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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

100 years

Before the big party, my grandmother asks me to do her makeup. Her hands are too shaky, she explains, as she hands me a tube of foundation that looks too tan. I squeeze a tiny amount onto my fingertip and feather and blend in the worn light of her bathroom. She asks for rouge – actually calling it that – and hands me a tube of cheap lipstick. Let me go get my makeup bag, I say. Ok, she says.

My fingers carefully navigate the suddenly unfamiliar terrain of her face. When did her skin get so soft, so thin? When is the last time I’ve touched anyone’s face besides my own and my little girl’s? My grandmother closes her eyes while I work with brushes and pencils and the foamy tip of an eyeshadow wand. I alternate between worrying she’ll look garish and no different at all. When I’m done, she turns to the mirror and says to herself You are old but she smiles and seems pleased.

Five of us pile into my dad’s car and head into the city for this big party. It’s a 100 year celebration for a social club my grandmother joined shortly after she emigrated to this country in the Fifties. I spent a half dozen of the longest evenings of my life in this hall when my brother and I were kids. We were surrounded by old people who smiled a lot and spoke a language we couldn’t understand. They served plates of steaming gray sausages and beef rolls that resembled dog turds but fortunately did not taste like them (I assume).

This might be a good place to back up and explain there’s a generation missing. My dad is not my grandmother’s son. He is her ex son-in-law. My mother died from cancer when I was just over a year old. She was my grandmother’s only daughter. My grandmother never got over that one, I can tell you. My dad remarried eventually and my brother and I grew up with a good woman who I have always known as Mom. My dad, good people that he is, still helps my grandmother with things like taxes and escorting her to 100 year celebrations.

When we get to the hall for this shindig, the foyer is in chaos. I have to root through my purse to find our tickets. We give up our coats to women in folk costumes who usher us to a table and hold out tiny glasses of something. It’s Vityra, a honey liqueur. Oh, no thank you, I say. Here, a woman says and extends the glass again. I don’t drink, I say. Everyone’s wearing tight smiles to mask the sudden awkwardness and confusion. Another woman steps in and says Just a tiny sip like I’ve hit 41 and never tried alcohol. I start to feel indignant, a little hysterical even. She says to me, It will help for the next room. You are sadly mistaken I want to say, but I refuse again and this time it sticks and the others take their shot and toast. Ten seconds feels like ten rounds. I feel oddly fortified to face the next room.

The doors swing open and the room sucks us in. An unsmiling photographer snaps our photograph, only I don’t realize until he tells us we can go. If I ever see the picture, I’m certain I’ll be staring open mouthed at the ceiling or wall. The hall is magnificent. I haven’t been here in over 20 years and it looks better than I remember or imagined. The afternoon sun filters through golden curtains and everyone looks airbrushed and perfect.

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I drink Cokes with the girls. Normally I would drink Diet, but today I’m letting my hair down. I take pictures of the hall. My grandmother finds old friends to talk to, so my dad and girls and I head up three flights of stairs to a museum that needs its own museum. I snap about 200 pictures, all of which I’m going to share with you right now.

IMG_0033Oh, just kidding. Sorry if I gave you a scare.

My kids were the first to fade. Kids these days have no stamina for folk carvings and dolls that probably come to life and dance quaintly. Here’s the moment they realize my 88 year-old grandmother is halfway up the first landing.

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I feel like we’d been caught going out for ice cream without her. It’s too many stairs, I say. It’s really cold up there, my oldest points out helpfully. There’s old dolls, my youngest says unhelpfully. My dad’s no help because he’s still upstairs talking to the curator, but my grandmother doesn’t seem interested in the museum anyway. I help her back down and an older gentleman passes us and she whispers to me He wanted to marry your mother.

She says this again later about another man that stops by our table. He introduces himself to me as the man responsible for getting my mother and father together. I tell him thank you very much because if not for him, my girls and I wouldn’t be here. When he leaves my grandmother tells me he too wanted to marry my mother but he was too short for her.

100 year celebrations are maybe only somewhat surprisingly filled with speeches. A congressman, an ambassador, and a former hall president give speeches. Only one is in english. It sounds like the start of a joke, and the punchline is quaint folk dancing. The jarring accordion starts while we’re in the restroom. It looks like it did 20 years ago. I know it’s bad form to post pictures of restrooms on blogs, but I already worked dog turds into this post and hope you’ll understand.

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If not for the overpowering funk of air freshener, I might have pulled up a chair to take it all in. My grandmother swears it was renovated recently. When we get older, do all the decades bleed together?

After all the speeches and folk dancing, my grandmother wants to walk up to the buffet line and serve herself. They’re calling tables by number, we explain. I see several white-haired renegades totter over with their chinette plates. When you get to a certain age, maybe you realize rules are for rubes. Maybe you hit enough buffets that ran out early.

The salad is the best I’ve ever had. The cake has almond paste and layers and looks like it took someone a long time to make. The kids don’t eat much. I sneak them bland things I brought from home and let them fill up on marble cake with white frosting that someone mercifully put out by the coffee. My grandmother eats everything on her plate and wraps fried dough pastries in a napkin and puts them in her sequined purse to take home. Just when I think the night can’t get any better, a man about my age with spiky hair sets up on stage and plays electric guitar and sings Lithuanian rock songs.

My youngest one wants to dance. This kid, she won’t take no for an answer about anything, so I don’t try too hard. We’re one of two “couples” “dancing”. She likes me to twirl her around so that you or I would vomit. Kids just get crazier when you spin them that fast. She’s like a tiny top of madness and it doesn’t matter that I can’t barely dance the hokey pokey because I’m really enjoying myself. It’s a good thing I don’t drink because I’d never be able to handle these spins, I think.

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Soon the dance floor is cramped. This crowd knows just what to do and forms a giant circle. People wearing black hats are allowed to dance inside it. I don’t understand the rules, but we all abide. After the dance breaks up, my grandmother greets an old friend with a hug.

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We don’t stay too much longer. I’m the first one ready to leave. My grandmother is the last. She says my dad doesn’t want to leave. She says he and my mother used to go dancing all the time before they had kids. Eventually we get our coats and head out into the cold dark night in a huddle to keep warm.

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.

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)

beneath the pines

While slowly navigating a sloping parking lot with sharp sticks and muddy mulch, I argue with my grandmother over which of my daughter’s birthdays had been at a park on a raw, cold day several years ago. My memory is excellent for things that don’t matter, such as birthday party venues and the names of all the boys I’ve liked since kindergarten.

Even though I know I’m right about this, it hits me how silly this need to be right is. I remember a family from childhood whose mom used to argue loudly with her own aging, confused mother when she swore she watched a team of tiny children during the day while everyone else was at work and school.

“You’re here by yourself, Ma” the younger mom said, exasperated. “There aren’t any children.”

The old mother’s brow furrowed and she folded her arms across the front of her downy flannel nightgown.

“There are so children and they greased the banister and slid down and got hurt,” she said. “Several died,” she added.

Every year my grandmother becomes a little more like her own mother, who stubbornly wore cork-heeled wedges around the house well into her 90s and kept a stash of fun-sized milky way bars in her room because she said they helped her sleep at night. My own grandmother insisted on wearing low-heeled but open sandals to the hilly farm today even though I told her sneakers would be better.

After we make it through the minefield of a parking lot and get in line to pay, my grandmother gets stung by a bee on the neck. I don’t see it happen, but she holds her neck with one hand and gestures triumphantly to a dead bee on the ground with the other. She is not allergic and in fact seems to get stung regularly. Last summer, she was stung multiple times on her arms and legs while pruning bushes in her yard. I see now that she’s not phased by her bee sting. She only wants to share her excitement with us.

I start to feel like the trip is a terrible idea. The farm is bigger and hillier than I remember. There are way more people than I expected. Toddlers, strollers, parents – even goats – are everywhere. My own kids are off like shots, and I do my best to track them with peripheral vision and that homing device all parents come equipped with.

When I see my younger one sail off a distant slide and look around for us as nonchalantly as possible, I leave my grandmother’s side to corral her back. From the slide, I see my grandmother look around as nonchalantly as possible. Once we get into her line of sight, I wave my hand and smile until she sees us and smiles back.

My grandmother spies another woman using a cane by the goats and remarks excitedly that she’s not the only one. It doesn’t occur to me that she’s self-conscious about using a cane. Her mobility is very good, excellent even, for someone turning 88 later this month. Her own mother had fought stubbornly against using this very same cane, but compromised by keeping those damn wedge heels. My grandmother uses the cane willingly for balance, but inherited her mother’s love of impractical shoes.

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sensible shoes all around

My grandmother tells me about a class trip she took in her home country when she was a little girl to a place just like this. I think she means a farm, but when she says they sang and picnicked and played in a field by the river, I realize the woods were the destination.

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My grandmother tells me this is the first time she’s felt like she was back in her home country in all the years she’s lived here. She says the woods in her village were so clean, you could lie down and rest and not even have to brush off your clothes afterwards. This is not the first time I’ve heard this and she has no way of knowing how many times my parents and I told and retold that story to each other because we loved it so much. Later, my husband loved hearing it too. We were all tickled at the idea of a preternaturally clean forest, oceans away. I look down at the ground here and see it littered with pine needles and kicked-up silt that she doesn’t seem to notice. For the moment, she is home again and she is happy.

After the farm, we make the long trek back to the car and I feel myself loosen. I help my grandmother buckle the seat belt in my car because it is hard for her and she jokes that I have three children today and I smile like it’s the first time we’ve shared this joke.

Back at her house, we assemble sandwiches and dine overlooking her back yard, which she has spent the last three decades tending and trimming. She has two beautiful bushes in the back that I fall in love with every fall. They’re so big, you can almost stand beneath them and they bloom white flowers in late summer that turn a lovely shade of purple-pink in early fall.

I ask her what kind of bush or tree they are and she says she doesn’t know. She adds, “They’re not hydrangeas” because she remembers I asked her the last time we visited. Last time we visited, I even used Leaf Snap but it only pulled up trees that don’t grow in this region.

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Honestly, it’s bugging me and I say that I wish I knew and she says, “You don’t even know the trees in your own country,” like she’s confiding to me about some other idiot. I am as handy in the yard as a plaster gnome, and this is probably her deepest disappointment in me.

My kids and I say our goodbyes, which weigh heavier each visit, and drive back home in the setting sun. I decide to detour through the town where I went to college, which is also where my other set of now long-gone grandparents once lived. For some reason, I find myself missing them terribly this fall. It’s like I held everything in until this year and now songs on the radio remind me of car rides to their house and old movies remind me of inappropriate things I watched on the small TV set in their back room while the grown ups talked in the main room, oblivious. I ache rawly with love for them it is far too late to express.

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