You may not have realized it, but you have surrounded yourself with some of your best resources. I’m talking about FRIENDS. You chose them because they listen to you, validate you, support your ideas, may have common interests and, with honesty, will give you a heads up when you are getting off track.
One has only to look at our entertainment world to find examples of buddy pairs. Batman and Robin, Thelma and Louise, Lucy and Ethel, Bullwinkle and Rocky, Tom and Jerry, Bert and Ernie, Abbott and Costello are a few that come to mind. It works–bouncing ideas off each other, having an amigo for adventures or, simply, doing things together.
Many of us rely on our spouses to be our buddy. We know each other so well. But that package can come with some excess baggage, like making assumptions that fit us into boxes. “But, honey,” he said, “You don’t like to travel.” Or, “You know that’s not my thing!”
This pandemic has thrust us into new territory. Our tried and true routines are getting old, or disrupted completely. It’s time to buddy up.
I recently heard from a white friend who buddied up with a woman of color. She wanted to support Black Lives Matter, but participating in marches and protests was just not possible for this woman in her late seventies. So she contacted a woman of color, whom she knew in her community, and they are now communicating as buddies.
That’s what buddying up can do. It bridges gaps of understanding.
Then there’s the story of Mark, which left me teary eyed.
Mark is a precocious twelve-year-old who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair bound. He is nonverbal, but communicates via an iPad app that converts text to speech. The process is laborious for him; searching through page after page for a word, then the next word, until he has a sentence. Yet, he has declared that he will write a book someday. Mark was introduced to a buddy last week. She is a young woman in her early twenties, who is also nonverbal. She uses augmentative communication by directing her eyes and a joystick. Quite adept, she now gives speeches and is working on an advanced degree, with concrete plans for a book in the works.
Mark’s eyes lit up to see someone facing the same challenges he faces. Someone like him. Someone successful. After she shared her story with him, this was his response.
“From baby to child, to woman, she has made her mom and dad say, ‘Wow.’”
That’s what buddying up can do. It inspires.
My own stories strike a more common thread. Over the winter I made two new friends. In early March, we decided to walk together once a week at a local nature preserve. Covid-19 ended that idea before we even got started. We decided to buddy up by texting each other a gratitude list every day, naming three things we are grateful for. It’s working and has helped me to deal with my own pandemic anxiety. From what they have shared, it’s helping them too. We have expanded to comment about our daily doings and even frustrations that arise. I have nicknamed us the Three Musketeers.
That’s what buddying up can do. It forges and strengthens friendships.
Artistically, I have buddied up with another writer. We write to prompts, share feedback and whatever writing projects we are each working on. Of course, there are Zoom groups galore right now. They work great to keep you connected but, they lack the intimacy and individual feedback that having a buddy provides.That’s what buddying up does. It stirs the creative juices.Even a longstanding group of friends can benefit from buddying up. My spiritual circle has met once a month for thirty years. Through moving, deaths and illnesses, we have become a small group of seven people. Although we are like family to each other, like in families, we don’t always spend time with each member of the circle outside of our monthly meetings. Since March, we have buddied up. Each month, we set individual goals for spiritual growth and have a partner to check in with each week. Friendships are becoming deeper. It is now June and everyone loves the process.
That’s what buddying up does. It supports spiritual growth.
Some tips for buddying up:
Choose an area of common interest for you and your buddy.
Have a regular check-in time. Weekly works well, more if that suits you.
Be a great, not just a good, listener.
Ask how the other person wants to be supported. Avoid telling them what to do, rather, offer suggestions framed as “I have an idea, if you’d like to consider other options.”
Bring laughter into the collaboration. Lucy and Ethel were on to something.
Some things just go together. Peanut butter and jelly. Rum and Coke. Ham and eggs. Why not find a buddy to discover the wealth of resources they bring; to bridge gaps of understanding, to get inspired, to forge friendships, to stir the creative juices and to support your spiritual growth?
T. S. Eliot and I do not exist on the same literary plane. Still, we agree on one crucial fact. April is, indeed, the cruelest month.
I have written about April several times before. She is to me an annual provocation. Warm weather coaxes us out of our winter cocoons for one day only to reverse course and send us running back to our hearth sides for the next week. Undaunted, we throw our untoned, out-of-shape, northeastern bodies into the yard work on the next nice day and, once our lawns are raked and our annuals are (we think) safely in the ground, we are rewarded with sore muscles, torrential rains and a 95% chance of frost.
It’s like this every year. We are Charlie Brown and April is Lucy promising to hold the football while we run to kick it, only to yank it out from under us at the last second. You’d think we’d be onto this bitch by now.
But then, as if a normal pain-in-the-ass April wasn’t bad enough, April 2020 showed up to the party dressed as a pandemic.
To be fair, COVID-19 was lurking in these parts long before April—it’s just that no one wanted to hear it. By March people started listening, but we all assumed that this would be a fast-mover—like an Alberta Clipper, that speedy 3-6” snowstorm so common in the northeast—where we sit tight for a bit, then shovel out and hit the road. For our “COVID-clipper,” we’d close schools for a couple of weeks, work from home for a few days while our offices were being deep-cleaned (whatever that means), and do our dining take-out style for a while—no biggie. The virus that was ravaging Asia and Europe would be little more than a temporary inconvenience for us. After all, this is America.
Then, all of the optimism of March came crashing down on us. In April. Of course. When else?
For me, April 2020 marked the disappointing end of all the plans and projects that I had been working on for months. Weeks of practicing Schubert’s Mass in G, Mozart’s “Sancta Maria, Mater Dei” and Bach’s Cantata No. 4, all wildly difficult for me, were shot to hell when our chorale’s rehearsals were suspended in mid-March and our April concert was “postponed.” I use quotes here because, in March, “postponed” meant that this little Covidian nuisance would be dealt with like any flu outbreak and we would be rockin’ the Bach again in no time. But by April, even the thought of eighty of us standing shoulder-to-shoulder on risers and spewing potentially infected droplets all over each other was irrational, unthinkable, absurd. Maybe next year.
And then there was our vacation set for the end of March and the beginning of April—a house rental in Florida followed by a visit with our kids in South Carolina. Since we were driving, our plans were flexible and we were still going—right up until we weren’t. On Friday, we were packing. On Saturday, we were wondering if we should “postpone.” By Sunday we were negotiating a new plan with the owners of the rental house, but still planning the drive to South Carolina. By Wednesday, the day we were to leave, COVID numbers were up, businesses were closing and the trip was off. Since this was still March, we naively thought that we’d just leave a week or two later. But then it was April and we all know what that means.
March’s “Postponed” became April’s “What Were We Thinking?”
But April wasn’t through with me yet. Way back in November, I agreed to give an April talk about Charlotte Perkins Gilman at a nearby library. At the time, I actually knew very little about her—just that she was local, she was a turn-of the-20th-century suffragist and she was the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story that became a rallying cry for the Women’s Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. That’s all I had, but I love to nose around in other people’s lives, so how hard a research job could it be?
As it turned out, pretty hard. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, from what I can tell, never had an unexpressed thought. While we know her today for just one short story, she actually wrote thousands and thousands of pages—novels, treatises, poems, lectures, letters, stories. And from November until March, I plowed through a ton of them, trying to understand why more of her work wasn’t in demand today. Could it have been her xenophobia? Her racist tendencies perhaps? Or could it have something to do with her advocacy of eugenics? Pretty juicy stuff. What would the library’s audience think of all this?
After all that work, I never got the chance to find out. Why? April.
And, finally, my beloved Little Town Writers Guild Spring Workshops, despite all my preparation and highest hopes, were pared back and conducted through email instead of in person. It got the job done (sort of), but it was no substitute for us tucking ourselves in around the table at the library, writing, sharing, laughing, eating cookies and enjoying each other’s company.
You know what, April? You suck.
In March, we innocently believed that all of our activities would be possible any minute now if we just sat tight. COVID was a minor setback, a bump in the road, a nuisance, an annoyance. But what April 2020 did to us was worse than anything we could have imagined. She surprised us not with her usual, survivable slap in the face, but with a life-altering roundhouse kick to the head. She brought upheaval to our daily lives. She brought isolation and illness. She brought death. And she opened our eyes to the most frightening thing of all—certainty of the utter uncertainty that stretched out ahead.
Naively, I look forward to April every year. I meet her with high hopes of more daylight, less snow, green stuff, sunshine that means something. Almost always, like Lucy, she throws me down just when I start to trust her. But then I get up and April and I hobble on together (because, really, what choice do we have) taking two steps forward and one step back, while I set my sites on May.
But this year, with inexplicable brutality, April brought more than just disappointment, more than just cancelations, more than just work wasted. She handed to each of us the undeniable and terrifying realization that we share the planet with pestilence (yes, even in America), that at least for now we are defenseless against it, and that the way we live our lives may be forever changed because of it.
She paraded our weaknesses, proved our vulnerability, demonstrated our mortality.
She really gave it to us good.
So now it’s almost summer. In March we were sure that everything would be “normal” by now. And while some businesses have reopened (with plexiglass spit shields, floor tape markings at six-foot intervals, mask requirements and other COVID modifications in place), schools, theaters and many office buildings are still closed. People continue to work from home if they can. Graduations have been reimagined as have birthday parties, weddings, funerals and church services. The jury is still out as to what public school will look like in the fall.
It took us most of May to get over the shock of April and find ways to cope. Now, in June, resigned to the new reality, we are adapting and moving forward as best we can. We don’t like it, but we are doing it.
We can’t blame April for the COVID-19 virus. It was here long before she was. But she was the one who ripped off the blinders, ready or not, and burned our retinas with the awful truth. I swear to God she doesn’t care who she hurts. She is the cruelest month that ever was.
The long, pale green Naugahyde sofa sat in the family room of our home on Sharon Lane. There it stayed until the night before the house was sold.
This brand-new behemoth was unusual in our family of four kids and two parents. Most of our furniture were antiques.
Through the growing-up years I bemoaned the fact that our furniture didn’t match. Classmates of mine at St. John Grammar School had matching sofa, chairs and end tables. In other words, predictable and normal.
The first clues that my home was quite beautiful came as my friends visited. “Wow,” they said as they came through the kitchen and examined the sunken living room seen through the dining room’s circular table settings. If a fire was burning in the old-brick fireplace and the Saturday cleaning had been done by me, the effect inspired either, “Gosh, you’re rich,” or a reverent silence of the 11-year-old kid visiting.
Standing in the kitchen doorway the polished round dining table held a fruit or flower bowl. At dinner time placemats were set around with plenty of room for guests.
Our living room dropped down a step. Its length was heightened by the fireplace built by my grandfather, Ed Coon. On either side were bookshelves filled with a hodge-podge of reputable and disreputable volumes.
One of the latter I used for a Latin II project as a sophomore at Sacred Heart High School. The paper was returned to me by Mr. Rice. He noted that my reference book was banned by the Catholic Church. Indeed, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE made the list of forbidden reads for a practicing Catholic. No, I didn’t get excommunicated, but I was embarrassed.
The year I became fourteen we added on to our home. A family room with a fireplace, bathroom, hallway and two-car garage.
Grampa built this fireplace even though he had long since retired from masonry. He laid out the bricks for the family room and a fireplace in the basement.
In 1959 The Rubber Company in Naugatuck produced a product touted as being better than leather for covering furniture. Well, discussion completed over this, Mom went shopping–in Naugatuck.
Soon we possessed an extra-long sofa bed couch, covered in the very desirable Naugahyde covering, etched with a raised design, and green–sage green. The shade was used in colonial style homes; it was also a favorite color of my father’s.
From that time on, the green sofa served as a back- drop for most activities we engaged in. After all, when something spilled, we wiped it off, unlike most upholstered furniture. This was much better than plastic. Stylized, and practical, appealed to our mother.
Graduations, birthdays, rainy Memorial Days, were now held in the new addition sporting the green Naugahyde sofa serving as back drop. Sturdy, immovable, and wipe cleanable; no matter how many little (or big) kids had made sticky messes on its surfaces.
Teen-age necking and “rocking around the clock” were now happening on the watch of the green Naugahyde sofa. ‘Course that was probably me at sixteen years of age.
Sisters Alison and Kathleen had parties for their girlfriends aged ten or so.
The life of our family seemed to revolve around the family room, fireplace, and the green Naugahyde sofa. My mother relaxed; most of her antiques were elsewhere in the house. She did not worry over the fate of the sofa. It kept its place, and demeanor, no matter how many kids piled on it, or spilled food or drink on its sage green countenance.
Another of its attributes welcomed overnight guests. If weather turned to snow and ice and roads were tough to navigate, friends stayed over on the sofa-bed.
Not until a few years later, as a constantly vomiting pregnant daughter, did I sleep on the huge sofa- turned-bed. As cutting edge it as was purported to be, with its simple classic lines, and touted as the latest innovation of the Rubber Co., it was the devil to sleep on. The company’s work hadn’t looked at the innards of its black knife-like springs or the too thin mattress.
I stayed at my parents’ home for three months then, and again four years later in the first trimester of the pregnancy with my son, as I was too sick to stay in our apartment. The family room did not have central heat, only the fireplace. Chilly, and quite uncomfortable as the bed gave rude jabs on my increasingly skeletal body. Fifty pounds came off my frame in three months of pregnancy, not fun.
Gestations and births over and now time for more parties. Grandchildren of my parents had baptisms, birthdays, assorted get-togethers held in the family room, with the ever-present green Naugahyde sofa holding it all together.
Years went on with occasional rained-out picnics held in the family room, or a holiday overflow of guests. Sometimes I simply wanted a quiet place to sit and listen to “Tom Dooley” or Gale Garnett singing of her “sunshine” while my gaze was on mesmerizing flame in the stone and brick raised fireplace.
An especially poignant day was September 2, 1966, the day we memorialized my cousin Douglas; he died aboard ship in the south China sea. Later that same day, being Cousin Gretta’s 8th birthday, we quietly celebrated her young self. She was the youngest of Aunt Peg’s brood of five–the only girl. Her parents were reeling on that hot, humid, and sorrowful day. We put together a little party. Family surrounded our little strawberry blonde girl with attention, cake, and presents for her. Lower Sharon Lane, and the green Naugahyde sofa, along with family loving her, gave Gretta, and all of us, a lovely closure to that wrenching day.
A few days before this, on the day that Douglas died, I sought relief from the grief on the green Naugahyde sofa. My youngest sister, my mother, Aunt Peg and I had just learned of the tragedy when we came back from a long day in New York City. Picking up the baby and making our way to Sharon Lane we came into a home full of quiet sadness. My parents latched onto “the Baby” in their room. Where my husband went I have no idea. Kathleen and I sat on the green Naugahyde sofa, deriving no comfort from the stiff couch, only from each other’s attempts to cry away the sorrow raining down our cheeks.
Through the years, the sofa held laundry piles from the nearby clothes dryer in the bathroom. My mother was not a housekeeping type at any time that I knew her. When she began working at Timex in her fifties this became more pronounced. We kids were gone but she had Grampa and Dad home all day. Neither of them in good health but they gathered enough strength to argue ‘til the cows or Mom came home, but not to do any keeping of the house. One day Mom asked me to go up and see that they each ate something for breakfast.
Found my very private Dad walking around in boxer shorts and a t-shirt looking woebegone and full of general anxiety. I had seen my father and his extreme anxieties many times, but never had I seen him in such a state of undress.
Once my shock wore down, I looked for Grampa. Where the heck was he? In his room? No, I moved all the blankets on his bed. He was not on a chair or sofa in the living room. I even searched upstairs in the large bedroom space there. No, and no.
In years past he would walk the three miles into town. At this point his legs couldn’t carry him. His heart rate had slowed considerably, and he refused to get a pacemaker.
Searching outside and in the garage, I could not locate him. Shouting his name could not help, he was stone deaf since I knew him. Going outside was a stretch since it was late in the fall and Grampa did not like being cold.
On my path back from the outside, passing through the family room, the laundry pile on the green Naugahyde sofa seemed to move.
Apparently, Grampa had gotten up earlier and gone into the kitchen. Wearing his year-round long underwear, he looked for his breakfast. Grampa then ambled into the family room. He laid down on the mountain of clean laundry and nestled in for warmth.
Having witnessed both father and grandfather in their bare necessities, I made breakfast, having decided that true adulthood had arrived for me. Grampa ate his gratefully, while Dad refused all but coffee.
Grampa died in that November of ’76. Dad lasted until early in ’79.
Mom carried on with work and trying to keep her home. So much time, skill, and care had gone into the house on Sharon Lane, she was wont to leave.
When she passed away in 1987, the four of us kids put the house on the market. Either none of us wanted it, or else couldn’t afford it. I was barely keeping a much smaller home on Edward Avenue while raising my two children. Working for the state of Connecticut, going after degrees; I worked as much overtime as possible.
Finally, the house sold. We three girls spent lots of time splitting up the contents. But the night before the signing and move-in came, we four frantically went through what was left. The house was to be broom-clean!
Mom didn’t throw things away. Consequently, Nanny and Grampa’s belongings were also stored everywhere. Have I mentioned the house had lots of storage area? Finally, we looked around and were pleased with the emptiness.
Oh, God, there it sat. Impervious to our chagrin, the green Naugahyde sofa held itself regally, and large. None of us wanted it; it was huge and looking every bit its age and use. Through hard wear, dirt had built up again. As we viewed the green elephant in the room, it just looked disreputable.
George opined that “the trash pick-up won’t take it now. What the heck do we do with it?” Various people had been asked if they want it already, no takers.
George left to get some equipment, a bucket loader. He drove it down to the “swamp,” a wetland on the property, and dug down to China. Coming back up, we got the sofa out of the family room. He lifted it and carried it to its new station. Down in the “swamp” he lifted the green Naugahyde sofa in and covered it well.
But was this the right way to send off a member of one’s family? Of course, that feeling was in hindsight.
Brian, son of my cousin Marty is the latest owner of the property.
Currently, he, like my father George, runs a tree service business from the Lane. Brian’s business trucks find their way to the “swamp” on a regular basis. Someday, someone may have the notion to dig a little here or there. Who knows?
“You girls settle down in there,” Daddy bellows at us from the living room, just across the hall from our bedroom. We have the door closed but despite trying hard to whisper, it’s hard to fend off the rats and mice without shrieking or giggling. There’s not real rats. Or mice. See, what we do is sneak up on someone and get in a vicious pinch with our fingernails and hiss, “Rats bite!”
Then the other kid can strike back and yell, “Mice bite!” But until they do the rat can just keep going sneaking in bites. Sort of like being “It” in tag. The pinches hurt like hell. If you’re good at it you can actually take a tiny “bite” out of the other kid, just like a real mouse. Or rat. Whoever starts the game is Rats and the other kid has to be Mice. So far, I got Rosie good twice and she still hasn’t bitten me once.
The problem is Rosie always screams and sometimes even whines, “You’re not fair!”
It’s all in how you look at it. True, I am almost five years older with longer arms. But she’s wicked fast and it’s hard to get hold of her. Plus her strategy stinks. She always pinches back instantly. She doesn’t get it that I will be on guard right after I attack. She needs to wait and try to be sneaky instead of launching herself on top of me and playing octopus—arms and legs everywhere.
You only get one chance to strike back before the turn to bite switches to the other kid.
She gives protest another tack. “You have to give me another try Brigid. I’m littler.”
She’s right. I am bigger and stronger. But mostly I win because I distract her, or even pretend like I’ve quit. She’s a real sucker for me pretending to be asleep. I sneak in another pinch.
“Rats bite,” I smile.
“Arrgh! I’m Mighty Mouse,” she yells and comes flying at me over the covers.
“Shhh!” I hiss. “Daddy’s right out there.”
But once Rosie’s wound up she’s hard to quiet.
“I’m warning you girls. I want you quiet in there! One more peep and I’m taking my belt off.”
Daddy’s starting to sound mad but we both know he never hits us girls. Mostly he just yells. That’s scary enough ‘cuz he’ll get right in your face and roar. I swear he’d out roar a lion if they were in a face off. I’d put my money on him even against a grizzly bear. Once he gets going with his belt he’ll smack you to death unless someone pulls him off. But he really just never hits us girls. So we feel sort of safe, like we’re off limits somehow.
Rosie and I look at each other and burst out laughing. Which leads to tickling each other and pretty soon we’re rolling around the bed laughing and shrieking and trying to pinch each other.
“That’s it! I’ve had it!” Daddy yells. Rosie and I look at each other. Something in his tone tells us he’s serious.
“Quick Rosie, hide!” I whisper.
She goes to hide under the covers but I spy the space between the wall and the bed. It’s too small for me but perfect for Rosie. She’s only six and tiny.
“Rosie! Down here, hurry!”
She dives into the crack and I roll over to the middle of the bed. I cover over two pillows with the blankets. It looks like Rosie under the covers. Then I pretend to be a sleepyhead, nestled on my pillow, just as the bedroom door flies open. Dad is silhouetted by the hall light, belt in hand. Something about the way he lurks there makes my mind flash to the Trolls in fairy tales. He’s not big but he’s 5 feet 7 inches of coiled nerves and bulging muscles. I can’t see his face. If I could catch his eye I could probably get him to calm down. We talk with our eyes a lot in this family. I’m pretty good at it with Daddy but it’s no go with Mom.
To my shock I see Daddy raise his arm. His belt is swinging through the air before he’s through the door. Two quick side sliding steps and he’s at the bed and the belt comes slapping down right on the bump of my butt under the covers. It’s startling for sure. It’s the first time Daddy’s ever hit me. But it doesn’t really hurt because the belt mostly catches me on my hip which is covered in blankets. Most of the belt lands on “pillow Rosie.” If you ask me he was aiming for her in the first place.
His second swing is definitely meant for her but when it lands he’s momentarily stopped in his tracks.
“Hummpf!” he grunts. He’s on to our trick. He’s leaning right over me and pulling the covers down to reveal the pillows. Now his face is turning practically purple. Boy is he hopping mad. He’s gonna kill us for sure. Quick as a snake his hand shoots over the covers and down between the bed and the wall. He’s roaring as he hauls Rosie up onto the bed.
“How dare you try to hide from your father!” He’s yelling and Rosie’s crying.
“Brigid made me do it,” Rosie pleads but Daddy’s not hearing a word of it.
The belt is singing over and over—whoosh…smack, whoosh…smack. Rosie’s crying and I’m pleading:
“Daddy, stop. We’ll be good!”
But the belt keeps flying over me and hitting Rosie over and over. She’s really getting a walloping. Me, I’m just getting an up close view of Daddy’s armpit. It’s funny how my mind just wanders away when this kinda stuff happens. I’m lost in the smell of Tussy anti-perspirant, and sweat and All laundry detergent.
Rosie kicks me and yells, “Brigid, help!”
I snap back. Dad’s still hitting but his face is just frozen in a mask of rage. Suddenly I understand why Anger is one of the seven deadly sins. Rosie needs me and I don’t know what to do. Instinctively I sit bolt upright. This blocks Daddy’s swing and I grab his arm and hang onto it.
“We’ll be good.”
Rosie and I blurt this out together. And amazingly he stops dead in his tracks. For a second he looks confused, staring at his two girls, both sobbing and pleading.
“When I say settle down, I mean it,” he mutters but there’s not much conviction. “Now go to sleep.”
His voice sounds almost like an apology. He turns and stalks out, slamming the door behind him. Rosie and I fall into each other’s arms. She’s crying and hiccupping softly. I’m whispering apologies and trying to make up. She’s incensed that Daddy didn’t beat me when I was the one who made her hide in the crack. I can’t explain why it went down like that. But we both know that I’m Daddy’s favorite. None of us kids talk about it but we all agree that Declan is Daddy’s whipping boy and Mom’s jewel. For me it’s the opposite. Mom does her best to hide it but she’s just not fond of me. She coddles Rosie. Brendan is like the Holy Ghost. He’s there but nobody notices him. Certainly he’s not one to count on when the chips are down. Mainly because he’s slipped out of sight.
Rosie really holds her beating against me but I remind her that even though we’re 1 and 0 on beatings from Daddy, when it comes to beatings from Mom Rosie is 0 and I’m about 1000.
We settle down and finally I start to drift off. I’m just in that gauzy, floaty space, sinking down when a sharp pain in my butt startles me awake.
“Mice bite!” Rosie squeaks. Then she turns butt to butt, closes her eyes and sails into sleep.
Pop Quiz. Intro to Geology Lab. September 1976. Professor Noel Potter silently handed out a blank map of the United States to each student sitting around square lab tables. All of the states were individually outlined, the forms of Alaska and Hawaii positioned close to California’s coast. “This is my start of the semester gift to you,” Professor Potter circled us, “Each of you should get 100. Fill in the name of each state. You have fifteen minutes. Start now.”
After the time was up and we’d graded each other’s papers, only one of us had a perfect score. Me. I turned beet red as I was singled out. “I… I always liked geography,” I stuttered. That was an out and out lie. Yes, I did love completing the geography workbooks when in grade school, but the reason I knew the name and position of each state was all because of a puzzle.
I still think about that quiz and the unexpected benefit of that U.S.A. puzzle. And now, here in Winter 2020 as I finish up a particularly challenging bird puzzle from my grandsons and start on a new one, I think of other puzzles I have made over my lifetime. And I realize, for me, puzzle making has always been much more than putting together interesting pictures; piecing together puzzles has positively impacted my life.
Growing up, my family’s four puzzles were stored on the top shelf in the front door closet of our western Connecticut home. The puzzle I first worked on I don’t remember doing. My teeth marks in the fruit pieces were proof I had played with this puzzle a number of times. It was good for practicing medium motor skills and shape recognition, holding and turning the large pieces, a bunch of grapes, banana, orange and pear, and fitting them into a blue wooden frame. I do wonder if I was fed enough back then because Mom deemed it too chewed on for my younger sister to play with.
The next puzzle that I tackled, from fourth grade into high school, was the layout of the United States. One had to first piece together the “frame,” the outline of the continental U.S. that had holes in it for Alaska and Hawaii which, by the way, were dangerously close to the West Coast. Each state was a single piece except for two states each sharing one piece, Maryland/Delaware and Connecticut/Rhode Island. I made this puzzle over and over, until, had I tried, I could have named and positioned the states blindfolded.
During memorable periods of childhood illnesses, I was quarantined in the bedroom I shared with my sister, Rebecca. Rebecca would be moved out to the living room, even sleeping out there on the couch. I thought this was pretty unfair because our only T.V. was in the living room. Shouldn’t the sick child get to watch T.V. to pass the time? To keep me amused during my exile periods, Mom pulled out the “puzzle board.” This four-foot square, fake wood panel had a flat back. This surface was perfect for doing a puzzle in bed. I only remember ever working on one puzzle when I was sick, that of a 500-piece modern art painting. Why my parents, lovers of the Old Masters, had this particular puzzle, I will never know. But because of the number of distorted shapes and figures in its picture, every time I worked on it, it felt like I was putting it together for the first time. Or maybe that was because I was usually in a feverish state each time it was made. It was the only modern art I encountered as a child and it fascinated me. As modern art still does. Years later after this puzzle was long gone, I remembered enough of the picture to search “modern art masterpieces” on the Internet and was amazed I was able to locate a picture of the painting: Joan Miró’s Le Carnaval d’Arlequin:
The fourth puzzle in the front closet was the mother of all puzzles, a 1,500-piece picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I started this puzzle, each time with renewed determination that I would finally complete the darn thing. Mom would help me set up the card table in the living room and the puzzle board was laid over its slightly cushioned top so there would be a designated, undisturbed place in our house for putting together this monstrosity. I never had a problem piecing together the border. And a few times I even finished Jesus and the twelve disciples. But after that much was done, my interest dropped drastically. So, by the time Fritzi and Ollie, our two cats, discovered the card table was a nice new place to nap, I welcomed their messing up the pieced sections. Again and again the unfinished puzzle was broken apart, boxed and put back on the shelf.
The Last Supper was finally conquered during one of the summers my family rented a furnished basement apartment in Portland, Connecticut. Not many people “commuted” in those years; we summered in Portland so Dad could take classes across the Connecticut River at Wesleyan University. The leased space consisted of three rooms, a kitchen at one end, living room/bedroom in the middle where Rebecca and I slept and then a rough bedroom space for my parents with the bathroom stall/shower. Dad demanded absolute quiet when studying in my parents’ bedroom space. This was easy to do when it was not raining because of the property’s large backyard. But one particularly wet summer, Mom wisely decided to bring The Last Supper puzzle to Portland. On days when it was too wet to go outside and Rebecca and I were too noisy playing on the shuffleboard outlay in the tiled floor in our bedroom, Mom would separate us. I always ended up in the kitchen, because, being the oldest, I should have known better.
Mom set up the removable cardboard insert from her large suitcase on the kitchen table. While she prepared supper or worked on laundry (the washing machine was next to the kitchen sink), I was tasked with working on that puzzle. Had there been “time out” in those days, I think initially I would have preferred that. But standing on the painted cement floor for long periods of time made Mom’s legs ache so she took brief breaks sitting at the table next to me. Mom couldn’t resist helping me as she rested. She would focus on one spot and try to find the pieces that filled that area, showing me how to better factor in colors, patterns and the shapes when hunting for the right pieces. It was great fun working with Mom. We had friendly competitions of “Who can find this piece?” Soon more of the puzzle was put together than had been in past attempts to make it. Eventually, I started taking breaks from the puzzle to help Mom with what she needed to get done so she’d have more time to work with me.
Before our stay in Portland was over that summer, Mom and I finished The Last Supper. I remember us both doing a little dance in the kitchen. “I have to admit,” Mom told me, “that puzzle was quite a challenge.” It did not return home with us; I think Mom purposefully left it on the shelf of games our landlords had set up in the room Rebecca and I shared. But after all the frustrating misstarts over the years and then finally teaming up with Mom to finish it, I now have just good memories of The Last Supper. It was a driving force in teaching me that accepting help can be a really good thing and that working on a difficult endeavor with someone can make all the difference.
Other than helping my kids with puzzles when they were young, I made no room in my adult life for jigsaw puzzles. I did think about them now and then, and even requested an Andrew Wyeth puzzle one Christmas. But the Wyeth gift ended up getting donated to Goodwill before it was ever made. My husband Jake, never a puzzle maker himself, insisted there was not one place in our home where a puzzle could be worked on undisturbed and besides, there were too many “constructive things to do” around the house instead of piecing a puzzle.
Puzzle making seeped back into my life the beginning of Winter 2016. I was in a tumultuous emotional state. Work was consuming me. One late December day while at the library, I noticed there were quite a few jigsaw puzzles available for borrowing. I looked at the selections of 300, 500, 1,000 and even one 1,500-piece puzzle (no, NOT The Last Supper) one could “take out” just like a book. New Year’s resolutions were looming; the biggest one I had decided on was to tackle my binging. My work days consisted of two plus hours of commuting each way and a high stress job environment. I arrived home at 7 p.m. exhausted and would park myself in front of the television mindlessly watching game shows and romantic movies until it was time to crawl into bed. I think there must be subliminal messages in commercials because even after eating supper in front of the T.V., I still felt the urge to snack until bedtime. I desperately needed a distraction. Something entertaining enough to break what I considered had become an alarming “addiction” of sorts. So, during that library trip, I took out a puzzle with a folk art rural 1880’s scene.
What a change that puzzle started for me. During the T.V. watching marathons, rather than heading to the kitchen to forage for snacks, I found myself getting up during the commercials and putting a few pieces of the puzzle together. Living alone I could do my puzzle making on a white poster board on my large dining room table. On weekends, when I had an overwhelming amount to get done, I took breaks from cooking, cleaning and paperwork by setting the timer for 5 or 10 minutes for puzzle piecing. These puzzle breaks brought on such a change in attitude and I found I was getting more done around the house. I was onto something. The remainder of that winter I borrowed puzzle after puzzle from the library.
When warm weather arrived, I replaced the T.V. watching with yardwork. Since I ate dinner later, I held my snacking in check. My interest in puzzle making ebbed, but I didn’t forget about it. I discovered that on the weekends one can find really great puzzles at tag sales and even book sales. So, I started purchasing used puzzles for the following winter, trying not to spend more than a dollar for each. I don’t have a front door closet so I designated the top shelf of a furniture unit in my living room as the puzzle shelf. And when there happened to be a run of rainy days where I couldn’t get out to work in the garden, I put the puzzle strategy in place.
In looking back at the puzzles in my life, I realize puzzle-making for me provided more than just an amusement. It worked on early motor skills, kept me occupied and in good spirits while ill, taught me not to give up, showed how beneficial teamwork is and became an effective non-food stress reliever. And for a brief moment, in my Intro to Geology Lab, made me a star.
And so, now that I am finished writing this tribute to the puzzles I have known, I am going to take a break. I’ll set the timer for ten minutes and work on the latest puzzle, a study of donuts. Who knows, maybe someday being able to name all of the varieties will come in handy!
Twists and turns of life take us here, there and everywhere as we try to figure out where we’re going. I found this much easier when I was a child and trusted that Mom and Dad knew where I was going.
Not that we went very many places. One constant, though, was spending Easter week at the Jersey shore. Long Beach Island was worlds away from our New York City home on Staten Island. We’d pile in the car—Mom, Dad, three kids, dog, and suitcases filled with a week of clothes for all weather and our Sunday-best outfits for church, including Easter bonnets.
Once we all squished into the car, we’d let Mother run back to check she’d turned off the stove and the iron and then we were off!
Those two-hour car rides were happy family time. Who spies the stone dinosaur on Route 9? Who sees the Lakewood Diner? —and no, we’re not stopping. When we turned onto mirage road where it always looked like there was a magical disappearing puddle, we knew we were almost there. Heading over the Causeway we leaned forward and caught a glimpse of the ocean on the other side of the island. With the car window rolled down, the smell of salt air enveloped us like a warm beach towel. We swung around the Ship Bottom circle with the Clam Shack in the center. I suppose now it is a Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel with no more fresh clams to buy.
But that is now, this was then…1960-then. Two miles north to go, with dune and surf on the right, bungalows and bay on the left. Past the Surf City 5 & 10 where we spent rainy days looking at old lady hair nets or checking out lipsticks—hot pink, nude pink, fleshy pink, pink-pink. Oh, to find a pink lipstick that would attract a surfer from the Ron Jon Surf Shop down the street.
Beyond all that to a simple enclave of Cape-Cod bungalows where our car turned left. One block straight to the bay where Uncle Dave’s sign in a wooden framed ranch entrance gate was swinging in the breeze—Wonderland. His gift to Aunt Alice was an Alice-in-Wonderland house right on Barnegat Bay. And our lucky family got to use it for a week each April.
When we piled out of the car, the sand, the view, the salt air, the reeds, the dock, the seagulls, the mussel bank pierced our senses and wrapped us together as the family we never could seem to be in New York.
It was our escape from the reality of bickering, nagging, homework, chores, jealousies, and the petty ways family splinters apart.
The shore cleansed all that as we walked the desolate beach—the only time I saw Dad and Mom hold hands; ate Mom’s clam chowder, hung strings off the dock and caught crabs which we dropped in a big bucket to watch them claw over each other until supper when we watched those same crabs try to claw their way out of a pot of boiling water.
Days we ran along the sand dunes and visited the tall stately Barnegat lighthouse sentry at the end of the island. Or went to the historic Lucy Evelyn schooner at the other end of the island where we clamored over the deck and pretended to be pirates heaving-ho before going to the gift shop below to buy a dried seahorse to put on the dresser with the rolled pink shell that roared of ocean when held to the ear.
The houses around us were boarded and vacant during those cold April vacations. The businesses along the main road were mostly closed. The island was our special place—and we weren’t about to let people in on the secret of what they were missing.
Each day there was something new to explore…a jump onto the squishy mussel bank released a fishy mollusk smell that permeated our hair blowing in the wind. Hide and seek in the reeds brought us deep into a world hidden from parents. Eddies of water pooled in interconnected rivers as the wind blew the reeds back and forth in unison, swaying to the rhythm of the wind while my sisters and I carved a path through the reedy stalks, stopping only to bury a dollar bill to see if we would find it next year half-disintegrated in the wet sand. We played
nok-hockey by the fire at night, and poker with real chips in the attic with the howling wind and pounding rain hitting the roof as the angry white caps on the bay reared to the top of the bulkhead.
Rain or shine, calm or wind, didn’t matter. The surf and the sand swirled in our dreams and with each whirl of the kaleidoscope taught us something new about shore life.
We never got to know the Jersey shore of summer—but I’m sure it isn’t as nice as it is in April. And try as we might, playing poker at home just wasn’t the same as it was at the Jersey shore!
West Texas they tell me is a place where time stands still. I guess that’s why a tired rough necker like me has too much of the stuff on hand. So much that all kind of things drift into my head as easy as sagebrush blows across I-10. Like the thing that got the federal authorities out here in the cold months of 2003 after I wrote the President. Beau, my big brother and the only atheist I know that goes to Sunday services at First Baptist, El Paso (because it makes him feel superior), says my daily comfort with God’s holy book didn’t help neither.
How’d it start? I was taking comfort with the King James Bible and six apostles of Saint Lone Star, when I hear my boy screaming like a little girl. He’s only ten and his voice is a ways off from changing. He yells, “Poppa there’s a rattler out by the well shed.” Well that girlie yell brings me out of deep meditation I was doing on Moses, the old thunder mouth played in the movies by the Moses of the NRA, Charlton Heston. My poor boy’s out there chasing boredom with a short stick, cleaning his muddy boots and shaking God’s West Texas grit from his tired blue jeans when he spots the rattler.
I yell back, “Where’d you expect him to be? Someplace he don’t like?” Rattlers being cold blooded like sittin’ in a cool place near a warm place so they can modulate to a nice even temperature.
“Can I kill him pa?” That’s what I like, a toe headed ten-year-old that don’t think he needs his Daddy’s help killing things.
“Grab a stick,” I say. “A long one with heft to it, but don’t get too close cause you can’t tell whether that rattler is going to identify your intentions before you get to bash his head.” The boy’s skinny as a rattler himself so he better arm himself good.
I can see the sun’s pretty high by the short shadow from the well shed. Noon, I figure, has just about come and gone, so I might as well get up if I can break the seal between my sweaty arse and these vinyl sofa cushions. The damn cushion follows me halfway out the door before it falls off and I kick it back toward the couch.
Did I tell you I grabbed my 30-30 on the way out and slipped a couple of cartridges in the chamber? Good thinking it turned out, ‘cause I see my boy and the snake in a standoff and it isn’t clear who’s getting the best of who. He’s only ten and the snake’s maybe twenty, I figure, with a lot more life experience in his rattle than my boy has in his whole body. So I get a little scared when the snake rises up to my boy’s eye level and hisses the words: “Ready or not, son, here I come.”
Then I say, “Excuse me son, can you not move a hair until after you hear the gun?” Good boy that he is, he’s stark still when I put a slug through the neck of that big old thing. Must have been seven feet long with a head like a hatchet. The snake that is: not my boy.
Damn snake didn’t die though. He kept writhing and hissing, coiling and striking out. Two more slugs slowed him up a bit more before Glennis, my second and current wife, as well as the boy’s mother, comes out of the house carrying the splitting hatchet. With a couple of whacks that hatchet separates the old rattle snake’s body from his head. Even then, the snake’s head is still going and the body is whipping around like it’s crazy.
Next thing we throw the rattler’s body in the creek behind the house. This time of the year there’s water in the creek so we’re happy when the snake sinks out of sight. Glennis figures we baptized a serpent, which is something unusual considering God’s troubling relationships with that particular class of critter. Then she says, “God bless,” as she watches his ripples spread out and die to nothing. I pour in half a Lone Star to consecrate the event.
Being the kind of fool who expects God to always be teaching lessons, I figure the snake is a New Testament style messenger but I’m damned if I can figure out what he was trying to say unless it’s something like, “Even if you cut my head off I’m still going to give you trouble, so best let me be.” Gloating Glennis figures maybe I’m right about that, while she reminds me that it was her that struck the final blow. She’s real good with snakes. Been known to carry one around in her purse for entertainment. The night we met she was sitting at the end of the bar at Sally’s, twisting a long neck Lone Star in her pretty fingers. In those days she had yellow hair tied up with a ribbon on top her head. God bless me, she had pretty hair and I liked the way a few stray strands lay like feathers on her neck. That night at Sally’s, when the band was playing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” I leaned in to sniff her hair and damn that ribbon, which was nothing but a green snake, hissed at me, nearly knocking me off the bar stool. Of course it sent her friends into a howl, laughing, screaming and slapping the bar. They’d seen her pull that one once or twice before on stray cowboys. They knew what was coming all along.
Dinner conversation won’t be much good for a month or so until she figures we don’t need more reminding of her great deed. I put up with it because she sets a nice table. Now that her looks are gone, I do take pleasure in her other attributes.
A couple days later on February first we hear about the space shuttle exploding over West Texas. They say there’s some pieces of the machine and bits of flesh showing up all over our neck of the woods. I can imagine it all laying in the dust, hanging from the saguaros and getting et by rodents and horny toads. Some of it I figure must have dropped on Crawford, but still Mr. President doesn’t see what I see: that this disaster is a clear-as-day a message from God. Flesh and blood falling from the sky tells me God’s upset about Dubya’s plans for Iraq. “Decapitation,” removing Saddam’s head from the Iraqi serpent nation is what Dubya’s calling what he’s going to do. “Decapitation,” just like what Glennis done to the old rattler in our dusty yard. Which causes me to write Dubya a letter explaining everything: the New Testament style parable of the snake whose head got divorced from his body, the Old Testament message in junk and blood falling from the sky, and how God’s trying to get him to stay out Iraq. Maybe if I didn’t write “Message from God” on the envelope, I never would have been visited by six fellas dressed like pall bearers who said they was Secret Service. Nothing more to tell though. I figure I convinced the S.S. boys that God is still sending messages, and with that they let me be. Regarding the letter, I say Dubya didn’t read it. Maybe nobody did because by March third we were killing folks and being killed in Baghdad.
I fully expected Dubya to be more receptive, seeing how we got similar stories. Both of us prodigal sons who squandered God’s treasures looking for the gold we figured life owed us. When Jack Daniels was our guide, we didn’t find nothing: just a couple of ignorant fools looking at ourselves in dirty restroom mirrors. Tough as we were, it still took tiny little ladies, mine a schoolteacher, to get a loop around our ankles and yank our heads out of our butts. One difference between Dubya and me, maybe. I remember where I’ve been.
Glennis tells me to forget about Iraq. God’s got His plan. Yes. He do, I admit, but He don’t need us interfering with it all the time.
My brother skipped the annual “Blessing of the Ammo” at his church and drove out here from El Paso to tell me I told you so, but I can still kick sand in his face, so he holds his comments close. Instead he stands around in our kitchen, heeing and hawing about nothing. You could tell he was looking for a spot to throw in some comments about our God-fearing president. I wasn’t about to give him a chance. You can fear God, but that don’t mean you got sense to know what He wants you to do. And that I guess is the story of Dubya.
I do feel sorry for the Iraqis, the young fellas we sent to help them out and my boy, who don’t get why I haven’t been much fun to be around. He still thinks life ain’t nothing but a rattlesnake hunt with a barbecue afterwards. He’s got some time yet with that notion. I won’t tell him otherwise until he’s at least thirteen.
I know how it feels to swallow a knife. I saw it on T.V., on Big Top. There was this guy who swallowed this great big knife— Declan says it was a sword—so I guess sword-knife. I saw him put the whole thing right down his throat. I think someone must of sneaked into my room last night and put one in my throat, a really big one, ‘cause it hurts like anything all the way down to my belly and it made my whole throat get swelled. Mom is calling me Balloon Face which I think is mean. Dec says now I can run away and join the circus. I don’t want to run. I just want to swallow without a sword cutting me. It’s scary and I’m crying and asking Daddy to take it out.
But he told Mom, “We got us a circus fire here, Mike.”
Sometimes he calls her Mike when he’s trying to say something he doesn’t want me to know. Then she calls him Ike. They think they’re fooling us, but me and Dec know to listen especially hard if they do this ‘cause then is when they do what Dec calls talking code.
Like today Mike said, “Might have to call for reforce men.” Which Dec says means get more guys here. I started crying then. I don’t want more guys—just Mommy.
Dec whispered, “Don’t worry. First they’ll call the old guy.”
And they did. His name is Dr. Dario. Dec and I call him HiHo— get it? Like HiHo the Dario, farmer in the dell. That’s our code talk. Sure enough, he came with his nasty black bag full of humongous, big, long, really sharp needles and smelly medicine. He didn’t even take my tempenture which is lucky ‘cause Mom already put the glass stick with the red line up my butt. She said I was 104 and I started crying again ‘cause I’m really only 4 and Mommy mostly never lies so I don’t know why she said it.
HiHo said, “Well, kids are tough but this is the worst case of mumps I’ve ever seen.”
He offered me a lollypop—red—my favorite kind—and I really wanted it but even thinking “lollypop” made my throat hurt so I tried not to think and a moan got out my mouth. Then he gave it to Dec—no fair! That was my lollypop! Then I started crying but it clogged my nose and my throat has a sword and I can’t breathe.
HiHo said to Mommy, “You have to keep the other kids out. Nobody comes in the house except the Mr.”
That’s how he calls Daddy to Mommy – “The Mr.”
Once I heard Daddy say to HiHo, “How’s the Mrs?”
Grown-ups talk weird. I must of fell asleep ‘cause HiHo was gone next I noticed. Mommy had a blue bowl full of teeny, little, beeny macaroni stars with butter. It smelled so good but even smelling made the knife hurt my throat all the way up to my ears.
I made my mouth clamp shut but Mommy said, “Just three spoons.”
I cried again but she made me. Then I went asleep again.
Good news. The sword is still there but Auntie Ree brought a neat comic book of Mary Jane and Sniffles, which is her Mouse friend. Mary Jane knows magic.
She says, “Puff, puff piffles. Make me just as small as Sniffles.”
And then she turns mouse size. So I tried it and guess what! I got really small and crawled out under the door and went outside to play and have a venture. But Dec couldn’t see me so I just followed him like if he could and stayed out for a really long time. And no swords there! It was great. But then Daddy shaked me and I had to get big again.
Mommy was crying and Dad said, “Call Dario.”
But Mom said, “No. I’ll give her an alcohol bath.”
That’s just silly but then she did and I just winked out.
And that’s how it goes for a really long time— wink out, come back, smell alcohol, get mouse size, but the sword is getting smaller.
HiHo says, “Just keep up the jello and ice cream.”
But Mom says I have to get them down, so which is it? None of the other kids get swords down their throats.
Finally, Dec whispers through the door, “They’re gonna let you out of this room tomorrow.”
I can’t wait. But I’m gonna keep practicing the Sniffles trick. It’s really handy to sneak outside whenever I want.
If you do, I make no guarantees where any of us will end up.
You see, even though I may seem cool, confident and clear-headed, I never know where the hell I am. Ever. This is hard to admit. It’s even harder to hide.
I am directionally challenged. Whether this is a chronic disability or just a result of inexcusable laziness is difficult to say. All I know is that sometimes it is so hard for me to figure out where I need to go, I have been known say, “Screw it,” and just stay home. It has been easier to come up with excuses—lost keys, calls from long-lost relatives, mysterious one-hour diseases—than to get to unfamiliar places by myself.
This is so much a part of my life that I can’t even narrow down a particular directional disaster to use as an example. Instead, there are a thousand little things that happen every day to remind me that I should never just get into the car and drive someplace new without a great deal of preparation.
Here are a few of them.
I cannot instantly distinguish right from left. I can figure it out in a second or two, but that’s the problem. It’s not instinctive. I have taken many wrong turns in the space of time between hearing “Take a left” and deciding which left is right.
I have no sense of north, south, east or west. If you tell me that I should travel east on Main Street, I will sigh and roll my eyes at you. If you tell me to go north on South Street, my brain will fold over on itself and you’ll have to come and pick me up.
I struggle with map reading. Well, the reading isn’t the problem, really. It’s transferring the information from the map to the road under my feet. Driving, walking—it doesn’t matter. I need written directions. None of this pictograph stuff for me. Words work. Words that I can read and reread and mull over and check for spelling and grammar. It’s a wonder that I get anywhere.
I once thought that public transportation would be a solution in city situations, but that requires figuring out which bus comes from which direction when and which side of what street you need to be on at what time and which way to walk to get to that street, or what color metro line goes toward the place that you think you want to be and which side of the track you need to stand on and which escalator you need to take to get to that side of the track at what time and how many people you need to push out of your way to get onto the right car. So, no.
I cannot intuitively retrace my steps. Getting somewhere is not a guarantee of getting home. I have entered buildings from one way, exited later from the same door and then turned back the way I was certain we came only to hear my husband calling me from the other direction. Even walking in New York City where the grid pattern of streets couldn’t be more accessible, I might try to walk back from the Met towards the Frick and end up at the Guggenheim. And inside large museums? Those rooms that look so straight and welcoming on the map that lure you in and then turn into rushing labyrinthine rivers of fire with a thousand tributaries that have no beginnings and no ends? If I go in there, will I ever find my way out? Not on my own. So, you might imagine my constant state of apprehension in a city like Venice, where all the little bridges look exactly the same and our hotel was tucked in a courtyard that I swear was always moving. There were not enough breadcrumbs in all of Italy to get me back where I started from. Where’s a gondola when you need one?
And so, I am anxious whenever I have to venture out to a new place by myself. How will I get there? Where will I go once I get there? How will I get home? What if I get lost and it gets dark and I get a flat tire and run out of gas and there’s a blizzard and a busload of bad guys and a clowder of bobcats and a swarm of locusts and my cell phone dies? What then? Huh? All this makes staying home look pretty good.
So how do I get anywhere ever? Since I can’t seem to resolve the whole right vs. left thing, and I can’t realistically curl up by the fire for twenty years at a time, I have found some ways to compensate.
When I am driving, the family has learned to direct me to “take a my side” or “take a your side” instead of taking a right or left. This creates an immediate directional connection with no dead time in between. Pointing in the right direction and yelling “THAT WAY” works, too.
Pre-planning is crucial. MapQuest will give me at least two routes and I print them both and then reverse them and print them again. Then I study both ways and then I run them by my husband for corrections and modifications. Then I study them again. Then I check Google Maps. Then I program my GPS. Overkill? I don’t think so.
If a place is close enough and there is no room for error and my anxiety levels are rising, I will take a pre-drive to make myself feel better. This is no guarantee that I will remember every turn or landmark the next time, but it will help me to sleep better the night before.
It’s good to have someone in the car who either knows where we’re going or has that illusive sense of direction that I so covet. It’s even better if that person volunteers to drive.
Marrying someone who always seems to know where he’s going has gotten me a lot of places over the years. It has also resulted in the production of another lucky (and useful) human who has the gift. (And, sadly, one who doesn’t. We call ourselves the Right Brains and the Left Brains but only when my youngest and I can figure out which is which.)
I did a little research and discovered that this condition indeed has a name—several in fact. I could go with “directional disability” or “topographical disorientation” or “directional confusion” or “directional dyslexia.” I could say that I have a directional impairment or that I lack an internal compass. Unless I actually swallow a compass, there’s not much I can do to change this.
So I just have to figure it out on my own.
Late in my teaching career, I started directing high school plays. At least some sort of directional sense, like knowing right from left, is kind of important when you’re telling people where to move on stage without crashing into each other. But, when you are facing actors and have to figure out two rights from two lefts that are opposite each other, a whole new level of brain strain emerges. For me, it was like trying to get up the stairs and over the bridge in an M.C. Escher drawing before my head exploded.
Afraid to look stupid, I once tried to conceal my disability by directing from the back of the stage (stupid) and another time by directing with my back to the stage (so stupid).Finally, one day, out of frustration, I resorted to a tried and true.
“When you finish delivering that line,” I said pointing the way I wanted the actor to go, “you’ll exit—Stage—uh—THAT WAY.”
And you know what? It got the job done.
So, it’s all about learning to compensate. Just like anyone else who stinks at something—which is everyone else. You either stay home or you venture out into the world even when it’s hard and you make it work.