Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Obama Victory Garden

Several weeks before the First Lady of the United States started planting her kitchen garden at the White House my husband made a startling pronouncement. “We should plant a garden. A kitchen garden.”, he had said.

The suggestion surprised me, but when I thought it over it made very good sense. Eric loves to cook and one of the aspects of cooking he so cherishes is his trips to the window boxes where we grow herbs for his cooking. A small pleasure but therapeutic and inspirational nonetheless. The garden is like that, only bigger.

We chose a sunny spot in the side yard that had seen several previous iterations that each had something to offer at the time. I was talking to a friend and she asked where we had put our vegetable garden. I told her that it was in the spot where the swing set had been and then the hot tub and finally the trampoline. Oh, yes, I remember all of that she said, nodding. The same spot with so many different uses and associations.

The swing set with it’s white and pink and gray paint. It wasn’t very fancy, someone had given it to us as a hand me down. It squeaked like crazy. The baby seat. The memory of the sweet, sweet faces and chubby little hands almost makes me feel like I can’t breathe. The “train” where the girls would face each other. The constant admonishments to stop pumping so hard - it was starting to shake. Careful, you’ll flip it over.

Time passed, as it always does, and everyone outgrew the swing set which was taken off to the dump. When my parents walked into Costco and bought a new hot tub on an impulse buy (probably thought they were just going out for toilet paper), they offered us their old one. It seemed like such a good idea at the time and only one hundred dollars to have it delivered. It turns out that hot tubs can’t function without what one of the kids called “electricical.” It also turns out that an old house with Zinsco breakers does not have adequate “electricical” to power a hot tub, even a somewhat outdated one. Kaching. The electrician was a lovely man moonlighting from his real job with “Those Darn Accordians”. The house was amped up to 220 Volts or something like that and a cable was run from the house under the yard and popped up in a gray pipe to provide the requisite power.

The hot tub had its positives. I loved sitting in it during a light rain in winter when the leaves were off the trees and you could see the beautiful outline of the bare branches. It provided opportunity to be outside at night when it was dark and cold. The worries were many, however. When we first got the spa Allie was around four and had hair down to her bottom. I read something about a little one having her hair caught in the jets, getting trapped and drowning. I’m sure that is not a very frequent occurrence, but the image the was not good. One more thing to worry about.

There was an “attractive nuisance” aspect to it when Lucy became a teenager and started bringing her friends around just as we were settling into bed. The jets would be on and the kids (whoever they were) would have to talk loudly over the jets, use all the towels and drip everywhere. I tried not to think about what could be happening on the infrequent occasions we were not at home.

There was the maintenance issue which didn’t seem too problematic until we were in San Diego visiting my in-laws, one of whom is a nurse. Apparently, they hadn’t cleaned their hot tub properly and on the long drive back to San Francisco the younger girls developed all over itchy body rashes that turned out to be a nasty condition called hot tub folliculitis. Ugh. Now we had to wonder if we were being diligent enough with the chemicals.

The absolute worse experience we had with our hot tub was the August we went on vacation for several weeks following a rat problem. Before we left for the trip we decided to put out poison which I wasn’t too sure about. My brother, who knows much about much, assured me the nasty creatures would go off in search of water and die. When we got into the spa upon our return there was a horrible smell. We checked the water which looked alright but there was something so, so wrong. Thirteen rats had gone off to look for water and died under the hot tub. It really lost its allure for me after that and we got rid of it. Only a hundred dollars to have it carted away. As they rolled it out on its side over my neighbor’s driveway bits of the pink insulation began falling out with rat crap dropping all over the place.

The trampoline. Another attractive nuisance. Another potential source of danger. Different parents had different policies. My next door neighbor said her little boys were not allowed on it. Period. Some parents didn’t seem to care about anything their kids did. At the time we also had a dog who used the back yard as her bathroom and we were not always so timely about the scooping. The kids’ dad, a lawyer, joked that we should have children from other families sign a waiver that they wouldn’t sue us if they broke their necks OR stepped in dog poop. Funny.

After a time the novelty wore off and it was rare that anyone actually jumped on the trampoline. It became more a place to gather and sunbathe, do homework or host the occasional pajama party. Other than being hideously large and truly ugly, I didn’t really have a problem with it. Over the years sun damaged the stretchy part attached to the springs and bits began to flake off. Unfortunately, one winter we had a flood in the neighborhood and our garage and front and back yards were left covered with smelly mud. Fortunately, the town where we live provided pick up service for all the damaged goods and, without consulting the children, I decided the trampoline was terminally ill and dragged it out to the rubbish pile. There were a few little peeps of discontent, but we all pretty much knew those days were gone.

That was early January 2006. Fast forward to the spring of 2009. There have been some changes in this country. There have been some changes around here. My husband and I divorced. He has remarried his first wife. Eric and I were married two years ago. We have tried “blending” our families with abject failures as well as some successes. Our youngest daughters are now nineteen. We underwent great trauma when Eric had a catastrophic motorcycle accident from which we are both still healing. My chosen profession, residential real estate sales, has gone in the dumper. My plan B, staging homes for sale, has also gone in the dumper. We are still buying this house from my ex-husband and when we finish paying him off it won’t be worth what we agreed to pay. Our two youngest are in expensive colleges in Connecticut and Scotland. Some costly therapy has been necessary.

When Eric and I met we each had apartments and offices where we would go to work. Between us we had two cars and a motorcycle. I had half a house and he had cash in the bank. We have dwindled down to one car. Now he has an office. Mine has been shut down, but we have the garden.

Because of the wars and our reduced economic circumstances, we started to call it the Victory garden. Because of the our new administration and our hope for the future, we now call it the Obama Victory Garden. We have the sweet peas and climbing beans and squash and tomatoes. We have spinach and Swiss chard. We’re hosting a little dinner party on Saturday and Eric will pick something fresh from the garden to serve our guests. The garden is pretty and peaceful. It’s wonderfully relaxing to just look at it. We will have grandchildren in a few years and they may need swings and hot tubs and trampolines but we won’t need to provide them. We have the garden with this strange gray, plastic periscope poking up between the carrots and basil. People always ask about it and I smile to myself and tell them it was the source of electricity for the hot tub we used to have.

Lemon Tree

When the youngest of our three girls became toilet trained it became apparent that one bathroom for a family of five was less than ideal. It was time to expand. The house was fewer than a thousand square feet - three bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, small dining area and living room but it had a big, flat back yard. Right off the back of the house, behind the original kitchen, was a wonderful, mature lemon tree. The girls who were then three, seven and eleven were excited about the prospect of the new house but were distressed that we’d have to cut down the lemon tree in order to expand. I promised we’d plant a new lemon tree to replace the old one. We finally did, but it took fifteen years.

My then husband wasn’t so sure about adding on. He felt we couldn’t afford it, but realized it would be less expensive than moving and finally relented. We cobbled together the financing including a $50,000 advance on the inheritance from his father as well as a home equity line. My brother was a contractor and he would do the work but he wanted me to act as the general and hire all the subs, run the job, order the materials and so on. It would save us a lot of money and he wouldn’t have to bother with all the details. I bought a pair of work boots and took on the job.

After fighting with City Hall and one of the neighbors (all the rest were great) the permits were approved. The project was to take four months and we would live in the house while the work was being done as another way to save on expenses. Demolition began in August and during that time we took a trip to Southern California. The workers ripped out the ceiling in the living room so it could be vaulted and tore out the existing kitchen so we could push out the back of the house. When we got home a week later we had no roof on part of the house and had to wash the dishes in the bathtub. The front coat closet became the pantry. It was a lot like camping. I’m not much of a camper and when I look back on it, I cannot imagine how we managed.

The two older girls went back to school after Labor Day and the little one was in pre-school part time, but mostly she was my “helper”. Every morning the guys arrived bright and early and fired up their power tools. I tried to stay on top of ordering the windows and appliances and lumber so we could stay on schedule. I was barraged with constant questions. I made ten thousand decisions. It was exciting to think that we would have a house with a three hundred square foot kitchen and fireplace - a great room with granite counter tops and ten foot ceilings. I couldn’t wait for the master bedroom upstairs with it’s own bathroom and view of the mountain.

We had a problem with the stairs. Because of the high ceiling in the kitchen there needed to be a fast rise with a short run. Everyone, including the engineer, said it could not be done. We’d have to sacrifice the ceiling height in the kitchen in order to achieve the rise in the space allowed for the run. I would not be swayed off course. Armed with a book on stair design and the Uniform Building Code, I got to work. I realized we could get up high enough if we used three winders which are stairs that turn a corner. It’s not the safest construction because the winders are shaped like triangles and they’re very narrow on the inside, but it was a solution. I drew it out on pattern paper and waited with bated breath while the building inspector looked it over. He deemed it acceptable. Success

Of course, problems arose. My brother began to have a nagging cough and then got really grouchy. My husband and I fought. A lot. By acting as the general manager I had become his employee. Before I would even have so much as a sip of coffee in the morning he would start questioning my decisions and whether the crew was working hard enough. He was the “suit’, the client and he wanted to control how his money would be spent. Even though he knew nothing about design and was partially color blind he wanted to have “input”. He would argue for the sake of arguing and repeatedly say he was not giving me “carte blanche” to make all the decisions. I had to talk him into everything and when it was done he would always say what a good idea it had been.

It’s true, what they say about remodeling and marriages. Cracks develop that might never be repaired even when they’re spackled and taped. My husband and I fought over shades of white. After we divorced some years later I thought about the fact that he’d split up with his first wife shortly after they’d completed building their house. I don’t know that it was even finished when she moved out and refused to see him again for twenty-five years.

In the beginning of October my grandmother got sick and died. We had the family gathering after the service at our house, the construction site. My grandfather had worn a suit for his wife’s funeral but his dress shoes were uncomfortable. When we got home for the get-together he took them off and tossed them in the dumpster saying he’d never have to wear them again. Now that my grandmother was gone he was free to wear sneakers for the rest of his life which is what he did.

By November the house was enclosed after some early rains and battles with blue tarps. My brother was still coughing and moving slowly. We didn’t find out until later that after decades of being a builder he’d become severely allergic to wood dust and his lungs were inflamed. The kitchen started to come together. It would be unfinished but we’d be able to cook Thanksgiving dinner. The counter tops were still plywood and the oven had no fan yet but, by god, we were going to cook a turkey. The cabinets had just been installed and the”client” was insisting the knobs should be six inches up rather than in the lower corners. It went on and on. Everyone went to bed and I sat by myself in the new kitchen the night before Thanksgiving looking around. It was all I’d ever wanted in a kitchen but it meant nothing. It didn’t feel like my house. I was in a strange place with nothing familiar and no memories and oh, what a cost.

By December I was becoming unglued. I couldn’t make any more decisions. I had insomnia, the kids got sick and one day I took them to the pediatrician. When we got back home at eleven a.m. the painter had gotten drunk on champagne he’d found in the frig and started listening to our records while painting the stairs. He was so out of there. We were running out of money and I was exhausted. I pressured the guys to get it done. One day my brother and I had a screaming fight. He accused me of having unrealistic expectations and putting everyone under too much stress. We yelled at each other while the tile guy was working on the upstairs shower. I stormed off in the cold and rain and called my husband crying from a phone booth. He was really nice. Go shopping, he said. Buy yourself something. Christmas came and we were almost through. I was too tired to join the family for a holiday visit with the in-laws in Southern California. I just needed to be alone. The new parts of the house crackled and creaked in the wind.

In January we had the kitchen floor finished. Beautiful, wide-planked, knotty Southern yellow pine. Everyone warned that it would be soft and the floor guys said it would be easy to scratch and dent. As soon as they went out the back door we came in the front with a six week old Lab mix puppy. She scratched the floors immediately and throughout her long and happy life. She’s gone to doggy heaven but the scratches still remind us of her glory days.

The girls were incredibly resilient throughout the construction process. When the walls were being insulated and sheet rocked we stayed in a friend’s cottage for a week. It was all an adventure for them. When we were settled back into the house there were many projects to be completed but what really bothered them (other than the lemon tree) was that the toilet paper holders hadn’t been installed. It was such a small detail compared to the chaos that had surrounded us that I didn’t really think much of it. When we finally bought the damn things and attached them there was great relief. Oh, good, now it feels like home. Now we just need a new lemon tree.

I got distracted and forgot about it. I didn’t fulfill my promise to plant one. Years and years passed. The kitchen is home again and we have memories of birthdays and Christmas parties and quiet dinners. They kids all grew up and we were divorced. I found love again. About a year ago we brought home a Charlie Brown lemon tree; small and scraggly with one huge lemon. It’s struggling. When I think about what we’d had before it seems such a shame, but we have great hopes for it.

My Meltdown

We've all seen it; the overtired toddler who seems to disintegrate before our eyes. They go and go until the tipping point when exhaustion overwhelms and they are no longer able to listen to reason. In 1983, when my daughter, Lucy, was about 15 months old she would fall apart so completely it reminded me of the reports of the nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The descriptions of the accident explained a core meltdown, basically an implosion of the radioactive material unto itself. That's what my daughter was doing. She became toxic, radioactive. She was having a core meltdown and I began to use the phrase to describe it. I'd never heard anyone say it before, but other friends with kids began to pickup the term and passed it along. Friends from the East coast went back with the term and it proliferated further. Core meltdown morphed into meltdown as in She's having a meltdown or She's melting down. Wikidpedia currently defines it like this: Meltdown: (tantrum) a particular kind of fit or temper tantrum that occurs in babies and young children. Bingo

Meltdown caught on and spread. There seem to be no references to the term until a year after I began using it. In 1984 “Meltdown” was used as the name of a Christian rock group and later several albums and song titles, a music festival, record label, episodes of television programs and a video game were all called “Meltdown.”

My thought , my image. Years passed and many more headlines appeared using the term about sports teams and other subjects. I felt a little jab each time, like something had been taken from me, but I shrugged it off as the price you pay for being an original thinker. You have an idea and others run with it. It was manageable until the financial crisis of 2008. Suddenly, the term was everywhere. Mortgage meltdown, Wall Street meltdown, banking meltdown and with the presidential election, we had the McCain Meltdown. STOP People, think of something else to say. It's tired and overused and anyway, it's mine. It's my meltdown and you can't have it anymore.

The Accident

Friday afternoon traffic was heading to the bridge. A car was stopped dead in the fast lane and there was no time to react. He tried to brake, went into a skid. My beloved had to figure out in one split second how not to die.

The helmet went through the back windshield first. The driver of the car screamed. His leg broke on the rear quarter panel and the middle of his body hit hard. He bounced off and ended up in the roadway. There were bones sticking through the skin, excruciating pain and blood. The indignities began when the paramedics sliced off his clothing while people, even several people we knew, went whizzing by in the rain. He never lost consciousness and even had the wherewithal to have someone call me. The man said he’d been in an accident and was badly hurt.

I couldn’t move or think. I called my daughter and she appeared. She drove and did my thinking for me. Another call came, more reassuring. He was conscious, joking but his leg was broken. I said to tell him I loved him and I was mad at him for messing up our vacation. I began to breathe again. We stopped by the site of the accident to pick up his wallet. They gave us a bag of bloody clothing, helmet and gloves and we saw the damage to the car and the motorcycle. The accident had backed up traffic and it was so hard getting to him. Everything was in slow motion.

Friday evening in the emergency room was so scary. I couldn’t think about how hospitals have always made me sick and anxious. There was only him. He was alive and I was so relieved and grateful that it was just a broken leg, no head injury. Then they did the abdominal CT scan and everything changed. The mean sounding words and phrases began. They continued for many weeks, aggressive and unwelcome. Emergency surgery, rupture, peritonitis, extreme measures, transfusions. We kept talking about not being out of the woods yet. Just how big were these woods? As my brother pointed out, who would have thought that the broken leg, a compound fracture requiring orthopedic surgery and a titanium rod, would seem so insignificant compared to the internal injuries?

The trauma team did a beautiful job but there were the post operative pains and frustrations: IV’s and wound care and enough medications to slay an elephant, even Thorazine for hiccups. He sold the motorcycle from his hospital bed, never wanted to see it again. No food by mouth until the bowels began to move. The bowels, which had ruptured and been sewn back together, were expected to get back in working order within a week. They did. Then they sent him home and I became nurse 24/7.

An open incision slashed his belly like a canyon and couldn’t be sewn closed due to danger of infection. It needed dressing twice a day. He couldn’t walk, could barely sit up and couldn’t get to the bathroom. A friend noted he had the stamina of an eighty-five year old. He needed me with him constantly so he wouldn’t get discouraged and give up. I was hesitant to leave him at all, so afraid something bad would happen again. I’ve been waiting for this, since my beloved brother was hit by a car and killed when we were small. I knew that if I found real love, and I let myself succumb to it, it would be taken away.

We had the best time we could under the circumstances. He was brave and wonderful, thanked me for everything. We took naps and played cards. When he was able to get around I took him places. I tried to tempt him with food because he’d lost over thirty pounds. We got so much support from calls and emails and visits. We planned a wedding. The cancelled vacation would be the honeymoon.

Complications ensued. We knew something was wrong but kept pretending otherwise. There were fevers and night sweats and finally a CT scan confirmed the infection. There were trips back to the hospital to install the drain. I learned about a medical discipline which was previously unknown to me; interventional radiology. I told friends in an email that changing dressings had become so routine, now I’d added measuring pus output to the daily regimen.

Weeks passed and I drove to the hospital fifteen times. It was so heart wrenching to keep going back there, passing the scene of the accident each time. Tuesday was convict day. They came in for tests in their orange sweat suits, handcuffed to the guards. Soulless creatures lurked the halls. Discarded human beings were scattered about in the lobby. One day there was a man out in front of the hospital who had the shaved, zipper head from recent brain surgery. He sat by himself asleep in a wheel chair in the freezing cold.

It all started to get to me. The patient, as I called him, began to get better. I struggled to keep my composure, going from ecstatic gratitude about his survival to sadness and resentment about my loss. I became uncharacteristically emotional and cried at stupid things. I got tired of hearing the accident story. Friends kept exhorting me to take care of myself but I couldn’t figure out how.

The patient survived. I had to regroup and let go. It became time for him to go back to work even though he was weak and sore. I told him I felt like I was taking him to his first day of school and he wanted to know whether he’d be able to stay home if he cried and clung to my leg. No, he had to go back into the world and so did I.