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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Still running (after all these years)

i do it for the sunsets

I’ve been a runner for about 5 years. I still feel funny calling myself one, but read an article a few years ago that said if you accumulate piles of sweaty clothes on the floor, you get to call yourself a runner. And so I am a runner.

I started running when I was about 6 months sober. I’d gained about 10 pounds when I quit drinking. How could this have happened when I’d cut out easily 1,000 calories a day? Witchcraft possibly, though more likely dessert even if I still can’t get the math to come out right.

Most of us feel the octopus effect when we give up drinking, that sly tentacle reach for another substance once we manage to get one in check. For many it’s food because food is delicious and comforting and we need it to survive so there’s always plenty around.

Running became a way for me to lose that extra weight but it turned into its own reward. Here is why it continues to work for me.

It costs nothing to run. 

This of course is not strictly true. We must invest in a pair of good running shoes. I buy my $100 pair for half-price when our local running store holds a sidewalk sale on last year’s models. I get running clothes on the cheap because I’ve found all brands trap the stink. Race fees add up if you’re into that sort of thing. Most of my running is done on roads where I live, which costs me absolutely nothing.

Then a funny thing happens a couple times a year and takes me by surprise every time: daylight fucking savings. I go from the freedom of being able to run safely outside before work or after dinner to not at all. So I join Planet Fitness because it’s $10 a month and I can run on treadmills and occasionally get hit on by old men. One guy said “I want you for Christmas” only I had earbuds in and took them out because I thought he was trying to tell me something less disturbing. Christmas had just passed like a month ago.  Then he talked about his wife for a few minutes and continued making the rounds to the other ladies on his super early Christmas list. His wife was not going to have a good Christmas.

There are also too many TVs at the gym. Bad news and infomercials splayed like gutted fish. I take my glasses off at the gym so everything is fuzzy and leave my earbuds in. I do this because it’s only temporary and in order to be a runner I have to keep generating sweaty piles of clothes.

I get to do it by myself. 

This is notwithstanding awkward social encounters at the gym, i.e. see above or that time an attendant had to ask me to switch machines because mine was making a funny noise, me red-faced thinking I broke it with cloddish heft though maybe it was furious effort or the fact that a hundred people use it per day.

For some, running is a social activity. I see lots of women chat side-by-side on treadmills. My sister belongs to a running group that meets on Sundays to run 10 miles over hills on purpose. Somehow it still sounds fun, but I’m a solo runner. The first time I slipped out the front door in sneakers and earbuds, I looked back for the spotlight and prison guards. I was really getting away with something, a working mother of two with this delicious hour to myself with no questions or demands.

Running also gives me time to think. I’ve pre-written almost as many blog posts on a run as I have in the car, and I spend way more time there. I love being in my own head, listening to favorite songs. I love spending time in nature. One morning I saw 2 doe, 2 fawns (still with polka dots), a heron, a fox, a half-dozen squirrels and at least a dozen bunnies, plus a guy walking a dog. This was all in the span of a half hour.

I don’t have to be the best, which is really fortunate. 

I used to feel embarrassed by my pace. Others made the point that at least I was getting out there or that it wasn’t a race, though sometimes it literally was. In five years of running, I haven’t gotten a whole lot faster. The longest distance I’ve run is about 8 miles, which is a far cry from a marathon. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to run a marathon. I also don’t want to put the work in to get a lot faster. I stopped tracking pace and distance in spring so I literally don’t know how fast or far I’m running.  I do feel stronger and leaner the more I run. I get to eat 5 cookies and still fit into my pants. Those are the numbers I care about.

Running makes me feel good. 

Let me be clear that I do not feel good while running. Around the 15 minute mark I usually feel better than I did at the 5 minute mark, but it isn’t like getting a massage or taking a nap. Running, like any strenuous activity, is really hard. What feels great is being done with the run. I literally get an endorphin boost so that I feel a little high for about an hour afterwards. (There is no subsequent crash either.) Mostly I suspect it feels good because I know I got out there and did it.

I get to share it with others. 

This goes against what I said about it being a solo activity, but both of my daughters run too. I wonder sometimes if I’m like a pageant mom who strong armed them into it, but I don’t think so. Or maybe I made running look good, though I’ve seen myself in the mirror afterwards and don’t think that’s it.

My oldest is in her second year of high school cross country. Those girls are hard core. They got up at 6:30 am six days a week all summer long and ran 3-5 miles in some of the hottest, muggiest weather I can recall. My daughter did this despite the very real fear she would not make the team. In fact, she fell short in the timed trial, but the coach let her stay on and she’s well aware what it feels like to be the caboose. She’s the kid who crosses the finish line after some spectators move on because they assume the race is over. Each time she gets close to the finish line, I cheer loud and tear up because I know it’s fucking hard not only to run but to be the very last one. I’m beyond proud of her.

My youngest is about to start a running program at her elementary school. We got her new running shoes and gave a pep talk about how it takes time and practice to get better and stronger. She is not brand new to running so she knows this already. In December, her and I and maybe her sister too will run a 5K race to celebrate end of season. Three miles is almost a cake walk once you’ve done it a few dozen times, so I’m looking forward to being there for her.

Teenaged me, who couldn’t even run a mile in high school, would be in awe of both of them. Adult me knows running beats booze and boys. Every parent wants a better life for their kids and I hope mine will choose to channel stress into something positive and rewarding.

Running works right now for me, but it won’t forever and it isn’t the only way. There’s also walking or biking or maybe knitting, all of which are easier on joints. The key seems to be finding something that is equal parts torture, er, challenge and reward. Taking the healthier routes seems to naturally lead to the next right path.

Smorgasbord 

Yesterday was one of those rare September Saturdays when we had nothing to do, so of course we fixed that. The four of us loaded into the car and rolled past hills and horse drawn buggies into Amish country. When we stopped for gas, there was a young Amish man in a wide brimmed straw hat and suspenders pulling in on a bike with no pedals. He used a credit card at the pump to fill up one of those red plastic gas containers. The soft curve of his mouth and lack of forehead burrows suggested deep contentment, not unlike the usual expression of a dog or a non-Amish person napping at the beach.

Every time we head out this way, I remember the fantasy I have of running off to join an Amish farm. As with all fantasies, this one is not well thought out and I wonder where it came from. Are the peat farmers perched on gently swaying branches of my family tree to blame? Maybe it was just the smoldering Amish sponge bath scene (the first time the previous five words were strung together on purpose?) from Witness.

If you want to kill an Amish fantasy or any fantasy for that matter, take it to a PA Dutch smorgasbord. We line up like cattle to drink lukewarm pepsi from frosted plastic cups and leave half-eaten pieces of fried chicken for starving pigs. The best part of the buffet are these enormous diorama paintings in the lobby. Everything is over-sized at the smorgasbord, but these feel right.

On the drive home, we muscle through clouds of manure and a town where every resident had the same idea to haul their castoffs out to the lawn and see who will pay money to take it away. Soon the sun will set and they’ll have to pack it all back into boxes or bags and pretend they still love it.

Our kids beg us to have another yard sale, but really they just want to drink lemonade and eat brownies in the front yard while strangers appraise bad decisions with hands folded behind backs, heads cocked to feign interest before moving on to the next bad decision. I find it too embarrassing so instead we drag bigger household items to the curb the moment we’ve decided their joy-bringing days are over and later look out the window and they’re gone, vaporized or beamed to another planet for all I know. Clothing and shoes are tied up in garbage bags and delivered to donation bins within the week by a spouse who fights clutter like its crime.

Even though I’ve never read the book on the Japanese art of decluttering, I do the thing where I ask if each item brings joy and then get rid of it if it doesn’t. It may be unfair to expect that of a pair of boots in the first place, but I had three pair at the back of the closet that brought nothing but pain. Earlier this week I got rid of a pair of shoes because one made a sound not unlike a small squeak toy with each step. I threw them away on a whim at the carwash, placing them neatly at the top of a mound of life detritus and later hoped no one thought “oh look, a new pair of shoes!” It took the doc martens I bought in college over 20 years to start squeaking, and even though I can no longer wear them to work because the hallways are too quiet, I don’t throw them out because they still bring joy.

The cats, in their usual helpful way, take turns climbing into storage bins and on top of clothing piles I’m trying to work with. It gives me an idea for a series of books called Organizing With Cats. Organizing Your Kitchen With Cats, for example, would feature tips about the best way to clean and store cast iron pans alongside photographs of cats resting in stockpots or surveying progress from the top of the refrigerator (protip: assess cleanliness by checking the bottoms of paws) and would make the perfect addition to any yard sale.

Boo (and my baby)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

How I spent vacation saving but also drowning (more) spiders

Welcome to anyone reading after a post I wrote about accidentally drowning a spider got picked for Wordpress Discover. What a surprise that was, but no more surprising than when I accidentally on purpose drowned another spider this week though saved another just minutes before and am now wondering if it was somehow the same spider. There was also that spider I saved in the shower last week, but he was paler and clearly not related. I should probably craft a tiny life preserver with eight arm holes and keep it on me at all times, even in the shower.

The latest spider rescue and subsequent drowning started 12 years ago at a small inn in the Adirondacks which alluded to a view of the lake in its name though you had to crane your neck just so to imagine it. Cars rumbled by on a busy road separating the cottage from the lake and on the interstate just behind a thin layer of woods. It was not as peaceful as we’d imagined but the charming couple that had only recently bought and fixed up the place left baked goods in the room and lured us out each night with a campfire and s’mores. It was just me and my husband and our one daughter then. I took this picture of them at the far away lake.

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This year we went back and the first thing we noticed was the For Sale sign out front. A different woman checked us into the same cottage, which felt smaller than we’d remembered and the bathroom smelled like body odor or ass depending on which one of us you asked, so we just kept the door closed. After settling in and wondering why the hell we’d come back, we headed down to the lake and attempted to recreate the beloved photo.

 

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We can’t help it that the pier and ‘no trespassing’ sign were long gone. My husband could have stooped down but it would have seemed forced. We let our other kid stand in and no one is in a diaper or cowboy hat because we suck at re-creating old photographs from memory.

The spiders, though, well I’m getting to that. The cottage stay came with unlimited use of a kayak and canoe, which by the looks of both hadn’t been used in some time. We did our best to clean them both out of wolf spiders, but we missed one. I think it hid behind my youngest daughter’s seat cushion because I first noticed it climbing up the back of her rain jacket. It paused a bit on the top of her head like one would on the top of a mountain to take in the view and then kept going until it disappeared from view and onto what I assumed was her face.

You can’t just stand up in a tandem kayak. You can, as calmly as possible, urge your daughter, who is sometimes afraid of gnats, to “just bat it off with your hand”. You will still only be able to see the back of her head, which is further obscured by a hood, so you may feel like you’re instructing someone you can’t see where to wipe away a pesky glob of ketchup if ketchup were hairy and horrifying. You will be able to see that her hands are maddeningly still by her side and you will hear her terrified whimpers, so naturally you will shout the same instructions only louder. JUST BAT IT OFF. YOU HAVE TO BAT IT OFF.

The good news is this spider came round to her shoulder to see what all the yelling was about and I used the paddle to fling him into the water. I didn’t feel great about it, but I had no choice. The kayak mood was killed after that. We paddled back to shore and my older daughter said she noticed right away that something was wrong by her sister’s posture and face and how her hair covered her face. She hadn’t heard the yelling, oddly. After I explained about the spider, my younger daughter asked “There was a spider on me?” She had no idea what I was freaking out about, though assumed a bug or horrible monster.Those were her words, by the way. Freaking out. I need to work on my calm voice.

Can wolf spiders swim? I think they might be able to because I rescued one with the same paddle moments before we launched the kayak and it kind of seemed like it was already heading to shore. My husband claims he accidentally flung that one into the lake and I got pissy with him, though now wonder if I didn’t somehow rescue it right back into the kayak. Anyway, I drowned the other (or possibly same) spider. Nature can be surprisingly quick with the whole balance thing.

We stayed a few nights at the cottage and settled into the sound of trucks rumbling by and even the body odor/ass smell in the bathroom. No one coaxed us out for campfires and s’mores so my husband built a roaring one and we bought supplies at a store down the road. We only ever saw one of the owners. The other, it seemed, was no longer in the picture. I thought for longer than seemed sane about buying the inn and running it ourselves, but those days of infinite possibility and hope are over. I’m fine watching Fawlty Towers once a year (usually around Thanksgiving) and being reminded why running an inn is a terrible idea.

You can’t always go back. You can’t save a spider without drowning another one. You can’t fix things that are broken because sometimes they’re meant to be that way. It’s sad if you look at something broken in the usual way, but over time the picture might change into something different, surprising even.

 

 

On Deal Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Radiant (or how not to give a spider a bath)

  It’s Wednesday night, just me and my 7 year-old daughter, and I’m having a hard time settling into the play time I promised earlier when I wasn’t thinking about dinner or checking and signing off on homework, which will probably require a Notary by the time she is a parent. The thought of Candyland exhausts even her, so we browse an extensive movie library of mostly crap and stream Charlotte’s Web, which my daughter tells me they’re reading in class.

This is the live-action remake, not the funky 70s cartoon, which I think we can all agree had a jazzier take on Templeton’s fair binge, but it’s very hard to get kids to watch old stuff without being reminded how boring it is to new people. About an hour in, I realize my daughter has no idea how it ends. We’re heading to heartbreak at breakneck speed.

She innocently asks what radiant means and I offer a rushed definition that does not clarify how radiant could possibly apply to a pig because I’m not sure, and then I casually warn her the movie has a sad ending. Then I wind up spoiling the whole thing because I don’t want her to think the pig dies, which I think would be sadder. When the (spoiler alert!) deathbed scene happens and Wilbur pulls away in the back of a truck while Charlotte takes her last spider breaths, I realize I’m wrong.

In real life, a spider is a terrifying thing you might see in your washing machine after you already added water and the costume clothes you bought at Goodwill and left in a bag in the garage to quarantine for several days (because the only insect scarier than spiders are bedbugs) and you scream a scream even you don’t recognize as coming from yourself and slam down the lid, and later you will make your husband switch out the laundry but will not ask about the limp, spindly carcass the size of a small rodent he must have pulled out and had to bury in the backyard. You do not inform the children their hobo costumes are now haunted by a spider. This is all hypothetical, of course.

The movie version of a spider has fur that looks soft and inviting and pretty eyelashes and a voice like Julia Roberts’, and she has just died poignantly, heartbreakingly.

My daughter crumbles and tells me she needs a hug and I hold her while trying to hide my own tears. She says “I don’t want you to die” and breaks into fresh sobs and I tell her I don’t plan to anytime soon and make a weak joke about being compared to a spider but she forces me to stay with her grief. She says “At least we’ll get to see each other again in heaven” and I wonder when she came up with that because we only recently discussed heaven as one possibility. I like that she thought about it more and made it her own.

This makes me think of my own mother, who is presumably up in heaven waiting for her mother to join her and later, if all goes well, my brother and I. The mother I barely know is a collage of outfits and happy poses from photographs I’ve seen and stories my grandmother told over the years, and yet I’ve felt her love my whole life, especially in the last year, which is interesting but not surprising because I wasn’t looking as hard before.

I start to think about how it might work in heaven, like at what age are we preserved and how do family members find us, presumably not all at the same time since who wants tense family dinners in the afterlife. And what about the cats I’d love to see again, plus my aunt’s golden retriever that used to let us lie on her like a pillow. I don’t care how peaceful heaven is, my old cats won’t put up with other cats, much less a dog. Plus there are possibly spiders in heaven. 

I say to my daughter that when someone dies, their spirit lives on in our hearts and memories and they never leave us. I think to myself that her and I are making a memory right now because we are both 100% in the moment together and crying on the couch (me silently). It reminds me of how I used to hold her in this same spot and stare at her tiny perfect face in the weeks after she was born in an effort to make maternity leave feel as long as possible. Heartbreak is everywhere, but instead of waiting to possibly see someone in heaven again, we get to love the ones we have right now and create and savor new memories, each more delicious than the last.

Que sera, sera

We leave a half hour earlier than planned and I stop the car in the middle of a road to take pictures of a horse farm. We finally get apple cider donuts at the place I’ve been telling the girls we’ll stop at, someday.

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photo credit: my daughter

Because we are still early when we get closer to my grandmother’s house, I decide we’ll take a 5 minute detour and drive past my other grandparents’ old house. You know, see if it’s still there, look for the big rock I used to sit and think on, the same one featured in the 11 o’clock news after a bus filled with mentally disabled adults lost control and rolled over in my grandparents’ front yard. (I don’t think anyone died, but the internet wasn’t around then.)

As we’re sailing down the exit ramp, a voice whispers what about Hamilton? 

Hamilton is where my still-living grandmother used to live long ago. It’s close enough to Baltimore that you can see the skyline from the front of the church she used to drag us to on Sundays. I didn’t mind the holy incense, but unfortunately it didn’t have any of the scary-garish sculptures like the bigger church downtown. Screw hat-counting for entertainment when you can gape at bleeding stigmatas.

I went the way google maps told me to drive to Hamilton, which was not the same way Dad used to go. I used the time to wax philosophical with my oldest daughter.

Remember that house we drove past in summer, the one where we talked to the old neighbors? That was the house where Amom had a lot, and they were going to build their own house right next door. Can you imagine that…growing up literally next door to your grandparents? 

I still could not, though I tried to imagine for years how life would have been different if my mom hadn’t died of cancer when I was still a baby.

Usually I would have been popular and had better clothes in these fantasies, and somehow turned out more attractive. It sounds superficial because I was, but maybe also I couldn’t imagine what power having a real mother might yield…I didn’t recognize the unconditional love I already had.

Google maps dumped us in Hamilton behind the school with the funky 70s sculpture, which frankly I was surprised was still there. My grandmother and many others like her – working class immigrants – fled to the suburbs 30 years ago.

I was surprised by how well-kept the homes looked in her old neighborhood, at the trim yards and Christmas decorations. Time may have passed through this way, but it kept going. We drove past my grandmother’s old house with the front porch with the springy give and tar smell, or maybe it was old oiled wood.

Next door on one side was her mother’s old house, where I used to skip over for honey tea and cookies at a tin side table by the sunny window. I could wave to my grandmother from there, and did so many times.

Next door on the other side was where Porky lived. Porky was a scruffy terrier I used to feed rolls of salami, chunks of bread, and sometimes carrots and grapes through the chainlink fence while his owner, a specter I never saw through anything but sheer kitchen curtains, glared or just watched, I could never really tell.

I miss Porky and my great-grandmother, who are long gone, but it struck me that I was also nostalgic for someone I could still spend actual time with. My grandmother is still alive and well for 89.

At first I wasn’t going to tell her we drove past her old house in Hamilton. Although my kids and husband are used to these spur-of-the-moment side trips, my extended family must find it strange and a little insulting that I’d rather take time away from a visit. Still, the past doesn’t just belong to me.

“We were early,” I said, “so I drove past your old house on Birchwood. It looks pretty good.”

“Oh yeah? Did you go to Holy Redeemer Cemetery and see your great-grandmother?” my grandmother asked.

I spend my time trolling past houses where relatives haven’t  lived in years, possibly creeping out the folks who live there now. My grandmother spends her time in cemeteries. We’re a regular modern day Addams Family.

She probably knew I didn’t go when she asked, but she set us up to drive to a different, closer cemetery where my mother is buried. My daughters have been before, but the novelty is still new and interesting, possibly a little tragic.

I am disproportionately proud that I still mostly know the way through the intricate veins of the cemetery road system. There is literally no one around and I think this is what creeps me out most about cemeteries. They seem like a great place to get yourself murdered.

A biting wind yanks our car doors open and we scramble out to straighten the Christmas greenery she put out last month. Everything is knocked down, including a heavy iron urn on my grandfather’s modest unmarked plot across the way. I can’t remember why he wasn’t buried with the rest of my family, but he’s probably happier over there, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking warm cans of Budweiser if I know him.

We pause for a picture because I already told my daughters I want a selfie with all four of us. There’s a generation missing and you can’t really tell where we are, but we snap a cemetery selfie before rushing back to the car for shelter and warmth and the beep beep beep the car makes when my grandmother refuses to buckle her seat belt.

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The playlist is up to its old tricks and Que Sera Sera comes on and my grandmother says “Oh Doris Day. Is she still alive?” It doesn’t seem likely, but what do I know. I feel my mother’s presence in the car.

If my mother were still alive, my parents would still live in that old house, my grandmother right next door. I might have been wrong about the more attractive thing, but I am positive of this.

If we’d never moved to a completely different part of the state when I was little, I wouldn’t have met my best friend, who introduced me to my college roommate, who got me a job at the pool where I met my husband, who gave me two beautiful, very specific human beings. Great loss brought angels to watch over us in another lifetime.

 

 

100 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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