Back in Sarcoxie I stop to visit Maxine once more. I won’t see her again before I leave. I wish I had the energy to go down to the square again. I want more pictures. I want to people watch and absorb the atmosphere. I have ideas for blogs but I’m exhausted.
Sunday Steve and I go to 10:30 Mass and stop to visit Dad’s and Kevin’s graves afterward. it’s a beautiful day. Warm, sunny and breezy. Of course it is. I’m leaving later.
Lenore has made spaghetti for lunch and it’s delicious like everything that comes out of her kitchen. My cousins and their wives are there. Pat’s been in a car accident and has a broken vertabra and other injuries. He’s in a plastic body brace that looks massively uncomfortable. He’s recently started a new job and is concerned about how long his recovery will be. Ron’s having job issues too and is currently farming full-time. He indicates it doesn’t pay very well at the moment. Joe’s just become a grandfather and there are baby pictures to see. Hmm. Another cousin with grandchildren. I’m sensing a theme here.
Time zips by and I realize I need to get going. I’ve got to finish packing and gas up the rental car.
For all my dread leading up to the annual sojourn to Sarcoxie, as I leave I realize very few things are as bad as you expect them to be. I love seeing all the people I’m related to. I’m honored that they take the time to arrange these gatherings. My extended family is easy to love, easy to admire. Seeing my mother continue to decline is the sad part, the part I dread.
While I’m talking abut my mother with Maxine I realize my mother left her support system behind when she left Sarcoxie. She left her mother and her siblings. Her in-laws. Possibly even friends. Familiar territory and people she knew she could count on. She didn’t have a choice and she never wanted to leave. Maybe that’s why she always wanted to come back. It wasn’t the town of Sarcoxie itself. It was what it represented to her. It was home. She never really felt comfortable anywhere else or around other people.
It’s only now that my mother is gone in so many ways that I think maybe I can understand her a little. That’s enough of a reason for my annual Sarcoxie Days.
9/7/14 I’m on my way home! Yay! Yesterday we went to breakfast at The Hungry House with Maxine. It was raining and cold after the 90 degree heat of the day before – a shock to find it in the 60’s. The Hungry House is the only restaurant anywhere near Sarcoxie and it’s out on the highway. We take the back roads to get there as directed by Maxine. I’ve given up after The Sirloin Stockade and the corn dog at Chief Sarcoxie Days last night and decided to eat until I go home. I can’t win. I know Janet will have a spread at her house later.
After breakfast I visit Loretta (my dad’s cousin) who lives two doors down. She’s 102 and is thrilled when anyone stops in to see her. Her family has suggested maybe she should move into the local nursing home. She’s stayed there previously and they were nice to her and it was fine but she doesn’t see why she should go there if she’s still able to take care of herself. She apologizes for forgetting things, but I think when you’ve got 102 years of memories you’re entitled to forget a few now and again.
Steve and I find Janet’s house with no difficulty. Her sisters Cheryl and Connie are there along with assorted spouses, nieces and nephews and my uncle and aunt. It’s delightful to see everyone and watch them interact . I have to remind myself I’ve known these cousins since childhood. I saw them every summer. Now Cheryl is a grandmother and Connie will be one soon. They’re both a little older than me so it’s too early to panic.
I don’t know how Janet does all she does. She’s one of those perennially sunny-dispositioned people who make every event and every challenge appear to be a breeze. She turns every accident into a funny story – as when the coffee carafe breaks and leaks water all over her kitchen counter. Twice.
Cheryl has made a Boston Cream Pie that looks like a picture in a food magazine. Connie’s made apple pie with Missouri apples. Apparently the closer to home the apples are grown the better the pie. I initially decline dessert but eventually succumb. I’m on “vacation” after all.
We chat and play musical chairs to chat with someone else and take pictures. Janet takes most of them. If her camera is digital (surely it is) I hope she sends me copies so I can share.
On the way home Steve and I stop to see Mom again. She’s already sitting at her place in the dining room even though the lights are off and dinner won’t be served for 45 minutes. I’m pretty sure she has no idea who we are but we sit and chat as best we can. Oddly she knows all five of her brothers’ names (in order) and her sister’s name. Her parents’ names and her own. Her husband’s name. “Who could forget him?” she asks…without a trace of irony.
We talk about the sameness of the routine of her days. Steve says it’s like Groundhog Day. A reference we know she won’t get. Then he starts explaining the premise of the movie to her. Between her hearing issue, her confusion about what Steve’s trying to explain to her and his enthusiastic narrative, we start to giggle until he’s laughing so hard he can’t talk. Eventually he tells Mom, “I guess you had to see the movie.”
When Mom’s tablemates start moving toward their seats it’s our cue to leave. Mom has told us she’s hungry from the moment we arrived. But when I offered her an overripe banana from a basket on the counter she declined – preferring to wait for her meal. But I know what she was really waiting for was dessert.
(Every year I travel from Florida to Southwest Missouri where I was born to visit my mother and extended family. My journal entries turn into blogs. See the previous years’ blogs under “The House of Dust” and “The Guilt Trip.”)
I’m back in Sarcoxie. Again. Ugh. Chief Sarcoxie Days is a celebration, but of what? Obesity? Poverty? Hopelessness? Am I just used to everything new and bright and shiny so that here all I see is faded paint, burnt out lights and desperation? Maybe the worn out carnival is a reflection of my mother’s worn out life.
Each day she grows a little sadder, less vivid, less alive. Eventually she’ll fade away like the memory of a fall street fair on the square.
Yesterday at the home I was shocked by how much older Mom looked. She “lost” her upper plate so her face is more sunken. She’d put on pedal pushers under her dress. At least her hair looked clean. We walked her down to see “the birds” – caged finches. Mom doesn’t get out of bed some days. I’m sure she sees no reason. She’s weak(er) because of it and I wonder if she’ll make it. She does, my brother Steve on one side and me on the other holding her hands, my 94-year-old aunt walking on her own just fine behind us.
We’re meeting two other aunts at the Sirloin Stockade for lunch. When Steve said we were taking Mom with us I said, “Why?” “Because she hardly ever goes anywhere.” That’s because she doesn’t know where she is anyway or who she’s with. But I demur.
It’s probably good for her to get out. It’s a long walk in hot sun from our parking place to the restaurant door and then to the back table where the aunts are waiting. Steve fixes Mom a plate – fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and green beans. He cuts her meat. She picks at the food but when he sets dessert in front of her she’s enthusiastic. The little plate is picked clean in minutes. I wonder if she has trouble eating due to her missing teeth. Steve says, “Didn’t you see her chomp right through that cookie?”
We joke about Mom’s obsession with meal times but most of her senses are dulled. Sight. Hearing. Cognitive ability. All she’s got left are taste and touch. And there are days, I’m sure, when no one touches her. There should be an official hugger in her assisted living facility. Steve says those people there are so damned lonely. He talks to them when he and Mom sit in the lobby. I think he’s performing a valuable function.
My mother was not a hugger. Not particularly affectionate at all. It was almost as if she was never comfortable in her own body. She held herself apart. But now I wish I could pick her up and hug her. Hold her and soothe her and take care of her. No one really takes care of her. Her nails are longer than I’ve ever seen them. She’s like a Lab, Steve tells me. She won’t let anyone touch them.
I wonder what her toe nails look like. Has anyone trimmed them? She’s always wearing shoes and socks. Even in bed. No one’s seen her feet in years. Steve says, “I’m not touching them.” My aunt doesn’t seem too interested. Tough toenails, I guess.
When we arrived to see Mom, she greeted Steve and Maxine like she knew them. Maxine says, “Do you know who this is? This is Barbara.” Mom looks at me, puzzled and possibly pleased and says, “Oh. My daughter?”
That is the most recognition I’m likely to get from her. Undeniably I am her daughter with all that entails.
Thursday is our last full day here. We’re going to lunch with the aunts on my mother’s side. Well, two of them. Martha is sick with a cold and can’t make it. First we drop off another load of donations at a crisis center in Carthage that Stacy told me about the night before. We arrive at Mom’s room but she isn’t there although in minutes she arrives. She’s had her hair done. We sit and visit with her for a little while. I tell her I’ve brought her presents. She seems pleased but tells me I didn’t have to. They are such tiny things. I say I brought you a new lipstick. She puts some on immediately. I’m not sure if she hasn’t been wearing lipstick because she has none or because she forgets to put it on. She looks more like her old self. She always wore lipstick. Always. I give her the little tub of Teddy Grahams and a little hundred-calorie package of cookies. She eats a couple of those immediately.
I tell her what we’ve been doing and who we’ve seen. She either says she remembers the people I tell her about or she is pretending that she does. She can’t remember how old she is. I tell her she is 82 and Maxine (her sister) is 93. Mom says, “I thought she was older than that”. Then she looks sheepish and says, “Maxine probably wouldn’t like that I said that.” But later when I tell Maxine this story she laughs.
After the fifth or sixth or perhaps tenth time that she’s asked if we can stay for lunch, we decide it’s time to leave. We’ve run out of conversation.
Bill has told me he feels badly for me that my mother doesn’t know who I am. But I didn’t expect her to. I’ve asked my mother if she gets bored or lonely, but she doesn’t seem to think she does. Or maybe she’s forgotten what boredom and loneliness feel like. Wouldn’t that be a blessing? She’s said repeatedly that if she has to be somewhere like this she’s glad she’s there. The staff are kind and they take good care of her.
We meet my aunt Anna Lee back at Maxine’s house and they direct me on the backroads that I’d forgotten back to Carthage. No visit to this area is complete without lunch at the Sirloin Stockade. Dani called me earlier and was dismayed to learn she was missing that event.
The Sirloin Stockade is where my parents, aunts and uncles used to go for birthday celebrations. It’s a reasonably priced buffet restaurant with good food. Their celebrations would conclude with an after-lunch gathering at one of my aunt’s houses where homemade cake might be served and cards and gifts exchanged. At one time, there were six or eight in attendance. My uncles Bill and Lloyd with their wives, Martha and Anna Lee. Maxine and her friend Vance. My parents.
Today there is no birthday and there are only four of us. I comment to Anna Lee that the circle is getting smaller. Her husband died the same year as my brother and she agrees that it’s sad. I eat too much because there’s so much to choose from and I’m on “vacation.” Back at Maxine’s we sit and chat some more before we say goodbye again.
Anna Lee says she saves things, cards and letters. She doesn’t throw them away, even Christmas cards. She has them all.
On some level I understand this. These things are pieces of your history. But they only have significance to you. When you’re gone, most likely no one else will care. This is what I’ve been doing this trip: sorting through other people’s histories. Many of their photographs and memorabilia hold no meaning for me, yet I cringe as I throw them away. It’s like losing bits amd pieces of who they were all over again.
There are things, however, I wish my relatives had kept. Like the letters my grandfather wrote to my grandmother after he took off for California with another woman. I wish someone had kept the letter he wrote asking if he could come home.
Maybe someone in the family has them. Or maybe my grandmother threw them away, or one of her children did after she died. Although I find my grandfather’s behavior fascinating and want to know more, what he did embarrassed his small-town family. They wouldn’t want to keep reminders of it. Would they?
Back at the house I remove the rest of my mother’s old clothes from her closet. I’ve packed up purses earlier, marveling at the amount of crumpled tissues I’ve discovered in each. I’ve pawed through other items in her closet, befuddled again by the things she kept and wondering what to do with much of it. Throw it away? Donate it? Put it back and leave it there for the next time?
A little voice in the back of my mind asks, “What if she is ever able to come back here and live?” She’ll wonder what happened to her clothes. Where did they go? Who took them? None of us can imagine my mother ever returning to her house, yet that voice won’t stop. I decide if that happens, I will buy her some new clothes.
I make another trip to the thrift store with a huge box, a bag and the clothes still on their hangers. Bill says I’ve made a lot of progress but I feel as if I’ve made a tiny dent in the mountain of things left to sort through in my parents’ house. But I’ve hit my overload point. I still have time but not the inclination to do any more.
Instead I walk two houses down to my visit my dad’s cousin Loretta. Loretta is a hundred years old. Or, as she corrects me when I mention it, “a hundred-and-a-half now.” She lives alone. For her hundredth birthday she received a giant flat-screen TV. She says she doesn’t see her family much, although she has a retired son nearby who plays a lot of golf and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She says they don’t visit much. Loretta hurt her back in a fall and is thinking of seeing a chiropractor.
I don’t know Loretta well. She used to ride to church with my parents. She loves baseball and she loved my dad and they used to call each other and talk all the time. Their fathers were brothers, but my dad and Loretta didn’t know each other well when they were growing up. Their mothers didn’t get along, so Loretta tells me.
I think this is the curse of growing old. Being forgotten by the people who are important to you. Being cognizant of how alone and lonely you are. I guess you get used to it. Do you? Once you were the center of your childrens’ world. Perhaps you doted on your grandchildren. How could they have forgotten that? How could they forget about you?
Maybe familiarity breeds not contempt but possibly disinterest. While I would be fascinated and intrigued to spend time with a hundred-year-old woman, if I could be around her all I wanted maybe I wouldn’t want to.
Bill has asked me what would I rather have? Physical health, but my mind is gone? Or poor physical condition but still mentally acute. I choose losing my mind because then I wouldn’t know how miserable I was. Bill thinks he’d rather keep his mental faculties.
I can’t help thinking who will be on “the last” list this time. Every time I leave Missouri I’ve seen someone for the last time. My father. My brother. An uncle or an aunt. Last time it was Clem, my dad’s brother, Lenore’s husband. I don’t want to think about who it will be this time, but I can’t seem to help it.
Visiting my mom and my other relatives this year has made me think there are guilt trips and then there are guilt trips. You can be on one without ever leaving home. What we do for others out of a sense of duty, obligation or guilt, isn’t it all tied up somehow in love? If we didn’t care we wouldn’t bother. And we’d never feel guilty.
I lose track of time while I’m cleaning and sorting and before I know it it’s ten o’clock. I’m afraid I’ve missed the window of opportunity where Mom will know who we are if I’m not there by ten.
We arrive at the home around ten-thirty a.m. which turns out to be a mistake. Mom is sitting in a chair by the entrance. A few of the other residents, including her friend Joan are playing dominoes at a nearby table. I can tell Mom doesn’t recognize us but I don’t know if that’s because she can’t really see us. I hug her and remind her who we are. Joan looks over and says it’s good that we are here.
Mom recovers from her surprise, if that’s what it is and pretends that she recalls who we are. Or maybe she does. At any rate she seems pleased to have visitors. We have mistimed our visit, however, because lunch isn’t served until noon. What will we do for an hour and a half? We wander the halls with her for a bit. Bill suggests going and seeing the birds again. In one of the sitting rooms ten or twelve finches flit about in an aviary built just for them. Mom taps on the glass to startle them and get them to fly. She points out Millie’s room, although we know from Maxine that Millie died earlier this year. We end up back in Mom’s room trying to think of things to talk to her about and failing miserably. Finally, mercifully, one of the staff tells us we can visit the salad bar. They will set us up for lunch in Mom’s room where there is a table and chairs.
We rearrange the furniture a bit and visit the small salad bar. Mom takes a tiny bit of fruit, some shredded cheese and maybe some lettuce. Back in her room, she doesn’t seem to know where she is. She says, “I’ve never eaten here before. Is the waitress going to bring our food or do we have to go get it? Do I need to pay her or will they put it on my bill?” She’s in her room, but not used to taking her meals there and she’s completely disoriented.
There is a lull between salad and the main course and Mom is fretful, asking the same questions and saying the same things repeatedly. Finally lunch arrives. Although it’s billed as Italian sausage casserole and California vegetables, what it appears to be is sliced kielbasa, potatos and cheese along with steamed cauliflower, broccoli and carrots. Mom says they always give her too much food. She picks at it once and pushes the plate away. “I’m not going to eat this. Here, Bill, do you want it?” Bill has his own plate to contend with and he doesn’t look any more enthused about it than she does.
Mom reaches for the Jell-o cake which is quite tasty. I would even like the recipe for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if I have a recipe for it somewhere at home. She polishes off her cake and says she’s full. I am the only one who doesn’t seem to mind the meal. Potatos and cheese? What’s not to like. It’s bland as are the vegetables, but I’m hungry so I eat mine and part of Bill’s. And most of my cake.
When we get up from the table Mom realizes she’s actually in her room. Bill and I make our escape. Outside the rain has mostly cleared up. Bill has discovered that Lamar is just a few miles north of Carthage and Harry Truman’s birthplace is listed as an historic site. We’re not really sure how far it is and it seems like we’ve been driving a long time before we see a sign. Another six miles. The house is tiny. We take the guided tour. It begins to rain again. We circle Lamar’s square and head back to Sarcoxie.
It is nap time. I’m sick of cleaning and sorting and packing and visiting and driving.
Tonight is the one event I’ve been looking forward to since before I got on the plane: dinner at my aunt Lenore’s house. We stop to buy beer for my cousins because I’ve decided beer is the international sign of peace in this corner of Missouri and I bring my half bottle of wine left over from the previous evening.
We stop at the cemetery. I can’t believe it’s been five years since my Dad passed away. I clean off the crabgrass that is encroaching on his military service plaque. Near my brother’s grave, the grass is spongy and muddy from all the rain which makes it impossible to get too close. I circle his headstone because for the life of me I can’t remember what year he died. 2010. I look out across the field next to the cemetery. Cows are contentedly grazing in the distance. There’s a breeze blowing across the prairie as there always seems to be. Once again I think, as I did at his funeral, Kevin is finally at peace. We couldn’t have found a more peaceful place for him.
As we make our way back to the car, stopping here and there to read the headstones, I tell Bill he can bury me here. He can have me cremated and transport me to this cemetery. I wouldn’t mind being in this lovely, peaceful spot forever.
We’re early to Lenore’s, but I know she won’t mind. She also doesn’t mind if I start drinking before anyone else shows up. I tell her I’ve had a hard day. She gives me a “fancy” glass for my wine. My cousins and their wives trickle in. Joe and Stacy, bringing strawberries and cake; Ron and Maria and their daughter Amber, toting their contributions to the meal; Pat, the youngest arrives alone. Well, not quite alone. He’s got a 12-pack of Coors Light with him.
We talk and catch up. I’ve known my cousins my whole life but in some ways I hardly know them at all. Years have passed and I’ve not seen them or stayed in touch with them. When my parents were living nearby I heard all the family happenings through them, but now I’m trying to cram years of news into one evening. Still, it’s a warm and delightful evening filled with interesting conversation and delicious food. I am fascinated by Ron’s story of his stolen cattle. Evidently this is quite a problem for farmers in the area. I had no idea. “Do you have cow insurance?” I ask. He does and there’s an interesting story about that. I learn that even though cows have ear tags to identify them (and their owners?) the tags are easily removed. Once the cows are stolen (and in this case probably transported in a trailer stolen from a neighbor) you can’t prove they are your cows even if you caught the perpetrators with them! Cows are big money. The thieves crammed twenty-two of Ron’s newly weaned cows into a trailer which he says is what it would hold. Each was worth a thousand dollars.
There must be a better way to track your cows I think. Branding seems to be the solution, but it’s an involved process. I wonder why they can’t put those identifier pellets in them like they do dogs. Joe says that would add about a hundred dollars a head and require everyone involved in the process to be on the same page and have uniform technology in place.
Tattoos? A purple streak down the cows’ backs? Later on I think of nanny-cams for cow pens. Something easily checked from your phone. I’m also thinking…there’s a story here. That’s what I’m always thinking when I learn something that I find fascinating. I think of the cattle rustling as a subject in old westerns, but perhaps it’s always been a problem. This is the modern-day version that someone like me didn’t even know about.
I relay Janet’s story of going through her in-laws things after their deaths and finding a packet of envelopes neatly tied with leather string. Thinking it some sort of treasure, she carefully untied it only to discover that the envelopes were from the local electric company. Not the bills, just the envelopes saved and tied together.
I’ve begun to think maybe my mother’s just messing with me. That she left this accumulation of items (the plastic bags and cardboard labels from pantyhose, used toothbrushes and numerous containers of dental floss) just so as I went through it I’d be shaking my head and wondering why she kept it or why there are so many duplicates of the same things? I think I may do this myself and suggest Lenore do the same. Start a collection of something odd or semi-useless so that when you die and your kids go through your stuff, they will wonder why you kept it. Joe suggests putting your useless collection in a safe. We laugh about it, but I think I may be on to something.
I get some more group photos. Bill has become the official photographer on this trip. I try to convey how much it means to me that so many of my relatives have made the effort to see me, but I’m not sure they understand. They grew up here, around each other. They can see each other any time they want. I, on the other hand, left Missouri the year I turned five and now rarely see any of them.
Tuesday evening we were invited to my Aunt Rosemary’s for dinner by her daughter my cousin Janet, who is the only one of my cousins I sort of stay in touch with. Every year Janet sends me a Christmas letter which I receive sometime in mid- to late January. It is filled with news and funny stories about her and her family.
Janet is a special ed teacher and is one of those upbeat individuals who turns every foible in her life into a hilarious story and she keeps us all laughing. Her sister Connie is the prankster who teases everyone. Cheryl, the eldest, looks on with calm, amused reserve. Their brother, my cousin Tom, has chosen to avoid our hen party leaving Bill as the token male until Tom’s son Matt arrives as we are having dessert. Rosemary tells me that Matt is her favorite grandchild and the kindest person she’s ever known.
Rosemary is not well and hasn’t been for some time. Her husband Bill is currently in a rehab facility after knee replacement surgery. She tells me her daughters bring her dinner every day. Doctors appointments are scheduled for her son’s days off. I think she may be slightly disapproving of the fact that my mother is in assisted living and that I visit her once a year and only then out of a sense of obligation. I’m pretty sure Rosemary doesn’t appreciate my labeling my visit as a guilt trip.
This makes me start to think about how different my life might have been if only. If only we hadn’t moved every few years while I was growing up. If only I had roots…somewhere. I guess my roots were put down in Florida because that’s where my parents left me and that’s the longest I lived anywhere.
My mother never wanted to leave Missouri and she made that clear the entire time we lived elsewhere. My dad spent his life apologizing for “dragging her all over the place.” He apologized to us kids, too. Speaking of guilt trips… I think if my mother had had a better attitude about moving a lot we would have, too. After my dad retired my parents chose to move back to Missouri far away from half of their children and all of their grandchildren. Sometimes I wonder what did they expect? There was no one here to take care of them. Their siblings were aging just as they were and eventually passing away.
I’d have had more involvement in their care if they hadn’t relocated, but I can’t change that now.
The truth is my mother is in a high-quality facility and she’s happy there. The care is excellent. My aunts visit her fairly regularly. As near as I can tell she isn’t suffering at all and seems content or as content as anyone can be given her physical limitations. A childhood friend of hers has recently moved in to the same facility. This makes me think about “the circle of life” and how we distance ourselves from one another through choice or circumstance but how we can come back together in the same ways.
Yesterday I managed to sort through clothes and books and donate three bags of clothes to a local thrift shop and two boxes of books to the library. I’ll be sorting through more today. In the garage are boxes upon boxes. Photos and more clothes and video cassettes and books. The miscellany of several lives. My father, my brother, my mother.
I am just as frustrated as I was last year that I can’t find a couple of items belonging to my dad. Where are they? Where did they go? I sort through my mother’s collection of Depression glass, wondering if I can take a few pieces home with me without them getting broken. I think I will try.
We’ve been to Casey’s for donuts, returning to the house just as it began to rain. There’s no TV here, well, there’s a TV but no cable or reception. My husband is going through withdrawal, reduced to scanning the headlines on my cell phone without finding news he’s interested in.
I’ll continue my travels through drawers and shelves and closets today, wondering why my mother kept the things she did. Why her travel cosmetic bag is filled with nothing except crumpled tissues. Why she kept the little plastic bags and the labels from pantyhose packages. Why there are numerous packages of cotton swabs, tubes of hand lotion, plastic bags. Shampoo bottles with a thin layer of shampoo left at the bottom, prescriptions long out of date, bracelets from hospital stays more than five years ago.
I believe my mother’s memory problems started long ago, but of course, I wasn’t here to see it or do anything about it. It’s only in retrospect that I can see some of her behavior for what it must have been at the time.
If the rain lets up a bit I will go visit her again today, timing my visit for 10 a.m. She’ll be done with breakfast and still alert enough to recognize me I hope. I bought her a new lipstick and some little packs of cookies. I can’t bring her a whole box because if she has access she’ll eat them all in one sitting.
It’s Wednesday. I’ve been here since Monday. I’m surrounded by things I don’t want to do. I have a headache. For the second day in a row the coffee I’ve made is horrible (even though it’s Starbucks coffee). It’s pouring down rain, lightning and thundering.
Yesterday we went to see Mom. I managed to get us lost on the way, my memory of the backroads from Sarcoxie to Carthage not quite as good as I thought it was. I think she knew who I was which is an improvement over last year. Even recalled that my aunt Maxine had told her we were coming.
We stayed for an hour, took a walk around the assisted living facility. She only repeated the same questions a couple of times. After an hour she seemed to fade, perhaps thinking I was my cousin Louella and asking if I ever hear from Marilyn (Louella’s sister who passed away). This is how I know it’s time to leave although my mother invites us to stay for lunch.
We’ve had a big breakfast at the Hungry House at Maxine’s invitation earlier and no appetite so we decline. Plus, we have things to sort through back at Mom’s house. Clothes, books, drawers, photos.
After a year unoccupied there is a layer of dusty grime covering the interior and the air is musty and there are cobwebs in places cobwebs have no business being. Bill has taken on the task of vacuuming the entire house, most of which is covered in carpeting that should have been replaced years ago. I can’t stand to walk on it barefoot.
There’s been so much rain it’s too wet to have the grass mowed. The house looks like what it is: sad and neglected. A wisteria vine has overgrown its boundaries near the driveway. Tuesday afternoon I attacked it. My dad would have taken care of this. He’d never have let the yard look this way.
Once again we cleared the vine that had begun to overgrow the front stoop. If I thought I could get Dad’s lawnmower out of the shed (which is falling apart) I’d have mowed the grass. But Bill says the mower’s been sitting there so long the gas is probably no good and the oil probably dried up. He doesn’t even want to try it. He’s probably right. He usually is about these things.
After we visit Mom we stop at Wal-Mart. I need rubber gloves if I’m to keep digging through drawers and boxes because who knows what lurks there. I find a pretty hanging plant and a cute garden gnome for my aunt Maxine because she’s always been the gardener in the family. Her birthday was Sunday. She’s 93 now and thinks her heart is what’s slowing her down physically. Says she has little energy, although she’s happy to sit and talk or read or watch TV. But physical exertion wears her out, even a walk to the mailbox.
Maxine has always been real in a way my mother never was. I never could really talk to my mother, but Maxine is like my dad in many ways. You can talk to her about anything and everything. She’s been my favorite aunt forever, perhaps because she’s childless. She always had time and interest in me and my brothers. She’s eleven years older than my mother but seems years younger.
That evening Sue allows me to take her out to dinner for her upcoming birthday. We go to a Mexican restaurant. It’s practically deserted, due in part to the weather, I’m sure.
Friday she and I meander around town together. She needs a few things for her house. The rain has stopped but the wind has not. I still need my sweater. I am heartily sick of it by this point. I’ve borrowed jeans from her and a warm pullover for when it’s really cold. I don’t think I’ve been comfortable since I left home. Missouri was hot, dry and sunny. Illinois has bounced from one extreme to the other with only the wind being consistent in both places.
Friday night I am meeting Monica who grew up in Ladd. We were friends in our school years there beginning in sixth grade and up until I left the area halfway through high school. I still don’t know how we lost track of each other. Somehow I found her again when she lived in Phoenix and lost her again at some point. I hunted her down a couple of years ago via the internet. She lives in Indiana now and we are Facebook friends. Her mother-in-law lives in Peru and she has suggested we meet at a restaurant in LaSalle.
I walk in and she is there and I don’t think she’s changed hardly at all from high school. I recognize her immediately and we hug for a long time. We decide to sit outside unless it gets too cold. Finally it got to maybe 70 today and the wind seems to have died down. I’m wearing my black sweater and black “skinny” jeans so I think I’ll be okay.
We order wine (shocker). I give her a brief review of my trip to Missouri when she asks and then we follow the same pattern Barb and I did yesterday. Taking turns eating and talking. Trying to catch up on forty years in a few hours.
Monica and I have a few odd coincidences in common. She is an English teacher and I am a writer. How did we end up where we are?
Monica tells me her memory of the first time she saw me. I had a very thick book with me that I was reading. (The original version of Heidi.) This was at the beginning of sixth grade. She was so impressed and thought maybe someday she’d read big books like that, too.
I leave Monica wishing I didn’t have to. There are six million more things I want to ask her and talk about. Maybe next time.
Barb and Monica have given me back pieces of my youth I thought I’d lost. Their memories of me help me find bits of myself. Yet the entire trip, the experience of seeing them is somehow surreal. I knew them not in another lifetime, but at a time in my life I’m so far removed from now it’s hard to comprehend that I was even there. But I know I was. They confirm it.
While Sue and I were shopping at the local stores I kept looking at the other people there and wondering if they were someone I might have known but now can’t recall or recognize. They could be. Someone from my class, someone I once knew. I keep thinking “this could have been my life.” If my father hadn’t changed jobs, if we hadn’t constantly relocated. If, if if.
By Saturday I am more than ready to return home. I fill Steve’s truck with gas and return it to him. He never acts like he wants to be hugged, but we hug goodbye anyway. He waves to Sue. We head for O’Hare.
We are rushed by a guard at the drop-off curb to get moving, there’s no waiting. Yes, sir. Right away, sir. Near the ticket counter I dig for my itinerary for check-in and realize I forgot something.
My black sweater. I left it on the passenger seat of Sue’s car. I don’t care. I don’t need it where I’m going. Back to the warmth of Florida where I’ve lived longer than I’ve lived anywhere else.
When I step off the plane and find my husband waiting to hug me I know something I think I’ve always known: No matter where it is, there’s no place like home.
This concludes all episodes of Family Therapy in The House of Dust. Thank you for following the thread. Look for A FOREVER KIND OF GUY, out in print September 4, 2012. The eBook version is also available.
On Tuesday Sue and I head to Utica because there is a place there that does wine tasting and features wine from a local winery. The entire time I lived in IllinoisI don’t think I was ever in the town of Utica unless it was to pass through to get somewhere else. Sue tells me it has become a popular getaway for Chicagoans. I am shocked. Utica? Why Utica of all places? Nature, she supposes, as there are state parks and green spaces nearby. Sure enough I discover Utica’s tiny downtown is one of those reinvented areas with restaurants, a gourmet chocolate shop and gift stores. Plus I see signs for a few bed and breakfasts. Before one o’clock, I have a buzz from the six wines I’ve tasted. I’m also addicted to the buttery little breadsticks offered to cleanse the palate between tastings. Neither Sue nor I purchase any wine but we both buy boxes of the breadsticks.
We take a drive-by tour of a resort called Grand Bear and then we head toStarvedRockState Park. I used to come here as a child with my family. We had picnics with other families either here or more often at Buffalo Rock. We climb up to the rock and look out over the river. There is a dam, a barge going through the lock and many white pelicans. There are also eagles soaring across the sky. I realize I’m not in as good of shape as I think I am after climbing up and down many stairs to get to the rock and back.
There is an outdoor seating area for the restaurant and we have lunch there.
Afterward we stop to visit Sue’s mom in Oglesby. She just turned 90, and lives alone in the house Sue grew up in. Sue’s sister Connie is there visiting also.
Back at her house we munch on tortilla chips and salsa. I drink white zin while Sue makes a vegetable stir fry with some of the chicken leftover from last night’s barbeque.
Wednesday Sue has to work. I start writing down everything I can remember about my trip toMissouri. I end up with 13 pages by the time I’m done. I call Steve to see if he wants to go anywhere or if he needs anything, since he can’t drive anyway and I have his truck. Plus I don’t want to completely ignore him after I get back toIllinois. Although maybe he’s had enough quality time with me after our four days together.
He calls me back after a bit and we decide to go to lunch at Applebee’s. I tell him about the party at Dave’s. He tells me some more stories about the people who were there and also one about a neighbor giving Sue a cat which they told her was a male and was just fat, both of which were lies. This was years ago when he and Sue were still married. At one time, the way he tells it, there were more than twenty cats in the old farmhouse they were living in and so many mice the cats couldn’t keep up with them. He laughs while he’s telling it. I think about how much I’ve heard about the ups and downs of his and Sue’s marriage in the past few days. It seems like they got through a lot of bad times already by the time they divorced. Maybe, as he’s said previously, he should have stuck it out.
Sue arrives home and she has brought stuffed mushrooms and salmon filets. I could get used to having her cook for me every night.
Meanwhile, we have figured out her yahoo e-mail account which she was having trouble accessing. We’ve also set up a new gmail account for her and set her up on Facebook. Her internet connection is slower than mine at home and at times it’s excruciatingly slow.
Thursday Sue has to work and I have plans to meet my childhood friend also named Barbara. We lived next door to each other inOttawafrom the time we were six years old until we were ten. I haven’t seen Barb in thirty years. Somehow we lost touch but we found each other again on Facebook.
Thursday is a nasty day weatherwise. Cold, rainy and windy. Forty-seven degrees. I have brought no clothes with me for weather like this. I have one pair of jeans which I end up wearing with wedged flipflops. Luckily I did bring a sweater. A black one. I throw that on over my short-sleeved top and it will have to do.
I run the heat at floor level to keep my feet warm all the way to Ottawa. I follow Barb’s directions to “the best place for lunch” in Ottawa which is downtown. I want to stop and gape at the downtown I once knew, but I don’t have time. I do notice the Roxy theater is still on the corner right where it always was. Woolworth’s, Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., and Hornsby’s are long gone. I find the restaurant which is called C230 and a parking place near the corner across the street. I am early so I read for a little bit before facing the weather and going inside. Barb is at a table right near the door. I know her. She hasn’t changed very much except her hair is shorter and lighter and she wears glasses. We hug. I am so glad to see her.
Lunch is filled with us taking turns talking and eating. The server is kind and patient because she says it won’t be busy today so take as long as we want. She takes pictures of us before we leave. Barb offers to drive me around a bit, back to the street where we grew up and a few of the places I might remember.
The house her parents owned on Post Street looks like it’s being well-maintained, but the one my family rented next to it doesn’t. The front porch is gone and now there’s only a crumbling concrete stoop. It’s no longer white but is now covered with blue siding. She tells me a little bit about some of the kids we knew that lived in the neighborhood as we circle the block. We drive past the house my parents bought a few blocks away. It’s still there and we both recall how we loved that house. It had big, cavernous rooms and we each had our own bedroom upstairs. My dad hated that house. We didn’t live there very long because he changed jobs and we moved to another rental outside Spring Valley which is how I ended up attending school in Ladd.
Much too soon our time ends. Barb has a horseback riding lesson that afternoon. We hug and hope we see each other sooner than thirty years from now. Maybe she will come to see me in Florida…
To be continued…look for Family Therapy in The House of Dust, Part Ten, The Rest of the Trip coming soon
The drive is uneventful otherwise. We talk some but mostly we listen to Steve’s CD’s. He has them in a metal case and he’s very good about changing them. He has a variety of music and I don’t get bored. We stop for gas, a Coke for me. We polish off the last of the Pringles potato chips.
Late in the afternoon we get into another of our discussions about our family. This one is about our brother Kevin. Somehow we miss a turn-off from I-55 to I-39. Oops. We’ve overshot and are too far north. We have to backtrack. I am so sick of driving at this point that it really doesn’t matter if I have to drive another hour.
Finally we arrive at his place. I help him unload his stuff and head for Sue’s. When I arrive I see a gathering going on around what looks like a small shed that converts to an open air bar in the back yard of the house next door. Sue walks over to greet me and says we’re having a cookout. I say why? She says it’s Memorial Day. Oh, right.
Before I dropped Steve off he had me swing by the liquor store. As a reward for all of my driving and for that extra hour out of our way he’s bought me a bottle of white zin. It’s the big bottle, though, and I wonder how he thinks I can drink all of it. But then I remember where I am. Ladd, Illinois. Everyone drinks. There’s nothing else to do here. I have three nights to work on this big bottle of wine. I open it and pour it over ice in a red solo cup. When in Rome…
I take a seat on a stool at the outdoor bar next door and Sue says you remember Dave M_____, don’t you? Yes, I do. He was in my class when I attended school in Ladd in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. And this is exactly what I was hoping for. To see him again after forty years or so after I’ve been driving for nine hours. I had no idea he was Sue’s next-door neighbor.
He says he remembers me but the sunglasses I’m wearing threw him off or he would have recognized me. I lift them and he says, yes, that’s you. I remember Dave as being a nice guy and he still is. We catch up a little on our lives. I recognize a few of Sue’s friends, people from the neighborhood I’ve met before. She introduces me to others. Another guy reminds me he was in the same class as Dave and me and do I remember him? I do. He makes a remark about another of our classmates and it isn’t exactly complimentary. Someone tells him he’s an ass. How am I an ass he wants to know. I look at Sue and say if he has to ask is it even worth the time to explain it? I decide to ignore him and don’t care if I’m thought rude. There are enough other people there that probably no one will notice.
While our chicken is on the grill mostly I sit and listen to the others. I am not a part of this, although if I’d hadn’t moved from Illinois to Idaho after my sophomore year of high school, maybe I would be. Maybe I’d have married a local boy and settled down in Ladd, Illinois and spent the rest of my life there. Maybe I’d have a bar in my backyard, too.
To be continued…watch for Family Therapy in The House of Dust, Part Nine, The Rest of the Trip coming soon.