Monday, March 26, 2007

Is There Really No Place Like Home?

With predictions of warmth and sun for Sunday afternoon, people anxiously planned for a day outdoors. For my family, that meant everyone climbing into the car and going for a drive. To a cemetery. Not any old cemetery mind you, but one where the forefathers (and mothers) on my mom’s side have been laid to rest.

The mini gardens that give the tombstones their ‘curb appeal’ needed some spring cleaning, What was left of last year’s peonies needed to be cut down, twitch grass needed to be pulled and the weeds required plucking.

On the drive to Smithville, my mom said that our old house was up for sale. She has it on good authority, through the good old Shadylawn Court (yes, that really is the name) grapevine, that #12 is up for sale.

What fun it would be, I thought, to go to an open house and see my old room. I am absolutely sure that the red, white and blue pirate inspired wall paper would still be there as would the paneling that plagued many homes in the 1970s. I wonder if the sounds of Boy George, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Duran Duran still echo in the walls?

By the end of our road trip, I decided to let the fond memories of #12 stay right where they are. There may be ‘no place like home’, but I have also learned that home is where you hang your hat. It’s where your heart is. It is not the bricks and mortar. Those are fodder for memories and if you want to keep them fond, leave them alone.

As we drove into town, my mother pointed to houses and told us who used to reside there. Who married who, who was now dead and who had been the town riff-raff. I recognized the odd house and even remembered visiting them for various reunions, funerals and picnics.

“The river seems a lot smaller”, “He used to keep his lawn so nicely” and “That empty lot is where so and so used to have a house” were just a few comments from my mother that highlighted just how much things had changed.

After our cemetery clean-sweep, we decided to drive through town before going for lunch. I never set foot in the house my mother grew up in, but remember it from old pictures and how proud both my mom and my grandparents were of it. Saying it, like the town itself, has fallen on hard times, would be generous.

The main thoroughfare now cuts across what once was the front lawn and the old girl’s façade has clearly seen better days. Time marches on and the parade route seems to run dangerously close to the front stoop. Beautiful leaded windows and the graceful pitch of the gables remind you of what once was. Now tattered, smoke stained lace curtains shield the interior from prying eyes and shingles, wrest from the roof, are scattered about the front lawn. Next to the car parts.

Moving down what in its day was a shade covered laneway, but can now only be described as an alley - and every negative connotation that carries – we proceeded to what was once my great-grandparents house. I can only call it such, for it no longer seems to be a home. It has been cut up into four apartments (I know this from the separate hydro meters protruding from the backside) and has a greasy spoon restaurant sticking out the front.

As we drove out of town, I thought I would be feeling melancholy. On the contrary I was dusting off old memories and rehashing good times with my parents and my sister. I am not sure how my mom was feeling, but when my dad suggested we go to the Innsville for lunch and forgo Red Lobster, she seemed quite excited. And with good reason.

Time has left its mark on this restaurant/motel that, according to google, “was known for its mouthwatering prime rib”. As we sat down there was talk of birthday, anniversary and various other celebrations that had taken place there. Right down to who had been there and what table they sat at.

The dining room is replete with those goldenrod polyester napkins, green leather chairs (that I quite fancied actually) and what can only be described as black out curtains blocking the front windows. (They have also been dry-walled up) It seems the same fate that befell my mother’s childhood home has hit the Innsville too – the parking lot was cut in half by the freeway.

The prime rib is still delicious and so is the clam chowder. Over tea, I commented on how much I like the milk pitcher which conjured up a fond memory for my mother. We were visiting my grandfather in hospital, and were in the cafeteria having tea. Apparently my mother said she like the tea pot and when she got home it was sitting on the counter. My fingers seem to have been extra sticky that day. Father validated her story as I tried to deny it. I had to admit though, it did sound an awful lot like me.

I know I have go on far more than usual, but I need to write these things down. I may not want to go back to my old room, but I want to remember this day.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Where Has Ms. Manners Gone?

Lady Nancy Astor: “If you were my husband, I would poison your tea”.
Winston Churchill: “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it”.

Tonight I met my Lady Astor. Now as much as I like to think I am as suave and debonair as Cary Grant or Clark Cable in one of those old time picture shows, I know that I am not. I don’t think everyone needs to sit ramrod straight or have perfect table manners, but what about the basics? My mother instilled a few that are with me to this day.

I chew and swallow what I have in my mouth before shoveling more in. I keep my elbows off the table. I don’t clutch my knife and fork with my fists as if I were some great untrained ape. I don’t speak when my mouth is full. I don’t lick my knife and I don’t use my fingers to push things onto my fork.

This evening, over a working dinner, I experienced all of these little joys. I admit that I found myself wearing my Judgey McJudgerson hat and tried not to let it bother me. Each time I caught myself, I was reminded of a story I heard about the Dalai Lama. In “The Art of Happiness” Howard Cutler asked him how it was possible to like EVERYONE. His Holiness said that we are, at the end of the day, all human beings and therefore the same as one another. If you can like yourself, you can learn to like everyone.

There were five people at my table and within five minutes the tone was set – one person was going to do 95% of the speaking and the rest of us, like it or not, were the audience. After my first two olive salad with vodka dressing, my head started to ache. I ordered a second.

As my cream of mushroom soup was placed before me, I heard how my dinner companion’s 17 year old daughter had a run in with a rum bottle and the ensuing puke fest. What perfect timing! We also heard how she has taught her daughter to drink vodka the proper way – you keep it in the freezer, that way it doesn’t burn going down.

“No, not like that”. I said. “Do it like mommy told you, salt, tequila, lemon! Not salt, lemon, tequila”. I fancied myself quite funny and laughed. Alone.

Dalia Lama.

Third olive salad.

Over soup I heard about plans of putting said daughter on birth control before her trip to Paraguay because “she is my daughter and I am not stupid”. When my steak and mashed potatoes with gravy arrived, my ears were graced with a story about labor, epidurals and other such nifty facts about delivering a baby. Complete with details about the after-birth.

Dalia Lama.

Fourth olive salad. Extra vodka dressing, hold the olives.

For a brief moment, the conversation took a slightly gay turn and I perked up. I hate figure skating (I got asked to leave my class for being disruptive to the other students) but at least it was something. We all heard about the exorbinate fees one is charged for lessons, coaching, skates, outfits and competitions.

Someone mentioned that they were grateful for the warning as he was thinking of signing up his 3 year old daughter next year. He didn’t realize it was so expensive but his wife, a former figure skater herself, was quite insistent on it.

“You could always take her out back and hobble her” I suggested. I laughed again. Alone.

Screw the olive salad, can I get a boiler maker please?

By dessert I knew about her first French kiss (in the third grade!!!!!), the discovery of just how bad a son’s athletic cup can smell and almost lost an eye due to wild gesticulations with a fork.

As I looked at the rest of the studio audience there were nods of understanding and looks of sympathy. I was bewildered and out of my comfort zone.

Perhaps if I had children of my own, I would have found these stories cute and charming. More than likely, if I had children of my own I would be dead from alcohol poisoning. And glad of it too! Move over Zillah, there ain’t enough gin in that bottle for both of us!