July 12th, 2010
Have you heard of the book The Middle Place? by Kelly Corrigan? Well, my sister-in-law gave it to me months ago and last week I finally read it. I think in some ways I was afraid to read it. It’s a memoir about Kelly’s childhood, about facing a tough time in her life and at the same time dealing with her father’s illness. It’s about being in that nebulous, unchartered zone that is being a daughter and being a mother and how those roles get complicated, and maybe even fight against each other in some ways…it’s a place that she calls, “the middle place”.
I was afraid that her story might hit too close to home. Turns out I was right.
Last week we headed to northern Florida for our annual summer trip to my grandmother’s (Mema’s) house. It’s a highlight of every summer, to spend a week in the modest little oasis of a house that my grandfather built 55 years ago. I wrote about it two years ago, and I talked about how I attended a town meeting to try and help stop the development of a condominium complex across the small bay where Mema lives. Our efforts did little, unfortunately. The permit to build was given to the developer, but thankfully, so far, the economy hasn’t cooperated. But, they do hold the permit and are free to build the eye sore and the 50 boat slips they’ll cram in there to go with it. At this point, I can only hope that my nearly 90-year old grandmother will outlast the project and she’ll get to spend her last years staring out over the water and not at a wall of bricks.
Anyhoo, our trip started out as usual…the mad dash and late night packing and emails and newspaper vacation holds and such. There was no traffic on the way to the airport. We got the kids happily settled with snacks and the portable DVD player. We took off on the first leg from Boston to Atlanta and I leaned back in seat 25C and cracked open The Middle Place and read the first chapter.
We landed hours later in Atlanta to the fun news that our next flight had been cancelled and we would be enjoying a free night at the Comfort Inn North (lovely view of a roof and airplanes, ick), with a $6 dinner voucher (yeehaw), a $6 breakfast voucher (zippidee-doo-dah) and no luggage, save the small overnight kit for each of us with toothpaste, toothbrush and a whisper-thin Skymiles night shirt.
But, 18 hours later than expected, we finally landed in Panama City and as we walked out the double doors of the airport, I expected the familiar hot rush of air to wash over my face and my neck and my arms, always the first sign of the week to come. And as we drew closer to Mema’s waterfront neighborhood out on the point, I anticipated the smell of the old paper mill – sulphur mixed with salt and sweat, an odd and unpleasant to most, but to me, the defining scent of all my summers. My Beba and my other grandfather worked at the mill for years and Beba called it, quite accurately, the smell of ‘bread and butter.”
We joyfully greeted and hugged Grammy and Bah and Mema and my aunt and uncle and cousin. The kids swam in the bay. I unpacked and put the kid’s clothes in the empty white dresser drawer that Mema cleaned out in preparation for our stay. My son fished and my daughter washed shells on the deck. My Yankee husband took refuge in the lazy boy under the fan. The next night we had a little party. We bought a cake with a beach scene and flip flops on it and celebrated Mema’s upcoming 90th. We all sang and gave her a custom-made t-shirt that read “Absolutely Fabulous, 90 Years in the Making!” She smiled and said she loved it, but she wasn’t as tickled as I thought she’d be or offer to model it, and soon after the cake was done she retreated back to her room for “a little rest.”
The next day, for the first time ever in all my summer visits, the rain set in. It rained for 5 days. It sprinkled. It poured. It thundered. The sky faded from gray to black, back to gray.
My husband and I made daily attempts to get out of Mema’s hair. We snuck in just one hour at the beach and a couple of cloudy swims in the bay. Otherwise we kept the kids occupied with movies and trips to Walmart and the mall and a ride out to visit the souvenir shops along Panama City Beach. Because of the rain, the water parks were closed. The fun pirate kid’s cruise was cancelled. And the daily news warned us of unsightly tar balls washing up on the beach (thanks BP). We even drove by, which I dreaded, the burnt out shell of The Treasure Ship restaurant, my favorite as a kid. A fire earlier this year shut it down for good. It was the kind of restaurant that you’d bring your camera, where kids were given paper pirate hats while they drank huge Shirley Temples out of plastic hurricane glasses with the logo of the ship on it.
Even the biggest mega souvenir shop on the strip, a beach icon, Alvin’s, looked tired and worn to me. The live alligators in the tank looked sad. The sparkly mermaid picture frames on the shelves looked dusty. The fish tank was dirty and needed cleaning. As I walked around the store in a funk, I realized the economy and oil were doing this tourist destination no favors.
Ugh. I stood in the t-shirt section idly thumbing through the racks as the kids played skee ball. I didn’t like how this week was going at all. Despite loving the time with all my family, I was antsy, grouchy and more than a little unnerved. I had thought, as I do every year, that the salt and the sun, and driving Mema’s car and the sparkle of the sun off the bay would fill me. That the feeling of hugging Mema, wrapping my arms around her small shoulders and the feel of her cool, soft blue nightgown every morning would bring it all back. That the smell of coffee and biscuits would soothe and renew me and transport me back to that sheltered bubble of my childhood, that now I share with my kids.
I felt all of that. But at the same time, none of it.
Mema was feeling off because of an ongoing issue with pain around her eye and restless nights. One night, her growing anxiety (also an issue the past year), the crowded house, her rigid schedule thrown off and, a lack of sleep, triggered a nightmare so bad she actually grabbed hold of the curtain by her bedside and knocked over a lamp.
It was her nightmare. So why was I feeling like this was all just a bit surreal? There I was, spending a week inside one of my most treasured memories and it just didn’t feel right, even though I was RIGHT THERE, standing in Mema’s kitchen, and sleeping in her guest bed and eating her world-famous pound cake after dinner. And the sky would just not stop being so horribly gray.
I even stood out in the garage one night, trying to escape the feeling, just breathing in the smell of warm air and gasoline, trying to conjure up memories of my long passed Beba. I always feel closest to him out there, among his old tools, and where they used to keep a giant roll of thick paper from the paper mill. My brother and I were allowed to roll it out on the long driveway and scribble on it with strong smelling permanent markers that had the big fat tip to draw really thick lines.
But now, as I stood out there in the dark, the smooth concrete under my feet, bathing suits hanging over me on the line, I just couldn’t get to that place. That place that makes me feel like no matter how things change, some things remain the same.
I was stuck, in the middle.
On one of our last afternoons, we sat looking through the many photo albums Mema had put together over the years. I lingered on a picture of her with a friend on a cruise ship, going on one of her many long and exotic trips. There was a time when I was teenager that I loved to brag (and still do) that she’s the coolest grandmother you’ll ever meet. I still think she’s beautiful, stubborn as hell (and getting worse) and still has good advice to share, despite our generational differences. She still cares though, too much about what I weigh (if I get compliments she’s happy, if I don’t then, well, better luck next year if I get back to the kickboxing) – but that notion I’ve chalked up to the generational thing and the fact I can’t survive on half a turkey sandwich and coffee for lunch like she can. I’ve always admired her for being fabulous and strong and independent, not that she had much of a choice after Beba died 30 years ago. She had a nice boyfriend for while, in the late 80’s I think, a man from her church, but she had no interest in marrying him and good ol’ Bill moved on.
But again, here I was sitting next to her, watching the weather report with nothing new but more rain and looking at old photos feeling slighted, sad, and more than a little angry…This is MY special place. My haven. My Mema. And we were about to go home. This is where I come to balance out my crazy life and the junk that swirls around in my head. And this time, that’s not happening AT ALL. And I didn’t like it. Instead, I was seeing the reality of a place I love and a grandmother I love, showing the effects of time.
Mema is aging faster and she’s wrestling with curtains and table lamps and her anxiety is so thick it hangs around her like the Spanish moss on the trees around her house. Her friends are all dying before her, her best and last good friend has Alzheimer’s. She gets completely worked up over every ache and pain and is convinced, some days, that antibiotic cream causes panic attacks.
I am ridiculous. On the same day Mema turns 90 this month, I’ll turn 39. I should have faced this years ago. But the whole week suddenly felt like that ocean wave you don’t see coming… When you get distracted and glance back behind you at the beach for a moment too long…. and then,” BAM!” you’re knocked off your feet , flailing and sputtering, scraping your legs against the sharp shells on the bottom as you try to get your footing again.
I wanted to close my eyes and for just a little while ignore it all and be 14 again and lay out on the dock with my giant yellow Sony walkman and put on too little sunscreen and lay on my huge new Coppertone towel memorizing every word on the new Wham! album and fantasize about wowing my summer crush, the captain of the varsity basketball team, with my tan when I get home. And then I’d come up to the house late in the afternoon, take a long shower in the back bathroom (that would tick Mema off because I’d have gotten water all over the place) and sit down to dinner of homemade chicken casserole and butter beans and hear her familiar laugh as she sat, legs elegantly crossed, off in the corner chair or on the side couch telling stories and old jokes.
And I’m just so pissed off. I’m mad she’s no longer the grandmother that sends me postcards from Alaska and mows the lawn herself. The kind of grandmother that wears a show stopping dress at your wedding. I’m mad that she’s scared. And I’m mad that I am too. That’s she’s vulnerable and sad and that she’ll go days without wanting to get out of the house. That she’s fearful of handling things outside the tiny bubble that is now her life…getting her morning newspaper, putting her garbage out, going to the doctor for a blood pressure check, going to church, going to the Winn Dixie, having my aunt and uncle meet my parents halfway in Louisiana so they can take her to Texas for a visit because she won’t fly by herself anymore.
I’m mad at time. I’m mad that I’m getting older and my parents are getting older and this is how it works. And one day she won’t be here at all and then that whole part of my life will be gone. I am so bratty and so selfish. Like that same 14-year-old who slams doors and yells because she’s still not allowed to go on a date with a boy in his car.
It’s just not fair. But of course it is. It’s life.
And I should be absolutely and fully aware of the gift I have been given of having a 90-year old grandmother. Many of my close friends have sadly, dealt with the loss of their own parents at this point. I have no right to feel this way. I’m on borrowed time with Mema as it is. And my kids not only know her, they love and enjoy her and that’s more than I could have ever hoped for.
So as we sat around dinner at the local Po Folks restaurant on our last night, my mom and aunt and I quietly discussed the fact that next year, we just have to do it differently. Maybe we come down for a week but we take a few days and drive down to Disney with just the kids so it’s not so overwhelming for Mema. Or maybe we rent a house nearby. Or maybe she doesn’t feel up to it at all, and next year, we don’t even come. Maybe we meet her in Texas at my parents…or I fly down for the weekend. Who knows?
This trip did me a favor though. It has better prepared me for what I will have to face in the years to come. I have to focus on creating new memories of Mema, not trying to hold her accountable for the old. That photo album doesn’t have any more room for pictures. It’s time for a new one.
I was relieved to get on the plane home. I immersed myself in reading The Middle Place. And it helped. It helped me stand up out of that wave of memories and denial and fear that knocked me down when I wasn’t looking.
It helped me slowly take a walk back up the beach, back to reality. Back to being a grownup.
And straight out of the middle place.