Friday, January 4, 2013

Gateway

I am back to my regular life after a couple of indolent holiday weeks. The kids, who don't go back to school until next week, are staying up all night and sleeping all day. Despite the amount of time I spend on the couch with the aerobic interlude of walking to the refrigerator or toning my deltoids lifting the remote, my irritation at their decadence is increased when I return to the office and curtail my TV watching by about 8 hours a day. Still, it is nice having dinner with the four of us at the table. Annie Lamott describes growing up in the sixties with modern parents who listened to Pete Seeger and experimented in the kitchen preparing exotic foods like beef bourguignon. She preferred dining at friend's homes whose old fogy parents served tuna casserole and Hamburger Helper because her parents' bitterness at the family table eclipsed the gourmet meals. I jolt at this. We are not Ozzie and Harriet and sometimes our dinner table isn't exactly a love fest. There's usually good conversation but sometimes someone's fatigue or frustration turns a meal fractious. My sister moved out when I was five and my parents divorced when I was seven so I have very few memories of family meals. Mom and Dad were married for 28 years so there must have been moments of warmth and happiness but all I can evoke of my parents as a couple is a visceral sense of turmoil and spitefulness. I worry that our own lapses into The Bickersons will overshadow the kids' memories of, what to me are, generally pleasant meals, each in our places, at the table.

We rent a cabin to share in Idyllwild with old family friends. I've known Julia since high school. Her older daughter Rosie is a college sophomore like my eldest and her younger daughter Lucy is 12. It is decided that the girls will travel separately and make stops along the way for provisions. For me this is a pilgrimage to Mecca but by the sixth stop or so I suspect my companions are humoring me. We hit the 99 Ranch Market for fish and a chicken with head and feet attached; a Buddhist vegetarian market for a headless, footless fake chicken for Himself; and my favorite banh mi purveyor for sandwiches on warm baguettes and Vietnamese coffee that wires you for days. At the Adventist vegetarian market in Loma Linda I pick up some grains from the bulk bins and local bread. We make a couple of stops in Redlands and hit the brewery in Mentone for a few growlers of local provenance. My companions have never been to the apple growing area of Oak Glen so even though harvest season is over we head up the mountain. Most of the orchards are closed but we score some cider and a couple of apples. It begins to snow on our way down the mountain. As we ascend a mile high the sun is going down and the snow is coming down heavily. There are signs posted every few miles that chains are required but there is no place to get them without traveling all the way down the mountain. Rosie drives. Julia and I are freaked out but Rosie maneuvers beautifully. I imagine she is as frightened as we are but she never lets on. She earns the blind faith our own mothers had in us when we transitioned from their passengers to their drivers.

The cabin is full of kitschy bric-a-brac and a Herculon recliner couch. There is no Internet and my laptop is left at home although I monitor the lack of business activity on my phone. We read, play games, watch DVDs and take short walks through the snow. Spuds, determined to attend college on the East Coast, has never seen snowfall. He walks around in shirtsleeves to toughen himself up. The two older kids are completely college-ized. They drink beer. We are lectured about the difference between sex and gender and chastised to accept that schizophrenia might well be a normal state of being. Who are we to say what “normal” is?

Himself and I talk in the car home about how many New Year Eves we've spent together. We have been together now nearly half our lives. “Who would have thunk it?” I ponder, drinking in the huge children in the backseat, the home, the scars, the wrinkles. “I knew it the minute I met you,” Himself avers. Spuds, in the backseat chirps up. “I don't have my headphones and I don't want to hear this.”

Home, I sort through a week's worth of mail. There is a letter from an asset recovery service stating that my parents have unclaimed assets. I presume it is a scam until I remember that my stepmother brought me a similar letter several weeks ago. I threw it away as it referred to a Prudential insurance policy she would have known that he'd had. Nevertheless, I log onto the State Controller's office unclaimed property database. My parents names are indeed listed with unclaimed proceeds from an insurance company. The address is listed at Gateway Avenue. My mother remembered living in a courtyard in Silver Lake and that my sister attended kindergarten at Micheltorena Elementary School. This would have been sixty-five years ago. My folks must have purchased an insurance policy and forgotten about it. Mom didn't remember the address and years ago when we drove by, she was confused by several different courtyards on the street. It is two blocks from my office and where I walk Rover every day. I find an unspoiled Spanish courtyard at the house number. It is surrounded by a huge hedge and a locked steel gate. A tenant is leaving and I explain that my parents had lived there ages ago and he lets me in to take a picture. It is a cottage in the rear and I imagine, with white stucco and red tiled roof, it looks the same as it did sixty-five years ago.

I can't imagine how many people have resided at that courtyard on Gateway Avenue in the past sixty-five years, nor can I imagine the lives there of Albert and Adele and young Sheri. Was there the same turmoil and nastiness that I conjure when I remember my parents as a couple? Or did the the grief come later? Were they an energetic young couple, in love, and joyous for their beautiful little daughter, when they lived in the tiny Gateway cottage? I suspect it was somewhere in-between but even if any of the parties who lived on Gateway in 1948 were still alive, I'm sure their own memories would be hazy.

I have thrown in the towel on achieving any sort of fixed self-awareness as I realize that adulthood, like childhood, is not a static phase. I am still in the process of becoming, simultaneously because of my parents and despite them. My memory of my mom and dad grows fainter. It becomes more and more difficult to picture times I spent with them together. So much of what formed them will always be a mystery but once in a while when I look in the mirror or snap a picture of an ancient bungalow court I get an iota closer to decoding them.

What sort of tricks will memory play on my boys? Will the painstaking meals I prepare for them fade and the memory of a dinnertime bust up remain vivid? I want desperately for my children to remember me well. I hope they're not too hobbled in adulthood by having to figure out which of the gifts I've proffered they'd best reject. I worry about unwittingly doing more harm than good. I've worked so hard at being a mother. I hope having been their mother is more of an asset to them than a liability. If they ever do figure that out themselves, chances are I'll be long gone.

Spuds is applying to a couple of other college just in case the financial aid package from Bard is inadequate. I need to borrow his computer. There is a draft of an application essay on the screen. I am able to read, “The place I am the most happy is at my dinner table. My mother is a great cook...” before he snatches the laptop from me and minimizes the screen.

Happy new year and Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I heard on NPR (on the way, fittingly, back from getting my new trifocals) that people will change much more in ten years than they think they have in the past ten. We all assume that how we are now is how we will be, once we've "matured." I still feel like I have not grown up yet, and that others know what I don't about life. (My dad at ninety confided he felt this way too, but he combined a jolly exterior with a gruff interior, or vice versa, and opined I was always "older" as in grumpier than him.)

I find it noteworthy that this is not the case, unsettling as this may seem. Seeing the changes in our children and ourselves and those we've known a greater share (as we age) of our lives makes us realize how getting stuck (in snow, in ruts, in conversation at the dinner table) prevents us from the open road, the sense of anticipation, and the fun of creating habitual stops and rituals on the road to places that matter to us. Thanks for creating a convivial and culinary atmosphere 6000 miles high where finally Spuds got to see snow--and I reckon even his elder brother saw more winter wonderland than he lets on, given his worldly-wise airs. I think we've been up that mountain a half-dozen times now, but this is the first time weather cooperated. xxx me