Honolulu Haunting

My mom was a storyteller. Some of her best stories were those involving ghosts and the supernatural.  She swore they were real–the ghosts and her stories.  I’ve been thinking a lot about ghosts lately, half-wishing she was one hovering lovingly nearby and half-wincing at what a terrifyingly unlovely thing that would be.  Still, I’d have her as a ghost in a heartbeat. Until then I have her stories. 

In the 80s my mom found herself on a solo trip to Stonehenge. The destination was befitting a woman who loved mythology, and history, and science, and especially loved them all rolled in to one mysterious circle of stones.  

She believed that science is crucial, that it’s what makes mankind better through explanation and invention. She loved history, the wretched and wonderful story of where we’ve been. And mythology because it’s an ingenious gap filler that provided answers to the questions that surrounded mankind in a time before science took hold. 

God, I miss her.

So there she was on a tour bus to Stonehenge. A stranger sat down next to her and the two introduced themselves as civilized folks do. The woman was from Honolulu. So was my mother.

They compared notes on places and restaurants, and played that game where you try to find a family or person you know in common. And they found one, sort of, as they listed neighborhoods and addresses at which each had lived. The conversation came to an abrupt end soon after they discovered an address they shared about a decade apart.

So, did you see…I mean, did you have trouble in that house?

My mom nodded. Not trouble, but something, she said. 

The woman stared out the window and they didn’t talk again.

The something, according to my mom, was a ghost. Not an aggressive, horror movie kind of poltergeist but something. 

My mom was a teenager in that house and the stories she told about that time were ones I asked her to repeat over and over again. How the lights would flicker as she saw odd human-form shadows. How the television would go on the fritz at odd times almost always accompanied by a strange chill in the air. How there was one night when she was not supposed to go out but her parents were gone at a party, so my mom took a chance and absconded. 

Her parents should have been out until early morning because they loved a good party.  So she wasn’t in a hurry that night as she walked down the sidewalk just a few houses away from home. Then suddenly she felt a touch on her back and turned. No one was there. So she started walking again and this time felt the touch more firmly, a hand between her shoulder blades now pushing. She started to run but the touch did not let up until she made it to the back door of the house. And just as she closed the door behind her, spooked and shaking, she heard her parents’ car pull up the driveway.  The ghost had saved her from the worst fate a teenager could face—being grounded.

Ghosts are myth. Sometimes created to scare or to enforce societal norms. Sometimes they’re simply entertaining fable. Sometimes they are figments of heartbroken imagination. 

Than again…who knows, maybe they’re real. Just as much of science was myth before it became real, maybe the same is true of ghosts or spirits or souls. I’m not sure what I believe about any of it—but her stories are my history and I believed her.  

And like I said, I’d have her as a ghost in a heartbeat. 

Pali Lookout, Hawaii. Another mythical place she loved.

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Nationalism.


On the playground yesterday there was a fierce display of sibling rivalry turned sibling on sibling on sibling crime. The details are not particularly important. The hitting, the chasing, the arm twisting, the throwing sand at “eyeball targets.”  The look of horror on the faces of good-natured pacifist onlookers.

I’m told it was embarrassing to watch the three of them go at it. So embarrassing for our dear 60 something year old Polish immigrant babysitter that she dropped her phone and left it at the park, only to have it picked up by a good Samaritan who turned it over to the police who in turn answered my call yesterday.

“Hello ma’am, this is Officer Goodguy.” Triggering an internal shriek of what in the freaking hell?!? why are the police answering her phone…oh no, no, no, oh geez, nooooo!

“Don’t worry, ma’am. Someone just found this phone at the park. Your babysitter is coming to get it right now.”

Thank goodness. Now back to the cause of the phone fumble.  They were fighting. They were out for themselves, motivated by some good ole primal individualism. Yet, later that day their individual goals were upended because–the Olympics.

***

I wrote everything you just read months ago as the 2016 Olympics kicked off. I’d come home after that phone call with the police, the one that still makes my stomach turn when I think about it.  Of course it turned out just fine and the incident supplied a great deal of laughter during the round robin re telling by the 4 lead characters. I found the picture on the wall too and was told that the kids were insanely excited about the Olympics and planned to keep track of how many medals the US and Poland won.  I thought it was adorable and I thought it was emblematic of our tribal nature, and I thought for sure that the US would win more medals.

I wanted to write a story about nationalism. How a healthy dose of nationalism can be a good thing. How petty grievances and playground sand-throwing can be set aside in the interest of something bigger than who we are as individuals, something that is more important.

Then I thought about how dangerous it is sometimes. I thought about the downside of nationalism, of tribalism, of any kind of ism that separates us from others by telling us that we are better or more righteous or more deserving in some way.  I wasn’t sure which side to come out on so I hit save as draft and moved on.

Nationalism is good. Xenophobia is not.  Flag-waving is okay.  Jingoism is not.

Nationalism is not an excuse to behave in a way that contradicts the very values that should be the source of our nationalism.

Why do we love the United States of America? I can’t answer for you. For me it’s everything. It’s our insanely lucky start with a bunch of plucky flawed founders. It’s our  freedoms of speech and religion and assembly and the limits we place on government intrusion in our lives. It’s our abundance of unlikely success stories and heroes, our fruited plains and purple mountain majesty, and people with revolutionary ideas in science and technology and the arts that heal and teach and employ and inspire.

It’s the strangeness and difference. It’s the fact that my morning commute to work takes me through neighborhoods of African and Indian and Swedish and Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants and the opportunity to live in a place where my kids hear different languages everyday and where the 4:30 Saturday showing of Hidden Figures is practically sold out.

And it’s the messiness and the parts that aren’t so great because they remind me that the work is not done. There are problems still to be solved.  There is crime and there are bigots and there are seemingly impenetrable structural artifacts of our ugly history of slavery and inequality. There is corruption and there is heartache. Yet for my entire adult life I’ve believed that our system of government would provide a path for the resolution of these problems someday while protecting us from extremism on any side. I’ve built a career within a legal system that places the rule of law above all else. I believed that there were ground rules and boundaries.

So much that I love about this country feels under attack right now.  So much that it feels like everything. We are only a couple hundred years old. We are more fragile than I believed even a month ago.  We are easily manipulated and we are scared.  I believe that a great many of us are scared because we are being manipulated.

But we also live in a remarkable age of technology and information. Facts can and should be checked. Books should be read. Stories should be told and heard and we should not be afraid to say what we believe.  Civil discourse is part of what makes this country so great–and dissent, it’s positively patriotic.

 

 

Winning and Losing.

I lost this week. I hate losing. And I had a long drive home to stew about it.
Upon my untriumphant return home I was greeted with the following:

Peanut (7): Did you do your best to convince the judge? Were you nice? Did you practice? If you did those things you should feel good, mommy.

Sassy (6): You need dessert. I’ll have some with you if it will make you feel better.

Mo (3): (holding my face in his advent-calendar-chocolate-covered hands) I like winning, mama. You’re gonna win the next day.

My job is the kind where winning and losing take place daily.  Winning is important.  Clients want to win.  I want to win.  I take it personally when I don’t.  But contrast that with the conversations I have with the little people. I’m constantly telling them that winning is not what matters–that it’s the effort, the hard work, the way you play and how you pick yourself up, that matters.

So there I was, kneeling on the floor just inside my front door, car keys still in hand.  Three little ones in their pajamas, so happy that I made it home before bedtime, surrounding me.  Hearing the messages I’ve sent returned to me.   And turning my disappointment around.

Some moments make crystal clear that these little people are the best thing I ever did.

FullSizeRender (4)

The blurry face of winning. She practiced, worked hard, and was kind.  She got a new belt and a brownie sundae to celebrate the win.

5 years and it’s still there.

I put the last of her disposable razor heads on my pastel purple razor this morning.  I fished it out of a big plastic bag that once held a ridiculous amount of them, along with some hair combs.  I couldn’t believe it was the last one.  I also couldn’t believe that the supply had lasted so long. I remembered her teaching me how to shave my legs for the first time, and I lost it.  I’m lucky I didn’t injure myself trying to shave my legs through the sobbing.

Soon, maybe too soon, after my mom died my sister and I went through most of her stuff and decided what would be kept, what we’d give away or sell, and what we’d toss.  Much of that time is a haze for me now. Tomorrow, it will have been 5 years.

We kept a lot of things, of course.  Things we would give to our own children, including some clothes that are kept in dress-up boxes in our homes.  It’s really quite fun and not at all sad to see the kids play in her clothes.  There are also her reading glasses, but these we can’t take credit for.  In the weeks before she died, when she could no longer read, she pushed out the lenses on all of them–there were a lot of them–and gave them to us for the girls to wear. We also kept furniture and art that now hangs in our homes, along with jewelry, books, and (for me, for practical rather than sentimental reasons) those razors and combs.

Not long after she was gone, we held a garage sale during which we gave most of my mom’s home furnishings (custom curtains, pillows, etc.) to a single woman for next to nothing.  The woman showed up at my sister’s house in the middle of the sale and fell in love with the curtains.  They were beautiful, of course, ’cause my mom picked them. But I can’t for the life of me remember what they looked like, just that they were made of heavy gorgeous fabric and that this stranger was fawning over them.  

My sister and I had tried to keep any discussion of the origin of the things for sale to a minimum.  We thought it might be too macabre for people to know that the pillows they were holding were left behind when a woman died 50 feet away from where they were standing. Mostly though, we just didn’t want to talk about it.  Talk about her, at all, with these strangers.

The woman with the curtains was different somehow, so we told her.  She then told us how sad she was for us, but that she would take care of the things she was buying.  She told us that she’d recently left her husband after a “really awful time” and needed all new things for her new home.   

That was it.  It was all my sis and I needed to hear. She could have the whole lot. We helped her put our mom’s things in her car.   And later we talked about how fitting it was that a woman starting out on her own again, so bravely, would have our brave mom’s beautiful things surrounding her.

So today I used the last razor.  It’s clear that she liked to buy in bulk, and also clear that I don’t like to shave my legs as often as I probably should.  It’s not so clear how it can feel like her leaving us just happened yesterday. How I can feel like it was just the other night that I was talking to her about a work problem, or a kid issue, or a home decorating dilemma.  How a stupid disposable razor could reduce me to tears in the shower.

Really, though, it is clear.  The loss of someone you love never leaves you.  But more than the loss, it’s the love that doesn’t leave.  It’s not “there” in the art or furniture.  But it’s there in the empty eyeglass frames. It’s there in the faces behind those glasses, and it’s clear as the eyes smiling behind them.  She’s there.

Tutu glasses, May 2013

Tutu glasses in full effect, circa May 2013

Blurry is good.

[So, I wrote this a few weeks ago…but couldn’t push publish at the time.  Sometimes I feel like I write too much about the ache of missing my mom.  It’s not unique.  I’m not unique.  That kind of loss is something that we all will experience, or already have. Still, I figure that if the point of this whole exercise is to create a record of these moments and stories in a format that my kids are more likely to find someday than the tangible and scattered pieces of my own mother’s story that I find tucked away every now and again in old suitcases, journals and book jackets, then I should just put it out there.  This is for them.  The three people I want most to know her and me–even long after I am gone.

And I want them to know that my sister and I were lucky to have one of the great ones, and lucky to have her as long as we did.]

***

This morning he was screaming and banging the kitchen floor, like a life-size Joe Pesci in [insert the name of any mob movie here], because he wanted the salt shaker.

“Salt! Salt! I want dat salt!”

Arms flailing, feet stomping, red-faced and tear-streaked. I finally put some on his hand and he licked it.

“Yuck, dat’s disgusting. You not nice, mama.”

I kissed him anyway and he ran off to wreak mini-gangster havoc somewhere else, no longer interested in the shaker.

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