Sibling Revelry

As the oldest of five children, I was the fledgling occupant of what would too soon become a very cramped nest. Up until I was 18 months old, I was the lone star in my parent’s firmament. I’ve heard Mom reminisce many times about those months, about how my arrival grounded and focused the giddy thrill of their teenage love, while providing more than enough leeway for them to dote on me like a precious doll. Once the other’s started coming – Mom was just 25, Dad 26, by the time they had five children under seven years old – there was no time for doting or even undivided attention. Though any memory I hold of the period is pre-verbal and wholly inaccessible, I can’t help but feel that it set me apart from my four siblings in some small way: for a brief time in the history of our family, I was an Only Child.

For those of you who are an Only Child, the daily – nay, hourly impact – of having a brother or sister may be difficult to conjure. I know every holiday season my daughter would often fantasize about a soft-focused, Kincaid-limned tableau of a serene Christmas morning, children seated like little ducklings in a row, wholly engaged in watching each successive sibling open a present in turn, celebrating each one’s unveiled treasure, beaming a glow of happiness at the others’ bounty. A tray of cocoa sits steaming on the coffee table (which was somehow mysteriously prepared before said children awoke) and each child, universally pleased with their handful of gifts, serenely occupies themselves for hours with imaginative play and convivial banter before transitioning sedately to the breakfast table for a leisurely feast.

Sorry – doesn’t happen that way, I’d tell her. Instead, imagine Walmart opening its doors on Black Friday: around 5am, after three hours of restless sleep, when the parents give up trying to get the kids back in their respective bedrooms, there is a mad dash and chaotic dive under the tree and all those carefully wrapped presents are transformed into vast mounds of shredded paper, cast off ribbons, torn up boxes, their contents disgorged into an indistinguishable mound of plastic, fabric, metal, and wires within two and a half minutes. The parents, still dazed and sleep-befuddled, are simultaneously trying to understand how Zoe ended up with Chloe’s Barbie Doll, why Justin is having a meltdown over his new bike, and where on earth Ziggy disappeared to, all while snatching microscopic components from Ziggy’s Lego set from the baby’s fists, fending off ill-timed calls from curious grandparents, and holding back the cat from chasing flying embers into the fireplace. Within ten minutes everyone is done playing with their toys and screaming for breakfast. Merry Christmas folks.

And it wasn’t just Christmas. On one particularly memorable occasion, my mother’s first cousin (tellingly, the mother of an Only Child) thoughtlessly placed a bowl of potato chips at the center of the lunch table for us kids to share, inadvertently launching a blur of scrabbling, grabbing fingers and fists that resulted in one bloody lip, a significant clump of torn hair and a general miasma of grief and outrage. There was the time mom realized that she had left two children at school only when the carpool kids were dropped off and the noise-level in the van ratcheted down to silence. Or the countless instances when me or one of my siblings would run through every room in our 1100 square foot house bewailing our victimhood and vowing to “tell”, only to find it unaccountably empty (Mom disclosed, years later, that she would hide in the closet whenever she heard the pitch of our wails approaching from outside.) There were nights at the dinner table when the level of teasing, complaining, and arguing reached such a crescendo that Dad would slam his fists down on the table, rattling flatware, spilling milk, and roar “All of you, QUIET or I’m getting the belt!” (More on that in a future post.)

It was situations like these that led me to fantasies of solitary refinement. My daily life was so replete with chaos and noise and internecine feuds that the only respite I could imagine was to erase my siblings from the equation. When you are an Only Child, I imagined, daily life proceeds in a calm and orderly fashion. There is no jousting for the front seat, or squabbling over the last of the Trix, or straining to hear the TV, nor any need to contort into a pretzel in the back seat during vacation trips. Your bedroom is completely and wholly your own. You can leave your Halloween candy on your bedside table and it will be there when you get home from school. No one is wearing the same outfit as you on Easter. You won’t ever have to take the blame for something you didn’t do because mom is tired of hearing excuses. No one else is going to ride your bike, take your roller blades, run the battery down on your radio, “borrow” and lose your favorite jacket, steal your allowance, or fling sand in your face at the beach. There is nothing added, extraneous, or superfluous to derail one’s sense of agency and control.

I grew up fantasizing about this ideal state and, to a large degree, made the choice to have an Only Child based on what I believed to be the most enviable permutation of family life. She would always be the only star in my firmament, the rich recipient of every ounce of undivided attention I could provide. I truly thought I was conferring a lifelong advantage on my daughter by precluding her from ever having to anticipate, acknowledge, or consider the variable preferences, needs, demands, and complaints of a sibling. Even writing that last sentence causes me embarrassment now, of course. What was I thinking? Thirty-five years later, I understand that it is primarily through repeated, unavoidable encounters with the other – having to comprehend and integrate the reality of multiplicity, learn and incorporate the lessons of cooperation and empathy, forcibly shift one’s perspective from “I” to “we” – that we mature from ego-driven toddlers into caring, sharing adults. My daughter is the one who ended up revealing the truth that siblings gave me.

She was in junior college when her oldest half-brother, one of three boys her biological father subsequently had with his wife, found her on Facebook and initiated contact. Over the next couple of years, she met him and, eventually, her two other brothers in person. I still recall her telling me, unadulterated wonder suffusing her voice, of staring across the restaurant table at a male version of her own face. . Because, appearance-wise, she inherited more qualities of her father’s than mine, she never had occasion to witness her own reflection spring independently to life, or caught the shared gestures and facial expressions that genetics often bequeath to siblings. But, even more than in the physical similarities, was the relief she experienced in finding sympathetic personalities, ways of being and reacting to the world that resonated with familiarity. All of her life up until that point she had been a set of One, unique and alone. Then, she became a member of an interrelated unit and experienced the psychological stickiness between the disparate elements of a family dynamic. Perhaps books like Angela’s Ashes and The Great Santini and films like The Royal Tenenbaums are so successful because they portray the indiscretions, vulnerabilities, crimes and misdemeanors that family members perpetrate on each other without sacrificing the bonds that unite and define them.

If your dad is a work-obsessed megalomaniac, or a disconnected truck driver on the road three hundred days a year, or a high school English teacher forever correcting your grammar; if your mom is a melancholy aspirin-eater living in the rear view mirror, or a liberated authoritarian with zero tolerance for bling, or a soccer club coach singularly focused on your scholarship prospects, how – if ever – do you come to understand that you’re not a forlorn misfit in this world, that all the confusion and awkwardness, anxiety and compulsions, dread and mania you might evince is not inherent but a behavioral response to forces clashing and conspiring outside of you? By what mechanisms does the Only Child grasp interpersonal dynamics, up close and personal? How does she learn about The Other? Granted, most people gradually encounter challenges and obstacles in the wider world and can apply the lessons learned to their parental relationships, given the successful acquisition of reason and objectivity and, in some cased, a healthy dose of therapy.

But, generally speaking, children who share parents with a sibling or two or five have the advantage of witnessing the dynamics at play between them and another person who isn’t You. Parents don’t even need to be particularly twisted or deranged or socially inept to visit great insecurities or guilt on their progeny: if you’re an Only Child, with whom can you commiserate about your mom’s tone deafness or your dad’s perpetual recapitulation of the obvious? Who will be affected as deeply, show up at the hospital for selfish reasons, vigorously debate treatment options with the same degree of personal investment when dad has a stroke? Who can remind you what garish color the bathroom wallpaper was in that 1100 square foot house after mom dies? Shared memories and experiences are amplified, orchestral, drenched in coloratura. Siblings add context, explanation, justification, and a very real validation of the circumstances of our lives.

More importantly, though, they offer us the opportunity to see the world aslant, from a slightly different angle. It’s the same view, only 2-3″ or six years off. As children with siblings, we are exhorted to share, to wait our turn, to compromise and let things go, and end up, more often than not, just ceding our desires rather than fight what are usually losing battles. There is nothing that will try a seven- and five-year-old’s patience more than having to wait for a toddler to be diapered, changed and fed before departing to Disneyland. By the time they are teenagers, though, they may have gained a shared resiliency and camaraderie through weathering the familial frays that will translate into a greater tolerance for inconvenience and irritants.

Especially in a world that is increasingly globalized and interconnected, the ability to bear differences, to countenance multiplicity over monotone, to let one’s proclivities to take a back seat to presenting circumstances, are valuable survival skills. Growing up in a clamoring, raucous group of siblings all trying to meet their own needs ingrained in me the realities of diversity – we are all competing, each moment of every day, for attention and validation and sustenance – and inevitably our wants and desires will sometimes be thwarted. How we deal with those disappointments is often predicated on how, when, and where we have encountered social hierarchies and networks in the past. The family environment is usually our first training ground, the place where we test out our eventual coping skills.

So let’s hear it for siblings and the myriad challenges they bring. I’m glad to be one of five and am thankful my daughter is no longer an Only Child.

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The Bathing Ritual

The Bathing Ritual

Assignment 2 in Memoir and Personal Essay Course: Write a narrative describing an activity that you do regularly which incorporates at least ten steps—something you perform preferably every day, but at least several times a week. With attention to voice, imbue the writing with a sense of character and personality. Pay attention to the way you transition from one step to the next. Connect each step in a unique way that is not merely repetitive like “first I do this, then I do that.” Instead, think about cause and effect. Explain the rationale for each step and why it follows the one before it. You are only allowed to use the words “next” or “and then” twice total.

 

My maternal grandmother was a larger-than-life figure in my childhood.  She was one of the first women to be sworn in as a police officer in Glendale, California, and for years made the 35 mile drive each Saturday to our home in Orange County to share grand tales of her professional exploits with my young mother, housebound with five children under ten.  I would generally hunker down somewhere near the couch, where I could hear what had gone on that week in the juvenile bureau and with her partner, Copie. Since my grandfather’s motorbike accident left him a paraplegic in 1943, my grandmother was the sole breadwinner and his caretaker for decades; to my inexperienced self she represented the epitome of independence and self-determination.  This, of course, was before I appreciated the extent to which care-taking can infringe upon self-determination and independence.

 

These days, GG (the sobriquet bestowed when she became a great-grandmother more than 36 years ago) is 98 years old.  Making her bed, combing her own hair, reaching anything on a higher shelf, opening pickle jars – little things that most of us accomplish thoughtlessly – are painful, almost impossible feats for her, saddled as she is with arthritic joints, frozen shoulders, compromised mobility, and vertigo.  There have been numerous falls in the preceding decade, many of them resulting in trips to the ER and overnight hospital stays. Now, even some of the basics of personal hygiene have become challenging and potentially dangerous.  Like many other common tasks of daily life, it has become a preventative measure to assist her with the mechanics of undressing, getting in and out of the shower, and donning her pajamas once again.   Providing this type of support to her consumes about ten hours of my week, time that I give willingly and joyfully, but which does limit some of my wider-ranging activities and time away from home.

 

GG is a congenitally orderly person who craves routine and predictability.  Hence, she’s happiest if she has a bit of notice that shower hour has arrived so can she prepare herself and the environment accordingly.  Usually, I enter her en suite bathroom to find her new pajamas already laid out on the dresser, her bathmat placed in front of the shower, her towel hanging from the vertical hand bar just outside the shower door.  It is only then, when all elements are in place, that the ritual may commence.

 

We begin in her walk-in closet.  I pull down her pajama bottoms, she braces herself against the dresser and steps out of them.  Her underwear follows; we carefully preserve the protective pad she has inserted against bladder accidents as disposing of one before its fully soaked is wasteful.  Her pajama shirt comes off slowly, with considerable attention paid to keeping her arms below her shoulders: their arthritic pain is so excruciating she cries out if I accidentally pull her arms up too high.  I remove the button hanging on a chain around her neck that allows her to send an electronic signal to other rooms in the house if she requires assistance, though most often she hits it unknowingly against a counter or her mattress, sending my mom and I flying into her room, usually in the middle of the night, expecting to find her again on the floor. Traces of Oil of Olay waft in my nostrils as I bend close to remove the gold wristwatch, an essential component of her wardrobe that she references throughout the day to track her unbending, self-imposed schedule.  (Lunch is always at 10:30am, cocktails at 2:00pm, dinner 4:30pm, bedtime 7:45pm.  You can set your own clock by her unflagging routine.)

 

Once she is undressed, we leave the closet, GG pushing her walker some ten feet across the tiled floor to the shower stall. Following closely behind her, I marvel at her upright posture.  She moves rapidly, with straight-backed confidence, when holding onto the walker’s handles.  From the back, one might take her to be in her 70’s or early 80’s; her skin retains a rosy vibrancy, its delicate topography a well-preserved, creamy tulle sagging ever so slightly from bones sturdy and true.   People comment, still, on her beauty. It is a quality that emanates from her being, rather than her physiognomy or figure.  By the time once reaches her age, character has infused form; like a light glowing warmly from behind a worn curtain, one is drawn to the illumination rather than the occluding fabric.

 

I deliver her bright pink shower cap and help her position it over her head (those shoulders again!)  There is not much hair left these days, but her hearing aids cannot get wet.  She reaches in, turns the faucet on and waits for the water to warm.  After entering the stall, she lifts her bath brush from the shower knob and waits while I squeeze an inordinate amount of Oil of Olay body wash onto it – despite her depression-era thriftiness, she allows herself small, idiosyncratic extravagances.  She slides the door shut and I wheel her walker over to the counter top and set the brakes; this is where I sit for the next ten minutes or so while she completes her ablutions.

 

This marks a measure of her independence regained, actually, because for months at the beginning of this year I was in the shower with her.  She had broken her right wrist in a fall and wasn’t able to maneuver her plastic-encased cast sufficiently to wash herself.  During this period, I would disrobe, also, and accompany her into the steam-filled cloister of the shower stall, neither of us talking as her hearing is so poor, she is unable to make out words over the ambient noise of the water spray.  If I narrowed my eyes and imagination just enough, I flowed into the stream of consciousness into which so many women the world over daily immerse, the i soul-rinsing experience of communal bathing.  Sharing a shower, pool or sauna, baring one’s skin, scars, bumps, lumps, and awkward angles among a group of females, becomes its own form of cleansing.  I would slowly and carefully pass the brush over GG’s tissue-thin skin, as if it were a baby’s.  This was never an activity I imagined sharing with her when I was twelve, but one that I grew to love for its warm and relaxed intimacy.

 

Now, since she has regained the use of her right hand, I allow her the private bathing that our culture favors. I keep an ear tuned to her movements while I work the New York Times daily crossword at the bathroom sink,  turning occasionally to ascertain that the pink dot of her head is bobbing away behind the obscuring glass of the shower door.  I am usually close to finished by the time she shuts off the water.  Then, the long ritual of drying herself begins.  Because of her compromised flexibility, it takes seven to eight minutes for her to complete the task to her own satisfaction. But, before she will exit the shower, she must thoroughly dry all the walls, fixtures, and door, too, even though we have a weekly cleaning service that ensures mold or mildew never gains a foothold.  By the time I am completing the last few clues, I hear the door slide open and drop my pen to bring her the walker and stand vigilant while she places first one foot, and then the other, under the bath mat, bringing it up to wipe the surface of the opposite foot dry.  This is an important element of the ritual, don’t ask me why.  When this is done,  like an obedient foot soldier I trail her back into the closet.

GG has uncommonly long, narrow feet; I must remind myself to be patient while she stabs the arrow of her toes at the opening of her underpants as I bend over, trying to corral the moving target.  It usually takes three or four attempts. I pull the underpants up and she spends a minute or so adjusting the inserted pad.  The pajama bottoms are a bit easier. Once those are donned, I hold the top open at shoulder-level as she struggles to place her arms in the armholes and we both shift the cloth up and over carefully, trying to minimize the pull on her joints. Even though the top is button-up, GG insists on being respectful and having all but the very top button fastened, so I don’t need to “waste” my time on buttoning five extra buttons.  I’ve argued about this, to no avail.  It’s an element of the ritual.

 

I then replace the alarm button around her neck and her precious watch around her left wrist.  I run a comb through her sparse locks to lift them back into place.  She kisses me and says, “thank you, thank you, thank you!” no less than three times.  Sometimes more.  She is so very grateful.  As am I. For no matter how insidiously care-taking may infringe on self-determination and independence, I know that both of us benefit.  Though little conversation takes place during this thrice-weekly ritual, the closeness that it has engendered goes beyond mere words.

Dear Mr Eagle: Me, too

In my newly renewed effort to make something more of my writing than an occasional blog post, I have begun a course on Memoir and the Personal Essay on Coursera. In order to garner wider, more diverse feedback, I will be posting my assignments here.  Please, if you are so inclined and have a moment, leave a comment with your reaction to it.  My future published self appreciates it!

This week’s assignment was to write a letter to a “straw man,” someone who is not a friend or family member, but who was a significant figure in your life as a child or young person. This should be someone associated with a specific period in your life, a period long enough ago that you would not have a clear sense of events occurring beyond your neighborhood or region. Addressing your writing to an adult who would have had the social consciousness then that you have now will help you to maintain a mature perspective as you explore the memory.

In the letter, recount a specific personal event that had a notable impact on your life alone, and which occurred while you were, say, that teacher’s student. Incorporate references to what we’ll call a “global” event that made headlines in the newspapers at the time. In essence, your letter is an attempt to connect your childhood experience to a larger social and historical consciousness you may not have had as a child.

***

Dear Mr. Eagle,

It’s been some 45 years since I last saw you; truthfully, I hadn’t thought of you once before all the media coverage of the #MeToo movement brought your hawk-nosed, white-maned visage rocketing back to me as the purveyor of one of the more shame-filled episodes in my life.

As my eighth-grade journalism teacher, you must’ve been aware of the burgeoning Women’s Movement and the work of journalist Gloria Steinem, who had co-founded MS Magazine just three years earlier.  It’s funny that you never mentioned her or the significance of her accomplishments in class, but perhaps that oversight should be blamed on the fetishistic hold my breasts seemingly had on your attention at the time. But maybe you did?  The fact is, I don’t remember anything at all about the content of your instruction or assignments because of horrid emotional residue of that day, very early on in the year, when you chose to pull me out of class to discuss my boobs.  Well – not to discuss, per se.  Rather, you delivered a monologue to me, whilst staring at them, regarding their shape, size, and prominent visibility on my chest and the debilitating consequences those qualities held for the hapless men and boys forced to endure their proximity, whilst I stood, arms crossed furiously over them, red-faced and mortified.  We were standing in the middle of the breezeway just outside the restrooms; I remember having the insane thought you were going to ask me to go into the restroom to remove my offending body parts and bring them out to you.  I felt like a shoplifter caught in the act and confronted by the chief of security; how could I have imagined that I was entitled to the disposition of my own body parts?

Granted, I was rather scantily dressed that day in a crop top that was nothing more than a bra capped with sleeves which boldly exposed the tanned, golden-haired acreage of my stomach (I’d spent a great deal of time at the beach the preceding summer.)  In my defense, though, it was my 31-year-old mother’s top.  Surely it would’ve been her place – or at least some other kindred female’s – to instruct me on the inherent risks of a naive and ingenuous teen provoking titillation when she is wholly unaware of possible outcomes.  Perhaps you felt it was your paternalistic duty, as a member of the provoked gender, to draw a lascivious portrait of those outcomes for me while we stood in that breezeway, causing a few of my hallpass-bearing peers to have to circle round us to enter and exit the restrooms

In 1974, I was thirteen and awash in the nebulous, naughty awareness that my sexuality could be displayed, that its inherent purpose was for display. This was the era of both Cosmopolitan magazine and the Pill; women now, finally, could have their cake and eat it, too.  I had lifted Alix Kate Shulman’s sexually explicit Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen out of the family bookshelf, for heaven’s sake, shoving in between my waterbed mattress and frame to sate my budding masturbatory cravings. My whole family watched The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour religiously, my mom and I breathlessly awaiting the calvacade of skin-baring costumes that Cher would bring to our living room once a week.  Goldie Hawn, who had a regular role on Laugh In, seemed the perfect representation of blond bombshell femininity; she was kooky, bubbly, and guileless without the overt sexuality of a Barbarella (Jane Fonda) or Loana (Raquel Welch), which I vaguely recognized to be a bit mature for my own aspirations.

My mother herself had recently transformed, from a Girl-Scout den mother who cooked all our meals, sewed us matching outfits, and arranged elaborate birthday parties for each of her five children, into a giddy, mini-skirted psychology student attending the local university who left the Catholic Church in a stream of fire works (pulling all of us out of parochial school, which is how I ended up in your public junior high school class) after having a spectacular disagreement with the head priest regarding the philosophy of Tielhard de Chardin.

Within the deep pool of my innocence, I was a strong swimmer.  I felt both empowered and incredibly buoyed to be young and somewhat pretty.  For me, “borrowing” my mom’s crop top was thoughtless, an extension of the zeitgeist, akin to borrowing her Coty face make-up, pancake mascara, chandelier earrings or Janis Joplin cassette tapes. I’d sneak these things after she’d depart for class, speculating that she might raise some personal objections regarding my treatment of her stuff, but never apprehending any disparity between what was suitable for her consumption versus mine. Until my little tete-a-tete with you, of course.

With your eyes gluttonously glued to my (barely) discernible nipples, you pointedly and efficiently branded my naivete otherwise.  I was a hussy, you informed me, or at least I appeared to be, given my sartorial choices.  Men would never recognize my intellect, you warned, when compelled to muster all their virtue to resist my brazen display of breast meat.  You served me my introduction to the gelatinous trail of the slimy male gaze, with its protective coating of blameless virtue.  I had forced you into this embarrassing position and should therefore submit graciously and humbly to your well-intentioned verbal thrusts.

Actually, I have no idea what your real intentions might have been; I was too blood-soaked in humiliation and embarrassment to register any hint of actual kindness or concern.  I had spent the previous seven years within the sheltered confines of a Catholic school, where the primary authoritarian figures were habit-clad nuns whose disciplinary guidance involved rulers to the palm and rote sentence-writing. You may have been reacting yourself to the slights and push-backs of a newly liberated Mrs. Eagle.  Perhaps you had a daughter at home who had emerged from the Summer of Love clad in hip-huggers and body paint.  Sudden permissions were being granted to a traditionally cloistered  body: the female of the species was in full parade   And, even though I had only a dim appreciation of the larger context giving rise to my own sexual awareness, you did have a certain prescience regarding my future entanglements with the male gaze: I would endure my first abortion not even a year later. (So much for the Pill.)

Dear Mr. Eagle, I’ve become increasingly cognizant these past couple years of how deeply and profoundly your little five-minute lecture altered my perception of myself.  Too early, I was handed the reins of my preternaturally voluptuous body and told I was in control.  When you are informed, at the tender age of thirteen, that – just by virtue of your anatomy – you exert a terrifying power over half of the human race, you might not yet have the rational capacity to maturely exert it.  What you engendered in me, instead, was an unquenchable hunger for dominance and revenge.  If I, indeed, had such a magical, irresistible tool at my disposal, why not employ it to my own advantage? Thus, a decade of promiscuity and liberation commenced that echoed some of the fault lines being drawn on the wider cultural stage. Nothing has been the same since.

What’s in Your Garage?

“Anybody know what this is?”

I hold up a cardboard box, hermetically sealed with silver duct tape. My parents look up from their own tasks, shake their heads simultaneously. It’s Wednesday morning and we are thirty minutes into our now-weekly ritual of cleaning out the garage.

I use box cutters to slice through several rounds of the sticky tape. It’s bundled as tightly as if it contained gold bullion or some prized food stuff vulnerable to bugs. Inside, I find wadded newspaper, stuffed in between more newspaper, wrapped round oddly-shaped, bulky objects. I tear off this newspaper carefully, noting the date on the upper right corner of each page: October 17, 1995. My father is hovering over my shoulder as the crumpled print pages reveal tributes to bygone high school and junior college athletic feats. “My trophies!” he cries. Immediately, I recognize the battle line being drawn.

I am the choreographer of this effort to clear out 40+ years of accumulated memorabilia, garden gadgets, record albums, baby books, pool toys, painting paraphernalia, abandoned construction projects, cleaning products, and auto maintenance gear. My mom enlisted my backing after she reached a stalemate years ago with my dad in her effort to cut a clear line through the detritus. The items each deem essential for preservation are widely divergent; my mom favors holiday decorations she’s displayed since my childhood and craft projects she never got around to starting while my dad clings to dusty golf clubs, bowling balls, and mementos from his years as a police officer. The overall tension in the garage had ratcheted up significantly just a few minutes previously, when my mom tried to convince my dad to dispose of the gun belt he was issued as a recruit in 1966.

“Someone might want it,” my dad insists. The only person I can identify as having some (very remote) use for it is my nephew who is a member of a police tactical command force over 400 miles away. Remembering Facebook postings of him astride a tank wearing military-style camouflage and holding an automatic weapon raise doubts about his receptiveness, however.

“I watch reality cop shows all the time, Bob, and they don’t use equipment like this anymore. They all wear vests that hold their gear.”

“That’s not true, Sherry. Some cops still wear belts.”

“Well then, let’s donate it to a police station so someone can get some use from it.”

“No, I want to keep it.”

“I thought you just said that someone might want it.”

“I’m keeping it, Sherry.”

And that’s the end of that. This preface does not bode well for the disposition of trophies.

***

This is exactly why we’re taking this project a shelf at a time; none of our nerves can withstand more than a couple hours of the skirmishes involved in sifting through the accumulated strata of two people’s lives. I don’t find it coincidental that so many books on decluttering, tidying up, and organizing your shit have become bestsellers in the past decade. Baby boomers are aging, and their kids are having to contend with the amassed material collections of parental hopes, dreams, aspirations, hobbies, professional, domestic and recreational endeavors as they downsize and die.

“My trophies!” His plaintive cry echoes in my heart and resonates with the desperation it embodies. I ended up living here with them as a result of my dad’s near-fatal bout of viral meningitis back in 2016-17. During his illness, he lost the ability to walk without assistance or articulate his needs. He hallucinated, ate his meals with his hands, and failed to recognize family member and friends he’d known for years. When he regained the ability to perambulate, my mother and I took turns sleeping on the upstairs landing, afraid he would stumble down the stairs in a fog in the middle of the night. His recovery took more than a year and left him with nerve damage in his legs and hips, resulting in a pronounced limp and inability to walk more than 50 feet or so without resting. His days of running, intercepting, hurling, pummeling glory are long over the horizon.

Back in 2011 when Mike and I sold our condo, we were forced into the same situation. Though we didn’t have a garage and our domestic space amounted to less than a third of what my parent’s have, fifteen years in the same location had lead to a similar accumulation of stuff one doesn’t know what to do with besides stick it in a drawer, closet, or under the bed until the perfect solution miraculously appears. Which it never does. (Which is why people should be forced to move every decade just to have to confront those decisions. Just saying.)

The tasks of divesting ourselves of the past were significantly greased by our giddy anticipation of the immediate future: we were headed out on a months-long, nation-spanning camping expedition that would culminate in my departure for Peace Corps service. Neither one of us held fond memories of the preceding decade. We had both been working at stultifying jobs for too many years and suffered the career-path disillusionment and general sense of ennui that typifies the average mid-life crisis. Shedding the material evidence of our unremarkable, cookie-cutter existence secured our belief that things would be different, better for us in the coming years. We were still in our forties; there were unbounded years ahead to turn things around, reinvent ourselves, create new routines, begin anew. The horizon shimmered with realizable potential.

This is not the case for my parents, who are both closer to eighty than seventy. Realistically, they have ten, maybe fifteen years left. (My maternal grandmother, 98 and going like the Energizer bunny, is definitely an outlier; only one of my three other grandparents lived to their mid-80’s.) Given the limitations of their various health issues and physical ailments, the coming decade is most likely the last chapter in their lives. Throughout a lifetime love affair with literary biographies, I’ve discovered few folks reinvent themselves in the final pages. It takes too much effort to embark on life-altering courses of action. By the time one reaches their age, the tendency is towards reflecting, crafting and other light hobbies, enjoying family gatherings, maybe some occasional traveling. They are who they are; they may deepen, but not transform, much less recapture the physicality and dynamism of youth. In other words, those trophies are the reliquary of the talented athlete my dad once was.

The act of discarding stuff is, in part, no longer believing in its magical assurances. By holding onto to journals and diaries, we believe the life lessons therein contained are captured and incorporated, need never be repeated. Moldy scrapbooks attest to our ability to romance, conquer, pinnacle, succeed, and serve as prequels to further achievements. Trophies give concrete testimony to our talents, inherent aspects of our character that will continue to generate recognition in the years to come. Golf clubs bespeak future afternoons strolling the greens, holes in one still left to hit. Now, my mother is struggling to acknowledge that, more likely than not, she will never regain the strength and stamina to employ the textured paint materials she purchased for $90 back in the ’90’s (“That was like several hundred dollars now,” she laments.) My father is loath to admit that swinging a golf club generates too much pain to be enjoyable. But for as long as these items have a home in the garage, they are an unspoken promise that better times hover ahead, dark clouds backlit by fierce sunlight.

Amid these Wednesdays fraught with existential crisis, I have begun to trace parallels in my own life, despite being twenty years younger. Specifically, with my dream of being “a writer.” Because that’s what I’ve told myself and others, for years and years and years: someday, given enough time and space, I will become a published writer. I don’t actually contemplate the specific work it takes to accomplish such – like sitting down at the keyboard for hours at a time, day after day, month after month, for years at a time; the classes, retreats, and writing groups; the false starts, painful critiques, and rejection slips. I just always believed that someday, magically, without forethought or discipline or effort, my outpouring of nouns and verbs and adjectives would find their way into print. Somewhere, beyond the horizon, lay my career as a writer. It is just now, as I watch my parents fight the realization that all the various intentions they’ve stored for someday, sometime, somewhere, somehow, have expired, that I begin to entertain the notion that might be my destiny, too. Unless I begin now to alter the course of its trajectory, my dream is destined for the garage.

***

I realize a different approach is needed: this is not a battleground, but a funeral, a grieving space. Those trophies were wrapped so carefully and thoroughly because they were the only remaining tokens of the strong, agile, and fleet young man that my dad used to be. Still is, within his own mind, even though the evidence has been stored away for a quarter century. I once read that all the cells within our bodies are replaced every seven years. So, nothing at all remains, physically, of that graceful, award-winning football player my dad can still recall inhabiting, being. I place the box down at his feet and wrap my arms round my dad.

“I know this is hard,” I say, my face muffled in his chest. He is still inches taller than me, and its always been a profound comfort to lay my head against his beating heart. Suddenly, I feel the heavy iron of tears weighing down my eyelids. “It’s not just throwing away stuff. It’s throwing away pieces of yourself, your life.” We stand silently and he squeezes me forcefully, for just a moment. I surreptitiously wipe my eyes on his tee shirt and go off to wrestle with another box, leaving the trophies at his feet. Minutes later, from the corner of my eye, I see him unwrap each one, turn it over in his hands, then drop it into the waste bin’s maw.

Twister vs. Temblor

A couple of days into my latest trip to Ohio, I am awakened at 11:30-ish pm by what sounds like an air raid siren. “It’s a tornado warning,” Mike says. I lay there instantly wide awake and discomfited, adrenaline coursing. “What’s that mean – a warning? Are we supposed to do something?” I was already picking up my phone to Google when I noted the large red banner message filling my screen:


Tornado Warning: Take Action! A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property. Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows.

And so on. After marveling at the tracking technology that located me within the relatively small affected area to communicate a dire message, I scramble to find my shoes. Then grab iPad and wallet. Mike lives on the 3rd floor of an apartment building with no basement. Although he seems open to waiting it out in proximity to the two large windows leading out to the rain-blurred deck, I am having none of it. I am a huge fan of apocalyptic thunderstorms, but once the wind starts twisting in on itself like a disturbed cat and batting cars and building into its maw, I quickly lose enthusiasm. We beat a retreat down the stairwell and enter the ground floor hallway, where various persons, singly or in pairs, huddled outside their respective doorways. We appeared to be the only non-ground floor residents who made the trip.

“I’m from California,” I announce. “Not quite sure what we’re supposed to do…” A couple pairs of eyes flicker over to us but quickly return to their phone screens. No one says anything. Mike and I take a seat on a ledge abutting the entryway. I immediately place calls to my parents and our daughter in California to inform them of our potential appointment with catastrophe. I do this mostly to sequester the film playing in my head, splicing together all the YouTube clips and dramatic movie scenes (The Wizard of Oz, Twister, Into the Storm) that are filled, invariably, with people being snatched up into the sky, pinwheeling head over heels with nothing to cling to. You can’t even hear their screams.

Ohioan folks are more taciturn than I had expected. They strike me as more like how New Englanders are usually portrayed, stiff upper lip and stoic brow, and all that. The supermarket checkers are not near as chatty as the ones in my local store. They seem to talk to each other just fine, but not really notice me. Or maybe they do, and they can tell I can’t fit myself in to the local narrative arc. I am not of this land, these swards of unending, undifferentiated green; black, looping telephone wires tangled against mountain-less skies; miles of haphazard strip malls and chili franchises – lord, Ohioans love their Skyline Chili. None of the boulevards run straight here, always curving and doubling back around intervening industrial parks and silos, then running at a diagonal until you’ve completely lost track of direction. Many roads are little more than country lanes, winding through neighborhoods backed by more green thickets and dense trees. Ponds dot the landscape. But the element that never fails to astonish me is the empty land – acres and acres of fallow fields, emerald green grassland, and snarled bushes interspersed between compact rows of Victorian houses, more industrial parks, apartment complexes with open patios strewn with BBQs and bicycles, and lone convenience stores crowning the hills. In Southern California, land has not been empty for decades; when some structure is torn down another, grander building immediately replaces it.

Mike and sit for 10-15 minutes in the hallway, pecking at our phones. We hear someone down the hall state, “It’s over,” just as we receive notification that the tornado has passed. Quickly, front doors open and close, the hallway empties, and Mike and I climb the stairs back to his apartment. I lay awake for a while, staring out the window at the rain, displaced, restless. My body is geared up for survival and resists the comfort of bed, turning and twisting this way and that to find a path back into sleep.

***

On July 4th, I am sitting on the curb along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, watching the parade when I feel the ground beneath me buckle and roll. Like the rhythmic waves breaking onshore behind me, the asphalt has become an undulating ribbon of rock and roll, a subtle shifting of the topography that my eyes can’t quite focus but my inner ear definitely feels. “Hey, are we having an earthquake?” I ask quietly, to no one in particular, not wanting to call attention to what could be The Big One. We are literally a hundred yards from the ocean and any potential tsunami will have its way with the thousands of us gathered for one of the biggest Independence Day celebrations in Southern California. Although the streets run in straight lines east/west, north/south, most of them are closed to traffic within a mile radius for this parade. Thousands of cars are parked along residential streets with no easy outlet. The landscape is flat and unwavering, studded with spindly palm trees that don’t strike me as sturdy anchors. There are two buildings over two stories in the vicinity, the respective wings of the Marriot resort made almost entirely of glass. The Boy Scout troupe wrestling a large flag into compliance continues marching along, though, folks cheering and waving from the sidelines. No one else seems to notice, so I stand and look behind me and note the waves still rolling in, regular and soothing, and I decide it’s not The Big One. The shaking continues for at least a minute, but so many people are jumping up and down, waving arms and bouncing their heads vigorously in time to the music that I decide they could just as well be its source. It’s only an hour later, as we make our way home past open bars with televisions blaring that we learn of the 6.4 earthquake that hit Ridgecrest, some 125 miles away.

The next night I am in front of my computer, watching an episode of Stranger Things, when the earth sways into motion, gradually building its sashay until the leaves on my mother’s potted palms are rustling in rhythm and the windows rattle in their frames. “Do you feel it?” my dad calls from downstairs and my mom and 9-year-old niece and I compare notes: they sense a slight movement, feel unsteady on their feet, I can count a mounting beat as the shaking persists for over a minute. I call my daughter in Huntington Beach (tsunami!) but the circuits are tied up. Five minutes of repeatedly checking Google for an update, we learn this one to be a 7.1, again, centered outside Ridgecrest. The media warns that these major quakes signal an end to a 20-year draught of temblor activity in Southern California; The Big One is overdue. Consider this a warning.

***

On the phone from Ohio, Mike asks, “Quick! Which do you prefer: tornado or earthquake?” My inner geography immediately responds “Earthquake!” It’s what I know, what I’ve lived with for most of my 57 years. Even Moldova, where I did a three year stint in the Peace Corps, was prone to earthquakes, not tornadoes. But there’s something reassuring about that red banner appearing on my phone, giving me a chance to seek shelter, call loved ones, hold my husband’s hand as we trudge up and down the stairs. With an earthquake, one gets very little, if any, warning. Boom hold on – only nothing is stable and the very ground can liquefy beneath you. I suppose we’ll hear each other’s screams during the worst of it. Unless, of course, tsunami…

3:00am with Wolf & River

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My twin grandsons are two weeks old today. Right now, mommy and daddy have taken them out for a walk so I have a brief respite to record some thoughts.

I know that when I announced my daughter’s pregnancy I fielded many heartfelt congratulations and expressed excitement from friends who already had grandchildren, telling me what a completely different experience it would be from having my own child. “You get to spoil them!” “You can hand them back when they’re cranky.” “You will realize a different sort of love – one not based on responsibility for raising them but on the pure joy of experiencing them.” Yeah – not so much yet. I’ve been living with my daughter full-time as she and her partner make the transition into parenthood with preemie newborns and have been, in effect, functioning as a third parent, complete with bottle-feedings, burpings, changing diapers, cleaning bottles, endless laundry, bath time, and tandem comforting ( mom and babies.) The fact that they are premature puts an added burden of anxiety on top of everything: about once a day one of them gags and chokes after feeding, entailing the need to turn him head down over one’s arm and firmly pat his back. So one must be watching them like a hawk one hour out of every three to ensure that someone is there to intervene when this happens. This does not promote any significant amount of time for relaxation and regrouping.

I’ve had one kid – and I did it alone, without benefit of a husband or partner. I lived with my parents at the time but they were both working full-time and not available to help at 3:00am as I trod the bedroom floor trying to comfort a shrieking infant. But my daughter was full-term, 8lbs, 2oz. She had a fully-formed digestive system and a hearty trachea. And there was just one of her. Once I had her fed and changed and burped and swaddled, I could look forward most nights to a quiet stretch when I could sleep myself. This is not true with preemie twins. The entire cycle of feeding, changing, burping, comforting, and swaddling often takes up to 2-3 hours for one. And by the time he’s quiet, the other one is ready to go again. Most times they are overlapping. I have no idea how a single person could manage. (In fact, the doula who has been helping us says that she no longer accepts twins in her practice; it’s just too hard, she says.)

What has been SO gratifying about this experience is witnessing my daughter transform from a young woman who was accustomed to indulging herself and her whims (yes, a millennial!)  into an absorbed mother who has lost all concern for herself and her own needs in giving 24/7 attention to her newborns. It has been both achingly stressful and immensely rewarding for me to witness her complete metamorphosis: it is so hard to watch her dragging herself from bedroom to kitchen to rewash another receptacle for her breast milk (she pumps in order to provide bottles for daddy and me to do feedings) or change another shitty diaper with bleary eyes in the half-light of dawn, but so heart-warming to hear her murmuring a lullaby or see her kiss the top of a shrieking head. Since her partner is working full-time, it is most often her and I together through the wee hours of night, trying to juggle the bottle warming and burping and diaper changing and gag monitoring; it has brought us into a closeness I’ve not experienced with her prior to now. I am sure at some point I will enjoy all the benefits of being a grandmother, but right now I am reveling once more in the experience of being a mother and watching my child master, with grace and tenacity and boundless love, one of the biggest challenges of her life so far.

Postcards from Chisinau

I have been remiss in blogging, but a fellow blogger saves me! Julie is an inveterate traveler, a gifted photographer and an accomplished writer. I am lucky to have met her in person when she traveled to Moldova last April. Here she does a wonderful piece on Chisinau – much better than anything I have managed to compose. Thanks Julie and may you continue to traipse about the globe with fortune at your heels!

Wish I Were Here

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Chișinău, Moldova – April 2014

Dear K—

I’m sitting in a pleasant outdoor cafe, resting my feet after a day of aimless wandering. I looked and looked for a postcard to send you for your collection, but none are to be found in the shops here. I found a faded one on a shelf in the apartment that I’m renting, tucked amid the dog-eared books and the travel brochures for other countries. The photo on it is of the post office building. It’s a striking building. Isn’t it funny how it makes the people look so miniature? In most other European cities, such a building would fade into the background. But this is Chișinău.

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It takes a little effort to see beyond the dingy Socialist dwellings that are packed together like hives. But there are traces of beauty to be found.

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Here, in Chișinău, I finally asked myself why it…

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