So, about last weekend. I slept in late on Saturday–too late to get breakfast at the hotel. The mall was calling my name, so I headed straight for the Eddie Bauer outlet by way of the Bass Shoe outlet where I purchased two pairs of shoes for less than $30 total, thanks to the 75% off sale.
My phone rang while I was in the middle of the Liz Claiborne outlet. My New Best Friend was calling! Hooray! Only not so much because she wasn’t feeling well. She said she’d call back if she felt better later.
I checked my watch and decided to see Shopgirl. I have been a fan of Claire Danes since “My So-Called Life.”
In contrast to the movie the night before, the theater was not even half full. I’m still not sure what I think about the movie–I expected something different, but I’m not sure what exactly. Perhaps this is another case when reading the “novella” (by Steve Martin) would be helpful.
When the movie ended, I ran through the rain to my super-duper rental SUV, unsure of what to do next. On a whim–and sort of in search of a bookstore–I drove north. The rain made the dark highway shiny and sparkly. I thought I was going one direction, when suddenly the road swerved and I seemed to be heading away from civilization instead of toward a big shopping district. I obeyed a hunch and turned and found myself near the giant mall.
Then the phone rang. It was her! My New Best Friend! And she was at the mall! “Which mall?” I said as I navigating through heavy traffic. I am your worst nightmare, talking on my cell phone while I drive.
Uh, the other mall, the one thirty minutes south, the one I left behind. We agreed to meet at Red Robin (by that other mall). Traffic crawled through one stoplight after another and finally, I had that big red car turned around, heading back.
My New Best Friend and I ordered salads and she talked while I ate. Then I talked while she ate. Then we talked more and ordered dessert and talked more. Finally, our cute young waiter abandoned us with the bill, but we kept talking until our bladders spoke up. I checked my watch and saw it was close to 10:00 p.m ., and so we rushed to the bathroom, talked more, walked outside, talked more and finally said good-bye.
On Sunday morning, I slept late. I wasn’t sure what to do with my final day of freedom. I toyed with the idea of strolling around Pike’s Place Market, but almost without conscious thought, I packed up, paid the bill and drove north.
I drove past the exit where I used to go to my job in customer service at Blue Cross. I drove past the exit where we used to find bargains at the annual garage sale at Mill Creek. I drove past the exit with the Taco Time where I worked in high school. I drove past Alderwood Mall, which used to be the “new” mall, but now is an old mall.
I drove past the spot on the freeway where my stepmom’s little yellow truck died while I was driving to work and thought about how I crossed the traffic on foot and ran up a hill and knocked on the glass door of a closed department store to beg to use the phone. I drove past the spot where my husband and I ran out of a gas years ago on the way back from Wild Waves because we were so devastated and distracted by the news that a key family was leaving our tiny church. I drove past the hospital where I worked as a volunteer when I was a teenager. I drove past the fields where I planted strawberries that summer I was thirteen.
And then, I took the exit right by the pie place where my dad used to take us. I passed the gas station where I filled up my tank on the way to mind-numbing job back in my weepy, infertile days before kids. I noticed that the strawberry processing plant is a furniture store now.
I drove down the main drag of the town where I grew up. The new businesses were distracting, yet I recognized the shop where my dad sold and repaired computers next to the Taco Bell. Then the Junior High, which looked nearly unchanged, and the little building where my dad had a repair shop before he had the computer shop. It stood vacant–no one has ever had a really successful business in that tiny place. I used to sit behind the counter while my dad sat nearby soldering things. I loved to play with the soldering iron and watch metal melt and smell that peculiar odor. He repaired ham radios there and after school I’d hang out sometimes. It was in that shop that he asked me to choose whether to live with him or my mother. “The other kids have already chosen to live with me, but it’s up to you. If you want to stay with your mother, you will all stay with her. I won’t split you up.” I was ten or eleven and I cast the final vote.
As I drove further, I remembered the time he took us out to breakfast at that place near the grocery store. I was aghast that he disregarded the starting bell for school, but he was reckless that day and said it didn’t matter. So we were late for school. It only happened once, but I will never forget it.
I drove past the bowling alley. He took us bowling after The Divorce . . . never before, only after. Some kind of penance he chose, I suppose, to suffer through our bickering on Sunday afternoons and to feel guilt for what he’d done to our family.
I passed the place where a fabric store used to be and thought of how I used to ride my bike everywhere in town. In fact, on that road, a tree branch whacked me as I rode by and I have a scar on my eyelid to show for it. The bakery . . . oh, the bakery. As I drove, I was stifling sobs. My dad spent most every morning at the bakery, drinking coffee and eating a donut with the other old geezers. He was such a regular that the owners–from the “old” country like his grandparents–were like family. The bakery was his “Cheers.” Everybody knew his name.
Now, it’s an Orowheat bakery. The original owners sold it when they retired.
I recognized the place that used to be a drive-in. What was it called? “Wink’s”? I once won a coupon for a milkshake during a “Lassie League” baseball game redeemable at Wink’s. They had really greasy fries and I can remember Karla mopping off the grease with a napkin.
Then I saw the KFC where my sister worked the summer my dad was dying. That long-ago afternoon, I drove the mile from home, heaved open the glass door, asked for her and stood by the case full of desserts. When she appeared, the awful news stuck in my throat and I could barely choke out the words, “It’s time.”
She wept in my arms by the dessert case and then I drove her home in silence. When we arrived home, my aunt stopped me at the front door to tell me he was having seizures, but I pushed down the hallway anyway. His eyes were open, unseeing, and his stiff body jerked. I retreated to the darkened living room, pulling my sister with me. A few minutes later, I returned to the bedroom but he was gone. His body was still and I fingered his graying beard and said to myself, “Poor daddy.”
Between the KFC and our house was a tavern. I used to hurry past the tavern, scared a belligerent drunk would accost me. After the tavern, the cemetery. Our street was off of Cemetery Road. I didn’t drive past the house, though, not yet. First, I turned the SUV into the cemetery. I parked at the back and walked to the spot where my dad’s ashes are encased. I remember the day he waved the deed to the cemetery plot at me. He’d been to the funeral director and made the final arrangements himself. He planned to be cremated and despite his preferences, he realized that we’d need a place to go, a place to remember him.
And so I brushed aside a wet autumn leaf and fingered his name on the brass nameplate. Gary W. M______, 1942 – 1989. The tears puddled in my eyes and blurred my vision for a moment. I wished that I’d purchased the adjoining spot. He’s stuck in there with strangers and that seems so wrong.
I turned to look at the back of the cemetery. The house we’d lived in bordered a vacant lot at the back of the cemetery. As a teenager, I’d pick my way through the strip of woods, push aside branches and wander through the cemetery. I was a solitary girl with a morbid awareness of the brevity of life. I’d stare at the gravestones for babies and children and imagine that crushing loss. But I never thought the day would come that I’d be the one standing over a particular spot in the ground, crying. That only happens to other people.
The cemetery has expanded since I lived in that house fifteen years ago and a driveway is where the woods used to be. The open grassy area where we’d play on those rare snowdays is now full of graves. I walked all the way to the fence and tried to peer over it into the backyard, but I heard voices and didn’t want to be discovered.
I left the cemetery then and drove to the street where we used to live. The thing about driving past your old house is that the casual observer might think you are a stalker or perhaps a thief. I turned the car around in the cul-de-sac, noticed that the house next to our old house looked nice. I remembered the mean old biddies who erected a six-foot fence so they wouldn’t have to see our messy yard. Before they did that, they sent us snotty letters, demanding we clean up the yard. They hated us. And they had some kind of local Christian television show. No wonder my dad left the church because of hypocrites.
The garage door at our old house was wide open and my dad would have been so proud to see all the stuff shoved into that garage. He was a man of many interests and a packrat, besides, so in his day, ham radios and computers and SCUBA equipment and campstoves and shelving and books and boxes created mazes in the garage. If we lost something in our family, we’d say, “It’s in a box in the garage,” because we had boxes under the never-used pool table which were never unpacked from the time we moved in.
In the front yard, the Christmas tree my husband and I planted the year after my dad died stretched high into the sky. The afternoon we planted that tree, I burned a pan of rice on the stove. I hadn’t intended to do that, of course, but a multi-tasker to a fault, I left the rice cooking while we went out to dig a hole for that tree. And instead of turning it on “low,” I left the burner on “high.” Smoke filled the house and the smoke detector was shrieking by the time we finished. My saucepan was partially melted on the burner.
That Christmas tree has thrived in the front yard and whoever lives in that house has no idea that it was once an actual indoors Christmas tree, a symbol of hope and love and peace, a living memorial of the first Christmas without my dad.
When I finished cruising by my old house, I was done. Just finished. I had no desire to see my old high school or to drive past the church where I grew up. I’d driven down memory lane and found it changed, though the same, bigger and yet smaller than I’d remembered. How life can simply march on without the band leader is a mystery I still cannot understand, but it has and that little brass nameplate is proof.
And so my weekend ended with a pilgrimage to my past and then a return to my future where my little girl flew into my arms with cries of “I missed you so much, Mommy!”