Monday, January 21, 2013

Home Is...

With a camera in hand, I am given the gift of sight. Nothing is different, but in scanning for potential pictures, I see wonder wherever my glance falls. A crumbling log terraced with mushrooms. A twist of vines looping from the forest floor to its canopy. Even machinery left to rust in an overgrown field brings the camera to my eye and I muse, did the farmer know, as he climbed from the seat, that it would be his last time in that perch?

With my camera, I’d been drawn outside by a glimpse from the bathroom window of sunlight hazy-gold on woods veiled in morning mist. When I returned to the house, camera-sight still upon me, I fell newly in love with the warmth of old floorboards and the sooty expanse of our vast fireplace. And it gave me an idea for a Christmas present for Dave.

What do you give a spouse after thirty-seven years of marriage? (Not a tankard with tiny letters…) and his drawers are full of too many shirts and sweaters from Christmases past. As I walked through the house, smiling at witches and Santas, an odd mish-mash in this in-between season of holiday cross-over, I thought…home. I thought, an album. Pictures that tell our story as well as what is here.

So, I started with spots and angles I love: the view from the fireplace room into the front hall, the wooden cradle Dave’s brother made for baby Casey, the quilt purchased at a flea market in the eighties, and the victorian icebox given to Dave for fifteen years at Eagle Hill. I strolled to the living room and snapped the cupboards our friend Steve Larrabee built, and the folded American flag displayed there that had draped Dave’s father’s coffin. I turned and squinted to click the deacon’s bench Dave made for my wedding present, and the fox weathervane that once spun on my grandfather’s barn.

In the dining room, I lined up a shot of the table and the encircling black Windsor chairs, Steve’s work as well. My project in progress - a Santa for my nephew Trev, his wife, Lisa, and their daughter, Ava - stood on the table. When our kids, Tucker and Casey, were little, Dave and I made almost every present we gave. Those days are gone, and I’ve loved the feel of clay on my fingers again, the total absorption in creation, my thoughts not of worries, but where to add another pinch of clay, or how best to use each silky curl of lambs’ wool; which should be eyebrows, which the mustache?

I photographed the narrow stairway, remembering all the Christmas mornings when the kids and I sat at the top, waiting for Dave to fulfill his Santa duties downstairs, turning on the tree lights and Christmas carols, putting a match to the fire. Then I trotted up the steps and took a picture looking down, at the cupboard below, the Indian blanket on the wall, these stairs we climb and descend every day.

In the kids’ rooms I paused. Much of their stuff remains even though they’ve moved out. They are busy, we have more space than they do, and I don’t want to bug them…besides, I want these rooms still to be theirs. So, Tucker’s looks like a teenager’s room, frozen in 1998, with his Tae Kwon Do trophy, a bi-plane of toothpicks, a framed stamp collection, and shelves crammed with Garfield comics, sci-fi, and textbooks.

Casey moved out recently, so her room looks lived –in. It’s a mess, actually, as she’s still sorting. An open suitcase on the floor holds boxes and notebooks; the coat rack is awash with handbags and scarves. Collages from college lean against the wall – Casey and her girls blowing kisses, kids at a party holding large plastic cups (“just water,” she’d claim). Scattered on the bureau and displayed on windowsills rest woodcarvings and shells from her recent journey in Southeast Asia. I miss coming home to find her curled on the bed, doing her nails or listening to music.

Our house loves the fall and winter. She is warm and welcoming, well, not warm in the sense of temperature perhaps… “This house is freezing,” is a common complaint. But with candles in the windows, the old floors freshly oiled, fires blazing in the fireplaces, the house seems alive. She is the hostess, glad to enfold us. As I dashed from room to room, adjusting the focus and clicking, I imagined the house preening with all the attention.

But what is home? I was just about to move aside a water jug at the foot of the steps – the unused toilet on the third floor smells if we don’t keep it filled – when I realized that our life, our story, is not picture perfect. So I replaced the jug and took the shot. I’d shoved aside the basket of laundry waiting in the hall when first I took that photo, but decided to put it back and shot it again.

With this new thought, to capture not just the beauty, but our life in this house, I went a little crazy. I shot the toilet with its tottering pile of magazines, and then off to our closets to capture the clutter of shoes, ties, jeans, and corduroy shirts in Dave’s.

My closet is orderly, but the top shelf is my toy box. Years ago, during a troubled time for me, the book Simple Abundance bid me, “Make yourself happy: assemble a toy box.” So, tacked on the closet walls are fliers for Obama/Biden ‘08 and my nephew Christopher’s Fairfield performance in 2003. Sitting above hangers of blazers, slacks and dresses are Barbies, Cabbage Patch dolls, and mementos from travels – a tiny Sicilian horse and buggy, a mini-Buddha wishing me fearlessness, protection and peace. Old friends droop, well-worn and well-loved on the shelf: my mother’s corduroy bear, Tucker’s pig Bacos, and Casey’s pink bunny. Treasures. My closet of toys and memories makes me smile and speaks to me of home. So, click. A few shots for Dave’s album.

Oh, honesty, honesty begs photos of bedsides and bureaus: debris of the day, mail, books, Kleenex, and pill bottles, glasses, Chapstick, pens and pads. Dave’s bureau is a teetering collection of guitar picks, lottery tickets, cameras with dead batteries, a rubber Red Sox bat, and Beanie Babies. Yes.

My bureau stands at the foot of the bed. It holds wooden angels from friends, received when I had cancer and at my dad’s death. It holds my grandmother’s silver dish in which I place my bangles when I’m not wearing them. And it holds photos of my grandmothers, my parents, sisters, children, and Dave…several pictures of Dave. For despite my photo tour of fireplaces, closets, bureaus, beams and floorboards, for me, home is where Dave is. So, that’s what the album will be about.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

It's About the Words

In November, my husband Dave turned sixty. We have marveled over this impressive number, all of the many decades inherent in attaining it, and prided ourselves on not being distressed at the age it represents. We feel great, look pretty good too, so what’s the big deal? Still, I wanted to commemorate the event with a present that had meaning.

I had an idea. My father used to have a silver cigarette case inscribed with the signatures of the ushers in my parents’ wedding. I decided to brainstorm names, phrases, and places from Dave’s life and have them engraved on…something. Probably not a cigarette case. I’d used Inscribe-It in Monroe before, had been a little intimidated by the salesman, but figured it was convenient. I’d go there.

Pen in hand, I began my list of Dave’s schools, our wedding date, inside jokes, favorite songs, beloved destinations. The list was long – how much would fit on whatever it was I chose? Oh well, the guy would tell me what would work and what wouldn’t. I crossed items off, and added more on, added more on, and added more on.

Dave’s birthday was a month away, plenty of time, but I felt an urgency to order this special present, so to Inscribe-It I hurried. Behind the desk at the back of the store sat the man I remembered. He was thin and blond, his protruding eyes magnified by gold-rimmed glasses. His smile was a curve of the lips that went no further than that uplift. “May I help you?” he asked in a thick German accent. Great. Too many war movies; the accent always unnerves me.

In an end-over-end, more-than-enough way, I described my vision and he escorted me from glass case to glass case, pointing at bookends and boxes and vases. Not a cigarette case to be seen, and I settled on a sturdy pewter tankard. We have an over-abundance of mugs at our house, but this gift was about the words, and the tankard would fit in with our colonial home.

We returned to the desk, and Mr. Engraver prepared for dictation. “How much will fit?” I asked.

“As much as you want,” he said. “Of course, the words will be small.”

“Can you write them in several columns so the letters will be larger?”

“No,” he said definitively.

I shrugged and launched into my list: our college, our kids’ names, and a favorite song -“Trinity, Tucker and Lisa, Casey, Serenade.” I went on and on. Not concerned about price, not concerned about the tankard, so pleased to have thought of a meaningful gift.

When Mr. Engraver told me the final cost, I laughed. It was high, absurd for a tankard with two lists of words, but Dave was turning sixty. That gave it value.

We agreed on a pick-up date the following Friday. I paid him and took the receipt.

Hurricane Sandy blasted through that week and closed everything down. I stopped by once and the shop was closed. When finally I caught the store open and the proprietor in, I was eager to have the present in hand. Gingerly, Mr. Engraver opened a white box, parted the white tissue, and with white gloves, lifted the tankard from its shrine. “Careful! Don’t smudge it!” he said as I reached to inspect it.

The words were tiny. Tiny. I could just read them. “He’ll need a magnifying glass,” I said. “Yes. He might,” agreed the engraver. “If, at any time, you want to add more, I can run another column here, down the side.”

What? He’d told me he couldn’t do that. But I didn’t say anything. Didn’t want to make a fuss. After he oh-so-carefully placed it back in its wrappings, I took the tankard with its near illegible words and left the store.

Oddly, at the time, I thought the situation – the tiny letters, the crazy price - was funny, and as soon as I got home, I put a magnifying glass in the bag with the box so I wouldn’t forget it. I thought that was sort of funny too. A magnifying glass! Really!

Over Thanksgiving break, we had a family party for my husband because my son and his wife were home, but I saved Dave’s present for the actual day of his birthday. My daughter Casey and our friend Gerry joined us at an Italian restaurant for dinner. When Dave opened the white box, I handed him the magnifying glass. “And you’ll need your glasses too.”

“A tankard!” he said, turning it over and over, perhaps thinking, just what we need, another one… “Are there words on it?” he asked.

I rolled my eyes as he squinted through the magnifying glass and said, “The light reflection makes it tricky to read.” He angled the tankard to reduce the glare and with difficulty, and several mis-guesses, read the words. Mainly, he was frustrated. He appreciated the idea, but it was about the words….and he could barely read them.

When we got home, he put the tankard on a shelf. Later, I wrote the words out neatly on a piece of stationery, rolled it up, and tucked it in the tankard.

* * *

“Mom, you have to talk to that engraver,” said Casey after I told her about my disappointment over the way-too-tiny words and my conversations with the vendor.

“He won’t be able to do anything about it and …ugh. It will be unpleasant. I hate awkward exchanges. I just don’t feel up to it.”

“I do,” said my warrior princess. “I’ll talk to him….”

“No. No. If anything, I’ll do it.” But I doubted I would.

* * *

Last week, Casey called me at work. She didn’t feel well, but said she planned to go over to our house to do some laundry. In September she moved in with her boyfriend and between work and schedules, we don’t see her often. “Yay! So I’ll see you later,” I said.

A few hours passed and I checked in at the house. The phone rang, but no response. She must not be there. Letdown. I miss my girl and had looked forward to catching up while folding shirts and pairing socks.

When I left work, it was dark. As I drove the final lap on our road, a car was smack on my butt. Honestly. Before backing into the parking area in front of our house, I pulled over to let the driver pass. I watched his headlights disappear down the road as I angled into position and shifted into reverse to slide into my usual spot.

Wait. What was that sound?

A glance in my rearview mirror. Casey’s brand new, smiling, neon purple-blue Hyundai. Her most beloved possession. In my spot. And I’d hit it.


I parked my old dear of a Caravan and with heart pounding, knelt before Casey’s car. A dent. Not awful, but a dent. A dent upon the shiny perfection of the front right fender. I felt sick.

Dave and Casey brightened in welcome as I let myself into the house. They were chatting at the kitchen counter, enjoying a glass of red wine while Dave prepared some pasta.

“Oh Sweetie. You won’t be as happy to see me when I tell you I just hit your car.”

Her face fell. “What? Mom. How? You knew I’d be here. How could you hit it?” Her words tumbled as the three of us went outside.

“Well, I thought you weren’t here. I called earlier and you didn’t answer. And it was dark and I was watching the other car drive off and I wasn’t expecting anything in my spot. I just pulled in like I always do…” my words trailed off. It didn’t matter. I should have looked behind me. I did, didn’t I? Not carefully enough.

Dave stood silently, one hand curled thoughtfully at his chin.

My daughter and I cried, hugging each other, standing in the yard. Me, apologizing over and over. Casey, once she’d succeeded in stuffing down all the recriminations that must have been racing to be aired, beating against her lips, bubbling for expression, saying, “It’s okay. It was an accident. It’s just a thing.” So good. So controlled. So forgiving.

* * *

The next day, I decided to talk to the engraver. I’m not sure why, but in some way, denting Casey’s fender was the impetus. I’d disappointed my daughter and she felt I should speak up about the tiny words on the tankard. It’s not that I thought she’d be proud of me exactly, but something like that.

So to Inscribe-It I returned. Before denting Casey’s car, sleep had eluded me for several nights as I’d mentally confronted the man with blond hair and protruding eyes, but I was surprisingly calm when I entered his shop.

Mr. Engraver greeted me blandly with “How can I help you?” and I’m not sure he recognized me. He listened without expression as I pointed out his contradictory statements about the additional columns and told him the significance of the gift was lost due to the illegibility of the words. He reminded me that he’d said the letters would be small. Told me he’d been able to read the words and showed me a sizing chart with letters even more miniscule than those on the tankard. Stated there was nothing he could do.

But he acknowledged that it must have been sad when the present was not received as hoped. He agreed that greater clarity with other customers would be worthwhile. And that was it. But I left the store with a lighter step.

What had I hoped for? I knew the engraver wouldn’t take the tankard back or re-do it; there was a prominent sign in the store stating that policy. I like to think I wanted to improve service for others, and that was part of it. I wanted to remember everything I’d rehearsed - that would have been a coup right there - and initially, pleasing Casey was wrapped up in nudging me to action. But above all, I wanted to say my piece without anger or accusations or, heaven forbid, tears…and I did it.