The 2018 Lithuanian Cemetery Tour

While sandwiched between my father and a non-English speaking relative I had never met before in the backseat of a stuffy, late model BMW, I saw storks standing in soft rolling fields and neatly tiered cemeteries and had the certain thought this must be a dream. We aren’t really here.

But I have never been uncomfortably warm in a dream nor registered smells like sunbaked dashboard and smoldering diesel. Twelve plus hours of travel and we really were in Lithuania.

At a stoplight, the driver offered my grandmother a dusty tin cup rummaged from the glove box. She said something in Lithuanian and he wiped the cup with a marginally less dusty rag before filling it halfway with mineral water. My grandmother gave a shrug and tipped her head back to drink and I, thirstily in the back seat, thought she’s home again.

We stopped in the town of Trakai and ate Kibinai, a pastry with a neatly fluted crust and meat filling. We waved away bees at an outdoor café overlooking a lake and 600 year-old castle I had only ever seen before in a painting in my grandmother’s house. I’m sure I never thought it was real.

My dad and I followed one of the relatives inside the castle and climbed an incredible labyrinth of stairs leading to warm rooms, always stuck behind a large foreign-speaking tour group. This would become a theme for the week: not understanding what anyone is saying and sweating and thinking I can’t believe we’re really here!

My grandmother was pretty amazing. She will be 92 next month and easily boarded countless shuttle buses and climbed more stairs in a week than she has all year. She visited 9 family graves in 4 cemeteries and climbed into and out of a Volkswagen Vanagon something like 18 times. And she was the life of the party at the 7 mini-reunions we had over the course of 8 days.

She always had an arm to hold onto and help when needed. Her (my) family was so good to her (us). In one of the bigger cemeteries, one of the men we were with turned a collapsible walker with a seat and his leather belt into a makeshift wheelchair he and another man pulled along the paved path.

Let me tell you about the cemeteries. I always thought my grandmother’s preoccupation with visiting graves and planting and pruning flowers and bushes around them was a bit unusual and, well, unnecessary. Then I saw a woman carefully washing the marble border around a graveside shrine after raking the stones inside and understood.

It turns out Lithuanian cemeteries are nothing like US cemeteries. They are like serene parks in heaven or some other majestic planet. It might be a European or Catholic thing, but cemeteries are revered and holy and pristine.

You are never alone in a Lithuanian cemetery, even if everyone has their head bent down pulling weeds or lighting candles. The dead are gone but visited often. Many graves featured photographic images of loved ones, not unlike the kind you can get printed on t-shirts at the beach. I saw a sign at one cemetery with the word Fotokeramika in big letters and worried it prohibited photography. But I google translated the rest and realized it was just telling people who to contract to get photographs of their loved ones printed on graves.

I took a lot of pictures in cemeteries. I photographed relatives’ names and dates on markers for future genealogy searches. I photographed living relatives standing around or behind graves, my grandmother in every picture, no one smiling exactly.

Truthfully, my father and I were a little tired of cemeteries by the third one. But that was the one where my grandmother gave a tearful speech, only partially in English, about why she fled the country, her home, after the Russians had run out the Germans and called it liberation.

She cried again when we drove down a gravel road crammed with houses that used to be her parent’s farm until the Soviets took it. We sat inside the church where she married my grandfather. Their marriage did not last and while the original church survived WWII, it was dismantled and repurposed by the Soviets before being rebuilt in the early ’90s.

I didn’t love the village like I thought I would. The people were wonderful but I expected to feel some connection to the town since my mother was born there. Knowing the dark history – the genocide and suffering – left me feeling a bit heavy and flat.

I was more than ready to move on to the Devil’s Museum in Kaunas. Everyone wanted to understand why it was so important to me. Why have I wanted to go there ever since I was a little girl? I don’t know, why did I buy a small skeleton devil at CVS yesterday? Why not? It’s like asking why you love cats or dogs or musicals. You just do or you don’t.

I almost didn’t get to see the Devil’s Museum at all, but mentioned it as an aside to one of the younger, English-speaking relatives and the next thing I knew all 12 of us were crowded into the lobby buying tickets for 3 Euros each or something ridiculous like that.

It was awesome and so was the Devil’s Museum. I took 5 million photos (all of which I am going to show you right now…) and when I missed a good devil, a cute little 3 year-old spitfire we were traveling with pointed her chubby finger and said Fotografuok and I did. And then I had to show her the photo on my phone screen and she would nod and then we could proceed. It was her first visit to the Devil’s Museum too and she will probably not remember it but may one day want to go back and not be able to explain why.

My grandmother got to see her cemeteries and I got to see my devil’s museum and my dad got to see his KGB museum, which sounds cool and was, but it was also very sobering. When I think KGB, I think eavesdropping room (pictured above), but not necessarily basement prison and execution room for resistors. The execution room had bullet holes in the wall and a glass floor with personal effects like jacket buttons and wire rim glasses on display below.

As an American, I take freedom for granted. When Lithuania fought and regained independence in 1990, I remember a festival in Baltimore I didn’t go to because I was in high school and had to work or smoke cigarettes in the woods with my friends. It meant little at the time except there goes my grandmother with her fierce Lithuanian pride. I was and continue to be an idiot, yes, but I get it now.

And oh, the spirited hospitality of Lithuanians. We slept in comfortable beds (you get no top sheet but do get your own duvet in a double bed!) while one host slept on a bedroll in the kitchen. We were driven a maddening number of kilometers by men who would only occasionally and then begrudgingly accept reimbursement. Even their cats were attentive and sidled up for pets, purring in Lithuanian.

We feasted on garden grown fruit and vegetables and salmon caught on a fishing trip to Norway. We slathered backyard honey on homemade cheese. I never ate so good and craved so little, except maybe water. It started with the dusty tin car cup and an unfounded fear of tap water and ended with me falling in love with the salty mineral water which tasted like warm ocean the first time I drank it but became my favorite thing that I can’t get back home. Our mineral water is a joke.

We spent our last couple of days in Vilnius at the airbnb apartment I wrote about last post. It was excellent, by the way, and I don’t think anyone looked in our windows because they had some special anti-peeping tom coating. It also had metal shutters you could put down at night that were very Get Smart. We never did since air conditioning and fans aren’t a thing over there that I could tell. As for the streets of old town Vilnius, google street view couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing.

On our last day in Lithuania, my dad and I climbed a steep cobbled hill to Gidimenas Tower, where I coughed up at least one lung due to some ailment I picked up just before my trip even though I hadn’t been sick in 2+ years.

That reminds me, I’m glad I didn’t take this trip newly sober. I was offered shots of strange liquor at least a dozen times. I had to put my hand over my coffee cup once to keep a well meaning but not-getting-it host from pouring in booze to help my cough. They like to drink over there and no amount of polite refusal seemed to reduce their bewilderment or suspicion. I insulted them by not drinking and experienced the irony a teetotaler knows well.

Our travel went remarkably well until the final leg home, most of that after we landed at Dulles. There were extra long lines at customs due to new face recognition technology and then some guy took my suitcase and didn’t realize until after he got to his hotel. We were all fried by the time my dad and I dropped my grandmother off and drove home.

I was a little nervous about talking to my grandmother on the phone after a few days of recovery. I wanted her to be as satisfied with the trip as I was.

The first thing she said was my father and I left her house so fast after the airport, it was like we were on fire. We didn’t even sit and have something to drink, which I now know to be a great insult to a Lithuanian.

Also, she couldn’t believe she didn’t come back with any Lithuanian bread or cheese or candy. We didn’t get to see the Hill of Crosses either, she reminded me. I couldn’t tell if she was complaining or trying to prepare me for another trip.

I might be able to find the bread and candy online, I said. I just want to enjoy this trip for awhile. She wanted to know if I ever wanted to go back. Definitely, I said. One day I will take my daughters so they can take theirs, and so on.

My dad and grandmother with a cousin. My grandmother never said goodbye, just til next time.
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Fever dream

I plug in the address of our airbnb rental 4,000 miles away and fall into a fever dream. Google street view shifts seamlessly between a summer scene of a man in dark slacks and dress shoes appearing to peer in the window of our rental flat and then in the next frame, just as in a dream, it is suddenly snowing and also six years later. Everything looks the same except the funky art gallery next door is now a trendy hair salon and the graffiti is different and all the house numbers have changed, so it wasn’t our rental flat after all.

In a way street view spoils everything. Will I still be dazzled by narrow cobblestone walkways that on closer inspection turn out to be two-way streets and 500-year-old bell towers framed between sun baked red tile rooftops? In another way, street view is a much needed reality check. Stick to main routes and beware alleys. (Though the most startling image I saw in one was a swarm of uniformed school children marching towards the google camera with blurred out faces.) Yes, there is a coffee shop three doors down and it is close to all the touristy spots, but people peer in windows in the middle of the day. Keep the blinds closed and be wary of even well dressed men.

88% of our accommodations are booked for this trip. The only thing I love more than meaningless math is obsessive travel planning. Sometimes I think planning a trip is better than the actual trip. It is like a dollhouse. You can arrange things however you like and it is tiny and perfect even if the pieces don’t match and you have, for example, an antique dollhouse grandmother with a tidy white bun and a 70s plastic girl with lemon wedge hair and one scratched off eye.

As a Planner, it was hard to sit on my hands for months and see what gaps were left to fill. There weren’t many. There have been increasingly vague but still enticing offers of places to stay with distant relatives that I can not verify because of a language barrier. I pictured that scene in National Lampoon’s European vacation where the Griswolds show up on a foreign relative’s doorstep and are welcomed and fed, but then when they leave the couple turns to each other and asks “who the hell were they?”

I am going to learn a few Lithuanian words so I can say things like Hello and Please and Nice to finally meet you and also practical phrases like Where are the toilets and Stop looking in my window. Thank You is pronounced AH-choo, like the sneeze, so I already have that memorized. My fluent grandmother is still sore my parents didn’t agree to language school on weekends when I was a kid, but the only thing I retained from four years of high school Spanish is Where is the shoe store? so I think they made the right call. There is always google translate and, of course, my grandmother.

She is 91 years old. Sometimes she forgets and speaks to me in Lithuanian on a good day. Some people think my dad and I are crazy for taking her overseas even though 1) it was her idea and 2) I don’t want to hear it if you agree with them. While shopping for travel insurance policies, an agent told me he just sold one to a 101-year-old woman and her 80-year-old daughter. I wanted to hug him through the phone. People do impossible things every day.

Do you know how hard it is to find a stairless apartment in old town East Europe with a five star average review and moderate cancellation policy (and also free parking space plus washer and dryer)? It is very hard but not impossible. Sadly, I’ll have to save the rambling medieval cottage for when I return one day with my husband and children. They are not going on this trip and I can’t tell if they’re mildly jealous or just morbidly curious how it will all play out.

Extra medical insurance has been purchased. Google maps are downloaded and ready to provide turn by turn directions even if my international data plan doesn’t work, just like it didn’t in Canada. I’m resigned to the fact that I probably shouldn’t drink the tap water just to be safe but probably will anyhow. I’ve mentally packed the smallest suitcase we have because the compact rental car could not possibly fit as much luggage as they claim.

I am mostly free to be the voice of semi-calm reassurance to my grandmother, who glides between tearful gratitude that we are really going and blind fear that this trip will kill her, and I think she means before we even get on the first plane. She got mad at me when I told her I couldn’t come down last weekend to wash her curtains. When I suggested this was misplaced anxiety at our upcoming trip and that perhaps she should stop looking for more things to worry about, she told me try being 91. There are still a few weeks before the trip. The curtains might get washed next weekend if she doesn’t have a bigger project for me. She has good walking shoes but thinks she might want a new suitcase. Anything can still happen or not happen.

7 years

I used to believe gum takes seven years to pass through the digestive system. I believed the seven year itch was the biggest threat to a relationship and that within a seven year period, all the cells in our bodies regenerate. The idea of getting to be someone new on a regular basis has its appeal, but the fact is some of our cells take longer to turn over and some stay with us until we die.

I am seven years sober (today!) and I have never felt more like myself. This does not always feel like a good thing. At certain (okay, many) social events, I feel that same third-wheel wallflower paralysis I remember from the eighth grade dance. I still somehow say too much for someone who talks too little. I still prefer the company of cats and dogs and certain children to most people and look forward to dessert and bedtime more than is probably healthy. These used to be things I wanted to fix and believed I could, especially once I got sober, but more and more I think, eh, there are worse things I could be than me.

Alcohol used to loosen my tongue and inhibitions and filtered some of the angst that comes with being a human, but it created far more problems than it masked. It numbed the joy too, the pure kind we get to find in the smallest things. Even in the early days when I didn’t really want to not drink and couldn’t guess how it would become appealing, I felt an underlying sense of relief. It always felt right to give up drinking and I have never regretted it.

And give up drinking strikes me as a funny phrase now. In the first two years especially, that feeling of missing out and nostalgia for drinking – maybe more so the contradictory longing to escape and belong – came over frequently if not regularly. I dreaded going out to dinner with my husband sans cocktails and hated beerless Friday nights with dark passion. I had to change up certain routines temporarily, even though it felt like it would have to be forever. The cravings and bouts of resentment and self pity gradually passed faster and with less drama. I don’t feel the same worries or fears I felt in the early days about what sobriety would do to me or my marriage or my place in the world. Even if it didn’t turn me into a brand new person, I changed and grew because of it. Somewhere along the way, I saw I hadn’t missed out on a single thing by not drinking. I gained far more.

Seven years later, I still love my sobriety. Even though it feels more like an appendage instead of an affliction, I think about it every day.  It’s like a smooth stone I keep in my pocket and knowing it’s there brings strength and peace. I know it makes me a better mother and human being, which probably accounts for a lot of that. I wish more people who struggle would get to feel it, that lightness and relief and return of spirit.

I want to leave you with a video for a song I find lovely, more than a little haunting, and a little bit maddening. It’s Wish That I Was Sober by Frightened Rabbit. Even the band’s name reminds me of something a petite, soft spoken woman said at an AA meeting years ago. She was talking about how fear had ruled her life when she was drinking. It had taken so much mental and emotional energy to hide how much she drank and how awful she felt. She’d felt trapped when she was drinking and then surprised to feel about the same in the early days of giving it up. She said she felt like a scared bunny and I remember there was a tremble to her voice that made me think of a rabbit’s twitchy nose. Even so, her eyes were bright and she was there, sober, and she was talking about it. I see her on a semi-regular basis, though not at meetings and I don’t think she remembers me. She still has that softness but with an underlying strength I admire and believe is there for anyone who wants it.

Amber room

amber

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?

Venus

She was the only Venus in our neighborhood, in our school, in our town, probably. She was the only Venus I ever knew or will know. She moved in the summer before third grade and by September we were best friends. She got a barbie dream house that year for her birthday so we usually played at her house. Plus her parents were never around.

Venus’ father worked in DC but kept a home office in the fourth bedroom of their house, which had an identical layout to my own. I only saw his office once or twice because the door was always closed when he was in there and locked when he wasn’t. His desk was sprawling and tidy and had one of those clear plastic mats underneath a rolling leather chair. He had a separate phone line and sometimes called downstairs to find out when dinner would be ready.

Venus’ house was heavy in floral and wicker rattan and her living room carpet always had fresh vacuum tracks. They had a microwave and Venus knew how to use it years before my parents thought about buying one. Her little brother, Tommy, was peaches and cream blond like her. He talked with a lisp and was really into Superman. Tommy was either underfoot or holed up in his room with the door closed like his dad. We let Tommy watch Friday the 13th III with us, but he was scared of the bikers (of all things!) and threatened to call their mother at work until we plied him with a bag of Doritos, which he generously shared.

Venus usurped the position of my previous best friend, a fourth grader named Sarah. Sometimes we all played together, though it rarely ended well. When we played Olivia Newton John, Venus got to be Olivia and Sarah got to be Newton because she was also blond, which meant I had to be John. Even though John was the manager, I usually stomped home halfway through. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, my mom explained in her sympathetically exasperated voice.

One time I rode my bike past Sarah’s house and she hung out her bedroom window wearing a long blond wig with bangs. She called out to me with an unusual accent, something like Hey there darlin’. I dismounted my bike and stared up at her in confusion. She explained she was Sarah’s twin cousin visiting from Alabama and had I seen Sarah lately. She didn’t know where she’d got to.

Later that week, I was playing in Venus’ barbie dream house when she plied me with a series of unusually specific questions about Sarah. Did I like her? Did I think she was pretty or smart or mean? When a dull thud sounded from Venus’ closet and she herself didn’t react, I stopped rearranging the plastic bottles in her tiny side-by-side refrigerator and walked over to slide her closet door open. I climbed on top of a suspicious lump in the far corner and heard a muffled Get off!  I pulled the blanket down to find Sarah’s static-cling hair and sweaty, reddened face. It was the closest I’ve ever come to the villain reveal at the end of every Scooby Doo.

Venus and I fought on our own sometimes. There was the great book bag fight of 1982. It started as soon as we got off the bus – over what, I simply cannot remember (isn’t that always the way with book bag fights?).  I do remember how the bus driver lingered at the stop sign long enough that I was sure she was calling the police from her CB. Venus and I both had strawberry shortcake tote bags, but maybe hers had too much weight because she never landed it above my shoulders. The reason I know I won is Venus turned around and ran home just when I was getting warmed up. Her mother came by to tell my mother I beat Venus up with a book bag. My poor mother.  Do you know how satisfying and terrible it feels to land a good slap across someone’s face with a strawberry shortcake book bag?

There was another, non-physical, battle over ownership of a cardboard condominium we both built in Venus’ basement. This is when I learned possession is 9/10s of the law. The law doesn’t care if you hauled most of the boxes through your backyard and across the ravine and then up the big hill by the weeping willow, where you would normally stop to yank a branch and slice it through the air to make that swoosh sound but couldn’t because your arms were full of boxes.

I can tell you Venus’ father wouldn’t have taken my side when I marched over to ring the bell one evening too close to dinnertime and demand my boxes back, even if I hadn’t gotten flustered and said “Can Venus eat?” when he answered the door instead of “Can Venus play?” or whatever my big, brave plan was. At a trim 6’4” with steel gray hair and Nordic good looks, he towered over and unnerved me. He talked to me not like a kid but the pathetic little person I knew myself to be.

“Can she eat?” he said in his booming CEO voice.

“I meant can she come out and play,” I squeaked to his rumbling shudders of laughter.

“No,” he finally managed. “She’s eating dinner.” He slammed the door in my face.

Weeks later – long after Venus and I made up about the cardboard condominium, which was carefully deconstructed and probably recycled – we decided to give her Siamese cat a bath in a kiddie pool. I think Venus was the one who suggested it, but I guess no one wants custody of a bad idea. The cat had a dog name – Lady or Lucky, something like that – and they never had it fixed so for months out of the year it moaned around the house like a half-murdered ghoul.  I went along with her plan to give the cat a bath because it was a hot, boring day and the cat trusted me enough that I could walk over and pick it up. Together, Venus and I hoisted the cat through the air and into the tepid water for maybe half a split second, long enough to turn its beautiful sable coat brackish brown and set off a wave of tortured shrieks.

Venus’ father lit out the front door faster than a cat hightailing it out of a kiddie pool, his round face red and lips snarling curses I’d never heard before.  I stood wide-eyed and frozen until he sent me home, past the weeping willow and across jagged rocks, all without taking a breath.

The last time I saw Venus’ father, his shirt was caked with dried blood and his face that same reddened blur of anger. His normally neat family room was swirling with a slumber party of 10 lively twelve-year old girls. We were celebrating Venus’ birthday and he’d just come back from the emergency room. He’d totaled his Porsche in the early morning hours. There had been another woman, not Venus’ mother, in the car with him. Venus’ mother came in first through a door leading from the garage and, without thinking, I walked over and clicked the lock. It was one of those push-button locks like we had on all the doorknobs at home, which we were never allowed to lock.

I pretended not to hear his knocking, which would have been hard to hear at first over the din of 12-year old girls. Soon no one could ignore the pounding and Venus sprung from the couch to turn the knob and let her father in. Brown blood splattered his otherwise fresh looking oxford shirt, open at the collar. Who locked that door? he demanded. I knew enough to look around the room at the other girls and not at my own feet.

What if I could go back in time to tell kid me that I would one day marry a man not unlike Venus’ father? A tall man with appetites, a demand for order, and commanding voice known to stop underpaid customer service workers in their tracks. What if I told her Venus’ father would be dead from cirrhosis before his first grand child was born, but that no two people are alike, that we are all ordained with the power of choice. We are not even the same people our whole lives. I could tell her big men no longer scare me and I now hold cats with something close to reverence, often sleeping in uncomfortable positions so as to not disturb the one nestled between my legs.

The ghostly toll collector (in hot pink)

Yesterday on my drive home from work, a young girl stepped out into the middle of the road and held her arms out at both sides like kids do when they’re playing toll collector on the stairs or in bathroom doorways to torture siblings. This road is not a highway by any stretch but is busy enough that you don’t cross the street to get your mail at night without telling your family you love them first.

The girl looked about 6 years old, but she might have been 5 or 7. She was wearing a hot pink snowsuit and knit hat. Her eyes lit with power when I stopped my car several feet in front of her. I thought about honking the horn, but it felt rude even though I honk at deer when they do the same thing.

The girl finally stepped back into what I assume was her yard and I rolled down my window and said “You know, you can’t stand in the road like that. Someone might hit you.”

Her eyes got big but not in a particularly scared way. She did not look at me but turned and walked back towards what I assume was her house, which is next to the one with the orange fish mailbox that someone inexplicably painted half black.

Later when I told my husband about the girl in the road, he said “Maybe she was a ghost.”

This hadn’t occurred to me or my daughters, probably because ghosts usually don’t wear hot pink snowsuits. He then said in his spooky voice, “It was five years ago today that a horrible accident happened just up the road…

This is one of the reasons we’re still married. It’s a real asset to be able to spin your spouse’s mundane stories into ghostly tales or anything halfway interesting.

He also had my back years ago when I took a photo of the front of our house and noticed a ghost hovering in the corner. We were living in the Poconos at the time and I got so excited about snow in October that I scurried out in my pajamas to snap a picture. It turned out to be a very long winter and I’ve never gotten that excited over a little snow on the roof since, but anyway, I showed Joe the picture of the ghost and he squinted for awhile and said “Oh yeah, you mean the reflection of Saddam Hussein in the window?”

I looked at the picture again. “No. I mean the gaunt looking figure holding a sickle in the lower right corner.”

He squinted again and said “Hmm.”

Years later the people behind Ghosthunters had a magazine and I emailed the photo to them. They featured it on a page called Evidence Bag.

One of the Ghosthunters – I think it was Steve – wrote that it might be a ghost but was probably not and next time I should try taking it with a digital camera to be sure it wasn’t a glitch in the development process. 1) I had taken it with a digital camera and 2) How was I supposed to know when and where a gaunt apparition with a sickle might be hanging around waiting to be photographed? The more I thought about it, the easier it seemed to just move.

On the drive in this morning, I will look for footprints in the snow by where I saw the little girl. Even if I see footprints, how can I be sure they don’t belong to deer or tiny elven men.

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.

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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.

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