Of mice and wo(men)

September. 1972. On this tiny island where I spend my summers now, my parents and I moved into an old farmhouse. We drove across the country in the old black Mercedes, my father at the wheel, my mother as co-pilot and me in the backseat with our dog Jack.

Snapshots from the road trip are still firmly embedded in my mind. The Sinclair gas station dinosaur. Travelodge’s Sleepy bear. Pecan logs from Stuckey’s.

That first winter, when it snowed in October and all we had was woodstoves to keep us warm, the walls told me bedtime stories. Turns out what I heard was the scurried click of squirrels’ claws running laps along the two-by-fours.

Eight-year-old me, untroubled by squirrels in the walls. From the time I was born, I was an animal lover. I had tea parties with stuffed animals. No dollhouses for me; instead, I built a mouse house from shoeboxes, fashioned furniture from match boxes.

In simplistic harmony with our island surroundings, we coexisted with the natural world. Deer nibbling crabapples out back; wild turkeys in the front yard. Foxes and fishers at the edge of the woods. After that first winter fifty years ago, the squirrels took up residence elsewhere.

All these years and I’ve never seen a mouse in the house. Until last weekend. Three, to be precise. Like the nursery rhyme.

After a few panic-filled hours, I sealed off the room where I’d spotted them. Set traps. Said a prayer for any rodent souls who might take the peanut butter bait.

Days later, the traps sit untouched. No further sightings, no scampering of tiny feet across the 175-year-old pine floors. The exterminator comes tomorrow and I’m torn between eradication and coexistence.

I can jam their radar, confuse their sense of smell with dryer sheets and bowls of Pine-Sol, so the mice know the difference between their space and human space. I can allow the Orkin man to target the source of the infestation. I can do both.

Earlier this morning, a squirrel peered in window of my writing studio. He knows his space. And I’m learning mine.

Half-Mast

After my parents’ divorce, my mother started dating a man named Bob. I resented him. Fiercely. That flat-top, Marine buzz cut; his even-tempered personality; their 17-year age difference; how hard he tried to be my friend; the way he called me “kid.” By the time my mother married Bob—right there in our house, my house, the house on the island where she and my father and I had lived until he left us for a different family—I outright hated Bob. He was not my father. And he never would be.

At the small April wedding in our living room, in pink bridesmaid dress and straw hat, my half-smile in the Polaroid snapshot was as false as Bob’s upper denture.

After two years of alternately tolerating and tormenting my mother and Bob, I, too, left to live with different family: my father, his wife and her twelve-year-old son. Without a word of warning, I hopped a Greyhound bus the summer of my fourteenth year, armed with a haphazardly-assembled LL Bean totebag of essentials: Levi corduroys, flannel shirts, my Stephen King book collection. Four hours later, I called my father from the bus terminal behind the Esso station by the river.

“Does your mother know where you are?” he asked.

“Nope,” I admitted.

“Best give her a call, then,”

So began the next chapter in my life.

***

Running away to another life was among the first in a series of many future impulsive, and generally ill-fated, life choices: nearly quitting high school my last semester to party in Florida; moving in with an abusive boyfriend; drifting in and out of various colleges and minimum wage jobs; selling everything I owned and moving three thousand miles away to the West Coast with no job or money; getting a tattoo.

Really, though, leaving my mother to live with my father was a selfish choice. Bob was too old, too nice, too hokey. Bob never got mad, never raised his voice. He was goofy. Ice cream delighted him. He had a closet full of polyester pants and worked at the local newspaper. He wore bifocals. He whistled constantly and did crossword puzzles. He wore gingham shirts (short-sleeved, at that) and bow ties. And Keds—Keds!—on weekends, with plaid shorts. He drove a Volvo wagon and subscribed to National Geographic. Bob was too damn nice. And he would never be my father.

My father, on the other hand, was a free spirit. An oceanographer by trade, now trying his hand at running a 25-room bed-and-breakfast. He could debate for weeks on any number of the provocative issues of the moment: nuclear power, ACLU rights, the Carter Administration’s peace accord. My father wore jeans and T-shirts, drove a beat-up Saab and heated his house with wood. He was an environmentalist before it was trendy to be “green.” My father was the cool dad.

As the years passed and my perspective shifted, Bob began to grow on me. Through my blurred twenties when I’d return for a brief summer visit to that house on the island, Bob was still there, still as cheerful as ever. He still adored my mother and was nothing but pleasant and considerate toward me. After my father’s second marriage came to a screeching and unexpected end, I realized how deeply Bob loved my mother and the stability he’d brought to her life.

And so, on my summer vacations to Maine, I began to spend more time with my mother and Bob and less time with my friends. After a life-changing event which included divorce, death and sobriety, I grew to appreciate my mother’s and Bob’s routines: Bob helping my mother with her monthly newsletter; cheeseburgers at the island’s lunch-counter-bowling-alley; a shared maple walnut ice cream cone; church every Sunday. Even after 28 years, they were as passionate as newlyweds.

And yet, I never told Bob I loved him.

In a strange twist of fate, I am now married to my own Bob. There is an age difference. He wears gingham shirts on occasion (long-sleeved, no bow tie), whistles, loves ice cream, was in the printing business, has great legs. And, like Bob, he has brought decades of love and stability to my life.

The last time we spoke, fifteen years ago, I called Bob on Father’s Day. His voice was raspy but exuberant. He’d just brought the flag in for the night, he said; another daily routine from his time with the Marines. I told him I loved him; this I finally knew. “I love you, too, kid,” he said.

A few weeks later, he passed away.

Bob would have been 100 years old on Father’s Day. He may be gone from this life, but his legacy lives on. And in my memory, his flag will always fly at half-mast.

No One Wants to Die in the Desert

By the time I was eight, my father’s oceanography career, combined with his relentless wanderlust, had taken us from coast to coast: Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf Coast, the beaches of San Diego.  

My memories of these places are faint and far away: an orange Creamsicle melting on my tongue from the ice cream truck, sun sinking into Chesapeake Bay; Mrs. Diaz teaching us how to count to ten in Spanish at Miami preschool; tremors from the Southern California earthquake that rattled the pictures on the wall and my parents enough to want to move back to the island in Maine where they’d first met.

The island was where my childhood began.

My mother stayed on that island for fifty years, in that old farmhouse where I’d grown up. Long after my father left for another family, long after I left to feed my own wanderlust, pursuing various careers from coast to coast, long after her second husband passed away.

And after dementia planted its tangled roots in our lives, I returned to care for her in that house until her own restless wanderings took over and I moved her out west, closer to me. She may have been confused over the cacti and stucco, but she was aware enough to realize that here, this place, this desert, was not home.

And when she asked, when everyone’s dead, can we go home? I took her home, this time to another old house, on the water, not far from the island, with a handful of friends like her and caregivers she often thought were me and she may not have known exactly where she was but I think she felt the same peace I did each time I visited her there.

And as she faded from this life, I was with her, whispering: welcome home, mummy, it’s time to come home. And when she passed, two months ago today, I knew that I couldn’t bring her back, but I could bring her home.

Home. That house, that place, is home and the island is my mother’s love. Where the spindly branches of the backyard crabapple trees hold me in their embrace. Where the sea, like her soul, surrounds me. The house has a heartbeat: it is hers.

I am forever destined to be Dorothy, lost in my Oz-like existence, until I return to the island for good, the imperceptible click of my heels a final echo in the hollow space of the desert. Here is not home, only the fading dreams of a life that existed so long ago—before my career ended; before my step-daughter’s suicide; before my mother’s death; before I realized my true home was somewhere else.