A Love That Could Never Be

I didn’t know much about him because I chose not to, but I do know that Lee Wold’s favorite song was “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. I assumed it was because he heard it on one of several tours of duty as a Green Beret in Vietnam and not because he had tried LSD, but it was only a guess because he didn’t like to talk about Vietnam. The only time he brought it up was when we watched a documentary about the war and he recognized himself – a young, thin man with dark hair and regulation black-rimmed glasses, like many of the man-boys in the film – jumping off a helicopter in a clearing near the jungle. I asked him if he ever killed anyone and he said yes, that was his job, but he didn’t elaborate and I didn’t press him. 

A year before I met him, I was nineteen. I had a baby, and then a few days later my husband died. After the practical dust settled, I found a job pouring 3.2 beer and planting trees at a nine-hole golf course. I tried college for a few months until the bill arrived, and I dropped out and found a job in the mailroom at Musicland’s headquarters. I was still squarely in the midst of grief, but I had done everything I could to run away from it, naive to its power, how it changes shape and beckons you, like a stranger with candy, into its car, and you let it abuse you and take everything and it gives nothing in return. 

My crazy jumpy grab at anything to feel normal again led me to an Advanced First Aid class at the American Red Cross, the first step in fulfilling my childhood dream of being a paramedic, although how practical that was being a single mother and barely twenty years old wasn’t something I considered.

That’s where I met Lee. He was the instructor, a serious man, and handsome in a Mr. Rogers kind of way, only without the smile. Always distant, guarded, and very precise, Lee never joked. Or if he did, you weren’t sure if you should laugh or not. Like Churchill described Russia, Lee was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. 

The first time he asked me for a date, he was sitting at a table grading tests and I was standing over him, waiting to ask him a question about bandages or CPR or something else that I don’t recall. And I also don’t remember if he looked at me or not, but the question was asked and I felt…even now I can’t find the right word to describe it. Shocked? Confused? Excited? Never mind he was the instructor and shouldn’t have asked a student on a date, but whatever it was I felt, I said OK, and he wrote down my phone number. I didn’t tell him I had a child and he didn’t tell me he was twice my age. 

On the night of our date, he brought me a bright red tropical flower. An anthurium, heanthurium-red called it, from Hawaii, where he was born and raised. I’d never seen such an exotic flower, not in Minnesota in February, and especially not one so boldly sexual.

On my hip was my eleven-month-old daughter. 

“This is Carlene,” I said. 

“She’s beautiful,” he said, smiling at her. He exuded a genuine warmth that no one in class would suspect he possessed when he lectured on wound care or how to rescue someone who was drowning. During the next few months, he fussed over Carlene and me, but I grew increasingly frustrated with his perception of me. For instance, he always told me I had pretty green eyes, but my eyes are mostly blue. Lee saw what he wanted to see, and I couldn’t change that. In the end, I needed an emotional connection he wasn’t able to give, and by the time I learned I was pregnant, we were no longer seeing each other. 

He reluctantly, yet with a sense of obligation, relinquished his parental rights, although I brought Cassie to see him a few times when she was a baby. When she was five, I was remarried and we moved out of state. He got married and had three sons, although he promised his wife he wouldn’t tell them about their sister. I continued to send him photos of her every year, and a few times when I visited Minnesota, we would meet for coffee and I would catch him up on her life. One year he gave me a Pooky plush toy (Garfield the Cat’s teddy bear) and asked me to give it to her. I wasn’t a big Garfield fan, but he and Cassie were. Humor, in this case, was nature, not nurture. 

Lee re-met Cassie when she was sixteen. We agreed to meet at his office, and we spent an hour of uncomfortable moments of him telling Cassie it was my fault he didn’t get to know her, and that he loved her and he loved me and that he always did, like he thought somehow Cassie could heal his heart, if only she could get me to listen to him. We left, exhausted, and his future communications with Cassie were sporadic, and with me even fewer. 

One of the last times I “talked” to Lee was in 2015, when I sent him a text message as I decorated my Christmas tree on Cassie’s birthday, December 12. I was listening to the Moody Blues’ CD December. The song “A Winter’s Tale” reminded me of our relationship, at least from my perspective, and I shared it with him. He wrote back saying he still wished things had been different. I couldn’t share his wish, as I was the one who let us go thirty years earlier and even now wouldn’t change my decision, but I thanked him, as I always did, for our daughter, and told him that I couldn’t imagine life without her. He said neither could he. 

Lee finally told his sons about Cassie, because you know secrets, the big ones don’t stay secret forever. Cassie met them a few years ago, and their love for each other is as genuine as if they’d known each other from the days they were born. Lee seemed happy to have them all together in his house, even though he expressed that happiness in his passive-aggressive, detached way. 

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Lee died on Friday, alone in a nursing home, but thankfully in his sleep. He hadn’t remembered anyone or anything for several months. He took with him secrets no one could unearth, and emotions he couldn’t share. But I know for certain that he loved his daughter, his sons, and me in his own enigmatic way that we will never fully understand. May he finally find that peace that was stolen from him years ago, and rest knowing that we loved him, too. 

 

Let’s Do the Time Warp. A Photo Time Warp.

Over the last several weekends, I’ve been (finally) sorting through photos from each of my daughters’ photo albums, the ones I started when they were born. When they grew up and moved into places that weren’t dorms or student housing, I gave each of them their photo album, then in late 2018, they gave them back to me because I promised to have them digitized. They sat in a box in the garage until…well, let’s just say right now I have no excuse not to get this project done.

As of today, I’ve sorted through each photo, and in the process, I came up with my own weird Dewey Decimal System for categorizing them. What is abundantly clear is that for every one photo of Cassie alone (the younger), there are five of Carlene (the older). Part of the reason is the wholly different circumstances in which they came into this world (see “Twin Daughters of Different Fathers”), but mostly it’s because, like many parents, second children – when they are young, at least – simply aren’t photographed alone as often as their older sibling was. Besides, even if I wanted to take a picture of just one, they were almost always together.

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Carlene (left), 4 and Cassie, 2

It’s not just faces in photos that make them special or memorable. In one photo I found, my mother – who is talking to someone outside the frame – is holding one-year-old Carlene on her lap in my grandmother’s apartment. They are formally dressed. There’s an unlit cigarette in an ashtray on the kitchen table and a bit of red wine in a water tumbler. I know it’s wine because it’s next to my mother. Within the frame is the side of Grandma’s refrigerator, decorated with cactus and cowboy magnets, gifts no doubt from her sister, my great-aunt Martha, who wintered every year in Arizona. I was able to deduce that the photo was taken in February 1984 on the weekend of my grandma’s eightieth birthday celebration. My dad and his brother, her only children, bought her a curio cabinet and each of us grandchildren and grgirlpigeat-grandchildren – about 10 of us at the time – bought her curios. I remember I chose a small figurine of a child dressed in coveralls and riding a pig. My husband had died the year before and I wanted something that represented the memory of us: Carlene, him and me raising pigs on a farm not far from my grandmother’s apartment. This memory led me to eBay and to the exact figurine and $7.50 (including shipping) later…it will be here on Friday.

Just as one photo can make you smile, another can bring up a worry you’ll never forget. This is definitely one of them:

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My little sister, who was nine, is holding up Carlene, who was about fourteen months, on her bike. Notice the thick bandage on little Carlene’s hand. A few days before, I was in the bathroom putting on makeup while my curling iron heated up. Carlene toddled in, and before I knew she was there, she grabbed the curling iron. Just typing that makes me sick to my stomach. She screamed, I screamed. I grabbed her and ran to the kitchen to put her hand under cool running water. As she cried, I called the pediatrician’s office (I’m surprised they could hear a thing I was saying) and they told me to put her hand in ice water and get her to their office as soon as possible.

When we got there, Carlene was staring out the window, and her cries were now a staccato-breath whimper. The doctor carefully opened her hand and the poor thing had first and second degree burns on her palm and halfway up her little thumb and index finger. I didn’t cry because I didn’t want to scare Carlene any more than she was, but I assure you I felt like the worst mother in the history of motherhood. In the days that followed I didn’t let her out of my sight, and she fell asleep in my arms every night to me whispering “I’m sorry.”

Looking at so many photos is bound to send anyone down a few rabbit holes and into a time warp coma. But going through my girls’ photos has helped focus my attention, if even for a few hours, on a time that wasn’t always perfect, but isn’t right now.

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Oh, the cuteness!

 

Emotional Transportation

My sister texted me last night to say she was on the struggle bus. I wrote back saying I was on the vacant train. I can’t think my way out of a bag this week, and I can’t retain the plot of a movie or TV show without referring to IMDb. To help shake these cobwebs, I’m cooking things that, unlike slapping together a grilled cheese, require thought and concentration. Even then, I follow a recipe like I’m stoned. It took me over an hour to make rice pilaf yesterday.

On Monday I made bread in the bread maker, which is simple enough to do, but I measured out the yeast like it was the last glass of wine I’d ever drink. I have one and half yeast packets left, enough for one loaf of English muffin bread and another loaf of bread maker bread, and it feels weird and waaaaay hypervigilant that I know that. I can buy bread in the store, but like many of you, I’m trying to limit where I go. It’s been nine days since I was in a physical store (Lowe’s for water softener salt) and it was the first time I’d worn a mask. I support wearing a mask in public, but wow…I didn’t realize how confining they are. Nothing like a little claustrophobia to go along with a heightened state of germaphobia.

I understand that this vacant feeling is part of my emotional response to the pandemic, and I admit that I have adopted old coping mechanisms, including self-judgement for utilizing old coping mechanisms, and I really need to stop “doomscrolling” before going to bed. But the one emotional transport my sister and I agreed we wouldn’t hop on is the guilt wagon.

I’m all for utilizing time creatively…in normal times. But right now, I’m not up to faking creativity. Sure, I would love to write something brilliant with this “extra” time on my hands, but never in a million years could I guilt myself into it. What I’m writing right here is borderline boring, or maybe it’s all-in boring, but it’s all I’ve got right now and that’s OK. And if I feel like reading a book or watching a show at 1:00 in the afternoon instead of being brilliant, I do it. Now, sometimes I do it with a glass of wine or I eat crackers and cheese in bed with the dog (*see the last paragraph about coping mechanisms), and sometimes I say to myself, “You should ____” (write, exercise, sweep the deck…), but I’ve gotten pretty good at shutting myself up.

Nesting Interrupted

We thought the snakes would work, but they only scared the tufted titmouse, who was back this year to make a nest on top of a spotlight bolted to a rafter on our back porch. I was sitting at my desk last week when she arrived, and from my window, I watched her fly around the rubber snake and fly away, never to be seen again. A sparrow, however, was not deterred, and yesterday, she went about building a nest in that precarious, fateful place where few baby birds survive. They often fall out of the nest or die from the oppressive heat coming off the tin roof.

It’s fun to watch a mama bird sitting on her nest and then feed the babies once they hatch, but I couldn’t take another year of watching them die, so before the little sparrow could go any further, Jim got up on a ladder and removed the dried grass and leaves she’d so carefully put in place, and removed the light. He also covered the small electric box with heavy duty tin foil and stapled it to the rafter.

As he worked, I watched the little bird, with a scrap of grass in her mouth, fly from the clothes line to the hemlock on the edge of the porch to the opposite corner of the porch and back to the clothes line, no doubt concerned by what she was witnessing. I said, “We’re doing this for your own good,” but you can’t reason with a bird, of course. Now, sitting here in my office, I watch her flying around the rafters, wondering where her little nest went. She circles through every few minutes, like what I do when I’m looking for something I’ve lost and I keep looking in the same place, hoping it will magically appear.

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I’m sorry, little bird. I know this is a stressful time for you. I remember “nesting,” that inexplicable urge to prepare before my babies were born. It was like I woke up one morning and a switch had gone off in my head: Get ready NOW! You need to do all the things NOW! If someone or something had stopped me, I’m sure I’d have been stressed beyond belief.

A friend of mine who knows a lot about birds (she’s who bought us the rubber snakes) assures me that sparrows are resourceful and that the little bird will soon find another place to build her nest. That is helpful, and hopeful, even though as I complete this, she’s still circling, still with a tuft of grass in her mouth. I think how she is a metaphor for these confusing times. She is stressed, and rightly so. But she’ll be alright, eventually. And so, too, will we.

The Worrying Worrier and the Worries of Worry

Never in my life have I dreamed about toilet paper…until Sunday night. I woke up in a panic at 1 a.m. wondering what would happen if we ran out, and you know how everything is 20 times worse in the middle of the night, right? It wasn’t a Xanax-worthy panic attack, but it took me a while to go back to sleep, and I woke up still wondering where I was going to buy toilet paper.

Of all the things to worry about (and believe me, I worry), toilet paper is on my mind the most, I think, because toilet paper, or the lack thereof, is an easier worry to worry about than all the other worries right now.

I remember when my worrier self fully fledged, 38 years ago today (April 2). It was the day before my wedding. I’d recently moved to the acreage where my future husband, Bruce, and I would live before taking over the family farm in a few months, and I was there waiting for my family and a few friends to drive down from Minneapolis, 200 miles away.

The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, warm for early April, and it was humid and windy. It smelled and felt like a severe storm could form any minute, and it did, late in the afternoon, after everyone arrived safely. My family was staying with my aunt and uncle in town (Jasper, Minnesota, population – at that time – 750…give or take), and my friends, Pam and Mike, were staying in our spare room. Bruce drove out after evening chores, and the four of us hung out and drank beer. After dark, the wind picked up again and rattled the windows. Thinking another thunderstorm was on its way, I looked out a window and it was snowing, as in I-couldn’t-see-across-the-road snowing! And that, my friends, is when my worrier self was born.

I freaked.

I think I said something like (and almost certainly all in one breath): “Oh my god how can we get married tomorrow no one will be there what if our soloist can’t get here from Iowa what if the ring bearer’s family can’t drive down from Minneapolis what if we get snowed in what if…what if…what if???”

Bruce, ever the patient and calming presence, assured me that we would get married the next day, even if he had to borrow a tractor or snowmobile to get us to the church. Still…I worried, and I’ve been worrying ever since.

For the better part of the last half of my life, I’ve spent countless hours (and money) in and out of therapy to “cure” my worried self. What I learned, though, is that I won’t ever not be a worrier, it’s in my DNA, and that I cannot control much of anything except how I respond to what it is I’m worried about. And it’s the response part that I work on, or at least try to be aware of, every day.

These are unprecedented times, indeed. The other word I use a lot is “uncertain.” It’s hard not to worry in these uncertain times. But I heard something recently that stopped my worrying mind in its worried tracks. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “Times are uncertain, but they’ve always been uncertain and always will be uncertain. We’ve never been able to predict the future. Be focused on now and not spend your time worried about what might happen.”

The big difference between today and a day six months ago is the devastating virus now in our midst. But that day six months ago is also no different than today because the uncertainty of six months ago is the same uncertainty now. Our response to our worry is where our strength lies. That’s the only thing we can control.

Yesterday afternoon, as I read the news, “Three Little Birds” popped into my head, insistently, like it really needed me to listen. I found the song on YouTube and I listened to it over and over (sometimes sobbing) until I started to believe that every little thing is gonna be alright, in its own way and in its own time. It always has been that way and it always will. May you, too, believe what Bob is singing, and that it helps lessen the worry in your own mind.

PS: We got married (alas, without a ring bearer), and we didn’t need a snowmobile to get to the church.

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