Monday, September 22, 2008

Ramblings from my attic #112
Don’t Cross Me

Since her first foray across the street to school, holding my hand and trying to quell the butterflies dancing in her little five year-old belly, she had wanted to be a crossing-guard. And not just any crossing guard. She wanted to be the crossing guard at HER corner, a gnarly sight-impaired four-way stop that tries the patience of every driver and walker each school day. She carefully observed each year’s trio of fifth graders that ruled her corner. There have been the jolly patrols, the comatose patrols, the singing patrols, the polite patrols, the silly patrols, the chronically late patrols, the dedicated life-saver patrols.

Near the end of fourth grade she turned in her job choices for 5th, an Arlington elementary school tradition. Topping her list was crossing guard. She sighed as she told me that she didn’t think she stood a chance; too many kids wanted to be patrols. A week or so later she got the news. She was a crossing guard, and at HER corner! All was well in the world.

“Mom,” she said after their first training day, “I’m with all boys, and that’s ok, but they must be trying us out because there were four of us today. I hope I’m not cut.”

A few days passed with Lindsay, normally dragging to school just in time for the bell, racing down the street 30 minutes early proudly wearing her orange patrol training belt. One of those mornings I got a call from the mom of one of the boys. She explained that he had been assigned to patrol closer to the school, was partnered with a girl, was totally miserable and kept sneaking up to the four-way stop to be with his friends.

Wouldn’t my daughter like to switch to be with her girl friends? I thought for a moment, and then told the mom as graciously as I could I really didn’t think she wanted to; she, too, was friends with the boys at the corner, and was delighted to be stationed there. I like the mom; our kids have been in classes together for years. We decided that I would test the waters to see if there was any interest in changing. I soon reported back to her that I was sorry, but Lindsay was pleased as punch where she was and had no interest in moving to a position near her girl friends.

School ended. Summer came and went.

Labor Day evening Lindsay packed her lunch and laid out her first day clothes, shoes, back-pack and patrol belt. The next morning she bolted out the door to race down to the school before I could even get out of the shower to kiss her goodbye and good luck. It’s begun, I thought. She’s ten; the umbilical cord is almost severed. I agreed to let her walk herself home, secretly hoping that I would beat her there.

My cell phone rang as I was racing home that afternoon. “Mom?” said a quaking little voice. “Lindsay, honey, what’s wrong? How was your first day of school?” I asked. “Mom, they want me to trade places” she sobbed. That morning the teacher who supervised the patrols had pulled Lindsay and the other patrols together before they walked back up to their stations, and announced to Lindsay and the boy who wanted to take Lindsay’s place, “You two can switch positions if you want to.”

So the begging and teasing began. “Please Lindsay, please please please trade places. Why do you want to be with the boys? Come on; let me be with my friends!” His friends picked up the chant and she spent her first full morning and afternoon in her dream job being asked to leave it. Another family later reported to me that Lindsay had done a great job “crossing” them, but they noticed that she looked upset. The dad had said, “Hey kiddo, everything ok?” to which she responded “I’m fine, just got a little something in my eye” and smiled weakly.

“What do you want to do?” I asked her. “I want to stay on my corner, but everybody’s mad at me, Mom. It’s just a big mess!” she cried. “I’ve upset everybody.” With Lindsay there is always drama. But this time, her tears were real and I struggled to give her the right words, the right message.

“Honey, do not switch if you don’t want to! Just because you are being asked to doesn’t mean you should give up something important to you, something you know you’re good at. You don’t always have to please people. You don’t always have to be with the girls. Sometimes you just have to stick up for yourself, and let everybody else just get over it!” When I got home she was calmer; we hugged.

The next afternoon I asked her how things had gone. “No problem” she said. “I just told him, sorry, I wasn’t going to switch. He was disappointed, but he got over it.”

She smiled and suddenly looked older to me. My little blondie, she’s gonna’ be ok.
Ramblings from My Attic #110
Pilgrims Unrest
The chain was up across the quasi dirt road. That was good. The 10-acre lake had half emptied the previous week when the drain pipe and dam sprung a leak; and a squatter had taken residence in the farm house. That was bad.

It was our fourth annual book club retreat weekend, and my pal Daphne and I were heading to her farm, Pilgrim’s Rest, early to tidy up before the rest of us got there.
We turned the corner to the house and were relieved to see the plain gray farmhouse still standing. Daphne didn’t know quite what to expect after her husband drove down to the farm a week before to inspect the dam damage only to surprise a young man who was quite plainly living in the house.

He found the beer bottles and cigarette butts before coming face to face with their “guest.” Turns out the kid (23 years old so young enough to be progeny to any of us) was the son of a farmer they knew, and unbeknownst to his dad, had decided that while down on his luck he could just sneak his way into this house and party down until spring. Caught off guard and big hearted, husband told him to be gone by the next Friday or he’d break the news to the boy’s dad. His biggest threat….”Just be glad it wasn’t my wife and her friends that found you, then you’d really be in trouble!”

As we approach the house, the morning sun outlines hundreds of cigarette butts in the grass and highlights the broken beer bottle glass glistening on the brick steps. Daphne’s shackles are up and every sweeping glance is taking inventory. We open the door. Ok. The place was not in shambles. We throw open doors and windows, then proceed through the house together.
As we walk through the main hall, Daphne notices two small pictures hung on the wall to our left. They used to be on a living room wall. Huh. She lifts one to find a hole punched in the wall, in the shape of a rifle butt. Colorful language ensues.

Daphne is officially pissed off. She is now on a mission to find other signs of violation by this twerp. I weigh loyal companionship with the pending arrival of the rest of our book club in search of R&R. I grab a broom and disinfectant and start cleaning. She takes charge upstairs, and yells out in frustration every time she finds something amiss. I helpfully yell back, “Focus; they’ll be here soon.” Like Noah’s menagerie, our friends arrive two by two as the afternoon sun turns golden.

By the time the first car pulls up the drive, we have discovered spills throughout the house, a pan of sausage and grease reeking in the oven, missing cups and glasses, ruined linens sitting on the washing machine and a random piece of wood in the back yard that might belong to a chair, the generous donation of 4 shot glasses etched with phrases not meant for polite company. And worst of all, no toilet paper.

After placing a TP SOS to friends still en route, we finish cleaning (Note to self: cleaning is synonymous with destruction of evidence). A couple of us wander down the road through the fields to the lake to view the stumps poking up through remaining water,- stumps underwater for at least a half a century until now. A crane swoops down to perch on a recently exposed log and a fat brown beaver scampers across the mud into the water for a swim.

Ahhh, lightness and laughter push the tension aside and we all adjourn to the living room to enjoy our first glass of wine, a fine champagne. Siege mentality gives way to the happy realization that we have all arrived before dark on a Friday night; a first for our retreat, and we joyously clink our glasses to the setting sun. Then Daphne gazes up to the living room ceiling and pronounces with wonder, “That’s not my ceiling fan!”

Seems the squatter had found it necessary to replace her perfectly good ceiling fan with a $15 Wal Mart variety now barely connected to the ceiling. That would explain the glass found behind chairs and under sofas. Ok. So the specter of a party now emerges from the image of a lone guy hunkered down in the house with no place else to go. A few phone calls to her husband later and a locksmith is arranged to arrive the next morning to change all the locks. What next, she thinks, and we all shake our heads.

We are there after all, to eat, drink, and be merry so Sue prepares lasagna for the oven, more wine is poured, the banter is light, and a fire is started in the Franklin Stove. Wait, what’s this? Out of the ashes in the stove emerges a small piece of charred wood with a familiar look. It is the foot of a kitchen barstool. Now the piece of wood in the yard made sense. Why would he be burning the barstool when there was a huge pile of firewood in the shed? Because he or friends had broken it and how better to hide the evidence then to burn it.

As we lounge in the living room after dinner someone notices another hole punched in the wall, this one behind a sofa. We ponder these new discoveries, our cognitive abilities now enhanced by excellent Cabernet, sumptuous lasagnas and carmelized apple bread pudding. There are many miles between us and our responsibilities and life is good.

Our book club is a sanctuary; a group of women in various stages of paid employment and motherhood brought together by love of reading, and kept together by the pure pleasure of conversation and friendship. We include stay-at-home moms, an architect, a business owner, a lawyer, a life-coach, educator-librarian, musician, bookkeeper, writer, engineer and PTA presidents past and present; and we have survived ten years together through laughter and tears.It is fitting that Daphne endures the unfolding discovery of her farm’s invasion with all of us at her side. Our bravado that night increases with each uncorking of wine and by bed time no one is much worried about intruders.

Then Kristen pulls aside her covers on a bunk bed to find an interesting small gray plastic box. She comes back downstairs to ask if anyone knows what this may be. After playing around with the object that at first looks to me like a Game Boy, we decide what she has found is a drug scale. So our boy was dealing drugs here? That certainly upped the ante.

Night passes peacefully. Saturday morning dawns sunny and unexpectedly mild with a 7am phone call from my nine year old wondering when her basketball game is. I stagger into the kitchen to find Sue reading and Marian ready to fix a gourmet breakfast of Swedish pancakes with strawberries and cream sauce. God, how I love our farm weekends.

Daphne reminds us that there will be a man on the premises soon. The Locksmith is due anytime. Then while on the phone with her husband and renewing the inventory, she adds the sheriff to our expected list of visitors after discovering that a vintage shotgun and their 22 rifle are missing from their closet. It’s officially time for the Long Arm of the Law. So the momentous decision each of us make that morning is whether to greet all these visitors in jammies or jeans.

When the locksmith knocks on the door, we are all post-breakfast, standing around the kitchen island trying out an assortment of hand creams and skin defoliating products to make our hands softer and younger looking. I notice a bearded older man at the front door and saunter over, still clad in my modest plaid one-piece pajamas, and attempt to open the door with exfoliant still slathered on my hands. After a few tries and with the help of my pajama sleeve I finally manage to open the door. “Man in the House” I bellow. He is a kind man and an efficient locksmith unperturbed by the pajama clad women scurrying around him. He also knew the deceased former owner of the farm and gives Daphne some great tidbits of house history which she takes in with interest.

Then he departs and the Deputy Sheriff arrives. Daphne gets yet another surprise when the Deputy tells her he responded to a disturbance call to the farm at 4am a week ago to find at least 14 cars parked and people partying in and out of the house. This would have been just hours after her husband left, convinced that the boy would do the right thing and immediately clean things up and move out.

The Deputy is professional and efficient, and it becomes clear that the invader has brought upon himself a heap of trouble, with damages now moving the potential charges from misdemeanor to felony. Not to mention the handy little drug scale found upstairs. And he reminded us as we go about our business of retreating to save any thing that looked like evidence. Oops, too bad we were such conscientious cleaners the day before!

By the time breakfast is over, locks changed, dishes washed, Deputy briefed, showers begun, it is almost lunch time. Pat takes over the kitchen and out comes mouthwatering soup, bread, cheese and of course, a bottle or two of fine white wine. We gather in the sunny yellow dining room, pose for the camera, and begin a joyous and delicious repast.

Belva glances up from lunch, stares out the front window and startles us with “Who’s that?” Some of us are able to follow her glance in time to see a late model blue SUV racing down the dirt road between the fields to the lake. More colorful language, loosely translated: “What the hell?”
In a cacophony of suppositions, we determine as a group that the car belongs to the trespasser or one of his friends and they’ve caught wind that the Sheriff’s department is on their tail, so are racing to the lake to retrieve their drug/ammo stash. With wine glasses in hand, most of us are now standing, adrenaline vying with alcohol in our veins, heaping advice upon diminutive Daphne. She starts to call the boy’s father to find out who owns the blue vehicle, but we shout her down in favor of calling our fine friend the Deputy Sheriff.

Several of us spill out onto the front yard, camera in hand, to search for signs of activity in the distant fields, while others call out to us from the house, “Are you nuts?” I hear a distant siren and rush inside yelling “The Sheriff’s coming! The Sheriff’s coming!” then race back out barely in time to grab a snapshot of two Sheriff’s sedans racing down the dirt road to the lake, lights flashing, sirens now silenced.

We are now a very excited bunch of ladies. Minutes pass. Some of us have again spilled out into the yard and I even admit that I’m listening for gunshots. Then Daphne’s cell phone rings inside the house, and we hear laughter, then a voice from the front door….the car belongs to a friend of Daphne’s.

I am reminded that I have always found life more entertaining than fiction, and charge back inside to find out what the heck is going on. Daphne is now on the phone with friend’s wife back in Arlington, explaining to her that her husband is standing knee-deep in mud at the farm, being questioned by sheriff’s deputies. Turns out friend’s husband is an amateur archaeologist and having heard that the lake was draining, had rushed down to search for artifacts. He interpreted his wife’s enjoinder to “not bother the ladies, they’re having a book club retreat” as an order to not bother them at all with even a “Hi, don’t mind me. I’m going down to the lake for a bit.” He later assures us that she has since loudly and vehemently corrected his interpretation.

One sheriff’s vehicle drives away while our nice Deputy Sheriff pulls back up to the house. Daphne and I sheepishly walk out to greet him. He accepts our apologies with a slight smile, and comments wryly “You don’t have to apologize to me, just to the cars we almost ran off the road racing to get here.” While he is standing there, up drives the trespasser’s father, humbled and embarrassed by his son’s actions. And about three minutes later the Arlington neighbor drives up from the lake to apologize to Daphne for the ruckus. I can’t resist running back inside, grabbing my camera and sneaking to an upstairs window to chronicle little Daphne surrounded by these three men in her sunny driveway.

In a postmortem e-mail, Kristen commented “I really, really thought that the whole trespasser story was an excuse to bring in male strippers and keep us from being suspicious. I was watching to see if the “locksmith,” the “deputy sheriff,” “the farmer,” the “Arlington neighbor” started to shake their bon-bons and work those rip-away pants.” Maybe next year.
Ramblings from My Attic #111
We were talking PTA business. I was passing the baton of Teacher Appreciation Week on to a younger parent and we sat in a window lined conference room at the school with our fourth graders raising holy terror outside in the balmy March weather.
She commented on my lack of gray. I responded that neither of my parents had any grey hair to speak of when they died, one at 52 and one at 55. That led to the discovery that as mothers we both are haunted by mortality.
We lost our mothers as we entered our third decades…we weren’t children. We each lost a wise friend and mentor as we became wives and mothers. And we both worry about leaving our kids motherless.
As daffodils and forsythia sway outside the window, I find that I am not the only one who habitually reads obituaries, paying particular note to the age of the deceased. And we chase our families around with cameras, devotedly cataloging every moment in photo albums and scrapbooks to ensure that our kids have tangible proof of our existence and pictures that will somehow demonstrate our great love for them. Even as goose bumps appeared on our arms, we laughed at our fear and its silly manifestations.
We both find it painful that our mothers didn’t get to meet our children; didn’t get to be grandmothers. We miss their support as we raise our own families, miss asking them questions about our own childhoods, questions that weren’t important until we were the ones sitting up all night with a sick baby or fighting with a spouse or sending a tween off to middle school and wondering if early or late periods run in the family or if some critical piece of family medical history went to the grave with our loved ones.
As I’m writing this my eyes keep jumping to a crumpled piece of paper on my desk. It’s a sheet of poems by children’s poet Kalli Dakos; a momento of her visit to Lindsay’s school last week. On it in brown marker, Lindsay has penned her own brief poem: “I’m scared to die…In front of my kid’s eye.”
Yikes, is my nine year old channeling my fears? Then my eyes move up the page to instructions she was following: “Here’s a picture of a classroom JAWS (a very sharp toothed and aggressive looking pencil sharpener) that my daughter, Alicia, drew. If you were a pencil, would you want to be sharpened in JAWS? You might want to write a poem to go with Alicia’s picture.”
Though I still battle occasionally with a bit of late-onset hypochondria, I feel more firmly planted on this earth now that I’ve hit that mid-century mark, and even as I draw closer to the age that my parents died, I no longer harbor the fear of dying before my kids are old enough to know me. They know me. I live loudly and demonstratively in my own skin, and through the two girls that embody me. Try as they might, I don’t think either would be able to forget me now!
Ramblings from my attic #109
November 23, 2007
Thanksgiving Day

Alone for a moment. Allen & the kids have driven “downtown” to explore the CLOSED signs of Kilmarnock on holiday. Moe has collapsed on the guest house floor, bronze sides still heaving from swimming in the rippling creek and running circles around Lindsay, Milly & I as we walked the first annual Huffman Turkey Trot up and down Ditchley Road.

Northern Neck is such an antidote to our manic lives. I woke this morning to Lindsay snuggling in to bed with Allen and I, but for the first time it was she, not me, who pulled aside the curtains to get the floor to ceiling view of day breaking on the pond and bay within a few yards of where we lay. The motion of her body disturbed the great blue heron feeding before us and into the lavender streaked dawn sky he flew with a sweep of dark wing and hopelessly skinny legs flowing behind. Lindsay gasped in delight.

It is noon now. The unseasonably warm gusts suck the bleached canvas drape into the screen, then repel it while just beyond pond grasses dance, some green, some golden in the sunlight. This is the quiet I crave. An old wind chime flutters and clatters lightly. The wind slaps creek water against the rip-rap and pilings. It feels therapeutic to let what I hear and see wander through me and escape through my fingertips into the computer.

What is in me that needs release? So much has happened since last Thanksgiving, the details of which can be mulched under. What I carry forward is the knowledge that Allen and I can deal with trauma and stress, and survive; that we have a circle of family, friends and co-workers that weather storms with us, as we will with them. I am fifty now, and have learned that making stupendously difficult decisions can lead to unforeseen miracles.

On this day of thanks I marvel anew that my friends are many, my work fulfilling, my family loving, my home a refuge. As often in times of calm as in times of chaos, I think “Why me, Lord?” How did I get so lucky? Life’s rhythm carries sublime joy and wrenching sorrow, with a more frequent cadence of laughter, peace and minor annoyances that float away on a sigh.