Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dear Wally: It's me. A judger.

I had to slap myself mentally yesterday, and I hope Wally Lamb would be proud of me for it.

Our neighbor is an outdoorsman of sorts, if you can call someone who putzes around in a bus-sized RV outdoorsy. It is a tan behemoth with dull stripes of brown, worn out by the miles and too many hours in the sunlight. He parks it parallel to our back fence. Once while working in the yard I looked up to see him sitting in the driver's seat, eating a sandwich. I imagine it to be peanut butter and jelly. I looked away quickly, embarrassed at catching him in what felt like an intimate moment. I glanced covertly back a few minutes later, but a curtain had been drawn across the windshield. I didn't know they made those things. Perfect, I suppose, for blocking the sun's rays or probing eyes.

In good weather he periodically pulls the RV out and takes it for a drive. The skyline looks different without it.

We've taken to calling him Kent.

He lives with his elderly mother, a sweet woman who wonders why the neighbors aren't more friendly. His hair is a spiky shock of white and gray over round, startled eyes. Hers is deep black, and her makeup is flawless. She is all crimson lips, powdered wrinkles, and sparkling purple eyeshadow. She owns the house. He owns the RV.

A few weeks ago a car pulled up, towing a camping trailer. It's not as big as the RV, but plenty big enough. The whites are whiter and the finish still retains some shine. Several times we've watched the vehicles dance; the RV pulling out and the trailer changing positions, the RV returning and nestling in to the camper's side like a pair of land Belugas.

We aren't sure who the new person is, male or female, but we've taken to calling him/her Kent Jr. Which brings me to yesterday.

When we first moved in, the single mom of five who owned the house before us stopped by one day to check for mail. She asked "Do you have young children? No? Well that's good because the guy who lives over there is a sex offender." She went on to describe how he'd invited her kids to watch movies in his basement. Her youngest are a set of 6 year old twin girls. They shared a bedroom at the rear of the house, adjacent to the back door which didn't lock. Her eyes were a mix of disapproval and glee, and the tween girl at her side nodded in collusion.

I took the news to Google, which confirmed its truth.

Wally Lamb's latest novel is called We are Water. A key construct of the plot is the sexual abuse of one of the main characters by an older cousin. The cousin's name is Kent. It is an intricately woven story, powerful and sad and satisfying in typical Wally Lamb style. A few weeks ago, I chatted with him a bit about the book and about this character. We talked about the difficulty of creating fully fleshed villains, and he said that it was hard to create humanity in Kent, but that he hoped he'd been successful.

Wally has volunteered in a women's prison for nearly two decades. He teaches writing, and has read a lot of stories written by the inmates. He cites a staggering percentage of sexual abuse among their histories. Through this, Wally has insight into the connectedness of victim becoming villain and the cycle that perpetuates. Insight which most of us will never have, nor would we want.

Yesterday morning the shuffling of recreational vehicles was underway again. I watched the camper being pulled by a black SUV, and called out "Kent Jr. is on the move!" The name became a running joke after Dolce and I read We are Water together. It gave us a way to name our discomfort and wariness without requiring discussion. But yesterday I felt ashamed of myself for saying it. For reducing this person, these people, to caricatures. No humanity was involved in the Kentishness I had created. No recognition of a tortured soul or a reformed mind or the simple presence of the very image and imprint of God. Just a caricature of a child abuser and his (imagined) partner in crime.

I'm still ashamed at the memory.

So Wally, if you are out there, and God, who I know is listening, please forgive me. And please be proud of me for my shame.

Today I will go back to that sex offender website. I'll find out my neighbor's name. And the next time I see him, I will say hello.

Monday, May 26, 2014

River City Renaissance

My latest feature story in Merrimack Valley Magazine highlights the latest revitalization efforts of our fair city.

River City Renaissance

Friday, May 9, 2014

Holly Robinson's Mother's Day wisdom


I'm working on an interview for Merrimack Valley Magazine with my friend the prolific and talented author Holly Robinson. The focus of the piece is her latest book, titled Beach Plum Island, which came out in April.

The novel is set on nearby Plum Island, a place of shifting sands and idyllic summer memories.

Each time I profile a writer I discover that the real story is so much bigger than what I can hope to capture in 800 words. There are stories within the story, all worthy of being told and of being written. Holly's case is no different.Because of that, I expect I might find myself quoting her here and there and everywhere.

For today, on this eve of Mother's Day weekend, I offer you a passage from Beach Plum Island. It will toll in the heart of every mother with grown children, resonating with sweet painful truth. And it will flit in and out of the minds of young mothers along with the hundreds of other helpless platitudes offered by those of us who have marched ahead: "Pay attention and enjoy this time! It will go by faster than you think."

Here it is.
"She supposed it was a universal truth that mothers, after tearing out their hair and tacking their raw beating hearts to the outsides of their clothing for anyone to see, were given no warning that someday their baby-holding days would be over. When that day came, there was no clanging bell or siren, no banner flown across the sky to pinpoint that single precious moment when you rocked your child for the last time."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Recovering a Vane Art: one family's effort keeps the historic creation of weathervanes alive

Just posted one of my recent pieces for Merrimack Valley Magazine, for your reading enjoyment and visual pleasure: Kevin Harkins did his usual wonderful job with the photography.

Recovering a Vane Art, Spring Home Edition 2014


Monday, May 5, 2014

Rite of passage

Yesterday I went outside to untangle Charlie and help him reach the dirty ball resting in the grass barely a breath away from his nose. His unreachable-ball yelps summon me several times a day.

He loves his new yard. Sometimes I look out to see him sitting on the slope of the small hill. Just resting. Watching. Listening to birds and traffic. Sniffing for neighboring dogs. But most of the time he is in motion, pouncing his torn soccer ball, or tossing a muddy tennis ball and chasing it as it bounces away. He knows the full extent of his run but lengthens it when necessary, pulling like a draft horse till the cone of cement that should have stayed in the ground where I poured it drags along behind him. He strains and pulls in the thrill of the chase.

The yard is littered with fragments of the soccer ball's exterior, along with windblown sticks and acorn caps. Most of the surface-level garbage is gone; we harvested repeatedly last summer and fall, and the retreating snow made the job easier in April. The other day we dug up jutting rocks and loose pieces of rotting wood, uncovering a rusty saw blade, a strange, dirt and moss covered doll/animal cross breed, and a small white container labeled "Lube Tube". We've found broken segments of Lego and beads, plastic chip bags, rusty pieces of metal, faded Coke cans smashed into the dirt, 25 railroad spikes, and enough broken glass to envision our own Kristallnacht.

A single mom of five lived here before us. The youngest were a set of 6 year old twin girls. The eldest was a teenage boy named Eddie. One day the mom came home from her job at Walmart with new bikes for the twins, and Eddie picked up a football size chunk of rock and took his rage out on one of them. Our neighbor Dave is always puttering around in his yard, so the little girl dragged the bike across the street to him in hope, asking "Can you fix it?" But one wheel was bent nearly in half and the frame was broken. There was no fixing it.

The moat of broken shards surrounding the house is Eddie's creation. We'll be picking it up for years. We worry about Charlie's paws when he digs his holes, covering and uncovering balls over and over again as if unearthing a new rodent each time.

We recently bought a bunch of marigolds, petunias, and red geraniums, along with two red outdoor chairs to match the front door. Painting the door was one of my earliest projects. I brushed the cheerful red over dents and dings and kick marks. I painted the rusty uprights that support the front porch roof silver. I painted the vertical face of the crumbling front steps black.

Our reclamation is slow, but steady.

Last year, Dave and another neighbor brought riding mowers over and took down the knee-high weeds and grass. Their relief at our having moved in was voluble. A week ago Dave gave us an 8-year-old push mower, in immaculately maintained condition. For several weeks before this gift, I'd look out the kitchen window while making coffee each morning, watching the robins pecking around and wondering how much longer it would be before we'd have to deal with getting the grass cut.

I've mowed before, at other houses, but it was generally my husbands reluctant job. When my son grew tall enough, the task shifted to him. Those yards had been purchased in both of our names, but within that turbulent and dysfunctional marriage, there were very few things that felt like mine. The property we owned together wasn't one of them.

But I bought this house on my own. I depleted my retirement savings and took an incredible tax hit, but this house feels like mine. Dolce and I have made every selection together and worked side by side to make it habitable and interesting. When we look around at the end of the day, at all that has been accomplished and all that remains to be done, we feel pride and connectedness.

Today we'll go to Walmart and get a gas can. We'll stop at a service station and fill it up. I'll make another careful circuit of the yard to pick up stones that might ruin the mower's blade.

Dolce will transplant the marigolds.

And I will mow our yard. For the first time.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Watching over the scent of honeysuckle

We did a lot of driving when I was a kid. We went to visit a grandmother, a great grandmother, some aunts and great uncles, and various friends. The trips weren't very long, but they were frequent.

A few times we stopped unannounced to visit a friend of my Mom's. I think they worked together at an old folk's home before Mom had to quit due to heartbreak. We'd pull in the driveway wondering if they'd be home. They would invariably welcome us in, and we'd stay for a few hours.

I'm not sure what my brother David and I did on these visits. I don't think other children were present. I don't recall much about it, actually. But I do remember the bathroom.

The bathroom was bright and modern, especially compared to the room dedicated to the same purpose in our own house. We lived in an old place purchased from a pair of Victorian sisters, a sort of urban farmhouse of the era. It was set in a neighborhood rather than farm country, but it had a huge back lot on which several apple trees, a plum tree, a grape arbor, strawberry plants, and blackberry brambles were drifting into wildness. The sisters left a crank telephone on the dining room wall, a wonderful enameled hutch in the kitchen, and a toilet positioned in a tiny closet space. I have no idea where the elderly girls must have bathed. Perhaps they heated water on top of the stove and poured it into a galvanized tub.

We moved the toilet into the adjacent room which had once been used as a bedroom, and installed an old fashioned claw-foot tub. The only other thing in the large room was a closet, but it wasn't just any closet. This closet was a place of seething life. A place where puppies were birthed, and where a multiplication of mice once broke out of their overfull Habitrail and scattered throughout the house.

The room was dim with age-browned wallpaper and a dark linoleum carpet. A picture of an angel by a pool in a garden of peonies hung near the sink.

In contrast, the bathroom of my Mom's friend was small, and tiled, and bright, and scrubbed. It was like visiting a foreign land.

Two things are vivid in my recollecting. The first is a creature standing sentinel atop the tank of the commode. She was an odd sort of watchman, dressed in a picture hat and an ankle-length hoop-skirted gown. Her eyes were glazed from the tedium of the assignment, her arms stiff from maintaining her erect posture.

I couldn't not touch her. I had to pull her up out of the confining tube and make sure she had legs. They were there all right, unbending and rigid like her arms. Santa had recently delivered my Malibu Barbie, who's long shining hair hung straight as a curtain. But this doll's hair was spun from ultrafine strands, like the flossy artificial snow you carefully stretch across the branches of a Christmas tree. She was much lighter in weight than my Barbie. Hollow. Insubstantial. Somehow less-than.

Once assured that the legs were there, I would slip them back into position and fluff up the many layers of crocheted skirt to cover up the paper roll, hoping that our hostess wouldn't notice that the doll had been fiddled with.

The other thing I remember about that bathroom was the jar of Avon Honesuckle Cream Sachet that was displayed on an open shelf. I'd unscrew the lid and sniff in the defining scent of this place and these (now) faceless people. It was foreign and exotic and cloying. I could never quite figure out if I liked it.

None of these things exist anymore. Not toilet paper dolls or cream sachets or simply dropping by unannounced. Now we text first, tuck extra rolls of tissue in rustic woven baskets, and buy our scents from Bath and Body Works rather than Avon.

The world has moved on.

But in my memory, she still stands there, that Southern Belle of a not-Barbie. Waiting for me to come back, and keeping watch over an era.