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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Photographic Evidence

Photographic Evidence

Assignment 3 in Personal Essay and Memoir course

FIRST: Choose a selfie from your phone. Examining the selfie, describe the following elements, in 400-600 words or so:

  • the specific location in which the photo was taken, and why
  • your attire in the photo, and why
  • one detail in the photo that stands out as unique or remarkable (and why you find it so)
  • at least one element about the environment that could not be deduced from evidence in the photo, for example, smells, sounds, activity in the next room, etc.
  • your mood at the time the photo was taken, and why
  • the person who was physically closest to you in the photograph (Keep in mind this may not necessarily be someone visible in the photograph.)

Writing from the level of the frame (again, you can think of this as the level of the voiceover or quasi-omniscient narrator), describe your mood, or what was likely the case, based on past habits and routine behaviors. Think about how you move between the details you do remember and those you don’t.

Then, writing from the level of the story, as if the events captured by the photo are unfolding in real time, repeat the exercise using a photograph of you taken by someone else. This photo should be completely unrelated to the selfie except, of course, that you are the subject of each.

Pioneertown

Selfie: Susan and I have come to Pioneertown, located in the high desert just out of Joshua Tree State Park, to visit her as-yet undeveloped property.  While she walks the boundaries checking for traces of flooding patterns, digging out thorny bushes and other unwanted interlopers, I sit in a folding metal chair she’s brought to accommodate me.  After several minutes tracing her dwindling figure among the lightening-amputated Joshua trees and fire-seared cacti with my phone camera, I accidentally flip it back on me.  I’m not a big one for selfies as the portraits I capture inevitably appear to be of no one I recognize.  But this time is different. This time it is ME looking at back at me, the me of decades ago – aged, for sure, but still within the general outlines of the person I recognize as my Self.

I am wearing my beloved J. Peterman hat that appears to be cowboy grade leather but is actually a cotton acrylic blend that fits my head so well it looks like it grew from it.  I can feel the gentle, sage-scented breeze that lifts my longish blonde hair, providing a cooling counterpoint to the desert sun.  Several rounds of braided black leather from which a tarnished charm and a polished bit of amber hang encircle my neck; beyond the shoulders and upper neckline of my black tee shirt, not much more of me is visible.  (This is how, along with the pinpoint focus of my gaze, I can tell it is a selfie and not a photo Susan took of me, which is how she remembers it – oh the vagaries of memory!)

Perhaps it just evidences the amount of weight I’ve lost in the last year that my real face has emerged from the black hole it dropped into during my forties.  For years, the puffy, mildly confused person staring back at me from photos appeared lost within the frame, unclear how she arrived in the tableau, unsure of the way out.  Now, in this photo, I am slightly amused, relieved to see my own eyes, a bit red from the sun and wind, staring back at me.

Or maybe the reappearance of my Self is indicative of the welcome exhilaration that an exodus from suburbia has provided – Susan just as enthused as me to put Orange County in the rear-view mirror in favor of open horizons and the bird-tatted silence of the desert. I am now counting years since I have left the United States; its intangible borders feel more and more intractable and stultifying these days.  Within the frame of the selfie, though, I am the emigrant who can see free again.

Halloween 2018

Photograph: I am sitting aslant on John and Emily’s living room couch, the only person seated in a nighttime babel of drink-holding, costume-clad, party-voiced revelers.  Fortunately, the anime-face mask I’m wearing hides the misery and exhaustion I’m feeling.  Emily, who has yet to discern my marked lack of enthusiasm for the celebration, hands me another glass of alcohol (there is an untouched Moscow Mule in a plastic cup gathering beads of sweat on the end table beside me) and squeals “Hurry Mike – over here! Let’s get you guys’ picture!”   Mike obligingly drops down heavily beside me, causing me to fall against him.  Draping his arm around my shoulders, he beams at the camera, one bushy eyebrow raised. An irrational fury adds hiss to the roiling of my stomach: three days of continuous vomiting, vertigo, and diarrhea have left me humorless and hating everyone.  I landed in Cincinnati a mere four hours ago; we immediately got on the highway to make the two-hour drive to Lexington for this party.  I so hadn’t wanted to board that plane, worried about both the uncountable ailments that had persisted despite all my efforts to appease them and how I would manage them for six hours in a cramped airline seat.  But when you live 1600 miles from your spouse you don’t cancel conjugal visits lightly.

Now, husband beside me, I can’t even manage to hold his hand for the photo.  Instead, my left hand clutches my right, white knuckles glowing, in a silent plea to make it stop, return to normal, quiet the mounting dread I have that something is really wrong. My mask is askew; the eye holes are black and bottomless, no sign of myself peering out.

Three days from now I will wake up to neon-yellow tinted eyes, sallow skin and brown urine in the toilet bowl.  Five days from now I will be informed by my horrified primary care physician that my liver enzymes are the highest she’s ever seen and within a week I’ll be discussing liver transplants with my new gastroenterologist.  But the night of the photo, I have no information, only uncountable pain and misery, irritating people surrounding me, and a plastic mask to hide behind.

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.

Barefoot

barefoot
photo courtesy depositphotos

Just now

on an impulse

I slipped a foot out of shoe and

stepped on the grass.

It felt like baby fingers,

succulent green and plush.

And a breeze blew me back to

flat bellies on hot sidewalks,

sprinklers spraying diamond droplets

and ice melting in paper-cupped Koolaid.

I bet it’s been forty years since I spent

a whole summer day

outside

playing barefoot.

Buyer’s remorse

For a short while before I actually relocated to Ohio, Mike would field the notion of us purchasing a house here; every couple of phone calls we would return to worry the pros and cons between us, for surely this would be a reasonable next step for us now that my global peregrinations have (at least for the time being) abated. Zillow lists the median price for a home in this area at $138k, about the price we paid for our 3-bedroom condo in Irvine 21 years ago. We could easily qualify on his salary alone; he is making more now than we both made together in 1995. On the face of it, it seems like a prudent decision. He’ll want to retire in the next 10-15 years and we’ll have a home that’s ours for the rest of our lives. Yet, unaccountably, I would mentally cross my arms and dig in my heels every time he mentioned it; my tendency was to lob the decision back into his court: “Well, if that’s what you want…” thereby signaling divestiture of any responsibility on my part. Why is that? I would think. Why am I so resistant to putting my name on a deed, assuming ownership of a piece of property and taking responsibility for its maintenance?

To me, having 20 years of home-ownership and a raft of friends and family members negotiating their own purchases, remodels and/or refinance packages, a house represents so much more than just a safe harbor from the elements. Ever the bourgeoisie yearning toward nobility, we have elevated the home into a personal statement, a shrine to our domestic aspirations, our creativity and artistic abilities, our purchasing power and entertainment proclivities. One can reside in an apartment, or even a rented house for that matter, and be reasonably excused from not displaying attractive shades of paint, double-pane windows, Sub-zero appliances, or custom maple flooring. But once you own that home? Well, come on now, we all do it: crossing the threshold into a new acquaintance’s home for the first time, we begin a subtle inventory of the environment, each wall-hanging, end table, throw rug, light fixture, and counter-top a physical embodiment of that person’s aesthetic sense, an external expression of their interior life and mental landscaping. We learn much about people’s values and priorities in observing the choices they make regarding their domestic surroundings. It is glaringly apparent in Moldova, where those having the means segregate themselves from the downtrodden behind block walls and painted, wrought-iron fences enclosing fabulous gardens and multi-storied fortresses with tiled interiors, Ikea kitchens, and wedding-cake window treatments. (Walk outside that gate and encounter dust-laden roads with pot-holes wading-pool deep, stray dogs with gaping wounds licking fly-laden cartons amidst strewn trash, and men in the final throws of alcoholism face down in their own piss, but that’s not your problem. Casa ta este foarte frumos. And this is not an issue exclusive to Moldova, by any means, just one made more obvious by their juxtaposition. We here in America have learned how to segregate our poverty.)

Every day, I struggle against the impulsiveness of my own acquisitiveness. Target, CVS, Costco – they are all destinations laden with temptation for me. I am particularly prone to lotions, potions and culinary gadgetry: wave a civet-scented, buffalo-tallow-based body moisturizer, chocolate-infused balsamic reduction, or stainless-steel herb slicer in my face and it’s in the basket before I’ve even noted the price. I find my hand wavering now in the drugstore beauty section: is that Moroccan argan-oil smoothing treatment really going to improve the quality of my life? Is it worth the money I’ll spend, the clutter it will add to the narrow bathroom sink, the trash it will end up becoming when the contents of the bottle are gone?

I remember all too clearly the agonizing decisions that attended the dispersal of twenty years’ accumulated furniture, house wares, clothing, tchotchkes and mementos. Every object became that much heavier, knowing that holding on came with a cost and letting go meant forever. I want to prettify my new bedroom, yet know it will take hours and hours of scouring Goodwill, Craigslist, or the local flea markets to find those specific pieces which will accurately reflect my interior landscape, the aesthetic ethic that prioritizes reuse, recycling, and re-purposing over built-in obsolescence but is generally too lazy to see a decor from concept through to fruition. I am vulnerable to the knowledge that anything I end up choosing says something about how I wish other’s to see me and so increasingly opt not to choose anything at all. Buying a house would bring on a horde of mind-cluttering decisions that I just don’t want to entertain. Paint, molding, flooring, sinks, towel racks, faucets, window coverings – shit. I’d rather read a book, take a walk, plan dinner, and write.

I am reminded, also, of a proclivity I had in childhood. My little sister and I (me in the position of Project Manager, of course) would spend hours setting up our Barbie Dream House, Kitchen Carousel, Vanity Bedroom, and vast collection of molded plastic furniture, Barbie-sized vehicles and wardrobes. With each passing birthday and Christmas, our collection became grander until our delight in the pastime was invested almost exclusively in the planning and set-up; nine times out of ten, by the time we had finished negotiating territory, diagramming architecture, meticulously constructing, then (inevitably) rearranging our fantasy Barbie world, we had little time, imagination, or interest remaining to actually play with the dolls themselves. Such foreshadowing: life becomes so dense with acquisition and planning that either we lose impetus or leave no time for the actual experience.

***

Each moment is a choice. What aging reveals to most of us is that the routine decision-track our culture programs us to follow – college major, profession, marriage, home, babies – has huge implications for conscripting our attention, creativity, and energy for years and years and years. Intercourse takes an instant (or 30, I guess, if there’s foreplay) yet its consequences may join you for a lifetime. Purchasing a home, on average, takes a handful of months; for the subsequent 15-30 years many of your future options will be influenced, conscripted, or curtailed by the need to pay that monthly mortgage. As my lifeline shrinks with each passing year, I find myself increasingly troubled by these seemingly practical decisions that threaten to catch me up, tie me down, or force me a hand I don’t wish to play. I marvel at how the past five years continue to pulse within me, alive and rich and meaningful, whereas the bulk of time from when I was 35 to 49 resembles a foggy, impenetrable valley between the craggy peaks of youth and the paradigm-shattering day I lost my job. A few years ago I attempted a journal exercise, to string a lifeline of significant memories from my earliest to the present day through discreet decades. I scribbled madly along through the first 5-6 pages, recalling kindergarten playmates, newborn pets, neighborhood bullies, schoolyard embarrassments, and classroom crushes. Clear as day were recollections of Humboldt, nights of Ecstasy, travels through Big Sur, dynamic debates in college seminars and the brain explosions they induced, my sister’s death, my daughter’s birth, my impetuous first marriage, and the night Mike and I kissed for the first time. But then the memories abruptly dropped off, disappearing into that long low valley obscured by a hazy sameness, an undifferentiated terrain that did not change, year after year after year. For three pages, representing the years 1990 through 2010, I recorded exactly five memories: interviewing at Canyon Acres, breaking my ankle; marrying Mike, traveling to South America, and losing my job. Otherwise, my time line lay undistinguished and mute, terrifying in its utter blankness. With each moment so precious and ever dwindling, how did I let a huge swath of my life be swept under a rug?

Comparing the last five years with that monstrous erased portion of time, I find that the key lies in change. I stayed in the same house, worked for the same employer, was married to the same man, drove the same freeways, shopped at the same markets, and palled around with the same folks for one long, unbroken marathon of years. And I realize that for some people this is the epitome of happiness: routine, predictability, the sense of accomplishment and having arrived into the fullness of one’s life is the essence of success. You’ve hit all the markers and walked off with the prize. Yet how come literature and music and film are replete with those characters who, having wrested the trophy from the clutches of adversity with much personal sacrifice, find themselves intoning that age-old litany: Is that all there is?

I happened upon an excerpt from the German psychologist Marc Wittman’s recent book Felt Time: the Psychology of How We Perceive Time that explains much to me:

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time.

I want to live, actually live, for a long more time. I am awed by the fragility of my existence, its propensity to slide towards ennui when I don’t consciously mind my moments. I wish to handle it reverently, like a newborn babe, breathing in all its potentials while remaining aware of how my choices manifest them, or not. Life is such an awesome responsibility, such a burgeoning gift that responds abundantly in rewarding our attention, yet how little of it we sometimes pay. Those five regrets of the dying volleyed through the internet a number of years ago were each the echo of decisions made, reverberations of unmindful choices that struck their last resounding knell over people’s death beds. My 73-year-old father, in one poignant sentence over the breakfast table, summed up his sudden sense of urgency upon recovering from a scary bout of viral meningitis: I feel like I’m running out of time. It is unfortunate that it often takes a brush with catastrophe to set those alarm bells ringing. Then again, such presents us with the mercurial opportunity for gratitude even in our darkest hours, like the (truly) immortal line of OneRepublic’s jubilant anthem Counting Stars: Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.

I’m still undecided about the house. And I’m going to live with that for now.

Leaving Home to Find It, Once Again

Tatiana, one of cooks at the senior center where I live, stops me as I emerge from the laundry room. Her shy smile gleams in the dim corridor, her hands drift up out of the darkness, cradling a piping hot donut. The smell of them has been driving me crazy all morning as it wafts through the weekend-empty center, wreathing my apartment in the smell of yeasty goodness. My refrigerator is bare, victim of a busy workweek and a lazy proprietor; I haven’t had the motivation to get dressed yet, much less trudge to the market. Manna from heaven seals the deal: I am glad to be back home in Moldova.

For a few days, I’ll admit now, it was touch and go.

***

Back in July, the United States had welcomed me back with abundance, diversity, energy and climactic beauty. From the moment my plane touched down, the infusion began: a smorgasbord of food and ethnic restaurants; the physical presence of family and friends with the cornucopia of attendant emotions that reconnecting brings; late-model vehicles that at times, unbelievably, held me, alone; store aisles and city streets and national parks (national parks!) teeming with a vast display of the world’s heterogeneity; background noise that was comprehensible, be it radio, TV, elevator music, or the couple at the next table; and always, everywhere, people smiling, eyes connecting, greetings freely tossed between passersby, laughter shared in lines. I traveled to California, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Ohio, touching down briefly in Chicago and DC; every single place felt like home.

Leaving was rough. Around the second week of September, when the end was in sight, a little pit of discontent nestled down behind my heart. I immediately began to stuff it full of trivial, idiosyncratic goodbyes – so long sidewalks; later labels written in English; bye-bye blasting shower heads; be seeing you housecats, ice cubes, parking lots, landscaping, yummy Greek yogurt – leaving as little room as possible for the murky, seeping melancholia of separation from the meaningful: husband, daughter, grandmother, parents, brothers, nieces and nephews, former colleagues and schoolmates and best friends forever: all the faces who hold my history, reflect my truths and anchor my memories.

When I had first landed in Orange County, my husband called me, his excitement pulsing through the telephone pinholes, raining down like little candy hearts onto my eardrums: “You’re on the same continent!” he raved. “I could walk to where you are!” Understand that at the time he was still 1,800 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio. But they were land miles. In the event of a cataclysmic, world-altering event, theoretically, we could find each other. It was, in some deeply comforting, inexplicable way, exciting. But now, here I was about to put an ocean and the breadth of another continent between us.

I was casting off again…

***

Arriving back in Chișinău after 15 hours of flying, 7 time zone changes and no sleep wasn’t conducive to a good mood at the outset. But I am lucky to have friends outside of the PC community by this time, so thankfully I didn’t have to wrestle two suitcases and a backpack onto the airport rutiera or pay the exhorbitant taxi fee that is standard fare for foreigners, regardless if you speak the language. A wonderful couple attached to the US Embassy picked me up and we had a great dinner at one of the nicer restaurants catering to ex-pats, ennabling me to delay full re-entry for a couple more hours. After enduring the 30 minute bumper car traffic out of Chisinău into my village, then the cratered dusty road leading to my center, only to find the entry gate locked, however, all vestiges of America had sailed away. Despite three emails and a text notification sent during the preceding 24 hours, I had to initiate a series of relayed phone calls as we stood outside the gate in order to evoke a keyholder from the residential center to let me in.

Since moving to Moldova, I have made exactly seven trips outside its borders. This was the first time I didn’t feel welcomed home. Due to an agreement I made when I first moved in, periodically I must move out of my apartment in order to accommodate specific volunteers who have been friends of the center since its inception. During the nine weeks I was in the US these volunteers visited, so I had had to pack up all my belongings in bags and boxes prior to my departure. Upon my return this time, I was greeted by a bare mattress, gaping refrigerator and larder, empty hangers, and a thin film of dust on the counters. And, in a huge departure from the usual, Buddy and Little Sheba (the center’s dogs) had not bounded out to greet me when I came through the gate. I learned the next morning that they had been summarily eliminated, along with many of the village dogs, during a mysterious night of gunshots for which no has claimed responsibilty or been held accountable. It was all decidely depressing.

And to top it off, I had to hit the ground running. It takes a lot longer than 36 hours to recover from jet lag and seven time zone changes; unfortunately that was all that I had prior to having to embark on a whirlwind schedule of trainings, appoinments, meetings, and my new partnership with Novateca (more about that in another post.) I continued to want to fall asleep at 2:30 or 6:30 (PM) and awaken at 12:30 or 2:30 (AM.) It took eight days to fully unpack and at least ten days for a semblance of diurnal normalcy to find me again. I felt disoriented and uncharacteristically disconsolate, set adrift in a manner I’ve only experienced two or three times in this lifetime. There had been too much warmth and acceptance, conections and laughter, comfort and familiarity, control and convenience, to have it so quickly snatched away. This time there was not the excitement of the unknown to bouy me; the adventure had already been had. My fellow M27s have, for the most part, moved on – to graduate school, extended travel, career track jobs, marriage and babies. My footsteps echo in a hollow space.

***

But let’s not end on such a somber note. Today was the first day since I’ve returned that has been totally mine. I had nowhere to be and nothing I had to accomplish. I got some laundry done and cooked up a pot of beans. I am writing on the awesome new laptop which my generous husband paid DHL a dear amount to deliver safely to me; I’ve spent the greater part of the day poking around her menus, caressing her touch screen, and courting her thinly veiled charms. The cool of autumn is gilding the leaves red and gold outside my window. It is 46 degrees and I’m beginning to don the layers (93 degrees in Huntington Beach today – are you kidding me???) And a sweet angel gifted me a homemade donut when I was hungry.  Already, again, this foreign life is settling in around me, becoming home once more.

Year three and counting….

 

Corpses, roses, red lipstick

The other day I was hurtling down the road to Chișinău in a rutiera being piloted in that take-no-prisoners manner typical of most public transportation in Moldova when the brakes were applied forcefully enough to obtain most passengers attention away from their smart phones and tablets (this visual will become more relevant in a moment) to seek the reason for our sudden loss in velocity.  Traffic is pretty much non-existent on the one-lane highways that thread across Moldova, mostly because passing the car in front of you seems to be de rigueur once you’re close enough to read the license plate.  (No matter if the car is doing 80, it must be passed because it is in front of you. You kind of wish they’d apply this same thinking to their education and economic policies.)

We slowed to a relative crawl for about five minutes before a crowd of people carrying balloons, flowers, and candles trailing a căruță provided the explanation: of course – a funeral! We edged our way slowly and respectfully round the procession and were afforded a nice view of the corpse, artfully framed by roses bunched atop yards of mounded tulle, lying in repose on the flatbed of the horse-drawn cart. The red lipstick was a nice touch, despite her obviously advanced years.  Go out in style, I say.

Once the plodding hearse reached the rear view mirror, a number of signs of the cross were proffered before  all heads bent in unison back to their respective screens.   Ah, Moldova!

***

The random juxtaposition of old and new still takes me by surprise, even after two years.  Living as I do so close to the capital and within the physical confines of a western-European designed and funded organization, I am less exposed to the old ways that remain tenaciously embedded in Moldovan village life.  When a beneficiary dies here at the center an ambulance (or at least the Moldovan version of an ambulance) comes to collect the body, transporting it, I assume, to some other location for the family to retrieve later. (Since many of our beneficiaries’ family members live outside of Moldova this could take some time.)

I do have many PCV friends, however, who have attended the departed through the various processes that deliver them to their final resting place, as well as the traditional observances that trail in their wake.

Here’s how it goes*:

  1. Collect expired family member from scene of expiration if this does not happen to be the home.  One incidence I heard about involved a brother and sister driving 2 ½ hours from their village into Chișinău to retrieve their father from the hospital where he died.  Dressing him in his nicest suit, they then loaded him into the back seat of their compact car, positioned upright as there was not enough space for him to recline, which now causes me to wonder how many back seat passengers I pass on the highway might be corpses heading home for burial.
  2. Place family member on table in prominent location in home.  Surround him or her with all available chairs.  Borrow some from the neighbors if possible.   People will be coming and going and staying and talking and sitting in silence and praying for hours and maybe even days.  There’s a lot to remember and honor and say.
  3. Make enough food to feed an army. Or at least all your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, local government employees and school teachers, resident Peace Corps Volunteer, the neighborhood alimentara owner, rutiera driver, and any other important village contacts who will come to pay respects.  And don’t forget the house wine.  And cognac.
  4. Send someone for lumber to construct a casket.  Send someone else to dig a grave in your family plot in the village cemetery.
  5. Find a căruță if you don’t already have one. Transfer body to wagon bed. Surround with mounds of flowers. Collect people. Parade through the village, down the highway, uphill and down dale, to the final resting place.  Place body in casket, wrestle casket into hole.  Shovel dirt.
  6. On day three, nine and forty, and then on the one and seven year anniversary of the departed’s expiration, repeat step 3. (Without the body, of course.)  On the year anniversaries you must present a circular loaf of bread punctuated by a slender candle wrapped in a dish towel to all your visitors.
  7. And then, of course, every year there’s Paștile Blajilor, or “Memorial Easter” as it’s called by us English-speakers.  On this day, which is traditionally the Monday after the first Sunday following Easter, but usually encompasses that Sunday as well since most Moldovans have so many relatives piled up in the local cemeteries that one day won’t cover them all, families bring huge baskets of food to the cemetery and spend the day visiting, gossiping, and laughing, sharing their biscuiții and bomboane and perjole, most times while standing wedged between monuments and crucifixes and tombstones and knee-high wrought iron fences. Some families are perspicacious enough to crowd a permanent little picnic bench between graves so they have room to set out a nice spread.  Oh and let me pour you some house wine.  And a shot of cognac.

*My intention is not to poke fun at the Moldovan way of doing death. I am trying to convey the utter physicality of it, the deep involvement with the corpse, the practical elements that must be attended to by family and friends, the inability to delegate these tasks to “professionals,” whatever that term actually means besides just being somebody not connected to the dead person.

If you get the sense that Moldovans are much more involved with their dead than, say, your average Neptune Society-card carrying Californian or east coast Congregationalist, I dare say you’re on the right track.  I have not spotted a funeral home anywhere in this country.  Corpses are not yet an incorporated business here.  Moldovans deal with their dead.  They collect them and dress them and display them and transport them and dig the holes to deposit them in, and then continue to celebrate their life and influence and accomplishments long after the bodies have been placed in those graves.  They spend a goodly amount of time looking back, remembering, leafing through old albums, telling stories.  I guess it is a bit of a misnomer to call them “departed”, actually, as they seem to be hanging out in the penumbra of their family’s lives for decades past their expiration dates.

Recently, I spent a good couple of hours with the 86-year-old host-grandmother of one of my Peace Corps friends.  The second time she hobbled out with an old shoebox full of photos, I gracefully acquiesced and settled in for the ride.  We covered the story behind every frayed and yellowing picture, even those so faded I couldn’t make out a face.  When there were duplicates – and there were many – she remembered another aspect of the personality of the person/s portrayed to relate to me.  (Since most of her teeth were missing and she spoke a heavily-accented Moldovanești, I was only catching every third word anyway.  She might have been telling the same story over and over again.)

Lest you attribute this persistence to the age and senility of my raconteur, let me assure you that I have been the recipient of such serial tales from the mouths of much younger, spryer folk: Nina, my host sister in Stauceni, celebrated the year anniversary of her husband’s passing my first summer in Moldova (and it was a celebration; let me say that outside of Terms of Endearment’s Aurora Greenway and my own 93-year-old grandmother, I’ve never known a happier widow in my entire life.)  I was held sway for an entire evening by the story of their meeting, marriage, his war-record and drinking buddies, their children’s nativities, his long, slow decline from stomach cancer, and the details of his expiration, complete with photos and souvenir medals.  There may have been some house wine involved, too.  And this served up by a woman who didn’t much like her husband at all.

Once I was stopped in the training room by one of the social assistants here. She was weeping prodigiously and cradling the framed photograph of a handsome middle-aged man. She’s Ukrainian, so her Romanian is just barely better than mine, but I managed to parse out from the picture and towel-wrapped loaf of bread she pressed into my hands that this was the son whose car had been hit by a train five years ago.  (She missed him so much that she observed his anniversary every year, rather than keeping to the requisite one and seven.)  Despite the fact that I couldn’t understand most of what she said, she didn’t stint on his story.  It was very important that I appreciate what an amazing son, brother, and father he had been.  Her pain was so palpable that the tears were soon coursing down my face, too, and we ended the whole thing dissolved in each other’s embrace.

***

When my sister was killed in a head-on collision almost 30 years ago, a family friend identified her body at the morgue. Neither of my parents wanted to etch their memories with a stark, blue-lit close-up of her smashed-in skull or deflated ribcage.  We held a memorial service at some generic, non-sectarian chapel, where we placed a framed picture on an easel front and center depicting her mid-laugh, eyes bright, hair a spun-gold halo, turning toward the camera, alive, rather than a dead body.  Her friends took dutiful turns at the lectern at the front of the room, clutching sodden pieces of notebook paper and swabbing their faces with tissues. I don’t remember any member of our family talking; I think we were too stunned at that point, trying to assimilate the meaning of the sudden hole in our ranks. There was no body present; she was cremated and for some reason the remains were not ready in time for the event (how long does it take to burn a body? Is there a line? I picture a traffic jam of caskets, jostling for a lane…)

Later, I went with my dad to the crematorium to fetch her “ashes.”  I put that in quotes because it is a nice little linguistic notion we have about a  body that’s been burned – that all that remains is a neat, fluffy white pile of ashes. Not so.  Because, of course, cradling the box on my lap through the car ride home, I couldn’t stop myself.  I needed some notion of termination to take hold in me, a finale, in order to stop expecting her to pop around the corner and kid us about her creative April Fool’s gag. So, I opened it up.  Carefully wrapped inside a sanitizing layer of plastic, I found chunks of concrete, similar to what you might have after going at a sidewalk with a sledgehammer. With teeny bits of irregular turquoise and deep garnet pebbles mixed in.   And some silver (I surmised those were her fillings.)   I sifted it through my fingers, thinking, This is you. This is all that’s left of you, Lorraine. Chunks of bones and tiny gem-like pebbles.  It didn’t compute.  I couldn’t make the transition between the articulated limbs, the smell and feel of her, that cloud of hair and puffy upper lip, the dim constellation of pale freckles across her nose and cheeks, her perfectly arched nails and knobby knees, with this box of crumbled cement between my thighs.  If you don’t witness the burning, it’s hard to believe it really happened.

(Ironically, several years later our family benefited from a lawsuit filed against that crematorium. They were discovered to have indiscriminately mixed people’s remains during their processing, so the bones I was sifting through were not likely all, or even mostly, my sister’s.)

A couple of weeks after this, a group of us drove down to Laguna Beach with the box.  I vaguely remember my current boyfriend and the man who had identified her body squabbling about who was going to scatter the contents (in the end, I think they divided it up.)  I and my parents, brothers, assorted girlfriends and family friends watched from the cliffs above as they both paddled out on boogie boards, dodging surfers and swimmers, then stopped beyond the wave break, and proceeded to wave exuberantly.  We all waved back until one of my brothers pointed out that they weren’t actually waving, they were busy tossing Lorraine across the water.  No one said anything after that.  The wind was loud and there was a table of people enjoying Caeser salads and a bottle of chardonnay not three feet away.  It turns out that scattering dead people’s remains right off shore in California is not really legal.  No sense in drawing undue attention.

***

Most years I don’t recall my sister’s expiration date until some days or weeks after it’s passed.  I’m always gratified those years that I do remember, I don’t know why. I make a point of composing a little letter to her in my head, updating her on what’s been happening with me, how her neice is doing, the latest family travails.  For some reason I don’t feel right doing this if I’ve forgotten on the actual day of her death – like I’ve missed her birthday party or to attend her wedding or something. Since she was cremated, there exists no dedicated place to visit, to bring flowers or to say a prayer.  My mother and I have talked – at the 20 and 25 year anniversaries, I remember – of getting her friends together, looking up her old boyfriend, having a party. We still have yet to make that happen.

She is slipping silently away, becoming more ephemeral each passing year as I age and my ability to recall details fades.  She died before the age of cell phones and camcorders; there is no recording of her voice.   All of our videos are old school, silent and grainy like my memories, and the world they portray seems alien, with longer shadows and a clausterphobic feel. I wrote recently of losing a piece of her clothing that I had carted around with me for decades.  I liked having that shawl as it gave me a tangible connection to her – something that touched her could touch me still.  I fantasized that little flecks of her skin were still caught up in the threads.  (This might actually be kind of gross if I hadn’t broken down and washed it years ago.)

I know that my family did the best we could, given our circumstance and the cultural medium we were steeped in, at the time of my sister’s passing.  But I am aware of the movement growing within the States to bring the dead home, to wrest back responsibility for the passage of the corpse to its final resting place, be that fire or grave.  I have a friend who kept her husband’s body at home in the bed where he died for the three days that his Buddhist faith proscribed before calling the authorities to collect him.  It was a defiant act in a world chock full of rules and regulations around what should be, could be a far more intimate event.

I think the Moldovans have done well in blending progress with tradition in many areas. I fervently hope that I never see a funeral home built in this country.  I admire them for their resilience and stoicism melded with an authentic propensity for feeling their emotions, year after year after year.  The dead are not departed; they remain deeply embedded in the lives of those who remain.

***

It has been the ubiquity of social media, ironically, that has returned bits of Lorraine to me.  Her closest friends have friended me, and they still post pictures and anecdotes about her, stuff I’ve never seen or heard, that serve to refresh her presence and allow her to again have an influence upon my day.  I cry often. And laugh and smile and find myself caught up in an unexpected memory, a clear picture of how she was in a certain instance, on a certain day, and I fancy I can almost hear her voice whispering on the breeze.

That image sticks in my brain, I don’t know why: the busload of me and 19 Moldovans, inching by the wagon carrying the corpse with the bright-red mouth, framed in roses, trailed by a parade festooned with candles and balloons.  Everyone pausing, looking out the window, heads turning slowly.  Hands slowly tracing crosses from forehead, to shoulders, to heart.  Then the van speeding up and all heads bowing down, again, to little screens cradled on laps in front of them.