Seeds

Pagoda 2.jpg

Their new house, tiny, two-storied, two bed-roomed, was the last house before downtown started. On the downtown side was a squat brick building where a man did picture framing; in the back a “whole health therapist” had her offices. Beyond were antique shops and ice cream parlors, a deli and lunch room, gift shops and a hardware store. The print shop where her mother worked was down two blocks and around a corner. Until they got back on their feet, they would not need a car.

On their other side was a big house with a triple lot and a wrap-around porch and flowers, flowers everywhere. An old lady lived there. She was an active old lady. Every morning, from the first August day they moved in, Sheila saw her out walking, every morning right at 9:00. Her name, Sheila learned from her mother, was Mrs. Ruby Candell.

Mrs. Ruby Candell was tall with gray hair, neatly pulled back with a big barrette, that came to her shoulders. When she walked in the morning, she wore a skirt and a button-up blouse whose sleeves came below her elbows. Her shoes had two-inch heels and straps to hold them on; she strode along, every day, as if she were wearing tennis shoes. Usually she had letters in her right hand and Sheila guessed she must walk to the post office each morning.

Who does she write to, Sheila wondered. And how many bills could she have to pay?  Who generates that much mail?

And then Sheila thought how pathetic she was, a twelve-year-old with nothing better to do than wonder about her elderly neighbor’s postal life.

In the afternoon, at 1:00, Ruby Candell worked in her garden. She wore neat jeans and a rainbow of matching, wordless, t-shirts. She pulled her hair back with a scrunchy. Sheila thought she looked as though she was in a costume: Woman Working in Garden. She thought that the morning clothes were the clothes that really expressed Mrs. Ruby Candell.

When Ruby Candell walked past Sheila, she nodded solemnly, a smile fighting to lift the corners of her mouth. She did not speak.

Sheila spent a lot of time on the porch that August, waiting for [dreading] the beginning of school.

She was going to a new school; she’d be in grade six, changing classes. At her old school, she had been known and liked and elected class president. Here she would be a stranger amid kids who knew each other, had their own leaders and established cliques and processes and habits Sheila knew nothing about.

The teachers would like her right away; she was smart and conscientious and offered answers when no one else cared. The kids would not. They would look at her and see a dull dumpy fat kid. It would take forever, Sheila knew, to make new friends, although she hoped it would happen, gradually.

Her mother was not helpful. Sheila reminded her about school clothes; they ordered online without pomp or ceremony. The packages came; everything fit: end of story. They walked down one afternoon to school to register her; her mother took the afternoon off work, and they stopped at a little coffee shop and had drinks on the way home. This was a luxury; Sheila knew money was tight, that her father was fighting sending child support.

Her mother said, “Well, they seem nice,” and Sheila nodded obediently. She thought the woman who talked them through the process was impatient and condescending; she imagined a thought bubble above her head that read, “Oh, JOY,” when she learned that Sheila was a new student.

But she would give it a chance. They walked home and sat on the porch a minute. Then her mother’s phone rang and she sighed and went inside, went to fight with her father over legal fees and money for Sheila’s upkeep.

She read a lot, those days on the porch, having discovered the library that was around the corner on the not-downtown side. Sheila turned at the big brick apartment building and there were city offices and a sprawling playground and, set back behind, the huge library. She loved to read. The library was a place to go that wasn’t her sparse, sad home. She brought home stacks of books–dystopian series, graphic novels, teen romances,—and she read through them grimly.

When she wasn’t reading, she was drawing. She brought a packet of looseleaf out on the porch, and she set a sheet on a big coffee table book her mother had (The Great Gardens of Europe was its title) and she drew whatever came to mind. Lean, nasty-eyed girls wearing clothing that was ripped and tight and dangerous looking. A rocking chair and a cat, in a corner with a vase of flowers and a rag rug. A fantastic landscape, rocky and tumbling, mountainous, with a tiny, long-legged figure balanced on top of the highest peak–just balanced, looking as though she might tumble into the abyss any moment.

More angry-eyed teen rebels.

One windy day, a sheet lifted and blew into the yard next-door, where Mrs. Candell was working. She was crouched on the ground, digging, and she sighed, sort of, and rotated her shoulders, and then straightened up and snatched the paper before it fluttered again. She held it carefully with two muddy fingers just at the edge of the page, and she looked at it a long time.

Sheila jumped up. “I’m sorry!” she said. “It just got away.”

Ruby Candell stood up, arched her back, and stepped over great blooms of flowers and a stretch of lawn to hand Sheila the drawing. It was one of the angry teens.

“There’s something,” she said, “in those eyes. Those eyes hold mine.”

Sheila looked at her a moment, not sure what to say.

“I taught art,” said Mrs. Candell. “You have something.”

Sheila thanked her for the paper, folded it into The Great Gardens of Europe, and took her books and drawings up to her room.

*******

The next day, Mrs. Candell asked if she’d like to help her weed two afternoons a week, a job that would continue after school started. She would pay her two dollars an hour.

“I don’t know much about gardens,” Sheila said, honestly.

“I can teach you,” said Mrs. Candell.

So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Sheila weeded. They started in front, where there were flowering shrubs–azaleas and rhododendrons, a gloriously wild forsythia bush that would be a riot of yellow in the spring, said Mrs. Candell; flowers that were perennial, flowers that needed to be planted each year.

Mrs. Candell told her they had vagabond deer who would eat just about everything. She tried to plant deer-resistant blooms; she mixed up a foul-smelling batch of homemade, organic repellent and put it on the rest after every rain. Sheila could smell it, old-eggy and ripe.

Mrs. Candell showed her how to get under the roots of dandelions and pop them out. “We’ll never conquer them all,” she said, “but we keep at them.”

They worked their way to the gardens on the side closest to Sheila’s house; it took two full weeks of weeding. Mrs. Candell told Sheila to call her “Miss Ruby.” It was friendlier, she said, than Mrs. Candell, which made her feel like a teacher again.

*************

And every night Sheila’s mother came home at 5:25; they scrabbled together a dinner–hot dogs, chunky soup, grilled cheese sandwiches. They did the dishes and sometimes they watched TV–Gilmore Girls re-runs, old episodes of Lost.

And school started.

It was just the way Sheila expected it to be. No one was mean, not one person was sarcastic, but she felt pretty much invisible. She had a music class; in Spring semester, it would switch to art–something to look forward to. They were reading Hunger Games in English. She brought two library books with her every day, and read, by herself, all through lunch.

The teachers liked her.

One night, her mother had a different kind of conversation on her cell phone; it was the lawyer, she said, and child support would start arriving in October. So that, she said, was a good thing, at least.

That night, Sheila heard her sobbing through the thin wall that separated the bedrooms.

There was, apparently, no visitation agreement. Her father never called or emailed.

**********

At Miss Ruby’s, they started planting mums, offsetting the ones that were budding up, that had survived the winter and the hot summer and were getting ready to bloom. Miss Ruby gave her a hard-bound sketch pad, three wonderful pencils, and a  little pencil sharpener. She waved away Sheila’s thanks.

“They were sitting in a drawer,” she said, “and they’re meant to be used.”

Life settled into a pattern. There were agreeable parts, and Sheila watched her mother carefully for signs that she was growing stronger, happier, more interested in life. Some days she swore the signs were there.

And then one Sunday, coming in from a drawing binge on the porch, she found her mother curled up, sobbing, in the battered old barca lounger. “Las Vegas tragedy” read the banner on the TV screen.

“Sixty people,” choked her mother. “I can’t stand it.”

She jumped up. Sheila rushed to hug her, hold her tight, but her mother put up a hand.

“No,” she said. “Don’t.” And she pulled the throw tighter around her and went upstairs.

Dread settled: this wasn’t right. The only thing Sheila could think of to do was get Miss Ruby.

*************

Miss Ruby spent a long time with Sheila’s mother; she heard their voices rising and falling from her mother’s bedroom. Gentle. Soothing.

Finally she came downstairs.

“She’s going to sleep a little,” she told Sheila. “I said we’d wake her in an hour. Then we’ll all have dinner. I think,” she said, “we’ll have beef stew. You can help me make it.”

************

After dinner was eaten–the rich broth and tender veggies, the meat that fell apart when touched by a fork–they settled Sheila’s mother in the lounge chair and sat on the porch.

“She’ll have to have help,” said Miss Ruby. “We’ll start on that tomorrow. And you, too,” she said. “You need someone to talk to.”

Sheila told her about an advancement at school: that just this week, another girl joined her at the lunch table. She brought books with her, too. They read in companionable silence, and awkwardly shared rudimentary information as they packed up to go.

“Promising,” said Miss Ruby. “But you need a little more structured conversation that that.”

They were quiet for a good stretch. Then Sheila asked, “How do you cure sadness, Miss Ruby?”

Miss Ruby stretched out her hands and slowly cracked the arthritic knuckles. She stared across the street, watched a young mother hump a stroller up the porch of an aging duplex. She sighed.

“You don’t cure sadness,” she said. “It’s always there. The best I can do is to temper it by growing something. Making something.” She smiled at Sheila.

“I plant my sadness in my garden,” she said. “You can draw it in your pictures. We use it, like Rumpelstiltskin. We weave it into something we can live with.

“Your mother,” she said, “has it all packed tight inside. She needs someone’s help to start teasing it out, letting it go. We’ll call a counselor I know tomorrow, and she’ll want to talk with you too.”

There was quiet again; Sheila felt dread and a little squirrel of hope battling in her stomach.

“It will get better,” Miss Ruby said softly. “Not with a crash and a bang, but slowly, and one day you’ll wake up and find out you’re looking forward to the day ahead.

“But the world,” she added, “is always going to bring us unspeakable things. I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’ll get stronger; you will. But somehow, we need to put the good stuff out there. The best way I know is to make something beautiful grow.”

They sat for a moment more, and then Miss Ruby said briskly that they’d better get at those dishes. They filled the sink, and set up a rhythm; to Sheila’s surprise, her mother came out and grabbed a towel to help her dry. Afterwards, they walked downtown to get ice cream.

The panic in Sheila’s gut subsided, although it didn’t go away.

**************

That night she took her bath and then she stood in her bedroom window, surveying Miss Ruby’s gardens. She was thinking of doing a sketch for her for Christmas–maybe of the whole garden from a bird’s eye view, a little abstract, with colored pencils. Or a focusing in on just one detail–the stone pagoda tucked in by hosta, maybe.

The gardens were huge, she thought; it would be hard to pick what to draw. And then she thought about what Miss Ruby had said, and she thought about the work it must have taken–she appreciated that work now–to make the gardens what they were. There was planning and shopping and planting and tending. Fertilizing and weeding. Pulling out. Starting over. Seeds and cuttings and mistakes, and poison ivy, bees and insects and pesky deer.

And yet: Miss Ruby’s garden was a splendor. How much sadness is planted there? Sheila wondered, and then it was like a small door cracked open, and she saw what it was like to grow up, to have to deal with  senselessness and insanity. She wondered why people killed each other, and she wondered why parents would refuse to give their kids the money they needed to be healthy, or even to call those kids and say, “Hey, how are you?”

She wondered how you could love someone once and then hate them afterwards, hate them and want to hurt them.

There are bad things, she realized, but the life that was right around you could get better, too. I can grow something, she thought. She gripped her new pencils, looking at the expanse of Miss Ruby’s garden.

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Of Daring, Joy, and Grief: Mother’s Day

They have made arrangements to pick up his brother; they have quickly packed bags and sorted out treats for the little guy, who will be stuck in the car seat for a long, long ride. Now they are setting out on a long, sad journey.

They are going to spend the weekend with his mother, his sweet, funny, classy mother. She can tell a story like no one else; she can put together a tray of treats that prove irresistible to all comers. She dresses with verve and style; she is a gift-giver extraordinaire.

And a wonderful mom.

And a wonderful grandma. (And they have, all of them, waited so long for the miracle of this baby.)

But the news from the doctor this week was shocking; instead of being conquered (again) the cancer has spread,–spread quickly to organs and bones, and time and its quality are uneasily unknown now.

So they trek, the three young grownups, the one little guy, to see a very special mom on a Mother’s Day they fear will be her last.

**********

It ain’t always a Hallmark card, this holiday–this whole Mother’s Day thing.

*********

So there is a mother struggling with her child’s diagnosis, still reeling from the visits with the therapist and the school counselors. She can’t bring herself, quite yet, to share this with anyone. She is not quite ready to take all those dreams and flush them,–trade them in for a whole new set of expectations. Grief and guilt (Did I do this? Is it my genes?  Is this MY FAULT?) tear at her, and she shrinks from her husband’s hugs. And she cries when she finds a homemade card with an awkward lopsided picture and labored printing: MOM.

So there is a wife whose husband’s mom is recently gone; her red-eyed children miss their grandma. It is a hard holiday to celebrate with a loss so raw.

So there is a mother, aging and alone, who wonders if anyone will call or visit.

So there is another mother, separated from her son by miles and illness–HIS illness. She waits to hear about the progress of the therapy. This illness is insidious, but right now, they can entertain hope.

So there is a young woman with empty arms. She feels like she is the only person who remembers the baby she lost to miscarriage six months ago. She is tired of the advice to move on, try again. She needs to grieve the first loss.

So there is a mom, newly sober, who is at the foot of the mountainous fight to get her children back. She will not see them this Mother’s Day. She has no idea how long it will take until she can see them every day–or if she has the stamina for the long slog ahead.

And there are grandmas being moms again to another generation, and aunties raising siblings’ kids, and there are moms who have been gifted with an adopted miracle. There are stepmoms and step-grandmoms. There are men who fill the mother’s role, and there are caring friends who regularly step in to mentor.

We talk about motherhood and apple pie, but pictures of ‘mom’ can be very, very different.

**********

And there are lucky mothers who will stay in bed and be served clumsy breakfasts on wobbling trays this Mother’s Day–toast too dark, too light, or too buttery; bowls of cereal whose milk slops over the edge. A dandelion in an olive oil bottle. A Snickers bar, maybe, on the side.

The moms will eat those funny breakfasts with gusto, and maybe laugh about it later with the dad, hungrily sneaking handsful of Doritos out of sight of their happy kids, who are so satisfied with their ultimate surprise.

There are mothers who will have all their progeny around them at church, proud grandmas surrounded by two generations of shining smiling faces.

There will be festive dinners served at home around big, crowded tables, or at fancy restaurants so Mama doesn’t have to cook.

There will be flowers and sweets and books and jewelry; there will be little chins sunk into Gran’s arm as she reads a heart-felt card.

There will be joy. There SHOULD be joy.

*********

There should be joy because it’s a daring thing, this agreeing to be a mother–a gamble with thousands of unforeseeable outcomes.

The kid could shine, fill all the world’s definitions of successful, grow up and meet a loving, faithful mate, have children and be happy.

The kid could stumble, fall, and cause serious worry; then that kid, drawing on all that good stuff inside, could right herself and move on, wiser and stronger and ready to cope.

The kid could be disabled. (And what if other children hurt or mock her? And what if he never has a friend?)

The kid, after a perfectly normal, happy childhood, could have a mental illness.

The kid  could discover he has the disease of addiction.

The kid could wind up hating the mama. (What if I do everything so wrong?)

The kid…oh, my God: the kid could die.

************

And I could die, die while that tender, forming person still needs me. I could die before my work is done.

So MANY things could happen. How is it that we ever dare?

*************

There are faces at the window, waiting sadly. There are faces turned to family, filled with light.  There are wise souls, wisdom earned by letting go of old expectations and building others. There is deep grief because what has been is so very good and so very, very difficult to watch recede.

It is Mother’s Day weekend, and there has been the daring, take-a-chance, I-know-I-am-up-to-this plunge: we will go forward, it says. We will go on. Even if the vision we move toward has nothing to do with a Hallmark family scene…well. We will forge ahead.

A prayer, a candle, a flower on an established grave: we celebrate the ones we’ve lost. A cake, a scarf, a bouquet, a pin: we cherish the time together. And if we wish that things were different, well then. Then it’s time to make a plan, take a step, emerge from the cocoon, work to fulfill the new, emerging vision. To, maybe, pray.

Our work may be lopsided and uneven. And it could be our job to bring our children’s hidden gifts to light. To demand that the rest of the world see and recognize those gifts. It could be our job to step back and let the story unfold without our interference. It may be our job to open our hands and, hardly able to watch, let them stumble on.

Our work may be that of helping to re-build. And, oh, it may be our work to grieve.

***********

Mother’s Day: a celebration of meaning and daring, of the will to go on, of a million different ways to do things right. And maybe, of a million ways to go back and do things over.

Whatever your scenario, may your celebration be rich and warm and filled with meaning. And, however far away–far in terms of feeling and heart and time on earth– may your loved ones live close in your heart.

The Iron Man Interview

 

A Frable

Framma and Frappa Frantastic had five frabulous children: Freddie, Fralph, Frieda, Frannie, and the baby, Frappucina.

The Frantastic Family
The Frantastic Family

As each child came of age, Framma and Frappa presented him or her with a house. That way, each child learned how to clean and how to cook, and they each had a chance–and a space in which–to develop his or her own skills.

Freddie learned that he loved to work with wood. He made tables and chairs, desks, and picture frames. He taught all his friblings how to measure, saw, and hammer without error.

Fralph found he was a cook. When he simmered his stews, he drew the whole family to his house. He loved having them all around his table. He loved to feed them, and he loved to teach them his culinary secrets.

Frieda decorated! She could make a lovely display out of things she found in the woods, laying on the sidewalk, or in her junk drawer. She had an artistic eye and an imaginative soul. Her family praised her creations, and all of her friblings loved working on special displays with her.

Frannie threw herself into working with plants, indoors and out. She could make a tiny seed shoot up six feet high. She sang to her plants, and she said they sang back to her.

“Teach us those songs!” her friblings begged.

The Frantastic kids had many talents
The Frantastic kids had many talents

When Frappucina came of age, Framma and Frappa presented her with her house. Then they gathered all five children for an announcement.

“Now that you are all grown, and can take care of yourselves,” began Framma…

“…we are taking our long awaited world tour,” finished Frappa.

“It should take us four or five months,” Framma added, helpfully.

The Frantastic children were stunned. Five months? But then they thought, How wonderful. How wonderful for Framma and Frappa. And how wonderful that they know we can take care of ourselves.

The children helped their parents pack, and they waved them off with barely any tearful goodbyes.

It was a little weird at first, living without the tender strong center parents provide, but soon they found they were quite liking the novel sense of autonomy. Every day they worked together, shared their skills, and created new things…furniture or food, decorations, floral displays…

And they were all watching to see what Frappucina’s special skill would be.

So far she seemed to love doing everything, but not to be particularly brilliant at anything.

The days rolled on into weeks. Framma and Frappa sent cards and called every three days. The weather changed, the leaves brightened, and then the leaves fell, and one morning, when they met in the courtyard to plan their day, the Frantastics found fluffy white snow on the ground

They knew what that meant: the Feast of the Fruminaria was fast approaching!

They began to get ready.

Freddie made each of them a wooden frame to put outside their homes. Frieda gathered pine cones and vines and made a very pretty display on hers. She twined twinkle lights throughout, and it was very beautiful.She shared her supplies with the others and they each had fun making a display.

Ralph invited them all over to decorate the cookies he had made. Frieda’s were frilly. Frannie’s looked like flowers. Freddie’s were well-constructed. Fralph’s were delicious to taste, and delicious to behold.

Frappucina’s were, frankly, a little bit odd-looking, but she had so much fun with the frosting and the sprinkles that she made them all laugh, over and over and over again.

It was a good day. They went off to their little houses tired, excited, and happy.

The next day they had a surprise visitor. It was their cousin Drano from Drabulatia.

They all liked Drano, even though he was a little bossy.

They liked Drano despite his bossiness
They liked Drano despite his bossiness

The first thing he did was check out their decorations.

“This is the only GOOD one,” he said when he came to Frieda’s. “Why don’t you let her do all of yours?”

The Frantastic kids looked around. Suddenly they saw their decorations through outsider eyes.

Drano was right. Except for Frieda’s, the decorations were all–well, they were just frappy-looking.

“I’ll be happy to do yours over for you,” Frieda said to all of them. At first she was kind and sweet. Then she got a little crazy. They weren’t all sure they liked the creations she put in front of their houses, but she and Drano insisted they were brilliant.

They had a coffee break and Drano tasted their cookies. He said Freddie’s were clunky, Frieda’s and Frannie’s were too francy, and Frappucina’s were just plain weird. Fralph’s were the only good ones, he said. They looked at each other, then they looked at the cookies they’d thought were so wonderful only the night before.

Each one, when he or she thought no one else was looking, slipped their particular not-quite-right cookies into the garbage. Except for Fralph, of course…Fralph got just a little high and mighty about being the King of Cookies.

Drano decided Freddie had the only comfortable furniture.

He said Frannie was the only one whose landscaping was worth a frit.

And he said it didn’t seem like Frappucina had any special skills at all.

“Too bad,” he said. “I guess there’s one in every family.””

And then he left, whistling and skipping a little, clutching a bag of Fralph’s good cookies.

The friblings sat. They couldn’t think of a single thing to do that might be fun. Before it even got dark, they drifted to their own houses. Each went to bed early, and each tossed and turned discontentedly.

But the next morning brought a wonderful surprise: Framma and Frappa were home—home just in time for the Feast of the Fruminaria!

They had had a wonderful time, and they had stories to tell and gifts to share. Together, Framma and Frappa fixed a big, wonderful breakfast, and as they ate their first meal as a reunited family, the Frantastics all began to cheer up.

The children were anxious to show their parents what they’d done while they were gone. Framma and Frappa admired Freddie’s new chairs,and they asked what the other fribs had made.

They loved Frannie’s planting, and they looked for the plants at the other houses. They liked Frieda’s decorations, but they were puzzled when they looked at the other children’s.

“This just doesn’t feel like it’s yours,” they said to each one.

It was the same with Fralph’s cookies…Framma and Frappa loved them, of course, but they were sad not to see their other children’s creative hands in that fun and tasty project.

“Did we tell you,” asked Freddie, “that Drano was here?”

“Ah,” said Framma to Frappa.

Frappa was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “Let’s open presents!”

What a lovely lot of things Framma and Frappa brought them–fripperies and furbelows, francies, funny faddy things, and frodaciously frumptious frivolities. The Frantastics were ecstatic, and they played together and ate together and laughed together all day.

They had so much fun. It was almost impossible to say who enjoyed it most, BUT–Frappucina had the widest grin and the loudest laugh, and the way she trilled and carried on made them all smile, inside and out.

That was a wonderful day. And, as the sun dropped behind the horizon, each of the Frantastic kids kissed the parents, hugged the friblings, and wandered off to bed—except for Frannie. Right at the end, Frannie had gotten thoughtful; she’d gotten quiet. And she waited.

When her brothers and sisters had all drifted off to their homes to sleep, she went to her parents and asked the question that was fracking her heart.

“Do you think it’s really true,” she asked, “that Frappucina isn’t good at anything?”

“Ah, Frannie,” said Framma, and Frappa gave Frannie a great strong hug.

“Everyone,” said Frappa, “has many, many gifts. Finding them is your life’s work.”

“But,” said Framma, “you are all on your way. Already–

“Freddie is a carpenter; his gift is to shape the wood.

“Fralph is a chef; his gift is to fricassee and fry and to feed us with his lovingly cooked food.

“Frieda is a decorator; she combines elements to make us feel happy and at home.

“YOU are a horticulturist; you coax even the most reluctant plant to grow into glossy beauty.

“Frappucina is going to grow into many wonderful skills and gifts, but right now she has discovered one of the very, very best: she is an enjoyer.”

“An enjoyer,” said Frannie thoughtfully.

“Did you ever notice,” said Frappa, “how Frappucina’s laughter makes us all laugh? How she reminds us how good breakfast tastes or how nice it is to all be together?”

“She does,” said Frannie. “She does do that!”

“Each of you is brilliant at your big thing”, said Framma, “and because of that, we all appreciate those things a little more and a little better. Frappucina’s big thing is enjoyment; she makes us all enjoy EVERYTHING deeper and better.”

That was exactly right, Frannie thought; what Framma and Frappa said was right and true. Frappucina DOES add spice and life to every occasion.

But,– “Why did Drano make us all feel so BAD?” asked Frannie.

“Well,” said Frappa, and he looked at Framma, and he smiled and shrugged. “Drano may be my nephew, Frannie, but when it comes to enjoyment, I’m afraid he’s a little,—a little,— What is it I’m trying to say, my dear?”

“CLOGGED,” said Framma. “When it comes to enjoyment, we’re afraid Drano is a little CLOGGED.”

“Ah,” said Frannie. “I think I see. But if Drano is clogged, do you think he will ever discover his special thing?”

“Let’s hope,” said Framma, “he is lucky enough to spend time with a creator and time with an enjoyer, and to keep his eyes open and his mouth closed. It’s the very best way to get unclogged.”

“I’m glad you’re home,” said Frannie, and she hugged her parents, and she skipped back to her own little house, thinking about the treasures the next day could bring.

Frappucina

Let Go, Let Go, Let Go

 

 

I open the back door of the Escort, and Ella peers at me from her car seat.  Her eyes well tears; her bottom lip quivers.

“Come on, baby,” I say.  “Let’s go meet the other kids!”

“No, Mama,” she whispers.  I unbuckle the belts and lift her from the car seat.  She clings to me, clamped on, across the crowded parking lot.

Inside, the hallways gleam with back to school brilliance.  Ella’s preschool starts at 9:15, an hour and fifteen minutes after the big kids start regular school, so there is a buzz, a hum, an underlying energy that vibrates in the very floor as we walk down to the preschool classroom.

We are early, but other children are already there.  The smiling teachers, Miss Claire and Miss Betsy, have a tempting array of toys spread enticingly throughout the room.  There are crayons and fresh sheets of drawing paper and books  on each of the small round tables.

“Look, Ella,” I whisper, “there’s Clifford and Emily!”

“No,” she says into my neck.  A brown-haired, bowl-cutted, boy, rubbing his red crayon back and forth on a yellow sheet of paper, looks up briefly and shrugs.

Miss Betsy comes over.  “Good morning, Ella!” she says, and she peels my three year old off my body. “This is going to be a great day,” Betsy tells Ella, “and you will make new friends.”

“NO,” says Ella with great finality as Betsy lowers her to the ground. With startling quickness, Ella is wrapped around my right leg, and she is into full tantrum warm up.  “No mama no mama NO MAMA NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and she is off and wailing.

Betsy looks at me sympathetically and mouths, “Go quickly.” She removes Ella with seasoned dexterity.

“Goodbye, Ella!” I say.  “I will see you at 11!”

I flee, tears starting in my own eyes, rushing out the door on a tidal roar of, “NOOOOOO, MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I stand in the hallway for 30 minutes listening to my child wail, and then I go out to the car and cry for half an hour myself.

***************
I pull the Vibe into the parking lot of the middle school and ruffle Ella’s newly cut hair. She turns to look at me; her twelve year old eyes are bottomless.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she says.  She eyes a couple of other girls meandering up the walkway to the big old brick building.  I know she is checking out their clothes–Did I pick right? she is asking herself.

Her little plaid skirt and long sleeved black top will do.  The other girls have very similar outfits.

“We walked this out,” I remind her.  We had come to the open school two days running and followed her schedule–from home room to math class to English to Gym. She knows how to get to the cafeteria. Her afternoon classes are next door to each other.

We have arrived early so she can get to her locker through hallways that are not tumultuous with first day mayhem.

Her hand is on the door handle, her body tensed.

“You can do it,” I whisper.  “You’ll be great.”

She leans over and gives me a quick, self conscious peck; she grabs her not-yet-full backpack, and she bolts out the door.  Head down, she scurries up the walk.  At the big shiny red door she pauses, hand on the heavy metal handle.  She turns to look at me pleadingly.

She looks suddenly tiny next to the massive door, which must be eight feet high, my big girl shrunken and frightened by this new challenge.  She is all long legs, knobby knees, and tension.

“You can do it,” I mouth, and she shakes her head, almost angrily.  Then she pulls herself up, yanks on the door, and disappears.

I sit there for  moment, leaving my twelve-year-old Ella in a nest of strangers.  She’ll be great, I think.  I pull myself up, an echo from a moment ago, and restart the car.

****************

As we are pulling the crisp new blue sheets over the mattress of the bed on the right-hand side of the room–a predetermined arrangement–Abby and her mom Mary come in.  There is hugging and squealing, and the girls dig treasures out of their bags, laughing.

A coffee maker;  I’m learning to drink it!

Oh, very cool–a bagel slicer; we can go to the bakery over on Downing Street on weekends. 

They unpack their clothes neatly, folded things in dressers, hanging things behind the closets’ louvered doors.

They put toothbrushes and soaps, hang towels and washcloths, in the bathroom.

Mary and I hang the curtains we’ve collaborated on, smooth matching duvets, plump up new pillows. We fold afghans over the foot of each bed. The girls flit around, putting books on shelves, supplies on desks, saying tentative hellos to neighbors who poke their heads in to meet them.

This is 210 McHenry Hall: Ella’s new home for the next academic year.  She is 18, still leggy, but the knobby colt-like quality is gone; this is the classy legginess of a young woman.  And this is her dream school; this is where she’ll decide between the physics degree and the writing degree.  She will take her intro physics course, her calculus, her two English classes, and begin determining: Do I want to be a scientist? Or a writer?  Can I do both???

She and Abby, another bright, ambitious, over-achiever, have met twice, corresponded and emailed all summer; she is ready.

But–as Mary and I look around the room, knowing it’s all set, knowing it’s time to go, both girls begin to shimmer just slightly.  I feel Mary doing what just I am doing, girding for goodbye.

We hug our girls hard, we demand that they call that very night.  They roll their eyes,–eyes that threaten to leak.

I pause in the parking lot  as I dig out my keys to the Scion, and look up.  Her face is pressed to the second floor window, a hand flattened on either side.

You can do it, I mouth.  She gives me a thumbs up, peels herself from the window, and I climb into my car and start the ignition.

*****************

I love Andy; he loves Ella.  He is kind and good and smart and hard-working.  She glows when she looks at him.

She has lived in the city for three years; she is independent and savvy.  But when she emerges, changed from her tulle and lace extravaganza into a beautiful flowy top and tight and trendy jeans for the start of the honeymoon, her eyes are the frightened, sorrowful eyes of my little girl.

I hug her hard, rock her back and forth, make her giggle.

She and Andy open their Jeep doors–my liberated baby is driving; she looks at me long and hard over the roof of the car.

It’ll be great, I mouth, and I see that little shimmer; then she grins and slides inside, and they’re off to begin a marriage.

*********************
They call me when they’re ready to go, and I meet them at the hospital.  Her contractions are three minutes apart; she’s in her fuzzy robe, her long legs hunkered up in the wheel chair, her hands on either side of her big belly.

She breathes like they taught her: Huff.  Huff. Huff.

Andy signs papers and answers questions and a cheerful, motherly nurse pads out in pink and blue patterned scrubs.  The woman at the desk smiles at me and shows me where to sit; the motherly nurse rounds up Andy, deftly turns the wheelchair around, and starts to roll my Ella away.

She cranes her head around, looking for me.  There is panic.  I don’t think I can do this, she telegraphs.

You’ll be GREAT, I telepath back, and she disappears to birth my beautiful granddaughter, mysteriously named Devon after an English river neither Andy nor Ella has ever seen.

****************************

Ella arrives at my door; she has just taken Devon to her first day of preschool.

“Oh, my God,” she says.  “How did you ever do this?” and she tells me about the teacher peeling her four year old from her leg and shooing her, (Goodby, Mom! We’ll be fine!) out the door, and about standing in the hallway listening to her baby cry for her.

I do all the right things: I smooth her hair, I cradle her cheeks for an instant; I plant a firm kiss on her tensed up brow, and I take her out for coffee.  I tell her stories about her own stubborn little self until she is laughing shakily.

“Does it get easier?” she asks, and I tell her that it does, little by little.  And that Devon is great, so smart, so ready; she’ll do really well.

I don’t tell her everything, though, as I look fondly at my daughter, a mature woman, a wonderful mother, who is right now surreptitiously stealing half of my warm and oozey chocolate chip cookie.

I don’t tell her that I’ve decided each leaving is like having a stitch removed. If the skin is healthy–if the child is ready–it hurts just when  the stitch is pulled.  Sometimes, in fact, it stings like hell, the sudden pain vibrating up and down my body.  But then under the pain, as what was stitched together starts to separate a little bit, I discovered, there is a tiny glowing orb,  a little pearl-like nugget–a little jot of freedom.

I don’t tell her that in a month, Devon will be bolting out of the car, anxious to see her friends, forgetful of the mama dragging in behind her with a Hello Kitty backpack, a Scholastic book order form, and a signed promise to send in two dozen cupcakes for the UnBirthday Party the following week. Or that she will say goodbye and drive off and feel a rush of joy at having two hours to herself,–two hours in which she can take her tablet to the coffee shop and pound the keys in blissful quiet, or–what luxury–when she can take a deep, sucking-in- sleep-like-a-parched-runner-downs-water, nap.

I don’t tell her that each leaving signals a growth in her daughter…and a little more freedom for her, the mama.  She will savor that freedom, feeling a guilty pang for doing so, and she will help her daughter reach and grow and get sturdy and strong.  And each time they say goodbye, she’ll know: Devon is ready for this. She’ll be great.

If I told her this, she’d be brought up short; she’d think, Mom!  You were GLAD when I was gone???

I’ll let her discover the flip side of the leaving on her own.  Right now, I grab her hand, studded with dots of melted chocolate, and we laugh.  It’s these moments, I tell her, the moments between the leavings, that we savor.

Parsing the Puppy: A Tale Told to Family

Image taken from open Internet source
Image taken from open Internet source

By the time the day—lazy hours on the beach, chasing kids in the water; late afternoon browse through the shops; a long walk with Martin; and then dinner at the restaurant,–had wound itself into almost sunset, Dell was beat. The family had spun off into single cells; she could hear her daughter-in-law Jillie bathing Shaylynn, a raucous, splashy event. Nessa was out for a walk with her aunts and the girl-cousins. The men, Martin included, had scattered.
Maybe there was a game on, she thought. In the quiet of the kitchen, sifting through the debris of five families bunking in one big rental house, Dell found a clean glass, loaded it with ice cubes, and poured white wine over the top. She found her Louise Penny mystery and, cradling that and her drink, she stepped through the sliding doors to the deck.
She slid into a comfortable Adirondack chair. There was a breeze; she felt deliciously cool after the heat of the day, a degree above goose bumps. She put her feet up on the little metal table, testing its pebbled glass top. The water shimmered, sooshing softly. On the horizon, the sun limned clouds with the special rosy peach glow of setting sun. Her brother Kevin, alone on the beach, stacked wood for a fire.
Dell opened her book, took a long, sweet sip of wine, and, savoring the quiet and the opportunity, began to read.
She was two chapters in, the sun just poised to dive, when she realized suddenly her solitude was busted. A little face peered up at her, framed by a fuzzy glow of fine blonde hair, rubbed dry and flying, staticky, fresh from a bath.
“Tell me a story, Grandma Dell?” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled the sweet smelling three year old, toweled and jammied, onto her lap.
“What story would you like?” asked Dell, and Shaylynn, whose current passion was puppies, replied immediately. “Tell me the time Grandpa Joe brought Pantry home.”
“Oh,” said Dell, “that’s one of my favorite stories, because I was there, and Pantry was my best buddy for a long, long time.
“It was a crisp Fall day, and I was four years old, just a year older than you are now, punkin pie. Just before dinner, my mom–your great grandma,–called us all into the kitchen. We were watching TV–the Three Stooges, I think–and my brothers–those are your uncles Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony–thought she wanted us to turn off the TV and get ready for dinner. But instead, here’s what she said:
“’Your dad is coming home in a few minutes, and he’s got a big surprise. A big surprise that’s kind of little.’”
Shaylynn sighed contentedly, and Dell saw Martin rounding the corner of the house, swinging his espadrilles. With him were Lyle and Anthony; her son Nathan’s infectious laughter followed them. They stopped at the beer cooler, and she heard the ‘cha-chooch’ of bottle caps turning; then the men settled onto the bottom step of the deck where they could watch the sun take its plunge.
“Well, imagine,” Dell continued. “We were all in a tizzy. We begged and begged for her to tell us what she meant, but she just said it might be a good idea to get the table ready for dinner so we didn’t have to worry about anything when the surprise got there. So you bet we set that table as fast and as nice as it’d ever been set. My job was to put the silverware by each place and I made sure the knives and spoons were neatly and nicely on one side, and the forks lined up straight as soldiers on the other.”
“Huh,” scoffed Lyle. “I don’t remember you having any jobs.”
“And we hadn’t any more than gotten done than Grandpa Joe’s big blue Buick pulled up the long driveway, crunching on the autumn leaves,” Dell continued.
“Dad had the woody wagon that year, not the Buick,” said Lyle.
“Shush!” warned Shaylynn.
“We all yelled, ‘Dad’s home! Dad’s home!’ [“We didn’t ALL yell ‘Dad’s home!’” said Lyle, darkly] and Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony, who had their sneakers on, went flying out the back door. I was in my stocking feet, so I stood by the storm door, so close my breath made steam clouds on the glass, and waited anxiously.”
“I believe,” said Anthony, “that Little Joe was out delivering papers that day.”
Dell sighed. “Grandpa Joe climbed out of the Buick and your three uncles were bouncing all around him. He took his time; I could see him putting his hands out like this” (Dell extended her arms, palms out flat, and made a puzzled face) “and I knew he was saying, ‘Surprise? What surprise?’”
“He was saying, ‘Get your little asses out of my way,’” said Lyle.
“Lyle! Hush now,” said Mary Rita, his wife, who’d just come out on the deck. She settled in on the step behind the men. She poked her husband in the back.
“Anyway,” said Dell. Shaylynn was glowering at the interrupters. “He bent over to reach back in for his battered old black lunch pail, and my brothers had their heads every which way around him, trying to find the big surprise that was little. But they couldn’t see it. They clustered around your Grandpa Joe as he walked across the yard, through the late afternoon sunlight, to get to the back door.”
“Wasn’t it winter?” asked Anthony. “I believe there was snow on the ground.”
“I held the door open for him and he tousled my hair and leaned over and kissed my mother.
“And we were all clamoring: ‘Where’s the surprise? Where’s the surprise?’
“And my father looked all surprised himself—“
“–Make the face, Grandma,” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled on a mask of comic shock and stared down, wide-eyed at Shaylynn, who mirrored the same exact face and stared back.
“…and he said to my mother, ‘Claire, was I supposed to bring a surprise home?’
“And she said, ‘Oh, you remember, Joe. The big surprise that is very small?’
“ ‘Oh. Oh, THAT surprise,’ said your Great Grandpa Joe, and he said to Little Joe, ‘I think I put it in this pocket.’
“Grandpa Joe had on his big working coat, a kind of golden color, so thick and hard that it could stand up by itself in a corner if my dad forgot to put it on a hanger in the back hall closet.”
“Oh, now,” said Anthony. “That’s not right. He had a blue denim jacket. Remember that, Lyle? It was a long denim jacket with a black corduroy collar.”
“The pockets,” said Dell firmly, “of the gold jacket were big and deep and your Uncle Little Joe reached into the one my dad pointed to, but all he pulled out was a balled up plaid handkerchief.
“‘Uck!’” said Little Joe, and he threw the used hankie down the cellar steps toward the washing machine.
“‘Huh,’ said Grandpa Joe. ‘Not there, eh? Try this one, Lyle,’ and Lyle reached into a chest pocket, and all he found was a stinky old pack of Camel cigarettes.
“‘Bleahhhh’, said Lyle and he tossed the pack on the table. Our eyes were all on my father, not missing a blink.”
“Another piece of revisionist history,” said Lyle.
Shaylynn sat up, extended her arm, and shook her stubby forefinger. “SHUSH!” she said.
Lyle tilted his beer and drank.
Dell continued. “‘Well,’ said your Grandpa Joe, thoughtfully, ‘I only have one pocket left, Anthony.’ And Anthony reached into the other big, deep pocket. His expression, first all excited and wound up, kind of melted into a sweet surprise, and he left his hand in my dad’s pocket for a long moment. We were holding our breaths, and finally Lyle said, ‘Come on. Come ON!’
“And Anthony slowly pulled his hand out of Grandpa Joe’s pocket and there, curled up like a little furry ball was a tiny little puppy dog.”

“What color was it?” asked Shaylynn sleepily.
“It was black and white with tiny golden brown spots. The tip of its tiny black tail was white,” said Dell. Shaylynn sighed and snuggled deeper, having nailed down this important fact.
“The brown spots,” said Lyle, “didn’t show up until later.”
Shaylynn growled, deep in her throat.
“‘Put him on the floor, Anthony,’ said my mother, and Anthony lowered the puppy to the floor. The little thing just wobbled there for a minute and then it seemed to find its legs, and it scrambled around in circles.
“‘What will we call it?’ asked Little Joe, and my mother said we’d have to start thinking of a name, and we all sat and watched the little mite explore. It went this way and it went that way.”
“Was it a BOY dog or a GIRL dog?” asked Shaylynn, prodding, reminding, the arbiter of essential detail.
“Thank you, darling,” said Dell. “It was a girl puppy, and it skittered around and then suddenly it made a straight little bee-line for the cupboard we kept the canned goods in, the cupboard we called the pantry.”
“It didn’t make a BEE line,” said Anthony. “It came to me first, and I POINTED it toward the pantry.”
“That dog,” said Lyle, “didn’t even LIKE you, Anthony.”
“The hell you say!” said Anthony. “That dog LOVED me.”
“BOYS,” said Mary Rita.
“‘It’s a PANTRY dog!’ I said, and my mom said, ‘Maybe we will call her Pantry.’ And we did.”
“Oh, so YOU named the dog?” said Kevin, helping himself to a beer.
“Shut up, Kevin,” said Anthony. “You weren’t even born yet.”
“Did you FEED it?” nudged Shaylynn, and, “We did,” replied Dell. “Your Grandma Claire poured a little saucer of milk and put it on the floor and that hungry little puppy did an about face–she knew that milk was all hers–and she lolloped over and put her tiny little head down, and she drank every single bit. She drank so much, her tummy got so full her little legs couldn’t touch the floor. Grandpa Joe had to pick her up and put her softly into a little nesty bed of newspaper and a soft old rag, and she curled right up and went to sleep.”
“And did Pantry have to pee?” asked Shaylynn.
“Oh yes,” said Dell. “There was pee-ing and there was pooping and all of that stuff, and she had to be trained and walked and cleaned up after, but she was a good, good dog, and she lived a good long life. She was 16 years old and that’s a very long time in dog years. She went from a tiny puppy to a grand old lady dog.”
“And we have pictures,” said Shaylynn.
“Yes,” said Dell. “We have pictures. And it’s time for a mama to put a sleepy little girl to bed.” She planted a kiss on the cotton candy hair and boosted the snuggly little body to Jillie, waiting patiently.
Jillie hefted her daughter and turned to head back into the house, but Shaylynn’s sleepy voice made her pause.
“Grandma?” asked the little girl.
“Yes, darlin’?”
“Did they live in your same house?” asked Shaylynn, jutting her chin toward the uncles.
“Well,” Dell said slowly, “not always and not exactly. They lived in a place called Silly Uncles Fantasy Land. But we let them come to visit once in a while.”
“Okay,” said Shaylynn. “GOOD.”
Jillie maneuvered the sleepy child through the sliding door and into the dark, quiet house.
The sun plunged. The water was glints in the darkness; Kevin’s fire snapped and shimmered on the beach.
Lyle and Anthony both opened their mouths. But before they could speak, Mary Rita put a bare foot on the small of each back. She rocked backward for traction, and then she kicked them, firmly, onto the sand.

 

 

You Know, I’m Not From Here, Myself

Image from whatmortgage.co.uk
Image from whatmortgage.co.uk

Some days I remember how true it is that I’m not from here, myself.

I got a fascinating letter yesterday from Clarissa, a former student become fast friend, who has moved to a farm some ways from here. Clarissa was detailing her summer exploits…in which she and her husband harvested and canned and preserved, froze, dried, and dehydrated, an amazing abundance of food.

Clarissa writes about the wonders of fresh eggs, the stupidity of guinea hens, and of drying every last piece of the tomato–skin and seeds and pulp,—then grinding the dry stuff to a powder she adds to soups. She writes about squash and cucumbers and corn (which the coons ate; she had to buy her canning corn in town), about an ancient variety of sweet peppers, and getting the root cellar ready.

And she writes about green beans,— picking them, cooking up messes of them, canning, and sharing them. But there was one sentence I just didn’t understand, so I took the letter into work with me.

Taylor and Andy and May were chatting at the front desk. As it happened, they were talking about eating off the land, which gave me an opening. I said to Taylor, “Hey! What does this mean: ‘The pale beans are going to be shelly beans now.’?”

Taylor gave me that ‘you’re an idiot’ look.

“Gimme that,” she said.

She scanned Clarissa’s beautifully handwritten letter and snorted.

“POLE beans,” she said. “The POLE beans are going to be shelly beans now.”

May and even Andy–who’s from upstate, who just moved here,– both nodded knowingly.

“Shelly beans?” I said. “What’s a shelly bean?”

There was one of those sucked in pauses–one of those pauses that gives you long enough to see the thought bubble settle over someone’s head, and to read, “Can you believe this moron????”–and Taylor said, “SHELLY beans. You know–like you SHELL them???”

Oh. Sure. SHELLY beans. I grabbed my letter and thanked her for her trouble and marched back to my office, which, thankfully, is way back at the far end of things. I folded up Clarissa’s letter and put it in my book bag, and maybe later tonight I’ll get on the internet and look things up and try to understand the point at which a pole bean becomes a shelly bean, and what, indeed, a shelly bean is.

And as I marched away I could hear Taylor explaining to Andy, “She’s not from here.”

It reminded me of another time. Mark and I were at a church event in Mayville, New York, and one of the older ladies was talking about the elephant that the town adopted back, I think, in the 1950’s.

“Wow,” I said–it was quite a story–, “I never knew that before.”

“Well,” she responded, and her voice had that same tone Taylor’s did when she was explaining my ignorance to Andy, “you’re new.”

At the time, I’d lived in Mayville almost eight years.

You shuffle your feet, and you’re destined to be the ‘new kid,’ a transplant no matter how long you’ve been there.

Or, instead of shuffling, you settle back in, and you’re a lifer.

Both have their own little cachets. Or stigmas, depending how you look at it.

I was talking to a man the other day who lives in the house in which he grew up. Bill went away to college, got his degrees, and moved back home. By that time, his parents’ nest had emptied. Bill had married and anticipated, quite rightly, as it turned out, that there would soon be children to fill the four bedrooms. So his parents downsized, and he bought his well-loved home.

He and his wife have transformed that home; it is a showplace, a warm, welcoming, expansive space, totally their own.

And still: the house he grew up in. How would that feel?

Thinking of that, I decided to make a list of homes I’ve lived in. I was very surprised to work it out to be 16. That means I’ve lived in three or more places per decade. That means I’ve spent less than, on average, three and three quarter years in each home.

What does that tell me about my life, my roots, my roosting qualities?

There is someone within hollering distance who remembers when Bill fell asleep on the school bus in kindergarten and rode it all the way to the end of the route. They still talk about his high school football exploits, and three of his four school days girlfriends (he married the fourth one) go to his same church. Bill could probably tell you all about a shelly bean and why the town shuts down when the Buckeyes play on Saturday; he can debate the merits of hot chicken sandwiches vs. pulled pork (and talk knowledgeably about whether the cole slaw goes ON the sandwich or next to it), and explain who our first female mayor was, back in the ’80’s.

My history is a little different. I grew up with friends whose mothers cooked duck blood soup (they pronounced its Polish name “Chi-nee-na,” but I would seriously have to look up the spelling) and pierogis, or spaghetti sauce from tomatoes they grew in their backyards, ladled thickly (some families called that sauce ‘gravy’) over homemade, pillowy ravioli. I grew up knowing it was beef on weck, not beef on “wick,” and I remember when the wing came to Buffalo. I had my sports-heart broken a lot of times.

Our winter talk was about lake effect. OUR storm was the Blizzard of ’77.

Here, they talk about the storm that came in 1978, and there are parking signs that tell you three inches of snow constitutes an emergency.

There’s no one here who remembers the time I got stuck vaulting over the horse in gym class and wound up hanging upside down by my toes–earning myself the forever nickname, from my gym teacher, of “Amazing Grace.” There’s no one who remembers the alcohol-fueled argument I had with the guy in the take out place who insisted on talking about the “Equal RATS Amendment.”

In some ways, being peripatetic is a really good thing.

It’s funny, though. I was a terrifically shy kid; whenever I went someplace new, it took me forever to warm up, a long time to reach out and make friends. So it would make sense if I hated moving, if the door jambs from every place I’d ever left had claw marks dragged into them from where they had to tear me away.

But the first time we moved, when I was in third grade, I remember being really excited. My brothers, who were older and settled into their classes, middle school and high school, were not; they were upset at being made to leave home and friends. I had good friends, too, and I missed them, but I was fascinated by the change from Catholic school to public school, from a homogenous grouping to a more eclectic one.

The next move brought me to a neighborhood where three girls my own age lived within half a city block–what a wonderful place to spend my middle school years. And then my parents moved to the house they’d occupy until they moved into their tiny ‘old age home’ apartment. That house was home for my high school years–where the neighbors would come out and ask me about my season as I swung my wooden Wilson racket down the street, walking to the courts; where Mr. Legier would sometimes drive me to my job at the supermarket when Dad couldn’t take me–in a grandpa car-boat fifty feet long that he drove at a steady 15 miles an hour.

Then I moved–college, apartments, marriage, divorce, apartment, marriage, job changes, law school for Mark, aftermaths. And every move has brought new treasures in friends and place and work and quirky, unique details.

I have lived in the town Mark Twain called a stud farm for idiots. I have lived in the town where the actual one-hour photo machine, used in the Robin Williams movie of that name, wound up being used to develop photos, sometimes in one hour, at the local grocery. I have lived in Paul Lynde’s birthplace, and I live in a place now that has a restaurant/bar built from barn wood taken from Agnes Moorehead’s farm, which is just down the road aways. I have lived, I can say with truth, in fascinating places. I have grown in each of them.

There’s an anchor, though, in my husband’s family, who are firm in the area where we grew up, a magnetic north that pulls us back. We have made our own ‘homeplace,’ and yet, for Mark especially, there are layers to the meaning of ‘home.’

Bill and his wife Allie have traveled all over. They’ve probably been to 35 states; they’ve been to Europe, to Egypt, and they have toured the Far East. But they return each time to where they began. Adventurous, inquisitive, their roots are strong and fast in the place of their births.

We are all needed–the intrepid, sometimes clueless, wanderers, the firmly planted live-at-homes. We need the memory of what has gone by; we need the expectations of what a place should be. Between the two, there’s a tension; the tension holds us up higher, makes us reach collectively for a little better life. Reach to match the wanderer’s expectations. Reach to honor the vision of the ancestors who built.

That’s what I think my work is about, at a wonderful community college where the students range in age from 12, sometimes, no kidding–to, gosh–occasionally, there’s someone taking a class who’s even older than I am. And that’s why little shelly bean jokes will never separate me fundamentally from Taylor, whose passion is in helping others reach their dreams. She grew up with some of those same dreams; she made hers come true, a lot of them; she’s got others that are still waiting to come to life. She’s helping, now, too,  her sweet, funny daughter reach for dreams uniquely her own.

My family’s dream required relocating; it’s been weird and painful and interesting; and it’s been fun and informative and priceless. We think that this place, this time, this fit, allows us to get cozy, to settle in, to let those shallow roots search out a deeper level.

We may be here twenty years from now, established [and old] members of the community.

And if we are, someone will say, after we ask about a story we’ve never heard, or inquire about a person we never met, “Ah, yes. You’re new.”

And I’ll just smile, and agree. It’s true, it really is. I’m not from here, myself.

 

Some names have been altered to disguise the knowledgeable.

Estate Sale

 

efcshortstorywinner

I was blown away to get an email from EveryFreeChance.com this week; they let me know “Estate Sale,” below, won their short story contest. ‘Every free chance’ refers to when some people read, and the women who run this site are true Reader Girls.  Check their work out: http://everyfreechance.com/ (Another contest opens next month…)

 

Estate Sale

They had culled their parents’ effects, taking the few things they wanted and had room for–photographs, cherished gifts they’d given as children, some books. Sal had a coffee cup and an ashtray–she no longer smoked, but memories of pinochle games were ground into its thick amber glass base. Mindie took her father’s ratty maroon cardigan.

The rest they moved into the living room, organized neatly, displayed. Big things,– beds, dressers–they left in the bedrooms, drawers slightly opened.

They scoured the apartment until it was painfully clean; when the sale was over, they’d just have to vacuum.

They took a roll of masking tape and ripped off chunks, putting prices on their parents’ beloved possessions: $15.00. $2.00.
A buck.

The books they put in a couple of big boxes and labelled them, “50 cents each.”

They had bags and change and hand sanitizer. They had Mitch, Sal’s boyfriend (“She won’t let us call this one ‘current’,” Mindie told Shot, hopefully), for the heavy toting.

Mindie’s husband, Shot, was home with month-old Martin.

They could hear people on the stairway outside the apartment door, where, below the particulars, a sign warned, “Absolutely NO earlybirds.”

They were ready. They swigged down the dregs in their coffee cups, wiped their hands on their jeans, opened the door.

The crowd surged in.

A squat woman (crazy hair, mottled skin, steely glasses), marched to the kitchen sink, and flung open the doors. “This for sale?” she rasped, nudging her head at the cleaning supplies.

Sal reached for a box. “Just leave me the windex,” she said, as the woman packed up scouring pads, cylinders of powdered cleanser, what was left of the Scrubbing Bubbles.

Mindie roamed. She noted the people who were interested in certain things. A very young couple, still dewy-eyed, bought her parents’ bed. She called Mitch, who took minutes to take apart the frame. They bumped through the crowded living room, getting headboard, footboard, pieces and parts, down to the couple’s aging pick up.

She watched people handle picture frames, dig through books. A grinning young man, fingernails caked black, ran his hands over the end tables her father built from old treadle sewing machine drawers. He talked to Sal; he took money from a tattered wallet; he accepted a receipt.

When he hefted one table to take downstairs, Mindie hefted the other. “I’ll help you with that,” she said.

Mitch appeared. “Let me get it.”

She relinquished the table. “I’ll go with you,” she said.

Sal registered them leaving in some under-level of her mind. People threw questions at her, stuck items in her face, made outrageous counter-offers. She parried, feinted, tucked money in her waist bag, wrapped breakables in crumpled newspapers.

Mitch and Mindie clomped back upstairs, directed people through the small apartment, kept them from buying the toilet paper. Sometimes a buyer needed help carrying; sometimes Mitch was enough. Sometimes Mindie went with them.

By 2:00, they were done. They locked the door, and boxed up what little remained–some books, a little chotchke. Mitch lifted the one box, looked around, kissed Sal.

“Philo at 5?” he asked.

“Yep,” she said, a little grim. “I’ll run the vacuum, go home and shower.”

Mindie kissed her sister, too, and grimaced. “We’ll see you there,” she said. “I need to feed my baby.”

“Go,” said Sal. “I need to say goodbye.”

Mindie looked around and hurried out behind Mitch.

He asked, at the bottom of the stairs, “Are you going to tell her?”

“Eventually,” said Mindie. “But—maybe not today.”

Sal pulled the vacuum from the entryway closet–the only thing left; even the hangers had sold. Starting in the spare room, she carefully vacuumed every inch of carpet, sucked down any hint of cobweb, cleaned the dust and fine grit from sills. Room by room, she removed the hints her parents had left behind, cleaning the slate for the next occupants.

Mitch pulled into the Goodwill lot, hefted the box into the donation center, and declined a receipt.

Mindie parked the minivan in the driveway. She slid out of the driver’s seat and stood behind the van, doors open, assessing.

Shot appeared by her side, stocking footed in the crunchy leaves, offering a warm, fuzzy Martin. The baby’s eyes lighted as he saw his mother; Mindie nuzzled him close.

“Ah,” said Shot, and he pulled his wife and son into his circle of protection. “What’s all this?”

“I couldn’t,” said Mindie. “You had to see some of those people. I couldn’t let them have Mommie and Daddie’s special stuff.”

They stared at the end tables her Dad had made, at dressers that still bore scars from Sal’s Match Box derbies, Mindie’s nail polish adventures. There were picture frames, little statues, dishes and mugs.

“The good ones,” Mindie said, “I left alone. But when someone…nasty…wanted to buy something special, I followed them out and offered them more than they paid for it.”

She stared at the cache in the mini-van.

“They took it,” she said fiercely, “every time.”

Shot drew her and the baby to face him, kissed her forehead. “You,” he said, “have a hungry baby. And we need to shower before we meet Mitch and Sal at Philo.” They spun as a unit, a marching band move, toward the back door.

At the apartment, Sal made one last circuit; the rooms were anonymous and blank. She put the keys on the Formica peninsula counter and made sure the lock was turned; then she took a deep breath, bundled up the vacuum, pulled the door shut behind her.

She peeled the cardboard sign off the door. She stuck it in the nearly full bin at the end of the sidewalk. As she drove off, she could see its top in her rearview.

Estate sale today, it read. Everything must

Breakfast Sandwich Rampant

Breakfast Sandwich

Mark stands at the counter, carefully prying English muffins apart, loading up the toaster. He peels plastic sleeves from slices of processed cheese, splitting each square into triangles, and stacks them, at peel-able angles, on a plate.

The plate is Fiori ware, cream colored, thick, with raised bunches of grapes circling the rim. It is one of an eight-plate set we bought at Hartstone, and Hartstone, I hear is shuttered.

That makes me sad. When we moved here, it was the last standing pottery still using AJ Wahlco machinery–the last vestige of Mark’s first and well-loved career. (This gives me pause: if AJ’s hadn’t closed, a victim of the waning ceramics industry in the States, of manufacturers outsourcing and moving production to places where the labor work, gratefully, for pennies on our US wages, would we be living here? Would Mark have been content, or would the law school urge still have driven him? Like naggling a cold sore, it’s an unproductive but weirdly enjoyable thinking path; we’ll never know, of course, and all the riches of the last 15 years are still secure.)

I am cracking eggs, admiring the fragile brown shells that almost shatter when I tap them on the thick lip of the ceramic bowl. These eggs, free range, are so different from the ones we used to buy at Quality Markets or Tops, delighting in the sale prices–look: 39 cents a dozen!

Then I read about the beak-chopping, scant-movement conditions of industrial egg farms. Then I shared an office with Senti, whose life journey has taken her many miles further than mine has taken me, from a childhood in the Naga province of India, to marriage to a US Marine from Ohio, to the beautiful little farm where she and her family raise chickens and harvest honey and eat salads still warm from the sun that shines on her garden. In India, Senti majored in English literature, and she met tall, handsome Gary; here, she shared an office with another tall, outspoken, female English faculty, and shared, too, the joys of free range eggs.

I spill these eggs into the bowl; their yolks are deeply colored, Crayola orange. As the toaster pa-chumps its golden brown harvest of muffins, I use the little whisk-y tool my mother-in-law, Pat, gave me.

It was a sale item for her ladies’ church group; a lot of my favorite kitchen utensils–this whisk-er, sturdy little paring knives with blades that never seem to blunt–arrived in my utensil drawers from sales like that.

I whip quickly; the eggs grow into a lemon-y froth, and I pour them into the big no-stick frying pan. They sizzle in a bath of olive oil and butter. In the middle of the pan, the froth immediately gels. I lift that with the spatula and tilt the pan so liquid egg runs below it.

We are making breakfast sandwiches, making what McDonald’s calls Egg McMuffins. These are a family favorite, and as we assemble, working smoothly together, I try to remember when we as a family first decided these were great—and to recreate them at home.

I can’t recall.

I do remember one Father’s Day–it may (in fact, I think it was) have been the Father’s Day we gave Mark this very jumbo-sized frying pan, for this very purpose: sizzling up tasty, filling Sunday breakfasts–looking in my wallet, finding a ten dollar bill, and running to McDonald’s for a sack of English muffins. I got a variety–Canadian bacon, sausage,– and brought them home to the old farmhouse we were renting that year.

The farmhouse had actually been an inn in the 1820’s; it welcomed and sheltered us while we pondered whether to buy and where to perch; that morning, we sat at the table in the big old dining room and devoured the entire sack of sandwiches, Mark, Jim, and I, and wished we had more.

Who knows–it may have been that day, too, that one of us said, “You know, I bet we could make these,” kicking up experiments that led us to a beloved breakfast staple.

The eggs are almost done, still a little bit liquid just on top, and I turn off the heat and let them settle. The last of the muffins pops out of the toaster; Mark grabs it, tosses it, blows on his hand where he touched the sizzling metal, and slaps it onto the counter, quickly spreading butter, which melts into a golden brown glaze.

I line up six torn sheets of aluminum foil and open a muffin onto each. Today’s foil is pristine, new from the box. I save lightly used foil, though,–I’ve always done so– and Mark, when we first married, found that strange and endearing.

He’d call me “Jean”, after my frugal, Scottish mother, when he came into the kitchen and found me gently wiping off a sheet of used foil. I’d let it dry and fold it up for a second life covering a casserole or wrapping around a soaked paper towel to transport a bouquet.

“Save that foil, Jean!” he’d tease.

I would.

I set the ingredients out on the counter; we work together, assembling: triangles of cheese on top and bottom muffin halves; eggs on the bottom; on the top, Canadian bacon.

(Canadian bacon! I can still remember the first time I tasted it, as a very young child, and my surprise at its absolute goodness. And my surprise at what my mother said: “You look like you just heard the angels sing.” It was an unusual remark for her to make, unusual in its depth of noticing; it tickled me. That insured that Canadian bacon went on my childhood list of Wonderful Things to Eat–along with pancakes, corn on the cob, brownies with white icing.)

We flip the muffin halves together, use the foil to wrap them tight, and place them on a sturdy cookie sheet, which I slide into the oven. Mark goes upstairs to see if young James considers home-made Egg McMuffins a good reason to roll out of bed at 9:00 AM on a Sunday.

He does.

I take my coffee outside to the little table in the carport, sit and sip while the sandwiches coalesce in the 350 degree oven.

A memory niggles…one weekend, after the move to Ohio, we went back to New York to visit Mark’s parents, and we slapped together a huge batch of these babies on Sunday morning. The family gathered. I can’t remember the occasion–was it Easter? a birthday?–but I remember the laughter, the pile of silver wrapped sandwiches diminishing, and our nephew Jeremy, a true enjoyer of life, saying, “A little bit nicer than what you get at McDonald’s, eh?”

It doesn’t take long for the cheese to melt, the flavors to blend, the sandwiches to warm enticingly. Mark takes out the old, careworn black oven mitt, and slides the cookie sheet onto the range top. We grab plates, pour juice, and sit down for a Sunday morning breakfast together.

Jim narrates a couple of scenes from TV shows that the morning’s repast brings to his mind…a meal on “How I Met Your Mother,” an incident in the coffee shop on “Friends.” Mark talks about the contractors who will seal the driveway and about the unexpected, unwelcome dry rot damage he just discovered around the big kitchen window. I slide an article across the table about the World War I posters on display at the Ohio Statehouse, and we decide that we will go, that very afternoon.

Even as I savor the sandwich, I think about how quickly this breakfast will become a memory, and about how fixing this breakfast has evoked memories of so many people and places in so many different eras of my life–from very young child to silly young wife; from a cramped galley kitchen in Mayville, New York, to the expansive, old-fashioned kitchen in that old inn, to this well-loved space we inhabit today.

A mundane breakfast sandwich: a trove of vivid memories.

I understand, I think, why archaeologists, anthropologists, get excited over one tiny object, one slender shard. Look at the history entwined around a common, everyday item.

We used to do a self-awareness activity when training peer tutors. What three things would you include on a personal crest, we’d ask? Secretly, I always had trouble identifying symbols for my own imaginary shield.

But now, hey–I think it’s easy. Let’s use the humble Egg McMuffin. Maybe I’ll show it shooting out tenacious suckers that reach every facet of our lives, ensuring that we’re never unconnected to our past, to the people, however far-flung, whom we hold dear.

Yep: let’s put that on my family crest: breakfast sandwich rampant.

In Prose and Thanksgiving

Mark on the River

 

This morning I talked with my colleague Pete
About a sobbing student, who said
She didn’t know you needed Internet to go to college.
Life was a whole lot easier, she told me, in prison.
That was not a metaphor.

I know, I know, said Pete;

my friend…
Hometown boy, in for twelve years:
Now all he wants to do is go back.
It’s sad, so very sad, we both agreed,
And thought about the little we could do.
But you never know what rocks, said Pete,
Hope might push up under,
might twine around.

And my colleague Roy, this morning,
showed me how to share folders
In the cloud. Simple. Elegant. Almost magic.
There’s always a new wonder to explore.

I sat with Cris this morning,
Packing brown paper bags—
“Survival kits” for adjuncts.
It’s the last Wednesday Cris will work
After 42 years—
Next week she retires, and her Wednesdays are her own.

Tiffany, an adjunct, poked her head in the door,
And wound up staying
To stuff pens and pencils
And 8 gig flashdrives
And Life Savers,–of course!–
Into survival kits.

We listened to Cris tell stories of grandkids and gardens,
Of the College long ago,
We watched as she continues to loosen, fondly and gently,
42 years’ worth of ties.
We packed the bags, we shredded twine
And threaded it through gift tags–
A communion of colleagues
At different points on the continuum.

I took the afternoon off and had lunch with my son James
Whose autism gives him fierce focus:
He told me facts about the author Stephen King,
Things I would never otherwise have known.
On this hot day, Amy, the waitress, unasked,
Brought us each a travel cup of our chosen drink-
Cool you off in the car, she said.
(And that worked very well.)

I changed into grubbies to mow the backyard
Steering the mower carefully around the cleome patch
Springing up, volunteers, in front of the garage window.
The deer eat my roses, and the cleomes rebound.

And Mark came home early so we could ride the Lorena,
The paddlewheeler,
Down the Muskingum River on a warm July night;
Eating prime rib and sipping iced tea on the top deck,
Digging into peanut butter pie,
Talking with Dorothy, who shared 26 years of healthy retirement
With her husband, before he died.
She told of offspring in the city and by the sea
Of grandkids leading international lives.
Children on the banks of the Muskingum waited to wave
Although they must have seen this paddlewheeler churn past
Tens of times before.

Different view of life, trolling down the river:
We put our phones away; stopped taking pictures,
Used our eyes, felt the breezes,
Breathed in the warm and muddy scent of water.

I must say thanks to Whomever made this day
And ask,
When tomorrow brings crisis, confusion, chaos,
That S/He help me reach inside and find the vessel
Where this day’s pure, calm, jubilant
joy
Is stored.