Back Where I Belong

ggbridgeMood: Tired
Drinking: Tea

Driving along Illinois freeways lined with crumbling grey piles of unwanted snow, I remembered all over again why I don’t live there anymore.

When my plane touched town on California concrete Wednesday night, I felt profound relief. It’s not that Illinois (or Ill-annoys, as my friend Jesse calls it) is a bad place. It’s not. Some of my best memories were made there, and I had a great time on this trip re-visiting my old haunts in Chicago with my friend C. (I was happy to see that Alien and Predator still live at The Alley, and that Medusa’s Circle still has the best collection of lightning bolt necklaces.)

Illinois used to be home. But I don’t belong there anymore.

Being back for my grandfather’s memorial service brought up more memories than usual. Maybe it was seeing all those estranged relatives — cousins I haven’t seen for nearly a decade, who now have children I’ve never met before, and great-aunts with blue hair and unwelcome advice.

Maybe it was because my mom, dad, and I spent countless hours digging through boxes and boxes of old photographs — some of my immediate family and lots of my grandpa. Photos I’ve never seen before, like the blurry black and white of my grandpa holding my dad when he was just a baby.

Maybe it was hanging out with my friend A from high school and her two children, the eldest of whom is nearly a woman herself now.

Maybe it was just driving down all those familiar roads, past places that used to define the boundaries of my world, and seeing now how small they are, and how colorless.

Maybe it was everything combined.

All I know is that there is a girl I used to be, and she exists now only in pictures and memories and whispers in the back of my mind. And although it’s always hard to leave my family and friends behind, to know that it might be a very long time before I see them again, the girl I am now belongs in San Francisco.

You can’t deny your heart its home.

-Lo, who was also reminded there is nothing to miss about the snow, the cold, and the flat grey sky.

Home on the Farm

thefarmMood: Rainy day delinquent
Drinking: Mint & honey tea

As long as there’s no great March snowstorm to keep me earthbound, I’ll be picking up my bags at O’Hare in a couple of days and pointing my rental car west, toward my parents’ farm.

My grandfather passed away several weeks ago, and the relatives-in-charge opted to postpone the memorial service until “spring”. I don’t know exactly why they consider Illinois’ version of March to be spring, since anyone who’s spent a winter or two there knows better. But the date has been set. So I, along with several other long-lost relatives from various states betwixt here and there will be traveling through the snow this week to pay our respects.

I’m always happy to return to the small town where I grew up. (As long as it’s for a visit and not for good.) I like to drive the roads that I used to know so well, the roads that used to make me feel like such a big fish, and see what’s changed since I last passed that way. Palmyra Road always has a few surprises. For one thing, it’s not even called Palmyra Road anymore. I think they changed the name to Prairieville Road a couple of visits back.

When I was a tiny thing, it used to be called Rural Route 1. Then, for the duration of my childhood and teen years, it was Palymra Road. Home of “Son Shine Acres”, which is where I lived from age 2 to 21, give or take a few months here and there when I was at college or pretending to live in more exotic locales like Indiana.

My parents owned a big grey farmhouse and 1.5 acres of land which housed a huge garden, a dog kennel, a chicken coop, a horse barn, and my dad’s oversized garage. For most of my childhood, we also rented the 10 or so acres of land across the driveway, which included a silo, barn, and several large outbuildings, as well as a pond, a giant cottonwood tree, and a couple of acres of rolling green hills.

I learned to ride a horse there (and broke my arm getting bucked off a donkey there). I spent countless hours carrying 5-gallon buckets of water from the well up by our house all the way down to the big red barn, which didn’t have any running water for a long time. In the winter, when the pails of water would slosh down my legs and freeze inside my boots, that path from house to barn seemed 5 miles long.

The picture above is the view from our kitchen window out over the yard, down the lane, ending at the big red barn. My dad took this photo on a winter day when I was only 4 or 5. For most of my formative years, this view comprised the largest part of my world.

My parents don’t live at 497 Palmyra Road anymore. They sold the place and moved on when my sister was in college. My bedroom with the dusky blue horseshoe wallpaper belongs to someone else now.

But every time I’m back in town, I drive the old blacktop, turning right off Route 2 by the Shell gas station, up Lord’s Hill (which seems so small now compared with San Francisco inclines), past Vitale’s Holstein farm, and then slowing down for a look as I drive past the scene of my first bike ride, first snowman, first puppy, first costume party, first horse, first skinned knee, first kiss, first driving lesson, first mulberry, first falling star, first everything that makes a childhood a good one.

It doesn’t look like much anymore. Some of the trees in our huge front yard are missing now. The Son Shine Acres sign is gone. There are no more beagles in the backyard. And who knows what ever happened to my favorite bike, the one with the banana seat and the handlebar streamers.

But it’s still a magical place to me.

So I’ll be seeing you soon, old homestead. And you, too, Sterling Girl(s)! Leave a light on for me. I’m coming home.

-Lo, who still knows where Erwin the bird is buried out in the apple orchard.

In Honor of Henry

Mood: Mixed Up
Drinking: Hot Chai

My Grandpa is dying.

His body has grown tired and gray, but I never remember him that way. I always picture him spry and whistling, pulling into our gravel driveway in his navy blue Oldsmobile, a red feather perched in his jaunty fedora.

Every day of my childhood, Grandpa was there. He always came bearing a ready joke and a baggie of Tootsie Rolls. (Even now I can’t untwist the wrappers without remember his endless sticky candy offerings.)

I know the years have passed us by, but it’s still so hard to imagine that the Grandpa Hank who built my sister and I a horse stable out of scraps of old lumber, clambering around with hammer in hand, nimble as you please, hiding a cigarette behind his back whenever us kids appeared (as if we couldn’t see the smoke winding up, wreathing him from behind)… it’s hard to equate the Grandpa of my childhood, joking and jovial, with the Grandpa of my adulthood, feeble behind his walker. And now lying so quietly in a hospital bed.

So today, in honor of Henry Witmer, I’m sharing a story my sister wrote about him last year. (She has a way with words, too.)

A True Glimpse of Grandpa
by Johanna Witmer Baldwin

Everyone wants a second chance, a chance to be redeemed, to start over. I just never thought Grandpa was one of those people. To me, Grandpa was my hero, invincible and un-aging, without fault. Or so I thought, back then when my world was so small and perfect.

More than President Reagan, Johnny Cash, or even Daisy Duke, I wanted to be like Grandpa when I was little.

After retiring from the steel mill, Grandpa began driving the 10 miles to our house every morning at about 6:30. By the time I crawled out of bed, Grandpa had already finished his cup of coffee, hammered out a few carpentry projects, and probably taken a break with his morning smoke.

Except I wasn’t supposed to know about that smoke. He diligently tried to hide it, even around Mom, who told him that she had known about the smoking for years. She even offered to buy him an ashtray.

Even so, he continued to slink behind the garage, barn or the garden to light up. I can’t remember how many times I walked up on him smoking and nearly gave him a heart attack. After regaining his composure, Grandpa would cough out the smoke from his last drag and pop a Vick’s drop into his mouth to drown his ashy breath. Then he would stand with the cigarette behind his back, in a futile attempt to look innocent while the cigarette smoke slowly curled around his ears grew into a hazy wreath behind his back.

“Oh, hey there! Did ya just now get out of bed?!?”

I played along, but spent more than one afternoon combing the gravel for his cigarette butt, so I could pretend to be a rebel smoker like Grandpa.

So why was Grandpa the secret smoker such a perfect icon in my childhood mind? Because only a few of my memories are of Grandpa pretending he never inhaled; the rest remind me of the selfless way he showed his love for us.

No one ever asked him to show up and work at our little farm, but there he was every morning, whistling a raspy tune while he invented an economical way to convert a shed into a 4-stall horse barn for my sister and me.

In addition to his carpentry skills, Grandpa was the only adult to recognize that I honestly COULD handle an entire Big Mac (minus the middle bun) and strawberry shake at McDonalds instead of a mere child’s Happy Meal.

More than that, he always knew the perfect time to offer me a Tootsie Roll to brighten my mood. Like on the days he drove me to school when my fake stomachaches had not convinced anyone that I was dying and needed constant bed rest.

Amazingly, the Tootsie Roll always healed me instantly. At every school program, Grandpa wandered in half an hour early, in order to get the best seat in the house.

In almost every corner of my childhood memories, I find Grandpa in his feathered fedora, flashing his false teeth to gross me out or standing proudly somewhere nearby.

Last summer, I flew back to my hometown to see Grandpa, whose heart was failing. Maybe all those years of hidden smoking had finally caught up with him. He had been in and out of the hospital every few months, and Dad said Grandpa “might appreciate” seeing me. In other words, Grandpa was dying.

The first night back in Illinois, my Dad sighed as he talked about my Grandpa’s health problems, “He spends all his time complaining about this ache and that pain, how he’s getting too old and might as well die. And he wonders why I don’t always want to come visit him. He forgets that he missed most of my childhood. I mean, for crying out loud! He was a horrible father! He’s never admitted all the affairs he had, or how he disowned me for years after he divorced Grandma. He said terrible things to me back then, things I don’t even want to repeat.”

He rubbed his brow in frustration, as if to erase the painful memories, “But he seems to have forgotten all of that now.”

I was still thinking of this new side of Grandpa the next day when I saw him. He appeared to have shrunk over the past six months and was so frail as he shuffled into the house with his walker, a mere shadow of his former self. But he didn’t seem like the playboy who once had abandoned his family, either.

What was Grandpa really like, and why hadn’t I seen the other side of him all the years when I scampered around in his shadow?

As I was deep in thought, Grandpa’s ashen face lit up and he interrupted my reverie, “I always think about how you used to run around, following me everywhere when you were just a tiny tyke…” A smile tiptoed across his weathered face, then cautiously crossed to mine.

At that moment, the foggy doubt about Grandpa lifted. Grandpa did remember all the hurtful years he lived as a father, and he had spent the next few decades trying to make it up to the following generation of family. I was Grandpa’s redemption. I was his second chance at fatherhood.

Sometimes I just want to go back to the way things were before, when I was little, swaying in the swing he built for me and listening to his stories of surviving through the Depression. Before I knew. Before I could read between the lines of our family history.

But maybe it’s better this way. Because now I know that all Grandpa wanted was redemption. One chance to make things right.

-Lo, who could use a Tootsie Roll or two right now.

Two Weeks

Mood: Teary-eyed
Drinking: A toast to the Yodes

When the phone rang yesterday at 4 p.m., and the display said my sister was calling, I knew even before I answered that something was wrong. Call it sixth sense, sister sense, women’s intuition, whatever. I just knew.

My sister’s teary voice confirmed it. She was sitting in her car in the parking lot of a vet clinic, calling with the worst news any dog lover can get. Her dog was dying.

My sister’s dog is not just any dog. And I know all dog owners are prejudiced in favor of their furry beasts. But seriously. You haven’t known adorable-gentleman-giant-pig-dog until you know Yoda.

My sister met the Yodes in October of 2004. She was a newlywed, and her husband had been shipped off to Iraq just weeks after the wedding. She was living in a new town, alone, far from family, with few friends. I told her she needed a dog.

As my dog LeeLoo’s favorite auntie, my sister was well acquainted with the Boxer breed, so she began scouring pet rescue websites for some sort of Boxer-ish pooch. In one of her searches, she discovered a picture of a big ham-headed white Boxer/American Bulldog mix named Yoda.

Even though he weighed in at a good 110 pounds, the Yodes was living with a slew of thimble-sized Chihuahuas at a Chihuahua Rescue in Burbank, CA. He had been there for two years, since nobody in LA-land comes to a Chihuahua rescue looking for a husky galoot of a Yoda dog.

Yodes’ story was a sad one…his previous owner had died suddenly, and Yoda, being the delicate flower that he is, was so upset, he lost all his hair. The relatives of the deceased owner didn’t know what to do with a bald, chubby sad sack, so they dumped him at the pound. Enter Chihuahua Rescue Lady, searching for unwanted pocket-sized dogs. She felt so sorry for the big grieving Yodes, she packed him in with the tiny dogs and away he went.

Two years in purse dog rescueland were not kind to Yoda. In addition to his depressed state, loss of hair, and all around tubby condition, he also had a thyroid problem that went untreated for a long time.

So when my sister showed up at the kennel to meet him, Yodes wasn’t looking his best. He was bald in patches, had icky sores between his toes and big goobers in his eyes. But in spite of all that, he had the love. And my sister saw it. She called to tell me about the gentle giant she had discovered, and on a roadtrip south a couple of weeks later for sister weekend, I saw him for myself.

We took LeeLoo along to the kennel to see how Yoda would react. LeeLoo took one look at him, walked over, sat next to him and leaned up against him. They both sighed. My sister and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, and I said, “You have to get this dog!”

It was easier said than done. Turns out that Rescue Lady was also a wee bit crazy and liked collecting dogs more than she liked letting them go. So even though my sister filled out all the paperwork, had proof of good dog ownership qualities and everything else, she didn’t get to take Yoda home for three more months.

Finally, in January of 2005, Yoda became part of the family. He got a bath, a trip to the vet, medication for his various skin conditions and thyroid issues, and some nutritious, yet delicious kibble. Over the next year, the Yodes only got healthier and happier, taking walks to the beach and trips to San Francisco to hang out with his cousin LeeLoo. My sister’s husband returned from Iraq in early 2006, and Yoda was there to greet him at the door.

Over the past two years, the Yodes has provided endless entertainment, usually beginning with a phone call from my sister, “So, guess what Yodes did today?”

The list of things he tried to eat just kept growing, ranging from tea bags to styrofoam to a Duraflame log. In person, he was like a walking cartoon, a giant marshmallow of a pooch who wanted nothing more than to lean his head against your leg, slobber all over your knee, and get in some sloppy tongue kisses.

The Yodes had many talents. He could blow a drool bubble like it was bubble gum, poop in a perfect circle, and snore in an exact imitation of a giant pig.

He’s the sweetest beast to ever walk the earth, having nothing but love for everyone he meets. He has friends all over my sister’s town, from the elderly residents at the nursing home, to the toddler down the street, to the homeless guy on the corner. Everybody loves Yoda. And he loves them back, no strings attached.

Which is why it’s incredibly unfair that he has only two weeks left on this earth.

The phone call yesterday came immediately after the vet told my sister and her husband that Yoda has an aggressive form of untreatable cancer. There’s nothing they can do to treat it, they can only make him comfortable and give him the best two weeks any dog ever had on this earth.

As any dog person knows, the dog who shares your life quickly becomes more than a pet. They are your friend, confidant, your baby, your pride and joy. So the news that Yodes is not long for this world is unbearably heartbreaking.

As my friend S put it,
“He’s such a big, goofy canned ham of a dog, and it’s just not fair. I do know that Yoda’s last weeks are going to be the happiest, steakiest, up-on-the-furniturest, most spoiled-rotten weeks any dog ever had. I’m going to miss his bald patches; his hard breathing and huge grin; the way he used to follow Leeloo around like an enormous, lovestruck linebacker. Yodes, we hardly knew you.”

So here’s to you, Yoda… We love you. We will miss you terribly. There will never be another pig-dog like you. We’ll always remember your smile, your stinky breath, your gigantic pink belly, and the way you brought unabashed joy into our lives every single day. May your last weeks be heavenly. And may dog heaven be even better.

And when (god forbid) the LeeLoo’s turn comes, please wait there for her at the Rainbow Bridge. I know you’ll take good care of her.

-Lo, who thinks that a world without Yoda is a very sad world, indeed.

Marco

Mood: Cloudy
Drinking: Lipton’s

There is a poster
on the park bench
shouting your name
in 24 point bold.

This is how I find out you are gone.

[DENIAL]
Your picture stares out
smiling
like you did in the flesh
just four days ago
when you saw me walking
toward you up the path.
Except that was your real smile
the one that came before
you called me sweetheart
before you buried me
in a bear hug.

The smile on the poster
is professional.
Frozen for keeps now.
You are on display this way
wearing that horrible mintgreen jacket.
White hair all windtossed.
Nika laying at your feet.

The poster is streaked and
wrinkled with rain.

I make a scene without meaning to.

[ANGER]
This is what happens when you are dead.
The world does not end.
The clock does not stop.

Your friends raid your apartment
and take away your fake cherry TV tables.
Your melted pomegranate candles.
Your best glass serving platter.
Your broken dresser.
They take what they can use.
They take what they want.
The rest resides in a landfill.
The apartment still smells of smoke and dogs.
The apartment still smells of you.

[BARGAINING]
If I had never seen the poster
I’d never know you were gone.
I could still call you and
leave a message.
And wait for you to call me back.
In my head, you’d be sitting
in your chair smoking
your cheap cigars.
You would still be within reach.

[DEPRESSION]
I attend the memorial service.

Standing in the wind
fog boiling up over the cliff.
An unattractive redhead talks about
putting a plaque on the bench
so everyone will know it’s yours.
“I just have to come up with some words,”
she says.
I have a collection

of all the right words, but I

do not want to share.
Her makeup is made up
of hard crayola lines.
Her roots are gray and brown.

Your brothers are here and awkward.
The fat one, he sits like you.
Pleasantries are exchanged.
Everyone speaks in cliches.
The dogs are here, too.
And Nika. She is dull. Diminished.
She pushes her great dark head
against my leg, against any leg
in her path, just so someone
will reach down and touch her.
But no one is you.

They scatter your ashes

on top of the dunes.
The wind spits gray flecks
into my face.
I think that they should
have flung your pieces
out over the ocean.
Now you are landlocked.
Mixed in with the dust
and the dog shit.

I cannot stand for it.
But I do not move.

[ACCEPTANCE]
Today my friend got a bulldog
named Winston.
He’s one foot tall and fifty pounds.
He looks like a furry brown tank.
He leans against his collar
like a sled dog straining for speed.
He pulls her down the sidewalk as if
she were a featherweight.
As if she were nothing.
Someone should teach him how to heel.
I start to recommend that she call you.
And then I remember.

So I meet her, instead.

In the park, by your bench.
I show her how to gather the leash
just so. How to stand. How to command.

I am sure you would tell me
I’m doing it wrong.

But I’m just trying to keep you alive.

-Lo, wishing they had payphones in the afterlife.

Fare Thee Well

Mood: Waking up
Drinking: Toothpaste aftertaste

Yesterday my friend S and I took our dogs for a walk at Fort Funston. The Fort is not really a fort, not anymore. It may have been all soldiery and official at some point during World War I, but now it is just rolling dunes with rubbery ice plants, lots of twisted cypress and secret, sandy trails, and cliffs that fall off a hundred feet down to the beach below.

It’s the best place in the city to go dog-walking, because you can let your little pooch run free and wild with hundreds of other dogs. There are crows to chase and lots of butts to sniff and a watering hole with three or four perpetually filled bowls of water. There are caves and buttresses and a long run down a huge dune that leads to “Dog Beach” below. At dog beach you can cavort in the waves and fetch sticks and pee on driftwood–if you are a canine and you’re into that sort of thing.

LeeLoo loves it, and so does her boyfriend Nelson (S’s dog), and we were all having a grand old time–the dogs chasing each other in maniacal circles and S and I laughing at them until our stomachs hurt. I was especially looking forward to the highlight of every trip to Ft. Fun–stopping by the twin benches on the cliff path to see Dennis and his dogs Nika and Rocky.

Dennis is a dog trainer, and he worked miracles with us and LeeLoo when we first adopted her nearly 2 years ago. She was scared and aggressive toward other dogs and was known to try to rip balls off random men for no apparent reason other than that she didn’t like the shoes they were wearing. Dennis helped us turn LeeLoo into the lovable, happy, carefree little lump of a Boxer she is today.

He’s a grizzly looking guy–tall with a beer gut, a windswept white pony tail and a way of yelling that makes you toe the line like you’re in boot camp. He served in Vietnam with the K-9 troops and then ran a school of dog training in New York City for years. He also has a shady story about being on the lam and changing his name for awhile, but when we met him he had been living and training dogs in San Francisco for 20 years or more.

Dennis quickly became more to Bruce and I than just a dog trainer. He was like the gruff and burly uncle you hope comes to family functions. We invited him to dinner at our house so he could meet my mom and dad when they came to visit. He took us to his favorite taco place in the Mission. We’d talk about motorcycles (he used to ride) and sometimes we stopped by his house just to say hi. Despite how tough and hard he seemed on the outside, he was a big old marshmallow underneath. LeeLoo was his favorite pupil, and he’d would cry out in delight whenever we’d stop by the bench after a long walk at Ft. Fun.

“LeeLoo, baby!” he’d yell “Come over here and give me a kiss.” And she would, butt wiggling in glee, and he’d kiss her back. “Look at this face,” he’d tell friends, new students, random passersby. “Now that’s a face only a mother or a dog trainer could love!”

About a year ago, Dennis asked Bruce and I to help him write a dog training manual. He had all the information from years of experience, so he’d get it on paper and I’d pretty it up and Bruce would lay it out and the book was almost finished and ready to go. We saw Dennis last week and he was all excited about it. We made plans to get together for dinner and finish it up.

But when S and I stopped by the bench yesterday, Dennis wasn’t there. Instead, there was a huge pile of flowers and candles and some posters with pictures of dogs. I thought it was weird that somebody left a bunch of crap on a bench, and I kept walking. But S stopped and said “Oh, these memorials always make me so sad. I wonder who’s dog died?” So I turned around to look, too. But then I saw that the pictures stapled to the bench were not just pictures of dogs. They were pictures of Dennis. My Dennis. And they said he was dead.

I’ve seen people cause scenes in public before, shaking and wailing. And I’ve always walked by them thinking, “Calm down, freak!” But suddenly, I knew why they didn’t calm down. They couldn’t. Because I was shaking and wailing. “Dennis! Not Dennis!”

Our friend, our grizzly uncle, died of diabetes complications on Thursday. He was just here, and now he’ll never be here again. He was just here and he was fine. He gave me the customary hug and scratchy kiss on the cheek, “Hi, sweetheart. So good to see you.”

Dennis, wherever you are, we miss you. We mourn for you. And we desperately hope that you have some dogs to keep you company until we see you again.

-Lo, who doesn’t care how maudlin this entry is. It’s something she needed to do.