Saturday, September 26, 2015

Inventing Memories at My Fortieth Reunion

Forty years since I last walked the halls of my high school, and last week I attended a reunion of classmates, in a bar in my hometown across the lake. I was ambivalent about going, as I haven't kept up with anyone from those years. I had an exit plan in case it was dreadful.

I ended up staying for hours.

Of course, we're all different people from who we were at 18. I was exceptionally shy then (my sons refuse to believe this) and decidedly in the "nerd" category. Awkward, bone-juttingly skinny, editor of the school literary magazine, captain of the girl's track team, sang alto in the jazz choir. I could barely utter a single syllable to a boy without verging on panic.

Trailing this history, and with my particular interest in social interactions, I navigated the crowd with none of the social anxiety I'd once experienced. But most of the faces were completely foreign. Who were these people? Strange to realize that everyone looked at the name tag before the face. A quick browse through the couple of annuals on a table was enough to call forth the younger versions.

I engaged in a handful of substantive conversations, but mostly I mingled and observed, taking note of the old cliques thrown together again, the surfeit of massive man-bellies at every bump of the elbow, the handful of women who seemed not to have aged more than a day or two. (How did they manage this?!)

I was surprised that I enjoyed myself so much. Grateful not to be that gawky teenager anymore.

At one point I was sitting alone at the bar waiting for some food, and a man struck up a conversation, the husband of a classmate I'd barely known.

 "What do you remember about Mary?" He asked.

"I remember that in 7th grade she wore tiny round glasses and had a bowl haircut," I said.

"Yes! I can picture her like that! Tell me more!"

"Well, I don't really know anything else. We weren't friends."

"Oh come on! Tell me some things about her that I don't know. I know you can think of something."

"Um, not really. Like I said, I knew who she was, but we didn't hang out."

"COME ON! You gotta tell me something!"

He was starting to bug me, was leaning into me in a mildly threatening manner.
I didn't like his shirt, or the way his upper lip curled when he insisted I tell him something.
He kept at me, boorish and bullying, and I was waiting for my food and didn't want to leave, so I said,

"Okay then. I tell you what: I'll make some things up, okay? Like I said, I don't remember anything about her, but I can make up just about anything, if that's what you want."

"Yes! Yes! Tell me something!!"

Gah. The guy was a broken record, out for weird slumber-party girl secrets WHICH I DIDN'T HAVE.

And so my fiction commenced:

"In 9th grade, Mary wore pink footed pajamas to school, with a little fluffy white tail."

"Oh YEAH! I can see Mary in those! Did they have little ears too?"

"Yes. Little pink ears."

"Haha! I can just see her in those! That's great! Tell me more!"

"You sure? Remember, I'm making this up."

"Yeah, yeah. Just TELL ME MORE!"

"Alrighty then. In 10th grade, Mary started a food fight in the cafeteria, and no one could believe that she'd do such a thing."

"Really?" He looked confused.

"Yes, really."

"Okay. Tell me more."

I was beginning to enjoy this.

"In 11th grade, Mary had a sex-change operation, and then changed back to a girl."

His jaw dropped open at this, and nothing came out of his mouth.

"And in 12th grade, she joined a band of musical gypsies in Romania, but returned to school just in time to graduate."

At this point Mr. TELLMESOMETHING just stared at me, visibly confused, perhaps a little shaken, his mouth gaping open, his eyes bugging out.

I think he'd forgotten that this was all made-up.

Suddenly he seemed to come-to, shook his head a bit like he was exiting a trance, said, "NOW THAT'S ENOUGH!" in a scolding tone, and strode away.

HA! Finally got rid of him.
 But damn.
I felt more than a little smug.

Forty years ago I would've trembled and blushed at such an encounter, the words mumble-frozen on my tongue. Instead I came away grateful for these 40 years of living, with no desire to return to 1975.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Little House of Imperfections

In another life, we drove for hours around Connemara in the West of Ireland, with 16 different versions of Shenandoah blasting on the iPod. It was pure indulgence on the part of my husband, and I loved him for that. A mid-summer day, all sun and quickcloud bluster, a squall and a rainbow, and another rainbow. Down narrow lanes twisting past stone cottages and sheep, ending at the deadend of the sea.

Turn around.

The small bays and inlets of the Atlantic shone in turquoise and emerald, sometimes in concentric circles of color. I could never get enough of the wildly-shifting tones of the Irish landscape. What could easily look like miles of untreed rocky pasture appeared to me as an ever-changing sweep of amber and chestnut browns, of aquaeous greens and a sky-blue so deeply saturated it made me weep. It was a drug: more, please.

My favorite of all the versions of Shenandoah we listened to that day is this one, by the inimitable Richard Thompson:

In another life yet again — in this one, now, with yet more loves lost and trailing their remants of inseverable sinew — I wandered out into ebbing light, Shenandoah cranked up, windows and doors wide open to summer's last heat.

Streaks of russets on the western horizon —
Pots of rosebud geraniums in full-on coral blossom —
The hazelnut tree losing leaves already, a crackling —

How to give up loving those we love, who don't love us in return? One would think that after nearly six decades, all the answers would be easy. Sometimes love deadends at the sea, and the only options are drowning or turning around.

Turning around and ending up back where I am, in my little house of imperfections.

And yet despite this deeply measured sadness there exists a kind of joy, abiding and immutable, and acceptance of the duality of life. A longing — which I doubt will ever fade — for something greater than the here and now, yet acknowledging the utter perfection of the here and now.

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.

Saturday, September 5, 2015


I traded homegrown green beans today for two pairs of earrings and a small outdoor turquoise table, traded with my neighbor R. who does hauling for a living and drags all his treasures to the parking strip once a month and sells stuff. He never lets me pay.

Besides finding the occasional curiosity, when I see his sign out on the corner, I know it's time for some neighborly conversation, so I walked down there this afternoon, pulled up a chair, and hung out.

There was an exterior door that looked promising, but he said it was an odd size. Too tall. I fiddled with a Makita drill — mine has suddenly given up the ghost. Oh, it's only probably 25 years old. There are three parts that can go bad: the drill itself, the battery, and the battery charger, and there was a good chance that this drill was in the sell-pile for the same reason mine is in the doesn't-work pile. I passed on the drill. His wife C. came out and offered me a pair of cowboy boots, but they were too big. Some leather Coach handbags appeared: not enough pockets.

I thumbed through a few books ("Russian Tea House Cookbook"). We discussed whether or not a wooden box was an old ammunition box, decided that it was more likely used to transport rifles. A conjoined pair of old school desks sat unsat-in on the grass. A green-painted hoe leaned against the hedge. There was much more to see, but I made myself stop. If anything comes into my house, something has to go out.

After delivering the sack of beans, I went back home to read, and from my skin rose the scent of tomatoes and dill. The garden is a little out of hand, things growing across the narrow paths into other things. I've let a few tomato plants sprawl out, and they've taken their liberties seriously: ripe red nubs poke out from between the variegated pinks of cosmos', and between bush beans, and from under the fan-like zucchini leaves which are fading with the usual late season mildew.

Gardening is, for me, about so much more than just the harvest. When the season is finished, and I'm driven indoors as the rains start up again and the temperature plummets, I'll miss these floating scents that stay with me after my daily vegetal rummage. Not that I want dill perfume, or tomato cologne, mind you. Perhaps just a hint, to remind me of these sun-woozy afternoons of early September, when tomatoes hung thick and heavy from the vine, everywhere in the garden.