There once sat a giant water jug in the corner of the plaza of a tiny, wind-beaten, anywhere town.
The brown and green mottled jar – well over two meters in height – had been there for as long as anyone could remember; and no matter the day, time, year, or generation, the jug was always filled with water, ever fresh and cool within its thick, clay walls.
A clean, wooden sipping ladle, soft to hold and handle, tied to a braided rope of gem-colored ribbons, always hung about the shiny brass spigot found one-third the way up the vessel, at a height for all to reach.
Below this, sat a large stone trough which caught each precious drop, and where all the town’s creatures came to sit and sip.
No one ever dared lay claim to be the one who filled the giant jar, for all knew that to keep it thus meant miles of travel and toting to and from the nearest well.
“Such a blessing, indeed,” they would remark to each other as they drew from the tap, “to have such a friend – or friends – as these!”
Some curious folk tried, here and there, to lift the jug to see if its source was perhaps not a person, but a spring, or pipe.
But the jug wouldn’t budge.
And, once more, attentions would turn elsewhere – away from the shiny, earthen jar that watered their gardens and helped make their broth; cleansed and nourished them.
Its mysterious origin would fever the imaginations of the town’s newcomers, but soon, without much thought, they’d take from its bounty as one takes a breath.
The years passed.
The town got bigger.
And the jug continued to give… as best it could.
No one noticed when the braided silk ribbon holding the ladle frayed and finally fell, splitting the old, weatherbeaten wood scoop in two.
The faded, unravelling rope blew away with the winds, and the ladle pieces were soon buried in the dirt kicked up by another, and another, and another at the spigot.
So it should come as no surprise that no one noticed the first crack – a hairline near the top by the lid (now missing its knob). Or the second, at its base in the back.
And how could anyone have known without ever lifting the high, heavy lid (long devoid of its handle) that the jug was now only able to half-way fill?
More years passed and more people came to settle near and depend upon the water jug in the corner of the old plaza, not paying much mind that the spigot was getting harder to turn and the water came in troubled spurts.
Because came it did, so on they went with their lives.
While the cracks in the vessel grew long, and dark, and moist.
One afternoon, a respected elder from the town (a sweet and gentle fellow with a crooked grin and wicked humor), sat upon the old stone trough, scratching a scraggly, stray dog behind its ears, filling his modest kettle, when he felt a drop on his head.
He looked hopefully to the sky, but saw not a cloud. When down came another.
Wiping the tear-sized drip from his eye, he stood atop the trough for a closer look, and there discovered the crack, now beginning to seep.
His old heart raced, as he began a thorough examination of the giant earthen jug, discovering dangerous weaknesses everywhere, as well as, its sad state of neglect from top to bottom, and all around.
“What has happened to thee, Old Friend?” sighed the elder as he grabbed his kettle and turned toward home, laden with dark thoughts of how the town would fare without it.
Early the next morning, with the sky barely lightened, the old man was already at the water jug with his bucket, trowel, and cement.
After mixing a small batch, he began the patchwork at the bottom and worked his way up.
At first, no one in the town took much notice, but the old man didn’t mind. He was enjoying the work. He felt useful, helpful – important for the first time in years.
But his work came to a halt as he struggled for some time to reach some of the biggest cracks at the top of the great jug.
“May I?” a tall lady with bright blue hair finally asked, setting down her cats and picking up the trowel.
Before long, other folk began to gather at the water jug in the corner of the old town plaza, bringing brushes and brass polish, flower pots and benches – even a new knob for its lid.
It was when the lid was lifted for repair by two of the town’s strongest, that the water was discovered to be a scant distance from dropping below the spigot, turning the spontaneous, happy gathering into a very different moment.
Folks instantly began pointing fingers at each other for taking more than their share.
Everyone finding blame everywhere but home.
All the while, the elder, who sat carving on the giant, bent trunk of an enormous Cottonwood remained silent…
… until he wasn’t anymore.
“It seems to me,” he said a little louder each time, until by the forth, his old, lungs had completely filled, “IT SEEMS TO ME!…”
Someone in the crowd finally noticed and a slow hush came over the townsfolk.
“It seems to me,” repeated the elder, as he very slowly and deliberately closed his knife, took up the newly carved ladle, shoved it in his pocket, and shuffled toward the jar, “that each and every one of us has benefitted from what this precious jug has given.”
Nary a sole could disagree, but what could they do? What power had they over its mysterious bounty?
“Each of us has to give,” said the old man sternly, “for this vessel needs filling. Give what you can, if only a drop. Give what you must, for the cracking to stop. Give what you will for the water to rise. For the jug to replenish. For the jar to provide.”
But the townsfolk felt they had done quite enough with the mending and the flowers, and the paint, and stuff, so off they went, back to their shops and their homes and their lives, having convinced themselves that the jug would continue to supply what they needed.
The next morning, the town’s Postmaster went to the jar to soak her stamp sponge and turned the handle of the spigot to find not a single… droplet… dropped.
She turned the handle harder.
She got down on her hands and knees and crouching under the old, brass faucet, stuck her long, thin finger up the pipe with the hopes of dislodging the obvious offender.
The scene couldn’t help but attract attention from the folks going about their business in the plaza, and in just a few minutes a small crowd was once again gathered at the giant water jug.
The Postmaster rose with what dignity she could, and without bothering to wipe the dirt from her hands or knees, said to the many familiar faces before her: “Nothing.”
The crowd refused to believe her and grabbing the nearest ladder, the two same strongest once again climbed to its top, removed its lid, and looked within.
There was water.
The crowd collectively exhaled.
“But only at the very bottom of the jug!” heralded the powerful duo from above.
Panic began simmering.
The greedy began plotting.
And the air became electrified with fear.
Now the elder, who had been calmly watching the scene from the very same spot as the day before, shuffled toward the center of the crowd, which quieted quickly.
“Give what you can, if only a drop,” he repeated from the day before. “Give what you must, for the cracking to stop. Give what you will, for the water to rise. For the jug to replenish. For the jar to provide.”
“Go to your homes and go to your hearts,” he said looking into each and every set of eyes that would meet his gaze. “Fill your cups, your buckets, your glasses, your tubs. For it’s time to give back to this watering jug.”
The crowd hesitated at first, scratching their heads, milling about, kicking at the dirt and the dust, which caused a small group nearby to begin coughing.A young man, seeing his motherhaving more and more trouble breathing, ran to the jug, and with no thought but of that very moment, cupped his hand and turned the spigot.
The crowd moved toward the jar with a great thirst.
But, as the Postmaster had stated previously, the water jug had nothing left to give.
Coughing gave way to sighs amid the silence.
“Give what you can,” whispered the elder as he wandered through the crowd, placing his hands gently upon the shoulders of his friends, neighbors and kin, “if only a drop. Give what you must, for the cracking to stop. Give what you will, for the water to rise. For the jug to replenish. For the jar to provide.”
And with that the crowd scattered about and slowly filtered back – some with only thimblefuls, while others brought great, overflowing basins and bowls; while still others disappeared from the town completely.
And one by one, each offering was poured into the old, patched jug, eventually filling it to its brim.
With the heavy lid placed back on top, the remaining townsfolk watched as the elder pulled from his pocket a beautiful new rope made of gem-colored ribbons, now tied to the newly carved ladle. Stepping to the shiny, brass spigot, his swollen, old hand turned the handle with ease, and he filled the large scoop with water.
Facing the crowd with his grand and crooked grin, he took a refreshing gulp and passed it to the person closest him, and on it went. And as the ladle, soft to handle and hold, was passed to young and old, rich and poor, newcomers and natives, it continued to fill with cool, clear water for the next and the next and the next.
Until all in the town had sipped from it and then, without a word, quietly returned to their homes.
… Now one would have thought the story ended here – that the townspeople had learned their lesson and the water jug would be tended to from then on.
But folks, such as the elder, passed away or moved on, and newcomers settled in around the great, brown and green mottled water jug in the corner of the old plaza, having never heard the cautionary tale.
And those who were there, as most tend to do, forgot.
So the cracks reappeared and the water level dropped.
Until one kind soul felt a teardrop on their head…
Meeting Betsy after dinner at Nonnie and Papa’s. But not before swiping a bottle of booze from their liquor cabinet. Having just been dumped, Betsy’s determined to drown her sorrows. As her best friend, I’m determined to be right by her side. Swig for swig.
Bad Decision Number One.
The cabinet where Nonnie and Papa keep the liquor is in the apartment’s entryway. I’ve rarely – if ever – seen a bottle taken from inside. I’d come across the contents years ago while searching for sweets Nonnie always tucked away in little, glass dishes and old, plastic boxes, in closets, pockets, drawers and, in cabinets, throughout the apartment. The non-candy contents of this particular cabinet meant nothing to me.
Taking a moment before dinner to slip into the entry, I squat in front of the small cabinet and quietly open the door. My knees crackle (reminding me of Sunday’s forced genuflecting), and I cringe, as if the telltale sound can surely be heard above the TV.
My heart is pounding through my chest. Catholic guilt is coursing through my veins.
I see bottles of all shapes and sizes. Some look old, dusty, half-drunk and wholly forgotten; while others, still in their special holiday wrapping, look ready for a party they’d never be invited to, and in front all of these, a brand new, unopened quart of Jack Daniels. THIS is the bottle I’ve decided to get drunk with for the very first time.
Bad Decision Number Two.
I’m antsy, anxious and on edge about the heist all through dinner, causing Nonnie and Papa to give each other sideway glances. But I worry myself over nothing. With Nonnie washing up in the kitchen and Papa already in his recliner snoring, I say my good-byes, slip the bottle into my purse, and slide out the door; wondering how soon – if ever – the missing bottle will be discovered, and who will be the first blamed.
I can live with that.
In minutes, Betsy’s in the car with Jack and me, and we’re heading to Janet Kerf’s party, already in full swing. Scuttling through the crowded, parentless house, to the backyard and the back of a garden shed, we crack the seal.
Bad Decision Number Three.
Timid first sips burn our throats, but quickly warm our insides against the evening’s autumn chill. The more we pass the bottle to each other, the less we care about the burning, the cold, or the dangerous level of alcohol we’re consuming.
Blurred Decision Number Four.
Betsy’s Ex, who we knew to be there by reports from friends making their way in and out of the packed party, becomes the slurred focus.
Blurred Decision Number Five.
Emboldened by my best friend’s broken heart and half a quart of Tennessee’s finest, I wobble my way through the backyard, the kitchen, and into the Kerf’s living room where – in the very center of the Lake Forest High School student body – I proclaim at the top of my extremely powerful set of lungs: “Kelly Walsh is an asshole!”
Bold Decision Number Six.
I shout it loud enough to be heard over the blaring music AND din of teenage voices. All heads within earshot – including Betsy’s Ex – turn my way. Having never met, I don’t really know Kelly Walsh and I couldn’t really say whether or not he is, in fact, an asshole. But my best friend – and Jack Daniels – said he is, so I feel justified in my stunning outburst, which momentarily catapults me out of high school obscurity.
The swaying crowd is more confused than concerned and I abruptly stumble from the house and back to my very drunk friend before anyone has a chance to question my center-of-the-party proclamation.
With the ex-boyfriend properly cursed, Jack Daniels completely consumed and friends really concerned, I’m led to a phone where someone helps me dial home and Chris answers. I babble and burble and beg for her help, then return to the back of the garden shed, where me and my best friend wait to be poured into the back of Mom’s car.
The next morning, after having spent most of the evening taking turns hovering over the toilet, Betsy and I are woken at 7 a.m. with a head-splitting phone call and unwelcome reminder that I’d promised to drive friends to an away football game – which would mean following behind a bus filled with a merciless multitude who witnessed my really bad date with Jack last night.
The following short story was inspired by the hauntingly beautiful winter scene pictured. I found this small, 4 x 6, unsigned, pen and ink on paper at a barn sale in Wisconsin many years ago. It remains one of my very favorite pieces.
Katie keeps the meager fire burning in the small cottage at the edge of the woods, watching her mother twist and turn. Hearing her quietly moan.
Looking around the cabin, she’s desperate for something to do – some way to be useful. But all’s been done in the last two days since the contractions began. So all there is to do is be there when her mother calls, and wait.
Motionless at the kitchen window, she watches the rising sun slowly define the intricate silhouettes of the barren trees behind the barn.
What will the new light bring?
But she’s exhausted and the light is dim. Wiping away the frost and the fog with the apron she’s been wringing in her small hands, Katie watches her father through the kitchen window as he prepares the wagon to fetch the midwife from town. Hitching the horses in the pale light of the lantern, she marvels at his ease and compassion. Patting each of theirs rumps and their necks, and rubbing their broad, long noses, he gently rouses his team to their unexpected task.
Clouds of breath rise from their nostrils and disappear into the cold and still of the mid-winter’s morning as he moves swiftly around the massive beasts, laying the harness as he has hunderds of times before. With bridles slung over each shoulder, he warms both metal bits beneath his thick coat before putting it in their mouths; and for his daily thoughtfulness, each horse lowers his high, heavy head toward him when he holds out their bridle.
Until another moan comes from behind and she’s at the side of the bed before the contraction ends and her mom can see again. Gently wiping her brow with the apron, she squeezes tight when her mother grabs hold of her hand and clutches it to her chest.
Smiling again when her mother turns toward her.
Opening her eyes to her daughter, no pain can blur the struggle she sees in her young heart and old hands. She wants to hold her, to hug her tight and tell her everything will be well, but another bolt of pain seizes her thoughts and intents, and she releases her daughter’s hand, clutching the bedsheets instead.
Twice the dawn has come and gone and still the little one is all turned around and stubborn to leave. But I’m stubborn too, she repeats as she squeezes. And the midwife will be here soon.
Pacing the room, Katie hears a horse whinny and looks through the glass and the ice to see the foggy figure of her father climb to his seat, lift his collar against the cold, and call to his team. Running out the door to the edge of the yard, she watches her father disappear into the expanding light.
The horses’ hooves and wagon wheels crush the thin, icy layer that’s formed on top of yesterday’s heavy, wet snowfall, and the sounds of the departing wagon cut through the silence, the winter and the morning, like a tear in the universe.
His happy home.
“Click-click,” he urges his horses, while urging himself to peace; to steady his breathing and steady their pace.
All will be fine. She’s a strong woman. Far stronger than me.
“And what would she say of this mood beyond hope?” he calls to his team, resting his eyes on the road up ahead, as the dim and grey of the dawning, winter day becomes brighter and whiter with the strengthening light.
The following piece of fiction was inspired by this box, found many years ago at an estate sale in southern Wisconsin, and by a trip to Portugal a couple of years ago.
The tuk-tuk spun around the corner of the centuries-old church, just missing a mother standing in the middle of the busy road, trying to get her miserable-looking teenagers to stand within spitting distance of each other, their father, and the stained glass building they walked three tension-laced miles to see.
Maria didn’t flinch.
Her long, brown hair sailed behind her as the little, red tuk-tuk jerked momentarily left, then hugged the turn and hummed up the narrow street to a shady spot below a gnarly, old tree growing through the courtyard wall of the ancient church.
Daily spirited by the desire to pay off the money she borrowed to buy the three-wheeler she’d been driving for someone else for long enough, Maria had been out looking for fares each morning as soon as the day’s first voices rose to her third floor window from the narrow streets cramped with crumbling, pastel buildings.
And in a couple of hours, eager tourists.
“Such a hard worker,” the old ladies on the streets called to her each morning from different stoops and stories where they hung their gossip and their laundry and looked to the cloudy skies with defiance.
“Such a lovely girl,” they’d laugh and shout down the narrow streets, good and loud, so Maria (already around the block) could still hear, “but too much putt-puttering and not any kissing!”
Setting off a chain reaction of neighboring howls coming from behind damp sheets and dangling undergarments.
Even the young men from the neighborhood would stop what they were doing to watch her pass as she doggedly criss-crossed the city in her shiny, red tuk-tuk.
And if they caught her eye and she smiled their way…
But Maria just saw her city.
And curious faces – of all shapes and sizes – in her rear view mirror. Swaying and smiling at each twist and turn. With cartloads in her care each day, she putt-puttered up and down the city’s rolling hills; laying bare the love of her birthplace, with its pocked and weathered walls and bustling river banks, its many histories and specialities.
The city’s recent reawakening filled Maria with such joy that she wore her smile like her old, lace-up sneakers – daily and for the same reason – from the moment she uncovered her bright red partner, until the deep dark of a new day dragged weary sightseers indoors to rest their blistered feet, and Maria up the stairs.
Each exhausted, but eager for the morning.
Quieting in the wake of the high season, the young guide with the easy smile decided to linger longer than usual in the shade of the churchyard tree and the stillness of the dead end. Taking a rag from below her seat, she circled her tuk-tuk.
Proud of it – and herself.
But the tuk-tuk already sparkled in the filtered light of the autumn tree. She put the rag beneath her seat and reached into the striped canvas bag next to it, lifting out an oval box with thick metal molding, pointed and curved, and crownlike.
Sitting with her feet on the dashboard and the box on her knees, Maria carefully examined it – the cold of its molding and warmth of its wood; its tiny lock, with its tiny key hanging from a string tied to the handle.
Which, as she’d promised on the day she received it, still hadn’t been used in the lock.
Nuno, the young man Maria knew from the bodega around the corner from where she parked the tuk-tuk, surprised her one day, coming out from behind the wide, low wooden counter.
And she noticed how very tall he was.
She had never seen the dark-haired, dark-eyed, somber young man anywhere but behind the cash register and he hadn’t spoken a word to her in two years, just a smile-less nod each day he handed her change and her purchase. Now, all of a sudden, he wasn’t surrounded by massive walls of shelves stacked with bottles and boxes and tin mountains of sardines and appeared larger than life. His dark eyes looking straight into hers, but his face still and unrevealing, he was walking straight at her, with what looked like a small treasure chest in his hands.
He thrust the box toward Maria with great urgency, causing her to stumble back and nearly topple a tower of tourist magnets. With barely a moment to right herself, Nuno was unapologetically upon her, with the box still clutched in his outstretched arms.
“I made this for you,” his words tumbled out.
Maria had just found her balance when his words made her knees give way.
Bracing herself, she searched for something to say.
“That’s very sweet, Nuno, but I couldn’t take such a treasure from you.”
As she said it, the young clerk’s face dropped, as did his arms holding his handmade gift. Maria lunged forward to save it from hitting the old, stone floor, catching the box by its thick, wire handle.
She leaned against the thick, well-worn counter, comforted by its steadfast timbers.
“I’m so sorry, Nuno,” she smiled as she held the box up and began to admire its strength, warmth, uniqueness.
Why would you make me such a thing, Nuno?” she said looking at him for the first time since she first rejected his gift.
“The gift is not the box,” he said, surprising Maria again. “The gift is inside.”
Maria turned the handsome, oval box of carefully bent wood and skillfully molded metal. It seemed far lighter than it should. She gently shook it near her ear and winked.
“You’re teasing me,” she said as she felt her cheeks turned red.
“I promise, I’m not,” Nuno insisted.
Setting the gift on the counter, Maria reached for the key on the string and slipped it into the tiny lock, but before she turned it, she found Nuno’s hand gently, but firmly on top of hers.
“Please promise me you won’t open it… Not yet.”
Maria looked into the eyes of the serious, young shopkeeper and even though the promise and its many unanswered questions made her uneasy, after her last rejection, she decided it best to accept this unexpected present.
Picking the box back up, she briefly hugged it to her chest with a smile, thanked him, and made the promise.
“You’ll let me know when it’s time?” she smiled as she turned toward the stained glass shop door, glowing red and blue in the waning sun.
“You’ll know,” replied Nuno, meeting her eyes for a moment then disappearing to the back of the shop, behind the large wall of warped shelves, thick with as many layers of paint as the generations who piled them high with boxes of goods not paid for with promises.
Lost in thoughts of what had happened just last week, Maria, rubbing the small key in her fingers, didn’t notice the elderly American couple until they were at her side, holding hands and umbrellas, with tired feet and hopeful smiles below ever darkening skies.
Putting the box into its bag and grabbing her plastic-coated maps, the young guide is soon taking the Americans to her favorite spots, where the tuk-tuk trails behind the city tram rattling along well-trodden tracks, passing worn buildings covered in weatherbeaten tiles, still bold and bright and remarkable in their variety and design.
Within seconds of the tuk-tuk rolling forward, uneasy thoughts of Nuno and his gift are replaced with the familiar smells and sights of her beloved city, its bustling centers filled with buses and tour guides and taxis, and tourists wanting to see it all in two and a half days.
Its ancient walls built upon ancient layers, held upright and together by scaffolding, hope, and netting like the graffiti which tags every part of the city.
A multicolored net cast over nearly every building.
Some powerful and profoundly beautiful.
Some angry, ugly, and rueful.
Telltale scars of its 20th century life.
But the city survived. Battered, but proud. Heart beating strong.
Maria sensed it around every corner, in stacks of salted cod on the shelves and fresh meats hanging from the windows; in the terraced, cobbled steps heavy with the scent of citrus trees, where residents sip dark amber wine and listen for the Fado singers to begin their nightly performance.
She heard it in the sounds of children laughing and screaming from the school’s rooftop garden and saw it in the dark, narrow shops piled high with dusty, unwanted goods, where crumpled shopkeepers long past keeping shop, hover at the entrance, searching more for conversation than customers.
Parked in front of one of these sleepy, old stores waiting while the American couple explores the ruins of a Roman arena, Maria’s thoughts wandered back to the box, her questions and, especially, her promise – none of which had left her since that day and all of which were beginning to weigh down her smile.
People in the neighborhood began to take notice.
“She hasn’t smiled since she got that box from Nuno,” they’d whisper down the alleys, as she slowly puttered past, wearing a distracted look like a pair of sunglasses trying to hide her unrest.
“What has he done to our happy girl?” they’d moan like the start of a sad folk song. “He must let her see what’s in the box before it drives her mad.”
And that’s just how Maria was beginning to feel, completely mad.
Each time she lifted it from its canvas bag to examine it and question it – which she did, again and again – she swore the box felt heavier. And the heavier it got, the more compelled she was to carry it with her.
Within a few days, Maria could be seen toting the burden down the long, narrow stairs and alleys, straining and frowning, but keeping her promise, until one day the box became too heavy for even her faithful, old, three-wheeled friend to carry up and down the hills of her treasured city.
She couldn’t take it any longer and leaving the onerous box in the immobilized tuk-tuk, she fumed and stomped toward Nuno’s shop, repeating all of the questions that had been troubling her nights and days.
Nuno saw her enter the shop out of the corner of his eye as he helped a young boy count his change to buy the very last pastry of the day. Only when the boy was out the door with a mouthful of custard and the tart half-eaten, did the young storeowner look toward Maria and nod.
“You must come and take your gift back,” she said loudly and without hesitation.
The young man stood frozen and silent behind the counter.
“Please, Nuno,” she begged with tears already falling from her tired eyes, “I can’t accept it and it’s too heavy for me to carry.”
The young man stared at her until she began to question her decision. Then, without a word, he walked out of the store, passing so close to Maria she could smell his disappointment.
But not looking at her.
Maria followed him out onto the cobbled street, jogging to keep up with his long, determined strides.
Approaching the shiny, red tuk-tuk, riding even lower with the weight of its mysterious gift, Nuno looked for the familiar canvas bag and reached inside, hesitating before lifting the box out.
His head sunk low.
“Inside is everything,” he groaned and shook as he strained to lift his gift. Maria’s heart sank, but she could already feel herself lighten as Nuno took the locked wood and metal box in his trembling arms and walked away.
It was days before she could drive past Nuno’s shop, she was shocked to see the shutters on its windows and a sale sign hanging from the stained glass door.
Maria brought the tuk-tuk to a sudden stop in front of the shop and jumped out, looking both ways down the street before peeking through a small pane of clear glass on the door.
Everything was gone.
The well-tended floors were now littered with newspaper and the once brimming shelves were barren and beaten. Maria’s eyes quickly found the only thing that remained, the oval box sitting in the middle of the low, wooden counter in the back of the shop.
Maria’s insides twinged.
The lock was open, but still latched, and its tiny key, which had always hung by the box’s handle, was nowhere to be seen.
She leaned her head heavily against the door and sighed. “How can I leave that box for a stranger?”
Stepping toward the door, she reached for the handle but stopped herself as soon as her fingers touched the cold brass.
Placing her hands in the pockets of her jeans, Maria turned away from the shop with a smile, climbed into her shiny, red tuk-tuk, and put-puttered away.
I saw a girl in a red velvet hat with feathers to one side. Meeting her eyes, I smiled. She grinned, but shyly turned her gaze. So I studied her young silhouette and thought of long past days. Of ladies in fabulous hats and fitted suits, with cigarettes and sassy comebacks for men in Fedoras, white shirts and ties who secretly longed for the pretty, young ladies in red, velvet hats with feathers to one side.
Staring at the corner of his small, shaded, shared room which smells of disinfectant, death and old wool, all that’s left of Jake’s life stands on the shelf before him: a couple of dusty, unframed photos (faded images of lost faces, youth and health) on a teetering pile of once comforting books, earmarked and yellowed, barely held together by their cracked and broken bindings.
Lifting them from their place would reveal a thick outline of their long neglect but the books are now just painful reminders of his last stroke and the words are un-consoling strangers among the unclear images that come, and mostly go, of what’s come and all but gone in Jake’s long, lonely life of merely living long.
Yet there’s something on that meager shelf the old man treasures which came to him one summer from his only uncle, Joe, a large, quiet man with the strength of a bull, who worked his whole life in the northern logging camps, bringing down trees, building other men’s wealth.
The meeting was brief but the moment still strong in a desperate childhood filled with hunger and want. He’d come down from the highland forests the August Jake turned six. The air was stifling – thick, as was Joe’s large frame filling the door of the derelict cabin where the boy and his mom scratched out their living mending shirts, washing laundry, running errands – any work to be found up and down the great, green mountain.
The unexpected visit surprised Jake’s mom, who hadn’t seen her brother since they were young. Sent off as soon as they could earn a living on their own. She embraced the waist of the burly, bearded man, who returned the hug with one, massive, tree-trunk-of-an-arm, then turning to his only nephew with a wide, toothy grin, Joe revealed his hidden arm, where two objects lay in his giant, calloused palm.
With fingers big as branches, with bits of paper, bark and wire, the woodsman had turned simple scraps he’d found around the camp into a logging train, with its smokestack engine coupled to a car fully loaded with tiny, timbered logs tied up with string.
But it was everything.
Sitting at the large, well-worn work table together, Jake’s uncle and mother searched for words to close the gap of so many years, while the boy rested his chin against his sinewy, tanned arms, crossed atop the hard-scrubbed pine, staring eye-level at the train.
Hesitant to touch it for fear it would, like a fidgety spirit, fade away.
Or worse, break in his young, but hardened hands.
Just studying it – knowing it was his – was more than enough for the boy.
The brief visit would be the first and last time he would see his Uncle Joe, whose large, lumberjack’s frame had barely left the shadow of the shack before the grind of what would be Jake’s life had begun again.
Having that train in his sight each day – the one made just for him a lifetime away – made even the strangest places left behind and those ahead, endurable.
Built in the early 1970s to house the freshman and sophomore classes, Lake Forest High School’s West Campus is a giant brick and cinder block monstrosity which was designed with all the charm and comforts of a state penitentiary: sterile, uninviting, uninspiring, practically windowless, colorless, and completely joyless.
Its warden is Mr. Kleck, the West Campus principal, who’s secretly been given the nickname “Banana Fingers” for his freakishly enormous hands. He roams the academic dungeons in his plaid polyester sport coat, smelling of cigarettes and body odor; wielding his insignificant power with what appears to be more brawn than brain.
Wishing to remain far beneath the high school radar, I’ve done everything I can to steer clear of Mr. Kleck.
Such best laid schemes…
After watching an outdated State of Illinois Board of Education documentary on health, hygiene, and the hazards of smoking, including pie charts and diagrams, mildly graphic surgery footage, phony teens in dungarees, and a man blowing smoke rings through a permanent breathing hole cut into his larynx, us boys and girls set off for our respective locker rooms, down separate cement staircases, to pick up books and head to our next class.
I never see the last step.
Somewhere before the first landing, the clog on my right foot attempts a daring but foolish escape – getting only as far as the arch – so when my half-shoed foot mis-lands at the metal edge of the cement step, I plunge toward the crowd of surprised friends and new enemies walking down the stairs just ahead of me.
Twisting and hurdling through the innocent and unsuspecting, bodies are strewn to the sides of the steps against the cinder block walls. I come down hard on my back, momentarily unaware of all but the grim, fluorescent-lit ceiling above and the cold, cement floor below. Returned to the moment by the moans of the stunned and wounded getting to their feet, I attempt to do the same, but am gently pushed back to the unforgiving concrete by our gym teacher, Miss Bradshaw.
“You can’t move,” she states.
“I’m fine,” I reply with an embarrassed smile, attempting to sit up again.
“No,” she says as she pushes me to the ground (a little more firmly this time), “I mean I can’t let you move. Kelly, run and get Mr. Kleck.”
“I’M FINE!” explodes against the cinder block surroundings.
“I’m sorry, Anne. It’s school policy. Mr. Kleck has to make sure you’re not injured.”
While the remainder of the class is sent on their way, I lay there like a one-shoed idiot, waiting for the dreaded Banana Fingers, imagining how the news of my nose dive is already spreading through the bleak, inhospitable halls of West Campus.
Mr. Kleck appears, sprinting unnecessarily up the flight of stairs; his figure looming over me like an oppressive cloud of brown plaid and Aqua Velva. His giant, cigar-shaped fingers moving toward me, shadowing my entire, horrified face.
Demonstrating the correct workings of all my moveable body parts, I hastily answer all the questions, eventually ensure my captors and I have no need for an ambulance, lawyer, or help up, and hobble away, bruised and humiliated.
Less than two weeks later, it happens again – a near carbon copy of the last plunge. This time, however, most classmates have learned to give me plenty of berth on the staircase and fewer casualties are reported.
But people are beginning to wonder.
And this time, Mr. Kleck insists I visit Mrs. Waldeck in the school nurse’s office before returning to class, who meets me at the door of her office.
She’s shaking her head. Scrutinizing my footwear.
Mrs. Waldeck hates clogs.
And she loathes Dr. Scholl’s – just like the ones I’m wearing a couple weeks after my staircase accidents, when everyone at West Campus is anxious to enjoy the warming weather.
There are still patches of mud-colored snow and ice all around the school grounds, but it’s officially spring and I’m sporting a brand new pair of white Calvin Klein jeans and red leather Dr. Scholl’s sandals. Jean, Megan and I are on the front lawn of the high school throwing a Frisbee around.
The three of us have been in health class together where we’re being taught the basics of CPR. To help us, we have “Annie”, a training mannequin with a spiffy red track suit and the ability to inspire far more sexual asides than careers in the health industry.
One of the first things taught to us is how to approach the injured party and determine what the problem might be.The introductory phrase we’re instructed to use is, “Annie, Annie, are you all right?” This is followed by some gentle shaking, after which comes the serious stuff – cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
I haven’t really been paying attention. Neither have Jean or Megan.
So things don’t bode well when chasing an errant Frisbee, my wooden, single-strap sandals (slick with melted snow) send me hydroplaning across the new grass, into a cold, muddy puddle; slamming me hard against the still half-frozen earth.
Searching for the wind knocked out of me, I bolt upright to see Jean and Megan racing my way. First to my side, Megan kneels beside me, grabs my shoulders, shakes vigorously, and with an enormous smile asks, “Annie, Annie, are you all right?!” and then falls into a fit of laughter.
Jean isn’t laughing.
Grabbing me from behind with the strength of her five brothers, my great, Amazonian pal lifts me off the ground and – grossly misdiagnosing my predicament – starts to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
I don’t know whether to laugh, vomit, or pass out.
Eventually recognizing the international arm waving signal for: “FOR GOD’S SAKE, STOP DOING THAT!”, Jean releases her hold and I slip to the ground exhausted and humiliated but alive and breathing again.
My “rescuers” lead me arm in arm across the lawn, past snickering peers given an even bigger laugh when passing reveals my grassy, mud-stained ass and “big girl” undies – now exposed – thanks to that lethal combination of white pants and puddles.
When Mrs. Waldeck looks up from her desk upon my arrival, it’s hard to tell whether her expression is more anger, aggravation, or pity.
It certainly isn’t surprise.
Mumbling something about pinochle as a proper pastime and a big bonfire for burning all clogs and sandals, she leads me to the back room of the nurse’s office where I can wash up; then offers the terribly unsatisfactory suggestion that I slip on my gym shorts for the remainder of the day. I can’t hide the dread of being exposed to further ridicule and, thank goodness, Mrs. Waldeck can’t help but feel sorry for me. She hands me the the phone and suggests I call home to see if my mother might bring a new pair of pants.
Mom, as is the norm, is nowhere to be found.
Apparently, the day’s humiliation is far from over and this Annie is feeling anything but all right.
I think the doctor’s last count was seven different incidents – each stroke leaving in its wake a little less Dad. One of the areas of the brain that had been most severely affected was motivation, as was his ability to read and write.
After the last big one, his peripheral vision was also shot, which meant no more driving.
So Dad sat.
And eventually he lost sight of everything that made him tick, gave him purpose, he was good at.
I watched the frustration in his once playful eyes when things weren’t clicking in his quick and clever mind; and quietly mourned the lengthening shadow that would eventually smother the once strong light, turning his weaknesses upon himself and others; until his needs pummeled Mom and his words became brutal.
By the time we placed Dad in assisted living, the shadow was long and the void, wide. The once powerful figure could no longer focus, spent the days crying and the nights wandering, and missed the toilet.
Conversations were now repetitive communications, driven by a series of questions he’d ask again and again. Always about family, living and dead. Impossible to steer him away from this endless loop because it was all Dad had left to hold on to.
It was the only way he could be more than a figure in the room, struggling for thoughts, for words, for loved ones.
His body remained strong for quite long, but that didn’t surprise anyone. Dad had always been a natural athlete with a small, fleet build and a bold swagger. But eventually his muscles and mind began to atrophy after all those years of sitting.
Doing hours and hours of nothing.
And after a while, his sinewy legs (which had hiked a thousand miles of fairways) twisted weakly beneath him; while cherished faces and times and places steadily stepped into the darkness.
Rare became the instants, during my all-too-brief, long-distance visits, when I saw that certain twinkle that came to his eyes when he was pleased, or about to be funny… or silly, or sweet.
Dad’s wheezy, cartoon dog laughter was something, however, that endured and could happily be summoned to the great relief of everyone hovering uncomfortably in his small room scattered with pictures of loved ones, now mostly strangers.
Rarest was the sound of his powerful, steady, low voice, which throughout my life would sing in my ear when he used my pet name, or make my heart (and feet) leap when he used my middle, “Anne Elizabeth!”
The years had made it weak and weary; a whisper of a voice, ever shaken by unaccountable emotions.
I last heard Dad during a regular Sunday phone call. Jim handed him the receiver and he began to speak. I don’t recall a word of what he said because all I heard was this forgotten voice – strong and clear and compelling – which I hadn’t heard in ages and the instant made me ache for and anxious.
Anxious to hear Dad speak again. But Dad never did.
Yet in that flash, in those few words, he once again was my wings, my warden, my beacon, my banker, my mentor, my tormentor, my knight in shining armor.
And everything felt right.
Then it didn’t.
And I cursed myself for not plucking the ether of that very brief moment and stealing that voice to stuff deep in my pockets, where I’d keep it to remind me of the Dad he used to be.
The dad who’d gather us beneath the covers of their covers on stormy nights, when thunder rolled across Lake Michigan like a mighty wave and lightening set a gnarly, old oak outside their wall of windows afire with its flash of ghostly, silver-blue light.
In our small tent of sheets, with our heads tucked close together, he’d tell us ghost stories – while Mom helped us count the seconds between the lightening and thunder – and make us giggle with gentle tickles, until the storm passed and we were brave enough to return to our beds upstairs.
The dad who’d grab the garden hose on hot summer days and with a devilish grin, spray little children who’d dare to cross his thick, green lawn.
The dad who’d takes us on Sunday drives to special, secret destinations, inspiring me to seek out my very own adventures.
And who always gave long, strong hugs of immeasurable comfort.
Who, after raising five children excelling in bad behavior, gradually mellowed and raised the white flag in the form of a hanger he’d found in a closet, draped with some stuff we grew on the bluff and planned to smoke later.
Walking into the family room where three-fifths of us were lounging and asking very calmly about what he was holding and its reason for hanging, Dad reached for a bud, gave it a squeeze, and hung the harvest from the nearest lampshade.
“It’s not dry yet,” was all he said before leaving the room and all of us slack-jawed.
Such a dry sense of humor.
But Dad also had a temper that no one liked seeing, when all that charm and good looks disappeared behind a mask of unreason, and I was left angry, helpless and confused about how a man so loving and generous could have such potent demons.
But then I got older and my very own demons got bolder, as most people’s do.
So, the Dad I choose to remember is the one that no matter how mad we’d get at each other, by day’s end, “I love you” were always the last words I heard.
As a powerful presence.
A stubborn dreamer.
A cocky, passionate schemer, who pursued his passions head first, wholeheartedly, sometimes very foolishly, with great success and equal failure.
His greatest achievement – a bountiful life, not only in the hearth, but in the home, until off we flew to foster big dreams and face demons of our own.
So, I’m grateful for the moments I talked to him about nothing, apologized for everything, and thanked him for the lives he set in motion – even though he wouldn’t remember any of it by the time the call was over.
But love is in the giving.
In the moments Dad heard, “I love you.”
So, I’d tell him different stories about our faraway lives, and in between the same questions and his uncontrollable tears, I‘d try to fill his soon forgotten moments with love and laughter.
And long distance hugs of immeasurable strength and comfort.
It’s early spring and still outnumbered are the days of thawing, when the sun shines through the nearly impermeable grey just long enough to make the corral thick and pliable for the heavily-coated ponies to imprint the half-frozen peaks of ice and manure.
With little inclination to be out of doors, Mia, Mark, Jim and I, along with cousins Mary, Gina and Bill, are all hanging out in the kid’s room upstairs, twitching and giggling and getting riled by Jim, the regular instigator of such behavior.
But this time, instead of hanging around to help control the chaos, Jim leaves, leaving his younger siblings and cousins to deal with the consequences – the most important of which is that Mark is wound-up and dangerously near the one thing in the room Jim should have taken with him: his Benjamin Air Rifle.
Jim got the rifle for Christmas and had been target practicing with it that morning. Dad doesn’t like the idea of the eight-pump, .177 caliber pellet gun, but Mom’s Missouri farm roots makes her believe that it’s every boy’s initiation into manhood.
In Jim’s defense, he never shoots at living things – mostly targets, trees and tin cans. However, he does get an enormous amount of satisfaction turning its site on siblings for the sheer satisfaction of watching faces contort; which is likely where Mark got the idea.
Picking up the air rifle, he aims it across the room at Gina, sitting on the sofa. Each of us demands he put the weapon down, but Mark already has that look in his eyes which tells us he’s stopped listening, and before anyone can say another word, Mark presses the trigger and discharges what he thinks is air through an empty chamber.
Gina, already curled into a defensive ball, is hit. The lead pellet rips through her jeans and grazes the skin on the back of her left thigh, already bruising when we gather around to inspect the wound.
Everyone – including Mark – is stunned and silent.
Gina’s eyes grow wide and wild.
“You little fucker! You shot me!”
We all look to Mark for an explanation, but he’s off – like his shot – out of the room, down the back stairs, and out the door.
Having returned to the scene at the sound of Gina’s scream, it takes mere moments for Jim to form an angry mob to go in search of the lone shooter, now taking refuge somewhere in the damp, barren woods surrounding our house. We follow the leader around the backyard and back woods, looking for a spark of tell-tale color among the sullen, gray tree trunks.
Then something turns… Jim’s allegiance. In an instant, we’re all in his sights and half-heartedly running for our lives. Finding a safe spot from his line of vision, I’m watching from the barn stalls when Jim spots Mark weaving through the trees and across the frozen patches of slippery leaves in the back circle by the cottage.
He’s trying to make a break for the large stretch of trees just across the driveway. From there, it’s certain he can outmaneuver Jim through the woods to safety. The problem is the twenty foot stretch of open pavement.
But spring is in the air and Mark is feeling a little wild.
We all are.
Jim gives the rifle an extra pump and takes aim at the small figure now bounding across the asphalt. In one very lucky shot… he hits his target, and like a plastic carnival duck floating atop a painted carnival pond, Mark is knocked flat.
Jim insists it was meant to be a “warning” shot.
As all games are officially over at the first sign of blood, Mark limps toward the house where he pulls down his sock to reveal the day’s second wound on the back of his ankle. Mom’s soon on the scene, shaking her head, calloused by the long history of Jim’s overzealous rough-housing; when Mark ends up with stitches and bruises and we end up with a friendly visit from social services.
Ordering him into the kitchen (with everyone following close behind), she cleans and examines the wound and declares the pellet must have skimmed the surface of his skin (just like Gina’s had, but we felt best not to mention).
Satisfied with Mom’s answer, the hunter and all those hunted walk – and limp – away.
Forty years later, having just had x-rays taken for an orthopedic shoe insert, Mark’s doctor enters the room and hangs the film on the light box, and with a strange look on his face, points to a light spot behind Mark’s left ankle.
“This is a metal object,” he says, “… and it looks like a bullet.”
Both Mark and the doctor stare at the very clear, small, rounded object appearing on the screen.
“No, that can’t be right,” Mark insists. “There must be a glitch on your x-ray machine.”
But the doctor assures Mark that the object is no glitch.
“Do you happen to know how it got there?” the doctor asks, now looking a little sideways at his patient.
Mark stares at the small metal object imbedded in his achilles tendon and suddenly it all comes flooding back to him.
Before leaving the parking lot of the doctor’s office, he sent this out to remind us all of a childhood within close range.
I’m still lying back in the dentist’s chair when I open my eyes. It’s hard to lift my heavy lids, even harder trying to wake from a syrupy haze.
The first clear thing I see are my wisdom teeth – all four – on a pad of cotton laying on my miserably undeveloped chest.
A smiling nurse takes hold of my forearm and gently guides me off the reclining chair and onto my feet. Legs buckling, a second nurse appears, and with each as a crutch, we wind our way through doorways, down hallways and into the waiting room.
The sight of her makes me smile, which makes it hurt, and makes me cry out; making patients sitting patiently, jump in their waiting room seats and glare at me.
Stare at me.
Seeing exactly what they don’t want to see.
I couldn’t care less. I just want to sit.
But Mom and the nurse keep me moving forward toward the exit door.
Nothing looks sweeter than the car where, for the first time in years, Mom has to buckle me in. Her steely, blue eyes filled with fuss and concern, and a little horror. But the haze hasn’t lifted and I’m happily floating in it… and out the car window, toward the warm, autumn sun.
And Mom’s taking me home.
With a heavy hand, I lower the window and turn to face the breezes. I smell hot pavement and mid-day traffic and hear the sounds of a motorbike approaching from behind. As the biker passes, his helmeted head looks my way, so I smile in response, leaning heavily against the car door.
He swerves – suddenly – and passes, quickly.
Seeing such a knee-jerk reaction makes me fumble for the visor’s mirror, where I find a reflection like B-Science-Fiction: swollen cheeks, a misshapen face, and by the looks of the dry and wet tracks trailing down both sides of my chin, I’ve been drooling. A lot. My lips are also cracked and bloody – as if stranded for weeks in the desert – and it appears as if they’ve been pulled apart by some horrible dental device which has left indentations still visible on my face.
I’m the goddamn monster’s bride.
But the care is lost in thoughts of home and Mom and Dad’s blue, velvet sofa, with dogs at my feet, a box of tissue at my side, and a channel changer near at hand – which is where Mom leaves me with a kiss on the forehead and errands on her mind, one of which includes filling a prescription for pain medicine for when the strong stuff wears off.
Propped up with pillows, covered with a quilt and a Labrador, the cloud is beginning to clear from my brain, and although my jaws are sore, I’m relishing a day away from school.
The clock in the living room chimes the eleventh hour and I have nothing but a whole day of sleeping and watching television ahead.
Piece of cake.
It’s been two hours since Mom left. The meds have warn off, the haze has lifted, and everything is very, very clear. The pain – which began as a dull ache in my jaws has turned into something hot and angry.
And my mood, gruesome.
Dark thoughts come to mind on the crest of each unmedicated, tear-filled minute.
“Where is she?” I moan as our Labrador, Heather, lets me squeeze tighter.
But the throbbing grows stronger and the darkness grows darker, and my groans are too much even for Heather, who squirms from my grasp and slinks away, tail between her legs.
The chimes of the clock reminds me that Mom’s been gone for three hours and it feels as if my head will explode.
I now consider mother, my captor and tormentor.
And the blue velvet sofa, my prison of pain, where I dig my way deeper into its darkness and despair.
In the fourth hour since Mom abandoned me, Jim and Mark approach my body beneath the blanket. Jim attempts a taunt, but when I slither from the covers and hiss, “Where’ssssss Mom?”, my gloom and sullen glare frightens even Jim.
He gently, but firmly, grabs Mark’s shoulder and they retreat from the brooding scene…
Misery is my only acceptable companion this afternoon. And we’re inseparable. Wretched and contemptible.
The damn clock mocks me again, making it the fifth hour since our return and still no sign of Mom.
Shrouded in the pain and the darkness, still hidden beneath the blankets, my breath, my mood, and the TV, are disagreeable and inconsolable, and my thoughts, matricidal.
“How could she have forgotten about me?” I hiss into the drool-drenched pillow, unable to think of anything beyond the pain and this painful disappointment.
As the seventh hour tolls and the sky grows dim, the sound of Mom’s approaching footsteps – which should signal the end of my suffering – instead fills me with rage.
Seething in my blanketed underworld, hurtful words I’ve practiced for hours stand ready at the tip of my tongue.
I can hear the crinkle of the white, paper bag from the pharmacy and Mom whispering, “Annie”. Both sounds try to pull me from the darkness, but I remain hidden.
“Where have you been!?” is all that squeaks out.
I don’t really listen to her answer. I just take the bitter pill, turn over and wait for the pain to subside.
Barely able to see over the dashboard of the ample sedan, toes stretching to reach the pedals, Nonnie is an Italian force on four wheels navigating the gridlock of suburban Chicago.
Her style is unique – driving with more emotion than convention, more conversation than paying attention – usually resulting in last minute lane changes and unpredictable turns, and me sliding from one side of the bountiful back seat to the other.
When the story she’s spinning is a doozy and Nonnie gets roused (which it usually is, and she usually does), up goes her pitch and its volume, and down goes her tiny, bunion-ed foot on the gas pedal, causing the great, lumbering beast of a car – and all its passengers – to lurch forward.
To compensate for accelerating while accentuating, Nonnie then braces herself against the steering wheel and brakes, throwing her kin back against the pristine upholstery.
Repeating this action with each grand inflection.
It’s how she got the nickname, Whiplash Willie, and why, when I see her begin an earful of a tale to whoever called “Dibs on the front seat!” first, I know what’s coming.
Built on a slope, at the end of a cul du sac, down a short, steep drive, everything about the holiday rental house feels dark, narrow, sunken, and really, really hairy.
The owners of the house on the outskirts of Snowmass, Colorado own several Huskies – or rather, several Huskies own this house as can be gathered by the Husky-related photos, ribbons, paintings and pillows. The neighbors next door also have one of these intrepid snow dogs, who sits on the frozen earth at the end of a chain by their front door, all day and all night. Quietly watching us come and go.
Everything about the rental house feels well-loved and lived-in – if not a little too; an ingenious plan (or a happy accident) to be staying where messes and mishaps can be easily forgiven. Easily hidden. With little worry of expensive damage or extensive injury.
So, determined to enjoy at least some of the family vacation (without the whole damn family), Mom and Dad make plans for dinner out, leaving the five of us with several pizza delivery menus, cash, and a warning to be on our best behavior.
By the time dinner is being noisily digested and discharged in a particularly fierce burping and farting duel between Jim and Mark, we’re already restless, as the explorable world around us shrinks to the cluttered rooms and narrow corridors of someone else’s life.
Someone who doesn’t like T.V.
That’s how Jim discovers the stereo.
Leaving him happily crouched over stacks of albums, Chris, Mia and I decide to get ready for bed before playing cards. Looking for a corner of the shared bedroom where spying eyes can’t see me in my undies, I find a spot between the window and bed where I shiver and squiggle into my nightgown.
A mournful howl just outside the window gives my goose-pimples, goose-pimples.
Peeking around the curtain and rubbing away enough frost on the glass, I see the Husky next door baying in the shadows of the bright moon. Receiving no reply to his woeful song. I linger at the window, hoping to hear an answer to his haunting moonlight serenade, but instead, hear strange noises from within.
Jim is up to something… We all sense it.
But before Chris, Mia and I even have a chance to express our shared concerns, the entire house goes completely dark.
The Husky howls again, filling the pitch bllack room with his sorrowful song.
“Don’t be an idiot, Jim,” Chris shouts through the closed and now locked bedroom door into the dark and unknown. “Turn the lights back on!”
There’s a tap on the door, but we say nothing.
There’s another tap.
Mark whispers meekly from the other side, “Come on you guys… Let me in…”
Now Mark has been Jim’s loyal minion many times in the past, so opening that door might very well mean an ambush. But Mark is a lousy liar – and an even lousier actor –and his frightened pleas are a little too real. We feel our way, en masse, to the door, open it only slightly, and grabbing Mark’s skinny arm in the dark, Chris yanks the youngest through.
Rubbing his manhandled limb, he pleads innocence as we pepper him with questions, soon convincing us that he has no idea where Jim is, or what he’s up to.
Before long, we have our answer. From out of the pitch black, the familiar rise and fall of notes on a piano can be heard coming from the living room. The haunting song is “Tubular Bells”, better known as the theme music for, “The Exorcist”; a simple series of horrifically hypnotic notes currently sending shivers up millions of theater-going spines.
Even for those not old enough to see Linda Blair’s head spin, the tales of the movie’s shocking scenes (and cursed actors) have been playground fodder for months and it’s clear that Jim is committed to scaring the shit out of us, spending nearly an hour trying to figure out the house’s electrical panel so he could turn all the lights off, but leave the stereo playing.
Truly committed… or perhaps, should be.
As the terror-inspiring piano solo repeats for the umpteenth time, we feel trapped, defenseless, directionless. The longer we stay holed up behind a locked bedroom door, the longer Jim has to think of more ways to scare us.
It’s decided. We have to head into the dark. Face the music.
Find Jim, or he’ll find us.
Chris quietly unlocks the bedroom door and opens it a crack to see what she can see – which is nothing. She opens it a little wider. Still more black.
Tubular Bells is now flooding the bedroom.
He’s out there, somewhere.
Without ceremony, we shove Mark out the door first. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I watch his small, shirtless frame stall in the center of the hallway, not knowing which way to turn.
“Do you see anything?” Chris whispers.
If Mark replies, none of us hear it over the musical crescendo. He swivels right – as if he’s heard or seen something – and begins to head down the hallway toward the other bedrooms – away from all known exits. We feel obliged to follow, but as soon as the three of us step into the hall and turn toward Mark, a dark, moonlit, figure growls and lunges toward our tiny, hapless human sacrifice from a hallway storage closet half-way down.
All I see before pushing through Chris and Mia in a frenzied retreat is Mark’s body suddenly stiffen and spring a foot off the ground before collapsing into a heap on the hairy carpeting in the center of the dark, narrow hall.
Leaving Mark in the dark to fend for himself, Chris, Mia and I slam and lock the bedroom door.
Moments later, all goes quiet…
… too damn quiet.
We crack open the door to see what’s become of Mark, but he’s nowhere to be seen. His defection to the other side is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. And very unsettling.
In the still, dark bedroom of the still, dark house, all I can hear is Chris and Mia breathing, and the Husky howling, long and sorrowfully.
I love the final miles to our back door. The everyday sights of tree-lined neighborhoods, sleepy main streets, and stretches of flat fields and crisp, white barns silhouetted against waning sunlight.
After a successful fight for window rights, I’ve rolled mine all the way down, ignoring the moans of siblings wishing to remain buried in the stuffy confines of the car. Sticking my head as far out as I can, searching the darkening skies for the first star of the night, I inhale summer – long and hard – accepting the occasional collision with a bug on its own nocturnal journey.
Sheridan Road (which extends north all the way from Chicago) is the final stretch from Lake Bluff to home, straight and scarcely inhabited – except for the occasional sighting of the reflective, red eyes of wildlife at its edge hoping to survive fields and forests, cars and trains, on their way to wherever.
Alongside Sheridan Road, for much of the way, runs the Northwestern Railroad. Its green and yellow cars, faded and familiar, appear beside us long after its piercing horn signaled its approach. I race the train, stepping on an imaginary gas pedal on the candy wrapper-riddled floor. Pressing harder and harder, as if my desire will make Dad drive faster and finally beat the northbound beast.
But the train rolls past our station wagon and all I can do with the same, old loss is gaze into the windows of the passenger cars; into the yellow-tinged lights where, returning from leave, the white-capped sailors of Great Lakes Naval Base lean heavily against the worn, green leather seats and dingy glass. Their lonely figures the last thing I see before Dad signals right and I close my eyes for the final mile to our front door.
There is comfort in this blind ritual; in the knowledge that I know this mile of road so well that the sight of it is secondary to the feel of its curves, the sounds of its inhabitants, the smells of fresh cut fairways, and a giant of a freshwater lake.
Unlike the miles behind us, we travel more leisurely along Shoreacres Road. Breathing easier and rejoicing in nature. In the great, silent custodians – the Maples, Oaks and Elms – which stand over nearly every inch of it; shading us from the summer sun like a vast, green awning and warming us with their blazing, dazzling, daring reds, yellows and oranges in the autumn. Come winter, tree-lined comfort turns to forest mischief when laden branches drop dense clumps of snow on our hoods and on our heads, surprising us and swamping us as we pass below.
The first curve is less than a quarter of a mile along, and drifts sharply to the left, as it begins to follow a tiny, twisting creek, where moonlit nights make the water dance and daylight hours invite Mallards to its mossy banks.
Each fall, just before the curve and the creek, an old Black Walnut tree drops heaps of its brown-green nuts onto the road, which explode beneath the wheels of the wagon as a call to local wildlife who delight in the meat of the thick-shelled nuts and a seasonal signal of that first turn.
Up ahead, I can see in my mind where the road abandons the tiny creek and veers ninety degrees to the right, toward much greater waters. We call this part of the road, “The Straight-Away” because it’s the longest, lineal stretch in the mile journey, inspiring newly licensed teenagers to ignore speed bumps.
Sticking my head even further out the car window as we head down this long strip of cracked and well-worn pavement, I envision the great expanse of manicured green to my left, the tangled woods to my right, and just ahead, at the end of The Straight-Away, the exact spot where lake Michigan demonstrates its greatness by influencing the weather around its shores in a sudden shift from the warm, near-stifling humidity of a Midwest summer night, to a sudden, clammy chill – like leaving the glow of a campfire. Even sleepy siblings will reach a hand out the nearest window to feel it. Because feeling it, is feeling home.
At the end of the Straight-Away, Dad will turn left and we’ll soon pass the old, white clubhouse standing at the edge of the bluff on the right. I imagine it ’s covered in fog and dimly lit by the street lamps lining its long, unapproachable entrance.
Just past the clubhouse, the wagon gently turns left, bringing us past a faded, old, foamy green water-tower that stands at the entrance of our neighborhood. A sad sentry – rusted and outdated, and destined for demolition – its large, steel legs, are our gateway to high jinks in the forests and on the footbridges of the golf course just beyond.
An expansive, white, Georgian house is next on the left; with three, enormous, old pines nearly hiding its existence. Planted long ago in a very neat row, they dominate even the grand, columned entrance. Each pine is a story higher than the two-story house: shadowy and green and fabulously fragrant after a spring shower; while giant villains in the fog, and enormous yuletide beacons, strung from top to bottom with tiny, bright, white lights that always make me cheat – and peek.
Across the road from where the pines stand tall, there’s a big, brutish fence, behind which stands a tragic folly created by a strange woman named Felicia. (We call her Fishy.) On the nights when its colossal, indoor tennis court sets the sky and woods on fire with its jarring, unnatural lights, I hear my father grumble and briefly my eyes for chance to see if, in between the pickets, I can catch a glimpse of this sad, slightly mad, lonely woman, living her sad, slightly mad, lonely life.
Happy to be past it and moments from home. Minutes from bed.
A slight right at the fork and our driveway’s just ahead, on the right. I know exactly when we’ve turned onto it by the sound of gravel crackling like popcorn beneath the wheels of the wagon as it winds its way through the woods and the summer smells of wild onions and Queen Anne’s lace, pungent and sweet.
Bringing me ever nearer to sleep.
Only when I hear the garage door begin its sluggish retreat and the dogs begin to bark, do I open my eyes and end the game, content for having found my way home again.
I close my eyes for one more game. I pretend to be fast asleep, so Dad will carry me the final steps to my bed, and to my dreams.
We watch the station wagon back out of the driveway. Mom waves through the open window before slowly pulling away. It’s just a few errands, but Mark is inconsolable. Tries to follow her.
Chris sweeps him up, but he squirms with all of his might and wins the fight. Falling to his knees, and then to all fours, the youngest of five laments the loss by slamming his soft head on the hard blacktop.
Shocked by the scene, I race to the street, hoping Mom will see me wave and shift to reverse. But the station wagon turns the corner and disappears from sight.
Back in Chris’s arms, I can see Mark’s forehead is already swollen and bruised. Pockmarked from the pavement. Gravel still clinging to his brow.
Silently, the three of us turn toward the house, motherless and miserable.
I save every penny I can to buy things for my very first household: a two-story, six room, pale yellow Colonial with black shutters, rose-filled window boxes, and a square footage of about three.
Placing my tiny, new items in their tiny, proper places, house proud and satisfied, I head downstairs to the laundry room for dusting rags. I’m only gone a few minutes, but as I come around the front facade of my beautiful home – thinking of fake-watering my fake flowers – I’m shocked and horrified.
The tiny patriarch of my miniature clan is not where I left him, sitting on the living room sofa with a wee book in his lap.
Daughter is still at the piano where I left her, but slumped over. Arms splayed across the keys.
I find Father directly above, in the four poster bed, pant-less and laying rather indelicately on top of Mother; while in the bathroom, next door, Baby has been stuffed – diapers up – in the porcelain toilet with the long chain pull.
My fearful but transfixed eyes move to Grandmother’s room next door, slightly disappointed to find nothing – no one. Maybe Grandmother’s safe.
But the thought is fleeting when in the kitchen below, I find my sweet, old, grey-haired Grandmother, and her tiny bun I carefully brush with the tip of my finger, has been shoved in the oven of the cast iron stove. The soles of her sensible shoes searing into my memory.
But where’s Son? He’s not in the fridge, under the sofa, in the clawfoot tub. Searching both floors of the colonial, there’s only one place left…
Slowly raising the balsa-shingled roof of my pale yellow, Colonial house with black shutters and rose-filled windows boxes, (which Jim was forced to cut and glue as punishment for his last dollhouse infraction), I can’t see him anywhere.
I think I spend more time in the second floor girls’ bathroom at Lake Forest High School than I do in any one of my senior classes.
We’re there – my best friends and me – every lunch and chance we can to steal away and smoke our Marlboro Lights; one after another, until the bell rings for class and we emerge from the swinging bathroom door in a huge, smelly puff of smoke.
Our tobacco-less friends – and true friends they are – tolerate sitting on a cold, dirty bathroom floor in between old, green stalls with toilets that sound like tornados when flushed through the old pipes of the old school. Energing from the toxic fog looking pale and sickly.
They put up with this dark, plumbed clubhouse, day in and day out, because we also spend a lot of time in the second floor girls’ bathroom forming friendships through smoke rings and stall doors.
The teachers who classrooms are nearest the second floor girls’ bathroom surely know of our lung-blackening infractions, but choose to turn a blind eye – or in this case, nose. Only once does a teacher enter, surprising the group of us who had been chattering and laughing so loudly, we’re disrupting her classroom next door – which is exactly why we hear nothing as she cuts her way through the Marlboro haze and surprises us.
Teen girls scatter in every direction, dousing butts in the nearest basin, uselessly waving arms, and spritzing “Charlie”, so that the teacher now standing in the middle of the still-smoldering mayhem will be none the wiser of the goings-on in the second floor girls’ bathroom.
She stands in the center of the two rows of stalls, as a fog of cigarette smoke still hangs heavy on the high ceiling, and loudly and very firmly bellows, “OUTSIDE!”, which booms against the porcelain-filled room.
Our departure is quick and very quiet. And our return to the 2nd floor girls’ bathroom the very next day, guaranteed.
The adult-free upstairs is our universe, our private world of fun and games and funny voices, where Jim’s rolled up socks turn into stink bombs of such infamy that as soon as you see him take off a shoe, you run… as fast as your stockinged feet along a polished wood floor can take you.
It’s also where fuzzy, red carpeting turns to molten lava as chairs and tables become bridges, and the sofa, an island where captives and carpet monsters fight to the death in battle after battle.
In the universe upstairs, sloped-ceiling closets and dark crawlspaces (too-small-for-adults places) become hideaways where we can bring pillows and posters, flashlights and stuffed animals, and write secrets and swear words on the 2 x 4s and plaster board; as we listen to Mom in the kitchen below.
Until the heater switches on and the great metal shafts fill with air and fill our ears with rumbling.
At the very top of the back steps, behind a tiny door (not more than three feet square), Jim spent all day building a spaceship. Fabricated from old outlets and switches and a roll of duct tape.
With Mark as his co-pilot and imagination as his rocket fuel, he rallies us to climb into his crawlspace capsule. I sit back in the darkness, surrounded by boxes of memories – Mom’s heirloomed wedding dress at my elbow and Christmas decorations at my back – anxious for the countdown.
Excited for blast off.
For leaving the earth far behind.
Calling to his co-pilot to flick switches labelled with a big, black magic marker, then moving his hands up and down his own duct-taped controls, I hear the sputters and rumbles of Jim’s vocal-powered rockets.
Hugging my big, Pooh Bear, I watch our fearless pilot, in the beam of a dangling flashlight, lean back and call to his unlikely crew through the cup of his hand, “Hang on! Here we go! Ten… Nine… Eight…”
Jim’s rumbles begin to rise.
“Seven… Six… Five… Four…”
I feel the crawlspace shake and rattle.
“Three… Two… One… BLAST OFF!”
I squeeze that silly, old bear and close my eyes to see the fast-approaching cosmos…
And there I float in the infinite black. In the infinite stars. Until Jim shouts, “Meteors!” and all hell breaks loose in our top-of-the-stairs cockpit.
The hallway light suddenly cuts through the cracks and the dark – and the meteors – and the call of dinner brings us back to earth.
Mom and Dad’s bedroom is on the first floor of the house (at the southern end of everything) allowing them to frequently escape to its sunlit, coziness and away from the five, wild seeds they chose to sow.
This leaves the entire second floor almost entirely adult-free, except for the occasional laundry delivery from Mom and the much less occasional visit from Dad – more ceremonial than social – and usually the result of winter restlessness or weekend thunderstorms keeping him from the golf course.
We only know of his plans when we hear, “INSPECTION in ten minutes!” sound from below, at which point all present scatter from the upstair’s common room to our respective bedrooms, where we begin frenzied attempts to hide all clothing, toys, towels, glasses, plates, books and general shit we’ve left strewn everywhere.
Depending on his level of bother, Dad might only scan the surface of the bedrooms and bathrooms. It’s something each of us quietly prays for as he passes dressers, drawers, desks and closets, cluttered and crammed with quickly concealed crap.
If his heart really isn’t in it, he might demand some dusting and vacuuming, to be inspected later – which will likely not occur – and then disappear below. Knowing this, we’ll half-heartedly obey before returning to reruns, twitching on each other, and littering.
However, if Dad’s disposition is grim, he delves further, looking under beds and behind shower curtains, and, if he’s in a particularly foul mood, sliding open a closet door…
The cement-floored, window-welled basement of the house is the biggest indoor space we have to spread out, but it comes at a price. My bare feet are regular magnets for misplaced thumb tacks; while misplaced gerbils, who disappear beneath appliances, leave the already dank underground smelling like fabric softener and tiny, rotting corpse.
It’s also the first place we head every spring when tornado season arrives and the local siren sounds, sending neighborhood kids scattering to their homes, and Mom shuffling everyone down below, where we wait for incoming reports.
With the TV and radio competing and other siblings playing, I stare out the small, ground-level window, half-hoping to see the funnel at the end of the our street, moving down its center, like a spinning top, whirling and powerless.
But I know a tornado isn’t powerless. It’s dangerous and threatening my world.
Comforting is the sight of Mom ironing; while through the grimy glass I wait for the mean, dark sky to lighten, the all-clear to sound, and life in the neighborhood to return to its routine.
She moves up and down the rows of desks, filled with tiny, crouched figures, hovering over lined paper, clutching #2 pencils. Filling the aisle with her middle-age width and Avon perfume, I feel the warmth of her body and breath as she leans over me and sighs.
We’ve been here before.
I’m just not getting this pencil-holding thing.
I thought I was doing it right. The letters on my paper look pretty much like everyone else’s. Pretty much.
But every time she stops at my desk, she gently, but very firmly cups her hand over mine and squeezes, until she forces my tiny, anxious fingers to curl around the long, yellow pencil with the well-worn pink eraser.
“A firm grasp,” she says, trying to sound patient about my substandard pencil holding, “is the key to proper penmanship, my dear.”
Not wanting to disappoint her – again – I clench that pencil as if my very breathing depends upon it, until my fingers cramp from it, and the lead of the pencil presses so hard against the paper that the letters bulge through the opposite side.
When she asks us to turn our papers over and sit quietly until everyone finishes, I close my eyes and feel each raised letter with my fingertips. Wondering whether any one else has to press that hard – work that hard – to squeeze out the letters and words, and sentences, anxious to burst forth.
The phone at the end of the hall, right next to my room, comes to life in the middle of the night; its merciless metal bells clanging, resounding off the tall walls of the winding front steps, and down the long, carpet-less hallway.
Startled from my dreams and tormented by its unanswered ring, I crawl over whichever dog or cat is hogging most of the bed and quickly shuffle toward the noise, hoping to get to the phone before another blast of the bell pierces my brain.
Fumbling for the receiver – and words – I already know that the only kind of news that comes in the middle of the night is usually bad. Or at least not very good – and if I’m answering the phone, it means Mom and Dad didn’t, and I’m about to be made the reluctant messenger.
Sleepless in the hours that follow. Anxious to hear the garage door rumble. Hoping the yelling and the lecture happened during the ride home.
And that all the gory details will come over a bowl of cereal in the morning.
Happy everyone is back and in bed. And all is quiet at home again.
My bedroom is at the end of the second floor hallway. Right above the living room and Mom and Dad’s bedroom suite. I hear fights my siblings don’t – or at least don’t tell me. A hard thing to bring to a game of H-O-R-S-E. On the nights there are fights, I never feel more alone in this full house. Sinking through the empty blackness of my room. Drowning in the fury and the screaming and my pillow. Desperate for it to stop, or for me to find the courage to make him stop. Picturing the nearest item that will offer the hardest blow. A cane from the stand, just down the stairs, and through the door below. … If I hear it once more… But I never find the courage, just anger and confusion, and early recognition of a marriage in malfunction. Making monsters in the madness and words into weapons. And me into a quivering mess under my blankets in the dark of my room. Praying for it to stop, or me to sleep.
Just northwest of Chicago, in Deerfield, Illinois, King’s Cove is 1960s, middle-class suburbia, where Good Humor trucks and men in white hats sell Chocolate Eclair bars with the solid chocolate centers, as they jingle past weedless, well-mown lawns and small, tree-filled lots; where neighbors are friends, your best friends are neighbors, and school is the next block over.
Our house in King’s Cove is an unmistakable yellow, like hard-boiled egg yolk, as is the wood grain panelling on the side of the Grand Safari station wagon after Mark, a paint can, and a brush are left unattended. And even though it’s small for seven, it never feels crowded, except in the one, tiny bathroom we kids share. All tangles and toothpaste.
Our yolky Colonial has all that we need, all that we know: a small front yard with a tiny patch of grass and a newly planted tree, a split rail fence, and a lawn in back. Dad built a treehouse here, where my best friends, Cherie Dusare and Lynn Bubear, and I hoist the ladder, shut the trap door, and nurture our first true friendships, formed by first experiences.
And I begin to discover the courage to find my own voice among the din of four siblings.No longer contented by blanket and thumb and going quietly unnoticed in our tiny world of well-worn paths through quiet backyards, which lead to school and monkey bars, and friends the next street over; where each winter, the Jayne’s sloping lawn next door turns to a sledding hill and every summer, the Beak’s back patio and mossy garden pond come alive in the shade of the trees.
I like to sit on the small, stone, vine-covered wall and watch big-eyed frogs, bold chipmunks and bright orange koi go about their business of being beside the small, trickling waterfall, in the dark, green garden of this house on the corner.
Across the street live Amy and Abbey, the dark-haired twins – and my friends – who dress the same and make me wonder what it would be like to see another… be another me?
But my best friends live at the other end of the block where the three of us sneak into the Dusare’s paneled living room, enticed by taboo and a best friend’s promise of seeing a picture of naked men.
Tip-toeing and giggling as we cross the shag carpeting, socks and static electricity spark already heightened senses. Cherie knows exactly where the album is in the long, low, hi-fi cabinet with the accordion door. She grabs it and holds it to her chest, scanning the scene signs of adults.
My heart beats through my crocheted vest. This is my apple. I take my first bite.
Thanks to dim, red lighting and well-placed fog machines it’s little more than a nibble. But my curiosity is peaked, and it’s my very first secret to keep with my first best friends from the neighborhood.
Sitting on the basement’s wooden stairs,
staring down at Jim and Dad below,
knee-deep in water that doesn’t belong,
I see Dad is mad. Really mad.
Which makes me want to do something.
“I wish I was the Flying Nun,” I sigh,
as I watch my favorite Barbie float by,
“so I could fly all over this mess.”
I long to soar above the world
on starched, white wings.
like Sister Bertrille each week on TV.
I want to make things better.
I want to put things right,
then rise above my house and over the trees,
around the schoolyard and up the street.
With this said, Dad suddenly stops being mad.
Smiling at me and shaking his head,
the earthbound task of clean-up begins.
Walking hand in hand through the woods to Sherwood Elementary – just Mom and me – I stay in the playground, hanging by my knees against the cool, metal monkey bars; looking upside down at the grey, September sky, wondering what I’ve done to make Mrs. Paschua, my first grade teacher, want a meeting.
On our way home, Mom explains that they talked about the way I speak and why I might have troubles with certain sounds. Mrs. P. thought Mom might be the reason – perhaps a foreigner (with that foreign-sounding name). I giggle when Mom tells me how surprised my teacher was to discover that Mom – that we – are as alien as apple pie.
But I love the thought of someone thinking I’m different. It makes me feel special – a little exotic.
Sherwood Elementary thinks I’m special too. Enough to take me out of class each week to send me to speech therapy, where they work the entire year to make me sound just like everyone else.
Whether going out or eating in, food either consumes Nonnie’s thoughts or busies her hands for hours each day, managing laborious feats and four-course, Italian feasts – piping hot dishes of handmade manicotti or tender, breaded cutlets, garlicky vegetables, hot rolls, vinegary salads and sweet desserts.
Second helpings are always encouraged at Nonnie’s dinner table and praise for the cook, expected – as well as a little too vehemently rejected.
The three greatest mis-steps at this Italian table?
One: cutting spaghetti. Either twist it or prepare for a gentle cuff on the back of the head from Papa.
Two: if all diners are not seated at the table while the food is still visibly steaming… Nonnie will burst several blood vessels.
And three: never…EVER… say you’re not hungry. Utter blasphemy.
We like to rattle her with unexpected visits and ravenous appetites, watching her forage through the refrigerator and freezer, brimming with outwardly unidentifiable, but doubtlessly delicious leftovers, sealed inside ancient Tupperware and old Cool Whip containers. Happy to see us, but perceptibly agitated that she can only offer what she sees as barely acceptable fare, each serving is dished up with a generous dollop of misgiving.
I’ve never known anyone as good at cooking as Nonnie, who complained about it more.
So it’s little wonder that while visiting in Florida, the moment Papa announces we’re having dinner out, a palpable – near frenetic – excitement electrifies the apartment.
Following the proclamation, Nonnie spends most of the day in her housecoat, in a walk-run, making sure everyone’s dress clothes are pressed precisely, her hair is maintaining its proper “do” beneath a sea-green hair net, snack intake is severely monitored, and her sisters, Camille and Rose, are consulted and updated (via long distance) on EVERYTHING.
For Nonnie, dining out is the equivalent to an audience with the Pope.
For me, such an event proves far more predictable than papal. More “Holy Cow” than Holy Spirit.
And it most definitely means Italian – old school – with its enticing smells and curtained nooks, smartly dressed waiters with thick accents, and an animated maitre d’ who greets everyone like family. It means trompe l’oeil walls of rural Tuscan scenes, rich, red fabrics draping doorways, and rolling dessert carts filled with cannoli and tiramisu.
From well below the mouthwatering chaos, I watch the loaded serving trays — piled high with pastas and soups, roasted chickens and fresh seafood — pass deftly overhead, with a “Scuza, Signorina!”, until a hand on my shoulder gently guides me out of the busy traffic and into a chair in front of a round table covered in linens and complex table settings.
A fast-moving figure from behind casts a well-aimed cascade of ice water into one of the two stemmed glasses set at eye-level before me.
Tempted and tormented by big baskets of breadsticks and freshly baked rolls, my hand’s gently spanked away from a second helping.
“You’ll spoil your dinner,” Nonnie scolds. (When what she secretly has in mind is a bakery heist for tomorrow’s breakfast.)
Excitement rises with the arrival of the menu which ignites imaginations and appetites.
Wherein the problem lies… with inexplicable regularity, when presented with an abundance of choices, Nonnie almost inevitably orders veal.
The choice seems harmless, but it’s enough to make family members cringe and Papa’s blood boil – not because baby cow meat is one of Nonnie’s favorite things to eat, but because every time she orders veal (whether Marsala or Picante, upscale joint or neighborhood favorite), she usually ends up taking only a couple of bites.
One for eternal optimism.
The other, raging cynicism.
Then raising her head from her plate and, wearing utter disappointment as a mourning veil, complains meekly but unmistakably.
“This isn’t veal… This is chicken… I’m sure this veal is chicken.”
And like clockwork, another battle in Nonnie’s tireless crusade to unmask poultry dressed in calves’ clothing begins, prompting children to slip lower in their seats and adults to start commenting about the day’s weather; while Papa bows his head and sighs with exasperated disbelief.
He and his wife then begin a short-lived, but emotionally escalating and frustrating exchange that will end with Papa vowing to never take Nonnie out to a restaurant again, and Nonnie looking self-righteous, misunderstood and miserable, as she rummages through her dinner-roll-filled-handbag looking for a tissue.
The drive home is what I imagine floating in space is like.
Silent. Solitary. Dark.
Except for the lights emanating from the dashboard (most particularly, the green turn signal arrow which Papa habitually leaves blinking) which let me know other life forms still exist.
A few days pass, then Papa announces we were going out to dinner.
Nonnie’s excitement rises anew…
Until the waiter approaches her with his pen and pad in hand, and with all eyes anxiously upon her… she orders the veal.
And Papa ends up swearing that it’s the very last time he’ll ever take her out to dinner.
A vow he’ll repeat until the day he dies.
Nonnie, however, will work tirelessly in her quest for veal for decades more.
Much of my early views of Florida are seen above a sea of car upholstery, through rolled up windows, where the only things visible are the tops of Palm trees and passing trucks, condos and clouds, and Nonnie and Papa’s heads hovering over a wide expanse of leather stretched across the latest Cadillac’s cavernous front seat.
Here, conversations are muffled, and occasionally in broken Italian, so young ears can’t possibly understand; and elevator music-versions of Rock ’n Roll songs play softly; where Papa’s cautious, half-mile-to-execute lane change regularly causes the turn signal to remain blinking.
It must be an audio-visual black hole, oblivious as he is to both the flashing green light and the constant clicking for miles on end.The sound of it lulls me into a stupor, until Nonnie finally notices the signal of perpetual motion and snaps at Papa to turn it off.
A few miles pass and all is peaceful, until the car begins to fill with a terrible smell.
I turn to my cousin, John, who’s holding the backseat’s cigarette lighter, with a smug yet sorrowful look on his face, as the smell of flaming follicles slowly wafts through the well-sealed compartment.
“What’s burning?!” Nonnie shrieks, “Something’s burning! Jimmy, something’s on fire!”
Papa pitches the lumbering Caddy to an empty parking lot at the side of the road, unrolls the windows, and orders everyone out of the car. Nonnie stands there mumbling and grumbling and shaking her head while he makes absolutely sure nothing else has been set on fire.
Throwing John one, last incredulous look – Papa orders everyone back in the car before signaling his return to the road. Where, for the final miles to the restaurant, I lose myself in the smell of burnt hair and the click of the sedan’s left blinker.
From the time the youngest of us is moving independently of a parent, Gina, Mary, Mia and I are seen as a small, drifting quartet of cousins at family gatherings. Two distinct gene pools, one common goal: to discover new spaces and unknown places, where no eyes and “No!”s could block our intentions.
Not to sit and behave, but explore the dark closets and dusted cabinets of quiet rooms far from grown-ups, though never far from mischievous brothers.
Gina usually rouses us to expand our adult-free borders; opening doors and waving us through – and when things don’t kill us – boldly stepping past us. Reassuming command.
And we follow.
Just as we do when she leads us out the door of Nonnie and Papa’s apartment and down a long, humdrum hallway of dubious hues, and thick, padded carpet that silences our patent leather footsteps and makes us whisper.
Without any wear on my new, leather soles, I slip and I slip as we pick up the pace of our great escape, past dark, numbered doors behind which come the murmurs of TVs and mumbled voices, and other people’s lives.
Our little flock focuses on the big, brown, metal door at the end of the hall which will lead us to uncharted worlds and unsupervised floors; to a quiet, pristine lobby where unsat-on furniture needs to be sat on, and plants are dusted; and the floor is so highly polished, it glitters and gleams like a magical, marble lake that I want to skate in my stockinged feet.
Mary presses the button with the arrow pointing down. The elevator hums and clicks and begins to move, and the newly learned numbers over the door blink in slow succession, until the lift stops and the door slides open.
In our reluctance to fully accept our independence, we hesitate and the door glides shut. But there’s an unspoken allegiance, so Mary re-presses the button, and back open it slides.
Pushing us into the small, room with dark wood panelling, Gina reaches for the lowest button, and off we go to the little known land of the lobby. I can see its floor before the door is fully open. It shimmers and shines and lures me from the safety of my flock and the moving box.
We watch her tiny body disappear behind the sliding, metal door.
Mary and Gina’s big, brown, Italian eyes go wide and I feel something – panic – suddenly rise. The elevator starts moving, the numbers start lighting, and Mia’s now off on her own adventure – without Captain or crew, or even a clue, as to where she’s going.
At a loss for what to do, we just stare at the door of the moving contraption which slowly ascends to the top floor and stops. Will she get off and try to find her way back to Nonnie and Papa’s? Does she even know what floor they live on?… Wait… Do we?
With this grim realization, the once strong lure of shiny floors and silky chairs is now replaced with powerful thoughts of Mia and Mom and home; of familiar faces, full plates of pasta, filled candy dishes.
And facing consequences.
Worried and wordless, we hear the elevator again click into motion and anxiously watch the numbers descend, kind of hoping when the door slides open, we see a familiar grown-up, or… Mia!
Standing in the exact same spot in center of the elevator where she’d been deserted, looking slightly startled, but happy to see us. Before losing her again, we jump in and watch the elusive lobby disappear behind the sliding door.
Now all we need to figure out is what button will lead us home.
Gina presses all of them.
When the elevator next stops, we hope to recognize something or someone, but nothing and no one is there. The next floor offers a replica of the last and I feel tears bubbling just below the surface. As the door opens to the third floor, it reveals a sight I thought I’d never be happy to see, Jim and John, sent out to search for their sisters and cousins.
“WE FOUND ‘EM!”, Jim hollers, as the boys race back down the brown and beige hall, to the front door of the apartment where Nonnie stands shushing… and waiting… with oven mitt and apron, and a look of consternation.
A scolding is at hand.
Gina smiles at each of us, then turns toward Nonnie.
There’s a grave in the corner of the Potter’s Field at Lake Forest Cemetery.
Rumors tell of devils and demons,
of curses and misfortune;
of strange things happening to graveside visitors.
But I’m curious.
Finding two equally bored cohorts, we head out in my convertible.
Autumn whipping our hair.
The heater blasting on our legs as we wind along Sheridan Road,
beneath the red, yellow, orange and brown leaves
silently floating to the ground on the fishy lake breeze;
shrouding the lawns, the sidewalks, the forests, and the last season,
in moist, earthy layers.
Entering the cemetery beneath its great, grey gateway,
we haven’t a clue as to which way to go;
only away from the grand mausoleums and stone angels
that mark the graves of the rich and powerful.
We find the unmarked field down a short, dead-end lane
already twice passed.
A small, unkempt and inconspicuous patch.
No statues, flags, or flowers.
No benches or shade for mourners.
Just a sad stretch of grass, cornered by a chainlink fence,
choked with neglected vines and scraggly branches of struggling pines.
Phil and Betsy step into a small ravine separating us from the forgotten field.
Their feet, ankles and shins sink into a river of yellow and brown leaves
and I’m startled by the thought of them disappearing.
Swallowed by some, strange, autumnal underworld.
Eased only when both climb out on the other side.
Wandering up and down the quiet plot, we find nothing but nameless headstones. Unadorned and unnoticed.
So many stories untold.
Until we happen upon a half-buried cross at the very corner of the lot
where the wealthy suburb’s poor were given their unsung plot.
Barely legible, Damien, is scratched in a crudely made crucifix,
toppled by wandering roots of the towering, lakeside trees.
Smothered by overgrown grass and thick, green moss.
Who cared enough to mark a life among the many lost?
Hovering over the grave, we tell our own tales about death, the damned and Damien,
until the daylight suddenly disappears behind a dark cloud rolling in off the lake,
silent and mountainous, like a great, grey whale.
All at once, wicked gusts of wind turn the sky to twisting, twirling, whirling leaves.
Turning our backs to its unexpected violence, we race to the car,
laughing and swearing and shivering in our meager layers.
As the last roof latch clicks into place, the sky over us turns black and wild,
shaking the convertible.
I clutch the wheel and smile at my friends.
A seasonal storm… or something more sinister?
Best to ask later.
I turn the key, but nothing happens.
After a moment of startled looks and nervous laughter, I try again.
Not a sound, except the pounding rain and my impassioned pleas.
On the third try, the engine fires up and my shaking hands quickly shift the car into gear.
Phil and Betsy urge me forward a little too loudly.
Just as the cemetery gates appear in the rear view mirror, the violent storm ends,
and the sun, as quickly as it had abandoned the scene, reappears
as we hurry away from Damien’s grave
on this strange, but strangely perfect autumn day.
When the station wagon rolls away from the curbside, dark and swarming with youth, I begin hunting for familiar faces or voices amid the chatter and the laughter. Desperate not to be standing alone among the dimly lit clusters huddling on the church lawn, cowering, I weave toward the bright light of an open door where a line of my peers is slowly filing into the basement for the Friday night dance.
Plenty of familiar faces dot the scene, but not a friendly one in sight. Until there, at the bottom of the crowded stairs, flash the comfortable smiles of good friends, as happy as I am at the sighting.
Into the dim and din of the dance, we move in a small, giggling mass to areas of equal un-interest: the drinks table, the snack counter – then, to the sidelines surrounding the dance floor, where tiny gangs of nervous pre-teens and new teens twitch, taunt and tell tales.
A group of boys laugh and push and swat at each other as they glance across the floor at a particular ring of girls. Finally, the boy with red hair and distractingly long limbs plucks enough courage to cross the floor toward the girl he’d been dared to ask to dance.
But just as he’s making his way across the vast, sparsely populated stretch of beige and green-checkered linoleum, a popular song comes on which springs the crowd – and his targeted partner – into action.
The dance floor erupts with awkward motion.
The moment – and momentum – are lost.
But the darkness emboldens, and as the first slow song starts spinning conquests are won, as the line drawn between the opposite sexes begins to blur.
Now the dare proves not only daring, but profoundly stirring.
One song leads to another, and another, and another.
New couples on the dance floor encourage others across the hot and cramped basement.
And the boundaries blur further.
Are any eyes on us? On me?
Retreating to the easy obscurity of a dark corner, I watch the clock on the wall – and my friends – whose eyes now focus across the room.
Some are reached by steep, wooden steps,
only at the end of which,
is a switch,
and salvation from the dark;
where cold, cement floors sting bare feet
and we search for cousins playing hide and seek
beneath an old, pine table,
and in cupboards stuffed with moth balls and old lives.
Down other stairs, parents send rapidly sprouting offshoots
(and their weedy accomplices)
to remain mostly out of sight, sound and smell.
New worlds explored in sunless rooms of cinderblock;
where mismatched 13-year-olds kiss, and later tell,
and budding musicians, mid black lights and bong hits,
learn to shake and rattle the house;
while in the dark and in a lawn chair, I learn to hang out.
Some sunken spaces are like snapshots
kept on a shelf in an old shoebox.
Still lives of vinyl bars and swivel stools
and down-turned glasses on dusty shelves, long unused.
Moth-eaten scenes of what might have been.
A gathering place for friends and kin
where woes of the week were drowned deep in cocktails
and lost in card games – or a top twenty song – to which most sang along,
as the stereo spun its new-fangled, stereophonic sound.
Curious but comfortless, being long-deserted and people-less.
Apart from the ghosts in the room.
My favorite sunken places are worn, but happy spaces
in which my favorite female faces
grow leaps and bounds beside me,
unconstrained and nearly unimpeded by upstairs edicts.
Sharing cigarettes, dance moves, inside jokes
and cases of beer bought just over the border;
making evenings fuzzy, and hangovers a new, underworld reality.
Playing pool, the juke box, the fool;
while trying to play it cool
when faced with firsts and friends far more in the know
about nearly everything that happens down below.
There’s never any warning… except that it can happen at any time.
All it takes is a gathering – a restless mob brought together by the arrival of bags from the grocers, the disappearance of anything mildly amusing on television, and as the most logical response to the endlessly gray, listless, Midwestern days.
All it requires are two essentials: a box of saltine crackers pulled from the aforementioned grocery bags, and the disappearance of the herd boss to the back forty.
The challenge comes forth – hushed but fierce – with the flash of a sneer, a glint in the eye, a furtive glance to the cupboard, the challenger, then the cupboard once more.
The seasoned contestants: Jim (spurred into battle by a thirst for victory and an appetite for salt) and myself (the middle, misunderstood child), roused to competition by the absence of anything even slightly better to do.
With the doors leading out of the kitchen quietly closed, siblings crowd around the kitchen island, anxious for some mastication action.
The challengers sit facing each other across the well-worn, linoleum countertop the color of vanilla ice cream. With the large, rectangular box of Premium Saltines placed between us, brows knit with steely determination, as eyes focus on the cracker skyscraper growing higher and higher before them.
“Water!” Jim calls to his ever-faithful minion, Mark.
“Wimp!” I prod my already over-stimulated sibling.
“Ready when you are,” he whispers through a half-chewed plastic straw dangling from the corner of his smirk.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I swallow, feeling the moisture completely evaporate from the tip of my tongue to my tonsils.
The objective: to finish the pile of crackers and be the first to whistle.
The rules: no water during the match and the whistle (as judged by spectators) must be crisp and clear.
At the call of “Go!”, the briny bout begins; hands greedily grabbing cracker after cracker, shoving them into already crammed mouths. Crumb fragments fly across countertops and cupboards, striking innocent bystanders who instantly retreat to all corners of the red brick, kitchen floor.
Teeth are gnashing.
Opponents are trying not to choke, or chuckle.The cardinal rule of the cracker eating contest: He who laughs least has the last laugh.
Sadly, this is my Achille’s heel. Watching my brother spew saltines always brings me to trouble-breathing-can’t-swallow-verge-of-choking-hysterics, rendering me hopeless.
Expelling a final barrage of crumbs, Jim spits forth the first whistle, followed closely by a victory lap around the kitchen, passing the defeated and the disgusted. Arms raised victoriously, he waves to the imaginary crowds and makes cheering noises.
A pain in the ass in victory, and a danger in defeat.
There have been times when I spewed forth the earliest whistle, winning the coveted prize of immunity from all post-competition clean-up, but, for me, the fun has always been in the unfettered indulgence of doing something utterly pointless.
Having had enough of Florida’s winter fun and sun for the. day, I’m sitting in front of the television in Nonnie and Papa’s 18th story living room, when the doorbell rings. Papa’s back at his store in Chicago and Nonnie’s in the kitchen making lunch, so I shuffle across the plush wall to wall, to the large double-doors.
And there, on the other side, stands a tall, slender figure with short, blonde hair and frosted highlights; impeccably dressed in a pastel pink shirt, a flowered, silk kerchief, and crisp, white linen pants.
The stranger asks if Lenore is in.
I turn toward the kitchen and holler, “Nonnie, there’s some lady here to see you!”, before scrambling back to the television.
It’s the first time I’ve met Stanley, Nonnie’s friend (and hairdresser), who also happens to live in the same building with his boyfriend, Roger. I would have felt embarrassed after learning of my gender mistake, but according to Nonnie, he was never more complimented.
Not only is Stanley Nonnie’s most colorful and lively Florida companion – by far – but he can make her giggle more than anyone (besides my great aunts) I’ve ever seen. Even more intriguing is that Nonnie astonishingly and unreservedly gives Stanley center stage. (It’s hard not to.)
In return for stepping back from the preferred spotlight, Stanley showers Nonnie with adulation for her fashion sense, culinary skills, and interior design flare.
It’s a match made in heaven. (Even though Nonnie has to whisper a lot when it comes to talking about her new friend.)
At Stanley’s invitation, we visit their little slice of beach-side paradise two floors up.
It has the same exact layout as Nonnie and Papa’s, in reverse. But that isn’t what disorients me.
It’s the feeling that I’ve just entered another dimension where Nonnie’s alter ego is given free rein. Where, with unimpaired power, her better dressed Doppelgänger has adorned every nook and cranny, every floor and piece of furniture, with textile and tactile expanses of purple.
With chintz and animal prints.
Golden cupids and satin pillows.
Velvet love-seats and silk bed sheets.
And endless yards of draped chiffon.
Where opulent silk flower arrangements sits on every gilded credenza and a colorful porcelain dog, cat, or bird resides around every corner.
As Stanley sweeps from room to room with measured grace and exaggerated ease, Roger – a dark, quiet man (who left a wife and kids, and a lie behind) – stands in the background, smiling contentedly. Proud of his plush and private paradise, where he and Stanley are completely free.
Even though, to me, Stanley seems as free as he can be; floating ahead of us into the newly wall-papered kitchen.
Stepping in behind Nonnie, I first think the effect of the sun streaking through the large bay window overlooking the Atlantic is playing tricks on my eyes, until I realize the walls are choked with make-believe flowers of reds and yellows, oranges, pinks and whites, splattered against a dark purple backdrop – as if the Spring, or perhaps the Easter Bunny, had exploded.
At the end of the front hall is a door leading to steps – sixteen in all – winding one-eighty to the upstairs hall; a four-paneled portal to the children’s domain, keeping first floor parents separate.
It’s also vital for a game we play, set into motion by two things:a large box arriving, and Mom and Dad leaving.
As soon as headlights disappear down the driveway, we begin grabbing every cushion and pillow from every sofa, chair and bedroom; and meeting at the top of the winding staircase, toss one after another over the railing until we’ve created a tottering stack of softness, penned in by the aforementioned door.
Flanked by wild smiles at the top of the stairs, Mark, in a Magic Marker race car (we secretly souped up earlier), is pushed down the steep, carpet-less track. But the dreaded hairpin turn half-way down, quickly ends the Cardboard Box Jockey’s run, just inches from where the ocean of cushions begins.
When the race car gets totaled and tossed aside, there’s still the pile of pillows.
We all agree.
Mark’ll jump first.
To make sure it’s safe.
And when he climbs from the pile unscathed, we each take turns taking the plunge, until failing to recognize Jim’s bored, half-crazed eyes, things take a turn and Mark suddenly finds himself dangling over the railing, as a Swanson’s T.V. Dinner threatens to reappear through fearless, but foolish, upside-down taunts.
Inverted arms defiantly crossed.
Jim slightly loosens his grip around the youngest’s ankles, and smiles like the devil.
But we know he’ll never let go… not intentionally.
Not specifically intentionally.
Changing Malibu Barbie’s outfit for her big date with Ken, I hear Jim making his way along the hallway, moving toward the curving, front staircase next to my bedroom.
As he passes the door and starts down the stairs, I’m suddenly, impulsively, spurred to action. (My future line of defense: Lack of Premeditation.)
Quietly reaching around the corner to the light switch at the top of the staircase, I-
Down Jim goes like an angry sack of potatoes.
“GOD DAMN IT! Who turned off the lights?!”
Tittering nervously, I creep away in the dark, feeling both revenged after years of big brother torment, and remorseful for my utter lack of foresight.
My ad-libbed evildoing results in a broken, big toe. And Jim’s thirst for my blood.
Damn my telltale tittering.
History soon has the gall to repeat itself when a few days later, there in my room – with no thoughts of wrongdoing, whatsoever – I hear familiar footsteps (now favoring one foot) heading down those cursed stairs.
Then something wicked this way come.
I tip-toe to the door, again, and quietly reach for the switch.
“ANNE! I’m going to kill you!”
With no parents home for refuge, I run for my life. Ducking and covering. Trying to avoid any siblings who might give me away. Which means ALL of them.
Finally hiding in the dark of the sauna, desperate for the familiar footsteps of a returning adult, I can hear Jim hobble and rage, screaming my name and vowing retaliation.
“I’ll plead temporary insanity.”
But un-consoling are the cedar walls surrounding me.
Guessing the worst is over (or a parent has returned) when the house goes quiet, I open the door to the outside world.
“Even if he’s still mad,” I reason aloud and unconvincingly, “he’ll never catch me with a broken toe.”
“Two broken toes!” growls a voice from behind the door.
With my bedroom right next door.
I know the comings and goings of all stairwell travelers.
I hear when Chris is breaking curfew
and Jim is looking for trouble;
when Mia is sleepwalking,
and Mark is shuffling downstairs for comfort.
From the bottom step, Mom’s “Sweet dreams”
gently rise into our bedrooms and into our dreams;
while Dad’s call for Inspection
bursts up the stairwell and down the hall,
like an air raid siren,
sending bodies scattering in all directions.
I listen for Mom and Dad’s footsteps below.
For Dad to toss his keys into the pewter bowl.
I listen for the sound of the staircase door opening.
Pleased to hear Mom’s high-heeled footsteps
slowly ascending the winding staircase,
to give good night kisses all the way down the hall.
My appointment card for our dentist, Dr. Van Hoozen showed up, which means getting to visit a really sweet man – who not only cares for people’s teeth, but the entire village of Hebron, Illinois, acting (at some point or another) as their president, fire chief and police chief.
However, it’s what takes place after the appointment that I’m most excited about: spending the day – alone – with Mom, wandering in and out of the small, rural towns at the northernmost tip of Illinois.
Mom always sees doctors’ appointments as day-long affairs away from household chores, homework givers, and other family members.
And I go along gleefully.
As she takes any turn she wants. Without a care as to where it will lead.
And there, between fields of crops, we discover chocolate shops, donuts stands, and greasy spoons, where lingering over plastic-coated menus, we truants smile at each other; then wander the narrow streets of farming towns, past century-old storefronts. Pausing, here and there, at the buildings needing care.
Checking to see that I’m trailing, Mom swiftly strides from one shop to the next, until disappearing through a large door of wood and glass.
And I give chase.
Soon blissfully lost amid rooms piled high with dusty shelves and dilapidated boxes, stacks of tables and towers of chairs – and books, filled with history and mystery and beauty.
Overwhelming my curiosity.
Here, she buys me an antique, tear-shaped compact of brass and rusty brown leather. Still inside, is its powder and flattened pink puff; under which I discover a tiny, brass hatch and remnants of bright, pink rouge.
Every now and then, as we meander home, I open my tear-shaped treasure to look at my reflection through its stained and smudged, tear-shaped mirror and wonder how many more reflections it has seen…
You came to Dad as a hired thug,
but found a mentor and friend instead.
And a family who adopted you like so many strays –
the scarred, the scared, the castaways.
Giving you shelter and a place at our table,
away from the streets, the violence and struggle.
Into our home and into our hearts,
like each lovable loser, you’re family now.
Showing duty and reverence to Mom and Dad,
you become a different creature with just us kids;
when you shadow box and dance in an imaginary ring,
reciting poems of your strength, your knock-outs, your wins.
Filling our minds with fact and fiction,
which is which hardly matters when told with conviction.
We hang on every word from your kind, but battered face
and marvel when you flex your “guns” and chew on broken glass.
Your prized possession is a gold championship belt –
that you sometimes like to wear when doing work.
Yet something tells me you’d give the belt away
if you could simply sit and draw all day.
Freeing your imagination and your wonderful art;
which colors the brutal truth of your life
and what you did for the sake of the dollar,
for food for your dog and bread for the table.
With a smile ear to ear and a clue in your eyes,
I sense your words are mostly lies
to camouflage the things you’ve seen,
the things you’ve done.
Thrust into this world misaligned and alone.
Third grade over and you were gone.
Fighting to survive, then fighting on demand.
Forced to do that with your gentle heart and creative hands.
While the real you, the sweet, curious and tender you,
would prefer to make art of comfort and meaning.
A good reason for being.
In your white t-shirt and rolled-up jeans
above ankle-high army boots and a head shaved clean.
you lean on a rake, on a break from your chores,
spinning glorious tales to the curious, young horde.
Mia has a complex relationship with the Night. She’s a creature of it – active and creative – and stays awake well into it (later than most in the house), yet also seems determined to shun it with the use of every light available.
And when Night finally acquiesces to Sleep, it does so half-heartedly with Mia, often leaving her restless and wandering between this world and slumber’s.
Rare is the night she goes to bed before me, so lying quietly in our shared bedroom, I’ve listened and become well acquainted with her almost nightly routine.
With the rest of the house long dark and quiet, it begins.
On go the back staircase lights, and then, footsteps – Mia’s – coming up the old, wooden staircase. Her movement, quick and skittish. Around the corner she scurries, to the main hall and –
Her target, two doors down, is illuminated.
Muffled by a thick, carpet runner, I know Mia reaches our door only when she flicks the switch, re-illuminating our brightly patterned wallpaper of orange, green and yellow flowers.
After making as much noise as possible (slamming drawers and sliding closet doors, testing her alarm clock, etc.) does she slip beneath her covers, leaving every light on her path from family room to bedroom, burning bright.
Just as dependable as this, is the dialogue which follows.
“Mia, turn off the lights.”
“You turn them off.”
“You were the last one in bed! AND YOU were the one who turned them on in the first place!”
“So? So, it’s only fair that you turn them off.”
“Dang it, Mia, you know I can’t sleep with the lights on!”
Well-stashed below her covers, “Too bad,” comes her muffled reply. “I can sleep just fine with them on.”
I always claim I’ll do the same, but in less than a minute, with the lights searing wholes through my eyelids, I climb from bed and shuffle just outside our door.
Off the hall and staircase lights go.
Off our bedroom lights go.
“Brat,” I call through the dark, as I feel my way back to my bed at the other end of the room.
It’s gone on like this for years.
But now Chris is off to college and Mia’s been given her own room, and I can’t wait. Not only because I’m anxious to have my independence, but even more, I’m anxious to see how Mia will handle hers.
However, she keeps delaying the move, bringing her things into her new bedroom next door one article at a time – over days, which is now turning into weeks. I offer to help. She gets offended and disappears. Mom finally has to intervene.
Begrudgingly, Mia throws the last of her belongings into the heap already in the center of her new bedroom and, tonight, faces sleeping on her own for the first time in her life.
I lay in my darkened room and wait for the familiar sounds of Mia making her way upstairs, speculating over and over again how she’ll handle the lights with no one in the next bed to do it for her. Will she leave them on all night? Doubtful. Dad has a sixth sense about these things and will be demanding “Lights out!” before long. Will she have the gall to call through the walls for me to do it?
She wouldn’t dare….or would she?…
On go the back staircase lights. Creak, go the steps.
On go the hallway lights.
On go Mia’s bedroom lights.
I listen carefully. Tracking her footsteps. Picturing her every move. Anticipating her thoughts.
Off goes the stair and hall lights from below, as Mom calls “Sweet dreams.” and Dad warns “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Minutes later, there’s only one light left on in the entire house.
“Come on, Mia,” I whisper into my pillow. “How’s it gonna be?”
I once woke to find Mia tucked snugly beside me in my twin bed, with most of the covers and most of the space. When I tapped her on the shoulder to point this out, she rolled over (our noses nearly touching), blinked, and groaned, “Anne, what are you doing here?”
“You’re in MY room.”
Looking around briefly, she rolled over again (taking the remainder of the covers with her) and, giving me a swift backward kick, sent me to the floor; where I lay, bewildered, but slightly in awe of her sleep-walking pluck.
We never really know when or what to expect from Mia’s nocturnal wanderings.
And so, returning home late one night, noticing that the light is still on in the den…
“Crap,” I mumble into the open fridge, that must mean Dad’s waiting up.
I begin to formulate one-word responses to his inevitable interrogation. With munchies in hand and alibis at the tip of my tongue, I open the door to the den, only to find Mia on the pumpkin orange sofa, sitting up and staring at the paneled wall ahead.
“Meem, it’s late. Coming up to bed?”
Nothing. Not even a blink. So, I shrug and turn for the stairs.
“Where’s my friend?” I hear from behind.
Turning back around, I ask, ”What friend?”
“My FRIEND!” she replies sharply.
“What friend, Mia? I don’t who you’re talking about.”
“My FRIEND!” she repeats for the third time.
“Look, maybe if I knew what friend you’re talking ab-“
“Shut up, Anne.”
“All-righty, then,” I say as I head toward the stairs and bed.
Passing the boy’s room, I notice that the television is blaring and Mark is still lying on the sofa, face down, with a cat on his shirtless back and a dog at his feet. I turn the T.V. off and gently tap him on the shoulder.
“Kid, you should head to bed,” I whisper, and then start for my own.
Mark raises his head suddenly and calls out, “Anne-Anne-Anne… Would-you, would-you, would-you…open-the-open-the-open-the-open-the-“
Then nothing. He simply collapses back onto his belly and into his dreams.
“Open the WHAT?” I scream from the inside, fearing that if I turn around I’ll likely see Rod Serling, cigarette in hand, furrowing his thick, dark eyebrows as he begins to explain the strange tale of the my sudden plunge into madness.
“I’m way too stoned,” I mumble as I head to the comfort of my room.
Before I get there, however, I notice the lights on in Mia’s bedroom and feel compelled to investigate.
Damn you, Rod Serling.
I find Mia sitting on her bed, doused in light, with a drawing pad in her lap and a peculiar look on her face.
But what I find even more disconcerting is how quickly and stealthily she made her way from the den to her bedroom – up the creaky stairs and down the equally creaky hallway, just feet from where I was in the boys’ room – without my noticing.
I glance up to the mirror above Mia’s desk, where I find instant comfort in seeing both our reflections, and enough cool to ask Mia about her missing friend.
She looks up, but says nothing.
“Your friend,” I’m tortured to press. “The one you were looking for earlier?”
She scrunches her face and tilts her head, slightly.
“Where’s my pink purse?” are the next words out of Mia’s mouth.
I don’t know how to respond. We just glare at one another.
“My pink purse!” she repeats unhappily.
“Okay… now you’re looking for a friend whose name you don’t know AND a purse that’s pink… Am I getting this right?”
“Shut up, Anne.” is all she has to say. And all I can take for one night.
The following morning, both Mia and Mark deny any knowledge of the previous night’s events.
The house is quiet.
All are sleeping.
I strip down to nothing
and dive into the dark of the deep-end,
where unabashed, unheard and unseen,
For as long as my breath will hold.
Unleashing my teenage discontent and crippling self-doubt.
I howl out the sadness.
I howl out the funk.
I howl until it hurts.
Then I float.
Facing the night sky
and the barely discernible stars
with my rather dysfunctional eyes.
There’s peace in the blur and the sound of my breath
and the occasional call of a neighboring owl
hidden somewhere in the silhouettes
of the tall trees surrounding me.
Shivering, I climb from the water
and into my bed.
The smell of chlorine drifting me into watery dreams.
Seeing Dad unreel the hose and stretch it out across the yard from my bedroom window, I throw on my still damp swimsuit crumpled up in the corner and race down the upstairs hall, broadcasting the new development as I pass each bedroom door.
All five of us are soon suited up and scattered along the edges of the backyard lawn, freshly mown and striped like a big, green flag.
Bound by woodlands, lake and home, the Backyard Ogre’s grassy realm is small, but lush and coveted. And crossing it, irresistible.
Standing in the center of his sodded sovereignty, wielding his long, green, garden weapon, the ogre goes about the business of tending his land; well aware of the surrounding interlopers hiding behind large oaks, lawn furniture, and each other.
Taunting him to take aim, we leap and dance and cartwheel across the well-loved lawn, attacking en masse from the front and sneaking up, one by one, from behind. But the Backyard Ogre’s lengthy weapon, and cunning, and speed, make him fearless and formidable.
All are quickly drenched, but delighted by the cool of the spray in the hot summer sun, and by Dad’s massive grin and momentary focus.
Wearing shoes of fresh cut grass, we follow the Ogre, when he deems the backyard fun is over, and heads to the cool of the pool.
Diving in, always slightly aslant, Dad finds his first target, who, giggling and excited, braces themselves for the certain lift that will come from below and hoist them high with his powerful arms, for a glorious, airborne instant before the splash.
Each of us impatiently waiting our turn, of which there are never enough, before the ogre’s off… usually to golf… while we stay behind, water-logged and pruny, but confident the Ogre will soon be back to tend to his kingdom again.
I look into Mia’s bloodshot eyes for the challenge.
And off we go.
Stroke for stroke.
Lap after lap.
Ten, twenty, thirty.
Keeping an even pace.
No sign of the other’s weakness.
Forty, fifty, sixty.
Tiring, but single-minded.
Who’ll be first to surrender?
Seventy, eighty, ninety.
I can hear, in my non-submerged ear, Mom calling.
But grumbling stomachs and dinner be damned.
Closing in on a hundred laps, Mom calls out again.
“Okay,” Mia gasps, “let’s stop at a hundred and four.”
Rejecting her offer, I push off once more.
And she follows.
Hundred and four. Hundred and five. Hundred and six.
Mark’s now standing poolside.
Tiny hands on tiny hips.
Dinner is getting cold and Dad is getting mad.
I call an immediate draw.
My opponent responds with a nod.
I climb out, expecting her to follow.
Instead, Mia slowly sinks back in the water.
And with an enormous grin,
pushes off the shallow end
for her victory lap.
When wildflowers peek through the damp, leafy forest floor,
windows are flung wide open,
welcoming in the cool, lake breezes
and the smells of spring in the land’s reawakening,
like the thawing corral, heavy with sweet-smelling muck
flung here and there by high-spirited ponies.
Impatient to walk barefoot across the newly sprung lawn
emerging from the still cold ground,
I make tracks across the yard to the edge of the bluff, and back
and coat my toes in mud and early grass.
Spreading spring throughout the house.
My siblings and I burst onto the season like the first, rowdy chorus of Spring Peepers rising from the woodlands and wetlands, from the new growth and leafy debris. Noisily ascending. Anxious and energized after many dormant days, we find instant succor in the newness, in the re-gathering community; bolstered by the constant influx of free-wheeling teens.
Arriving at the house with a brand new,1978 Chevy pick-up truck filled with boys bent on seeing “what this baby can do” Jim quickly talks his best friend, Phil, into letting him behind the wheel. Caught up in the excitement, Chris and I follow, piling into the truck bed with the others and heading to the one place where its off-road ability can be properly tested, the golf course.
Entering on the service road, Jim’s exaggerated twists and turns along the winding, gravel road quickly bore him, so veering from the narrow lane, we’re soon bouncing along the edge of the fairways, heading toward the woods and the short, very steep, ravine hills.
Failing to do the science of what might happen when rear tires meet level ground from a near forty-five degree incline is Jim’s biggest mistake that day. As soon as he starts down one of the small, steep hills, we helpless, hapless, truck bed accomplices sense things aren’t going to end well.
As the rear tires hit the ground from practically perpendicular, the truck bounces – hard – sending all bodies in back aloft.
Arms and legs flail.
Looks of surprise, morph into alarm.
Trying to break the fall, my right hand contacts the metal truck bed first, followed painfully by all other parts. When the pick-up finally comes to a standstill, everyone begins righting themselves, rubbing their bruises, and screaming at Jim.
Everyone except me.
I’m looking down at my arm… and my hand… which is no longer at the end of my wrist where I normally find it.
While the others continue to berate the driver, I cradle my arm and speak.
“You guys. I think my wrist is broken.”
No response. So, I say it a little louder and with a lot more conviction.
“You guys, my wrist is broken.”
Still unnoticed amid the verbal thrashing Jim’s receiving, I finally scream as loud as I can, ”YOU GUYS, MY WRIST IS BROKEN!”
All goes quiet and everyone turns my way.
“Anne’s wrist is broken,” Chris suddenly screams, “and she’s bleeding all over the place!”
Jim and Phil leap from the front cab to find those in the back surrounding me, shuddering and exhaling, “Whoa!” and “Holy crap!”
It seems that on impact, the bones attaching my arm to my hand snapped cleanly in two, and my hand – now detached beneath unbroken skin – has been forced from its usual place and lay awkwardly on top of my wrist, like a slab of raw meat in a rubber, flesh-toned glove.
Finding any movement enough to inspire hysteria, no one’s able to convince me to relocate to the cushioned front seat of the pick-up, so a couple of the boys closely flank me as I sit cross-legged, still cradling my unrecognizable arm.
As Jim very slowly and very gently steers a course for home, I try to concentrate on something else – the leaves still unfolding overhead, the gentle, spring sun. Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath. Then another. Immersing, ever briefly, in the wonderful smell of new grass.
And teen boys.
Pulling up to the garage just as Mom happens to be walking by, Chris jumps from the truck and with the subtlety of a crow in a cornfield blurts out, “Anne broke her wrist!”
(So much for Jim easing her into the bad news, as agreed upon moments prior.)
“Oo-oo-oo!” Mom says, jumping in place, and then into action, as only a mother of five can.
Gingerly lifted from the back of the pick-up and placed into the car, I turn to see my off-roading co-horts all sheepishly waving and smiling, except Jim, who’s having a hard time looking at me and looks miserable.
Which makes me feel slightly better.
At the emergency entrance, Mom tries to get me out of the car and to my feet, but I won’t – I can’t – for fear the slightest movement will make the pain unbearable, or even worse, that I’ll lose hold of my arm and have to witness my detached hand dangle.
Approaching the car, a handsome stranger, with a sweet voice and a smile to match, asks Mom if he can help, and before I have a chance to refuse, he lifts me from the car with an effortless swoop and carries me inside, where he gently sets me in a wheelchair, smiles, and disappears.
“That’s Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears,” the nurse smiles, but I know exactly who it is.
Welcomed back again to the emergency room (puberty has not been kind), I’m x-rayed by a sadist, drugged, yanked, drugged again, and eventually yanked back into place by the two attending doctors – the process of which finally becomes too much for Mom, who’s led from the room in a faint.
“I feel jush-fiiiiiiine,” I giggle, all tucked in my bed back at home, as I casually wave the heavy, plaster, arm-length cast (the first of two I’ll be toting for the entire, interminably itchy, sidelined summer), not bothering to notice Mom and Jim’s faces alluding to the pain and discomfort that’s sure to follow once the double dose of painkiller wears off.
“Itsh-okay, Jim,” I slobber with a smile, oblivious to the drool trickling from the side of my mouth, “I’m not mad at you anymore.”
How could I be? Wracked with guilt about badly disfiguring me, he straightened my room, folded down my bed, and picked flowers for my bedside.
Unfortunately, like the pain meds, Jim’s sympathies and “too-injured-to-tease” policy won’t last through the night.
I’m in the middle of the pine-paneled restaurant at Boyne Mountain Resort (somewhere at the top of Michigan’s mitt), sitting in a large, carved pine chair – twice as large as it needs to be.
Looking around the big, round table, there are siblings to the left and siblings to the right, with Mom and Dad straight ahead; and everyone capable of reading the menu, is. Scanning mine for a third time, my eyes keep returning to the word “stew”, which conjures a mouthwatering picture in my head – big, chunks of tender meat in a rich, dark gravy.
“How different could mutton be from beef?” a voice in my head insists – repeatedly – drowning out all inner arguments and already placed orders.
It’s my turn.
“I’ll have the Mutton Stew, please.”
The waitress looks up from her pad, hesitates, and then looks to Mom and Dad.
“Oh, Annie, you won’t like that,” Mom gently suggests. “It has a very strong flavor.”
But I protest.
“Please, Dad,” I plead, revving the perpetually high-powered motor that drives most eight-year-olds.
Mom urges, once more, to reconsider, but I remain unflappable. The lady is waiting and “The Troops” are hungry and restless. Dad raises his eyebrows, then nods to the waitress.
“All right then, Mutton Stew for the young lady.”
Triumphant, I can already taste the dark, rich gravy. Minutes seem like hours. The baskets of crackers and breadsticks and the pats of butter on small mountains of ice in the center of the big, round, constantly spinning, Lazy Susan are rapidly disappearing.
Beyond the large, glass windows overlooking the resort’s ski hills, the slopes are ablaze and white and dotted with skiers still eager to slip and slide down the gentle, rolling, Midwestern hills. It’s a wonderful sight, but the hungry voice in my head has recently enlisted my stomach, now rumbling, low and loud. Until the waitress returns with her overburdened tray, all I can think about is stew.
Burgers and fries pass by my eyes. Mom has soup and Dad’s given pasta. It takes two hands to carry the large, shallow bowl heading my way. I’m so excited, I can hardly keep still in my seat. My eyes eagerly follow the large, round bowl to the place setting in front of me and I look down to see…
… a sea of grayish-brownish goo; its foul smell already invading my nostrils.
My hunger instantly retreats, but all eyes at the table are on me. Even the waitress is loitering nearby, which means I can’t possibly back down before the first bite and so, with reluctance, I grab the smallest spoon and in it goes.
Releasing more stink from the bowl of brown-gray gloom.
I scoop up a small, dark morsel; highly doubtful about this dubious-scented mouthful.
It’s instant repulsion. Unbridled revulsion. A funky chunk of grisly meat that my tongue and teeth want to reject and my throat wants to eject into the clean, white napkin in my lap. But it’s swallow it, or my pride.
The mutton punishes me all the way down.
Without a word, Mom and Dad turn their attention to their own plates. All follow.
In the early 1970s, Mom and Dad take us on a Christmas ski holiday to Park City, Utah.
Seven eager faces.
Shiny new snow suits.
Plane bound for Utah.
Three hour restlessness.
Five anxious, young passengers
press noses against windows
as we climb the mountain in the rental sedan.
Looking for that wonderful white fluff.
But all we see is brown and green stuff.
Dad keeps saying, “Just give it time.
The more snow you’ll see, the higher we climb.”
We have little reason to doubt him.
Quietly miserable, swabbing her bruised, stitched and swollen gums, and wanting no part of the fight over first-night bedroom rights, Chris waits for things to settle, then drags a blanket, grabs a pillow, and collapses in tears on the sofa til morning.
Raising myself from a battle lost and the living room floor, I’m at the ready with my couch-envy unpleasantries as soon as I open my eyes. But my intentions are met by Chris’s very pale face pressed against her blood-soaked pillow and all that comes out is “MOOOOOOOOOOOOM!”
Arriving at the grisly scene, Mom keeps repeating the same strange thing:“She’s hemorrhaging!” she screams, hopping in place, “She’s hemorrhaging!” But Chris insists she’s doing okay – with trembling words, blood-encrusted lips, and a heartbreaking smile – better everyday.
Insensitive commentary and contorting faces are nudged toward the kitchen, before she has a chance to think differently upon seeing her reflection.
“Ka-tonk, ka-tonk” echo the steps of our rigid boots off the neighboring condominiums and mountainside. Though the surrounding snow looks old and icy, the skies are cloudy and promising and our spirits are high. Even Chris (who barely has enough blood to raise color in her cheeks) manages to perk up.
She and I board the first ski lift together, admiring the birds’ eye view of our alpine surroundings, paying little mind to the conditions below until we reach the top of the run, where we see attendants shoveling meager remnants of old snow onto the chairlift landing.
Clearly groggy from blood loss, Chris readies herself by putting her hand firmly on my left leg, then pushing off my thigh, shakily slides forward at the designated mark, leaving me involuntarily planted in the seat and quickly heading toward the 180 degree turn that will take me back down the mountain. With lightning reaction, one of the attendants yanks my arm and whisks me off the chair and onto the ramp they’ve been trying to repack with snow.
“Scraaaaaaaaaap-p-pe,” go my brand-new skis over the exposed gravel, and down I go, into a pile of hard, dirty, grey ice.
Lifted from the ground by the fellow who launched me there, humiliated and bruised, I grimace and sidestep over to Chris, who smiles weakly, revealing her black and blue gums and blood-stained teeth.
I want to kill her, but her oral surgeon seems to be doing the job for me.
Albeit very… very… slowly.
Oh Christmas Tree
Snow-barren slopes concede to an afternoon of hot crepes, holiday displays, a Scotch Pine and rekindled spirits.
But the yuletide log is soon doused by the grunts and frustrated grumblings
of father and eldest son unsuccessfully attempting to level and stand a 10 foot pine without the aid of a saw – or a tree stand.
Trying bowls and buckets, waste baskets and garbage bins, tempers are fraying.
Shying away from the ill-fated scene, Mark heads to the television. Click – OUR PRICES ARE INSANE!! – Click – and the lord said unto Mos – Click – BLAH – click – RAH – click – click – click –
“LEAVE IT!”, Dad ROARs. (Had there been any snow on the mountain, we’d likely have just been buried by it.)
This startles Jim, who lets go of the tree, which crashes to the ground, mere inches from Dad, who suddenly decides to take a long, walk, where he’ll cool off, giving Mom time to devise a tree-standing plan, leaning but triumphant.
Out of Order
We all stare wildly at the television, newly kaput.
Jim and Dad fiddle futilely with its back.
Mom turns on the radio hoping to lighten the mood.
But the only thing she can find is static.
No reason to go on, really.
If Walls Could Talk
“Eeeek!!,” comes a scream from the downstairs bathroom.
With absolutely nothing else to occupy the hours, everyone runs to where Mia is standing, wrapped in a towel, dripping with soap.
“Who’s using the hot water?” she cries out, shampoo stinging her eyes.
But all who can be blamed stand before her.
“Mom, are you running the dishwasher?”
“I would be IF it was working!” she snaps, finally showing signs of strain.
With the news of no hot water for days, the cursed family lets out a collective sigh – as if the condo sprung a leak.
Which, at this point, seems entirely possible.
From Here On Out
After three hours in the car, searching unsuccessfully for snowier resorts, the mood has dipped so low it’s nearly impossible to think of what else could go wrong.
It isn’t long before we have the answer.
Pulling up to the condo, the rental car begins to sputter and choke, and then… it dies.
We remain still and silent in the back seat, exchanging frightened side glances, waiting for the explosion.
Dad and Mom sit staring straight ahead through the frosty front windshield.
Then, as if a sweet, tropical breeze blew in through the now dormant air vents, they turn to one another… and start laughing.
Causing a chain reaction.
Drop Kick to Victory
At the suggestion of Charades, family members begin frantically looking for ways out – fiddling with the dead TV and staticky radio, pretending to read, or to die, suddenly.
And even though total indifference finally sits itself down for the game, it isn’t long before everyone – including Dad (who rarely participates in such things) is wise-cracking and happily taking their turn.
Teammates are syncing like well-oiled, mind-reading machines. Pantomimes are performed with dexterity and artistry. Guesses are made with certainty.
I’m up. My clue: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
I begin by acting out the hand-cranked camera.
“Movie!”, my partner, Mia, calls out.
I tip one finger to my nose, then swiftly thrust forward a number of fingers.
“Six words!” she fires in succession.
I tap my nose and squeal with delight. My brain is reeling.
Catching a glimpse of Dad out of the corner of my eye, his infamous intolerance and abhorrence for the family cats suddenly flashes before me.
Meeting Mia’s eyes, I drop kick an invisible object, then point to Dad.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!” she screams, leaping from her seat to join me in a victory jig around the living room.
Stunned by the veiled clue and breakneck victory, everyone is laughing.
She strides down the halls of Lake Bluff Junior High, with her shoulder length, ginger hair parting seventh and eight graders like the Red Sea. Always looking as if she’s ready to mount a spirited steed, wearing brown and beige tweed, and a steely, determined expression.
She tries to fill young minds with old tales of the rise and fall of nations and heroes, cultures and convictions; and her classroom walls, laden with maps and relics, attest to all she has invested in the cause.
Rarely standing still, the fiery, young teacher has a fiery will to make her students listen; marching up and down the crowded aisles, often wielding a rather persuasive attention-getting device, which comes down with a “CRACK!” on desktops of students attempting to nap.
NOT in Ms. O’Hara’s Social Studies class.
As she canters through the halls with her tousled, red hair, Ms. O’Hara seems fearless and confident and cool, loath to play any part the fool. No one dares question how tough she can be. But I can see.
I can see in those eyes often wild with frustration, an impish will and inclination, lurking in the quiet shadows of a stern reputation. And once in a while, a small, smirking smile, which she’s been hiding all the while, will arise; first in those eyes, then form upon her lips – hands on hips – and eventually she’ll soften, dissolving my inhibition to hang nearby and feed on her powerful presence.
Made even more formidable in her red, Camero convertible.
She likes to rev its engine and make the boys grin, revealing the mischievous side within. Then hitting the gas when all signs of the school are past, she vanishes amid the village trees, in her brown and beige tweeds.
Into the reds and yellows and browns of autumn, and into my earliest images of a strong, modern woman.
But I like Mr. Hastings, my 8th grade science teacher.
A tall, unlikely comrade with his horn-rimmed glasses, bow tie, and barely there, gray hair; with his starched, white, short-sleeved shirt – which never varies – but for the cardigan he wears when a chill is in the air.
Schooling restless, new teens hovering absent-mindedly over Bunsen burners and long braids, sharp scalpels, squeamish lab partners, and former frogs, must have its days.
Especially with the likes of me, barely squeaking out an apathetic C.
Yet Mr. Hastings rarely raises his voice. Rocking the cinder block walls with his frustration only once. Maybe twice.
Still I keep myself invisible behind students and books and beakers. Slipping in and out of class. Answering questions only when asked. Until I see some things on the science teacher’s desk.
Sitting on an old newspaper, near little, brown bottles, some brushes, and neatly folded rags, sit several pieces of small-scale dollhouse furniture, which somehow this giant-of-a-man created with his two giant hands, and a crippled right arm due to Polio.
Even though my female peers are now more interested in boys than theirs, there is little else that I adore more than my dollhouse.
Earned, gifted, and more than occasionally lifted from my Dad’s loose change I amass what cash I can to fill my two bedroom, one bath, pale yellow Colonial, with its newly shingled roof of hand-cut, balsa wood. (Jim’s community service for repeated dollhouse abuses.)
I inch my way closer to the old newspaper, longing to get a closer look at the tiny treasures which I normally have to view behind a locked, glass, display cabinet, guarded by a grumpy, old man, mistrustful of all youth.
Mr. Hastings notices. And there we begin – girl to man – sharing a common devotion.
Lifting a teeny-tiny chessboard into the palm of his illogically enormous hand, this towering 8th grade science-teacher-of-a-man describes with great care how he cut and varnished each itsy-bitsy square.
And I listen.
Ignited by his dedication.
Astonished by each delicate piece of miniature perfection.
I still don’t like science.
But I’ll always like Mr. Hastings, with his perfect bow tie, his pressed short-sleeved shirt and barely there, gray hair, and his remarkably gifted hands.
I hate P.E. and the sight of green once again spreading across the corner of Artesian Park across from school each spring.
The southeast corner, to be exact, where I suffer through the tortures of Physical Education with activities such as catching a first softball… with my nose… and the annually humiliating 400 yard dash, a quarter mile of side cramps and red-faced misery.
Nauseous and breathless.
Always one of the last to stumble over the finish line.
Destined, in Mr. Dieden’s eyes, to be stuck at the bottom of life’s climbing rope forever.
“Walk it off!” he likes to holler unsympathetically to us stragglers, scattered and collapsing at the side of the coned-in track, circling the corner patch of park grass.
Mr. Dieden, with his crisp, white, short-sleeved shirt and shiny, bald head.
Mr. Dieden, with an ever-present whistle around his neck and clipboard in hand.
Who makes me write: “I will never say ‘Shut Up’ in Mr. Dieden’s 6th period gym class again.”
1,973 times. (One sentence for each year.)
Didn’t even get the “up” out before his voice echoes off the old gymnasium walls, “Miss Celano. I’ll see you after class.”
Like he’s been waiting for it. Hoping for it.
Never a word to Jeff, on the other side of the net, about his “gold bricks and rich brats” remark.
In Megan’s bedroom, half a flight up the 1959 Split-level Ranch with pink brick and putty colored paint, I fidget with a funky, multi-colored fiber optic lamp, while she plays records and introduces me to jazz, and we wait for her parents to leave and best friends to descend upon the many leveled house.
We use the un-parented hours to nurture this hand-picked clan, filled with constantly morphing personalities birthed from overactive glands and imaginations, and recently recognized skills as poets, actors and musicians; as Pig Out Queens and Homecoming Queens, Make Out Queens and Dancing Queens.
Never enough crowns for all those Queens. Never enough time to be all the things, but always enough room on the dance floor. Though all signs point to clumsy and shy, my pelvic-thrusting friends are determined to try to make me Hustle and shake my groove thing in the ground-level living room of metallic gold and green.
Sweating and spinning and dipping. Air Band greats ever in the making. Drinking and joking and choking with laughter. Using voices and faces to find inner traces of people and places. Writing truly foul lyrics to sweet Christmas carols – using every nasty word we can muster to repulse and to fluster.
Years of piano lessons color the scene, mixing Joplin, Pachelbel and Winston into the frenetic hours of being girls, and being teens. Ceasing only long enough to ransack the family’s world of snacks in the very lowest level of Megan’s Split-level Ranch. Like chubby, pubescent picnic-bound ants.
A fairytale kingdom of infinite munchies. Tupperware and tins and tightly sealed snacks of caramels and pretzels and cookies – wafers and Fudge Stripes, shortbreads and sugar. Enough to make teens, with all their snacking needs, merry and me, ecstatic, for all the food my Mom’s cupboards have never seen.
Megan’s kitchen is where I first try it, but Mom refuses to buy it, so I look for this Chef Boyardee diet on other kitchen shelves. I like my SpaghettiOs straight from the can, finding the same comfort in it as in my friendships and the many hours spent at the 1959 Split-level Ranch, being terribly saucy, truly effortless, full of crap, and distinctly gratifying.
“Who wants ice cream?” comes the call from the bottom of the stairs.
I’m first to the car, just behind Dad (who’s more excited than anyone) and quickly take possession of the coveted front seat when Mom chooses a quiet hour alone over a waffle cone.
With all on board, off we go down Shoreacres Road, as the last of the day’s golfers drift down the final, shadowed fairway, toward the old clubhouse at the edge of the lake. Rolling along at country club speed, I look to the trees heavy with green and suck in the waning day, the moist lake air, and the strong, sweet aroma of fresh cut grass and wild, roadside onions.
Once on Sheridan Road, Dad presses the gas pedal and summer soon whizzes past, behind a veil of windblown hair continuously plucked from my inescapable grin. It’s a straight shot to Lake Forest.
Twenty minutes to ice cream, to Baskin-Robbins in the old, brick building at the corner Deerpath Road – half a block from the theater where, once, waiting in line for a movie, Chris covered my eyes as a streaker streaked by.
We follow the train tracks all the way to town, past The Lantern and the best burgers in town; past Market Square where, in the late summer twilight, people are milling about with happy, summer smiles on their happy, summer faces.
Behind the brightly illuminated windows just ahead, I’m happy to see the ice cream shop crowded. It gives me more time to stroll up and down and in between people to inspect all 31 flavors of colorful, ice-cold goodness.
Rocky Road, Mint Chocolate Chip, Bubble Gum are almost irresistible, but greedy for more, I order the Banana Royale, with its two scoops of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, chopped nuts, whipped cream, topped with Maraschino cherry…
…and a dubious look from Dad.
Eating the bright red cherry staining the peak of the whipped cream pile reminds me of Uncle Louie and his big Oldsmobile, with its massive back window filled with baseball caps; and his massive trunk filled with giant bottles, including the largest jar of Maraschino cherries I’ve ever seen.
Still unopened in our kitchen cupboard.
Loath to re-admit offspring with fast melting ice cream into his always pristine car, Dad leads his troop toward Market Square where we admire the stores from a drippy distance.
Scanning the dimmed display cabinets and shiny glass countertops of Marshall Field’s Department store makes me think about the deliciousness of Frango Mints, and the distinctiveness of the peculiar, old lady in the first floor makeup department, who looks as if she’s been there absolutely forever.
She fascinates me.
Always, always, dressed in black, which perfectly matches her jet-black bob, accentuated with a precisely penciled-in, black as pitch, widow’s peak.
A steadfast fancy from her flapper days?
Her happy days?
Past the old rec center and the stationary store, I pause at the window of Kiddle’s to dig at the fudge from the bottom of my bowl and marvel at the bicycles and basketballs, the helmets, t-shirts, bats and rackets covering every inch of wall from its old, wooden floor to its elaborate, tin ceiling. (Where someone’s day was made the day Dad bought bikes for all seven of us.)
From here, I set my sights on Market Square Bakery. On the same old, dusty display cakes sitting in the same, old dusty display windows. Knowing well what glorious, sugary delights will soon be baking on the other side of the “Closed” sign, making Mom’s after-school errands bearable.
Always scanning the sidewalks and the square’s grassy center for a friend among the small crowds gathered around the fountain and benches, relishing the cool of the evening. Delighted by the sight of any familiar face and the feeling of community. Intimacy.
So I make my Banana Royale last. Savoring every moment in every bite as we round the square and pass a real estate office where lighted photos of formidable houses make window-shoppers dream… big.
As the last of the ice cream disappears, and the end of the fourth side of the square is near, I know we’re almost to the car, but not until we pass my very favorite spot –Pasquesi’s, now dark and quiet.
Inside, there’s a bell on its door that signals Mr. P. to look up from the back of his simple, splendid, tiny purple lunch counter, as he offers up the best and sloppiest of Sloppy Joe’s, the cheesiest of cheese dogs, and the warmest of warm smiles.
Greeting all as if long lost friends finally coming home.
Always making me feel that I belong.
Back at the car and forced to relinquish the front seat for a sibling demanding their turn, I lower myself from the cool, night air and, in the quiet of an ice cream coma, count the streetlights passing above, until the stars and the dark replace them, the crickets’ song grows strong, and my eyes grow heavy.
Bundled past our noses to keep the icy lake winds from turning our ambitions, seeking refuge from the great indoors of winter, we head outside. No destination, just going forward, down the well-plowed road, gritty from salt.
Climbing the piles, pushed in great, icy, grey chunks to the side of the road, we reach the unmarred snow blanketing the golf course and “CRUNCH”, break the layer of ice formed overnight on top of the thick, powdery snow.
Shattering the winter scene’s muffled silence with each noisy footstep.
The drifts almost swallow Mia and I, who are trying our darnedest to keep up with Jim and Kim, our cousin from Springfield – a tall, burly fellow, several years our senior, with a lilting voice, cherubic face and gentle soul; our very reason for forming this unlikely quartet which trudges on, until we come upon the frozen creek that crosses the course.
We follow this to two small ponds, where climbing down its banks, Jim slips and skids along the edges of the ice, while Mia and I head to a large culvert under an old, planked bridge dividing the ponds. Kim following, ever vigilant over his temporary wards.
Scrambling over the bridge to other side of the culvert, Mia shouts for me through the cold and dark, and I answer back, across the frozen water, from the opposite end. Clear is Kim’s silhouette hovering behind Mia, like a new mother bear,
and our small voices sounding strong against the corrugated steel.
Mia takes off one of her mittens and slides it through the giant, metal tube, along the leafy ice, right into my hands. I toss it back… and back it comes again. We do this several times, but Mia’s enthusiasm fades with each toss and I find myself stretching a little further into the dark. Her final, fainthearted throw lands the tiny, snow-caked mitten smack dab in the center of the culvert.
“Whoops,” is all she has to say, having already sacrificed the mitten to the creek.
Hoping to avoid a lecture from Mom about another lost mitten, I begin a slow crawl toward the center, inching closer and closer to the wooly stray, hearing only my breathing, tinny and low, and Kim’s voice whispering, “Be careful, Annie.”
As I reach out to grab the mitten, all sounds cease, except one.
The ice below me pops and cracks and gives way, and suddenly I sink, face first, into the water. Swallowing it and gasping for air, I open my shocked eyes to the muddy scene at the mucky bottom of the culvert a foot below.
Seconds tick forever, until someone takes hold of the hood of my bright pink jacket and yanks me from the icy water.
Before I even have a chance to process what’s happened, Kim grabs me from Jim’s arms and starts to run toward home. Shock soon gives way to tears, as shivering wracks my small, drenched body.
Kim’s worried mumblings make me cling ever harder, as he plows through the snow drifts toward home.
Hand in hand with Mia, Jim follows quickly. Like a hero, silently.
Pressed against Kim’s heaving chest, I hear only his heartbeat and hurried footsteps fumble along the fairway and onto the road, never slowing until I’m safe within the warmth of Mom’s arms.
Where he apologizes profusely for something that wasn’t his fault.
Dad regularly rallies the family into the Pontiac Grand Safari for destinations unknown; the adventure often beginning after all that Sunday genuflecting, and gobbling down stacks of syrupy pancakes from the Golden Bear Pancake House.
Dispersed from fore to aft, in the enormous, paneled wagon. Mark’s in front with Mom and Dad. Chris and Jim, by birthright, take the center. Leaving the rear-facing, back seat to Mia and me. The perfect spot for making faces at innocent travelers and gesturing to passing truck drivers to sound their horns; and when a trucker pulls the wire and toots his horn, there’s plenty of room to hide down below, where we can squirm and giggle until the semi rumbles past.
Once we catch on that we’re not going home, through a series of lipped words, nods and head tilts, one of us will be chosen to ask Dad where we’re going – all of us knowing full well what his glorious answer will be.
“I’LL never tell!” he sings as he smiles and looks to us in the rear view mirror with his dark, playful eyes.
Sure to be somewhere wonderful, we’ll find ourselves in a faded, old amusement park on its very last go-round; an old-fashioned, ice cream parlor, in a long forgotten neighborhood; an apple orchard serving cold, sweet, back-teeth-tingling cider and fresh made cinnamon-sugar donuts, thoroughly warm and wonderful.
Somewhere we can be all together in the moment and in the memory.
Admittedly, the excitement of the adventure sometimes wanes with the miles it takes to get there, and things can get ugly.
Ugly enough for Dad to pull over on a long, straight, narrow, stretch of road in rural Illinois, near a solitary farmhouse surrounded by a seemingly endless pasture. Here, he makes each of us exit the wagon – even the littlest, Mark, who’s lifted from Mom’s lap and placed unceremoniously into Chris’s surprised arms.
Mom stays quiet and seated for our expulsion, but all eyes are focused on Dad, who’s already back behind the wheel.
The Grand Safari disappears over a small hill… and then the horizon.
No one has words for what just happened. We just stand there, stunned and silent.
Leaning against the barbed-wire fence surrounding the field, looking at the farmhouse in the distance, I wonder what it would be like to live there.
There’s finger-pointing, but few words spoken because each of us is well aware of our role in this road trip gone wrong.
Mark’s becoming a burden between Chris and Jim’s arms, the blood from a cut on my knee (from leaning against the barbed-wire fence) is beginning to spread across my new, thick, white, knit leotards, now torn; and all promise of a happy outing has been extinguished by the time we see the Grand Safari re-appear in the distance.
Dad steps from the station wagon, as if from a hearse, and lines us up against the fence, steps back, and… smiles – huge, laughing smile, moving each of us to do the same – which is when Dad makes his move, revealing the Polaroid camera hidden behind his back.
Still grinning with the photo now in his hands developing, he orders us back to the wagon.
Overjoyed to be back in our rear-facing, upholstered prison, I console myself with a handful of mints swiped from the hostess counter of the pancake house, and in the certainty that the next time Dad turns the Grand Safari toward another Sunday adventure, all thoughts of past car trip hardships will be disappear in a “click” from the moment we hear the words: “I’LL never tell.”
I dream of flying –
like the Flying Nun –
Lifting off the edge of the bluff with the wind.
Rising quickly toward the fat, lazy clouds
hovering over the great lake,
I swoop and circle the nearby harbor
where scattered sailboats bob below
in the calm of the bay.
But the familiar forms,
hidden back among the trees,
at the edge of the crumbling bluff,
soon call me to the dusky shore.
And the glowing, kitchen window.
And the figure of Mom in her pink, plaid apron.
Ever regal, ever busy, in her blue and yellow kitchen.
I hover there, in the cool lake air,
listening to the oh, so happy sounds
of pots and plates clinking and clanking.
I try to guess what’s cooking
by what’s wafting through the windows.
Until a strong breeze lifts the aroma and me
back out, over the vast, rippling water.
Past the sunken, old pier
where giant carp spawn year after year.
Past the rocky harbor walls
standing hard against the waves.
Until the house and the cottage and the beach disappear,
and I begin to really soar
over endless stretches of dark and deep.
Crestfallen to find my bed
and solid ground beneath me
when I wake.
Driving from the airport to Nonnie and Papa’s new winter retreat – The Claridge, a 16-story, oceanside condominium in Pompano Beach, Florida – it’s clear things are going to be much different than in Hallandale, where their old apartment used to be.
Gone are the 1950s neighborhoods with small, tidy bungalows and low-rise, pastel-colored apartment buildings. Gone are the small, neat streets with big, American cars and the quiet, inland canals with their 90 degree curves.
Modern high-rises now loom along the crowded coastline, casting long shadows over old neighborhoods struggling to stay relevant. Mostly replaced by “The Strip”, a popular stretch of beach along Ft. Lauderdale’s A1A – and the only route from the airport to the new condo.
Where nubile, bikini-clad, beer drinking college students on spring break have flocked and balanced precariously on the fence between adolescence and adulthood for generations.
Having to navigate through the hoards of unruly, unkempt, half-naked youth makes both Nonnie and Papa mumble and grumble – a lot – but I’m mesmerized by this uncharted world, this untamed, southern gateway to my teen-dom; which Gina and I are slowly cruising past in the back seat of a tightly sealed Cadillac filled with the sounds of Perry Como and the smell of Jean Nate.
The further The Strip fades into the distance and the closer we get to Nonnie and Papa’s, the older the demographics skew; until a stone’s throw from this modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, beers and bikinis are completely overcome by beer bellies and Platex bras.
The upside to the new zip code is the bigger apartment – which means a happy, across-condo relationship between Nonnie and Papa and Gina and I. Like the apartment in Hallandale, this guest room has a separate door to the outside world (or at least to a main corridor), and much to our teenage delight, the next door over leads to an unused stairwell, Marlboro Lights, poorly rolled joints, and late night escapades with New York girls and their East Coast drinking games.
Gone are Nonnie and Papa’s halcyon Florida days of total authority and complete control. These are the carefree days of baby oil and B-52s, getting stoned in the sauna and drinking beers on the beach.
Of convincing Nonnie to hand over the keys to the Caddy, rolling down the windows, turning up the radio, and inhaling the salty air, the Florida sunshine, and the sweet smell of being newly licensed.
Of boys on the beach noticing us and Nonnie – through binoculars from her balcony sixteen stories up – noticing them, noticing us.
These were the Florida days of pushing boundaries, especially ones poorly guarded.
I blame Gina.
I’d never have the guts to go beyond the Claridge’s pool gates if she didn’t first get that glint in her eyes, which always urges me to follow.
Down to the beach.
Well past dark.
Well past curfew.
Who knows how long Nonnie has been pacing in front of the newly identified escape route, but we’re barely through the door before the tirade – which nearly lifts her off her tiny, bunioned feet – begins.
She cross-examines, reprimands and threatens expulsion; then leads us to Papa waiting in the living room, leaden and pacing.
Looking angrier than I’ve ever seen him.
Louder than I’ve ever heard him.
When all is said – which isn’t much – he turns his back and sends us to bed.
Things are now different between Papa and me, not being who he wants me to be.
When Gina and I un-eagerly make our way to the kitchen the next morning, the first thing we see is a newspaper article with the headline, “Girls Charred on Beach”, scotch-taped prominently on the refrigerator and Nonnie, fiddling with something at the counter, with her back to us, sighing and tsk-ing, but not saying anything.
She spent the remainder of the morning behind closed bedroom doors on a call with her sisters, Camille and Rose, filling them in on two of life’s latest disappointments; heralded, at times, in a pitch so high, dogs throughout the 20-story building begin to bark.
This leads to quieter Florida days, when solo visits mean I’m more observer than observed; studying Nonnie and Papa in their well-aged routine of marital indifference.
Wondering if I know what a happy marriage looks like?
Watching the old ladies down by the pool; with their straw sun hats and bad romance novels, their games of Canasta, endless cigarettes, and overly suntanned skin… wondering if they were ever truly Young?
When Papa returns to Chicago to tend to the store, it means hours of Gin Rummy, alone with Nonnie, on the breezy, but sheltered balcony, way above the Atlantic ocean; where 8-track cassettes of Liberace and Lawrence Welk teach me tolerance, and the importance of a wickedly good game face.
Happy to see the rainy skies. Happy to stay indoors and in our nightgowns.The condo is especially quiet on days like these. No washing machine or television reminding us of other things. Other lives.
No dinner out or big meal in.
We barely move. Rarely talk.
Occasionally, Nonnie disappears (while I practice the art of the shuffle) and returns with a plateful of sweet, powdery pizzelle and cold milk, or calzone, cheesy and crusty, and hot from the oven.
The first apartment Nonnie and Papa buy to escape Chicago’s meanest of seasons is in Hallandale, on Florida’s east coast. It’s a small, but airy, two bedroom built at the corner of an inland canal; brightly decorated in yellows, greens, blues and whites, and perpetually shaded from the Sunshine State.
A peculiar land of tropical scents and strikingly unfamiliar sights. Far removed from the only place I know, home.
Put to bed too early, I lie in the back sitting room-turned-bedroom for hours on end, tossing and turning on the hard and lumpy sofa-bed. Listening intensely to the unfamiliar sounds of apartment living, made especially audible by the glass-vented door in my room that opens onto the building’s exterior hallways.
My slatted portals to this unknown world.
The sounds of the apartment people returning from the pool, the shops, the grocers; of doorbells ringing and little feet skipping, and hugs and kisses and friendly greetings. Of moist, ocean winds, carrying the scent of orange blossoms and creeping jasmine, algae, brine and fresh oiled asphalt.
Breathing in the ladies’ perfumes as they stroll past the open vents, I’m fascinated by how to their laughter bounces against the cement walls of the nearby stairwell and how happy words instantly disappear with the slam of a heavy car door.
Murmurs from the television in the living room add to my apartment-living symphony with its familiar sounds and flickering lights that seep through the bottom of the door, casting short, cryptic shadows on the thickly carpeted, recently vacuumed floor.
Comforting is the knowledge that Papa is in his chair in the room next door. Feet up, arms folded high across his belly, and a large RC Cola at his side. Grinning at Clem Kadiddlehopper, or growling at the Chicago Bears.
Lying in the still and unfamiliar dark, after Papa finally turns the television off, the inland water’s slow, buoyant motion, lulls me into a deep, scented sleep.
Waking in the morning to mist creeping through the vents, I linger on the lumpy mattress and listen to the apartment people as they begin their days, until wooed by the sounds of those stirring, I stretch toward the clanking of kitchen utensils and the smells of breakfast cooking on the other side of the wall.
Oh these, my Florida days.
Of sand slipping away beneath my feet at the edge of the ocean and seashell hunts as the sun dips low; of Nonnie’s bunioned toes and skinny, seagull legs dipping into the foamy waves, but never past her ankles.
These early days of sunset walks along a stretch of beach that leads to a lighthouse and a tottering, creaky wharf where Papa likes to walk.
And I like to walk with him.
Where fishing boats have funny names and a tiny gift shop, in a weather-beaten shanty, sells orange gumballs packed in little, wooden crates.
Which Papa buys for his Pie-Face.
Of bright, green lizards skittering across pastel walls, and pats on the head by terrycloth clad men playing cards in the shades of umbrellas. Where suntanned women with their giant bosoms and ever-blooming swim caps wade in the shallow end, with big, dentured smiles for the little one visiting Lenore.
The toboggan’s scarred and battered prow, with its narrow strips of varnished wood, scratched, warped and dinged, attests to its long history of snowy campaigns.
Trees and rocks eternal foes.
Its red, vinyl pad, cracked and beaten. Its plastic rope ties ever-untying.
It takes little prodding to initiate sledding on the golf course near our home. After a few phone calls, friends from town gather at our back door with a variety of apparatus, ranging from plastic school lunch trays to super-duper downhill racers.
Like a procession of well laden ants, we head down Shoreacres Road and into the heart of winter with spirits high. During the mile or so journey to the ravines, the boys can’t wait for the final destination before throwing themselves and their sleds at slopes of snow – even the dingy, frozen piles left by the plows.
Cheeks crimson, noses dripping, devilish smiles rising, and big boots trudging heavily, they jettison themselves, scraping briefly atop the icy, roadside heap.
Undeterred, the flatter, frozen road ahead spawns another attempt, and the unsuspecting walking there find themselves not indirectly in the path of another misguided trajectory.
Leaving victims strewn in the wake, shouting obscenities, in between fits of laughter.
Crossing thigh-high snowdrifts, pushing against the penetrating Lake Michigan winds, we know there’s reward in the shelter of the woods. In the rise and fall of the ravines just ahead.
By the time the last of the stragglers arrive, bodies are already hurtling down the small, steep hills – feet first and head first – as untouched, uncharted snow is quickly trampled smooth and slick.
So the boys and their sleds can go fast and faster toward the woods below, laughing like hyena, until the next sound is cracking plastic. Followed by moans, grunts, more laughter… and a few more well chosen profanities.
More than slightly apprehensive to sled in tandem with these boy rocketeers, I also know I’ll never gain the speed I crave when sledding solo. So I climb aboard, wrap my arms around their thick, damp, denim layers and look below, to a hand-packed jump designed to make you fly.
Pleading for caution, I know full well that caution is about to be damned.
Down we go, straight toward the jump and into the air. But the moment is fleeting before losing my hold, my pilot, a boot, and a glove. Yet gaining a face full of snow and a smile from ear to ear.
From a resting spot at the top of the hill, I watch the boys with their boundless bravado, attempt daredevil moves of surfing and spinning and bumper sleds. Determined to create one more spectacular crash before the snowy adventure can be considered a success.
By the time the sun begins its early descent, the dampness has sunk deep into our layers and it’s time to stumble home, iced-over and exhausted. The older boys taking turns pulling along the little ones with nothing left to give.
Each step energized by the thought of the warmth that will embrace us when we open the back door. Fueled by the knowledge that a crackling fire and hot chocolates wait at the other end.
Home from college and my dance card empty, as usual, Jean has ignored my protests and arranged a double date with her latest boyfriend’s best friend. So, I’m making my way toward the kitchen to rehydrate my bone-dry nerves before they arrive.
Dad’s in the den, sitting in the swivel chair with his back to the window, pretending to be engrossed in a book. He’s also pretending not to see me as I slow and look his way. I know he isn’t happy about this evening.
With boys ever at the heels of Chris and Mia, he takes great comfort in my being almost invariably dateless. But really… is he finding The Gardeners’ Dictionary so captivating that he can’t even look up at the sound of my way-too-high heels skidding across the floor?
Can’t suppress eye roll.
And what about Mom? Still hovering in the kitchen, without a purpose in sight. For god’s sake! This isn’t my first date. I just need to keep moving. Rein in those jitters, drink lots of water, and think happy thoughts.
But how can I think happy thoughts when each step on this godforsaken brick floor – now dangerously slippery, thanks to my newly lost ability to swallow – feels like burning coals on my wish-they-were-bare feet?
Through my water glass, I watch Dad slowly swivel his chair around to face the oncoming headlights bouncing off the dimly lit den walls, as the car makes its final turn toward the front circle.
A swivel further left, he can see Jean and our dates get out of the car and step onto the patio, just of few feet from where he’s sitting.
The doorbell’s ringing, but Dad’s not budging.
Passing him on my way to the front door, I can see he’s swiveled the chair back around and is fake reading again (that book might as well be upside down), still no eye contact.
Can’t suppress eye roll.
Take a deep breath, Anne, and turn the knob.
Jean’s smile is enormous. And frightening. As if there’s something she’s hiding – such as my date being about as happy to be here as I am.
Lame handshake. (What’s this guys name again?)
I hear swiveling. Dad’s up and he’s coming… and passing. No greetings? No teasing?
(Eye roll mentally happening.)
And why is he stopping at the front hall dresser and pretending to be rummaging for something? What a sham. And now he’s coming back with empty hands?
I can almost hear the growl as Dad passes; keeping his fixed glare, swiveling like the chair, on both males until he quietly disappears.
I hope stepping out beneath the night sky will hide my humiliation and breathe new life into this double date situation, but I’m not counting on it.
Is Dad really peeking through the curtains, which he just closed to spy on us? Even from here, I can see him shake his head and call to Mom, “Well, she won’t be marrying THAT one.”
It means setting the table with placemats and napkins, and neatly set silver, pitchers of water and plates for your salad; and waiting and waiting, as smells from the kitchen, from sizzling pans and simmering pots, waft through the house like an intoxicating fog.
Making it hard to concentrate on anything other than the clock, and the driveway, where we turn our attentions every few minutes, hoping to see our tormentor’s headlights.
Dad finally showing and ever so slowly, shedding his suit. Un-harried. Unhurried to get the meal going. Even though his children are moaning. Haven’t eaten in minutes. But dinner begins when Dad’s ready to sit.
And no sooner.
With full plates and mouths full, we vie for a spot, for a moment of Dad’s attention. Except for Mark, the youngest, who remains wordless, playing with his food. Making subtle, reactive faces to the different conversations.
Having barely touched his plate, Mark asks to be excused. It’s a radical move.
So was Dad saying yes.
Staring at the untouched stuffed, green pepper on my plate, I curse myself, wishing I’d thought of it first.
An unusual amount of commotion can soon be heard coming from the boys’ room directly above us. Strange, everyone agrees, Mark usually goes straight from table to T.V.
Then all eyes are drawn through the dining room window, overlooking the lawn, the bluff and the lake. To the darkening sky, where an airplane is crossing. Which wouldn’t be much, if the thing wasn’t smoldering.
Hearts jump. Mom lets out a shriek.
Until the tiny model plane on fire, stops in mid-air. Hung up on the wire Mark strung from his window to a large, old oak on the lawn.
In a tiny flash, the tiny, fighter jet (stuffed with pop-its and tissue paper) becomes a well-timed, wee inferno, and all those hours he spent building it, admiring it and high-wiring it, goes up in flames.
By the time my startled attention is back at the table, Mark has quietly returned to his seat and all eyes have turned to Dad, who seems, at first, not to know how to react.
But then we see it.
An almost imperceptible grin.
Mark’s scrunched shoulders soften.
“Nice job,” laughs Jim, as we file outside to examine the smoldering wreckage. “Twisted, but effective.”
I can see Mark is pleased. He’s impressed a tough crowd. Dare I say it? Made us proud.
Every mile or so, I glance to the clock in the middle of the dashboard hoping it will stop. Stop making me later than I already am.
The final mile along Shoreacres Road, with the windows rolled down to air out the smell of too many Marlboro Lights, I can hear the woodland creatures begin to stir and can smell the morning moisture from the trees and the grass and the great lake.
The last part of the driveway is with car lights off and engine hushed to a gentle roll, to where I park (outside the garage) and tiptoe into the kitchen – straight to the fridge – for an easy fix for the munchies.
With a kosher dill already half-eaten in one hand and leftover pasta in the other, I turn to head upstairs and see a light coming from under the door to the adjacent den. Regularly enraged by city-sized electricity bills, Dad enforces a very strict Lights Off Policy and regularly patrols the house, making sure it’s in full blackout mode before climbing into bed.
Seeing the lights coming from the den means only one thing, Dad is still awake… and waiting.
Perched on his favorite sofa, surrounded by portraits of his five, ungrateful children, he’s been watching for headlights through the large, paned window overlooking the front circle.
Growling at the dark, empty driveway.
My plan is stealth flight, but before I have a chance to make it up the first step, Dad rumbles, strong and low, “Anne Elizabeth.”
“Shit,” I whisper after the half-chewed pickle bite heads reluctantly toward my now knotted stomach.
Setting down the food no longer offering any comfort and opening the door to the den, I see Dad – arms crossed – sitting with his legs up on the sofa. Staring straight into my bloodshot eyes.
“Daughter, do you know what time it is?”
(I certainly do.)
“What on earth have you been doing until five o’clock in the morning?”
And without warning, the truth comes pouring forth. I tell Dad about hanging out with friends and making ribs, and taking those ribs to the drive-in movies to eat while watching zombies.
I tell him about the beautiful night and the roaring fire at the edge of the silky, smooth lake; about the moonlight so bright we could see our toes when wading in the cold, clear water.
I told him everything… nearly… and then I asked, “What are you still doing up?”
Confounded by my truths and the question, having to recalculate his intended tongue-lashing, he replies, “I’m just waiting for your sister to get home.”
Equally confounded by what just happened, already moving swiftly toward the kitchen, I nearly scream from excitement when I call out, “Okay. Good night.”
Grabbing the pasta from the counter, I head up the stairs, pausing to look for headlights through the hall window, just above where Dad remains on watch, but only see the sky turn brighter through the silhouetted trees.
As buildings begin to replace trees along the Edens Expressway, I watch for familiar signs that we’re getting nearer Papa’s store.
Up ahead, on the right, stands Nickey (with a backward k), a giant, winking, smokestack of a man urging motorists to take the next exit for their very own, souped-up Chevrolet. The first downtown-bound sentry means twenty minutes more.
Further along the constantly changing horizon, the magnificent, cherry red, neon lips of Magikist – 80 ft. high and puckering up for passersby for years – appears on the left, dazzling and hypnotic. Garishly separating the suburbs from the city; the quiet and conventional, from the wonder and the chaos.
Fifteen more minutes.
At the very edge of the highway, around the next bend, looms the monster of a Morton Salt building and a great expanse of roof (almost level with the highway) painted with it’s iconic logo. I like to count how many seconds its takes to pass this massive, salt-filled warehouse.
And the girl in the yellow dress, with her big umbrella and box of Morton’s.
… until it disappears from the smudged rear window.
Ten minutes more.
Taking the next exit, we’re no longer speeding past the inner-city scenery. No longer isolated from the purposeful sprawl, but entering the industrial grime of Ohio Street’s massive warehouse district, desolate and dingy; where faded ads cling to crumbling brick walls and vast stretches of soot-stained windows lay dark and broken along shadowed streets, gray, cracked and worn from the Windy City’s daily grind.
I sink in my seat and cautiously scan the familiar but frightening streets for signs of trouble. My uneasiness arising from the barely discernible (except for the simultaneous “click” ), but habitual practice Mom has of locking the doors before the first red light.
Only after old brownstones and young professionals replace storehouses and seedy-looking characters, do I straighten up and welcome the city outside the window.
The constant beep of car horns trying to hurry along traffic below the tall buildings and shadowed streets. The constant movement of people of all types – not just well-off and white.
The dingy beads of water from the elevated tracks and platforms that plop, trickle and disappear down the window of the station wagon and tell me we’re very near.
Dressed in our Sunday best, fermenting with the pent up energy forty-five minutes in close quarters guarantees, our restless tribe is led in a disorderly row, through the perennially cold, dark, parking structure and onto the city streets.
One block down and around the corner, to Michigan Avenue, I know to look for the red and gold awning (between the fancy shoe store and even fancier department store). As soon as I spot it, I pick up my pace until reaching the revolving door of Papa’s store, Celano Custom Tailors.
Squeezing my way into the pie-shaped divisions and forced to spin a circle and a half – by a sibling pushing the rotating door too fast – I stumble onto a sea of cardinal red carpet.
Impeccably clean. Incredibly lush.
At the end of the long, narrow showroom, past smartly dressed salesmen and bolts of rich fabric, stands Papa.
Waiting to give his warm, well-pressed, fragrant hugs to each of his progeny.
After which, he gently, but hastily, scoots all five of us to the back of the store. Away from the immaculate glass cabinet displays of silk ties, colorful ascots and men’s colognes. Away from the meticulously stacked cashmere sweaters, and roll after roll of expensive Italian wools, French cottons and Irish linens. Keeping us well clear of the handsome, silk robes neatly hung on racks with red, wood hangers, custom-stamped in gold.
Most of all, we are whisked away from his well-to-do clientele in their very expensive, custom suits, custom shirts and spit shine shoes.
But my interest lies down a narrow set of stairs, in the windowless world below; where little men, with measuring tapes hung around their necks and giant scissors in their hands, bend over large, long work tables, spread with dark wools and shimmering silks.
They always stop and smile, exclaiming how much we’ve all grown, but my attention is on what’s behind the glass partition where Papa’s bookkeeper works, and in the bottom drawer, at the side of her desk, piled high with ledgers.
As soon as I reach her side, she bends toward the drawer with her piled-high hair.
Casting a shadow over her bookkeeping.
And from it she takes out a full box of Turtles – chocolate and caramel and pecans in a gooey, luscious mound.
Papa’s favorite. And mine.
In our silent ritual, I smile and thank the bee-hived bookkeeper and choose a turtle from the box, before being pushed by an impatient sibling next in line.
Permitted back upstairs only after all hands have been inspected, we’re led to Papa’s office, where Jim plays boss with the many-buttoned telephone on the large, leather- topped desk. Until he dials the storefront and annoys the staff and Papa appears with playing cards and store stationary, and a gentle warning.
With Mom and Dad still shopping, we begin to take turns spying on the front of the store, watching the elegant dance of silent footsteps, hushed tones and controlled smiles in full-length mirrors. Making me feel as if I’m witnessing something sacred in the tending of well-to-do gentleman.
As if an ascension.
Until Jim discovers the stereo and starts pushing buttons.
Shattering the sober storefront with an unexpected symphony.
Instantly paroled from our conference room confinement, we race along the heavily padded, red carpeting, past the quiet clerks and perfect displays, and bolts and bolts, of dark, rich fabric.
Past Papa, who flinches when our many-footed exit shakes the cabinets.
And ruffles his clients.
Michigan Avenue is an eruption of motion and commotion, of which we’re swept up in, until we find ourselves among the tourists and the toilers at the base of the very new John Hancock Center.
Pressing my hands and body against its cool, black steel, I look skyward, trying to see the skyscraper’s top. Struggling to keeping my balance.
It makes me dizzy and suddenly anxious to see the red and gold awning.
And the thick, red carpeting.
And Papa’s outstretched arms, for one last hug, before returning north.
Past the giant girl in the yellow dress.
Past the giant, neon lips, now lighting the early evening skies with its rosy red glow.
It’s a new found freedom, riding a bike through my cousins’ neighborhood, unattended by an adult, or an older sibling.
The streets are busier and much bigger than what our secluded, little subdivision has to offer and Gina, Mary and I are headed, unattended, to Nonnie and Papa’s apartment a few miles away.
The furthest I’ve ever ridden my bike is two blocks over.
Hopped up on sweets (following multiple raids of Nonnie’s unrivaled candy stash) and the even sweeter taste of pedal-powered independence, it’s little wonder why, when Nonnie tells me she has something to give me for my birthday and shows me a beautiful, porcelain doll, I want to take possession of it.
Nonnie refuses, at first, insisting that she bring it to Aunt Ar and Uncle John’s when she and Papa come later.
But as an obvious and well-chosen favorite, my sugar-induced swagger wins her over and she wraps the doll in an old towel, puts it in a thick, white plastic bag.
Hesitating before handing it over.
With a frown.
She follows me out the apartment door. Her tiny, slippered feet shuffling at my heels all the way to the elevator. As the automatic door glides shut, I hug the plastic bag and lower my eyes, avoiding Nonnie’s last pleading look.
Seeing her watching from her living room window three stories up, I carefully place the reluctantly released gift into the metal basket of the bike I borrowed from John, grab the handlebar and, with an air of overplayed nonchalance, attempt to kick my leg OVER the center bar that boy’s have on their bikes for no apparent reason.
I fall short.
Brutally kicking the bike to its side.
Launching the fragile contents out of the basket and onto the cement sidewalk.
Mary and Gina, both straddling their bar-less bikes, each with a foot on a pedal and a look of fleeing in their eyes, are slack-jawed. Stunned silent. Like they’ve seen a terrible accident at the side of the road.
Neither can look away from the body in the bag.
Even though the sight of it is truly dreadful.
Yet nothing compared to what my eyes are about to search out: Nonnie, three floors up, bearing witness to it all.
Witness to my fall.
Her eyes never once leaving me, refusing to budge from the window of her velvety world of gild and glass, of lacy figurines, candy-filled cabinets, and porcelain dolls.
Of obvious favorites and grave disappointments.
Of which I’m now the latter.
With my sugar-buzz busted and my confidence shattered like the small, doll’s head, the procession home is silent and somber.
Nonnie never utters a word about it to me that evening.
(Helped by the fact that I avoid her like a tiny, Italian Plague.)
Beside something scrumptious simmering on the stovetop in an old, enameled, cast iron pan that looks as if it has cooked a million meals and I hope will cook a million more being at Nonnie’s is a sweet tooth’s paradise.
A candy coated, chocolate covered, land of plenty.
Shelf after shelf of saccharine delights. Coffee candy, toffee bits. Circus peanuts, caramel nips. Oooy-gooey turtles in a box of white and gold. Tin boxes crammed with powdery, crescent cookies that melt in my mouth.
And leave telltale, powdered sugar fingerprints everywhere.
A wealth of sweet treasures easily discovered in bedside tables and TV cabinets, atop plush, well-vacuumed, wall-to-wall; in pockets and purses, and small tin boxes filled with tiny, hard, fruit-shaped candies. Creamy, sweet, tart perfection.
Hopped up on sugar, I scavenge for more.
Scanning curio shelves for a glimmer of wrappers through crystal candy dishes in glass cabinets. Climbing up on the long, deep, velvety sofa, reaching for the lid of the porcelain box on the mirror-topped table, I follow my greedy reflection in the mottled gold glass.
Seeing no misgivings for more than my fill of butterscotch and Bulls-Eyes.
Every branch of our Italian family tree makes calzone. At least what weknow as calzone: a round or rectangular, incredibly delectable, bread pie stuffed with five unvarying ingredients: ricotta, eggs, parmesan, mozzarella and Italian sausage.
Even though the main ingredients of calzone never vary among the families (or generations), each maker and baker adds their own special touch: a thinner crust, a little red pepper, more mozzarella, less ricotta, less filling, more filling, spicy sausage or sweet sausage.
But always sausage with fennel seed.
So distinct are the differences, I can tell who baked which calzone with just one bite.
In our house, it’s an all day affair of raising and kneading enough dough, cooking enough sausage, cracking enough eggs and mixing enough stuffing to bake enough pies to make it through Christmas.
Always making plenty to feed growing families and friends. But never enough to make it to Easter, when the whole delicious process starts over again.
Mom breaks with tradition, making each calzone something even more special than pieces of heaven, hot from the oven. She makes them a celebration. Golden, braided baskets of glistening crusts brimming with love and lusciousness.
A crime to cut into. A bigger one not to.
Calzone is family.
Sometimes a little spicy.
More than a little crusty.
Ill-advised in excess, yet never around long enough, and missed when gone.
We try to light it squatting beneath an old, planked bridge. Like naughty, little trolls. Laughing and cursing the unrelenting wind and an almost empty box of matches. Coughing. Giggling. Coughing. Startled by the snap of a twig. Whispering and waiting for something in particular. Not caring about anything in particular. Until the tiny roach sticks to my mouth and I wince. Pulling the burning paper from my lower lip. Betsy laughs. Which makes me laugh. Even though it hurts like hell and my lip is already blistered, making me to worry about how I’m going to explain the burn to Mom and Dad – who notice every pimple. But then I stop caring. Content to be beside my friend. Standing firm against the bitter lake winds. Feeling happy just to be, we walk beside the tiny creek. Sudden cravings hasten our final footsteps. Down the deserted road of my secluded neighborhood. Stepping over acorns and twigs fallen from late October trees. Side by side. Stoned. Smiling in the comfortable silence of a very, best friend.
Everyone we know is growing up across the street, around the corner, or the next block over from each other. Daily building a collective experience which connects friends, parents of friends, neighbors and neighborhoods.
Where we live, nothing and no one we know is a couple blocks over, or right around the corner.
Edged with acres of Oak and Maple, Birchwood and Beechwood rooted at the edge of the bluff, our quiet road hides a scattering of courtly houses where forests make good fences and privately schooled children are seldom seen.
And never heard.
A lovely, but lonely, dead end road that winds a mile past manicured grass and unflappably white, club buildings; where quiet, unflappably, white club members and their very quiet staff, raise their heads at our regular din.
We’ve shaken up Shoreacres in seven different ways. A constant breach in its buttoned-up ways.
Directly to our east, rolling onto the beach at the bottom of the bluff eighty feet below, is Lake Michigan.
Dark and deep. Dependably cold and unfriendly.
Built at the turn of the century beside this vast and often brutal body of water, Naval Station Great Lakes, a recruit training camp, sits on over 1,500 acres due north. We can see its harbor from our backyard.
Right next door to this is North Chicago – whose ambitious name reflects more ambitious days, before the lifeblood of the city fed on the flesh of young sailors far from home.
Sailors, sex, booze and Abbott Labs.
That’s North Chicago, just to our north.
To the south, in between us and everyone we know, is Arden Shore, a longstanding fixture in helping troubled kids amid troubled homes.
Here and there, we’ll meet a stray wandering away from its classrooms and confines. Drifting along the edge of the waves, on the ever-shifting sand, or beneath the trees, wandering through the dark and the green and the silence.
We’ll smile and wave and he’ll smile back – kind of – then disappear behind sunken shoulders.
Back into the woods.
And his troubled thoughts.
And us to our troublemaking.
Past Arden Shore, stand two large, lakeside estates of meatpacking magnates and old money, and privileged lives – one defunct, the other very much alive.
Just south of here is where the village streets begin; where lives criss-cross and meet at corners.
And nearness compels strangers to become neighbors.
But north of here is where we live.
Along a lonely, lovely, dead-end road. Among the quiet privileged. Where forests make good fences.
Each time I lit the candle, a rich, earthy fragrance brought forward hazy memories, vague images which came briefly into view and then vanished amid so many forgotten days.
I’d light the candle and back they’d come.
Out of focus, but strong.
One day, with the faint but familiar fragrance still in the air, still teasing my middle-aged mind, I reached for the smoky-colored glass containing the candle and turned it over, hoping the label would reveal something – anything, that might re-animate these mislaid memories.
And there it was, my answer. Pipe tobacco.
Almost immediately, a clear vision from those indistinct days came to me; a beautiful memory of Mr. Gould’s den, tucked in the corner of the Gould’s grey-green, two chimney Colonial, which sat a short block from the edge of Lake Michigan.
You could find it by heading straight east down Scranton Avenue, the main street of Lake Bluff’s hardly-a-downtown business district.
The old house sat in a quiet spot amid tree-filled lots and winding ravines and looked as if it had been there almost as long as the venerable trees which towered over it.
Stepping into the Gould’s house was like stepping out from the Way Back Machine with Mr. Peabody. Everything from its old plaster and uneven, wood floors, to its cozy nooks and small, sunlit rooms filled with old things, incited my imagination.
And the kitchen – old bricks and beams – will always smell of fresh-baked bread.
Betsy and I would cut thick slices off a golden brown loaf cooling on the tall counter and sink our teeth into the still warm, chewy insides that hinted of honey and butter and left our fingers powdered with flour, and my stomach hungry for more.
With the final crusts of bread stuffed into our mouths, we’d climb the steep, narrow, crooked flight of stairs to Betsy’s room, straight ahead.
Two rooms, really. One being her bedroom, the other a small, summer sleeping porch with northwest walls of old, paned windows; where generations of restless sleepers sought lake breezes during the dependably hot and humid Midwest summer nights.
Cots and cotton nightgowns.
Late summer sun and the strident thrum of crickets.
An old Victrola winding down a ragtime tune – tinny, scratchy and lazy to finish.
Another time still haunted the corners of this room.
Before the piles of fabric, patterns and sewing stuff cluttered the small, bright space at the corner of the Gould’s old Colonial near the lake, where we’d spread out across Betsy’s high bed and talk dreamily about our four favorite men: John, Paul, George and Ringo. Spinning their albums until daylight left and my ride home appeared at the front door.
The rest of the upstairs was a mystery to me, being two-thirds occupied by teen brothers, whose rare appearances and even rarer visits to Betsy’s room usually lasted briefly and annoyed her thoroughly.
It simply scared the shit out of me.
On occasion, when Betsy sought out her dad during my visits, we’d wander back down the creaky, old stairs, through the dark front entry hall (which no one ever seemed to enter through) to the one and only place I ever recall encountering Betsy’s dad.
With a timid rap on the solid, old door, we’d hear his gentle voice give permission to enter this space, his special place.
And it was here, as the door opened and I entered behind my best friend, that the smell of sweet and spicy, earthy and smoky, became an inexorable part of me.
As did Mr. Gould, ever at his desk. Smoking his pipe. Sweatered like the perfect professor.
Ever engaging his hands and his mind.
And ships in bottles.
Magnificent, masted vessels of extraordinary detail. Masterfully constructed. Delicately painted and meticulously engineered within ridiculously constrained glass confines.
When finished, each ship would join the miniature armada that floated on a sea of books on wooden shelves, near paneled walls and paned windows with mustard drapes and a glass-topped coffee table filled with shells and sticky sand from innumerable spilled milks.
Like the room above, the windows of Betsy’s dad’s den overlooked Scranton Avenue.
Each night (Betsy would tell me), without fail, her dad would close those long, mustard-colored curtains and sit at his desk to busy his hands and block out the world.
Yet each and every time a car drove past, she found it most mysterious that her dad would draw the drapes back – just enough to watch the car pass – and then close them again and return to his task.
And his deliciously fragrant pipe.
And his secret snacks – Pepsi and Fritos – hidden beneath his desk.
And there he’d stay, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, making beautiful things for make-believe worlds.
I could have sat in there for hours exploring the books, the shelves, the bottles, and the mind of a quiet, creative man. All of which, as a child, were out of reach.
Yet now reach out to me.
Calling me back to the old, two-chimney, grey-green, Colonial on Scranton Avenue.
Clumps of stubborn snow and ice, grey and grimy, still dot the lawns and sidewalks.
Faces look pale and anxious for change.
After the usual Sunday sermon of incense and absolution, followed by stacks of buttermilk pancakes and syrupy sausages, we know something is up when Dad drives past the walled entrance of King’s Cove, our subdivision, further and further from home.
Past unfamiliar towns and unfamiliar faces.
Boredom is beginning to grow horns, when just past a sleepy village appear several white, storybook farm buildings down a long, straight-as-an-arrow road. Enchanting and inviting, tidy and bright – even on this gloomy day.
My heart beats faster as we near.
And sinks as we pass.
Before I have a chance to exhale my displeasure – long and loud for all the car to hear – a glorious mural of colorful birds, ever taking flight on the north side of a barn, comes into view in the rear window, mesmerizing me until it’s out of sight and Dad signals a turn to the right.
“Shoreacres Country Club. Members Only. Est. 1916.”, reads the uninviting sign, as we turn into the dark of the woods just past the storybook farm. Mom and Dad keep silent as the wide, low wagon drifts down the winding road, flanked by a small, trickling creek, past long stretches of green grass and tall trees.
Everything is covered in a fine, frigid mist, including another set of elegant, white buildings belonging to the famously snobbish club (who will eventually and wholeheartedly reject Dad), silent and still on this dreary Sunday afternoon.
As we pass a green, faded, old water tower, headless and frightening in the fog, Dad finally begins to divulge our destination: a new home.
The inside of the car goes instantly silent.
I sink further into the wagon’s rear seat, where the strange, unfriendly neighborhood disappears and I can see nothing but the thick, dark clouds smothering the day.
The silence is broken only by the sound of gravel crunching beneath the wheels of the station wagon, now weighted with disappointment, as it twists down a long driveway and stops.
I inch my way back up in my seat to peek at the house.
It’s grey and sullen.
Like the day.
And my mood.
Mom and Dad turn to the back of the car with smiles from ear to ear. Not one of us can fathom what there is to be smiling about.
“We’ll just take a look,” Dad says. “If you don’t like it, we won’t buy it.”
But even I know that means: “You WILL like it.” and “We ARE buying it.”
Like prisoners into an exercise yard, we file from the car and stand in an unhappy cluster on the cold, stone patio in front of the house.
Which isn’t yellow, like ours.
Has no signs of neighbors, a school, OR the Good Humor man, like ours.
And most certainly doesn’t have the new tree house in its backyard, LIKE MINE!
Without keys, Dad and Mom look in the windows and talk excitedly about all they see.
I see nothing but despair.
Until Dad coaxes us to the long stretch of windows that look through the front hallway, into the living room, through its windows and beyond, where we see an expanse of lawn.
And water, for as far as the eye can see.
Five figures, all ranging in size, race to the rear of the house and the edge of the bluff, looking down to where the vast lake rolls onto the beach eighty feet below.
We take turns on an old tire swing at the very edge, watching the lake below and trees above disappear and return.
Serpentining down the overgrown path to the beach, we skip the first of thousands of flat, smooth stones across the cold, dark water of Lake Michigan; marveling at the silhouette of the Chicago skyline jutting out 40 miles to the south and the Great Lakes Harbor dotted with boats just a mile to the north.
I can feel the growing excitement as Jim lifts Mark so he too can peek through the windows of the property’s outbuildings, mostly hidden from the main house by a small patch of woods.
Breeding grounds for mischief and unsupervised merriment.
First cigarettes. First beers. First bongs.
Secret rendezvous for young loves and safe havens for fainthearted runaways.
More than once I’ll pack my technicolor suitcase and run to the greenhouse office, seeking solitude and distance from those who fail to understand me. Only to find that a short time later, I’ll long for home just a few hundred feet away.
The greenhouse office will become a verdant vessel of creativity and fantasy, with floor to ceiling cabinets where surprise attacks will repeatedly surprise, and where a wall length desk (lined with electrical outlets), beneath wall length windows overlooking the great lake, will become our cockpit, our control center, our helm.
In the attached, sunken greenhouse/laboratory/operating room, a deranged, mad scientist will run from staircase to staircase, table to table, laughing maniacally; while faithful minions, at his command, throw the elaborate array of switches that light the building like a giant firefly, and open and close metal shutters** on its plexiglass walls and ceilings.
Turning day to night and eyes to starry skies.
With the flick of another switch, an enormous vent in a small, windowless antechamber**, will belch and blast air at its latest victim or adventurer, and suddenly turn the strange, metal room into a tornado, or a torture chamber, a time machine, or space ship.
Our imaginations will rocket in the greenhouse.
Just north of here, the two-bedroom cottage is where newlyweds will test the waters and where Dad will keep a watchful eye over his seven acre kingdom when his own marital tides turn; where older siblings will taste independence for the very first time and I’ll pretend the tiny house at the very edge of the bluff is all mine.
Change will be ever-present.
The swimming pool will be added and give Mom nightmares. She’ll wake, paralyzed by the thought of one of her children drowning as she stands helpless and hopeless; and she’ll secretly wade into the pool every morning that first summer, where she’ll teach herself how to dog paddle.
Her head will never dip below the surface.
For which we will tease her mercilessly.
But Mom will never say a word.
In the decades ahead, a barn will go up, where playthings of the turbine and equine kind will be housed and I’ll first understand the responsibility of caring for another life; where I’ll curse our ponies, Chief and Billy Gold, on those bitter, winter mornings when I’ll be required to muck stalls before school; and where mice (at the bottom of the grain barrel) and I will constantly frighten the crap out of each other.
A barn will come down, lost to growing teens and changing needs.
The cottage will be sold and land subdivided, to help keep Dad precariously afloat.
New houses will encroach upon our woods.
The swing at the edge of the bluff will be consumed by erosion, as will the greenhouse and its office.
Lives will scatter.
Life at the edge of the bluff will be lost.
But what a life it will be.
**Built in 1959 by Dr. John Nash Ott, the Shoreacres property included seven, wooded acres of lakefront, the main house (a New England-style country home), a small, two-bedroom cottage and an office/lab and greenhouse, where Dr. Ott did much of his groundbreaking research.
A former banker turned photographer, cinematographer and inventor, Dr. Ott’s achievements include the development of full spectrum lighting, light therapy and time-lapse photography. Ott was also a pioneer in the newly developing field of photobiology and had the first color TV program to be broadcast from Chicago, called: “How Does Your Garden Grow?”
The greenhouse’s windowless antechamber not only kept unwanted light out of the greenhouse, it’s large blower precisely controlled temperatures (blowing hot or cold air) when someone entered or exited the main building. The ceiling and walls of the greenhouse had fully-mechanized, metal shutters which allowed Dr. Ott to meticulously control light entering the space.
Dr. Ott’s book, “The Ivory Cellar” records his earliest work at Shoreacres.
Anita was one of those agile, young gymnasts whose limberness and daring were a constant source of admiration and envy.
She seemed to be able to do it all: front flips, back flips, backbends, splits.
I couldn’t even cartwheel.
I did a relatively competent forward AND backward somersault, but this garnered little admiration or support from my peers. So, I spent a good deal of time laying back on lawns.
Awed, in particular, by Anita’s long, lanky, bendy body twisting, turning and taking flight. Wondering why and how she could do the things she did, when those skills so skillfully eluded me.
Or was it the passion to try?
But Anita’s dexterity defied the norms of stretchability because Anita was (and still is, I’ll venture to guess) double-jointed.
Be it slumber party or playground, upon request, she would good-naturedly demonstrate this unusual trait by pulling the tips of all four fingers back until the tops of her nails touched her forearm; misshaping her long, slender, freckled hand and wrist, as if made of moist clay.
She could also invert her knees and shoulders until her bowed silhouette looked as if it had been blown inside out, reminding me of an upturned umbrella on a rainy, windy day in The Windy City.
Illogical and ludicrous.
Her semi-regular recess demonstrations gathered curious, new kids to circle around and gasp at her unearthly elasticity – almost as much as when our classmate, Amy, popped out her false eye.
With a delicate balance of respect and horror, her bendable ways made me think of my Barbie, whose own bendy parts had long ago broken from time after time of forcing bendy poses. There were times I attempted to be like Barbie and my friend, but my body resisted and instead of smiling through it (like Barbie) and pushing through it (like Anita), I felt impossibly cramped and uncomfortable.
Disjointed. Disfigured. Dysfunctional.
Graphic images of parts breaking – snap!, like a twig – were stubborn to leave my imagination. So I quit trying.
Preferring to watch from the shade of a tree, where rubbing my knuckles and elbows and knees with their imaginary aches and graphically imagined breaks, I marveled at my double-jointed friend, who could bend and bend and bend.
Finding haunted, frightened faces in the contours of the dark slate below my restless, anxious feet; not knowing whether to be relieved that the last person who came through the door wasn’t Dad.
Officer Gildemeister keeps checking on me through the sliding glass window that separates the lobby from the rest of the station.
Like I’m a possible flight risk.
I know he’s just doing his job, but is all this really necessary? Dragging me in for a lousy can of beer? For God’s sake, I don’t even like beer. It was just handed to me.
Hadn’t even taken one, horrid sip before all hell broke loose.
Everyone saw the cop car enter the St. Mary’s parking lot. Everyone but me and the guy who got busted with his bong.
But even he’s been released… Where the hell are my parents?
And why isn’t there anything to read in here? Anything to stop the constant rewind in my brain: the bright headlights, beers flying, friends fleeing, and voices shouting for me to run. But I’m frozen and can’t see a thing with the squad car’s headlights now shining in my face.
All I can think to do is hide the full beer behind my back… they’d never find it there.
Why did I ever agree to leave the dance?
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I should have just stayed inside and listened to the band. It’s why – NO, Chuck is why I went to that stupid dance in the first place. And for what? Just to be a familiar shadow in the crowd?
“Still no word from your parents. Is there someone else I can call?”
Fuck. Who else can he call?…
“The Villates?… You are aware they have to be adults?”
“Dr. and Mrs.” (Asshole.)
He thought I was talking about Rick and Bob. Of course he knows the brothers. And I know what he thinks about them. I can see it in his soulless, pitiless, squinty, little eyes – dirty, hippy, punks – with their long, dark hair, ripped jeans, big, cocky smiles and cockier laughs. With their fast cars and motorcycles – especially Rick’s cherry red Moto Guzzi – which roars and rumbles, announcing his arrival minutes before he can be seen.
I can just see Officer Gildemeister’s sneering face each time my sister’s boyfriend rumbles by him in town…
But if he wants to be rid of me and end his shift, the Villates are his only choice.
Please, Mrs.Villate… please be home.
That’s got to be her.
A tiny, fast-moving figure, topped in a tousle of blonde, darting through the doors with a tremendously generous and forgiving smile just for me.
Enter Officer Iceberg-Up-My-Ass.
Standing next to the big man with the gun, Mrs. Villate is nearly eclipsed. Her smile instantly disappears in his shadow.
“Well… are you going to tell her why you’re here, young lady?”
(Because you’re an asshole who couldn’t just slap me on the wrist?)
“-She doesn’t have to tell me anything she doesn’t want to.”
Did Inge just take down Officer Gildemeister?
He’s flustered. Can’t even look at her. She’s staring him down – or rather up – with a half-raised smile. Knocked out with one blow by a wee, little, German woman in a bad, blonde wig.
Don’t smile, Anne. Just look at the ground and suppress urge to hug Inge ’til later.
“I’ll be contacting your parents tomorrow, young lady.”
I’m sure you will, Officer Asshole.
Let’s get out of here, oh smallest, greatest and by far, very sweetest of all people.
Albert has scared the shit out of dozens of people over the years.
He’s been an integral part of our family since Mom first brought him home from a golf trip to Pebble Beach, California, in the mid-seventies.
Ever since then, Albert just hung around.
Year after year, after year, after year.
He’s originally from London, but he’s classic Scottish from the top of his thick, tousled hair down to his argyle socks.
Always in glen plaid and corduroy.
He’s of average height, a gray-haired gentleman, with a full beard – both of which hint of their ginger youth.
In the pocket of his kinsmen’s plaid jacket, for as long as we’ve known him, Albert has always carried his pipe. Right beside this, he used to keep a battered, old tin of Prince Albert (his namesake) tobacco. He still has his pipe, but years ago, some sibling borrowed the rusty, bright red tin – likely to store their weed- and never returned it to the old man.
Albert never said a word.
But that didn’t surprise anyone.
Even though he’s always surprising someone.
So still and silent.
You might find him sitting in the sun porch staring out at the lake, or lying beneath the covers in one of the boys’ twin beds. He might be in the front seat of a car one morning, or on one of the chaises lounging under the stars one night.
His familiar, nonetheless frightening figure would linger in the shadows as I snuck through the house after curfew.
But Albert never tattled.
It simply isn’t in him.
He’s very predictable, but never who some guess he is: an uncle, a grandfather, an unsocial neighbor?
An ever-present family sentinel.
His light blue eyes fixed on the room. Out the window. On you.
As we speak, he’s probably sitting in the basement of Mia’s house, where he continues to startle guests just looking to use the exercise equipment.
A bit unnerving, but dependably docile… and flexible. Even after years of being forced into the most unflattering positions for the sole entertainment of ourselves and others.
Creepy, I know.
But what can we do? He was so amusing for decades and even though he hasn’t done much since the last kid left the house, he’s simply part of the family.
Certainly worth the $200 Mom paid for Albert before the store manager lifted him out of the pro shop window, packed him in a box, and shipped him home.
At the corner of Sheridan Road and Sheridan Place, right across from East Elementary and Lake Bluff Junior High School sits Artesian Park, two blocks of village green where every Fourth of July the grassy field turns to festival and carnival and fun and every winter, the sunken baseball diamond is flooded to make an ice-skating rink.
As soon as the temperature dips and the rink freezes solid, villagers swarm to the park, packing the small patch of ice with skaters of all ages, sizes and skills; with races of speed and games of Crack-the-Whip, hockey sticks slapping and half-hearted “Hamill Camels” spinning.
Huge smiles crowding pink cheeks.
The park’s field house is also opened, where a giant crackling fire in a giant stone hearth, hot drinks, long rubber mats and long, wooden benches, welcome skaters looking for secure footing and a temporary reprieve from the nippy wonders of winter.
Such happiness in hot cocoa and crackling fires.
In being a part of village life, instead of apart from it.
Layered, bundled, skated and packed into the station wagon, anxious to get to the rink and our friends, we watch Dad re-shovel the shoveled path by the garage. When Mom finally steps through the back door, all heads swivel toward the flash of candy apple red which has newly invaded the icy, grey scenery.
There stands Mom in an outfit the likes of which Lake Bluff villagers have never – nor will likely ever see again – a red and white checkered snow suit, with its belted jacket and matching knickers (Yes, that’s right, I said knickers.), red cable knit stockings, white knit gloves, and a matching, white knit, helmet-shaped cap with ear flaps and a large, snowball-sized pom-pom on top.
It’s something to be seen… and near impossible to miss.
She’s something to be seen.
But that’s usually Mom: statuesque, blonde, beautiful, incomparable. Ever the model. Not afraid to be individual, and always, always fashionable – even when that fashion might be questionable.
… at least from the viewpoint of her five, young impressionables.
But Mom is glowing.
Excited for the family outing. Eager to put her weatherproof, yet fashion savvy snow suit to the test.
But Mom is GLOWING.
Like a giant, checkered barber pole.
And everyone from Dad (whose briefly raised eyebrows are a dead giveaway) to Mark (who strains his tiny, bundled body to turn and stare wide-eyed at the walking tablecloth) – are stunned silent by the new outfit that speaks volumes.
As Dad winds the wagon toward town, whispers around the rear seats are exchanged. It’s agreed that the best course of action is evasive. A rapid, rear door exit will surely guarantee reaching the rink quickly and losing ourselves in the nameless, motherless crowd in moments.
As luck would have it, a parking space – one actually big enough to accommodate our Grand Safari station wagon – opens up right in front and above the bustling rink. There’s no more delaying the inevitable fashion statement that’s about to be thrust upon the unsuspecting citizens of Lake Bluff.
As soon as Dad docks the wagon and shifts into park, Jim and Chris leap from the center seat and never look back. In the very rear of the wagon, however, Mia and I are at the mercy of Dad who needs to open our escape hatch from the outside (a major miscalculation), and who is leisurely lacing his own skates; while Mom struggles to wriggle a wiggly four-year-old into a pair of hand-me-down, oversized skates.
Dad finally releases us, and leaving Mia to fend for herself, I make fast, teetering tracks to the ice, losing myself in a swarm of bladed, unbounded activity.
From the anonymity of the crowd below I watch, – mortified – as Mom’s checkered ensemble appears around the rear of our wagon, moving very, very slowly over ice and snow toward the rink. Giving everyone within a three mile radius ample time to take it all in.
Radiating red against the endless, ashen clouds.
Unembarrassed. Unaffected. Unbelievable.
Forcing me deeper into the throng of villagers, into the sea of somber, Midwestern winter gear. Commonsensical clothes in practical colors blending together like the dark waters of a deep, churning lake.
Drowning me in denim and down; in unfamiliar faces and forms, swirling and twirling and lawless.
I feel panic rise and tears swell and wish everyone would just… STOP!
Until a beautiful beacon appears.
A sudden flash of something dazzlingly bright shining through the drab-colored chaos.
The most wonderful sight I’ve ever seen. Giving instant comfort. Guiding me home.
To the arms of Mom.
To the warmth of her hug.
Wrapped tight in all her red and white checkered glory.
with black spots on the rump of his dirty, white coat
and the devil in his eyes.
Of little training and no past consequences.
A 9th birthday present from Dad – whose childhood pets were porcelain cats and poodles – and mostly Mom, a Missouri farm girl with her grandfather’s gruff, Scottish sensibilities, and steely confidence the challenges will make me a good rider.
I’m confident they’ll kill me.
From the other side of the pasture fence, Mom urges me to remount. Make him know who’s boss.
I struggle to my feet and limp toward the answer, now grazing on prairie grass and wildflowers from which he loathes to be distracted.
In between greedy mouthfuls, Chief raises his wild, blue eyes, beneath poorly cut bangs – which I like to cut.
No wonder he’s ornery.
He’s quietly watching my crippled approach and just as I’m within a few feet, with a flick of his tail, he’s off, across the long, wide pasture. Adding even more insult to my physical and emotional injuries with each unruly buck and bolt.
Mom’s words are unrecognizable from the far end of the field, but the tone is clear. So I move toward my spotted nemesis, expecting him to bolt again as soon as I get too close.
His long nose buried in the succulent grass, Chief stands his ground, this time, and lets me mount. A voice inside my possibly fractured skull warns me, but Mom’s is louder.
Barely settled in the saddle, I see something I hoped I wouldn’t. Chief lifts his head and pins his fuzzy, white ears flat against his thick skull. I know what’s coming and grab the reins and the saddle horn just before we take off in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable canter.
Somehow I remain in my mount, which annoys my little, four-hoofed devil, who swerves off his trajectory of terror, straight for a cluster of pines.
Two in particular.
Which stand a pony’s width apart.
I close my eyes, hold on tight and hope for the best,,, as Chief. – like yarn through an embroidery needle – threads us between the two pines at top speed.
Scraped from their stirrups, my legs are now bouncing off of Chief’s round rear-end as we pass through the pines into the open pasture toward Mom, who’s still lobbing impractical words over the fence.
I feel my grasp on the saddle-horn weaken.
And a resolve that I’ll soon be tasting earth, grow.
And I let go.
Mom thinks a pal might keep Chief calmer. So early one spring, when the corral is beginning to reveal a winter’s worth of muck, comes Billy Gold: a blue ribbon, well-trained Palomino, which we trailered back behind the station wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri.
Chief dislikes the new arrival immediately.
I think he’s dreamy, with his white/blonde mane and ginger coat, still thick and warm.
I find great joy in feeling his hot breath and fuzzy lips tickling the palm of my cold, red hand as I feed him a carrot.
Mark and Mia are sitting on top of the pine log fence, watching – still unsure of whether we just brought home Chief’s evil ally – when I hear them both scream.
In my thickly lined hood, tied tight against the cold, lake winds, I don’t recognize any words – only warnings – and far too late.
Chief’s powerful teeth clamp down hard.
The pain in my right butt cheek is searing.
Billy Gold bolts to the other end of the half-frozen corral, but Chief just stands there – a nose length’s away… staring… as I hop up and down, rubbing the wound he’d just inflicted.
Mark and Mia’s shocked silence explodes into laughter, followed by a closely contested race to the house to see who’ll be the first to tell the uproarious tale. Meanwhile, a purple-red welt the size of a small apple, banded by red marks defining each of Chief’s big, front teeth, grows and throbs with each step toward the kitchen door.
Where Mom, greets me with an ice pack and empathy.
When Chief isn’t trying to shed or eat one of us,
he’s astounding us with his ability to escape.
The phone rings. Mom cringes, apologizes, then sounds the alarm,
steering the station wagon straight toward town.
We found him in a graveyard once, a foggy morning, one fall.
Striking terror in the old caretaker who thought he’d seen it all.
Until galloping across the graves, he saw a ghostly, pony-sized spright –
bad bangs bouncing in the soupy light.
Followed closely by a tall, beautiful, blonde
in flowing, full length, lime-green chiffon.
His hands still trembling when we waved from the road
as we slowly crept toward home with pony in tow.
But much of the time, Chief’s antics are close
and off I dash with grain and a rope;
tracking the wild-eyed Appaloosa’s sod-ripping route
through the blue-blood, buttoned-up neighborhood,
across disapproving neighbors’ pristine lawns
– while from behind windows, I see shaking heads frown.
One rainy, spring day, while watching my pony buck and bolt,
(as if in his very own, god damn, Wild West Show),
leaving hoof-sized divots pocking each meticulous yard,
Chief stops and pin his ears, which puts me on my guard.
Forward the pony charges and I’m sure we’re about to collide
When a voice – loud and fed up – calls from deep inside:
Make him know who’s boss!
I drop the bucket of grain.
I drop my pony’s halter.
I gather all my courage.
The universe is about to alter.
I set my feet and stand my ground and watch him close the gap
and just as he’s within arm’s length, I reach out and I SLAP!
I swat him at the tip of his long, white snout.
Suddenly, all Chief’s piss and vinegar’s done – run – OUT!
With a half-hearted snort, he lowers his poorly banged head,
turning his devilish focus on the grain bucket, instead.
And with noses aligned, we linger toward home,
understanding more about each other than we’d ever known.
There us peace in the familiar sounds of summer at Shoreacres.
The Northwestern train keeping to its schedule.
Bank Swallows calling to their colony as they swoop to and from nests pockmarking the sandy bluff wall.
The harbor’s baritone foghorn warning boats buried in Lake Michigan’s mist.
Even the sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center to the north chime in, drilling up and down the parade grounds.
Singing and rhyming.
Voices hovering in the air like ancient tribal chants.
Laying on the lawn overlooking the lake, I close my eyes and ease into the familiar sound of the sailors’ strong, low voices.
And the marching band practicing its spirited battle hymns.
Miles away, but strong and clear.
Carried to my ears by the lake winds cutting through the thick, moist air that smells of fresh cut lawn and freshwater fish.
Sun-filled days of climbing up and down the bluff where the path used to be before the lake rose and stole chunks of land, leaving little but swallow holes and sand – and killer cool ledges for daring leaps by reckless kids who take to the skies, then aim for the beach, landing in the soft, thick sand below – hot on the surface, but damp and cool just inches beneath.
Wriggling my toes further into the moist earth, I try to recapture the wind knocked out of me in the landing, until voices from above goad me into action and I’m forced forward again, down the soft, crumbling bluff, to a rugged line of boulders Dad had dropped on the beach in his failed fight against this infamously wicked lake.
Then one by one, into the water and waves we wade, trying to dislodge sand from our swimsuits and butt cracks. Feeling the lake’s strong, cold undertow at our feet and the strong, hot sun on our heads.
Watching our Lab, Heather, joyously and tirelessly swim after a stick bobbing on the waves.
Then up to the top we head to bound down again.
Long summer days invade the nights, inspiring late nights of Ghost in the Graveyard and Sardines and a world of hiding places scattered around our acres and outbuildings, where we squat amid the fireflies’ ambitious flickering and whisper above the crickets and cicadas charging the atmosphere with their measured, mesmerizing songs.
Reminding me that I am never really alone.
Standing at the edge of the bluff on the Fourth of July, with the comforts of home just steps away, we watch the fireworks displays from Chicago to Waukegan, “Ooohing” and “Ahhing”, mimicking the faraway crowds and slapping at mosquitoes determined to disturb our private celebration.
Mom unfreezes boxes of brats and burgers to feed a small army, which eventually arrives with empty stomachs and pockets full of bottle rockets, sparklers and Roman candles ample enough to light the skies and the lake, and disturb our quiet neighbors long after the distant festivities have ended.
But the best displays I witness from the brink are the summer thunderstorms rolling over the Great Lake, and the lightening exploding in sky-wide, silver-white bolts and bursts.
I feel fortunate.
On gentler nights when the moon is full and bright and we can see our way down the bluff to the beach, my siblings and I wade into the vast, still water.
First, up to our knees. Then our bellies. Then our chests.
Eventually emboldened by the bright moonlight and calm, glassy water, I swim further from the shore and my companions.
Through strange patches of warm in the perpetually cold, inland water.
Scanning the dark stretch of water in front of me and turning to see the sparsely lit shoreline now well behind me, the calm in my mind begins to churn and I begin to worry about what lurks just below my feet – and in those warm patches – and start paddling madly toward the beach and the nearest sibling.
Not stopping until I’m close enough to feel the sand below my feet, or see a smile in the moonlight.
Finding enormous comfort and calm in the motion of another’s treading water.
In their laughter.
In their teasing.
These are the endless days spent layered in sand and sun tan oil. Brown and blissful.
These are the days of sleeping well into the afternoon, or until the smell of breakfast cooking below wafts into my room…
or my class schedule arrives in the mail all too soon.
I struggle when Mom tries to put on my water wings, promising that if she lets me go in without them, I’ll be super careful – stay shallow.
Eventually, she gives in and along the pool’s edge I shimmy until my toes no longer touch the smooth, white bottom and Mom is no longer hovering.
Holding tight to the edge with one hand, I dip below the surface and open my eyes in the clear, blue where I can see the bigger kids dunking and diving in every direction.
Floating and free.
The center of it all is now the place I most want to be, so feeling the rough, concrete surface of the pool deck pressing into the fingertips of one hand, I stretch the other toward the forbidden zone.
And I let go, stretching my nostrils skyward and doggy-paddling furiously toward the deepest waters.
I set my sights on Chris, who’s in the center of the pool talking to Dad, standing at the edge of the shallow end, but half way to her suntanned back, my arms and legs suddenly betray me and before I know it, down I go, pool water filling my nose and mouth.
I scramble for the sun and the air.
For a voice.
But each time I break the surface, my pleas are instantly drowned and I’m still out of reach of that suntanned back.
In the instant before I go under again, I can hear Dad’s voice, but I can’t see him and he can’t see me because Chris is directly in line between us.
And with all the commotion.
Someone please see me.
But no one does and, once more, I sink.
This time, the thought of not reaching air again – or even worse, reaching it and losing it again – terrifies me. I claw for the murky surface, now light years away, but desperate thoughts weigh heavily on my tired legs.
And I want to stop trying.
Arms abruptly pull me to the surface, then to the side of the pool, where another strong and sure pair guides me to the warmth of the concrete deck, where I vomit up pool water and begin to cry.
We’d been in Prescott several months before I felt brave enough to wander the state trust land near our new home on a hill overlooking, well… almost everything surrounding us – valleys, canyons, mountains. Being raised in the Midwest, the landscape of Arizona’s Central Highlands was like another world – harsh, seemingly barren, with strange … Continue reading “One Square Mile”
We’d been in Prescott several months before I felt brave enough to wander the state trust land near our new home on a hill overlooking, well… almost everything surrounding us – valleys, canyons, mountains.
Being raised in the Midwest, the landscape of Arizona’s Central Highlands was like another world – harsh, seemingly barren, with strange creatures I’d been warned of: giant spiders, poisonous snakes, big cats, long-toothed peccary.
I expected an unwelcome encounter around every scrub, rock and corner, but soon found none.
Instead, I discovered in this small, square mile, an odd, new world of high dessert ways where life and death are on display with every cow for slaughter resting in the shade of a low, broad pine, every blade of blood red grass pushing through the dry, rocky earth.
In the great, bright white blossoms of the moon vine which shun the mid-day sun all summer long, closing their blossoms to everyone. Then as the earth begins to cool, the shrivelled blossoms slowly unfold and reach out to the gentler night.
In every piece of a recent kill, picked nearly clean from above and below, until nothing remains but full bellies and scattered bones to bleach and decay in the strong, abiding Arizona sun.
Each time we wandered its rolling terrain, it begged more questions and felt more sane.
Because every new path helps me see; helps me become part of the marvelous whole which co-exists so beautifully on the highland square beside my home.
One still, cool, autumn day the dogs and I went walking, making a dubious circle inside this small square of land. About half-way round, we climbed a small ridge near the northern fenceline, alongside a jarring stretch of a dirt road that leads to Chino Valley.
There, on the other side of a wide, shallow wash, some 15 yards away, we encountered a herd of pronghorn – two dozen, or so – grazing. Though every creatures lifted its head from meals, naps, and play, they didn’t seem bothered enough to take leave.
To take flight.
Even as the dogs whined and pulled hard at their leashes.
It was a remarkable sight. Small groups of juveniles, females and males, spread out, but close at hoof, with earthy colors of wheat, white and black blending with the vast desert grasslands where they like to roam.
I once found one of their dark, slender, knobby horns on one of our walks, having just been shed.
Still pungent and warm.
Feeling the aching resolve of the dogs’ interest in my arms, I soon turned away, toward the west and home. Happy to have been able to get so close to such remarkable creatures – the fastest land mammal our hemisphere. (The cheetah might be fast, my friend, but the pronghorn has the speed and endurance.
The dogs were frantic and frightened and nearly pulled me off my feet.
All I could do was dig my heels into the dry, hard earth and with nowhere else to look, stare straight into the eyes of the leader, who seemed somehow surprised by our meeting. With the herd at her heels, and us just ahead, it was up to the lead as to how this would end.
So glad she decided, at the very last moment, to dart to our right.
The spray of dirt from her hooves shot into my wide open mouth, as we watched the leader take her swift-hooved family around the other side of a short, fat scrub, just a few yards away.
I held tight and dug my heels deeper, as the dogs turned with the pronghorn, and me with the dogs. Yet instead of continuing forward and away, the leader suddenly turned the panicked herd and circled back to where all of this began.
Instantly surrounding us on all sides. Lifting the dust high above our heads.
The dogs, now howling, kept yanking and yanking, but I kept them anchored, all the while bemoaning the unreachable phone in my back pocket because no one was going to believe that we were at the very center of a neighborhood stampede.
When the bright white backside of the final pronghorn disappeared into the dust, I finally looked down from my tired, trembling arms to see that the dogs were not in the least bit tired, but trembling too.
Holy shit,” I laughed, repeating the sentiment a few more times, as my sore, quaking, anxious fingers fumbled for the phone in my pocket to call Kurt.
I found my breathe again on the slow, wobbly, happy journey home.
I try to find a new way to wander across the rolling hills of scrub and pine and stretches of grass, each time the dogs and I go walking; and so every day, I get to see familiar things in a different sort of way.
Sometimes this leads to new treasures like old, sun-bleached bones for my growing bone collection, a newly dug den with earth so freshly excavated it’s still moist and brown; or an ancient juniper at the top of a ridge, rounded like a giant, perfect mushroom cap, where generations of cattle resting and rubbing in its shade, helped give it its flat-bottomed, fairyland shape.
But mostly, it’s not knowing where the dogs and I are going, except out.
To explore this small patch of hilly land near our home where Mingus Mountain rises behind Chino Valley to the east, Table Top Mesa and Granite Mountain command the views to the south and scattered homes along long, dirt roads in the near distance remind us we’re never alone.
As does the jackrabbit springing from shrub to shrub, with its skyscraper ears that quickly disappear; or a flock of quails lifting noisily from an impenetrable cluster of apache plume in near perpetual bloom at the side of the wash.
Which, like my path, is always changing.
Exposing many tunnels dug feet below the surface (which look like sunken eyes, sunk deep in deep, dark sockets); and hardened roots of Pinyon pines clutch eroding walls, refusing to fall, to succumb to the changes. Clinging green on so few of its branches.
And fruiting and feeding the creatures who live here. Here in the washes and brushes and hollowed out trees. In the boulders and burrows and fields, where me and the dogs keep wandering, because every day it keeps changing.
Each bloom, each moon, each orbital click.
While the dogs keep on sniffing and sniffing and sniffing, and finding their own unique way, which these days is through a grassy stretch of fleeting monsoon green that tickles my knees and their noses.
Past Prickly Pears with their thorny pads, crowned with green, pink and purple fruit, growing darker and bigger and bolder and sweeter. Across the patch where the air is fair and the land is electric with tiny, winged voices that buzz here and there. Humming strange, chatty words in my ear. While modest patches of yellow, white, orange and purple wildflowers barely boast that they’re there.
But they are.
Bringing color and grace to a rough, rugged place, where mettle must rule every moment. Where you need to be swift like the pronghorn and strong like the mule deer – built wide and low – whose tracks I’ve tracked across a still-damp wash to the bottom of a vertical embankment, where I looked up the 10 ft. wall and saw a single hoof print – half-way up.
And wondered whether danger prompted such a vault, or was it simple daring because it could be simply done? Like the rattlesnake, who with a shake, might let you know they’re near. But then again, it all depends on whether you’re his next meal.
We surprised a small, skinny coyote looking for hers the other day, when we appeared from the wash and the scrub about thirty feet from where she was rising from a small ravine. She saw us first and was trying to make a quiet retreat into the Pinyon and Juniper up ahead, when I spotted her out of the corner of my eye.
Holding tight to the leashes, I stopped and turned and greeted the startled creature who, instead of fleeing, paused as well. As the dogs strained their leads, I smiled at the brazen thing who just stood there staring, Then, suggesting it best the four of us part company, turned from our chance meeting.
The scraggly coyote followed, moving in a similar direction, stopping one final time between a gap in the growth, to stare at our constrained trio before her shabby, honey-colored hide slunk over the next ridge and disappeared.
And the dogs and I, ignoring my instinct to go home, turned left instead.
When the central highland winds howl through the valley and rattle the windows of our house on the hill, shaking and bending the juniper and pinion trees I see beyond the shuddering panes, my body and mind still brace for the only thing that comes of such blustery warnings to the Midwestern me.
The menacing advance of a fearsome storm.
Intense and unforgiving.
I feel my body – tense and taut – bracing for the worst with each swollen
Pacing through the house.
Anxious for it to stop.
Or me to move.
So my dogs and I head out for our walk, prepared for a fight against tempests and cold and I’m ever surprised to find the winds far more kind than I imagined.
Mellowed by the sun’s abiding strength.
Layers are shed at the start of our walk and the warm, constant breezes now push me, Frank and Nellie to the chapparal below, where I know the sweeping winds will blow much gentler music across the tall grass. And at my back, urge me forward toward to the far fence line where the pronghorn often graze.
But downwind today, well warned of our arrival, they’re likely to have scattered; prompting me to turn against the wind and start a circuitous loop back home.
Toward the scrub oak and junipers.
Shelter and shade.
And the shadowy scent of Mountain Lilac blossoming profusely in the wake of generous winter rains.
The gentle fragrance of this rugged bush, appears and disappears with the shifting winds, lifting my spirits with each sweet return, as I wander up and down the hills with my two, most joyful companions.
The world in their noses turned into the breezes.
Close to home, I see a Great Horned Owl take to the air just a few feet ahead.
I hear one, grand flap of his wings. And then nothing.
A familiar shadow among the neighborhood trees, I track his flight and see him perch again in a pine, up the hill and up ahead, and I follow with glee.
From tree to tree.
Hidden among the dark, green boughs of an old, domed Juniper, heavy with pollen, the owl waits. But just as we near, off he goes, higher up the hill and closer to home, past the scattered remains of a long dead tree which lay like a skeleton, gray and sunbleached, exactly where it fell.
Pursuing him again to yet another tree, it’s as if the owl is hunting me. For, there, in a clearing of branches, the great hunter sits.
Quietly watching us move up the hill.
Allowing me the perfect view of this very perfect predator.
Staring still, my eyes meet his, until he decides we’ve come close enough.
And that is that.
He spreads his wings and disappears, without a sound, among the pinion near the old pit mine.
I try to reconnect at a fourth tree ahead, but instead, meet a noisy grackle balanced at the top of the tree where I hoped the Great Horned Owl would be. But he has already continued on his way, up the hill, over a fenceline, and out of my sight.
Certain we’re not out of his, I scan the trees on the hill in vain.
Unleashing the dogs, Nellie’s off in a dash in her fruitless pursuit of chasing small reptile.
Zigging and zagging, but never succeeding.
I think she’s just teasing.
My call for her cuts through the wind and the white-noised silence.
Until the music of the wild winds in the scrub oaks and the pines, in the final footsteps home, help me find my peace and place again.
Long centuries ago, when the world was a shadowy mist, the islands of Japan were born of the sea. Among the many gods inhabiting the misty abode were Izanagi and Izanami.
One day, while they were standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, talking with each other, Izanagi said: ‘I wonder what is down below us?’ This aroused Izanami’s curiosity, and they began to think how they might find out.
Taking the Jewel Spear of Heaven, Izanagi lowered it into the air and swung it around in an effort to strike something, for he could not see through the dense mist. Suddenly, the spear touched the ocean. When Izanagi raised it, salty water dripping from it was dried by the wind, becoming hard, and forming an island in the middle of the sea.
‘Let us go down and live on the island,’ said Izanagi. And so they descended from the Floating Bridge of Heaven to live on the island.
~as told by Morton Wesley Huber in his book, Vanishing Japan, published in 1965
Dedicated to my girlfriends: Audrey, Caralyn, Catherine, Jean, Maria, Megan and Betsy, to whom I wrote these shared journals. Without their kudos (the best coming in the form of laughter) and encouragement (especially in rereading their letters twenty years later) I never would have been inspired to document the good, bad, brazen and bizarre experiences during my two years in Japan.
To my Shintomi Family, who never failed to share their love and their lives with me and, who never – ever – questioned the many hours I spent at the Board of Education Office writing these journals when I really should have been working.
And then, of course, to Sam, who helped me live it and then joyously re-visit it 20 years later.
August 11 to December 13, 1990; Getting the Hell Out of Dodge
This is the first officially unofficial correspondence to all my dear friends back home since arriving in Japan just seven days ago. I’ve been here in Tokyo for an orientation with 1,500 JET, AETs (Japanese Exchange in Teaching, Assistant English Teachers) from across the English-speaking globe. Sadly, 100% of all the attractive, English-speaking men I’ve met here are going to be everywhere BUT the village where I’ll be employed. Even sadder is that this piece of news made top priority in the lineup of what is and what is not going on in my life. But I have to be honest in saying to all of you, I’m hoping the next year proves to be far more… abundant, shall we say, than the past male-starved millenium has been for me in Chicago.
Climbing our way back to higher ground, or at least to sea level… my time in Tokyo has been very interesting. I’ve only been able to catch a glimpse of this populous metropolis, this eensy-weensy economic powerhouse, but my first impression is that it is very glittery, very crowded, very, VERY expensive, expansive and a feat in organized chaos. Personally, I can see a weekend sourjourn here during the year to explore its darker “Blade Runner” feel, but after the past five years struggling to make ends meet in the big city back home, I’m looking forward to a little country livin’.
My rural haven will be south of Tokyo.
On the island of Kyushu.
In the prefecture of Miyazaki.
Shintomi Cho, the town where I’ll live and work, is a tiny farming village of about 19,000 people (“tiny” for Japanese standards) and is best known for the vegetables grown there.
It’s said that the region where I’ll be residing is where the Gods initially descended from the heavens and reigned over the country and I’m anxious to explore everything from the volcanic crater of Mt. Aso to the wild horses and monkeys roaming Nichinan Kaigan.
While in Tokyo, I’ve had a chance to see Graham.
If you’ll think back to the onset of all this, Graham (who was a participant in the JET Program during its first two years and is now living here in Tokyo) is the reason I’m writing to you from half-way across the world. As you well know, ever since the latter part of his tumultuous relationship with my sister, Mia, I had become his sounding board and, in turn, he was obligated to listen to me gripe about my miserable existence.
Graham knew I was struggling – working three dead-end jobs (the total income of which put me snuggly just below poverty level), trying to finish my Masters in English at DePaul University.
Dealing with past due bills.
And a fucked-up-friend-turned-temporary-roommate.
Wanting desperately to get the hell out of Dodge.
“Have you ever thought about going to Japan?” was how he began the conversation.
But leaving behind my insolvent, sexless, sorry-ass subsistence in the Windy City had me instantly thinking about it.
After all, I’d travelled.
Why not Japan?
The next thing I knew, I was filling out my application to the Japanese Ministry of Education for a year’s employment in the JET (Japanese Exchange in Teaching) Program and crossing my fingers.
Admittedly, this exciting, new prospect made it very difficult for me to concentrate on all the books and notebooks piled high in my pint-sized apartment in Chicago. Be that as it may, in a few, short weeks, I was expected to take the comprehensive exams which would determine whether I would earn my M.A. in English, or find myself in exorbitant debt for naught – as us literary types like to say.
Despite the daunting task of cramming a Dickensian proportion of literature into my brain – while at the same time trying to keep my lettered ass above water on the reality homefront – I mustered up enough resolve to buckle down and concentrate.
I got through my exams and continued in my daily struggles (trying not to put too much hope on my getting into the JET program) until the day I received a call from a sugary-voiced lady from the Japanese Consulate in Chicago who informed me I had made the final cut and was scheduled for an interview.
This was it, my ticket outta here!
Don’t be nervous, I told myself repeatedly, don’t panic and whatever you do, Anne, for God’s sake…. don’t screw this up.
When the day of the interview came, I was led into a large banquet hall where, along the back wall, a long table with a starched, white tablecloth stretched from one side to the other. Behind the table with pens and clipboards, pitchers of water and stacks of files, sat a panel of (if I recall correctly) somewhere between 8 and 80 people, all reviewing my incredibly unremarkable dossier.
The next thing I knew, I was in the thick of it.
“Yes, I’ve travelled abroad.”
“No, I don’t think being far from home will be an issue.”
“I’d much prefer being located rurally. This way, I feel I could get to know the people, the culture and even the lanuage better.”
“No, I don’t speak a word of Japanese, but I’m anxious to learn.”
“I think international understanding is vital to the fabric of our global community.”
I was on fire!
And not just my stomach, which was smoldering with coffee, cigarettes and a steady diet of cottage cheese and baked potatoes (both filling and cost effective!).
I felt it.
They saw it.
I even made them laugh (or at least smile). I showed them a confiident, poised individual dedicated to a common cause.
I was a “Let’s Do This Thing!”, never-say-die, woman-of-the-nineties – which my research and pep talks with Graham assured me would go over well with the my Japanese interviewers.
I was accepted into the program soon after and started making plans to wrap things up in Chicago as tidily as posiible. My about-to-be-former, far-too-well-to-do-to-be-freeloading friend was told she needed to find other living arrangements.
I gave my notice to all my places of employment, started selling my furniture, packing up my life, and reassuring remaining friends, family – and myself – that all would be well.
At least better than what my life had become in Chicago.
Which left me so destitute that if it hadn’t been for the love and generosity of my Aunt and Uncle (my father, having his lion’s share of financials woes) I wouldn’t have had a penny until my first paycheck in Japan.
And so, here I am in Tokyo, staying in one of the top hotels in the city, where we are being treated – dare I say it – like media-hounded celebrities. (This program has received a lot of press in Japan – both positive and negative.)
It’s just too bad we’re having to endure a tortuous amount of terminally uninspiring seminars attempting to prepare us not only for our new jobs, but our new lives in this ancient, unfamiliar culture.
The good news is that I’ve found another workshop-challenged cohort in my new British friend, Sam, who’ll be living in the city of Hyuga, about 45 minutes north of me.
STOP right where you are my friends. Sam is short for Samantha and although she isn’t a he, she and I have instantly bonded and are happy to begin our adventure together as a “we.”
So what exactly is it that “we” have gotten ourselves into?
Sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the JET program was not only designed to promote international understanding (a lofty task, indeed), but even more important, was created to advance the efforts of teaching and learning English as a second language.
Most Japanese kids begin taking English classes very early on and are required to study through high school. The problem is that for as long as anyone could remember (at least since the American occupation in post-WWII Japan), Japanese students have been taught the language by rote – memorization and repetition. In addition to what most now consider an outdated and incredibly unsuccessful teaching method, the English being used in the textbooks is so awkward and archaic that it has little to bear on the real world or real language.
So, the JET program gathers English-speaking persons from around the world and scatters them among the classrooms of Japan where they work alongside Japanese English teachers in order to bring a new energy and inspiration to uninteresting, outdated textbooks and ineffective teaching techniques.
Some people love the idea, while others both openly and inaudibly (the Japanese don’t like to cause public scenes), yet indubitably express their disapproval – the quietest outcry coming from the teachers who only know the language as it reads in the textbook; and we were assured that each of us will likely encounter at least one of these “teachers by rote” in our roster of classroom partners.
The most valuable thing I came away with from the seminars we attended this week was that there is clearly a lot of work to be done and high expectations on all parts. On the whole, however, I think we can make a difference and I’m excited to get started.
So, onward ho.
To Shintomi-cho, on the eastern shores of Miyazaki Prefecture, on the largest of the southernmost islands, Kyushu.
With the orientation behind us, twenty-three of us boarded a plane bound for Miyazaki City, the capital of the prefecture where we would be employed. After landing, claiming our baggage, and moving as a nervous pack of science rats through a giant maze, fellow participants in the experiment began to scatter as each found their respective town representatives, or (if you insist on continuing with this analogy) “pieces of cheese.”
After exchanging strained and anxious smiles with Sam from across the room, I found myself chin to forehead with Yamamoto-sensei (sensei, meaning teacher), who will be working with me at one of the three middle schools I’ll be teaching at: Tonda, Nyuta and Kaminyuta Chugakko.
He was joined by two other gentlemen (Oki-Hosa and Kuranaga-kacho) from the Board of Education where I’ll be stationed before the school year begins and where I’ll have a desk when I’m not scheduled for a school visit.
If anything can be said about this unexpected detour from a hot shower and a deep sleep, it’s that I now have the bowing and proper greetings down flat.
I found quick comfort in the fact that these men seemed as nervous as I.
Although the town had been assigned an American AET the year prior, she was of Japanese-American descent and far less, “exotic-looking” than what had just walked through the airport gates. And what did they really know about this conspicuously-sized American gaijin (gaijin, meaning “outsider,” though if you ask most tactful Japanese, they’ll attempt to make it sound far less insulting).
We made it through introductions (Yamamoto-sensei acting as translator) and before there was time for an uncomfortable pause, the entire JET entourage was led into a large room at the airport for a press conference.
Despite the unexpected arrival of “Aunt Flo” (who had just barged onto the scene with a bloody vengeance), the completely overblown media attention, AND the overwhelming desire I had to slither from the scene, the televised event passed without international incident.
Afterward, the two cars they sent for me (in case I overpacked…which I did) were packed up and I settled into the back seat of the lead car.
Breathing a long sigh of relief.
Knowing I was soon headed to my new apartment.
Where I planned to unpack, unwind and sleep for an exorbitant amount of time.
As we headed north to Shintomi, the surreal nature of everything that had happened over the past week suddenly began to fade and the reality of the situation became as clear as the spotless windshield I was gazing out of as the Japanese farmland whizzed past.
Holy crap, Batman. I’m here… and for a year!
During the half hour ride, Yamamoto-sensei restlessly thumbed through my file – which I have since learned was copied and given to nearly every member of the Town Hall and nearly every teacher/faculty member where I’ll be team-teaching.
Who subsequently shared it with just about every member of the village who is old enough to read.
Yamamoto-sensei attempted to break the ice by asking a lot of questions about my life – marriage being near the very top of the list. In other words, at 27 years old, why am I not?
As attempts were made to keep the driver and passengers from experiencing a moment’s silence, I smiled, answered their questions, and occasionally gazed out of the car window as we whizzed past the scenery of Japan’s Pacific coast.
Thick and green to its very rocky edge in one place.
Long stretches of desolate beaches a few miles further along.
As we left the highway for smaller, narrower streets, I saw the coastal scenery quickly replaced by flat meadows, thick with yellow, creeping to the edge of a river.
On the other side of which – more yellow, stretching to meet a range of misty mountains.
Down the road a bit, as my tired gaze grew more gauzy and my hosts more comfortable in the silence, we passed one rice paddy after the next, neat and tidy.
Each patch perfectly reflecting the surrounding trees and tropics, sun and sky. Making my mind wander toward visions of patchwork quilts, windswept prairies, rows of young corn, “knee-high by the Fourth of July.”
Thoughts of home.
We passed fields upon fields of ripening vegetables – daikon and cabbage, sweet potatoes and carrots, each pungent and promising; and one watery channel after another where, Yamamoto-sensei explained, eels (a staple in Japanese cuisine and Shintomi’s economy) are raised.
As we passed a moist, green pasture scattered with grazing cattle, I noticed buildings appearing in greater frequency. First, it was merely a weatherbeaten, old farmhouse or outbuilding at the side of the road, but soon the streets began to fill with tiny shops and modest houses.
Faded but orderly.
Well-groomed and practical – if not beautiful – schools and offices playgrounds.
Yet amid the unassuming architecture, I noticed everywhere shadowy shrines and inviting gardens – the elegant undertones of customs and colors – which made me want to wander aimlessly and as soon as possible.
As we wound our way through town, all of the gentlemen in the car pointed at places of interest and of use, but I wasn’t really listening.
My mind was reeling with how utterly unfamiliar this was going to be from the last five years I spent floundering in Chicago.
I’m up for a World of different.
However, at this point in my adventure, the only thing I wanted to encounter was my apartment.
And a pillow.
My hosts had their own agenda.
First, I was paraded through the corridors of Shintomi’s Town Hall.
If anything could be said about this unexpected detour from a hot shower and a deep sleep, it’s that I now have the bowing and proper greetings down flat.
And this is no easy task, my friends, for there are many complexities which make up the Japanese Office Culture.
This industry of industry.
This world of uniformed workers, where business cards are handed out like handshakes and three-tiered greetings, as well as ceremonious departures are as much a part of life as crew cuts, white shirts, green tea, exercise, ties clips, white gloves, parasols and sensible shoes.
Walking through the town hall for the very first time, surrounded by my pint-sized, Board of Education posse, I was led into a machine gun round of official, formal introductions with every Head Hancho from every department.
The final, official, formal greetings of the day was at the Board of Education office where I’ll be working. There, I met the Superintendent, a soft-spoken man who quietly arrived, presented the rest of his staff, showed me my desk and then quietly disappeared into the crowd of curious bystanders.
So there I stood in my new office.
This peculiar environment of pushed together desks with thick, yellowing, plastic desk-protectors, folders, forms and neatly stacked file cabinets.
My new bosses and co-workers hovering silently nearby as I swayed with exhaustion.
I was soon whisked away by an expanded posse of SIX.
Both little, white cars now filled to capacity.
Added to the evening’s entourage are Board of Education staff members: a young woman, Akiko-san, a middle-aged woman, Yoshino-san, as well as Hiejima-kakaricho, the office’s chief clerk.
Within moments of leaving the Town Hall, our tiny parade pulled up to Shin Machi Shin Danchi and my apartment complex, which looks about as welcoming as a cell block.
With no traces whatsoever of the simple, elegance of Japanese architecture I’d envisioned for months prior to my arrival, I have to admit I was a little disappointed.
This disappointment was immediately vanquished when I saw I had little to complain about. My apartment is very spacious.
More room than I need, really, especially considering multiple generations of Japanese families regularly share one the very same size.
I have three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom which boasts (there is a God) a good, ol’ sit down, Western toilet. I’ve quickly discovered that this is more of a luxury than I had ever, in my wildest dreams, imagined. I don’t know if this applies only to the more rural parts of Japan, but nearly everywhere I go and have to “go” I am forced to practice the fine art of squatting over a porcelain hole in the ground.
Because of this ungainly position, it’s probably fortuitous that someone, somewhere in Japan invented a little recording device for public bathroom stalls. Devices which has been designed to play music to veil the potentially embarrassing sounds associated with relieving oneself.
I’ve even heard the recording of a toilet flushing used for the same purpose.
As unaccustomed to squatting as I am (especially where no tent is pitched), bathroom visits have also become a muscle-burning workout, during which time the grunts and groans one hears emanating from my stall might be seriously misconstrued.
The Western toilet, however, is about the only thing familiar about the apartment.
Two of the rooms, divided by a screen, have tatami floors where I spend most of my time. Not only because this is where I unroll my bed each night, but because this is where my heating/ac unit is installed and being a sub-tropic region with cold winters and hot, humid summers this will surely be my favorite fixture in the apartment.
It certainly won’t be the florescent lighting installed in the ceiling of every room – the turning on of which casts a morbid pall over my complexion.
And my mood.
… nor will it be the Japanese-style bathtub.
What could be so different about a bathtub, you ask?
Ah ha, my friends, this isn’t the long, low receptacle we’ve all come to know and love; where one soaks in hot water and Mr. Bubbles after a grueling day.
The official story is that you’re not supposed to wash off in a Japanese-style tub at all, but suds yourself up outside the bath (which resembles more of a box), rinse, and then step into the tub for a soak.
Before any of this can happen, the water must be heated.
That’s right. After I fill the large, plastic box with H20, I’ve been instructed to ignite the pilot light (situated on the side of the tub), turn the dial to the desired temperature… and wait.
About 30 minutes.
The water in the kitchen also requires heating.
And there is no oven.
Only a two burner stove top.
A rice cooker.
And an itsy-bitsy washing machine that might be able to squeeze in one pair of jeans.
The grand tour of my new digs felt like a scene out of Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.”
Convicts chained together.
The entire Shintomi Board of Education shuffling from room to room.
I began to feel the weight of the past days on my eyelids and was trying to figure out how I could gently persuade my gang to ‘git.
What was I thinking?
The seven of us piled back into the cars and headed off to a local restaurant for a welcome dinner. It was here I met Junko-san, a quiet, apologetic type, who’ll be assisting me in teaching a series of adult English classes at the Community Center.
She relieved Yamamoto-sensei of some of the translating duties as we dove into a feast of fresh fish and cold beer. This is definitely something I WILL NOT have to get used to. Every morsel and every sip of it was heaven sent.
Throughout the evening, I felt anxious glances greeting my every motion. Their unspoken curiousness and unasked questions were palpable. How would I handle hashi (chopsticks)? How long will it be before we can communicate with each other? How can she put away that much beer? How does someone of that size not collapse under the sheer weight of herself?
Actually, their genuine concern for my comfort was of great comfort.
The only instance that brought a moment’s worth of awkwardness was when I first sat down at the restaurant. As is customary whenever I sit on the floor, I crossed my legs.
Keep in mind, I was wearing shorts and tights.
I had failed to notice that all three women were sitting primly and properly on their knees, with their hands folded gently on their laps, and would have continued to be utterly ignorant of this unseemly, unfeminine posture had it not been for Yoshino-san, who approached me quietly from one side.
And slipped a handkerchief over my… how do I put this delicately?
Not a word was spoken about it (not that I would have understood it anyway) and I made an effort for the remainder of the evening to at least attempt sitting with my legs folded to the side.
I did try sitting on my feet in the same manner my female companions, but soon discovered that the leg flailing brought on by cramps caused by maintaining this position for more than 10 seconds would have proven far more embarrassing than an innocent, little groin shot.
When the dinner was over, I was relieved to learn that the women (Junko, Yoshino and Akiko) would be taking me back to my apartment, while the men continued celebrating my arrival at a local Karaoke bar.
The Karaoke bar, if you are not familiar with it, hails from these parts and can be found on nearly every corner of every community – large or Lilliputian.
They are usually small, dark establishments which serve (at least in Shintomi-cho) an array of alcohol – as long as it’s whiskey, shochyu (a local fermented beverage made from sweet potatoes) or beer.
A fixture in nearly every karaoke bar is the Mama-san. Usually in her 50s, dressed in a dazzling kimono or a baffling brocade suit (better suited for a sofa), caked in make-up without looking like it, this tiny, but near-terrifying presence lords over the bar with polite yet stern solemnity, making sure that patrons are well-served and, if over-served, rowdiness is kept to a minimum.
And then, of course, every Karaoke bar is equipped with music videos and microphones.
Now, the kind of music played here is not something a buck will buy you from an old juke box, but a series of sappy sounding, sing-along melodies played on a video screen, ranging from traditional Japanese ballads to obscure renditions of American Jazz standards.
At some point in the evening, each person (and EVERYONE is expected to participate) is handed a microphone and asked to sing their chosen song to a captive and politely captivated audience.
Sometimes you might find yourself standing on a small, spotlit stage and other times, you’re able to hide in a dark booth in the corner. Either way, you are socially obligated to belt out a tune.
For those of us not familiar with the traditional Japanese songs, most local establishments have a handful of Western melodies, such as “Yesterday” (Which, by the way, offers a five minute video of naked Japanese girls writhing on the screen); “My Way,” “Love Me Tender,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Moon River,” and the ever-popular, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
I wish I could say that I am able to perform this ritual in the unassuming shadows.
But that would be silly.
It’s become painfully obvious that I don’t go unnoticed doing anything – anywhere in Shintomi.
However, I’ve learned that the drunker my audience, the more appreciative they are.
And the drunker I am, the better I think I sound.
So I’ve learned to hold off on my song until the end of the evening.
With that said, my first evening in Shintomi finally came to a close.
As the men from my new office continued on with the celebration, Akiko, Yoshino and Junko brought me back to my apartment and after making sure I was settled in, left me on my own for the very first time since I set foot in Shintomi.
As soon as the door closed, my exhaustion morphed into nervous excitement.
I circled the apartment.
A few times.
I unpacked my things.
I called Sam, who was also feeling anxious and nervous.
Which made me feel much better.
So did a soak in the tub.
I soaked IN the sudsy tub for an hour.
Protocol be damned!
Then I tossed and turned on my futon until I heard a neighborhood rooster crow early the next morning.
At about 7 a.m., as I laid in my futon surveying my new surroundings, I heard some kind of nearby machine come to life in a series of clicks.
Followed by several bongs (and not the good kind).
And then a sickeningly sweet, yet strangely soothing voice of a woman who was wishing me (and from the sound of it, the remainder of the town), “Ohaiyo Gozaimasu” (Good Morning).
Still groggy from a restless night’s sleep, I couldn’t tell exactly where the voice was coming from, so I crawled from my bed and, assuming it to be emanating from somewhere outside, I opened the sliding door which leads out onto a small balcony overlooking the town.
I waited for the voice to speak again.
When it did, I realized that the voice wasn’t coming from the streets.
It was coming from my apartment.
So, I followed it until I found what I like to call the Clicky Machine mounted in the corner of the room just off the kitchen. The device, so I was later by Yamamoto-sensei, is used to warn the citizens of Shintomi of impending foul weather and such.
Foul weather or fair, it will act as a communal alarm clock each and every morning during my stay here.
So much for hitting the snooze button.
After slowly dressing and making some tea, I headed downstairs where, at precisely 9 a.m., Yamamoto-sensei arrived to take me to meet the mayor of Shintomi and more high ranking, local officials.
When we arrived back at Shintomi Town Hall, I was led into a reception room and there, with my introduction speech now soggy and crumpled in my hands, I waited with eight men and a local photographer.
Each silently watching my every move.
Shy smiles and nods of acknowledgement giving way to the only motion left in the room.
The clock’s second hand… ticking… away… the minutes.
Eventually, we were led into the mayor’s office where I would be welcomed with a short speech.
Followed by my feeble, yet remarkably long-winded “thanks for having me here” speech in both Japanese and English.
Followed by several campaign-style photo-ops.
When the preliminary formalities were concluded, I was motioned to have a seat on the mayor’s leather couch and in doing so made some unfortunate sounds as my perspiring thighs rubbed against unsympathetic upholstery.
Rattled and red-faced, I smiled weakly.
Then I noticed that each man in the room had a copy of my bio.
Nothing in there is going to get us through this any faster, my friends.
Thank goodness, the day ended with Akiko-san inviting me to a jazz festival in the neighboring town of Saito.
It was the fist time since arriving that I remembered to breathe.
I’ve never been so excited; while at the same time so petrified.
So far, I’ve met the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, the governor of Miyazaki prefecture and the mayor of the Shintomi.
They’re all at least five inches shorter than me.
Japanese is not an easy language to learn. Think of everything you know about our native tongue and… forget it. It doesn’t apply. However, I’m studying hard (ok, I’m studying) and I should be able to face the general Japanese public by sometime early next year.
The people of Shintomi are lovely and thoughtful.
But they only drive little, white cars.
I visited my first store in Shintomi on my own the other day to look for a reading lamp to replace the overhead florescent lighting installed throughout my apartment. I found a lamp, approached the counter and nervously attempted Japanese, but ended up playing a highly animated game of universal charades instead. I somehow managed to purchase the lamp, brought it home and – feeling a strong sense of accomplishment – plugged it in.
It’s frickin’ florescent.
I might have a chance at “romance” here having already been propositioned by two men.
Sadly, both were thirty years older… and about five inches shorter than me.
It’s Saturday night and I’m writing to you instead of being out there looking for aforementioned romance, or at least a little fun.
It seems Japanese women aren’t allowed too much fun.
I’ll be playing in a community volleyball tournament next week. This might be the only time my height will be advantageous.
The Japanese seem to have a million different rituals, gestures, sayings, etc.
Customs precede your every move.
Kindness and respect are not considered special efforts but are a given and vital part of daily existence.
At first these “givens” seem a trifle overwhelming – the greetings and the multiple “thank yous”, the blessings, the bowing and kneeling – even eating and drinking appear far too complicated. But as I begin to find my footing in these new surroundings, I’m learning to appreciate the grace in each motion and every saying.
I went to Miyazaki for yet another unremarkable JET orientation and then went shopping with Sam. Miyazaki has some fantastic clothing stores.
None of the clothes fit.
The town bought me a satellite hook-up so I can keep in touch with the happenings in the world on the English-speaking station.
I’m starting to talk to the television.
Everyone I meet wants to know how old I am, why I don’t wear make-up, why I’m not married, why I came to Japan, why I wanted to teach rurally, what I like to eat, what color are my eyes, what size are my shoes, how long are my legs?… Christ… didn’t they read my file?
I miss you all terribly and vow that if you don’t write soon I’ll throw myself into a boiling batch of miso soup.
I probably won’t drown because my head will be 5 inches above broth.
First thing this morning, I’m driven to the Community Center where, before the onset of their annual Tsunahiki (Tug of War), I’m to greet all 1,000 middle school students whom I’ll be teaching this year.I knew I’d be expected to say something to the young crowd, but I’d been so preoccupied with coming up with a speech for my meeting with the mayor and an upcoming conference in Miyazaki, that I arrive at the center completely unprepared.
Being August in this sub-tropic region it is sweltering and because of my very strong desire to cover up my psoriasis, I’m completely overdressed. So, by the time I step foot into the packed gymnasium, I’m dripping with sweat.
I don’t mean perspiring.
I mean DRIPPING with sweat.
There are beads of perspiration pouring down my face. stinging my eyes, soaking my top and drenching my hair.
Leaving me longing for a handkerchief.
Or better yet, a very large bath towel.
As I stand to the side, trying desperately to pay attention to the speeches being given on my behalf, literally quivering with anxiety over what I’m going say, I look down to the shiny, polished wooden floor at my feet and am aghast to see an actual puddle of nerves.
I fidget with my damp shorts. I fuss with my wristwatch.
I feel the unrelenting urge to weep and long for a cool, dark place to hide.
Dizzy with heat, I hear my name. It sounds like it’s being spoken underwater.
Akiko-san (who’s been standing at my side, attempting to sooth my conspicuous distress with her sympathetic smile) gently nudges me forward.
Legs still wobbling, I step toward the microphone.
You can do it, Anne.
There’s nothing to be nervous about.
The next thing I know, the customary slipper I’ve been required to slip into before stepping onto the pristine gymnasium floor, is catapulting ahead of me into the first row of the surprised student crowd.
I cringe as I retrieve my footwear from the first row and turn back to the microphone. It feels like I’m walking in the shallow end of a pool.
I search desperately for the very first words I’d speak to my students.
“Ohaiyo gozaimasu,” I stutter into the microphone as the sound of my shaky voice reverberates off the gymnasium walls, mocking me.
“Atsui, desu ne? [Hot, isn’t it?].” I stammer, attempting to laugh.
Nothing but silence.And a lot of staring.
I introduce myself in Japanese, apologize for my poor grasp of the language and stand there before the hushed crowd, trembling.
Grasping for words.
Even my native tongue evades me.That is, until I hear myself say, “I expect to see you all in class with smiles on your faces.”
At which point I bring my index fingers to the corners of my mouth and actually pull up a smile.
A freaky, sad clown smile.
What an idiot.
What deafening silence.
I quickly thank everyone and as I’m returning to my place… I slip on my very own puddle of flop sweat, just barely averting an ass plant, yet propelling the very same slipper into the hushed and bewildered crowd of teachers and administrators standing behind me.
So much for first impressions.
As the students disperse and regather into their tug-of-war groups, I make my way back to Akiko’s friendly, forgiving smile and signal her to lead me to the nearest bathroom.
There, I stick my head beneath the sink and unsuccessfully attempt to drown myself.
Day in and day out, for the last six weeks, upon returning home after a hard day of teaching English to the young minds of rural Japan, there’s an unmistakable twinge in my stomach each time I approach the mailbox, a desperate, glimmer of hope that when I open it-
– there will be at least one letter from at least one person who dares call me friend.
Much to my chagrin, I swing the door open and bend down, sweat falls into my already tear-stung eyes and the only thing I find inside is the faint echo of my last visit.
“Damn – damn – damn…”
“No letters – letters – letters…”
And I walk to the stairs of my apartment, sighing and crying.
Crying and sighing.
Look, when we said good-bye in July, I didn’t think it meant, “Talk to you when you get back.”
The only other thing that has frustrated me as of late is the language barrier. My understanding and ability to speak Japanese has improved, but only slightly. I just have to stop being so inhibited and so worried about saying something truly embarrassing, such as “Show us your package,” as opposed to “A pleasure to meet you, Prime Minister Kaifu.”
I do find, however, that after a few beers I can convince myself that I’m practically fluent and the words (as well as the often intense intonations of the language) come flowing out. My office got quite a kick out of the fact that I responded to a recent comment with: “Eeeehhhhh?” (To say this correctly, the voice should gradually rise several octaves. It’s kind of like the equivalent of our “Huh?” but, quite honestly, far more effective.)
At first I thought that working in an office where no one spoke English was going to be rather difficult, but I’ve discovered it’s to my advantage. Being forced to learn the language is both challenging and a great way to build relationships.Akiko-san, the young lady who sits across from me at the Board of Education, is trying hard to use English – everyone is – while I struggle with my Japanese.
She’s advancing at a much faster pace than me.
Nevertheless, I try not to get too discouraged and have to be content to learn a few new phrases each day. As it happens, going through my own struggles has made me better understand how I might be able to help my students learn English.
I’ve also been feeling rather lusty lately.
(Wow, where did that come from?)
As in most countries, the male populous of Japan has its share of toothless, pot-bellied, pock-ridden slobs who feel that if they’re going to take a chance on a woman it might as well be me, but man… some of the men here are so dang handsome.
Case in point, I met this incredibly good-looking elementary school teacher at a community volleyball game on Saturday who set my heart – as well as my lower regions – afire.
His name is Tanaka. He’s single, about my height (there is a God), and has a face that would surely launch a thousand sighs from you American women.
We met at a post-volleyball party as Yamamoto-sensei introduced me to each and every individual there. I was shaking hands, bowing, kissing babies and was nearly elected into office, before we got to this delectable, young teacher. The group he was with invited me to sit on the tatami next to him and although I preferred the idea of sitting on top of him, protocol forbid it.
Akiko-san snapped pictures while the hunky teacher and I chatted – or at least tried. He doesn’t speak much English. (Ask me if I cared.) Maybe I’ll send you all a copy of the aforementioned photo after I’ve had the negative blown up life-size. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll have it blown up a little larger than life so that he can be taller than me.
Many at the post-volleyball party departed soon after, including the man I now wished to father my children, so I spent the remainder of the evening eating and drinking and drinking and drinking with my employers, co-teachers and co-workers. Sam and another AET, Ted, arrived in Shintomi at about 6 p.m. only to find they were far behind. It wasn’t long, however, before their plates were piled high and glasses filled.
And kept filled.
It’s a Japanese custom never to let a companion’s glass get less than half full and they take this responsibility very seriously.Following the post-volleyball party was, of course, a visit to a local Karaoke Bar. There is NEVER only one event to attend when you go out in Shintomi and, I assume, Japan. In fact, you’re often expected to go to at least two more places before calling it a night. Even then, the men are often on their way to a fourth and fifth place.
While at the karaoke bar, my bosses and co-workers had their first chance to hear Sam sing.
God love her.
The sweet, utterly tone deaf diva.
At one point, a newcomer to the party (oblivious to Sam’s previous, ear-splitting performances that evening) moved to hand Sam the microphone. To my great astonishment, I watched several of my companions – who, as Japanese, seem culturally and morally obligated to urge EVERYONE to sing – jump from their seats to grab the microphone before the lovely, but terribly tortured songbird had the chance, offering excuses on her behalf.
Don’t feel too bad.
Sam continues to perform, unabashedly and unapologetically, every chance she gets.
After a while, Sam, Ted and I splintered off to a different Shintomi establishment where we encountered a wedding party celebrating, and where, by the end of the evening, I attempted to teach a young man in the party a truly conservative version of the Lambada.
Considering these are the folk I spend most of my time with, I thought it might prove helpful to offer a quick run down of My Town of Shintomi Board of Education Office Family: Kuranaga-kacho (above left) is the office’s section chief, a tiny, little, married man with coke bottle glasses. He is the “Papa-san” of the office. He has a devilish sense of humor and a HUGE heart. He is quick to smile, to test me and to tease me. When he and I spend time together, I’ve noticed his facial expressions vacillate somewhere between unabashed bewilderment and downright delight.
Oki-Hosa (above right) is the Assistant Section Chief. He is the family’s nerdy, forty-something uncle with a buzz cut, a big, persistent, genuine smile and an almost noiseless laugh – nearly imperceptible without seeing his facial expressions and body movements. Married with children in some of my classes, Oki-Hosa has a penchant for doing everything by the book and has made it clear that as Assistant Section Chief, I am officially HIS responsibility.
In his mid-thirties and married, Hiejima-kakricho (above center) is the Board of Education’s Chief Clerk. He is reserved in his words, his smile and his sense of humor. All of which are alive and well, yet wielded at the most unlikely moments.
Yoshino-san (above right) is the office Mama-san, with a small but sturdy build, a boyish hairstyle, but a natural, feminine grace. She is single, thoughtful, quick to laugh and quick to scold. She is stern but nurturing and as loyal – and protective – as an old bulldog.
Akiko-san (above right of me) is the youngest in the office. She is single, has a slight frame and what seems to be common among Japanese girls and women, a page boy-style cut. She is sweet and soft-spoken, but has a sly, sisterly wit. She’s been my local tour guide, a kindly tutor in all things Japanese and an excellent friend. I surprise her often, frighten her a little and make her laugh. A lot.
Tomioka-san (above with me) is Head of the Town Hall’s Computer Department. Even though he is not part of the Board of Education, Tomioka-san is a regular face in our office due to the fact that his office is just down the hall. He is the “cooler”, more laid back uncle, the family’s “black sheep” who shuffles rather than steps and always has a cigarette dangling from his left hand. He thrives on distracting people from their work with a joke, or a story. He always looks like he needs a haircut and would clearly prefer to be somewhere – anywhere – but at work in his office. He never fails to make me laugh.
I was given a load of praise from my bosses this week. They seem quite pleased with my performance thus far, despite the sleeveless top I wore to a recent school function. I’m quite sure my popularity has a little to do with the fact that Shelly, my predecessor, was apparently a very private individual. It seems she didn’t go out very often and, much to everyone’s chagrin, she also didn’t drink.
I do both.
Not that that should matter. But if the truth be told, a little alcohol goes a long way to relax people, take down inhibitions and let go of experience-stealing insecurities; and honestly, even though this job is important to me, even more important is that I grab all the experiences I can while I’m here. What better way than to immerse myself in the lives of the people who surround me? So, when they ask me to join them, I do.
Otherwise… what’s the point of leaving your own backyard?
It’s a lovely feeling knowing that I have an entire community looking out for me (not just my office) and although the attention isn’t always easy, it’s never unappreciated. At least not yet.
Even though they feed me and feed me and feed me.
And then worry I might gain weight.
They praise me, encourage me and gently correct me when they feel I’ve gone astray.
They also guide me, direct me and lead me, for fear I might lose my way. If I have to go to the post office, someone accompanies me. If I have to meet an electrician at my apartment, two people tag along. When I had to go to Miyazaki for yet another orientation, Yoshino-san took the train with me, using the excuse she had errands to do in the city.
They do, however, let me go to the bathroom on my own. Ironically, this is where I would most like a female companion due to the fact that men and women share the same bathroom on my floor at the town hall. The women do have stalls, but in order to get to them, one has to pass by the urinals.
Thankfully, a new building – with separate bathrooms – is under construction as we speak.
But I’m truly grateful for the caring guardianship. It’s a far cry from what several of my JET colleagues have been going through. Poor Jeremy (a super lovely fellow from New Zealand), for example, has been having a really bad time with his host town. He and another AET, Janelle, have not only been systematically ignored by their office (hardly having a word spoken to them thus far), but are being given few school visits and are left with little to do each and every day. Add this to the fact that on the very first night of their arrival, the officials in charge dropped the two off at empty apartments, with no futon, no bedding, no furniture and, most certainly, no welcome dinner party.
Jeremy said his heart left for home that very night.
How could you possibly blame him? Very sad. I feel very welcome and wanted here. They make me feel as if we’re all in this together. Which makes me feel as if maybe I’m not that far from home, after all.
All in all, the initial fears I felt since all of this began have slowly melted away. We’re discovering that despite the vast differences in our lives, we come from the same world where people laugh when something’s funny and cry when something’s sad. Where the sun rises in the morning and sets at night.
The only difference for me is that around each corner, at the start of each new day, with the learning of each new word, I’m greeted by a new adventure and filling the void I’ve been feeling in my life for so long.
I began classes last week and found my students very noisy, but anxious to listen. Let’s see what happens after the novelty of my first few visits and the excitement of hearing about where I’m from wears off. I’m quickly learning how very important the teacher is to the fabric of the Japanese family. Parents look for guidance and advice from their children’s teachers and welcome regular home visits. Together, they talk about everything from behavioral and familial issues to future goals and expectations. Teachers are highly respected in Japan – revered even – and rewarded with high salaries and excellent benefits.
There is an undeniably military feel about the Japanese School system. Not only in how tighty things are run, but even in how things look. Especially with regard to the students.The typical boys’ elementary school uniform is black pants, a white shirt, white tennis shoes and a black Nehru jacket. Even their serviceman-style buzz cut reeks of the armed forces. Girls’ uniforms may vary in color, but the theme is always nautical in nature, complete with sailor tops, pleated skirts, as well as the quintessential Page Boy cuts.
Fascinating to me is the fact that all of my students are responsible for cleaning their schools. Each day, the entire student body grabs their assigned mops, buckets, rags, etc., and clean the classrooms, bathrooms, the offices and hallways. They wash blackboards, scrub floors, scour toilets, empty trash. I think it not only offers a sense of pride – ownership – of their school, but it also teaches one to respect the process and all it takes to make things work.
There is a strong sense of community, and an even stronger sense of conformity woven into the fabric of Japanese culture.Yet I can see inklings of revolt in the younger generations. Slight and more than slightly tinged with likeness. But change is coming and the desire for individuality, perfectly understandable.
I saw a rugby match last weekend. Pant, pant, pant. Grunt, sweat, grunt. (And that was just me watching from the sidelines.) I went to the event with Akiko and, afterward, we chatted with her Rugby friends who invited us to a party. It was at that very moment that Akiko helped me to understand something I read about the Japanese culture before arriving, but was not sure I understood.Their reluctance to say, “No.” I jumped at the party invitation and turning to Akiko, asked if she wanted to go. With a look of absolute terror on her face, she said the word “hai” (or yes), but was shaking her head “NO!” I was confused. I was stymied. Eventually, I took the international symbol of frantically jerking one’s head left to right, then right to left, and so on, as the stronger of the conflicting responses. Afterward, as we climbed into Akiko’s car, she let out a nervous giggle. Followed by a reeeeeeeally looooong sigh of relief. I knew then I had made the right decision.
I went to a Benneltons in Miyazaki and saw lots of cute clothes. Unless I can amputate 30 pounds and several inches from my body, I won’t be buying anything of them.
I received word from DePaul University. I passed my comprehensive exams and officially have my Master of Arts in English. And there was much rejoicing.
Sam and I decided on either Bangkok, Singapore, or Burma, for our two weeks off during the Christmas break. Wherever we go, we hope to find long, deserted beaches, stores that carry clothes our size and men who know how to follow through on flirtations.
I attended a Kendo (Japanese fencing) lesson because I thought I might be interested in learning this ancient art. I quickly learned I would be consistently hit on the head with a bamboo pole. Maybe I’ll try Kyudõ (archery).
If anyone cares to send a care package I would love to have a decent sized towel. The ones I find here barely wrap around my head, let alone any other part of my body. Also sparse in these parts: decent toothpaste, effective deodorant, ingredients for pasta sauce, good music, Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” AND, of course, LETTERS!
I’m desperately trying to get used to having to constantly remove my street shoes (be it school, office, or someone’s home) for a pair of incredibly unattractive rubber slippers which I regularly launch ahead of me into the path of innocent bystanders.
I met a Major based at Nyuta Baru Air Force Base here in Shintomi and he’s invited me to visit. Let’s see… me and hundreds of American Fly-boys. What to do, what to do…
Although I don’t have to make a decision until December, I’m thinking I might sign up for another year.
I went to the beaches of Kojima with Sam and Ted where we saw wild monkeys. When the tide was out, the three of us walked out to the island where the monkeys live. Beautiful, but slightly stressful knowing our adventure had to be timed with the tides, otherwise we’d be spending the night with our primate pals.The beaches were stunning and almost completely deserted except for a very kind and generous family who shared their picnic and their jet ski.
I was recently invited to a chicken farm where I was gifted a dozen freshly laid eggs. The gesture brought a tear to my eyes. Or was it the tons of pungent chicken shit wafting through my nose?
With school in full swing, my teachers and I seem to have gotten our routines down. That’s not to say I have the same regimen for each teacher.
Far from it.
In fact, my teachers’ classroom styles are as different as their personalities.
At Tonda Chugakko, the largest and most centrally located of the elementary schools, there is Yamamoto-sensei. If you remember, I met him during the very first moments on Kyushu soil. Yamamoto-sensei seems to be the senior English teacher in the Shintomi School District and he certainly has the most commanding presence, despite his diminutive dimensions.
Probably in his late 50s, Yamamoto-sensei is always well-groomed, always dressed in a white shirt (well worn, but well pressed), tie and slacks. His mastery of the English language is excellent and although his teaching style tends to be a little too formal for my liking (and I’m quite sure his students would agree), he’s well respected and liked – at least by me. Before each class, he goes over what the students are expected to learn that day and how I’ll be participating, which usually entails clarifying pronunciations and taking part in dialogues.
Unfortunately, most of the dialogues do little to detour from the terrible textbooks the students are forced to learn from. However, he’s NEVER ONCE made me feel unwelcome or unwanted.
And he’s quick to smile.
Especially when he sees how the students light up when I enter the classroom.
Hatekeyama-sensei is the other English teacher at Tonda. Probably in her early forties, she has a lovely round face that reflects a rather happy individual.
Full of giggles.
Full of life.
And from what I’ve seen, full of love for and from her students.
When necessary, she can also scare the crap out of misbehaving students (and me for that matter) when her gentle voice and pleasing demeanor turn in a flash to booming and formidable. Thankfully, she’s never had a harsh word for me. In fact, before each class we have together, we sit in the teachers’ room and chat.
Not only does Hatekeyama-sensei carefully go over what we’ll be doing in class that day, she also gives me freedom to create my own dialogues, stray from the formal class routine and follows my often unscripted plan with a grace and gaiety that I find delightful and inspiring.
Hashimoto-sensei is the English teacher at Kaminyuta Chugakko, the smallest and most rurally located of my schools. I would have to guess that she is in her sixties – even though her dyed jet black hair tries to hide it – maybe 4’9″ (on tippy-toes) and very near retirement.
Every day I’m scheduled to participate in her classes, she picks me up at my apartment in her tidy, little, white car. Barely able to see over the steering wheel (and that’s with the use of a pillow), Hashimoto-sensei very slowly and very, very cautiously drives past rice fields and forests to the modest but well-kept elementary school far from town.
I love our little journeys together.
She’s not only very kind and very thoughtful, she is also very accepting of my presence.
Even though she has the worst grasp of English of any of my teachers.
Yet this has never intimidated her – even during our first couple of classes together when nerves and language barriers could have set us on the wrong path.
When she saw that I wasn’t there to judge, expose or condemn her, she gained confidence.
Now, Hashimoto-sensei wears her broken English like a badge of honor.
And with the patience befitting a saint, she helps me with Japanese.
I adore her.
Finally, at Nyuta Chugakko, another very small, humble and rural school I visit, there is Kubota-sensei.
With a face like a rabbit and a head like an egg (and a personality to match) Kubota-sensei is certainly a very, very nice man and has been very kind to me. (He also picks me up on days I’ll be visiting his classes.) It’s just that he seems far more interested in learning about all the eccentricities of the English language rather than in teaching it.
His students are clearly bored out of their minds.
The problem is that even though his English is excellent, he doesn’t know how to convey his love of the language in his lessons; which, like Yamamoto-sensei, never veer from the textbook.
Kubota-sensei does tries to connect with his students through music.
But turning on the CD player so the kids can read the lyrics and sing along to out of date pop tunes, while I sit idly by, doesn’t seem to be a good use of anyone’s time. And when I do take an active role in his classes, it seems to be more as a human tape recorder rather than a classroom assistant.
However unsuccessful or ineffective I might feel in the classroom at times, I’m still confident that my influence on the students of the Shintomi School District will most strongly be felt outside class visits.
Maybe during lunch time. (Each school visit, I’m assigned to eat with the students of a particular class.) Or during recess, when I’m able to wander the hallways, playgrounds and school gardens and join students in a game of ball or hopscotch.
Or during my walk to Tonda Chugakko, the grocery store, the river, or the Town Hall, when I’m often met by a slow-moving, giggling gaggle of smile-hiding girls who stop everything to walk beside me and talk to me.
My arrival on the scene compels them to use English; while at the same time, they have the opportunity to see me attempt Japanese.
We talk about music.
Mostly Back Street Boys.
And we talk about our lives.
Even the intentionally slower pack of bravado-laden boys (who usually follow close behind,) bent on showing off their physical prowess more than their grasp of English, are eager to spend time with me.
Before I begin reporting what’s been going on here lately, I have to send a super thanks to Catherine, Caralyn and Audrey for their much appreciated contributions to the “When in Rome – beg for care packages” Fund.
Not only did the contents bring a smile to my face, a sigh to my stomach and a twinge to my heart, but now I can hold my head up high each time I go to work knowing I’ve got my Dick Tracey “Glamora Girl Kit” to make me feel confident about being a real woman.
The first week of my third month in Japan has been so busy that my only plan for the upcoming weekend is to lock myself in my apartment and sleep. If I do have to go out into public, where there is little doubt that I’ll be the object of far too much attention, I plan on donning a very clever disguise so as to go unnoticed by my many fans here in Shintomi.
I plan on disguising myself as an old Jewish jeweler named Saul.
Wish me luck, or should I say, “B’Hatzlacha.”
My birthday celebration at Kacho’s home during the Harvest Moon Festival.
Last Tuesday night, everyone at the Board of Education office was invited to Kuranaga-Kacho’s to celebrate Shukakutsuki, the Harvest Moon. Japanese legend is that if you look closely enough at the moon during this time of the year, you can see a rabbit mixing a bowl of rice for rice cakes.
His doing so is supposed to ensure a good season of crops.
It was a truly magnificent evening as a cool breeze made its way across the fields of rice and vegetables surrounding the house. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen and high, high, high in the sky sat the blue-white moon.
A bright, solitary eye set there to watch over the evening’s festivities.
We arrived at Kacho’s at dusk and found laid out on the lawn of his lovely home, a feast fit for the Emperor himself: fruits and fish, vegetables and meats, spirits and sake (much of which I’d never seen the likes of before) crowded the long, low table.
As we spent the next few hours indulging in the lavish dinner before us, which was the traditional and exceptionally delicious dish of Sukiyaki, I could sense secretive glances here and there and couldn’t help but wonder what my companions were up to. As their secret smiles became more and more obvious, especially after Kacho disappeared into his house, I guessed that they had planned a little something for my birthday.
Not only had Kuranaga-kacho’s wife baked me a cake, but she and her nieces (some of my students at Tonda) presented me with two lovely potted plants, which I hope to keep alive for the very first time in my less than stellar experiences with house plants. The folks at the office also chipped in and bought a cassette/cd player for my apartment.
Their continued kindness and generosity really got to me and in the middle of thanking them, I began to cry.
Embarrassed by this sudden outburst of emotions, I looked away from the long table of friends to Yoshino-san, sitting to my left. She, too, was crying.
When our teary eyes met, we both began to laugh and the happy evening was back on track.
And the birthday celebrations didn’t end there.
In fact, they continued on for quite a few days, during which time I was given:
lipstick from Yoshino-san and Akiko-san
earrings and a scarf from Oki-Hosa’s wife and daughter
rice bowls and hashi (chopsticks) from a girl that works in the computer room down the hall (whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t even know)
a birthday cake from the kitchen staff at Tonda Junior High
pajamas and towels from Sam
an ugly doll from one of the Masta’s (owners) at a Karaoke bar we frequent
a bottle of wine from Tomioka-san’s wife,
a bottle of champagne and roses from Tomioka-san
fruits and nuts from Junko-san
27 pinks roses from Toshi and the other fellows who work in the computer room down the hall from my office, whom I’ve gotten to know during cigarette breaks
and all the students at Tonda sang me Happy Birthday
What on earth am I going to do when I return to being a nobody back in the States?
And the celebrations didn’t end there. (Even though, in hindsight, they probably should have.)
Samantha came down from Hyuga over the weekend to help continue the celebrations and after a few beers in my apartment, we headed out to a local karaoke bar. Now you might be asking yourself why we seem to be addicted to making asses out of ourselves with microphones, but the sad fact is, that we have no other choice in Shintomi.
It’s either karaoke or nothing.
There are no quiet, corner pubs or dusty ol’ saloons, no cozy wine bars, or lively juke joints – just these dark, windowless, characterless, little sing-a-long spots.
The first one we walked into was nice and peaceful.
Sam and I were enjoying the lack of attention.
Please understand that it’s not overblown egos at work here. The simple fact is that as one of very few female gaijin living in the area, we tend to get noticed.
It also doesn’t hurt that Sam is a tall, beautiful blonde and I’m… well….I’m tall.
However, we soon found the quiet atmosphere and only the two of us to look at, rather unappealing and decided to call it an evening. We were resolutely steering a course for home when we heard strange cat-calls from the third floor of a building just behind us.
At first, Sam and I continued toward my apartment.
Indignant and disapproving.
But, almost simultaneously, we looked to one another, shrugged, and with a “What the hell?” headed up the staircase.
At the top, we found a group of men who had apparently been imbibing for quite some time. It was clearly a celebration of some sort and the focus was a young man who wore a painted-on beard, with a scarf and belt wrapped around his head – sheik style.
We never did find out what that was all about, but we did find ourselves in another Shintomi karaoke bar previously unbeknownst to us. This one, however, was packed to the brim with men.
From the moment of entry (maybe I should rephrase that), our glasses were kept filled and we were treated like starlets aboard a Navy destroyer that was on leave for the first time in 12 years.
I also met an older gentleman, a local businessman, who said he’d been wanting to speak with me since my arrival. It seems he’s interested in finding an English teacher for his employees and although I explained I was under contract and kept quite busy with my present job, he urged me to consider something for next year and handed me his card.
Eventually, this large group of men left the establishment, en masse.
Sam and I, however, stayed.
Which I am now dearly paying for with a headache the size of Godzilla.
And a smoldering stomach which Yoshino-san keeps force-feeding green tea.
Each time the evening’s libations threaten to reappear in a fiery flame of vomit, I lay my head down on my plastic-coated desktop and curse the day my mother gave me life.
My office wants to me to go out with them again tonight. All I want to do is crawl into the fetal position from which I sprang.