Monday, October 29, 2007

O, the mighty gulf

My mom, Audrey, is 84 years old and lives alone in my tiny hometown in upstate New York. For about five years, she’s used a walker because she needs a hip replacement. She can’t have a hip replacement because she refuses to have a heart valve replaced and no orthopedist will touch her unless she does. Last Wednesday morning she was scheduled for surgery to stop intestinal bleeding. But then suddenly she wasn’t.

In the midst of getting ready to go to work and rustling my sons off to school, I called my brother, Brad, to remind him that I’d placed her living will in her purse before I returned home to Maine a few days before. “Well, it doesn’t matter, Heid,” he said with a huff. “She’s refusing to have the operation. She’s afraid she’ll die.”

“You’re kidding me,” I hissed. This is the woman who 18 hours before said over the phone that she had the peace that passeth all understanding.

It had been a long few weeks for both of us – for Brad because he lives next door and is the “first responder” – her go-to guy – and me because I’d come out to New York – a seven hour drive – to take care of her when she arrived home after eight inconclusive days in the hospital. We had a nice couple of hours sitting and talking, my mother reminiscing fondly (now that he’s dead) about her long and bumpy life with my dad and telling me tidbits about neighbors and family members that she forgets to mention when we talk on the phone. Then suddenly, things went wrong. You’ll have to trust me on this, because anything more gets into the realm of too-much-information.

After an initial, highly alarming crisis and a call to her doctor, we tried to settle down to sleep. She called to me in the night and I thought it was my son, Colin, calling. I thought I was at home in Maine…not in the spare room in what we call the “front apartment.”

After shaking off the confusion, I tended to her in the night, twice, three times, and in the morning we tried to leave for the hospital but she was too weak and dizzy to make it the last 25 feet to my car. “Do you want me to call for an ambulance?” I asked. It was a dumb question. She leaned deeply over her walker and I thought, “Shit, this is it.” I called 911 and returned to her, rubbing circles on her back while we waited.

“That feels good,” she said. “It feels good when you rub my back like that.”

I remember my mother rubbing my back when I was small and afraid to go to sleep or when I was sick. “I’ll pull out my old nursing tactics,” she’d say brightly. My mother, an army nurse during World War II, nursed many of the men who survived the Bataan death march when they returned to the states at the end of the war. She told stories of how they would rally for their families and girlfriends who came across the country to see them and then die shortly after the jubilant visitors departed. She told of how she painted all of their toenails bright red while they slept to cheer them up and then had to fess up when a general visited the ward the next morning. “Who did this?” the general bellowed, the story goes. “I timidly said, ‘I did,’ and the General roared with laughter.” And my mother always laughs at that sweet memory. But here she was at 84, dizzy and weak and waiting for the ambulance in the dingy garage of the front apartment. I rubbed her back.

My mother is a Southern Baptist, and we don’t talk much about religion anymore. She thinks I’m nuts and I think she’s nuts and we generally get along fine.

The previous evening, having been away from the piano for more than a week while she was in the hospital, she sat down to play. Between the ages of 11 and 14, when I started hitching rides to a more liturgical church and several years before I found myself at the door of an Episcopal church as a college freshman, I learned a whole lot of Baptist hymns and Gospel songs. Downstairs my mother started to play a song from the 1970s, Because He Lives by Bill Gaither. I know the chorus by heart; it goes like this:

Because He lives I can face tomorrow Because He lives All fear is gone. Because I know-oh-oh, He holds the future And life is worth the living Just because He lives.

Frankly, I’ve spent the last 27 years trying to forget that song and others like it. It’s not that I don’t believe that Jesus lives or that knowing Jesus doesn’t make life worth living, but because…

And that’s the problem, I thought as I stood in the upstairs hall listening to her play, suddenly I don’t know why I hate that simplistic, unnuanced, goofy music, because, whatever else it is, it is a balm to her in this frightening time of illness and worry. It’s her centering prayer, her compline, her Taize, her Eucharist.

Before long, we were stationed in an acute bay in the emergency room at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Utica. Nurses milled about asking questions. “She was just discharged yesterday,” I said from a chair in the corner. “Shouldn’t you have all that information?” They glared at me. I’m not used to this in a hospital. My husband is an administrator at a small, community hospital on the Maine coast where we know everybody. We’re used to big-hearted people but here my mom was just an 84 year-old female patient who presented with thus and so.

The nurses shifted her in her bed. “My mom’s a nurse,” I gambled. They perked up and looked at her. “You are!” Suddenly Mrs. Stukey was a person.

In the afternoon with my mother finally settled after hours in the ER, I drove back to her place and embarked on some industrial strength cleaning. Old ladies with walkers and bad eyesight who are too proud to pay someone to clean for them are prone to harboring crumbs in their toasters and all manner of splorches on their kitchen linoleum. I also had promised to find her living will, health care proxy, and power of attorney. After cleaning the kitchen, I was rummaging around in the curious mix of junk in her desk…ancient family photos, a TV Guide from last winter, never sent Christmas cards from 1964, and this month’s phone bill…when Brad walked in.

Here’s the truth: my brother Brad and I have spoken more in the last three weeks than we have in the entire time since he left home to learn to fly helicopters in 1973. We never felt we had much in common. We were busy with our own lives and work and families. He lived in Alaska for many years near our older brother. I’ve lived in Maine for most of my adult life. Like most families, ours is complicated in its own Tolstoyian way – the inner workings of which are of little interest to anyone outside the circle. But here’s another truth: I really like him. He sat on the sofa while I went through the desk. I chucked papers and photos at him to look at. We found controversial documents about our dead aunt’s estate and rehashed the drama.

“Come on, let’s go down to the VFW for a beer,” he said when I’d found the papers I was looking for and stashed the rest back in the drawers.

“No,” I said, smiling. “I promised Mom I’d come back over to St. E’s tonight.”

“Come on, Heid,” he cajoled.

“Really, no, there’s a certain type of bar I won’t go to,” I said. “When I was little, Dad dragged me to bars all over the place.” I named a number of them.

“Dad took you into LBJ’s?” he said, eyes wide. “What a dive, I wouldn’t go in that place.”

“Didn’t he take you to bars, too?” I asked. I always assumed my older siblings were dragged to bars as well.

“No,” he shook his head, still stunned at the differences in our childhoods. “No, he never did.”

“C’mon, I’ll walk you back to your house,” I said, and swung my arm through his, so deeply tanned and strong.

A week later Brad and I were on the phone after Mom’s refusal to have surgery. “I’ll come right out,” I said. “I’ll talk some sense into her.” So after making arrangements for kids’ activities and work, with a Michael Chabon novel to listen to on CD, back to New York I went.

With surgery declined, St. Elizabeth’s discharged my mother to one of three fates: eat food and bleed; drink fluids and grow weak; have surgery and return to health. When I arrived at the front apartment, she was obviously happy to be home. Her choice was to drink fluids until she got her nerve up to have the surgery. She had a permanent IV line dangling from her black and blue arm.

Still mad at her for refusing to have surgery, I couldn’t refrain from a snide remark, “What happened to the peace that passeth all understanding, Mom?” I was standing over her. She had lost about 15 pounds in three weeks. She was small and wrinkled in her easy chair, and I instantly felt like a supercreep for jabbing at her faith.

“I was so scared. An anesthesiologist came in last night and said, ‘Wow, you’re a serious heart risk,’ and walked out. It scared the pants off me. I couldn’t sleep and when Brad got there this morning, I told him I couldn’t go through with it.”

Sighing, I sat down on the arm of the sofa. Even if Jesus lives, even if life is worth the living, it can still be scary. And the fact is that right now, life is scary for my mother. Maybe what she needs to be brave is to see the face of Jesus in her children, no matter how imperfect they are. Being cynical about her simple, abiding faith shouldn’t be a part of how I live out my faith…so exquisite at times with its shades of gray and intriguing dappled colors.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” and bent down to kiss her hair before taking my bag upstairs to the spare room where as a little girl I had often slept when my sister – married so young – lived here in the late sixties. Downstairs I heard Mom move her walker over to the piano. She was playing “At Calvary,” and the fourth verse popped into my head:

O, the love that drew salvation’s plan O, the grace that brought it down to man O, the mighty gulf that God did span, At Calvary.

Mercy there was great and grace was free.
Pardon there was multiplied to me.
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

“Preach it, Mom,” I whispered.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Fernandos - November 2006

"Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.” – Che Guevara

One evening several weeks ago Scott, Martin, Colin, and I arrived home from another great dinner at Suzuki Sushi in Rockland to find our answering machine blinking. As I barked commands like “JAMMIES!” and “Right to bed! No fiddling around!” I walked over and hit the message button.

For a moment there was dead air and then out of the silence a plaintive male voice sang a pop tune I’d hoped never to hear again:

“There was something in the air that night,The stars were bright, Fernando…” Then a pause, before

“MAKE IT STOP!!!!” he shouted and hung up.


The first time I saw Dave was one evening early in September 1981 as I clambered through a window of a boys’ dorm. Because we went to a Christian college, you could only visit an opposite gender floor two nights a week and on Sunday afternoons…with the door open. But during freshman orientation, the rules were marginally relaxed. That evening I was looking for Scott, then my boyfriend, to no avail. Finally I thought to walk around the outside of his dorm and look in the first floor window of our friends Keith and Jim’s room. Bingo. Scott, Keith, Jim and a tall, skinny fellow I didn’t know were sitting around talking. I knocked on the window and gestured for them to let me in. Though it was strictly taboo (Jim, on orientation staff, balked a bit), I hauled myself over the window frame, jumped down and kissed Scott hello.

He and I had spent the summer on campus. I worked as a short order cook at a coffee shop in Rockport, Massachusetts. Scott had an internship at a recording studio. We’d had a very cozy summer and were deeply attached to one another. I think at the time we referred to it as love, but there’s something about the passage of 25 years, two kids, thousands of shared meals, and millions of words – a truly remarkable number of them genial - that cause me to think that what we shared that summer was something sweet, but not quite love.

The guys introduced me to Dave, a freshman from outside Philadelphia. He seemed a little shocked by my blatant disregard for everything he had just learned in orientation about “Open Dorm” and the punishments awaiting blatant disregarders.

“Ah, this is what upperclassmen do?” I recall him asking. I was mostly struck that as an sophomore I didn’t feel so upperclass.

So we all became friends. Dave, it turned out, after emerging from his initial freshman goofiness, was one smart boy, one scary smart boy. We all enjoyed a little playful intellectual sparring, but Dave had the ability to raise the level of discourse to an uncomfortably high level. Not only was he smart, but he was also a tall, handsome guitar player who played in a band with Scott. Our Davey broke many hearts.

Except for a few years when he was in grad school in Canada, we’ve never been out of touch. Once he and Scott were messing around in our living room in Bluefield, West Virginia, and Dave cut his elbow on the sharp corner of a car stereo which for some reason was sitting on our new white carpet. After the initial yelp, the three of us looked in silence at the inch long wound gaping open on his arm. After a second, with wisdom and compassion, I cried, “Don’t bleed on my rug!” Many years later he was standing in my kitchen eating an English muffin when I came home from the ultrasound that told Scott and me that we were going to have twins. Dave is the only man I’ve ever shown my c-section scar to, (though, as I think of it, he’s the only one who’s ever asked to see it.) For the last ten years, since the advent of email, he’s made it his regular practice to send a note with the subject line “word.” In the text is difficult word and I am expected to write back a fabulously clever sentence using the word that is both erudite and funny. Some times it takes me a couple of hours to make the grade.

When our boys were babies, it was Dave who picked up a tiny Martin from his car seat at Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf and held him aloft over the wooden table. “This is Martin,” he said in a deep voice, “Destroyer of Worlds.” As they learned to talk we taught the boys to call him Uncle No.

One afternoon a few years ago, before Dave moved from New Haven to Miami, we met him at a funeral home in Newport, Rhode Island. Our friend Jim had lost his mother and we wanted to be with him. After the calling hours were over, Jim, Dave, Scott and I went to dinner. The sweetness of that meal, at such a tender time in the life of one among us and in the company of these three men with whom I’ve shared my adult life, remains a remarkable gift.

When we got Dave’s “Fernando” message earlier this fall, Scott went right upstairs to his office to call him in Miami. When a dear friend has the tune of a dreadful ABBA song stuck in his head, the only right thing to do is to intervene immediately. As I commandeered the boys into bed, I could hear Scott talking and laughing on the phone. On impulse, I walked to our bedroom and picked up the extension. “So are you coming for Thanksgiving or not?” I interrupted. The prospect of inviting him had not yet emerged, so my challenge was a surprise to all three of us.

“Maybe,” said the eternally free agent, “maybe not.” When he called a week or so later to say that he was $500 poorer because of me, I must admit I was surprised he’d called my bluff.

“Terrific,” I said. “wunderbar! magnifique!”

Last Wednesday the boys and I went to the airport in Portland to fetch Dave. Because we were a little late, I sent Martin to intercept him while Colin and I parked. We walked in to see them at the top of escalator. Dave was smiling at Martin, incredulous, I knew, at how much a child can change in two years. Martin and Colin were thrilled with the visit because Dave figures so largely into so many of their Dad’s best stories. I was happy because this brilliant, lanky, handsome man walking down the airport stairs, my beloved son wrapped in the crook of his arm, knows all about me and loves me still.

For five days, when he wasn’t watching stupid guy movies with my husband and sons, we talked non-stop. We barely left the house and no one in the entire household felt a huge compulsion to change out of their jammies. We drank coffee and ate Thanksgiving leftovers and talked some more.

On Sunday night Scott and Colin, who were both coming down with colds, turned in early. Martin, Dave and I stayed up talking about who knows what. After awhile though I realized it was a school night and started turning off lights. Martin took his book to bed, and I went in to brush my teeth and take out my contacts. As I stepped out of the bathroom and turned to the boys’ room to say goodnight, I stopped as I turned the corner. Dave was sitting in the comfy chair between the boys’ beds where I sit to read to them. Relaxed, legs crossed and speaking quietly, Dave was intent upon Martin. Our boy, on his side and leaning up on his elbow, was listening. It was a private moment: a boy with his Uncle No – a cool, funny non-parental type taking him, this boy on the cusp of 13, seriously. That’s a gift Scott and I can’t give our sons no matter how much we love them.

I turned away from the door and clambered into my own bed. Scott was doing one of those fiendishly hard Sudoku puzzles that I can’t do. He does them to taunt me. When he finishes one he shakes the book in my face and cries, “Ha HA! Another victory!” But just now, he said, “I think Davey-dave has had a good time with us, don’t you, wifely?”

“Yeah,” I said, picking up my book and putting a pair of cheapie drugstore reading glasses over the front of my regular glasses, my latest bifocal prevention strategy. Down the hall I heard the tinkle of Martin’s laugh. “Yeah, I think he did.”

Scott turned to look at me as I spoke and got aload of my eyewear.

“Don’t. Say. A. Word.”

This afternoon I am sitting on the porch reading the Sixth District Court column in the Lincoln County News (Each week I keep hoping for second report of unlawful Viagra possession, but I fear such a delicious news item comes around only once in life. Today it is mostly speeding, OUIs and possession of undersized clams.) I hear a noise in the mudroom and Martin walks to the porch to say the Fed Ex guy has left a package. I figure it is something Scott has ordered but am surprised to see the long narrow box addressed to me.

At the kitchen counter, Martin and I open the package to discover 18 roses in white, coral and shades of pink. They’re beautiful, but I still can’t imagine what to think. Who would send roses to me?

I ask Martin, “Martin, who would send roses to me?” He shrugs and gives me a puzzled look that says he really, really, really can’t imagine someone doing such a thing. As I open the card, though, it all comes clear.

“There is only love.. Fernando”

As I place them in a vase, I look out the kitchen window. At this time of year in Maine, the days are very short. But even though it is almost dark, already the stars are bright.

Copyright © 2006 All rights reserved.

It Will All Even Out in the End

When our boys were toddlers, one of their favorite toys was a doctor's kit. A white plastic case with easy latches, it contained a stethoscope, a syringe, tweezers and several other medical gadgets all oversized and made of brightly colored plastic. They loved to make me lie of the rug and pretend to be sick. They would minister to me with their instruments, checking my heart, my eyes, my ears in turn.

At two or three, because they were beginning to distinguish between reality and fantasy, they needed to check in with me every few minutes.

"You just pretending, Mama?" Marty might ask. I would open my eyes.

"You okay?" Colin would look alarmed as the possibility that we had shifted into some other reality occurred to him.

Two huge heads on either side would loom over me, tools at the ready.

"I'm fine," I would say, sitting up and gathering them in my arms.

In their state of coming to know the world around them and their place in it, my wellness and ability to care for them was an elemental fact. In playing doctor, I saw on their faces the first inkling of understanding that what they do might matter.

A few weekends ago, Maine experienced its first taste of summer. The black flies, making up for lost time, were ravenous and plentiful. We've lived in this house for seven years but I've never really tackled the small flower beds that lie among the big granite outcrops that rise from the ground near the pond. The boys were in and out of the water all day, whooping it up and splashing. While I lugged wheelbarrows full of soil and compost down to the beds, Scott carried the little outboard from the garage and mounted it on Marty's old inflatable dingy. After fueling the motor, a father and son seamanship refresher course ensued and was sweet to watch from the rocks.

When we finally came inside at the end of the day, I took a good look at Marty, my fair child. Around his eyes were a half dozen bright red welts and many more at the back of his neck and on the tender skin behind his ears. I gave the back of my own neck an empathetic rub and my hand came away wet with a smear of blood and a squashed black fly. "You little sucker," I muttered.

"Let me see," said Marty, standing on his toes to look at the back of my neck. "Ouch, that must be itchy, Mom."

"Yeah. Oh well," I said. "C'mere and let me put some Cortaid on the bites so you don't scratch and make them worse."

By bedtime, the temptation to scratch the back of my own neck was fierce. I found myself puttering around in the upstairs bathroom with Colin. His complexion is swarthier and the black flies seem to pass over him for the choicer morsels like Marty and me.

"Let me see," said Colin after listening to my whining. I bent over and held my hair back with my hand.

"Dang," he said and started counting. "Fourteen. You want me to put some medicine on them for you?"

"Would you?" I asked from under my hair.


The sensation of Colin gently dabbing each of the welts with a bit of cortisone ointment was new to me. He wasn't pretending as he would when he was a toddler. He was really caring for me. And suddenly standing with my head upside down in the middle of the bathroom, I felt the balance of my life begin to swing.

One midnight a few years ago, while waiting for a red eye flight at LAX, I ventured into one of the airport newsstands to buy some cheesy souvenirs for Scott and the boys. One that caught my eye was a long, narrow block of acrylic filled with two liquids, a fixed palm tree and two free floating windsurfers. The heavier liquid at the bottom was a deep blue. The lighter liquid was clear. By swinging it back and forth in my hands, I could get a wave motion going. Sometimes there was more blue liquid on the left, sometimes more on the right, and the two intrepid windsurfers bobbed along the surface right behind California printed in scripty letters on the outside.

The last 11 years of parenting have demanded so much unselfishness from us, so much putting aside of our own preferences (uninterrupted sleep in the early years, for example) on behalf of our children. With Colin's gentle ministrations, I saw that the tide might just begin to turn. Over the next decades, God willing, we will care for each other until such time, as I'm beginning to see with my own aging mother, the care will shift more and more often with me on the receiving end. As I think of this continuum of caring, I see it in all of my close relationships. When we were in college and everyone's financial stability was constantly shifting, we had a phrase among our friends: "It will all even out in the end." You buy the pizza tonight, and I'll get it next time. You put up with my little tantrum today, and I'll put up with yours next week. And it worked, except for one three week period in the Soviet Union when we were short of hard currency and our friend Richard had to pay for drinks in the hotel bar night after night.

When Colin was finished treating me, I walked into his bedroom and picked the California paperweight from his bedside table. The heavy blue liquid spilled fluidly from one side to the other, first engulfing the palm tree on one side and then, on the other, surrounding the indentation where you could stick a pen or pencil. The two windsurfers gimbaled across the top, constantly tossed but maintaining their equilibrium.

"What are you doing?" asked Colin as he walked past me to pick up his Herodotus from the floor and flop into bed.

"I'm messing with this thingee here," I said, hoping to cement the power of my recent epiphany by watching the waves.

"It doesn't make you look too smart, Mrs. Brilliance."

"No?" I turned to gaze at this smartass child I had spawned.

"You're a grown-up playing with a cheap airport souvenir for no particular reason while I'm trying to read ancient Greek history." I acknowledged that this was true but I must have looked sad because he changed his expression.

"What's wrong?" he said, looking alarmed that he might have taken the joke too far. "Are you okay?" I put the paperweight back on his nightstand and sat down beside him on the bed.

"I'm fine," I said and gathered him in my arms.

Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Lost and Found by Faith - February 2005

Here is a list of things lost somewhere in our house right now:

  • One Birkenstock sandal (right - mine)

  • One U.S. Passport (mine)

  • One L.L. Bean stainless steel soup thermos (Marty’s)

  • One piece of driftwood (Colin’s)

  • One Branford Marsalis CD (“I heard you twice the first time”)

  • One black glove (left - mine)

  • One video camera operator’s manual (last seen in Scott’s hand on Christmas morning)

Here is a list of things recently found

  • One black Ann Taylor skirt (found wrinkled under a pillow on a chair in Marty’s room where he said he had stashed it one day a year or so ago when he was mad at me)

  • One pair of black Merrills (Colin’s)

  • One return address stamp (Scott’s)

  • One camera battery charger (Scott’s)

Things come and go in our house all the time. If you were to spend two or three days here, you would eventually hear someone yell, to no one in particular, “Faith!”

You might think that some good soul was admonishing a fellow member of the family to have faith…to take heart… over some difficult or sorrowful task. But that wouldn’t be true. In our house the cry of “Faith!” means you can’t find something where it ought to be.

For about a year, between mid-2002 and mid-2003, our home was cleaned each week by a young woman named Faith. And before long, faith became a verb.

Linda, her predecessor, was a hard working single mom who had decided to get her real estate license and quit the cleaning business for good. I hated to lose her no-nonsense approach to our clutter but I was happy write a recommendation and see her move onto other things. After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a slot on the cleaning schedule of the much-admired Patsy, someone referred me to Faith.

It was obvious from the first few weeks that Faith liked to organize a lot more than she liked to clean. Each Thursday I’d come home to find the stuffed animals on one of the boy’s beds arranged by color or size. Entertaining but a little weird. The dusty seashells on Colin’s windowsill might be set up in a mysterious tableau. Groupings of family photos might turn up on end tables in rooms where they hadn’t started out that morning. At first it was funny but then I realized that there were whole rooms that hadn’t been touched. I’d find a note that would say, “Sorry I couldn’t get to the upstairs.” Huh?

But then things began to take a more frustrating turn. On Halloween we were just about to leave the house to go trick or treating around the neighborhood.

“Go get the flashlights, Martin,” I called to Legolas, Elf Prince of the Woodland Realm, while I put the finishing touches on the Grim Reaper’s black eye make up. (That year, Colin knocked on people’s doors with his plastic scythe and, when they answered feigning fear, he said, “Don’t worry, I’m the Grim Reaper on vacation.”)

“I can’t find them,” Legolas replied from the cloak room.

“Use your excellent elvish eyesight.”

“I CAN’T FIND THEM,” he maintained. And no one else could either. Every single flashlight we owned, about six or eight of them, had disappeared from all their usual places.

“Faith!” I said, throwing up my arms. “They’ve been Faithed.” And we were forced to venture forth by the light of the moon.

A couple of weeks later I opened the cupboard in my office where we keep extra light bulbs and silver polish and ant traps and there were all the flashlights, lined up prettily by height.

“Faith.” I said.

Since then, whenever something disappears, it’s been “Faithed.” We know it will turn up eventually in a more logical place than where it was last seen, but that doesn’t really help a bunch of people who aren’t predisposed to order and organization.

After a year or so of rearranging our belongings each week, Faith said she had to quit because of difficulties finding child care for her daughter. From the few times I had been working at home while she was cleaning, I had come to know her story was much more complicated than that. “Godspeed, Faith,” we said, half-sad, half-relieved.

Soon after a berth on Patsy’s schedule came open and she’s been good-naturedly keeping us from spiraling into chaos ever since. She practices a kind of tough love. If the boys’ rooms or our offices aren’t picked-up enough for her, too bad. Better luck next week.

Occasionally it’s Patsy who puts things away where we aren’t expecting them to go, but we still yell “Faith!”

It’s an peculiar thing to have someone you don’t know well deal with all of the intimate details of your life. I cleaned houses at various times in high school and college and later as a hospice volunteer when that was what a family needed someone to do. For several months in 1989 cleaned the apartment of an elderly couple. Ethelma was dying of a brain tumor. At some point during my assignment to them and to everyone’s unhappiness, she lost her dentures. The loss of those dentures was a small thing that loomed hugely between Ethelma and her husband Ossie. He blamed her. She blamed herself. The missing dentures marked a shift in her ability to care for herself. They marked an expenditure of money that they could not afford in the midst of her illness. Their loss conjured up a other hundred issues that had accumulated over the 50 years of marriage.

The tiny kitchen in their apartment in the elder housing complex was often in need of cleaning. I mopped and scrubbed and washed the cupboards. It was something I could do for them, and they were appreciative. One day on the floor in front of the stove a stubborn bit of food needed to be pried away. As I got down on my hands and knees to tackle the gummy patch, I caught a glimpse of something under the stove. The dentures! I whooped it up and rounded the corner into their cramped living room. We all whooped it up. Ethelma’s eyes glowed with relief and happiness. Ossie said, “I don’t know how we can thank you!” as though I had just found buried treasure in with the pots and pans.

A few months later at Ethelma’s funeral, the minister, who obviously didn’t know her very well, went on about how the two of them shared a love for Milky Way bars. “Who cares?” I thought, looking at the back of Ossie’s head several rows in front of me and wondering what he was thinking. “Tell us something real about her, tell us something intimate.”

For a year or two after Ethelma’s death, Ossie would call me now and then to take me out to lunch. Then I got a more demanding job in Augusta and a few years after that we had our children. Slowly the Ossies in our life (there were several around that time…older friends for whom Scott would wire a cordless phone or we would share a meal or I would take the time to visit on a Saturday afternoon) drifted out of our orbit. Or we drifted out of theirs.

A month ago I read Ossie’s obituary in the paper. He was 98. He had moved away to live with his daughter further down the coast a number of years ago. He told me once he remembered clearly the day his father arrived home from work with news that the Titanic had sunk with great loss of life. He told me he was due to be discharged from the Army on Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He didn’t return to civilian life until after the end of the war.

I don’t know what they said at his funeral. By the time I read the paper, it was all over. I hope someone told something true about him. I wish I had been there to tell the denture story…the age-old story of something being lost and then suddenly being found and of great rejoicing that follows. It is the exact opposite of being “Faithed.”

Certainly I know I’ll rejoice when Patsy finds my passport.

Heidi Shott
Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.

A Reading from the Big Book

Tuesday afternoon I take a taxi from a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, to the airport and suddenly, after being surrounded by thousands of Episcopalians for eight days, I am back in the world. Standing behind me in the security line is an otherwise conventional-looking young woman with tattooed arms, shoulder to wrist. Behind her a loud talker is going over the details of a loan closing. A disproportionate number of people with Ohio State stamped somewhere on their person mill around our slow-moving line.

While waiting at the gate, I talk with a group of teenagers, boys and girls, who tell me that they are on their way to Ft. Franklin in North Carolina for basic training. They’re so polite and earnest, so baby-faced and excited that my throat closes up when their flight is called. I can’t help picturing them dead.

Amazingly no one stops to inquire if I have heard how Resolution A161 is faring on the floor of the House of Deputies or who has blogged what about whom.

I am glad to be out of the bubble of the Episcopal Church’s 75th General Convention, where my role had been to do a soft segment for the nightly news program and to cover the convention for the Diocese of Maine. It hadn’t been a great week for reasons that mostly rest with me. One evening I had meant to send a hyperbolic email to a buddy with whom I have exchanged a good deal of gossip and woe over the years. It’s our way. But then, in those wee hours, mistakenly and sloppily, I sent it to about 100 colleagues most of whom I would inevitably bump into by nine the following morning. Most were sympathetic and offered a hug or arm pat of the “but for the grace of God go we all” variety, some were gracious enough to pretend it didn’t happen, but I know others were hurt by an act that strained the bonds of our affection. And that I deeply regret.

Here’s another downer: A number of people, most of whom I don’t know well or at all, said to me variously but essentially: “I don’t care what other people say, I think you’re great.”

Gee, um, thanks.

So I decide to suck up the airline change fees and return home a day early. My work is either finished or can be done from Maine. At some point on the way home, somewhere between Columbus and Philadelphia, I decide to quit being an Episcopalian. In the Philadelphia airport, while waiting for my flight to Portland, I call my friend David in Miami to break the news. He’s seminary-trained and cares about these things, and he doesn’t believe a word of it.

On the plane I open my book, John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, to discover a photo that I stashed in as a bookmark in my hurry to pack the previous week. It’s a photo of the Rev. Janet McAuley, whom, to me and many others, stood tall as someone who knew what was important and had no problem telling you. Her ministry objective was “love affair with God, each other, and all creation.” I’ve kept her photo tucked into my bureau mirror since her death in January 2005 where, each morning, I look at it and its neighbor, a faded, knock-off icon I bought from a silent monk at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev.

Within a few pages I read this sentence: “’Better to be inside the system and fighting it,’ her father – an iconoclast in other ways – would say, ‘than outside the system, howling at it.’”

Good God, God, I think, can’t you leave me alone for one goddamn minute.

I arrive in Portland to discover that the retribution for my defection is to prevent my suitcase from making the trip. As a significantly myopic person, that is especially inconvenient news because I had packed my only pair of glasses. I will rise in the morning blind until I bumble into a new pair of contacts.

At midnight I enter the house to discover that the dishes are mostly done and there are no real household disasters. I mosey around, read the court reports in last week’s local newspaper for names I recognize, peruse my sons’ newly arrived report cards and flip through the rest of the mail. I try to refrain from turning on the computer to check the evening’s news from Columbus but fail.

Later, as I gently pull back the covers, Scott rolls on his side, his head on his arm. He says, sleepily but sweetly and rather surprisedly, “Hoozlow, it’s you.”

I wake to an empty bed and a familiar muted version of NPR’s Morning Edition seeping under the bathroom door. My sons are still asleep. It is bright and warm and I reach for my glasses to check the digital thermometer by the window, the one that Marty gave Scott for Christmas. No glasses. Ah, yes. No suitcase. No toothbrush.

After awhile Marty crawls into bed with me. We talk and joke and catch up on our week apart. He offers the scoop on everything. Colin brushed his teeth twice. I nod at this. Colin comes in and deigns to be kissed and fussed over for a few minutes before getting ready for a day at Pemaquid Beach with a friend.

“How about hiking Maiden’s Cliff?” I ask Marty when we are alone after breakfast. He’s flopped on the sunporch couch, playing handheld solitaire and listening to a Harry Potter book on tape for the 23rd time. He’s hiked this two mile climb with his summer camp a number of times and has been pestering me to do it with him.

“Sure,” he says, all 12 year-old nonchalance but I know he’s thrilled. He wants to show me something he cares about, just the two of us. It’s a luxury rarely afforded a twin.

We drive to Camden and park at the trailhead. I carry the backpack as I’ve always done because I’ve always been the strongest. He whips up the trail ahead of me, talking a mile a minute over his shoulder about past forays to the top. This is my first hike of the year and immediately I feel weak and old. I haven’t been eating or sleeping well for the past week and it shows. Marty waits for me next to a big rock, tapping his Teva on the dry leaves of the path. “I’m coming, man,” I say, trying not to betray my hard breathing.

Another quarter mile up the trail he turns around and calls, “Hey, Katz. Don’t chuck the supplies.” He’s referring to Bill Bryson’s out of shape hiking partner, Stephen Katz, from A Walk in the Woods. Katz was known to throw heavy water bottles and tins of Spam into the woods to lighten his load as they walked the Appalachian Trail. We like Katz. Marty smirks and bounds on ahead of me. I call to him to wait up then tell him to carry the backpack if he’s so energetic.

The woods are quiet and there’s a lovely stream trickling down a ravine beside the trail. This is nothing like the Columbus Convention Center. Without the pack I’m happier or perhaps I’m catching my stride. We climb in quiet with Marty leading the way. “We’re almost at the top. Don’t look over the edge and spoil the view until we reach the summit,” he commands.

“Is that what your camp counselors tell you?”

“No, but that’s what I’ll tell campers when I’m a counselor,” he says, turning back to me. “Otherwise you ruin the effect.”

The summit is grand. We’re high above Lake Megunticook and beyond is Camden Harbor with open ocean peeking between the hills. It’s a glorious day but suddenly it occurs to me how red-faced and hot and sweaty I am. I open my bottle and squirt it along my brow and rub my face with the cool water. Salt drips into my mouth. I lift my hand behind my head and squeeze hard to send a stream of water along the back of my neck. It pours down between my shirt and sticky skin. I feel well and happy and refreshed. Martin is closer to the edge than I would ordinarily care to see him, but I see that this is the summer I can trust my fine, long-haired boy.

He shows me the cross and the monument dedicated to young Elenora French, who, while on a Maying trek with other maidens in 1864, tumbled to her death while trying to catch her wind-blown hat.

“Bummer,” Marty says, after allowing me time to read the stone marker.

“Yeah, really,” I say. Then something draws my gaze upward to a hawk gracefully circling the higher reaches of a neighboring peak.

On the way down, Marty leads by 50 feet and we walk along without talking. I think of how much better I feel now that I’m here in these airy woods, the blue sky above my head.

I think of how Philip Newell, in his small treasure about Celtic Christianity Listening for the Heartbeat of God, cites the ninth-century theologian, John Scotus Eriugena. He writes, “he taught us that we can look to creation just as we look to the Scriptures to receive the living Word of God.” Eriugena called Scripture the “little book” and creation the “big book,” which by reading we can divine the grace of God that surrounds us.

I think of how good the water felt splashing on my hot face and pouring down my back and the sweet taste of sweat on my lips. I think of how hungry I am. I think of this winsome, changing boy walking before me, still bearing my burdensome pack. I think of how near-sighted I am and how grateful I should be for this enormous, world-sized book laid out before us all, its type as tall as trees.

Heidi Shott
Copyright © 2006 All rights reserved.

Death of a Mouse - February 2006

At a party several years ago Scott bumped into the contractor who had done the sill work on our house for the previous owners. Leon told a slightly disturbing tale. He explained that when they pulled away a knee wall in the living room, hundreds of mouse skeletons poured forth. For more than 200 years the words “over the wall” must have held an eerie connotation in mousedom hereabouts. Whether driven by a spirit of adventure, the need for food or plain rodent stupidity, many a mousie took a tumble over the edge and died among the bones of their ancestors.

To this I say: “Excellent!”

I’ve been waging war with mice for years and not winning. Our current battleground is the corner lazy susan in my kitchen. Recently I was complaining about my mouse issues to my friend Denise.

“Why do they go in there? We don’t keep anything perishable for them to get into,” I whined.

“Duh,” she said. “They like to ride the thing!” Maybe so. Maybe they regard my lazy susan as mid-coast Maine’s premiere mouse amusement park. Maybe they’re playing mind games with me. But whatever they are doing in my kitchen cabinets, it’s not the end of my problem.

The situation is further complicated by my large-scale hypocrisy when it comes to other species within the clade that consists of rodentia and lagomorpha. (It was easier when I first wrote this piece a few weeks ago and was still under the delusion that rabbits were rodents rather than lagomorphs…but now, to be accurate, I have to go up the taxonomical ladder to the clade, a designation that in 1977 Mrs. Clary did not teach in tenth grade biology. I’ve always been proud just to remember that King Philip Came Over From Germany Saturday.)

Anyway, my troubling hypocrisy with regard to smallish mammals is where Hester comes in.

Each year in August, on the day before school begins, my boys and I go to the Windsor Fair. About 20 miles from home, it’s one of those grand old agricultural fairs with farm animals and tractor pulls and pig scrambles and a midway with games and rides and tattooed hawkers. They give out ribbons for the largest and most beautiful fruits and vegetables. There’s one building dedicated to 4-H displays and another to all-day Beano. At one side of the fairgrounds, several old buildings have been moved to form a facsimile of a 19th Century village where you can duck in to watch a blacksmith or two make cracks to one another and ply their trade. In the late afternoon we always take ice cream over to the grandstand to watch the harness racing. We study the racing form, (“Ah, look at this, Ruby Red won $1,200 at the Union Fair two weeks ago”) and place a few two dollar bets.

Many people prefer the Common Ground Fair in September. Though it’s organic and socially responsible, you can’t bet on horses and they don’t sell fried dough. Also there are way too many young fellows in Renaissance garb juggling apples for my taste. The Windsor Fair makes me feel like I’m still young Fern Arable with two quarters and two dimes in her pocket, though these days I’m more likely to be mistaken for Mrs. Zuckerman.

But last August, as the Windsor Fair season approached, I was less in mind of buying a deep freeze* than of buying a rabbit.

Scott indulged my dog habit for 11 years but when we moved from the country to this house in the village in 1997 he adjured me to go dog-free. His allergies were getting worse and our golden retriever Steve was a country dog at heart. Our other golden, Moozer, the one true dog love of my life, had died of cancer a few years before. Reluctantly I found Steve a new country home.

Since that time the boys and I have tried to think about how to re-introduce a dog into our life, but it’s a no-go.

“I’ll just move to a hotel,” Scott sniffs when I suggest a breed touted as non-allergenic.

Over the past few years I’ve researched an array of pet options – hedgehogs had me interested for awhile but it’s become illegal to import them and the domestic stocks are pretty inbred. Lizards need lots of heat. Gerbils and hamsters are boring. Ditto for fish, plus a nice tank is a lot of work.

Then two years ago at the Windsor Fair we were in the small animal tent when I happened upon this large cinnamon-colored rabbit lying languidly in his cage. He had an expression on his face that said, “Yeah, well, I’ve seen it all, lady.” An index card stuck to his cage read “SOLD.” The rabbit and I looked at each other. I thought a message to him.

“If you weren’t sold, I’d buy you.”

“Right,” he thought back and twitched a petulant ear.

Last August, a few days before the fair, I started doing some late-night bunny research on the Internet. I read about breeds, how to care for them, common medical ailments, bunny behavior, all things bunny. The night before the fair, I broached the subject at dinner.

“Rabbits have fur,” Scott said dismissively, “but they taste good on pasta…minced with a nice savory sauce. Bring one home and we can eat it.” He smiled at the boys. They smiled back, and I let him think I was kidding.

After parking and walking across the dusty, trampled field to the entrance gate, our first bit of business was to find us a rabbit. In the tent with the chick hatchery, we saw a row of rabbit cages. One large cage had a litter of eight or ten young rabbits. Most were huddled together in a corner but one frisky bunny, cinnamon in color and friendly in demeanor, hopped over to the side of the cage and expressed her interest in our presence. I stuck my finger in the cage and she wiggled her nose at it.

“She’s the one,” I said.

“She’s definitely the one,” said Marty.

“Hello, Hester!” said Colin. (Earlier in the car we had settled on Hester after a faithful, wise and slightly ruthless hare daemon in Philip Pullman’s, The Golden Compass.)

We looked around the tent for a person with some rabbit authority. A stout man in work clothes and suspenders was just stepping into a golf cart at the tent’s edge. I asked who owned these rabbits and if he knew if they were for sale. He got out of the cart and walked over to the cage. “Ain’t you some lucky!” he said. “They’re mine and I was just leavin’.”

“How much?”

“Twenty dollars.”

“What breed are they?

“Oh, they’re mini rexes,” he said grabbing the bunny from the cage with the manner of a man who has grabbed a few bunnies. “He won’t get too big.”

“He?” The rabbit man whipped the surprised bunny onto his back and with a deft push and prod on the little netherparts (that I have been thus far unable to replicate), he produced a tiny penis.

“Boy,” he smirked.

“Right you are!” I said, persuaded.

I gave him $20 and said we’d be back at the end of the day to collect him. The rabbit man showed me the trick of opening the cage and where he hid the pliers to do it.

“Some people will steal rabbits, you know,” he said over his shoulder as he made for the golf cart.

“That’s hard to believe,” I said and meant it.

After some weeks of adjustment which included wild escapes under the deck and our furtive pleading for him to get within grabbing range, surprisingly successful litter box training, and food experimentation, Hester settled into our routine with a cage in the mudroom and limited household access. One day I heard one of our sons say blithely to someone on the phone who must have asked about Hester, “My mom needed a pet.”

Each day Scott taunts us with ideas for new culinary preparations but I also hear him inquire after the bunny’s day when he comes in from the garage each evening. Just tonight he conceded as he was petting him, “He is pretty soft.” He look at me and smiled. “He’d make a nice slipper for a person with one leg.”

All in all, this wouldn’t be such a bad household to live in if it weren’t for the mice.

About a week ago I was eating lunch and going through the mail at the kitchen table. Hester was at my feet. That morning I had checked a mouse trap under the lazy susan to discover that the trap, (one of the new style you pinch to set and release) was snapped but there was no mouse – or at least no mouse that I could see from that angle.

Now, hours later, Hester and I heard a soft whacking coming from the lazy susan cupboard. Brazen daytime mice! The worst sort. But when I opened the door and shone the flashlight beam there in the back was a not-yet-dead mouse. Actually it was a not-in-the-least-bit-dead mouse but rather a pained and highly pissed off mouse. The trap had apparently snapped on the tip of his face and held fast.

The truth is I only want to be responsible for mouse deaths if they are quick and decisive. I don’t want to be an accomplice to any prolonged or complicated mouse suffering. I’m annoyed and inconvenienced by the mice in my house but I don’t hate them and I don’t want to cause them an undue suffering. But here I was, Frau Totenmaus.

Hester placed his paws up on the edge of the cupboard and looked in. This drama held immense interest for him. He hopped in among the mixing bowls for a better view.

“Get out of there!” I yelled, nudging him aside as I reached into the depths of the corner cupboard with needle nose pliers to pull out the trap. My quarry was a very wiggly field mouse, brown with a sweet white spot on his belly. There were dark patches of blood around his snout where it was held fast by the trap. This was a mouse with some corrective surgery issues. Surely his jaw was broken.

I held the trap at arm’s length and made for the bathroom under the stairs, heartsick and guilty and the world’s hugest hypocrite. Hester hopped along by my side, still intent on following this exciting development in our day. He reminded me of Fred, E.B. White’s dachshund whose delight in mayhem and misery is noted in the wonderful, melancholy essay, “Death of a Pig.”

As I stood about to pinch the mousetrap over the toilet, I decided to flush before I pinched so as to make the mouse suffer an even briefer horror.

I flushed. I pinched.

What I didn’t count on was the little fellow’s reaction to the pull of gravity. He hugged onto the trap for dear life. He wouldn’t drop and in the end I had to take the pliers and pull him off the trap by the tail. He plopped into the bowl which, having flushed, was taking its sweet time re-filling. The mouse with his crushed little face was swimming in the rising bowl trying impossibly to scramble up the slick porcelain sides. I vowed to keep my eye on him as the tank continued to fill. It was the least I could do. Finally the water stopped and I flushed again. Whoosh, swirl, a quick squeak of terror, and he was gone. Hester stood on his hind feet with one paw on the lid, his ears pert and looking adorable.

But here’s dark truth about Hester: He chews things. He chews baseboards and electrical cords. He chewed through my answering machine cord twice. He chewed through the TiVo cable. We try to keep him out of the living room but sometimes he sneaks in. One evening the boys were at the kitchen table doing their homework, I was doing the dinner dishes, and Hester was nibbling on a potato chip under the table. Scott had gone to watch a movie in the living room when I heard him yell. It was either “Heidi!” or “Hester!” I still don’t know, but it was something with an “H.” I could hear him going on a tear but held my post. The boys and I exchanged our “Yikes!” expression. Finally Scott bellowed, “That rabbit has chewed on every fucking cord in this room!”

The boys raised their eyebrows and smiled at each other across the table. They don’t get to hear us swear much and this was the high water mark of parental vulnerability…a moment of their childhood to be remembered and savored.

“Whoa, Mom, he’s mad,” said Marty. “You need to keep your bunny in check.”

I didn’t leave the hall door open.”

“You need to control your bunny, Mom. You have a major blind spot where Hester is concerned.”

“Hester’s just doing what comes naturally,” offered Colin generously , my little Rousseau.

I got on my hands and knees and under the table scooped Hester up like a newborn. “Hey, bunnyboy, you’d better lay low or you will be rabbit on pasta.,” I said taking him to his cage.

A caged bunny is a good, albeit bored, bunny, and, after a few days and the application of bitter lime gel on cords and woodwork, we’ve had no further chewing disasters.

But that doesn’t mean that he’s a good bunny. His neutering and well-bunny check cost us four times his original price. Add on his cage and litter pan and chew toys and food (and a hutch I have my eye on at the hardware store come springtime) and this bunny is an expensive pet indulgence.

Certainly the sweetness of having him flop down next to you as the chosen object of his affection or the treat of seeing him do a “psycho bunny 180 disco kick” for no apparent reason counts for something, but what does he have over the poor mice who want to come in from the cold and take a swing on my lazy susan. Frankly, I wouldn’t even know they were visiting if it weren’t for the telltale fecal reminders and the occasional nest of fiberglass insulation we are appalled to find hidden away.

How strangely and horribly human it is to choose and take sides.

When Scott and I were living on the Micronesian island of Saipan in the mid-80s, we saw firsthand, perhaps vividly for the first time in our young lives, the absurd way that racism can manifest itself. The local people, the Chamorros, hated the Filipinos who were the contracted construction workers and their $150 a month 24/7 maids and child care providers. (Work two years straight and you might get a month to go home to visit your children.)

But here’s the weirdest and saddest thing: the Chamorros and the Filipinos claim the same essential gene pool – Asian, Pacific Islander, Spanish Conquistadorian.

We lived in a three room tin house in a Filipino neighborhood, (along with my oldest childhood friend and one of the coolest and funniest people we will ever know, Carol Paez, who is still there working as the nurse-administrator of a public high school health clinic and doing a kick-ass job as a single mom raising her six beautiful Chamorro-Filipino-American children). In cover of darkness, cowardly people would throw rocks at our house, which sound pretty loud hitting a tin roof, because they assumed anyone living in that neighborhood was Filipino. To that point, living in Stittville, New York, or Wenham, Massachusetts, or Bluefield, West Virginia, no one had ever thrown rocks at one of our houses. But I can tell you, it’s scary.

In my little First World universe, here’s the truth: I indulge a rabbit and murder a mouse, small, cute mammals both.

But here’s the scariest part: I don’t know why.

* If you don’t know what I’m talking about then I’m here to tell you it’s high time you went back and re-read Charlotte’s Web.

Heidi Shott
Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.

Beating Snake and Other Things That Matter - December 2005

A boy named Liam, now a tenth grader, was a member of our car pool until he finished eighth grade. He’s a very likable boy and I would like him except for the fact that he holds the high score for Snake on my aging Nokia cell phone.

Here’s the sad, sad truth: I have been trying to beat his record for three years. I regularly sit in my car waiting for Colin to come out of his riding lesson and try to beat Liam’s record. I’ve lain on a bed in various New York City hotel rooms – with nothing else in the world I’m required to do except show up in the lobby for dinner an hour hence – and tried to beat his record. No such luck. I closest I can get is about 275 to his awe-inspiring 656. (I recall that Nat, now a freshman at Bowdoin and also an erstwhile member of our car pool, held the record of 900-something but that was on his mom’s phone, thank God, and therefore outside my sphere of responsibility.)

Snake is a simple cell phone game whereby you press the north-south-east-west buttons (i.e. 2, 8, 6, 4) on the phone’s keypad to direct a little dot to eat another dot on the screen. For each dot you eat, the eating dot grows longer. If you hit one of the four “walls” of the screen or the eating dot’s “tail,” you die. Game over, man, to quote Bill Paxton, the whiny Marine from Aliens.

Here’s a second sad, sad Snake-related truth: Liam got his lousy 656 points in 12 minutes. Twelve minutes is about the time it takes to drive from the school to Liam’s house, where he would often say as we pulled into his driveway, “Darn! I died.”

“What’d you get?” a younger child would ask from the back.

“Oh, 577,” he’d say blithely.

How is this possible? Give me 12 hours, highly improved eye/hand coordination and considerably more ability to focus than I currently possess, and I might approach the 500 mark. But 656, come on. What are they feeding these children?

On Monday, I am playing Snake in the late afternoon darkness in my car in Topsham, waiting for Colin to come out of the horse barn where he takes riding lessons for occupational therapy. I suspect I am getting a new cell phone for Christmas so there is a creeping urgency to beating Liam’s high score before I part ways with this stupid phone forever.

Here’s another sad, sad truth: I am getting (I think) a new cell phone because this old Nokia won’t die. It is five years old, a veritable dinosaur in cell phone terms, and my sons want to send it to the Smithsonian. It’s black, it doesn’t fold and it doesn’t take photos. I was sitting next to a man on a plane from Chicago about 18 months ago. He saw my phone and said, “I used to have one like that,” then smiled and tilted his head in a way that said, “How quaint. You must be from Maine.”

Though I’ve been proud of my Yankee thrift and practical good sense around my mobile telecommunications needs – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – I finally started dropping hints to Scott that it was time to buy a new phone for me.

“Is it broken?” he asked.

“Its battery operates a little erratically,” I said hopefully.

“Is it broken?”

“Noooo,” I said, “but I hate it. It’s embarrassing at airports.”

Here’s yet another the sad, sad truth: I am embarrassed that I am embarrassed about my cell phone. I don’t want to be the type of person who wants a cool or even somewhat cool phone. I don’t want phones to matter. This is so dumb. This is so American. This is so true.

Living here in Maine, I guess I should just give up. There’s no way I can ever be cool. I can’t hold onto a pair of good sunglasses. I lose good pens. I wear shoes until they wear out. I forget to go to hair appointments.

Several years ago, Scott was the chair of the rector search committee at our church. He asked me to have coffee with a youngish clergy wife from suburban Connecticut who was interested in talking to someone with young children about what it was like to live in our small town. We met at a café by the river. I recall it was a beautiful day. From the café windows you could watch the boats at anchor and see miles downriver toward the Gulf of Maine.

“Where do you shop?” she asked when we got situated. She shifted her artistically arranged scarf in a casual manner.

“Reny’s,” I said immediately, (Reny’s is a Maine-based department store known for good deals), “or Beans.”

She smiled. Obviously I didn’t understand the question so she tilted her head in a certain way. “I mean, where do you shop for yourself?”

“Reny’s, “ I said immediately, smiling back, “or Beans.”

Her husband soon withdrew his name from the search process.

Back in the dark car in Topsham, I have a good game of Snake going. I think I might be approaching Liam’s record but there is no way to know until I die. Colin opens the passenger door and gets in.

“Don’t bug me,” I say, without taking my eyes from the little monochrome screen. “I’m playing Snake.”

He leans over to see the length of my tail. “Whoa!” he says and sits back in respectful quiet.

After a minute or so, I blow it and my score of 252 flashes before me. “Man!” I wail.

“What’d you get?”


“That’s pretty good, Mom.”

For a mom, I know he’s thinking.

“Thank you, son,” I say. “How was your lesson?”

“Caroline said that maybe next week will be better. It was hard to pay attention to what I was doing.” Big sigh.

I start the car and head toward home. A little way down the road, a hopeful voice beside me says, “Can we?”

Here’s one last sad, sad truth: On most Mondays, after his riding lesson but before dinner, I buy my son an ice cream with crunch bar and kit kat mix-ins at the Cold Stone Creamery in Brunswick. Not only am I an uncool phone owner and an inept Snake player, I am also a bad mother.

As he comes out with his ice cream, I see that he is smiling. The previous week he was a little short on cash and was very pleased when the person who waited on him sported him the difference. Today it is his intent to repay his debt.

“What happened?” I ask as he climbs in.

“I told him I only wanted eight cents back in change and to keep the rest; he was really surprised. He was also very competent. He could juggle the scoops.”

“Are you happy?” I ask as I start the car, realizing at last that the outcome of this question is the deepest, rock bottom concern of my life.

“Very,” he says, digging in. I can tell by looking at his face in the glow of the lights in that the dingy strip mall parking lot that what he says is true.

“Then that’s all that really matters.”

Heidi Shott
Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.

Cleaning the Fridge - December 2005

One Thursday morning in November 1992 I was cleaning out my refrigerator when ordinarily I would have been at work. The night before my friend Denise had called to ask what I was going to do until she picked me up at noon to take me to the hospital.

“I’m going to clean out my refrigerator because it really needs it,” I said. “It’s gross and I find that I can deal with the smell now.”

The previous day, during an ultrasound, Scott and I had discovered that the baby I was carrying had experienced something called fetal demise. No heartbeat. It had stopped growing a few weeks before but no one knew. I thought I was phasing out of morning sickness when I was really phasing out of pregnancy. Suddenly, after weeks of holding my breath every time I opened the refrigerator and closing it as quickly as possible, it didn’t smell so bad anymore. A small consolation.

Denise said, “Hmmphh.” I knew that meant she thought that cleaning the refrigerator didn’t seem a momentous enough activity for such a sad day but she could think of no reasonable argument to be made for not doing it. She’s a physician, after all, and reasonable arguments appeal to her.

“I already got up and wrote a poem in the middle of the night,” I said, “What more do you want?”

The following morning my countertops were covered in jars and containers and mummified leftovers in Tupperware when Denise called again. Earlier, while doing rounds at the hospital, she had spoken with the ob/gyn who would be doing the little clean up operation on me later that afternoon. She told the other doc, Nancy, that I was cleaning out my refrigerator. “Nancy says you must be a very strong person to be doing something so ordinary on a day like this.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “I’m just someone with a nasty refrigerator and some time on my hands, but don’t say anything. Please let her think I’m a together person.”

But in that moment began the slow dawning that there aren’t many saints among us. The people we revere most are simply human beings choosing from among the options laid out before them and then doing the work they’ve been given to do. Most of them would avoid the hard and unpleasant stuff given the chance. Most, like Melville’s Bartleby, “would prefer not to.” But the difference between saints and the rest of us is they do the hard things anyway.

Since that morning 13 years ago I’ve done a lot of things that I would have preferred not to do: Our baby fortune changed the following year so with twins I changed a lot of diapers from 1994 to 1997. I have stayed up many nights at my computer finishing up a newspaper. On a handful of occasions I’ve told the difficult truth to someone who needed to hear it. I’ve squirmed while apologizing for my bad behavior any number of times, and I’ve confronted people on their bad behavior when it would have been easier to just let it slide. I’ve sat through a lot of meetings, trying to resist tearing at the skin around my fingernails. I’ve volunteered for things I didn’t really want to do for people who’ve needed me to do them.

I’ve attributed doing all of these hard things to the cost of becoming a human being, the cost of becoming someone whose faith informs her choices and for whom making good choices means the difference between sleeping at night or lying awake. Oh that our president would suffer some nighttime angst, but I’ve read he sleeps like a baby.

On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I clean out my refrigerator. Different decade, different house, different refrigerator, practically same contents, except now you can buy those tasty little mozzarella balls in your deli section. I plan to do a really thorough cleaning with all the racks and drawers out and the inside washed down. When it’s empty, Marty and I break a universal taboo by taking turns stepping inside and closing the door. It’s cold in there and I forgot it would be dark. I always think of my food as being brightly illuminated. “Don’t ever do this again, son,” I say when he opens the door for me. “Scores of children die every year in closed refrigerators.”

I decide to clean out the refrigerator not only because 1) refrigerators should be cleaned out every six months whether they need it or not and 2) I need to make room for the holiday food but also because 3) I don’t want our Thanksgiving guests to see its appalling interior. Our friend Tracy is coming on the evening bus from Boston. You can hide the state of your refrigerator for an afternoon but not for an entire holiday weekend and I want Tracy to think I’m a together person though I suspect she knows the truth.

I also want my husband to think that I do things around the house. It somehow retains its cluttered look even after Patsy comes to clean. A gleaming fridge interior is an undeniable example of industry. It says, “Damn! I did some hard work on my day off. I didn’t just sit around and work Sudoku puzzles.”

There is also a part of me that wants to lead a simpler life and a simpler life means consolidating the four open jars of Mt. Olive “Petite Snack Crunchers” into two jars. And who ever heard of Mt. Olive pickles anyway? Who buys all these jars of pickles?

As I scan the vast contents of the fridge arrayed across the countertop, I see I have a lot of consolidating to do besides the petite snack crunchers: two jars of raspberry jam, two jars of capers, two bottles of Lea & Perrin’s steak sauce, two jars of kalamata olives (pitted), and, inexplicably, three open jars of Marie’s Italian garlic dressing. I dispatch to the recycling bin an empty jar of Guiltless Gourmet Spicy Black Bean Dip that Colin, our own sweet Bartleby, has absentmindedly put away and then chuck a woefully expired Yoplait hunkered down undetected way in the back.

When I finish and have put everything away in an organized fashion, I take pleasure in opening the door and viewing its clean, well-lighted contents. I have done one small hard thing, a month or so belatedly perhaps and for some spurious reasons, but one right thing nonetheless.

As I stand with the door open, Scott walks into the kitchen with some last minute purchases for the coming feast. As he wheels around me with his bags, I see the shock of a gleaming refrigerator register on his face.

“Looky there,” he says, sliding into his native West Virginian, “ain’t you just the teacher’s pet!”
Heidi Shott
Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.

Going to Jail - November 2005

A couple of scuba divers who had lived in Micronesia for many years told us how to do it: The first day you arrive in Palau you go to the jail and tell the inmates who carve the storyboards which legends you’d like them to carve for you. "Remember to settle on a price," they warned parenthetically. Then on the last day of your vacation, return to the jail, pick up the storyboards, pay the guys and depart for home with a few exquisite examples of island culture.

Guess what? It didn’t work that way.

In April 1986 Scott and I and two dive buddies – our fellow teacher Tami from Minnesota and my dive school classmate Jeff, a government contract engineer from Colorado – flew from Saipan, where we were living, to Guam and then on to Koror, Palau, for some of the best diving in the world.

There are many essays I could write about that week in Palau. It was one of those weeks that came along at a certain time of my life when I was able to soak up everything. I remember the hard beds at the Palau Hotel, the expired dates on the merchandise in the grocery store, shaving my young lover’s face, (albeit for the first and last time), the way our dive leader, a crazy Palauan named Dennis, would hop out of the van before it stopped moving. And I remember going to jail.

We arrived at night, picked up our rental car and went straight to the hotel. It was a divers’ hotel right in the middle of town rather than the much more expensive Palau Pacific Resort to the south or the Nikko to the north. There was no restaurant but there was a bar in the basement. It was institutionally tiled and spare and full of sixties kitchen chairs with a half dozen hard-core American diver guys standing at the bar trying to best each other with stories of shark encounters and equipment failures. They were older and drunker and we left after one Mai Tai. Tami was from Minnesota, after all, and did not hold truck with that kind of loud and raucous behavior. They made us feel like what we were – three young parochial school teachers and a quiet engineer – when we wanted to feel like intrepid travelers.

In the morning we drove to the jail to order our storyboards. Scott and I wanted three, Tami wanted one and Jeff went along for the ride. I assumed that we would enter the jail office and a receptionist would call for a carver/inmate to come to the front desk under guard and we would make our arrangements with him. He would then return to work hard all week on his commissions while we dived to our hearts’ content.

Palauan storyboards are beautiful works of art. They are portable versions of the ancient Palauan legends carved onto the interior and exterior walls of the traditional men’s meeting house or bai. Carved on an extremely tough wood called ironwood, storyboards were first carved in the 1940s during the Japanese occupation of the island. On Saipan we had heard that the best and least expensive way to get a traditional storyboard depicting your favorite legend was to go the Palau jail. Carving storyboards was a way for prisoners to make money while inside.

At the jail office there was indeed a receptionist. She didn’t seem surprised when four Americans asked to talk to a prisoner about storyboards. She motioned us back behind the counter and unlocked a door, telling us to walk across to the far end of the recreation yard and ask for “Peter.”

Huh? Go into the yard, alone, with all these guys with sharp carving tools, with the man who just two months before was arrested for assassinating the Palauan president. That yard?

What I said was, “You want us to go into the jail?”

“Yeah. Just knock when you want to come out,” she said with her lovely Micronesian singsong that always ended with an upward lilt, like a question.

Okay. We looked at each other and followed the receptionist. How did we know Peter wasn’t the presidential assassin?

So we four howlies (Hawaiian-speak for “white knuckleheads” that is pervasive across the Pacific) ventured across the packed dirt courtyard. Two or three dozen men looked up from what they were doing at tables under thatched loggias that lined the perimeter. It was easy to see why they weren’t recreating: at four degrees above the equator the morning sun over the middle of the rec yard was already brutal. A work area was obvious at the far side and we walked over to where three or four guys were working with some unfinished boards. A tall man with a shaggy head of black hair stood up to greet us.

“Peter?” we asked.

I remember he wrote down which legends we wanted on a scrap of paper. We talked price and I recall we agreed on $35 for a small board and $50 for a large. This was more than our friends had paid, but we figured it was still fair compared with what we’d pay at a local handicraft shop. (I just checked and saw a crude storyboard on E-Bay going for $1,500.) “U.S. dollars only, okay,” he said seriously. “Cash.”

“Sure,” we nodded. “No problem.” The whole exchange was very serious. The Palauans we knew on Saipan were all fun and loving people, but then they weren’t in jail on their home island. “We’ll be back on Saturday,” we said and then walked back across the yard. The other prisoners were still watching us and we realized that this kind of commerce was rarer than we’d come to believe. Jeff tried to open the door to the office before he remembered that we had to knock.

The following Saturday, after a terrific week of our own shark encounters and snorkeling the famous Jellyfish Lake and some stupidly imprudent cave diving on my part, we returned to the Palau jail.

By now we knew the drill and the receptionist opened the door to the yard. The sun was hotter than ever as we made our way to Peter’s corner. It came as a shock to us when he told us he hadn’t had a chance to finish our storyboards.

“None of them?” Tami, our Midwestern promise-is-a-promise friend, asked.

“No, but I have some in stock,” and he gestured like a natural salesman to a table behind him and pulled over a half dozen boards. “Here is one of the how the Yapese brought over their stone money from Palau.” That was actually one of the legends we'd requested so we said we’d take it.

“I have several commemorating 50 years of electric power on Palau,” he said, showing us a bunch of identical storyboards that obviously hadn’t sold during the big electricity anniversary celebrations of 1984.

“Ah, no,” said Scott. “What else have you got?” He showed us a small board with the legend of the rabbitfish. We didn’t know that legend, so he told us. It was something about fishing from one side of the boat and getting nothing and then fishing from the other side and getting a huge catch. I knew that I would forget the details even as he was telling. But we took it because he had another big board that Tami wanted and we didn’t want to hog the only good ones.

“What about the legend of the sea turtle?” I asked with a little whine in my voice. “That’s the one I really wanted.” The legend of the sea turtle is a little like a Romeo-Juliet/Blue Willow china story. Two young lovers whose families have enmity toward one another must meet on a distant rock island on nights of the full moon. During their trysts, they discover that the sea turtles lay their eggs by the cycle of the moon.

“Could you make that one and send it to me on Saipan?” I suggested. Scott tried to casually kick the side of my flip-flop but I refused to look at him.

Peter showed his first expression of emotion: surprise.

“Sure,” he said, “But you’d have to pay me now. Cash.”

“Okay,” I said, realizing I’d gotten myself into a bit of a jam. The nudge to my flip-flop seemed a little stronger.

“I guess you’ll need money for postage too,” I added, stealing a look at Scott. We had been married ten months and the expression on his face suggested that he was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of spending the rest of his life with someone as stupid as I am.

Peter raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, definitely.”

“I guess you’ll need our address,” I said and he scrambled for a piece of paper and dutifully wrote it down. “How long do you think it will take?” I asked.

“I’ll do it this week. Things should calm down around here.”

Back outside, I knew there was hell to pay and Tami and Jeff stayed silent as we squabbled. They were on Scott’s side. “Do you really think he’ll send it, Heidi? What were you thinking?” he asked.

“I was thinking that he would think that I didn’t trust him to keep his promise if I didn’t pay him up front.”

“He won’t send it, Heido. You just blew $60 bucks.”

“Yeah, but at least he thinks I trust him.”

“No, he thinks you’re naïve and he’s right.”

“But I’m still a nice person,” I sniffed.

“You’re a very nice person. You’re just needlessly poorer than you were ten minutes ago.”

And I knew I was both.

Because you shouldn’t fly for 24 hours after your last dive to avoid getting the bends, we had the whole day ahead of us until our evening flight back to Guam. We went to the Palau National Museum and saw the bai and many storyboards. There was a small gift shop there where, among many other things, you could buy tortoiseshell bracelets from turtles harvested during their limited island hunting season. I had read in a guide book that very occasionally you could find bracelets carved with a legend and to that end I was flipping through all the bracelets in a large basket by the sales desk. A wide one caught my eye and I pulled it to the surface. There it was, the legend of the sea turtle delicately etched into the shiny, polished surface of the shell. Fifteen dollars. Sold.

A few months later, our teaching stint over, we and our many footlockers and suitcases and Scott’s Martin guitar were returning through customs at the Honolulu airport. I was deeply concerned about my ability to smuggle my treasure into the U.S. It is illegal to bring real tortoiseshell into this country and I, a heretofore nice person, was about to commit a federal crime.

It was 5 a.m. Hawaii-time when our flight from Guam arrived, many hours off kilter and a day earlier than we had left Saipan. After much deliberation I had finally decided to hide the bracelet under a zoom lens in Scott’s camera bag. As the telling moment approached, the customs agent watched as we shoved all our stuff on carts up to his desk. He never even asked us if we had anything to declare. He just waved us on through.

“Man,” said Scott, shaking his head as we navigated our way to the re-check conveyor belt. “We must look so white bread. I need to get an earring or something.”

Palau is now known as the Republic of Belau, correcting the longtime European corruption of its pronunciation. Next spring will be the twentieth anniversary of ordering my story board. Maybe Peter will google me, find my address in Maine, and send me a commemorative version. Maybe because of my faith in him, he's now the president of Palau.

I know weirder things have happened.

Heidi Shott
Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.