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.

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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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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!

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.

Heading into the Eye of the Storm

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

It turns out Reading is a magical land

Lately I don’t look forward to the same family traditions like I used to. I didn’t used to be like this and find it’s a byproduct of sobriety. And so the thought of going to the same Oktoberfest that we’ve already been to 9 times in the last 10 years held as much appeal as a trip to the hardware store.

My family did not share the same epiphany that trying new things is more fun than sticking to what we already know we love. And so I met general resistance when we headed to the new-to-us Reading Liederkranz Oktoberfest celebration, which only grew when we had to park in a muddy field in the rain and catch a shuttle bus.

(Have you been on a school bus recently? And I mean one barreling down steep, wet hills or straining to climb them, always seemingly on the verge of losing control or tipping over? One of the many gifts of youth is we don’t appreciate the daily dangers we lived until much later.)

This “new” Oktoberfest turned out to be so much fun. 4 out of 4 family members said they would go back. And remember,  3 of us don’t drink so it was all about the food, music and people in lederhosen cracking whips on the dance floor. (We saw a slightly different version, but still, whips!)

On the way there, my husband noticed a sign for the Reading Pagoda, and we took a slight detour on the way home to check it out. Perched at the edge of Mt. Penn and lording 600 feet above the sprawl of Reading, Pennsylvania is a 7-story Japanese pagoda. Built in 1908 as a luxury resort, the original owner had to sell it when he ran out of money and the city denied him a liquor license. The next owner sold it to the city for $1, which is how much it costs now to climb 87 steps (verified by my kids) to the top for sweeping views of the city and closeups of Wawa and Chik-fil-a signs through the 25 cent tower viewer. That’s what my kids zeroed in on anyway.

At the top, we also found a Japanese bell cast in 1739 and inscribed with an end-of-time prophesy, as well as assorted memorabilia behind glass cases. It smelled old and familiar, like my grandparents’ basement before Sunday dinner. My husband said it smelled like “hot dog farts” which was probably more accurate since I did notice a woman eating a hot dog in the ground level cafe.

This is why I get tired of sticking to the same tried and true favorites. We’ve lived within an hour of Reading for the past decade and finally got there. We plan to head back soon, but next time we’ll try something new and that wasn’t even my idea.

 

A trio of treats before two

It wasn’t even 11am when we witnessed a grandfatherly type make a pass at a female clown. He asked what her name was and when she told him Sweet Heart he said “That’s a pretty name. Can you share some of that sweetness with me?”

“Right now I’m working,” she said, more resigned than annoyed, like it happens all the time, men hitting on her when she’s in mustard yellow ringlets, full clown makeup and shoes the size of Texas. Her words forced our attention to the agile flicks and twists of her hands as she pumped and threaded balloons into a skeleton before our eyes. We were well down the street of the festival before we noticed the skeleton only had one eye so we’ll never know why. Maybe he’s winking, I suggested.

The haircut place had its own fun.  I was buried in a garish children’s book about mummies and only put it back (sheepishly) once I realized my kid had been called minutes ago and I had no excuse to still be reading. Mummies are fascinating but eavesdropping is safer because you can pretend to be thinking about grown up things.

A guy in his 30s was in the chair closest to me with a young pink-haired stylist on one side and another woman, his girlfriend or wife, giving orders from behind. “Take a little more off the top, but not too flat” she instructed, while the man sat looking dim but content. I wondered if he was mute or foreign, but after the woman wandered off to talk to another stylist, he yelled across the room “Hon, how do I want my sideburns?”

I studied his haircut as surreptitiously as possible once the cape came off and he stood and fairly beamed. The cut suited him, if only because I’d  never seen anyone look as happy as I feel when I get a good haircut. He swaggered over to his lady and took a bite of the apple she’d been eating and they traded it back and forth for awhile. Once I saw a small child share an apple with a dog but that was kind of cute.

On the way home, we parked by a trail we hadn’t been to in ages and weren’t the only ones to neglect. Already narrow paths were eroding into the creek. I had to warn the kids not to fall in but they were busy jabbing each other with sticks. Several large trees had fallen across the trail at various points. I banged my shin hard climbing across one, not because the walk was cursed but because I was in jeans with a belly full of cheese curd from the festival.

We took the high trail by mistake and came out above the mysterious amphitheater and had to go the long way around a meadow of goldenrod and bees. We’ve always wondered about this amphitheater in the middle of the woods. Who dragged the lumber a mile from the trail head or maybe across a raging creek to build it? And why? Has it ever been used aside from mock pulpit lectures by power-hungry children on family hikes?

Sadly it’s in bad shape, and my shin too, though I managed a series of selfies.

 

The top photo is me not understanding how to work the timer. (My oldest daughter’s expression is my favorite part.) The middle picture is me not understanding mirror images and which side to sit on. Third time’s the charm!

 

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