Find a Way In

I made a chocolate cake last weekend because my husband’s aunt was coming for dinner, and I thought she’d enjoy dessert. The cake wasn’t anything special—just a mix jacked up with a cooked homemade frosting. I froze most of it because we don’t need that much cake and put the remainder in the refrigerator. When I sliced off a piece today and tasted that ridge of cold icing, I was reminded of the Sarah Lee cakes my grandmother used to bring home from the Acme. She and I would peel off the cardboard top from the little foil pan and cut a slug of chocolate cake, (or occasionally orange with buttercream frosting) and eat it while it was still frozen, right out of the grocery bag, giggling at the audacity of 11 AM cake. Eating that cold chocolate cake today took me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen with the Formica-topped table and the little window cut in the wall where we moved food in and out for meals on the porch.

I’m currently reading a book about memoir writing where the author suggests using small experiences and tiny details to “find a way in” to your story, to get to some of the hard places. To let the taste of cake or smell of pipe smoke or a crinkled newspaper clipping open the gates and allow the memories and connections to flow.

Maybe we need to find a way in with each other right now. For the first time in my life, politics are impacting relationships, forcing me to make difficult and in some cases, heart-breaking decisions.  I feel constantly on my guard, afraid I’ll say something that may offend, and yet frustrated because I believe I have a right to speak my truth, especially when lives are at stake. I tiptoe because so many choose to stomp with steel-toed boots. I’m trying my best to go high and still stand up for what I believe is right and kind and decent. It’s not easy, and some days I’m afraid I’m going to lose it.

Driving back from the park today where I walk (I know, there’s irony in that), I noticed a number of homes had political signs supporting the same person. Several homes had signs supporting another candidate but, sadly, those signs were defaced with the names obliterated by spray paint. The owners of those homes where the signs were defaced chose to leave them up, perhaps as a symbol of where we are right now as a country.

Politics has always been a sordid business but never like this. It didn’t tear us apart and incite violence and hatred. When I was growing up, my parents used to get together with the neighbors on Friday nights to drink a few beers and shoot the breeze. They were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and there was much shouting and laughter, especially when my mother got going. But no one ever left those Friday night get-togethers angry. Both families would have done anything for each other, and that was far more important than anyone’s political stance.

We need to find our way back into reasonable conversations and healthy arguments even if they’re fueled by beer and pizza. We need to be able to put a sign in our yard or a bumper sticker on our car without fear of vandalism. We need to find the tiny details, the shared human experiences, and the memories of who we used to be that will re-connect us and get us past this terrible and ever-widening chasm of anger. Before it’s too late.

Beach Memories

 I’ve been a beach person since the days when my family would go to Stone Harbor, New Jersey, stay in a seedy motel painted green with a  lobster on the outside and where the bathroom sink was in the same room as the beds. From there, we moved up the coast to Ocean City to stay with my mother’s best friend who  lived  there year-round. Adulthood brought annual treks to the Outer Banks with a group of friends and now I happily set up my beach chair on the Maryland shore where we have a vacation home.

Our Outer Banks trips always included a dear friend who we lost at way too young an age. When several of us were sitting on the beach in Ocean City recently, (during the week with beautiful weather, not the monsoons) I couldn’t help but think about her, especially since last week marked twelve years since she’s gone to heaven.

She was one of a kind. Her soprano voice could make the angels weep, she constantly won radio trivia call-ins, and had amassed a vocabulary of truly spectacular profanity. One minute a prim and proper elementary teacher, the next a potty-mouth who would make us all burst into laughter with one of her creatively obscene expressions. She loved the Outer Banks and when she was there, her appetite knew no bounds. One of us would be foraging around the kitchen for a snack and she’d give us a guilty look—“Umm, the salt air makes me so hungry, I sort of ate the whole box of Wheat Thins.” Her first question in the morning was where we were going for dinner that night.
Deb eating 2

We spent our Outer Banks evenings watching movies (she knew almost every line from “Finding Nemo”) or sitting in the hot tub under the stars, sipping cocktails, eating Twizzlers, and solving the problems of the world. How were we to know that those movie and hot tub moments were so fleeting and precious, that in a few short years, we would look back and desperately wish for one more movie, one more night in the hot tub?

She did things that made us cringe and roll our eyes—powdering her sweaty underarms in the lobby of a restaurant, singing  an impromptu “Lonely Goatherd” from the open sunroof of my car while waiting for the Ocracoke ferry, (she was obsessed with “The Sound of Music”), vividly describing an erotic dream in the dining room of a bed and breakfast. She was unabashed, uninhibited, and completely her own person. She was also deeply spiritual, devoted to her God,  her family, and to her students at the school where she taught fifth grade.

She fought her illness valiantly. She lived Dory’s line from “Finding Nemo”—“When life gets you down, you know what you gotta’ do? JUST KEEP SWIMMING!” I can still see her getting in our faces and yelling that when we were whining about something. She showed us how it’s done.

Dory and Nemo

Twelve years later my friends and I are older, crankier, more set in our ways. After she died, it was like a tire flew off the vehicle of our friendship. Part of what we had together became like those truck treads you occasionally see along the road—ripped from the wheel and left shriveled and abandoned. We were torn away from her joy in life, her wonderful irreverence. The loss of someone we could indulge with an almost parental love, left us off-balance and we’ve never fully regained our equilibrium. Now we occasionally find ourselves driving along with clenched teeth, gripping the wheel too tightly, earnestly insisting that we’re still having fun while the car skitters from one side of the road to the other.

The sand and surf bring the memories tumbling back. Three of us who shared those Outer Banks trips with her stayed late on the beach one day last week, enjoying the quiet after the crowds left, watching the evening ritual of life guards pulling in their chairs and whistling everyone out of the water. We sat reading our books, sipping our drinks, and passing around the bag of slightly sandy Twizzlers. The ocean was calm, and it was one of those rare, perfect summer days you don’t want to end. I closed my eyes and I could see our beloved friend coming back from her usual late afternoon walk. She flops down in the vacant chair beside me, reaches for the bag of Twizzlers and says, “I’m starving. Where’re we going to eat tonight?”

obx Kay, Carol, Me (2)

 

 

 

 

 

Reunion

Nine of us have come together for a reunion weekend in a little town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an enclave of upscale homes nestled along the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. We were freshmen in the same hall of a dorm at a small college in south central Pennsylvania in the fall of 1975.  Something about that first year away from home bonded us, despite different majors and the fact that a few of us transferred to other schools. After graduation, we scattered to our respective lives, gathering at Christmas until the babies and the jobs and the buffeting of life made even that too hard to do.

Nancy is our cat-herder, the one who fans the flames of friendship, who will not relinquish her hold on this crowd of aging freshmen. Who mows down our excuses of why we can’t get together, sending relentless emails until we all just give up and say, “Ok, ok, Nance, we’ll come.” She prods our slightly resistant and oh-so-busy souls into spending a weekend with people we haven’t seen in years. Part of her motivation is “We’re turning 60 and we need to this. Now!”

We’re all a bit shopworn these days. Illness, tragedy, and painful relationships have etched lines on our faces and carved scars on our body, both physical and emotional. Only one of us still has living parents. Several of us love someone who is struggling with addiction. One of us has dedicated her life to caring for a special needs child, whose disabilities resulted from the colossal ineptitude of a drunken obstetrician. Another recently shouldered the burden of both her parents’ final days and tells sad and beautiful stories of that journey. In the past year, one of us fought a grueling breast cancer battle and won. We celebrate her return to health.

After a Friday afternoon arrival filled with awkward hugs and “We can’t believe we’re finally doing this,” and “Look at this incredible house,” we discover we cannot stop talking. I didn’t realize until after the weekend was over, that no one ever turned on a TV and we barely looked at our phones. Our time is spent fully engaged with each other. Years of bottled up stories and feelings pour forth and maybe it’s easier because we rarely see each other and there is no one to judge. We feel safe with people who shared our first days away from the security of our parents. It’s as though we all went home for a forty-year weekend and can’t wait to tell everyone what happened while we were there.

A group of us spends Saturday in the harbor village, picturesque and crowded on a gloriously warm autumn day. We shop and then eat lunch in a crowded bar. The waitress snaps a picture of us huddled together in our corner booth. We take a boat ride on the river followed by mid-afternoon ice cream cones and a wine-tasting. We talk about where we’ve traveled and where we still hope to go. Cathy wants to go to Scotland and so does Marge and maybe they will go together next summer. There is a surreal quality to the day, like we’ve just been whisked into some kind of time warp, grown-up versions of those wide-eyed freshmen, together once more.

Rather than going out to restaurants, Nancy plans lovely candlelit dinners on the screened-in porch. Our faces are bathed in flattering light, crystal tears from both laughter and sadness sparkling on our cheeks. Someone places her phone in a bucket to amplify the music from Pandora’s 70’s station. We drink wine and eat crab cakes and broiled salmon. The second night one of us suggests we say grace, so we clasp each other’s hands and thank God for the food and renewed health and the opportunity to be together after all these years.

We leaf through old picture albums, marveling at our young faces in the yellowing photos. Our long straight hair with feathered bangs. Boyfriends with 70’s moustaches sporting pastel tuxedos with giant lapels.

“Remember that guy? Who was dating him? Isn’t he the one who dumped buckets of water in our room that night? No, that was someone else. He’s the one who threw Pam’s stereo out the window when they broke up. Remember when I got written up the first week for letting guys in the girls’ bathroom? Ruthanne, why were you always in your underwear? Oh my God, look at those dresses. I wonder whatever happened to that girl who had the sideburns? Was she the one who kept the rat in the cage? It wasn’t a rat, it was a hamster. His name was Thurber. Remember he’d go rolling down the hall in his little plastic ball?”

I can still smell the popcorn and hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blasting out of our rooms.

We all hug each other for real when we leave on Sunday, the awkwardness gone. We’ve dived beneath the surface of brief emails and chirpy Christmas letters. We’ve been at the bedsides. Watched a beloved family member struggle with whatever substance has them in its evil grip. Sat across the desk from a doctor or attorney delivering bad news. Seen the sinister shadows on the x-rays, sat in the reclining chair while the life-saving drugs drip into our veins. Reassured a parent, lost in the haze of dementia, as they ramble on about something that happened years ago.

We are powerful sisters. We are women who will listen patiently to each other’s stories. Forever. Who laugh and cry together about the past and stride bravely into the future, ready to take on whatever it brings. Who, despite the years and miles of distance that separate us, will always be there to place a gentle hand on an elbow when one of us is groping blindly in the darkness. Like a college freshman in her first weeks away from home.