I was over visiting Ms MPB today, reading her latest post, and it got me to thinking about gifts. She was pondering the changes that a baby would bring to her life, and one of the questions she asked was, “Will adoption make the rest of our lives messy?” Further down, in the comments, she commented on how much she dreaded having toys, especially plastic ones, all over the house.
After I’d done laughing, shaking my head, and murmuring, “Oh, honey, you have no idea how messy your life will become!” I found myself pondering the the stuff and clutter in my own life, and gifts given and received over the years, and which ones worked and why. It’s getting to be that time of year, people – Christmas is 101 days away, according to a nifty little countdown I have on my phone, and pretty soon the Crocodile of Christmas Present will jump up and grab you. We’ll need to have our wits about us to hold back the flood of cluttering Stuff – because if you don’t, it will suck you under, roll you over, and rip up the decomposing remains of your life just like a crocodile with its prey.
Well, you don’t have to be crocodile food or retail fodder. You can choose to break the cycle.
The thing about gifts for kids is, we’re always tempted by the Latest Shiny Thing – and the kids in our lives want it too. Oh boy, how they want it! They don’t just want it – they neeeeeed it to give meaning and fulfillment to their lives … right up until the day after Christmas. Or maybe it’ll last into the new year, if you’re lucky. But, guaranteed, the day they learn what their friends got, they’ll be dazzled and smitten by the Next Shiny Thing.
I rarely had much spare money when I was raising the Girl Child. Except for a few short years before the bank took it back, we didn’t ever live in a house we owned, and space was always limited. When she was very young she played mostly with the contents of my lower kitchen cupboards – pots and pans (delightful to thump with a spoon), plastic containers (they stack! They nest! You can put things in them and pour!), canned goods (they make towers and then they fall down and roll all over the floor, and sometimes make Mommy scream!) She had other people who loved her, though, so she accumulated some good stuff. She learned at an early age to entertain herself … and I learned, when I wanted to sleep late, to do so in a bed full of Lego.
But mostly I gave her intangibles. There was her own special china cup as soon as she graduated from a sippy cup, and for her third birthday her very first pillow in a bright yellow cover. (When I gave it to her, after several months of nagging, she exclaimed, “Oh! My pillow!” and hugged it tight. Some 20 years later I restuffed it with down off wild ducks Himself had shot, and she told me during her recent visit that she still had it, although it’s now a dog bed.) I know a cup and a pillow are tangible objects, but the real gift was the “You’re old enough for this now”. That’s a gift that lasts, because it’s not about the thing, it’s about the moment and the memory.
When she turned four I had a business trip that coincided with her birthday, so I gave her her first airplane trip, and she stayed with a friend while I was working. And the year she got her first bike, we packaged it in an enormous box. When we called her into the living room to open her gift she ripped off the paper then stopped, stared, and exclaimed, “A BOX!” because what could be better to play house in?
Himself and I have become pretty casual about gifts over the years. Last year I went all Fifties Housewife on him and requested a vacuum cleaner. This year it’s a replacement for my sick and sorry laptop. In both cases, I said, “Honey, what I’d really like for Christmas is…” and he ordered it a couple days later. The man has no self-control – he can no more wait for Christmas or a birthday to roll around than ignore that thumping noise in the left rear car tire.
He has surprised me only twice. When I married him there was no money for a diamond ring, so I told him that if I put up with him for 10 years he could give me diamonds then. Instead, he gave me a doberman. And then there was the birthday (I forget which, but it was one that made me grumpy and sorry for myself) that he kept asking, “Would you like your present now?” and I kept growling that no, I was busy. Eventually, near bedtime, I pulled myself together and mopily said I was ready. It was actually gift wrapped! I took off the wrap, and it was a beautiful jewelry box! “How lovely!” I exclaimed, while privately wondering why he’d give a jewelry box to someone who owned only junk jewelry. I opened it and … the box contained a string of pearls. No one had ever before given me anything so completely impractical and pretty. I am not someone who wears pearls. I don’t live a lifestyle, or in a place, that ever calls for pearls. But oh, how I love them! I wear them under my tees and sweatshirts while cleaning up after horses and dogs, and they’re like a secret between me and my skin.
By contrast, I love surprises, and although I’m hopeless at keeping secrets I’ve managed to surprise Himself a couple times. There was the year that he was grumpy the whole day of his birthday. I told him I’d give him his present when he came to bed (no, it’s okay, this is not where I over-share!) and he kept me waiting 45 minutes while he poked around reading the news online before finally stomping upstairs, to find me passed out and wearing nothing but a Stetson. (Oh calm down! The gift was the Stetson! This is not that kind of blog!)
Another time I gave him his gift before I got out of bed. He removed the gift wrap from a small box of shotgun shells, smiled awkwardly, kissed me, and said, “Thank you, honey … only … these won’t work in my shotgun.” I smiled coyly, reached under the sheet, and drew out the fancy new shotgun his best friend had told me to buy. “Well, will they work in this?” I asked.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is, it’s okay to buy stuff and get stuff. Giving and unwrapping presents can be tremendous fun! But let’s not get dragged under by the Jolly Crocodile, okay? I think the worst, most dehumanizing insult the world dishes out to us these days is to call us “consumers”. I don’t know about you, but I am so much more than a consumer! I’m a maker, a doer, a dreamer and a rememberer. I’m a lover, a player of games, a friend, a defender of the vulnerable. a celebrator.
When I give gifts, they’re not just Stuff – they mean something. And if they don’t carry the same meaning to you that I placed in them, then please pass them along. Just remember the receiving of a kindness, an act of friendship. That’s really the best any of us have to give anyone.
Deb is one of my favorite bloggers… for lots of reasons. One big reason is her uncompromising honesty. She writes with humor and compassion, but never pretties up the raw truth. As she shares this story, I’d encourage you to follow along – and please, if you know people who are coping (or not) with loved ones suffering from mental illness, pass this along to them too.
I was so afraid it would be a disaster. I was afraid we’d be trapped in unresolved conflicts and mutual misunderstanding. I was desperately afraid that, after more than a decade apart (but for a few days here and there separated by years of absence) there would simply be nothing left of our relationship.
In the tearing pain of goodbye I’m trying to focus on how glad I am that I was wrong. It still hurts, though … and although I love my life with Himself on our farmlet in a crook of the Columbia River, getting back to normal seems a dreary affair. Smoke from the fires raging across the Pacific Northwest casts a pall that is entirely in keeping with my mood.
The Girl Child left on Thursday. I gave myself a couple days to catch up on sleep and get my mope done, and now I’m picking up my life … and if it seems a tad mundane, and if I miss the vibrant intensity of our conversations, and if I ache a little sometimes for hugs and back rubs and other touches that say “I See You” … well, for all that, this is a good life, and I chose it, and I continue to choose it daily.
I want to tell you about the last few days of her visit, because they were too good not to be recorded.
The first blessing: Woo and Her Boy
Woo is the Girl Child’s oldest friend. Her father and uncle and I were playmates as young children, and she and the Girl Child became instant friends when they were toddlers. Over the years she visited often and even lived with us a few times, and then we lost contact. She lives in Florida now, and has a 13-year-old son, and when she heard about the Girl Child’s visit she announced that she was coming to visit too, and bringing her son to meet us.
They were here for only two days, bracketed by two full days of travel. On the second day we ran away from the smoke and drove to Mt Rainier to see the flowers in the sub-alpine meadows. I don’t know whether the flowers came early this year, or whether the person who told me August was the best month to see them was mistaken, but most of them were gone. It was okay, though – we had blue sky and forests and ancient trees, and a picnic, and conversation. At the end there was a cheap airport hotel that wasn’t too bad, and by the time Woo and her boy left they were talking seriously of moving to Washington. I want that to happen so much I don’t dare speak about it here!
The second blessing: A whole extra day
The Girl Child and I both misread her travel itinerary and thought she would have to check in for her flight quite early on Thursday morning. At the last minute – after we’d already made all our plans around her early departure – we realized that she wasn’t flying out until late afternoon. The joy of a whole extra day for just us!
We spent it at the Chihuly Garden and Glass. How in the world do I tell you what that was like? We walked through a series of rooms dedicated to different exhibits. The first was one of his early works – interesting and nice to look at. Then there was one inspired by Native American blankets and baskets – also worth seeing. And then … oh my word. A dark room with a blaze of color and shapes. Another room, still more intense. A ceiling – I couldn’t help myself; I had to lie down and stare at it. (I don’t understand why everyone wasn’t lying down!) There followed a gradual descent in intensity until we thought it was over – but no, after that came the garden – a lavish mix of greenery, flowers and glass.
The third blessing: Priorities
I’ve always been the one to waft along not worrying about the clock, Living In The Moment. The Girl Child, by contrast, is entirely Type A. So after Chihuly, when it dawned on me that I was still short one of the gifts I wanted to send back to South Africa with her, it was entirely in character for me to suggest just “popping over” to Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, where we were guaranteed to find something that would appeal to a teenage boy. And, of course, it was equally in character for her to hyperventilate a little because this was Seattle. You don’t “pop over” Seattle. There is traffic!
But then we switched. We drove there. We puttered. We had lunch – clam chowder with the seagulls at Ivar’s. And every time I fidgeted about the time, she told me to relax. Eventually she said, “Chill, Mom. I won’t miss my plane. And if I’m too late to get a seat in the emergency aisle it doesn’t matter – I’d rather have lunch with you.”
Such a small thing to say … but after all those years, and all that worry and preparation and “what if we just don’t like each other” … well, it meant the world to me.
She’s back home now and so am I, but we’ve built a bridge this summer.
There is a moment in every woman’s life when she knows that she will never camp again. For me, that moment came last Saturday morning, somewhere between dragging my protesting bones off a thin foam mattress and across wet grass to a porta-potty, and realizing that I’d forgotten to bring a cup and therefore had to rinse my contact lenses and brush my teeth in Argos’ water bowl.
Not that I’m complaining. Self-knowledge is a good thing. Also, my road trip with the Girl Child has been … what word works best? Delightful. Healing. Rejuvenating. Joyous.
A gift from God.
This is true even of the itchy bits: A couple days without showering. My snoring, Argos’ licking of parts best ignored, her acute sensitivity to annoying noises. Conversations about subjects previously skirted – God (I am a grateful believer in One who gives with a lavish hand; she calls herself an atheist and speaks of “putting things out to the Universe”), love, sex and dating (Himself is irredeemably male; she is in love with a young woman she met on Tinder, and while telling me about Tinder she mentioned the “fake lesbians” who hunt there for thrills – but, she told me, you can tell them by their talons. I did the blank stare, and she waved her beautifully polished but short fingernails at me. More blank. She rolled her eyes. “Mom. Please don’t make me explain why lesbians don’t grow long fingernails.” Comprehension smacked me upside the head and I squeaked “Oh my word, TMI!” and blushed like a virgin). Conversations about the past – sad and happy memories, regrets and forgiveness, perceptions and assumptions and explanations – and about politics, books, ethics, the meaning of life, and, naturally, family gossip.
Inevitably, our road trip got off to a chaotic start. Between a big deadline and the need to transform a black hole of doom into a comfortable spare bedroom, I’d had no time to worry about trivia like grocery shopping in advance for a trip that wouldn’t happen until days after her arrival. Suddenly it was time to meet her at the airport, followed by much running around and visiting with people, in between firing increasingly irate messages at Emirates Air demanding to know what they’d done with her luggage. (It arrived on a late flight the night before we left town.)
We picked up our hire car from Budget at about the time I’d planned to get on the road. (That’s when we learned that a second driver added around 70% to the cost of the hire. For the same amount of car. No, it makes no sense to me either.) Then we rushed home to pack, but first I insisted on spring-cleaning the house in an effort to assuage my guilt over abandoning Himself to the care of seven dogs and a horde of other critters, while the Girl Child flung things into the car more or less at random. (Actually, that’s not true – she packs as though she’s solving a tetris puzzle. So what in fact happened was, I flung random suggestions at her and she gathered things together and stowed them neatly away, and it was therefore entirely my fault that we left without eating or cooking utensils or, come to think of it, food.)
The plan was to get to our cottage in central Oregon, about four hours drive away, at lunch time. As noon approached, the Girl Child became restive and I said “Stuff it, this is clean enough” and hurled my mop at the bucket. We loaded ourselves and Argos into the car, and headed for the hills.
There are many beautiful places to see in Central Oregon. I’d whittled the list down to four … but in fact all we managed were the Painted Hills. We had to go twice, to see what they looked like in the evening and again by the fresh light of morning.
We spent the night at a cottage in Mitchell. It was clean, spacious and comfortable. The only downside to our stay was the inevitable toilet mishap – and it was almost a relief to get that done and out of the way early. (My relationship with toilets is a whole other blog post, which I will write one day … enough to say that although I love to travel, my bowels do not.)
Now that I think of it, the other downside was the absence of anywhere to eat in Mitchell. Everything closes at 7.00PM. Dinner was a couple of blueberry muffins and a glass of milk that we’d picked up en route for breakfast.
Our next destination was Crater Lake. It was late afternoon by the time we got there. We drove through forest tunnels that were veiled with heavy smoke from the fire at Medford, but the lake was dazzling in the low light. Of course, we had to go back again the next morning so she could see the incredible blue of the water and to putter around taking pictures of flowers and trees and weird rock formations. (See how self-controlled I’m being? I’m making you look at hardly any of them!)
Day three had us heading for the Oregon Coast, a stay at one of my favorite places and Argos’ first encounter with the sea. Moolack Shores Motel is a couple miles north of Newport, and the couple who own it have so much fun doing it up all arty and interesting and fun. When we walked into our suite (“the hunting lodge”, complete with rifles and rods, a deer head mounted over the bedroom door, and wood carvings by local artists) the view of the Pacific blazed through the big picture windows at us. I expected Argos to be at least a little fazed by the hugeness of the ocean, but no – he knew right away that sand was for running and waves for dancing and friends for making.
By then, we were tired of the road, and packing up to leave the next morning was hard. Lesson learned: road trips are better if you drive only every second day.
It took us more than 12 hours to get from Newport to Neah Bay, because of course we took a detour to look at some or other scenic something, and around midday we stopped at Safeway to stock up on food and got sucked into a time warp. (While in the time warp I temporarily lost control of my faculties and bought a leg of lamb and mushrooms and baby potatoes, and a couple of aluminum roasting thingummies and insisted that I was going to fix something delicious on the barbecue for dinner. More about this later.)
On the other hand, we found a town called Humptulips. Yes, really – google it if you don’t believe me. The only public loo is a porta-potty on the side of the road (Girl Child’s review: “It’s clean enough – just don’t look down.” There is a general store with an alarm that shrieks long and hard every time the door opens, and a young woman behind the counter who looks as though she’s waiting for someone to rescue her. I hope they don’t keep her waiting too long!
Neah Bay is on the Olympic Peninsula, which just happens to be one of the wettest places on earth. Seriously, parts of it get 10 feet of precipitation every year. So, of course, we had to camp there. We spent the whole long day’s drive wondering whether we’d packed the rain cover for the tent, and also whether we’d be able to inflate the air mattress, which we bought en route in the trusting but false assumption that it came with some sort of blower upper. It was dark when we arrived and we were all three of us grumpy and fed up with this whole road trip nonsense, and although the tent went up more-or-less waterproof and a fellow camper provided a bed inflator, I didn’t sleep well because the Girl Child kept waking me up to accuse me of snoring.
The next morning I kicked the Girl Child out into the cold rain with instructions to explore Cape Flattery and the museum … and I spent the entire day in bed, snoozing and reading. Everyone else left on various errands, and even Argos seemed relieved to spend a day Doing Nothing. It was bliss! Until I noticed that the rain had soaked through the tent wall and my sleeping bag was sodden … but that didn’t happen until much later, and it led to the epiphany I mentioned right at the beginning of this post. No More Camping For Me!
Having slept, and then ambled pleasantly along the beach, I was happy to not worry about the lamb, which we didn’t cook because the friends we were camping with had planned a fish bake. I will eat someone else’s baked fish over any cooking of mine any day! And I figured the lamb would do fine for our next stop, as long as we kept topping up the ice it was packed in.
On Day six we were back on the road again, with a full bag of soaking laundry and craving a hot shower. First there was a long drive to Port Townsend, then a ferry across to another island, then the beautiful bridge at Deception Pass, seafood dinner in Anacortes, a late ferry to Orcas Island, and a slow drive down narrow and twisting roads between hedgerows and fields. I wonder if all islands try to look like England? At last we reached our destination: a resort where I had paid a bloody fortune to hire a tent. Not a wet and flappy tent that we had to erect ourselves, mind you – a permanent tent, with a solid carpeted floor and an actual bed and – or so I presumed – Conveniences.
We expected a place to cook. A small fridge. A shower!!! (Did I mention that after two days of camping, bracketed by two days of travel, we were more than a tad stinky? And itchy! Yuchh!)
Well. First there was the Stench. It assaulted our nostrils as we entered the resort, and was so bad I couldn’t even blame it on Argos. We mentioned it to the ditzy young dingleberry in reception, and she giggled and changed the subject. Then there was the tent … and it was a very nice tent, dry and clean with a fair view – only the bed was on the small side, but we had to share because there was no bedding for the futon. There was also no fridge, and nowhere to cook. (There was a place to barbecue, but it was an uncomfortable distance from our tent – and there were signs everywhere warning of a burn ban due to the hot, dry weather.)
We resigned ourselves to dining on cheese sticks and chips, and went in search of the showers, There were two showers, three toilets and four basins to serve about eight tent cabins and a full campsite. One of the showers was available, so the Girl Child went in (it was her turn to go first) and peeled off her disgusting, damp, smelly clothes. There was a pause, then I heard, “Mom? Do you have any quarters?”
Yep, it took around four quarters to have a halfway decent shower. Because everyone walks around with spare quarters in their pockets. So, kind reader, what do you think? Do you think I left her, naked, reeking and shivering, while I hurried to find my purse, which didn’t contain any quarters, so I drove to the store at reception, only to find they had closed? Or did I stick my hand into the pocket of my jeans and find a bunch of quarters that were left over after I washed the rug for her bedroom at the laundromat? I’ll give you a hint: there are several practical reasons why I believe in a God of miracles.
The resort didn’t win any stars, but Orcas Island is a delight. We took the short hike at Obstruction Pass – the Girl Child and Argos ran the mile to the beach, then ran some more while waiting for me, and eventually ran back to the car. I found the steep ups and downs quite a challenge and was relieved to learn of an easier, more level route back – but it was so worth it, to sit and look out at the islands and throw sticks for the boy.
He loves the water, And he really, really wants the stick. But swim? Nah … he’s not convinced that’s possible.
Then we went up to Mt Constitution, but I was pooped and chilled and wet through from towing a tired and recalcitrant Malinois into a freshwater lake on the way there to rinse the salt water off him.
And now here we are, approaching the end. I’m writing this in a coffee shop while the Girl Child shops her way up Eastsound and back. We have to be at the ferry by 2.00PM, and we’ll be home before midnight.
Maybe I can talk Himself into cooking the lamb…
I’ve told you here about our travels. What I haven’t quite managed to put into words, however, is the beauty of the journey we’ve started together. In just a few days, we’ve traveled all the way from rebellious 17 and anxious mommy, to two women who delight in each other’s company. So … yeah, the road trip is all but over. But the journey? That’s just beginning.
They left her luggage in Dubai – two suitcases stuffed with gifts and a scattering of clothes. And there were flight delays, and the traffic on the I-5 was so bad it took me 45 minutes to drive the last 20 miles to Sea-Tac – after hovering close to 80mph most of the way because I could notbe late, only when I announced that I was leaving Himself announced that before I left (it’s a four hour drive) he absolutely had to check the tires … the radiator … the oil … the-who-knows-what-because-I-had-to-run-inside-and-do-housework-to-prevent-myself-from-screaming … and then I was at the airport, and inside, and there were people everywhere but none of them was HER. (Although at least she had her phone and could text.)
And then there she was, and all I could do was hold on, and hold on, and when I let go she still held on.
It’s been so, so long. Half a lifetime, nearly. She was 18 when Himself and I found each other at some long lost intersection of the World-Wide Web, and I launched myself – not heeding the cost, never suspecting how high it would be – across the Atlantic and to the far side of a continent that was itself a world away, and into his arms, his bed, his life (our 17th anniversary was just the other day). And left her behind.
And now she’s here.
This whole feverish, dusty summer has been building up to this.Hours online planning a road trip, dollars committed – far more than I intended but it’s been so long – more hours tunneling through the chaotic mess of the guest bedroom and cleaning and transforming it into a welcoming space. The antique brass bed is the one I bought her when she was eight years old and we moved into the first (only) house I bought as an adult single person and I determined to give her a space that would feel like forever, like hers, like home. The karakul rug we found at the Rand Easter Show that same year – it’s still beautiful and soft on her feet, after I pulled it – covered with dust and bird shit and mouse droppings – out of the barn and sat with it in a steaming laundromat for hours a few days ago, one of the hottest days of this hot summer. The chest of drawers and wardrobe are empty, just waiting for her bags to arrive from Dubai.
We can wait. There’s no great rush. We have a whole three weeks of summer.