Day 3: Billboards

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

I have no idea where the hostility comes from in my resistance to “billboards.” I read the topic over and over, wondering what I was missing. Not only do I have a vacuum with billboards, but I am kind of pissy to be asked to write about something so seemingly random after two personal prompts.

Growing up, there weren’t many billboards in my part of the world. I don’t know if they’d been banned or we just weren’t in a target-rich environment- but my only memories of them are on long road-trips, and never (ever) in my town.

What we did have was a water tower that was painted like a vintage Libby’s can of fruit cocktail. I loved it when my grandma would drive past it. I didn’t actually like the fruit cocktail, with it’s insipid chunks of indistinguishable fruit and neon plastic cherries, but I loved the giant can towering in the air.

On family road trips, once we’d leave the safety of the west and head east, the billboards I do remember all told me I was going to hell. I was a heathen, and unless I embraced that billboard’s particular religious genre, I would burn, I would die, I would be in misery, and I had to be like them. It left a sour taste along the back of my throat, even as a child. Why would anyone spread messages like that, I wondered.

So I would avert my eyes, hope they were all wrong, and sing along with Alabama or Willie Nelson as my dad piloted our Volkswagen van, sans air conditioning, down the hot interstate. We were headed east over the sage-brush hills out of the safe haven of California, where no one ever told me I was going to hell or to prepare to burn for eternity.

Eleven Years and a Day

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Eleven years ago today, I sat down and I hammered out a response to something I read on the internet. I needed somewhere to post my response, and to do that, I needed a URL. I knew how to type and how to use Google, and within minutes, I had a Blogger address. On the fly, I had to name the blog, and I glanced over at the dandelions ringing the well of my basement window, and a blog was born.

At the time, I had two tiny boys, redheaded and wild, and hadn’t even dreamed of the next baby yet. My life was ordinary and quiet, I had recently joined my church, was a stay-at-home mom after being a professional for years, and was looking up some questions I had about faith and motherhood. I struck the motherlode.

At the time, I there was no way to have even the faintest inkling of what was coming.

I didn’t know I was a writer. I didn’t know I could write at all, let alone write well enough for anyone to want to read about my ordinary, quiet, life. When I started, I was imagining going through my grandmother’s journals—which never existed—and how fascinating I would have found it to read her thoughts and struggles as a woman and a mother, and about life when my own mother was a child. I wanted to preserve some of the ordinary days of my own children’s lives, so someday, perhaps, a granddaughter would look back and find it interesting. Without realizing it, I was valuing and observing the material culture and invisible work of women, and yearning for insight into my foremothers. So I started to write.

It’s impossible to adequately summarize what followed. As Marissa has said before, “If I wasn’t there with you, if I didn’t see so much with my own eyes, I’d never believe it.” Yeah. Me either.

A few weeks back, I got a package from Marissa, with the gorgeous, pregnant note “It’s time…” The book was The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Mo had no way of knowing I had been listening to an interview with Karr on NPR a few days before, and had sat in the car shaking. Like so much in this glorious, messy life, the ribbons change color and weave together into new patterns all the time, even while the greater picture remains hidden.

Today, I find myself having moved worlds, and been moved myself by tides and waves I never fathomed. I am forever away from that window-well basement, but it is still right here, I can see it. I want to bend down close to that young mother, fervently hunting and pecking out her first essay with all the sincerity in her heart, and whisper across the years, across the country, across time, “It’s going to be okay. Hold on tight, but know when to let go, too. You’re going to be okay. I promise.”

And then I wonder who is whispering in my ear, now.

Day 2: I Don’t Remember…

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

I don’t remember much at all about Abby’s first year of life. And if I’m honest, there are large swaths of time missing thereafter, too. I remember small things, bright shining moments- I remember holding her newborn self, new baby smell intoxicating my sleep-addled brain. I remember someone else changing her and spreading baby lotion on her perfect skin, and erasing that new smell, and crying for hours afterwards. I remember the sense of loss, knowing deep in my soul that she was the last baby I would have, even though I wanted more so badly.

I don’t remember her first birthday at all. I don’t remember her first steps. I don’t remember her first words, but I know she was silent for a long time, and talked late. Everything from those years is warped and distorted by the lens of addiction and pain and loss and fear. When her age was counted still in weeks, her father floated away from us on a tide of prescription narcotics, and that wave swamped the whole family until my memory returns about three years later. I wonder at the trauma that is erased, I wonder what happened between the puddles of light memory. I know I cared for them, protected them, survived. We survived.

Not all of us survived. Their father is dead.

I don’t remember what it’s like to live in that kind of fear now. Those memories have been carried away, mercifully, on the waves as they went back out to sea after the destruction. I don’t remember the countless hands that reached out and down to help us up, but I have the profound sense of their reality, of their carrying, abiding presence, as I made my way over the jagged rocks with my three babies strapped to my aching body.

Maybe it’s enough that that’s all I remember.

Day 1: I Remember When…

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

I remember when my grandma’s house smelled like Downey, and there was a tiny glass bowl of licorice candies on the end table next to the rough black and white tweed couch. Soft golden light would filter through the west-facing windows each afternoon, filtered further by the heavy gold drapes and filmy sheers of her formal window portieres. There was a gold crushed velvet chair in the corner. I always wanted that chair, and I still wonder what happened to it when Grandma’s house was shuttered, packed and sold.

There were always frozen grapes in the freezer, and the kitchen was accented in the same rich golds as the rest of the house- I guess grandma liked yellow, but she always wore blue. Even the push-button desk phone was harvest gold. I think that was the color. It was the 1970s. I think everything was gold. Try freezing your grapes sometime- or Bing cherries- they become divine little frozen juice-sicles and for me, bring back grandma.

We would sit at her round dining room table, covered in a bright yellow-tassled table-cloth (always) and play games. When I was little, it was Uncle Wiggly or Monopoly. It took me years to realize she let me win, and I wasn’t just an outrageous Monopoly star. (It wasn’t actually until playing games with my own kids that it dawned on me, as I threw yet another game to just get the interminable thing over with… Ohhh, there’s the ah-ha moment.) As I got older, the games became rummy, two-way solitaire, and canasta. The games were always accompanied by tall, cold Coke poured over crushed ice. Always crushed ice- you would stand at the sink with the metal ice-cube tray (the kind with the pull-up handle that would break the ice loose) and whap each ice cube with the back of a spoon.) Coke has never tasted as good in my whole life as it did sitting around my grandma’s dining room table playing canasta.

In her cupboards were a perfect set of Franciscan-ware apple-pattern dishes, no chips, no broken pieces, and like the gold mohair chair, I wonder what happened to them, too. There was whistling tea-kettle, and today I keep a whistling tea-kettle in my kitchen, not for any particular reason except the whistle reminds me of my childhood, of being safe, of being loved, and of golden light.

The smell of Oil of Olay and White Rain hairspray can bring me to tears. On the windowsill was a magnifying mirror, where grandma would pat her face with powder and carefully apply her poppy-pink lipstick. “Little old ladies always want to wear red lips, but that just runs in all your lines. Pink is better.” And she’d smile at me, while I sat on the floor in the bathroom and dug through the vanity drawers, even though I knew the organized, neat contents of every nook and cranny in her house.

Today, her jewelry box sits on top of my dresser. In the bottom drawer of the black leather, red-lined case is a tube of brand-new, unopened poppy-pink lipstick. It was in there when she died. You never knew when a company would change their formula and your poppy-pink might go orange on you, and finding the right lipstick was work. When I open the jewelry box— which I do use and keep my own things stored, mixed with grandmas—it smells like Downey, Oil of Olay and White Rain. Sometimes, I lean down close and close my eyes, breathe in gently, and I miss her so much it hurts.

For the Love of the Dog

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It’s been a year since Tiberius joined our family. It was on the recommendation of a grief counselor for the kids that we moved from “dog” as a theoretical concept into “okay, let’s do this.” I knew I wanted a big dog—well…to be honest—I wanted the biggest dog. It was tiny bit harder for Jon to see the benefits of a dog who potentially outweighed half the family, but he came around. Okay fine, he’s still working on it.

But how can anyone deny this?

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That’s what this now-168 pound dog has brought to our family. All the drool, the splintered chair legs, the dog hair on the sofa, the church shoes lost to his puppy teeth…none of it matters compared to the growth we’ve seen in Bean. It could be attributed to a million things, but the truth is, his tremendous personal and emotional growth can be mapped directly onto the entrance of Tiberius.

Dogs don’t understand a child who is averse to touch. A dog is going to show you his love, and it will not be reserved. Part of why we opted to do the whole puppy thing instead of getting a rescue animal is because I believed the messy nature of a dog’s love would be hard for Bean. The touching, the panting, the drool, the need for petting, the getting in your space; all a challenge to a kid with autism. It seemed like bringing a small puppy in and allowing them to grow together gave us the best chance for a win. It was the right call. By the time Ty was as big as Bean, they had a solid, established relationship, and the bond was strong and mutual.

Millions of pages of ink have been spilled over the love of dogs. I could wax poetical about their selflessness, their near-empathic love, their devotion, their loyalty. Dogs are special. Anyone who had ever loved a dog knows this. What I didn’t anticipate or expect was the change in my child from that love.

In the last year, Bean has grown and changed in leaps and bursts. It’s in small things, like being willing to wear different clothes, but it’s in large things like managing his emotions and speaking clearly about his preferences and feelings. He’s broadened his food options to include fresh fruits and even tried some vegetables. He’s taken up a new instrument, and he practices with Ty, who accompanies with great baying. He has embraced new experiences under his own steam, including swimming in the ocean (sand and waves), trying a sport at school (where other people touched him), eating lunch in the lunch room (where there are lots of smells and noises), reading new books, and getting eye glasses.

We seldom have emotional meltdowns anymore, and on those rare occasions, he removes himself to a quiet spot, and will tell me clearly and definitively how he feels and what he needs. The other day, in a situation at a party where once things would have been very hard, he looked at me and said “I’m not melting down mom, I’m just mad.” That’s huge. That’s huge for a typical kid. It left me stunned— and terribly proud of him.

Can I pin this on the dog? There’s no way to tell for sure. But in the year after a summer holding devastating heartbreak, I never imagined so much healing and growth. I’m more than happy to lay some of it at the feet of this big, drooling, loyal, ball of dumb love.

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Some Thoughts on the End of Summer

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Unless you have the fruit trees, the canning jars saved, and all the supplies you need, making your own jam costs about 17 times the price of going to the store and buying some nice, delicious jam. Don’t get me wrong- I enjoy canning, and have put up a ton of jam over the years- but that was back when I lived on the west coast, where apricots, plums and raspberries grew in my yard. Out here in the mid-Atlantic, I either have to drive two hours and pay-to-pick, or I have to pay the markup at DC grocers and farmers markets- neither of which is more economical than buying the already-made jam. I’m a romantic, and I love the idea of preservation; I’m also not stupid.

When I left the west coast four years ago, I gave all my preservation supplies away. My water processor, my cases of canning jars, my funnels and mills and tongs and cooling racks. There was nowhere to keep them in a tiny urban townhouse. It’s the same reason I got rid of almost all my fabric and sewing supplies- I managed to hang onto the essentials and a small sewing box. That was a true act of faith from a woman who had supported herself by sewing for several years. It was also really hard and sorrow still swells a tiny bit when I think of the notions, pretty fabric, estate-sale buttons and green spools of Isacord. I hope whoever got them really loves them and has made beautiful things.

Sewing clothes is a lot like making jam. Unless you already have everything—and it’s a substantial investment that took me years to accumulate—it’s just not economical to sew your own clothes, or even (ouch) your own quilts. It hurts me to acknowledge that, as a quilter. It’s a hobby that takes a lot of time and money. I understand the love- I really, really, really do. And there is value in creating heirlooms, I know. But to make Abby dresses now, it costs more than double buying off the rack. If I find something on sale, or at a second-hand or consignment shop? It’s no contest. I’ve consumed nothing new, and spent a tiny fraction of the resources and she’s got a lovely dress.

I hate these economics.

I enjoy the home arts. I find contemplation, solace, healing, completion and connection with the seasons in stirring a bubbling pot of raspberries we picked in the hot summer sun only hours before. I have a trunk full of quilts that not only functioned as the source of my income for years, but which I hope my children and grandchildren will someday value and desire. These quilts are tiny pieces of calico sewn together by my hands, stitched without a machine in many cases, and peppered with my tears on occasion. They have material and spiritual value in a way a purchased quilt does not. Because of that, I want to weigh that sentimentality heavier than the economics. But once one has trunks of quilts, and once one had sold all the supplies, there isn’t justification for doing it again.

So here I sit, deep into August, feeling the siren call of the County Fair, wishing I had a quilt to enter, or a batch of beautiful Huckleberry jam to submit. It remains a soft, distant tickle in the middle of the back of my psyche, where I cannot contort myself enough to reach, and I’m not sure if I even should anymore.

Road Trip

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So we took another road trip. Jon had some responsibilities at work that took him away for a bit, and with the general sadness of July 24, I thought it would be good to give the kids a change of scenery. We decided to double-team the map, and hit two of our favorite families, both of whom live in Ohio.

First stop: Auntie Heather’s house. A few years ago, Auntie Heather met and married a superbly delightful man and relocated from San Francisco to a charming little town in Ohio. Life is weird, and the older I get, the more it seems the things bringing us the greatest happiness are the things we never imaged or expected. So young’uns? Be okay with your best laid plans being cast to the four winds once in a while. You never know… you could end up in Ohio with three gorgeous children, renovating a historic old house in your spare time, while you run a local food co-op, manage the farmer’s market, and lobby the city counsel. You can take the girl out of San Francisco…

It didn’t work out for us to see my dearest Crazy Chicken Annie, but sometimes life is that way, too.

There is a unique joy in seeing your kids take to and love the kids of your own dear family members. Cousins are special, and neither time nor distance changes that bond. Heather’s youngest son took to Bean, and it was charming watching them interact and be kind and sweet to each other. Her oldest daughter and Abby basically disappeared into the attic of the house and didn’t re-emerge until it was time to eat. I wish we’d had more time.

Second Stop: Karen’s House.

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Karen is my kids’ godmother, if we had a way of formalizing such a thing without converting to Catholicism (though Francis makes that tempting, I admit). A year ago she moved from near us in DC to Ohio, a fact which all the kids have been lamenting and wailing over ever since. The truth is, it’s really not that far a drive, and we’ve done it a couple of times- it’s easy to forget with these tiny eastern states that driving through West Virginia gets one to Ohio. Same time zone even.

Karen is a professor, and is deeply involved in legal education and rule of law reform. The kids got to spend some time at her college, where Jeffrey loved the trial room and immediately assumed the seat of the judge. Abby may or may not have shoved him off the bench and taken his seat.

Bean got sick, and spent the majority of the rest of the week feeling like crap, while I got a substantial lesson in how to make oxtail phò. It was easily the best phò I’ve ever had- use oxtail, folks- the collagen gives the broth the most unctuous and delicious texture ever! Just be careful when you buy your ox tail- take it from squeamish me, make sure it’s already cut when you get it from the asian market. It was almost traumatizing. Almost.

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So we put 1500 miles on the car in two weeks. Picked up a rock somewhere in Pennsylvania and have to have the windshield replaced, but are otherwise enriched and happy- and there truly is no place like home.

Oh, and I got a craving for La Bamba burritos. So I made some.

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Odds on how long 16 burritos will last in my house? By the way, if you’re ever in Mountain View, CA- head to this place. Get the carnitas super burrito. You’ll understand.

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It’s been remodeled, but this is how I will always remember it.