Chorophobia

My grandmother shows up almost three hours late. At first, I’m not worried. I know how long it takes her to get moving these days. Getting out the door to Walmart is an hour-long odyssey. It isn’t just a matter of slow moving limbs, either. She has a set routine she follows before she goes anywhere. Pills and bills sorted and stowed. Cups and bowls washed with care. Wet ‘n wild lipstick applied. Doors locked and checked, then double checked. When I try to speed things up by taking over, the process grinds to a halt.

I hope I’m that sharp at 88. Actually, I hope I’m not still around at 88 because I’m not that sharp now.

Just when I start to map out her search party, she drives up in her spiffy black sedan. The first thing I notice is her hair, snow-white and stylish. She’s not wearing her partials, but her bright eyes counterbalance gaps in her smile. She knows she’s almost three hours late but she’s happy she made it at all.

She hands me a mystery wrapped in foil and a plant she forgot to give me at Thanksgiving. The cats and I kill plants, so I will leave it in the hotel room along with a modest tip on the desk like a plea. Please take good care of my plant. Bless You. Signed, The Black Thumb.

We take my grandmother to lunch at an old riverside restaurant trapped in time. The decor is wood paneling and salad bar. She folds her paper placemat and slides it into her purse to take home. I fight the urge to snap a photo of mine and now can’t show you what it looks like. There were vintage illustrations of a sea captain and crabs. Was there a cartoon clam smoking a pipe? I can’t be sure.

I order shrimp salad on a roll and my grandmother orders a steak sandwich. My husband remarks later he’s never seen anyone enjoy a sandwich so much. Half of it goes home with her. She rests it atop garnish and what’s left of a withered dill spear. This will provide at least one more meal, maybe two.

The word mindfulness gets lodged in my head after I spend time with my grandmother. It makes me think about the word I chose last year as my word of the yearNourish popped into my head and so I picked it and spent all year dodging it. Nourish, I thought as I popped milk duds in my mouth and played dumb-numb games on my phone.

Acceptance would have made a better word for 2014. But I accept that I chose another word and did nothing with it, further proving my point. This year I may not pick a word since I haven’t finished the last one. This feels both mindful and nourishing, or possibly punishing.

Soon we will join my grandmother for a big celebration at the Lithuanian Hall. She skipped over Christmas and has been talking about this for weeks. She tells me what she’ll wear because she knows I haven’t given any thought to what I’ll wear. She tells me I should drive down the day before so we can get ready together. This is serious business. I must not let her down.

I can’t wait to take pictures in the old hall I haven’t visited in nearly twenty years. When my grandfather died, I wrote a letter deep in grief to my new boyfriend who is now my husband. I wrote about how my grandfather used to drag me out on the weathered floorboards of the old hall to dance. He’d whip me around in a polka or waltz or waltz-polka. I always resisted at first from deep self-consciousness and maybe fear of whiplash.

There’s something about dancing. All that movement stirs up dust in the dullest corners and oils stiffened limbs. By the second dance, I never want the night to end.

The night always ends anyway, but it feels best to get lost in it with those who love us as hard as we love them, maybe harder.


Note: Inspired by CoachDaddy’s latest post, I used the Hemingway Editor to pare down flowery sentences. Professor Dowling, wherever you are, I hope you’re happy. This post was also written in the spirit of Just Write, via The Extraordinary Ordinary.

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Is it too early to call?

When did I regularly start getting up before 5am? This is the dark side of getting up to write in the morning. Sometimes my eyes pop open at 3:30am and I’ll start thinking about coffee and how good it tastes and smells and, yes, let’s have some. I love coffee so much. I did manage to cut it out for about a week when I started having bad heartburn again. I spent the morning of my 41st birthday having a barium swallow x-ray to rule out causes.

Welcome to middle age! Here’s a hospital gown so confusing we also put up a poster to show you how to put it on. In a little while we’re going to give you a metal milkshake to drink, which we’re pretty sure you’ll find delicious if you followed the rule not to eat anything after midnight, which, yes, always makes us think of Gremlins too. 

The test went fine and when I popped off the raised platform at the end, the technician went “oh-ohh” and said she wasn’t used to such mobile patients. So at least I felt like a spritely 41 year-old.

This holiday season has been marked with minor illnesses. I also had bronchitis before Thanksgiving. A couple weeks later, my husband one-upped me and landed pneumonia. Our youngest then caught a fever-cough combo that lingered far too long. These were all relatively minor, but being sick and then in recovery mode sure screwed up my idea of how the holidays were gonna go down.

On Sunday, I hit 3.5 years sober. Since last holiday season felt easier than any before it, I mistakenly thought they would just keep feeling that way. I don’t know why I thought that or if I somehow thought in ten years I’d wake up on December 1st and all the gifts would be purchased, wrapped and underneath a tree elves cut from the black forest of Soberasia.

This holiday season started out more stressful than I’d anticipated. I white knuckled through. Don’t let anyone tell you that’s not a valuable coping strategy, by the way. I don’t recommend it long term, but sobriety and life in general is sometimes very fucking hard. So it makes sense it will also feel that way. Hang in there, kitten! Don’t give up! The storm will pass.

My storm passed on Sunday, which was also Winter Solstice and 3.5 years since my last drink, but those aren’t the reasons it passed. Sunday was also the day I screwed up the nerve to show up for a big local running group in town. I’m no stranger to running groups, but this was a completely different experience from my last one. The group I joined before was more men and more competitive. This is mostly women, and a woman I’d never met before offered to run with me, even though I later found out her normal pace blows mine out of the water. The instant comradery and support reminded me of an AA meeting. I ran 4 miles and joined a group that meets to run when normal folk are still drooling on their pillows.

This is what I needed all along and I feel like someone or something dropped it in my lap like a gift. Here, I got you something I think you’ll like. At first I opened the box and thought what? this sweater? I already have it in three different colors and never wear it. But I held it up and thought what the hell and tried it on and don’t you know it fit perfectly and felt better by the mile. So, yeah, thanks universe. You always know just what to give me.

I got another swell gift from the universe this week. The Fix ran an essay I wrote about the holidays. I wrote it before Thanksgiving and had worked up in my mind that they didn’t like it enough to use, but then I got a very nice email that they were running it as a feature this week. They asked if I wanted to change anything, which I thought about because things went all pear-shaped and then got better, but then decided the holidays weren’t over yet anyway. Is it too early to call now?

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Click image to read article

I know better than to label things good or bad, but I still do it. I also eat far too much dessert when stress hits, which makes me feel worse, but I still do that too. What I do differently this year compared to my first sober Christmas is I shop and wrap earlier. When’s the last time a Christmas cookie wrapped all my presents? Thanks a lot cookies, but don’t worry, I still plan to eat every last one of you.

I hope you’ll read the article at The Fix because I tell a story from my first sober Christmas when I was really struggling. A kind stranger I’d never met before or since did something so small I guarantee she had no idea how much she helped me. You never know where the best gifts will come from, but I can tell you sometimes they come from you.

Poor dear

I happened to look out the window last night while a car was going past and saw her illuminated in headlights. She was standing in the grass across the street, facing our house. Standing isn’t the right word, exactly. It was more like a wide-stanced lean, her head and neck bowed forward. Her whole posture was zombie-like, though I’m glad I didn’t think of that last night. When a truck stopped in front of her and turned on its flashers, my husband put on his coat and headed outside to see what was what.

I don’t really know she was a she or how to tell aside from looking for antlers. She didn’t have those, nor external injuries like the end of an arrow sticking from her midsection like one buck that used to come by our old house in the Poconos. Once or twice, my husband crept slowly, cautiously, towards him to, well, I don’t know what exactly. He wanted a miracle. He wanted to grab the arrow and pull it out, I guess, but every time he got close the buck ran off and a week or so later stopped coming around.

The first deer I ever saw was mounted above my aunt and uncle’s fireplace. My uncle shot it and at Christmas time they hung a big red bow where its throat would have been. I felt the same warm affection towards his disembodied head as I did their full-bodied golden retriever. In the finished side of their basement, my brother and I played billiards or some terrible kid version which mostly involved liberal application of chalk to pool cues. When all the cues were overchalked, we crept over to the unfinished side to peek in the closet where my uncle kept his bloodied deer dressing clothes.

I’ve never hunted. I’ve never eaten venison. I’ve eaten plenty of chicken and cow and pig and once I tried meatballs made from crocodile. I have no objection to eating animals. Sometimes I wish I did and then push the thought from my head like hanging up on a salesperson so I can sit down to dinner in peace.

When we first moved to the Poconos, we fed the deer. Everyone told us not to, but we couldn’t see the harm. They were so skinny, so hungry! All the lower tree branches and small shrubs were stripped clean by late fall. When I walked past a window in winter, their eyes locked mine, pleading, I swear. We started buying huge bags of corn at a feed supply store and spread it in the backyard in generous scoops. It didn’t take long for word to get around.

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At first we felt like Snow White. They came in polite, smallish bunches and it warmed our hearts to see the yearlings graze. Then the big bucks came. They chased the smaller ones away and stood on their hindquarters and gnashed antlers, pulverizing the corn with their angry hooves. We had made them territorial and wild, so we conceded our idiocy and stopped feeding them. I stopped making eye contact from the windows unless I was feeling especially firm.

Twice my husband hit deer while driving. The first time, the deer caused serious damage to his truck – broken headlights, a cracked radiator, lots of busted thingamajigs. It perished in  a ditch. The deer, I mean. Thankfully my husband wasn’t hurt, though that’s a real risk when you hit a deer. The second time, a deer glanced off his driver’s side mirror and did several thousand dollars worth of damage and kept on running. (Side question: if a very old car is only worth, say, $3,000 at trade-in, how is it possible that one measly side mirror and headlamp cost the same to replace?)

I’ve seen this happen before, this miraculous display of ballet and invincibility. Once I was behind a car that clipped a deer we both must have been hypnotized by as it flew in from the shoulder. I know why they say reindeer can fly. It’s the only way I can describe the particular way this deer t-boned into traffic. It was fluid and graceful and fearless. Once the deer hit the car in front of me, it sort of stumble-tumbled and resumed flying across the remaining stretch and disappeared into tall grass without losing a full beat.

They don’t always make it, though.

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As I write this, we have a deer carcass in the grass across the street. Several concerned neighbors joined my husband last night and tried to coax the deer away from the road. She bled from her nose, leading some of us to come up with half-assed theories and diagnoses. One neighbor prodded it with a property marker and the deer just sort of hobbled in a circle and resumed that awful hanging lean. A police officer arrived and once everyone scattered back home, he took out his service pistol. I was sitting up in bed when I heard the gunfire. I thought I would feel relief but just felt sad.

In spring, we might see fawns if we’re lucky. They spend more time in the woods than on suburban lawns. They have small white spots on their back that resemble speckled sunshine on a forest floor. If you ever see a baby deer on its own, don’t attempt to move it. It’s not stranded. The mother stays away from her fawns during the day so predators won’t be attracted by her scent. Baby deer don’t have a scent. Even when they wander the woods and bleat a pathetic, heart-breaking cry when it’s feeding time, please don’t gather it in your arms and carry it up the hill like you just won the cutest, most terrified prize ever.

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I’d hoped to find this great photo of a fawn I know we have somewhere and the disembodied buck above the fireplace, which I’m pretty sure we don’t have anywhere, but this and the above deer-in-snow pictures are the best I can do.

One month gray

On Saturday, I tell my hair dresser I want to go gray. She barely bats an eye and rattles off the best way to go about it. She tells me she saw another client through the process, only to have her go back to color when the last bit was growing out. I hope that’s not me, though it very much sounds like something I would do.

My grandmother used to visit her hair dresser every Friday morning. I think her hair dresser’s name was Jo and I think I played Mr. Mouth with her daughter once, though I could be mixing up memories. I’ll never forget the can of Coke and pack of peanut butter crackers I got when I tagged along to a hair appointment. There was nothing tedious about it to me. I sat on a dryer chair, shoving in dry, day-glo crackers, and watched the magical transformation unfold.

My grandmother always went in tense, barking at my grandad to quit driving so slow and did he see that red light he just ran. When she came out of a hair appointment, she was the Queen. She still barked orders at my grandad, but did so regally. Her perfectly coiffed ball of ash blond hair looked like cotton candy and made me hungry again.

In all honesty, I’m not sure what she had done at those appointments. I think it was a wash and set, which would mean she didn’t wash her hair all week? No wonder she was always on edge. (She’s been gone nearly two decades, so I can’t ask her.)

I’m a little nervous about seeing my still-living grandmother at Christmas. Last summer, we were standing in the morning sun when she said to me “You do have a lot of gray hair.” I thought we’d been talking about sandals but she’d been having an entirely separate conversation in her head. She then told me about the time she’d been sitting poolside with my brother, who is several years older than me, and accused him of wearing a white wig. She may have given his hair a gentle tug just to be sure.

My hair dresser inspects my roots and tells me I’m about 80% gray. If she’d said anything less than 75%, I admit I would have felt disappointed. She says the hair framing my face is nearly 100% white and I remember the time I got a 100% on a french test in 7th grade and I beam. She shares a theory that the hair on that part of our heads takes a direct beating from the sun over the years and that’s why it goes first. I watch her fill my head with aluminum foil wraps and think it’s all pretty crazy.

I go home with about two inches of exposed white root and a head full of expensive highlights. I don’t really understand how this is all going to work, so I make an appointment for 8 weeks away, just to be safe. I’m relieved I won’t have to do my roots anymore every 3 weeks at home. White would already be showing at the temples and part line after 2 weeks. My hair doesn’t want to be fucked with anymore. It’s been quite clear about that.

On Christmas, my grandmother will no doubt comment on my hair. It’s better when I can brace myself. I’m learning to be more gracious and brush off what she never intends as insult in the first place. She went to the school of Say What Everybody Else is Thinking. I’ll probably slip into defensive mode and explain I’m just trying it out, much like the conversation she forced out of me on the phone last week when she asked about church.

When I told her that I was taking the girls to church a couple of months ago, she started crying. She still surprises me. Part of me now wishes I hadn’t said anything because now I feel like we have to keep going. She asks me if I can send her literature about my religion, which is a mix of beliefs and a stretch from what she’s used to. I think how fun it might be to make up my own brochure in Word, arranging weird clip art (aka the original emojis) and funny phrases. Instead I tell her how a recent service went, which is similar to every other denomination I’ve been to. Hymns, saying things in unison, shaking hands with flu-infested neighbors, listening to the minister, staring at the floor and ceiling, chucking money in a basket, snacks.

My grandmother tells me she wants my brother to go to church, that he needs it. She wants my husband to go to church. She probably wants you to go to church if you don’t already. The thing I can’t quite tell her is that church isn’t everything I’d hoped it would be. It turns out that it’s just me showing up and feeling awkward and out of place. The hymns are lovely, but in truth I’d rather not stand and I’m still lip synching all of the high notes and at least half the low ones too. When service is over, I beeline out of there to find my kids because awkward small talk feels like gargling with battery acid. There are definite points during the service where I feel peaceful and connected and outside myself, which is a very good place to be, but as it turns out, I’m no better at embracing community at church than I am anywhere else.

How did I start talking about gray hair and wind up at church? It might be worth mentioning that while counting hats is pretty impossible at church these days, I did count quite a few white heads in the congregation. A surprising amount of women too. So maybe I’ve found my people afterall, at least for where I am right now, which is all any of us can hope for.

us gray gals gotta stick together (if only mine would come in that lovely)
us gray gals gotta stick together (if only mine would come in that lovely)

tale from the cyber monday closet

I can’t remember if I wrote about him before on this blog, but there’s a little man in the closet underneath our basement stairs. He’s upside down, which seems like the kind of detail that might ring a bell, while at the same time feeling completely unnecessary.

I assume he’s still there, but the closet itself is so overwhelming and distracting I haven’t looked in awhile. I open the closet door and several toys threaten to spill out while the one cat – the always-underfoot one who is completely in love with chaos – rushes in to its darkest corners.

This weekend I opened the closet to find cheap stencils my daughter told me I’d never find because she doesn’t understand yet how obsessiveness gets worse by the year. I found the stencils and an old cassette recorder my other daughter promptly fell in love with and also an unused paper doll book to send to a friend. In case it wasn’t clear, this is a magic closet.

It’s also a sad closet full of neatly labeled bins that prove you can’t buy happiness but you can certainly buy too much. Polly Pockets. Barbies. Dress-Up. Crafts. Christmas Gifts You Thought Would Fix Everything And Look Where They Wound Up.

One year it was Cupcakes, legless, doe-eyed and inexplicably hard-to-find dolls whose dresses folded inside out to disguise them as delectable bakery items, which I think we can all agree is normally a dangerous disguise, but was so good they were forgotten by Christmas morning of 2005.

There’s the Polly Pocket Race to the Mall from 2007 and Raiders of the Lost Ark Legos from 2009, which may not have much in common except they both took hours to assemble and were played with for minutes. Also, they are both completely useless when a single part goes missing.

There’s the baby doll pack-n-play from 2013, which the youngest cleverly stuffs all her toys in during cleanup. She’s like a mini adult who’s figured out an unused treadmill is great for hanging laundry. Poor impulse control and improvisation only improve with age, my little one.

You’ve probably forgotten all about the man living underneath my basement stairs by now. The upside down fella? (does that ring a bell?)

He’s real. I didn’t discover him until our second Halloween in the house. I was in the basement looking at the underside of our basement stairs, as people do on Halloween, I guess, when I noticed him and raced up the steps to tell my husband. My husband was like “yeah, I know”. I don’t even think he looked up from what he was doing.

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Upside down stair dude – shown right-side up for your pleasure

 

He’s a mysterious upside down pencil drawing on the underside of step #7 of 11. I assume he came with the house but may have been drawn by my husband for all I know. When we had our basement finished several years ago, I had to use my best not-crazy voice while requesting the contractor please not use sheetrock or paint while turning the space underneath the stairs into a storage closet. I couldn’t bear to lose the little man.

Who better to oversee the magic and failures of reckless consumerism than an upside down fella with a fancy beaded sash and pizza slice pocket? His little hands look like flowers. I adore him.

This year the little man under the stairs used his magical powers to muck up an order I placed for the hard-to-find toy on one daughter’s wish list. He has his hands full already with the Polly Pockets, who probably drive him up the closet wall with incessant giggling aboard the Party Bus (which plays exactly one annoying techno-esque tune). I don’t think he wants anything for Christmas this year except a little peace and quiet.

 

 

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