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.

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Boo (and my baby)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

On Deal Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

arboraxephobia

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Around the time I discovered horror movies, I used to look up to check for axes dangling from trees. It was only something I did in the woods, and not anything I recall seeing in a horror movie, so I’m not sure where it came from. I also still checked nightly for monsters under the bed. I’d kneel down on the side of the bed farthest from the door and bravely pull up the dust ruffle. I’m not sure now if I meant to flush the monster out – you know, give him an escape route – or if it just hadn’t occurred that I would have no way out.

This seems as good a time as any to confess I used to believe a race of tiny vampires called the Dynamites lived under my bed. They all looked like Count from Sesame Street, although probably only the leader wore a monocle. Aside from the time I watched them parade up the side of my bedroom wall and disappear through a crack in the closet (chickenpox fever), I never actually saw them. When I checked under the bed in later years, I was expecting only one monster and much larger and more menacing. If I’d seen the Dynamites, I might have scooped them up like kittens while they counted and nibbled at my neck.

There are literally hundreds of scientific-sounding names assigned to all the things we’re afraid of. Cometophobia is the fear of comets. If, for whatever reason, you’re afraid of chopsticks, I’m afraid you have consecotalephobia and probably a difficult road ahead. According to one definition, sanguivoriphobia is the “irrational fear of vampires” which sounds like something a vampire would write. Arithmophobia covers the fear of counting. Teratophobia is a fear of monsters or having a deformed child, both of which I can understand, though lumping them together feels a little lazy. No one should mind if I slip in arboraxephobia.

The woods I checked most often for swinging axes was an undeveloped bluff at the end of our development. Everyone ignored the No Trespassing sign on the metal gate where the gravel road started, although I usually had the place to myself. This quarter-mile strip was prime waterfront real estate and would later become an early series of McMansions on dime-sized plots. But oh, that view. It’s no wonder someone made their summer home long ago on that desolate, lovely stretch.

The cottage had been a modest wooden clapboard with no porch and only a few rooms. It was long abandoned by the time my parents and I pulled open the rotted screen door and eased inside one Sunday afternoon. I remember pots and pans still in the cabinets and dishes thick with dust scattered across a kitchen table. Surprise Indian attack seemed the only logical explanation for anyone leaving dishes behind. I never went back inside.

Some years later, two known troublemakers skulked up the road from that direction just before the first black plumes of smoke began to rise. A dozen firetrucks couldn’t save the cottage. It went up like seasoned timber. A nearby barn with rusted out farm equipment were the only things left for us to climb over and keep us up to date in tetanus shots. And then we noticed the basement.

The cottage had burnt to the ground, leaving a smoldering hole with pitted concrete steps like teeth that grew mossy and slick with rotted leaves. We had lost a lonely old friend and gained a nightmare.

Sometimes I went to the top of the stairs by myself but usually with a friend, and never down into the belly of the basement. If I got down to about step eight, I could lean over far enough to see into part of the basement room to the left, but it was too black. The smell got me. Charred wood and burnt plastic, with an overlying bouquet of ammonia and mildew and maybe boiled blood. It was death, somehow, and I kept coming back to peer in without actually getting close enough to see anything

On the bus one day, a friend and I told a cute boy about the No Trespassing gate and the stairs and the very next day he and a friend tore up the hill from an angle we weren’t expecting like a couple of pirates. We thought for sure they would brave their way all the way down the stairs and tell us what they saw. In the end, they hovered on step four, maybe five, and then one remembered an orthodontist appointment, the other, homework.

One time I made it all the way to the bottom step with no one else around. The basement was still black but I made out some kind of shelf along the far wall. I never thought to bring a flashlight with me. The smell was worse at the bottom. The sounds weren’t right either. Maybe that steady click was dripping water. Maybe it sounded more like scratching.

One of my regrets in life – and I have a few by now – is that I never went all the way in. Around the time I started high school, the stairs and basement were filled and a stately home with cathedral ceilings and gleaming wooden stairs planted on top. While that house was under construction, I snuck in during a rain storm and saw someone had written HELP ME in what looked like blood on a second floor window. That house smelled like sawdust and drywall and nothing at all.

A wealthy family moved in and I filled in for their nanny a few times before graduating and moving away. The nanny kept a log for the family and used it to rat me out. Kristen did not clean up Robbie’s trains and the playroom is a MESS. In the second floor hall closet, the family hoarded massive stockpiles of hotel shampoos from Disney properties. I had no idea I would one day do the same, so it all felt very sinister.

Eventually I stopped checking trees for swinging axes. My old brain heard a creak from above and started assuming old branch in the wind. It occurs to me now that an axe looks similar to the kind of tomahawk an Indian might have used to catch a family by surprise one night during supper. The family would have jumped up quickly, shoving chairs to the side and heading to the only place they could think of to hide. The basement.

100 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t stop believin’

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In less than two weeks, I will run across a 5 mile bridge normally closed to pedestrians. The bridge hovers above the sea, which I have loved since I was a child. As proof, I submit a handwritten short story from the summer of 1985, when I was 11 and had not yet worked through how long it would take to walk 5 miles against the wind versus how quickly a cop car could swing by and whisk me off to jail. I guess I could have told the cop I was going to fix a so and so wire, which is bulletproof as far as excuses go.

The Dream

I had been counting the money ever since Friday when I started my shift. Each day I took a small amount. About $100 every two days. Crumpled, torn bills. Straight, crisp bills. The thing that really mattered was that it was money. I stared out the smeared glass window into the clear dark night.

What my mind was focusing on wasn’t the beauty of the cool clear autumn night but it was on the calm shiny water which I could view quite clearly myself from my booth. I loved the sea. Ever since I was a kid. My dream was to live at sea forever. That is till I died. I wanted actually to die at sea. True that isn’t the nicest thought but perhaps it will help you to understand my craving for sea. As far as I could see there was only the cold, metallic shadows and shapes of the bridge. It’s a wonder anyone would have the stupidity to build such an ugly thing (even a bridge) over an amazingly beautiful thing as water. I knew tonight I must escape. By then I would have enough money and no one would be able to catch me. It was all planned out.

First I would take about $600 out of the cash register. I would wait until 5 minutes before my suspected shift was over and I would leave my toll booth and cross the bridge by foot to my dream come true. A boat shop. I would have enough money. I don’t have a car only because I couldn’t afford to be saving up for a yacht. A beauty too. There I would spend my time every day traveling sea after sea. Come winter time I would be so far away it wouldn’t matter if I docked in for the season. Oh, I’d fish for a living. It would be wonderful. Amazing something could be that good.

I glance at my watch. 11:45 PM. Almost time. I was nervous. Why be? My money (well not exactly) was ready. Neatly packed away in my jacket. Looking around I checked the coast to make sure no one saw me leave. As I stepped out of the door a cool wind made me ask myself whether I wanted to go through with it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a cop! He wouldn’t notice me. But then again it was permitted that no one be able to walk across the bridge. It was 5 miles. I could’ve taken a boat. But that would take money and time. No, I needed to go now. The guard was staring at me. Without a moment’s thought I just walked past the sign that said “No walking or biking past this point”. The wind whipped through my thin hair and summertime jacket. I could have been more prepared but I had no idea it was going to be this cold.

Really it was no big deal. I had been walking like anybody else would. Occasionally a car would come by and the driver would give me a weird look but I could have been a guard going to fix a so and so wire. I could plainly see lights ahead. It would take awhile to get there. The strong wind was slowing down and yet I had 5 miles to walk.

Suddenly I lost balance and fell as my jacket blew open and back in place. Frantically I dug my numb hand into my pocket to see if my treasure had still remained safe inside. That was a big mistake. Because as it was safe, only on the edge of falling out, now that I opened my jacket it blew out. With a miracle happening (indeed it was too) it caught itself between two wires near the railguard. And it wasn’t harmed. Without hesitation I stepped over the rail. Then, while gripping the bar with one hand, bent down and grabbed. I had it safe in my hands before I realized that I was on the ledge of the 50 story bridge. I knew that falling meant worse than falling onto concrete. My friend had once knew a person who jumped off a bridge to commit suicide. With that thought came a loud shrill sound from behind me. A huge rig went shrieking to a hault as with a scare so sudden my nerves and feelings lost control as I went plunging 50 feet to my death, rather my dream.

I had a few thoughts after reading this story and sharing it with my 13 year-old daughter, who asked to read it because she was supposed to be studying for a history test and would have gladly swept the entire house instead.

1) Don’t bring a huge wad of cash to a 10K on a windy bridge. I’m assuming a secondhand yacht would have run around $10K in 1985 and the toll was about $2 then, meaning the thieving toll collector had roughly 10,000 singles. The cash really isn’t an issue, but I’ll secure my phone and car keys in a running belt.

2) Never give up your dreams. Whether it’s to live and die at sea or write short stories or be able to run 6 miles continuously, if very slowly, keep at it. Revisit dreams you had when you were very young if you can remember back that far or maybe you too had the foresight to write them down in a swanky cloth covered journal with built-in bookmark.

3) Share your passion with others. My daughter read a few stories and told me she was sure we would have been friends. She said “if we had a sleepover we’d probably stay up late talking and you’d say ‘oh honey, one day I’m gonna be your mama‘ ” and we both laughed and laughed because we share the same sense of humor and rudimentary grasp of time travel. I feel 10,000 times prouder of creating her, although I had a little help so cannot take all the credit.

beneath the pines

While slowly navigating a sloping parking lot with sharp sticks and muddy mulch, I argue with my grandmother over which of my daughter’s birthdays had been at a park on a raw, cold day several years ago. My memory is excellent for things that don’t matter, such as birthday party venues and the names of all the boys I’ve liked since kindergarten.

Even though I know I’m right about this, it hits me how silly this need to be right is. I remember a family from childhood whose mom used to argue loudly with her own aging, confused mother when she swore she watched a team of tiny children during the day while everyone else was at work and school.

“You’re here by yourself, Ma” the younger mom said, exasperated. “There aren’t any children.”

The old mother’s brow furrowed and she folded her arms across the front of her downy flannel nightgown.

“There are so children and they greased the banister and slid down and got hurt,” she said. “Several died,” she added.

Every year my grandmother becomes a little more like her own mother, who stubbornly wore cork-heeled wedges around the house well into her 90s and kept a stash of fun-sized milky way bars in her room because she said they helped her sleep at night. My own grandmother insisted on wearing low-heeled but open sandals to the hilly farm today even though I told her sneakers would be better.

After we make it through the minefield of a parking lot and get in line to pay, my grandmother gets stung by a bee on the neck. I don’t see it happen, but she holds her neck with one hand and gestures triumphantly to a dead bee on the ground with the other. She is not allergic and in fact seems to get stung regularly. Last summer, she was stung multiple times on her arms and legs while pruning bushes in her yard. I see now that she’s not phased by her bee sting. She only wants to share her excitement with us.

I start to feel like the trip is a terrible idea. The farm is bigger and hillier than I remember. There are way more people than I expected. Toddlers, strollers, parents – even goats – are everywhere. My own kids are off like shots, and I do my best to track them with peripheral vision and that homing device all parents come equipped with.

When I see my younger one sail off a distant slide and look around for us as nonchalantly as possible, I leave my grandmother’s side to corral her back. From the slide, I see my grandmother look around as nonchalantly as possible. Once we get into her line of sight, I wave my hand and smile until she sees us and smiles back.

My grandmother spies another woman using a cane by the goats and remarks excitedly that she’s not the only one. It doesn’t occur to me that she’s self-conscious about using a cane. Her mobility is very good, excellent even, for someone turning 88 later this month. Her own mother had fought stubbornly against using this very same cane, but compromised by keeping those damn wedge heels. My grandmother uses the cane willingly for balance, but inherited her mother’s love of impractical shoes.

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sensible shoes all around

My grandmother tells me about a class trip she took in her home country when she was a little girl to a place just like this. I think she means a farm, but when she says they sang and picnicked and played in a field by the river, I realize the woods were the destination.

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My grandmother tells me this is the first time she’s felt like she was back in her home country in all the years she’s lived here. She says the woods in her village were so clean, you could lie down and rest and not even have to brush off your clothes afterwards. This is not the first time I’ve heard this and she has no way of knowing how many times my parents and I told and retold that story to each other because we loved it so much. Later, my husband loved hearing it too. We were all tickled at the idea of a preternaturally clean forest, oceans away. I look down at the ground here and see it littered with pine needles and kicked-up silt that she doesn’t seem to notice. For the moment, she is home again and she is happy.

After the farm, we make the long trek back to the car and I feel myself loosen. I help my grandmother buckle the seat belt in my car because it is hard for her and she jokes that I have three children today and I smile like it’s the first time we’ve shared this joke.

Back at her house, we assemble sandwiches and dine overlooking her back yard, which she has spent the last three decades tending and trimming. She has two beautiful bushes in the back that I fall in love with every fall. They’re so big, you can almost stand beneath them and they bloom white flowers in late summer that turn a lovely shade of purple-pink in early fall.

I ask her what kind of bush or tree they are and she says she doesn’t know. She adds, “They’re not hydrangeas” because she remembers I asked her the last time we visited. Last time we visited, I even used Leaf Snap but it only pulled up trees that don’t grow in this region.

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Honestly, it’s bugging me and I say that I wish I knew and she says, “You don’t even know the trees in your own country,” like she’s confiding to me about some other idiot. I am as handy in the yard as a plaster gnome, and this is probably her deepest disappointment in me.

My kids and I say our goodbyes, which weigh heavier each visit, and drive back home in the setting sun. I decide to detour through the town where I went to college, which is also where my other set of now long-gone grandparents once lived. For some reason, I find myself missing them terribly this fall. It’s like I held everything in until this year and now songs on the radio remind me of car rides to their house and old movies remind me of inappropriate things I watched on the small TV set in their back room while the grown ups talked in the main room, oblivious. I ache rawly with love for them it is far too late to express.

why church

I’ve found myself back at church, though I hadn’t gone in decades. The last time I remember going, I’d ditched out of youth group in search of some party with boys and booze. I imagine Jesus looking downwards, dejected, as my friends and I peeled off into the night.

I was raised in a non-religious household, though my parents introduced us to church and even went themselves for awhile. The one church was too Fire and Brimstone for one, the other too Hippy Dippy for the other. I liked the Hippy Dippy one best. We watched The Yellow Submarine and ate graham crackers heavy with cinnamon sugar. The crackers at the Fire and Brimstone church were plain, possibly saltines.

At the fun church, we got to draw all over a plain white belted robe with magic markers. While captivated wholly by the tale of poor Jacob stripped of his trippy robe and thrown into a pit by his own brothers, which I could easily imagine because I had an older brother, I was mostly thrilled to somehow win this robe as a take-home prize. I kept it folded neatly in the dress up box underneath my bed and wore it occasionally during solemn events, such as the front garden funeral for Sundance the hermit crab and, later, his brother Spicoli.

I don’t know why then that I wound up back at the Fire and Brimstone church a year or so later, alone and voluntarily to my recollection, though we all know how memories are holey and not to be trusted. I remember sitting around a table and closing my eyes tight when the sunday school teacher told us to ask Jesus to enter our hearts and feeling nothing but embarrassment for all of us.

And how on earth did I wind up back at church at the ripe age of 40, or is it that exactly? Is this what people do in middle age, like taking up exercise and paying bills on time and giving up booze and cigarettes? Let’s hedge our bets, play it safe where we can. No one lives forever, you know.

I’m pretty sure that giving up the drink led me to church in a roundabout way. Alcohol was a real spirit blocker and the god talk in early recovery never really bothered me because I picked up right where I left off. I don’t still have Jacob’s trippy robe, but I feel power and comfort in something bigger beyond my own little world. I feel tapped in to other people doing better by themselves and their families and the world at large. It’s intoxicating, ironically or maybe not.

I wound up back at church to give my kids a hopefully well-rounded base for their own spirituality and for my own selfish reasons, though I don’t fully know what those are. A sense of community, maybe, or the feeling of connecting and giving back. The decision to try church again reminds me of when I quit drinking. It feels sudden yet a long time coming, with some purpose beyond grasp but instinctively accepted. It feels like the right place to be, though not without causing conflict in our household.

My husband married someone who didn’t go to church because Sundays were Hangover Days. We drove to Target in the late morning and joked it was our church, with Elvis belting out hymns on the radio. Many years later, his wife is this strange teetotaler who puts on work clothes voluntarily on a Sunday morning and drives the kids to church and isn’t around to paint the hallway or help out with yard work, though to be fair that may be for the best. It’s one more change to adapt to, and I have a hard time explaining to him or anyone why church? so I guess I am just attempting to do that here.

The below post was inspired after reading two recent and lovely pieces by Michelle and Sherry. And also a short trip home.

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While watching my daughters reenact the “I’m Flying!” scene from Titanic on my dad’s boat, I realized I don’t hum on boat rides anymore. It was a bittersweet moment. I’ve always hummed involuntarily on boat rides and took it as a sign I could be deliriously happy at sea no matter my state on land. Watching my girls goof around and sing, I felt like I’d passed the baton.

We cruised past an eroding strip of undeveloped land, my dad at the wheel. I could see a tramped down path in the bluff above, but I’ve never seen another soul up there. My dad told me he’s recently walked along the trails, which branch out like fingers. He asked if I ever explored it as a kid, and incredibly I hadn’t and stopped to think how that could be. Then I remembered Old Man Jenkins.

Jenkins wasn’t really his last name and his real name was actually more fitting, but he’s long gone so let’s just let him rest. He was an ornery old fella when he was alive and who knows what his ghost might be like. The real reason I never explored the bluff was fear of death by shotgun. Neighborhood legend was that he once shot at some kids who wandered onto his land, which was only separated from our neighborhood by a tall chain-length fence strangled with ivy and weeds.

Jenkins ran some kind of ship repair shop or hospice for dying boats and he lived alone on an overgrown compound on at least five acres of prime waterfront real estate. He could have sold it and bought himself a house on the Riviera, but I guess he liked his spot and I can respect that.

The town where I grew up has always been a mix of newcomers who just want a pretty water view and people who stick around for what time hasn’t been able to change. It still has the same old country store my parents didn’t want us going in as kids because it was dirty or the clerk surly or prices jacked too high or all of the above. The post office and fire station look the same from the outside and I can still picture the inside of the fire hall from that neighborhood dance in 7th grade when I was allowed to wear eye shadow and mascara for the first time and felt beautiful for two solid hours.

My brother used to walk home late at night from his dishwashing job at the crab house and sometimes burnouts from the rougher neighborhood threw things at him. Once he got pelted with the letter E from our nautical-themed neighborhood sign. It wasn’t class warfare exactly, but there was a clear divide between new neighborhoods and old. Several decades later, all the neighborhoods are old and waterfront lots are scarce. People with money will buy up anything, tear it down and put up window-covered castles on postage stamp lots.

Jenkins’ old land sold and has a handful of new carriage homes on it. I don’t think he would have cared for anything called a carriage home. The undeveloped bluff has to stay that way, according to my dad. For the record, I don’t think Jenkins ever shot at anyone, but the rumor kept me out. I imagined him poised at a murky window, his sweaty, nicotine-stained finger twitching close to the trigger, his eyesight not all that great but his hearing pretty keen.


 

I love visiting my parents and smelling the brackish tides and watching osprey carry off long sticks to nests high above. I love visiting “home” but the place I miss isn’t here anymore. The kids are old now, like me, and most of them gone. The woods we played in are long gone too, except for that bluff I never went in anyway. Now I want in.

We were only visiting for one night and most of a day, so there wasn’t enough time for trespassing. There was barely enough time for a boat ride and a swim in the creek, but we managed both.

By we, I mean the collective we. I stood barefoot on the pier with my sweet baby nephew while my girls and dad swam in the silty brown water below. I paced to keep the bottoms of my feet from burning as they waded in to water that was still cold but sea nettle free. Soon they were swimming and splashing around. My dad offered a bounty to anyone able to locate the sturdy wooden rocking chair that blew off the pier in a big storm a couple of months back.

My girls felt around tentatively with outstretched legs and arms in the murky water and tried not to think about what else might be down there. Somewhere nearby or far away or who knows really, the rocking chair laid on its side, already fuzzy with algae and forgetting what the warm sun felt like on its softly silvered wood or the sound of unmuffled squeals of girls or rumble of motorboats and other things that had once been home.

He might know, but he's not talking.
He might know where it is, but he’s not talking.

 

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