Pleasantville

When I was a teenager, I employed an exhausting ritual involving secret coat compartments, endless sticks of peppermint gum, and foul smelling perfume to cover up the foul stink of cigarette smoke. It was a different time. Parents couldn’t track their teenager’s location like submarines across a radar screen. I’m sure my parents suspected I smoked, but as long as they didn’t have concrete proof, they were willing to look the other way. My grandmother, however, was not.

One summer afternoon in junior year, my grandparents said goodbye after a visit and as I was rushing off to meet a friend. My grandmother leaned in for a hug and patted the hard rectangle of Marlboro Lights in my pocket. “You smoke?” she asked with a sly smile that scared me but felt more conspiratorial than accusing. I laughed nervously and went off with my friend and she lulled me into false confidence by not telling my parents. Over the summer, I visited her and she offered me a cigarette in her kitchen, lighting them on the gas burner of her stove top. I thought I’d arrived, all grown up and smoking in front of another grown up. A week or month later, her worry got the best of her and she told my parents and….I can’t remember what happened aside from a stern lecture.

Since then, I have tried to withhold all but the most neutral personal information from my grandmother. Even though I talk to her at least once a week, I try very hard to keep my own worries, resentments, and unfavorable opinions about mutual acquaintances to myself. This is really hard sometimes, especially the last one. But I have learned that anything I say can and will be used against me by my grandmother.

Sometimes, especially when I’m on a roller coaster high of life, I let my guard down and talk too much. At 92, she is still sharp enough to remember everything I say, but confused enough to misconstrue and twist words. Even so, I can never predict which troubling detail she will choose to focus on. Last week it was what floor my daughter’s dorm room will be on when she goes off to college. I shared this thoughtlessly, recklessly. It festered for two days before she called me back.

“I want you to let me talk first and finish hearing what I have to say,” she began, an effective but crappy way to start a conversation, btw.

“You told me Vanessa would be living on, well, I forget if it was the sixteenth or sixtieth floor.”

“The sixth floor,” I said.

“Okay, the sixth floor,” she said, barely pausing. “And you said there will only be one tiny window in her room.”

I never said tiny but why did I have to mention the window at all?

“Is this window big enough for someone to climb out of?” she asks.

Sometimes I don’t wait for her to finish, even when she asks me to. I just want to get in there and douse the conversation with ice water before it has a chance to smolder.

“We looked at those rooms back in November. I really can’t remember how big the windows are. But there are two sets of stairs on every floor. Even if there was a fire and she lived on the second floor, she couldn’t jump through a window without breaking both legs.”

Sometimes bringing up another disaster she hadn’t thought of is an effective strategy. I think what emboldened me was the knowledge of all the other things that weren’t on her radar that she should be worried about. Someone two generations removed should really retire from worrying. They might still be good at it, but the worries are new and complicated and they should really just leave it to those more familiar with the landscape.

By the time we were done talking, she said “I feel better now.” She often says this after difficult phone calls where my words feel defensive and churlish. But it may be less about what I said and more about the fact that we talked. Although I romanticize what it might feel like not to speak or be spoken to for an entire day, it’s hard when it’s not really a choice. My grandmother was always a very sociable person. She is not a shut in, but still there are so many hours to fill in a day and limited options when you’re 92. Her social circle must feel as tiny as a dorm room window.

My daughters and I will drive down this weekend and take her to a Lithuanian festival in the city. I have so many other things I should be doing at home, but this is mother’s day weekend and she asked us to come and she is 92. Plus the building the festival is in has a museum on the top floor with creepy dolls. I am not the praying kind, but I will ask for strength and patience to maintain a pleasant state of obliviousness. Isn’t life so much more pleasant when we are feeling pleasant? I wonder if it comes from an alchemy of combined moods, expectations, and wherever Mercury happens to be, or if it is more like a pair of glasses we could slip on whenever we remember they’ve been in our pocket the whole time.

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A day in the life of Engelbert

When my grandmother calls to tell us not to come see her, we are already halfway there. I tell her this and she sighs. “You’re not going to be able to get home,” she says. “Your credit cards won’t work anymore and you won’t be able to buy gas. Don’t you watch the news?”

She knows I don’t watch the news. But my husband does and surely he would have told me if our economy was on the brink of collapse? I pull over to get gas and check the news feed, just in case. The gas station is swarming with cars, which could indicate the early stages of anarchy or just a busy Monday morning. My credit card works and I get enough gas to get to her house and back with enough left over to siphon for the generator or trade for questionable beef jerky at a post-apocalyptic market.

When we arrive, she is still worked up but glad to see us. CNN hollers on the TV in her bedroom while FOX screams from the living room. She insists she got a call that morning from her bank about credit cards not working. We sit at her kitchen table to go over a stack of still impressively organized papers and she taps the side of her head and admits her computer isn’t working so well anymore. She calls her brain her computer.

During our visit, she gets six telemarketing robocalls. One is a pretty convincing spoof from apple support that wants me to press 2 to speak with someone about a data breach in the cloud, which I almost do. In another call, I swear I hear a computer breathing sweatily on the other end. The Do Not Call Registry! I think. Unfortunately I can’t sign her up on account of the government shutdown.

Because it is a federal holiday, I also can’t take her to the bank to get to the bottom of some unpaid interest or to the post office to hand deliver an envelope she could easily stick in the mailbox at the end of her driveway. I wasn’t going to take her anyway because it’s 20 below outside with the windchill. I’m just glad the decision was made for me because she’s very hard to argue with.

We bring up several trash bags filled with pots and pans from her basement. We clean out a small cupboard I never noticed before and I show my daughter how to wrap glasses in newspaper. This feels like a useful, old fashioned skill, like being able to sew a pillow case.

We break for lunch and my grandmother sends us out for Whoppers. She describes it in such a way that it is clear she thinks I have never had one. The more she describes it, the less sure I am that I have. It is, she says, hot, fresh, and comes with a delicious sauce. It also has “all kinds of fresh vegetables” on the top. I order a cheeseburger for myself because I can’t bear disappointment. She eats half of her Whopper and wraps the rest up in neat folds of wax paper to have for supper.

We vacuum her kitchen, living room, hallway and bedroom. She follows me around, holding the cord or standing in the precise spot where I need to vacuum next. In the kitchen, I use the attachment under her cabinets and suck up several cups worth of broken crackers and one small blue pill. When I go in the back bedroom to put the vacuum away, her cat looks up from a spot between a stack of AARP magazines and a lamp base and then drifts back to sleep.  His nap spot is safe for now.

Usually when it’s time for us to leave, my grandmother remembers something else she needs me to do. “Take the giant wooden reindeer down to the basement and cover it with a sheet,” she might say. Or, “go in the basement and find the giant wooden reindeer and bring it upstairs.”

Today she seems tired and ready for us to go so she can retire to the couch and her cat. She says she is happy because her house is finally clean. Really all we did was move several bags of stuff from a corner in her basement to a corner in her living room. Crackers that rolled off the counter in daring escape were unceremoniously vacuumed up. It shouldn’t be so satisfying, but there it is, that unmistakable lightness you feel after a haircut or clearing off your desk at work.

I say I’m not going home with anything, but wind up taking two gently used farberware pots, a pair of snot-yellow coffee cups I am nostalgic for with no idea why, a tiny plastic bride and groom from my parent’s wedding cake, and a glossy booklet on Engelbert Humperdink. There is a picture of Engelbert laying shirtless in bed, glaring at an alarm clock. There is another photo of Engelbert shaving, still shirtless, while a mysterious, fully-clothed man stands behind him, smiling encouragingly.

On the drive back, the moon is big and full and follows us home. It teases from the top of a hill, finally close enough to touch, and then ducks behind a patch of trees. I think what would little kid me have thought if I knew how much my grandmother would change.  I wonder how it’s possible to miss someone I still get to spend the day with. I look forward to doing it again and bringing my daughters every chance we get.

The 2018 Lithuanian Cemetery Tour

While sandwiched between my father and a non-English speaking relative I had never met before in the backseat of a stuffy, late model BMW, I saw storks standing in soft rolling fields and neatly tiered cemeteries and had the certain thought this must be a dream. We aren’t really here.

But I have never been uncomfortably warm in a dream nor registered smells like sunbaked dashboard and smoldering diesel. Twelve plus hours of travel and we really were in Lithuania.

At a stoplight, the driver offered my grandmother a dusty tin cup rummaged from the glove box. She said something in Lithuanian and he wiped the cup with a marginally less dusty rag before filling it halfway with mineral water. My grandmother gave a shrug and tipped her head back to drink and I, thirstily in the back seat, thought she’s home again.

We stopped in the town of Trakai and ate Kibinai, a pastry with a neatly fluted crust and meat filling. We waved away bees at an outdoor café overlooking a lake and 600 year-old castle I had only ever seen before in a painting in my grandmother’s house. I’m sure I never thought it was real.

My dad and I followed one of the relatives inside the castle and climbed an incredible labyrinth of stairs leading to warm rooms, always stuck behind a large foreign-speaking tour group. This would become a theme for the week: not understanding what anyone is saying and sweating and thinking I can’t believe we’re really here!

My grandmother was pretty amazing. She will be 92 next month and easily boarded countless shuttle buses and climbed more stairs in a week than she has all year. She visited 9 family graves in 4 cemeteries and climbed into and out of a Volkswagen Vanagon something like 18 times. And she was the life of the party at the 7 mini-reunions we had over the course of 8 days.

She always had an arm to hold onto and help when needed. Her (my) family was so good to her (us). In one of the bigger cemeteries, one of the men we were with turned a collapsible walker with a seat and his leather belt into a makeshift wheelchair he and another man pulled along the paved path.

Let me tell you about the cemeteries. I always thought my grandmother’s preoccupation with visiting graves and planting and pruning flowers and bushes around them was a bit unusual and, well, unnecessary. Then I saw a woman carefully washing the marble border around a graveside shrine after raking the stones inside and understood.

It turns out Lithuanian cemeteries are nothing like US cemeteries. They are like serene parks in heaven or some other majestic planet. It might be a European or Catholic thing, but cemeteries are revered and holy and pristine.

You are never alone in a Lithuanian cemetery, even if everyone has their head bent down pulling weeds or lighting candles. The dead are gone but visited often. Many graves featured photographic images of loved ones, not unlike the kind you can get printed on t-shirts at the beach. I saw a sign at one cemetery with the word Fotokeramika in big letters and worried it prohibited photography. But I google translated the rest and realized it was just telling people who to contract to get photographs of their loved ones printed on graves.

I took a lot of pictures in cemeteries. I photographed relatives’ names and dates on markers for future genealogy searches. I photographed living relatives standing around or behind graves, my grandmother in every picture, no one smiling exactly.

Truthfully, my father and I were a little tired of cemeteries by the third one. But that was the one where my grandmother gave a tearful speech, only partially in English, about why she fled the country, her home, after the Russians had run out the Germans and called it liberation.

She cried again when we drove down a gravel road crammed with houses that used to be her parent’s farm until the Soviets took it. We sat inside the church where she married my grandfather. Their marriage did not last and while the original church survived WWII, it was dismantled and repurposed by the Soviets before being rebuilt in the early ’90s.

I didn’t love the village like I thought I would. The people were wonderful but I expected to feel some connection to the town since my mother was born there. Knowing the dark history – the genocide and suffering – left me feeling a bit heavy and flat.

I was more than ready to move on to the Devil’s Museum in Kaunas. Everyone wanted to understand why it was so important to me. Why have I wanted to go there ever since I was a little girl? I don’t know, why did I buy a small skeleton devil at CVS yesterday? Why not? It’s like asking why you love cats or dogs or musicals. You just do or you don’t.

I almost didn’t get to see the Devil’s Museum at all, but mentioned it as an aside to one of the younger, English-speaking relatives and the next thing I knew all 12 of us were crowded into the lobby buying tickets for 3 Euros each or something ridiculous like that.

It was awesome and so was the Devil’s Museum. I took 5 million photos (all of which I am going to show you right now…) and when I missed a good devil, a cute little 3 year-old spitfire we were traveling with pointed her chubby finger and said Fotografuok and I did. And then I had to show her the photo on my phone screen and she would nod and then we could proceed. It was her first visit to the Devil’s Museum too and she will probably not remember it but may one day want to go back and not be able to explain why.

My grandmother got to see her cemeteries and I got to see my devil’s museum and my dad got to see his KGB museum, which sounds cool and was, but it was also very sobering. When I think KGB, I think eavesdropping room (pictured above), but not necessarily basement prison and execution room for resistors. The execution room had bullet holes in the wall and a glass floor with personal effects like jacket buttons and wire rim glasses on display below.

As an American, I take freedom for granted. When Lithuania fought and regained independence in 1990, I remember a festival in Baltimore I didn’t go to because I was in high school and had to work or smoke cigarettes in the woods with my friends. It meant little at the time except there goes my grandmother with her fierce Lithuanian pride. I was and continue to be an idiot, yes, but I get it now.

And oh, the spirited hospitality of Lithuanians. We slept in comfortable beds (you get no top sheet but do get your own duvet in a double bed!) while one host slept on a bedroll in the kitchen. We were driven a maddening number of kilometers by men who would only occasionally and then begrudgingly accept reimbursement. Even their cats were attentive and sidled up for pets, purring in Lithuanian.

We feasted on garden grown fruit and vegetables and salmon caught on a fishing trip to Norway. We slathered backyard honey on homemade cheese. I never ate so good and craved so little, except maybe water. It started with the dusty tin car cup and an unfounded fear of tap water and ended with me falling in love with the salty mineral water which tasted like warm ocean the first time I drank it but became my favorite thing that I can’t get back home. Our mineral water is a joke.

We spent our last couple of days in Vilnius at the airbnb apartment I wrote about last post. It was excellent, by the way, and I don’t think anyone looked in our windows because they had some special anti-peeping tom coating. It also had metal shutters you could put down at night that were very Get Smart. We never did since air conditioning and fans aren’t a thing over there that I could tell. As for the streets of old town Vilnius, google street view couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing.

On our last day in Lithuania, my dad and I climbed a steep cobbled hill to Gidimenas Tower, where I coughed up at least one lung due to some ailment I picked up just before my trip even though I hadn’t been sick in 2+ years.

That reminds me, I’m glad I didn’t take this trip newly sober. I was offered shots of strange liquor at least a dozen times. I had to put my hand over my coffee cup once to keep a well meaning but not-getting-it host from pouring in booze to help my cough. They like to drink over there and no amount of polite refusal seemed to reduce their bewilderment or suspicion. I insulted them by not drinking and experienced the irony a teetotaler knows well.

Our travel went remarkably well until the final leg home, most of that after we landed at Dulles. There were extra long lines at customs due to new face recognition technology and then some guy took my suitcase and didn’t realize until after he got to his hotel. We were all fried by the time my dad and I dropped my grandmother off and drove home.

I was a little nervous about talking to my grandmother on the phone after a few days of recovery. I wanted her to be as satisfied with the trip as I was.

The first thing she said was my father and I left her house so fast after the airport, it was like we were on fire. We didn’t even sit and have something to drink, which I now know to be a great insult to a Lithuanian.

Also, she couldn’t believe she didn’t come back with any Lithuanian bread or cheese or candy. We didn’t get to see the Hill of Crosses either, she reminded me. I couldn’t tell if she was complaining or trying to prepare me for another trip.

I might be able to find the bread and candy online, I said. I just want to enjoy this trip for awhile. She wanted to know if I ever wanted to go back. Definitely, I said. One day I will take my daughters so they can take theirs, and so on.

My dad and grandmother with a cousin. My grandmother never said goodbye, just til next time.

Fever dream

I plug in the address of our airbnb rental 4,000 miles away and fall into a fever dream. Google street view shifts seamlessly between a summer scene of a man in dark slacks and dress shoes appearing to peer in the window of our rental flat and then in the next frame, just as in a dream, it is suddenly snowing and also six years later. Everything looks the same except the funky art gallery next door is now a trendy hair salon and the graffiti is different and all the house numbers have changed, so it wasn’t our rental flat after all.

In a way street view spoils everything. Will I still be dazzled by narrow cobblestone walkways that on closer inspection turn out to be two-way streets and 500-year-old bell towers framed between sun baked red tile rooftops? In another way, street view is a much needed reality check. Stick to main routes and beware alleys. (Though the most startling image I saw in one was a swarm of uniformed school children marching towards the google camera with blurred out faces.) Yes, there is a coffee shop three doors down and it is close to all the touristy spots, but people peer in windows in the middle of the day. Keep the blinds closed and be wary of even well dressed men.

88% of our accommodations are booked for this trip. The only thing I love more than meaningless math is obsessive travel planning. Sometimes I think planning a trip is better than the actual trip. It is like a dollhouse. You can arrange things however you like and it is tiny and perfect even if the pieces don’t match and you have, for example, an antique dollhouse grandmother with a tidy white bun and a 70s plastic girl with lemon wedge hair and one scratched off eye.

As a Planner, it was hard to sit on my hands for months and see what gaps were left to fill. There weren’t many. There have been increasingly vague but still enticing offers of places to stay with distant relatives that I can not verify because of a language barrier. I pictured that scene in National Lampoon’s European vacation where the Griswolds show up on a foreign relative’s doorstep and are welcomed and fed, but then when they leave the couple turns to each other and asks “who the hell were they?”

I am going to learn a few Lithuanian words so I can say things like Hello and Please and Nice to finally meet you and also practical phrases like Where are the toilets and Stop looking in my window. Thank You is pronounced AH-choo, like the sneeze, so I already have that memorized. My fluent grandmother is still sore my parents didn’t agree to language school on weekends when I was a kid, but the only thing I retained from four years of high school Spanish is Where is the shoe store? so I think they made the right call. There is always google translate and, of course, my grandmother.

She is 91 years old. Sometimes she forgets and speaks to me in Lithuanian on a good day. Some people think my dad and I are crazy for taking her overseas even though 1) it was her idea and 2) I don’t want to hear it if you agree with them. While shopping for travel insurance policies, an agent told me he just sold one to a 101-year-old woman and her 80-year-old daughter. I wanted to hug him through the phone. People do impossible things every day.

Do you know how hard it is to find a stairless apartment in old town East Europe with a five star average review and moderate cancellation policy (and also free parking space plus washer and dryer)? It is very hard but not impossible. Sadly, I’ll have to save the rambling medieval cottage for when I return one day with my husband and children. They are not going on this trip and I can’t tell if they’re mildly jealous or just morbidly curious how it will all play out.

Extra medical insurance has been purchased. Google maps are downloaded and ready to provide turn by turn directions even if my international data plan doesn’t work, just like it didn’t in Canada. I’m resigned to the fact that I probably shouldn’t drink the tap water just to be safe but probably will anyhow. I’ve mentally packed the smallest suitcase we have because the compact rental car could not possibly fit as much luggage as they claim.

I am mostly free to be the voice of semi-calm reassurance to my grandmother, who glides between tearful gratitude that we are really going and blind fear that this trip will kill her, and I think she means before we even get on the first plane. She got mad at me when I told her I couldn’t come down last weekend to wash her curtains. When I suggested this was misplaced anxiety at our upcoming trip and that perhaps she should stop looking for more things to worry about, she told me try being 91. There are still a few weeks before the trip. The curtains might get washed next weekend if she doesn’t have a bigger project for me. She has good walking shoes but thinks she might want a new suitcase. Anything can still happen or not happen.

7 years

I used to believe gum takes seven years to pass through the digestive system. I believed the seven year itch was the biggest threat to a relationship and that within a seven year period, all the cells in our bodies regenerate. The idea of getting to be someone new on a regular basis has its appeal, but the fact is some of our cells take longer to turn over and some stay with us until we die.

I am seven years sober (today!) and I have never felt more like myself. This does not always feel like a good thing. At certain (okay, many) social events, I feel that same third-wheel wallflower paralysis I remember from the eighth grade dance. I still somehow say too much for someone who talks too little. I still prefer the company of cats and dogs and certain children to most people and look forward to dessert and bedtime more than is probably healthy. These used to be things I wanted to fix and believed I could, especially once I got sober, but more and more I think, eh, there are worse things I could be than me.

Alcohol used to loosen my tongue and inhibitions and filtered some of the angst that comes with being a human, but it created far more problems than it masked. It numbed the joy too, the pure kind we get to find in the smallest things. Even in the early days when I didn’t really want to not drink and couldn’t guess how it would become appealing, I felt an underlying sense of relief. It always felt right to give up drinking and I have never regretted it.

And give up drinking strikes me as a funny phrase now. In the first two years especially, that feeling of missing out and nostalgia for drinking – maybe more so the contradictory longing to escape and belong – came over frequently if not regularly. I dreaded going out to dinner with my husband sans cocktails and hated beerless Friday nights with dark passion. I had to change up certain routines temporarily, even though it felt like it would have to be forever. The cravings and bouts of resentment and self pity gradually passed faster and with less drama. I don’t feel the same worries or fears I felt in the early days about what sobriety would do to me or my marriage or my place in the world. Even if it didn’t turn me into a brand new person, I changed and grew because of it. Somewhere along the way, I saw I hadn’t missed out on a single thing by not drinking. I gained far more.

Seven years later, I still love my sobriety. Even though it feels more like an appendage instead of an affliction, I think about it every day.  It’s like a smooth stone I keep in my pocket and knowing it’s there brings strength and peace. I know it makes me a better mother and human being, which probably accounts for a lot of that. I wish more people who struggle would get to feel it, that lightness and relief and return of spirit.

I want to leave you with a video for a song I find lovely, more than a little haunting, and a little bit maddening. It’s Wish That I Was Sober by Frightened Rabbit. Even the band’s name reminds me of something a petite, soft spoken woman said at an AA meeting years ago. She was talking about how fear had ruled her life when she was drinking. It had taken so much mental and emotional energy to hide how much she drank and how awful she felt. She’d felt trapped when she was drinking and then surprised to feel about the same in the early days of giving it up. She said she felt like a scared bunny and I remember there was a tremble to her voice that made me think of a rabbit’s twitchy nose. Even so, her eyes were bright and she was there, sober, and she was talking about it. I see her on a semi-regular basis, though not at meetings and I don’t think she remembers me. She still has that softness but with an underlying strength I admire and believe is there for anyone who wants it.

You know what’s curious? Cats.

He watches us from inside the clothes basket for so long, we forget he’s there. He is not invisible exactly, but he sits very still and the basket is very tall. When he finally jumps out, Audrey and I are always a little startled. This happens at least once a week.

(Photo: That one time he let our other cat in the basket but supervised carefully.)

Years ago, a friend had a tan striped tomcat her children could carry around like a rag doll. The cat had a funny human name, like Julius, and diabetes. I wondered if it was this combination that caused the resigned, content expression he wore when one of the boys, a lean brown 5-year old, tucked him under both arms and lugged him around the room. Oh, I thought nervously the first time I saw him do this. But there was no drama, no biting or blood.

I decided I wanted a cat like that for my own children, though it felt pointless and silly, like wishing to win the lottery without buying tickets. Our otherwise awesome cat at the time gave my daughter a scar running perpendicular to the part in her hair just for getting too close. When I was 5 or 6, my great-granddad’s cat gave me a scratch all the way around my wrist so that it looked like I was wearing a glistening red bracelet. Those were the kind of cats I was used to.

Clothes basket cat is different. He seeks children out, not to torment or maim but to play with or hang out beneath a blanket. He does bite sometimes, but it’s almost always deserved. His name is Sylvester and he has asthma so maybe there is something to the combination of funny name and chronic disease. Every night once we are all in bed, Sylvester patrols the empty parts of the house while crying mournfully around a ratty stuffed mouse he carries in his mouth. If you call out to him, he immediately stops and starts up again several minutes later. I googled what this means and out of all the plausible and bullshit answers, no one bothered to ask a cat.

If you really consider the cat or dog sitting quietly beside you, it may start to feel like an alien that popped in many millennia ago on holiday and decided to stay because it liked the climate or food and no one was checking visas in those days. They are nothing like us, and we are blessed to have each other. I can think of no one, aside from children when they are in a pleased mood, that brings such reliable joy to an aching human heart.

Every night before bed, Audrey gathers up her stuffed animals in one arm and tucks Sylvester under the other. He looks simultaneously contented and full of wonder on the bumpy journey upstairs.

(Photo: an old one…he looks 25% more contented these days.)

Miss Pat sat

Miss Pat babysat my brother and I after our mom died. She sat in our recliner and watched Donahue and other daytime programs while my dad was at work. She sat on my brother’s water ring toss game and broke it, which made him sad and then angry. (Miss Pat’s sister, Donna, did the same thing to my water ring toss game a few days later.)

Miss Pat mostly sat but she also went upstairs every morning to make up the beds. This is when I turned the lock on the outside of my bedroom door (which tells you the kind of kid I was) and went downstairs to change the channel and watch Deputy Dawg in what I thought would be peace but was instead her beating loudly on the door and, later, my behind.

I always assumed I loved Miss Pat but see now I probably did not. I did not love her scratchy shift dresses, which resembled the kind of curtains you might see in a bank. I did not love the way she smelled like unwashed hair or how her glasses were so thick they made her eyes look tiny and far away. I did not love how she hogged the TV or blamed me once for eating an entire gallon of Neopolitan. Today I might surrender with a sheepish guilty as charged and outstretched palms, but back then I was maybe four-years old.

Miss Pat was married to Mr. Bill. In my memory, he looks like Bert from Sesame Street. Bert’s the tall, skinny one in case you get confused like me. Mr. Bill was tall and skinny with a uni-brow and not much hair on top. Miss Pat was short and fat with stick-up black hair and, come to think of it, even a cheerful, funny laugh like Ernie. Instead of pigeons, Mr. Bill loved sweet tea which Miss Pat made up in jugs and kept in our avocado green refrigerator with the Mr. Yuk sticker on the door. I remember Mr. Bill carrying a metal lunch pail at all times, though this is probably a false memory.

Pat and Bill were childless and lived in a cinderblock apartment building in town. We visited once and I remember endless rooms with strange children and toys and the overwhelming smell of cat piss, which I had never smelled before. This might also be a false memory or fever dream. Pat’s sister Donna had a house outside town with crumbling front steps and a mug with a ceramic frog at the bottom that you didn’t know was there until you were halfway through your drink. Donna and Pat watched and snickered as those beady eyes scared and then thrilled me. It was an excellent prank.

My dad remarried. Miss Pat was let go. We moved hours away to another part of the state. One spring my grandmother looked up Miss Pat and we met her at the grand opening of a mall not far from where I used to live. I had my picture taken next to Sylvester the cat holding a bouquet of balloons. Miss Pat was not in the picture, but I don’t know where it is anyway. I never saw Miss Pat again. I forget how my dad found out she died from ovarian cancer a few years later. It made me sad to think about Mr. Bill missing her. Who would make his sweet tea?

Some things I did love about Miss Pat: she called me Kristy. She had a friend who told me thunder was the sound of angels bowling, even if I couldn’t quite picture my mom in angel wings and bowling shoes. Miss Pat didn’t get bent out of shape when I did things like stuff raisins in my favorite matchbox car and pretend one was the driver and the other his dog. When Miss Pat drove to the Pantry Pride and the bank, we both sat in the front with the windows rolled down, our sweaty thighs glued to vinyl seats and hair blowing free as the wind.

Amber room

amber

When I first mentioned that I might be going to Lithuania with my 91-year old grandmother, my husband thought for a moment and said “don’t come back with any more amber.”

Like a person told not to think about a white polar bear and only able to do so, immediately I  pictured a chair with smooth, gleaming lines of bubbled translucent gold. There would be at least one fearsome bug preserved within. Even though it would not be feasible to check an amber chair on an international flight, let alone procure and afford one molded from the prehistoric resin of long extinct trees, I could not stop myself from thinking about it.

I have taken amber for granted most of my life. I have never paid for it (nor stolen it), though possess so much I sometimes discover amber rings or broaches in random drawers. Most of it was passed down from Baltic-raised relatives, though at least one piece, ironically, is from the same husband who forbade me to buy more. (Maybe he wants to buy it for me? Probably.)

I own hand crafted “lucky” amber earrings with darker stones of varying size. I wear these on special or difficult occasions, though recently noticed several of the smaller pieces are missing. This means random bits of luck have fallen out and been ground into dust. I have amber rings I can’t wear because they were made for slimmer fingers and bold necklaces that should never come back into fashion. It is not a particularly valuable or sought after gem, but still my eye is drawn every single time to the only amber jewelry in craft stalls or hippie head shops. Amber steeps in my blood.

International treasure hunters still search for the Amber Room. It’s easy to lose a few lucky stones from a pair of earrings, but imagine misplacing an entire room made of amber, worth about $500 million today. A Prussian King gifted it to a Russian Tsar in 1716 and it was embellished and added to over the years. In 1941, Nazi troops looted Catherine Palace and disassembled the Amber Room, packing it into 27 crates. These crates were last seen in Konigsberg in 1945. Maybe the crates were destroyed in the firebombing of Konigsberg. Maybe not. I do not think even the Amber Room contained a chair made of solid amber.

I am planning to travel to Lithuania in August with my 91-year old grandmother and my father. We plan to visit the village where my mother was born and hopefully the pine forest my grandmother swore was so clean she would lie down for a nap and not have to brush herself off afterwards. I feel like an eight-year old a month before Christmas, equal parts excited and terrified the big day will never come.

The last time my grandmother proposed this trip, I didn’t take it seriously and got pregnant within the year. I could not take a baby and young child on such an adventure, nor could I leave them behind. Also, my grandmother was too old, we thought. We never thought “let’s wait 10 more years so she’s even older” but that’s what we did. She told me if she doesn’t at least try to make this trip, she’ll be really, really sad. As I looked at her old, unstamped passport and the application for a new one, I saw a path laid out so clear there was nothing left to do but start following it.

This trip is a treasure within reach but never guaranteed. A lot can go wrong any given day, exponentially more when one traveler is a nonagenarian. It will not be an easy trip (I have never thought this). Still, we see this as a chance to do something we will never be able to do again with people who won’t always be around. If we make it, how can I not bring home at least one amber-encrusted souvenir spoon or paperweight with a perpetually stunned wasp inside?

Venus

She was the only Venus in our neighborhood, in our school, in our town, probably. She was the only Venus I ever knew or will know. She moved in the summer before third grade and by September we were best friends. She got a barbie dream house that year for her birthday so we usually played at her house. Plus her parents were never around.

Venus’ father worked in DC but kept a home office in the fourth bedroom of their house, which had an identical layout to my own. I only saw his office once or twice because the door was always closed when he was in there and locked when he wasn’t. His desk was sprawling and tidy and had one of those clear plastic mats underneath a rolling leather chair. He had a separate phone line and sometimes called downstairs to find out when dinner would be ready.

Venus’ house was heavy in floral and wicker rattan and her living room carpet always had fresh vacuum tracks. They had a microwave and Venus knew how to use it years before my parents thought about buying one. Her little brother, Tommy, was peaches and cream blond like her. He talked with a lisp and was really into Superman. Tommy was either underfoot or holed up in his room with the door closed like his dad. We let Tommy watch Friday the 13th III with us, but he was scared of the bikers (of all things!) and threatened to call their mother at work until we plied him with a bag of Doritos, which he generously shared.

Venus usurped the position of my previous best friend, a fourth grader named Sarah. Sometimes we all played together, though it rarely ended well. When we played Olivia Newton John, Venus got to be Olivia and Sarah got to be Newton because she was also blond, which meant I had to be John. Even though John was the manager, I usually stomped home halfway through. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, my mom explained in her sympathetically exasperated voice.

One time I rode my bike past Sarah’s house and she hung out her bedroom window wearing a long blond wig with bangs. She called out to me with an unusual accent, something like Hey there darlin’. I dismounted my bike and stared up at her in confusion. She explained she was Sarah’s twin cousin visiting from Alabama and had I seen Sarah lately. She didn’t know where she’d got to.

Later that week, I was playing in Venus’ barbie dream house when she plied me with a series of unusually specific questions about Sarah. Did I like her? Did I think she was pretty or smart or mean? When a dull thud sounded from Venus’ closet and she herself didn’t react, I stopped rearranging the plastic bottles in her tiny side-by-side refrigerator and walked over to slide her closet door open. I climbed on top of a suspicious lump in the far corner and heard a muffled Get off!  I pulled the blanket down to find Sarah’s static-cling hair and sweaty, reddened face. It was the closest I’ve ever come to the villain reveal at the end of every Scooby Doo.

Venus and I fought on our own sometimes. There was the great book bag fight of 1982. It started as soon as we got off the bus – over what, I simply cannot remember (isn’t that always the way with book bag fights?).  I do remember how the bus driver lingered at the stop sign long enough that I was sure she was calling the police from her CB. Venus and I both had strawberry shortcake tote bags, but maybe hers had too much weight because she never landed it above my shoulders. The reason I know I won is Venus turned around and ran home just when I was getting warmed up. Her mother came by to tell my mother I beat Venus up with a book bag. My poor mother.  Do you know how satisfying and terrible it feels to land a good slap across someone’s face with a strawberry shortcake book bag?

There was another, non-physical, battle over ownership of a cardboard condominium we both built in Venus’ basement. This is when I learned possession is 9/10s of the law. The law doesn’t care if you hauled most of the boxes through your backyard and across the ravine and then up the big hill by the weeping willow, where you would normally stop to yank a branch and slice it through the air to make that swoosh sound but couldn’t because your arms were full of boxes.

I can tell you Venus’ father wouldn’t have taken my side when I marched over to ring the bell one evening too close to dinnertime and demand my boxes back, even if I hadn’t gotten flustered and said “Can Venus eat?” when he answered the door instead of “Can Venus play?” or whatever my big, brave plan was. At a trim 6’4” with steel gray hair and Nordic good looks, he towered over and unnerved me. He talked to me not like a kid but the pathetic little person I knew myself to be.

“Can she eat?” he said in his booming CEO voice.

“I meant can she come out and play,” I squeaked to his rumbling shudders of laughter.

“No,” he finally managed. “She’s eating dinner.” He slammed the door in my face.

Weeks later – long after Venus and I made up about the cardboard condominium, which was carefully deconstructed and probably recycled – we decided to give her Siamese cat a bath in a kiddie pool. I think Venus was the one who suggested it, but I guess no one wants custody of a bad idea. The cat had a dog name – Lady or Lucky, something like that – and they never had it fixed so for months out of the year it moaned around the house like a half-murdered ghoul.  I went along with her plan to give the cat a bath because it was a hot, boring day and the cat trusted me enough that I could walk over and pick it up. Together, Venus and I hoisted the cat through the air and into the tepid water for maybe half a split second, long enough to turn its beautiful sable coat brackish brown and set off a wave of tortured shrieks.

Venus’ father lit out the front door faster than a cat hightailing it out of a kiddie pool, his round face red and lips snarling curses I’d never heard before.  I stood wide-eyed and frozen until he sent me home, past the weeping willow and across jagged rocks, all without taking a breath.

The last time I saw Venus’ father, his shirt was caked with dried blood and his face that same reddened blur of anger. His normally neat family room was swirling with a slumber party of 10 lively twelve-year old girls. We were celebrating Venus’ birthday and he’d just come back from the emergency room. He’d totaled his Porsche in the early morning hours. There had been another woman, not Venus’ mother, in the car with him. Venus’ mother came in first through a door leading from the garage and, without thinking, I walked over and clicked the lock. It was one of those push-button locks like we had on all the doorknobs at home, which we were never allowed to lock.

I pretended not to hear his knocking, which would have been hard to hear at first over the din of 12-year old girls. Soon no one could ignore the pounding and Venus sprung from the couch to turn the knob and let her father in. Brown blood splattered his otherwise fresh looking oxford shirt, open at the collar. Who locked that door? he demanded. I knew enough to look around the room at the other girls and not at my own feet.

What if I could go back in time to tell kid me that I would one day marry a man not unlike Venus’ father? A tall man with appetites, a demand for order, and commanding voice known to stop underpaid customer service workers in their tracks. What if I told her Venus’ father would be dead from cirrhosis before his first grand child was born, but that no two people are alike, that we are all ordained with the power of choice. We are not even the same people our whole lives. I could tell her big men no longer scare me and I now hold cats with something close to reverence, often sleeping in uncomfortable positions so as to not disturb the one nestled between my legs.

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