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Archive for November, 2008

I have spent the last fifteen years feeling like an oddity on this particular day.  Every year, as Thanksgiving rolled around, I’d book the Thursday and Friday off work — it just felt wrong to spend those two days at my desk — and search high and low for a turkey in November (a what?), usually having to settle for some turkey breast fillets instead, and prepare to cook a mountain of food for just M and me, or for a few friends who would come round after work to eat this strange feast on a work night.

But it wasn’t any of that that made me feel like an oddity.  It was the fact that no one else got the idea behind the holiday.  No one understood the true meaning — and so I was unable to live out that meaning, which is to share in the communal pause of an entire nation taking one day to come together to be grateful for its myriad blessings.  Thanksgiving is not really about the food, it’s not about the day off, it’s not about football or the Macy’s Parade…  and it is, most of all, not about singularity.  And though I was always surrounded by friends who humoured me, I knew from the questions (“Do we bring gifts?” “Will we have fireworks?” “Do we eat…  hotdogs?”) that I was always singular in celebrating the true spirit of the day.

Since we’ve come back to the US ten months ago, I have felt so much more out of place than I had expected to — completely like a fish out of water.  Though I thought I was coming home, I found that what was once familiar now feels strange, and what was once comforting is now…  not at all.  I have longed to turn around and go straight “home” to Britain again — and then wondered if I’d find same thing happening all over again there.  I have begun to think that perhaps I simply don’t fit in anywhere any more — not really — and that no matter where we end up, I will live my days out feeling like I ought to be somewhere else… and probably never knowing where that is.

But today is Thanksgiving, and I am in the States for the first time since I left home all those years ago.  We ate turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potato souffle, beans, and brussels sprouts.  The parade was on the background, which then gave way to the football.  Bellies were filled to bursting and belts had to be loosened.

And while we all gave thanks for health and happiness, homes and jobs, food and friendship, life and love…  I paused and gave thanks for the quiet joy of my first Thanksgiving with my family in fifteen years, and the way — for today, at least — I felt completely at home.

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The birdfeeder, despite being filled with our own personal deadly poison, has proved to be a great hit.  Today, we’ve had visits from a squirrel, a gentleman and lady cardinal, a junko, and several chickadees.  When my mother rang, I let E1 answer the phone.

“Grandma!  We’ve had a squirrel!  And a cardinal!  And a chipmunk!  And a chickadee-dee-dee!”

Her sister ran up and grabbed the phone out of her hands.  “Bird!” she yelled into it, and then continued, “Squrrrrl!… Dee-dee!…  Elephant!”

Now, see… I never spotted that elephant…!  I’ll have to watch this one.  Before you know it, she’ll be seeing ostriches, just like her daddy.

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Ever since I gently, though through clenched teeth, explained to my mother that M and I had decided we didn’t feel comfortable with her taking the children out on her own, I know she has been working hard to “earn back her Grandma card,” as she put it.  I hadn’t planned to tell her this at all — just to quietly never let it happen — but that day she had taken E2 out of the pushchair and put her down in a carpark and then turned her back on her to unload the bags into the car and, upon finishing and turning back around for her, been completely surprised to find that E2 had disappeared.  We spent a frantic 30 seconds (which felt like minutes…  hours… years…) running amongst cars screaming her name, and eventually found her toddling unsteadily five whole cars away.  Driving home, I held my tongue for 30 minutes, making small talk while my insides swirled with molten anger, until I could stand it no longer and finally had to gather my composure and explain to her — calmly, evenly — that this sort of thing had happened too many times and that she needed to be aware that her unthinking behaviour was dangerous.

She cried at the realisation and then, over time, tried very hard to modify her behaviour.  She made a great show of being exceedingly careful and never taking any chances, for which I was very grateful, and sympathetic to her obvious desperation, but which didn’t — couldn’t — actually make much difference to my feelings on the matter.  The careless behaviour that causes me such unease is not anything she can ever change — it is part of who she is, essential to how she wings her way through life, part of her very make-up.  She cannot really change it, any more than a butterfly could fly in a straight line instead of flutter.

There were a million things M and I needed to accomplish on the house this weekend — there are boxes to unpack, a huge chest of drawers to move from one room to another, an light switch to replace, and furniture to assemble — and so we asked my mother if she would mind taking the girls to her house for the afternoon so we could get really stuck in.  Though we don’t feel comfortable with her taking them out, I am relatively comfortable with her babysitting them in the controlled environments of our house or hers.  She was happy to have the girls.  Yesterday, she rang me to ask what time to pick them up.  “So…  I could pick them up and then take them through the car wash — they love that!  And then…”  Her voice changed slightly, “We could go…  we could go to the play area at the mall… ”  She’d said it with hopefulness.  And then her voiced changed again, to something more resigned, “Or would you rather I just took them back to my house?”

I paused before I answered her.  I wanted to tell her to take them to the mall — I wanted to give her back her Grandma card.  But then my mind flashed back to that day — only three months ago — when E2 was left to wander on her own in a carpark…  and to another day when I saw E1’s curly hair bobbing away from the car as my mother turned her back on her in a carpark as well…  to the way she has inadvertently downgraded E2’s allergies to “intolerances” in conversation with friends, with waiters…  to the times my mum has neglected to read ingredients lists (or “read” them without putting her glasses on) before giving some new food to the girls…  to the time she didn’t notice that what E2 was sucking on was a bleach bottle she’d dug out of the rubbish bin.  I wanted to say yes…  I wanted to…  But I thought of her getting the girls out of the car on her own in that carpark, so busy in the run up to Christmas.  I thought of the mall, filled with people, all the crowds, the confusion.  I thought of the food, that minefield of dangerous food in the food hall, and the scraps that would be on the floor at the play area.  She would have the Epi-Pen, but I’m not even confident that she remembers how to use it — and, hell,  I don’t want it to come to that anyway.

“Um…  ” I began, with all the lightness I could muster.  “Why don’t you take them back to the house so they can see their grandad?  They haven’t seen him in a while…  and, besides, the mall will be so crowded this weekend!”

She saw straight through it, and we both knew the truth despite my attempt at a happy spin.  “Yes…  Ok,” she replied, audibly dejected.

When I opened the door today, she greeted me with a grin, saying, “I’ll be in in a minute!  I’ve brought you a birdfeeder and some seed and I want to run around the back and hang it up!”  She had a face like a kid — she loves doing this kind of thing for her grandkids.  I smiled — the girls would be so delighted to see the birds that would come — and told her to put it in the tree that we can see from the dining room.  Then I ushered both girls to window to watch Grandma fill the feeder and hang it up.  She ripped open the bag and a handful of the contents arced into the air and splattered to the ground.  And then as she poured, yet more of it escaped, bouncing as it spread across on the deck.

I looked at it in sudden shock.  Was I seeing what I thought I was seeing?  Was I?  I looked at the bag, upside-down in my mother’s hands, and read the label: Nut and Seed Mix for Birds…  I watched in utter disbelief as my mother poured peanuts across our deck.  Peanuts onto the deck of the house where her beloved grandchild lives with a life-threatening peanut allergy.

When she came back in, I thanked her for the birdfeeder, and then gently pointed out that it was probably better to buy just seed mix from now on, not mixes that contain nuts of any kind — particularly (ahem!) peanuts.  “Oh!” she said, her hand covering her mouth and with a look of sudden horror on her face.  “I never thought…!”

I know she hadn’t.  She hadn’t thought.  And for that reason, my mother will never be able soothe my fears.  She is what she is — kind, loving, generous, but wholly unthinking and too often dangerous for it.  And I am reminded that I must always be confident enough to trust my own gut instincts where my children are concerned.

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This house has central heat — so nice on snowy days.

This house’s windows don’t rattle when the wind blows, and they don’t have a gap between the top and bottom that’s so big you can drop a butter knife through it.

This house has a living room and a dining room and a family room and a basement — enough room for my hobbies, M’s hobbies and the girls’ hobb…  er, toys.

This house has a dishwasher.

This house has an electric outlet in the bathroom.

This house has enough bedrooms for all of us.

This house has mixer taps.

This house has a washer and dryer that make laundry an easy chore, rather than the main event of the whole day.

This house has a gas stove — how long I have waited for that!

This house has heat upstairs — so nice when you’re undressing for bed.

This house has closets!

This house does not smell vaguely of mildew, anywhere.

This house has a drivway… and a garage!  No more parking on the street… on the other side of the street.  No more dragging two toddlers and a car-load of grocery shopping across the road while dodging cars zooming past at 50 mph.

This house has neighbours who welcomed us to our new home with homemade apple pie and handmade bread. Yay!

This house has a front porch — a place to for everyone to stand out of the snow and rain, whilst I fish for my keys which have, once again, sunk to the bottom of my bottomless handbag.

This house has a driveway big enough (and flat enough) that M can park his truck on it, and not have to walk a quarter of a mile home in the rain and snow.

This house has a shower.

This house has beautiful hardwood floors, with floorboards tight enough that I can’t slide a piece of paper between them — let alone drop a pound coin through.

This house has more than one toilet — always so handy.

This house has ceiling fans, one right over my bed — how I’ve missed ceiling fans!

This house has plumbing well enough designed that you can use water in another part of the house while someone is taking a shower without scalding them.

This house has a porch swing.

This house has heat in the bathroom — so nice on cold mornings.

This house has deer wandering through the back garden.

This house has an apple tree laden with fruit.

This house has a hilltop view of wonderful sunsets.

This is a good house.

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My landlady-until-last-week came round today, to have a look at our new house and to collect her keys.  It was a relief to hand them over and thus end my obligation to her.  I mean, I appreciate very much the wonderful opportunity to live in her house these past months while we looked for a place of our own, but the pressure — both to move before her house sold and also to keep her house in a showable state while our two skilled mess-makers wreaked their special havoc — was considerable  …and distinctly uncomfortable.  Knowing that with every showing, she was receiving updates on how we were living was a strange and icky sensation.  When my mother one day showed her a picture of the girls eating dinner in the kitchen, and she spied a crock-pot sitting on the counter-top and remarked to my mother that “with 32 cupboards in that kitchen, there is no reason for them to have anything out on the counters other than the microwave,” I got that same feeling I’ve know for years…

Renting in the UK, I got used to the fact that it is standard practice for landlords (or their agencies) to come round to inspect your home every few months, to ensure you aren’t doing it damage.  I say I got used to it, but I never liked it.  I hated that visit — dreaded it, in fact.  I was always a good tenant — keeping my house tidy, paying my rent on time, and leaving it cleaner than I found it — but I hated that feeling of having to prove it over again four times a year when someone walked through my residence to poke a nose in every room —  my bathroom, my bedroom — before passing their judgment on whether my way of living was up to par.  I hated receiving that letter telling me when they were coming by, and that they would charge me a fine if I wasn’t there to let them in, and then having to write the words “house inspection” in my diary.  Even 10 years into my last rental, when it was blindingly obvious that I was a good tenant taking care of the house, they still came like clockwork every three months, just to make sure.

After my landlady (erm…  I mean ex-landlady) left today, I held a steaming cup of tea in both hands and stood at the backdoor looking out over the garden.  The sky was dark and wintery, and the dry, curled leaves were piled thick under the trees and spread across the grass.  We’d better get those raked up soon, I thought, before they kill the grass and irritate the landlor...

And then I realised — probably the first time it really seeped into my consciousness — that there is no landlord.  There will be no inspections.  It’s our grass to kill.  It’s our house to keep tidy or not, to punch holes in or not…  to paint, to improve, to decorate, to relax in, to live in — to live in privately, and it’s that last word that makes all the difference.  It’s our house. And my toes curled up a bit with the sheer excitement of it, as I took another sip of my tea and looked out across my garden, covered in my leaves, for the very first time.

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Something’s gone wrong.  I should be feeling overjoyed, now that we are in our new house, our own house, this that I have wanted and wished for and dreamed of over the last two decades in ill-fitting rentals.  But I am completely taken aback by my emotions.  These past few days, I have felt less grounded, less settled, less sure of anything than I have felt in years.  Suddenly, I am questioning everything, I am sure of nothing  …except for one thing: I am very very homesick.  And bursting into tears at a moment’s notice, at the dumbest things.  At the sight of the church steeple lit up against the night sky, which I can see through our bedroom window, and which, for a moment, my mind convinced me was sat upon an old stone church in small English village, like so many I know, and that I could just step out the door and walk right up to if I wanted…  Buying a home at last, I expected to feel joy, I had hoped to feel the start of settledness.  Instead, I feel blindsided.

And here, I think, is why: now that we have done this at last, now that this goal has finally been achieved, there is one last thing left to do.  It’s not replacing the pink-and-blue bathroom tiles, it’s not ripping out the kitchen and putting in the shiny new one I have been lusting after, it’s not replacing the scarily ancient furnace, or even buying some furniture so we at least have someplace comfortable to sit down at the end of a long day.  The thing that’s left — the thing that has turned out to be the biggest thing, when I thought we’d just achieved the big thing — is to answer the question, “Was it worth the price?”

Out furniture shopping with my mother and the girls today, my nerves were in shreds and everything felt raw.  I was struggling with all three of them, for various reasons that weren’t actually anywhere near as big as they felt.  I could feel every word my mother said like a physical blow and the girls’ boisterous behaviour was cutting straight through me.  M’s reaction to the move has been to feel the separation from his kids with renewed desperation, and both of us have been feeling an urgent need to lay the groundwork for getting back home again.  I suddenly didn’t know what I was doing in a furniture shop.  What is the point of spending money furnishing a house here if we are only going to try to leave it again as soon as possible?  What was the point?

Suddenly, I just had to leave.  I walked back to the car — nearly ran, actually — and, once I locked myself in, the sobs came so hard that my body shook and my own wailing voice startled me.  I curled up backwards on the passenger seat and hung on to the headrest as I let it all just work its way out and then, when at last I recovered my calm, I had to ask myself, am I doing this to myself?    Am I just one of these miserable people who can’t ever be happy?  Refuses to be happy?  Is it all actually much easier than this, if I could just find a way to let go of the angst?  Is there any justification for this or am I just bound and determined to never find that ever-elusive sense of peace, of having found my home?

I have been doing a lot of soul-searching lately: I have been trying to look at whether the things that annoy me in other people are actually more a problem in me.  I have been trying to look at my relationships — with M, my daughters, my friends, and particularly my mother — with fresh eyes, and a little more honesty.  I have walked away from a few things that I felt weren’t good for me, were distracting me from what’s important.  I am trying very very hard to react more often with kindness and patience.  I am trying not to sweat the small stuff.  And I don’t know if I’m making progress, but I flatter myself that I am.  But this wild and unexpected reaction to finally — finally — moving into a house of our own has really got me questioning all that.

Because today, I could have walked away from an awful lot more than just a day out shopping.  And it really wasn’t supposed to feel this way.

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APB

Forgive my silence.  We moved into our house on Friday and now it is all boxes, mess, confusion, and chaos here.  And three days without internet access — I know how crazy that sounds, but I have come out the other side relatively unscathed.

Normal blogging will resume soon.  In the meantime, excuse me while I bury myself in this pile of boxes to try to find enough clean clothes to get us through tomorrow…

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