Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fresh Starts, New Worries (Babble)

My kids start school on the first of September.  (Well, Quinn starts a little later because the school staggers the start dates for the different levels of kindergarteners.)  I’m not ready to give up sleeping in in the mornings, but I am ready for my kids to have a little more structure.  Or maybe I’m the one ready for a little more structure.  Either way we are gearing up for a new routine and I think it will be interesting.

The oddest thing for us to adjust to this year is that all three of my kids have new teachers.  This is not unusual for most people, but my kids attend a public Montessori school, and in Montessori education you stay in one classroom for three years.  Aden is moving up from her first/second/third grade room, to a new class for fourth/fifth/sixth grade.  We found out just this past week that she got the teacher we were hoping for, which is a big deal since that’s a person we will be working with into 2014.

But Quinn and Mona have new teachers as well, even though they are staying in the same rooms as last year.  Quinn’s teacher retired, and Mona’s teacher moved, and both replacements are new to the school.  I have high hopes for the new teachers, and think it will be an exciting change for my kids.  We’ll find out soon.

Aden is looking forward to being reunited with her friends on a daily basis instead of being at the mercy of the ability and willingness of grown-ups to arrange play dates, but she is dreading homework. 

Mona is simply excited.  She loves school, and has already constructed a fresh cup o’ snakes to bring on the first day and share with her classmates.

Quinn, I’m hoping, will finally feel comfortable enough to really explore what school has to offer him.  K3 was a big adjustment (as it was for my girls, too) and he’s a shy and private person.  He’s already reading at about a first grade level (or at least what I’m assuming is a first grade level since he can read everything his sister can), he loves to print and write in cursive, and he will sit at the dry erase board and add columns of numbers all day long if we let him, so you’d think there would be no one better cut out for school than Quinn.  I figured Montessori would be a perfect fit since lessons are taught to individual kids instead of the group, and he can move ahead academically at whatever pace is appropriate.  But Montessori is also child directed, and Quinn is not aggressive about what he wants to do.  He spent a long time scooping rice from one bowl to another along with the other K3’s last year and then coming home and saying school was boring.  I asked the teacher to offer Quinn higher level work instead of waiting for him to ask for it, and he did do some cute little books with drawings which I adore, but I’m not convinced he finds school interesting.  But he’s only four so I’m not going to worry about that much.

All my worries at the moment are with my parents.  My dad suffered serious health issues at the end of last year, he’s been doing chemo since he returned from the hospital, and after this last course of treatment recently took a turn for the worse.  As luck would have it, my brother, who lived with my parents for over a month to assist in dad’s care earlier this year, happened to be visiting just as dad needed to go to the emergency room.  He’s keeping us up to date with news as he gets it.

In the meantime I am wrapping up as much as I can at the violin store and we did our school supply shopping.  I have a bag packed in case I’m needed back in Michigan.  Or if I just need to be back in Michigan.  If it comes down to it, other people can run the store for a bit and the world will keep turning if I don’t get to take pictures of my kids on the first day of school.  I’m still going on the assumption that despite the setbacks and the realities of stage four cancer, things will be fine.  Because I need my dad and I have to believe that.

It does put life in perspective, when something serious enough arises to make things that looked like worries yesterday not qualify as worries today.  I keep thinking about the school photo dad showed me on my last visit, of himself as a boy looking sweet and proud in the group of New York schoolchildren gathered outside his elementary school.   The mystery of life to me lies in the ways in which so much is both unique and at the same time universal.  My dad was once the child collecting supplies for the new school year.  Then it was me.  Now it’s my children. 

To be standing in this middle ground of life, looking at one end of the journey embodied by my children, and the other end by my father, is humbling, and scary, and thrilling, and sad.  I want love without loss, but life doesn’t work that way.  The best I can do is accept it, and pack my bag.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

While I was at work... (Babble)

Saturdays at the violin store tend to be particularly busy.  (Seriously, if you are making a list of recession-proof industries?  Put neighborhood violin store on it.  We don’t even advertise and I am swamped with work.)  This last Saturday went by in one long blur, because there were so many people to help and instruments to take in and send out, and I was a little dazed when I got home.

So dazed, in fact, that I wondered if I was seeing this right when I went upstairs and glanced into my daughters’ room:
Yes, that’s a tree.  With dusty, spray-painted plastic leaves.  It wasn’t there when I went to work.  Apparently one of our neighbors had a yard sale, and the kids pooled their own money to buy the tree.

I came downstairs and said to my husband, “Did you know there is a tree in the girls’ room?”

And yes, he did know.  I often find it interesting in what ways our parenting instincts diverge, but this one took me a minute to wrap my mind around.  Because if I had been home when the kids asked to buy a fake tree covered with dust I would have found a clear way to say, “No.”  The reason being that it’s awful, and unlike other awful things that can be removed from the house while the children are looking another direction (I’m still getting away with the line, “It must have been lost in the move….”) I can’t sneak out a tree without them noticing it’s gone.

Ian said from his point of view, the kids spent their own money on it, and it made them incredibly happy.  He liked seeing them that happy.  So how am I supposed to argue with that?  It’s hard to even be annoyed with that.

I did tell Aden that she lucked out that I wasn’t home that day, because I would not have approved the purchase of the tree.  I asked her where she planned to put it, because it couldn’t stay in the doorway.  I suggested the corner behind the door, but Aden didn’t like that because it would block access to the mirror.  I said we could remove their toy box and put the tree in that spot, but Aden didn’t like that either.

She eventually settled on her terrace as the new home for her tree, which sounds fine by me.  I had envisioned live plants out there, but I can deal with a fake tree on the terrace.  Unfortunately there has been some wind and rain since the tree went outside, and when I checked on it, it looked like this:
So there’s that.  (At least they didn’t bring home something that would pee on the carpet.  I’m scared that’s next.)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Real Vacation (Babble)

I didn’t realize how much I needed a real vacation until I was on it.  I have a nice life, but it’s packed.  The kids need to be shuttled to this lesson or that play date, there is always a lot to do at the violin store and rehearsals to attend, I’ve been trying to buckle down and do the work of finding an agent while not losing hope after more than two dozen rejections….  Just because a life may be currently free of crisis doesn’t mean it’s not exhausting.  And I was tired.

When we arrived at my grandma’s cottage a few weeks ago it was like getting permission to breathe.  The cottage is a house in the woods in Michigan, but it’s not like camping.  It’s a real house with two full bathrooms and a washer and dryer in the basement.  It’s secluded, but not isolated.  There are big stores and a college about half an hour away, so being at the cottage does not mean roughing it.  But at the same time, you open the door and you are in the woods.  You rarely hear cars, you never hear airplanes.  You hear loons.  And crickets.  And deer crunching through the leaves outside the back window.  It’s a life that doesn’t resemble what we’re used to in Milwaukee, and it’s magical at times.
When I first started playing around with the idea of owning grandma’s cottage ourselves, I wondered if it was worth it.  We love our home, we don’t lack for things to do here, so why would we need to drive that far just to live in a different house to call it a vacation?
But at home there is too much to do.  We are accessible, we are busy, there is always another project, another job, something we should be getting done.  At the cottage there is nothing that has to get done.  We only had one clock and the only reason we put batteries in it was because it makes a different bird sound on the hour and my kids were delighted by that.  We worried about what to cook for dinner, if we had enough sunscreen to last through the day, and if we should play Monopoly or Battleship.  That was about it.

Reality does set in at some point, because the sump pump broke when we needed to do laundry.  But somehow my husband knows how to replace one (I wasn’t even clear about what it did, to tell you the truth), and it wasn’t a disaster (thanks to Ian), just something that had to get done.  That was about as demanding as it got.

There is no urgency most of the time at the cottage.  On the first day there we were all set to go down to the water and suddenly Aden decided she wanted to play Battleship right then.  That’s the kind of arbitrary thing that feels frustrating for some reason when we’re at home.  I like to stick to the plan because there is usually so much to do, and at home I would have probably said, “No, we’re all set to leave, let’s play when we get back.”  At the cottage?  I thought about it a moment and then said, “Sure.  Go get it.”  Because what difference does it make?  We’re there to spend time together.  That’s the only plan.  It doesn’t matter what form it takes.

The other thing about the cottage is that I like who my kids are when they are there.  I like them anywhere, but at home there are different constraints on them.  The cottage sits on a bluff, and there is a path down the hill to the lake, and if you follow the path around to the other side of the water there is a little sandy swimming area my brothers and I always called ‘the point.’  Once I was sure my kids knew the way I didn’t have a problem with their running down there ahead of us.  I can’t think of anywhere in the city where I would feel comfortable with my kids being that far out of reach.  In Milwaukee that same distance would cover blocks and blocks and the variables are so different.  At age nine we’re just starting to let Aden make quick trips to Target on her own, and eventually to the park with a friend or two, but Mona and Quinn are still too small and unobservant to be trusted like that.  However, at the cottage, to some extent they can run free.  And they love it.

I also like the ways in which they adapt.  When we first stepped into the cottage my kids freaked out because they said they saw a spider.  I came over to see and spotted a tiny speck on the wall and asked, “That one?” and Mona shrieked, “Oh no!  There are TWO!”  But in the woods there are spiders.  And moths and mosquitoes and millions of other things.  You get used to it.  By the next night when Mona needed a bath and noticed a spider in a corner near the tub, I told her it looked happy there, she gave it a name, and proceeded to take her bath near the spider.  That would not happen at home.

The first day at the cottage all the kids wore shoes to walk to the point.  Walking in the country is a different skill from walking on a sidewalk, and they moved gingerly among the ferns and rocks and twigs.  By the end of the week they were running the whole way barefoot and it made me proud.

Activities inside the cottage are different as well.  It took my kids a few days to realize the TV worked, and even then they only watched it when I was too busy preparing food to read to them and they were exhausted from swimming.  There is no internet connection, so they had a break from Club Penguin and whatever else they play online at home.  Time at the cottage is best spent outside, but when it rained we played board games.  Quinn was thrilled with Battleship (which he kept calling, “Ship Battle”) and even set it up to play with an imaginary friend when everyone else needed a break.
The other game we taught the kids was Monopoly.  I don’t think I could stand to try playing Monopoly at home because it takes forever, but being at the cottage means having a big stretch of forever to use which seems almost made for playing Monopoly.  Here is the crazy thing about our two-day-on-and-off Monopoly game: If we had played it out to the end the only loser would have been the bank.  I explained to the kids ahead of time that Monopoly was not a nice game, and that in the end someone ruins everyone else, but that I still thought it was something we should try but not take it personally.

But that’s not how it went.  With five of us playing no one had a Monopoly.  On anything.  Nobody even owned more than one railroad, so it was the only game of Monopoly I’ve ever experienced where everyone made a profit.  It was rent-controlled Monopoly.  We’d pay at most about $25 to someone, and then collect $200 when we passed Go.  Even Mona with only three properties was coming out ahead.  Ian tried to make it more interesting by attempting to strike a deal with the kids to sell him something, but they only care about colors.  Quinn liked his purple property, even though it only brought in $2 rent anytime someone landed on it, and he didn’t care about building houses or hotels.  There is a lesson about the real economy in there somewhere, I suppose.  (Don’t be greedy and we all get ahead?)

But the main thing we do at the cottage is spend time at the point.  The kids (including Quinn when he’s in his floaty jacket) are finally good enough swimmers I don’t have to be in the water with them unless I want to be.  I even packed a lunch one day so the girls could stay down there as long as they liked and Ian and I took shifts watching them.  As long as they liked turned out to be seven hours.  Aden caught her first (dozen) fish by baiting a hook with pepperoni.  Quinn built sandcastles decorated with rocks and feathers.  Mona was simply thrilled with everything, from watching fish underwater through her goggles to spotting dragonflies.  I entertained myself by carving violin scrolls in the shade.
I’m still not convinced that in the long run owning the cottage will be an affordable thing to do, but right now it makes me so happy to be able to keep it in the family and be able to offer its use to people I love the same way my grandparents did.  I love it there.

But more importantly my kids love it there.  To have a place that peaceful to call our own is wonderful.  When we first got up there I was still doubting myself just a little about taking that kind of financial leap of owning a second house.  But the moment I knew it was right was when Mona came in after her long day of swimming.  She was out of breath, having beaten her dad and siblings up the hill to be the first at the table where I had dinner waiting.  She plunked down in the chair next to mine and dug in, more content than I’d ever seen her.  As Mona gazed out the window at the trees she said quietly, “I love living in the country.” 

I love that for a few weeks every year I can give that to her.  I’m already looking forward to our next real vacation.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Home Sweet Homes (Babble)

We’ve just returned from two weeks of vacation.  Typically when Ian has his two weeks of Army training sometime in the summer I close up the store and take the kids to visit friends and relatives in other states.  This year got complicated because we were planning our trip around one set of dates, then that plan got scrapped for a new and improved set of dates, and then the Army decided rather last minute that never mind, not this summer.  (The Army is fun on so many levels.)  The upside to all that confusion was that, in the end, Ian got to come with us on our vacation.  It’s been a great couple of weeks.

The first part of our trip took us to the cottage, which by the end of the trip was our cottage.  I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that, but one of my cousins who is a lawyer wrote up the appropriate paperwork, and while Ian and I and my mother and uncles were all gathered on a Saturday evening we signed papers and wrote checks and now the place is officially ours.  Amazing.  But I have a whole separate post I’d like to write about our cottage adventure after I’ve had a minute to sort through our photos.  Today I want to express gratitude for the embarrassment of riches I have in terms of places I get to call ‘home.’

Because the second part of our trip was to the Sunny Detroit area, which is where I grew up.  About twenty people gathered at my parents’ home on what would have been my grandmother’s 93rd birthday.  People from Baby Kate, the youngest member of the family at 13 months, to the oldest members of the family (none of whom look a day over 39 I swear) were in attendance.  My mom cooked some of my gram’s best loved recipes, including her cheesecake, something called a blitz torte, and her famed orange jello.

The whole Saturday party was a bit of a whirlwind.  Lots of people and food and a lot of work for my mom who already had too much on her plate between my dad’s health issues and the closing of their art gallery (the contents of which she has somehow fit into the house which is a ninja level feat of organization).  But it went well, and it was nice to be with people who remember and miss my grandma.

Aside from the big party, the real event for me was just spending time in my childhood home.  I love to walk around my old neighborhood and see what things have changed (lots of house additions and gardens) and what things haven’t (the old section of sidewalk down the street with paw prints in it).  I always appreciate walking among trees that seem like old acquaintances, and watching my own children play in the same park where I spent every recess from kindergarten through sixth grade.  Hearing my kids clomping down the steps to the kitchen in the morning the way I must have done, and eating at the same table off the same plates is surprisingly moving to me.  Being in my childhood home is one giant reminder of ‘the more things change the more they stay the same.’  That house is still home.

But the cottage is also home.  It always felt like home, but now that it’s legally ours, it is truly and officially our second home.  So we traveled from Detroit (which I think of as ‘back home’) to the cottage (which is our ‘vacation home’) back to Milwaukee (which is simply ‘home’).  So in a way we were gone for two weeks without ever being away from home.  That’s peculiar and comforting all at once somehow.

I don’t know what it’s like to function without a place to call home.  I am fortunate, because I need that sense of place to accomplish anything.  I need to feel grounded and safe or I become agitated and fearful.  I remember when Ian and I broke off from the rest of my family during a trip in Italy to visit Cremona.  It’s the city where Stradivari lived and worked and it is still filled with violin shops.  (It’s also the place for which Mona is named.)  When we arrived in Cremona it was sunset, we didn’t know where we would stay, and I was anxious.  Everything looked dirty and sketchy as we walked from the train station looking for a hotel.  After we found a place to sleep and drop off our bags–a temporary home–we headed back out into the streets to explore the city and find some dinner.  It was like seeing Cremona with new eyes because I noticed for the first time it was full of fine shops, like a Rolex store.  But when I didn’t know where I was going to sleep I didn’t like the look of any of it.

I think the stress of actual homelessness would be damaging in ways I can’t even imagine.  When I read about teens forced to live on the streets, or people whose homes are destroyed in a disaster, or refugees in exile, my heart breaks for them.  Everyone should have at least one place to call home.  I have three, which seems beyond decadent.  As for my husband, he says wherever I am is his home.

I think a lot about what home is to my children.  I want them to have that sense of place where they are loved and safe; where they have a foundation they can take for granted so they are free to be creative in ways they might not be if they were searching for things that are currently a given.  My kids are at a stage where they love their home so much they insist they will never leave.  When I say things about ‘one day when you grow up and move on’ they all get very upset and insist they want to live with me forever.  They want to raise their own kids here.  That’s actually fine with me, but I tell them if they change their minds it won’t hurt my feelings.  It’s okay to build a new home.  They can always come back and visit this one.  Or the cottage.  They have many homes.  (And I’m glad.)

And now, for the worst segue ever, photos!  Among the things that changed yet stayed the same was the community pool six blocks from my old house.  They remodeled it, added cool new fancy wading pool things that pour water on people different ways, and made the changing rooms and snack area much nicer than when I was a kid.  But there is still the dreaded ‘Adult Swim’ for the last ten minutes of every hour where all the kids must leave the pool just long enough for their suits to dry out and make adjusting to the water annoying all over again.  However, my brother and I got to enjoy being adults in that pool for the first time in our lives, taunting our poor children waiting on the edge while we swam back and forth with no one in our way.  That was awesome.
(Quinn at the water’s edge.)
(Dumping buckets.  How fun is that?  Even my kids who don’t like getting splashed liked all of that.)

I also came downstairs one day to find my four-year-old son playing Scrabble with my dad.  Quinn understandably needed a little help and they did not keep score, but the whole thing was adorable.  Quinn reads at about a first grade level, so he’ll be beating his grandpa at a real game soon enough.
Our time in Detroit was too short, but it always is.  I did get in a dinner at a restaurant with my friends (which was a lot of catching up and laughing), some nice walks at night with my mom, and my dad showed me a folder he recently put together of old photos from his side of the family.  I don’t think I’d ever seen pictures of my great-grandparents on that side before.  I wish being able to pop over to my parents’ house was a simpler event.  It would be nice to play a game of Scrabble, share some dinner, then go tuck the kids into their own beds on time.  But our life is in Milwaukee, and that’s the trade off.

What a problem to have–too many places where we are happy and want to be.  Life is sweet in any of our homes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

We Are History (Babble)

This is something that has been rattling around my brain since an interesting conversation I had with some relatives a while back.  I was talking with some family members about how people in the family should be remembered after they die.  I have one specific relative who died several years ago and who was not a particularly nice person.  The stories we tell at certain gatherings don’t paint her in a good light, but they are very funny and enjoyable to tell.  The question that came up during this particular conversation was if that was an unnecessarily negative thing to do.

On the one side was the belief that it didn’t add anything good to the world to repeat unpleasant opinions about people, especially if they are dead and they can’t defend themselves anymore.  What gets handed down to the next generation should be positive elements gleaned from that life.  Dwelling on the negative isn’t productive or kind and doesn’t speak to our better nature or who we should aspire to be.  Although the people I was having this conversation with didn’t use the word ‘forgiveness’ my impression of what they were saying seemed to skirt along elements of that concept.  There was a sense of being able to let go, and not to allow oneself to be sullied or hindered by continuing to clutch at unhappy images or ideas.  I’m hoping I didn’t misconstrue what they were trying to convey, but that’s what I got out of it.  There was a lot of emphasis on not handing down negative tales of deceased relatives to any of our children because it was either unfair or unseemly, but mostly not beneficial.

My take is different.  I think it does a disservice to people who did leave kind and loving legacies to lump them in with people who didn’t.  My great-grandmother Alma Borchert sounded like a lovely person.  By all accounts she was funny and caring and an excellent cook.  She was the relative people came to when they were desperate or dying.  She made them feel safe and loved.  She made amazing doughnuts.  When people play that game of naming who they would want to have dinner with out of anyone in history, I think of her.  I would like to have known her.  I don’t think her reputation has been whitewashed because I’ve heard enough tales of the other relatives who surrounded her to know the descriptions of Alma Borchert are uniquely glowing amid that bunch.  I like telling stories of my great-grandmother to my children as we cook recipes handed down from her.  To imply that all our deceased relatives were as nice in some kind of lie of omission offends me.  I believe if you treated people badly through either ignorance or malice during your lifetime, that’s the legacy you signed up for.  Rather than feel I’m sparing my children from something ugly, there is value in knowing there are lasting consequences to what you do.  When they die, how do they wish to be remembered?  Like Alma Borchert or some other relative who left anxiety and unhappiness in her wake?

But in a larger sense I honestly think it’s dangerous.  That may sound overstated, but hear me out.  The great truth about the evils committed in the world is that the monsters look just like us.  If we aren’t willing to admit to flaws and ugliness in our own families, what chance do we have against defending ourselves or our children from it in the greater world?  I think often of a radio story involving interviews with different generations in Germany about WWII.  People of my generation all said they thought their grandparents helped protect their Jewish neighbors.  Their parents said no one discussed the war when they were growing up.  The grandparents, who lived through it, had some pretty harsh anit-Semitic opinions that were in stark contrast the the picture their grandchildren and painted for themselves.  And I apologize for succumbing to Godwin’s Law, but dehumanizing historical figures like Hitler or Nazis in general makes us less likely to accept that we run into people who under the right circumstances are capable of those same horrifying extremes every day.  It took ordinary people in great numbers for the Holocaust to happen.  Hitler alone would have just been a failed artist and a lunatic if everyone had ignored him, but there were many low level monsters to facilitate his madness, and those low level monsters look like you and me.

I’m not saying my relative was a monster by any means.  Far from it.  She was merely unpleasant, but I refuse to say she added joy and sunshine to my life.  If anything, the fact that her transgressions are now merely amusing highlights how harmless her actions were in the scheme of things.  It won’t scar my children to know about them, so I don’t see the point in hiding any of it.  We should be able to look our own family history in the eye and declare we can do better than some members of it, even if that just means not being rude.  I will share the stories I know with my children when they are ready and they can take them for what they are worth.  Maybe they will trust my assessment of how I remember things and take it at face value.  Maybe they will use it as evidence that their mom is a bitter person who saw things in a negative light and dismiss it.  That’s up to them.  But for my part I want to attempt to be honest.  Implying our whole family as far back as we can trace it was as nice as they want to imagine is a fairy tale.  There is fiction for that.  My family history is real history.  Life is confusing enough without throwing in added distortion.

I had a friend back in college who was fun to argue with because his views were far more conservative than mine, but he was a great guy and really made me defend my beliefs.  I appreciated that.  But one late night discussion stands out for me.  I was telling him about all the amazing women in history that I was just learning of for the first time, and that I wished I’d known about earlier.  Their stories were ones that I could relate to in a way that I couldn’t to endless tales of kings and generals and wars which was how history had always been presented to me.  My friend gave me a look and said, “So with limited time in a history class you think the teacher should talk about Thomas Jefferson and then make a point to throw in that his wife made a great pot roast?”  I was sort of stunned at the time and would love a crack at that conversation again, but that particular friend keeps getting deployed to Afghanistan and he has more important things on his plate to do than hash up a twenty-year-old conversation with me.

In any case, as condescending as he was trying to make it sound, yes, I would have liked to have heard about the pot roast.  I would have loved a history class as a kid that talked about what regular people actually did.  Not just how fiefdoms were operated or where borders were drawn, but what people ate and wore.  What did people sleep on?  How did women deal with their periods?  What games did kids play?  What kid wouldn’t be curious about how people used the bathroom before there were bathrooms?  Of course we need the dates and the kings and the battles….  But what does the average person gain by remembering the date 1066 compared to knowing how marriage worked back then?

Maybe other people came away from the HBO film about President John Adams discussing the scenes of political machinations, but I was left stunned by Abigail trying to vaccinate her children from smallpox by letting the doctor infect them with pus from a diseased man in a cart, or her left on her own with all the kids for years, or the daughter’s mastectomy without anesthesia.  Those stories taught me more about now vs. then than memorizing dates ever could.  Without remembering people the dates mean almost nothing.

The best and most moving accounts of history come from real voices.  I’m glad teachers in high school made me learn the the major battles of World War Two and certain key dates, but we’d have been better served by supplementing that with The Good War by Studs Terkel.  The accounts of life during that war that have truly impacted me are those of my grandparents.  Not just of my grandfather’s time in the Navy, but my grandmother’s struggles back home while he was gone.  Those stories make it real to me.  History should feel real for it to be worth learning at all, otherwise we are disconnected from it and it is merely trivia.

My husband’s accounts of his service in Iraq are a piece of a larger story that will define our time for future generations.  His perspective in the context of this point in time is meaningful.  The stories we tell our own grandchildren one day of what our struggles were like will shape what they know about us and themselves and the world. 

History isn’t just about dates and kings and wars.  It’s about people.  It’s about us.  We are history.  For good or bad, we are helping to weave the stories that people will learn from later.  Let them at least be real.

Monday, August 1, 2011

House of Dreams (Babble)

I miss my grandmother.  She died in November. I think of things every day that I wish I could share with her.  I want her to come help me make pie in my new kitchen that she never got to visit, and to hear about the people who come into my violin store.  I want to talk with her about books and movies.  I want her to see how much my kids have grown.

A few years ago, when she first had to be moved into a nursing home, her house had to be sold to help pay for her expenses.  This was a reasonable and logical step.  No one could argue with that, but it’s hard when the right thing hurts.  We want the right thing to feel positive, but that’s not always the case.  Sometimes the right thing feels wrong.

Since her house in Ohio was sold I have only been by it once.  I won’t do that again.  I just wanted to drive those familiar streets and see the place where I spent so many Christmas and Easter vacations as a child, the last place I ever saw my grandpa alive, the home where my parents got married and the first place that made my husband feel part of our family.  It was painful to see it and know I didn’t belong there anymore.  The house may remain, but the home I knew inside it is gone.

I know loss is part of life, and I know I am lucky to have had such a wonderful grandma at all.  I’m just not ready to let certain things completely go.  And the last place I still feel my grandma is at her cottage.
(Aden in 2009, standing on the steps my uncle built leading to the cottage porch.)

My grandparents had their cottage on the Western side of Michigan built back when I was in fifth grade.  My grandmother pored over dozens of house plans before she came across the perfect one.  The layout is such that you can comfortably live on one floor, (which they figured would be useful as they got older), but there is space to share with visitors upstairs.  It’s somehow cozy and spacious at the same time, and it’s the most relaxing place I know.   It’s a place for all the family to use, and the more people used it the happier it made my grandparents.

(Quinn and Mona jumping on and off the bed, cottage 2009)

Until my grandma became too frail to travel she used to spend a month up at the cottage every summer.  It’s been the site of family gatherings, weekend retreats, visits with friends, a big New Year’s Eve bash, and it’s where Ian and I spent our honeymoon.  My kids are crazy about the place, and when we go they catch frogs, play in the sand, and look for deer.  I love the cottage.  Everyone in our family loves the cottage.

But while talking to my mom recently, she mentioned the time had come to sell it.  The market is terrible in Michigan right now, so they didn’t expect to get too much, but the upkeep and the taxes and the fees have become a burden on the relatives who have been entrusted with it over these past few years.  It was time to let it go.

The thought of the cottage leaving the family broke my heart.  When I’m there, it’s home.  It’s timeless.  And my grandparents’ touch is in everything.  I don’t want someone else moving in and taking out the table and bookcase my grandpa made.  I don’t want the birds my grandma did in needlepoint to come off the wall.  I want her chair to stay where it is, and the oars to the rowboat hanging in the garage and the ancient collection of board games to be in the utility closet.  I want the cottage to stay the cottage.  I want the cottage.
(My kids at the same little beach where my brothers and cousins and I played)

Ian and I aren’t rich by any stretch, but we are careful with our money and we work hard.  And one of the things I love about my husband is he makes my dreams come true.  That sounds sappy and weird, I know, but it’s the truth.  If it weren’t for him we would not have the home we have, I would not have my own business, and the proof that I’m with the right person is in the smiling faces of my children.  I can’t ask for more.  And yet, when Ian saw how sad I was that the cottage was for sale, he pulled out his laptop and crunched some numbers, and said he thought we could afford to buy it ourselves.

It’s impractical, it’s expensive, it will probably be complicated…. But the worst case scenario in my mind is we try owning it, it proves to be too much, and we sell it ourselves down the road when Michigan’s economy improves.  In the meantime at the very least it buys the whole family a few more years of playing at the lake, walking the trails, and making s’mores under stars while the leaves of the poplar trees rustle like rain.

I think that would have pleased my grandparents very much.  I know it pleases me.
(Quinn at the lake)