Peaks and Valleys

There comes a time when you have to go home, when the cries of birth, death and everything in between become too loud and insistent. An empty chair at the family table is waiting for you. They have set a plate in the usual spot, silver lies engraved with your initials, and a polished glass anticipates their bitter wine.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. By plane or bus, rail if you are lucky. No matter how you cross, there are always mountains blocking the way, and security demanding proof of your existence. Countless miles of fractured farmland and failing towns only slow down the connections to blood and genetics.

You were the pioneer. Why is it so hard to understand? Just a generation back they arrived on ships after traveling the world and surviving two World Wars. A whole continent unfurls west of the narrow strip of land where most of your people set claims.

You wanted to see it all for yourself. You headed west.

But you stayed away, and that was the problem.

When they demand your reasons, words drop uselessly to the floor. How can you describe to them what lies beyond the high ridges when they won’t believe in other lives. Perhaps there is safety in numbers, but you refuse to stand in line for an inheritance that never comes.

A life spent waiting for someone else to decide is not for you. You can only promise to return for a visit.

And then you head west again over the generational divide and down into valleys where the flat land spreads like a reaching hand, unfettered by kin or conqueror.

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Lack of Water

The world is on fire and there is no quenching the thirst. I see my fellow suburbanites acting out all the rituals of weather-weary farmers: incessant checking of the radar on their smart phones, casual excuses to wander outside and watch the sky, excitement over a possibly laden cloud formation, a mad rush to the windows when the long-forgotten sound of precipitation hits their ears.

I smile to myself as I remain at my work desk. There is no breaking this historic drought except by a sea of soaking. And there is nothing for it but to continue on, tending a tiny flicker of hope that I protect from the all-powerful orb in the sky. The lushness of summer has already passed into the premature decay of autumn.

You see, I’ve been through it all before. In the 1970s, I and the rest of my farm family sat in dwindling shade and watched all my dad’s income for the year wither in the fields and crumble to dust in the federal offices of disaster relief, his compliance to government red tape callously rewarded with humiliation and docking of paychecks at the grain elevators.

For months, we had prostrated ourselves in the unraveling string hammock of our desiccated summer lawn, lamenting storm after storm that skirted the 200 heavily mortgaged acres of our grain farm. The rains only came to freshen the sky-high stands of emerald corn flaunted by wealthier estates to the west. A kind of drought dome formed above our domain that drove away any lingering gain for a self-made man establishing a foothold as a farmer without the birthright.

It was as good as gambling. And it didn’t pay off. Within a couple of years, even after installing irrigation as insurance against another disastrous season, my father moved on to other kinds of agricultural livelihood. The farm was sold, along with the crummy weather pattern that plagued its land.

But I never forgot that sense of doom nagging around our daily chores like horseflies, or my father’s barely controlled anger at the weather gods under a merciless azure sky day after day. At night, without the luxury of air conditioning, I would dream of the cool ocean only an hour away, its salty moisture useless for our needs. In the stifling afternoons, I turned the brittle pages of variety magazines from the Great Depression that I’d found in the attic rafters of our old farmhouse, ingesting serial installments of dust bowl tales that mirrored our own meteorological soap opera.

One winter there was a mini dust bowl in my own county. Insistent silt found every crevice and gathered like fine brown sugar on all the window sills, but the grit tasted bitter between my teeth. Windstorms full of loosened dirt funneled over miles of open field to form disconsolate curtains across our paths, allowing no sight of the roads ahead.

Today as I wipe off my dusty windshield a month into a mandatory water ban, I wonder whether I can see far enough to move on, or even recognize the potholes still to come, while the dust bowls of change swirl around me.

*The heading for this post courtesy of The Why Store’s song by the same title. (I’ve been playing it a lot lately.)

Winds of Reunion

It is windy but warm. We are gathered at an ocean-aqua picnic table by the river, eating Maryland blue crab in all its forms:  steamed and baked and cradled in sauce, the nip of Old Bay still bringing me home. I gaze down the line at the faces of my life — college friends who haven’t collected in this way for twenty years, my husband harboring the new life I’ve built far away, and the daughter who was born near this slow water but whisked away before she could fall under its murky spell.

The conversation blows in all directions, no one directs it, no one shuts the door. We overlook the marina under a cloudless sky, pushing back the looming front of responsibility, loosely moored to our timeless love for one another, knowing that after this banquet of the past and present, we must untie the memories and sail off into choppy waters.

To all of you, have a memorable holiday weekend.

Westbound

We’ve traveled this road many times, he and I. It is on automatic, an urge, a duty, a need, a love. We do it for family, friends and the call from home. We take it first as a couple, and then I look back and there is a puppy strapped into the seatbelt, a toddler grasping her juice bottle, a girl with stuffed animals and smudgy art bag, closely followed by a teenager off in the remote lands of iPod.

Now the backseat is empty, waiting to be piled high with souvenirs of an honorable age. We will find his school pictures and vacation slides, beloved toys and sick-bed trinkets, ancestral war medals and a grandmother’s silver, the letter sweaters and sorority pins worn by parents gone to rest, collections of yellowed pages inscribed with a familiar hand, other ordinary pieces of past that still hold the scent of childhood.

And when we have let the sunset burn into our skin like memory, we will turn back east. Head toward the dawn.

How to Live or Die by the Outcome of the Game

  1. Position yourself as far away from the TV as possible.
  2. As an alternative, you can dominate the viewing selection by turning up the volume on repulsive shows like Hoarders, thus forcing fans to flee into another part of the house.
  3. Stock up on perishables to sustain you, since no one else will be eating until the final score, and maybe for several hours after depending on the injustice of the sports gods.
  4. Keep earplugs nearby in case of excessive screaming over a bad call by a vision-impaired referee.
  5. Become engrossed in a good book set in a land devoid of all competitive activities but that still offers a compelling plot line. (No Hunger Games, in other words)
  6. Sneak in a nap during halftime while fans are mumbling about strategy behind closed doors.
  7. Above all (and this is most important) always remove yourself from the premises during the last “five” minutes of the game, which could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.
  8. Return for happy hour or unhappy hour, depending on the fates.
  9. Next Saturday: Do it all over again.

Big Foot’s Got Some Brand New Vans

To me, these vessels are works of art, a masterpiece. I have wanted shoes like this forever. They speak to me of tomboys, denim and badass poets, classic footwear hovering on the verge of preppy. But not quite. Eventually, with worn heels and holes, they will smell of grunge band, fast times and flannel. There is something infinitely satisfying about wearing this symbol on the sidewalks of suburbia.

I have never been in style. Grocery shopping with my mom at our local A & P comes to mind, as I stared at the Dr. Scholl’s display in the same aisle with the hairnets and Legg’s eggs. I was 16 and lusting after those sandals with smooth leather straps (in three different colors!) and a neat center buckle. It seemed like everyone wore them, wooden soles clattering down the high school hallways and clacking nervously under classroom desks. I could only stand by as spectator, fascinated by how the teenage fashionistas kept those clog-like wonders on.

My mother caught me salivating and dismissed my dreams of finally becoming cool despite my bottle-bottom eye glasses and overall nerd status.

“They’ll hurt your feet,” she warned me and that was that. This from a woman whose toes were molded into torpedo points by those hellish heels of the 50s, a style providing countless numbers of foot surgeons with lifelong job security.

“But they are supposed to be good for your feet. They EXERCISE them,” I argued, reading from the box.

“They’re made out of lumber and a tiny piece of leather. You can’t wear those — your feet are too thin.”

And long. Size 10, to be exact. That’s all well and good for a 6’2” runway model, but my 5’8” frame only allowed me to be cast as the family’s personal Bigfoot (a term my father affectionately used for me).

Unfortunately, I possess the trifecta of podiatric woes: narrow, long and flat as a pancake. While my archless-ness might keep me out of a wartime draft, I would gladly endure boot camp than suffer the humiliations of a footwear gauntlet (otherwise known as the shoe store).

Ah yes, the dreaded yearly trip to the small-town shoe shop, where I would gaze sadly at a limited assortment of beautiful styles I could not wear. Right off the bat, my mother ruled out anything remotely cute or trendy, nothing with heels, absolutely no flimsiness or slip-ons allowed.

That left a few sturdy crepe-soled lace ups in geriatric browns and tans. If Velcro shoes had been popular then, I’m sure they would have come in a close second (nothing with flashing lights or wheels in the heels, however). Come to think of it, Velcro would have made the torment go a whole lot faster if not easier, as I sat tensely through the everlasting lacing procedure at the knee of the store owner, who had realized by this point there wasn’t one shoe in the entire store that fit me.

Yes, that’s right. While sitting amongst the piles of tissue paper and lidless cardboard boxes, after countless trips to the back, with me futilely pacing around like a caged animal while my mother pinched my toes, I always heard the inevitable proclamation of my shame:

We’ll just have to “special” order them.

I hate the word special. After what seemed like years, we returned to the scene of the crime for the prize I didn’t want. And the “specially” ordered size 10s wouldn’t fit much better than the store’s one pair of 9 1/2s, except that my toes weren’t as crowded (obviously my mother’s worst nightmare) and I could easily walk out of my new giant boats of leather without untying any laces, thanks to the narrow heels blessed to me by my grandmother.

Now, flash forward to the brand-new Vans, the cool ones here in black and white.

The ones I bought in record time after waltzing into the shoe section of a regular department store, zeroing in on the display model, quickly searching through the well-marked boxes, and finding just the right size (already pre-laced).

I tried them on by myself, no exhausted sales clerk hoping against hope that this trial of patience would soon be over, no mother following me around with her toe-seeking fingers at the ready, and no customer service associate painfully filling out an order form for my mythical pair of perfect shoes.

And the best part? They are a size 9 1/2. Either I have shrunk or American shoe standards have grown large. Oh joyous day, this means there are plenty of other big-footed gals out in the fashion wilderness. I am not alone.

And yes, Mom, I have plenty of room in the toes.

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.