Saturday, January 11, 2014

rocky road

The day my six-year old daughter told me she wanted to drive an ice cream truck, I put a lock on the basement door.  It occurred to me that if the children couldn’t enter the basement, they couldn’t live in it as adults either.  I love ice cream-don’t get me wrong, but I’m also an eternal pragmatist.  You can’t eat it every day and fit into your pants.  More importantly, you can’t drive it all over creation with gas at almost four bucks a gallon and pay your bills.

But to a six-year old, driving an ice cream truck is whip cream, extra nuts, cherry on top kind of success. There are no obstacles too big, no fears too paralyzing, no bills in the mailbox to prevent them from running straight to the recycling bin in search of boxes from Costco from which they begin to build their empire.  A few rolls of Scotch tape and several dried out markers later, they’re in business.

If loving what you do was that easy.  We’ve all heard the stories about the corporate executives that gave it all up to open a Pet Pedicure Parlor and have never been happier.  That’s fantastic, but something tells me they have a bit saved up for when it stops raining cats and dogs.  When did I get so cynical?  When did I stop believing in the ice cream truck?  What was it that I wanted to be when I grew up? 
Somewhere between our first mortgage payment and insuring a male teenager on a vehicle, I realized that what we love to do is more often replaced by what we have to do.  I’ve only known a few people who knew what they wanted to do shortly after the embryonic stage, stayed the course, made all the right decisions, and landed where they intended.  Speaking for the rest of us, we labor over Myers Briggs tests and online surveys, we pay career coaches and life coaches and take coach buses to seminars trying to find our colors or parachutes or both.  And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find something that you love and that pays the bills.  That is cherry on the top kind of success.  And it looks different for everybody.

Recently, I’ve been faced with deciding my major, once and for all.  In other words, is it going to be an ice cream truck driver or a pet pamperer?  Finishing college when you are …well, long after you are supposed to…is a second chance.  This time around, cynicism works in my favor.  I’m old enough to know what I’m good at, young enough to try something new, smart enough to know that the money will come, but wise enough to know it doesn’t really matter.

I want to write.  I want to be Erma Bombeck when I grow up.  I’ll know I’ve arrived when I can write something that people other than my mother want to read.  Until then, may we all believe in the power of the ice cream truck!   May you still hear the tinkling of the bells, run out the front door, and place your order with utter abandon!  Driver, make mine a double…scoop!


As a kid, I can remember spying one of those best friend necklaces, a jagged half-heart of silver, gleaming on the neck of one of the girls I so badly wanted to be.  Secretly, I wondered which of the other “in” girls had the other half. But, was I really missing out on anything?  It seemed like one of them was on the “outs” almost every other week.  Maybe they played “musical necklaces” to hand it off to the next honoree.  I decided early on to sit that game out.

I’ve just never been the type of person to have one best friend.  If I’m totally honest, it’s partly because I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, although at last glance, there wasn’t a long line of potential candidates at the door.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that people come and go from your life, but never without a reason.  Sometimes it’s just to clean the air ducts, but most of the time they leave something that matters, not just their sunglasses.  Picking a best friend is like trying to pick a favorite color.  Yep.  Never had one of those either.  But I got both in Vickie.

She overflowed into my life by accident and took up residence in my “everything” for three brief years.  Vickie told me my toes were fat, my children were edible, and that my hair looked best short.  She encouraged me to move beyond motherhood and write, to get in an airplane (with her) (without my 8-month old), and to buy new jeans before I reached my goal weight.  She taught me to forgive the unforgivable, to love myself in the process, and to just do “the next thing”.

And, all of this from her chair in the chemo clinic.  I willingly deployed to take her, when the cancer came back, the cancer that knew her before I did.  Suddenly, it seemed as if some third-wheel got in our way, ruining lunch dates and shopping adventures.  Vickie thought she had dodged her once, but, evidently, had been too kind a hostess.  Uninvited, she joined our duo and made us a trio.  And, she was there to stay.

She wasn’t all bad, cancer.  We learned to use her to our benefit and made no apologies for it.  She may or may not have gotten us a table by the window at an exclusive restaurant, when Vickie took off her turquoise baseball cap and revealed her sweet, bald, head.  She may or may not have made a trip to Florida possible, miraculously without our husbands or having to make even one pre-vacation casserole.  Whether or not she convinced us to skinny dip in a hotel pool just after midnight is not a fact for public consumption.

Mostly, she had a profound effect on our particularly wasteful theories of time-management.  We were forced to pack the friendship of a lifetime into less than 6 months.  Skinny-dipping was nothing.  Stripping life down into countable, measurable moments was the real offense.  The last vacation with her husband and children, the letters written after dark to be read when she was gone, the day she lay in the sunshine that poured onto the floor of the home she had raised her children in, asking God if he might change his mind.  He didn’t.
I hadn’t asked for this.  I’d never even said I wanted a best friend.  There was no script to refer to, no manual, nothing to tell me how I was supposed to respond.  I’d never had a half necklace. All I had was Vickie. Still there. Still teaching me.  Still calling or emailing or texting 40 times a day.  So, we did what any other respectable women would do in the face of such adversity:  we ate and shopped. 

Vickie bought shoes at Nordstrom that had cost as much as my utilities bill.  She asked for black napkins to place on the lap of our black pants at expensive Italian restaurants.  She bought an obnoxious, expensive red-orange SUV.  But, mostly, she loved.  Everyone and anyone that got in her way.  And, being a best friend meant I got to be there and watch from the sidelines, knowing that our time was up, but that I’ll always have the other part of the “necklace.”

435 S. Adams St.

If I pushed my sister’s vanity stool over to her dresser, I could boost myself up on top of it between her Love’s Baby Soft and porcelain ballet figurine to scan the scene out of our bedroom window. The view of my backyard was quite familiar, probably because we spent a fair amount of time together. In the center, was a birch tree covered with curly papyrus provoking me to peel it. Around the tree sat a puddle of ivy, where you could pull stout earthworms from the shaded soil underneath.

There were lush cherry bushes that looked like green hoopskirts with red polka dots. I’d wait until the fruit was dark red and sweet before reaping the harvest “Laura Ingalls style”, carrying the impressive yield in my t-shirt “apron” to the kitchen counter. There, I’d mash them up, add half a bag of sugar to balance the flavors, and after surveying quite a mess, I’d head back outside while my mother was preoccupied in the laundry room.

Beyond my backyard, however, was an entirely new world. And, one that beckoned my inner explorer and the Scotland Yard tenderfoot to unlatch the back gate and head into the alley. Alleys in and of themselves present mystery and intrigue, as an alternate, less known route, where on either side one can view the private “back side” windows of peoples’ homes. To a ten year-old girl, however, alleys were the only avenue of adventure worth taking.

The problem was, I had no fresh suspects. The same neighbors, for what seemed decades during the decade I had spent alive, had lived in these homes. Mrs. Chevalier’s house perched on the hill directly behind ours. She was an artist from France, with a cat named Tiger. I’d pay her visits, using the cat as an excuse, but all the while taking in the smell of oil paints and the colorful canvases stacked on the living room floor. She’d serve me little chocolates on china dishes with wrappers I’d never seen on any Halloween, and send me on my way with my pockets full.

To the north of her, lived Mr. Luedemann. He had a mini harmonica that fit entirely into his mouth and would begin playing a tune, suddenly and delightfully, so it seemed he had only intended to take a breath. I spent many hours awake hoping against all odds that Mr. Luedemann had remembered to take the harmonica out of his mouth before he went to sleep. The sound from the other end of Mr. Luedemann may not have been as enchanting.

How is it that years later I can still remember the smell of the lilac bushes on the corner, the sound of Mrs. Mudloff’s charm bracelet tinkling while she worked in her yard, the feel of my Big Wheel hitting those certain bumps on the sidewalk that most often sent you careening off? What is it about the places we live and call “home” that locks into our memories, but I somehow can’t remember my recent online password update for Amazon?

Fast forward nearly 30 years, with a houseful of kids of my own, and I become satiated with the idea that I’ve taken my role in the list of characters that my children and others will remember always. That in some small way, something I do or say, or something I plant or paint, will be part of the canvas of someone else’s life. Be it a small glimmer in the background or a loud harmonica solo at the forefront. This thing we call “doing life together” matters, in the smallest of ways we may never see.