Anniversaries


I spent yesterday celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary with my amazing husband, almost 33 years since we first met. If you’d told me all those years ago that I would be married this long, I wouldn’t have believed you. My track record up to that point had been nothing short of disastrous. Nevertheless, we usually recognize the date simply, a day free of work and the usual chores, a quiet dinner out.

We always manage to note our nuptials in the nick of time, right before the looming national holiday, a boisterous and bombastic event that steamrolls over our quaint little memories of a small country wedding with only 25 guests. (And that count included my husband and me.) For Throwback Thursday on Facebook yesterday, I joked that the above photo could easily have been taken in 1925 instead of 1985 if it weren’t for the Instamatic camera with 110 film that my husband holds in his left hand.

This year another anniversary follows fast on the heels of firecracker festivals and sizzling backyard feasts. It’s a new one that I dread, and one that I will always remember because of its proximity to the Fourth. Funny, how I don’t often recall the death dates of dear, departed pets, but this one seems to be different. He was the last, at least for a while until we become settled again; and in my travels of late, he returns to me in the form of farm cats at the retreat center where I work, who snooze on the porch steps all afternoon, or find a warm lap in the cool dawn dew when one becomes available from a lawn chair.

Once a country cat, my old buddy would have loved this place, where his kind roam freely all day to catch mice and tease the birds, though still called in to safety every night away from coyotes and other creatures of the night who would do them harm.  When I first came, they ran from me and stared back at a respectful distance, but now we are on a first-name basis. They tell me all about their nine lives, and I tell them about my old friend, how he could hunt even without his front claws, how he loved to stay out all night and sack out all day in a corner on the floor, no soft bed needed.

But I keep to myself how he ended his days up in a third-floor apartment, with a cupful of grass instead of a whole backyard lush with the stuff, while birds taunted him through the glass door of a balcony the size of his litter box. We did what we could to make the transition easier for him, since another home in the country or even a new suburban yard were out of the question for us in this stage of our journey. A cowardly trip to the shelter was unimaginable. In the end, he was stuck in his geriatric ways enough to be dependent on the people who took him in all those years ago, for better or for worse.

At least on this Fourth of July, I take solace in knowing that he doesn’t have to endure the battle sounds of our country’s anniversary, unless he wants to.

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When the Last Pet Leaves

The last picture of him.
The final picture of him.

We said goodbye to our cat this summer, the last of five pets who came with us when we moved from the country back to the suburbs 13 years ago. With his departure, our 30-year streak of caring for a dependent (pet and/or child) ended, as well. We are truly empty nesters now.

I won’t lie to you — it feels strange. I’m having a hard time adjusting. No more trips down the grocery pet aisle, no more lugging cat litter up two flights of stairs, no more fur in the dryer vent. Okay, maybe I don’t miss those. But on the other hand, I do miss his greeting at the door after a long trip, his purring for no particular reason, his warm body hogging most of our bed on cold winter nights.

This particular cat was MY cat, my familiar. In early years outside, he left me half-dead gifts by the backdoor; in later years indoors he brought me tiny trinkets carefully placed on the floor by my side of the bed — buttons, toe nail clippings and plastic bits, choking hazards that a lesser being would ingest and end up at the emergency clinic. But not him. He caught elusive flies and terrorized the house spiders, leaving their gigantic crumpled carcasses in full view as evidence of his love for me.

He was a sickly, flea-infested stray who showed up at our door 14 years ago, and pushed the limits of my husband’s patience when I called to tell him that “we had a situation” with a stray kitten. “You didn’t feed him, did you?” he asked warily. And of course I had.

I must admit, this was always the plan. Child off living her own life, pets gently ushered out. But the empty rooms devoid of hairy tumbleweeds seem sterile now, and the silence that greets me when I turn to say we’ll be back soon is hard to bear.

Life goes on, however. Every day I notice more spiders moving in, rejoicing in corners free of feline tormentors, still alive.

The Downsizing Dozen: Shifting Into Single Gear

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One of the major changes we’ve made in the last ten months, much to the shock and dismay of friends and family, is to pare down to one car. That’s right, when the third resident of our apartment moved out earlier this month, she took one of our cars with her. And with it went the fuel expenses, insurance rates, repair bills, registration fees, and that reassuring sense of independence that the second vehicle provides.

We had already transferred ownership last year, but the second car was still available to us as a backup. Since my daughter was born, the second vehicle was usually assigned as my main mode of transport, and our newer “travel” autos were taken by my husband for his longer, and daily, commutes.

When my old car finally drove away to greener pastures, we heaved a sigh of collective relief that our offspring had a dependable way to get to work, but the reality of what we would be giving up finally smacked us in the rear bumper:

  1. Making appointments without checking with each other constantly.
  2. Use of an alternate when one car is in for repairs.
  3. Something to follow and pick us up in at the auto repair shop (see above).
  4. Another vehicle to haul an overflow of extra people, or stuff.
  5. Driving downtown to meet the other for an impromptu meal or a wild hair.

Well, you get the idea. None of these are deal breakers, and since we both work from home now, neither of us is left without transportation for very long. Plus, we can better afford to maintain our single vehicle and pamper it in a nice garage, instead of leaving two out in the cold (and hail).

As our first full year of downsizing looms closer, we hope to continue our monogamous vehicular affair for the foreseeable future on the roads ahead. After all, we’ve already driven off the cliffs of suburban conformity, so why slow down now?

Once a month for the next twelve, I’ll feature another step in the downsizing journey that didn’t just begin when we sold our suburban house and moved to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014. This shift to a simpler life has been years in the making, and I hope you’ll join me in my family’s quest to get down to basics. My inaugural post entitled Giving It All Away was featured in July, Make It Stick in August, Following Your Feet in September, Case of the Missing Mac in October, Diminished Drumsticks in November, Dwindling Decorations in December, Finding Focus in January, Forgotten Food in February, and Travel Time in March.

The Short Goodbye

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The day we closed on the sale of our house, I heard my footsteps echo off the blank walls for the first time. Eleven years ago we had moved into a fully carpeted residence with five pets and a garage full of construction materials left behind by an overwhelmed seller. During our final walk through, this house has never felt so empty and yet brimming with memory.

We had pulled off the impossible in the two short weeks between listing and selling. An offer came just 24 hours after the For Sale sign was planted in our front yard. We had been prepared for a long haul, the humiliating feedback from picky showings, the games of inspection, but not such a fast response. The only condition–that we be out in fourteen days, handing over the house keys on Friday the 13th and a full moon.

Our next accommodations already chosen, we wouldn’t be bringing much furniture to decorate the 900 square feet of a third-floor apartment with no elevator. There wasn’t much time to distribute a normal suburban household, but we did it. I have the stories (and bruises) to prove it. In the coming weeks, I’ll tell you more about what we did, and what we are still doing, to transition to a lighter, and more enlightened, presence.

On that last morning, while the sun beamed down onto buds of flowers I would never see bloom, the last fingerprints of our existence wiped from the shiny surfaces meant for a new owner, I didn’t have time to reflect on all the life moments shared with this house. There was only a quick exit through an open door, and a new destination down the road.

Perhaps this is the best way.

The Egg of It All

It is a well-known fact that my husband loves eggs. He consumes them in all their forms: fried, scrambled, poached and boiled. He likes them runny, with cheese and a bit of onion, on top in huevos or underneath hollandaise sauce. He even favors egg-shaped objects — his first car was a VW Bug (as close to an ovaloid as you could get outside of Ork in those days).

Unbelievably, we once considered buying an egg-laying operation in a futile attempt to make a living in an unaffordable part of the country. I remember a tour of the owner’s farmhouse revealed the largest egg-clectic collection of chicken and egg nicknacks known to man. Even the clocks on the wall bore the shapes of poultry.

It was truly egg-centric. (sorry)

So, stands to reason that any holiday even remotely celebrating the spherical will have his full participation. As empty-nesters, the whole point and motivation to pastel candy, gaudy long-handled baskets and egg dying would be done and gone if it weren’t for my spouse’s ellipsoidal zeal.

Pretty soon, those addictive miniature eggs with the crunchy malt centers suddenly appear in the candy dish despite my best attempts to avoid and prevent this sort of behavior. Then chocolate-covered coconut ovules spill out from behind the cereal boxes in the cupboard. Inevitably, I find telltale strands of fake grass clinging to his clothes.

Although this year, I honestly thought we were going to amble through the holiday weekend without the whole hard-boiled routine, tempting sales on 12-packs notwithstanding.

By Maundy Thursday, however, he had that look in his eye, the dear man. He wanted me to pick up extra on grocery day. Okay, boil some up, I offered, thinking no big deal, we’ll have deviled eggs all next week.

But no. He wanted them à la shell. In color.

Too late, I mused. There’s no way unless we masticate some roots or fight a squirrel for the black walnut shells. Do they even sell those egg-dying kits of our youth in the stores anymore? You know, the ones with the transfers that never worked and the punch-out paper figures my brother and I used to come to blows over?

Not to be dissuaded, my husband fishes out an ancient box of food coloring, the kind with those little suspiciously-familiar-shaped bottles wearing pointy hats.

A half cup of hot water and a whiff of vinegar later, I am 10 again.

Re-hatched.

The Empty Room

A member of my household moved back to college a couple of weeks ago. But this time, instead of the claustrophobic closet of a dorm room, there is a big apartment to furnish.

Off the walls come the autographed mementos of childhood heroes, yellowing banners of former school victories, the dry-erase board that is still active after all these years, vintage music posters and personalized signs establishing territory.

The dirty clothes have vanished with their hamper, scattered footwear marched off toward winding campus trails or retired to the darkest, forgotten shelves. Chairs, drawing table and lamps have all been whisked away to find new productive lives.

The perpetually unmade bed has left dimples in the carpet to remember it by.

I wander around aimlessly in this small room, suddenly vast and hollow as a canyon, its cloudless blue walls and sand-colored floor containing my desert in parenthood.

Before the empty echoes of the U-Haul fade, another family would find younger siblings lined up to stake their claims, the winds of seniority shifting down the hall to find a new balance.

But at my house, there is nothing to redistribute. Everything has found its place. There is no mid-life hobby busting its seams, or exercise equipment for the middle-aged chaffing at the bit to spread its wings.

And even though I have an unobstructed path, there’s no incentive to vacuum away the traces of childhood.

Maybe tomorrow.

Home Impoverishment

My husband and I have lived in our current house for too long. Usually, we sneak out sometime between four to six years, before various basic functions like heat and electricity start to go bad and need replacement.

But we’re getting old, and we don’t move as fast anymore. Our long-range goal is to downsize now that our child-rearing has reached the collegiate level. But before we can sell, we are faced with an ever-growing list of painting, plumbing and other picayune projects.

All the rooms need facelifts to fix their late 90’s color schemes, and don’t even get me started on the remaining carpet. (Most of the downstairs rug has been replaced with semi-wood-looking laminate courtesy of my interior-decorating cat. If he doesn’t like the decor, he pees on it).

The furnace and air-conditioner still work, but are enjoying the twilight of their years, I’ve been told by concerned HVAC specialists. Our hot water heater, on the other hand, sounds like a popcorn machine and the ancient garbage disposal looks like the gaping pit of refuse hell. Throw in flickering lights, ominous chewing sounds in the crawl space and the world’s ugliest ceiling fans, and you can see why we can be caught drooling over those ads for downtown luxury condos with a complete staff at one’s beck and call.

It also hurts to think that we will not see a return for all these “improvements” in the current housing market. Our fear is that the house will need to be perfect just to get a passing glance, and believe me, it is not at the moment. (Why is the cat stalking the fireplace?)

Here is the crux of the matter: Does it make sense to pour money into fixing up houses for other people to buy, and put up with the barely acceptable ourselves for years? Am I not good enough to enjoy a “garden tub” of my own?

It seems like I’ve been sitting in half a cup of water since I was a kid. My dream is to live somewhere, someday, with a decent bathing fixture. Maybe I don’t even need a house — just the tub stuck out in front of a scenic vista like a certain commercial shown repeatedly during men’s golf tournaments.

(Please forgive my brief bathing reverie here.)

Anyway, the fantasy tub will not fit in my current house, so I’ll have to settle for a working shower head and drain. At least I’m clean as I fight the accumulations of hard water stains and calcium deposits. The new muted colors, imitation granite counters, fresh carpeting and depersonalized decor will help to attract the serious buyer, I’m sure. (Don’t all the home staging shows promise that?)

In the meantime, we can stop eating out. Or buying so many groceries for that matter. And who needs gifts for the holidays?

That tub with a view is looking better and better.

What Little I Know…

is probably enough. Enough to realize that I know nothing. All the best-laid plans based on the soundest of information can go awry in a second. This happy suburban life can crumble with one sure, swift kick in the right place.

That said, the daily uncertainty is also what makes life interesting. It’s just that never knowing (or understanding) what awaits you when you wake up is how I spent my childhood.

Every morning revealed a new plan according to the whims of my parents. One day we would be off to look at their latest real estate prospect (some old wreck of a farm a la Green Acres), and the next, taking a quick trip up to New Jersey for a flat or two of blueberries.

Much of the routine was determined by weather, or the lack of it. Sunny growing seasons brought long, grueling days with late night dinners, but the dark, dreary winters demanded hours of doing nothing but eating, sitting by the stove and weaving dreams for future mirages that could change by the hour.

There are those who say “How wonderful that your parents were so spontaneous!” and I agree. It was, until that particular family trait became relentless and exhausting to a child who wanted everyone to be happy, and tried to people-please as a result. The constant shifting of my future well-being led me to find refuge in regular school schedules and visits with my conventional and steady grandparents.

When I reached adulthood, I sought the status quo at all costs. I thought that predicting every day would make me happy. It did not.

Surprise — those “spontaneity” genes I’d inherited kicked in and determined my days boring and lackluster. In response, I’d either blow things up or swerve wildly off the orderly path. Regular 9-to-5 jobs never worked out. Only parenthood kept me steady, and once again the school schedules gave me a time limit to all my ramblings and mental detours.

Recently, I was convinced that I had finally settled down in my old age: empty-nester working a regular part-time job (with a built-in, ever-changing schedule to satisfy those nonconformist cravings), conventional commitments to both church and state, plus a few weird hobbies thrown in for good measure.

And then the economy tanked, taking all those illusions of prosperity and security with it. My husband and I discover that the stable and placid institutions we work for have become roiling seas of fear and discontent. The status quo has taken a nasty turn into a maelstrom of downsizing and layoffs. And what do I find for my life preserver?

Those spontaneity genes again.

I’ve come prepared with the backing of all those sailors, immigrants and crazy entrepreneurs who sit in my family tree–from the ancestor who came over in the early 1900’s just to ride a motorcycle across the entire US and then go back home to Germany for the rest of his life, to the gutsy generations who fled war-ravaged Europe for another do-over on American soil in the dusk of their lives.

Yes, yes, there’s all that irony business when I realize something I hated as a kid is helping me cope with the present and future storms of life. This is all part of the great ocean of change, and the most I can try for is a balance between the humdrum and the upheaval. I really don’t know what will come and what will go.

But I’m ready for the voyage.

I hope.

Migration of the Collegian

Letting Go #14

Every fall, the young of our fair species stuff various modes of transportation with unnecessary materials that are deemed essential by teenage standards and begin the long trek to the halls of higher education, social advancement, community living and cafeteria food. There, said youth unpack what was carefully packed and strew their belongings on the front lawns of the chosen dorms, awaiting their turns to haul cartloads of the same unnecessary materials up many floors, only to repeat the process of cramming the stuff into a very small dorm room the size of most suburban bathrooms.

For years, we’ve watched this ritual performed by friends and neighbors from afar, and thanked our lucky stars it wasn’t us.

Well, this year . . . it was us.

It’s not like I didn’t try to prepare myself. As part of my “Nine” year of Letting Go, this was the BIG ONE in the overall forecast. But somehow, it just didn’t seem real until I was standing in my daughter’s non-air-conditioned dorm room with sweat streaming down my back after performing the migration ritual of pushing her entire world into about six cubic feet of space. At that point, I was struggling with my emotions. Part of me was proud that she hadn’t brought her entire bedroom for the year–she is not a very materialistic person and she takes care of her belongings. Part of me was excited for her–I couldn’t wait to plunge into the college social scene after living an isolated life on the farm during my high school years. And part of me just didn’t want to let go of the little girl.

I won’t know whether it gets easier as each child leaves home, because I don’t have that luxury of experience. This is our only one, and my husband and I get one shot at each milestone. There are no do-overs, in a sense. Now, I know that each child is different, and that if we’d had more children, the circumstances would vary as much as every cloud in the sky. Maybe the pain of letting go is just as bad during the next launch from the nest, but at least you know what that pain feels like from the last time. You know how you will behave. You will become familiar with it, like the attack of an unpleasant in-law or second cousin you have to endure occasionally at family reunions. It’s a necessary evil.

What I do know is this: after I helped carry armloads of her worldly possessions, set up the all-important bed, fan and TV, hauled back a box of her new textbooks from the bookstore, ate one final meal with her at an off-campus restaurant and stood in front of her dorm building to say goodbye, I did not sob and clutch her to my chest, or harass her with a string of warnings and dire predictions, or even insist on going back up to her room until she threw me out. In other words, to my great relief, I did not embarrass her (I think) or create a scene.

I gave her a kiss and told her to have fun. She has earned it. And then my husband and I took that long walk back to our car and drove home to an empty nest, because as parents of the collegian, we have earned it–whether we like it or not.