Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Finding myself and then some

Introspection is one of those things, like red wine, that we are told is good for us – in moderation, of course. I’d like to think that I have always been somewhat introspective, recognizing that the unexamined life is, if not empty, at best less than it might otherwise be. At the same time, I have avoided over analyzing myself because, well for starters, it is boring and there has always been something more pressing if not interesting to do – like cleaning the toilets!” Even so, no amount of talk or drug therapy would have led to the most recent “discoveries” about myself. I am both amazed and amused. Hope you are too.

Having lived at the end of the road in the same house for 44 years with the same person, I have more or less taken it for granted that at least some part of my identity was common knowledge. We consider ourselves “old timers” in Boston Harbor, part of the landscape much like the big leaf maples that populate Burfoot Park. When I learned recently that some of my neighbors “knew” quite a different me, it caught me off guard. Here’s how the story unfolds.

A couple of weeks ago on a Saturday evening Fred and I dropped in on the 50th birthday party of a friend and neighbor. We had an earlier commitment so the party was well underway by the time we arrived. As is often the case at these large neighborhood gatherings, I knew most but not all of the attendees. While I was standing in the kitchen, taking in the view of the marina back lit by the fading sunlight, a guy I had never seen before limped over to me and said that he wished he could walk every day like I did but he had bad knees. I told him that I used to have bad knees myself – at least one bad knee – but I had surgery a few years ago, and now I am better than new! He smirked and allowed as how he didn’t like surgeons – they had knives. To which I replied that the prospect of the scalpel was less frightening to me than the prospect of the “Lazy Boy” and my only regret was that I hadn’t gone under the knife sooner!

Well, we tossed injuries and surgeries back and forth a bit longer and then I asked them where they lived. By this time the guy’s wife had joined the conversation.

“We live right next to you, on 76th!” The wife offered.

“You live in the judges’ house.” Said the husband, simultaneously.

“Well, actually I don’t. I live at the end of the road.”

“You’re married to the judges’ son.” They went on.

“Chris? Chris Hamilton? No. Chris and I are good friends but we’re not married. I am married to Fred.” And I pointed to my husband who was standing out on the deck, drinking a beer and visiting with friends.

“Maybe you’re not married and just live with the guy who lives in the judges’ house.” The wife interposed while I continued to point to my husband. “We don’t mind. We live in the ‘gossip’ house.’ ” She offered, giggling. I knew that ‘gossip house’ referred to the place where Kim and Wes lived until Kim and the neighbor became an item, Wes moved out and then Kim and “whatshisname” lived in the house.

“Oh, now I know who you are.” The man interjected. “You’re the one with the kids who are always trying to sell me something. Your son told me that his mom was the one who walked the dogs.”

Now I was baffled. My daughter and son in law now live in Seattle. Both have gone to some pain to convince me that they were extremely busy with work and studies. If I find out now that they have been hanging out in the neighborhood selling candy bars and magazines without so much as stopping by, I will be miffed!

“No, actually, I think that must be someone else.” I concluded as I excused myself in order to find a bathroom. Clearly this conversation was going nowhere and I decided that there really wasn’t much point in trying to convince this couple otherwise. They were pretty satisfied with their version of ‘my’ story, and I could tell I was just boring them with my facts.

Amusing as this encounter was, it wasn’t the first time that a neighbor had created a new identity for me, one that was once again linked with Chris Hamilton. A couple of years ago I was in town walking Barley around Capitol Lake and saw a woman from our neighborhood that I knew only as someone I wave to when I am driving by. As Barley and I approached her, she called out. “You’re Chris Hamilton’s mother, aren’t you?”
“Actually no. I’m not his mother.”

“Well, I have seen you driving his car.”

“Really? I have never driven his car. We both have red cars.”I conceded.

“Well, it was when I saw you driving his car, that I decided you must be his mother.”

“Nope. Must have been someone else.”

We exchanged a few remarks about our respective dogs and then moved on in opposite directions. As we parted, I wasn’t entirely sure that she believed me. If I were to have a son, Chris wouldn’t be a bad choice. He is kind and helpful and reliably cheerful. He is the “go to” guy in the neighborhood when anyone has computer problems. As a practical consideration in this progenitorial conundrum, I am older than Chris, to be sure. Still at five I wasn’t that precocious!

It is startling the way in which folks will stick to the story they have concocted despite irrefutable testimony to the contrary. I wish I could inform you that I had never engaged in such specious speculation myself, that my unwavering commitment to the truth had unfailingly guided me to the high road. Alas, the following example from my childhood is illustrative of my own penchant for filling up the void.

Along a route that our family routinely took when we visited our grandmother, there was a partially completed house. The basement had been dug and finished so that there was a row of windows at ground level, with the ceiling of the basement room forming the floor of what would ultimately be the main floor of the house. When we first noticed it, we all assumed that shortly the rest of the house would be framed out and finished. But time went on and nothing more was done. Fall and winter came and passed – too wet and cold to be building. Then spring and summer with no activity and then another year went by.

Once we recognized that the house was not going to be completed, at least not any time soon, the speculation began. The most obvious conclusion was that they owners had somehow run out of money to complete the project. Death or divorce were likely considerations, but they lacked sufficient novelty to really grab our imagination. Ultimately, we concocted the story that we could stick with and enthusiastically add to as time went on. I believe mother was the primary author of the narrative.

The wife, having grown tired of living under ground like a mole and convinced that her slacker husband was never going to finish the job, simply bailed. One morning after the kids had gone off to school, she packed a bag and walked to the bus stop and was never seen again. Chilling, when you think about. And though our father was the polar opposite of the putative father in the story, it did give me pause that our own mother might consider such an option under similar circumstances.

We never met the family who lived there, indeed we never saw anyone on the premises that I recall. Still we populated the story with the familiar – kids, pets, and parents – even a mother in law. For all I know, a man lived there alone, with no intention of ever building a story above ground. Maybe he was a “survivalist,” getting his bomb shelter kitted out for the inevitable. (See, here I go again!) You can bet that if I had ever met someone who lived there, I would have asked about the mother.

A few minutes with the news on any given day serves as a healthy reminder that whereas are all entitled to our own opinions we are not entitled to our own facts. Still, that doesn’t keep them at bay. “WMD’s” and “Birthers” are but a couple unsettling examples of our penchant for filling a void with “facts” to fit our presumptions. Obviously, nature is not the only force that hates a vacuum.

In my case, to date the factual misconceptions of my neighbors have served me well. After a couple of years of haranguing Chris about my expectations of him as my son, he did his duty this year, bringing me a fuchsia basket for my birthday. Now that I am not only his mother but his putative spouse, the guilt induced performance arena has expanded exponentially.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A moose by any other name . . .

I just returned from the annual trip to our cabin in Calder, Idaho to open it up for the season. The cabin itself is a repository of the “stuff” that invokes memories, some of which go back to my childhood. Likewise, the journey there and back elicits innumerable flashbacks to previous trips. So, it was not surprising as I was driving up the St. Joe river within a few miles of the cabin, that I recalled a time about twenty years ago when Kate and I were returning to the cabin from a shopping trip to town. All of a sudden, in the bend of the road, we saw a moose, standing in classic moose pose, up to its belly in water.

“Wow – that was a moose! I’ve never seen one before.” Me neither, I said. We both got pretty excited with the prospect of breaking the news to “the boys” that evening. The boys being my dad and Fred who were off whipping the water in Marble Creek that afternoon in pursuit of the wily cut throat. It wasn’t long before they rolled up the driveway in dad’s pickup.

“Guess what we saw today?” Katie burst out the door. “A moose!”

“No you didn’t. It must have been an elk, or maybe a horse. I bet it was a mule.”

“No. It was a moose! I saw it. So did mom.”

“Have you ever seen a moose before?”

“Well, no, but I have seen pictures. I know what they look like.”She placed her hands by the side of her head to indicate the shape and size of their antlers.

“Well, your mother hasn’t seen a moose either and it couldn’t have been a moose you saw because there aren’t any moose in this area.”

There was much back and forth and mutual eye rolling on this topic for the rest of the evening and the next couple of days. I just thought that the boys were being stubborn along with another adjective that starts with an “s.” Katie, however, was offended. For her, this was the first time that either her father or her grandfather had questioned her knowledge or her truthfulness. Plus, she knew that they were wrong and that was equally disquieting.

The following day, I had occasion to drive back to Saint Maries, passing the creek where the dubious moose sighting had occurred. No moose today but I got out of the car to look around and discovered that the creek actually had a name: Moose Creek.

That evening when I brought this bit of evidentiary information forward, it was met with blank looks and a stony silence. So much for Plaintiff’s Exhibit A.

A few days later, the boys came back from an outing with Bill Carter, our cabin neighbor and the local game warden. That night at dinner, one of them informed the family that there were moose along the river, as though this was brand new information.

“Did you see one?”

“No. But Bill did.”

Now it was our turn to respond with stony looks and silence.
Several years later our friends Janie and Tony came up to the cabin to spend a couple of days with us. When they arrived, they were both eager to share their river sightings. Janie, riding in the passenger seat, had looked up to see a beautiful great blue heron poised to take off in flight. At the same moment, Tony had spotted a moose in the creek, off to the left of the highway.

Both were congratulated and, furthermore, believed. I couldn’t help but observe that it was a good thing that the respective locations of the moose and the heron hadn’t been reversed or else the story would have had a very different reception.

The cabin is not only the repository of the family’s collective memories it is also the origin of stories, some of which ultimately become legends. Occasionally, these legends contain unambiguous, universal truths. Hence -

If a man sees it, it’s a moose!