Ready to Go

“Are we ready to go?” My husband looks at me with excitement. In most other ways he’s a grown man full of reasoning and intelligence, but his eyes are round and child-like. It’s one of my favorite features of his.

We both have our Snowshoe, West Virginia hoodies on and beanies hugging our heads. Our SUV is packed for our bi-monthly three-day trip to our ski house, tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains. It will be a weekend of fun in fresh powder.

Socks, coats, kids, and dogs are spilling out of the car’s various doors. We are as close to machine-like as possible with our packing; we are so good at preparing and getting there. Of course … there are always hiccups. That’s life.

“We’re ready.” I nod.

I give him a quick kiss on the cheek, and I notice the stubble accumulating. One day without shaving for his job as an attorney and his facial hair is already taking over.

I climb in the passenger side and Justin takes the wheel. Once seated and buckled, I turn to check on both girls, who are also buckled safely with smiles anchoring their faces to the backseat.

“You excited, Reagan?” I say, but my seven-year-old with blond, bouncing waves and freckles dotting her cheeks like confetti is humming along to Taylor Swift on her hot pink iPod. It’s loud enough for me to hear. I tap her leg.

She lifts her headphones off her ear. “Yeah, Ma?”

“Excited?”

“Sure.” She looks down, then back to my face with alarm. “I forgot Pinky Lou in the house!” Pinky Lou is her favorite stuffed panda bear that only leaves her side on rare occasions.

“I’ll go get her,” I say and reassure her with a smile. “Can I have the keys?” I ask Justin, who is setting up the navigation. He hands them to me without looking up.

I climb out of the SUV and unlock the door. Inside, I find Pinky Lou on the counter, legs up, and looking pitifully alone. I laugh to myself, grab her and run back outside.

Inside the car, I toss the stuffed bear into Reagan’s lap and re-buckle.

“Thanks, Mom.” She smiles.

I look at my almost-three-year-old. Straight wisps of brown hair frame her round face. “How about you, Ashlyn? Are you excited?”

She nods at me and runs her fingers along the soft fleece of her Frozen blanket because she is always finding fun. If she doesn’t have a toy close by, she plays with whatever she can get her chubby fingers on. “I need a snack, Momma.”

“Sure. What would you like?”

“Apple!”

“You got it.” I look at Justin, scrolling through his Spotify playlists. “Where are the snacks?” I ask.

He looks over and grimaces. “In the very back of the trunk.”

“Well, that’s a terrible place for them.” I roll my eyes. “Hang on, Ashlyn. Mommy is getting you a snack.” I unbuckle my seatbelt for the third time.

“Don’t stress,” Justin says while plugging his phone into the USB. “I’m excited to get there too, but we’ll get there soon enough.”

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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My Brown Barbie

I stood in the Barbie aisle beside my mother in Kmart with a crumpled green ten-dollar bill secured in my grasp. Choosing a doll from the hundred pieces of plastic perfection posed between cellophane and cardboard with my own hard-earned money at ten wasn’t easy. I imagined buying all of them and how I’d play with each. There was blonde Peaches and Cream Barbie – a doll with a cream-colored gown who smelled like dessert, an Island Fun Ken doll with a Hawaiian swimsuit and a pink and orange lay, and Rollerblade Kira. She had long, dark hair like mine and yellow roller blades that sparked when they moved across the ground. I had seen commercials for each.

“Which one do you want?” Mom asked.

“That one,” I said, deciding. I pointed to Kira. “She’s pretty.” I liked her turquoise top and biker shorts, and her neon yellow knee pads. Her skin resembled Mom’s in the summer after she tanned, golden-brown. When I grabbed her from the shelf, the plastic crinkled beneath my pale fingers. I imagined what it would be like to push her along on the kitchen floor and watch her roller blades ignite.

“That’s a great choice.” She smiled. I interlocked my fingers with hers, and we walked to the cashier with the doll pinned between my side and my arm. She was my new favorite, different from any doll I had at home. Special.

In line, an elderly white lady smirked at me from behind her bifocals. I could smell the mothballs on her stuffy pink polyester pants. “Hmf,” she said as she curled the left side of her lip and crossed her arms over her flowered smock.

I clung to Mom’s legs and hid behind them. I didn’t like strangers, especially smelly old ladies with nasty looks on their faces.

Mom tightened her grip on my hand and encouraged me to ignore her. When it was our turn, I placed my doll in the middle of the conveyor belt with my wad of money on top and looked away from the lady behind us.

“Shouldn’t she buy a white doll?” the lady demanded.

“That’s a silly question, isn’t it?” Mom said, her voice sweet like syrup. She batted her eyelashes and gave the old lady a phony smile with too many teeth showing.

The lady huffed and rolled her eyes.

The cashier handed me my new doll in a grocery bag and put the change in my palm.

Mom nudged me towards the exit. Outside she said, “Remember –  don’t let people like that influence you, Danielle. Be smarter.”

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Sticky Notes

I bought some sticky notes today, a lesson I learned from Mom.

***

When I was in my early twenties, she worked ten-hour shifts as a hospice nurse. Before that, she worked in the Transitional Care Unit as the Activities Director playing balloon volleyball and chair yoga with sick folks. And before that, she folded and stocked women’s clothes at a discount clothing store. Even earlier, she was the night manager at Video Connection where she got to bring home life-size cutouts of Dick Tracey and Roger Rabbit. Mom worked hard.

She also attended every home varsity basketball game so she could watch me dance, and every football game to see my sister twirl her flag. For dance competitions she made matching bows for all my teammates.

Our tiny house would have been in shambles had Mom not managed it with the precision of a surgeon. She swept the floors twice daily, folded my stepdad’s shit-stained underwear into perfect squares, hand-washed the dishes to a pristine shine, and often she yelled.

Her temper short-circuited daily. She ripped the phone cord from the wall after I dragged it into the bathroom to talk friends one too many times. She threw bills into the air, chain-smoked her menthol light one hundreds, and cried.

She cried too much, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

My mother’s mother and father had both died, so she put everything she had into us, her job, and the house on Custer Drive to keep herself busy. But she wasn’t great at delegating chores, or maybe we just refused to listen to her. I would rummage through the pantry for pretzels and Pop-Tarts, forgetting to close the cabinet and leaving a trail of crumbs that led to the couch. Jim would leave his dirty dishes on the living room end table and used undershirts balled up in the corner of the bathroom floor next to his wet towels. My sister never filled the toilet paper when she emptied it. Instead, she ’d rest the new roll on top of the old. Just writing all this stuff makes me cringe.

This lack of respect and help went on for as long as I can remember, until one otherwise normal day when I walked in from the bus stop two long blocks away, seventeen and too lazy to get my license. I tossed my backpack in the middle of the living room floor next to one of our three miniature Lhasa Apsos, and bent to rub her belly. That’s when the first note stuck to a case on top of the DVD player came into the corner of my vision. Put away after watching. “Huh?”

I stood and walked into the kitchen, at the time decorated with flying geese, Mom’s latest kitchen craze. In the midst of all the geese, yellow notes with permanent marker scribbled on them clung to everything. Throw me away after you drink me on the milk inside the fridge. Don’t leave me open on the pantry cupboard door, and don’t leave your junk here on the counter, cluttered with unpaid bills.

In the bathroom, replace me when empty above the wooden toilet paper holder and flush me on the toilet with the cracked seat.

Take things up with you on the steps, next to my pile of clean clothes. 

“My mom has lost it,” I whispered. But before finding her, I reconsidered my decision to drop my crap in the living room, jogged back to grab it, then scooped up a pile of clothes on my way upstairs and placed them on my unmade bed.

“Mom?” I hollered.

“In here,” she called from her bedroom, the room next to mine.

I found her clipping hot rollers into her hair in the master bath, a cloud of smoke surrounding her and a cigarette burning in the filled ashtray on the back of the toilet.

“Where are you going?”

“Out for dinner with Dad,” she said, smearing burgundy lipstick across her lips.”

“On a date?” They never went out. Especially on school nights.

“Yes. A date.” She added mascara to her eyes, applied some rouge to her cheeks. “You’ll watch your sister. We won’t be long. I need some…time.”

“You okay?”

“Yep. Just great. Why?” Mom sprayed a bit of perfume.

“Oh, you know…the yellow notes. They’re everywhere.”

“Those? Oh, nope. Just tired of yelling.”

Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

Mom’s Pet Cemetery

Seven pets, at least, are buried where my sister and I played, digging and swinging without fearing the future.

The sandbox, swings, and siblings left, tears fell, weeds overgrew. But five dogs, a bunny, and a bird named Lucky remind us of life’s fragility, even after so many years.

Photo by Brandon Couch on Unsplash

Pretty Little Bow

I had three weeks’ notice to plan for the trip to see my sister become a wife, but it only took two days for the mailman to deliver my lace dress. I rummaged through my daughters’ and husband’s closets for something to match.

The ten-hour drive resulted in my children fighting over which movies to watch and who got to eat the last gummy shark. They also shared laughter from the bottom of their bellies.

In Toledo, the groom found the rings he lost, and I ran across a sheet of ice to collect the bouquets I forgot in the car. The bride smiled.

After two families tied a bow to become one, we celebrated with pasta and Peroni.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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I Measure in Cups

While loading the dishwasher I ran out of room on the top shelf, now overflowing with mugs. I lifted some out to examine them: an old freebie from work with a United Way logo on it, a hand-me-down from Mom with a huge chip on the side, and a thrift store find in a hideous shade of green with words painted on the side that reminded me to love Jesus. Not that it matters, but I bought that one for the size, not the words.

The mugs disgruntled me. Not because I don’t appreciate the goals of the United Way, or Jesus for that matter, but because not one of them was special, just screwball stragglers from the hard-to-reach side of the cupboard.

Several years ago, during the height of Mom’s disease, unwashed beer glasses filled my counters. You know, the slender ones that won’t fit in the dishwasher because they’re too damn tall. They stood like hangover trophies next to the sink, taunting me with my bad decisions until I washed them for the next round.

After Mom died in 2012, wine replaced beer. Most nights of the week, I‘d have two drinks or more. Stemless glasses shared a small amount of the top dishwasher shelf with sippy cups and my other coffee mugs, the grey Gordon Ramsey ones that came in the set – a gift from my husband.

I like wine. Love it, even: it’s the friend that comforts me on a cold night and eases the stress after a long day of chasing children and folding other people’s underwear and the therapy that numbs the burn of grief lingering from losing Mom.

I’ve said more than once that I am never drinking again. I fooled myself and made promises about staying away from those bright red blends that I wasn’t ready to follow through on.

So what? We all make mistakes.

I haven’t given up. I’m mapping out the person inside part by part, good decision by good decision.

For the last year, I’ve been drinking less and less alcohol. Each week I have to remind myself drinking wine isn’t my friend or my therapy. Sipping hot chamomile tea with a drop of lemon juice and a teaspoon of honey can comfort and ease me in a similar way. It won’t take away my grief, but that’s something I need to work through on my sober days.

I collected my misfit mugs in a grocery bag to donate and wrangled my child from her Elsa dress in her playroom to her car seat outside.

After unloading my band of unwanted oddballs at Goodwill, I hopped over to the new Hearth and Hand section at Target, which I’ve been drooling over since before Christmas. I’ve dreamt about Chip and Joanna Gaines renovating a fixer-upper for me, complete with a shiplap kitchen backsplash. Adding their coffee cups to my cupboard would be a distant but decent second.

I paced in front of the Hearth and Hand display, in complete awe of the details on the cream-colored stoneware, the sturdiness of the clay, the simplistic design. I grabbed one from the collection and Mom’s voice reminded me, pinch your pennies, Danielle. Hard times come fast, so save where you can. “But splurging can be fun and rewarding,” I said. Those mugs wouldn’t ever go on sale, and I could find cheaper ones on clearance, but they molded to my hand like they belonged there.

I bought four.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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Leaving Detroit

“See you soon.” Kiss your husband goodbye in Detroit. He’s going to New York to begin his career, and you’re staying to pack. He’ll come back to get you in one month so you can begin the next chapter of your lives together.

It’s okay to be scared.

Fold your clothes and place them into cardboard boxes. Long sleeves first, because it’s almost summer. If it’s on a hanger, you pack it that way. It will make unpacking in your new apartment easier. Leave out the sweatshirt with the Old English D, because you might need it at night when the cool breeze blows off the Detroit River.

Wrap the kitchen glasses in grocery bags because you can’t afford bubble wrap or newspaper. You don’t have many pots or pans, just hand-me-downs from your mom. You think of keeping one out in case you cook but decide to live on sandwiches, salads, and cereal. It’s only a month, after all. You pack them away and tape the box shut.

Leave the things you won’t have room for in your new life next to the trash chute. Old artwork and chairs from Ikea that won’t fit in the truck, the ripped Nelly Furtado hoodie that carries memories of late nights and laughter in its pocket, and the s-shaped shelf that used to hold photos of friends: someone will take it. Someone will love it or maybe throw it away.

Each day after work, walk the dog around Comerica Park. Try to remember the way the home runs echoed off your favorite players’ bats. Remember the chants for Magglio, Verlander’s no-hitter, and Zumia’s wicked fastball. You wonder if watching the Yankees will give you the same joy. Will you forget how much you loved nestling into the crowd for a Saturday night game?

Remember the taste of the Hebrew National with just mustard, and the way the August sun would drop behind the top of the stadium as you took that first bite. Will New York have Hebrew Nationals or Ball Park Franks? Will the sunsets look different in Brooklyn? Will the sky change from blue to pink and crimson before settling in below the trees? Will the buildings be too tall to see the beauty? Will your neighborhood even have trees to look at, to smell in autumn, to catch snow in winter, and to bloom in the spring?

Before the big move, have your friends over one last time. Dance with them. Sing with them. Reminisce about the late night parties in your apartment. Tell them no one could ever replace them because they are so special. Look them in the eyes and promise you will never let go, even with hundreds of miles stretching between your palms and theirs.

They will promise the same.

But you know you’ve never been very good at keeping in touch from long distances.

When your husband comes home thirty days later, kiss him. Hug him. Tell him how much you’ve missed him. Smell his cologne. It’s the one scent that goes with you from the place you thought you’d live forever.

Remember why you’re going: his career, your future together. Detroit is crumbling, the auto industry has collapsed. If you stay, your s-shaped shelf and the happy faces in those photos may fall to dust with the city. Better to leave now and salvage what’s left.

Watch all your things get carried out: boxes, blue leather couch, old dresser, your favorite vintage lamp. One by one they leave your home and get loaded into the big, yellow truck. The things that can’t fit are the things you have to leave behind.

Say goodbye to the empty space, the parquet wood floors, the echo off your avocado-green wall, the memories of home.

It’s okay to cry.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash