Stuff of Life: A Daughter's Memoir

Stuff of Life: A Daughter's Memoir

by Karen Karbo


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Stuff of Life: A Daughter's Memoir by Karen Karbo

When Karen Karbo's father, a charming, taciturn Clint Eastwood type who lives in a triple-wide in the Nevada desert, is diagnosed with lung cancer, his only daughter rises to the challenge of caring for him. Neither of them is exactly cut out for the job. As Dick Karbo's disease progresses, Karen finds herself sometimes the responsible adult, sometimes a stubborn teenager all over again. But in the end, what father and daughter discover more than anything is the love and the toughness that makes them alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582344454
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 10/28/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.34(h) x 0.84(d)

About the Author

Karen Karbo is the author of three novels and the nonfiction book Generation Ex: Tales from the Second Wives Club. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, the New Republic, and the New York Times, among other publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

the stuff of life


By karen karbo


Copyright © 2003

Karen Karbo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58234-183-4

Chapter One

The call comes at eight-thirty on Sunday morning.

I'm already at my desk in the sunroom, still wrapped in my
coffee-stained bathrobe. White had seemed like such a good
idea, so clean and spalike. A flock of irate starlings chitters madly
in the fig trees outside, battling squirrels for overripe fruit. The
figs are deep maroon, rudely testicular. The sunroom opens out
from the living room, where Rachel, Danny, and Katherine,
still in their pajamas, are lined up on the sofa, flannel thigh to
flannel thigh, watching Animal Planet, and squabbhng over the
remote. The television sits on a blond wood trolley meant for
kitchen use, on the other side of the French doors, about two
feet from my head. The current segment tells the story of a blind
Labrador retriever that looks like our own Lab pup. Katherine
keeps shrieking, "Mom! Come look! It's Winston on TV!" By
the time I push back my chair, pull my robe tighter around me,
and take the six steps to the television, I miss it.

"In fifteen minutes I'm going to make banana waffles," I tell
them, just as I've told them every fifteen minutes for the last
hour, thinking in another fifteen minutes I'll be able to figure
out how to rewrite in one month a novel about motherhood
that's taken me six years to sell. I'm hoping there's an easy
fix, a single, kitchen-sampler-size bit of wisdom that's eluding
me. Of course, it's the easy fix that's eluding me. The problem
is a common one. The main character, a thirty-five-year-old
woman named Brooke, is too, quote unquote, whiny, a charge
leveled against every educated female character in contemporary
literature who has a good job, a man in her life, all her limbs, and
an ax to grind. I don't know how to make Brooke any different:
She is the alpha breadwinner in the marriage, has just given birth
to baby Stella, and cannot get her adorable husband, Lyle, to
stop eating Extra Hot Tamales and playing computer games.
(Actually, Brooke doesn't mind much about the Extra Hot
Tamales; they give Lyle's breath a nice, cinnamony tang.) Her
life is one she chose; still, sleep deprivation is sleep deprivation
and a slacker husband makes one feel as if one has another child
underfoot. The first chapter is due on the desk of Lydia, my
no-nonsense literary agent, tomorrow morning, to be included
in a booklet she is taking to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Perhaps
the Germans or the French will not find Brooke too whiny.
Perhaps they will think she has esprit, or whatever the German
word for that is.

From the ratty forest green and maroon brocade couch-a
bad purchase; I was so focused on the ability of dark
brocade to hide dirt, I forgot all about the two sofa-addicted
dogs and their longish, thread-tugging toenails-Danny yells,
"Katherine! That was my show." Danny's devotion to Animal
is complicated, all tied up with his attachment
to his mother, my husband Daniel's second ex-wife, who
lives in central California and has dedicated her life to raising

"It's a commercial," says Katherine, voice of disdain and reason.
At seven she is tall, opinionated, censorious. She wants to be a
judge or a horse trainer when she grows up. She already knows
commercials are things that try to sell you stuff you don't want.
What confuses her is that after she sees a commercial, she does
want it.

"I like the commercials!"

"Mom, when are you going to make the waffles?" asks

"I don't care for bananas," says Danny. Where did he pick
up this quasi-British locution?

I also have the rewrite of a magazine piece due tomorrow.
Two months earlier, I spent several days at the San Francisco
School of Circus Arts with a cadre of Silicon Valley software
wizards who take time out of their ninety-hour work weeks to
learn trapeze flying. The story is for a business magazine, and my
gymnastic directives for the rewrite involve strengthening the
currently nonexistent connection between the rush/risk/gratification
of trapeze flying and the rush/risk/gratification of
launching a start-up in your garage.

When the phone rings, I'm startled. No one calls this early.
I see my father's Nevada phone number on the Caller ID box
and my insides are like dough being rolled flat by a baker who
lifts weights.

It can only mean one thing. It can only mean he's dead or
she's dead. DadandBev are the kind of people who are polite to a
fault, people who feel it's rude to phone on the weekend before
noon. They treat long distance as if it were something only to
be broken out in an emergency, like the red fire extinguisher
bolted to their kitchen wall.

"Kare?" came the voice, breathy, barely there.

Usually my father's voice is deep and hail-fellow-wen-met,
just this side of FM DJ quality, but he is not a talker, and his
telephone voice is like a dinner jacket he puts on for a special
occasion. When he makes a phone call, he always identifies
himself by saying, "Dick Karbo here!"-a locution that sounds
as if it belongs to a superhero receiving a call for help in a
phone booth. But the man on the line this time is not "Dick
Karbo here!," it's someone in the throes of an asthma attack,
someone weak and gasping, calling me from a faulty telephone
exchange in an undeveloped country. Someone far away.

I know this voice, even though I've only heard it once,
twenty-three years before. The tears squeeze against the inside
of me. The afternoon my mother went into a coma, two days
before she died, my father called on the house phone of the
sorority house where I lived my freshman year at the University
of Southern California. It was one phone used by about a
hundred girls. I answered it more than most girls, who had
their own phones in their rooms. My father was only forty-six
then, but it was the same breathlessness, the same helpless mewl.
These days, people barely consider forty-six middle-aged.

I say the same thing now that I said then. "Oh Dad, oh my

Now as then, this is his cue to hand the phone over to
someone who could speak. This is one of those elegant matching
scenes that would show up in a critically acclaimed movie. My
dad, weeping and gasping with the same bad news, handing over
the phone to a dry-eyed female. When my mother went into
her coma, it was Ennie, her older sister, who had the honor.
With Bev, my stepmother, my father's second wife, it was
Elsie, the neighbor next door. Ennie and Elsie even their
names are similar.

"Beverly passed away last night," Elsie says. "In her sleep they
think. From the looks of it, it was in her sleep. Dick found her
this morning. The police and the coroner are here now."

"Oh God," I said. "The coroner? Why?" My poor dad,
so private he doesn't even like having someone in to clean
the house. The starlings are still out there chittering on the
wires. The kids, who now must be told, have switched over to
Power Puff Girls. Soon they'll want their waffles again. They'll
interrupt me on the phone, and I'll have to tell them that unless
someone is bleeding from a major artery, it's rude to interrupt.
My dad would continue to hold to the rules, even in the face
of death.

I try not to get ahead of myself, but already, at the mention
of the coroner, I fear that it's not just bad, but also horrible.

You must know this about DadandBev: They were the
perfect Greatest Generation couple. They were neat and thrifty.
They planned for the future. When thinking about moving to
Boulder City, Nevada, from reasonable Southern California they
consulted the Farmer's Almanac so they could visit Boulder City
during the hottest week of the year. That way, when it was
115 in the shade three months out of the year, they would
not be surprised. They didn't make mistakes, or any that
I or my stepsiblings could see. They had no friends and
few acquaintances, the mess of human relationships being too
much for them. They were reliably judgmental. They were
monolithic; they never appeared to disagree. They were the
only two people I knew who thought President Reagan was
too liberal.

They left reasonable Southern California, where they had
lived collectively for one hundred years, because a law was
passed raising the cigarette tax. As lifelong chain-smokers, they
felt discriminated against. They thought it was fascism.

They also thought any form of gun control was fascism. They
said things like "An armed society is a polite society." They had
enough weapons to outfit the revolutionary army of a small
country, but kept them locked in a big safe: shotguns, a rifle
or two, a dozen handguns, both revolvers and semiautomatics,
my father's collection of things that didn't fire anymore but
were a triumph of design, and Bev's tiny revolver from the
pre-panty-hose era that a "lady" was supposed to keep tucked
in the top of her nylon stockings.

While Elsie talks about her role in the drama as people like to
do, I remember when DadandBev were younger and healthy,
back in the 1980s, when they still lived in reasonable Southern
California and hadn't yet retired to Boulder City, with its two
inches of rain a year and sun so fierce it can burn the part in
your hair in the time it takes to find your car in the vast Costco
parking lot. They sat around the dining room table in their house
in San Juan Capistrano, chain-smoking and drinking vodka
martinis, his with three cocktail onions-an indulgence. My
dad, who has something Clint Eastwood about him, lanky and
fit, squint-eyed and calm, suddenly said, apropos of something
I hadn't been paying attention to, "If I ever get so I can't take
care of myself, just take me out to the desert and shoot me." He
was six-two, his weight was 175, his blood pressure 110/70. He
could still fit into his Army Air Corps leather jacket. He could say
something like this, then. I wondered if it went the same for Bev,
and that's why the coroner was there. Bev suffered a number of
back surgeries over the years, and a stroke, from which she'd
partially recovered. Still, I knew she lived in pain.

But no, no. It's standard procedure, says Elsie. When a death
is unexpected, the coroner always shows up. My father had to
make a report. The tears find the right way out and tip over
the rims of my eyes. My dad, oh my daddy. Women outlive men
by nine years and here was my dad burying his second beloved

Chapter Two

I switch off the phone and stumble to the basement, where
my adorable second husband, Daniel, the father of Rachel and
Danny Jr., is in his lair playing computer games. Daniel is what
one of my friends calls a cuddlebum; he's tall, with comely
shoulders and blue-green eyes the color of the Caribbean.
He reminds me of the boys I knew growing up in Southern
California who tooled around the neighborhood with their
bleached blond hair on their Sting-Ray bikes with seats made
out of some fancy vinyl that sparkled wickedly in the sun.

This is a typical Sunday morning for us: the kids watching
TV, the wife trying to work while within earshot of the kids,
the husband hiding in the basement on his computer. It will
be the source of considerable friction in the future-why,
for example, am I both working and promising to fix the
kids banana waffles while he's blissfully absorbed in killing
and looting imaginary monsters-but we are newly married
and so far I don't mind. When I come downstairs in tears,
he hops up from his chair without a thought and wraps his
arms around me. They were the first thing I noticed about
him, his arms. They looked as if they belonged to a baseball
player. This is what Daniel excels at, leaping up at the drop of
a hat and wrapping me in his arms. It doesn't sound like much,
but he is the first person who ever did this for me, and so I am

"Bev is dead." It's the first time I've said the words aloud, and
I feel as if I've uttered some spell that should never be uttered,
for fear of what it will unleash.

Daniel rocks me back and forth in his baseball-player arms
and says, "Shhhh. It's all right. It'll be all right."

"It's Bev. But still."

"I know. It doesn't matter."

He means it doesn't matter that I never liked her.

Daniel searches the Internet for the least expensive flight from
Portland to Las Vegas, the closest airport to Boulder City, while
I attack the laundry, make phone calls, send the kids to clean
their rooms, make lists. I'll need to use the money I was
saving to pay our quarterly taxes in order to buy two full-price
airplane tickets.

I cry throughout the day but I'm not devastated; the relationship
between me and Bev had been one of mutual, extra-polite
disdain. The pitiless note taker perched in one corner of my heart
observes that the sadness is not so overwhelming that it can't be
categorized: Part of me is sad for my father, and part of me is
sad for myself-self-pity, pure and simple. I weep at the news
in part because the death of Bev means the end of DadandBev,
an entity I have come to rely on to hold down the far reaches
of my life, like the guy wires holding down a circus tent.

I weep because now my father will be a widower and bereft,
probably until he dies. I don't want things to change. I don't
have time for things to change. I don't have the money.

My own mother always kept a few hundred dollars of
rainy-day money beneath her tray of lipsticks in her bathroom
drawer. We lived in Whittier, however, a suburb of Los Angeles,
and in my child's mind it almost never rained. I wondered
what rainy day she meant. "In case someone dies," she said.
Her parents weren't alive, but she had Ennie and Dudu, her
way-older sisters in Detroit. Mom also had Ennie's daughter,
Irene, and her husband, Dick Mahoney. Mom called them the
Nutty Mahoneys behind their back. I called them Aunt Irene
and Uncle Dick. The Nutty Mahoneys lived not far from us in
another sun-bleached Southern California suburb.

In the afternoon I sit the kids down and tell them that
Gramma-in-Nevada died. Their reactions are somber, but
confused. Gramma-in-Nevada was Katherine's stepgramma, or
Not-Real-Gramma, as she insisted on calling her, despite my
reminding her that, while Bev was not her biological gramma, she
was most certainly "real." For Rachel and Daniel, Bev was their
step-step-gramma. (Is there even such a thing?) The kids had met
her only once at Daniel's and my wedding-the middle of January,
an unprecedented Portland snowstorm, DadandBev stuck here
for days, general parental displeasure at my boneheadedness in
planning a wedding during such bad weather-but had been
privy to plenty of uncharitable humor at Bev's expense.

Daniel and I hosted perhaps too many hysterical episodes at
the dinner table during which I regaled them with how Bev
used to begin fixing dinner at five o'clock on the dot, but didn't
get it on the table until after nine, due to the influence of the
martini hour on dinner preparations.

Excerpted from the stuff of life
by karen karbo
Copyright © 2003 by Karen Karbo.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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