The Blog Formerly Known As

nj_coopershawk04

I may rename this blog All the Things I Refuse to Speak About. Last week (this one, too), it was politics. This week it is my mother’s cancer.

Instead:

The bird-of-the-week (I haven’t forgotten you, junco. You have kept me company these difficult days in Westerly at one of several of my mother’s feeders), is the Cooper’s Hawk.

Christmastime, she sat in the neighbors’ tree eyeing the buffet outside my mother’s kitchen windows. Didn’t take long for the place to lose all its customers.

I pointed her out one day to my mother who could only make out a dark spot in the leafless branches.

“Is that what happened to all the birds?” she asked. “Next time your brother comes, I’m going to tell him to bring his gun.”

Before I could manage my surprise, she looked at me and smiled, leaning on her walker. “Just kidding,” she said. “But I wish the damned thing would go someplace.”

Go someplace. That’s one of her phrases. When you ask her who her favorite child is. When my husband Dennis says he can’t wait to come talk to her about the Pats returning to the Superbowl next year. When anyone suggests she might benefit from a hearing aid.

And maybe what she would have said to the Cooper’s Hawk once it got bold enough to sit on the hedges outside her front window where my brother installed another feeder that she can see from her recliner. We had drawn the shades so the morning sun didn’t hit her in the eyes and a wing flashed in the slit of light. It cast more shadow than a measly sparrow or one of her omnipresent house finches. When I lifted the shade, the feeder was deserted, but minutes later, the hawk landed, fixing its yellow eye on this side of the glass.

“My god,” I said. “There it is.” An arm’s length away.

Before my mother could see it, the bird vanished. But I witnessed it: the way the creature staked out her territory. The way she made it clear: trespass at your own risk. But trespass.

What is there to say about a February where it is 60 degrees? Yes, when I head downhill each morning for my walk, the wind comes off the river and makes me zip my jacket all the way up, but by the time I’ve turned the corner onto one end of Beach Street or the next, I’ve peeled off mittens and bared my neck to the unseasonable weather.

Fifty four years after I was born right down the street at the Westerly Hospital, I have discovered whole neighborhoods I didn’t know existed. Babcock Street, for example, the kind of eclectic neighborhood contractors have made rare. An American foursquare next door to a 1950’s ranch, across the street from a stone bungalow, a few feet from a modern monstrosity whose garage dwarfs the home’s narrow entrance. This is the kind of neighborhood, I think, that kids could ride bikes around. The kind of neighborhood that fills a schoolbus up and inspires block parties. Except I don’t really see kids riding bikes now or overcrowded busstops or block parties. Instead, for the last two mornings, it has been one man walking a big white shepherd mix and me wondering what it would be like to live in a house different from the one Dennis and I bought over twenty years ago because it reminded me so much of the house I grew up in.

imag0029

That house. This past week, my brother-in-law Bill sent me a memory stick with dozens of pictures of the farm which I promptly posted on Facebook.  This morning, my cousin Rob shook his head. “Those farm pictures,” he said. Now that was a neighborhood. A neighborhood in which we escaped many things that could have killed us.

My brother told a story about crawling into the Harvestore silo to dislodge whatever clogged up the works. “I crawled in with a tool to hack away at the lump of silage gumming stuff up and Tum (our father) held my feet in case he had to pull me out of there in a hurry. There was 6 tons of silage over my head somewhere.”

In one photo, one our fourteen year old hired hands drives the David Brown tractor while my nephew Michael perches on the fender except he’s leaning down, looking over the treads and the hired hand, no doubt thrilled with his job, hurtles along over potholes and tire ruts.imag0088

We climbed the 40 foot ladder outside the Big Jim silo on a dare. Jumped barn roof to barn roof, a pack of kids in flip flops.

My brother, my cousin and I shared stories of corn trucks whose brakes gave out in busy intersections or pick-ups whose homemade sides rattled along the Interstate from the shifting weight of the thousand pound yearling bull in its bed, or the pliers pinched onto where other vehicles had gear shifts, or the rotting floorboards through which the highway’s lane lines flashed, or the passenger side doors that flew open when you turned a corner with your four year old passenger, unbuckled, in the seat.

Bulls broke free of their stalls. Cows charged, foolish with the first warm day of the year. Hurricanes knocked silos over. Equipment churned and chugged and stalled and lurched with us at the helm or as passengers. Skittish heifers kicked off their machines and we felt the air whoosh by our cheekbones. We ice skated on ponds that weren’t necessarily frozen solid, smoked in the hayloft, rode standing up in the beds of trucks with no tailgates.

Good times.

Hawk, you would not have scared us. We were very young and, no doubt, exhausted by the work behind us and the work ahead. We had no idea what to fear.

 

That was a long time ago.

Just Remember Who Loved You First

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI shouldn’t have checked his answering machine. But the point was: I felt the need to and that impulse alone should be enough for someone to say, You know what? I’m sure there are healthier relationships in which to find oneself. He had taken a part time job at a bar down the beach for the summer, a job he didn’t need at a place where we never went. Sometimes on weekends, the only time we long-distance lovers could be together, he worked by choice. His mother’s voice, his sister’s. A guy from the gym and then the beep that changed everything: A woman’s voice that asked him to meet “us” at the bar. You know, her tone implied, as usual. That’s it. She sounded very casual, a woman used to calling this number and keeping him informed of plans. A woman who didn’t need to leave her name.

That’s the black and white betrayal of relationships. Things are okay, even if they’re not great, and then they are very, very bad. Cloudy but dry, and then torrential, unremitting, mold-inducing, apocalyptic, Biblical.

You’re twenty-three, still a stupid kid. You have a shitty job, an apartment that smells like the cabbage the woman next door cooks nightly, an apartment you’ve furnished from the stuff your sister gave you once she was through with her orange plaid phase. You cruise around in a light blue Chevy Citation, belting out Whitney Houston songs. A boyfriend, even one who might be cheating on you, is a necessary distraction, but it doesn’t remove the nausea you feel when you have what you consider irrefutable proof of his infidelity that he will still refute.

Fast forward thirty years (30?!?). At least as far as my husband is concerned, my competition is reduced to any track meet on some obscure television channel only we subscribe to, any new listing on letsrun.com of road race times, and a cat whose name is Enzo, but who Dennis calls Young Man. None of my husband’s attachments, by the way, inspire that seasick feeling, none inspire the cartoon image of a woman flailing wildly about as she falls blindly down a black hole.

But that doesn’t mean I am through with feeling betrayed. These days, it’s my teenagers who I catch cheating.

Valentine’s Day, for example. Sure, Beatrice remembered to buy me a little token gift. Thoughtful even though she went out specifically that morning to get it. It didn’t take the kind of forethought it required for her to take, print, and frame a picture for her boyfriend or to write all the cheesy notes she wrote him on the candy she bought him (another Reeses why I think you’re cute, etc). But in this flush of a first infatuation, she didn’t forget me. EXCEPT at dinner that night when the boyfriend’s mother (who I have never met) served her brussel sprouts. And Beatrice ate them.

“What do you mean, you ate brussel sprouts?” I say, fighting back the tears.

Since September, her father had been toting bowls of them into the house and I had been roasting them, urging our daughters to try these organic, heirloom, grown-with-dad’s-love-and-devotion pearls. But no. This is the kind of sacrifice, it appears, that she’ll only make for another family.

It was a painful reminder of Apphia and the cocktail wieners. Okay, we’re vegetarians, but we had decided that, if one of our children wanted to eat meat, we’d be fine with that. So, at a Christmas party at my sister-in-law’s, when Apphia asked to try a pig in a blanket, I said (indulgently, I thought): of course. Seven or eight pigs later, Apphia sat beside me on the couch as we got ready for the Yankee Swap.

“Mom,” she said, “I need to tell you something.”

That’s the thing about cheaters. They think clearing their conscious is preferable to preserving their loyal loved one’s equilibrium.

“I eat hot dogs all the time.”

“But how?” I said. “Where?”

These were the days before she straightened her hair so it was all ringlets. Ringlets!! “You know how I always want to buy the mac and cheese for school lunch? Well, they serve mini hot dogs, too. Sometimes, I’m too full to eat the ronis.” Ringlets AND ronis. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Justina would no sooner eat brussel sprouts and hot dogs than she would put her screen down and/or take no for an answer. Finally, I thought, someone deserving of my trust. Until, of course, I discovered the Poland Springs bottle. And then another one. And then a third. In the age of no answering machines, there are still clues left behind, and here was my youngest daughter, a child raised in a house of filtered tap water and reusable bottles, a house that refused to stock up on cases of plastic bottles destined to be strewn, mostly FULL, about the unsuspecting planet because, god forbid, you couldn’t remember if that was your bottle only a sip was missing from or your sister’s!

“We don’t use these,” I said. You and me. All of us on this particular, highly endangered, but still very green branch, of the family tree. Remember, I wanted to say, reading on my bed before you fell asleep every night? Remember how we used to set up a picnic in the wagon on the first great day of spring and eat outside? Remember Mrs. Doubtfire? Stellaluna? High ponytails? Webkinz? “Where are they coming from?”

She regarded me with the nonchalance of a serial offender before revealing the name of her source: “Kayla. She brings me one from her house every morning.”

The world tilted out from under me then. The world weighted down with its landfills, its soccer field trash receptacles overflowing with the non-biodegradable refuse of a generation who believes itself to be one gulp away from certain death by dehydration.

So there they were: the three daughters I thought I knew running around behind my back with other families, other experiences.

My love affair with the temporary bouncer didn’t survive, of course, but it didn’t have to. What choice do I have now, however, but to forgive my daughters for the ways in which they have hurt me? These days, every quiet moment in this big house seems a mark of their disloyalty. How could they pack up their Little Pet Shop toys, their mini kitchen, their costume box, and leave me here in this house so devoid of plastic and High School Musical songs? How could they do what every other mother’s children do and grow up so fast?

And, in the face of these betrayals, what else can I do but try to heal, take an art class, get a couple more cats?

 

You’re Only As Old As (Things Make You) Feel

bikini beach

And, okay, so this is not exactly how I go to the beach these days. Now, for example, my camera is digital.

People say they don’t feel whatever age they are. I get that. I look in the mirror, mentally taking note of myself on the morning of my birthday. I slip into the same clothes I wore yesterday, or last winter, or the year my oldest daughter was born. 53 doesn’t feel any different than 52, which didn’t feel any different than 51, etc. etc. I still like to dance. I can be silly, especially during faculty meetings when it is impossible not to whisper comments under my breath to my colleagues. I’ve been known to throw a recent tantrum or two. I haven’t ever cured myself of my fear of spiders. I will treat myself to a frosted gingerbread man at the grocery store.

Of course, people also say: It’s not the number! These are people whose own numbers are greater than, say, 40. But it really isn’t 53 that makes me feel old; it’s any one of the following:

  • My daughters sing songs whose lyrics offend me, or
  • I say, “How can you like this song? I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
  • My students don’t get my references to: Jeffrey Dahmer; quarter to an hour; the Royal “we”; Seinfeld; drinking the Kool Aid. Kool Aid.
  • I wear American Eagle jeans (because otherwise I would have spent hours in the store doing nothing while my daughters shopped) and my students say, “Oh my god! You’re wearing American Eagle jeans!”
  • I hate backing out of parking spaces.
  • I have to scroll down, and keep scrolling, and scroll a little more on the pull down menu to enter the year of my birth.
  • Immediately after getting my hair cut and colored, I run several errands in very crowded places where I meet dozens of people I know and I’m feeling pretty good-looking except that as soon as I get home, I notice that my sideburns are painted so black, I look like a very amateur Elvis impersonator. Like a very old, amateur Elvis impersonator.
  • Mornings, when I first stand on my ankles, they hurt.
  • Mornings, when I wonder why my butt is so sore, I hope it’s because the day before I did a few squats. But then I realize: Nope. Just pulled a few weeds.
  • I panic when I don’t have a pair of reading glasses (except, of course, the ones on my head).
  • When I get my alumni magazine and flip to the back page to catch up on Class News, I discover that my graduating class’s column has moved much closer to the centerfold.
  • I suggest someone rent the DVD.
  • I always forget to click the full screen option.
  • When I am finally reminded to click full screen, I fail to move the cursor off the full screen so that it points directly into the actor’s nostril.
  • Autocorrect.
  • Autoformat.
  • Texting with any kind of speed or accuracy BUT being able to type without looking at the keys! (Thank you, 7th grade typing teacher with her ASDFJKL: space drills and Christmas tree puzzles).
  • Y2K feels like something that happened in the 80’s.
  • I have no idea what kind of shoes to wear with skinny jeans.
  • I wear clogs. I like clogs.
  • One of my students says, “Hey, did you know that there was once a skater from Massachusetts who was attacked by another skater right before the Olympics?” His classmates gasp and say, “NO! What happened?” and he says, “Well, it was a long time ago.”
  • Everyone adheres to random rules of capitalization. Also, of the apostrophe.
  • I realize how many times I tell my family to look at how cute the cat is.
  • The doctor walks into the examining room and I say, “Christ, Doogie Howser,” and s/he says, “Who?”
  • I tell people I don’t drink water and they warn me how close I am to death and I say, “We didn’t have water when I was a kid.”
  • My former students turn 40.
  • My former students turn 47.
  • Some of my friends are grandparents.
  • No cat in my neighborhood ever has a litter of kittens.
  • I can’t recognize people in the photos from my latest high school reunion. In fact, I can’t even remember who was in my class in high school.
  • I wonder whatever happened to Riunite. To Boone’s Farm. To Red, White, and Blue Beer. To Peppermint Schnapps. To Zarex.
  • I understand that it’s really true: Things do come back in style (legwarmers?!).
  • Tattoos have no allure. None. Zero. Not for free. Not if someone gave me four million dollars to get one. Not if they’re on an impossibly bulging bicep. (Bulging biceps do still have an allure but it feels very creepy to admit this.)
  • In certain restaurants, it is impossible to see the menu.
  • I pluck my eyebrows all by myself. Look, kids: No waxing!
  • I can eat gluten.
  • I LIKE the skirt on my bathing suit, thank-you very much.
  • Movies are, like, really, really loud.
  • I will drive quite a distance for 100 percent cotton underwear whose lines might or might not be visible through my pants.
  • I hear other adults saying things like, “That’s a force,” and I cringe.
  • I think, “That’s a force,” is a really stupid thing to say even if you’re not an adult.
  • I get up to go to work and my RETIRED husband doesn’t.
  • My RETIRED husband does the grocery shopping.
  • My RETIRED husband.
  • No one in my friend group is ever too broke to do stuff. Just too tired.
  • I haven’t bought a really sparkly party dress in a long, long time. Long time.
  • And even if I did, I’d have to wear it with my clogs.

Napkin Notes to The Stone or How I Met Lauren

black-and-white-candlesOnce upon a time, a long, long time ago, I had two best friends. Funny and creative and bright. Beautiful girls with the kind of long, straight hair I coveted. These were note-writing years and Thanksgiving Day Game rally on the Post Office step years. Years we danced in Ericka Hemphill’s basement to Brick House, years we wore down vests with hoodies underneath them, Levi corduroys, Tretorn sneakers. We took chorus with Mr. Norcia whose heart seemed permanently broken by our tunelessness. In gym class, during the gymnastics unit, Laura Sminkey brought in her Carly Simon album and we hung around pretending to take turns on the trampoline singing You’re So Vain. Saturday Night Live had the original Not Ready for Primetime Players. We knew every word of Bohemian Rhapsody. Sleepovers occurred in people’s re-done basements where we unrolled our sleeping bags on cement floors covered with indoor-outdoor carpeting and slept like rocks.

I thought the same thing we all think when we’re just becoming teenagers: these days will never end. These friendships will last my whole life. Especially, most fervently, I thought that.

For a person who always knew she wanted to be a writer, who kept journals, who has vivid memories that certainly seem real, I should be able to remember what, exactly, went wrong with those two friendships. The generalities, I recall, and can sum up this way: Whatever it took to be a good friend, I had not quite figured out and it cost me.

I spent a little more than one year of high school without friends (except my 4-H friends, but I was without a license and the half hour between my house and theirs seemed like a journey to Bangladesh). I learned, from a very unique perspective, that, despite how friendly people were when you sat next to them in Spanish class, when it came time to saving you a seat at the lunch table or calling you up to invite you to the basketball game, they had their group and, perhaps they assumed, you still had yours.

Thanks to Donna Schaeffer, Mary Jo Sisco, and Sandra Trombino, I wasn’t lonely for long, but those lessons stayed with me. You could grow very attached to someone and then, everything could end.

The ghosts of those friendships followed me all the way out of Westerly High School and to the University of New Hampshire where one fall night, I sat at my desk doing homework. Lauren Liberman, the girl next door who never seemed to be next door, was sitting in the chair beside me eating a Tootsie Pop and avoiding her own studying.

My roommate, Tedi, was clever and witty and unpredictable. Even so early in the semester, we were used to her making us laugh. But when I said something humorous, Lauren stared at me.

“You’re funny,” she said, the way a suspicious detective would say, “You’re left-handed,” to a suspect in a case where the murderer was left-handed.

I shrugged and continued on with my assignment, ignoring them the rest of the night.

A few weeks later in the dining hall, she said, “You do know what your nickname is here, right?”

I’d never had a nickname and had always wanted one, so this was exciting. But then she said, “The Stone.”

Why was she even here with me? She mostly hung out with Tedi who must’ve had a late class. The first day we’d moved into the university’s biggest and most notorious highrise, Lauren’s mother had cornered Tedi’s and said, “Have your daughter look out for my daughter.” A bond had been forged.

I, on the other hand, wanted none of it. Dependencies. People waiting to eat dinner with you so you didn’t have to eat alone. Late night chats in your pajamas while someone air popped some corn. Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, Lone Wolf, I would have chanted, if I had had any awareness of my own actions. Obviously, I had no idea how to be a friend. This I had accepted about myself as easily as I understood I needed to avoid calculus at all costs. But so long as I was minding my own business, who cared?

“We call you this because you give nothing away,” she said. “Nothing.”

Outside the cafeteria’s plate glass windows, kids played hacky sack on the sparse lawn or walked in groups towards the library up the hill.

“I don’t know you,” I said.

“No,” she said, “and at this rate, you’ll never get to know anyone. You have to let people in, you know.”

After this ABC Afterschool Special moment, I choked down whatever beige food I’d collected on my tray, mumbled a silent: Fuck you, and headed back out onto a campus where, mercifully, I knew no one. It was one of the reasons I had been so desperate to come here.

I played intramural sports. Interviewed to be a Freshman Camp counselor. Volunteered to help out with the floor’s pasta party. Look at me! I wanted to say. I’m fitting in here just fine, thank you.

Later that semester, back in the dining hall, a boy from my English class walked by me and tossed a napkin onto my tray. George and I walked to class each night with another girl from my dorm. The first boy I’d met on campus happened to be a farmer’s kid, too, red-faced, more painfully awkward than I was (or at least I hoped so).

As he darted out the door in his Allis Chalmers hat and Wranglers, I opened the napkin: Party in my dorm room, Saturday night.

Christ, I thought. The more you try to avoid people, the more napkin notes they toss into your unsuspecting path.

Tedi was heading home that weekend, stocking up on leather boots and silk sweaters at the mall she could see from her bedroom window. I could just refuse the invitation, but that seemed cruel. I might not be interested in George, but I could appreciate the risk he took in chucking that missive in my direction.

“If I’m not back in an hour, call campus security,” I said. In Tedi’s absence, Lauren had camped out on her bed.

“I’ll go with you,” she said. There are times, this many years later, that I still think she’s a little crazy.

“What are you talking about?”

“You can’t go alone, can you?”

Maybe not, but I wouldn’t have accompanied her.

Still, we went. To Alexander Hall which was full of jocks minus one Future Farmer of America whose party consisted of me, him, his roommate, and Lauren, who, when they asked us, posed with me in a picture. Trophy girls for the first and only times in our lives, perhaps, we sat together on the plaid bedspread and smiled.

That was the end of that romance, but not the end of my friendship with Lauren. It was a friendship, it turned out. After all, how can you continue to keep your guard up around a person willing to honor your very first napkin note invite? A person whose image, even now, might be tacked up over a workbench on some cold New England farm where a much older George reminisces on his college sweethearts?

She has taught me many things about how to be a friend starting with this: you don’t have to do everything alone. What a gift that was. How it began to heal me. Every friendship I have made since, began in that moment she revealed my nickname. Every one.

Today is my birthday and, in this era of social media, I’ve been wished so many happy birthdays from so many wonderful people. Hard to believe how lucky I am. But along with the gratitude I feel for every greeting, comes the lingering sadness that, once in my life, I lost two people whose friendships I might have had almost five decades later. Those two women keep a part of my history no one else will ever have a glimpse into. And, somehow, I had to let them go. I had to turn to stone, and then, ever so slowly, return to my very flawed and vulnerable self.

It might surprise people that such a happy day always reminds me of less happy ones. But it won’t surprise Lauren.

 

Septembers This September Reminds Me Of

September Salt Marsh

September Salt Marsh

Spent part of Labor Day weekend at the Steep Hill Beach. For the two summers we had it, we anchored our little boat, All the Best, here. Funny to think of Dennis on the beach for a few hours now. Dennis who doesn’t like the sun or to sit still. The girls in life jackets for the trip out through the river. A cooler, a net bag of sand toys. Today only Apphia is with me, sunning herself with her friend May. I’m the restless one.

Pulled weeds in the driveway yesterday and wondered: how did they get this bad? So many mornings, as I waited for the bus with the girls, I pulled the grass and wild oregano that had trespassed into the gravel. Other days, we played tag. We put the finishing touches on high ponytails.

5:30 AM, Bella and I walk. I used to set my alarm, instead, to write a few minutes before my new job began. How to teach full time and write? That was a question ten years ago and still.

First Day of Kindergarten for Beatrice. Here with the send-off committee.

First Day of kindergarten for Beatrice. Here with the send-off committee. 2003

Pine Grove’s driveway helps me extend the morning walk to the two miles that feels passable. I pushed the double stroller along this same route on September 11, 2001, to drop Beatrice off for her first day at preschool while her sisters watched, oblivious. Was Beatrice, though? She cried so hard when the teacher carried her inside, and I thought: why not just take her home? Why let any of them out of my sight today?

Dennis turns sixty this month. When he turned 40, we had lived here a few weeks, would be getting married on the last day of the month. At the last minute, I called friends (I used an address book!!, one he’d had since the 70’s) and family. Said nothing to him. All day, they trickled up the driveway, his parents and siblings, his friends, my family. Each time, he stared at them and said, “What are you doing here?” They met the goat, petted the horse. Riley swiped food off plates; Daisy cowered beside one of us.

For his 50th we had a tent. His southshore cousins rented a van. By 8PM, he had his first (and last) migraine, rose after everyone but Tony and his nephew Michael had left, tucked into the leftovers, the coolers of beer.

This year, a smaller gathering where he will give garden tours and then the food, the coolers of beer.

I painted a wall with chalkboard paint to keep track of their soccer games and Dennis and I, applying our best reasoning skills, determined which games I would attend, which ones he would, which ones we’d have to rely on carpools for. Now, when both JV and varsity are home, he moves his chair from one field to the other, half a game each. I stand on the football practice field where I can see both and where, at the end of cross country practice, Beatrice’s team will warm down on the outskirts of where her sisters play, the salt marsh changing colors behind them.

This is always the time of year for flies to find their way inside.

One September, the dog’s cancer returned.

Our first fall on Cross Street, 1995. Daisy still a puppy; Riley alert for dogs who incorrectly assume this is their neighborhood.

Our first fall on Cross Street, 1995. Daisy still a puppy; Riley alert for dogs who incorrectly assume this is their neighborhood.

We recorded Patriots games on the VCR and spent warm Sundays working outside. Tore up a front yard’s worth of forsythias that refused to bloom, shoveled up the macadam from the driveway to replace it with gravel, brought the horse and the dogs out to the trails beyond Kittery Ave. Bill Parcells had just become coach. The Krafts had bought the franchise and promised great things. We drafted Drew Bledsoe and, when he was sidelined by a hit that sheared his blood vessels, we didn’t hurry in to watch some kid named Tom Brady’s first game under center. These days, we let the outside work wait a few more hours.

After a soccer game, I stop at Cider Hill for apples. The stand is abandoned so I bring my money to the ice cream window where the girl says I can leave whatever I think is fair; the woman who runs the orchard has gone for the day. This is the woman, I’m sure, who hosted Justina’s third birthday there, who offered me a dozen pumpkins for a dollar apiece. I bought magic markers and googly eyes, Elmer’s, picked up a cake at Market Basket and invited any of the nursery school kids who could make it. We had a hayride out to the orchard where we picked apples and then we sat and ate cake, colored pumpkins, shooed away yellow jackets.

1995

1995

We got married on the last day of September twenty years ago. This rainy day is nothing like that sunny one. Tonight, no dancing. Dennis cleans the chimney. I’m waiting for the girls to come home to a house that seemed so full of noise just a little while ago.

Every September is back to school. Yellow school buses. The surprise, no matter how inevitable, of the first yellow leaves, of the darkness coming earlier. Cold mornings that turn into warm days. The flattened remains of coiled snakes who come onto the blacktop at night to stay warm and aren’t quick enough to avoid harm. Saturday yard sales. Forgetting how brief apple season lasts. Checking the dates for the Topsfield Fair. Septembers that remind us of other Septembers. Septembers that go on as if it matters little what images they leave us with.

You Can Get There From Here

It began with Westerly High School Class of 1971’s yearbook. Began with how old yearbooks depress me. Even current ones. (Yearbooks and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Don’t ask.) Anyway, those black and white photos of other human beings who considered themselves It. Off to take on the world! Our whole lives ahead forever and ever and ever and ever! Endless effing summer of being the envy of every old woman sniffing cantaloupes at Sandy’s Fruit Stand, of every old man walking into Danny’s for a beer after his softball game. Prom queens then, and prom queens now, class clowns then, and class clowns now. Don’t we all believe (and maybe dread and maybe celebrate) that we’ll always be The Generation? We don’t listen to graduation speeches but we know that, in essence, what the speakers are telling us is that we hold the future in our hands. We always knew this, of course,  and we are selfish with our birthright. We wouldn’t give it away to just any old Most Likely to Succeed to come along. And we look good all polished up for a studio portrait (most of us; again, don’t ask). This is the most important moment to us so far and we can’t imagine others quite so big. We picked out the right sweater, the initial pin clasp; we chose a quote that made us sound either philosophical or like the most inebriated member of our species. Aren’t we clever, we thought, or: Aren’t we sticking it to the man?

The yearbook started me thinking about the music of this generation or that. This reminded me of Mr. Brightside, that song by the Killers which is definitely NOT a song from my generation (I remember someone blasting Hotel California from a boombox powered with several D batteries in the back of the bus coming home from an away football game senior year; I remember kids in study hall (I remember study hall) fighting over the correct lyrics to Stayin’ Alive.) But when I tried to teach one poetry class how powerful disruptive rhyme schemes can be, I told them to listen to Mr. Brightside. Try, I said, to predict what the line that follows “And it’s making me sick.” See what unstated things a real poet can make you hear? I love this song even if it isn’t my generation and even if, had the wrong kid been sitting in that room, I could’ve been called to the principal’s office and subjected to a slightly embarrassing recap/justification of that particular lesson.

And this led me to think about Frankie Valli’s Swearin’ to God song. This is the kind of sugar pop I used to love much to the horror of friends with more discerning tastes (and, yes, Karen Denham, I still stand by my Fifth Dimension fandom). Every time it played on WABC AM radio, I cranked it up and sang along.

The song came out the same summer as Jaws. Remember that summer?

Aunt Rita dropped my cousin Rob off early for the matinee. He was always over when we were kids, but now that was changing, too. I was twelve. He was sixteen. Maybe he had his license, but that wouldn’t have mattered. Who would ever have let us drive a car anywhere? So we walked from the farm to the Jerry Lewis Twin Cinema on Granite Street on a brilliantly sunny day when we should have been at the beach (one last guileless trip before we realized what could happen in an idyllic summer town like ours). I had never been to a horror movie. My friends had wanted to sneak into the Exorcist, but I said, Count me out. I’ll never sleep another wink. Nightstalker paralyzed me, made me a statue in my bed convinced that if the sheets didn’t move, a vampire wouldn’t know I was in there. But there we were, my favorite person in the world at the time and me: on our way to see Jaws.

If it was Rob’s idea to go, I wouldn’t have said no. Especially that summer when the stuff we used to do was out of the question: picnics on Turkey Rock, playing Shoot in the hayloft, reclaiming abandoned calf sheds as our forts. Look at us, all grown up and off to buy a ticket to a scary movie right in the middle of the day! When we got to the theater there were other boys, too. His friends from his neighborhood, one of his Shea cousins. I sat on the end of the aisle, a little heartbroken, and then absorbed, completely transported by the terror that Jaws inspired in a generation that had no idea what special effects could achieve.

Once the movie ended, the sunshine outside the theater did nothing to assuage my terror. The older boys got a ride home. Rob and I walked back towards the farm, a route where great whites might be hiding behind the stone walls and hedges that used to line my street. I don’t remember if we talked about the movie, but I do know I told my mother every detail that night as she stood at the stove and I set the table: And then the head rolled out! And the leg — with his sneaker still in it! — hit the bottom of the ocean!

Every time I hear that Frankie Valli song (, it conjures the first scene of the movie. The naked scene I watched at the end of a row of adolescent boys, boys whose voices had changed, who could grow beards. That song plays and I am back in that theater, wishing Chrissie would stay at the damn party, wondering how I will survive the next two hours, gripping the one armrest I don’t have to share, hoping I can resist screaming.

Rob and I went bowling last summer and, four decades later, it was the kind of fun I remember. There is something of those children left in us, something, too, of those people we were all buffed up for the yearbook photographer. Once, Rob and I swam in a lake where we later learned someone had dumped a pet alligator that had outgrown their bathtub. The state itself was full of cottonmouths. No adults supervised us. We never touched bottom, only treaded water for hours, at the center of our universe, no worries about whatever shared space with us, the future rippling from our young bodies, outward like a song.

Tender Years Spent Badly Dressed

John Cafferty from the Beaver Brown Band, whose song Tender Years was chosen as our prom theme. Yes. I said Prom Theme.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsF62Wd4GME[

Junior Prom for Triton’s Class of 2016 is in the books. “How was it,”  I asked my daughter when I saw her the next morning. “Fun,” she said. “But it wasn’t what I expected.” Well, I thought, there’s one thing her prom and mine had in common. But that might have been the only thing.

First of all, she got asked. Not a promposal, that modern day upping the anxiety ante that makes me glad I don’t have a son, (So far, there is no gender equity in this area so the pressure is off girls.) but a perfectly nice young man asked her the old fashioned way: face to face, no hooplah. For my prom, I had to do the asking. For days, weeks, even, I came home and said, “This will be MUCH easier to do on the telephone.” Then, I retreated to my bedroom and stared at the extension until I declared: “You know what? In person will be MUCH easier than calling.” Then I’d pass him in the hallway and think: “Uh-uh. Phone.”

My daughter and I shopped for her dress in December because I had heard horror stories about people waiting three or four hours in warehouses full of other mothers and daughters later on in the season. Too Who-Concert, I said. She looked at me the way she does sometimes and carted a few dozen dresses behind the curtain in the almost empty store.

I had my gown made by my mother’s friend Shirley, picked out the Gunny Sax pattern and the calico myself.

Beatrice chose a blue, bejeweled number that was exactly twice the amount I had intended to pay (which was still more than my wedding dress cost). I don’t remember how much my gown cost. Beatrice looked red carpet ready; I looked like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The week before prom, Beatrice had her nails done; I chewed mine to bloody stumps in anticipation of the big day. Beatrice did her own hair into an up-do that prompted many to ask where she’d had it done. I, thankfully and just this once, did not blow dry mine into my usual Barry Gibb lookalike style.

We had no no meeting for pictures in two scenic places with other couples. First my date and I had an incredibly awkward staging in our kitchen where I forgot to introduce my dad who came in from the barn — a rare break in the workday. We took a few pictures with the sink in the background, just me with my bouquet and my date with his hands folded in front of him. He wore a navy blue tux. Only when we got in the car to head to Donna’s house (where we have another photo op beneath the clothesline) did I notice he was wearing white socks. We also did not instantaneously upload any of these photos to the internet (thank Christ). In fact, only a year or so ago, did Donna share her pictures with me. I wish I could say I looked better in retrospect, but, no — still the beaming homesteader.

After the interminable Grand March, Beatrice and her classmates boarded busses in the high school’s parking lot, off for a safe and sober evening. After I made my date change into a pair of Donna’s stepfather’s socks, her date drove us to Providence. I’m pretty sure we didn’t wear seatbelts (ddi cars even have them in the back seat in 1981?). Before we got out of Westerly, Donna had spilled Riunite Lambrusco down the front her own WHITE Gunny Sax. (Just to be clear: the drinking age was 18 just a mile and a half away from where we went to high school and if there was an open container law, we hadn’t heard of it). Our chaperones might have smelled the wine on us, or, in Donna’s case, have seen the blatant evidence, but perhaps they were distracted by the cloud of pot smoke and Patchouli that hung over the ballroom.

I remember little about the prom itself. Live music to which we girls danced, afterwards, a party during which time I mostly could not find my date. We watched the sunrise on the beach which, in any other person’s prom night memory, might have been romantic. In mine, my date ignored me and I was left to ponder how amazing it is that such a big star starts out over the horizon as such a tiny orange ball.

When I walked into my house at 5 AM, the bathroom door had just clicked shut: my father waking for his day. My mother sat with her coffee cup at the table: “You better get yourself into bed before your father sees you,” she said. If she had asked how my night had gone, I would have parroted my daughter who neither of us could have imagined that day.

After her prom ended, Beatrice camped out with friends in a closely chaperoned gathering where the parents turned the heat up in their pool. After everyone swam, they gathered around a campfire or played cards in their tents. Soberly. The kind of night that doesn’t inspire anyone’s date to call a year later, as mine did, and apologize for his behavior.

This week, we might put her dress on Craigslist, try to recoup some of the money we spent in our attempt to get the hell out of that store before the trampling began. I don’t know whatever happened to my dress though the image of me in it floats by me somedays, and then I say: Oh, that’s right! I was never in the musical Oklahoma! I never busted sod in Nebraska Territory! That was just what I choose to wear to my first formal occasion.