crying, and had been when she left him for the four-hour trip. By the time I got home, he didn’t want to talk about it, and we haven’t since.

He cried. She left. We never talked about it.

My daughter just turned 14 and she makes faces, mostly at her dad. Jasmine has Moral Indignation Face, an ironic reaction to something she finds funny. A homestarrunner.com cartoon or her favorite episode of “Teen Girl Squad,” when Whats-Her-Face runs into possums at the second-hand store: “These clothes smell like grandmas.” A Walker or Texas Ranger line from Talladega Nights: “You look old Grandma. Are you gonna die today?” A White Stripes youtube.com video or lyric: “I had opinions that didn’t matter. I had a brain that felt like pancake batter.”

She does a perfect impression of Jim Halpert’s Wow Face, another ironic reaction to an outlandish remark on the The Office. My wife might say, “It smells like Joey or Fred took a shit in here. He’s not gonna live through the winter.” I look at Jazzy, and she’s already staring at me with eyebrows high, and she mouths “Wow.” She’ll also use this one when she’s in trouble, too. “Let go of your brother,” mom will say. And she’ll “Wow” me.

These two faces only show up during the 14 percent of her life that she’s in a good mood. Jasmine’s low on drama, but she’s in eighth grade, suffering through her last year of middle school. She has the hormonal shifts of a pregnant Amy Poehler, her favorite celebrity, and a fuse as short as her mom’s. Her mother can’t comment on her torso-squeezing Nirvana or Cat Power T-shirts, or mention her missing book report on “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” which “is pointless.” And she sure as hell better not encourage her to join anything. Not volleyball — she’s 5–8. Not Science Olympiad — she has 106 percent in science class. Not Academy of Rock — she plays Cat Power on her electric guitar. Not Zoo Crew — she mostly gets along with animals, cute or not, better than the humans. Her brow makes a V, her lips curl out, and she makes her Nobody Understands Me face when we try to get her to join something.

The only present Jasmine has ever given me without provocation is a three-pack of abstract mini-buttons for my backpack. She ordered them online from the Web site of one of her favorite bands: Say Hi To Your Mom. I had the music on my iTunes, where she couldn’t stop listening to it, and started playing Say Hi songs on her guitar, then played one called “Let’s Talk about Spaceships” at a local bar with three boys, while classmates crushed each other in their first moshpit and screamed for more. She’s never gone on stage since. I’ve never asked why.

Jazzy ordered the buttons online, where she spends 77 percent of her time. She leans forward into the iBook, dwarfed by her mother’s shabby chic desk, the paint worn in strategic spots by the folks at Pottery Barn. Jazzy chats with her one friend, a ferrety girl who’s spent two tours in the psyche ward. Or she chats with the bass player from her short-lived band. He’s just a friend, but Jasmine’s mother reads Jazzy’s emails. He’s no friend. He’s little and polite and harmlessly tubby. But he’s a 13-year-old boy, and Jazzy’s dad knows these creatures think with every organ except their brains. Then they act on those thoughts, which sets off a plot that ends in therapy decades later. I know all this, but I don’t say anything.

I remember eighth grade, biking over to Greta Canada’s trailer home, and lying with her on her mom’s waterbed, wondering what a breast would feel like and what would happen if Wanda, her mother, came home to find me satisfying that curiosity. And when the car lights finally showed up in the window, Greta said, “Are you gonna to touch me or what?” and forced my hand inside her bra. From there, I couldn’t focus on much of anything else until college graduation. I didn’t want to talk to Jazzy about any of that.

What I do, instead, is agree to take her and the bass player to a movie, but only if I can pick the film. Not a date, because Jazzy can’t date until she’s 16. Just a movie. The theater’s afternoon indie film brought in only two other people. Jazzy and the boy followed me into the theater. The three of us looked up at all the red seats, and nobody moved. So I walked up to the top row to ensure that they couldn’t get behind me. When I turned around at the top step, they were trailing me, staring at me. Nobody moved. I smiled, and the boy snuck by me into the third seat. Jazzy looked up at me with Mock Indignation face, and mouthed “Wow.” I ignored her and stepped into the aisle to the second seat and turned to face her, and she was horrified that I might sit between them. I returned the “Wow” and walked past the boy and to the other side of the theater. She took the first seat, leaving the second as a buffer.

The movie was about two boys trying to recreate Sylvester Stallone’s ’80s action film Rambo. From where I sat, Jazzy and the boy seemed to laugh at the right moments, and she cried at the end, like I wanted her to cry. Like I cried. I wanted the boy to see her do that. In the lobby afterward, we all agreed it was good and left it at that.

She performed innocence for two more months until her mother caught her kissing the boy in the basement. Mom wanted to know what dad thought should be done. I didn’t want to hear about it. Didn’t want to know. But I knew what the kiss was about. She’s lonely. Only two friends since we moved to town four years ago, and not many friends before that. Her body is changing, too, with boobs and urges and everything. But neither of us wants to talk about any of that.

Jasmine and I reformulate iTunes playlists together, watch White Stripes and Hives youtube.com videos. Try to figure out how Jack White plays both guitar parts at once. Whether he’s better than Prince or Billy Corgan or that guy from Local H. Oh, maybe Kurt Cobain’s better. Try to figure out whether Joan Jett can sing.

“She can scream and all, but she can’t sing,” she said.

“Maybe not on ‘Bad Reputation,’ but check the iTunes Store for ‘Crimson and Clover.’ ”

“That ain’t singing, dad.”

The most played song on iTunes is still “Spaceships,” at 341 plays, and that’s not just because she had to memorize it for her lone rockstar moment. We both know the song well:

Let’s talk about spaceships,

or anything,

except you and me,

OK?

When I picked up my wife for our first date, she waited on the steps for me, a habit she’d developed since her loud mother scared off her grade school friends. When we returned from playing tennis, I came inside the ranch house to hear her family of laughing and yelling, ceramic pots slamming stove-tops. Her mother never used potholders, and she ran the show, barking at her husband to hurry up, her boys to stops making honking noises and everyone, including me, to get to the damn table before the scalloped potatoes were cold.

I thought she was angry, but my wife told me later that she was just her mother. And that was normal. German and born-again Evangelical, her parents and siblings said everything that came to their minds. They existed within a culture of confrontation, with open and honest and hyperbolic expressions of both love and anger. Watching them became my spectator sport. I hadn’t seen anything like it.

My wife has the same character traits as the rest of them, and they have drawn me to her, too. But they haven’t changed me. She can’t stand my lack of communication — that I never am honest with her when I’m angry or down, and that I always choose to lose fights because that’s easier. “Don’t apologize if you don’t mean it,” she says.

Throughout our marriage, one of my favorite moments in life have been when my parents have to visit my in-laws’ house, to see my parents freeze amidst the chaos. Of course, they’ve never complained.

Thirty-eight years after they married, my parents are still together, a relief and surprise to me, and they live in Miami, another surprise. Mom hasn’t eaten lamb or chicken much since leaving North Dakota. I like to think of her as an innocent farm girl, but that’s not how I really romanticize her. She’s changed some. She got her accounting degree when I left for college. She took swimming lessons. She works out on Stepmasters and treadmills. She doesn’t listen to those greatest hits albums anymore, or any music. She reads pretty good books I buy her every Christmas and birthday. If I ever introduced her to Nora Roberts, though, she’s probably never need a friend. She’s bolder now, and makes the sportswriter husband follow her around to jobs now. He does most of the cleaning. She’s making six-figures at a Miami branch of a Venezuelan bank where she’s a white minority. She bought the Rosetta Stone software, but hasn’t started learning Spanish. She says she’s a bank auditor, but I wonder if she launders money for Venezuelan drug cartels and doesn’t know it. She’s been to the Cayman Islands and Caracas. She’s the perfect fall guy in case county prosecutors hand down indictments. That’s how I romanticize her now, possibly going down in unspoken history like her Uncle Don and his Brinks truck.

I saw my parents’ apartment last summer in Coral Gables. High security and a heavy hurricane-grade sliding glass door 10 floors up. The roof pool is nice, and she mixes it up with my kids in there, whipping and water-skipping sponge balls at their heads, and laughing when they nail her in the face with a return throw. I’ve never seen her do anything like that.

My father, like my daughter and me, pretends not to notice the topless women on South Beach, though I catch him peeking. He asked me about going to Poland next summer, “If that’s something you might want to do.”

A few months ago, my mother saw Momma Mia, which has a straight ABBA soundtrack, but I haven’t asked her about any memories those songs might conjure about my childhood. We never ask questions like that. We’ve never been as close as we were on those Sha-Na-Na nights and ABBA mornings. We never asked big questions back then, and we don’t much now.

Last week, the guy who sings “Let’s Talk about Spaceships” came to town to play at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. I took my daughter. We sttod up front and only about 40 people showed up. We bought shirts and he signed them. She told me it was the best night of her life and left it at that. But the conversation continues in my head. She means to thank me, but she also means that her life isn’t so good, isn’t so easy. And that’s partly my fault. We should probably talk about that.

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