When the going gets tough

Great Pause #3

And then the gloom lifted and it was time to get busy.

Last week I sewed almost thirty face masks for friends and family. I haven’t used my sewing machine like this in at least three decades. But I’m not alone–an entire movement of home sewers has risen up. NPR featured a story on men and women sewing masks, dubbing us craftivists. A friend-of-a-friend who runs her own home business (shout out to My Lovely Muse!) donated ten masks to my daughter’s floor at the hospital–and then shared fifty yards of elastic with me so I could start sewing myself. (Elastic is out-of-stock at most fabric store online, so this was like gold.) I passed some of that elastic on to a friend who was sewing masks for a homeless shelter and more to a friend who was making them for a nursing home. Pay it forward, people. Pay it forward.

My husband and I walk nearly every day in some local park or another and I have every hope that walking will continue to be part of my new normal. Reading comes in fits and starts. (Sometimes the focus just isn’t there …) But I cook nearly every evening and it has become something of a (soothing?) ritual. We are eating like kings! Not rich or exotic food, but healthy and homemade: jambalaya, pork roast, shrimp curry, chili, shawarma chicken bowls. I’ve also gained a couple pounds, but that, I know, is the result of the cookies and doughnuts and chocolate I’ve allowed myself. Indulgence goes a long way.

Last Saturday, hubby’s clippers in hand, I cut my own hair. Yep, you read that right. It’s not pretty and I will owe my stylist an enormous tip when she gets me out of the mess I created–but it’s shorter, at least, and I feel at least a teensy bit more … presentable. (The question is, for whom?!)

I want to hug these little faces …

Not visiting my grand kids is killing me. I Face time them a couple times a week, but the experience leaves something to be desired. At five, three, and one, the calls are a dizzying display of the ceiling or flashes of arms, legs, and foreheads as the two oldest wrestle the phone from each other. Our best ‘conversation’ was during craft time one day–my daughter set the phone on the table while the kids colored and cut. Once a week I’ve become the Happy Meal Fairy, dropping off goodies I normally wouldn’t consider fit for consumption because it makes them so happy.

I blow kisses through the window and for now that has to be enough.

Tears for fears

Great Pause #2

Fine dining ala Hudson News

It was a new world I came home to on March 24. The airports were nearly empty. This time, no restaurants or bars were open, and very few shops. I didn’t anticipate the restaurant closures, so Hudson News provided my fine dining experience. Once seated for my flight, I wiped down my seat area (including the window and wall!) thoroughly with a handful of sanitizing wipes. The young couple behind me traveling with their toddler offered me a surgical mask as they watched me “clean house.” They had six, she said. Kindness continues even in the scariest of times.

The day-to-day of staying inside didn’t seem too terribly difficult. At first. An introvert, I feel inordinately qualified to spend long hours alone. I had books to read. Coffee at the ready. Needlework on hand. Closets to organize, after all. When (and if!) the weather turned nice, I would clear my perennial beds and transplant my peonies and the hydrangea bush.

And I did all those things that first week of the Great Pause–with enthusiasm and a sense of we’re-in-this-together. But what I didn’t expect was the gloom that soon settled over me. The dread of getting sick. Wondering if at that very moment the virus was multiplying inside me, every cough, headache, or muscle ache signaling “it” had arrived. Add to that the fact that my husband hadn’t worked in a weeks, so bills were mounting with no end in sight. (Promises of our stimulus check, unemployment, and SBA loans are bogged down in a queue with millions of others who are suddenly out of work.)

There were even some tears to accompany those fears.

But it’s amazing what we humans can get used to and two weeks later this all feels so. very. normal.

Home sweet home

What I read

You can’t go wrong with an Ann Patchet novel. Think about it. Patron Saint of Liars. Bel Canto. The Magician’s Assistant. State of Wonder. I need say no more … except, The Dutch House.

Patchett’s latest novel tells the story of the Conroy family. Patriarch, Cyril, makes good in real estate after serving in World War II and buys his wife Elna the Dutch house, a beautifully crafted (although ostentatious) home built in 1922 with marble floored foyer, a ballroom, rich wall coverings, delft-tiled mantels, and life-sized portraits of the original owners, Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, still hung in place. The young couple moves in with their four-year-old daughter Maeve and begins the aspirational life that so many sought after the war.

From the beginning, Elna hated the house, spending her time instead on serving the poor in her local parish, leaving Maeve and eventually her son Danny to their nanny, Fluffy. In many ways Elna is a mother in name only–and she finally leaves the family when Danny is four to work with Mother Theresa in India. (Or at least that was the plan.) But Maeve and Danny have each other and their beloved nanny, as well as the housekeeper Sandy and cook Jocelyn. Cyril is distant and detached in that Greatest Generation kind of way, but the reconstituted family works.

And then Andrea Smith arrives. That wicked step-mother who fills the pages of so many tales. She even brings two step-sisters, but Norma and Bright are anything but mean. It’s Andrea’s arrival that pivots the story.

Danny and Maeve are sent to private boarding schools. Mrs. Smith (as the siblings still call her) marks her territory: favorite meals are taken out of rotation, family traditions spurned, and Maeve kicked out of a fairy-tale bedroom for her younger step-sisters. The two are persona non grata in their own home.

But it is the house that holds them in its embrace. Even when Danny is sent packing after Cyril’s death at age fifteen, even after the staff is let go, even after Maeve has made a life of her own and Danny marries, they return again and again to the house. The house, was, said Danny, “the … hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.” Sitting in Maeve’s car across the street after night falls, they wait while the lights switch on one by one and watch, trying to make sense of what once was and who they had become.

What I lived

I am myself an expert on houses. By the time I was thirteen I had lived in ten of them. Warren Road. JoyAnn Court. West Main Street. Ivan Drive. Brimfield. Summit. Edgewood. Sunrise Drive. Newcastle. Maxwell.

And each house held some sort of magic. The three flights up at West Main Street and my little ‘bedroom’ in the closet under the eaves. The sledding hill on Ivan Drive and the wide open basement, just right for learning to ride a two-wheeler with training wheels. The gravel road on Brimfield and listening to my dad laugh himself silly at the Smothers Brothers every Sunday night after I was tucked in bed. Summit, with its brown-painted wood floors that left chips of paint on the soles of your feet in humid weather and gauzy white curtains that floated on the breeze most summer nights. The woods behind Edgewood where we built forts, then played house for hours, and Sunrise Drive where Eric Sisson, my first crush, rode his pony over to give me a ride down the street. Newcastle, where my little brother got lost in the fields across the street on my watch, and where I made a pan of fudge to surprise my mom after work–only to have it upend in the freezer (where, for some reason known only to a budding 12-year-old cook I had set it to cool), milk chocolate drips puddling in the bottom of the cooler drawers in the ‘frig. And Maxwell. My final childhood home, fraught with family discord and drama, but a beauty unto itself, all timbered-stucco and brick. My bedroom with a window seat. (A window seat! Just like the girls in books …) Best friend down the street and bike rides around the lake.

Each and every house settled deeply in my bones, and I mourned each and every leaving. But I realize now that those houses have become heroes in my story.

Which is to say that a novel like The Dutch House reaches out, pulls me in, and settles me comfortable-like in its lap pages to watch the story unfold, just as I’ve watched my own.

The calm before the storm

Great Pause #1

In mid-March I flew to Tucson for a long-planned visit with my son and family. Governor Whitmer had closed schools in Michigan a few days before, and Covid was starting to spread across the state in Detroit, but life carried on six feet apart for most of us. Airports, though, were quiet, and the mood was somber. My flights ran at about 30% capacity and the airlines reassigned seats so that each passenger was seated alone. But I felt no panic, only a little worry (I did a double take when I realized my age put me in the high risk category for complications), and my back up plan if flights shut down was to extend my stay or rent a car and drive home.

When I left Grand Rapids at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Arizona was business as usual, but by the time my flight landed that evening, schools and restaurants had closed. Which made for a delightful visit with this little lady! With nothing to distract us we read and explored the neighborhood and went on scavenger hunts and even ‘flew’ to Paris to “see the big clock” with one pink princess suitcase. (Grandma was alternately ticket-taker, flight attendant, and traveling companion.) We cooked dinner together and watched Harry Potter. I learned I had troll hands, “fluffy” arms that invited squeezing, and looked like a man. (Leave it to a five-year-old to keep one humble!) My daughter-in-law went out once for groceries; I went out once for Thai take-out–other than that we feathered our nest with memories.

Three days before I was due to fly home, a stay-at-home order was ordered in Michigan and businesses closed, one-by-one. My flight was cancelled and I had to settle on leaving a day early to avoid connecting flights through Detroit or Chicago, which were by that time, hot-spots.

Just six days later and life as we knew it had shifted.

Dreams die hard

What I read

Elizabeth McCracken’s novel Bowlaway is just about everything I want in a novel. The story is quirky, the characters unconventional, and the writing–oh, the writing! Think John Irving meets early Anne Tyler, then sprinkle it all with a dusting of magical realism.

It’s Massachusetts. Early twentieth century. And Bertha Truitt is found stretched out in a cemetery one frosty morning with nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold in her possession. But wait! Bertha blinks, much to the surprise of her rescuers. One of the men who found her, Dr. Leviticus Sprague takes her pulse (she’s not dead!), and a policeman bustles her off to the hospital to recover.

And recover she does.

Bertha marries that Dr. Sprague. She builds a bowling alley–she, the inventor of bowling. (Or so she says.) Bertha makes her other rescuer, Joe Wear, her Man Friday. A force to be reckoned with, Bertha allows women to bowl in her establishment without a curtain protecting “men from the spectacles of feminine sport”. Bertha also rides a bicycle around town and is a suffragette. And her husband, Dr. Sprague? He’s a black man, a transplant from the maritime provinces of Canada. To say Bertha was ahead of her time is putting it mildly.

And so the story unravels over more than fifty years. There is an octagonal house, a birth in its cupola, drowning in molasses, and death by spontaneous combustion. A swamp creature. Of course there is heartache, betrayal. All the shortcomings–and perfection!–of what it means to be human.

But the characters. My goodness. Jeptha, a hydrocephalic pinsetter. Minna, a drummer and jazz singer. LuEtta, bowler extraordinaire. Margaret, the maid who becomes lady-of-the-manor. Nahum, the long-lost son returned. (Or is he?) Archie, the gambling ne’er-do-well.

It is the life blood of the Bowlaway, though, that keeps the story pulsing. The establishment nourishes the hopes–or cuts off the dreams–of every character. There is no escaping its influence.

One of the blurbs on the back cover called Bowlaway “an oddball masterpiece.” And, indeed, it is.

What I lived

How very unexpected find myself inside the story of a family business–and how it both feeds the soul and sucks it dry–when one that was dear to my own heart–a yoga studio–was closing its doors.

From the first time I stepped foot in the studio a dozen years ago, my heart opened at the smell of nag champa, the flap of yoga mats slapping the floor, the flicker of candlelight in the evening. It was a place to connect and stretch my Self … and when we had the chance to make it our own, I hitched my wagon to its star and dreamed away.

But as in many family endeavors, we humans tend to get in the way. There is conflict and disagreement and misplaced alliances of all sorts. (Even, God forbid, estrangement.)

I wish I could have closed the door with something other than regret. I wish I had said some sort of proper goodbye–but it happened oh-so-quickly, and we left ‘proper’ behind many years ago.

It will have to be enough to sit with the understanding that the star fell, and my wagon with it.

I guess I’ll search for stardust elsewhere.