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It's the most hated month of the year! I was never a big fan of August, what with the insane heat and the back to school sales when there was still a whole month of summer vacation, but when both my parents died in the same month (though not the same year), that did it. I wish I could skip the whole month now. It's full of days I'd rather not remember. My father has been gone for five years, and I still can't believe he's gone. My mother only died a year ago, but it seems like a lifetime.
I am: a sister, an aunt, the daughter of a famed research scientist, the granddaughter of a teacher and a banker, the great- granddaughter of a butcher and a farmer. My existence is nothing like my father's, or grandfathers', or great-grandfathers'. Sometimes I wonder how I got here from there. I am not: a mother or a wife. I will never have children or grandchildren. I find that thought much less frightening than the thought of having them. I'd be a terrible mother, and I'd hate being a grandmother, with its implication of age, lost beauty, and having to make cookies.
She was that rare thing in these modern times: a kept woman. The only job she had was to keep herself in top form for the visits of the man who paid for her apartment and all her expenses. A simple exchange of goods and services. She went to the gym every day, had a manicure and pedicure every week. Everything that had to be waxed was waxed. Everything that had to be maintained was maintained. Perfectly. The effect of the constant grooming and self-absorption was that she was ruthlessly critical of all other women who didn't meet her standards.
Sometimes it seems that women are the victims of their reproductive system. We're either trying to get pregnant or fearing it; having a period, getting it, or getting over it; suffering the adverse effects of menopause, which should be a relief. There's maybe one week a month we don't feel like hell. Yet, we have to go to work and act civilized and polite, even in the grip of mind- numbing cramps, aching backs, sore breasts — the side effects of pregnancy and period being surprisingly similar. And despite this suffering, we are paid less than men. Even though we're stronger.
My dog and I woke up early this morning. The brutal heatwave had finally broken, and when we stepped out into the bright sunshine, there was a cool breeze. At last! No-one was on the street except the security guard at the construction site across the street. He waved at us, and we waved back, the dog using her tail, of course. When we got to the park, we were the only ones there. What a luxury! We played until she was tired, and then walked home happily, passing a convention of sparrows discussing the merits of a newly-seeded lawn.
Joe parked his truck at the construction site. It's going to be a scorcher! called one of the other workers. Hot enough for you? asked another. Joe shook his head. He'd been doing this job for more than 30 years, ever since he started working with his father during summer vacation. He made enough money and enjoyed being outside so much that he never went back to school, despite his mother's protests and tears. He didn't regret his decision, except on days like this. The money was still good, and for hope, he had two lottery tickets in his pocket.
She decided to go for a swim in the river. It took over an hour to drive there, and more than once, sitting in the hot car in stalled traffic, she considered turning back, but the thought of the cool water at the end of the drive was too alluring. When she arrived, she parked the car in welcome shade and walked the short distance to the river. She jumped in, welcoming the embrace of the water. She struck out strongly, feeling like a young girl instead of a 75 year woman, thinking of all the summers in the past.
Lily likes lists. She writes down things to do for the pleasure of checking them off when they're done. She keeps a list in her head of all the things she accomplishes each day: walked the dog; made dinner; had a bath; did two loads of laundry; sent a birthday card; washed the dishes; returned library books; went to the gym. Checking off her lists and adding up the daily tasks she had finished gave Lily a sense of victory. Work was never on the lists. It was just something she did. There was no thrill of victory in working.
A little street drama: a woman wearing a pink bathrobe comes out of her house and starts yelling at the construction workers halfway down the block. She's convinced that the truck growling outside her house is theirs, even though it says City Waste Management in big letters on the side. She yells, I'm trying to sleep! Turn the truck off! One of the construction workers yells back, It's not our truck! The woman keeps ranting, so all five workers cup their hands and yell in unison: It's not our truck! Can't you do something? Call the City! She gives up.
A year ago today, I was having an anxiety attack so severe that I was holding onto the kitchen counter and thinking I should go to the hospital when the phone rang. A ringing phone for the past three years was a source of anxiety in itself, often signaling bad news about my mother's battle with cancer. This time, it was my sister, telling me that the battle had been lost. Four years earlier, she had called me to tell me that our father had died suddenly. I still find it hard to believe that our parents are gone forever.
The urban symphony starts around 7:00 each morning. The construction workers park their cars, call hello to each other, stand outside my building and have coffee. When I pass them on the way to the park, they pet my dog and say how beautiful she is. Then they get going and the construction site groans to life. Cement mixers start, engines roar, there's a fanfare of peeping (the look out, I'm backing up and I'm huge sound), as trucks go in and out. The crane starts up. Machinery, unseen but heard, rumbles in the mysterious depths. Every day except Sunday.
The thought of visiting my former home city always makes me unaccountably anxious. I don't know why going there makes me so nervous — I lived there for fifteen years and loved it. The only thing I can think of is that every time I've gone back in the last two years has been to visit my dying mother. She died a year ago, and that was the last time I went. It's become this big thing in my mind. It's strange that the two or three years of Mom's illness and suffering have cancelled out the happy years before.
Where's my brother when I need him? There's a cat trapped in the bottom of the freight elevator in my building. The cat's owner was convinced that she could bring the elevator down far enough to catch the cat, but the elevator is now stuck. It won't go up or down. The cat is mewing, so she's safe, but I can't help thinking that she should have taken my advice and called the fire department. I know for a fact that they rescue cats. And it's easier to rescue one cat than a girl, a cat, and a stuck elevator.
The storm, expected all day, has finally begun. Under the skylights, I can watch the rain beating down above me, while staying dry. At the first flash of lightning, my dog runs to the bathroom to hide; she finds the roar of thunder even more unsettling. I remember my father and brother counting the time between the thunder and the lightning when I was a child. There is a formula which tells how far away the storm is. I always wanted to it be further away. They always wanted it closer. I'd wait for the results of their calculations, hoping.
Maggie goes into the lounge and closes the door. She pours herself a glass of sherry and stands sipping it at the French doors looking out on the rainy garden. She is trying to gather her thoughts. Her husband is a professor — indeed, he used to be her professor, and there is still something of the teacher-student in their relationship — and a difficult man. He demands absolute silence in the house when he's working, which is almost always, and nearly impossible with two young children. Maggie wonders if she knew what she was getting into when she married him.
I got up early today. It's easier when it's bright and sunny. I love padding around the house in my nightgown and bare feet; it reminds me of being in Maine in the summer. It's a good thing that I got my work done first thing this morning, because the power has suddenly gone out, and there's nothing I can do until light and power are restored. It turns out that the crane in the construction site across the street hit an electric wire, so we'll all have to wait until the power company can fix it. It's so quiet.
She and her mother had been estranged for several years, ever since her mother married a man half her age against all her children's advice. The marriage had turned out more disastrously than anyone had expected: he left her mother after spending all her money, running up their credit cards to the maximum, and when her mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Her mother was now on welfare. When her mother needed her help, though, the daughter flew to her side. As she stood at her mother's door, she thought, How did we get here? and rang the doorbell.
I wanted to go alone, but my sister insisted on coming with me for moral support. When the hearse pulled out in front of us, we were shocked to see our father's coffin. The hearse was glass-sided, unlike American hearses, where everything is hidden from view. There it was, the old-fashioned shape, unlike the American oblong, with a brass plate engraved with his name and dates. My sister fled behind a tree to have a cigarette. I asked the undertakers to wait until she was ready. Then we sat hand in hand in the limo, sharing our father's last journey.
My grandparents' house was a magic place. It was a big Victorian, built by the town sheriff for his daughter as a wedding present. The builder's initials were carved into a beam in the attic, the most magical place in this magical house. There were trunks of ballgowns, the bed where their cat Smoky used to sleep, my great-grandfather's sleigh bells, the souvenirs of my grandmother's brother's Grand Tour of Europe, boxes of books. The stained glass windows were flush with the floor. The air smelled of dust and possibilities, the past and the present and the future mingling.
David piled the kids into the station wagon on a Saturday morning. Time to go grocery shopping. His wife was still asleep. Even if she was awake, she'd be padding around the house in her bathrobe and slippers, cigarette in one hand and coffee in the other. He pulled his thoughts away and onto the task at hand. They arrived at the store to find a pen of puppies for adoption. He told the excited children that they could look, but that was it. At the pen, a puppy jumped into David's arms and snuggled up trustingly.
Despite my best intentions, I'm late for the ballgame. Very late. Beyond fashionably late. There're only an inning and a half left by the time I find my assigned seat. Fortunately, my friend is just happy that I'm there, no matter how late I am. She's that kind of friend. Every year, she and a group of friends celebrate her birthday at a ballgame. This is the first time I've been able to go: my mother was either dead or dying the past two Augusts. And even so, I barely make it. But my friend's hug makes up for everything.
My sister and brother have bought some land together. Thirty acres in Northern California, just down the road from where they live now. My sister worries about owing the bank so much money, how to afford digging a well and establishing three sources of energy on the property, not to mention building two houses. I want her to enjoy the early days of this great adventure. I tell her it will all work out, and I believe it. It's their dream come true. They actually own a piece of the Golden State. Wherever Dad is, he's so happy for them.
It's good to be home again. The tiny hotel room made me realize how expansive my place is: 1,200 square feet, the former woodworking shop in a converted, century-old coffin factory. There are drawbacks to living in such an odd space: the only light is three skylights and three windows; there are always mice; the electricity is unreliable; the floors are rough cement; it's all one room except the bathroom and a small office. But I love its quirkiness, its crumbling brick walls, the sense of living in a historical, yet working class building, and having my own front door.
He lives simply, in a small house in the woods. He has neighbors nearby, but he mostly keeps to himself. It's hard to know what he's thinking, and though he feels things deeply, he doesn't show his feelings. His dog is his best friend, and he takes her everywhere. They are both loved in their little community. He has no television, preferring instead to watch the fish swimming in the aquarium at the foot of his bed. He is a gifted gardener, as his father was before him, creating beauty, enjoying the solitude of gardening and the solace of flowers.
It's a dark and rainy day, even though it's nearly noon. It's amazing how affected I am by the weather. Dark weather always darkens my mood (and then makes me fear that it's partly caused by my slow weaning off the anti-depressants). I had especially vivid nightmares all night, and woke up with a dream hangover — an emotional one is as bad as a physical one as far as I'm concerned — and realizing that the dark day was real and not a dream was even more depressing. It seems unnatural for a day to mimic night like this.
I might be the only person in the city who hopes the dark weather means that summer is really over. Everyone keeps saying how they hope it isn't and how cold it is. I, on the other hand, fear that there will be one last blast of intolerable heat to suffer through (sweat, sleeplessness, sluggishness) with all its miseries. I'm looking forward to crisp fall days with a bright blue sky and leaves shading from pale yellow to flaming red, the smell of wood smoke in the air and assurance that the heat is back in hell, where it belongs.
I am seriously considering moving to the country. I wonder if I might actually enjoy it at this point in my life. I've lived in cities all my adult life, but I'm beginning to get tired of the crowds, the dirt, the crazy people, the ugliness, the expense, the endless construction, the noise. I think my dog would be happier there. I'd live close to my remaining family, but not too close. I'd still have access to the city whenever I wanted to go there. But would it be too Green Acres to handle? There's one way to find out.
I like to imagine that June Cleaver had a secret life. Yes, she was the perfect housewife and mother (could anyone really enjoy housework that much without being seriously medicated?) when the boys were around, but as soon as she kissed everyone good- bye in the morning, she'd go back in the house, kick off her shoes, pour herself a drink, and watch TV all day. She wouldn't even think about housework, and she'd eat bonbons and giggle. When it was time for the menfolk to come home, she'd change back into her motherly, wifely, pearl-wearing self. And they'd never know.
Charlotte couldn't sleep. Again. As usual. Resigned to insomnia, she got out of bed and went downstairs. Her stomach hurt. It seemed to hurt whether she ate or not, so she didn't eat much these days. She put the kettle on for a cup of tea, that British panacea for everything from birth to death and all disasters in between. As she waited for it to boil, she reflected on her lifelong role as the caregiver: the eldest child; mother of two; wife to a charming but immature man, and thought: I wish someone would take care of me sometimes.
Henry couldn't understand why his wife worried so much. They had been married for nearly a quarter of a century, and had weathered the storms that had come their way. Of the six couples they knew who had married the same year, they were the only ones still married. Their children were grown and happy. The business was a little slow getting off the ground and making money, but Henry was sure it would all work out fine in the end. It always did. Really, there was nothing to worry about. If only his wife could understand, she wouldn't worry.
Robert is a real character. He has opinions on everything under the sun, and doesn't hesitate to express them. Nothing is off- limits to him: politics, religion, you name it. He even has strong opinions on topics that sound tame, such as the color red. "Ah hate red, man. Hate it. Ah won't wear it, won't get in a red car, hate sports teams with red on their uniforms, and if you get the most beautiful woman in the world and put her right in front of me ah ain't gonna kiss her if she's wearin' red lipstick, man. No way."
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