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60% tougher–jetzt auf Deutsch!

December 24, 2011

I’m taking a plunger to this blog (the word “blog” has always seemed, to me, to require a plunger).  I got hopelessly clogged this summer, and all kinds of things I meant to write about are stagnating in the…all right, all right.  Block that metaphor, as the New Yorker used to say.  Anyway, I had originally planned to organize a summer post around a slide show on Babble.  Readers hated the slide shows, but the dirty secret is that they boost traffic exponentially, since each slide viewed counts as a moneymaking hit. All summer I kept thinking I’d shut the Babble blog down, and then I’d remember I had pictures to post, and I needed the money, and so I should really post the slideshow before quitting, and then I’d go to sleep.  Or go outside.  Or go swimming.  It was a very non-computer summer, which turned out to be grand.

So you’ll be getting stale old summer stories for a while.  Perhaps it will be a pleasant little escape for those of you who, like me, do not do very well with winter.

(An aside: My ex-husband, whose birthday recently occurred, just came by bearing cake–three pieces, one for each of the kids and one, I assume, for me. The cake was made by his girlfriend, and was delicious, and was delivered on a plate I’d forgotten about–marital china given to us by my mother years ago.  I cannot tell you how much I love all the bizarre levels of intimacy and estrangement that this simple little transaction implied.  I love that he has a girlfriend who is nice enough to bake, nice enough to send cake over, nice enough to include an extra piece for me.  Even seeing the old plate made me happy. Some things never change–the ex didn’t thank me for the token present I gave him, nor for organizing and paying for the kids’ presents, but I somehow don’t give a shit about any of that any more.  As he was when we were married, so shall he ever be. Let’s all eat cake!)

(Another aside:  I have not forgotten that I owe you the second half of the boyfriend-meets-ex story. All shall be revealed. It’s actually not that interesting in the end, so prepare yourself to be disappointed in advance. Though the anticlimax was, in this instance, exactly what I wanted. It doesn’t make for a gripping narrative, but at least I didn’t spontaneously combust.)

And now back to the summer. In August, I went down to South Carolina to help my mother move out of her beach house.  This particular house is my favorite of any my family has ever lived in, though they didn’t actually settle there until I was already in college.  It’s a lovely old Victorian with a massive porch, a block from the ocean, on the tiny barrier island where I spent a good deal of my childhood (in various rented cottages, often during the off-season, when the salty wind would whistle through the uninsulated walls and we’d have the beach all to ourselves).  My mom bought the house right after her divorce from my stepfather (my first stepfather, who married my mom when I was four and left her for another woman when I was sixteen).  It was our dream house, the house that meant she was not only okay post-divorce, but also triumphant. Before we owned it, I babysat for the couple it belonged to. We used to drive by longingly, never thinking we’d actually live there–and then, suddenly, we did.

By “we” I mean my mother, my brother, my sister, and me, when I wasn’t away at college. And, every other week when he wasn’t working, the guy my mother began dating a few months after her divorce. He was (is!  He’s still alive. How does one talk about a former stepfather? There should be a special tense for it–the preterite beau-père, perhaps?) an old old friend from long ago. In fact, his direct ancestor was captain of the ship that brought our direct ancestor to Charleston for the first time, back when South Carolina was still England.  He was (is!) a harbor pilot, descended from a long line of ship captains and blockade runners.  Another of his ancestors was supposed to have been the inspiration for Rhett Butler.  This raised his stock hugely with my sister and me, since we both read Gone With the Wind so many times at impressionable ages that we can, if we put our minds to it, reconstruct the entire novel word for word from memory. And though he was not a great match for my mother in the end, he was–is–a great guy.

After he and my mother got married, my mother agreed to sell the beach house and move into Charleston proper, so that he wouldn’t have to drive out to us between ships. Harbor pilots are on call for a solid week–24 hours a day, seven days in a row–and then off for a week. The weeks he was off, we would all go to his country house. “Country house” sounds fancy, but his was a kind of bachelor farm set down in the middle of nowhere, complete with dogs and chickens and guinea hens and horses and goats (a pair, named Ernest and Hadley by my mother.  We got them to keep one of the foals company when he was being weaned.) There were also foxes and raccoons and hawks and herons and snakes and possums and fire ants and alligators and ticks and chiggers all over the place.

So if you’re picturing a genteel estate, you’re wrong.  My stepfather’s place was bounded by woods and swamp and river, the house was low-ceilinged and weird, the water came from a well, smelled terrible, and tasted worse, and it was nearly an hour away from anything resembling civilization.  You couldn’t go to the grocery store or have friends over or pop round to the public library. You could drive his army jeep around till you got tired of it, even if you were only a kid, and you could swim in the pond, provided you watched out for cottonmouths, and you could play ping-pong in the attic if you didn’t mind the heat.  And you could go out in the enormous pasture and spend a sweaty, exhausting hour or so trying to entice one of his horses to let you put the halter on and lead it back to the barn, if you wanted to ride.

I always wanted to ride. It was like something out of Faulkner, cantering slowly down the fire roads under the oak trees dripping moss, letting the horse pick his way gingerly over the dikes between the old rice ponds and the river.  Once, when I was riding bareback because I’d been too lazy to saddle my horse in the heat, he shied violently at a downed branch on the dike and I went right over his shoulder and nearly landed in the murky, snaky drink. I wasn’t hurt, but it was hot as hell and we were a couple of miles from home, so I held onto the reins and tried, to no avail, to remount. It’s hard to get back up on a horse without a saddle, and this particular horse was very tall. In the end I climbed halfway up a tree and flung myself over his back, at which point he bolted for home with his ears flat against his skull. I managed to get my leg over eventually and we made it to the barn, though I ended up with a terrible case of poison ivy.

Another time (it was Easter Sunday) my sister and I were cantering down to a creek that bordered my stepfather’s place, singing “Freedom” by Wham! at the top of our lungs and giggling like idiots, when we suddenly came upon a whole congregation baptizing its members in the water.  Full immersion baptism is nothing like the little flick in the eye you get if you’re a pampered Episcopalian.  These people were nearly drowning one another. The horses stood and we watched for a long, long time. Everyone who’d been baptized was ecstatic afterwards, and everyone was singing.

Still, we kids liked the beach better–it was our house, after all.  What did we care that my stepfather would only have to walk five minutes to the pilot office from the house they eventually bought in town, instead of driving twenty minutes or more from the beach?  We were selfish. I, especially, was selfish, in a nineteen-year-old’s extra-galling way (“You hardly even LIVE here,” my mother snapped, once, when I was whining determinedly about hating town.) Here is the beginning of a short story I wrote the summer we moved.  It is titled, rather unimaginatively, “The Harbor Pilot”:

Three bridges divide my mother’s house from the mainland. Leaving home, she first crosses the drawbridge, which is green and opens sideways rather than up, allowing sailboats to glide beneath it once per hour in summertime. The steel lattice that hunches over the center of the bridge seems suspended then, its empty edges sticking out over the water.  Beyond the drawbridge is a long stretch of marsh, full of birds sticking their bills in the mud every six hours when the tide seeps away.  Then come the stores along the road, which widens to four lanes, and then come the waterslide and the supermarket and the two TV stations poking red needles into the sky. After the fourth stoplight the periphery widens again and my mother drives her car across Shem Creek. There is water on both sides, but the bridge is too low for boats to pass beneath it, and the marsh is undisturbed on the right except for the seafood restaurants with their wooden boardwalks jutting around the rim of the creek.  On the other side are rows of moored sailboats, impotent and crowded, their naked masts and bound sails testaments to wasted wind. The bridge, too, is disappointing, nothing more than a slow rise in the road, a brief glimpse of water between the railings.

This is the journey I imagine my family making, weighed down by possessions, after we leave our house and journey up and down the sloping bridges until we reach the mainland where the new townhouse my mother has bought stands waiting. I imagine first our car, then my stepfather’s, then a trailer, another car and another, their trunks swollen with boxes, furniture roped onto their tops. Behind them is the old house, unfamiliar for the last several days in the various stages of moving; behind them is the memory of dismantling the house itself. I imagine my mother, her hair pinned up, wrapping plates in newspaper before putting them in boxes and marking the boxes with black pen. Or my sister and brother, shaking the sheets from the mattresses and folding their clothes. Outside, my stepfather has unscrewed the hose from its spigot, but this taking apart is still reassuring, a reshuffling of familiar things laid out at one’s feet: these books, tables, lamps, are ours.

I imagine the beginning of packing, sorting things out. At first, the move will not seem real, not final, no more than a temporary inconvenience. A year ago, my mother had the front hall painted, and for a week the furniture and floor were swathed in plastic. The curtains were taken down, and the sunlight came in unfamiliar patterns. Moving seems a bit like renovation; the unfamiliarity of bare walls and empty rooms sharpens the memory of how things were. Emptied, the house is clearer, larger, more grand and more silent.  And, until the doors are locked and the unsteady caravan begins over the bridges to town, the house is still ours, the memory is clear, we expect to enter and find things as we left them.

I found the story on the second day of packing, in a box filled with notebooks, old English papers, and letters from obsolete sweethearts. The prose made me wince, but there was something positively surreal about reading a story (which I had forgotten ever writing) that described moving out of the beach house while actually moving out of the beach house–again. I looked up. There was my mother, wrapping plates in newspaper with her hair pinned up. There was the sun, blazing through the curtainless windows. The story is not in any way prophetic. I wrote it after the first move, and I couldn’t have known we’d get the house back.  Which we did, about five years later, when the couple who bought it from us called my mother up one day out of the blue.  “You asked us to tell you first if ever we decided to sell,” they said, and my mother, by then divorced from the harbor pilot, bought the beloved house again without a second thought.

It was the summer I got married. “I’ll never leave this place,” she said, many times over the years that followed. And then, last August, she did.

The reasons aren’t important, and they make perfect sense, even to me. Still. It’s the house we loved, relinquished, and were restored to.  What are the chances?  My children loved it. My ex-husband adored it. I’d always hoped to live there myself some day.

I contemplated reading the story to my mother, decided against it (too boring, not to mention embarrassing) and went on packing. At sundown, I walked barefoot to the beach and swam.  It’s not as if the whole island is disappearing, I told myself, bobbing lazily in the waves. I can still drive out here. I can still bring the kids.  The following day, I loaded a bunch of my mother’s lovely furniture onto a sixteen-foot rental truck, and drove it seven hundred miles up the coast to my house, all by myself.

There should be a German word for Things You Never Thought You’d Do, Because Marriage Has Rendered You Selectively Incompetent.  There should also be a German word for Things You Fear, Though You Know You’ll Find Them Thrilling Once You Actually Begin.  Perhaps there should be a German word for someone who drives a sixteen-foot truck all the way home while thinking it’s merely a ten-foot truck, and there should certainly be a German word for the feeling that comes from realizing you have been even braver and more impressive than you thought–a whole six feet braver, if we’re shooting for linguistic precision.  And a German word for Taking Credit Where No Credit Is Due, which is what I did the minute I realized the truck was a behemoth. I wasn’t trying to drive an extra-big rig. At the time, I assumed I was getting the ten-footer I’d reserved on the internet. But the rental place had one truck in its lot, and while it certainly looked enormous to me (and there seemed to be rather a lot of space left over after everything was loaded), it’s not like I bothered to check. Nowadays, I’ve become something of an expert on rental truck sizes, and the sweet little ten-foot models look like SmartCars to me. At the time, though, I just gritted my teeth and climbed into the driver’s seat.

And I drove it home without incident. Like most things I’ve skittishly avoided since the separation, the trip turned out to be–well, one abhors the term “empowering”, but you get my drift.  The lamer you are, the less it takes to make you feel badass. The engine light stayed on the entire time, and the driver’s side mirror was busted (I had to hold it in place in rush hour traffic on the Beltway), but I made it. When I pulled all sixteen feet into my driveway, my kids’ jaws dropped in unison.  They clambered into the cab, marveling at how big it was, and then the three of us unloaded the furniture and moved it, piece by piece, into our house.

Here is a closeup of the truck’s graffiti.  “Maybe all the other truck drivers thought you were in a gang,” my older son said.

The truck itself was so big that it didn’t fit in the frame, no matter how far back I stood.

And here are some swampy pictures of South Carolina, complete with banana spiders.  Can you spot the hidden alligator?

He’s not in the picture above. That’s a hint.

Another hint:  He’s a little tiny one.

Unlike these guys, who are huge.

Taking this picture up close was scarier than driving the monster truck. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. SarahB permalink
    December 25, 2011 4:28 am

    Merry Christmas! I just thought of you this week as I read–and thoroughly enjoyed–rules of Civility. I look forward to more posts.

  2. Donna permalink
    December 25, 2011 7:03 pm

    Merry Christmas! Great post, as usual.

  3. Sharon permalink
    December 27, 2011 10:19 am

    I love South Carolina. Charleston and the Isle of Palms are my two most favorite places on earth.

    • December 27, 2011 10:29 am

      The house in question was (is!) on Sullivan’s Island, but I spent many a summer/year on Isle of Palms as well….

  4. December 27, 2011 10:57 am

    I find it vastly refreshing to read about warmth and activities other than the Christmas cocooning I am currently enjoying. (I always feel monthly calendars should have pictures of something warm in December- February, and somewhere cold for July & August – so we can take a break from the unrelenting cold/heat outside)

    I truly love your writing. ‘The preterite beau-père, perhaps?’ and ‘letters from obsolete sweethearts’ are keepers.

    Both for how much of a chord you struck and how delightfully you phrased it, I think I should embroider this particular bit on a pillow:

    “…one abhors the term “empowering”, but you get my drift.’

    Yay You.
    Thanks for getting back to us. I’d happily read your grocery lists, please keep writing.

  5. Nan permalink
    December 27, 2011 10:43 pm

    Thank goodness you are back. I enjoy your writing immensely.

  6. December 28, 2011 3:41 pm

    Eeeep! *sound of Ann’s thundering hooves leaving blog, pronto* That’s a chunky spider, right enough. Shuddersomely chunky, in fact.

    Bareback? I doff my hat to you. I have fallen off horses in every compass direction, even with a saddle. Usually onto my head, which may explain a lot. Falling off bareback needs no explanation. I could do it without the blasted animal moving, I expect.

    I hunger for the piano recital, btw!

  7. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    December 29, 2011 7:58 am

    I’m a mite disappointed no one has found the alligator….

    • almostclouds permalink
      January 1, 2012 2:23 am

      I need another hint. I’ve been staring at these images for a little too long now.

  8. December 29, 2011 11:50 am

    Merry Christmas and thanks for writing again! Your prose is beautiful!

  9. December 29, 2011 11:23 pm

    OK, so my holiday gift is that you are back! Excellent. More please.

  10. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    January 1, 2012 8:33 pm

    The alligator is sitting on a little wooden platform specifically built so that alligators will sit on them…you can just see its head, but you have to zoom in. I didn’t know it was there when I took the picture, but it’s more unusual to take a picture of a South Carolina swamp WITHOUT an alligator than with one….

  11. Sharon permalink
    January 31, 2012 11:36 am

    Funny, I found a picture just last night of my famly on Sullivan’s Island. Our very close friends lived in Mt. Pleasant for years and we visited all the time. Unfortunately, they divorced and moved back up north where we live. Sad, I miss their intact family and I miss visiting the area. How wonderful to have spent your growing up years there.

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