Hog’s Hollow Trail

The first and only time I went horseback riding, I got saddled (har-har) with a lackadaisical mule prone to biting. The rest of my girl scout troop got so far ahead on their horses the leader kept having to circle back to find me. Once I finally caught up, my mule sunk his teeth into the flank of another girl’s horse, sending it and her through a thicket of brambles. The girl got all scratched up and started to cry. One time this same girl had said to me “I’m glad your mother died” so I was mostly glad it happened to her and not me. Kids and horses can be so cruel.

Although my mule moseyed along the entire trail ride, he broke into an uphill sprint once we rounded the last bend and his water trough was in sight. Little fucker had been holding out and I can tell you I never brushed my Barbie horse’s mane as gently after that day. 

The reason I thought of that horse today is  because of motivation. He couldn’t be bothered to move without the promise of reward. Yesterday my youngest daughter, Audrey, and I had the day to ourselves so I gave her a few choices and naturally she picked going for a walk in the woods with sandwiches. Well, I don’t mean sandwiches walked alongside us, though how cute would that be? We combined our three favorite things: snacks, the potential though unlikelihood of getting lost, and also snacks. Typing snacks out twice reminded me how similar and different that word is from snakes. But more on those in a bit.

Once we parked in the trail lot, I let Audrey pick which way we’d go. She chose a trail we’d never taken before and then another that took us across a road onto a public two-mile trail along the outskirts of a private summer camp. The camp named it Hog’s Hollow Trail after an old farm they found on site with pigsties still intact. The trailhead map advertised points of interest like Bergdoll Estate Ruins and Unc’s Woods and I got so excited I forgot all about the sandwiches.


Not even a quarter mile in, we struck gold. I think we found the Bergdoll Estate ruins, or what was left after time and wisteria took over. Someone had come out recently and cut a lot of vines. We saw portions of stone walls and a series of buildings, some razed and others more intact. In the distance we saw the outwall of a building we couldn’t have walked away from if we’d tried. 

When we got to the big wall and crossed behind, we found it wide open, the roof long gone. This was where we both noticed a distinctly bad smell. It was probably just animal poop, but I think of it now as a warning neither one of us heeded.


The space inside was overgrown with vines and brush. Audrey saw an odd shaped stick poking out in the center and wanted to get closer because she was definitely not switched at birth. I was about 10 feet away taking pictures when I heard her matter-of-factly say “There’s a snake.” This is the same kid who froze minutes earlier over the sight of a passing bee, so I was more surprised than concerned. I couldn’t see a snake from where I was standing so I said “Well just come back the way you came” and she said “That is the way I came” and then her face and voice kind of crumbled.

I ran through the options quickly in my head.  1) panic and flee (but leave behind a sandwich) 2) find a good snake flinging stick 3) tramp down the brush from the other side so she could escape. 

I started with 3) and the heavens rewarded solid decision-making by causing the snake to slither away in the opposite direction so Audrey could walk out the way she came. I didn’t get a picture but googled and decided it was a red corn snake. I pulled it up on my phone and pretend read aloud “Non-poisonous though capable of ingesting children up to age nine”. Audrey fell for it at first but by that time we were safely back on the trail and had a good laugh. We both watched where we were walking for the rest of the hike.

This is her “I just saw a bee” face

It turns out those ruins were the highlight of the trail. There was a cool log we had to maneuver to cross a stream, plus the trail veered off down a steep riverbank, but we didn’t see any more ruins. The map promised more so we either missed them or they’re covered in wisteria. Don’t worry, we’ll go back.

I looked into the Bergdoll Estate and found a fascinating story about a playboy draft dodger-cum-fugitive who escaped capture by luring police with the promise of buried treasure and then slipped out a window and fled to Germany, where he started a family. Who knows why but Grover Cleveland Bergdoll later turned himself in and served eight years in prison before settling on his family farm on what is now wisteria and snake country. He later divorced his wife, moved to Virginia, went mad and spent his remaining years in a mental institution. I am not even making any of this up.

 

 

Saying goodbye to the ocean

The first order of business was digging up Saint Joseph, the patron saint of sold condominiums, whom my grandmother buried head down in a garden area by the parking lot. It’s unclear if Joseph helped sell any other condos in the building or if the $500 “marketing fee” my grandmother paid had more to do with her finally getting a decent offer. I talked it up to my kids before we left – how their great-grandmother buried the statue of a saint because she thought it would bring good luck and how we had to find the exact spot and dig him up, like lost treasure – but I guess they were expecting a full-sized statue and seemed disappointed when they saw he was plastic and fit in the palm of her hand.

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My grandmother bought this condominium with my grandfather many years ago so they would have a place to stay at the beach. They rented it out a couple months out of the year, which paid the mortgage with enough left over for gas and tolls . She tried to get my brother and I to buy it from her but it’s too far and we have another place to stay when we do make it down. Also, I don’t have that kind of money, though it troubled me that she was only a few years older when they bought this place. She tells me they never went out to eat or took vacations when they were young.

It felt like we were on vacation, I guess because I’d taken a couple of days off work to drive her down for the settlement and so she could say goodbye to her place. I spent many nights there myself, so the closure was just as much for me. That was the bed where I slept one night while grape gum dropped from my slackened jaw and snaked relentlessly around my long hair, I thought to myself. There’s the pool I snuck into another night to fool around with a boy I barely knew. This is the carpet where my great-grandmother actually spat after they caught me and made me come back inside. Actually, it was shag carpeting back then. I still remember the gold and yellow pile from the time my brother and I both spilled overly full bowls of Fruit Loops with milk, accidentally and almost simultaneously, while my grandmother hurried to get her condo ready for a rental.

This was a bittersweet goodbye visit, for sure. I asked my grandmother a couple of times if she was sad, and she said she was mostly relieved. She posed around the condo while I snapped picture after picture. She didn’t ask what I planned to do with all of the pictures and I wouldn’t have had an answer anyway. Maybe I’ll make up another photo book like the one I did after her 90th birthday party. She carries it around in her purse to show her realtor or the woman behind the deli counter. If I do a photo book for My Grandmother’s Last Trip to the Beach, I have enough pictures to tell a story, though it will only be mine. Too bad I didn’t get a photograph of the men power washing the halls of her building and how they popped their heads out and yelled down to me in the parking lot at the exact moment my grandmother and daughter yelled other things at me from another floor. It was so funny looking – four anxious heads peering down from different spots with their mouths all moving and not one noticing the other – but that can’t go in the book because I neglected to capture it on film or whatever you call it these days.

I also don’t have a photo of the new buyers, who dropped by for their walk-in inspection just as we were getting ready to leave for the settlement. Oh what a gift that was. You know how when you meet someone and something about their tone or expression zaps all the tension from the air and everything feels lighter? It was like that with this couple, and not just for my grandmother but for all of us. Even their realtor looked visibly relieved at the unplanned meeting. The new buyers chatted with my grandmother for a good 15 minutes instead of pulling out all the utensil drawers to make sure they worked properly (and thank goodness for that). Before we left, they told my grandmother she was welcome back any time and she told them God Bless You and I know she meant it because she wouldn’t have said it otherwise.

The settlement occurred around a large oval table in a room decorated with ink and watercolor drawings of festive legal scenes set in the ’80s, judging by the outfits and hair. There were massive, serious looking legal books that I think were just for sure. At first the presiding attorney seemed all-business, curt even. But he softened with my grandmother and repeated instructions when necessary and did not rush her along. Her hands were very shaky and each time she had to sign her name she did so with painstaking effort.

I caught a few glimpses of the capable, determined grandmother I grew up with. I will forever remember her big cars and hair and how she was always ready to challenge an unsuspecting store clerk or family member who forgot who they were dealing with. She seems so much smaller now and walks slowly with a cane, her hair soft and snow white. But still she is sharp as a tack in unexpected ways. She got what she wanted and, I believe, deserved with the help of Saint Joseph, family who loves her and a charming couple eager to turn her old place into decades of new memories.

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To the basement

 

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I noticed a goose on the sharp angled porch roof as we drove past and that’s what made me finally stop. We’d driven past this beautiful wreck of a house literally hundreds of times, but I guess we were always in a hurry or never had the right goose to lure us over.

The goose was gone – if it was ever really there – by the time I turned at the next light, found a place to park and dodged endless mines of goose poop with my daughters in tow across an expansive, pitted field. Ogling abandoned houses is a family affair. My older daughter is pretty used to it by now and takes her own phone out for pictures. My younger one is pretty sure all abandoned houses are haunted, but she always wants to stop.

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This is an unusual property because it’s right in the middle of a suburban shopping center laid out to look like an old fashioned main street if Old Navy and Barnes and Noble had been around back then. Maybe that’s why this haunted-looking mansion didn’t give me the creeps. Maybe I put on a brave face for my kids or maybe I’m finally immune. I’ve been admiring decrepit houses since I was a kid myself.

Did that first house have a name? Did we call it anything? Not that I can remember.

At the end of my childhood street, there was a metal gate that our Hulk-green Chevy Vega once smacked against the night my dad forgot to set the parking brake. The Vega rolled down the gentle slope of our street while we slept and when my dad woke up the next morning and saw that it wasn’t parked out front, he scratched his head and wondered who would possibly steal such an ugly car. Maybe the Vega too felt an irresistible pull to the abandoned house beyond the gate, down the gravel drive along a narrow peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay. I don’t know who owned the land – 300 acres of prime, waterfront real estate – but in the mid 80s no one seemed to and so it became our secret neighborhood playground.

There were three old structures left on the land in varying states of decomposition: a small, one-story house with weathered clapboard siding but all windows intact; a large shed or small barn with a partially collapsed roof and a massive rusted tractor parked outside; and a collapsed pavilion down the hill by the water’s edge. I feel saddest about the pavilion because we never got to see it whole. My friend Beth and I used to climb up the slanted roof on Sunday afternoons and eat sandwiches her mother packed for us. Fact: sandwiches eaten in the wild always taste better. In the later days of our pavilion roof picnics, Beth and I ate while plotting how we could convince one of our parents to drive us to the movies so we could spend a beautiful spring afternoon away from sunshine and fresh air. By then the shed and house had burned to the ground, revealing a mossy set of stairs like broken teeth leading to a black belly of a room.

Those stairs had their own magnetic pull like the gate to a Vega. Beth and I used to dare each other to go down a certain amount of stairs. We’d start small, like I dare you to go down 2 steps. This was mostly a piece of cake because although some of the stairs were caked with slippery moss and wet leaves, there was still plenty of time to scramble back up if a ghost or worse suddenly appeared at the bottom. By the time we got to daring 7 or 9 steps, the amount of time it took to screw up enough nerve to go down that far took away precious time at the movies.

I only made it all the way down once and then only lingered for a few seconds in front of the cold, black doorway. I could sort of make out a table or shelf against one wall but could not tell how far the room went back or what else was inside. What if I’d brought along a flashlight and had the nerve to shine it? Would I have found the secret lair of devil worshipers whispered about at the back of the bus or only pockets of soot-soaked dampness? This is surprisingly not one of life’s regrets anymore. That may be because I once walked the main level of the house with my parents while it was still whole. We got to see what it was like before it became a ghost.

What stands out most about that time inside the house was the surprise of my parents doing something illegal. They were not the type to trespass, though there were no ‘keep out’ signs and we walked right through an open door. We found ourselves in a kitchen with dusty melamine dishes and cups scattered across a table, a chair knocked on its side. We took a quick tour through the other rooms, but the sight of those dishes spooked us. I think there was a cradle in one room, but realize this sounds made up. We had no idea about the basement until some neighborhood kids burned the house to the ground for fun within the year. That was an exciting but devastating day for all of us. We gained a mysterious basement but lost a slice of childhood.

After my parents and I visited that night, we wondered about the people who lived there and what happened to them. We decided something or someone had taken them by surprise while they were eating dinner. Never mind that the timing was all wrong for melamine dishware, but I suggested Indians and we went from there. We decided a man and woman had been eating dinner with their two young children. The father had a dark beard and wire rimmed glasses. The woman wore a flowered cotton dress and her pale hair in a bun. Their children were both fair and small, a boy and girl. They heard the too-close war cry of Indians and the father bolted up quickly, his chair clattering to the floor. The mother and father grabbed their little darlings and with no time to plan and nowhere else to go really, they both looked at each other and the father whispered the only hiding place he could think: to the basement.

peeping tom

 

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our old mall
Last summer I took my girls and grandmother to see a movie near one of my old apartments. The area had changed, and not for the better. My husband, Joe, and I only lived there a little while. He wasn’t even my husband then. We got married while we lived there, though obviously not in the apartment with its papasan chair and the security bar across half the sliding glass door. The apartment complex installed it after the peeping tom incident as a sort of half-assed but well meaning gesture. Joe had already been sleeping with an aluminum baseball bat on his side of the bed since I met him.

We were supposed to get a second level apartment overlooking the woods, but the rental office called and told us something came up. Would we be okay with a ground level unit overlooking the pool? I was disappointed losing the woods but they gave us an extra bedroom and knocked $20 off our rent and we signed the lease and moved in, joking that maybe it would be like living on the deck of the Love Boat. It was January then, and the pool and grounds were covered in snow.

The Blizzard of ’96 dumped 2 feet of snow and Joe dug his car out with a neighbor’s shovel so we could drive to the store to buy a shovel. He was from the midwest and still gets excited by snow. His eyes brighten and he gets a little color in his cheeks. As I recall, the store was out of shovels so we drove to another store that had shovels and board games. We bought trivial pursuit and monopoly and invited a neighbor over who was irritatingly better at both. I hate monopoly even when I don’t get my ass handed to me.  Still, it passed the time.

We hung a bird feeder just outside the sliding glass door so the cats would have something to look at. Joe went out one day to fill the feeder and noticed foot steps in the snow leading to the side of our building. There was a weird cut out area with a retaining wall behind it, a blind spot of privacy, and it was right next to our bedroom window. The foot steps stopped there.

We didn’t think much of it then. Maybe we assumed it was from maintenance guys. We kept the blinds down in our bedroom as a general rule, but it’s safe to say my attention to detail wasn’t great then. Spring came and the only action we saw outside was an upstairs neighbor who sometimes brought his cat down on a harness leash. The cat always got down low to the ground and refused to budge. The neighbor would scoop the cat up in his arms and carry it back upstairs and eventually stopped trying. Inside, the board games went on a shelf in the closet and we favored more outdoor activities like drinking in bars.

One night Joe and I got home late and I went into the bedroom to change. He was in the other room listening to music on the stereo. This part will sound funny, but I decided to try on an old fashioned pajama set his mother sent me in the mail. Why did she send me that? Did she send me other funny clothes? I only remember I was a little drunk and thought trying it on would be hilarious. It was mint green and had a short-sleeved button up jacket. There may have been fur trim on the collar but now it sounds like I’m making stuff up.

I was admiring myself in the mirror when I saw something shift by the window. The blinds were closed but they weren’t down all the way. This is what I meant by attention to detail. I’d left about a 2-inch gap between the bottom of the blind and the window sill. I bent down to look and saw someone looking back and I screamed.

Joe grabbed his baseball bat and ran outside. I could not go anywhere in my mint green pajama set with matching (possibly fur trimmed) jacket so I called the police. Joe ran up the hill with his bat and onto the street. There were two ways to go and he went left and saw a young guy walking alone in shorts and a wife-beater tee. Joe ran up with his bat and the guy stopped and threw his hands up like what the hell? The guy seemed a little out of breath and nervous, but Joe was a big guy with a bat. The cops happened by in a patrol car and got out with their  notepad, which is maybe something they don’t do anymore. They asked the guy in the wife-beater tee some questions and then they let him go. They told Joe and his bat to go back home and lock the doors and keep the blinds closed.

The rental office sent someone out the next day to install a security bar on the sliding glass door, which, for the record, wasn’t anywhere near the bedroom window. I put the stupid mint green pajama set back in its box, and it didn’t make the move when we broke our lease  to go south. It wasn’t the peeping tom that did it, but a better job and opportunity. The rental office threatened to sue, but they never did.

About a month before we moved out, we got married at an old mansion down the road. The night before the wedding, we threw a party for out of town guests. My sister was still in middle school and stayed with us that night, and I remember feeling protective of her. I drank, but not as much as I would have had she not been there. Joe and his friends drank freely and hopped the fence to the pool area and threw all the lounge chairs into the water. We all went to bed too late and the next morning I felt more hungover than I should have.

Our wedding day started out drizzly and gray. When we stood together by the purple flowering tree at the mansion and were married by mere words, the sun broke through a little. By the end of the reception, it was a perfectly sunny day. In a book someone gave me before the wedding, I read that the weather on your wedding day is supposed to forecast how your marriage will be. I know better now, that it doesn’t work like that. I also know the sunny parts are half due to luck and other things we don’t control, and the rest is up to us.

 

 

 

 

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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Ghost of Christmas cats

We liked to say we saved Holly from the life of a junkyard cat. My mom answered an ad for “FREE KITTENS!” and scoped her out a few days before Christmas inside a brick duplex in a rundown part of town while I waited, ignorant, in the car. I had a perfect view of the junkyard across the street and found myself wondering what if I were the sort of kid who didn’t follow orders. What if I opened the door and took off? I imagined peering inside old wrecks, wandering the neat paths I could see from inside the car, palming small things I found on the ground. I didn’t even know about Holly at the time, but maybe we didn’t save her from a bad life at all.

Both parents managed to keep her a secret until Christmas morning. My brother and I had just finished opening presents when mom walked over with a big box and set it down with a weird smile. We knew something big was happening. My brother lifted the lid and then…nothing. It was an empty box. Weird. No wait! A very small head popped up and my brother reared back like he’d been bitten. That’s how we met Holly, the Christmas cat.

I gave her that name. No one else remembers it that way, just like they don’t remember that I’m the one who named our first boat TipOver I. There never was a TipOver II and TipOver I was kind of a dud, a glorified dinghy with a sail that went missing after bored neighborhood kids took her for a joy ride one summer night (though how joyful could it have been?). Maybe she tipped over that night in the river – fingers crossed – but after that she just hung upside down in the garage.

The thing I remember about Holly that first Christmas is my mom letting her lick runny egg yolk from a pie tin. We had to put her in the basement before we left for my grandparents’ house and the longest Christmas dinner in the history of Christmas dinners.

Every night at bedtime my parents made Holly go in the basement. She wasn’t happy about it and I wasn’t either, but my mom pointed out a nest she’d made in a corner of the basement from old rugs and a purple shawl someone spent a lot of time knitting and no one ever wore. My first instinct was to fluff up the shawl and make the nest neater, but my mom said cats preferred things a little messy.

Holly was allowed to go outside, but the garbage trucks scared her so bad she scratched a cat-size hole at the bottom of the screen to get back inside. My parents flipped the screen upside down and she made a new hole on the other end. She was a fastidious cat and bathed at least daily. She was white with grey striped spots and the face of a tabby. As she got older she got kind of fat, something I now realize happens more or less naturally to all of us.

Here’s where I want to say something hard that I’m not proud of. Once or twice I put a barrette on the end of Holly’s tail to see what she would do. It was one of those cheap, brightly colored plastic barrettes you might see if you happen to look down in a Walmart parking lot. I was old enough to know better and I didn’t dress her in doll clothes or anything like that. It wasn’t innocent on my part. Holly yelped and writhed as soon as I snapped it on and until I took it off.

All I can think of now is that I felt very small then. I used to play school with my stuffed animals and everything would be going swimmingly – Henry the Dog always acing lessons, clearly the teacher’s pet but well earned – and then something would come over me like a flipped switch. I’d tell Wile E. Coyote or Generic Fair Donkey he was an idiot or flatulent or a flatulent idiot. I’d feel cruelty flood my brain, an awful but irresistible release, followed by remorse and lingering fear about who I really was.

Mostly I was sweet to Holly and if she remembered the barrette incident(s?), she didn’t bring it up. By the time I was a teenager, she was well into adulthood and my parents had long since ditched the work of rounding her up every night for the basement. She was free to roam and spent a lot of time in my room. When I left the country for awhile after high school, my parents made a point to tell me she still went in my room every night looking for me, a sharp dagger to my heart.

One of the last times I remember seeing Holly was when I came back drunk from a wedding and sobbed on her fur because I missed her so much but mostly because I was drunk. When my dad called me at college to say Holly was sick and they were putting her to sleep, I had just gotten back from the gym and sobbed again.

I remember Holly’s personality better than a cat my husband and I had for many more years who was just as sweet and personable. It bothers me that I can’t remember more about this other cat. If I concentrate, I can clearly picture both of them, separately, walking towards me with the faint crunch crunch of paws against carpet like boots on freshly fallen snow.

Occasionally I used to pick up Holly and try to get her to look at herself in the mirror. I read once that cats are smart enough to know their reflection is not another cat, but they also show little recognition or interest in their own image. They do not appear to possess vanity or even curiosity in this regard. When I used to look at Holly’s reflection in the mirror, I noticed a dark patch around one of her eyes that I never saw any other time. I didn’t like this dark patch and thought it made her look kind of ugly, but every once in awhile I held her up and looked at it anyway.

Note: neither one of these cats is Holly, but in order to find a picture of her, I’d have to start rooting around the bedroom in the dark for old photo albums and my husband would look madder than these two. I moved on from barrettes to bow ties and Unicorn Horn for Cats but please note these were seasonal/one-time indulgences. 


This was a little freewrite exercise in response to Christy’s December writing challenge, which you can find HERE. Anyone can participate. Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, everyone!

We can never be filled

Forty-three years ago, I was born in a Baltimore hospital. My grandmother told me the story of my birth every time we drove past the Black and Decker building where my father used to work. It wasn’t a particularly interesting story except that I arrived two weeks early and he had to rush from work to meet my mother at the hospital and made it just in time. Many years later I had daughters of my own and both arrived two weeks early (well, one only 13 days).  The women in my family are speedy incubators or else the babies too cramped in there. Either way, it speaks to a certain genetic impatience.

Impatience and control issues dead end at anxiety. I’ve been a high-strung laid back person my whole life and quickly learned to self-medicate through chronic daydreaming, compulsive chewing of gum and fingers, then smoking, reckless but recreational sex and drugs, and finally a more serious focus on drinking and, last but not least, dessert. I have only found relief in giving up these things. Still fiddling with the last one and may not get there, honestly.

Not-drinking was the hardest thing I’ve successfully done (or not done), at least at first. Before I quit, I tried not to think about what life without alcohol would look like because I could only imagine bleak and uninteresting. Things never turn out like we imagine.

The other day, someone dear to me who still drinks shared these lyrics from a Swans song:

Now show some pity, for the weak of will
Because when we’re drinking, we can never be filled
Show some understanding for a lonely fool
Because when I’m drinking, I am out of control
Well I was never young, nothing has transpired
And when I look in the mirror, I feel dead, I feel cold, I am blind

It kills me because I remember that pain and know what worked for me. Well, I don’t know how to be completely filled. I’m still human but that pain from drinking, at least, is gone. I’m no longer blind.

I see how the choices I make affect others. Even the little choices matter, sometimes the most. I know I am not in control beyond that, which helps with anxiety, though I still get it pretty bad at times. Seeing it for what it is helps. I know the ups and downs are like waves I get to ride. The more I actually ride the waves, the easier it gets. Sometimes one pulls me under and fills my bathing suit with sand, but even the biggest ones dissolve and return to something much bigger and we get to do that too.

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scene from a mushroom farm diorama

90 years young

That dream I had about tiny delicious sandwiches at my grandmother’s birthday party did not come true, though I did get many compliments on my kugelis. 

Kugelis is a dish that involves peeling and grating five pounds of potatoes with the nubbiest, most painful side of the grater. As such, each batch contains a little bit of human flesh as well as a pound of bacon with the fat undrained, a stick of butter, and several other, less horrifying ingredients. Once it bakes for about an hour, you serve it warm with a dollop of sour cream and are fortified to work the fields for many hours. That’s what my ancestors did anyway, so years ago I had my grandmother show me how to make kugelis, and even though I wrote each step down on a sheet of yellow lined paper and managed not to lose it, something got lost in translation and I had to go to the internet for my current recipe.

Throughout my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, she kept speaking to me in Lithuanian, a language I do not understand. She does this more and more lately, especially when she’s flustered, and it reminds me of her own mother, who lived to 94 and reverted to her native language steadily so that by the very end she never spoke English. When my great-grandmother used to speak to me in Lithuanian, I would smile and nod and usually this worked, although if my grandmother caught us she admonished with a “Mama, speak English!” Now that my grandmother speaks to me in a language I don’t understand, the smiles and nods don’t work as well and I have to say, as gently as possible, “In English?” I can see the corrections embarrass her.

My grandmother hit her party stride around the Happy Birthday Song, which the mixed crowd sang in English and Lithuanian. The Lithuanian version had a lot more verses, with long gaps in between, and at one point I made eye contact with my sister and felt laughter start to bubble up and decided it best not to look at her anymore. You may remember how I fussed over a music playlist last week, and that worked out fine and all, but the surprise hit was a guest who showed up with an accordion and tambourine. I dreamt about tiny delicious sandwiches that don’t even exist and then a living dream walked through the front door!

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The accordion player led the birthday songs and played some more while my grandmother sat and sang alongside him. The song was not in English, but it sounded sad or maybe just sincere. My grandmother sang beautifully in a high, confident voice and I remembered how much I love listening to her.

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There was plenty of music and too much food and as the last guests left, I said goodbye to my husband and felt loneliness like an itch I never seem to be able to scratch. But just like ten years ago and her 80th birthday party, the after-party was maybe the best part. My grandmother changed into pajamas and rejoined us while my daughters played some Lord of the Flies game with balloons and we listened to more music. My husband had put away most of the food and washed dishes and other relatives helped too, so cleanup was not too bad. 

The next morning, we reconvened and I put records on her old stereo console that still works, though I’ll admit reservations shoving the bent two-pronged plug in the wall and again when the speakers whimpered and crackled like a dying man’s cough.

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My grandmother handed me the official album for the 1984 Summer Olympics and told me to play it and my youngest rocked out to Loverboy because she is still in pajamas and buzzed on room temperature ginger ale. My grandmother said “How come you didn’t play music like this yesterday?” and I don’t know if she means music kids go nuts to or Loverboy or if she just wishes the party was still happening. She instructed us to leave the streamers up and the balloons get corralled in a corner, though they will shrink by the day.

My grandmother tells my girls that the next time we have a party at her house, she will not be there and my youngest asks where she’ll be. She tells them when my great-grandmother was very old, they had a party and she came downstairs and danced awhile and then retired to her room. My little sister went upstairs to find her and my great-grandmother told her the same thing about not being at the next party, and sure enough she died within the year. I remind my grandmother that she’s been planning her own funeral for the last 10 years and she laughs.

Before my girls and I leave, my grandmother pulls flowers from various bouquets and fastens them with a piece of ribbon and tells me to stop at the cemetery and leave them on my mother’s grave. I can hardly refuse this request, though before we pull out of her driveway she also tells me “Please do not vote for that Hillary.” So you don’t always get what you wish for, even at 90. Maybe we get very few wishes over a lifetime and foolishly use them up when we’re young. I know I love watching my youngest daughter’s face before she blows out candles or flips a coin in a fountain, her face earnest with concentration and belief. I can’t remember the last time I’ve blown out candles or thrown a coin in a fountain.

After we back out of my grandmother’s driveway and pull away, I honk and watch as she gets smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror. Once we round a corner, I look back and my daughters turn around even though we know she won’t be there.

90 year old napkins

My grandmother turns 90 soon and to celebrate, we’re throwing a party that will send her to an early grave. Just kidding, 60 would have been an early grave. This party might send me to one, and that would be early but also deserved. 

When my grandmother turned 80, we threw her a big catered affair, attended by a great number of friends who are not invited this time because they are dead. It was quite a party, I’m telling you. 

A lot changes in a decade, especially once you make past 80. She said to me the other day on the phone while we were in an actual fight over this party “You don’t know what it’s like to be 90.” What could I say?

I forget sometimes that she’s not 80 anymore. She got all worked up before that party too. She’s a perfectionist and a worrier and a real force to be reckoned with. I remember spending a day driving around with her to shop for party supplies and how tiny the glass of wine seemed at dinner, how ordering another seemed pointless because that wasn’t going to do it either.

And then an hour before her party started, a kitchen cabinet fell off its hinge and smacked her in the head. She was okay – just a little shaken up – but another family member remarked later it had been like a Wizard of Oz moment. Before the head bonk, her party loomed like a terrorizing tornado. After the head bonk, the air felt oddly tranquil, my grandmother sedate in silver sequined slippers.

The fight her and I got in about this party, like most fights, wasn’t really about the party. It was about something that will be hard to remember 10 years from now. Already it seems silly and sad that I chose to get upset and react. Usually when I talk to her, I keep my emotions in a separate box, locked from the inside, and they understand well enough to lay low. This time Hurt Feelings heard me on the phone and said “I’m hungry.” Righteous Indignation heard and said “Yeah me too…let’s go ask for a snack.” 

Probably my lowest point in the argument with my 90 year old grandmother was when I told her we probably shouldn’t be planning this party in the first place. We should have just taken her somewhere nice for dinner instead. She never asked for a party in the first place, but it was already too late to call off and cruel of me to say, even though we both knew it was true. 

I had a dream about the party the other night. It was something about tiny, delicious sandwiches and I hadn’t ordered enough. Good lord, I am not a party planner. I don’t even like parties when all I have to do is show up. But I said to a friend a few weeks ago, before things got so crazy, that the difference between this party and her 80th is I’m sober now. Theoretically I have more energy and focus, though much less free time. I just wanted my gift to my grandmother to be a nice party. I am not giving up. 

Yesterday I called to go over some details with her. She told me she picked up napkins specifically for a 90th birthday party. I asked where on earth she found those and half-jokingly she said “I don’t even want to talk about it..this is all your fault.” She then talked about wanting to make this special cranberry cake she used to make all the time and last made for her 80th birthday party. I told her not to buy any more anything for the party and to skip the cake and put her feet up instead.

The difference between 80 years old and 90 years old seems to be less physical and mental stamina to do all the things you still think you should be able to do. I told her about my dream and the tiny, delicious sandwiches being just out of reach and she laughed and said “See, you worry too much too.”

Before we got off the phone, she got in a quick reminder that I shouldn’t vote for the candidate I’ve known I’d vote for since I was a little girl. Righteous Indignation paced behind the closed door but did not come out. (Hurt Feelings was stuffing her face with tiny, delicious sandwiches.)

My grandmother’s party is just before the election. Some moments I don’t know how we’re going to make it, how it’s possibly going to work out that either side will be happy with the outcome. The divide between perspectives is so vast it’s like we’re looking at two completely different landscapes.

If I think back to her 80th party and the days leading up to it, it felt the same then. And that party turned out wonderful overall. Because, my god, nothing is ever perfect, but we have to look at the big picture and remember it’s about the people at the party. When my grandmother complained about the state of her yard, I said no one is coming to this party for the view or the food or decorations. They’re coming to see and spend time with you, to offer congratulations and well wishes on turning 90 years old. 

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