Come on and Sing Along. You Know The Song: We are Family!!

wedding pond

Alton Jones, West Greenwich, RI August 22-24, 2014

Jason and Suzanne planned a perfect wedding weekend and, although sometimes things don’t go as we envisioned, I have to assume this weekend — the people, the place, the weather, the general oozing-huggy-happy-to-be-part-of-this-love euphoria that we all experienced in their presence — did make their dreams come true. I hope so, because it sure was amazing for the rest of us.

Their weekend, however, didn’t make me think about marriage so much as it made me wonder why we don’t do this more often: gather and stay put for awhile. Not just for the feast. Or for the ritual. Those days we spend setting up tables, checking to see if we have enough chairs, ferrying food back and forth from my mother’s kitchen to my sister’s. Why don’t we also come together with enough time to do what we did as part of this memorable celebration?

Breakfast doesn't have to mean tea in a travel mug and toast on the run.

Breakfast doesn’t have to mean tea in a travel mug and toast on the run.

For example, why don’t I play volleyball with my great nieces and nephews more often? Sometimes, they can even get a volley going!! Sure, they use their feet (Turns out, Erika has some formidable soccer muscles). They catch the ball and throw it back (Evan says it’s because he confuses this game with football practice. Megan just likes to control the scene), but we’re not exactly keeping score. We’re barefoot in the sand, calling out to each other. Some of them are young enough to have those grins full of randomly sized teeth (like Emma who leaves the court every once in awhile in search of toads, and Chad who is making progress with his serve). Others are old enough so that their voices crack every once in a while or they surprise me with some real physical power (Austin who didn’t like being on the losing side, especially when the winning side was me, Dave, who’s had several reconstructive surgeries, and the mother of the groom in a dress and sparkly flip flops). When we gather for Thanksgiving, the kids have their own table. At Easter, they’re outside hunting eggs. But on Saturday, we had the volleyball court to ourselves.

Shouldn’t we carve out time for regular rounds of cornhole? My nephew Brett is sweet and quiet — and a menace with a bean bag. My sister Babs (whose generosity inspires her to send cards for every occasion to every person in our family. We don’t have a family tree; we have a forest.) will not take pity on you just because you’re niece is marrying into our family and you’re assuming this is just a warm and fuzzy get to know you kind of game. For some reason, Christmas Eve doesn’t bring out the same competitive edge in people.

Why walk alone??

Why walk alone??

I’ve walked with my sister Patty before. Mornings in Westerly, we trace our favorite route through the cemetery. But the morning’s walk this time included her son Carl and his date, my brother-in-law Bill and his daughter Heather who’d already run a few miles, and the groom’s sisters Mariann and Amy-Jo. Seeing wildlife was out of the question. We made way too much noise, but my daily walks through my own neighborhood now seem a lot less cheerful.


And then of course, there’s the dancing. My mother is so busy making 7? 9? 15? different kinds of fish on Christmas Eve, there is no way we can wheel her out into the center of the floor and dance the tarantella around her. It also struck me how long it has been since I’ve seen my own children dance. Rainy Saturdays in our den before they started school most likely. My nephew Jay leads a mean conga line. I still like to slow dance with my husband! The bride can swing dance despite her train! How would I ever have known that if not for the dj, the dancefloor, the time? A bonus: once everyone gets dancing, selfies also get more fun. Before Saturday, the last picture I had of my cousin Rob and me together was when we were teenagers standing beside a cow that was about to be auctioned off in North Carolina.

A break in the dancing for duck lips with Rob.

A break in the dancing for duck lips with Rob.

Our days wound down around a roaring campfire. Before they retired to a giant conference room with enough air mattresses to transform it into an indoor trampoline space, the kids played manhunt and roasted marshmallows, the adults — well, let’s just say they had their own form of dessert. Beside my own loved ones were members of Suzanne’s family to whom we all felt a real kinship. Not only were they nice people and good sports, they had some role in raising the newest member of our own family, someone we are thrilled to formally welcome into the group.

We’ll remember this wedding for many reasons, but whatever wedding presents Jason and Suzanne received, they could not equal the one they gave to us: time to be together.

How I Spent My Summer Vacations. Sigh.

The Washington County Fair has come and gone. If I was thirteen, there would be no consoling me today. I would be unpacking the show box, turning my sparkling heifers out with the rest of the great unwashed herd. To coax me out of my sadness, my mother would have hung my sheets on the line, would have made my favorite meal – barbecue chicken and creamed corn – and I would try not to make her feel bad for missing me and being happy I was home.

 Home was great. Home was home. But the fairs? The idea of getting dropped off the night before the place opened, stashing your heifer away and then meeting up with a band of kids who had also just waved their own parents off? Hard to believe any of us were ever that lucky.

 We had chores, of course. Things like barn duty where you stayed with the animals while everyone else took off though they might hang out, too, perched on showboxes, people-watching, telling stories from their real lives. We also had show days when we got serious at the washracks, mixed beetpulp in black tubs, our forearms dusted with gray. We crammed into public bathrooms and dressed into improbably white clothes before we coated our animals with fly spray, removed the braids from their tails and teased their tails into frothy bundles.

 But mostly fairs were one big parentless field trip-slash-sleepover where we could subsist on French fries and Del’s lemonade (ok, Cindy was a sucker for the salt potatoes). We slept wherever we got an invitation. At the Rodrigueses’ house in the boys’ bedroom (they slept, instead, in the haytrailer at the fair), we talked through the night below a poster of Rocky Balboa leaning his iconic torso over a threshold. We drove to the fairgrounds before the dew dried on Newport County’s pastures, listening to a Catholic mass and balancing a pot of chorizo for the concession stand between us. At Washington County, we slept in the pop-up camper in the Kettles’ back yard. One night, we heard the boys birdcalling us from the Cottrells’ cornfield across the street, but before we could sneak towards them, Shep the German Shepherd woke up Mr. Kettle who bellowed: “Cynthia!!” out the window and sent us all scampering back to our separate hemispheres. At Rocky Hill, the girls had five star accommodations in Kathy Bailey’s large bedroom. Mornings, we climbed into the pick up bed singing that year’s fair song (I Just Want to Be Your Everything, or The Devil Went Down to Georgia.) One especially lucky year, we slept in an abandoned concession stand on the midway. As we slept, the boys played softball with the carnies who rewarded them with reams of ride tickets they split with us the next day.

 We washed our hair with cold water at the washracks, played tackle football on dirt-packed arenas, jumped off the pier into the Sakonnet River and climbed back up, shredding our palms and our knees on the barnacled posts. David Rodrigues, a fan of WWE, invented hay trailer wrestling and taught us how to pin boys twice our size. When we were finished, we’d tumble back out into the daylight, scratched and sweaty. Hot afternoons, we swam in cow ponds and never got whatever disease it is that forces beaches to close. We lay around the boys’ bunkhouse begging John Westlake to draw our caricatures and waiting for the petting zoo llama to spit on someone. Early mornings, at the Big E, we walked heifers through the deserted midways while others cleaned their bedding, strolled alongside the world’s largest steer on his way to get a bath, bought hot chocolates from stands opened for carnival workers and maintenance crews. We saved our money for the laser light show.

Newport County Fair with David Rodrigues, my biggest rival and biggest crush.

Newport County Fair with David Rodrigues, my biggest rival and biggest crush.


Cindy Kettle Martufi leaves the 4-H crafts barn and gets into the action!!

Cindy Kettle Martufi leaves the 4-H crafts barn and gets into the action!!

Here's the gang (we let a couple adults in, just this once!). Kathy Bailey Burroughs, back row center.

Here’s the gang (we let a couple adults in, just this once!). Kathy Bailey Burroughs, back row center.

Once again this year, however, I missed fair season. No corn fritters, no egg toss, no heifers smelling of Wisk and baby oil. I didn’t buy my annual (losing) ticket for the Ayrshire calf raffle and maybe that’s a good thing because one of these days I might actually win it. And if I did, who knows? I’d have to dig the old show box out, polish the leather halters hung in my attic just in case, see what the old gang is up to, tell them how much I’ve missed them.





I Am A Part of All That I Have (Thankfully, Miraculously) Met

On our way back from Harvard Stadium last week, Dennis drove us past the B & L Laundromat in Medford. He slowed the van down and said, “That’s where mom and I met!”

Maybe the girls looked up from their screens long enough to note the line of washers, the wall of dryers, the fliers, inexplicably in this world of Craigslist, still taped to the window. But we were past it in a flash, the setting of the How We Met story. Every year, it’s not our wedding anniversary that moves me, but December 3rd, the day we both happened to cross paths in that unremarkable space. We got married on September 30 because the hall happened to be available. But what forces aligned to bring us both to the B & L that December night, between loads, between lovers? The forces that bring us all into one another’s orbits, the near-misses and bullseyes that, thank God, lead us to one another.

I don’t know about you, but I love these I-am-a-part-of-all-that – have-met-in-these-really-miraculous ways stories, so I’m going to toss a few in every once in a while. In honor of my annual writers retreat (where I am presently) spent with three women I feel I have loved forever, here are my Bread Loaf soulmates:

The index card I was handed at the check-in desk read: Brandy Brook 6, a remote and tiny house reserved for commuters. I lugged my stuff back to my car and drove towards it. The card also read Roommate: Rebecca Kinzie Bastian. Hyphenated name, I thought. For some reason, this put me on alert as did the narrowness of our room beneath the eaves and the idea of sharing space with another writer. We could hold hands across the space that divided our twin beds. I felt a wave of homesickness, unpacked my stuff, and plodded back towards campus.

I would read at Bread Loaf and meet with an agent and have lunch with a writer whose work I was pretty ga-ga over, but the most terrifying moment of all for me was walking into the dining hall that first night and scanning the buzzing tables wondering where the hell to sit. I ended up at a table with the one person I’d met (who I can’t recall). I read the tag of the person sitting across from me. “You’re my roommate,” I said. She looked equally excited to meet me, but before we could speak, a  woman named Brenda said, “So, does anyone have any pets?” Just get through this one meal, I thought, and then you can avoid her. Except she too had been sentenced to Brandy Brook, in the room next door.

The first night, I lay awake listening to something that sounded like the emptying of the municipal water tank. It turned out Rebecca used a metal water bottle while everyone else was still sucking on BPA’s and that, if you asked her, she’d give it to you. “Take it, really,” she’d say. “I don’t need it.” She arranged a still life on our shared dresser made up of things we collected walking back and forth to campus, and I didn’t mind when she shaved her legs in the room and she didn’t mind that I tend to blurt things out when I’m dancing and I’ve had a little wine. She loaned me some of her black dress-up clothes and I reminded her of people’s names and what time we were supposed to be places, and on these things, it also turns out, a different kind of love affair can begin.

We read together night two, paralyzed with self-doubt and the absolute certainty that we would be outed as frauds and sent back to our real lives. Afterwards, we hugged one another. “Aren’t you glad it’s over?” one of us said and the other said, “And wasn’t it nice that those two women from our dorm came?”

We had drinks with Sarah and Brenda at the barn and I did love the video of Nigel, Brenda’s mini daschund, riding with his head on her dashboard, and later in the week I was oddly proud when she kicked my ass in the poet/proser dance off. She did fan the Mini’s headlights over a couple of writers Bed Loafing it in a field and she didn’t get in an accident despite my shrieking: Go back! Go back! Over the white noise of her goddamned fan, I heard her rattle off the list of books that were now overdue at the Pittsburgh Library. “Did you really intend to read all of those during the conference?”someone had asked her. She said, “Well, I thought I’d be alone a lot.” “And were you ever alone?” the person asked, and, Brenda, of course said, “No.” And I thought: Not ever again if we can help it.

When I was alone for thirty seconds or so, I could hear Rebecca’s whispery tones on the telephone downstairs, perhaps telling her husband how her roommate was bossing her around a little – mostly in the mornings when she was trying to put on her make-up and her roommate was hungry. Across the hall, Brenda’s goddamned fan drowned out the conversation she was having with Sarah. I sat straining to hear, certain they were all talking about me, the center of the universe. This person who, for some reason, clung to them when there were hundreds of other available victims. Sarah was beautiful and got up early to go to the yoga class, the kind of person who must have always had someone to have lunch with. I could just imagine how annoying I might be to a woman like this, a woman sure enough of herself to wear silver clogs. So she was talking behind my back. So what? Don’t be a middle schooler, I told myself (though I was so old I had gone to junior high). Just go in there and ask them straight out: Are you talking about me? You never have to see them again. So I did. Marched into the room where Sarah reclined against her headboard like some Zen goddess. “What are you talking about?” I said, doing my best impression of a person who wasn’t defensive. I forget what they said, but it was so believable, I laughed. “What the fuck is your problem?” Brenda said, and I said, “I thought you were talking about me.” And Sarah said, “Oh my god. That is exactly what I would have thought.” That kind of relief, not at knowing you aren’t the object of someone’s derision, but that someone actually thinks the same stupid stuff you do? My infatuation was complete.

God, what if that index card had not said Brandy Brook?

And what about you? What have been the near-misses in your own lives that have caused you to feel grateful afterwards – many anniversaries later? I hope you share them with me. I love a good how-we-met story.

Life Without Shock Absorbers

Tis the season for white-knuckling the door arm, testing out the passenger side fantasy brakes, and forgetting to breathe through intersections. My oldest daughter just got her permit. When I asked my mother what she remembers about my own first days on the roads, she shrugged. “You’d already been driving for so long,” she said.

I learned to drive when I was ten. Self-taught and under the kind of pressure my own daughter doesn’t feel as she automatically adjusts the seat, mirrors, cabin temperature and pulls out onto a paved road.

The baler had broken down at a hayfield we called The Willows. Whatever was wrong with it couldn’t be fixed on site. We’d have to head home early. Before the thrill of that set in, however, my father growled at me from underneath the machine, “Go get the truck.”

I had never driven before and glanced across the ten or so acres between us and the vehicle. “Doesn’t it have one of those clutch things?” I said.

My father, ever the patient teacher amended his earlier command: “Go get the goddamned truck.”

Peering through a windshield filthy with flyspecks and bits of last year’s silage, I bucked and stalled across the field towards my father. The ripped seat pinched the skin on my thighs. Every rut yanked the steering wheel out of my feeble grasp and threatened my shoulders’ connective tissues. The trip dislodged a nest of hornets from the glove box and some of my bodily organs that have never completely re-anchored themselves. At several points, the passenger side door flew open and then slammed shut again, but I pitched forward, started and re-started, my only fear rooted in what would happen if I couldn’t complete my assigned task.

When Beatrice successfully completed her first Dunkin Donuts drive-thru without incident, we fist pumped and I told her what a great job she did. My own father’s method of praise was a little different. As I neared the busted baler that day several decades ago, he moved directly in front of me and stood there, one hand on his hip, one shading his eyes from the sun. I kept thinking: he’ll move. Then praying; he’ll move. Then screaming: “MOVE!” But even when I landed in one final, airborne lurch just inches away from him, the engine cutting out mid-air, he didn’t flinch.

I hope Beatrice would describe me as a good driving teacher, that she would say I’m calmer at least than she expected I might be. But I will never be the teacher my father was. Sure, patience and praise have their place, but my father possessed none of the doubts I seem to have whenever my children begin something new. Where I brace myself and offer gratuitous advice, he ignored the situation, perhaps because he trusted me to figure it out. What inspired him to stand before me that day was not foolishness but his own brand of faith. He never doubted my abilities, so why would I?

Tomorrow, as we set out to negotiate rush hour traffic and three-point turns, I hope I remember his lesson.