9 months gray

It’s been awhile since I posted about going gray, though I think about it every day. It reminds me a little of going sober in that way, though one will give you your life back and the other is just hair, afterall. Still, returning to a color I’d never actually seen before has turned into a real eye opener and a much slower ride than expected.

I wasn’t prepared for how long it would take to grow out my old color, which was some variation of dyed brown with blond highlights. The girl who used to cut my hair said she had a client who grew her gray out in six months (and then promptly went back to color). What I failed to hear was her client also had very short hair.

Hair grows at a rate of about a half an inch per month, or six inches in a year. Shoulder length hair is longer than six inches on most people. Nine months in, I can see a clear demarcation line midway down my head, so I’d guess I’m about halfway through growing out the old color if I keep my current length.

I actually just had it cut a couple of weeks ago. I changed stylists to someone that doesn’t talk down gray and who listened and steered me towards a shorter cut that I really love instead of more highlights.

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I’ve had a few people say “love the blond!” which makes me feel like a liar. I could counter with a lengthy actually I’m growing out my gray and dark brown and technically the blond is old highlights bleached out by the pool and sun but thanks anyway! But it’s just facebook.

Some days the gray makes me feel old and invisible. Did you ever read Flowers for Algernon? It’s a short story about a mentally challenged janitor and lab mouse who both get supersmart from an experiment, but later slide back to their former states and worse. What’s even worse is they know it’s happening to them.

Six years ago, I lost upwards of 40 pounds. Talk about finding newfound power and confidence. I went from feeling invisible to invincible. Graying reminds me of the invisibility I used to feel when I was overweight. When I’m out with my lovely teenaged daughter, I especially notice how we’re all captivated by youth and beauty. I know I’ll never look young again.

The unexpected side is how gray makes me feel more youthful. Since I don’t care about protecting expensive highlights from the elements anymore, I’ve been swimming more this summer than in years. I don’t cover my hair with hats in the sun and I don’t have to buy special color-safe shampoo anymore. Not having to color every 3-4 weeks is freeing, even though I admittedly gaze longingly at pictures taken less than a year ago when I had color.

I love the way the front of my hair is turning out to be streaks of silver. The young woman who washed my hair before my last haircut said her mother keeps hoping the few gray hairs she has will turn into a lightning bolt streak. She says she’d kill for what I have. It’s odd what feels like a compliment when you’re going gray. It’s wonderful how kind people can be.

My husband has been my biggest cheerleader from the start. Anytime I make him swear to give his honest opinion, he carefully tells me he can hardly tell where the old and new color meet. He has a fair amount of gray that he never considered coloring, and of course being a man, he wears it wonderfully. And really, anyone can.

I’m probably about halfway through the process and hopefully through the worst of it. I’d say months 4-8 were the hardest because I couldn’t tell what it would look like but felt the fallout of looking older. If anyone reading this is in that in-between place, hang in there. It definitely gets better.

Moon River

The road is shorter than I remember. The houses are closer together. Hell, they even look smaller. I drive slowly and a white-haired fellow half looks up from watering something with a hose and waves. He must think we’re neighbors. And we are in a way, just not for the last 35 years.

I turn the car around in a culdesac and notice the fellow’s mailbox has a familiar name on it. I wonder how they can still be alive and remember their kids were only a little older than my brother and I were then. Grown ups always seem older in memory, like how the camera adds ten pounds but in stooped shoulders and gray hair.

Maybe I should have stopped…said hello, I say to my oldest daughter as the car climbs back up the hill. She has taken earbuds out for this stretch. We’re taking the long way to see my grandmother, her great-grandmother.

My daughter says Go back. You know you want to. If you don’t, you might always regret it.

She has me at regret. I turn the car around and go back.

The white-haired fellow is still spraying something with a hose, a doormat I think. I turn the engine off and walk to where his driveway meets the road. He looks up, wary-curious, and then I ask if he’s Mr. so-and-so and he says yes, maybe makes a move for a pair of gardening shears.

I’m Kristen, I say. I used to live next door a long, long time ago.

His face loosens, he smiles and puts the hose down and walks over. He asks after my brother and I tell him he has two kids now, eager to prove who I am.

He says to me Wait right here. I have someone who has to meet you.

He disappears through the front door of his house. I wouldn’t recognize it. They’ve had so much work done. There’s an addition, a garage that wasn’t there before. The roof isn’t asphalt shingle anymore but corrugated red steel. The landscaping is exotic and lush and snakes around the yard.

The neighbor reappears with his wife. She’s holding a dish towel and looks concerned. I don’t think he’s told her who I am yet.

Of course she’s nothing like I remember at five. I remember a cross between Ginger and Maryann. Her hair isn’t fire-red anymore but frosted. She wears round glasses and I tell her who I am and her face kind of crumbles and she gives me a big hug. She’s so tiny I have to bend over to hug her.

She says to me I was real close with your mom. I never got over losing her.

She doesn’t mean when we moved away because my mom was already gone. We lived in that house a good four years after she died. She was 31. I was a little over a year old, my brother four.

The neighbor tells me my dad had to put a phone in my mother’s hospital room so they could talk every day. She says Let me tell you, Dolly and I could talk.

She tells me about the last time they talked. She says my mom asked her to come see her at the hospital. She was on a sterile unit so she wouldn’t catch anything and the neighbor was at home in her den with ten cub scouts. She said ‘oh I don’t think I should come today, Dolly’. And you know she died the next day.

The neighbor’s husband pulls an ipod out of his pocket and scrolls through aseries of old pictures of his children, his wife. There they are just as I remember, an assortment of heights and faded 70s plaid, plus the one boy with his dark, clunky glasses. They haven’t aged at all in his pocket.

I have him show my girls, who are sitting quietly in the car, taking it all in, so they can meet them too. The wife tells how my brother used to walk through their back door every day and announce I’m here and help himself to cookies in the pantry. He called her Mom, she says, and if he was over when the ice cream man came, she gave him money too.

She says that darned ice cream man starting coming a couple of times a day and my brother laid down on the floor and cried when she said but Jeff, you already had ice cream. He said My mom would let me have more. 

She gave all the kids more money. The ice cream man probably shook his head but started coming three times a day.

She says to me Your mom wanted to have you so bad even though she knew it was risky. She told me she wanted to fill that house up with children.

I feel a familiar stab of guilt. I already know this from my grandmother and from a manila folder of medical records my dad gave me when I was in college. I know her cancer came back when she was pregnant with me and that she had to wait to start radiation. I know her pregnancy was plagued with night sweats, fatigue and weight loss, but still she gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby girl.

I ask after who lives in our old house and say how nice it looks. They too added a garage and pretty landscaping. The wife says they’re real nice people but she’d still rather have us next door.

We catch up on their kids (four!) and grandchildren (six!) and which of the original neighbors are still around. They tell me another died from the same kind of cancer my mom had. He hung in longer, they said. Here we stand, scrappy testaments to good health and luck.

Dusk is settling in and bugs are starting to bite at our legs. My youngest boldly announces from the backseat that her great-grandmother is probably wondering where we are. 

I hug the wife again and shake the husband’s hand and they stand at the curb and wave like long-lost relatives as we drive off.

We wind through miles of horse farms and rolling, untouched landscape. I’d be hard pressed to point out anything that wasn’t there 35 years ago. Moon River comes on among hundreds of songs on a playlist and I tell my oldest daughter this used to be my mother’s favorite song. My grandmother told me this years ago when we were sifting through old records. We drive through the deep summer landscape to see her.

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My old house – Then (both grandmothers and a milk box on front stoop)

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Now

Going back

They say you can never go back, but we’ve gone back anyway. Two years in a row.

I sit down by the creek before the party and feel the cool mountain breeze and all that quiet and think I could live here and do this everyday, though we did and I didn’t.

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We drive past our old house before the party, even though I don’t want to. Mind you, I was the kid who used to make my grandmother drive through our old neighborhood every fall. I’d nudge her own lightly sleeping nostalgia awake and we’d drive past my old house and the empty lot next door her and my grandfather had bought for themselves before my mom got sick and died.

You can never go back, they say, but what they mean is it looks different and you have to be ready for that.

Our old house has a building permit in the window or else a crazy warning to keep out. The flower boxes are empty and the house looms a little at the top of the hill. There’s an empty fireworks shell at the end of the driveway. 

An old guy from the house next door leans on a rake at the bottom of his driveway and scowls until we smile and wave. Something loosens in his face; it might be recognition, but I can’t be sure. Our youngest talks about him all the way to the party. We moved before she was born and she doesn’t understand how you can go days without seeing anyone new and how that makes you wary.

The party is the same as last year. I only know the hosts and my family, and smile instead of making small talk. The girls and I retreat to the basement with dessert while my husband sits outside in a circle of chairs with strangers and beer. I discover that with Just Dance 4, all you have to do is move your body wildly in vague imitation of whatever the dancer on screen is doing to score high. My oldest daughter videos me and I watch and laugh and then make sure she deletes it from both folders. We wind up having a good time, even though we have Just Dance 4 and dessert at home.

We take the long way home, driving past old resorts and a part of town I remember feeling nostalgic for whenever we’d return from vacation. Like that feeling you get when you start to see buildings you recognize and your heart quickens to see your pets again and anyone else who might have missed you or even noticed you were gone. I get nostalgic for this nostalgia, though really it’s our old cat I miss, or the belief he would somehow live forever and I’d never have my heart broken by anyone I love.

We keep driving and the tension slips from my body and through the open windows of the car. The air gets hotter and buildings and cars come in thicker clusters, and I breathe easier. We pass derelict houses with ivy growing across windows and I wonder if I’m dreaming because I swear I’ve never noticed detail like that while driving. We stop for ice cream and some joker with a cone tells us on the way in that they ran out and then tries to catch a big drip with his tongue but it clings to his moustache instead.

Later at home I check online and see the guy who bought our old house foreclosed on it a couple of years ago. Our old neighbor sold their ten acre compound for a pittance, and the empty lot across the street is for sale. The listing says Own a piece of Switzerland and talks about the creek and quiet but doesn’t mention how meth head Galen drove his pickup truck into the ravine because he missed the turn for his driveway. It doesn’t say anything about the threatening phone calls we used to get when my husband ran for local office against someone in bed with the local developer.

If you win, let’s get new carpets, I proposed, eyeing up the worn rose pile on the main level that had already been there when we moved in. If you lose, let’s move, and this became our secret pact and I never wished so hard for someone I loved to lose anything.

You can go back, but everything is different. You’re different too.

Four Years

On my fourth year of sober, my buddy gave to me a tail pulling monnnkey.

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I’m sorry if I got a Christmas song stuck in your head. Welcome to my world! I love the monkey in this clip. I relate to the dog. I want to borrow a monkey like this, but only for about a week so I can remember (and maybe buy it shoes and ice cream cones). I had a mischievous monkey for a long time and it never occurred to me that I could give it back, though it had long ago ceased being fun.

It has been 1,464 days since my last drink. I still remember June 2011 like it was yesterday or a decade ago. I still remember sitting in a hard folding chair and listening to a put-together woman talk about how sober life was better than anything she could have imagined. It wasn’t just her clothes or makeup that convinced, but maybe more the steady calm she radiated. I knew she couldn’t have it all figured out, but this didn’t seem to bother her.

This is my secret to happiness: learning to love what I already have. And I don’t just mean the warm and fuzzy, hallmark moments where I cross the finish line in personal best but also the high hilly part where a startled skunk waddles across the road. If I’d told myself that four years ago, my monkey and me might have picked up a folding chair and started swinging. The thought of it makes me smile.

Thank you to everyone who still reads and for your kind words over the years. I am eternally grateful for sobriety and the beautiful community that helped me and so many others get there. And if you’re starting out and struggling? Hang in there. The view is totally worth it.

Old things

The winter before my oldest daughter turned 4, I spent roughly a dozen evenings in our cold, unfinished basement assembling a dollhouse. The kit was expensive and of good quality. I poured over the directions and ran beads of wood glue and fit the pieces together. I assembled the staircase and stained the tiny hardwood floors. I even hung wallpaper. It was almost as satisfying as giving birth.

Within a week after my daughter’s birthday, her and a playmate ripped the front door right off the frame. The other mother was mortified and apologetic, as if she had done it herself. The break was clean but not repairable. Who needs a front door anyway?

Otherwise, the house held up great over the years, though mostly from not being played with. The height was wrong (too short) or the wallpaper all wrong (too loud) or maybe neither of my daughters were me. I used to sit at a child sized table in my room and play with my dollhouse for hours. My mother’s father assembled it from scratch and drove it out from Indiana one summer. I knew it was coming and awaited its arrival like Christmas. It didn’t even have hardwood floors or wallpaper.

That’s probably where my love of miniatures comes from – the act of love involved in someone creating a dollhouse of my very own – but it took root fast and never left. I only ever built the one kit, though considered many times taking on a more ambitious house. Something taller, for sure, and with gingerbread trim and a sturdier door. Maybe a door would have kept out the poor little mouse that climbed in and died in the abandoned dollhouse in our basement sometime this winter. Is the house haunted now?

This is my other fixation: abandoned houses. Recently it’s taken hold and hard because I work near a park with abandoned structures throughout. An empty mansion, rusted out farm equipment, high arch stone bridge and crumbling spring house. You can pick up a color map at the main office and hunt them like treasures.

The paths are well marked but still a challenge for the map impaired. One day I found myself underneath a bridge I was supposed to be on if I wanted to find an abandoned cottage. The next day I went the right way but found a large grassy mound in its place. I was probably about a year too late, though google maps still maddeningly showed its rotting outline. The red GPS ball hovered over where the old porch used to be. A small white butterfly touched down and any sting of disappointment flitted away with it.

I went on in search of an old incinerator and thought I saw something through the trees but it turned out to be the remains of a stone foundation. I swear it looked like an entire house from the path. Ghost house.

I always see other people when I walk. Most of the solo women have dogs with them. I want a dog but settle for mace and a hatchet (kidding). Do you know a convicted killer once escaped from the nearby psychiatric hospital and they found him enjoying a picnic lunch in the very same park? These days he gets day passes, and probably haunts the local mall instead.

  
This new adventure may be risky but keeps me from spending money during lunch break. Stores don’t offer treasure like this. The perfect pair of shoes are everywhere, as it turns out, but when is the last time you found a rusted out granary dryer with birds roosting inside?

I can’t explain why old things are so appealing, but of course I’ll try. I suspect it’s because I’m feeling more and more like an old thing myself. The gray hair is coming in nicely, if by nicely you mean gray. I feel much less enthusiastic about it compared to 3 months ago, but I’m committed to seeing it through. This will likely take another year, seriously.

So I’m slowly growing old over here, watching gray creep in like ivy stretching up the side of my favorite find so far. Time is patient and the earth will always reclaim its space. While I could find this disturbing, instead it feels exciting. Everyone gets old. Even you! (sorry) The process can be observed from a safe distance through abandoned structures.

See how ivy stretches up the side, swallowing whole bricks. Note the paint flaked but still fine scrolling trim along the porch with a locust tree sprouting through rotted boards. Take it all in because soon it won’t be there. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t once loved and appreciated. Once it’s gone, it may even be spied through a thicket of trees when the breeze hits just so.

  

George

George wears high-waisted tan polyester trousers with a brown belt and keeps a plastic liter of vodka on the kitchen table, which my grandmother carefully wipes around with a yellow sponge before setting out a glass dish with fresh cherries and another with salted cashews.

My brother and I drink cokes with maraschino cherries trapped at the bottom and sneak glances at our new exotic windfall – a drunken grandfather we never knew we had until that day.

We wear street clothes in the middle of a perfectly good beach day, which makes us feel formal and restless, like anything could happen.  George wears his short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned at first and then he is shirtless. He puffs out his chest and pumps both arms to show off his muscles. His body odor seeps into the kitchen and won’t leave.

The strangeness of it all forces me to reassess our other two grandfathers, who had seemed perfectly adequate up to that point.

One grandfather takes me for donuts and coffee at a place with spinning barstools and sugar encrusted coffee rings against gold-flecked formica.  We stare at the donuts behind the counter instead of each other, and this is better than fine.

The other grandfather lets me lie along the back console of his plush Buick – the flat area against the window where he normally keeps hats or a box of travel tissues . We listen to talk radio and wind along the beltway on some fool’s errand to please my grandmother.

Grandfathers in my family are benevolent background, busy cogs that keep family dinners moving. The grandmothers think they run the show but who do they think mashes the potatoes or ducks out to buy them in the first place?

My grandmother tells me George used to pinch my mother when she was a baby so he wouldn’t have to hold her. She couldn’t understand why my mother always screamed and cried until she noticed red welts on the backs of both plump baby thighs.

* * *

George puts his hand on my grandmother’s arm when she finally sits down and laughs when she swats it away. She won’t look any of us in the eye. George tells my brother and I to do good in school and listen to our parents without seeming to have any idea who they are.

We never see him again.

A few years later, I find a black and white 8×10 photograph of a man wearing a Viking hat slipped between the pages of a dictionary my grandmother gives me. She says the dictionary used to belong to George. There weren’t many personal effects. He died penniless and his body was not found for several days, even though he was rumored to have a longstanding lady friend. (I picture Faye Dunaway’s character from Barfly.)

The photograph is a close up of the Viking’s face, though I can tell he is at least shirtless and standing in a meadow. He is smiling, victorious, and has a wide gap between his front teeth and wild, long hair.

I will always wonder what the hell happened to that photograph. Losing it will haunt me forever, I imagine.

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Grandmother and George

The bed.

I haven’t slept in the bed since her mother died in it. She knew I knew, but when other people came to visit, she made it up with fresh sheets and I reminisced how gentle and at the same time firm the mattress was and also how at the moment her mother died, tears poured from both eyes. The bed promoted a deep, restful release.

For years, we slept on it at the beach and swept phantom grains of sand from the sheets with our toes, which later throbbed from smacking the baseboard in pitch black. The headboard was soft grey with rounded carvings like the bad luck tiki Bobby found at a construction site in Hawaii. It had sliding doors and secret compartments perfect for imprisoning action figures and Danielle Steele paperbacks. It weighed more than a tiki and only slightly less than an elephant. One night the bed was carefully disassembled, driven 90 blocks, lugged up a flight of stairs and left in a sharp stucco hallway in a silent argument over who should have it. This is how my family fights.

George did all the heavy lifting, grunting with greasy sweat across his barrel chest and pregnant-swollen belly and still in those terrible tan trousers and brown belt, his attempt to dress up even though it was too hot for a shirt. When we got off the elevator after it was all over, he hung back and dropped into a lunge, stretched out both arms and declared I AM STRONG AS AN OX. The elevator doors started to close and bounced back in the way they always do in that perpetually surprised oh are you still here? My brother and I turned our heads to snicker.

One day I will have to disassemble the bed and ask someone (shirtless or not) to help me lug it to the curb for Purple Hearts. I’ll probably sleep on it one last time and wonder if I’ll dream or find relief from these ghosts.