Eight millimeter ghosts

I saw my mother for the first time in 42 years, not in a dream but in short, silent flickers across the TV screen. It is the only time I recall seeing her move, and the experience hit me harder than I was expecting.

My husband and I recently took 520 slides and 7 reels of 8mm film to a photo shop to have them converted digitally. Some of the slides had been sitting in various garages for almost 65 years. Doing something – anything – with these family artifacts felt only slightly less overwhelming after researching all the options and prices. The best advice I got was from a friend who said to just take charge and do it because no one else will as time goes by.

The slides deserve their own post and I’ll write about them later. I was most excited about getting the home movies back. While we could hold the slides up to light for a preview, the film reels were a mystery.  I remember my dad showing old home movies in our basement a few times in the mid 80s but knew there were reels I had never seen before.

The film service we used stitched all seven reels into one movie. It starts when my older brother was a baby and ends when my much younger sister was a kindergartner. It spans 17 years and clocks in at just under an hour of footage, showing restraint by the filmmaker, my dad. (There is still a disproportionate amount of crawling baby footage and kids crashing sleds into trees.) If I could get a stranger to sit and watch shaky, soundless footage of other strangers, well, first I would need a tranquilizer dart and restraints. But once they came to and watched, they would notice a chunk of time missing and a mid-season replacement. Where did the first mom go, they might wonder.

My mother is in the first half of our home movie, young and beautiful, the picture of health for most of it. She died when I was a just over a year old from Hodgkin’s Disease. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of her over the years, but getting to see her move and smile and twirl babies in her arms hit me like a sweet sucker punch. Within hours, I experienced all the emotions, from gratitude and love to sadness and even pained regret that I don’t hold a candle to her. The footage only shows her looking a little pale and puffy in what would have been her last winter. Then, of course, she’s gone.

I realized two big mistakes once we got the home movie back. The first was not asking the film service if perchance they planned to tack on a terrible public-domain soundtrack to cover all that pesky 8mm silence. I am not sure how to remove it, but my older daughter likes it and it’s growing on me.  The second big mistake was not considering that my current mom and dad might not want painful, uncomfortable reminders of the 70s alongside our reconstructed 80s family. Fortunately I was able to extract and save smaller files to break out time over more congruous periods. No one has to relive the 70s unless they want to.

Even though it was painful to watch the first time, I wanted and even needed to relive it. I have absolutely no memory of my mother and felt like I was meeting her for the first time. I felt proud to introduce her to my daughters and husband. I don’t openly talk about her with my youngest daughter because she’s still pretty little and knows my stepmother as her grandmother. I don’t want to confuse her or hurt anyone’s feelings. But kids are smart and, anyway, she did just leave stones on her grave last month. While we were watching the home movie, she asked how old I was when my mom died. I was able to point out little me in an Easter dress and too-short bangs that looked like they’d been cut by an older brother because they had been and say “that’s about when”. We were all smiles in the movie despite what had just happened off-scene.

If this seems depressing or matter-of-fact, I don’t mean either. I guess I have the weird detachment that comes from losing a parent at such a young age you don’t remember them. The found footage of her shook up and dislodged grief I didn’t know was there. Even though it hurt, it hurt in a good way.

I’m going to leave you with a short clip and my favorite part of the nearly hour-long movie of our disjointed, somewhat tragic but mostly happy lives. The opening scene is my mom holding my brother (this was before I was born), and then my great-grandmother steals the scene. She is the mother of the grandmother I always write about, by the way. My great-grandmother’s name was Magdalena and she stood maybe 4 feet 6 inches tall, even in that hat. I miss her very much (my daughters would have loved her) though she still makes me smile every time I watch this. p.s. I recommend watching it muted, though the music is oddly fitting.

Ring the bell in the middle of the cemetery

On Friday afternoon, I got an urgent phone call from my grandmother. I could tell she meant business because she called me and said she couldn’t talk long.

“When you were at the cemetery, did you notice white stones on your mother’s grave?” she asked.

I laughed, already sure I knew where this was going. “Audrey put those there,” I told her.

“Oh, Audrey did it!” she said, relief in her voice. She had spent the last three days calling everyone she could think of but me trying to figure out how those stones got on my mother’s grave plus the graves of five other family members.

Audrey is my youngest daughter. She fell asleep in the back seat of the short car ride from my grandmother’s house to the cemetery. Just before we left for our long drive home, my grandmother handed me a plastic flower and one of those junk mail newspapers that usually go directly from the driveway to the recycling bin. She didn’t ask but told me to stop at my mother’s grave and put the flower in the cast iron vase. She said she was too weak to do it herself. She did this the last time we visited too. Say what you want about ninety-year olds, but they can be very clever.

For years, I never visited my mother’s grave. I thought about her often…at least once a day, I guess? She died when I was still a baby so any connection I feel is in my blood or from stories my grandmother told me. I have no physical memories of her so never saw the point to kneel down in grass beside a stone marker to feel closer. I carry her in my head and heart. Besides, I’d already spent plenty of time tromping around this cemetery.

My grandmother used to take my brother and I there every Sunday when we stayed the weekend. Friday nights were all about going to Cook’s for some cheap toy we didn’t need and putting a glass of Coke in the freezer, something our parents never allowed us to do at home (did we ever ask though?). Saturdays were all about running errands, like to the grocery store for junk food my parents never bought or to the dusty butcher shop where I passed on my first and last offer to try hog’s head cheese. Saturdays were also about trying to eat those frozen Coke pops we’d started on Friday.

Sundays were all about church, the cemetery and going home. I can reminisce sweetly now about the earthy incense and garishly frightening statues at St. Alfonsus Church, but at the time it was a boring hour better spent with coke slushies or feeding her neighbor’s malnourished dog rolled up pieces of salami and carrots through chainlink fence. I did not want to be at church, though the cemetery was at least outside. It was also the next to last stop before home. I never wanted to go home on Sundays. I didn’t want to go back to school the next day and, more importantly, I wanted to be spoiled by my grandmother forevermore.

Our stop at the cemetery felt like it took hours, though maybe it was only a half hour. My grandmother didn’t do fake flowers then and, depending on the time of year, she often brought pansies or mums to plant. She’d park the car and walk the equivalent of two big-city blocks to the water station to fill a jug of water. She’d walk back to the grave and prune the boxwood planted next to the headstone bearing my family name, and then she would pull and weed and dig and plant and walk all the way back to the water station to rinse off her tools. Maybe this did take hours.

My brother and I were not much help. We flitted between headstones, playing with our Friday night junk toys and inventing new ways to torture each other. As the younger sister, my ways were more innocent and generally involved not giving my brother enough space. His ways were less innocent and more geared towards reclaiming that space. This is when he told me the story about the haunted mausoleum.

This particular mausoleum is a small, one-family structure a little more than a stone’s throw away from my mother’s grave. It looked like a cute little stone house or shed from one side, but if we walked to the other side, we could peek through the locked steel gate and see inside. This is where my brother told me there were dead people living inside. He said they might escape and I should watch to make sure they didn’t. Then he flitted off.

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This is the same brother who told me dead people lived inside a wooden storage bin underneath someone’s beach house. Maybe he told me both things within the same year. Maybe he was on a dead-people-live-inside-boxes-but-want-out kick and I, unfortunately, happened to be his sounding board. I remember being terrified by both dead-people-live-inside-boxes-but-want-out stories, though why I stood guard by the gate of the mausoleum and never thought to run back to my grandmother stumps me now.

I got in trouble that day. My grandmother couldn’t see me from where she was weeding and planting. She thought I’d been kidnapped. You might wonder what kind of kidnappers hang out in cemeteries, but once she told me a car slowed down and stared the three of us down and she threatened the driver with her trowel. He swore to her that he was just looking for his brother’s grave but maybe he wasn’t and surely he could tell by the look in her eye that she would wield that trowel swiftly and ferociously to defend her family. Wisely, he moved along.

Understandably, I feel a little skittish in cemeteries, but this last visit not so much. Audrey was fast asleep in the backseat and would not wake, so my oldest daughter, Vanessa, and I put the fake flower in its vase, carefully anchoring it in with junk news. I took some pictures of her by the grave, as one does in my family. She’s pretty used to it. We took a little walk so I could show her the mausoleum and pass along terrifying family folklore.

When we got back from our walk, Audrey was sitting up in the backseat and not at all happy. I had visions of my grandmother with her trowel. We consoled her with apologies and a promise that we would take another walk, this one much longer. It was a beautiful, spring-like day for February. We walked over to a much larger mausoleum, this one holding easily hundreds of deceased stacked in tidy grids. We passed some ground markers along the way and noticed some had stones on top. Audrey got excited about the idea of leaving mementos and gathered a handful of stones from the walking path to take back to our own family. We rang a bell on our way back, something you don’t get to do very often, much less in the middle of a cemetery.

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Audrey carefully distributed her stones equally between six family members. If anyone got an extra stone, I hope it was my poor grandfather buried in a lonely plot across the lane marked only by the spot where his inverted (empty) flower vase sits not quite flush with the ground. He wasn’t much for flowers and would have preferred a hog’s head cheese sandwich, but we only brought stones. Audrey left some and then the three of us got in the car and drove home.

Now, why my grandmother drove to the cemetery herself a couple days later and why it never occurred to her that we left the stones are great mysteries. When she saw Audrey’s stones, it spooked her. First she went to the cemetery office and grilled them. They said they did not leave the stones but told her it’s a Jewish tradition to leave stones as remembrance on a loved one’s grave. We are not Jewish, so this spooked my grandmother further. Over the next few days she called friends, neighbors, and her niece’s son to ask if they had any ideas. One of the neighbors suggested maybe someone in our family left the stones but, no, my grandmother didn’t think so. Where would we get stones? She underestimates our resourcefulness and tendency to wander in cemeteries on really nice days.

Once we solved the mystery of the cemetery stones, my grandmother said she would leave them there, even though we are not Jewish. She said my girls will always remember going to visit family in the cemetery and the way she said it made me know it pleased her very much, and it pleased me too.

 

 

 

 

Prone to wandering

When I told my grandmother I took our youngest to the Science Center on New Year’s Eve and that I had fond memories of her taking me and my brother there many years ago, she said “Oh yeah, I remember that you both got lost and I thought you’d been kidnapped.”

I only remember two things from that visit:

  1. a metal ball that made your hair stick straight out when you touched it.
  2. a giant mechanical crab.

I do not remember being lost, and so I do not think my brother and I knew we were lost. My grandmother was always losing sight of us and fearing the worst. To her, we’d been thrown in the back of a kidnap van for 7 minutes of horrifying yet efficient torture, when really we’d just followed the ice cream truck over one block to see where all the lucky kids lived.

I do remember being lost at the beach once on her watch, and that truly was a terrible feeling. None of the buildings looked familiar and the beach was so thick with umbrellas that weren’t ours that I figured I’d die out there, sunburnt and alone.  This is not the beach disappearance my grandmother remembers, of course, and her version has me taking off to the store with a friend’s mom and not bothering to tell her. I don’t even think this happened but is maybe something she saw on a sitcom once.

I did not lose my daughter at the Science Center, though I could have. It was very crowded and rowdy and the carpet on every level was littered with confetti, adding to a sticky-jelly-hands post-apocalyptic atmosphere.  We crammed in as many exhibits as we could in an afternoon, but we never found the metal ball that makes your hair stand straight out when you touch it or the giant mechanical crab. The ball probably doesn’t exist anymore since delivering electrical currents to small children can be tricky, but I googled later and think I somehow missed the giant mechanical crab. Only I could miss this (also maybe my grandmother).

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via this

We had just enough time to catch a show in the planetarium on black holes. I thought it would answer all the questions I never thought to have about black holes, but instead it created more than I could have imagined. The show was like a black hole itself in that way. The narrator had a soothing voice and didn’t seem overly worried about any of it.

I had never heard the story of the waterbug who became a dragonfly, but the narrator told us and we listened. It seems there was once a colony of waterbugs who lived in a quiet pond. Once in awhile, one of the waterbugs would hang back from the colony and cling to the bottom of a lily pad and drift up to the surface only to vanish completely. The other waterbugs were curious but also worried, so one made the generous offer to come back and report what was on the other side if it happened to him. Sure enough it did happen to him, and when he got to the other side he was gobsmacked. It was a world unlike any he’d seen or could have imagined at the bottom of the pond. He was also now a dragonfly and realized he couldn’t keep his promise to go back and instead would have to wait for his waterbug friends to find their own way through.

My daughter said she nudged me to ask what happens if earth gets sucked into a black hole but saw that I had fallen asleep. Remember, the narrator had a soothing voice. So she asked later and I asked my husband and he said no one really knows what happens in a black hole, so I said I choose to believe it’s like coming out the other side of a pond.

Later my daughter opted to skip fireworks for putting pajamas on at 8pm because she is mine and I am hers. While my husband and older daughter went out in the cold and crowds at midnight, I woke to the gentle rumble of fireworks we could see clearly from our hotel room. I tried several times to wake my youngest, but she kind of snarled and drew deeper into the sheets. I watched them from my own bed and thought what a perfect year it was, really, how even all the shitty, scary moments seemed insignificant now that we had made it to the other side.

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Heading into the Eye of the Storm

Patsy Cline, Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson stand awkwardly in separate corners for the first 15 minutes of the party. Then the Alan Parsons Project and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass show up and there aren’t  enough corners so I guess you could say that’s when things got cooking. Oh, and Sam Cooke was there too, of course. 



When planning a party for a 90 year-old grandmother or anyone, really, music is key. I could fill a playlist with standards from the 40s, but I don’t remember her listening to what I think of as old people music. When my brother and I were kids, she took us to Montgomery Ward’s on a Friday night to help her pick out records. It had a music and electronics department upstairs with moody lighting and sonorous acoustics. We flipped through albums but generally picked whichever one was hottest and spent the rest of the weekend listening to it over and over again on her walnut record console, a swanky piece of furniture. 

My grandmother’s living room is where I first heard the Thriller album in its entirety. It’s where we pushed her glass covered coffee table to the side so we could dance to Eddie Rabbit’s I Love A Rainy Night and ABBA’s Super Trooper. (I’m a little embarrassed to admit these things but not really.) Maybe I wasn’t a fan of Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton, but Islands in the Stream won me over. My brother played his new Fat Boys album for her and she kept an open mind, but she didn’t buy that one for herself. 

Actually, she wasn’t buying any music for herself. We binge-listened to an album over the course of a weekend and then she packed it carefully into a box, along with Levis jeans and whatever else worked as currency in the early 80s Eastern Bloc, and then shipped it off to distant relatives I never met and never will.

I finally sat down yesterday and combed through apple music playlists to cull a party mix worthy of my grandmother’s eclectic and open-minded musical tastes. And because a party isn’t just about the birthday girl, I included hits I know other family members will enjoy. She still comments appreciatively on some of my daughters’ favorite songs when we listen in the car. That’s where I’ve been testing out this party list in shuffle mode and find I love it all. 

This has been the surprise hit for me, a sweet little oasis in the angst of party planning, the calm before the storm. I could have listened to any of these songs at any time, but they had no context individually or even as part of another more generic playlist. Only in this more personal playlist do I feel each song so deeply I crank it up to feel it deeper. I catch myself thinking how much better music was in the 60s and 70s, how much more effort they put into each song, how rich and satisfying the sound. Sometimes it feels good to get good and old. 

The party isn’t for a few more days, and who knows if the ipad and wireless speaker setup will work as planned. It isn’t necessarily easier than the good old days of playing a record and flipping it over. My grandmother still has the record player console and a few albums that will work in a pinch. It’s not really about the music anyway but who we’re with when it plays. 

It’s going to be awkward when these guys show up because we’ll all basically be wearing the same outfit.

Dag life

At the winter dance I won a prize for Best American Accent, though mine was the only one in the room. Being hammered on Passion Pop, a sickeningly sweet drink I luckily could not find when I returned to the US, added showers of confetti and glitter to the memory I’m sure were not there.

 

The prize was a gift certificate for a clothing shop in town catering to women over 70 or anyone in need of obscenely large packages of tube socks. Someone called it a “dag” shop and I figured out what that meant without google, which had not been invented anyway. You could buy lace trimmed handkerchiefs and bobbie pins or those slippery, translucent scarves to cover hair curlers, but I had a dickens of a time finding something, anything, to buy with my major award.

 

Dag was an affectionately insulting term I learned while living in Australia. It refers to someone or something that is unapologetically unfashionable and is maybe the American equivalent of Dork, though it derives from Daglock, or the dung-cake lock of wool around the hindquarters of a sheep, which we call Dingleberry over here, though not often. Language is heady, complicated business.

 

I fell in with a crowd that may have been described as dags, mild misfits less concerned about social status than I was accustomed to. I was recruited by the leader in the restroom in a case of mistaken identity (naturally). My doppelganger lives in Australia, you see, and the leader splashed sink water over the stall door thinking I was her and then recoiled in horror when she realized I was the new exchange student. And so she apologized and we became fast friends and she invited me to sit with her and her friends at lunch. Come to think of it, I also met my best friend from elementary school in eerily similar circumstances, so restrooms might just be where I make meaningful connections.

I spent the next six months feeling loved and accepted by a group of three girls and two boys. Sleepovers were always co-ed and we stayed up late watching Friday night videos, a novelty since I had grown up with MTV and took them for granted. They took me to my first concert in Sydney – Roxcette – though I didn’t care one way or another about the music. I remember my Australian friends as fresh faced and funny, innocent in many ways my American friends and I were not. I was tight lipped about my own past because it felt good to start over and be someone I should have been all along.

Although it had been sweltering July when I left the US, the east coast of Australia was in its own mild state of winter. I remember boarding the plane in a sweater and jeans and not believing they would be necessary. Everything was a mild shock to the system once I got off that plane.The house where I lived smelled like the strange, sweet oils and soaps my host mother used. A new cat curled up on my bed every night. Just beyond the house was a quaint town center with a cricket pitch and of course the dag shop and a chemist where I was forced to choose from an unfamiliar, exciting array of shampoos. The first time I ordered a hamburger I wasn’t sure I would like it with fried egg and beets, but oh I did. I took tea with my milk and sugar instead of coffee. My world had turned upside down and I fell madly in love.

What I probably fell in love with was my old self in new surroundings. As an American, I was a curiosity to others, a novelty, but to myself I was the only familiar thing around. I became my own source of comfort and expanded to become gregarious and chaste and found these traits suited me. When I returned to the US, I wondered for a long time if I wasn’t born on the wrong side of the planet. Had my doppelganger been unhappy in Australia? I found myself wishing I’d thought to ask her. We could have worked something out before my visa expired.

In recovery speak, they call that pulling a geographic. It’s when you hit the reset button by fleeing your current surroundings and it’s not supposed to work, but it did for me that one time. Of course, it didn’t really because I had to return home. The other kind of reset is much harder and takes time, often decades, and sometimes tedious effort.  Many, many years later I feel it from sobriety and middle age, a deepening comfort and sense that all we really need to do is click our heels to come home.

 

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Me in one of the shirts I picked out at the dag shop. I still miss that damn cat.

Boo (and my baby)

In early summer, my youngest daughter, Audrey, and I sat down one afternoon and jotted down ideas for our first comic book story together. The subject was Boo, the World’s Cutest Dog, though if you have a dog you probably don’t say the second part in front of him/her. We don’t have a dog even though Audrey has long wanted one almost as bad as her older sister used to want a baby brother or sister. And that became the seed to our storyline, which was then beautifully drawn to life by artist Tony Fleecs.

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A few months later, we have the finished comic book in hand. Audrey is even on the cover! There are three stories – by three different writer/artist teams – featured in Boo Issue #1 and it’s a great read for kids and Boo fans of all ages. You can find it in fine comic shops or buy it digitally HERE.

I grew up reading Richie Rich and Archie and later moved on to MAD. I have some sweet summertime memories involving stacks of comics and sun-warmed chocolate chip cookies. Sigh. Both of my girls have also grown up reading comic books since their dad works in comics, which is how this opportunity came about for Audrey and me. I’ve long harbored desires to write children’s stories, so I can safely say I had a dream come true this summer.

And Audrey, well, she has her face on the cover of a comic book. How cool is that? She shared a couple copies with close friends but has otherwise been playing it cool. We already have another story idea in the works, so fingers crossed.

While we’re talking books, Kary May Hickey of God Walks Into This Bar has her first book available on Amazon (I believe it’s even free today only). It’s a guidebook to recovery through the help of a bustling online community. She is a fantastically smart and funny writer, so I can’t wait to check it out.

 

 

 

On Deal Island

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Pop-Pop
Deal Island is a three mile finger of land and tide about 15 miles off the beaten path in eastern shore Maryland. It’s where my great-grandfather, who we called Pop-Pop, lived until the (and his) mid 80s, which is also the last time I’d visited. Even though he’s long gone and the first word that always comes to mind when I think of Deal Island is mosquitoes, I had to get back. It should have been a tough sell to my girls, but they’re always up for adventure or maybe the challenge of seeing ordinary stuff that way.

We picked a sunny day with low humidity for our trip. If we’d gone the day before, I’m convinced westerly winds would have carried in biting flies like those from a particularly vivid childhood memory. Sure, I remember that time my great-grandfather’s cat scratched a perfect circle of blood around my wrist or the way the massive vinyl swing on his front porch creaked and groaned though never in a way that made me feel uneasy. But I’ll never ever forget the 2 mile walk that felt like 200. My brother and I were nearly eaten alive by greenheads and mosquitoes as we took a fun family hike along the bay. Our parents tossed back helpful tips like “walk faster so they won’t bite you” and other things I’ve surely never said to my own children, who are now more delicious than I. Deal Island was originally called Devil’s Island, though I’m not sure there’s truth to the rumors it was once a hotbed of pirate activity. If so, those were some tough pirates.

Driving in that clear day with its delightfully low dew point, the first thing we noticed was a perfect stranger waving to us. In fact, he didn’t even look up so wouldn’t have known we were strangers, though I don’t guess it would have mattered. I’d remembered it as a kind of Mayberry on the water, and not much had changed.

The old bank building was still there. My great-grandfather worked there until the stock market collapse of 1929. When there was a run on the bank, a customer who was also a neighbor waved a gun at him. It was panic, nothing personal then or when the bank closed like many small town banks had to. It sat empty for years and then someone converted the inside to a machine shop. It sits empty again and for $24,900, anyone can buy it.

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Probably the most anticlimactic stop was in front of my great-grandfather’s old house. It’s been so lovingly renovated that I couldn’t recognize enough to tap into nostalgia. Instead we kept walking down the street, past an old gothic revival farmhouse that could only be suitable to vampires. Only on the walk back did we notice an identical gothic revival farmhouse right next door. I did not take pictures of either and deeply regret this, but you probably wouldn’t have either.

Our next stop was the final resting place of both great-grandparents and also Joshua Thomas, Parson of the Islands. He predicted the British fleet’s defeat in Baltimore that inspired Francis Scott Key and our national anthem. Also, he was born in a place called Potato Neck and his dad died from a dog bite and his stepfather was a drunken lout who forever turned young Joshua off alcohol. I now remember why book reports were such a challenge. It’s tough telling which facts are weeds because they all seem important.

I can tell you that cemetery was the biggest challenge of the day. My dad had provided a quaint hand drawn map to find the family plot but failed to warn us half the people buried on that island share the same last name.

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The eldest at least a half hour in
Three passes after I’d first given up, I found the plot and yelled so loud I probably woke Joshua Thomas of Potato Neck. We piled back in the car and drove until the road dead ended by crab shedding facilities at Wenona harbor. On the way back, I snapped this picture of a crumbling beauty an 1877 atlas designated the “Colored Church and School”.

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I almost drove past another (mystery) beauty, but if you only get to a place once in 30 years, you find yourself doing asinine road maneuvers so you can go back and take pictures while your kid swats at bugs only kids can feel because adults are old and taste terrible

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The next to last stop was at the public beach, where someone else had already written Pop-Pop in the sand and we collected a generous handful of tumbled sea glass. The funny thing about that is I’d had in mind to treat myself to something at the 5 year sober mark, but nothing seemed right and then I found it.

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The final stop of the day was a bait and sundry shop where I purchased candy bars for the drive back. I picked a Whatchamacallit, which I also hadn’t experienced in about 30 years and my kids thought I’d forgotten the name and was just calling it that. Some days you look back and find yourself feeling lost and disappointed. This wasn’t one of those days.

 

 

arboraxephobia

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Around the time I discovered horror movies, I used to look up to check for axes dangling from trees. It was only something I did in the woods, and not anything I recall seeing in a horror movie, so I’m not sure where it came from. I also still checked nightly for monsters under the bed. I’d kneel down on the side of the bed farthest from the door and bravely pull up the dust ruffle. I’m not sure now if I meant to flush the monster out – you know, give him an escape route – or if it just hadn’t occurred that I would have no way out.

This seems as good a time as any to confess I used to believe a race of tiny vampires called the Dynamites lived under my bed. They all looked like Count from Sesame Street, although probably only the leader wore a monocle. Aside from the time I watched them parade up the side of my bedroom wall and disappear through a crack in the closet (chickenpox fever), I never actually saw them. When I checked under the bed in later years, I was expecting only one monster and much larger and more menacing. If I’d seen the Dynamites, I might have scooped them up like kittens while they counted and nibbled at my neck.

There are literally hundreds of scientific-sounding names assigned to all the things we’re afraid of. Cometophobia is the fear of comets. If, for whatever reason, you’re afraid of chopsticks, I’m afraid you have consecotalephobia and probably a difficult road ahead. According to one definition, sanguivoriphobia is the “irrational fear of vampires” which sounds like something a vampire would write. Arithmophobia covers the fear of counting. Teratophobia is a fear of monsters or having a deformed child, both of which I can understand, though lumping them together feels a little lazy. No one should mind if I slip in arboraxephobia.

The woods I checked most often for swinging axes was an undeveloped bluff at the end of our development. Everyone ignored the No Trespassing sign on the metal gate where the gravel road started, although I usually had the place to myself. This quarter-mile strip was prime waterfront real estate and would later become an early series of McMansions on dime-sized plots. But oh, that view. It’s no wonder someone made their summer home long ago on that desolate, lovely stretch.

The cottage had been a modest wooden clapboard with no porch and only a few rooms. It was long abandoned by the time my parents and I pulled open the rotted screen door and eased inside one Sunday afternoon. I remember pots and pans still in the cabinets and dishes thick with dust scattered across a kitchen table. Surprise Indian attack seemed the only logical explanation for anyone leaving dishes behind. I never went back inside.

Some years later, two known troublemakers skulked up the road from that direction just before the first black plumes of smoke began to rise. A dozen firetrucks couldn’t save the cottage. It went up like seasoned timber. A nearby barn with rusted out farm equipment were the only things left for us to climb over and keep us up to date in tetanus shots. And then we noticed the basement.

The cottage had burnt to the ground, leaving a smoldering hole with pitted concrete steps like teeth that grew mossy and slick with rotted leaves. We had lost a lonely old friend and gained a nightmare.

Sometimes I went to the top of the stairs by myself but usually with a friend, and never down into the belly of the basement. If I got down to about step eight, I could lean over far enough to see into part of the basement room to the left, but it was too black. The smell got me. Charred wood and burnt plastic, with an overlying bouquet of ammonia and mildew and maybe boiled blood. It was death, somehow, and I kept coming back to peer in without actually getting close enough to see anything

On the bus one day, a friend and I told a cute boy about the No Trespassing gate and the stairs and the very next day he and a friend tore up the hill from an angle we weren’t expecting like a couple of pirates. We thought for sure they would brave their way all the way down the stairs and tell us what they saw. In the end, they hovered on step four, maybe five, and then one remembered an orthodontist appointment, the other, homework.

One time I made it all the way to the bottom step with no one else around. The basement was still black but I made out some kind of shelf along the far wall. I never thought to bring a flashlight with me. The smell was worse at the bottom. The sounds weren’t right either. Maybe that steady click was dripping water. Maybe it sounded more like scratching.

One of my regrets in life – and I have a few by now – is that I never went all the way in. Around the time I started high school, the stairs and basement were filled and a stately home with cathedral ceilings and gleaming wooden stairs planted on top. While that house was under construction, I snuck in during a rain storm and saw someone had written HELP ME in what looked like blood on a second floor window. That house smelled like sawdust and drywall and nothing at all.

A wealthy family moved in and I filled in for their nanny a few times before graduating and moving away. The nanny kept a log for the family and used it to rat me out. Kristen did not clean up Robbie’s trains and the playroom is a MESS. In the second floor hall closet, the family hoarded massive stockpiles of hotel shampoos from Disney properties. I had no idea I would one day do the same, so it all felt very sinister.

Eventually I stopped checking trees for swinging axes. My old brain heard a creak from above and started assuming old branch in the wind. It occurs to me now that an axe looks similar to the kind of tomahawk an Indian might have used to catch a family by surprise one night during supper. The family would have jumped up quickly, shoving chairs to the side and heading to the only place they could think of to hide. The basement.

The Class Ring

In the spirit of free-write Fridays (aka baby, you don’t need to wash your hair today because you already smell real nice), I’m sharing a post I wrote for Chris at KLĒN + SŌBR.

Chris is in his 18th year of abstinent recovery from alcohol and other drugs and is the founder of the KLĒN + SŌBR Project, including the Since Right Now Pod, which is breathing new life into my daily commute.

At first I was going to write about reconnecting with spirituality in recovery, but that story’s barely started. Besides, it was fun to go back to the time before I discovered high school parties and my new god, beer.

KlenSober

To read the story, say abracadabra and click the above image to find yourself magically transported to a much spiffier site.

Or here’s the link if you too are distrustful of magics:  http://www.sincerightnow.com/insights/2015/2/9/the-class-ring

The fine print:

All the names in my story were changed, mainly to protect the innocent, but also because who would believe the ladykiller I called Glenn was really named Dirk?

Truth > Fiction.

Here’s the poem Class Ring, which I heard in the mid 80s. In the early 90s, it was co-opted and changed to deliver an anti-drunk driving message, which the original author seems cool with. As with middle school poems and many things I read on the internet, this warms the cockles of my heart.

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