Saved by a whisker

Tomorrow a children’s book I wrote will go up on Indiegogo. It’s illustrated by the talented Ken Haeser and based on a true story about a cat that got separated from his owners at a rest stop and his journey back to them.

I wrote the book from the cat’s perspective, which was quite a lot of fun as a cat lover. Before the pandemic, my youngest daughter and I used to volunteer at a local pet store adoption center. We would clean out cages and play with the cats and kittens awaiting adoption. Part of the proceeds from this children’s book will benefit another cat rescue, which I have found to be filled with selfless and endlessly generous volunteers.

To sign up for the Indiegogo campaign, which goes live tomorrow on National Cat Day, click here or below. I’m really excited to see a lifelong dream realized, especially knowing it will help cats.

Flip this bike

It all started with an old ten-speed someone had left by the curb. We were on our way to see a drive-in movie projected onto the wall of a taco place and the most excitement we’d had in months, so I guess we weren’t thinking clearly. Our oldest daughter really wanted a bike to take to college in a city where nice bikes get stolen. Even not-nice bikes get stolen, but if you get a bike for free and it gets stolen, it’s not like it really belonged to you anyway.

I think we had quarantine googles on when we saw this bike. At least me and my daughter did. My husband kept trying to tell us “it needs so much work” and “this is a terrible idea” but all my daughter and I could think was “let’s get this treasure in the back before Dad/Joe drives off.” Dad/Joe wasn’t wrong. The bike needed new tubes and tires and pedals, and we could have kept going. It was a fixer upper. It also turned out to be a men’s bike too tall for my daughter to climb on. Somehow we didn’t realize this until after we got the bike back from being repaired. To be fair, the tires were flat when we found it so the bike would have appeared shorter.

Suddenly we didn’t have a Free Bike anymore but an Albatross. Joe was not happy about being out the money for repairs on a bike no one could ride, and my daughter had lost her dream bike (her words). It became my mission to fix the issue so that the next time we slowed down to trash pick something, the bike couldn’t be used as a cautionary tale.

This is where the pandemic came in handy. It turns out bikes are a scarce commodity right now. I guess everyone rediscovered the outdoors and stores aren’t getting new ones like they used to. If you have a bike in your garage gathering dust, it’s worth more than usual. Don’t price it too high, but don’t give it away either.

I cleaned the bike with a little WD40 and took photos of it in our backyard during the magic hour. I got some close ups of the rust because this was an almost 45 year old bike and us 40-somethings show wear. I skipped eBay and listed it on facebook and craigslist because they’re free and better for bulky items like bikes. At first I only got borderline creepy replies on craigslist because, well, craiglist, but within a week had a serious buyer on facebook. The guy pulled into our driveway, took a look at the bike, said “it’s in great shape” in a surprised tone, and had the wheel off and bike mounted on the roof of his car within 5 minutes.

We walked away with $27 after what we spent on repairs. Okay, so flipping bikes won’t replace our day jobs.

The level of obsession and focus I then spent trying to procure a replacement dream bike for our daughter made me realize I am a broken person. I looked at so many bike ads, I lost the ability to distinguish between an adult bike and a child’s bike. Supposing I’d bought a 15″ paw patrol bicycle with flat tires, I was not as confident in our ability to flip it like a curbside vintage Schwinn.

The key was to be quick on the draw without being impulsive. I responded to two ads within minutes of posting only to be told they were already sold. I missed out on a delightful looking cruiser for $40 and a $25 mountain bike that still haunt me in my dreams. I almost bought a child’s bike that clearly stated it was a child’s bike. I considered buying bikes I probably wouldn’t trash pick. I woke up in the middle of the night and checked for new listings. As I said, broken.

Finally I went back to creepy craigslist, where not as many people sell bikes, so not as many people go looking to buy there either. I held my breath when I saw an ad for a woman’s mountain bike for only $44. From the photos, it looked worn but in good shape. It had all its parts, such as the chain and seat (you’d be surprised at what people try to sell). The ad even said “You can ride it home.” I drove 15 miles across narrow rolling country roads to see the bike, so it wasn’t feasible to test this out.

This was by no means a fancy bike, but it seemed right for my daughter’s needs. It was 1) manageably sized, 2) in working order with no needed repairs, 3) not worth stealing (also, see 4), and 4) hot pink. I figured if she hated it I could at least sell it to some sleep deprived person on facebook for $50 and make up the gas money it took to pick it up.

I was a little nervous going to meet a stranger from craigslist by myself. I could tell the guy was old school when he said to call instead of email and that his phone wasn’t one of those smart ones. This is how you should buy a used bike, in my opinion. Drive 30 minutes, wondering if you’ll get murdered once you arrive, and then 30 minutes back wondering if you made a mistake but relieved you weren’t murdered.

The guy was older, shirtless and in cutoff jeans, sweating heavily in 95 degree midday heat while he tinkered on something in his garage. He said he used to have a bike shop’s worth of inventory on his driveway, but that he and his wife were packing up and heading south to North Carolina. I told him why I wanted an old bike and he agreed crime was getting worse everywhere, gesturing to the rural lane he lived on where the worst crime I could imagine was a game of mailbox baseball.

I liked the guy. He wanted to talk about everything from crime to dental emergencies and it reminded me of when I used to work for hospice and drove out to pick up donations. People would call on the phone and say they had cases of Ensure or unopened catheters they didn’t need anymore and I’d write down their address and look it up on this big map book I kept in the car. I was technically supposed to try and find a volunteer to collect donations, but I liked getting out of the office and driving around. It was like a game to find the street name in the index, locate it on the master grid and then work out how to get there without getting lost. I almost always got lost, but it was still a fun game.

I’d pull up and ring the bell and usually an older person would answer the door and want to talk about how grateful they were that hospice had cared for their husband or wife at the end. Sometimes they’d talk about the illness that stole them away before handing over a box of meticulously organized gauze pads and bed chucks and mouth swabs. Even if I knew we would have to throw out certain items, I thanked them profusely for their donation and wished them well. I felt like the final ambassador to something heartbreaking but inevitable. Maybe they felt a little emptiness with the box out of the house, but maybe the next day they felt a little lighter.

The bike is great, by the way. I have no idea if it will last through fall, but it cost us $17 net and it’s the right size for my daughter to ride. She loves the color and calls it her barbie bike (barbie dream bike?). The guy I bought it from seemed a little sad when he loaded the bike into the back of my car. Clearly the bike had never been his, but it was also one of the few remaining ones in his driveway. His bike shop was going out of business. He was heading south to warmer weather and what he hoped would be less crime. I told him my husband and I were thinking of retiring to the Carolinas one day too. It’s true, even if we have no plan and a long time before our youngest is out of school. He said “I’ll look for you on the pink bike” and I laughed and drove off, scanning the curbside for discarded bikes on the way home.

The bike that started it all

9 in 9

In 9 days I will be 9 years sober. I could just wait until then to post, but I like the symmetry and also know myself and that I may lose heart and decide not to post at all.

I don’t remember June 21, 2011 too well anymore. I remember more about it than any other June 21 before or since. It was an unremarkable day except that I decided not to drink and managed not to, even though it was physically and mentally very hard.

It wasn’t all luck. It was work to commit every single day, some harder than others, not to drink anymore. Fear was an excellent motivator. Early on I heard that it doesn’t get any easier to quit the second or seventeenth time around. After losing and regaining the same 15 pounds for the last few years, I know that is true.

Doing something for nine years seems almost as natural as breathing. And yet I literally haven’t been able to break another bad habit for nine consecutive years. There is something about the simplicity of knowing I will not drink today that makes it the easiest hard thing I’ve ever done.

It definitely gets easier to maintain over the years. Temptation and self-pity around not drinking don’t beckon monthly or even quarterly like they used to. I did have one moment a few months back. We were about a month into quarantine and I’d spent an emotionally draining day with my grandmother. When I got home, I said to my husband you know, she makes me wish I still drank. It didn’t feel good to say. I felt like a petulant, pathetic kid who says you’re not my friend anymore to her best friend in the world. But after I said it out loud, I knew I didn’t mean it. These periodic urges to drink are a good thing because they bring me back.

So in nine days I will wake up and may not immediately remember the significance of the day because I am absent minded and it has become almost as natural as breathing. With a little luck I’ll be back in a year to celebrate a decade.

Virtual coin

more monkey food

I like it better when I have cute stories to tell about my grandmother. Like that time she mistook paintings of dogs in military uniforms for old family members. That was fun. Now the stories are confusing and muddled, sometimes mean, and somehow easier to keep to myself. But this is part of the story too.

When I take her to the bank, the teller doesn’t ask for identification because she knows who she is. I can tell by the cautious, expectant glances from behind the counter that they all do.

“See that boy over there?” my grandmother says to me. I turn to look and see a young man behind the counter. He is in his thirties with dark, curly hair. He sees us looking at him and smiles at my grandmother and she gives him a tight smile and a little wave. “I’ll tell you about him later,” she whispers.

We sit in overstuffed chairs in the waiting area. My grandmother tells me the boy with the curly hair tried to give her someone else’s money one time. She said to him, “whose money is this? It doesn’t belong to me,” and the boy just looked at her and pushed $120 through the slot in the window.

When she told this story to my father last week, the boy pushed $1,200 through the slot. In the story she told me, the boy got very upset and started shuffling papers until they sailed into the air. I don’t know if she included this in my dad’s story or if it’s a new detail. Neither one of us could tell when this story took place. She doesn’t drive anymore, so it couldn’t have happened recently.

My grandmother walks very slowly from the bank to the car. I would estimate she covers 1-2 yards per minute. Her legs hurt and she tires easily.  The last place on earth she or anyone should want to go on a Saturday afternoon is a Walmart Supercenter.

“I need vitamins for my eyes and bananas,” she says peevishly.

“We don’t have time to all go in,” I say, exasperated. How did I not see this coming, the last minute demand and her reaction when I tell her no.

“Why did Audrey have to come with you?” my grandmother hisses. Audrey is the reason we need to get back – for a sleepover – and she is inches away in the back seat.

“She should have stayed home,” my grandmother says. “This must be terrible for her.” Yes, I think, but not for the reason she thinks. She says many other things that aren’t nice or true and I say things back that I wish I could keep in my head but they spill out anyway, ugly and mean. When we go inside Walmart, I tell Audrey my grandmother doesn’t mean what she says and she says, I know and the way she says it, I think she really does.

A few weeks ago, I read an article explaining that people with dementia may seem child-like, but it’s different. Children act out because they haven’t learned to control their speech and behavior. Old people with dementia act out because they lost skills they gained as adults. Their brains degraded to the point where they can no longer keep thoughts, often delusional and cruel, to themselves. I don’t know how to explain my own behavior except that I feel like an animal sometimes.

We are all quiet on the ride back from Walmart. When she gets home, my grandmother takes the five new bananas and places them on top of four browning bananas already in the bowl, singing to herself, “more monkey food.”

I set up a small microwave on her counter because last week she told me she keeps burning pans when she turns on her stovetop and forgets and walks away.  Is this the smallest microwave they had? she asks (Yes.) Did they only have it in white? (no, but it’s the only color where you’d be able to read the buttons.) Why didn’t you get the kind where you only have to press one button? (I did.)

I put a red sticker on top of the express button for one minute. I fill a microwave safe mug halfway with water and put it on the glass turntable and close the door. I hit the red 1-minute button and the motor whirs for 60 seconds. “Now you try it,” I say. It is so simple, I know it has to work and I also know that somehow it will not.

She moves her face inches from the panel and squints in concentration. She grabs a magnifying glass from the counter and jabs her finger at the red button but nothing happens. I demonstrate again and she jabs again and, still, nothing. She says she is tired so I tell her to try again later and keep trying. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll take it back to the store and get more sauce pans for her to burn.

When we pull out of her driveway and start to drive away, Audrey reminds me to honk a few times. It’s something we always do and Audrey looks forward to it. Last year, my grandmother used to stand at the end of her driveway and wave at us until we disappeared from view. I’d watch as she got smaller in the rearview mirror and it always made me a little sad. Now she stays just inside her door and we honk and wave and then she is quickly gone from view. Now I don’t feel sad so much as a swoon of relief and guilt that stays with me through the night and is still there when I wake up.

The nest

Since our oldest daughter went off to college, the cat started doing his evening rounds in the afternoon. He walks around the house carrying a small stuffed mouse in his mouth and crying mournfully. It’s like he has a ventriloquist mouse that is very upset about something, like maybe being carried around in a cat’s mouth. I don’t know why the cat does this but it doesn’t seem aimed at us. If we look at him or call his name, he freezes until he’s sure we’re not watching anymore and then starts up again. He also leaves the stuffed mouse in various places around the house, like at the top of the stairs, next to the bed, or my personal favorite, on a couch cushion. I like to think this is his version of putting a jacket on the back of a chair, saving a seat for later.

I googled this behavior and found it is pretty common. I did not find a conclusive answer as to why cats do this. Some say mother cats do this to model behavior to their kittens. But our cat is a kittenless male. Others say a cat is offering gratitude by leaving gifts, which can include far worse things like dirty socks or headless real mice. My favorite explanation is that cats bring us mice and other gifts because they think we are terrible hunters.

I wasn’t expecting this cat to be affected by our daughter moving out because they have a tenuous relationship built on mild mutual torment. She has always been somewhat afraid of him and he knows this. When she goes to pet him, he might bite lazily at the air. She might then tap him on the nose, which he totally asked for but looks insulted anyway. Before she moved out, she instructed her little sister to bother him while she’s away. This has not really happened, as her little sister has an entirely different relationship with the cat. She doesn’t dress him up in doll clothes or anything, but he would probably let her.

I also hadn’t expected my husband to take it hard when our daughter moved out. I’d been so worried about how her little sister would take it, it never occurred to me he might cry a little on the drive to work after helping her move in two cart’s worth of stuff from home.

It was a little embarrassing how much we sent her with, at least until we saw other kids’ move-in piles. Comforters, mattress pads, body pillows, keurig machines, shower caddies, mini fridges, under the bed storage bins, bulk supplies of mac n cheese. It seemed like we equipped them with more comfort than they had at home, which was maybe the point.

Move-in day went so smoothly, it felt easy and even fun. Parking was plentiful and free. Staff smiled with seemingly endless patience. There were plenty of move-in carts. Elevators waited until after she had moved in to break down. There was a terrifyingly loud fire drill, but even that gave parents peace of mind knowing there is no way a student could sleep through one of those. Her little sister and I helped set up her room and then we had a leisurely lunch. When it was time to say goodbye, we hugged but none of us cried. Driving off, we honked and waved and then got to do it all again after I hit a traffic light and she caught up on foot.

I always have had a delayed reaction to difficult emotions. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when the depression hit a week and a half later. This was after she reported a successful first week and pushed back plans to come home for the holiday weekend by a day. One of the reasons I hadn’t felt sad about leaving her was because I knew she was only an hour train ride away and could come home whenever she wanted. Maybe I thought this would be every weekend. Maybe I hadn’t thought about it at all.

Having her home was almost harder than missing her. When I picked her up from the train station, she looked fresh faced and surprisingly well rested even though she assured me this was not the case. She napped on the couch for several hours that afternoon and it was like old times. I fought the urge to keep poking my husband and saying “Look who’s here!” The novelty of having her home was bittersweet because I knew it was only temporary. We would have to send her back. She said it was weird being home because she’d already gotten used to dorm life. Well, except for the communal bathrooms. Home will always be superior because you never need shower shoes.

The night before we drove her back to college, the cat did his mournful cry thing and jumped up on the back of the couch to drop his stuffed mouse. He left it mostly behind my head but it just as easily might have been for her. Maybe he couldn’t decide which of us needed it most. Maybe he was hoping she’d reach for it so he could snap at her hand. We all show our love and pain in mysterious but equally meaningful ways. 

Plotting his next move from an empty bin in her room

Turn of the tide

When I was a kid, I used to sneak into the movies when we went to the beach. It was a small theater with a box office window on the outside. During the off season, there was rarely anyone inside the glass doors to rip tickets. If I walked in like I belonged, no one gave me a second glance.

I did feel like I belonged. A dark movie theater has always been my favorite place to eat large quantities of small candies and cry. The crying part used to be a secret until my youngest daughter started looking over during sad parts of a movie. It gives her pleasure to see my eyes moist with tears or the betrayal of one spilling down my cheek. She tears up too during sad parts so I don’t think she’s mocking me. I think she likes to know that I cry too when I’m sad. Anyway, the joke’s on her because I also tear up during happy parts.

These are some of the movies I snuck into or begrudgingly paid to see at the beach. The Breakfast Club. Neverending Story. The Karate Kid Part II. Coming to America. Legal Eagles. Possibly St. Elmo’s Fire but either I didn’t or it was so adult and boring I don’t remember anything about it. I definitely saw About Last Night, which was adult but had enough sexy parts to keep my attention.

I saw Uncle Buck with a beautiful Hungarian boy I’d met playing volleyball on the beach. After the movie, we made out under the deck of somebody’s beach house. A View to a Kill was almost ruined by a boy who sat next to me and wouldn’t stop talking. He told me he’d walk me home afterwards. He didn’t even ask. When the movie ended, I jogged across the street and ducked behind a pharmacy to lose him. This was the same pharmacy where I bought most of the candy I ate at the movies. The beach movie theater didn’t get much money from me over the years.

I am open about this because I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations ran out and also because I would never sneak into a movie now. I’m too scared to jaywalk, which is why I made us go two blocks out of the way to cross at a light to get to the beach movie theater last week. The box office attendant asked if anyone qualified for a senior discount. I know I have silver (gray) hair, but I’m only 45 and she was old enough to know better. If I’m too timid to jaywalk or take a discount after being insulted, sneaking into a movie is out of the question.

I am pleased to announce the loud carpet of my childhood beach movie theater is still there or else was purchased (repurchased?) via time travel to the 1980s. After we bought a soda but no candy (wink wink) from concessions, my daughters and I took our seats. That’s when I realized I didn’t have my phone and thought maybe I left it on the trunk of my car when I stopped to get something.

With minutes to spare, I dashed from the theater like James Bond when he raced after the rope dangling from Zorin’s blimp. I even jaywalked, practicing in my head what I would say when I saw the flash of blue and red lights. By the time I found my phone and jaywalked again to get back to the theater, I was sweating as much from nerves as exertion. How funny would it be, I wondered, if the ticket ripper wouldn’t let me back in.

But she did, oblivious to my history or too young to care, and I took my seat just in time to tear up during a couple of trailers that were not the least bit sad. Later, my oldest daughter pointed out that I hadn’t paid to see a movie in awhile since she gets free tickets from her job at a movie theater back home. Huh, I thought. Maybe I did push her towards applying there. She will start college soon, so no freebies for awhile. I’ll have to find somewhere else to cry and eat smuggled candies in the dark or else suck it up and pay until she goes back to work during school breaks. 


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.

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.

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