The Cult of Andy

The last time I tried meditating, I gave up after the cat tried to swing trapeze-style from a chandelier above my head. I assume that’s what happened anyway because I heard a loud clatter and opened my eyes in time to find the chandelier swinging wildly and the cat on the floor beside me, licking one paw. 

I didn’t feel very good at meditating, and thought perhaps it was not for someone with nosy cats who is already pinched for alone time. Besides, lots of things can be meditative, like running or walking and reading and definitely writing. Being outdoors with nothing to do besides take in the sights, sounds and smells reliably takes me to a peaceful place.

Eventually the call to meditation came again, this time for my nine-year old daughter, Audrey. We’d come back from a week at the beach and too-close sleeping quarters, and being the youngest and no doubt a bit spoiled, she had trouble being back in her own room and bed. One night we heard her crying and went in to her room to find her near inconsolable. Her fears were vague but horrifying, like losing her favorite people to illness, accidents, etc. These thoughts were sudden, unwelcome visitors that snuck in and grew so big and scary they took up her mind. 

At first, we tried practical things, like reading something fun before bed or remembering positive things from the day once the worries crept in. We tried a sleep mask and then a night light and then the sleep mask and night light together. Some nights we’d hear her crying and go in to soothe and other times find tissues tucked under her pillow the next morning and know she’d quietly cried herself to sleep. One morning I woke to the idea that meditating before bedtime might help.

Not being an expert in meditation, I downloaded an app with a free 10-day program narrated by a man with a perfectly placid British accent. He introduced himself as Andy and I pictured him round and doughy with downy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The app doesn’t show what he looks like, though does feature blissful looking cartoon monsters wearing headphones. One blue monster looked especially engaging so we decided that was Andy. A week or so later, Audrey and I googled Andy to find he’s quite buff, completely bald and a former monk turned multi-millionaire. Oh, and he’s human.

Now, in full disclosure, Audrey and I meditate a bit differently than you’re supposed to. We don’t sit upright in a chair or on the floor, but lay down on my bed with pillows under our heads and, sometimes, Audrey prefers to be under her favorite fleece blanket. I know what you’re thinking, but I have only fallen asleep twice. Usually I follow Andy’s instructions to breathe slowly through the nose, filling the chest, and then exhaling gently through the mouth. Andy tells us to count each inhale and exhale until we reach ten and then start over, and this turns out to be the most helpfully concrete instruction I’ve heard on how to meditate. Andy makes meditation not only easier but something we both start looking forward to.

One evening I’m on the couch with Joe watching Season 3 of Bloodlines, which is the antithesis of meditation, but I digress, when Audrey appears and tells me she wants to meditate. I look at the TV and the clock and wrinkle my nose and say “How about tomorrow night?” She leans her face in real close, a little wild-eyed, and says “I need Andy tonight” and it sends a chill up my spine. We go upstairs to meditate and chandelier-swinging cat watches through narrowed eyes from the foot of the bed.

Soon we go on vacation again, this time sleeping in more rooms, though Audrey shares one with her older sister and so is not alone at night. Between that and sun-soaked days of swimming for so long Joe jokes we should wring her out like a washcloth before coming home, she sleeps like a baby every night. We all do. But like all good stories, this vacation too must come to an end.

Once home, Audrey asks to meditate to Andy again and we do. This time our timing is poor and we start around the same time Joe gets home from work. He enters the bedroom to change and finds us laying flat atop the bedcovers, my arms folded across my chest like someone laid out in a casket and Audrey’s loose at her side, our eyes closed tight like children pretending to sleep. The cat watches judgmentally from the floor this time. There’s an awkward moment between when I stop counting breaths and start explaining what we’re doing. Joe nods in understanding and I close my eyes and try not to wait for the jingle of his belt being hung up in the closet and then the soft clop-clunk of the door closing.

Andy tells us it’s okay to notice sounds going on around us. Sometimes he gives us permission to let our minds think about whatever it wants to think about, but in these moments I can’t think of anything and feel disappointed at my lack of imagination.

One night I ask Audrey if she wants to meditate and she says she does not. She says the bedtime worries are just as bad as before and she doesn’t think meditation is working. I ask her if she wants to talk instead and she does, but her face kind of crumbles and she needs a hug more than anything.

We talk about readjusting to spacious sleeping quarters and how the double-grandpa bed from Willy Wonka might seem cozy but probably none of them were sideways sleepers or blanket hogs like in our family. We talk about how when we try to not think about something, that’s pretty much the only thing we seem to be able to think about. We talk about habits and phases and how it feels like something bad will keep happening forever, but that rarely proves to be the case.

I remember Andy pointedly telling us that meditation isn’t about controlling our thoughts but learning to simply notice them and then going back to the breath. I tell Audrey she won’t still be having these thoughts every night by the time she graduates college because anything beyond is probably too far off to imagine. It’s a phase, triggered somehow by the fun closeness of a family trip and sleeping on a lumpy, unsupportive mattress I wouldn’t wish on anyone past 40.

She doesn’t know yet that all but the most supportive mattresses will turn on you one day and that the people you love most will die, but somehow it’s all okay, even when it’s not. She may have thoughts she doesn’t have much control over but that won’t make them come true and they don’t even necessarily mean anything except that she has an active imagination. Worry is the yin to imagination’s yang.

She can still remind herself where she is and that she’s safe. She can focus on the soft weight of her heels against cool summer sheets and count her breath by tens and maybe come to believe that.

***

Audrey asks me if I can start putting notes in her lunch bag for camp. I used to do it during the school year, eventually creating a series of illustrated notes we were both proud of, including one about a rotten pumpkin who entered a beauty contest (I want to write children’s books so bad). It’s collaborative because Audrey gives me ideas of things to write about or draw when we both get bored with the “hey, hope you’re having a great day” notes. This time I ask for ideas and she suggests creating a series around blue monster Andy (as opposed to buff human one).

I sit at the kitchen island and crank out a couple, losing myself in an almost meditative state. I’m no artist but it still feels good to channel frustration and pain into something I can share with her. I’m including one below, meant to be read in a gentle british accent.

The VIPs

At camp, the kids build a miniature city out of sticks and grass in the dirt. Audrey explains there are houses and buildings and trees and military bases and two lakes. She pauses for a moment and corrects herself, “No, three lakes”. She tells me this once we’re already in the car and now the business-like manner in which I saw her speak with another girl by the picnic tables after I’d signed her out makes sense. They were probably going over construction plans for the following day. 

She says all the kids involved in the city project have titles like President, Vice President, VIP (which makes me chuckle until I stop myself), and Major Major Major Major. Before I can ask why all the Majors she says everyone starts at Minor Minor Minor Minor, like this explains everything. I ask her what her title is and she says VIP and then corrects herself and says “I mean VP. That stands for Vice President. Next summer we’ll hold another election.” I get the feeling she’s already campaigning.

We’re riding in the car with her older sister at the wheel and it occurs to me that the kids might run out of suitable sticks near camp base and want to rummage in the woods for more. “Stay out of the woods,” I say. “There’s poison ivy.” 

“There isn’t,” she tells me. “Anyway, I know what it looks like. It’s light green.”

“No it’s not,” her older sister says. “It’s bright green this time of year.”

“It can also be shiny,” I add, knowing I couldn’t pick poison ivy out of a line-up even after suffering repeated, crippling cases of it throughout childhood. One summer when I was about Audrey’s age, I went to camp and came home with poison ivy and head lice. To be fair, we weren’t sure where I picked up the poison ivy.

I used to have a soft spot for those brown and cream striped caterpillars that are suddenly everywhere mid-summer. I’d line a cardboard box with shiny, soft green leaves picked from the woods across the street from our house. Then I’d lean sticks against the box walls like a series of intersecting catwalks and pluck dozens of caterpillars from trees and drop them into the box. I kept them as outdoor pets for a day or two or until they figured out they had always been free to climb out of the box. I took them out of the box and let them crawl across my hands and arms and even my face. I can’t tell this story now without wincing.

A week later I found myself at the doctor’s office with a case of poison ivy so bad I needed steroid injections. My mother cut up old pillow cases and wrapped them around my hands at night so I wouldn’t scratch in my sleep. She applied wet oatmeal and witch hazel and calamine compresses at all hours, but nothing stopped the itching. 

We had already planned an overnight trip to New York City and I wore blocky dark sunglasses to disguise my swollen, misshapen face. The subway attendant took tokens for my parents and brother but frowned when he saw me and said “She can ride free.” We joked afterwards that maybe he thought I was blind or had Elephant Man’s disease, and I fought the urge to run back and explain I was just a normal kid. The only blindness I had was an inability to distinguish poison ivy from other leafy green plants.

I never played with caterpillars again after that summer. They were still everywhere – chugging along at a maddening but determined pace across sidewalks and dangling helplessly from low branches – but they became invisible until just a few years ago. I had been jogging along a paved path when I noticed a few crawling across and thought “Oh!” in delight and then “Oh” in a more guarded way.

***

“Just watch out for plants with leaves of three,” I tell both daughters in the car, satisfied this is the best advice I am qualified to give. I still don’t know how I got the job of teaching our older daughter how to drive. Years ago I struck a deal with my husband that he would teach Vanessa and I would teach Audrey. I may have planned on seven more years to prepare, but life happens and his work schedule doesn’t align with hers. Weeks slip by with no driving practice while her expectations about getting a license and buying a car with the money she’s been saving are still there. I start taking her to drive tentative circles around empty parking lots. 

The first time I take her out on a real road, I grip the passenger side armrest until my knuckles ache. I bark things like “Slow down!” or “STOP!” as if a child has just wandered out between two parked cars, when really it’s nothing more than a pair of red taillights up ahead, not even that close. Part of the dread I feel towards these driving lessons comes from my own poor reactions. 

Vanessa doesn’t quite get up to the speed limit and a white SUV tails too close behind. I think to myself Vanessa is driving too close to the right shoulder but keep quiet (miraculously!) until she brushes against an overgrown hedge by the elementary school. I say “Pull Over” in what I mean to be a calm tone but couldn’t be. She remembers her turn signal at the last minute and sheepishly pulls into the school lot while the hovering white SUV blares its horn and speeds past.

I consider cutting her lesson short and putting myself back in control. I don’t remember going out to drive much with my own parents when I had a learners permit. I do remember the time I borrowed their car and swiped a parked car and then lied about it, poorly. My parents figured it out the same day and I wasn’t allowed to drive for weeks, which felt more like a gift than punishment.

I take a deep breath and tell my daughter to get back on the road and try to drive closer to the yellow line, though not too close, obviously. I try to give shorter instructions and watch my pitch and volume. Once we are safely home, I feel shaky and weak but not relieved. It feels like the time I got chased by a dog through a neighborhood I shouldn’t have been walking through late at night in the first place and managed to hurl myself over a fence just in time.

I go online and browse car magnets that say STUDENT DRIVER in bold black atop a bright yellow background. I see some that also include Please Be Patient! underneath but already the regular ones remind me of those Baby On Board signs that were popular in the 80s. Even as a child I wondered why the safety of a stranger’s baby was more important than my own infant sister hurtling through peril in our unmarked car.

I usually take the time to read a few customer reviews and questions before buying anything. This is where I might learn, for instance, that the 3-pack of Student Driver magnets I am considering don’t actually stick or maybe they are only 3-inches wide. My eye draws to a question someone posted: “Do you think three of these will be enough? I’m tempted to cover my car in them. I don’t want anyone honking at my precious angel.” I laugh out loud and add the magnets to my cart and only then feel something like relief.  

What a difference 2,192 days makes

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52,608 little hours. 3,156,480 minutes. 189,388,800 seconds. Did I spend them all well? Certainly not. But I spent them all sober, and that has made all the difference.

I never thought I’d get to 6 years sober and think boy, that went fast. A good part of me wasn’t convinced I’d get to 6 years at all. I’d heard the cautionary tales of relapse and how vigilant one needed to remain at all times and that made it seem harder than I was capable of.  A future without summer beers or celebratory cocktails wasn’t one I could easily imagine, nor did I want to. But I stuck to each day which turned into months and then somehow six years. Time is funny how it slips past and takes care of everything, including us.

Somewhere between years 3 and 5, I noticed a shift from feeling like I’d made a real sacrifice in giving up alcohol, which invokes all sorts of fearful, complicated responses in sobers and drinkers alike, and realizing I never needed it in the first place.

Alcohol was a filter I used to mindlessly slip on when I wanted to feel more of something or less or occasionally nothing at all. I rarely wanted to feel what I was already feeling, which now strikes me as odd and sad. Once I removed the filter and kept it off awhile, I saw everything more clearly. It was a blessing and curse because the view was raw and sharp, not unlike getting glasses for the first time and taking a good long look in the mirror. Every imperfection was there for examination. Sunsets and kittens were equally clear, so it wasn’t all bad, not at all.

The other thing about removing the filter was I got to feel again which, as you know, is a mixed bag. Sometimes I love my family so much I’m sure my heart will explode into confetti. Sometimes I care about people or issues I am in no way obligated to care about, which is both reassuring and baffling.

Anxiety doesn’t go away. I wish I could say it did, but I’m 99% sure that’s why I took so well to drinking in the first place. Why would it leave when I’ve fed it my whole life? These days I notice it and think “I feel anxious” or else lonely or bored or weary. I put a name to it and realize it often has nothing to do with current circumstances but triggered by an old memory or not eating or sleeping well or mysterious moon cycles. I don’t own a mood any more than I own the weather. This too shall pass, they say, and goddamn it they’re right.

I can still go out to dinner and make small talk at a party and fall asleep and have sex (not in that order) and go on vacation and get through a stressful day or the holidays. I can handle being happy or excited or bored or worried or angry or sad. None of these things make me think of a drink anymore. (But oh, they used to.) Sober is mostly easy and second nature and sometimes fantastic and finally okay when it’s not. 

There are still a number of ways to numb out, and I’m intimately aware of most. A cupcake may not be a keg, but I can’t really seem to be able to handle myself around either. This disappoints me. I figured by 5 years sober I would have shown my sweet tooth (precious, adorable) to the door with a chuck of the chin and knowing smile. Same with the perpetual two-minute smartphone circuit, which my dexterous fingertips train hard for even though it never awards much. This year I’ve experimented with letting things go and I can tell you it feels different than the fifteen dozen times I’ve done it before.

Sober isn’t a cure all but I think it’s better than that. We are not meant to numb our spirit to the point of dysfunction, and there is deep and meaningful reward once we stop doing this to ourselves. We get to feel alive again, which is something drinking used to do before it stopped working. This time it’s real.

Fool’s Gold

One of the reasons I’m convinced we become parents is to relive the parts of our childhood that don’t lay right. This is why I don’t make my kids clean their plates and have never once forced lima beans and potato pancakes on anyone after the whole vomit-gag incident of ’76 (never forget). 


Yesterday my daughters and I visited a favorite haunt from my childhood, Frontier Town, where we panned for gold and made small talk with two cowboys while in line to buy soft pretzels. Cowboys favor Pepsi, as it was a very hot day and they were dressed in woolen pants and shirts with vests and the requisite hats. They were mighty friendly and one even volunteered that he loved his job. He broke the fourth wall and made our wait less awkward.


The first time I visited Frontier Town, I was about eight years old. I was still young enough to appreciate a mock western town where you could ride a stage coach and pan for gold, but old enough that self consciousness had settled in. The one memory that really stands out is not wanting to dance with Indian chief Red Bird at the ceremonial show. I stood there like a sore lump while the other idiots jumped around and waved their hands in the air and took complimentary paper headdresses at the end. My dad would not let me take one because I had brought shame and dishonor to my family in my fear of dance.

I do not like dancing to this day, except to look silly on purpose. You can imagine my horror when my daughters and I attended the Indian show and they again invited us up to dance and my nine-year old asked me to join her.


I wish this was the part where I could write about how I looked her square in the eye and said “Of Course!” and then we skipped to the ring and made Red Bird’s spirit proud. Instead I spent two minutes trying to get my teenager to take her sister up and another minute asking the younger one if she was sure she really wanted to go and by that time the circle of very brave parents and children closed and it was too late. 

Instead I distracted them with a “Hey look, a teepee! Do you think we can go inside?” though it was as empty as my rhythmless soul. I doubt we’ll head back again so I figure I have one more chance, and that’s assuming I get grandchildren (which I clearly don’t deserve) and that Frontier Town is still around then. 

Look at how much fun we’re having

I know I should have just gotten up to dance, yesterday and in 1980. I did spend a good half hour panning for Fool’s Gold so both my kids could fill their ample plastic tubes, which Gold Rush miners would have loved to better admire their hard work. We also played putt putt golf and rode water slides and the lazy river at least a dozen times, which didn’t exist during the Gold Rush or the early ’80s, but our world is better for it now.

The Day the Circus Died

In February my husband and I took the kids to the circus. Maybe it’s more honest to say I took myself to the circus and let the family tag along because I’m pretty sure I was the most excited to be there. I grew weepy when they dimmed the arena lights and started the countdown because I knew this was going to be my last circus. Pretty soon it’s going to be everybody’s last circus because Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey is breaking down the tent for the last time later this month.

It left me a little maudlin, this idea of broken tradition and unemployed acrobats and tigers, so I wrote a short story about a future where the circus lives on and Jersey Devil Press ran it in their May edition, dedicated to “the allure of possibilities.”

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Click the image above to read the story

If you missed the last circus in your town, don’t despair because you can watch the very last one – ever – live online on May 21…go here for details.

Hog’s Hollow Trail

The first and only time I went horseback riding, I got saddled (har-har) with a lackadaisical mule prone to biting. The rest of my girl scout troop got so far ahead on their horses the leader kept having to circle back to find me. Once I finally caught up, my mule sunk his teeth into the flank of another girl’s horse, sending it and her through a thicket of brambles. The girl got all scratched up and started to cry. One time this same girl had said to me “I’m glad your mother died” so I was mostly glad it happened to her and not me. Kids and horses can be so cruel.

Although my mule moseyed along the entire trail ride, he broke into an uphill sprint once we rounded the last bend and his water trough was in sight. Little fucker had been holding out and I can tell you I never brushed my Barbie horse’s mane as gently after that day. 

The reason I thought of that horse today is  because of motivation. He couldn’t be bothered to move without the promise of reward. Yesterday my youngest daughter, Audrey, and I had the day to ourselves so I gave her a few choices and naturally she picked going for a walk in the woods with sandwiches. Well, I don’t mean sandwiches walked alongside us, though how cute would that be? We combined our three favorite things: snacks, the potential though unlikelihood of getting lost, and also snacks. Typing snacks out twice reminded me how similar and different that word is from snakes. But more on those in a bit.

Once we parked in the trail lot, I let Audrey pick which way we’d go. She chose a trail we’d never taken before and then another that took us across a road onto a public two-mile trail along the outskirts of a private summer camp. The camp named it Hog’s Hollow Trail after an old farm they found on site with pigsties still intact. The trailhead map advertised points of interest like Bergdoll Estate Ruins and Unc’s Woods and I got so excited I forgot all about the sandwiches.


Not even a quarter mile in, we struck gold. I think we found the Bergdoll Estate ruins, or what was left after time and wisteria took over. Someone had come out recently and cut a lot of vines. We saw portions of stone walls and a series of buildings, some razed and others more intact. In the distance we saw the outwall of a building we couldn’t have walked away from if we’d tried. 

When we got to the big wall and crossed behind, we found it wide open, the roof long gone. This was where we both noticed a distinctly bad smell. It was probably just animal poop, but I think of it now as a warning neither one of us heeded.


The space inside was overgrown with vines and brush. Audrey saw an odd shaped stick poking out in the center and wanted to get closer because she was definitely not switched at birth. I was about 10 feet away taking pictures when I heard her matter-of-factly say “There’s a snake.” This is the same kid who froze minutes earlier over the sight of a passing bee, so I was more surprised than concerned. I couldn’t see a snake from where I was standing so I said “Well just come back the way you came” and she said “That is the way I came” and then her face and voice kind of crumbled.

I ran through the options quickly in my head.  1) panic and flee (but leave behind a sandwich) 2) find a good snake flinging stick 3) tramp down the brush from the other side so she could escape. 

I started with 3) and the heavens rewarded solid decision-making by causing the snake to slither away in the opposite direction so Audrey could walk out the way she came. I didn’t get a picture but googled and decided it was a red corn snake. I pulled it up on my phone and pretend read aloud “Non-poisonous though capable of ingesting children up to age nine”. Audrey fell for it at first but by that time we were safely back on the trail and had a good laugh. We both watched where we were walking for the rest of the hike.

This is her “I just saw a bee” face

It turns out those ruins were the highlight of the trail. There was a cool log we had to maneuver to cross a stream, plus the trail veered off down a steep riverbank, but we didn’t see any more ruins. The map promised more so we either missed them or they’re covered in wisteria. Don’t worry, we’ll go back.

I looked into the Bergdoll Estate and found a fascinating story about a playboy draft dodger-cum-fugitive who escaped capture by luring police with the promise of buried treasure and then slipped out a window and fled to Germany, where he started a family. Who knows why but Grover Cleveland Bergdoll later turned himself in and served eight years in prison before settling on his family farm on what is now wisteria and snake country. He later divorced his wife, moved to Virginia, went mad and spent his remaining years in a mental institution. I am not even making any of this up.

 

 

Saying goodbye to the ocean

The first order of business was digging up Saint Joseph, the patron saint of sold condominiums, whom my grandmother buried head down in a garden area by the parking lot. It’s unclear if Joseph helped sell any other condos in the building or if the $500 “marketing fee” my grandmother paid had more to do with her finally getting a decent offer. I talked it up to my kids before we left – how their great-grandmother buried the statue of a saint because she thought it would bring good luck and how we had to find the exact spot and dig him up, like lost treasure – but I guess they were expecting a full-sized statue and seemed disappointed when they saw he was plastic and fit in the palm of her hand.

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My grandmother bought this condominium with my grandfather many years ago so they would have a place to stay at the beach. They rented it out a couple months out of the year, which paid the mortgage with enough left over for gas and tolls . She tried to get my brother and I to buy it from her but it’s too far and we have another place to stay when we do make it down. Also, I don’t have that kind of money, though it troubled me that she was only a few years older when they bought this place. She tells me they never went out to eat or took vacations when they were young.

It felt like we were on vacation, I guess because I’d taken a couple of days off work to drive her down for the settlement and so she could say goodbye to her place. I spent many nights there myself, so the closure was just as much for me. That was the bed where I slept one night while grape gum dropped from my slackened jaw and snaked relentlessly around my long hair, I thought to myself. There’s the pool I snuck into another night to fool around with a boy I barely knew. This is the carpet where my great-grandmother actually spat after they caught me and made me come back inside. Actually, it was shag carpeting back then. I still remember the gold and yellow pile from the time my brother and I both spilled overly full bowls of Fruit Loops with milk, accidentally and almost simultaneously, while my grandmother hurried to get her condo ready for a rental.

This was a bittersweet goodbye visit, for sure. I asked my grandmother a couple of times if she was sad, and she said she was mostly relieved. She posed around the condo while I snapped picture after picture. She didn’t ask what I planned to do with all of the pictures and I wouldn’t have had an answer anyway. Maybe I’ll make up another photo book like the one I did after her 90th birthday party. She carries it around in her purse to show her realtor or the woman behind the deli counter. If I do a photo book for My Grandmother’s Last Trip to the Beach, I have enough pictures to tell a story, though it will only be mine. Too bad I didn’t get a photograph of the men power washing the halls of her building and how they popped their heads out and yelled down to me in the parking lot at the exact moment my grandmother and daughter yelled other things at me from another floor. It was so funny looking – four anxious heads peering down from different spots with their mouths all moving and not one noticing the other – but that can’t go in the book because I neglected to capture it on film or whatever you call it these days.

I also don’t have a photo of the new buyers, who dropped by for their walk-in inspection just as we were getting ready to leave for the settlement. Oh what a gift that was. You know how when you meet someone and something about their tone or expression zaps all the tension from the air and everything feels lighter? It was like that with this couple, and not just for my grandmother but for all of us. Even their realtor looked visibly relieved at the unplanned meeting. The new buyers chatted with my grandmother for a good 15 minutes instead of pulling out all the utensil drawers to make sure they worked properly (and thank goodness for that). Before we left, they told my grandmother she was welcome back any time and she told them God Bless You and I know she meant it because she wouldn’t have said it otherwise.

The settlement occurred around a large oval table in a room decorated with ink and watercolor drawings of festive legal scenes set in the ’80s, judging by the outfits and hair. There were massive, serious looking legal books that I think were just for sure. At first the presiding attorney seemed all-business, curt even. But he softened with my grandmother and repeated instructions when necessary and did not rush her along. Her hands were very shaky and each time she had to sign her name she did so with painstaking effort.

I caught a few glimpses of the capable, determined grandmother I grew up with. I will forever remember her big cars and hair and how she was always ready to challenge an unsuspecting store clerk or family member who forgot who they were dealing with. She seems so much smaller now and walks slowly with a cane, her hair soft and snow white. But still she is sharp as a tack in unexpected ways. She got what she wanted and, I believe, deserved with the help of Saint Joseph, family who loves her and a charming couple eager to turn her old place into decades of new memories.

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To the basement

 

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I noticed a goose on the sharp angled porch roof as we drove past and that’s what made me finally stop. We’d driven past this beautiful wreck of a house literally hundreds of times, but I guess we were always in a hurry or never had the right goose to lure us over.

The goose was gone – if it was ever really there – by the time I turned at the next light, found a place to park and dodged endless mines of goose poop with my daughters in tow across an expansive, pitted field. Ogling abandoned houses is a family affair. My older daughter is pretty used to it by now and takes her own phone out for pictures. My younger one is pretty sure all abandoned houses are haunted, but she always wants to stop.

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This is an unusual property because it’s right in the middle of a suburban shopping center laid out to look like an old fashioned main street if Old Navy and Barnes and Noble had been around back then. Maybe that’s why this haunted-looking mansion didn’t give me the creeps. Maybe I put on a brave face for my kids or maybe I’m finally immune. I’ve been admiring decrepit houses since I was a kid myself.

Did that first house have a name? Did we call it anything? Not that I can remember.

At the end of my childhood street, there was a metal gate that our Hulk-green Chevy Vega once smacked against the night my dad forgot to set the parking brake. The Vega rolled down the gentle slope of our street while we slept and when my dad woke up the next morning and saw that it wasn’t parked out front, he scratched his head and wondered who would possibly steal such an ugly car. Maybe the Vega too felt an irresistible pull to the abandoned house beyond the gate, down the gravel drive along a narrow peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay. I don’t know who owned the land – 300 acres of prime, waterfront real estate – but in the mid 80s no one seemed to and so it became our secret neighborhood playground.

There were three old structures left on the land in varying states of decomposition: a small, one-story house with weathered clapboard siding but all windows intact; a large shed or small barn with a partially collapsed roof and a massive rusted tractor parked outside; and a collapsed pavilion down the hill by the water’s edge. I feel saddest about the pavilion because we never got to see it whole. My friend Beth and I used to climb up the slanted roof on Sunday afternoons and eat sandwiches her mother packed for us. Fact: sandwiches eaten in the wild always taste better. In the later days of our pavilion roof picnics, Beth and I ate while plotting how we could convince one of our parents to drive us to the movies so we could spend a beautiful spring afternoon away from sunshine and fresh air. By then the shed and house had burned to the ground, revealing a mossy set of stairs like broken teeth leading to a black belly of a room.

Those stairs had their own magnetic pull like the gate to a Vega. Beth and I used to dare each other to go down a certain amount of stairs. We’d start small, like I dare you to go down 2 steps. This was mostly a piece of cake because although some of the stairs were caked with slippery moss and wet leaves, there was still plenty of time to scramble back up if a ghost or worse suddenly appeared at the bottom. By the time we got to daring 7 or 9 steps, the amount of time it took to screw up enough nerve to go down that far took away precious time at the movies.

I only made it all the way down once and then only lingered for a few seconds in front of the cold, black doorway. I could sort of make out a table or shelf against one wall but could not tell how far the room went back or what else was inside. What if I’d brought along a flashlight and had the nerve to shine it? Would I have found the secret lair of devil worshipers whispered about at the back of the bus or only pockets of soot-soaked dampness? This is surprisingly not one of life’s regrets anymore. That may be because I once walked the main level of the house with my parents while it was still whole. We got to see what it was like before it became a ghost.

What stands out most about that time inside the house was the surprise of my parents doing something illegal. They were not the type to trespass, though there were no ‘keep out’ signs and we walked right through an open door. We found ourselves in a kitchen with dusty melamine dishes and cups scattered across a table, a chair knocked on its side. We took a quick tour through the other rooms, but the sight of those dishes spooked us. I think there was a cradle in one room, but realize this sounds made up. We had no idea about the basement until some neighborhood kids burned the house to the ground for fun within the year. That was an exciting but devastating day for all of us. We gained a mysterious basement but lost a slice of childhood.

After my parents and I visited that night, we wondered about the people who lived there and what happened to them. We decided something or someone had taken them by surprise while they were eating dinner. Never mind that the timing was all wrong for melamine dishware, but I suggested Indians and we went from there. We decided a man and woman had been eating dinner with their two young children. The father had a dark beard and wire rimmed glasses. The woman wore a flowered cotton dress and her pale hair in a bun. Their children were both fair and small, a boy and girl. They heard the too-close war cry of Indians and the father bolted up quickly, his chair clattering to the floor. The mother and father grabbed their little darlings and with no time to plan and nowhere else to go really, they both looked at each other and the father whispered the only hiding place he could think: to the basement.

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