Amber room


When I first mentioned that I might be going to Lithuania with my 91-year old grandmother, my husband thought for a moment and said “don’t come back with any more amber.”

Like a person told not to think about a white polar bear and only able to do so, immediately I  pictured a chair with smooth, gleaming lines of bubbled translucent gold. There would be at least one fearsome bug preserved within. Even though it would not be feasible to check an amber chair on an international flight, let alone procure and afford one molded from the prehistoric resin of long extinct trees, I could not stop myself from thinking about it.

I have taken amber for granted most of my life. I have never paid for it (nor stolen it), though possess so much I sometimes discover amber rings or broaches in random drawers. Most of it was passed down from Baltic-raised relatives, though at least one piece, ironically, is from the same husband who forbade me to buy more. (Maybe he wants to buy it for me? Probably.)

I own hand crafted “lucky” amber earrings with darker stones of varying size. I wear these on special or difficult occasions, though recently noticed several of the smaller pieces are missing. This means random bits of luck have fallen out and been ground into dust. I have amber rings I can’t wear because they were made for slimmer fingers and bold necklaces that should never come back into fashion. It is not a particularly valuable or sought after gem, but still my eye is drawn every single time to the only amber jewelry in craft stalls or hippie head shops. Amber steeps in my blood.

International treasure hunters still search for the Amber Room. It’s easy to lose a few lucky stones from a pair of earrings, but imagine misplacing an entire room made of amber, worth about $500 million today. A Prussian King gifted it to a Russian Tsar in 1716 and it was embellished and added to over the years. In 1941, Nazi troops looted Catherine Palace and disassembled the Amber Room, packing it into 27 crates. These crates were last seen in Konigsberg in 1945. Maybe the crates were destroyed in the firebombing of Konigsberg. Maybe not. I do not think even the Amber Room contained a chair made of solid amber.

I am planning to travel to Lithuania in August with my 91-year old grandmother and my father. We plan to visit the village where my mother was born and hopefully the pine forest my grandmother swore was so clean she would lie down for a nap and not have to brush herself off afterwards. I feel like an eight-year old a month before Christmas, equal parts excited and terrified the big day will never come.

The last time my grandmother proposed this trip, I didn’t take it seriously and got pregnant within the year. I could not take a baby and young child on such an adventure, nor could I leave them behind. Also, my grandmother was too old, we thought. We never thought “let’s wait 10 more years so she’s even older” but that’s what we did. She told me if she doesn’t at least try to make this trip, she’ll be really, really sad. As I looked at her old, unstamped passport and the application for a new one, I saw a path laid out so clear there was nothing left to do but start following it.

This trip is a treasure within reach but never guaranteed. A lot can go wrong any given day, exponentially more when one traveler is a nonagenarian. It will not be an easy trip (I have never thought this). Still, we see this as a chance to do something we will never be able to do again with people who won’t always be around. If we make it, how can I not bring home at least one amber-encrusted souvenir spoon or paperweight with a perpetually stunned wasp inside?


The ghostly toll collector (in hot pink)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He squinted again and said “Hmm.”

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

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

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

Double vision

I thought I’d done a good job of disguising it with a scarf, but my grandmother informed me yesterday that I’d gained weight.

“I know,” I said. “You told me that last time you saw me.”

“I did?” she asked, genuinely surprised.

“You did. You don’t need to tell anyone they gained weight,” I added. “They already know.”

“I’ll remember not to tell you anymore,” she said, somewhat chastened.

“We’ll see,” I said.

I didn’t tell her that I’ve been back at the gym lately. I didn’t tell her I joined a cycling class which meets twice a week in the dark and how one of the instructors yells WOOOoooo during the hard parts, which are pretty much every other minute. It’s not that I’m afraid I won’t stick with it, but I have seen myself lose and regain weight before. She has too.

She deftly changed the subject to my brother’s weight gain, though his was self-reported since she hasn’t seen him in awhile. Later I realized this most likely came up after she’d told him how much weight I’d gained and felt a fresh wave of disappointment that a pretty scarf only goes so far.

“My problem is these things that keep growing on my skin,” my grandmother continued. She then told a brief but troubling story about an elderly friend who grew “a long stick” from her nose. Kids, if you’re reading, life has exciting things in store for you too.

“How’s your cat doing?” I asked, afraid of what she might bring up next.

The cat is not really hers, but does anyone really own a cat? She has been letting this cat into her house to eat and nap, although never overnight, for over a year.

When I visited at Christmas, she had me put a litter box in her basement. “It’s too cold for her to sleep outside,” she explained, which was true, however 1) this cat is a boy, and 2) he already has a place to sleep: at her neighbor’s house, where he lives.

They have an unspoken agreement whereby my grandmother feeds the neighbor’s cat and they don’t call the police on her. According to her, they have a lot of cats. She’s not sure if they just turn up or if the neighbor brings them home to replace cats other people borrow.

This cat, the one my grandmother borrows, is pretty great. She calls him Tiger, which is a funny name for a girl cat and still not his real name. When you put your hand out to pet Tiger, he rises on hind legs to meet you halfway. Something about him standing upright makes me easily picture him in trousers and a waistcoat. He seems like a wise angel sent to keep my grandmother company.

Grandmother and “Tiger” during warmer days

The other day my grandmother said she saw Tiger in the neighbor’s driveway when she was going to get her mail. She called out and walked towards him but he scampered off when she got close, which surprised my grandmother despite this being totally catlike behavior.

Once my grandmother got back inside, she found Tiger sleeping soundly on the couch, right where she’d left him.

“He looked exactly like my Tiger. Now I know where to find another cat if anything happens to him,” she said, sounding quite pleased with herself.


Breaking news from the National Christmas Center

Unlike The Pond’s Institute, The National Christmas Center is a real place. You don’t need a fancy undergraduate degree in skin rejuvenation to get in, though you do have to pay $12.50. Trust me when I say it’s well worth it, especially since The National Christmas Center will close its doors forever on January 7.

When I heard it was closing, I knew we had to go one last time. I wondered if it would feel anticlimactic or disappointing. Was it as magical as I’d remembered? I am happy or sad to report I feel new levels of anticipatory grief, which is maybe not surprising since Christmas is built around anticipation and nostalgia.

I had to describe nostalgia to my nine-year old daughter because she didn’t understand what it was. My teenaged daughter understands it and has for some time, so maybe it first occurs naturally between the ages of 9-13. It becomes a sweet, sad burden we alternate between trying to ditch at every turn and cuddling to sleep at night.

I viewed a lot of our final visit to The National Christmas Center through the screen of my phone. I know this is sad, but I wanted to preserve every last wax curmudgeon and animatronic weasel. One day I will hopefully have grandchildren and we will hover around a screen so I can show them pictures of their mother making a non-camera ready face around the Belsnickel exhibit.

(Unlike Santa Claus and Krampus, Belsnickel can go either way depending on whether the child was good or bad. He carries cakes and candies in his pockets, but also birch switches. I’ve been thinking about him lately when I look at my childrens’ wish lists.)

One thing about nostalgia is no two people wear it the same. It also fits us differently over time. I used to be more nostalgic for things I never experienced. This is why a place like The National Christmas Center appealed in the first place.

One room is set up to look like a Woolworth’s from the 1950s, two decades before I was born. I never owned a wind-up monkey or menacing marionette. For awhile I used to buy toys from my own childhood on eBay to feed nostalgia. Then I realized I could go to antique malls and take pictures on my phone and it would bring as much satisfaction and require less storage. This is around the time I started becoming nostalgic for people and places.

Photo credit: Joe

In my late 30s, I began having terrible pangs of loss for grandparents and other family members who were long gone. Still, the nostalgia wasn’t always personal. I missed spinning the lazy susan on my grandparent’s kitchen table and how it was always sticky from spilled sugar and King’s syrup. I missed the big rock in their front yard that I used to sit on for what felt like hours for no other reason than it was there. Did I miss the rock or my grandparents? How well did I know them anyway?

The next phase of nostalgia involved scanning a box of slides from my dad’s side of the family. My husband’s family had another box of slides, so we combined them for a bulk rate and to confuse whomever scanned them.

My family’s slides captured the wholesome ’50s with Gee Whiz smiles and party dresses. Joe’s family slides were early ’70s in every sense and included what looked like ragtag pirates but were actually hippies on a sailboat. His parents were hippies. I swear I never realized until I saw those slides. I’d be more jealous but my grandparents once hosted a luau in their Baltimore row home, as well as a series of odd costume parties. I have the baffling photos to prove it.

Hippies on a shipA couple of dumbbells

I am entering a new phase of nostalgia in my 40s. The pain is unfamiliar so a bit exquisite. I am nostalgic for the things I haven’t done or that I did do but would probably still do or not do again. It is not the same as regret, but more aligned with that than anything else. I’m nostalgic for the way my teenager and I used to get along just last year, even though I know she had to grow up and often that means apart. I am sad to know the same thing will happen with my still-cuddly nine-year old. I miss the days before my husband and I had kids because I remember more time and less weight, both literal and figurative. If I could go back in time, would it feel that way? As Joe said long ago, nostalgia is a liar. This is what I remember, anyway.

The National Christmas Center will close its doors, probably forever, on January 7, 2018. They are looking for a buyer, but I can’t imagine the price. The collectible value of its contents alone must be over a million dollars, plus it brings in literally busloads of patrons in Christmas sweaters year round. Each room will be probably be divvied up and sold at auction or else a reclusive billionaire will buy it to know what it feels like to live inside Christmas’ belly. I wish I was a reclusive billionaire.

One thing I enjoy about life is how you constantly get to reinvent yourself. The older I get, the less anyone seems to care how or why I do this. Time lends a gentle cloak of invisibility, which leads to its own kind of freedom in how we remember and honor the past. I don’t mean we should make shit up or distort the facts, but why not write a short story about a billionaire recluse who sleeps in a fiberglass burrow formerly occupied by a rabbit in a striped nightshirt? A useful byproduct of nostalgia is creativity.

Some of us feel compelled to preserve and even mold the past to make some sort of sense out of it. I like to think this will help future generations do the same. They may one day pour over photos and screens or memory scans and wonder who were those hippie pirates and who took all the pictures of wax figures inside The National Christmas Center. And what does it all mean?

If you can’t make it to The National Christmas Center before it closes and aren’t a billionaire, here’s a 360 google tour. God bless the internet, every one.


The case of the missing retainer UPDATE: Case Closed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update: at approximately 5:12pm, you will apprehend the retainer inside a tan fleece blanket located on the victim’s bed. After giving the blanket a good shake, you’ll hear the sweetest ‘thunk’ on the carpet that you ever did hear. Knowing that you will not have to spend your Saturday sifting through garbage, you will order a celebratory pizza and cry out TGIF, MF! The vexing, useless ability to make a retainer vanish into thin air was not passed down to at least one of your offspring, after all.


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, and Major Major Major Major. Before I can ask why all the Majors, she says everyone starts at Minor Minor Minor Minor. “I see,” I lie.

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 impression 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 repeated, crippling run-ins with 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 blanching.

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 rides free.” We joked afterwards that maybe he thought I was blind or had Elephant Man’s disease. 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 at first and then 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 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. I try to give shorter instructions and watch my pitch. Once we are safely home, I feel shaky and weak but not relieved.

I go online and browse car magnets that warn STUDENT DRIVER in bold black against 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 un-stickered 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.




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