Leaving

The other day my dentist asked me if I had plans for the summer. I told him I’d be driving my daughter to college in upstate New York, by myself. He told me that his daughter went to college in DC. They shipped her stuff ahead of time and dropped her off at Midway Airport. He described the experience as surreal. “We just went to the airport, and then she didn’t live with us anymore.” As I was leaving the office he said, “Listen, if she starts being difficult, even mean, don’t worry about it. She might need to pull away a little before she leaves, so it doesn’t hurt so much.”

I think about the “fight” we had a few weeks ago.

She was cleaning her room. In her view, she keeps her room clean. In my view, not so much, but she keeps the door to her room shut and so we rarely discuss it. On this day, she went deep. She pulled the trundle bed out and vacuumed not just underneath the bed, but the trundle mattress itself. She asked to get rid of the trundle. She declared the trundle the reason she is congested. Because she can’t see the dust trapped by the trundle, it sits there and makes her nose stuffy. She isn’t wrong about that, but we have a difference of opinion on the reasonable solution. My solution is to clean her room more often. Her solution is to get rid of the trundle because when she needs to clean, she has to move things around to pull it out and that is ridiculous.

I pointed out that she might also want to do something about the very visible dust on top of her headboard, the dust that doesn’t require her to move furniture. I pointed out that her light fixture was also kind of gross. I pointed out that we had no place else to store a trundle and mattress, and no way to give away or sell a trundle and mattress without a bed, and that she was moving in 6 months and could probably deal with it. She pointed out that I was in her room and should leave. When I think about the fights I had with my own mother, the fights I hear that my friends have with their teenagers, I know I am lucky. This is what passes for a fight with us.

Later on the same day as the dentist appointment I too was coincidentally at Midway airport waiting to go to DC. A young man sat near me and asked me questions about boarding. “I’ve never traveled without my parents,” he said. “I just want to make sure I don’t miss anything. I already had to throw out my toothpaste because I didn’t know you couldn’t bring a full-size one.” He was a college student going to a conference. I walk him through the boarding process and make sure he knows how he’s getting to his hotel once he arrives in DC. I tell him my daughter will be going to college in the Fall. Although I don’t say anything else about her he says, “From March to May is SOOO hard. Just tell her to push through, she’ll be so much happier once high school is over.”

Waiting in line to board the plane an older man makes small talk with me. He is wearing a large belt buckle with four turquoise stones in it. It is the kind of thing my father used to wear. My father had a serious fall recently and is not wearing pants with belts much these days. He wears sweatpants and pajama bottoms. The last time I was home I reorganized his dresser so that everything he can put on easily was easy to reach. He fell again last week. I tell the man that I like his belt. “Did you buy it in New Mexico?” I ask. “No, a little store in Pittsburgh. You know, I saw it one day and liked it, but I noticed it had this spot on one of the stones, so I didn’t buy it. Then I saw it again a few weeks later, but I still didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy it until the third time I saw it and I’ve been wearing it for 30 years now.”

He asks me if I’m going home and I tell him I live here and am going to DC for a meeting. He tells me that he grew up in walking distance from Midway. He met his wife when they were sixteen years old and he used to ride his bike to her house through the neighborhood. They got married when they were 21. They live in Maryland now. He has a son in the Chicago suburbs and when he’s in town he likes to go back to their houses and make sure they’re still standing. The way he talks about his wife, I’m not sure if she is still alive. I’m relieved when we board and the flight attendant says “It’s open seating you can sit anywhere,” and the man replies “Can I sit by my wife?” “Well, if she’ll have you,” the attendant replies. “That might be an issue,” he replies. His wife is waiting for him a few rows back and I am unexpectedly happy to see her.

After my daughter and I fought about her room I told her that when you are ready to go, ready to move, ready to change, it is painful not to do so. I told her that the bed was not the problem. I told her the dust was not the problem. I told her that I am not the problem and she is not the problem. The problem is that she is ready to go. She cannot shed her skin fast enough and so it grows tighter and tighter around her feeling more and more uncomfortable. She said yes, but she should have gotten a full-size bed from the beginning. I told her she didn’t know that when she was 10 and also, I lived in a room with rainbow wallpaper until I left home at 17. My bedroom is now my mother’s study. She has re-wallpapered it, but a rainbow decal still clings to one window.

What I did not tell my daughter is that leaving doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in stages. There are only two stories in the world, someone is arriving and someone is leaving.

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True Love

Shortly after Valentine’s Day a friend of my daughter’s interviewed me about love. The two are working on a class project, a documentary theater piece. Each person in the class is interviewing three people of three different generations about love.

I wanted to be honest and also careful. Not only because my daughter will read it, but because while all young women deserve the truth about love, they also deserve the fantasy of love. They deserve to believe in true love and love at first site and overwhelming love and soulmates for as long as possible. Those are the stories that get you through the bad dates and the exhausting relationships and the lonely nights.

So I tried to tell her that love is real, but it isn’t always what you think.

A week later I took an online “tour” of the Taj Mahal as part of a team building experience at work. The guide told us that the Taj Mahal is the most popular honeymoon site in India. The mausoleum was built in the 1600s by Shah Jahan for his favorite wife, Mumatz Mahal. It’s seen as not only a beautiful building, but a symbol of everlasting love. We “walked” through carvings and buildings and breathtaking grounds.

Slowly, we learned the rest of the story. Mahal was Shah Jahan’s third wife, the only one to have children. She died giving birth to their 14th child in 19 years. Seven of those children survived, three girls and four boys. There was supposed to be a second mausoleum, in black marble, directly across from the Taj Mahal.

Then, in 1654 or so, shortly after the Taj Mahal was completed, the youngest son of Shah Jahan and Mumatz Mahal murdered his brothers. He decapitated his oldest brother and brought the head to their father, on a platter, Titus Andronicus style. He arrested and imprisoned his father. When Shah Jahan died, his son buried him in the mausoleum with his mother. He did not want to complete his vision of matching mausoleums. Their tombs are the only part of the mausoleum not in perfect symmetry, because they were not both supposed to be buried there.

I cannot stop thinking about the beauty of the Taj Mahal. The color combinations, the stonework, the symmetry, the way it looks different depending on what part of the day you see it. I told the girl who interviewed me that I believe love is an action, not a feeling. That yes, love conquers all, but only because you need to love in order to create. The Taj Mahal is love in action, love as architecture. But also, the Taj Mahal is a monument to something else, something we never name.

We are all, especially women, taught to want a love that could build the Taj Mahal. But what if a love that can build the Taj Mahal is also a love that causes 14 pregnancies in 19 years and an early death? What if a love that can build the Taj Mahal also causes children who brutally murder each other? who would want a marble mausoleum instead of living a full life? Who would want a marble mausoleum, even one inlaid with lapis lazuli, instead of children who don’t murder each other?

I think if my daughter’s friend interviewed me again I would tell her exactly what I told her before. That love is action. That love real, but that love doesn’t always look the way you think.

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Expiration Dates

I am cleaning out my mother’s pantry. Occasionally, when I find a particularly old expiration date, I stop to text my sister or a friend with news of what I’ve found.

Granola – 2019

Bean Dip – 2018

In 1991 my friend found a frozen Salisbury Steak dinner in his father’s freezer. The dinner had expired when his father still lived in a different apartment. He had moved the expired steak from one apartment to another. The story of the Salisbury Steak was always funny to me. It was funny because it was a story about a single guy and how he ate. My friend’s dad’s apartment was a mother-free zone, which meant junk food. Once, a few years before the discovery of the Steak, when we were still in high school and my parents were out of town, I had very ill-advised sex in my parents’ house. When the guy left, I immediately called my friend and said I needed junk food. He came over with Combos and Hostess Cakes, pilfered from his father’s cabinets.

The Salisbury Steak was funny because my friend’s dad was in his 40s, I think. As a teenager, there are three adult ages, 20s, parents, grandparents.

My friend’s dad didn’t know it yet but he still had so much of a future to come, a bizarre adventure, a second wife, weddings for all of his children, grandchildren, a full second act that’s still ongoing. The Salisbury Steak was funny because it was a frozen chunk of past in the middle of a present, and because it was a Salisbury Steak.

When I find a jar of grape leaves that expired in 1999, I text my friend and confirm that they are in fact older than the long-thrown-out Salisbury Steak.

I know a jar of grape leaves that expired in the last century is funny. I start a thread on my local working moms Facebook group and I find that I am not alone. There are stories of people cleaning their mothers and in-laws and grandparents’ houses and finding canned goods so old they don’t have bar codes, canned goods about to explode, an expired can of SPAM they decide to pass from person to person. A friend tells me that behind her recently deceased mom’s expired cans was a huge bowl. In the bowl were the skeletons of a mouse and a snake. They believe the snake ate the mouse and then got trapped in the bowl.

A jar of grape leaves that expired in the 1990s is funny, but also, it is not.

It is not funny because my parents are 81. Last week, my father fell and broke two ribs and received a diagnosis that makes it clear things are not getting better. He is in the rehab facility while I am cleaning out my mother’s pantry.

I am cleaning the pantry because it is something I can do. It is both helpful and personally satisfying. But also, I know, it is just the first of many things we’ll be cleaning sometime soon. It is easy to throw out an unopened jar of grape leaves. But my parents have been in their house for over 45 years. There is art, furniture, books, clothing, tchotchkes from trips, presents from grandchildren, photos of people long gone. All of that will have to go somewhere. Today I throw out an anecdote, next month it might be a piece of my childhood.

Grape leaves are not something you buy an extra jar of and then forget. You buy them with a plan. Somewhere in the last century my mom had a plan to make stuffed grape leaves, and it didn’t happen and now it will never happen. The grape leaves are not funny because I don’t know what other plans like that are hiding in my parents’ house.

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Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train

It’s Friday night, and my son is taking the El to a high school basketball game. It is “the big game” with their “cross-town rivals.” The trash talk online is brutal. He is wearing his school colors, a bright orange sweatshirt. He isn’t sure if the friends he is going with will also take the El home. I tell him to be careful. I tell him not to ride alone in an El car with kids from the other team. He looks at me like I’m crazy.

But he doesn’t know. Although he’s in the thick of it, he doesn’t see how quickly things escalate with teen boys. Although he knows that just last week, one state over, a boy his age walked into his school and killed four classmates; he doesn’t see how this is related to his mother saying don’t ride alone with the other team.

I think back to two weeks before when he and I were driving home to Oak Park from a concert in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a trip through unknown territory. The whole way there and the whole way back, we sang the chorus to the John Prine song, Paradise

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Sometimes one or both of us would change the lyrics to “mama,” or I would answer the question with “yes, actually my son, I will. You are not too late in asking.” It wasn’t funny, but it was last-day-of-a-road-trip funny.

My son is fifteen and learning to drive, and throughout the trip, I looked at him when he wasn’t looking.  I know how little time I have left in the driver’s seat.

A small-town Kentucky cop pulled me over for speeding. Later, my son laughed at how strong my Kentucky accent was when answering questions. The stop was uneventful. The police officer was polite, I was polite, everyone was white, and no one seemed out of place. There was not even a ticket. Just a warning and a “Y’all be careful now.” But I was grateful for the stop. I knew I had to talk about it with him, make sure he understood our privilege in the situation, and even talk about the way I used my accent. I was grateful for the chance to do all of that, but mainly, I was thankful for an anecdote that just the two of us share. I have so little time left in the driver’s seat, and I am stacking up the lessons and the anecdotes as fast as I can.

His team won the basketball game, and he got a ride home with friends. A week after the game, a massive tornado ripped through Kentucky, destroying some of the places we had just been.

Sometimes all you can do is pretend to be in the driver’s seat. You can issue a warning, you can offer a lesson, but you do not know where it is all going. You never know when you will long to go back only to find that the place you want has been hauled away.

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Three Women on a Train

I rode the El yesterday. It was the first time in a while. When I first moved to Chicago and worked downtown, the El was my reading time. It was part of my fantasy life of living in a big city, getting dressed up for work, wearing sneakers for the commute with a pair of heels in my bag, reading. I chose my books carefully because in the fantasy, that’s how I would meet the love of my life.

Very few parts of that fantasy life lasted for long. It has been years since I worked anywhere requiring a change of shoes (or a commute), and even longer since I wanted to do so. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more susceptible to motion sickness, so on the rare occasions I ride the El, I people watch instead. Yesterday, a stop or two after I got on, a woman got on and sat across from me. She seemed like someone I might know. She seemed like someone I could be in a few years.

She wore aggressively sensible shoes, a beautiful white cashmere scarf, a bright purple winter coat, and a mask that matched her coat. She had short curly hair, gray, but stylishly cut. Sensible, responsible, but fun. This was clearly the look she was going for. She took a book out of her bag. I couldn’t see the title, but the subtitle proclaimed it to be “a racial reckoning.” It was a library book. I don’t know if she was still looking for the love of her life, but if so, she didn’t want to “meet cute.” She wanted to “meet sensible, yet interesting.”

A few stops later another woman probably also about our age got on. An African-American woman, she wore a rainbow-colored scarf, and an old coat a size or two too big. She sat where she could lean against the entry divider and put her bags of belongings next to her. With one hand, she repeatedly shook an instant hand warmer package. With the other, she lit a cigarette. When I was a smoker, I was a frequent ash-flicker. Having a long ash made me nervous. It could get on my clothes, it could accidentally burn someone. Plus, in the old movies I loved, delicately flicking the ash into the ashtray, while looking up at a handsome stranger, was an admirable, sophisticated move, like leaving a lipstick print on a glass.

This woman was a long-asher. She did not flick the ash even once, she just sat there. Smoking with one hand, trying to warm the heating pack with the other. At a stop, the first woman stood up to go. She walked by the smoking woman, looked down at her and said, “There’s no smoking on the El.” She said it the way you might say “This is the stop for Nordstroms” or “Here’s how to make a sandwich.” As though the entire reason this woman was smoking on a train was because she didn’t know it was against the rules.

The smoking woman looked up. Tiredly, with no malice in her voice, she quietly said, “fuck you,” to the sensible woman. The sensible woman stared for a second and got off the train. Later, when I got off the train, I saw that she had not actually exited the train, she had simply moved cars.

Sometimes, we are not the people we think we will be, or even the people we think we are. Sometimes our life does not go where we think it will. But the El almost always does.

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Adjustments

I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for a couple of months now. I have chronic neck and back pain, which was aggravated by my 18 months of a frozen shoulder and my implant. My chiropractor is a gregarious guy, full of stories. I know about his family, about funny things that happen at the medical office building. He and his wife just moved into a new townhome and he’s super happy not to have to shovel the snow this winter. He always laughs at my jokes, so of course, I trust him.

I’ve been getting better, slowly. Today though, I felt so much worse.

The chiropractor asked me questions about what might have triggered the pain. I didn’t work in the yard or carry anything heavy. I wasn’t out dancing. After he put the electrodes in place, I asked him if he thought emotions could cause pain. He said “While I’m doing the ultrasound, I’ll tell you a story.” The ultrasound is my favorite part. I love the combination of the warm wand and the coolness of the gel. I love the way I can feel the coolness long after I leave. He told me a story about a former patient, a young, healthy woman with a great job. Like me, she had lower back pain. He couldn’t figure out what was going on. Finally, she revealed that her husband had schizophrenia and she was trying to decide what to do. She went on for months in pain, and shortly after they divorced, her back pain stopped.

This led to a story about his 35-year-old stepson who was schizophrenic and died by suicide a year and a half ago. His birthday is next week and his wife is beside herself. He has told me before about his other stepson and the way his wife takes care of their grandchildren, and how he thinks it’s all too much for her. Today it all made sense. I told him about my cousin who had schizophrenia and died when I was a young teenager. I told him that today was the anniversary of my friend’s death, and that a woman I loved died last week. He told me about a former patient who came at the same time every year for three weeks. She didn’t have pain any other time of year. It only came at the anniversary of her husband’s death.

We sat there with each other for a little while after my appointment was over. Thinking about or own pain, and the pain of others.

He suggested I have a glass of red wine and a warm bath with soft music. I suggested he run a bath for his wife. He squeezed my shoulder and told me to feel better.

When I had cancer a religious friend of mine told me to tell people. He told me that you never know who you’re helping by “testifying” telling them your own story. I think he may be right. Grief is a universal language. Sometimes you have to say it out loud.

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Roadside Attraction

On the second to last day of our trip we woke up, as we often do, in a Springhill Suites. This one was near the Buffalo airport. My husband is obsessed with his Mariott points and so, although we both had childhoods where a Holiday Inn Holidome (with a pool!) was the height of extravagance, and trips in our twenties where Motel 6 was a splurge, on our family trips, the bland comfort of a Springhill Suites, is as low as we go.

This particular Springhill Suites was nestled in between two large, teal-trimmed hotels that seemed to have been left behind by the 1980s. As we pulled into the hotel the night before we noticed a small park with some sort of memorial next to the Tim Horton’s. We vowed to check out both on our way out in the morning.

The trip had been long, filled with highs and lows. There was beautiful scenery and surprising food finds. But there were also teenagers who still fight over whether or not having your hand near the other person counts as “touching.” The trip was almost evenly split between the past and the future. Personal historic sites, like the house my father grew up in and my grandparents’ graves, were paired with national historic sites like Fort Ticonderoga and Calvin Coolidge’s birthplace. On the other side was the future, college tours for our rising senior. There was tension between our daughter, longing for freedom, and the rest of us, holding tight to keep things the same. For years, what I liked about family road trips was the way they united the kids against us. Kids who rarely agreed on anything at home, both agreed that their father and I were boring. Kids who no longer played together at home, with nothing else to do, suddenly make up complicated pool games.

The forced unity did not happen this trip. My daughter wanted to be home, where she is in charge of when and what she eats and where she sleeps, and who she sees. Where, when her brother’s banjo playing and his opinions on presidents and baseball become too much, she can leave the room. My son, anxious about an upcoming sophomore year, that is more like a freshman year and sensing his sister’s insistence on pulling away, wanted to keep going.

My husband and I, both punch drunk with joy at finally traveling again, both with new jobs waiting for us when we got home, both equally excited and nervous about our oldest leaving in a year, vacillated between the two poles of our children. Thanks to iphones and headphones, there are no longer squabbles over music or audiobooks, and so we were free to scan the radio stations and watch the road, and this phase of our lives, move by.

The closer we got to home, the more tension we all felt. Our daughter often begging not just for the Springhill Suites ingenious divided room featuring a pull-out couch, but her own room. Our son entering every hotel room as though he owned it, turning on the TV, throwing his clothes in multiple places, taking out his banjo to tune while watching TV.

It was in this state of tension, anxiety and general grumpiness that we stopped at Russell J. Salvatore’s Patriots & Heroes Park. We were not prepared. We were not prepared for the music that started blaring once we began looking around. We were not prepared for Mr. Salvatore.

According to the free brochure, which you can pick up at Russell J. Salvatore’s Patriots & Heroes Park, the idea for it came to Mr. Salvatore in a dream. Every inch of the park is pure ego and excess. There are monuments to the Battle of the Bulge, 9/11, a horse, the archangel Michael and the victims of Flight 3407. But really, everything in the park is about Russell J. Salvatore. For example, according to the free, 4-color brochure we picked up “In November 2008, the then seventy-five year old, Russell Salvatore, a world famous iconic entrepreneur opened his latest hospitality and culinary masterpiece, Russell Salvatore’s Grand Hotel … Three months later on Thursday February 12, 2009, a Colgan Air commuter airplane (Flight 3407) crashed into the home … this disaster, happened scant nine-minute drive from this edifice. At that moment, Russell Salvatore, basking in the warmth of his newly fund success and surrounded by scores of jubilant friends and customers was shocked to hear of this event.”

The centerpiece of the park is the mausoleum in which Russell J. Salvatore will one day be buried. For the rest of the day we talked of little other than Russell J. Salvatore. Our son googled reviews of the restaurants and hotels. The two hotels surrounding our poor, pedestrian Springhill Suites were owned by Russell and a relative. Everyone loved the restaurant and the hotel, as long as Russell stayed away. Review after review told of a great meal or special event, ruined by Russell J. Salvatore himself. We found news of a lawsuit from a long-time employee fired when he brought up Covid safety violations. We read and analyzed the brochure, cackling for hours over lines like “Two days later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, to the chagrin of Russell Salvatore …”

I made up a voice for Russell, and then we googled his commercials to see if I was right (kind of). We played them repeatedly and made up a backstory for Mr. Salvatore. My daughter vowed to include Russell J. Salvatore in a D&D campaign. We had spent two weeks moving back and forth between the future and the past, looking for a center, we did not expect to find it where we did.

There is so much about the past that makes us sad. In Troy, New York we visited with my husband’s last surviving grade school friend. I stared at the outside of my great-grandparents’ house, featured in many of my father’s stories, long since bought by a fraternity. My great-grandparents came to this country and built something for themselves, and almost all remnants of what they built are gone.

There is so much that makes us anxious about the future. We do not know how this year will go. We do not know if we will like our new work situations, if school will stay in-person, where our daughter will go to college. It seems unlike that we will ever have another family road trip, at least in this incarnation of our family.

But we know we had this trip. We know we found something ridiculously sublime. We found something we could all cling to in our own ways. We found the source of inside jokes for years to come. The point of a road trip isn’t where you go, it’s what you find along the way, and what we found was Russell J. Salvatore.

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Running out of F***s

A popular narrative of both sickness and getting older is that you reach a point where you start to understand what’s important. You lose patience for the unimportant, and start to pay more attention to what you want. That you “run out of F***s to give.”

I have long awaited this change. But here I stand, 52 years old, a cancer survivor, pushed into menopause by cancer medication. Even with all of those changes, I still have plenty of F***s to give. So many that I’m not even writing out the word F***s. I still care about what people think. I still obsess over unimportant interactions online and in real life. I still have trouble expressing what I want.

A childhood of being told that everything I wanted, from ketchup to Barbie dolls to any potential job I mentioned, was wrong or bad, has left me unable to name almost anything I want. Once, in my 20s, I was driving back from something or other with a couple of co-workers. When we passed a Baskin Robbins I suggested we stop for ice cream. I said I thought I’d get a milkshake. My co-worker, innocently said “Really, that’s what you want?” It was enough to paralyze me, to make me wonder if there was something wrong with the milkshake I chose. We stopped and I wound up not getting anything, telling my co-workers I’d changed my mind.

A year ago, as part of a 360 review at work a career coach asked me what I wanted in my career and I burst into tears. I am not in the habit of thinking about what I want. Since having children I have moved from job to job, freelance to part-time, waiting for someone to offer me a job as opposed to applying for a job. I call it my “deis ex machina” theory of job searching, and in my defense it has worked really well. I was recently offered, and accepted, a full-time job I love. To avoid the indecision that comes with thinking about what I want, I make decisions quickly. At restaurants, I scan menus for the first thing I can eat and might like, and then order that. I bought my wedding dress in two hours. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I refused to get a second opinion on my options because I knew doing so would make me unable to choose an option.

I do not know what I want, and so I simply choose something. I tell my children regularly, “you have three meals a day, they don’t all have to be your favorite.” I live by this idea, but have lately started to wonder whether that means you never get your favorite?

But today, I got a quick view of what having no “F***s to give” might feel like. I signed up for a free yoga class in the park. The class was billed as “yoga sculpt.” I was told it would be yoga, then weight training, then cooling down with yoga. I had my suspicions as soon as the instructor announced that the “intention she was setting” was “to power through, because I’m like really sore from my run yesterday, but we just gotta do it.” I lasted through ten minutes of sit ups and toe taps and planks and fitness trainer type yelling of “come on” and “you can do it.” The thought came very clearly to me, “I can do it, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be here.”

So I rolled up my yoga mat and left. I walked over to the Indian coffee shop and got a latte with cardamon. I ran an errand I had to run, I came home.

I didn’t finish my yoga class and I honestly don’t give a fuck.

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People in Stories

When I was a little girl, we lived in Tanzania. I was only four when we went to Tanzania and so the house in Tanzania and the house in Louisville that we lived in before merge together in my memories. Both houses had two bathrooms, but in Tanzania I avoided one of them because it frequently had lizards on the wall. In both houses, I shared a room with my older sister. In the house in Tanzania our room included a small table under the window. On the table I displayed and played with my various small animal figures. Some carved, some plastic, some stuffed. Elephants (or tembos in Swahili) were the majority and many of them became the start of a collection I still have. I also have an aluminum and Formica table from my childhood in my basement. I know it is not the same table as the one in Tanzania, but in my memory it is.

My sister went to school, but I was too young. I went to a pre-school/daycare situation, where I had one friend, a boy named John who gave me my first kiss. But for the most part, I had my animals and my books. In Tanzania, I learned how to read. According to my parents, one day they came into the room I shared with my sister and found me reading, maybe to the animals, maybe to myself. I also learned to swim in Tanzania, in what I think was an indoor pool connected to the university, but maybe not.

One day, we were on our way to swim and I did not want to go. I don’t know why, maybe I was tired, maybe I had something else I wanted to do. Maybe the heat made even going to the pool unattractive. My mother closed the door to the house and realized that she had locked the keys inside the house. We stood outside in the heat while mother debated what to do. Eventually it was decided that I, as the smallest, should climb through the window in my bedroom and on to my animal table. Then, go open the door. I was promised a new book for my efforts.

I remember standing on my table of animals, careful to avoid stepping on any of my friends. I remember wondering what it would be like not to open the door, to just stay there in my kingdom alone, forever. My mother banged on the window and I jumped down and went to open the door. I was soaked in sweat and my mother asked if I was sure I didn’t want to go swimming. I did, but I could not figure out a way to go back on my previous insistence that I did not want to go swimming, and so I said no. The hero of the day, I sat miserably by the pool while the rest of my family swam.

child's bookThe next day we went to the bookstore. The children’s books they had were imported from England and were color coded for reading level. Supply was spotty and when we went, there were no books in my level. So, I chose this book a level up and from then on, that was the level I read.

I thought of the story of me climbing through the window because yesterday in a parking lot a man was stuck outside his car. The car next to it was parked too close and he couldn’t fit in and was too large to climb over the passenger seat. So, I climbed over the passenger seat and backed his car out for him. It took some doing. The car was so large I had trouble getting in. I was reminded of a boy I knew in high school who drove a red pickup truck and how I would try to gracefully climb into his truck in my late-80s miniskirt. Thankfully yesterday I was wearing leggings.

But I was also reminded of me at five, climbing through a window in a different world. So much is different, so much is the same. I am small, and I can go places others can’t. My pride still gets in my way and often makes me miserable. I have a tendency to want to retreat into fantasy worlds of my own and others’ designs.

All the memories pile up on each other because in the end, we are all just people in the stories we tell.

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Of Deadly Importance

Lately, I have been thinking about the dead. Not my own personal dead, the people I carry with me, and write about, but all the dead. I have been wondering if the dead are too much with us, or not enough with us.

I recently read an article about the dead buried in London. Under almost every house or mall or parking garage in London is a graveyard. In London, they walk on centuries of dead people. Rich people, poor people, people buried in ways we cannot comprehend. They found a the skeleton of a dog, buried in her own grave with her collar but without her head; an iron ring welded in place around an arm. This dog was important to someone, but why? The burial of a dog is as mysterious to us as Easter Island or Stonehenge.

I had at least 10 conversations about what to eat for dinner this week. One day, perhaps while building the 26th century version of a parking garage, someone may find a bone fragment of me and wonder what 21st century people ate for dinner. All those  conversations, and in 600 years, no one will know what we ate for dinner. Not just what I ate for dinner, but what we, as a people, ate for dinner.

There was a man who died while hiking the Appalachian Trail. No one knew his name or where he came from. When he died, he was 83 lbs. He was found with cash and food. For months, people tried to unravel the mystery and created their own stories about him. When the truth came out, he was none of the things people thought. He was just a person. A little more screwed up and worse than a lot of people, but still, just a person who is now dead. Whatever we’ve learned, we still don’t really know why.

I have been reading a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am struck by the fact that her family was poor, heart-breakingly poor in a way we can’t truly comprehend. They were poor for generations. Then, Laura wrote Little House and was quite wealthy when she died. Her daughter Rose, was an only child, and she died without children. Today, her estate is worth over $100,000,000 and will be inherited by the daughter of Rose’s lawyer/manager, Roger MacBride. MacBride was not a son of poverty. He went to Princeton and Harvard. What did all the Ingalls’ striving mean? All that work, for generations, for someone else to inherit the benefit.

It is tempting to equate a lack of knowing and a lack of permanence with a lack of importance.

Does it matter what I eat for dinner? Does it matter why a dog was buried without a head? Does it matter why a young man walked into the woods and never came out? Does what you do, what you want, what you work for matter if it won’t last for more than a generation?

Maybe it’s all important. Because the dead are with us. Or maybe none of it is important, because the dead are with us.

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