in the wilds of vermont. or, what is home?

June 2012, Vermont by InkSpot's Blot
June 2012, Vermont, a photo by InkSpot’s Blot on Flickr.

Funerals and weddings. These are the rituals that give some shape to life, along with holidays and those quirky events some families invent. These are the things that usually draw those of us who have left back to our hometowns. Except for me. I hadn’t been back home since 1993. There’ve been a few funerals, and quite a few weddings. My own even (never mind the divorce). And all this avoids the obvious. Nearly two decades passed before Meme’s death forced my Mom and I to return home.

Three thousand miles is nothing. Two decades, however, make for some rough travel. Landing in the Burlington Airport was surreal. Meme’s body had arrived hours before us. We were renting a car, and so insisted no one meet us at the Airport. Stepping off the plane, retrieving luggage, taking the shuttle; it all adds up to mundane, something we’ve both done before. Once we turned the rental North on Route 89, the routine flickered and reality peeked around the edges.

The roads were wet from a rainstorm. Color saturated the sky, and the thick clouds sopped it up, too. Green surrounded us, which is actually an understatement. I almost felt like the trees were infusing me with light, trying to counteract the darkness, which was not sadness but nerves. Family was waiting. So was grief.

When we reached St. Albans, Mom drove around town, pointed out the things she remembered. All the while, crazy thoughts were looping in my head. My cousin—who I remember as a kindergartner—is pregnant. The one in elementary school has facial hair and lives with his girl friend. My Aunt and Uncle are gone. My cousin has served umpteen tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hard core tripping.

As the week unfolded, however, some of the awkwardness faded. Many of us faced my grandmother’s funeral together, as a family. It was painfully small. Most of her friends have passed, and there aren’t many of us left either. But we shared memories, our grief. We shared moments under the stars, in the pool, drinking and watching the lightening bugs dot the edge of the forest. It ached. It was wild, and full. And it was home.

Remembering Meme: Dressing Up

Meme always prided herself on her appearance. Up until a few years ago, she was painting her nails the same pearl color she always had, and tucked away in her purse was frosted pink lipstick.

Back in Vermont, she had a decently sized walk in closet, not to mention the bureau, the jewelry case on the bureau (and the one on the shelf that played music), and the whole wall of louvered doors that accordianed open.

She bought her blouses, and of course loved polyester—particularly anything with paisleys (maybe this is from where my offbeat side comes).  The ladies at the fabric store knew her well.  Toting her latest purchases, if she didn’t already have something to match, she’d lay the blouse against one bolt of fabric after another to find just the right shade.  The skirts that resulted were wrap-arounds.  Some tied, others clipped or snapped together.

Aside from pigging out, going to Meme’s house meant reveling in cascading polyester and playing dress up.  She didn’t have any of her dresses from the 40s and 50s (the era of accentuated femininity), but her wrap-around skirts were entertaining enough. And then there was the jewelry. Meme was a huge fan of clip on earrings.  Enameled flowers in lime green with a smattering of rhinestones.  Brooches, necklaces, rings and bracelets.  Her jewelry smelled more like her than her clothes did—more precisely, smelled like Jean Naté and baby powder.

Part of it was the joy of exploration, and the thrill of maybe, possibly being someplace I wasn’t supposed to be, about to find something that was supposed to remain hidden.  The other part of it was simply being a girl.

Remembering Meme: Food

I didn’t have health insurance growing up.  It was too expensive, especially for a single mom trying to make it.  So, when I went back to Vermont to visit, Meme would take me to a pediatrician for an annual check up.  I’m not sure how many times we did that.  I remember one visit, strange and surreal.  Aside from blood tests, jittering reflexes and saying ahhhh (“I remember those tonsils anywhere!”), I also had to look at blobs of ink and tell him of what they reminded me.  There was also the classic picture that could be seen as an old woman and a young woman.  “What do you see?”  “Look again.”

After the doctor’s office, Meme took me to McDonald’s for a treat for being so good.  Time passed, the test results came back.  I had the cholesterol levels of a chain-smoking, meat-eating 40 year old man.  Maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I remember it was shameful, atrocious and dangerously high for a child.  For some reason a number near 300 keeps popping into my mind.  No more McDonald’s.

Meme wasn’t known for her dietary restraint.  Even in these last years, she had an army of chocolate, candy, maple syrup, and a host of salty goodies.  Going home to Vermont was always about the treats.  Sneaking into the pantry to grab gobbing spoonfuls of Marshmallow Fluff.  Sometimes the job had to be quicker than a retrieving a spoon would allow.  Those times called for precision finger extractions.  The Fluff would ooze back in to cover my tracks.

I remember other disgusting things I ate back then.  Twinkies, Hoho’s.  Trout from the lake.  At holiday dinners, I was never much for the gizzards, but I had an ungodly craving for the turkey hearts.  I’d pop ‘em in my mouth whole.  Meme would laugh, filled with pleasure that I enjoyed her cooking so much.

Maybe all of this sewed the seeds of my eventual evolution to a vegetarian diet.  With my grandmother, I started developing my understanding of the origins food.  As in NOT from a grocery store.  She had a garden that I’d weed.  The summer harvest usually included some tomatoes, lots of green and yellow beans, peas and corn.  She’d give me a tin can when I was bored and order me to go knock the potato bugs off the plants.  Clang, clang clang into the can.  We’d sit for hours in the kitchen, prepping all of these vegetables for canning, cutting the scraggly ends off the bean, freeing the peas from their shells.  It was our time together.  It was a space were nothing had to be said, we just sat and did, enjoyed the smell of the garden, the summer.

It makes sense to remember Meme through food.  It’s present at every family ritual, even the ones that had not so much to do with a date on the calendar, but the spirit of the season.

Remembering Meme

What are the brightest memories you have of a person?  Not just anyone, but a family member.  A loved one.  I never used to think much about memories.  It’s only been in the last few years memories have hinted to me they exist.  Mischievous creatures pacing below the surface.  Little eruptions.   But these are the unsolicited kind of memories.

People in my life have died before, left before.  My way of coping was to NOT think about them.  If I did, the thought of them would strangle me, draw out the tears.  Then I’d want to hid my face and lock myself in a bathroom.  I know it’s weird.  Crying made me feel flawed.  And feeling made me feel weak.  Not so much anymore.  Now I want to remember.

Now that I want memories, I expected them to be cinematic epics.  The lighting would be hazy and sharp at the same time.  Skin tones would glow as if we were all lit subcutaneously.  The camera angle, from my perspective, would zoom in and out like a Vermont Osprey diving into a lake, and retreating, a fish gleaming in its claws.  And the sequence, that moment in time would unfold slowly, like a lily bloom.

My memories of Meme aren’t happening that way.  The memories are more like still photographs.  To be precise, they are like MY photographs.  I remember the way she used to make her sandwiches for bingo, wrapped in wax paper, cut in half.  I remember her telling me to paint the cellar way with leftover paint, to clean the attic, and weed the garden.  I remember she had good luck charms she’d take with her to bingo and set them out across the top of her stack of cards, and if she was waiting on a number, she’d put her finger on it and chant chant chant for the caller to announce it.  I remember asking her if the moon was following us home.

These are macro shots, and photos snapped at exaggerated angles.  They aren’t that picture of Saint Peter’s you meant to take on your vacation, the sweeping colonnade that could have been a dozen other places.  But because you took it, you were there and present and it’s not only a second, but it’s your second in your story, it has a deeper relevance.  A resonance.

*the photo is of me and my grandmother, Meme, from ages ago.  She died June 17th, 2012.  She has been a constant presence throughout my life.  It seems unreal that she is no longer here.

The Gratitude Journal

Meme's Hangers by InkSpot's Blot
Meme’s Hangers, a photo by InkSpot’s Blot on Flickr.

I’m feeling kind of strange this morning. We’ll see if this theme works out or if it flops and gasps its way out of a half-baked existence. Here we go:

1. I am grateful for verbs. Wait. Are we talking grade school grammar here? Sort of, and yes, I am serious. So why verbs? This piece of oral and written communication “encodes” action. Sure, it also conveys states of being, but the context I’m mostly interested in in this case is action. Think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet spends the entire first half of the play locked in the stifling space of the infinitive. To be or not to be. To do, or not. His existence has not yet been conjugated into action; therefore he languishes. I’m all for meditating. Critical thinking is a necessary component of life, and many of us should do it far more often. For others, however, they are forever lost in thought (Guilty). Never move to act. To attain a goal, we must act. To fix a problem, we must face it, and act. There is no living life without doing.

2. I am grateful for nouns. Oh dear. The stretch has begun. What is so special about nouns, and how can they possibly correlate to something concrete in life? Well, that’s the great thing. These little guys are the signposts. With them, we label and identify. Extrapolating for this case, nouns represent moving from the abstract to the concrete. They signify that most precious act of coming into knowledge. Escaping from vagueness and uncertainty into that hard-edged space of specificity.

3. I am grateful for adjectives. They make the world beautiful. They help us see all the qualities and characteristics that a simple noun, poor thing, cannot convey. It is not enough to know something. We have to feel it, too. His (pronoun) smile (noun). His tender smile. His sweet smile. Forced, beaming, galactic. His empty smile.

4. I am grateful for punctuation. My life experiences have been written with ellipses (unfinished), periods (finished), commas (evolving), semi-colons (stepping), the em dash (a epiphany, a sudden change) and more. Sometimes, my life has been punctuated exactly where it needs to be. In other cases, I have put the wrong marks in the wrong place, or let them be put there. Regardless, punctuation is an important signal. The word comes from the Latin “punctuare”, to bring to a point. It signals transition, whether it be turning the page or closing the book. I think I would be lost and floating without it.

5. I am grateful for conjunctions. Conjunctions might be as beautiful as adjectives. They represent the binding agent in my life. A conjunction links two phrases (clauses, etc) together. Simple, subtle and often considered marginal, yet the impact of a conjunction can be immense.

For what are you grateful?

ps, about the photo. My grandmother made these. Originally, she was going to be mentioned more explicitly in this post. She is still there, between the lines and buried in the generalizations. As are other people and elements in my life.

The Gratitude Journal

After the storm by InkSpot's Blot
After the storm, a photo by InkSpot’s Blot on Flickr.

Five things.

1. I’m grateful for cookbooks. I have a certain degree of creativity in the kitchen, but I have never been the type of person to experiment heavily. Experimentation can bring success, but it can also bring failure. And in this case that means crappy tasting food. My fixation on predictable outcomes and efficiency makes this unacceptable for me. Enter the cookbook. It gives a starting point and suggests a precise route to the finish, should one chose to follow it. Otherwise it’s an awesome frame on which to build. Cookbooks = demystifying the kitchen and dietary independence.

2. My couch is pretty high on my list today. It’s been my trusty companion in recovering from a party last night. It doesn’t judge me when I lounge on it and watch a movie when I should be writing. Aside from being an inanimate object on which I can project, it represents something more. It was the first piece of furniture I bought after being on my own again. I picked it out, chose the fabric, negotiated the deal. Maybe a perfectly mundane act for most, but for me it was a moment of decisiveness propelled by my own will.

3. That simple acts can bring someone happiness. Yesterday I made my grandmother’s recipe for fruitcake. I just had to buy the stuff and put the time in. It wasn’t like twelve cupcakes and two mini-loaves was a monumental effort.

Meme lives in a board and care now, and hasn’t been able to cook for herself in years. She has this blue notebook in which she wrote some of her favorite recipes (this being one of them). They came from a time when she was a wife and a mother, and then a woman living on her own. She takes a lot of pride in them. When I visited this morning, a sheepish smile crossed her face and her eyes lit up. I usually talk about the problems I had with the recipe so she can help me troubleshoot it. Again, small act, but she’s happy to have something to help with.

4. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect. Each year I look back, review my goals and my behavior. How close did I come to living my ideals. How, how often, and why did I veer off course from being the person I know I can be, that kind of stuff. There is always a choice, a way to improve life, to be a better person. I am constantly tinkering, tweaking, reshaping myself and hopefully evolving.

5. I am grateful for light. For the magic it can bring. And the beauty.

To play, or to PLAY

Soccer, October 2011 by InkSpot's Blot
Soccer, October 2011, a photo by InkSpot’s Blot on Flickr.

7am. Saturday morning. (Stress: SATURDAY morning). Me, Anissa. Two cups of java. Two camera bodies, four lenses. Add in two pee wee teams playing against each other in the mist. That’s the situation. Anissa already had the gig lined up. I was just tagging along, but I like to shoot, so why not, right?

Unfortunately the green team (“our” team) seemed to be behind by the time we showed up. In the first five minutes, the red team scored another goal. Little lips protruded from faces like diving boards to pools of sadness. One boy slung his arm around another, whispered in his ear and patted him on the back. A plan and some comfort?

Maybe. We witnessed one glorious goal. The after party was immense. #4 was sheepish in the glowing praise of his peers, but he grew more confident. Shrugged shoulders grew straight and his little head lifted up. Yeah. That was pretty epic. But play on. It wasn’t over yet.

Parents yelled directions to the kids. “Hustle!” “Get the ball!” “Defense!” Ugh. I remember those days.

They all gave it some effort; however from my inexperienced perspective they weren’t really into it. #4 liked to dance in between plays. He went after the ball, although arguably not with the same enthusiasm. The green team slogged through the rest of the game. Team red scored two more goals. And then it was over.

The teams separated to opposite sides of the field. “2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate” the green team chanted. Then the parents formed a tunnel, raising their arms high above their heads. The kids transformed. Released from the game, they raced through, gave high fives and attacked the donuts that magically appeared. Released from the game, they jaunted across the field, donuts in hands or mouths, and dribbled the soccer ball or played other games.

“So you have energy for that” was the gist of the comment I heard.

I reveled in the change, saw all these important connections between concepts of work and play, how “fun” makes something not a chore, but a joy, and the uncategorical importance of love.

Thanks kiddos.