Monday, April 26, 2004

Miss Rachel’s Flowers.

I want to believe in Bigfoot, but he probably doesn’t exist. I don’t want to believe in ghosts because I’m a big chicken, but there are plenty of folks who will tell you they exist. Go figure.

My husband and I went on a “ghost walk” in Wilmington, North Carolina, last weekend, in search of a little eerie entertainment. We spent ninety minutes crisscrossing “Old Wilmington” taking in stories about those who linger on after death. We came away from the tour with an appreciation of the historic architecture in the city, but experienced no creepy crawlies thanks to the milquetoast delivery by so-called “local actors.”

I do get the creeps from a story told by one of my co-workers. G. lives in a beautiful house in Raleigh, North Carolina, close to N.C. State University. She awoke one night to find a large African-American man in overalls standing at the foot of the bed. He had a tool belt on hip and a worn driving cap on his head. Her terror transitioned to sleep-fuzzed acquiescence once she determined that his style of dress was way too old-fashioned for a home invader. “I’m looking at a ghost,” she resolved, and rolled over in hopes that feigned disinterest would send the lost workman elsewhere. She fell back to sleep soon afterward.

Then next morning, G. recalled the event and assumed that she’d been imagining things. She nonchalantly asked her husband if he’d slept well; he hesitated and then said “No.” When she asked him why he slept poorly, he quizzed, “Did you see a guy standing at the foot of our bed last night?” When she nodded in affirmation, he proceeded to describe the man exactly as G. had observed. After sharing their story with friends and neighbors, they learned that their house sits on the site of the old state fairgrounds(1873-1928). They speculate that one of the crew is still doing his job, late at night at the foot of their bed. That’s dedication.

Dedication to the living can preoccupy the dead, according to family legend. I don’t want to believe in ghosts, but when your maternal grandfather goes around like the Welcome Wagon after death, you have to give a little. “Grandy” was the sweetest, gentlest, most loving man I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. His devotion to his wife was renowned throughout their rest home. Grandy’s frailty betrayed his deference in the end, when he died one afternoon after a prolonged illness. My grandmother Nanny grieved into the night, reading her Bible for comfort before drifting off to sleep. The Bible fell to the floor at some point, with the orderly noting to self that she’d pick up the book on the next round. The orderly was surprised and concerned to see the Bible on Nanny’s bed table soon afterwards; no one was supposed to enter patient rooms without authorization. (My grandmother was alone and bedridden.) The next morning, when the orderly asked my grandmother who had picked up the Bible, Nanny said “Marvin got it for me.” Nanny insisted to the orderly and my mother that Grandy had appeared, replaced the book and given his last loving goodbye. A grieving widow’s tale that is easily dismissed, right?

Wrong. Fast forward to the day after Grandy’s funeral. I called my Mother to hear the details, since I chose to attend the wake instead of the graveside service. “It was quite interesting,” she measured carefully. Mom related her emotional encounter with R., a close friend of the family. Nanny and Grandy met R. when she was selling perfume in a local department store; they visited her weekly as a social event. They adored R., and R. conferred the title “adopted Grandma and Grandpa” on them. Nanny and Grandy feted R.’s shining moments from marriage to adoption of a delightful baby girl.

Daddy came to her the afternoon he died,” Mom choked. “R. heard the baby stirring from her nap and went to the nursery. Grandy appeared and said he was sorry that he wouldn’t be able to watch the baby grow up. Then he was gone.” R. said the moment was reassuring and touching, not frightening.

Perhaps those good vibes linger when a good person passes? Take for instance, the abandoned house adjacent to my mom and dad’s subdivision. The homeowner passed away at the ripe old age of ninety and the retirement community bought her property. Residents are allowed to collect and transplant perennial plants from the jungle of an overgrown yard. (The house will soon be demolished and the property bulldozed.) Mom and I walked down the weed-choked lane a few days ago to see if anything was left to salvage.

The evening was still warm as the diving sun lit up a whitewashed, but ramshackle ranch house. Ancient oaks and sweetgums towered around the house to provide cool spots of shade. Three small fiberglass Quonset huts surrounded the house; one had been a greenhouse, one a potting shed, and one a tool shed. Mom and I gingerly stepped over fallen branches, thistly vines and clumps of dead-grass mole hills to examine the greenhouse. Rotting wooden tables held rows of potted dead ferns. They must have followed their caretaker in death; abandoned to wither without the wrinkled elderly hand to water them.

After paying our respects at the greenhouse, we picked up fallen branches to tap on the ground as we circumnavigated the house. (I never saw any snakes, but the yard was a likely candidate for Reptile Disneyworld.) Red-trumpeted Columbine flowers bowed their heads to the ground below. Purple tufts of Adjuga glowed in the evening sun beams that slashed amongst tree trunks and bushes. (Adjuga is aptly named “Carpet Bugle” in garden-speak.) Mom and I used our “Snake-Away” sticks to dig and pry up clumps of both plants. We were careful and methodical in our removal; we left plenty for others and tried not to leave gouges in the soil. Somehow it was important to us to acknowledge that this had been someone’s yard. The potting shed conveniently contained black plastic flats and terra cotta pots, so the end product looked like it had been purchased from a garden center.

On my last reconnoiter around the house, I noticed that the side porch door was open. I peeked inside. Pale white light cast through the windows onto a clothing rack filled with hanging garment bags. I walked inside to find dusty dresses and coats in the bags; most were faded and worn. The stairs leading to the inner house seemed solid, so I tested them and then motioned to my mother to follow. We entered the unlocked door into an austere bedroom. An iron bed with mattress and coverlet angled towards a second door. Behind that door lay a maze of wood or linoleum floored rooms, all smelling of old cedar, dust, and time.

The rest of the house was empty of furniture. No pictures or decorations graced the walls. The kitchen was an odd mirror of itself; at both ends there were double sinks underneath large picture windows. One picture window looked out into the tangled front yard, the other window revealed a sunroom built adjacent to the rear kitchen wall. An excess of cabinet space around the rear sink led me to believe that the stove had been moved from that location, over to the front space where the other double sink was installed. I got the impression that she added on the sunroom, then moved the kitchen the front of the house so she could wash dishes and look out into the front yard. While standing and pondering the kitchen, a question crossed my mind. Why wasn’t I unnerved, trespassing throughout a dead woman’s former domain? Where were the cold gusts of air, the heebie-jeebies, or the sensations that we were being watched?

Perhaps she didn’t mind our curiosity, I told my mother. Maybe she appreciates the fact that her plants will live on in new homes, Mom conjectured. We walked out of the darkening house and back up the gravel lane to pick up our containers of plants. As we popped out of the jungle onto the city maintained sidewalk, a fast moving pedestrian almost bowled us over.

Are they giving plants away?” she inquired. Assuming that we looked like guilty trespassers, we explained our justification for being on the property. “Miss Rachel was a very sweet person,” the woman commented. She went on to say that she’d known the homeowner, Miss Rachel, very well. “I’ll have to come by and get some plants to remember her by, even though I don’t live in your subdivision,” the woman whispered as we parted ways.

I get the feeling that Miss Rachel is content to live on through the gardens that harbor her perennials. I sure don’t need her to make an appearance to say “thank you,” or to introduce herself. The good vibes from that day’s adventure, and the plants in my yard are thanks enough.

Addendum: A Child’s Take on Death and Dying.

I was playing with my daughter in the back yard the other evening, when our eight-year old neighbor called to us over to the fence.

“Did you hear about Nellie?” she inquired, in an excited voice that seemed a bit surprising, considering the circumstances. Her aged beagle Nellie suffered from multiple cancers and had been euthanized the day before.

“Yes, darling, I’m so sorry she passed away. I know you’ll miss her,” I said sympathetically.

“She didn’t pass away, we put her to sleep!” the child singsonged happily as she pumped back in forth in her swing. “We buried her over there under the dogwood tree, ‘an we painted seashells to go on her grave, ‘an I’m gonna paint some rocks, too!”

“My dog, Wiley, died too!” my daughter chirped. “She fell off the sofa and died.” (Actually, she died of liver failure.)

“Yeah, I remember!” said our neighbor. “Hey, wanna see Nellie’s grave?”

And so, my daughter trudged through the garden gate to behold the painted seashells on dearly departed Nellie the Beagle’s grave. No tears were shed, no words of grief were spoken. The two little girls simply shared a moment, recognizing that Nellie once was, and that she was loved. Little kids rock.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Bigfoot Dreams, Part Two.

I’ll begin with an acknowledgement: I know that there’s a book entitled “Bigfoot Dreams” by Francine Prose. I have read the book. I have re-read the book many times. (I can’t remember if I purchased it, or if I lovingly adopted it from my roommate’s voluminous library of paperbacks.) I do know that I was intrigued by the title, since I have been having dreams about Bigfoot since I was a little kid. [See “Bigfoot Dreams, Part One.”] It turns out that the protagonist’s Bigfoot Dreams were nothing like my Bigfoot dreams, but the book was charming nonetheless.

The fact that I’ve had recurring Bigfoot dreams (nightmares, actually) is no surprise. I was a child scholar on everything Sasquatch; I was both fascinated and terrified by Bigfoot. By day, I watched Bigfoot movies and documentaries, or read anything I could find about the Giant Hairy One. By night, I trembled in my bed, wondering if he was tall enough to look in my bedroom window. (I slept on the second floor above a sunken patio; that would have to be one honkin’ Sasquatch.)

From my readings, I became familiar with every state that claimed Bigfoot sightings. I was reassured to know there were none where I lived, in Virginia. I sure as heck knew I didn’t ever want to visit the Pacific Northwest, wherever that was, because Bigfoots were loping all over the place there. One summer, the Big Guy was spotted in Ohio while I was there visiting my grandparents. My mom confided much later that they had hidden all newspapers from me during the trip. Good thinking. If I had known about the sightings, I would’ve thumbed a ride back to Bigfoot-free Virginia, pronto.

My nightmare was inspired by the documentary “In Search of Bigfoot,” where a woman sees Bigfoot through her kitchen window as she’s washing dishes. (I insisted on closing all kitchen window curtains after dark from then on.) In the dream, Bigfoot is standing on the front porch. I glimpse him through the wide kitchen bay window. Sometimes it’s the Abominable Snow Man or Yeti, who’s white instead of brown. Sometimes he rings the doorbell, sometimes he just stands there; glaring. I usually wake up before the dream gets much further than that.

So why has Bigfoot gotten the boot in my recurring dream? (He’s been replaced by the rock band KISS.) It might have something to do with the book I’m currently reading: “Bigfoot; the Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality” by Bigfoot expert John Napier. (I’m no longer a rabid scholar of “Bigfootia”, I just happen to like reading at bedtime.)

In what I’ve read so far, Napier has found no credible evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. Napier debunks alleged sighting videos and dismisses a number of footprint photographs. He even explains how Himalayan Sherpas manufacture “Yeti” scalps out of goat skulls and fur. (He asserts that they aren’t trying to deceive anyone, they’re just culturally motivated to please and satisfy those in search of the Yeti.) I’ll have to keep reading to see if Napier ever presents concrete evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. It would be pretty frustrating to be an expert on something that you can’t prove exists...Then again, priests aren’t asked to present photographs of God, are they?

I don't know much about Napier, other than he seems to have expelled Sasquatch from my nightmares. Or, has my subconscious simply matured beyond the grasp of childish fears? When I was a child, I believed in Bigfoot without question. As an adult, I’ve not thought much on the subject. I no longer digest Bigfoot factoids, I don’t surf Sasquatch websites. Perhaps Napier’s book was the icing on the cake of my gray matter. My adult brain can’t justify the existence of Bigfoot without proof. So welcome, KISS, goodbye Bigfoot. I’m think I’m going to miss you.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Bigfoot Dreams, Part One.

I don’t often document my dreams because I’m just not that kind of person. I enjoy dreaming, mind you. I find it highly entertaining. I just don’t think my dreams are significantly more interesting than anyone else’s, so I don’t tend to write about them.

Last night’s episode got me thinking, however. It was a variation on a recurring dream I’ve had for years. It usually unfolds like so: Bigfoot is at my front door. He wants in. I am scared as beejeezus when he glares at me through the windows. In a retro twist last night, the band KISS was outside my childhood home, trying to break in. (As in the band that painted their faces with black and white makeup and sang such classics as “[I wanna] Rock and Roll all Nite.”)

I first noticed KISS lurking on the driveway when I went out to the attached two-car garage for some reason. I peered at them through the horizontal garage door windows; the cat guy (Peter Criss), the hairy chested guy (Paul Stanley) and the girlie looking guy (Ace Frehley). Scarlet-tongued Gene Simmons (devil looking guy) was nowhere to be seen. (You’d think Gene would have been there, ‘cause Kitty Man and the others don’t really strike me as silver-lame’d troublemakers.) But here they were loitering, sans Gene, outside my garage. I realized I’d been spotted when their heads whipped in my direction. I locked the garage door and ran back inside the house as they made menacing faces and gestures in my direction. I ran from door to door throughout the house, checking the locks. The band members were always one step behind me, rattling the knobs or gesticulating through the windows.

I had just finished my security check of the kitchen when the band walked in (still sans Gene). I don’t recall if their appearance denoted my shoddy door-locking abilities, or if they simply materialized into the house. Either way, I yelled to them, “I am calling the police!” and dialed 911 on the cell phone that was suddenly in-hand. The band cockily preened in the kitchen as I spoke with the police dispatcher; yet the three in makeup didn’t speak a word. The scene closed as I calmly stated, “Yes, officer, one of them has a gun.” Peter Criss, cat-faced crooner of the ballad “Beth” sneered as he held up a gleaming cowboy pistol with white plastic grips. I suddenly awoke to my son’s morning mantra of “Uh-Oh,” “Uh-Oh,” which means he’s dropped his pacifier. Thank goodness he rescued mommy from “Glam Gone Bad” before things went too far.

So why was this dream worthy of note? Was it more unusual or creative than my previous dreams? Nah. The big revelation is that Bigfoot is no longer the sole antagonist of this recurring dream. He’s been replaced, or else he goes on vacation sometimes. Read more about “Bigfoot Dreams, Part Two” in the next installment, coming soon to a blog near you.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Space Girls, Frog Girls, and Frog Boys.

Post-dinner playtime constitutes a mixed bag of activities. The baby wanders around in opiate denial of his sleepiness, while the toddler buzzes around on a residual sugar high from dessert. Last night I found myself on the floor with denial-baby on my chest; his fat little fingers probed my front teeth and then crammed a pink rubber frog into my eye. I lifted Mengele-boy onto the carpet with a gentle “No-no,” then flopped into the sublime puffiness of my leather recliner.

My daughter walked up to me with a square plastic storage box on her head, and a colored pasta necklace draped across her shoulders. Enter “Spacegirl” to make her debut appearance. (I’d never met this toddler-inspired personality before.)

I am Spacegirl, and I have my helmet and safety necklace on so I won’t fall and break my neck on the slippery Moooon…” she boomed in her deepest voice.

Break your neck? How morbid, I reflected. On the slippery moon? Who decided that the moon is slippery? Come to think of it, the moon does look like it was made out of modeling clay, or gray mud. Maybe it is, indeed, slippery. Behold the brains on Spacegirl.

Check out the confidence on this chick, too. She dubbed herself “Spacegirl” easily and naturally. The word “girl” doesn’t connote weakness or frailty for her generation. She’s surrounded by a world of Powerpuff girls, Spicegirls, IndigoGirls and webgrrls. The banner of “girl power” has inspired her to playact as a superhero, a “scuber diver,” and now an astronaut.

Then again, it’s not like I grew up in the suffragette era; women had saturated the workforce by the late sixties. I grew up knowing women could be doctors as well as nurses, and that my destiny’s options were open. That’s probably why I scrawled “Frog Girl” as occupation of choice in my Dr. Seuss “Book about Me.” On TV, I saw deep-sea diving “Frog Men” swoop around on “Johnny Quest.” I wanted to swoop around, too, but I sure didn’t want to be called a “Frog Man.” So, I created the label “Frog Girl” and fantasized about replacing Jacques Cousteau as Custodian of the Undersea World.

Frog Girl’s dream became reality when I learned to scuba dive in college and later became a part-time instructor. I morphed from Frog Girl to “Lemur Girl” when I landed my dream job as a zookeeper/primate technician. (Doesn’t every girl go through an “I love animals” syndrome?) I met and married the man of my dreams, so Lemur Girl gave way to “Mrs. Lemur,” a woman with a decent list of accomplished dreams.

Unfortunately, the buoyancy of dreams can be hissingly deflated when you find yourself raking lemur poop day in, day out, for six dollars an hour. I ripped up alumni newsletters that came in the mail, recounting the lives of classmates who were now successful lawyers, doctors and businessmen. I started raking lemur poop in my sleep at night. Scrape, scrape, scrape. Scoop, scoop. Dump in bucket. Repeat.

Raking lemur poop may dull the ego, but it sharpens the mind. (You tend to do a lot of soul searching when you spend hours cleaning animal cages.) Many a zookeeper has lifted a dustpan of dung and questioned, “Why am I here?” For some, it’s simply a philosophical question that leads to the conclusion that they’re raking poo for a greater good.

For me, however, the question was literal; "why am I here, right now, raking this foulness?" I thought about my life’s aspirations. Did my childhood brew of “Dream Jobs” comprise my true goals in life? I sure hoped not, since I currently found myself in a silo of poo-slinging prosimians. The blinding realization smacked me; my current livelihood and lifestyle fulfilled a short-term dream, rather than being part of a life-long goal.

My thoughts turned from “What will I be?” to “Who will I have been?” I wanted people to look back upon my life and say that I was fun to be with, and kind. I wanted to be remembered as generous and giving. I also pictured a woman who’d loved a husband and children to the best of her abilities.

Up until that moment, I had not committed to the idea of myself as a parent. I’d been enjoying an adolescent adulthood filled with parties, adventures and freedom. But right there in that silo, I had a vision. A vision of me raking lemur-doo, with a child slung over one hip. I seriously doubted that Child Protective Services would condone that, nor would they consider electro-fenced woods be appropriate daycare. If I was going to entertain the possibility of having kids, I needed to leave the option open. Thus the time had come for a change.

I closed the chapter of Mrs. Lemur’s life, and said goodbye to the animals, my keeper compadres, and the smelly uniform. I didn’t have a specific career in mind this time; I simply started carving out the rough draft of “who I will have been”. A family ultimately became an achievable and desirable option, so Spacegirl and a frog-wielding little brother climbed on board. I’ve been trying to keep my options open ever since.

I hope Spacegirl will grow up to see the value of both short-term dreams and life-long goals. I certainly want her to think about who she wants to be in the future. But I also want her to be interested in who she will have been, in the end. It all adds up. That goes for you too, Frog-Boy.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Behold, the shelf life of cheese puffs.

I’m vaguely interested in the hobby of geocaching, but there’s been no luxury of time to wander around town lately. (Geocaching involves hiding containers of stuff in a variety of locales, then posting the global coordinates on the web.) There’s a free software swap box sequestered in a nearby park, and a tub of toys in the park somewhat farther away. Maybe this weekend we can spend our Saturday trek looking for local goodies stashed in bee hives and sewer pipes.

Human nature compels us to hoard things. The Germans even have a verb to describe the behavior. “Hamstern” means to stockpile, e.g. “Uter und Greta hamstern das bier, ja?”. I always loved that verb in German class—it reminded me of my hamster walking around with lumpy cheeks full of sunflower seeds. My brother was the "hamstern King" in our family following every Halloween. He would fling his shopping bag of goodies under the bed, assumedly nibbling on bits under his sheets at night via flashlight. He didn’t realize how often little sister surveyed his room, however. Kindergarten recessed for the day before elementary school let out, so I had plenty of time to bask in the greatness of my older brother by nosing around his room. Thusly the bag of Halloween candy was discovered in December. I boldly opened the bag and examined its contents. There was nothing unique compared to what had been in my Halloween bag, except for one thing; a wax-paper bag of cheese puffs. Oh, what a treasure! Why had he haughtily ignored them? I slowly opened the pack to avoid tearing the glued and crimped closure. I retrieved an orange-dusted nugget and stuck it in my mouth—stale styrofoamy goodness was my reward. The satisfaction of besting my brother overshadowed the not-so-fresh condition of the cheese puff. I carefully closed the bag and returned it to its place. I would return periodically to repeat the process. The day in June when I finished eating the cheese puffs was a day of triumph. I threw the empty waxed bag into my trashcan, relishing my cunning feat. I was the Artful Dodger of ancient Cheetos.

Which may explain why cheese puffs were my first contribution to a neighbor’s super-secret forbidden-food hiding place. M. lived next door and interacted with me on a roller coaster basis. We’d play together as steadfast buddies for months at a time, then she’d move on to the neighbor kids across the street who went to her school. I pitied her, though, because her mom was a devout Weight Watcher’s disciple. Poor M. and her little sister ate skinless chicken and sprinkled butter-flavored salt on their corn. They ate parmesan popcorn for “snacks”. Dessert consisted of an apple or an orange, or homemade yogurt. Their mom cultivated two little girls starved for chicken skin, candy and anything else forbidden. M. came up with the idea to stash gum in her driveway’s rock wall after hearing about school chums who’d done the same. I was not a fan of gum or candy since no one denied me of them, so I chose to insert Ho-Ho’s and cheese puffs in the shoe-box sized hole. We positioned a stone in front to disguise our holy tomb of sugar and starch. The next morning before our respective school buses arrived, we sidled over to the cache and prepared to consume contraband. A teeming brigade of ants up my arm clued me to the fact that wax paper bags don’t deter ants any better than they do little sisters. The ants had tunneled into my Ho-Ho’s and Cheetos, leaving me with no prize as M. smacked her bubblegum. Her mom discovered the hoard soon afterwards, so our pirate days came to a weight-watching halt.

Nowadays, I have the privilege of working for a company that does the stashing for me. We have break rooms on every floor containing endless containers of crackers, peanut butter and M&M’s. Soda, juices, teas, and coffee flow freely. There is a plentiful supply of food available to those who work through a meal or stay overtime. (Good work strategy, I might add.) Yet a number of my co-workers still maintain "goody" caches. A whole box of Ritz crackers here, a box of Better Cheddars there, a whole jar of peanut butter with knife in the dark of a file cabinet. It seems that some folks aren’t satisfied with retrieving a handful of goodies at a time. Better to open the break room storage cabinets, grab a whole box “to go”, and gleefully bask in the soon-to-be-stale trove. Here lies Exhibit A in our case study of "Human Hamstering". (I personally would rather hamster the beer with Uter.)