Saying goodbye to the ocean

The first order of business was digging up Saint Joseph, the patron saint of sold condominiums, whom my grandmother buried head down in a garden area by the parking lot. It’s unclear if Joseph helped sell any other condos in the building or if the $500 “marketing fee” my grandmother paid had more to do with her finally getting a decent offer. I talked it up to my kids before we left – how their great-grandmother buried the statue of a saint because she thought it would bring good luck and how we had to find the exact spot and dig him up, like lost treasure – but I guess they were expecting a full-sized statue and seemed disappointed when they saw he was plastic and fit in the palm of her hand.

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My grandmother bought this condominium with my grandfather many years ago so they would have a place to stay at the beach. They rented it out a couple months out of the year, which paid the mortgage with enough left over for gas and tolls . She tried to get my brother and I to buy it from her but it’s too far and we have another place to stay when we do make it down. Also, I don’t have that kind of money, though it troubled me that she was only a few years older when they bought this place. She tells me they never went out to eat or took vacations when they were young.

It felt like we were on vacation, I guess because I’d taken a couple of days off work to drive her down for the settlement and so she could say goodbye to her place. I spent many nights there myself, so the closure was just as much for me. That was the bed where I slept one night while grape gum dropped from my slackened jaw and snaked relentlessly around my long hair, I thought to myself. There’s the pool I snuck into another night to fool around with a boy I barely knew. This is the carpet where my great-grandmother actually spat after they caught me and made me come back inside. Actually, it was shag carpeting back then. I still remember the gold and yellow pile from the time my brother and I both spilled overly full bowls of Fruit Loops with milk, accidentally and almost simultaneously, while my grandmother hurried to get her condo ready for a rental.

This was a bittersweet goodbye visit, for sure. I asked my grandmother a couple of times if she was sad, and she said she was mostly relieved. She posed around the condo while I snapped picture after picture. She didn’t ask what I planned to do with all of the pictures and I wouldn’t have had an answer anyway. Maybe I’ll make up another photo book like the one I did after her 90th birthday party. She carries it around in her purse to show her realtor or the woman behind the deli counter. If I do a photo book for My Grandmother’s Last Trip to the Beach, I have enough pictures to tell a story, though it will only be mine. Too bad I didn’t get a photograph of the men power washing the halls of her building and how they popped their heads out and yelled down to me in the parking lot at the exact moment my grandmother and daughter yelled other things at me from another floor. It was so funny looking – four anxious heads peering down from different spots with their mouths all moving and not one noticing the other – but that can’t go in the book because I neglected to capture it on film or whatever you call it these days.

I also don’t have a photo of the new buyers, who dropped by for their walk-in inspection just as we were getting ready to leave for the settlement. Oh what a gift that was. You know how when you meet someone and something about their tone or expression zaps all the tension from the air and everything feels lighter? It was like that with this couple, and not just for my grandmother but for all of us. Even their realtor looked visibly relieved at the unplanned meeting. The new buyers chatted with my grandmother for a good 15 minutes instead of pulling out all the utensil drawers to make sure they worked properly (and thank goodness for that). Before we left, they told my grandmother she was welcome back any time and she told them God Bless You and I know she meant it because she wouldn’t have said it otherwise.

The settlement occurred around a large oval table in a room decorated with ink and watercolor drawings of festive legal scenes set in the ’80s, judging by the outfits and hair. There were massive, serious looking legal books that I think were just for sure. At first the presiding attorney seemed all-business, curt even. But he softened with my grandmother and repeated instructions when necessary and did not rush her along. Her hands were very shaky and each time she had to sign her name she did so with painstaking effort.

I caught a few glimpses of the capable, determined grandmother I grew up with. I will forever remember her big cars and hair and how she was always ready to challenge an unsuspecting store clerk or family member who forgot who they were dealing with. She seems so much smaller now and walks slowly with a cane, her hair soft and snow white. But still she is sharp as a tack in unexpected ways. She got what she wanted and, I believe, deserved with the help of Saint Joseph, family who loves her and a charming couple eager to turn her old place into decades of new memories.

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To the basement

 

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I noticed a goose on the sharp angled porch roof as we drove past and that’s what made me finally stop. We’d driven past this beautiful wreck of a house literally hundreds of times, but I guess we were always in a hurry or never had the right goose to lure us over.

The goose was gone – if it was ever really there – by the time I turned at the next light, found a place to park and dodged endless mines of goose poop with my daughters in tow across an expansive, pitted field. Ogling abandoned houses is a family affair. My older daughter is pretty used to it by now and takes her own phone out for pictures. My younger one is pretty sure all abandoned houses are haunted, but she always wants to stop.

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This is an unusual property because it’s right in the middle of a suburban shopping center laid out to look like an old fashioned main street if Old Navy and Barnes and Noble had been around back then. Maybe that’s why this haunted-looking mansion didn’t give me the creeps. Maybe I put on a brave face for my kids or maybe I’m finally immune. I’ve been admiring decrepit houses since I was a kid myself.

Did that first house have a name? Did we call it anything? Not that I can remember.

At the end of my childhood street, there was a metal gate that our Hulk-green Chevy Vega once smacked against the night my dad forgot to set the parking brake. The Vega rolled down the gentle slope of our street while we slept and when my dad woke up the next morning and saw that it wasn’t parked out front, he scratched his head and wondered who would possibly steal such an ugly car. Maybe the Vega too felt an irresistible pull to the abandoned house beyond the gate, down the gravel drive along a narrow peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay. I don’t know who owned the land – 300 acres of prime, waterfront real estate – but in the mid 80s no one seemed to and so it became our secret neighborhood playground.

There were three old structures left on the land in varying states of decomposition: a small, one-story house with weathered clapboard siding but all windows intact; a large shed or small barn with a partially collapsed roof and a massive rusted tractor parked outside; and a collapsed pavilion down the hill by the water’s edge. I feel saddest about the pavilion because we never got to see it whole. My friend Beth and I used to climb up the slanted roof on Sunday afternoons and eat sandwiches her mother packed for us. Fact: sandwiches eaten in the wild always taste better. In the later days of our pavilion roof picnics, Beth and I ate while plotting how we could convince one of our parents to drive us to the movies so we could spend a beautiful spring afternoon away from sunshine and fresh air. By then the shed and house had burned to the ground, revealing a mossy set of stairs like broken teeth leading to a black belly of a room.

Those stairs had their own magnetic pull like the gate to a Vega. Beth and I used to dare each other to go down a certain amount of stairs. We’d start small, like I dare you to go down 2 steps. This was mostly a piece of cake because although some of the stairs were caked with slippery moss and wet leaves, there was still plenty of time to scramble back up if a ghost or worse suddenly appeared at the bottom. By the time we got to daring 7 or 9 steps, the amount of time it took to screw up enough nerve to go down that far took away precious time at the movies.

I only made it all the way down once and then only lingered for a few seconds in front of the cold, black doorway. I could sort of make out a table or shelf against one wall but could not tell how far the room went back or what else was inside. What if I’d brought along a flashlight and had the nerve to shine it? Would I have found the secret lair of devil worshipers whispered about at the back of the bus or only pockets of soot-soaked dampness? This is surprisingly not one of life’s regrets anymore. That may be because I once walked the main level of the house with my parents while it was still whole. We got to see what it was like before it became a ghost.

What stands out most about that time inside the house was the surprise of my parents doing something illegal. They were not the type to trespass, though there were no ‘keep out’ signs and we walked right through an open door. We found ourselves in a kitchen with dusty melamine dishes and cups scattered across a table, a chair knocked on its side. We took a quick tour through the other rooms, but the sight of those dishes spooked us. I think there was a cradle in one room, but realize this sounds made up. We had no idea about the basement until some neighborhood kids burned the house to the ground for fun within the year. That was an exciting but devastating day for all of us. We gained a mysterious basement but lost a slice of childhood.

After my parents and I visited that night, we wondered about the people who lived there and what happened to them. We decided something or someone had taken them by surprise while they were eating dinner. Never mind that the timing was all wrong for melamine dishware, but I suggested Indians and we went from there. We decided a man and woman had been eating dinner with their two young children. The father had a dark beard and wire rimmed glasses. The woman wore a flowered cotton dress and her pale hair in a bun. Their children were both fair and small, a boy and girl. They heard the too-close war cry of Indians and the father bolted up quickly, his chair clattering to the floor. The mother and father grabbed their little darlings and with no time to plan and nowhere else to go really, they both looked at each other and the father whispered the only hiding place he could think: to the basement.

Will you be at She Recovers NYC?

In a month, I’ll be headed to NYC to attend She Recovers, the first women’s recovery event of its kind in the US. I don’t get out much on my own these days, and can’t think of a better cause to get behind. Will any of you be there? If so, drop me a line at byebyebeer at gmail or leave a comment. I’d love to put faces to names.

With keynote speakers like Glennon Doyle Melton, Gabby Bernstein, Elizabeth Vargas and Marianne Williamson, it’s bound to be pretty amazing. Here’s an article I wrote about it (click image below to read more) and another will follow the event. As always, thanks for reading!

Eight millimeter ghosts

I saw my mother for the first time in 42 years, not in a dream but in short, silent flickers across the TV screen. It is the only time I recall seeing her move, and the experience hit me harder than I was expecting.

My husband and I recently took 520 slides and 7 reels of 8mm film to a photo shop to have them converted digitally. Some of the slides had been sitting in various garages for almost 65 years. Doing something – anything – with these family artifacts felt only slightly less overwhelming after researching all the options and prices. The best advice I got was from a friend who said to just take charge and do it because no one else will as time goes by.

The slides deserve their own post and I’ll write about them later. I was most excited about getting the home movies back. While we could hold the slides up to light for a preview, the film reels were a mystery.  I remember my dad showing old home movies in our basement a few times in the mid 80s but knew there were reels I had never seen before.

The film service we used stitched all seven reels into one movie. It starts when my older brother was a baby and ends when my much younger sister was a kindergartner. It spans 17 years and clocks in at just under an hour of footage, showing restraint by the filmmaker, my dad. (There is still a disproportionate amount of crawling baby footage and kids crashing sleds into trees.) If I could get a stranger to sit and watch shaky, soundless footage of other strangers, well, first I would need a tranquilizer dart and restraints. But once they came to and watched, they would notice a chunk of time missing and a mid-season replacement. Where did the first mom go, they might wonder.

My mother is in the first half of our home movie, young and beautiful, the picture of health for most of it. She died when I was a just over a year old from Hodgkin’s Disease. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of her over the years, but getting to see her move and smile and twirl babies in her arms hit me like a sweet sucker punch. Within hours, I experienced all the emotions, from gratitude and love to sadness and even pained regret that I don’t hold a candle to her. The footage only shows her looking a little pale and puffy in what would have been her last winter. Then, of course, she’s gone.

I realized two big mistakes once we got the home movie back. The first was not asking the film service if perchance they planned to tack on a terrible public-domain soundtrack to cover all that pesky 8mm silence. I am not sure how to remove it, but my older daughter likes it and it’s growing on me.  The second big mistake was not considering that my current mom and dad might not want painful, uncomfortable reminders of the 70s alongside our reconstructed 80s family. Fortunately I was able to extract and save smaller files to break out time over more congruous periods. No one has to relive the 70s unless they want to.

Even though it was painful to watch the first time, I wanted and even needed to relive it. I have absolutely no memory of my mother and felt like I was meeting her for the first time. I felt proud to introduce her to my daughters and husband. I don’t openly talk about her with my youngest daughter because she’s still pretty little and knows my stepmother as her grandmother. I don’t want to confuse her or hurt anyone’s feelings. But kids are smart and, anyway, she did just leave stones on her grave last month. While we were watching the home movie, she asked how old I was when my mom died. I was able to point out little me in an Easter dress and too-short bangs that looked like they’d been cut by an older brother because they had been and say “that’s about when”. We were all smiles in the movie despite what had just happened off-scene.

If this seems depressing or matter-of-fact, I don’t mean either. I guess I have the weird detachment that comes from losing a parent at such a young age you don’t remember them. The found footage of her shook up and dislodged grief I didn’t know was there. Even though it hurt, it hurt in a good way.

I’m going to leave you with a short clip and my favorite part of the nearly hour-long movie of our disjointed, somewhat tragic but mostly happy lives. The opening scene is my mom holding my brother (this was before I was born), and then my great-grandmother steals the scene. She is the mother of the grandmother I always write about, by the way. My great-grandmother’s name was Magdalena and she stood maybe 4 feet 6 inches tall, even in that hat. I miss her very much (my daughters would have loved her) though she still makes me smile every time I watch this. p.s. I recommend watching it muted, though the music is oddly fitting.

Ring the bell in the middle of the cemetery

On Friday afternoon, I got an urgent phone call from my grandmother. I could tell she meant business because she called me and said she couldn’t talk long.

“When you were at the cemetery, did you notice white stones on your mother’s grave?” she asked.

I laughed, already sure I knew where this was going. “Audrey put those there,” I told her.

“Oh, Audrey did it!” she said, relief in her voice. She had spent the last three days calling everyone she could think of but me trying to figure out how those stones got on my mother’s grave plus the graves of five other family members.

Audrey is my youngest daughter. She fell asleep in the back seat of the short car ride from my grandmother’s house to the cemetery. Just before we left for our long drive home, my grandmother handed me a plastic flower and one of those junk mail newspapers that usually go directly from the driveway to the recycling bin. She didn’t ask but told me to stop at my mother’s grave and put the flower in the cast iron vase. She said she was too weak to do it herself. She did this the last time we visited too. Say what you want about ninety-year olds, but they can be very clever.

For years, I never visited my mother’s grave. I thought about her often…at least once a day, I guess? She died when I was still a baby so any connection I feel is in my blood or from stories my grandmother told me. I have no physical memories of her so never saw the point to kneel down in grass beside a stone marker to feel closer. I carry her in my head and heart. Besides, I’d already spent plenty of time tromping around this cemetery.

My grandmother used to take my brother and I there every Sunday when we stayed the weekend. Friday nights were all about going to Cook’s for some cheap toy we didn’t need and putting a glass of Coke in the freezer, something our parents never allowed us to do at home (did we ever ask though?). Saturdays were all about running errands, like to the grocery store for junk food my parents never bought or to the dusty butcher shop where I passed on my first and last offer to try hog’s head cheese. Saturdays were also about trying to eat those frozen Coke pops we’d started on Friday.

Sundays were all about church, the cemetery and going home. I can reminisce sweetly now about the earthy incense and garishly frightening statues at St. Alfonsus Church, but at the time it was a boring hour better spent with coke slushies or feeding her neighbor’s malnourished dog rolled up pieces of salami and carrots through chainlink fence. I did not want to be at church, though the cemetery was at least outside. It was also the next to last stop before home. I never wanted to go home on Sundays. I didn’t want to go back to school the next day and, more importantly, I wanted to be spoiled by my grandmother forevermore.

Our stop at the cemetery felt like it took hours, though maybe it was only a half hour. My grandmother didn’t do fake flowers then and, depending on the time of year, she often brought pansies or mums to plant. She’d park the car and walk the equivalent of two big-city blocks to the water station to fill a jug of water. She’d walk back to the grave and prune the boxwood planted next to the headstone bearing my family name, and then she would pull and weed and dig and plant and walk all the way back to the water station to rinse off her tools. Maybe this did take hours.

My brother and I were not much help. We flitted between headstones, playing with our Friday night junk toys and inventing new ways to torture each other. As the younger sister, my ways were more innocent and generally involved not giving my brother enough space. His ways were less innocent and more geared towards reclaiming that space. This is when he told me the story about the haunted mausoleum.

This particular mausoleum is a small, one-family structure a little more than a stone’s throw away from my mother’s grave. It looked like a cute little stone house or shed from one side, but if we walked to the other side, we could peek through the locked steel gate and see inside. This is where my brother told me there were dead people living inside. He said they might escape and I should watch to make sure they didn’t. Then he flitted off.

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This is the same brother who told me dead people lived inside a wooden storage bin underneath someone’s beach house. Maybe he told me both things within the same year. Maybe he was on a dead-people-live-inside-boxes-but-want-out kick and I, unfortunately, happened to be his sounding board. I remember being terrified by both dead-people-live-inside-boxes-but-want-out stories, though why I stood guard by the gate of the mausoleum and never thought to run back to my grandmother stumps me now.

I got in trouble that day. My grandmother couldn’t see me from where she was weeding and planting. She thought I’d been kidnapped. You might wonder what kind of kidnappers hang out in cemeteries, but once she told me a car slowed down and stared the three of us down and she threatened the driver with her trowel. He swore to her that he was just looking for his brother’s grave but maybe he wasn’t and surely he could tell by the look in her eye that she would wield that trowel swiftly and ferociously to defend her family. Wisely, he moved along.

Understandably, I feel a little skittish in cemeteries, but this last visit not so much. Audrey was fast asleep in the backseat and would not wake, so my oldest daughter, Vanessa, and I put the fake flower in its vase, carefully anchoring it in with junk news. I took some pictures of her by the grave, as one does in my family. She’s pretty used to it. We took a little walk so I could show her the mausoleum and pass along terrifying family folklore.

When we got back from our walk, Audrey was sitting up in the backseat and not at all happy. I had visions of my grandmother with her trowel. We consoled her with apologies and a promise that we would take another walk, this one much longer. It was a beautiful, spring-like day for February. We walked over to a much larger mausoleum, this one holding easily hundreds of deceased stacked in tidy grids. We passed some ground markers along the way and noticed some had stones on top. Audrey got excited about the idea of leaving mementos and gathered a handful of stones from the walking path to take back to our own family. We rang a bell on our way back, something you don’t get to do very often, much less in the middle of a cemetery.

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Audrey carefully distributed her stones equally between six family members. If anyone got an extra stone, I hope it was my poor grandfather buried in a lonely plot across the lane marked only by the spot where his inverted (empty) flower vase sits not quite flush with the ground. He wasn’t much for flowers and would have preferred a hog’s head cheese sandwich, but we only brought stones. Audrey left some and then the three of us got in the car and drove home.

Now, why my grandmother drove to the cemetery herself a couple days later and why it never occurred to her that we left the stones are great mysteries. When she saw Audrey’s stones, it spooked her. First she went to the cemetery office and grilled them. They said they did not leave the stones but told her it’s a Jewish tradition to leave stones as remembrance on a loved one’s grave. We are not Jewish, so this spooked my grandmother further. Over the next few days she called friends, neighbors, and her niece’s son to ask if they had any ideas. One of the neighbors suggested maybe someone in our family left the stones but, no, my grandmother didn’t think so. Where would we get stones? She underestimates our resourcefulness and tendency to wander in cemeteries on really nice days.

Once we solved the mystery of the cemetery stones, my grandmother said she would leave them there, even though we are not Jewish. She said my girls will always remember going to visit family in the cemetery and the way she said it made me know it pleased her very much, and it pleased me too.

 

 

 

 

where we’re going we don’t need maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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