The Doctor’s House

When a good sale came along in November, I remembered how cold it felt during lunch time walks last winter and bought a down parka with fur trimmed hood. I vowed to keep walking at lunch, not every day, but enough that I wouldn’t feel bad about it.

Then I had the parka going on two months and many days were as bitter cold as the parka was cozy warm, but still I hadn’t taken it for a lunch time walk. It wasn’t a conscious decision but more a reluctance to challenge myself because life felt hard enough already. I stand by that break, but maybe I forgot a little how good walking makes me feel. When I was ready, the reminders were there.

First I read a post by Michelle about how changing your scenery changes your perspective. She also mentioned wishing her eyes could take pictures, a thought I’ve had many times. When I go for walks, I often take pictures. The park where I walk is 700 acres with a dozen abandoned structures in varying states of decomposition. A creek cuts through woods and active farmland and there’s even a trout hatchery and bird blind by a secluded pond. It’s hard not to take pictures, and some even turn out.

The other thing that pushed me to get out and finally test the new parka was my husband saying he was planning to walk at lunch on the coldest day of the week like it was no big deal. He made me realize I could do it too.

I am happy to report the parka held up really well. I love any chance to wear the hood because it’s snug and I can slip it on like a wig and pretend to have another hair color for awhile. I like not dyeing my hair anymore and don’t ever want to go back, but sometimes grey feels dreary and pulling a crazy hood on fixes that somehow.

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A big fluffy hood can also be disorienting. It muffles sound and blocks peripheral vision. I like to feel on my toes in a park with miles of winding trail where some days you can walk a half hour without seeing anyone. I took the hood off while stopping to take pictures in front of the Doctor’s House.

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Out of all the abandoned structures that dot the park, The Doctor’s House feels the creepiest. The first time I set out to find it, I had a map and was so excited and walked right up by the bilco doors to get a closeup of the crumbling stucco. I swore I heard tinny music that was probably not my phone playing music from the muffled recess of my pocket, though the thought is comforting now. I got my pictures and got the hell out and didn’t go back for awhile.

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The other day there were lots of walkers out, so I went by again and stopped to take a few pictures, including the one above. Though it was a split second before my mind processed crumbling porch post, I saw her. A girl. I quickly looked back at the house and chuckled to myself and got the hell out of there to visit another creepy, but more lonely, house.

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I wanted to write a story about the Doctor’s House since I saw its name on a wooden sign at a crossroads in the park. It seems like the kind of story that would write itself, but so far my ideas aren’t very good.  I know it has its own story and while I haven’t been able to figure out what that is, that’s what keeps me coming back.

Today I went to a different part of the park and caught a squirrel trying to drag a corn husk up a tree. I tried to take a picture but it didn’t turn out and my attention flustered him so much he dropped the corn. Other squirrels chittered and skittered in nearby trees and I felt bad and moved on.

Now that I’ve seen every landmark on the map of the seven hundred acre wood, I can go back and spend more time in between. The camera will always be in my pocket but I won’t always use it. I still remember perfectly well what that squirrel looked like dragging his bright yellow husk up the tree, which would have been like you or I trying to lug an overstuffed armchair up a flight of stairs.

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taken in spring, see the yellow wildflowers in the background?

Unclench

I made a joke about having to go to see the dentist right after work, like which was a worse fate, but I wasn’t really dreading it. I’ve never had a root canal, crown or even a cavity. Every morning at breakfast, my brother and I dutifully chewed a tiny pastel pill that tasted like cherry or orange or lime. Our teeth later appeared mottled, tiny striations of white so bright they made the rest of our teeth look dingy, but the fluoride had done its job.

I used to see a different hygienist for years and we formed an easy rapport. We talked about our kids and their school, sports and summer camps, though I could tell she was on a different, more vigilant plain of motherhood. I nodded a lot, and not just because her fingers were in my mouth. She had mastered the art of asking questions and making interesting statements when I could respond.

This new hygienist is not like her, though she is also not really new. I saw her once years ago when my regular hygienist was on vacation and she complimented me on my teeth and said some people just have better spit. I had never considered superior spit or that I had it. I secretly wished she could be my regular hygienist and, years later, the heavens conspired to change work schedules and I got my wish.

My second visit to the complimentary hygienist was something of a let down. She did not compliment my spit and asked me at the end if I floss, which is the same as saying please start. The only other thing I remember is she told me her and her college-aged daughter do this record club where they listen to albums during the week and then discuss over coffee. I thought that was really neat. Also, she correctly identified The Eye in the Sky over the office intercom, though I wanted to call it The Eye of the Storm, and the only other time it sounded so sharp and clear was from the velour backseat of the family Datsun in 1982.

I have some secrets to share now regarding teeth. You might not have to floss if you use a sonic toothbrush, though you still probably should, but only once a week or month, maybe less, but you didn’t hear it from me. The dentist will still come in and comment how pink and healthy your gums are and he won’t say keep up the great work with flossing because he probably owns a sonic toothbrush too. You can get a decent rechargeable one on the internet for like $40.

Another thing I learned about teeth is they shift when we get older, but it’s not always permanent. I had finally accepted that I can no longer chew meat on the right side of my jaw because tiny pieces get painfully lodged in the gum, and the second hygienist told me this mysterious condition may reverse itself. She said sometimes our teeth shift because of trauma, and not from brushing too hard, like we used to think.  I imagine her pouring over dental journals at night in front of a fire.

Although I can’t ask what she means because tools and fingers cram my mouth, she tells me teeth grinding is one kind of trauma. We talk about how our natural state in waking is often a clenched jaw, her moving her lips to tell me while I nod from the chair. I remember a period some years back where I routinely clenched so hard I actually took notice. My shoulders and jaw muscles were so tightly coiled, I walked around with a vague but nonetheless real sense of foreboding that I could not place. I used to force myself to periodically relax the muscles in my face and then savored the flood of relief as my jaws floated back to their natural place. I hadn’t thought about that in ages and how I unconsciously wear myself down. Sometimes I need reminding.

 

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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WOTY – Time and Perspective

 

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two days before Christmas, can I be any luckier?
Every year for the past few, I’ve participated in Word of the Year and picked one word to focus on for a whole year. It’s like writing out a whole list of new year’s resolutions and then picking one word that best describes the characteristic needed to complete all of them. Or, maybe it’s like realizing I’ll never successfully complete all or even any resolutions, that maybe I don’t really need to, and settling for one area of general discontent to spend a little extra time and attention.

Time was my WOTY last year. I chose it originally because I got tired of looking up and noticing entire seasons had come and gone without fanfare. I was tired of losing time or feeling like I wasn’t doing very much with it. I already knew that it mattered how I spent my time and that making smarter choices consistently was key, and I figured a word like TIME hovering over me like a prison warden might help me get there. What I found was I’m still really good at ignoring things.

I didn’t think about Time much in 2016. Or so I thought. I remember thinking throughout the year that Patience, my WOTY for 2015, had been a better fit. It was gentler, definitely, less demanding and more comforting. Time demanded that I do things while Patience let me sit and rest and just think about things. Because I have a tenuous relationship with authority, I ignored the assumed demands of a word like Time and went about the year. A few times I looked up and noticed the season in progress maybe wasn’t going by quite as fast as usual, but that was about it. I was pretty sure I picked a dud WOTY.

Then December came and Mished Up wrote about her experience with her WOTY and reminded me that some years our words do more work behind the scenes.

She wrote this about her own WOTY:

It hasn’t been the most satisfactory word. I haven’t felt it working the way I have tended to feel other words.  That said, that’s not really  unusual.  Sometimes I  only see how the word worked in hindsight, as I write my year end wrap up.

That’s when I realized that’s exactly how Time felt for me.

When I wrote about spending my time more wisely one year ago, I listed a few examples. I wrote that I could read irritating status updates or a good book. I could eat junk or go for something greener. I could get out for a walk or sit and do nothing. I could keep falling down the same rabbit holes or spend face to face time with the people I love.

I can’t claim victory on all fronts. If I’d numbered and listed these things, they’d look an awful lot like new year’s resolutions, right? But I can see in hindsight that I did read an awful lot this year. I ate a lot of junk, yes, but also a lot of green and savored it more than ever. I definitely went out for a lot of walks and got back to regular runs. I spent quality time with the people I love and that, in turn, may have actually slowed down the passage of time. A second still lasts a second, but I have few regrets about how I spent mine in 2016.

The biggest change I noticed in the last year is that I no longer white knuckle through big but stressful events. Even if it was something I’d been looking forward to, like a birthday party or holiday, usually I just wanted it over and done with so I could get back to normal. Then when Thanksgiving was about a week away, I realized I was looking forward to all the preparation and cooking and visiting with family. This helped my attitude going in, for sure. When Christmas was about a week away, and even thought I wasn’t finished shopping, wrapping and baking, I realized I was really going to miss it. That hasn’t happened since I was a kid.

Now it’s time to pick a new WOTY for 2017. As with the last couple years, a month ago I wasn’t sure I’d do it again. I felt like I’d failed it and myself until I saw the ways it worked me. Patience reminded me to stop watching the clock and comparing myself to others. Time forced me to at least sometimes make it count through my actions and attention. This year I’m leaning towards Perspective because it feels like a natural extension, though I’m still not 100% it’s the right word for 2017 (another hallmark in the process of picking a WOTY).

When I say Perspective, I also mean Attitude. Two people can have the same set of circumstances and yet view them very differently. They can work the same job and have the same resources and support systems in place, and one can grumble and groan while the other kisses the ground in gratitude. I don’t guess I need to say which person I’d rather be, but most of the time I feel like the grumbler and don’t want to anymore. My hope in choosing a word like Perspective is that I’ll feel gentle reminders throughout the year that how I view something is a kind of choice and sometimes I need to work at it.

Likewise, gratitude will not always be an appropriate response. Perspective will hopefully allow space to look at situations more clearly and determine if I need to or can make certain changes instead of accepting the status quo. So I’m pretty excited about the potential for a word like Perspective.

Best wishes to anyone reading for a healthy, happy 2017. I’ve gained so much from reading posts and comments, so I want to close out the year by thanking you for reading and writing. It makes all the difference.

 

 

 

Ghost of Christmas cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

We can never be filled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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scene from a mushroom farm diorama

A glimpse inside Santa’s satchel (or why I need to go back to a small purse)

I started to write something maudlin and then noticed I have a mini etch-a-sketch in my purse. I don’t think anyone carrying toys in their purse should be writing mopey posts. Yes, toys, as in plural. If I were jailed today and released in 6 months or what have you, the clerk could rattle off the following: 

One brown leather purse. Keys. Tiny rubber baseball mitt and ball. Half a tube of rose scented hand cream. An expired set of coupons good (or more to the point not good) for Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. A boogie board.

 

(right now you are thinking whoa, this must be a satchel! But it’s not that kind of boogie board. It’s an electronic toy you write on and then push a button and voila! the screen wipes clean and you get to start a new game of tic-tac-toe or what have you.)

 

A set of 0.3mm pens and small sketch book. One page has a colored pencil drawing of a shirtless Viking I tried to recreate from memory based on a photograph I once found between the pages of a dictionary when I was just a child but lost somewhere along the way and will clearly never forgive myself.

 

Small and empty bottle of ibuprofen. Hair brush. Head band. Three tubes of lipstick (and some feminine hygiene products which I am embarrassed to even list, like I’m 13 or something). Wallet packed fat with fun (but no cash). Battered Metlife dental card not secured in wallet like rest of membership cards for some reason but floating loose like a renegade.

 

Forgotten “organic” fruit strip that I just checked and you will be happy to know the sell-by date is not until April! Packet of Captain’s Wafers, Cream Cheese & Chives flavor (blech). A ticket stub for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Pecuiliar Children. One participation medal from a children’s race. Portable charger and several cords which match up to specific devices but look just similar enough to trick me every time. Unopened air freshener for car in Christmas Cookie™ scent.

No wonder I can never find my keys. I make an effort to put them in one of the side pockets, or the wings of the purse, if you will, but still I can never find them quickly. A long time ago I made a decision to carry a small purse, but I guess I forgot and this one was a gift from my husband, who once observed that I crammed too much into my small purse and needed more room.

A mere sampling

 

 

Piece of cake

Recently I had a real hankering for cake. I’d be sitting at work, staring at spreadsheets and billings but dreaming about a firm, moist yellow cake with the kind of crispy white icing that melts in your mouth. No one ever told me I’d fantasize about cake the way I used to fantasize about boys, but let’s get back to that cake.

This was this cake of my dreams. I always knew it as 7-minute cake.

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I haven’t had it in about 25 years. My dad’s mother used to make it every year for my birthday. She knew her way around the kitchen and died many years ago and before I thought to show interest in her skills. She was tricky to get close to, but her cooking and baking was pure love.

Who knows why that cake started to call to me all these years later. Work has been busy and stressful and I have been self-medicating something fierce with sugar. I’m none too pleased with myself, and more on that in a bit. But I wonder sometimes at the seemingly random resurfacing of memories. Maybe it was literally the 25th anniversary of the last time I had that cake and my brain figured this is it, we get it again or lose it forever. Maybe my brain was embarrassed to realize I’d never made a cake before. Like ever.

Now, I always liked to cook, especially before I got sober, and lately I’ve felt the urge to get back to it again. But baking isn’t cooking, and while I have baked plenty of things from scratch, I somehow never made a layer cake. The idea of needing perfectly matching layers intimidated me, plus I only had one cake pan. This was easy enough to fix, and after hunting around the internet and asking my mom what she knew about the cake, I finally remembered the old wooden recipe box at the back of one of our kitchen cabinets.

 

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I can’t remember when or how I got it, but this old recipe box used to belong to my mother, who died many years ago. It’s filled with clipped recipes that were hot stuff in the early 70s, like Boeuf Bourguignon, but it also has a cache of family treasures like the shrimp dip we serve at literally every gathering and Aunt Helen’s punch. Index cards are neatly filled with my mother’s script, many credited to Mom D., a woman I know was not easy to impress. I wonder if my mom was trying to bond with her mother-in-law over something she knew she loved. I found a recipe for boiled icing and another one for 1-2-3 cake and figured they were my best shot.

With the recent long weekend and colder weather settled in, it felt like the perfect time to attempt my first layer cake and recreate an old favorite. My girls were happy to help and hopefully they learned baking a cake isn’t hard at all. All you really need is two good cake pans ($9 for a set at Wegmans), a 20 year-old electric mixer that smells like it might burst into flames at any minute, and patience from those trying to watch TV in the other room while you run it on high for the next 20 minutes. Baking a cake isn’t a piece of cake, but it turns into one, so it’s a satisfying endeavor.

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This was the finished product. We were really pleased with ourselves. Unfortunately, the icing is nothing like what I remember from my grandmother’s cake. While delicious, this icing was goopy and thick like marshmallow cream. My grandmother’s icing was thinner and had a slightly crispy outer shell that melted in your mouth. I did some research online because apparently I’m not the only one searching for childhood in recipe forums, and I think the trick is leaving the cake out overnight. And I’m certain this is just what my grandmother did. I can picture it on a crystal pedestal on the sideboard in her dining room and, unlike us, they didn’t have nosy pets to take a lick or twenty.

The 1-2-3 cake itself turned out nothing like I remember, but it was still old fashioned and good. I have an email in to my aunt to see if she can help me with my grandmother’s cake recipe. My aunt also used to make a lovely chocolate cake with buttercream icing, and it dawned on me how reckless that I never thought to ask her for that either.

The thing about this recent obsession with cake and recreating family recipes is it’s poorly timed. Or maybe not. Lately I’ve come to the re-conclusion that I have a serious sugar habit and I need to do something about it. I’m still noodling through what that will look like,  but I’m pretty sure it won’t involve fat slices of cake under the guise of taste-testing old family recipes. I’m hoping it doesn’t involve sitting at my desk fantasizing about cake.

Most of the fun of baking is doing it with my girls. They love helping out, especially when it comes time to lick the beaters. Cooking seems more like an adult hobby, while baking feels special and like a place to reconnect with not only old recipes but the people who breathed them into life.

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Leftover icing

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