Day 15: Camping

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

There was a rustling outside my tent. It woke me in the pre-dawn dark, and it scared me. I sat up, eyes wide in the dimness, straining to see, my heart pounding in my ears. There were several tents scattered around the campground, and bears weren’t really a big problem in this area of volcanic Northern California.

The shuffling continued, but now accompanied by something familiar. “Dad?” I whispered. “DAD? Is that you?” Shuffle, mumble, and something brushed up against my tent. “Dammit, get back here!” I heard in the familiar, trying to be quiet, voice.

Crawling to the door, I unzipped the fly of my tent. On the ground in the soft dirt of our camp was my dad, decked out in his fishing vest and cap, creel tipped over in the grass, crawling  around frantically, cupping his hands to the ground, and furiously stuffing something in his pockets. “What are you DOING?” I stage-whisper. Tents are thin and I didn’t want to wake everyone else.

“I dropped my crickets!” as he pounced again and shoved something in his pocket. I started to giggle and crawled out and to help him, still in my pajamas. Dozens of crickets were hopping every direction, doing their best to maintain their freedom and evade our hands. Dad and I pounced and grabbed and I think maybe we caught a small handful. We must have looked insane, in the dirt, in the dark.

My dad is fly fisherman. Well, truthfully, my dad is an any-kind-of-fish fisherman. Put him on any body of water, salt, fresh, river, ocean, lake, stream, creek, long pole, fly rod, deep sea rig, didn’t matter. He is happiest fishing. We were camping at a place called Deep Creek, a branch of the Pit River far up in northeastern California, and he was determined to get out early, before the sun and start his day. In his haste, he’d dropped his container of crickets, and they had, of course, jumped for their unexpected freedom.

And there are me and my dad, crawling around camp in the dim dawn, desperately trying to capture his crickets without waking anyone. It’s one of my favorite memories.

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Day 14: School Lunch

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

I had a great childhood. I grew up a hippie kid, of hippie parents.

My mom baked bread. As a matter of fact, the giant earthenware bowl she used when I was a child now graces my own kitchen. (It’s one of my favorite bowls. And I like bowls. But that’s a discussion for another day.) My mom baked bread. She baked bread, made jam from the plums growing in our backyard, and made fruit leather in our dehydrator. She ran a food co-op with the other women in our sunny California neighborhood, and it was always a fun day when the giant containers of cheese and grains would arrive in their big, heavy bags and boxes, ready to be parsed out and divided. We raised chickens, and one my jobs was to collect the eggs every day, which we would sell to the neighbors. We had enough eggs for all our neighbors. My dad hunted, and our freezer was full of venison, pheasant, duck and stripped bass. We had a vegetable garden with zucchini the size of my thighs, and more tomatoes than we could eat. We had a milk-man, for heaven’s sake! A real milk man who would deliver milk to our door when I was little. I lived in a little corner of heaven.

So do you think I got school lunch? I would have traded everything in my lunch sack for a bite of a single ho-ho. I would have given up my whole-wheat baked honey bread with fresh ground peanut butter and sun-dried plum fruit leather for a mere corner of a ho-ho. I would have traded an entire week of fresh applesauce for a slice of the deliciously greasy, salty, overcooked and soggy sausage pizza my friends inhaled every Friday. I wasn’t even allowed to get chocolate milk.

No one wanted to trade me anything.

Every day, I would sit with my healthy, homemade, wholesome, healthy food spread before me on the formica lunch table, and stare forlornly at the brightly colored, food dye #4, processed, salted, chemical laden joy my friends got to eat. And I would open my brown sack,  peel my brown banana and stare at my brown-bread sandwich, with egg salad from my brown chickens who laid brown eggs.

I felt like the most mistreated, unloved child in the whole world.

Then I would ride my bike home, climb the avocado tree in my yard, sit on top of the chicken coop and pick plums, feed the goat, play with the eight puppies the labrador retriever just had, fetch some more eggs for dinner, hand another dozen over the back fence to Burgie, the neighbor, pick some tangerines to eat while I held the rabbit, and climbed the fence to snatch some cherries from the neighbors tree. All before dinner.

After dinner we’d go for another bike ride with my aunt and cousins and siblings and a few neighbor kids, collecting aluminum cans from the neighborhood to recycle, which was always used to pay for our next tickets to Disneyland. Maybe we’d play hide and seek when we got back, and sometimes the moms would join us until it was too dark.

I grew up a hippie kid. Maybe missing out on the ho-hos wasn’t so bad. But don’t try and tell that to a second-grade kid.

Day 13: Hair

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

And on a lighter note…

All my life I have had thick, curly hair. It started out cornsilk blonde when I was a small child, and gradually darkened as I got older, as so many times happens. (It’s back to blonde now, thank you Revlon.) During my teen years, I hated it- my friends would have lovely smooth hair, and there was nothing I could do to achieve that look. My curls were unruly and, I didn’t yet know about flat-irons. Regularly, wimpy ponytail holders would snap as I tried to wrap them twice around my enormous poof. Once was too loose, twice, and *snap* they’d breaks into pieces. I started making my own scrunchies, back when that was a thing, and even long after it was no longer a thing. My hair was big. You could hide things in it- and my brothers sometimes did. I could dive into a swimming pool, and the under-coat (do people have those?) would not even get wet if I rose quickly.

I hated it. For most of my life, I was at war with my hair. I would stare enviously at women with silky, untangled locks. I wondered what it was like to be able to run your fingers through your hair. I tried cutting it short, I tried laying my head down on the ironing board, I tried braids and rollers and chemical straighteners. I finally gave up and just rolled with it, and learned a few tricks and learned about some styling products that helped. And I came to a place of peace with the beast.

My senior year of college, when I was in my thirties and raising three children alone, a strange thing started happening. I noticed my ponytail wasn’t breaking the elastics anymore. At first, it was no big deal. But then showering became a horror show, with hand-fulls coming out with my shampoo. I didn’t have any medical insurance, I was a single mother with three little kids, no support, carrying an overload of college credits every quarter, year round, and I didn’t have time to worry about my hair. Within a few months though, my long, thick hair was ragged, and I got worried. I started to think something terrible was wrong. I called a friend who is a doctor and described to him what was happening. He asked “Are you under a lot of stress?” Stress? See above.

He told me stress could cause hair loss, and I needed to watch my nutrition and start taking better care of myself. He also responsibly said it *could* be other things too, but that taking better care of myself was a good starting place.

I did the best I could to manage my stress and finish out a 19-credit quarter. I started taking better care of myself and trying to exercise and eat better. It helped. Slowly.

My hair gradually started to grow back and the shower horror-show ended. But I’ll never complain about thick, unruly, curly hair again.

Day 12: Decisions

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

In my head, their names were Harold and Maude. They were yellow swallowtail butterflies living in the poplar trees lining my back fence. Perhaps there were more of them, but it seemed I would only see the pair, flittering and floating through the eddies and currents while the leaves started to yellow and fall. I would smile when I saw them out my kitchen widow. Even now, years later, when I see a yellow butterfly, I think of them.

Leaning against the large air-conditioning fan outside my back door, I clutched the phone to my chest. In desperation, I had called my friend to see if she could help me with my kids. For weeks I had been planning to fly to Houston for a quilt show- one of the biggest quilt shows in the country, into which, through a series of small miracles, I had been accepted as a new vendor. My eggs were all in that basket; every hope I had for the future meant I had to get to Houston. But that morning, after three years of struggle, half a dozen stints in rehab, and two hospitalizations, my husband had relapsed. Again. There was no way I could leave the kids with him. Last time he’d relapsed, it had been three days from first-use to over-dose. From the outside, I was watching butterflies in my backyard. Inside, the 641 days of carefully propped-up walls and stories were crashing in brittle, irreparable shards.

What am I going to do?

I was still watching the butterflies, fighting tears, lost in my own painful head when I heard, “You can leave now.” It was clear, but nonexistent. A roar of silence. It so startled me, I looked around, wondering who was in my yard. There was nothing but empty grass, the trees, and a yawning quiet stillness.

I held very still, muscles tense, my head swimming. Suspended.

Harold and Maude swooped down, the birds chirped, the breeze ruffled the poplar leaves, and the sky was a beautiful early October blue overhead. I exhaled.

I no longer wondered what I was going to do.

It just so happened my brother and sister-in-law were visiting for the first time that week. It just so happened they had brought their large family car, and it just so happened there were three seats with enough room for my kids and their bags. Together we packed everything up. Putting on a brave face, I told my kids they were getting a surprise visit to grandma and grandpa, and within the space of a few hours, I was standing in my driveway, waving with a teary smile as I watched my brother’s car get smaller and smaller as he drove south with my hearts buckled in his backseat. I will love him forever for that day.

I remember standing in the driveway for a long time, staring after the car long after it vanished. I don’t know for how long, but the pale pavement was warm on my bare feet. Time was weird that whole day, stretched and compressed, silent and roaring in my ears. The sky was blue. The leaves were starting to change. My children were safe.

There are gaps in my memories, but little things will bring up lost imagines, things I thought were gone. The scent of Elder flowers. A yellow butterfly. A birdcage with a singing parakeet. Poplar leaves against azure sky.

I walked back into the empty house.

Sitting down at my desk, I wrote an email to my parents, telling them everything I had spent three years trying to hide. I told them about the narcotics, the relapses, the hospitalizations, the things I had skimmed up against, but never directly addressed. I had not meant to obfuscate, but I had hoped fervently to repair my marriage, and I didn’t want my family to think badly of my husband, had he been able to recover. My opening up that vein and letting the blood flow was a concrete answer to what was next.

To this day I don’t know what happened in that backyard. The only thing of which I am certain is that I moved from years of instability and unrelenting fear into a space of irrevocable action in a bare moment. There were no more questions. There was no more waiting. There were no more excuses. There were simply facts, and the required action to deal with those facts.

The next day, I filed for divorce.

The surrounding events and my attempt to write while living it can be found in the 2009 October Dandelion archives. This is the first time I have tried to tell this part of story.

Day 11: Lost Things

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

I’ve gone round and round in my mind on what is lost, circling around and trying to decide if things means something tangible, or the more ephemeral. Certainly there are physical items I have lost over my lifetime that I yearn for, wonder what happened, or where it went. When I first met David, he gave me a tiny wand with a fairy-ball at one end, and a star at the opposite. It made the most delightful lilting chime, like laughter. It was no bigger than my little finger, and I have no idea what ever became of it, but I do wonder. I hope someone has it and loves it.

More than things though, I imagine the intangibles I have lost over the years. I have lost much of the outrage I carted around for many of my younger years. It was leaky and messy and really wasn’t mine anyway. I borrowed it, and it was a relief to realize that lease was temporary and I could walk away. Somewhere along the way I lost some of my fears of not being good enough— that was also a relief. I lost my embarrassment of being messy and loud and big, and frankly, that needed to be lost. I lost the need, but perhaps not the desire, for approval from my loved ones. When I lost those things, I found there was room on my shoulders to relax a little, to take a deep breath, and to lift my head up and look around, and figure out who I wanted to be, and to decide I actually liked that person.

It’s funny, the things I feared losing most when I was younger ended up being the things I really maybe needed to lose most in order to fully grow up.

Day 10: Messes

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

My grandma used to have a saying. “You’re a hot mess.”She would say it with a smile, to soften the edges, but the meaning was clear- my edges are not smoothed over, my hair is wild, my spaces can be messy, and I tended to be all over the place, even as a kid. For a long time, I imagined as I grew older, the edges would wear down a bit and I might even aspire to being meek and mild, and I even dared hope for genteel. So far, I’m out of luck.

But a funny thing has happened as I’ve gotten older. The things I would be teased over, the edges I worried about, the things I felt somehow weren’t as good about me because they weren’t neat and tidy (remember the 3rd grade obsession with white shoes?) are actually things I have grown to appreciate about myself. It’s okay that my friends had crisp, white shoes. Mine weren’t because I stopped thinking about keeping them clean as soon as something interesting and exciting happened. My pencils were never shiny and new, because I was busy drawing until they were nubs. My hair was a mess because I didn’t want to waste time fighting my rebellious natural curls, and it’s very convenient to tuck a pencil or paintbrush into a curled topknot. When I stopped caring about how I measured up to other people, I really started to like myself more.

This is translated into how I mother and wife, too. My kids are happy and they know without any doubt they are deeply loved- and they know they won’t get in trouble if their shoes get muddy on some adventure. They know I care more about the joy on Abby’s face as she takes her new pickax to rocks in the rain than I do about the deck she periodically hits as she misses the rocks. They know learning to cook a good dinner themselves is more important than a pristine kitchen, and they know having a giant dog who fiercely and loyally loves them is more important than perfect upholstery or shiny floors. My husband knows we can toss the clean laundry on the chair when a movie-thon beckons, and that sometimes, the dishes can wait, while he tosses me over his shoulder with a twinkle in his eye. People, experiences, and joy, are always more important than perfect order. These are my trade-offs. These are the messes I have learned to embrace in the service of a life well lived- at least by my own yardstick. If that makes me hot mess, so be it.

Day 9: Age Eight

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

I was eight when I tasted my first bagel with cream cheese. Linda Hoffman brought one to my third grade classroom, and she tore off a small piece at snack-recess and let me try it. We were leaning against the metal bars on which we would fling ourselves forward and backward, tumbling in dizzying summersaults, until our hands and knees were raw and blistered, and I popped the chewy, creamy bite in my mouth. It’s been decades now, and that bite was still one of the best things I have ever eaten.

My teacher was Mrs. Hessenflow, and I still occasionally catch a faint wisp of the perfume she wore when I pass an older woman in a department store. When I was eight, she seemed to be about eighty. But she was kind and gentle, and she had patience with me and my wiggly, pencil-chewing self.

I had my first crush, and it was a monster crush, sitting in her classroom. His name was Erik, and he had blond hair and bright, rosy cheeks. He would make my own cheeks flush and I had no idea what to do with those feelings, so I would run away from him. Then I would sit in class, chewing again on my gnawed pencil, brushing the flakes of Ticonderoga yellow from desk, and wondering why my sneakers were never as white as Renee Steinberg’s shoes. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t keep my shoes white, or even tied. I didn’t know having white shoes should matter, but it somehow made me feel deficient, and I coveted having clean sneakers. Then I would go outside again, and forget that I wanted white shoes, and would jump over puddles, run from boys who gave me the oddest sensation in my tummy, and climb trees on the edges of the playground. They let us do that back them- climb trees, play in the dirt— we even had a wood cart with hammers and nails and scraps of wood we were free to play with. The wood cart always had a crowd of children around it. No one at the wood cart had clean shoes, either.

The whistle would blow, and I would drop from the metal bars to examine the new, broken open blisters dotting my palms, and run towards the drinking fountains, where the tepid California water would sting the raw skin and the smell of metal wouldn’t go away. Sweaty and disheveled, I’d bounce towards the line outside my classroom, my orange dress disheveled and my shoes untied, once again. So much for appearances.