Day 25: Outside

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Uvas Canyon, Morgan Hill CA

Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Five.

When you went down the steps from the old white house, you could turn one way towards grass, the gully, and the high tall oak up the hill where the swing waited. If you turned the other way, a gradual downhill took you across a wooden footbridge over a shallow seasonal creek and up through the apricot orchard where the dads occasionally set up bales of hay for target practice with compound bows and sometimes even loud guns. The shots would echo up the canyon, and while we kids were shoed suitably far away, the reverberation would rattle my teeth.

In the creek, feet covered in clay and balancing on smooth stones, us kids would find small green and black snakes, small bumpy frogs, and sometimes even a crawfish. Following the creek down behind the barn led one past the hog pens, and I liked to find a switch from the oaks and scratch the backs of the 2 or 3 auburn-bristled hogs milling about grunting softly. There was a horse pen next to the hogs, but I wasn’t allowed near the only semi-tame painted horse. The pony was the same auburn as the hogs, and I loved sauntering around the property on his slow, tired, dusty back.

There were no parents managing us kids, not really- we’d be expected to check in periodically, but mostly we were free to range. We’d walk down the dirt road towards the pond, toes leaving imprints in the silky dry dust, feet toughened by days upon days of being outside. We’d swim in the steep-sided pond, sharing the space with harmless garter snakes, and knew enough to keep our eyes out for less harmless rattlers. We’d start a pick-up whiffle ball game in the gently sloping dirt driveway, bases created from whatever we could find. Dogs barked and ran among us, and an occasional stiff breeze reminded us the hogs weren’t far away.

If you meandered up through the apricot orchard, your bare feet would crush the wild growing native oregano with each step, perfuming the already impossibly scented California air. The edges of the orchard were deep with pines and oak scrub, dark and sighing. We didn’t go there.

The house was old, had been moved there years before, and in my earliest memory, doesn’t even have indoor plumbing. There is an actual outhouse and we bathe in a galvanized apple tub in the front yard. On the old wood stove near the gully the water is heated, and the dirtiest kids go last. The water was either tepid, or scalding hot, and moms were waiting with warm dry towels to wrap each child fresh from the tub.

We’d be ushered upstairs, where bunk beds and thick, dusty quilts awaited our sleepy, tired bodies. I could peek out the wavy old glass windows into the night, and fall asleep watching the parents gathered around a bonfire, their distant laughter and happiness drifting over the cooling night.

Day 24: Retreat

 

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Four.

Home. Home has always been my retreat. I’ve always been careful about crafting my home, and on Crazy Chicken Annie’s advice, even as a young woman, I was careful about what I brought into my home. “Make sure you surround yourself with things you love.” It’s been a recurring theme as I’ve moved from a wild(ish) young woman, through my twenties, into motherhood, and into a more mature space now in my forties, where the house will  slowly begin to empty. I have always wanted home to be my safe place- and by extension, for my home to feel safe for anyone who stepped over my threshold.

The chaos of having so many children in and out of the door means it’s not always a retreat, and earlier this year our smallest room emptied out as the first child headed off to college.  My husband graciously asked if I’d like to turn that room into an office, so I could have my own clean, well-lit space. Oh yes. Yes, I thought, I would like that very much…

The empty room was actually surprisingly sad for the other kids, who miss seeing their sibling. I involved them in paint color opinions and in scouring thrift stores for lamps, curtains, and ideas, and then started slowly working towards creating a new, inviting space.

Over the course of the summer, I carefully curated the things I brought into the new room. It’s ostensibly mine, but it’s quickly become one of the most favorite, frequently peopled rooms in the house, despite it being the tiniest. Everything in this room has personal meaning, is important, or sentimental, or makes me feel good. The lighting is quirky and makes me happy, the sitting chair is old, sturdy, and the most comfortable seat in the house. Jon and Jeffrey compete for it, when the dog isn’t trying squeeze onto the old cushions. I have mementos from my travels, photos of loved ones spilling from a cork board, baskets of yarn and knitting needles, free to use. There is a clay bowl filled with black sand from a beach in Greece, a heart-shaped rock from a California river, a feather from Tyrol, a small cream pitcher from my great-grandmother, and a crystal from Mo hanging in the window.

The shelves have books I have read and love, books that have helped me, saved me, and become as friends. There are gentle inside jokes, gifts and drawings from the kids, my Hamilton playbill, and original art from dear friends. Bean has a pillow near Wallace the Bookcase (my best thrift store find) where he’s stake out “his spot”. Tiberius, never more than a few inches from me, snores soundly and my feet and I have to be careful not to step on his velvety ears when I stand up. The things that I love fill this space, and it’s where I go to write.

An interesting thing has happened— it’s become everyone’s favorite room. My husband keeps his computer in here now, leaning against the comfy chair, instead of at his own desk. At night, the kids will fill all the space, taking the chair, laying on the floor reading, giggling and talking. There is a closeness, not just because it’s a small room, and six people and a dog are hanging out. The low light in the evening, the careful curation of items invited in, the sense of place and story and care in the space- humans respond to this. We can feel love in different ways, and we can feel when someone loves something. Everyone who comes in this room can feel it, and they seek it out. It’s become a retreat not just for me, but for my family.

Day 23: Suffering

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Three.

Love and suffering and are so woven together as to be inseparable. Any time we endeavor to love, we know there will be suffering- we don’t know when or exactly how, but love simply cannot be uncoupled from suffering.

Love is worth it anyway- and you cannot even fight it. The only way to avoid suffering is to avoid connection, friendship, relationships- the very things that bring us our greatest joys. When you love another being, you know there will someday be loss. When you marry, one of you will lose the other. When you have a child, there will be pain, both received and given. When you become attached to a pet, at some point there will be loss. And we do it anyway.

But we needn’t fear loss and suffering. To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran, love and loss are from the selfsame cup. The heights of your joy are mirrored by the depths of your sorrow. Don’t be afraid. Allow these things to roll over you.

I know this is true. I know the things I imagined would break me, while they hurt like hell and brought me to my knees, also, over time, became things that broadened my heart, grew my humanity, expanded my compassion, deepened my empathy and my ability to love. And the cycle repeats.

Love is always worth the risk. There is no other way to be fully alive.

Day 22: Reading

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One of my favorite pictures ever of Abigail

Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Two.

I was seven years old. It was October, and the antique wooden spindles of my chair creaked with every tiny movement. It got dark so much earlier all of the sudden, and the antique lamp was on over my left shoulder, casting a golden glow in my corner of the room. My mom had fished this chair out of a rubbish pile at the high school, and had found the exact model in the vintage Sears & Roebuck catalogs to date it. It was beautiful golden oak, but she hadn’t yet gotten around to making or covering new cushions. Instead, it was draped with a granny-square afghan, the colorful kind edged in black, found somewhere in every great-Aunt’s house. I dont know who had crocheted ours, but it was always there.

We’d had chili for dinner, and my dad watching football on the rabbit-eared tv in the opposite corner. The pungent scent of beans and onions lingered in the cool air, and I wrinkled my nose absentmindedly. I was clutching my book, trying to keep my face averted, lest anyone notice my tears.

Charlotte A. Cavatica had just died, and the pages of my book were saturated with my grief. I kept quietly trying to wipe my face on the scratchy afghan, but the acrylic yarn, so good at repelling stains, was equally inept at absorbing little girls’ grief-stricken tears. My mom had teased me for reading that book again earlier, and I knew she would never understand how I could be crying over a spider. Again.

Twenty-six years later, I added my own words to the story, after reading my favorite book aloud to my first child…

“Charlotte A. Cavatica died last night, and there are new tear splotches mingled with the original drops spilled by me, 26 years ago, in my childhood copy of the book.

Sweet Jeffrey fell apart last night when Charlotte died, all alone, at the empty fairgrounds. He curled up in my lap and sobbed, through torrents of tears, how he didn’t WANT Charlotte to die.

And my teardrops fell into his soft red hair as he wept in my lap.”

And I cry again, tonight, remembering the sweet things brought to us by those beautiful stories of love and, and inevitable coupling of sorrow that always accompanies the risk of loving. Always. How beautiful to learn it’s first forms from a clever, kind spider and her fantastic pig.

Day 21: Friendship

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-One.

It’s only happened twice in my life- that moment on meeting someone you’ve never met, when you look at them and are flooded with memories you have no right to—and which don’t exist anyway—and you remember them from outside time. When there is a shared light, a smile so familiar, a tilting of the head in perplexed recognition, a closeness eclipsing the vacuum of space. You understand the whispy déja vu of not actually meeting someone, but finally finding them after unfathomable time away. The first time was with David.

The second time was with Maggie.

We worked for the same company in Palo Alto, and when I walked into the back room for the first time, she was holding an armful of German toys, wearing a grey cardigan sweater. Her hair was thick and unruly, like mine, but she had a gentler, more refined air about her- one I coveted and hoped to refine as I got older. She was already a mother to two young ones, something I also aspired towards.

We became inseparable. We’d mosey down University Avenue after work in the balmy air towards the towering palm trees guarding Stanford’s front drive, walking with a slice of Vicolo pizza or a balsamic drenched salad, and talking as we dodged other pedestrians. We both loved our work, but we mapped together in a million other divergent points. She was always slightly further along than me in sensitivity, perspective, and wisdom. I think she sort of enjoyed in my rougher edges. She helped me realized, as a younger twenty-something, that I was not only okay in my skin, but I was kind of great in some ways, too.

One of her children had autism, and it was from her I first learned about caring for a child with special needs. It’s not an exaggeration to say I modeled my mothering of Bean on her example. I got to know her family well, and was as at-home in her house as I was in my own. Year round, we’d sit out on the wooden picnic table on her back patio, California live-oak rustling overhead, flipping through catalogs, and marveling at pretty things we both loved, while she indulged her vice, American Spirits.

We spent countless days like this, talking about the joys of tiny blue flowers on china, the preference for grey sweaters, a shared love of heavy boots, toys from Europe, and the Grateful Dead. She taught me to quilt. She loved the beauty of taking tiny pieces of disparate pattern and finding ways to contain the chaos, to piece them together in harmony. She introduced me to memoir, and gently encouraged me to write, based on the promotional pieces I was working on for our company. She kept bed pillows on her sofa, and a dresser in her living room, because comfort and storage mattered, and she helped me see that coloring outside the lines could be refined and beautiful, and that I didn’t have to fight everything so damn hard.

That’s still a lesson I’m working on.

My life was chaotic in the face of her calm. I understand now how hard she cultivated that oasis, and I understand that I was a hurricane, and I drew on her reserves without realizing I was sapping her strength. I understand what it is to be raising a special needs child alone, and I understand what it is to have a friend who doesn’t understand.

When I decided to marry David, she cared for me, showered me, hosted lovely dinner parties where white gardenias floated in white bowls, which were all mine to keep once the dinner was over and the candles burnt down. She went with me to try on wedding dresses, and she stood next to me at the altar, in a muted grey dress.

Immediately after David and I returned from our short wedding trip to Yosemite, I got a letter in the mail. It still makes my stomach lurch to remember standing in my kitchen, her unique handwriting covering the grey (of course) paper, carefully explaining why she needed to distance herself from my chaos and confusion.

That moment remains a singularity in my story- a pool of light where there is “before” and “after”. My hands shook and I cried for days, wondering why and what I could have done differently. I missed her. While I respected her wishes and gave her the space she requested, there was a gaping chasm she had occupied. My wedding pictures came back, and she’s next to me in nearly every shot, smiling and happy, and I wondered again why.

I left my beloved job for another—better paying, but emotionally and ethically unsatisfying—and I knew that when I accepted the position, but I was determined. I lasted about a year, until I found out I was pregnant with Jeffrey.

When Jeffrey was about 8 months old, I finally screwed up my courage to drive to Palo Alto and go to my old company. I wanted to see her, and I wanted her to see the beautiful, red-headed, chubby, gorgeous baby boy I had made. She was there. She was lovely and kind to me. She held Jeffrey, marveling at him, and we spoke carefully and softly, avoiding the briar’s nest of questions around my heart, and of nothing consequential. It was a peace like tiny blue flowers on china, breakable and delicate. No one breathe too hard, and it will be okay.

I haven’t seen her since. Occasionally I try and look her up online, but she’s carefully cultivated a non-presence. My heart still misses her, nearly two decades later.

For anyone with eyes to see, her influence is still here. I have a predisposition and affection for grey sweaters and leather clogs. I have stacks of white bowls  (always white) in my kitchen. I like tiny flowers on things, and I keep a basket of carved wooden animals on a shelf in my office. I know about guarding space when a child requires so much of you, and your friends do not/cannot understand. I understand what it is to be divorced and doing it alone.

I understand better now that sometimes there are no simple answers, and people have to do what is best for them. Wherever she is, I wish her peace in the oasis she’s surely carefully cultivated for herself. I wish I could tell her all the ways she influenced me, and the ways I still remember and love her. I wish I could tell her I think I might understand. I wish I could tell her I still miss her.

I understand now what a tremendous act of kindness that letter was. Friends can too easily distance themselves or float away, often without explanation, leaving more questions than answers. She loved me enough, was fine enough, to spend emotional energy, to extend that genuine care for me, before she withdrew. I can see it now. And I am grateful.

Day 20: Decorations

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty.

The smell of salt-dough makes me feel like I am 8 years old again, sitting at my mom’s dining room table, pressing soft lumps of dough through a garlic press for angel hair. The dough tasted terrible—because of course we tasted it, even after mom said not to—and was dyed bright colors. We moulded and shaped reindeer, santas, tin soldiers, candy canes, angels and snowmen, carefully placed barn staples in the top for the Christmas hook later, and baked batch after batch in our oven. Once they were cool, mom would shellac them in the garage and we would add details with tiny brushes.

On another night, we could be found gluing pom-pom balls together into snowmen and teddy bears, hot-gluing old wooden clothespins into crazy looking reindeer, or making popsicle stick snowflakes. We made glassine-looking ornaments by puddling glue into golden strands of cord, then dragging food color through it. They dried clear and looked like tiny stained glass. We strung popcorn, cranberries, and poked cloves into oranges.

Our tree was always too big to fit in the house, and I don’t mean by just a little bit.  It was usually four or five feet too tall, and my dad would be mumbling and cursing as he continued to lop off sections of trunk. Nearly everything on the tree was homemade. Except the lights and the tinsel. My mom loved the old, big lights, but because they got hot, somewhere she’d found small tin reflector dishes that surrounded each bulb. Each light would look like a flower, with the tin petals reflecting the individual bulb into dozens of sparkles.

My mother loved and adored tinsel. At the after-Christmas sales the previous year, she would buy all the tinsel she could find for ten cents a box, and store it for the next year. Tinsel was the final touch on her tree, and despite the natural, homemade and organic decorations, once the tree was done being decorated, it was a solid cone of silver tinsel. She would stand, tossing a few strands in the air, and blow it onto the branches, over and over, until every bough was dripping silver icicles. We never used the garlands- those had to be homemade- but the tinsel? Dozens of boxes. Every year.

From my bedroom, if I positioned myself just right, I could lay in bed and see our enormous, silver-coated, glittering, sparkly tree. It was the most beautiful thing I thought I had ever seen, and I would sometimes tear up, gazing at it while I fell asleep, loving Christmas so much.

If anyone ever finds some little tin Christmas light-reflectors in their antique-store travels, look me up. I’d be mighty grateful.

Day 19: Waking Up

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Nineteen.

I have never (ever!) been a morning person. There have been periods of time where I could force my round peg into that square hole, but at the earliest moment I could reset to my natural center, I am once again up half the night and sleeping beyond the sunrise. I don’t like sleeping late, per se- sleeping to noon is a big waste- but if I get six hours of sleep, I can easily, happily and naturally manage 2-3 am to 8-9 am for my natural sleep cycle. I don’t much like being up after 3 am, actually- that’s always felt like the actual witching hour, rather than midnight- the time where the day tips from late-night to suddenly really freaking early morning. I don’t like watching the sun come up after staying up too late- I do like being asleep for that. Even for me, there is “too late.”

Night time is when I have the easiest time hearing my own thoughts. It’s when the dust settles, the house is quiet, and I can begin to piece together again who I am today.  Daytime is for other people. Night time is for me.

There is a closet full of paintings, all of which were born in the dark. There are sheafs of essays and memoir sketches and writing ideas, all born in the dark. I suspect this is common with many creative people, particularly mothers whose days are too-often swallowed up by the needs of other people. It’s not as intense now that my kids are a little older, but when they were littler, sacrificing a few hours of sleep a week for my own sanity and sense of self was completely worth it.

These days, my alarm goes off too early.  I get up with all the kids to help them get ready, pack lunches and get out the door. Once I’m up, I am up for the day, and unless I am sick, I don’t nap much or go back to bed once the “up” switch is flipped. Sometimes I wish I had more control over that, but I’m resigned at this point to whatever circadian rhythms underpin my personal time clock. *shrug*