The case of the missing retainer UPDATE: Case Closed

As a good detective, your first job is to secure the scene. This involves shuffling to the curb in pajamas at dawn to drag the garbage can back to the side of the house.  The aroma of litterbox looms heavily in the humid air. You are filled with hope and disgust.

You interrogate each potential witness separately. Your husband texts “I don’t have it!” The exclamation mark might normally arouse suspicion, but his alibi is airtight: he’s out of town. You get to the perpetrator/victim’s younger sibling before she’s even out of bed. No, she hasn’t seen it either. The cats both look guilty but they always look like that. Actually, the one cat looks guilty while the other probably looks hungry. You release them and they slink off to stalk the fish tank and eat a little kibble.

Your key witness is pretty sure she last wore the retainer the night before last. She isn’t sure where she was when she took it out. The hot pink case you couldn’t miss if you were blind sits on the bathroom counter ominously empty, like a missing child’s shoe found by the side of the road.

Your witness isn’t sure when and where she last saw her retainer. It might have been on her bedside table. It might have been on a placemat. You’ve been at this game long enough to know grabbing them by the collar while crying why in god’s name don’t you remember? Why?? won’t get any answers, though it might make you feel better.

When you re-read the victim’s statement, you keep going back to the part where she said I hope I didn’t throw it away in the bathroom. You didn’t get this far ignoring hunches. You can no longer ignore the garbage like the snakes in Pee-Wee Herman’s heroic pet store rescue scene. You must go in.

The garbage does not disappoint. You don’t find the retainer, but it is even more disgusting than anticipated. What even is that one thing and where did it come from? You check under the bed, in drawers the victim clearly hasn’t opened since 2011, the top of the refrigerator, the mailbox. You frisk the cats but they misinterpret and purr.

When you get to work, you fight the urge to check the garbage can beneath your desk because the only way it would be there is by teleportation or if you were in on it the whole time.

You clear the schedule for the weekend. You plan in your head how you will sift through each bag of garbage, plus the recycling bin, wearing purple kitchen gloves and a turtleneck over your nose to stifle the stench. You make a mental note to do this somewhere private so the neighbors don’t send someone by with a giant butterfly net.

You scribble notes in your steno pad: check the lego bin; strip the victim’s sheets and wash them, killing two birds with one stone; look over by the fireplace, which is where you saw a cat batting something around the other day and you assumed it was a bug but now you are not at all sure.

You are a very good detective and you will find it. A retainer doesn’t just vanish into thin air. Well, maybe that one time in 1988 when you put your own retainer on a plate for safekeeping while eating a sandwich on the back deck and then, for reasons unknown to anyone, shook the plate over the bushes and stones below. As one does.

You never got over that, obviously, but it helped make you the great detective you are today. You’ve told this cautionary tale to your daughter many times, assuming only those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. You do not recall your parents looking for it as obsessively as you did then and now, those maddeningly translucent white whales.

————————————————————

Important Update: at approximately 5:12pm, you will apprehend the retainer inside a tan fleece blanket located on the victim’s bed. You will give the blanket a good shake and hear the sweetest ‘thunk’ on the carpet that you ever did hear. Knowing that you will not have to spend your Saturday sifting through garbage, you will order a celebratory pizza and cry out TGIF, MF! 

Further cause for celebration: the vexing and completely useless ability to make a retainer vanish into thin air was not passed down after all. You do, however, have another kid due to get her first retainer in less than a month, so let’s not get cocky.

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How we pass time

My grandmother leaves a brief and mildly worrisome voicemail asking me to call her because she doesn’t feel well and wants some advice. She ends her message with “I don’t want you to get in a panic.” I am sitting at my desk when I listen, trying not to count how many times the young mechanic across the street slips behind a dumpster to vape or the minutes to lunch and now returning this phone call.

By the time I call back, my grandmother is not really sick. Whatever the problem was, it already resolved with prune juice and something stronger if mysterious due to a language barrier I’ve long given up on trying to deconstruct. Now she craves milk and also eggs but is too weak to drive to the store. I tell her to call her saintly next door neighbor, Lois, but my grandmother is, as usual, three steps ahead. She will call when she knows Lois’ granddaughter is down for a nap.

My grandmother says “If I had died from this, no one would have had any idea what killed me.” Maybe this is why she called, not for advice or reassurance but to pass along information that might prove useful post-mortem. This is what it must be like to outlive all your friends, your spouse, your child. My grandmother has become dramatically stoic while still engaged and interested in the day-to-day. She grills the middle-aged man who cuts her lawn on why he still lives with his parents. She has a much younger friend who takes her to buy a rotisserie chicken every Wednesday. She even has a cat on loan from another neighbor.

The cat thing bothered me for awhile because she was borrowing it surreptitiously. One day it showed up on her back porch and she opened the door and let it in. I guess it was like having a good friend over and not having any cake to offer because she went to the store afterwards and has been buying cat food ever since. I worried the cat’s real owner would notice and accuse my grandmother of catnapping, but as usual none of my worries play out and it turns out this cat is one of eight and hogs all the other cats’ food so I guess everyone (and cat) benefits from the arrangement.

My grandmother insists on calling the cat a she even though it is stocky and male. When you go to pet his head, he stands on hind legs to meet your hand faster. My grandmother and I both agree it is dangerous to invite a cat into a house without a litter box and to let it nap on your couch, possibly teeming with fleas, while you watch Fox News through equally droopy eyelids. But a part-time pet brings great pleasure and at regular intervals my grandmother shuffles to open the door and let the cat that is not hers outside.


Recently my grandmother told me she saw a strange creature in her backyard. At first she thought it was a cat, but its tail was striped with bold black and white rings and so long it dragged on the ground like a monkey’s. A week or so later, she saw another creature with a similarly droopy tail, only this one was cream colored and the size of “a very large squirrel”.  She said the striped tail creature looked just like an animal she saw on the news the other day, but she could not remember what it was called. I know what you’re thinking and she knew too because she told me Lois saw the creature lounging on the driveway and snapped a picture with her phone. 

When I visited my grandmother, I asked if she’d seen either creature again and she said no and added “Lois isn’t home right now, but next time I’ll have her show you the picture.” There were three cars in Lois’ driveway and I wondered how my grandmother was so sure about that.

 

The Cult of Andy

The last time I tried meditating, I gave up after the cat tried to swing trapeze-style from a chandelier above my head. I assume that’s what happened anyway because I heard a loud clatter and opened my eyes in time to find the chandelier swinging wildly and the cat on the floor beside me, licking one paw. 

I didn’t feel very good at meditating, and thought perhaps it was not for someone who has nosy cats and is already pinched for alone time. Besides, lots of things can be meditative, like running or walking and reading and definitely writing. Being outdoors with nothing to do besides take in the sights, sounds and smells reliably takes me to a peaceful place.

Eventually the call to meditation came again, this time for my nine-year old daughter, Audrey. We’d come back from a week at the beach and too-close sleeping quarters, and being the youngest and no doubt a bit spoiled, she had a hard time being alone in her own room and bed. One night we heard her crying and went in to her room to find her near inconsolable. Her fears were vague but horrifying, like losing her favorite people to illness, accidents, etc. These thoughts were sudden, unwelcome visitors that snuck in and grew so big and scary they took up her mind. 

At first we tried practical things, like reading something fun before bed or remembering positive things from the day. We tried a sleep mask and then a night light and then the sleep mask and night light combined. Some nights we’d hear her crying and go in to soothe and other times find tissues tucked under her pillow the next morning and know she’d quietly cried herself to sleep. One morning I woke to the idea that meditating before bedtime might help.

Not being an expert in meditation, I downloaded an app with a free 10-day program narrated by a man with a perfectly placid British accent. He introduced himself as Andy and I pictured him round and doughy with downy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The app doesn’t show what he looks like, though does feature blissful looking cartoon monsters wearing headphones. One blue monster looked especially engaging so we decided that was Andy. A week or so later, Audrey and I googled Andy to find he’s quite buff, completely bald and a former monk turned multi-millionaire. Oh, and he’s human.

Now, in full disclosure, Audrey and I meditate a bit differently than you’re supposed to. We don’t sit upright in a chair or on the floor, but lay down on my bed with pillows under our heads and, sometimes, Audrey prefers to be under her favorite fleece blanket. I know what you’re thinking, but I have only fallen asleep twice. Usually I follow Andy’s instructions to breathe slowly through the nose, filling the chest, and then exhaling gently through the mouth. Andy tells us to count each inhale and exhale until we reach ten and then start over, and this turns out to be the most helpfully concrete instruction I’ve heard on how to meditate. Andy makes meditation not only easier but something we both start looking forward to.

One evening I’m on the couch with Joe watching Season 3 of Bloodlines, which is the antithesis of meditation, but I digress, when Audrey appears and tells me she wants to meditate. I look at the TV and the clock and wrinkle my nose and say “How about tomorrow night?” She leans her face in real close, a little wild-eyed, and says “I need Andy tonight” and it sends a chill up my spine. We go upstairs to meditate and chandelier-swinging cat watches through narrowed eyes from the foot of the bed.

Soon we go on vacation again, this time sleeping in more rooms, though Audrey shares one with her older sister and so is not alone at night. Between that and sun-soaked days of swimming for so long Joe jokes we should wring her out like a washcloth before coming home, she sleeps like a baby every night. We all do. But like all good stories, this vacation too must come to an end.

Once home, Audrey asks to meditate to Andy again and we do. This time our timing is poor and we start around the same time Joe gets home from work. He enters the bedroom to change and finds us laying flat atop the bedcovers, my arms folded across my chest like someone laid out in a casket and Audrey’s loose at her side, our eyes closed tight like children pretending to sleep. The cat watches judgmentally from the floor this time. There’s an awkward moment between when I stop counting breaths and start explaining what we’re doing. Joe nods in understanding and I close my eyes and try not to wait for the jingle of his belt being hung up in the closet and then the soft clop-clunk of the door closing.

Andy tells us it’s okay to notice sounds going on around us. Sometimes he gives us permission to let our minds think about whatever it wants to think about, but in these moments I can’t think of anything and feel disappointed at my lack of imagination.

One night I ask Audrey if she wants to meditate and she says she does not. She says the bedtime worries are just as bad as before and she doesn’t think meditation is working. I ask her if she wants to talk instead and she does, but her face kind of crumbles and she needs a hug more than anything.

We talk about readjusting to spacious sleeping quarters and how the double-grandpa bed from Willy Wonka might seem cozy but probably none of them were sideways sleepers or blanket hogs like in our family. We talk about how when we try to not think about something, that’s pretty much the only thing we seem to be able to think about. We talk about habits and phases and how it feels like something bad will keep happening forever, but that rarely proves to be the case.

I remember Andy pointedly telling us that meditation isn’t about controlling our thoughts but learning to simply notice them and then going back to the breath. I tell Audrey she won’t still be having these thoughts every night by the time she graduates college because anything beyond is probably too far off to imagine. It’s a phase, triggered somehow by the fun closeness of a family trip and sleeping on a lumpy, unsupportive mattress I wouldn’t wish on anyone past 40.

She doesn’t know yet that all but the most supportive mattresses will turn on you one day and that the people you love most will die, but somehow it’s all okay, even when it’s not. She may have thoughts she doesn’t have much control over but that won’t make them come true and they don’t even necessarily mean anything except that she has an active imagination. Worry is the yin to imagination’s yang.

She can still remind herself where she is and that she’s safe. She can focus on the soft weight of her heels against cool summer sheets and count her breath by tens and maybe come to believe that.

***

Audrey asks me if I can start putting notes in her lunch bag for camp. I used to do it during the school year, eventually creating a series of illustrated notes we were both proud of, including one about a rotten pumpkin who entered a beauty contest (I want to write children’s books so bad). It’s collaborative because Audrey gives me ideas of things to write about or draw when we both get bored with the “hey, hope you’re having a great day” notes. This time I ask for ideas and she suggests creating a series around blue monster Andy (as opposed to buff human one).

I sit at the kitchen island and crank out a couple, losing myself in an almost meditative state. I’m no artist but it still feels good to channel frustration and pain into something I can share with her. I’m including one below, meant to be read in a gentle british accent.

The VIPs

At camp, the kids build a miniature city out of sticks and grass in the dirt. Audrey explains there are houses and buildings and trees and military bases and two lakes. She pauses for a moment and corrects herself, “No, three lakes”. She tells me this once we’re already in the car and now the business-like manner in which I saw her speak with another girl by the picnic tables after I’d signed her out makes sense. They were probably going over construction plans for the following day. 

She says all the kids involved in the city project have titles like President, Vice President, VIP (which makes me chuckle until I stop myself), and Major Major Major Major. Before I can ask why all the Majors she says everyone starts at Minor Minor Minor Minor, like this explains everything. I ask her what her title is and she says VIP and then corrects herself and says “I mean VP. That stands for Vice President. Next summer we’ll hold another election.” I get the feeling she’s already campaigning.

We’re riding in the car with her older sister at the wheel and it occurs to me that the kids might run out of suitable sticks near camp base and want to rummage in the woods for more. “Stay out of the woods,” I say. “There’s poison ivy.” 

“There isn’t,” she tells me. “Anyway, I know what it looks like. It’s light green.”

“No it’s not,” her older sister says. “It’s bright green this time of year.”

“It can also be shiny,” I add, knowing I couldn’t pick poison ivy out of a line-up even after suffering repeated, crippling cases of it throughout childhood. One summer when I was about Audrey’s age, I went to camp and came home with poison ivy and head lice. To be fair, we weren’t sure where I picked up the poison ivy.

I used to have a soft spot for those brown and cream striped caterpillars that are suddenly everywhere mid-summer. I’d line a cardboard box with shiny, soft green leaves picked from the woods across the street from our house. Then I’d lean sticks against the box walls like a series of intersecting catwalks and pluck dozens of caterpillars from trees and drop them into the box. I kept them as outdoor pets for a day or two or until they figured out they had always been free to climb out of the box. I took them out of the box and let them crawl across my hands and arms and even my face. I can’t tell this story now without wincing.

A week later I found myself at the doctor’s office with a case of poison ivy so bad I needed steroid injections. My mother cut up old pillow cases and wrapped them around my hands at night so I wouldn’t scratch in my sleep. She applied wet oatmeal and witch hazel and calamine compresses at all hours, but nothing stopped the itching. 

We had already planned an overnight trip to New York City and I wore blocky dark sunglasses to disguise my swollen, misshapen face. The subway attendant took tokens for my parents and brother but frowned when he saw me and said “She can ride free.” We joked afterwards that maybe he thought I was blind or had Elephant Man’s disease, and I fought the urge to run back and explain I was just a normal kid. The only blindness I had was an inability to distinguish poison ivy from other leafy green plants.

I never played with caterpillars again after that summer. They were still everywhere – chugging along at a maddening but determined pace across sidewalks and dangling helplessly from low branches – but they became invisible until just a few years ago. I had been jogging along a paved path when I noticed a few crawling across and thought “Oh!” in delight and then “Oh” in a more guarded way.

***

“Just watch out for plants with leaves of three,” I tell both daughters in the car, satisfied this is the best advice I am qualified to give. I still don’t know how I got the job of teaching our older daughter how to drive. Years ago I struck a deal with my husband that he would teach Vanessa and I would teach Audrey. I may have planned on seven more years to prepare, but life happens and his work schedule doesn’t align with hers. Weeks slip by with no driving practice while her expectations about getting a license and buying a car with the money she’s been saving are still there. I start taking her to drive tentative circles around empty parking lots. 

The first time I take her out on a real road, I grip the passenger side armrest until my knuckles ache. I bark things like “Slow down!” or “STOP!” as if a child has just wandered out between two parked cars, when really it’s nothing more than a pair of red taillights up ahead, not even that close. Part of the dread I feel towards these driving lessons comes from my own poor reactions. 

Vanessa doesn’t quite get up to the speed limit and a white SUV tails too close behind. I think to myself Vanessa is driving too close to the right shoulder but keep quiet (miraculously!) until she brushes against an overgrown hedge by the elementary school. I say “Pull Over” in what I mean to be a calm tone but couldn’t be. She remembers her turn signal at the last minute and sheepishly pulls into the school lot while the hovering white SUV blares its horn and speeds past.

I consider cutting her lesson short and putting myself back in control. I don’t remember going out to drive much with my own parents when I had a learners permit. I do remember the time I borrowed their car and swiped a parked car and then lied about it, poorly. My parents figured it out the same day and I wasn’t allowed to drive for weeks, which felt more like a gift than punishment.

I take a deep breath and tell my daughter to get back on the road and try to drive closer to the yellow line, though not too close, obviously. I try to give shorter instructions and watch my pitch and volume. Once we are safely home, I feel shaky and weak but not relieved. It feels like the time I got chased by a dog through a neighborhood I shouldn’t have been walking through late at night in the first place and managed to hurl myself over a fence just in time.

I go online and browse car magnets that say STUDENT DRIVER in bold black atop a bright yellow background. I see some that also include Please Be Patient! underneath but already the regular ones remind me of those Baby On Board signs that were popular in the 80s. Even as a child I wondered why the safety of a stranger’s baby was more important than my own infant sister hurtling through peril in our unmarked car.

I usually take the time to read a few customer reviews and questions before buying anything. This is where I might learn, for instance, that the 3-pack of Student Driver magnets I am considering don’t actually stick or maybe they are only 3-inches wide. My eye draws to a question someone posted: “Do you think three of these will be enough? I’m tempted to cover my car in them. I don’t want anyone honking at my precious angel.” I laugh out loud and add the magnets to my cart and only then feel something like relief.  

Hog’s Hollow Trail

The first and only time I went horseback riding, I got saddled (har-har) with a lackadaisical mule prone to biting. The rest of my girl scout troop got so far ahead on their horses the leader kept having to circle back to find me. Once I finally caught up, my mule sunk his teeth into the flank of another girl’s horse, sending it and her through a thicket of brambles. The girl got all scratched up and started to cry. One time this same girl had said to me “I’m glad your mother died” so I was mostly glad it happened to her and not me. Kids and horses can be so cruel.

Although my mule moseyed along the entire trail ride, he broke into an uphill sprint once we rounded the last bend and his water trough was in sight. Little fucker had been holding out and I can tell you I never brushed my Barbie horse’s mane as gently after that day. 

The reason I thought of that horse today is  because of motivation. He couldn’t be bothered to move without the promise of reward. Yesterday my youngest daughter, Audrey, and I had the day to ourselves so I gave her a few choices and naturally she picked going for a walk in the woods with sandwiches. Well, I don’t mean sandwiches walked alongside us, though how cute would that be? We combined our three favorite things: snacks, the potential though unlikelihood of getting lost, and also snacks. Typing snacks out twice reminded me how similar and different that word is from snakes. But more on those in a bit.

Once we parked in the trail lot, I let Audrey pick which way we’d go. She chose a trail we’d never taken before and then another that took us across a road onto a public two-mile trail along the outskirts of a private summer camp. The camp named it Hog’s Hollow Trail after an old farm they found on site with pigsties still intact. The trailhead map advertised points of interest like Bergdoll Estate Ruins and Unc’s Woods and I got so excited I forgot all about the sandwiches.


Not even a quarter mile in, we struck gold. I think we found the Bergdoll Estate ruins, or what was left after time and wisteria took over. Someone had come out recently and cut a lot of vines. We saw portions of stone walls and a series of buildings, some razed and others more intact. In the distance we saw the outwall of a building we couldn’t have walked away from if we’d tried. 

When we got to the big wall and crossed behind, we found it wide open, the roof long gone. This was where we both noticed a distinctly bad smell. It was probably just animal poop, but I think of it now as a warning neither one of us heeded.


The space inside was overgrown with vines and brush. Audrey saw an odd shaped stick poking out in the center and wanted to get closer because she was definitely not switched at birth. I was about 10 feet away taking pictures when I heard her matter-of-factly say “There’s a snake.” This is the same kid who froze minutes earlier over the sight of a passing bee, so I was more surprised than concerned. I couldn’t see a snake from where I was standing so I said “Well just come back the way you came” and she said “That is the way I came” and then her face and voice kind of crumbled.

I ran through the options quickly in my head.  1) panic and flee (but leave behind a sandwich) 2) find a good snake flinging stick 3) tramp down the brush from the other side so she could escape. 

I started with 3) and the heavens rewarded solid decision-making by causing the snake to slither away in the opposite direction so Audrey could walk out the way she came. I didn’t get a picture but googled and decided it was a red corn snake. I pulled it up on my phone and pretend read aloud “Non-poisonous though capable of ingesting children up to age nine”. Audrey fell for it at first but by that time we were safely back on the trail and had a good laugh. We both watched where we were walking for the rest of the hike.

This is her “I just saw a bee” face

It turns out those ruins were the highlight of the trail. There was a cool log we had to maneuver to cross a stream, plus the trail veered off down a steep riverbank, but we didn’t see any more ruins. The map promised more so we either missed them or they’re covered in wisteria. Don’t worry, we’ll go back.

I looked into the Bergdoll Estate and found a fascinating story about a playboy draft dodger-cum-fugitive who escaped capture by luring police with the promise of buried treasure and then slipped out a window and fled to Germany, where he started a family. Who knows why but Grover Cleveland Bergdoll later turned himself in and served eight years in prison before settling on his family farm on what is now wisteria and snake country. He later divorced his wife, moved to Virginia, went mad and spent his remaining years in a mental institution. I am not even making any of this up.

 

 

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.

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.

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).

science_center_crab1
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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It turns out Reading is a magical land

Lately I don’t look forward to the same family traditions like I used to. I didn’t used to be like this and find it’s a byproduct of sobriety. And so the thought of going to the same Oktoberfest that we’ve already been to 9 times in the last 10 years held as much appeal as a trip to the hardware store.

My family did not share the same epiphany that trying new things is more fun than sticking to what we already know we love. And so I met general resistance when we headed to the new-to-us Reading Liederkranz Oktoberfest celebration, which only grew when we had to park in a muddy field in the rain and catch a shuttle bus.

(Have you been on a school bus recently? And I mean one barreling down steep, wet hills or straining to climb them, always seemingly on the verge of losing control or tipping over? One of the many gifts of youth is we don’t appreciate the daily dangers we lived until much later.)

This “new” Oktoberfest turned out to be so much fun. 4 out of 4 family members said they would go back. And remember,  3 of us don’t drink so it was all about the food, music and people in lederhosen cracking whips on the dance floor. (We saw a slightly different version, but still, whips!)

On the way there, my husband noticed a sign for the Reading Pagoda, and we took a slight detour on the way home to check it out. Perched at the edge of Mt. Penn and lording 600 feet above the sprawl of Reading, Pennsylvania is a 7-story Japanese pagoda. Built in 1908 as a luxury resort, the original owner had to sell it when he ran out of money and the city denied him a liquor license. The next owner sold it to the city for $1, which is how much it costs now to climb 87 steps (verified by my kids) to the top for sweeping views of the city and closeups of Wawa and Chik-fil-a signs through the 25 cent tower viewer. That’s what my kids zeroed in on anyway.

At the top, we also found a Japanese bell cast in 1739 and inscribed with an end-of-time prophesy, as well as assorted memorabilia behind glass cases. It smelled old and familiar, like my grandparents’ basement before Sunday dinner. My husband said it smelled like “hot dog farts” which was probably more accurate since I did notice a woman eating a hot dog in the ground level cafe.

This is why I get tired of sticking to the same tried and true favorites. We’ve lived within an hour of Reading for the past decade and finally got there. We plan to head back soon, but next time we’ll try something new and that wasn’t even my idea.

 

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