Day 47: Swimming

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

I’ve been stuck on this one, letting it drift in and out, and considering skipping it—because I was also stuck on the narrow idea of lapis blue pools surrounded by concrete, and my general distaste for the sting of chlorine in my nose, and the itch of my skin post commercial swim. Then I realized I was looking at it wrong.

I dont hate swimming, but I am not a creature of the water. If you pull my real astrological chart and look at the math, I am all air and fire. When you add water you get a swamp. It’s not my thing. But I can appreciate it for what it is.

When I imagine hell, it’s deep and watery and dark; not the classical burning and brimstone of Dante. And I may never forgive Steven Peck for making a library so terrifying, but that’s another story for another day.

My best recollection of swimming is as follows:

There was no moon. Despite deep nightfall, the surface of the black lake was balmy and warm and as I lowered myself silently into the silky darkness, the water cooler the deeper my legs slipped, and my breath caught in my chest. Slick plants tickled my ankles as I pushed away from the worn wooden dock, still holding heat of the August day. Acrid smoke from forrest fires hung heavy in the air, carried on the evening breezes away from the lake, but making the air pungent with cedar and off-season holidays.

Pushing gently further from the dock, I slipped the floating tube under myself and laid back into the embrace of the water. The sky above was inky, but the show was supposed to start soon. My eyes closed, the rolling edge of the lake tickled my neck and I breathed in the silence.

I was waiting on the Perseid Meteor shower. Peacefully and and deeply content, I floated alone on the vast still lake. Silently the meteors began to rain down, the only light in the deep black summer skies. I imagine them reflected in my eyes, and wondered what things the world had in store for me. I felt magical- like God put on this show just for me, while everyone else slept. Everything was possible.

Day 44: Leaving

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

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This is an expert from my memoir, The Burning Point, where I wrote more about leaving than I ever wished to have known. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and local booksellers in the west.

There are two images of David seared into my mind. Both are looking back through a departing window.

The first is from the evening we left Little House. He had accompanied me that day to pick up the twelve-foot rental truck; I was nervous about driving such a large vehicle, and grateful for his willingness to help and again be present.

That evening, after the belongings of a household of four had miraculously been fitted neatly inside what seemed a ridiculously small truck by a crew of friends, it was finally just David and me standing in the warm twilight.

“You’re going to visit us, right?” It was hard to talk over the lump in my throat. He pushed some gravel around with his shoe, his hands shoved deep in his jean pockets. He nodded and looked toward the kids running and laughing on the now-empty Little House lawn. The next day my neighbor was dismantling Bean’s wooden fort and moving it to her backyard for her grandkids. It was the last vestige of us.

My car was loaded and secured on a trailer behind the box truck, and we were waiting on a friend to pick me and the kids up to spend our last night in the Northwest.

“I’m scared,” I whispered.

He looked across the impossible space between us, his own eyes swimming. “I know. You’ve been scared all along, and yet you’ve still managed to do the right thing. You’re the star, Tracy Leigh.” There was an entire sky of love and tenderness in his ragged voice.

He tried to smile but turned and called for the kids. He sat down on the front steps of Little House, and took each child in his lap, holding them close and spoke quiet words of his love meant only for each of their ears. I stood apart, tears streaming down my face, giving them the room for their own memories.

Car wheels crushed over the gravel behind me, and it was time. David helped me buckle the teary kids in the backseat of my friend’s car, leaning in to kiss their salty, rosy cheeks and feel their arms around his neck one more time. He stepped toward the back of the car, his hands shoved deep in his pockets again and his eyes red.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

My chest felt like an anvil was lodged over my heart, where there were worlds built and destroyed between us. There was everything to say, and nothing left to say. “I know…me too.”

“Go.” He laid his open hand gently on the top of the car and tapped three times.

I clicked my seatbelt and turned around to check the kids. Over their three small faces, he stood alone in the driveway of Little House, slowly disappearing from sight as we headed east.

Day 43: Thank You

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

Dear Uncle Gary,

My early childhood memories are almost entirely peopled by colorful, influential and present women—I have almost no strong memories of the men who were supposed to fill those spaces—except for you. And the space you fill is overflowing with tender kindness.

I was four the day you married Annie in Yosemite, and I wore a pink gingham dress while you let me write on the windows of the car in red lipstick. You treated my designs on the glass as the most worthy, most cherished art, and kept them there for months beyond the day.

You would stop what you were doing to really see me, to explain something, to speak directly to me as though I were a person worthy of respect and attention. You patiently showed me how prisms refracted light to make rainbows, why wild oregano smelled so delicious when we walked on it, and how important it was to be able to dig a volleyball and chill listening to live music. You helped me understand that men could be different from each other, and that I could trust you.

And there was the swing. That belongs to you and me.

Even when life changed and moved on and I grew up, you always found ways to show me that you remembered me and that you cared. You called, you reached out, you offered your help and support beyond my childhood and into my adult life. You have exemplified for me the value of small things, of taking that moment to really connect with another human being, no matter how small. I doubt you know how special and important you are to me.

So I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for being different. Thank you for being present and sensitive. Thank you for showing me in action and word the value of daughters and nieces. Thank you for being kind. Your influence on who I am is far bigger than you could have known.

I love you,
Tracy Leigh

Day 42: When I Grow Up

05Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Forty-Two.

It’s funny how the idea of what being a grown-up means changes as you actually grow up. When I was younger, I imagined a transformation of myself, like a caterpillar into a butterfly, where I was substantially changed, morphed into something else.

I used to think I would somehow mellow, transform into a mild-mannered, more genteel soul. I imagined myself as a patient sage, who did more watching the world go by with patience and wisdom. I imagined myself has having sufficiently banked my fiery passions that they no longer fueled my life, and that calm dignity would cloak me.

Yeah. That hasn’t happened. Surprise.

Just like I knew exactly what kind of mother I would be before I had kids, I knew exactly what kind of adult I would be before I became one. Life has a way of laughing at us, undoing us, doesn’t it?

It amuses me how sweetly unformed the ideas I had about life and my own abilities were. I am actually many of the things I imagined, but they don’t look anything like I imagined they would. A real, lived life, with rough edges and refining sandblasting in places I never expected it is so much deeper, so much richer, so much better, than the simplistic fantasies I once entertained.

I’m wiser. But I’ll be damned before I am ever genteel. My wisdom has come to me not a silver plate with white gloves, but rather through fighting through some of the hardest years of loss and struggle. My heart is carved deep with the lessons I have learned, because of those carved out spaces, I can also encompass levels of compassion and love I never dreamed possible. I know in my bones that we cannot ever unravel or separate loss, sorrow, joy, love, risk, fear, bravery… they are woven together and do not exist without each other. I know that my fire was a gift from God that allowed me to survive things that might have otherwise crushed me. I know that the passions and fire still fuel my direction and shed light on not just my own path, but have also helped other people find their own footing at times. I know that my gifts are my own, and I no longer wish or worry about turning into something that I am not.

It’s simply not possible to be someone else. I love growing up.

Day 41: Favorite Recipes

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

In my mother’s kitchen cupboard is a small, tattered, batter-stained, oil-splotched green-covered cookbook that says What’s Cooking in Chokio, Minnesota on the cover. It’s the kind of paper-covered cookbook communities and churches made seven or eight decades ago—you probably have one in your kitchen, or your mother’s kitchen, or your grandmother’s kitchen. This one belonged to my great-grandmother, and someday it will belong to me; my mother knows I want it, and it’s been earmarked mine.

One of the things I treasure is hand-written material culture from women in our lives. Recipes are sometimes the only record we have of our foremothers writing. My own grandmother wasn’t much of a writer, and I don’t have any recipes written on small cards from her—if you have such things from your grandmother, I suggest scanning them in and framing them in your kitchen. I wish I could.

What I do have is the green cookbook. It has notes and marginalia from my great-great-aunt Evelyn my, whom everyone loved. It has directions like “use a medium hot oven” and “adjust racks away from coals.” It’s beautiful, and tattered, and it is absolutely a family heirloom. My own aunt has taken to copying some of the recipes in the book, and this last Christmas, she sent Abby a recipe box with handwritten recipes from the book, along with notes about who is now Abby’s GGG-aunt-Evelyn. It’s a treasure, and Abby now has recipes written in her great-aunt’s hand. I hope she treasures them as much as they deserve. I suspect she will. This last weekend, she got the box out and made Great Great Aunt Evelyn’s Almond Spritz Cookies. All by herself.

Someday, the green cookbook will be hers.

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Day 40: Family Pictures

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

When I first had Jeffrey, I had it in my head that it was suddenly time to take family pictures. It was just what you did as a new parent, right? For my mom, it meant taking us to Sears, and sitting stiffly on the furry, scratchy platform, and needing to keep our clothes perfect. For me, it meant JC Penny, and arriving a stressed-out, sweaty mess from trying to control everyone and everything to get that perfect shot of a family that didn’t really exist.

By the time Bean came along, I gave up.

We never took another studio portrait. I got a camera, and I learned how to take pictures of my kids. I draped sheets for a backdrop, I took them outside, and I utterly gave up on presenting a perfect (whatever that means) image of anything regarding my children and family. It’s kind of the trend now to take darling photos in orchards or putting the baby in an apple barrel or whatever—but I skipped that, too.

I just started taking candid shots of my kids. I’d throw them together and talk to them, ask them to tell me about their day, and I would click away. Even for Christmas cards, I just gave up on getting a nice shot. If that meant Bean was screaming in the Christmas card, that was at least an accurate shot of what life was like for us.

Now, looking back, I have a pretty cool anthropological study of the state of my family. In nearly every picture Bean is being uncooperative. Jeffrey is goofing off. Abby is reading or refusing to smile. I couldn’t have created a better documentary of who we are, from the beginning, if I had tried.

And I never get sweaty and angry at anyone. It just is what it is. I’m really grateful for younger me grasping this truth and letting go of any need to enforce perfection. I think we’re all happier in the end.

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Day 39: Pomegranates

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

I dont remember when I had my first pomegranate. They grew wildly on trees in yards all California where I grew up. We’d pluck them from overhanging craggy boughs while walking home from school. Our fingertips would be stained crimson and deep sepia with the juice, while the leathery peels trailed behind us, more substantial than Hansel & Gretel’s breadcrumbs.

The smooth crimson seeds would roll around on your tongue, until it was impossible to resist biting gently, and the bittery-sour sweet juice would make your tongue curl and your eyes water. I didn’t know they were a delicacy. In my world they were a beautifully odd and free fruit there for the taking—like the apricots and artichokes that also grew unrestrained and everywhere.

When I grew up and moved from the verdant bread-basket of California, I wept the first time I saw pomegranates in the store; they were waxed and manicured and shiny and were $3 each. Same with artichokes. It was odd to me that these were delicacies and considered gourmet items and that I met people who had never tasted them. Earlier this summer, now 15 years removed from California, I found a basket of apricots grown in my hometown. I picked them up and inhaled their intoxicating scent, and then burst into tears. You may grow up and leave home, but home never leaves you.

I wish I could give these lush memories to my children. I know they will have their own, but the further I get from home, the more I realize what I assumed was normal was actually quite extraordinary.