To me, a home away from home is a place where you feel just as comfortable as you do in your own home. In these places, I find the muscle memory of getting around or what I love has never left, even if it’s been many years since I’ve visited. The places that are my home away from home have changed over the years of my life.
When I think about growing up, home away from home instantly conjures up images of my Nanny’s house, and my Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The moments that I spent in these two places are moments that define my childhood. How could I ever forget the feeling of comfort that I felt at either of these places? There was always a feeling of peace after arriving and hugging my Nanny or Grandma. It was a safe and happy place to be.
I grew up on the east coast, and it will always feel like home to me. Whenever I go back to visit family, there is an immediate comforting and familiar feeling the minute that I get off the plane. It doesn’t matter if I land in Philly, Newark, or Baltimore - it always feels like I am being welcomed home. I couldn’t stand the winters growing up, but now when I go back east for the holidays, the cold air feels inviting and refreshing. The lush, green, rolling hills in the spring and summer months are the most comforting scenery that I could imagine. The leaves changing in the autumn are the most welcome and beautiful sight.
There’s another place that feels like a home away from home for me, and that place is London. Even though it’s been a few years since I lived there, whenever I’m back, it immediately feels like home again. The distinct scent of the underground and the air moving past me as the trains arrive and depart on the underground makes it feel like being there is still the most normal thing in the world. Walking past Regent’s Park and Baker Street Station reminds me of my many mornings going to school and spending time at the pubs with friends after we had finished our classes. There are many other spots all over the city that remind me of wonderful moments and memories with both my family and friends. When I see my dad’s family again, it always feels like no time has passed at all. Everything in the city still feels familiar and comfortable like when I lived there.
I always try to be appreciative of where I live in the present, but I have so many days where I feel the longing to be on the east coast or in London, or I suddenly miss the memories of seeing my grandparents as a child. Whenever this happens, I try to do things that make me feel in tune with those places and moments in time. I have a cup of tea and listen to some of my favorite English bands. I’ll watch a show or movie that takes place somewhere in the Northeast or in the UK. I’ll look back through photos of my favorite spots in these places that feel like my other home, or look back through family gatherings during holidays over the years. I also remind myself that I’ll never stop going back to my home away from homes, and they will always be there to welcome me back.
I firmly believe that a good walk can change your life – it’s happened to me before.
On a solo vacation to London, I was feeling completely frustrated by the fact that I hated my current producer job and hated myself more. So, I went to this beautifully massive park called Hampstead Heath and walked, and walked – for a solid four or five hours.
For a long while, I let my mind run wild with its tornado of anxious, existential thoughts: What am I doing? Why am I here? Why didn’t I wear shoes that fare better in mud? The usual. But once I hit hour three and half, I had somewhat of an epiphany. Everything started to straighten out – It’s like my brain got too tired of thinking at ten thousand miles per hour, and in its surrender, decided to settle on some decisions.
Feeling a weird sense of peace, I sat down on a bench and started to type out a simple one year plan on my phone (I could never plan for longer, due to a deep-set fear and respect for fate). I paused, looked at the muddy grass in the empty field around me, and reminded myself that all I’ve ever wanted to do was write. So: I was going to quit my job to “write.” I would stay in LA, and for a whole year, I would give it my best shot, even if that meant completely depleting my savings account. I was finally going to go for it. And it was going to be okay.
Despite this epiphany, I’ve found it difficult to bring the “art” of walking home to Los Angeles. Though there are walkable neighborhoods, when you consider the most “walkable cities,” it just doesn’t make the list. How can I walk in a city that makes me wander under a freeway just to get to Trader Joes? I daydream about moving someplace else, a place where maybe I wouldn’t be able to afford a backyard, but at least I could go to a bar without having to order a Lyft.
But the past few months have been different. The world is different – we’re collectively fighting off a virus! I’ve lost my job, my social life, and my sanity. My weekly schedule is wide open – like wiiiiiiiiide open. And I can only vacuum my apartment so many times.
So, just about every day, I’ve been walking. Walking to absolutely nowhere (after all, there isn’t anywhere to go). Sometimes I follow a specific route. Sometimes I weave aimlessly through my neighborhood, hoping that the time would pass by faster. On a good day, I cruise through audiobooks of the romance/beach read genre, and on harder days, I listen to the Dixie Chicks and pray that my neighbors can’t see the welling tears through my sunglasses.
Walking isn’t very romantic when you’re not on vacation. It’s starting to feel more like a chore – similar to virtual yoga, it’s just another way to ensure that I won’t have to purchase a new size of jeans whenever we have to wear jeans again. I’ve memorized the homes in my neighborhood, and I hate them all.
But then I take a few days off, and I’m reminded of how much I rely on it. I start to crave it again. I need the escape – a scheduled time to breathe air that hasn’t been circulating inside my apartment. A time to let my mind run: Who am I? When will I start to feel normal again? Will there ever be a normal again? Why didn’t I put on sunscreen before exiting the house?
Slowly, but surely, the spaghetti-like blob that is my brain starts to unravel. And I become more aware that I am a living, breathing person rather than just a bunch of feelings inside a head. I don’t type out a plan, because it’s hard to plan for anything these days. But I do thank the walking gods for letting me feel at ease, even if only for an hour or so. I am here, forcing myself to keep moving. And it is going to be okay.
“Oh my gosh, Chloé, you have to write that!” my friend energetically yelled through my earbuds during one of our many quarantine phone conversations. I’m not sure if it was the excited yelling, which I’m not used to experiencing in my solo quarantining, that compelled me but I immediately made the short jaunt in my studio apartment to my junk drawer. I quickly grabbed the first pen I saw, which happened to be the beautiful forest green stylus styled pen from The Pelican Hill Resort where I spent a weekend at before the world halted. I stopped listening to whatever it was that my dear friend was saying on the other end of the phone so I could properly put pen to the newspaper I found next. It was oddly satisfying to be bossed around and urgently told to write a headline of my own, of my life, my Chloé story.
As I hunched over, the words I wrote, in cursive, were “I finally kissed the beard and I liked it,” disclaimer: he did not wear cherry chapstick although his lips were the color of beautiful, brilliant raspberries and I will admit that a tiny bit of me as a woman was slightly envious of the color as I’m sure he did nothing to achieve this while I have spent countless amounts of cash to achieve just that effortless berry lip “vibe”.
I digress....or do I? You want to know what it’s like eh? Or else you wouldn’t have made it this far. HA! I had never dreamed about this moment. Unlike most girls of this era, I don’t ogle the hipster bearded men nor had I ever dreamed of kissing one. I prefer my men clean cut and clean shaven. I don’t know; it’s just my thing. Okay?
I, of course, brought up my reservations and irrational thoughts to some close girlfriends who were so wonderful in reassuring me and not judging me. One of them even said that I wouldn’t be able to go back to clean cut boys after I had my first taste of the beard.
“But what if I can’t find his lips?” I screamed into my pillow.
“After examining the multiple photos you’ve sent, I can see his lips in every picture so there’s nothing to worry about you’ll know where they are.”
I know, I know. Irrational.
“But what if the beard scratches and hurts my face?”
To which my girl squad replied, “he has a long enough beard so it’s not going to scratch you. His beard looks very soft and well groomed.”
I know, I know. Irrational.
My ladies were being super helpful! However, I’ll admit I still wasn’t convinced. In fact, I will go as far to say that I was terrified. I was terrified of kissing the beard. But, inevitably it happened.
It happened on one of those very few rainy and dreary days here in Los Angeles. I had become the pro hugger at this point making a hug last a whole night without a kiss in sight. However, on this not so fine afternoon a not so bad kiss occurred. By now, I had pictured myself forcing my lips to obligingly meet his (consensual night I add) but in all honesty I got caught up in a moment, the moment, and next thing I knew, I WAS THE ONE who was pulling his lips towards mine. I found them on the first go! My girls were correct! And the beard wasn’t scratchy at all! My girls were correct! I have actually had many more uncomfortable kisses due to a bit of stubble on my previous guys. The kiss was wonderful. I felt the endorphins that usually accompany this act but I also felt extra proud of my dumb self for finally kissing the beard! How had I been so anxious about kissing a man with a beard.
Now my story ends. It ends for many reasons. It ends because it still to this day is the only beard I’ve kissed. It ends because now I can kiss no one; thank you quarantine and face mask life. It also ends because this blog post must end.
To quote the clean shaven Jay-Z “onto the next one” (beard).
Once everything closed down, and the fear of COVID-19 spread rampantly around the world, there was only one place I could turn for consistent comfort: home.
I had just finished working in LA when I returned back to Moreno Valley. My dad was still working from his office, my mom started working from home and she welcomed my company. “I’m so happy you’re here, Andy. I would’ve been here by myself, just having Laci, Garfield, and Eddie to talk with, but they’re asleep most of the time. Be honest with me: did you just come back to see us, or for food?” she asked. I slyly responded with my cheshire cat smile, “neither. Laundry.” Picture the expressionless face emoji on her face, as I playfully revived an old hobby of giving her a hard time.
It didn’t take long for me to revisit my old spots to eat throughout the city. My favorite Mexican food place Armando’s remained open with newly reconfigured safety protocols. I found this place during my college years when I was invited out with classmates. It didn’t take long for me to introduce the place to my family, to which very quickly we settled down to order our usual carne asada nachos with guacamole, sour cream, cheese and beans: Yum! This was the ultimate place we personally considered as Victory Food. Imagine having a rough day (i.e. school, work, idiots driving on the road, etc), or imagine you just aced a test you studied all night for, you received that job offer you desperately wanted, you get the gist. Whenever we would get Victory Food, we knew we had just accomplished something valuable, or knew that we just made it through another week and were ready to celebrate the weekend. We do however take into account the prices since the past ten years have accelerated the place as a luxury. As expensive as the place can be, you can definitely count on getting what you pay for, and we wanted to support small businesses during the shutdown by coming back at least once a week; so far it’s been going on one month.
If we wanted to cook Victory Food from home, my dad would cook his homemade pozole and menudo. Warning: the following sentences may not be veggie friendly, reader discretion is advised. Pozole is like a Mexican stew, garnished with red chili pepper, onions, garlic, hominy corn, and meat, either pork or beef depending on the cook. Menudo is a bit more traditional, a Mexican soup filled with red chili pepper, hominy corn and small pieces of cow stomach stirred to sheer perfection; I can just smell the heavenly aroma from our kitchen right now. Me, my mom, and my brother consider these two cuisines whenever my dad decides to make them the Halley’s Comet of food, a unicorn seen in public, an actual decently made Michael Bay film, you know they exist but hardly ever see it. He usually made enough to last two days, which is a lot of food between us four. As we would sit and enjoy, I would make it a habit to inquire to my brother when the last time we indulged upon this paradise. “Damn, I can’t really remember. I think the last time was like Christmastime,” Rob would variedly answer. He was right, as this is considered such a luxury above-luxury. This is the Victory Food you can ponder on everything you have done and accomplished to that point, and figure ‘wow, time really flew by so fast. I wonder what I’ll be doing after this, and what will be finished with by the time I have this food again.’
Moving to LA, I realized that no matter how much I research, no matter which places are recommended for me to eat, no matter how many times I can try and replicate the recipes, nothing can compare to the comfort from back home. I can always count on my family, my city and the food to be waiting whenever necessary. However, lately it hasn’t felt like any victories have occurred; moreso, negative thoughts on the uncertainty of the future have ramped my anxiety. This is why I had to retreat back home; to recover in the familiar. If the future is going to be sometimes hard to stomach through, I might as well fill it with something yummy.
There was a moment in my life when I thought I was going to lose my mom. I’d like to think that I saved her life, but I think I just rescued her before anyone else had the chance. You see, we were at my great aunt’s house in Northern Iowa for the 4th of July weekend to enjoy fireworks and a carnival near the lake. The house was full, so my mom and two sisters slept outside in a tent while I slept on the couch in the living room. One night, I woke up suddenly to the house moving and then someone was screaming. I bolted upright and ran towards the noise. My great aunt and both sisters were in the kitchen and the back door was open. The screaming was coming from outside so I kept running, through the door and down the stairs. I came face to face with a 40-year-old maple tree that had fallen over in the backyard. My mom’s screaming was coming from somewhere in the tree branches.
I was around 12 at the time, but I didn’t let the pitch dark or the small space between the branches slow me down. I made my way through the branches toward the sound of my mom's voice. She was yelling “Help!” Over and over again, so I told her I was coming. She stopped screaming and started to talk to me so I could follow her voice. With it being pitch dark there was no way to tell for sure where she was, but I eventually got close enough to reach out and touch her. She told me she was okay, but she was trapped by something and she couldn’t figure out what it was. I started to feel around her and wiggle any branches that might have been trapping her. Eventually she said I had found it. It must have been something I stepped on because I hadn’t lifted anything, but her leg was suddenly free and she could stand. I helped her to her feet and we made our way to the opposite side of the tree and around to the front of the house. The tree was blocking all paths back to the house except the front door. Once inside, we realized she had a huge gash in her head, but that was her only big injury. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, had staples in her head and was sent home with a clean bill of health.
I’ve tried many times during my life to think about what my life would be like if that tree had hit my mom anywhere else. If she had been in a different part of the yard when it fell. If the tornado had just swept her away instead of knocking down the tree. It was silent, no one knew it was there. There was no weather warning. It just showed up randomly. My mom could have died that night and she wouldn’t have been there for some of the things that shaped who I am. She’s always there to talk me through anything that’s happened and support me with all my dreams and goals. She’s talked me through breakups, bad friendships, bad jobs. Supported me when good jobs came along, helped with 3 moves, listened to me gush about boys who are cute. Even when I screw up, she tells me, but is there to help me fix it. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for her.
She called me at the beginning of this pandemic and said all she wanted was for me to be home. She wanted all her kids home and I’m the only one who lives out of state. So I packed my car, took my cats and drove home for the unforeseeable future. Not because I’m leaving LA and moving home, but because my mom needed me and I needed my mom. Because, I knew, if my mom got sick and died from this stupid virus, I would kick myself for not coming home when she said she needed me. I’ve spent every day with her, doing projects and getting creative, working outside and playing with my sisters kids. This is time that I won’t ever get again, so I’m enjoying it. I know she’ll never forget these moments, just like I’ll never forget the time I almost lost her. I thank God every day that I get to see her, because those could have been days that never existed.
One of my many beliefs is that some of the worst people in the world are kids in middle school. If you happen to be between the ages of 12 and 15, chances are you happen to be a massive jerkwad. In early 2009, I was 14 years old and the world revolved around me (according to myself).
The date was May 18th, 2009 and I had just gotten home from school in my freshman year of high school. I remember that particular date fondly because that was the day that Punch-Out!! (2009) on the Nintendo Wii came out. Punch-Out had been one of my favorite series for awhile now and they hadn’t released a new entry in the series since 1994 and I was VERY excited for this new iteration.
It was going to arrive in the mail today and I was gonna play the ever loving snot out of it!
“Did my game come?” I excitedly asked as soon as I entered the door.
“No.” mumbled my mother.
I could tell something was off, but I was too darn excited for this game.
“Anything you want to say to me?” my mom asked.
“Nope!” I joyfully said.
Was I in trouble?
She sighed and walked away. A good 30 seconds passed before I realized it.
Today was her birthday and I had forgotten it.
This forgetting-my-mother’s-birthday incident gave me a quick and harsh change of perspective. My mother is one of the hardest workers I know and I feel like I just robbed her of her one day of celebration for my own selfish wants. I was in the wrong in this situation 100%.
I’ve always had a strong relationship with my mother. She’s a big influence on the person I am today. She always went the extra mile for me and my siblings. Every time me or my siblings have a birthday, she would spend the night decorating the dining room to celebrate our birth. There were 4 of us too, so that was 4 times a year she would do this. On top of all that, she would make us breakfast in bed. That’s true love right there! She would leave her bed, make a hefty breakfast, and serve it to us like it was the gosh darn Mariott! Once again, true love.
Another tradition we have in the Agnew household is every Christmas we would all wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, drink hot beverages, and open gifts. Guess who would spend the entire night before wrapping gifts and the whole morning preparing the breakfast?
When I wanted to move to California and had no idea if I would be successful, my mother supported my crazy dream and helped me through some rough years in my adulthood.
She constantly encourages my work even though she doesn’t totally understand it.
She talks to me when I’m having a bad day.
She loves me when I feel unlovable.
A big part of who I am today can be attributed to my mom. I try to make others feel celebrated and loved. I like cooking big meals for others, especially breakfasts. When friends are being critical of themselves, my advice is to take a step back and focus on who they are rather on who they could be. It’s a basic “treat others how you would want to be treated” mentality that I believe is the best way to approach life.
I honestly could not have asked for a better mother. Even when I recalled the infamous 2009 birthday to her a decade later, she laughed it off. That moment didn’t matter in our relationship. It didn’t impact what she thought of me. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a mom like her. We talk to each other every week even though we are on opposite ends of the country. She still sends me care packages during holidays. She’s willing to watch the stupid content that I put out online. She loves me.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
I love you lots.
I hate the rain.
It’s cold and wet and soaks through my shoes and socks. It plasters my pants to my legs, ruins the plans for my outfit, and messes up my hair. The rain makes it hard to get to my car, go for a run, smoke a cigarette, or use my phone. The rain makes me depressed. To be fair, I’m already clinically depressed, but the rain makes it worse. It makes me feel trapped and sad and lonely, even when those feelings are completely uncalled for. Waking up to rain on a day when you can’t, or don’t feel like staying inside with hot chocolate and a good book, completely ruins your day. When it’s raining I feel exhausted just looking outside, and the thought of doing anything tires me out even more.
But here’s the thing, I also love the rain.
A rainy, foggy day makes me feel like I’m in the Irish countryside or in some indie movie. When I’m in the car I feel like if I look out the window I can be THAT one girl from THAT one movie teen movie in THAT one scene after she breaks up with her boyfriend or fights with her mom. I love going out in the rain with no umbrella. Feeling it soak into my hair and ruin my makeup and thinking that it doesn’t matter because it’s raining and everything feels temporary and permanent at the same time. I love how it turns the hills green, fixes droughts, and it’s the same rain that fell on the dinosaurs.
Sometimes things are opposites at once.
Sometimes you hate something as much as you love it.
It rained on my eighteenth birthday. Actually, no, rained is an understatement. It was a goddamn torrential downpour. I had a final for my improv class that day (please pretend I didn’t just admit to taking an improv class) and when I stepped out of my car and into a puddle that went above my ankle. I was drenched to the bone within seconds of getting out of my car. Umbrellas were useless, the rain was so heavy and the wind was like a battering ram.
My friends and I were going into San Francisco to a friend’s apartment to party for my birthday. But, half the people I invited bailed out because they were terrified of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in the rain at night. Completely valid reasoning, but I’m just trying to paint a picture of how bad it was. So bad a bunch of kids from NorCal, where you drive in fog so dense you can’t see two feet in front of you, were scared to drive in this rain. I didn’t care. The rain made me feel like I could do anything, so I decided I would do anything. Fuck it, I had just become an adult and the world was flooding. I felt invincible.
I hauled my friends into a car and we drove into the city. It was an insane ride, a car full of teenagers in the middle of a storm driving through the lower part of the headlands and across the bridge. The music was playing at an intensely high volume and we were talking at an even higher volume while rain destroyed visibility and slicked the roads.
Don’t worry, we made it to our destination in San Francisco without any problems. Maybe I love the rain because of this, because even when it’s irritating, it’s never let me down. The rain has never made me scared. Fear was the last emotion we were feeling running up the stairs of my friend’s 2 story walk-up and collapsing on the floor, soaking wet and drunk on nothing but rain and teenage (now technically adult) hormones.
We were pissed at the rain for making the night so complicated and dramatic, but we loved it for those same reasons. We were teenagers in the middle of a downpour that could ruin a night, but we were the badasses who fought our way through it.
Sometimes there are things that make you feel invincible when you could be scared. Or angry when you could be embracing it.
Sometimes things are two opposites at once.
Sometimes those things are the best things.
It is 2:15 in the afternoon, and I am sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool. My mom and dad are having a pool party and everybody is acting silly — wearing grass skirts, dancing, and laughing at everything. Earlier, I was sitting on the edge of the pool looking at my my reflection on the surface of the water. Mom put me there so I could watch the light dance off the surface while she went to get a drink. She knows watching the shimmering light makes me happy, but then I saw my reflection and leaned over to touch it and fell in. I watched with wonder and amazement as the light danced off the sides of the pool and darted across the floor. People splashed about while I calmly sank toward the bottom, hypnotized by the dancing, light. It is so peaceful down here. I am not afraid. I am sixteen months old. This is my first memory.
It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’m crying. I’m crying because my mom won’t wake up and my shoes don’t fit anymore. I’m crying because our housekeeper, Edna, is shouting at me to get dressed so I can walk myself to school. I’m crying because I’m afraid that I’ll get lost on my way to kindergarten again. I’m crying because my mom won’t wake up, and Edna keeps shouting and I don’t want to be late for school because today is show-and-tell, and I have a toy mouse on a string that I can make crawl up my arm that I want to show to everybody. I’m crying because my mom won’t wake up and my shoes don’t fit anymore, and Edna is shouting at me and calling me stupid, telling me that the reason my shoes don’t fit is because they’re on the wrong feet. I’m crying because I don’t understand how my shoes are on the wrong feet when these are the only feet I have.
It is 5:30 in the afternoon. I am lying on the street bleeding; frightened and crying. I am five years old. The sun shines harshly in my eyes as a stranger approaches, asking me what happened. The stranger is asking where I live. Asking who to call. Asking if I’m alright. I am bleeding because I just wiped out on my bicycle. Only it isn’t my bicycle, it belongs to my friend, Blake, who is over playing with me and my brother, Robert. After a while, playing turns into fighting, and Blake and my brother gang up on me and start hitting me with pillows. Blake and Robert are both a couple years older than me, and they always end up just beating me up because I’m little. I’m sick of getting hit with pillows, so I run up to the carport to get away from them and play by myself. In the carport I discover Blake’s bicycle leaning against the back wall. It’s a fancy one with a gears and a hand brake, and I really want to ride it, so I take it out on the road before they can come up and find me. I only learned how to ride a bike without training wheels a couple of weeks ago, so I don’t know anything about flat tires, or how it’s impossible to steer when the front tire doesn’t have any air in it. I wobble unsurely for a couple hundred feet or so, then crash face-first into the pavement. My skin scrapes and burns against the asphalt, my lips split open and bleed. And this strange woman keeps asking me questions I can’t possibly answer through all the sobbing. The sun shines harshly in my eyes.
It’s 10:15 in the morning. I am in second grade, and I am in the principal’s office. I am in trouble because yesterday I kicked a big rubber ball out from underneath a kid named Paul who had been sitting on it in the playground during recess. I was supposed to go to a doctor’s appointment, but I guess my mom couldn’t take me because she was too sleepy, so my Aunt Betty (she’s not really my aunt) came to take me instead. I saw Paul sitting on that red, rubber ball as Aunt Betty and I were headed towards the exit, but he was facing the other way, so he couldn’t see me coming. Out of nowhere I kicked the ball out from underneath him and laughed as I ran to Aunt Betty’s station wagon. I thought it was pretty funny at the time, but it doesn’t seem so funny now that I’m in the principal’s office. He’s been trying to get my mom on the phone all morning but he can’t reach her. I tell him she’s home, but she’s probably just too sleepy to pick up.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’m going to the grocery store with my grandad to give a quarter to the owner for a pay-back because I stole a pack of gum. It’s the store that my mom has been going to ever since my parents got married and my dad built her a house here in Belvedere. I know everyone who works in the store because they’re all part of a big family. My dad told me they’re Mormons. I don’t know what that means. For some reason all of the kids have names that start with the letter “D.” I keep my head down as I walk through the store because I’m embarrassed and afraid. Grandad is taking me to the back office to talk to the owner, and on the way we pass by the owner’s son, Dennis. He’s my favorite of all the D’s that work here. He’s the one who saw me take the gum, and I feel like crying as we walk past him on the way to the back office. After I stole the gum Dennis told his dad, and his dad called my house to tell my mom what I had done. Mom was upstairs sleeping, so my grandad answered the phone instead. Most days mom spends all afternoon sleeping on the sofa in the library and it’s impossible to wake her up. Grandad lives with us now, because Grandma died last year, so now he’s all alone. I love my grandad, so I am happy that he is the one taking me to the store, but I’m also sad, because I don’t want him to think I’m a bad boy. I don’t want to hear him to say, “I’m very disappointed in you,” like my dad always does. When we get to the back office I quietly say hello to Mr. Hansen, the owner, then reach out with a frightened hand and try to give him the now sweaty quarter. “I’m sorry I took the gum, sir,” I say in a tiny, quavering voice, “Here’s the money for your pay-back.” Mr. Hansen sighs and pats me on the head. “What you did was wrong, Tommy, and you need to know that there’s no such thing as a ‘pay-back.’” He thanks my grandad for bringing me down, then turns, and walks out the door. I am eight years old, and I am so confused.
It’s the middle of a hot, summer afternoon, and I am in a bedroom with Cammie Tyler in Lake Tahoe. I’m ten years old, and she’s eleven. We are here with our families for the summer, and for some reason I can’t stop thinking about her. I’ve known her all my life, but I never paid much attention to her until now. But this summer, something is different. I can’t get her off my mind. I like watching her swim. I like watching her play ping-pong. I like riding bikes with her down to the 7-11. I like making her laugh and trying to make her spit soda out of her nose. We play video games together for hours at the arcade and she usually beats me. That’s fine, I like it when she beats me. She has an older sister named Laura that my brother hangs out with, but I like hanging out with Cammie. She has curly blonde hair thats always kinda messy and she knows a lot of swear words. She’s afraid of bugs, so sometimes I scare her by telling her there’s one in her hair, or crawling in her ear — she screams so loud! Once she even punched me in the arm, but I didn’t mind. Sometimes I pinch her just so she’ll swat me. Today Cammie agreed to come with me into the bedroom so we could see each-other without our clothes on. We’re both wearing our swimsuits, so there isn’t much to take off. We count to three, and at the same time pull our swimsuits off in a fit of nervous excitement. I have never seen a naked girl before. She has never seen a naked boy before. Cammie points down at me and squeals with laughter. I point down at her and cover my mouth to keep from giggling uncontrollably. We’re terrified that somebody is going to come in and find us, so we put our bathing suits back on as fast as we can, but we don’t stop looking at each-other for the rest of the afternoon. I don’t ever want this summer to end.
It’s 11:15 in the morning and I’m happy because I got to miss school today; I hate my 5th grade homeroom teacher, Ms Gardner. My brother, father and I are visiting my mom in a place called Saint Helena, somewhere out in the Napa Valley. Mom’s been here for two weeks and this is the first time we’ve been allowed to visit. I found a quarter in the coin return of the pay phone outside my mom’s room, but the lady who took us up said I can’t keep it. She said it’s there in case any of the patients need to call their families but don’t have any money. My mom looks happy and sad at the same time. My dad just seems sad. I notice that there’s a big jar of M&Ms on the nightstand of the other bed in the room. My mom tells us that that is where her roommate sleeps, and those are her M&Ms. My mom tells us that her roommate is a “chocoholic.” I don’t understand why her roommate can have chocolate if she’s a chocoholic but my mom can’t have alcohol.
It is 3:15 in the afternoon. I am standing on the rocky shore by the bike path with a kid named Miles. We are in the 6th grade together. A group of kids watches from above as I hold a knife on Miles, telling him to give me all his money. It is a pocket knife that looks like a switchblade, but you have to open it the regular way. I force Miles to take off his back pack, then I cut the straps off of it with my knife, demanding he give me all his money. Somehow, I have convinced myself that this is a game, and that I am just kidding. Miles does not know this, and is terrified. Moments ago I was riding my skateboard down the bike path on my way home, and now I am holding a knife on a classmate, telling myself this is all just a joke. A game. This is not a game. I have no idea what is happening. I don’t know what I am doing. I don’t know. I don’t know.
It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and I am completely wasted! My friends Chris and Alfred are over and my parents are gone for the day. Yesterday was the last day of 6th grade, so now it is officially summer, and we are drinking beer! There’s tons of it in my parents’ refrigerator because they’re always having parties. I’m sure they wont miss it. Chris keeps running to the fridge, throwing beers off the balcony to us down in the swimming pool, then jumping off the balcony into the pool to join us. It’s a blast! We open the beers and drink them down in one mighty gulp, then throw the cans over the railing onto the side of the cliff. Who cares! But now Alfred is really wasted and runs inside to vomit on my bathroom floor. Why would he run inside to puke when the cliff is right there? When he finishes vomiting he passes out in a pool of his own filth. Chris and I think this is hilarious and decide to piss on him while he’s passed out. This is going to be a great summer!
It’s 8:45 AM and my hands are shaking uncontrollably. My hands are shaking uncontrollably because my brother is trying to kill me. My brother is trying to kill me because I just smashed his computer with a baseball bat. I smashed his computer with a baseball bat because he threw a pot of hot coffee on me. He threw a pot of hot coffee on me because he thought I stole his tennis shorts. He thought I stole his tennis shorts because our housekeeper put them in the wrong drawer and he didn’t bother to actually look for them. He didn’t bother to look for them because whenever something goes wrong in this house, I’m the one to blame. I’m the one to blame because that’s just the way it is. I’ve locked myself in the second floor powder room and my brother is on the other side of the door pounding furiously to get in. He can’t get in because the door is two-inch thick solid wood that opens inward, and there is a row of drawers at the end of the vanity that I’ve pulled open that block the door, making it impossible to open. I know for certain that if my brother gets in he will kill me. My hands are shaking uncontrollably.
It’s nearing 10:00. Almost bed time. It is raining outside and the wind is blowing so hard it is shaking the windows all throughout the house. I am in the kitchen with my father. My brother is in our room working on some sort of D&D quest or battle or something. He plays almost every day with a group of misfit friends that I can’t stand, and when he’s not playing he is planning battles, or creating orcs and wizards, or whatever the hell it is that they do. He is obsessed. Mom has already gone to bed, so it is just me and my dad alone in the kitchen. I have been trying to get up the nerve to talk to him for weeks, but the time never seemed right. We are all alone and he is getting ready to go to bed, so I decide that it is now or never. “Dad,” I say — my voice weak and shaking, my mouth so dry I can barely get the words out, “Mom is drinking again. She begged me not to tell you. She promised that she was going to quit, but she hasn’t , and it’s only getting worse.” There. I said it. My whole body is trembling and I feel like I might throw up. The look on my father’s face is the most pained look of anguish and sorrow that I have ever seen. He stares out the window, watching the rain pound against the glass in violent sheets for what seems like hours, then turns to me and says, “What did you do to make her drink?”
It’s 7:30 PM. Dinnertime. I’m in 7th grade and my dad is dying. His kidneys started failing a couple of years ago and now he’s on dialysis. He is an only child and all his living relatives are dead, so there’s no chance for him to get a kidney transplant. My brother and I aren’t eligible because we’re adopted. Dad has had a lot of complications with his treatment over the past year. He’s lost a ton of weight, he’s aged 100 years, and his arteries keep wearing out and collapsing, so he has to go in for surgery to get them repaired from time to time. Tonight we’re having pizza. Same as last night. And the night before. For some reason the dialysis makes my dad sick and he can’t keep his food down very well. Every so often he stumbles upon a food that agrees with him and that’s all he eats for weeks on end. This month it’s pizza. If you’ve got to have a sick father, things could be worse than having pizza every night. My best friend, Alfred, is over for dinner and a sleepover. My brother is spending the night at a friend’s house. Alfred and I are sitting at the kitchen counter watching television and goofing off. My mom and dad are sitting together at the small kitchen table next to us, pretending to have a normal, pleasant meal together. Mom is slurring her speech and tottering from side to side. Dad is silently chewing and trying to enjoy the show on the television. Suddenly, he leaps up from the table, lunges towards the kitchen sink, and vomits violently as Alfred and I continue to chew our food. I look down at my plate, plug my ears, and hum loudly so as not to hear my father’s retching. I glance over and see Alfred mimicking my father’s retching, laughing with an open mouthful of partially chewed pizza. Mom sips her drink and pretends none of this is happening. Everything is fine. This will all be fine.
It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and I am getting stitches in my chin. I am thirteen, and this is the first time I’ve ever had stitches. My mom brought me along today to see my dad while he’s getting his dialysis treatment. There are two big tubes pumping blood in and out of his arm, filtering it in a big machine. There are a dozen or so of these machines in this room. Dad looks so tired. He smiles weakly as we walk towards him in the crowded ward. I smile back and give him a half-hearted wave, but I am starting to feel woozy. I ask the nurse that is bringing us in where the bathroom is. I think I’m going to be sick. I wake up on the floor moments later surrounded by concerned looking nurses and medical personnel. They are asking me a series of questions that I don’t quite understand. They are asking me my name. They are asking me where I live. They are asking me if I know where I am. They tell me I split my chin open and I need stitches. I ask them what I split my chin on. They tell me I fainted and split it open on the floor. I’m so confused. Was there something sharp on the floor? No, it was just the floor. Did I hit something on the way down? Nope, just the floor. I look up at my dad with confusion in my eyes. He looks back at me with a helpless smile. There is so much blood in this room.
It’s 10:30 in the morning and I’m on a plane to New York City with my mom. I am 13 years old, and I am about to start my first year at boarding school in Lakeville, CT. In the lower left pocket of my Army surplus field coat I have my pet rat, Cinnamon who occasionally peeks her head out. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to have a pet rat on an airplane, so I hide her in my pocket as we go through security, just to be safe. Our flight attendant has seen Cinnamon a couple of times already while bringing my mom drinks, and she doesn’t seem to mind, but I keep her in my pocket anyway. Occasionally I give her a Cheez-It. I’m excited to go to away to school (mostly to get away from my brother), but I’m really nervous as well. I won’t know anyone there, and I’ve never been to Connecticut before, so I’m afraid. That’s why I brought Cinnamon, so I’ll already have a friend when I get there. The flight attendant keeps bringing my mom drinks, I keep feeding my pet rat Cheez-Its, and occasionally we hit a pocket of turbulence so bad that the overhead compartments open and people start to pray. I close my eyes and finally begin to relax.
It is 5:30 in the afternoon. I am in my dorm room at my new boarding school in Pebble Beach. A kid named Keith breathlessly charges into my room and asks, “Dude, do you have any blow?” “No,” I lie, “Sorry, man, I really wish I did.” Keith thinks I might have some blow because he is the school’s resident drug dealer and he believes that I broke into his room while he was out one night and stole a big manilla envelope full of individually wrapped bindles of coke. I have no idea why he suspects me, but he is right. I did steal it. And I’m taking the rest of it home with me back to Marin. I have just finished packing up the last of my things, and my mom is outside waiting for me in her Buick station wagon. I gently punch Keith on the shoulder and shoot him a sideways grin as I walk out the door. “Take it easy,” I tell him as I saunter across the grassy dividing strip towards my mom’s car and prepare myself for the long, unpleasant drive back home. I am 16 years old, I have been here less than a year, and I have been expelled.
It is very, very late. Maybe after 2:00 A.M., and I am in a juvenile detention facility in San Rafael, CA. I am here because I punched a cop. I punched a cop because I was out at a party with my buddies, Dave and Miles, and I got too wasted to drive. I am here because I passed out in the passenger seat of my mom’s convertible Ford Mustang that I’d been driving us in, and Dave got pulled over while driving us home. I am here because the cop couldn’t wake me up in the front seat after Dave failed the field sobriety test, so he pulled me out of the car to try and rouse me. I am here because, apparently, when I am passed out and someone tries to wake me, I throw punches. I am here because, when you are 17 years old, piss drunk, and punch a cop in the face when he tries to wake you up, they send you to a juvenile detention facility.
I am here.
It is just before dusk; the sun sinks slowly towards Mt. Tamalpais across the San Francisco bay. I am in the back yard of my parent’s house with my mom, my brother, and the minister from our local church. The minister is holding a box containing my father’s remains. I kid my brother that it looks like a shoebox, and ask him if he thinks dad will be a pair of Adidas or Nikes in the afterlife? My brother does not think this is funny, and shoots me a look of absolute seething hatred. My mother doesn’t notice any of this, she is busy ignoring us, and the minister, and the entire situation by distractedly pulling dried flower buds off the surrounding foliage. We are scattering my father’s remains in the back yard because my parents built this house together, and my mom thinks this would be a good place to spread him. The minister recites something from the Bible as he removes a handful of ashes and strews them about the terraced hillside above the deck where we are having the service. Only they aren’t really ashes— dad’s remains look more like crushed seashells and coarse sand. In the movies, people’s ashes always look so fine and, well, ash-like, not this gritty, crumbled mess that my father has become. The words that the minister is saying mean nothing to me. I suspect they don’t mean anything to any of us. We aren’t religious — we only go to church for the occasional Christmas or Easter, and that’s mostly because my mom donated a ton of money to have the church's organ restored so she could be a big-shot in the community. What do these words have to do with us? Our situation? Our place in the universe? What comfort can they possibly provide? And what do they have to do with my father? How do they account for his life? His pain? His unwarranted suffering? What do these words have to do with this man who, through some twisted, cosmic joke, ended up getting sick, dying and being scattered by a complete stranger at sunset, surrounded by a family made up of complete strangers to themselves and to one another?
I am seventeen years old, and I have the rest of my life to think about these questions.
Next month my Grandad turns 97! He’ll have lived through the past 17 presidents, all 92 Academy Awards, and every major war since World War II (for which he earned two purple hearts). And yet, I can’t claim much time spent with him during the time our lives have overlapped. Growing up in Kentucky, my family and I were always far from our relatives who were almost all on the East Coast (which resulted in many long car trips to visit). Now, living on the West coast, there’s a lot of uncertainty for when I get to see my extended family. And Grandad is turning 97… I would hate to think… That’s why last summer, when I flew back East for a wedding, I convinced my parents to make a vacation out of it and visit our relatives (particularly Grandad). So, low and behold, when we arrived at my Aunt Regina’s house where he lives, the first thing he said to me:
“So how do you relate?”
Can you blame him? Before this past summer, the last time I saw him was a day and a half in 2016. For the first time ever he flew out to visit my parent’s home in Louisville. I was working a tourism job and only had a few days to be home for Christmas, other than a few meals and showing him how to use the Keurig machine, we didn’t get much time together. I also had hair that didn’t nearly go down to my shoulders back then.
My Dad explained I was his son, his youngest, and while Grandad understood, I’m not sure how much of a difference this made. When showing Grandad how to use the Keurig he told me “You know… I can remember being four years old.. But I can’t remember yesterday.” This was appropriate considering my mom had shown him how to use the Keuring the day before. Hopefully he remembered me at least a little, maybe as a kid running around with the other cousins. Or a handful of occasions I reached out to him. My Dad would try to get us grandkids to call him on Veteran’s Day or his birthday. This was never a burden for us to do, but the older he gets, the harder it seems to be for him.
On this trip we spent the better part of two days with him, along with my Aunt and two cousins that he lives with. He was very quiet throughout, content to sit back and enjoy his O’Douls with his eyes locked in a squint and mouth usually just slightly agape. Occasionally, we would try to engage him in conversation, but this would require a bit of volume raising. He would respond though with his gentle, litely New York accented voice that sometimes faded into a mumble. But mostly he was quiet. His meals were simple, half a burger with not much on it, one or two plain cheese pizzas (although we had ordered Hawaiian per my preference), and always with an O’Douls. He loves his beer, but alcohol is not allowed at this point.
The next day my parents and I took him out to eat at an Irish pub. Again, he stuck to O’Douls. It was when we returned back to my Aunt’s, he really came alive. With a just a dash of enthusiasm sprinkled in his voice he asked:
“Do you want to see my workbench?”
Naturally, I said sure despite not being a handyman myself in the slightest.
“Alright, but you can’t let your Dad steal anything.”
He said this with a bit of a chuckle. My Dad and I followed him to my Aunt’s garage, assuring Grandad I would keep an eye on him. The garage was crowded as my cousins are both mechanically inclined and constantly working on things, but on our right just as we got in was an ancient workbench and a tool cabinet to go along with it. He sat down on a nearby chair and talked about it proudly. I’m not sure what personal mementos he holds onto in his bedroom, but his tools were clearly some of the most important things he held on to.
Perusing through what he had, you could see how he had built this collection over and he lit up talking about it. He loved explaining old tools that were foriegn to me and eventually asked what tools I had. He and my Dad bickered a little about my Dad taking things, but my Dad saying they were his. Eventually, he asked me a little about living in California and what I did for a job. I don’t imagine much of it stuck, but the fact that he asked…
I don’t worry too much about getting older. I’m only 26 and so long as I take care of myself I should have a fair amount of time ahead of me. What I do worry about is what fades away the older you get. The memories that drift and your relationships with people, even family. When I watch movies that have characters with alzhiemers or dementia, I get more scared than watching The Exorcist. The idea of losing so much of yourself is what terrifies me most about being that age. But when your 96 year old granddad shows you his tools in the garage, you see a part of him is still there.
My Grandad at his workbench.
When I think of Easter, my mind immediately flashes back to my not-so-fun times at Catholic School, my best friend Sarah’s birthday and how often her springtime birthday celebrations fell around Easter, and the hard boiled eggs that I would dye with my mom and brother. I remember egg hunts that we did when I was a child and how even one year for Sarah’s birthday, there was an Easter egg hunt themed party! Easter makes me think of spring and pastels, and the feel of warm air after a long, cold, winter. Each year was a surprise, because there weren’t any set traditions. If there’s one lasting tradition, it’s my family.
I feel fortunate to come from a pretty big family. My mom is one of five children, and I am one of nine grandkids on that side. On my dad’s side, I don’t have any first cousins, but many of my dad’s cousins and second cousins are like first cousins or aunts and uncles to me. When I think of growing up, however, I really think about my mom’s family, my grandparents included, and my dad’s sister, her husband, and my nanny (the rest of my dad’s family lives overseas).
I am so thankful for an abundance of holiday memories. The amazing spread that my mom’s family would have on Thanksgiving Day. The non traditional spaghetti we would eat the day after Thanksgiving with my dad’s family. The hand out system that we had for gifts on Christmas Day. It wasn’t a free-for-all, it was all very specific how things were handed out! The voice of the FIFA commentators being on in the background on Boxing Day while we opened presents. Hugging my grandma, grandpa, and nanny tightly on each holiday I spent with them. Looking back now and being so thankful that I did, because there came the time when with or without realizing it, I knew it would be the last holiday that I was spending with them. Reflecting back on those moments now and crying just thinking of how much that I love and miss them, and how I would give absolutely anything just to have one more non-traditional day after Thanksgiving eating spaghetti with my nanny. How I would give anything to hear my grandma’s laugh and see my grandpa’s smile as one of my cousins did something goofy to make them laugh.
While focusing on the older memories, I realized that some of the old have begun to blend with the new. One of my favorite memories was a few years ago, when I took my future husband, Ray, to Christmas with my mom’s side of the family for the first time. It was one of the last Christmas’ that we had with my grandparents. My grandpa had prepared what was essentially a sermon about the Christmas season, and then in the dead silence, my dad opened a beer can, my cousin made a comment, and the next thing I knew, half of us were giggling uncontrollably at the worst possible moment. It’s always the worst when you’re laughing and not supposed to be laughing. I’ll never forget how my dad, Ray and I were laughing so hard that we were crying. The following day, Ray celebrated his first Boxing Day with all of us. Nanny wasn’t there with us anymore, but I still always feel her with me on that day, just like I felt my grandparents with me this past Christmas, the first one that I spent without them. I had tears streaming down my face eating lunch, looking out at an amazing view with Ray in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I realized suddenly that I was already beginning to make new traditions, and just because they weren’t there with me physically, didn’t mean they weren’t with me.
I will always feel some sort of longing for Sarah’s spring birthday in the suburb of Philadelphia anytime it is almost Easter. I will always think of dying hard boiled eggs with my mom and brother when I catch the scent of them after I’ve made them. I will always think of Boxing Days growing up anytime I hear a Premier League game that’s on TV. Christmas Day will always remind me of the times spent with my large, extended family. Holidays will be ever-changing throughout my life, but I feel grateful that each year that my family continues to grow. I believe that the realization of this will help shape how I celebrate holidays in the future and help me be okay with traditions changing, and new traditions being created.