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I wake up and take my dog to the park. It's the first time since I came back from the long trip, and we're both looking forward to it. On the way, I notice that some houses have had their front yards cleaned up; another has a freshly-painted door; a yard sale indicates an impending move; a sold sign is on another house. The flowers are fading as the seasons change. It's the melancholy, back to school feeling you never quite outgrow. Seeing the doors to the swimming pool in the park all boarded up just confirms it: summer's over.
I run into my neighbor Noella on my way to the park. She's hauling a handcart of groceries, including a huge bag of flour. I ask her what all the flour is for, and she says, I bake. This is on top of designing and creating sets, including the well-regarded Queer as Folk television series, raising rare orchids along with other expert gardening, and a vast store of surprising knowledge. I say, I don't know why I'm surprised — you can do everything else, and she answers, If you want something, you have to make it yourself. A simple truth.
I didn't escape the hospital entirely. My brother and sister's landlord was in the hospital while I visited, in the room next door to the one where Mom died. He called to see if we could bring some medication from his house. I was going into town anyway, so I said I'd do it. My stomach jumped as I turned onto the street and saw the hospital. My reaction was immediate and visceral, instinctive. I just wanted to get out of there. I gave the medication to the nurse on duty and fled like the coward I am and was.
It was still dark when the storm started. The skies opened, releasing bright sheets of rain. The rain fell so heavily on the skylights that we couldn't hear each other speak. The dog, sensing what was to come, hid. Soon the thunder of the rain was joined by real thunder, and lightning lightened the darkness. The storm seemed to be right overhead, the thunder, rain, and lightning in a frantic confluence of electric intensity. It ended as suddenly as it began, and looking at the blue sky left in its wake, I wondered if I had imagined the whole thing.
My sister drops something bright into my hand. It's an object I had never seen before: a silver charm bracelet with a seagull charm, a small square engraved Made in Maine, three round tags and a heart-shaped one. On closer inspection, I see each tag carries the initials of one of my siblings. The heart-shaped one is mine. The charm bracelet belonged to Mom. The seagull represented Dad, and each of the charms her children. It was made for her in Maine, where we spent the happiest summers together. I wore it all day, thought of Mom, and smiled.
It was a good mail day. A friend sent me photos he had taken of Andy Warhol just weeks before the artist's untimely death. The photos were taken in front of Warhol's self-portrait on exhibit at a London gallery. I want to get them framed, and have put them away carefully to preserve them. Coincidentally, I'm planning to go and see a Warhol exhibit on Wednesday. I also got a letter from my beloved stepmother, still interested in the world around her and making her characteristic observations. She is an amazing person, and I am lucky to have her friendship.
I'm not a very domestic person — in fact, anyone who knows me would be quick to amend that statement to not domestic at all or domestically disabled, but it is satisfying to have all my chores done. I can hear a load of laundry in the dryer, and smell the clean scent of another load in the wash. The dishes are done, and I've made scalloped potatoes the way my grandmother used to, so the house smells nostalgic as well as clean. It's a bright Saturday in early autumn, the air crisp and clean and spiced with woodsmoke. I'm happy.
This bright, beautiful day, my dog and I venture out together. For once, there's not a cloud in the sky, and the sun is shining brilliantly. It's one of those perfect, crystalline autumn days that make you glad to be alive. I notice the leaves are beginning to change, shedding their dark, used-up, end of summer green for shades of gold and red, little flames on the dark pavement. As I look at the beauty around me, I wish my parents had lived to see this. Then I remember: they saw so many beautiful days before I was born.
We drive down the dirt road. My sister says, joyously, at every turn in the road, every tree, every landmark imaginable: Ours! She, her husband, and our brother own these acres, this part of the earth. Even when I owned my apartment in San Francisco, I didn't own the ground it stood on. Standing in the sunny meadow where their homestead will be built, looking at the redwood forests that have been there for centuries, I am overcome with what it means. Theirs. Ours. A real home, parents or not. Dad would have been so happy for all of us.
In this urban setting, it's a pleasure to hear sounds of the past mixing with the pervasive sounds of the present. While there are the constant rumblings and shoutings of the construction site across the street, they are punctuated occasionally by the slow, thoughtful clop-clop of a horse, ridden down the street by a policeman, patrolling the old-fashioned way. While there is a constant background roar of traffic, cars, and buses, there is also the rattling of a train passing by, sounding much as it would have a century ago, when this old building was new, built brick by brick.
Well, this is pretty unnerving. I went to the doctor for a check-up and she found some slight irregularities in my heartbeat. Now I have a heart monitor wired up to me for 48 hours, recording my every heartbeat (and, I assume, every missed beat as well). Then I bring the whole thing back to the doctor, she sends it out to be read, and I have two weeks of limbo waiting for the results and imagining the worst. Is this just the beginning of the inevitable slide into decay? I always thought my heart was my least vulnerable spot.
My sister's house is the closest thing we have to a home. Our parents moved, got divorced, and eventually lived in different countries. So there's nowhere for us to go that's full of happy childhood memories or anything like that. My sister and her husband have lived in their charming little house deep in the woods for ten years or so. It's always been a happy place, and both our parents spent time there. Now that they're gone, we only have each other, and we still have this special place to be together, share our memories, and make new ones.
I can't believe I'm sick again, or still sick. What I thought was a cold turned out to be a sinus infection, which outlived its welcome by three weeks. Just as I thought my unwelcome guest had finally departed, I woke up with a raging sore throat. This after having a grueling and gruesome ultrasound yesterday, which followed hard on the heels of the heart monitor, the check-up resulting in the heart monitor, and the mammogram. It's hard not to feel that I'm falling apart, starting that long, slow slide into illness, old age, and finally, The End. Lights out.
Iliana tells me about her friend. They grew up together in the same town on the Baltic Sea. Iliana says, She was an angel. I think she was a virgin when she married her husband. They have two sons. One day, she has cough, very bad cough. She think it's a cold, nothing. She finally go to the doctor, and she have colon cancer. She died when she was forty. Iliana holds up her hand, spreading her strong fingers. She was like a flower. Then this. She makes a fist and lets her hand drop, her eyes full of tears.
What comfort can you give a friend whose heart is aching, who will be alone after you leave, whose life has become so difficult all at once, who is wounded by love, the very thing that should bring joy? I stayed for a few days; we laughed, talked and joked, ate good food and drank good wine, but eventually, I left and she was alone again. Which side of the door is it worse to be on: the side of suffering alone, seeing no end to the pain and the solitude, or the side of loving someone you can't help?
We finish the 500 piece jigsaw puzzle with great satisfaction. Really, it was harder than you'd think for two intelligent girls — it took us two days, but we were utterly determined to get it done. My friend looks at me across the table and asks, How do you think we're going to die? As I roar with laughter at the unexpected question, she says, Did I actually say that? and laughs herself. Once we're composed, I say, All I know is it will be horrible or embarrassing for me. I'll probably get run over by the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
My friend's guestroom has a piano in it. I have never heard her play it, but I know she has been playing since she was a child. Late in the evening, as we sip our glasses of deep red wine, she tells me that there is a ghost in the house. More specifically, there is a ghost in that room — one that only comes out when she plays the piano. You're telling me this now? I cry out, horrified. I have never seen a ghost, and I don't want to start now. Is there any more wine in that bottle?
We stop for groceries. It's one of those huge, warehouse stores that sells everything from TVs to clothes to frozen pizzas. When I walk into places like that, my mind goes blank. Maybe it's something the big stores do: Muzak or some other mind-altering substance. As soon as I walk in, I can't remember what I wanted to buy. I usually end up with a strange assortment of things I had no intention of buying. This never happens when I shop at the butcher's or the greengrocer's. Is it progress to shop in giant stores and live in giant houses?
Sophie's mother had always told her that no-one would ever love her, and as time went on, she was beginning to think her mother was right. She was divorced, and didn't want to get married again, not that there was any imminent danger of that. Her mother had also informed Sophie that she'd never amount to anything and would be a clerk in a dime store for the rest of her life. So far, this part of the curse hadn't come true, but since she was making less money now than in her former job, Sophie was beginning to worry.
I'm haunted by the death of a girl I never met. My boss told me that the daughter of a client had committed suicide at the age of 21. She was an accomplished girl, with many academic achievements; her father is a deputy mayor and her mother a judge — a good family, everything to live for, you'd think. I can't imagine what despair could have led her to feel there was no way out, or the despair her family must feel at her loss. I ordered flowers today, to be sent to the funeral home, tears in my eyes.
In Maine for the summer, we had to go to another town to go to the Laundromat. With four kids, laundry piled up fast. Mom took us all in the big old blue Chevy station wagon (which Dad hoped someone would steal, saying He who steals my car steals trash, but they never did). When the laundry was finished, the car wouldn't start and wouldn't start. Helpful, passing college kids tried to start it, to no avail. Finally, Mom called Dad at work, he came over, turned the key, and the car started. No-one said anything all the way home.
When I think about those long ago summers in Maine, I think about food. Going to the lobster pound to choose lobsters for dinner. Fresh corn from roadside stands. Fried clams and blissful lobster rolls (must be in a white, split top roll — accept no substitutes). The annual clambake at the lab where my Dad worked in the summer. Blueberry pancakes at a little hole in the wall place in Bar Harbor; blueberry coffeecake from Southwest Harbor. A woman sold them from her kitchen. You just walked right in. Usually, she gave us a cookie, too. It was heaven.
Maine is on my mind these days, even though the summer — and the days we spent in Maine — are long over. Nostalgia must be a side effect of growing older, and it's one of the more pleasant ones. I don't envy children today, with email and cell phones. They should envy my youth, with its innocence and connection with family, friends, and the earth. When the biggest fear my parents had was their children crossing the highway in Maine. We had such freedom, felt so safe, were so fearless. No wonder those days are golden in my memory.
The restaurant is full of people having breakfast meetings. While I wait for my co-workers to join me, I look around. At one table, there are serious old gentlemen in serious suits, having a serious discussion. They look like they should be running the city, if not the country. The waiters are deferential to them. At the table next to me is a collection of young men who look like they're still in a fraternity. They're laughing, joking and the waiters join in. One of the guys is eating Froot Loops, wearing Armani. Less of a grown-up than I am!
Packing again. The things you need are the things you need, whether you're going away for a few days or a few weeks. I look at the collection of things waiting to be stowed in the rental car with awe. How can I need so many things for a business trip of a few days? Of course, bringing the dog with me doesn't make for traveling light, since she has at least as many accessories as I do: bed, blanket to cover the seats, food, medicine. But it's worth it to have her company and her beautiful self with me.
Lying in the hotel bed, I try not to think about its previous occupants or their activities. It's about the worst place I have ever stayed in. My mind drifts to my apartment: an eccentric place which used to be the woodworking shop of a coffin factory, more than a century ago. Despite its oddities and drawbacks, I have grown to love its old brick walls, its rough cement floors, its skylights and flower boxes and the privacy of my own front door. I feel a lot safer in that place with its creepy past than anywhere else, especially here.
The pleasure of dinner with a friend is mixed with sadness. Right before my friend and I leave for a charming local restaurant, my sister calls with the news that her cat is gravely ill. To we childless siblings, cats and dogs are never preceded by the word just. We love our adopted animals as the family they are, taking the best care of them possible and never taking for granted their presence in our lives. My sister has four cats, but says, I can't spare one. She adds, I'm not ready for Mom and Dad to have her yet.
The little cat didn't make it. She died at home, safe with her family. One of the dogs, who spent most of her time with the cat, whimpered worriedly as soon as she came home from the vet. The dog sniffed her friend anxiously all night and all day. When she died, the dog stopped whimpering, but stayed close to her body until my sister sadly took it away. Animals have some understanding and senses that humans lack. My sister and her husband lovingly buried their family member on the land they just bought. She will always be with them.
Grey. Grey road. Grey rain. Grey skies. Grey clouds. Grey mood. Long drive ahead. My dog sits beside me in the passenger seat, looking straight ahead at the cement ribbon as if she were driving. Her soulful dark eyes, clouding a little with age, seek the horizon calmly. She's seen a lot of road in her time, and this one isn't any different. I sneak a look at her noble, elegant profile, dark against the grey day's light and smile with delight at her companionship, loveliness, the joy of having her in my life and right beside me, right now.
When I cook, there are things I do because that's how my father or my grandmothers (all three of them gave me the gift of enjoying cooking) did them. I don't stop to think about it; my hands just instinctively go about their business the way they always did. Making an omelette? Take half of a broken eggshell and fill it with milk, then beat it in the egg mixture. Don't forget the tarragon. Always use real butter. Make enough for unexpected guests. And remember: recipes are suggestions, not rules. You taste the food in your mind and adjust accordingly.
My cookbooks are some of my most treasured possessions. The one I cherish the most was a gift from my late father, who was a wonderful and creative cook all his life. It contains all his recipes and he drew the cover, just for me. I also have a copy of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management which he bought for me when we were in Oxford one day, attending a wine tasting at one of the colleges. Love for and a certain amount of knowledge about wine is another of his many gifts to me. There were so many.
The Tip Jar