Of all the gut-wrenching, out-of-the-blue, kick-in-the-balls moments that happened this year (and I admit there have been a lot of them), it took my kid’s school project to break me into a thousand pieces.
She came home from school with a piece of cardboard, wrapped in festive Christmas wrap, a gift she had been working on for my mother-in-law. In years past, my wife and I have been the gracious recipients of cellophane ornaments, macaroni artwork and various wads of hardened clay that required long and detailed explanations. In each case, the thought was what counted, and the items went into their appropriate spots of deification and occasional dusting.
So, as we were all rushing around the week before Christmas, buying gifts, making travel plans and trying to get the right choir outfit ironed for the right concert, she comes home with this package and asks her grandmother to open it. I thought nothing of it, other than, “Don’t open that! It’s not Christmas yet! I still have three days before I’m late with everything I said I’d do before Christmas!” Thus, I wandered off to some other part of the house to nail down something or other that I had yet to do. When I came back, my mother-in-law had this completely decimated look on her face and the cardboard gift in her hand. She passed it to me and I read it:
Some of you know that my mother-in-law came to live with us a few years back after a stroke disabled the left side of her body. She had previously lived in the North Woods of Wisconsin, where you were just as likely to see a bear in your yard as you were to see a neighbor. The home was the dream of her mother, who had longed to leave the Racine/Kenosha area and go back to nature.
After several years, the home began to deteriorate, as did the finances of the family. The bills and the mortgage weren’t getting paid. Gutters were rusting, plumbing was failing and other things were collapsing. When we went to get her, the house had no running water, the septic tank hadn’t been pumped in quite some time and the propane tank was empty. We knew she couldn’t survive a winter up there with my father-in-law posting a half-dozen electric heaters around her, praying that a power outage wouldn’t end them both. Even more, lawyers and title agents had been sending pounds of mail my father-in-law continually ignored, most of which explained the home had moved into foreclosure. Over the last year, at Mom’s urging, I worked with them to help facilitate the final stages of this to bring her some closure and remove this albatross from around her neck.
For much of the time they owned it, I never really liked that house. It was isolated and you always seemed to be about 20 miles away from anything you needed. Everywhere you went, the deer seemed bound and determined to fuck up your vehicle. I once smashed up my truck while on a Christmas visit, slamming into a giant buck that was chasing a doe across Highway 141. The people up there were friendly in a way, but they had that underlying edge of “You ain’t from around here, are you?” I would often affect a “Yooper” accent while I was up there, partially to blend and partially for mockery.
The time I spent up there was always awkward for me. I never really seemed to have a place or a thing that I was supposed to be doing. Mom’s OCD meant everything had to be in exactly the right spot and I never could seem to find any of them. As time wore on, there were financial issues that made it weird to be there as well. Would there be enough propane to run a shower and the dishwasher? Why was the house heat set so low… Oh… At one point, a sheriff’s deputy came out to deliver a mortgage delinquency notice. I always felt odd when they brought home pizza or stocked the fridge with Diet Coke for me, as I kept feeling like they couldn’t afford it and that I was somehow draining precious family resources. (Of course, offering to buy or bring my own stuff was verboten, because that’s insulting so, there you go with that…)
When we last visited the house, it was to pull out whatever we could salvage of Mom’s stuff before the home was gone for good. Mom, OCD to the Nth degree, sent us with a laundry list of specific items she desperately needed and exactly where they should be. Of course, it had been months since she had lived there and even longer since the stroke robbed her of the ability to make ABSOLUTELY SURE that stuff was where she put it. My father-in-law was supposedly still living there, but there was little evidence to demonstrate that fact. We guessed he was just sleeping in the backroom at the gas station he was running about a half-hour away in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
The house was frigid and mostly dark, with standing water in the basement. Boxes of paper had turned to a slushy mess and mold crept along every surface downstairs. We quickly moved from delicate examination and list checking to triage-and-trash mode. Whatever we found that we thought was important and worth saving, we put on the U-Haul. Whatever was beyond reclamation, we tossed into a corner of the basement. The environment turned our fingers bluish gray; our breath became steamy puffs and coughs. Several hours later, we had worked our way through each room of the structure, crossing off the list what we found and coming up with plausible explanations for the items we couldn’t locate. We drove home, bone tired and achy. I looked back at the place through the side-view mirror of the moving truck and thought, “This is the last time I’ll ever have to see this shithole.”
My child saw none of this. That wasn’t the house she remembered.
She knew of the bench where she kept her “rock collection,” a series of non-descript stones she had freed from the dirt driveway near the stand-alone garage. She remembered the flowers on the graves of Lucky the Dog and Oreo the Cat, pets who guarded her as a baby, played with her as a toddler and slept on her bed from time to time. She recalled the stories of the black bear that kept breaking the bird feeders to grab the suet cakes and who smashed the fence around the backyard. The giant mother, with her two playful cubs in tow, who ate as she saw fit and largely viewed Lucky’s furious barking with passing amusement.
My kid remembered the flowers and the yard. She remembered the dilapidated tree house she was never allowed into but that served as a constant flight of fancy. Maybe, just maybe, THIS summer Grandpa Moose would fix up the structure so she could play in it. She hated the bees that built nests that kept her away from parts of the yard and she wondered how high the snow would be that winter. She remembered the fun that comes with not knowing the adult things that imbrued it. She remembered all the things I never even thought about.
I tell my writing and reporting students that one of the best ways to find story ideas is to “wonder more.” I note that when you’re a little kid, everything is so wonderful and magical and we ask “why” 274 times an hour because we desperately want to understand everything. As we get older, we look past most of those things that were once so important. Instead, we focus on whatever it is that is causing the biggest pain in the ass at that moment and try to fix it. That house was filled with wonder for my kid, for reasons I’ll never really fully know and yet I can completely understand.
I never knew how broke my mom’s mom was for most of her life. All I knew was that she had a dog that was mine whenever I wanted to come over and play with it. There was a “tree house” that was really nothing more than a carpet-covered board wedged into the fork of a big maple in her backyard, where I sat and read for hours. I ate a ground up mixture of bologna, onion, pickle and mayonnaise each time I went there and it was the greatest thing ever made. Every night I spent there, just before bedtime, we would pull out a giant pail of generic ice cream out of the deep freeze and have a bowl as a treat.
It was only much, much later that terms like “alcoholism” and “bankruptcy” and “cancer” crept into my vocabulary and added those blotches of gray to my rose-colored view of life with Grandma. My kid now knows the kinds of the things about her grandmother that I once found out about mine. The conversations around the house gave her words like “foreclosure” and “disability” and “disrepair.”
I often wanted to go back to that time where I knew none of those things and I could just hang on to those good things.
My kid knows everything. All she wants is a picture of their land.
And that just wrecks me.