Saturday, June 30, 2007

Because you can't go home again~

The grey Cape on 32 Pine Street is empty-- no life or activity inside, unless you count the spiders spinning the messy cobwebs they never got away with when my parents' were there.

My father is dead; my mother in an assisted living home.

Their house should have been sold by now, or rented. But that is a tale of two siblings not to be told here.

Still, I won't have the key to the back door forever, and today something called me to drive the half hour to see the house I grew up in. I usually listen when that "something" speaks.

I wandered through every room, most empty or nearly so. Most things have gone to the auctioneer for an estate sale. What remains are odds and ends. Things that aren't trash, but no one really wants.

I had my camera, and took pictures, inside and out. Not big pictures-- pictures of rooms or the yard-- but pieces of pictures, the details I think of when I remember the house I grew up in.

I took:

The tiny window in my attic bedroom, the one I knelt in front of to watch blizzards and thunder storms.

The view out the kitchen window, where I watched chickadees vie with squirrels at the feeder my father built.

A patch of living room wallpaper that hasn't yet been removed and replaced by paint. My parents never changed that wallpaper; it's almost as old as I am.

A pattern of light from the dining room window where my father's collection of old glass goblets once caught and reflected the sun.

The wooden china cabinet door that still reveals the crayon marks I made long ago.

And outdoors:

the beech tree we gave my father for Father's Day in 1957, a sapling then, like I was. Now I can't put my arms around it.

A decaying wooden bench my father made for my mother to rest the laundry basket on when she hung clothes on the line

A rock under which a beloved dog is buried

The stonewalls and stone steps my father built, sweat pouring down his face while he wrestled a rock with a crowbar

Who said, "You can't go home again?" I suppose in the most literal sense you can't. If home is where the heart is-- or was-- and you have pictures and memories, that's as close as you can get. It's enough. It will have to be.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Internet hookup~

There are a lot of crazy people online, they say. I have no doubt that this is true. There're a lot of crazy people period. Scary, dangerous, predatory people looking to take advantage of others sexually, financially or emotionally.

And then there are the everyday people, the neighborly kind, people you wouldn't have met if it were not for the Internet.

Being a member of the Internet Writing Workshop has put me in touch with so many wonderful people who come together with a shared interest: writing.

I know some of these people better than I know my neighbors. These writing friends are my neighbors in the true sense of neighborliness; they're there to help, share experiences, and encourage. They live all over the world, but are more accessible than the family next door.

Today I got to meet two Internet Writing Workshop friends: Bob Sanchez,
a former Massachusetts resident who escaped upon retirement to sunny Las Cruces, Mexico, and Carter Jefferson, who's lived all over but settled in Boston years ago and seems to have thrived.

I've known these guys for a couple of years through the stories they've written, and the chit-chat that gets exchanged in this group. I've critiqued their submissions, and they've done the same for me. We share bits and pieces about our lives--their wives, my husband, my job, and their former jobs--like colleagues do in the workplace.

Bob emailed to say he, his wife, and two cats were making the 2500-mile journey by car to Massachusetts for a vacation. When he suggested setting up a meeting with Carter and myself it never crossed my mind to heed the Internet danger warnings. No need. No doubt in my mind about these guys.

We met for lunch at Chili's in Hingham--a midpoint between Carter in Boston and the Cape, where Bob was staying with his wife and two feline companions--and talked so long before ordering that the waitress granted us a grace period and let us be until we flagged her down for drinks. We drank diet coke (Bob) and iced tea (Carter and me), still talking. Eventually we flagged the waitress who was keeping an eye on us from a distance, and ordered lunch--guiltless broiled salmon (me) and Margarita chicken (Bob and Carter).

When Carter admitted to being a slob and tucked his napkin into his collar, Bob and I did the same--just some teasing among friends. I let my napkin remain on my lap when it fell off halfway through the meal, and noticed Bob did the same. Carter's napkin hung in to the end, and to his credit, not a single drip of spicy beans and corn had missed his mouth.

By the time we finished, we were thoroughly chilled from the air-conditioned restaurant, a good thing because we knew the wicked New England heat and humidity would assault us when we stepped outside. It did. But before climbing into air conditioned cars, we stood a moment longer, sweating in the heat, taking pictures. Images of a good time preserved digitally in a camera's memory as well as our own.

Then we were off to our separate lives, miles and miles apart. But we'll meet again, and often, online for sure. How nice to have faces and voices to go with the real people I already knew.
If you like to laugh, check out Bob's book. I don't know which is more intriguing, the plot or the characters, but it makes for a fast paced read that takes you cross country from Lowell, Massachusetts to Arizona.
It's called "When Pigs Fly."

Saturday, June 23, 2007


I did today what I swore I would not do for the whole summer. I got up early.

I got up at the time my alarm goes off on school mornings-- 5:45 a.m.-- and I'd been awake long before that, having spent a tossy-turny night on a mattress that had been my parents'.

My parents' mattress was newer than ours, so after my mother went to the assisted living home, I brought it home. Bruce could sleep on a bed of nails, and convincing him to spend "what?!" on a "Sleep Number" bed just wasn't going to happen.

And maybe the mattress is not what's keeping me awake anyway. It could be hot flashes, or the cat that likes to groom my hair with her teeth several times a night, or Bruce's snoring, or . . . the mattress.

This morning I reminded myself of a kid who can't be dragged out of bed on school mornings, but is up bright and early for Saturday morning cartoons. I put on a sweatshirt against the unseasonable chill, and took my camera and went for a walk along the power lines just as the sun was drizzling her first honey rays on the treetops.

Apart from the fact that it was an hour well spent, and I'd do it again tomorrow, I could see myself veering into obsessiveness. Picture taking obsessiveness.

Everywhere I looked there was a scene crying, "Take me. Take me!" It was like bringing a camera into a classroom of eleven year-olds-- everything vied for my attention.

The sun pointed to some spots, others just drew my eye quietly. I saw caterpillars, dew drops, and sun-dappled leaves that I couldn't resist. There is so much beauty ready to be absorbed.

Later after a nap, well into the evening when the sun was slanting into the living room through the bay window, I sat and read in a comfy chair. At one point I stopped to stretch, holding my legs out straight in front of me.

That's when I knew I was obsessed for sure. I looked at my toes, backlit in the sun. I put my book down, and got the camera. My toes were a picture crying to be taken. Or maybe not, but I snapped the shot anyway. Okay. I snapped six shots of my backlit toes. I should probably get a pedicure, I now see.

I wonder why I never get obsessed with housework, but I'm sort of glad I don't. That would take away from my picture taking time.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Piece de resistance~

Two days into summer vacation with a recommitment to exercise everyday-- some how, some way-- I set off on my bike. I usually ride for an hour or so, 10 or 12 miles.

I love the breeze in my face, the scents that waft from the roadside, the burn in my quads, and even trickle of sweat that runs down my spine. If I don't breathe heavily and sweat a bit, it doesn't seem like worthwhile exercise. I don't mind the effort, or the sweat.

Today I put the camera in my backpack, and set off for a ride. I often lug the camera along when I go for a walk, because I frame pictures in my mind and always wish I had the camera to capture the images, so I've learned to take it. But I seldom take the camera on a bike ride.

The camera changed the whole nature of today's ride. A ride that would have taken an hour, took me two. Two of the nicest hours I've spent in a long time. I was off my bike as much as I was on it.

There were pictures everywhere, from the huge expanse of cloud-filled sky, to the tiniest star-shaped dandelion fluff hidden under an arch of grass.

And then the piece de resistance: an insect. It's strange how an insect can make your day, or my day, anyway.

In a meadow amid tiny wild flowers, delicate mosses, and poison ivy were milkweed plants with purple clusters of buds still closed tight. And on the underside of one leaf of one plant was a monarch butterfly caterpillar.

This black and yellow striped insect will eat its fill of the only food it likes-- milkweed. Then it will morph into a pupa that will look deceptively lifeless, while, in fact, a monumental change is occurring inside. In due time the monarch butterfly will emerge, and lay tiny eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves.

Life goes on in the plant and animal kingdom whether humans are there to witness it or not, but I always feel especially privileged to stumble across a microcosm of nature that most likely will be seen by no one else but me, simply because I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Tomorrow if I go back, the little striped caterpillar will be somewhere else, but it was there for me today, and that makes me happy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Last day of school!

When alarm went off at 5:45 this morning, I shut it off, and then "unset" it for the summer. I didn't want the alarm waking me tomorrow.

Today was the last day of school.

For the next couple of months, I'll wake when my body chooses. My biorhythms will shift; I'll take naps if I need to. And the bathroom-- I'll go when I need to now. No more being at the mercy of the bell.

I won't even try to pretend I'm not as excited as the kids. All teachers are.

Who wouldn't be glad to have a respite from the intensity that goes with the job? This intensity is something that only teachers understand; most folks think the job looks easy. It's not, but you have to experience it to see why.

Yet come September, I'll be just as excited to go back to school. It's in my blood.

About the time that my fifth graders-- former fifth graders, now-- were playing kick ball after supper, I took a walk.

I started thinking about "my kids." I'd miss this bunch, but I know they'll drop in and see me next fall. They'll come back to visit as sixth, seventh and eight graders. After that, they'll go off to high school, and even then, if I'm lucky, some come back to say hi.

Then I remember. Next year is my last year. I opted for early retirement when it was offered as a bribe to move the older, thus higher paid, teachers out. I will have taught for 36 years; that makes me sound older than I feel.

So my time behind the desk is limited to 180 more days. Don't let me tell you I'm looking forward to retiring, although I am, because I'm not quite ready to give up the profession I chose for myself when I was in first grade.

Next year I'll focus on "my kids" with a bright spotlight because every thing will be a "last time" moment. When the last day rolls around-- the final last day-- those hugs will be extra special. If you haven't been hugged by a fifth grader, you don't know what you're missing. I'll know, and I'll miss it. A lot.
I received this gift today from Emma.

Mrs. Douillette
You taught science, social studies, and English, too.
You're thoughtful and helpful which makes you you.
You knew how to make everything fun.
You work and encourage kids until their work is done.
You always come up with helpful tricks,
Any problem you knew how to fix.
You're always busy; you never stop.
On my favorite teachers list, you're way at the top.
Filling kids with knowledge with just one touch,
You know next year I'll miss you so much!
You were always there to catch me when I'd fall,
Mrs. Douillette, you're the BEST teacher of them all!

Did I say I'll miss it a lot? I will. Meanwhile, summer vacation. Yes!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The man I've known longest in my life~

It's Father's Day. Fathers are important. I've learned that even when they're dead and buried, they really aren't gone. Mine isn't anyway.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.


The call from the nursing home jolted me awake at 3:19 on a snowy Sunday morning. Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 2003. I knew before answering that my father had died.

“Is this Ruth?” The voice was soft.

“Yes,” I said bracing myself.

“Ruth, your father passed away a few minutes ago.”

This call was not unexpected, but still I froze into silence, listening to the wind and whipping snow outside.

I needed to be led through the process by experts familiar with wrapping a lifetime into a public package for the wake, the funeral, the burial . . .

“What’s the next step?”

“Well, with the storm, the undertaker won’t be able to get here for awhile, so you needn’t rush over.”

But of course there would be no curling back into sleep’s warm cocoon. My husband got up with me, and made coffee. We drank it in the dim kitchen as chilled in body as we were in spirit.

Grey dawn filtered through the curtain of falling snow as I drove twenty miles of back roads to the nursing home to say goodbye to my father’s body. I had already said good-bye to the real man.

It was quiet. The machines at the hospital had not followed him here to die. I hadn’t cried yet, nor did I feel like it. Yet. We were not a physically demonstrative family, though we loved deeply. I stood at the foot of his bed and looked at the man I had known longest in my life.

He lay on his back in the same position I had last seen him- eyes shut, mouth open. sparse grey hair smooth as if it had been combed, a bruise where his IV had been. So skinny, so white. I could see another daughter stroking her father’s hand, but I couldn’t. I could see her smooth his hair, but I stood still.

But I talked to him from my mind. Oh, Dad, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you Dad. We’ll miss you. Don’t worry about Mom. We’ll take care of her. Bye Dad. I kissed him lightly on his cool forehead.
I wanted to speak at his simple Congregational funeral. I knew it would be hard, so I wrote a short good-bye that the minister ended up reading for me while I sat muffling sobs, catching the tears that weren't to be denied in a shredded Klennix. I held my mother's hand; my husband held my other. I felt the hands of my children who were seated in the pew behind me patting my shoulders, giving little squeezes of support.

My father used to hold my hand when I was little. We'd walk along, father and daughter, and he'd give my hand a squeeze and I'd match it with a squeeze of my own. Then he'd squeeze twice and I'd match it with two of mine.

A father's love is not forgotten.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A week of Fridays~

I keep thinking it's Friday. It started yesterday--Tuesday. It's most likely wishful thinking, or a sign that I'm trying to do too much all at once. Or . . . I'm not even going to go there. I need a vacation, is all.

The school year is winding down. Of the five days left, one is a Science Fair and another is a field day. The last day is the annual year-end volleyball tournament.

For the most part the kids' required work is done. They know this. I tell them that everything they do from now on will be graded for effort and conduct. This keeps them in check while I'm working through stacks of papers to be corrected and recording grades for year end report cards that must be done before the end of school.

I had my homeroom class last period yesterday, Tuesday. They are a fantastic bunch of 11 year-olds, all twenty-eight of them. Smart, funny, and for the most part, most of the time, well behaved. They're also enthusiastic, energetic, and quite social. AKA "chatty."

Last period they worked with partners on their Science Fair projects. They love this, and are working hard to prove their hypotheses. But they are enthusiastic, energetic, and quite . . . chatty."

So even though they are working "independently," they still need me to answer questions, nod with approval, make suggestions. They need me to say:

"Yes, you can get a book from the library."
"Why don't you look on the computer and see what you can find?"
"Joe, I'm not seeing any effort from you right now."
"Of course you can add more than five vocabulary words to your list."
"Yes, spelling counts!"
"Girls, that conversation sounds off-topic to me."
"Great! I can tell you're working hard."
"I'll listen to your story about your cat later. Right now you need to get back to work."

And so it goes. It's the nature of the job. I start grading, and stop for an interruption, start and stop, start and stop. I get frazzled.

On this particular Tuesday, I said, "Okay, my friends, I want you to use the last five minutes of class to do a Friday pick-up. I want you to make the room sparkle. Make it look like no class has even worked here today. We don't want to come in Monday and have to face this mess."

They stood still, unreadable expressions on their faces.

"Come on, get going. Four minutes to clean up! Move it."

"Mrs. D. It's Tuesday, not Friday," someone said.

My turn to stand still with an unreadable expression. Shit, I thought, only Tuesday?

"Yikes!" I said hitting my forehead with my palm. "I guess I'm off by a few days."

We all laughed. They cleaned up and left for the buses, and I slumped at my desk to finish the stack of papers. It felt just like a Friday! So did today.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Life is in the details~

We have a cherry tree. It's a baby; its crop of cherries increases slowly each year. This year we might get as pie out of it-- if we don't eat them one by one as they ripen. Its first year as a sapling, it presented us with one dangling red orb. My husband and I each ate half. A small thing that brought pure pleasure.

We have to protect the tree from insects and birds if we expect to get our dessert. We covered it with plastic netting that keeps birds out.

This morning my husband, picking cherries, called out, "Can you bring me the scissors?"

I did, wondering what kind of cherry could cling so stubbornly to the tree as to need scissors to harvest it. But it was a bird, a small house sparrow, tangled in the netting. It relaxed in my husband's grasp, not struggling or even blinking its shiny eyes. He held the bird, and I snipped the net.

We anticipated the grateful flutter of wings when the bird was set free, but it couldn't fly. Instead, one wing dragging, it wobbled off to hide under a clump of ornamental grass. A small thing that brought exquisite pain.

Why is it that the little things in life bring such profound pleasure and piercing pain seemingly out of proportion to the larger events in life?

Something as all encompassing as a war brings pain also, of course, but like an oyster, I encapsulate such enduring pain in a smooth coating. It presses still, but the sharpness is eased.

Life's larger pleasures become tarnished by daily exposure.

It is the little moments that catch me unaware, and go straight to my heart-- a heart that has no armor fine enough to prevent entry.

It's these little things that touch me with both pleasure and pain, that provide me with perspective. These little moments are everywhere. Life exists in the details.
Later, my cat stood on the back porch peering proudly in the doorway, the dead sparrow dangling from her mouth. I was not surprised. She often brings me such gifts. Her pleasure, my pain. I know there is far greater pain than a dead sparrow; I read the names of the dead soldiers in the newspaper. Even an oyster's pearl coating cannot cover that sorrow.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Birthday massage~

I had my birthday massage this afternoon.

My husband had given me a gift certificate back in March to the Maha Yoga Center, a local New Age-y place in town.

It's kind of pathetic when life gets so busy that it takes three months to schedule some pleasure. Sometimes I find myself too busy to even want pleasure.

"A party? I can't, thanks. I have plans." (A nap)

Scheduling the massage took a while. Then I made an appointment with a massage therapist I'd had before, but had to cancel to cover a story for the paper.

When I called to reschedule I asked for a specific date and time. The receptionist said, "We have an opening with Tom. Do you mind a male?"

Of course I didn't mind getting a massage from a man. Why would I? Why should I?

"You know," I said, "this might seem weird, but I'd really rather have a woman."

Where did that come from?

She told me it wasn't weird at all, and that's why she'd asked; most women feel that way she said.

But I'd surprised myself with my response.

My first gynecological exam at 18 was with my old family doctor, the silver-haired gentleman who'd given me my polio shots and taken out my tonsils.

In those days, I didn't even know that there could be women doctors. All of my doctors had been male. I never felt embarrassed. They were doctors after all.

I jumped ship when I became pregnant and heard of a woman Gyn/Ob who was recommended with much praise. She'd been through childbirth. She'd understand, I thought.

Her partner, also a woman, delivered my second child. When it was David's turn, I saw another doctor, a man this time. Both women had dropped obstetrics because of malpractice insurance costs.

The red flag flew when this doctor finished an office exam to determine how close to delivery I was, and held a conversation with me through the V of my legs that were still in stirrups. He didn't understand. He was arrogant. I'd struggled to sit up, my belly a hindrance. He didn't help. I thought of saying something about his disrespect. I'll always wish I had.

So today I had my massage with Susanne. I lay there and knew she'd understand legs that needed to be shaved, and soft flesh at the waist. I could settle in and relax in her understanding hands.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

He left his mark~

I stretched out on the lounge chair in the back yard, a book on my lap. I'd just finished a bike ride, and had showered.

I was looking forward to reading, but I was not ready to focus. So I drank my iced coffee, and let my gaze drift around the yard. The mind meanders when not put on a leash.

The bleeding hearts under the tree reminded me of my grandmother's-- only hers were pink. I hadn't much liked them as a child. They were kind of a fancy flower, an old lady's flower I'd thought back then when daisies were my favorite. But there was something appealing about these in my garden. The flowers stretched along each branch reminding me of tee-shirts hanging from tenement house clothes lines-- second and third floor, one above the other.

Then I thought I'd like to press them. I haven't thought of pressing flowers for long time. In a college botany class, I'd been required to collect and press local plants after determining their genus and species. My father made a plant press from layers of cardboard. It was his old Army belt cinched tight around the cardboard that kept pressure on the drying specimens.

He was like that, my father. He'd make what ever was needed, using things around the house, satisfying both his unused creativity and his much used thrifty nature.

He was 12 during the depression. It left its mark on him. To waste anything-- food, money, time-- was anathema to him. Through him, it left its mark on me as well.

The press is long gone, probably taken to the dump back when it was still called a dump and burned refuse openly. I probably wouldn't use the press if I had it. There is something sad about a flattened plant, brittle and faded, all the vibrant life squeezed out. I think my father would agree. He left beauty right where he found it, the better to enjoy it. Another mark he left on me.