Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I'm Goin' Home

I needed to sort a few things out in my mind yesterday, and so I took a long drive. I never intended it to be quite so far, but before I knew it, my car was heading North up 95. I was going home, to the place I grew up.If I had planned this trip, I would have brought my camera, but I didnt, so the things I saw will have to remain in my minds eye, and maybe that is for the best.
when I was born, my mom was 17 years old. she was the youngest of 15 kids, dirt poor, and had never been raised with much of anything, especially love. Somehow, she managed to have a very strong maternal instinct, and an innate ability to survive. Although I would say they made a fair number of mistakes, I understand that they were SO young, and she came into it with so little preparation. One thing she always did was love us, even when her own internal battles raged and she was not the mom from Leave It To Beaver, in her way, she loved us better than many moms who are born with silver spoons in their mouths. But we were poor. I used to think she just didnt like to eat much, then I realised she was giving my brother and I the only food there was, many times. I am not sure how we made it, no car, little food, 2 babies being raised by a teen girl. She carried us to work with her, one on each hip, a year and eleven days apart, frostbite on her own legs, but us believing it was a fun adventure.
I drove into "The County" as we call it, Aroostook County, Maine. It is a 31/2 hr drive each way. Although I am firmly rooted here in my town and have lived here virtually all of my adult life, the call of "home" is strong. Driving past the potato fields, harvesters and diggers, Mount Katahdin, and the University Of Maine at Presque Isle was an awesome feeling. I was almost home, that other home of my childhood, the place where I came from, and I was determined to take the time to see the places I havent seen in 15-20 years.
I came over the hill into Caribou, the place of my birth, and felt a rush of emotion. No matter where I go, there will never be another feeling like the one I have driving through the places of my childhood. My Aunt Betty's house, a tiny little yellow bird of a place, it never changes, although no longer hers. There is still the huge propane tank in the yard, it looks like a submarine, and thats what we used it for as kids. My cousins Beth and Lisa and Barbara and their brothers Bobby and Duane would climb inside it, pretend it was a sub, and have great adventures. Driving by the house took barely 10 seconds, but in that flash of time I remembered Barbies tomboy ways, the little hideout under the house, Beth ann trying to fly off the neighbors roof with just an umbrella to break her fall. we really believed it would work, it did for mary poppins! I remembered my Uncle Phillip getting so drunk he passed out on the couch, and us kids broke out Bettys makeup kit, and painted every inch of his face in garish colors, did his toenails and fingernails, and tied little bows into his hair. He would wake up screaming mad, and then laugh and chase us out of the house. I remembered when we lived there, before my biological dad went to prison, before Betty moved in, sitting in the dark at the kitchen table, with my dad furiously mad and me quietly trying not to gag down the cold food I despised. And I remembered me and Duane as teens, sitting in his car, up on blocks, singing Leather & Lace by Stevie Nicks, the only thing that worked on that car was the radio, but I was about 13 and hero worshipped him. I will never forget that day, and the friendship we shared. It was only a few months later that I called his house after school and lisa answered, I asked for him, and she said he couldnt come to the phone just then. I heard it in her voice, something was wrong. I was sitting at dinner that night, my mom was at work, when my stepdad answered the phone. He took a message, then dialed my mother at the nursing home where she was working, to tell her that "your idiot nephew hung himself today". And I sat there, trying to swallow, my heart was racing, but I couldnt show emotion or he would turn on me. And i knew it was my Duane, and he had promised me he never would, and I had believed him. I remembered his funeral, and a neighbor trouble maker who pulled down his turtleneck, and showed everyone the marks on his neck. I remembered my Grandmother, who had been told a different story, and the shock and dismay on her face when she knew. And I remembered going there a year or so later, when Lisa gave birth to her first child, Nikki, standing over the crib in the newly remodeled house, admiring the baby, and then realizing with a chill that I was standing in the exact spot where his body had hung, and I looked up, and the patched hole was still there. I never went back there again.
I kept driving, and checked on a property we own up there, my bio dads old family home, a trailer on a little plot of land. It was snowed in, no footsteps, meaning no one had been there causing trouble. Nothing to see, snowbanks too high to get inside, and a sigh of relief. I hate dealing with that place, the anger and resentment are still too strong. deal with it in the springtime, when we can figure out what to do with it.
I drove on, and came to the little trailer park where we lived when I was small, in the days just before my dad went to prison (again). dell-wood trailer park. I drove in, not expecting to see anything familiar, but I had forgotten that trailer parks never age, and 3 doors down on the left, there it was. Maybe it is my mind playing tricks, but I dont think so. I remembered jumping off the porch and hitting my head on the rollout window, I remember that there was an awful secret propagated there...and I remembered the little boy named Richie Plante who lived across the way, who was my brothers best friend, and who had some kind of liver or kidney disease and needed a transplant. I drove around the road and out, back onto the highway. I wanted to visit the place I spent the happiest days of my childhood. Loring Air Force Base.
When my mom remarried, a guy named Ray adopted us. (I havent seen him in 20 years) I used to think he was just a jerk, he was way too strict, and had a mean streak. But he was a few years younger than even my mother, meaning when I was 7, he was barely 21. She was 24. hardly old enough to take care of themselves, let alone 2 little kids. But they did. It makes more sense now why they screwed up sometimes, but back then I just thought he was mean. But he was in the military, and he brought us out of poverty, and to this little piece of Heaven AF base. There were green lawns, a Rec center, pool, movie theatre, woods to climb in, lakes to fish in, sports teams, and a courtyard of friends to play with. I wanted to see those places again. I hadnt been on the base since I was about 17, 23 years ago. The base actually closed in the early 90s, but in my mind, it has always been the same, just with new occupants.
I drove past what used to be the main gate, where you had to show ID to get in, and it felt a little weird just driving in, I looked to see if there was anyone in the gatehouse, but it was empty. It was a very emotional thing for me, to go back there. But it was instinctual, too, although I had not had a license when I lived there, I had ridden my bike through all of the roads that werent heavily guarded. I knew it even now, and every road filled me with memories. But as I drove, I was disappointed. Damon elementary was gone, apparently torn down. I passed beaver Dam, where we crossed the little stream to get home every day, and I could almost hear us laughing. In my minds eye, i could see myself, too, running from a boy named paul on his motorcycle, chasing me with the promise of more touching that I didnt want. I shook the memory away and kept driving. I planned to go through the housing, but there was a huge snowbank in the way. My mom told me later last night that they tore all the old houses down. acres and acres of houses...what a shame.
I drove down the main drag, past the hospital which is now some kind of adminsitrative building. Past the Youth center where I spent many many hours playing. It was closed up, unpainted, the road into its driveway blocked by snow. The playground still stood, but you could see it hadnt known the laughter of children for a very long time. Part of the roof was caved in, and it made me cry. I was sad to see the places of my childhood so neglected and unloved. so many memories, baseball games, cars lined up for a mile, parents sharing laughs the same way we do now for ours. It was all gone.
I drive through the base, past the old theatre where i watched all the early Disney movies, eiding our bikes there every weekend to see what was playing and buy the jolly rancehrs candies we loved so much. I last went there when I was a teen with Jim and our friends Peter & Theresa to see Children of the Corn. I remember Jim and I snuck out early, it was pouring rain and pete came out to bring the car around. Jim and I were hiding in the backseat, when he got in I grabbed his shoulder and said in my scariest corn voise "He wants you too, malachi!" peter jumped. I laughed as I drove away, remembering that day and the fun we used to have there. Past the old pool, the heavy air and the smell of sweat from the locker rooms. I often dream about that place, and I wonder how we as kids were able to stay safe in a building chock full of young military men. Respect, trust, whatever...we were always safe there. Past the NCO club, where my mom won my hope chest at Bingo one night. To the flightline, and the hangars, where housands of us gathered to watch the air shows, the Thunderbirds roaring overhead, Blue Angels too. The low building where we climbed to watch the planes, sitting in the belly of a KC135, walking on the wings of the biggest military planes of the day. Running through the hangars, watching the younger guys salute my dad, sitting in the boom of a tanker, imagining what it was like to fly. The hangars were all chipped and rusty, doors closed. In my mind I could see the sharp military men and women, the pride in the upkeep, the gleaming windows and smartly painted doors. And I cried. It felt sad to be there, remembering the roar of the crowd, the decency and kindness of the people there. In my mind, I said goodbye to Ray, and I thanked him for giving us those years. He did the best he could.
I drove past base Ops, where I met Jim on a bus one day 25 years ago, Feb 25th, during the winterama, when boy and girl scouts gathered to spend the weekend in the snow. I had a group of little girls, I was a jr leader. he had a group of little boys, he was one of the older kids who helped with the troop. It was pouring rain, and I had just sent all my girls off for the day, they were too little to spend the night. I was waiting for my bus, when I heard one honk. I thought it was mine, but it was Jim. he had seen me standing there, and wanted me to look up. said he wanted to see my eyes again, he had seen me in the base Ops building. I had taken my glasses off because of the rain, and was half blind. I ran to the door, thinking it was my bus, and was too cool to let them think I made a mistake, plus he was sitting there so handsome, looking down at me with a shy smile. I climbed on board and found a seat in the back, asked if they would mind me catching a ride. It wasnt long before he was sitting beside me in the back seat, holding my hand. Memories....
I left the base, past the old restaurants, through the town we moved to when we moved off the base. Past my high school, my childhood best friends Lisas house. I couldnt believe it when her parents still lived there. Her mom came to the door, peeked through, hollered "Bernie, can you believe it, its Lisas friend Michelle!" MANy pounds heavier, many years older, but she knew it was me by my eyes, she said. she gave me Lisas new number, hugged me 50 times or so, and told me to keep in touch. I got the distinct feeling this was goodbye for real, and there were tears in my eyes when I said it.
Past Main street, which is mostly boarded up now, the little grocery store I worked at gone. Up my old street, past the twiins house where we climbed trees. past Cindys house, where we had parties we shouldnt have. Past my neighbors house, who hid the big black leather bar Ronnie and I bought my parents one Christmas (which is the one thing from my childhood i still have) and there it was....my house. so much happened there, good and bad. Prom, divorce, abuse, love, sneaking pepsis from the fridge, latchkey kids who dared to tough dads stereo even though it was clearly against the rules. Listening to my parents friends, drunk and laughing, wishing I could be a part of the fun, wondering why they thought it was funny to sing into the vacuum hose? My mom kicking me out, and me getting arrested for kicking the door down and taking my stuff. Michael standing in the doorway, telling me Wnedy was pregnant and he was leaving for the Army. My parents sending me to bed, sitting Jim down to have "the talk". Ronnie going away to join the Air Force, Ray leaving, the little car he bought himself, that seemed like a slap in the face because we were eating with the help of food stamps. Science fairs and poetry contests, a little puppy named Charlie in the mailbox, Dutchess the lab who was our glue. Late nights, when 5 minutes late meant I was grounded, the little cubby closet in my room, papered with Shaun Cassidy and leif garrett posters, only big enough for me to squeeze into, to be alone and away fromt he noise. The house is much prettier now, fancier. It is the same house, but too different. Just memories, keep driving.
I drove into Jims hometown, two towns over from mine. Catholic, french-speaking people with strong values and work ethics. I didnt even drive through town, not past his families old house, not past the ancient trailer we lived in when kristin was born. straight to the nursing home, to see his mom. It has been over 5 years, and I am ashamed to admit that. she is in late stage Alzheimers, and I have been scared. I go to the door, and am asking the nurse at the desk if she can show me to her room, when another nurse walking towards me pushing a wheelcahir says "Oh, right here And I look down into the chair at this tiny woman with grey hair and a frozen smile, and it takes me a minute, and I am ashamed. I wheel her back into her room, pull up a chair, and hold her hand. I cant be sure she really knows it is me, but I think she does. I tell her all about the kids, and Jim, tell her how sorry I am, how beautiful she is...and she is....alzheimers can ravage the brain, but she still has the same eyes of the man I love, the same beautiful skin and small hands. I love this woman in a way I cant explain, and I need her to know that. I try not to cry, but I cant help it. The floodgates open, and I am telling her that I miss her, her cooking, her laughter, the way she held us all together as a family. I tell her that we dont lock kristin in the closet anymore (an inside joke) and I swear she smiles at that. she tries to whisper something, although I have been told she doesnt talk. I listen close, but I cant catch it, although I am sure the word love is in there. I squeeze her hand, now covered by my tears, and tell her I love her too. Her room is full of pictures and beautiful things, unlike that of her roomate, it is clear that she matters to people. I am sad for both of them, and as sad for her as the other, because caring for someone doesnt just mean sending photos at Christmas. It means sitting there, holding their hand, being there, even if there is only the slightest glimmer of recognition. For her, not for me. And I am sad that I have allowed fear and business to consume the years, that Jim has managed to get here half a dozen times without me. And I promise her I will be back, that it doesnt matter how far away we live, we want to see her. and I tell her her youngest baby is doing well, that Jim is successful and happy, mostly, and that we are ok. And I know the smile is there because she hears me. I kiss her forehead and tell her I have to go. and I take her to the lunchroom so she can be fed, and I hold her hand for a minute and contemplate the promise I just made, as I look around me and notice the elderly man holding the hand of the wife who seems not to even know he is there, telling her stories about their grandchildren, devotion. We make time for so many other things, we HAVE to make time for this woman we so love. I hate leaving her, and I cry all the way to the door, where a sweet elderly man tells me the combination to the door code, and I think with amusement about how he could escape, if he wanted to, but instead he makes it a point to be the one who is the gentleman, escorting guests out, showing them how to be free of the place that he may never leave. Life is ironic, isnt it? We hurry to grow up, then we want to revisit our childhoods. we think we want to get older, and then we look it in the eye with fear. I feel like I said goodbye to some things today, and maybe grew a little as a person in the meantime. I hope so anyway. It was a long drive home.

1 comment:

Katrina Stonoff said...

Oh, Michelle, you had me in tears throughout this entry. Very powerful!