Amber room


When I first mentioned that I might be going to Lithuania with my 91-year old grandmother, my husband thought for a moment and said “don’t come back with any more amber.”

Like a person told not to think about a white polar bear and only able to do so, immediately I  pictured a chair with smooth, gleaming lines of bubbled translucent gold. There would be at least one fearsome bug preserved within. Even though it would not be feasible to check an amber chair on an international flight, let alone procure and afford one molded from the prehistoric resin of long extinct trees, I could not stop myself from thinking about it.

I have taken amber for granted most of my life. I have never paid for it (nor stolen it), though possess so much I sometimes discover amber rings or broaches in random drawers. Most of it was passed down from Baltic-raised relatives, though at least one piece, ironically, is from the same husband who forbade me to buy more. (Maybe he wants to buy it for me? Probably.)

I own hand crafted “lucky” amber earrings with darker stones of varying size. I wear these on special or difficult occasions, though recently noticed several of the smaller pieces are missing. This means random bits of luck have fallen out and been ground into dust. I have amber rings I can’t wear because they were made for slimmer fingers and bold necklaces that should never come back into fashion. It is not a particularly valuable or sought after gem, but still my eye is drawn every single time to the only amber jewelry in craft stalls or hippie head shops. Amber steeps in my blood.

International treasure hunters still search for the Amber Room. It’s easy to lose a few lucky stones from a pair of earrings, but imagine misplacing an entire room made of amber, worth about $500 million today. A Prussian King gifted it to a Russian Tsar in 1716 and it was embellished and added to over the years. In 1941, Nazi troops looted Catherine Palace and disassembled the Amber Room, packing it into 27 crates. These crates were last seen in Konigsberg in 1945. Maybe the crates were destroyed in the firebombing of Konigsberg. Maybe not. I do not think even the Amber Room contained a chair made of solid amber.

I am planning to travel to Lithuania in August with my 91-year old grandmother and my father. We plan to visit the village where my mother was born and hopefully the pine forest my grandmother swore was so clean she would lie down for a nap and not have to brush herself off afterwards. I feel like an eight-year old a month before Christmas, equal parts excited and terrified the big day will never come.

The last time my grandmother proposed this trip, I didn’t take it seriously and got pregnant within the year. I could not take a baby and young child on such an adventure, nor could I leave them behind. Also, my grandmother was too old, we thought. We never thought “let’s wait 10 more years so she’s even older” but that’s what we did. She told me if she doesn’t at least try to make this trip, she’ll be really, really sad. As I looked at her old, unstamped passport and the application for a new one, I saw a path laid out so clear there was nothing left to do but start following it.

This trip is a treasure within reach but never guaranteed. A lot can go wrong any given day, exponentially more when one traveler is a nonagenarian. It will not be an easy trip (I have never thought this). Still, we see this as a chance to do something we will never be able to do again with people who won’t always be around. If we make it, how can I not bring home at least one amber-encrusted souvenir spoon or paperweight with a perpetually stunned wasp inside?


Double vision

I thought I’d done a good job of disguising it with a scarf, but my grandmother informed me yesterday that I’d gained weight.

“I know,” I said. “You told me that last time you saw me.”

“I did?” she asked, genuinely surprised.

“You did. You don’t need to tell anyone they gained weight,” I added. “They already know.”

“I’ll remember not to tell you anymore,” she said, somewhat chastened.

“We’ll see,” I said.

I didn’t tell her that I’ve been back at the gym lately. I didn’t tell her I joined a cycling class which meets twice a week in the dark and how one of the instructors yells WOOOoooo during the hard parts, which are pretty much every other minute. It’s not that I’m afraid I won’t stick with it, but I have seen myself lose and regain weight before. She has too.

She deftly changed the subject to my brother’s weight gain, though his was self-reported since she hasn’t seen him in awhile. Later I realized this most likely came up after she’d told him how much weight I’d gained and felt a fresh wave of disappointment that a pretty scarf only goes so far.

“My problem is these things that keep growing on my skin,” my grandmother continued. She then told a brief but troubling story about an elderly friend who grew “a long stick” from her nose. Kids, if you’re reading, life has exciting things in store for you too.

“How’s your cat doing?” I asked, afraid of what she might bring up next.

The cat is not really hers, but does anyone really own a cat? She has been letting this cat into her house to eat and nap, although never overnight, for over a year.

When I visited at Christmas, she had me put a litter box in her basement. “It’s too cold for her to sleep outside,” she explained, which was true, however 1) this cat is a boy, and 2) he already has a place to sleep: at her neighbor’s house, where he lives.

They have an unspoken agreement whereby my grandmother feeds the neighbor’s cat and they don’t call the police on her. According to her, they have a lot of cats. She’s not sure if they just turn up or if the neighbor brings them home to replace cats other people borrow.

This cat, the one my grandmother borrows, is pretty great. She calls him Tiger, which is a funny name for a girl cat and still not his real name. When you put your hand out to pet Tiger, he rises on hind legs to meet you halfway. Something about him standing upright makes me easily picture him in trousers and a waistcoat. He seems like a wise angel sent to keep my grandmother company.

Grandmother and “Tiger” during warmer days

The other day my grandmother said she saw Tiger in the neighbor’s driveway when she was going to get her mail. She called out and walked towards him but he scampered off when she got close, which surprised my grandmother despite this being totally catlike behavior.

Once my grandmother got back inside, she found Tiger sleeping soundly on the couch, right where she’d left him.

“He looked exactly like my Tiger. Now I know where to find another cat if anything happens to him,” she said, sounding quite pleased with herself.

Breaking news from the National Christmas Center

Unlike The Pond’s Institute, The National Christmas Center is a real place. You don’t need a fancy undergraduate degree in skin rejuvenation to get in, though you do have to pay $12.50. Trust me when I say it’s well worth it, especially since The National Christmas Center will close its doors forever on January 7.

When I heard it was closing, I knew we had to go one last time. I wondered if it would feel anticlimactic or disappointing. Was it as magical as I’d remembered? I am happy or sad to report I feel new levels of anticipatory grief, which is maybe not surprising since Christmas is built around anticipation and nostalgia.

I had to describe nostalgia to my nine-year old daughter because she didn’t understand what it was. My teenaged daughter understands it and has for some time, so maybe it first occurs naturally between the ages of 9-13. It becomes a sweet, sad burden we alternate between trying to ditch at every turn and cuddling to sleep at night.

I viewed a lot of our final visit to The National Christmas Center through the screen of my phone. I know this is sad, but I wanted to preserve every last wax curmudgeon and animatronic weasel. One day I will hopefully have grandchildren and we will hover around a screen so I can show them pictures of their mother making a non-camera ready face around the Belsnickel exhibit.

(Unlike Santa Claus and Krampus, Belsnickel can go either way depending on whether the child was good or bad. He carries cakes and candies in his pockets, but also birch switches. I’ve been thinking about him lately when I look at my childrens’ wish lists.)

One thing about nostalgia is no two people wear it the same. It also fits us differently over time. I used to be more nostalgic for things I never experienced. This is why a place like The National Christmas Center appealed in the first place.

One room is set up to look like a Woolworth’s from the 1950s, two decades before I was born. I never owned a wind-up monkey or menacing marionette. For awhile I used to buy toys from my own childhood on eBay to feed nostalgia. Then I realized I could go to antique malls and take pictures on my phone and it would bring as much satisfaction and require less storage. This is around the time I started becoming nostalgic for people and places.

Photo credit: Joe

In my late 30s, I began having terrible pangs of loss for grandparents and other family members who were long gone. Still, the nostalgia wasn’t always personal. I missed spinning the lazy susan on my grandparent’s kitchen table and how it was always sticky from spilled sugar and King’s syrup. I missed the big rock in their front yard that I used to sit on for what felt like hours for no other reason than it was there. Did I miss the rock or my grandparents? How well did I know them anyway?

The next phase of nostalgia involved scanning a box of slides from my dad’s side of the family. My husband’s family had another box of slides, so we combined them for a bulk rate and to confuse whomever scanned them.

My family’s slides captured the wholesome ’50s with Gee Whiz smiles and party dresses. Joe’s family slides were early ’70s in every sense and included what looked like ragtag pirates but were actually hippies on a sailboat. His parents were hippies. I swear I never realized until I saw those slides. I’d be more jealous but my grandparents once hosted a luau in their Baltimore row home, as well as a series of odd costume parties. I have the baffling photos to prove it.

Hippies on a shipA couple of dumbbells

I am entering a new phase of nostalgia in my 40s. The pain is unfamiliar so a bit exquisite. I am nostalgic for the things I haven’t done or that I did do but would probably still do or not do again. It is not the same as regret, but more aligned with that than anything else. I’m nostalgic for the way my teenager and I used to get along just last year, even though I know she had to grow up and often that means apart. I am sad to know the same thing will happen with my still-cuddly nine-year old. I miss the days before my husband and I had kids because I remember more time and less weight, both literal and figurative. If I could go back in time, would it feel that way? As Joe said long ago, nostalgia is a liar. This is what I remember, anyway.

The National Christmas Center will close its doors, probably forever, on January 7, 2018. They are looking for a buyer, but I can’t imagine the price. The collectible value of its contents alone must be over a million dollars, plus it brings in literally busloads of patrons in Christmas sweaters year round. Each room will be probably be divvied up and sold at auction or else a reclusive billionaire will buy it to know what it feels like to live inside Christmas’ belly. I wish I was a reclusive billionaire.

One thing I enjoy about life is how you constantly get to reinvent yourself. The older I get, the less anyone seems to care how or why I do this. Time lends a gentle cloak of invisibility, which leads to its own kind of freedom in how we remember and honor the past. I don’t mean we should make shit up or distort the facts, but why not write a short story about a billionaire recluse who sleeps in a fiberglass burrow formerly occupied by a rabbit in a striped nightshirt? A useful byproduct of nostalgia is creativity.

Some of us feel compelled to preserve and even mold the past to make some sort of sense out of it. I like to think this will help future generations do the same. They may one day pour over photos and screens or memory scans and wonder who were those hippie pirates and who took all the pictures of wax figures inside The National Christmas Center. And what does it all mean?

If you can’t make it to The National Christmas Center before it closes and aren’t a billionaire, here’s a 360 google tour. God bless the internet, every one.

The case of the missing retainer UPDATE: Case Closed

As a good detective, your first job is to secure the scene. This involves shuffling to the curb in pajamas at dawn to drag the garbage can back to the side of the house.  The aroma of litterbox looms heavily in the humid air. You are filled with hope and disgust.

You interrogate each potential witness separately. Your husband texts “I don’t have it!” The exclamation mark might normally arouse suspicion, but his alibi is airtight: he’s out of town. You get to the perpetrator/victim’s younger sibling before she’s even out of bed. No, she hasn’t seen it either. The cats both look guilty but they always look like that. Actually, the one cat looks guilty while the other probably looks hungry. You release them and they slink off to stalk the fish tank and eat a little kibble.

Your key witness is pretty sure she last wore the retainer the night before last. She isn’t sure where she was when she took it out. The hot pink case you couldn’t miss if you were blind sits on the bathroom counter empty, like a missing child’s shoe found by the side of the road.

Your witness isn’t sure when and where she last saw her retainer. It might have been on her bedside table. It might have been on a placemat. You’ve been at this game long enough to know grabbing her by the collar while crying why in god’s name don’t you remember? Why?? won’t get any answers, though it might make you feel better.

When you re-read the victim’s statement, you keep going back to the part where she said I hope I didn’t throw it away in the bathroom. You didn’t get this far ignoring hunches. You can no longer put off the garbage like the snakes in Pee-Wee Herman’s heroic pet store rescue scene. You must go in.

The garbage does not disappoint. You don’t find the retainer, but it is even more disgusting than anticipated. What even is that one thing and where did it come from? You check under the bed, in drawers the victim clearly hasn’t opened since 2011, the top of the refrigerator, the mailbox. You frisk the cats but they misinterpret and purr.

When you get to work, you fight the urge to check the garbage can beneath your desk because the only way it would be there is if you were in on it the whole time.

You clear the schedule for the weekend. You plan in your head how you will sift through each bag of garbage, plus the recycling bin, wearing purple kitchen gloves and a handkerchief over your nose to stifle the stench. You make a note to do this somewhere private so the neighbors don’t send someone by with a butterfly net.

You scribble notes in your steno pad: check the lego bin; strip the victim’s sheets and wash them, killing two birds with one stone; look over by the fireplace, which is where you saw a cat batting something around the other day and assumed it was a bug but now you are not at all sure.

You are a very good detective and you will find it. A retainer doesn’t just vanish into thin air. Well, maybe that one time in 1988 when you put your own retainer on a plate for safekeeping while eating a sandwich on the back deck and then, for reasons unknown to anyone, shook the plate over the bushes and stones below. As one does.

You never got over that, obviously, but it helped make you the great detective you are today. You’ve told this cautionary tale to your daughter many times, assuming only those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. You do not recall your parents looking for your retainer as obsessively as you did then and now, those maddeningly translucent white whales.


Update: at approximately 5:12pm, you will apprehend the retainer inside a tan fleece blanket located on the victim’s bed. After giving the blanket a good shake, you’ll hear the sweetest ‘thunk’ on the carpet that you ever did hear. Knowing that you will not have to spend your Saturday sifting through garbage, you will order a celebratory pizza and cry out TGIF, MF! The vexing, useless ability to make a retainer vanish into thin air was not passed down to at least one of your offspring, after all.

How we pass time

My grandmother leaves a brief and mildly worrisome voicemail asking me to call her because she doesn’t feel well and wants some advice. She ends her message with “I don’t want you to get in a panic.” I am sitting at my desk when I listen, trying not to count how many times the young mechanic across the street slips behind a dumpster to vape or the minutes to lunch and now returning this phone call.

By the time I call back, my grandmother is not really sick. Whatever the problem was, it already resolved with prune juice and something stronger if mysterious due to a language barrier I’ve long given up on trying to deconstruct. Now she craves milk and also eggs but is too weak to drive to the store. I tell her to call her saintly next door neighbor, Lois, but my grandmother is, as usual, three steps ahead. She will call when she knows Lois’ granddaughter is down for a nap.

My grandmother says “If I had died from this, no one would have had any idea what killed me.” Maybe this is why she called, not for advice or reassurance but to pass along information that might prove useful post-mortem. This is what it must be like to outlive all your friends, your spouse, your child. My grandmother has become dramatically stoic while still engaged and interested in the day-to-day. She grills the middle-aged man who cuts her lawn on why he still lives with his parents. She has a much younger friend who takes her to buy a rotisserie chicken every Wednesday. She even has a cat on loan from another neighbor.

The cat thing bothered me for awhile because she was borrowing it surreptitiously. One day it showed up on her back porch and she opened the door and let it in. I guess it was like having a good friend over and not having any cake to offer because she went to the store afterwards and has been buying cat food ever since. I worried the cat’s real owner would notice and accuse my grandmother of catnapping, but as usual none of my worries play out and it turns out this cat is one of eight and hogs all the other cats’ food so I guess everyone (and cat) benefits from the arrangement.

My grandmother insists on calling the cat a she even though it is stocky and male. When you go to pet his head, he stands on hind legs to meet your hand faster. My grandmother and I both agree it is dangerous to invite a cat into a house without a litter box and to let it nap on your couch, possibly teeming with fleas, while you watch Fox News through equally droopy eyelids. But a part-time pet brings great pleasure and at regular intervals my grandmother shuffles to open the door and let the cat that is not hers outside.

Recently my grandmother told me she saw a strange creature in her backyard. At first she thought it was a cat, but its tail was striped with bold black and white rings and so long it dragged on the ground like a monkey’s. A week or so later, she saw another creature with a similarly droopy tail, only this one was cream colored and the size of “a very large squirrel”.  She said the striped tail creature looked just like an animal she saw on the news the other day, but she could not remember what it was called. I know what you’re thinking and she knew too because she told me Lois saw the creature lounging on the driveway and snapped a picture with her phone. 

When I visited my grandmother, I asked if she’d seen either creature again and she said no and added “Lois isn’t home right now, but next time I’ll have her show you the picture.” There were three cars in Lois’ driveway and I wondered how my grandmother was so sure about that.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.





where we’re going we don’t need maps

I used to pour over map books the way one might over a really good book. I loved using the key and then snaking two fingers along the page until they met at the exactly right part of the grid.

Knowing how to get places was a matter of necessity in my line of work as a volunteer coordinator for a hospice in metropolitan DC. Sometimes hospice is an actual building where people go to die in peace, smaller and less clinical than a hospital. But usually hospice refers to services provided in a dying person’s home, which can be anywhere. I had to be able to explain to volunteers how to get there and often delivered medical supplies or sat with patients myself. The internet was around then but I didn’t have it. Portable, affordable phones with instant directions in a soothing female voice would have sounded like some serious Jetsons witchcraft. I kept a well worn ADC map book in my work bag and then picked up another for the county where we lived and kept doing this each time we moved until Jetsons witchcraft came true.

I miss those ADC map books. The last one I bought was eleven years ago at a Wawa up the road while we were looking for a place to live. It was kind of pricey but I knew we would use the hell out of it. That very first day I opened to the master map and saw that red star next to the name of one of my favorite breweries. It turned out they had a brewpub down the road from one house my husband I both liked. It wasn’t our dream home or anything. The kitchen had and still has faux butcher block countertops exactly like the ones from my childhood home. The carpet in the living room still smells faintly of cat piss when it rains. The back yard was a blank slate then, no landscaping whatsoever beyond a handful of mature maples scattered around. But the view, oh the view. Beyond the neighbor’s lot, we could see a skyline of trees, layered like a painting with hints of soft color at the spring to come. My husband and I both saw it and said the same thing: we could live here.

a different, southern view
Before we made an offer, we decided it would be prudent to come back one more time and see the house again with fresh eyes. We lived hours away at the time and planned the trip around a visit to see family. I opened the map book and saw that red star next to the name of my favorite beer and said to my husband let’s check it out afterwards. This passed for high adventure in my mind and his too, I think.

If not for that ADC map book, we may have lived there years before finding that brewpub. It was buried in the middle of an industrial park, housed in an old Pepperidge Farm bakery. By the looks of it, not much had been done before moving in. The walls were bare except for a few beer banners and old black and white photographs of stout women in hair nets from its bakery days. There were long oak tables and farmhouse chairs and the wait staff was casual and friendly. They welcomed us for lunch even though we’d walked into some kind of staff chili cook-off. It felt as much like coming home as any new place can feel.

We made an offer on the house and came back to visit the brewpub many more times. The chili cook-off became an annual tradition, though I stopped going when I quit drinking. And also, I don’t really love chili. I mean, I make it a few times a year, but I never really get excited about eating it. Now, you give me a cupcake cook-off, I don’t think I would have missed a single year. This brewpub isn’t known for desserts but it does make a mean soft pretzel and their home-brewed root beer is also pretty great. But it took a long time sober to fully appreciate these other gifts.

Today I’m headed back for the first time in many years for another chili cook-off. A lot happened in the last eleven years. Although I no longer drink beer, a lot of people still do and business was so good they completely renovated the old bakery to the point where you have to close your eyes to imagine stout ladies in hair nets. They had enough left over to build two brand new brewpubs. The chili cook-off will be at one of those.

It’s not my favorite place to go because it smells like beer. They brew it there and that smell was pretty triggery in my early days of not-drinking. I smelled it and remembered bellying up to the bar by myself a few Friday afternoons to get the growler filled. I remember meeting my husband there a few times without the kids and feeling like we were getting away with something or the time I took my oldest kid on a Saturday afternoon and kept putting quarters in the claw machine until we won a stuffed purple gorilla in a bowler hat. None of these memories are particularly pleasant now and I don’t think they were then, either. I don’t want to discount everything that happened pre-sobriety, lumping it all together like one big mistake, but I was not at my best then. Some days I was a crackly shell of a woman.

I read two things so far this morning about facing triggers in sobriety. (They are not blogs, so I can’t link to them.) A friend wrote about knocking off early on a workday and, instead of heading to the bar, he went home and performed a delicate mechanical task he would have previously saved for Saturday and a delicately hungover state. This would have led to frustration and ultimately failure. The second thing I read was about someone reclaiming camping and late-night porch-sitting in sobriety. Both were examples of sober people going back to things they used to love while drinking but hid from for awhile. They figured they had to bury those old loves like we do when we’re newly sober. Since we’ve never lived a sober life before, we don’t know what it will be like. What we start to be able to imagine after a month or three or nine sober isn’t always great either. We don’t want constant reminders of what we’ve given up so sometimes we hide from things for awhile (and that’s okay).

A great things happens when we stick to the path we were meant for. It levels out and the brush clears and while the climb might still feel steep here and there, the views are spectacular. We find and take new paths and revisit old ones only to discover new joys. Some we put behind us forever. It’s important to listen and know when to do this, but also remember there are so many other paths. I kind of wish I’d kept my old ADC map book to snap a picture of how battered it got, the edges curled and worn from riding side saddle in the car all those years. Each memory is like a page, and I see how little I knew then and still now.




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