blackberries

Death to Blackberries!

In Woodstock a few years ago, a friend who’d grown up in California came to visit and sighed nostalgically over the blackberry bush at the edge of the woods near our driveway. We loved our blackberries there and I would occasionally do battle with surprisingly aggressive ants to pick a bowlful that I might later combine with a heated-up brownie to make an indulgent dessert.

That was there. Here in the PNW (as it’s called) blackberries are everywhere, a menace, a nuisance, and number one on the hit list of invasive species. Like dandelions and blackbirds and a lot of other things spreading out of control, the Himalayan Blackberry was imported from Europe and introduced here on purpose, in this case in 1885 by legendary botanist Luther Burbank, who also brought us elephant garlic. The Himalayan Blackberry was considered an improvement because the fruit grows bigger and sweeter than it does on regular blackberries like we had in the East. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the blackberries proved hardier than every other native or introduced species, birds ate the berries and spread the seeds in their droppings up and down the West Coast and soon they were completely out of control.

They deserve to be poisoned. At least, that’s how the lawn care people we finally gave in and hired to make the property look vaguely civilized see them. “We’ll spray all through here,” one said of the blackberry bushes bordering our neighbors’ yard, as if it was the most routine thing in the world, which I guess it was to him.

“You mean herbicide?” I asked. When he said yes, I vetoed that idea. “Good luck with that,” his partner told us. But I thought we should at least try to maintain our yard without resorting to carcinogens. We knew lots of people who did. I’ve heard that people hire goats to eat the stuff.

I was wary of them, though. Back in Snohomish, a blackberry bush threw one long branch over my compost pile and when I most carefully moved it, a thorn so small you couldn’t see it embedded itself in the palm of my hand and eventually caused a tiny infection. They grow much bigger thorns too–a friend told us he was permanently scarred from a blackberry bush he’d encountered on a hike. Which confirmed my sense that they were something to fear.

But fear them or not, here they were, crawling across from the opposite side of the fence (poison or no) along our property’s east and south borders, throwing tall canes over the top of our lilacs and strangling them. Whether you hate blackberries or love them, one thing you can’t do around here is ignore them.

So. On a recent trip to Lake Forest Park, I found a pair of leather gardening gloves that actually fit my strange, chunky, short-fingered hands. I grabbed the gloves and was ready for battle. On a sunny day I lured Bill outside to help me with the blackberries by cutting down the high canes I couldn’t reach without a stepladder. He got into it with enthusiasm and soon there were piles of blackberry branches along the fence line where he’d cut them down. I used my gloves to drag them around to the front yard and piled them near the burn pit. Then I used my shortness to duck under the other bushes and cut the blackberries all the way back to the fence.

We both kept at it and soon there was an enormous pile of blackberry branches for me to drag to the burn pit. You might have thought we were done but over the next few days as we walked the yard, we kept finding new places where they were encroaching and we pulled them out or cut them back with fervor. Eventually there were half a dozen huge piles of blackberry branches around the yard near the fire pit. After letting them dry for a few days, I started a fire in the fire pit and began dropping them in.

It took two and a half hours to feed them all into the flames. By the end of it my clothes, my hair, and the entire neighborhood smelled of smoke. But looking around the yard it was oddly satisfying. There had been huge piles of blackberry branches and I’d made them disappear literally into thin air.

The next day I found a new place where blackberry branches were making their way into our yard. I cut them down. And started a new pile.

Image: oatsy40 via Creative Commons

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ViewFromDeck

At Long Last, Love

We kept looking. Here in the Seattle area, there’s a website and app called Redfin that blows Zillow and all the rest out of the water. It’s integrated with the MLS system real estate agents use, such that whenever a new listing appears, or an existing listing is taken off the market, it updates automatically. In this heady real-estate market that means there are new listings to review several times a day and Bill and I both had our accounts set for alerts whenever anything new came up. There was always something new. There was always something to look at. We would always go look. And even when we weren’t looking, we had enabled email and mobile notifications, so that Redfin was constantly alerting us to deals it thought we should consider.

We spent most of our free time on drive-by visits to homes we’d found on Redfin, checking out the site and the neighborhood before we bothered a real estate agent to schedule a tour. We cared more about location and setting than the insides (which we figured we could always change) so we didn’t call for many tours. But we visited countless houses in all directions. Of course, that’s pretty normal around here: Eavesdrop on conversations in restaurants and bars and half of them will be about real estate, either buying and selling or making improvements. The entire region is real estate-obsessed. That’s one of many, many signs that the area is in a bubble, that at some point the madness will stop and prices will fall. That it would, perhaps, be smarter to wait, except that neither of us much liked the idea of moving into another temporary rental and having to move again in another year or two.

All Bill talked about with our musician friends (many of whom are also contractors) was different houses, different areas. They were being patient, for now, he said, but at some point they weren’t going to hear it anymore. Too many drive-arounds was beginning to cut into my work schedule. There was Redfin, always beckoning with another house to go visit. But if we didn’t come up with a winner in the next crop, we agreed, we would dial it back.

We took one more drive-around in Lake Stevens, then headed back to Snohomish for one of our rare real-estate appointment viewings. Heading down a side road, as the GPS directed us, we passed a real estate sign pointing up a small dead-end street. “Want to go see?” Bill said. And then we both remembered that a house on that street had come up in our Redfin searches. It was within our budget. Bill had even placed it on his long list of addresses to visit, although neither of us thought much would come of it. It was a low-looking house, surrounded by a chain-link fence, with a description that made it sound like it needed work. Still, here we were, practically driving by, so we turned up the street. We found the owner working on the deck.

“We don’t mean to disturb you, we’re just house-hunting,” Bill called out.

“I would love to show you my house!” he answered, so we got out of the car.

My online searches had led me back to this neighborhood again and again, where there were still large yards and grass and trees, a relief from the endless developments in every direction. Up on the deck, you were literally overlooking Route 2–as in looking over the top of it so you couldn’t actually see it. What you could see was Ebey Slough, a tributary to the Snohomish River, and a tiny speck of Mount Rainier poking its snow-covered top up between the trees and…more trees.

There was a vegetable garden, strawberries, blueberries and grapes, some amazing trees called golden chains so named because of the beautiful strings of yellow flowers drooping from them. There was a large yard with a giant sweet gum tree and a fire pit. (Fire pits seem to be de rigueur in the Pacific Northwest.)

I had been yearning for well-established plantings. Bill had been yearning for a view.

There was a hot tub on the deck. Bill would say later that the house seemed to encourage funky decadence–having been built in 1965 and remodeled in 1967, it kept a lot of that 60s character. The kitchen was finished with mahogany in an odd assortment of mostly one-off cabinets that open in unexpected ways. The no-longer-existent Lake Stevens Junior College woodworking students had done it, the owner, whose name was Karl, explained. We were thoroughly charmed.

Then I poked my head into the bathroom off the master bedroom. There was a shower stall. “There’s no bathtub!” I called out to Bill. A bathtub is one of those things I truly don’t want to have to live without.

“Oh yes there is!” the owner said, and opened the door to a second bathroom a few feet down the hall. Here there was a baby blue bathtub with a shower handle attachment and a matching baby blue sink and toilet–and wall-to-wall carpeting. Funky decadence, yes!

So of course, we bought it.

DevelopmentHouses

Development World

They’re all around us. Crawling up from the river at the bottom of the hill, to the south of us on Ludwig Road and just around the corner to the north of us as well. Surrounding the grocery stores where we shop and lining the roads in all directions. Weaver Road was mostly hills and woods and large yards when we arrived a year and a half ago, but there was a clearing marked out with rows of wooden rods sticking up out of the ground to mark out plans. Now dozens of homes have not only been built here but the majority appear to be sold, with cars in their driveways. Even deep in the wild woods to the east of town where I once aspired to live, you suddenly find yourself at a grand gateway with an elegant-sounding name and rows of houses stretching out behind. Developments are everywhere.

Our reaction has always been: yuck! Cookie-cutter houses with tiny yards, neighbors a few yards away, all in shades of beige, gray, and off-white. The jokes about how you could go home to the wrong house by mistake if you weren’t careful. We don’t always agree about what we want in a house, but we agreed about this: No developments!

On the other hand, we’d done a drive-by visit to virtually every house in Snohomish or Lake Stevens that was anywhere near our price range and had found very little to love. But a lot of development houses seemed to come closest to combining our space and budget requirements and so our resolve had begun to waver.

“You know,” I said on Saturday, “There’s another open house going on in Snohomish today if you want to go look.” This house sounded like it had a lot of what we wanted. A decent, if not large, yard. Plenty of bedrooms and bathrooms, yet right in Snohomish, close enough that I might even walk to downtown or at least to the post office. And–maybe just barely–in our price range.

We got there and it was huge. A dreamy kitchen a nice living room with a fireplace (yay!) a family room with a wood stove (double yay!), more bedrooms than we’d know what to do with, which is to say quite a lot. A perfectly manicured yard that would take some work to keep up with, a deck off the kitchen and a balcony off the bedroom and…it was in a development.

Was that us? We were not development people. And yet we liked the house. We liked the neighbors too, having met some of them during our lengthy visit. Although when we talked to the lady next door, who loved fussing over her garden, her concern over finding a buyer who would care for the lawn gave me pause. Back in Snohomish, our lawn was hair-raisingly overgrown. We’d struggled to find someone to cut it affordably or to repair the riding mower Norman had left in the shed. Not that we were wild about living in a hay field, but it was nice to have neighbors with enough problems of their own that they didn’t care about the state of our yard.

Would this house make sense for us? Bill said he would manage to keep the lawn properly mowed. I was pretty sure I could handle the fairly modest plantings. And my anti-development bias, I knew, was a form of prejudice, as if living in cookie-cutter houses would somehow transform us into cookie-cutter people. Besides, these weren’t cookie-cutter houses: They’d been built in the 1980s with more variation among them than you typically see today (and likely more solid construction as well).

We stayed an hour, checking things out thoroughly and chatting with the real estate agent. God helped us, we liked the house. Maybe we could make an offer and they’d take a little less. For the amount of house, right in Snohomish, even the full asking price would be a really good deal in today’s market. We went home and called our real estate agent to ask her to look into making an offer. I spent the weekend hiking around the neighborhood, checking out the walk from the house to nearby Blackmans Lake.

The next morning I woke up feeling shaky. Being in a development felt all wrong. And the price. It was hard to tell in this topsy-turvy real estate world what we could and couldn’t afford. Low down payments had somehow become the norm–the lenders just tacked on mortgage insurance to cover themselves–and historically low interest rates would keep the monthly payments manageable. Even so, would it make sense to take on that level of debt?

I voiced my concerns to Bill, even though I knew he liked the house. “I’ve been thinking I should talk you out of it,” he responded. We called our broker and the point was moot because other buyers had already bid up the price into the definitely-unaffordable stratosphere.

We looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief.

Image: LancerE via Creative Commons

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Real Estate, Oy!

Western Washington Forest

Bill and I were in our car recently, driving to some event or other when my cell phone rang. It was our landlord calling to tell us that Norman and Amanda’s house, and more importantly the nine acres that went with it, were going on the market the following week. “It will probably take at least a year to close,” he added reassuringly.

It was nice that he warned us because a day or two later, I was working in my office when Bill yelled, “There’s a drone flying over our house!” Needless to say, he ran out and investigated. He found a young photographer using the drone to take pictures of the land and also taking pictures from the ground. (Well-paid work if you can get it, Bill also learned.)

A few days later, one of those huge two-sides-of-a-triangle signs appeared on the road by our property though nowhere near the driveway itself. I’d been a bit concerned about people knocking on the door but I needn’t have worried. No one would pay $2.15 million to live in this house, and indeed the sign advertises us as a “residential plat” with 9.33 acres. Welcome to the wacky, fun-filled world of Western Washington real estate.

We had every reason to know this was coming. Development is crawling up the road at us, swallowing up the old farms and farmhouses turning them into series of depressing beige boxes with no yards and spindly trees. The development that comes up to two houses south of us was offering 54 of these for $400,000 to $600,000 each, and they’re all or nearly all sold. It’s a crazy, crazy, crazy real estate market out there. The house next door to us is next, with its five acres, already permitted and sold, with the tenants on a month-to-month lease. We always knew this house would be next.

And so, we started looking around at real estate. But it’s a crazy, crazy market. The Venn diagram of houses that we like and houses we can afford is a very small overlap indeed. A few weeks ago, we tried to go to an open house at a house in the woods we’d visited a couple of times. It was much of what we’d wanted in a house, in the woods, with nearly five acres, a fairly nice house, a deck, and the trunks of primordially huge trees with the notches still in them from when loggers a century ago put planks a yard or two up the trunk and stood on them so as to cut across the trunk at a thinner spot than near the ground. It turns out that if you do it that way, the tree will regrow and that place was full of these old monsters that had regrown in various ways. It was magical, although the house was boringly generic. But it was only the second house we’d toured and it seemed to soon to make an offer. Which anyhow we might not have been able to make without a pre-approval letter that I hadn’t yet gotten from a lender.

So, I decided, I’d put the pre-approval in process and we would go to the open house and make a final decision as to whether to bid. No smart seller in this seller’s market, I reasoned, would sell the house days before an open house–you might get higher offers.

But no, we arrived at the open house to find the house deserted, the gate to the driveway closed. We retreated to Doc’s Pilchuck Tavern on Machias Road and put in a call to the Redfin person who’d shown us the place. Turned out, there was an accepted offer already and the house was off the market, the open house cancelled.

I felt like a fool–I’d been dreaming of a house in that wooded area east of town almost since I’d first seen that area (on the very stunning drive to the local dump). Why hadn’t I moved faster, tried harder? Most homes around there were half a million dollars or more. Here was one we could actually have afforded.

Drinking beer and licking our wounds by the river on Doc’s back deck, we decided we’d be quicker and more decisive next time we found something we really liked…

Image: The forest near the house we didn’t get.

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nighttraffic

Amaxophobia Part 2

April 13

This post will make more sense if you read Amaxophobia Part 1 first.

The visit to the eye place was fine. A little shopping around Fred Meyer afterward was OK too. Here’s what wasn’t fine: I so rarely get out of the office on my own that I’d had a whole plan, after I got my eye exam, to wander around a little and explore. Only now, there was no way at all that I could face doing that. It was dark outside, still rainy (of course) and the traffic was as thick as ever. All I could think was how much I wanted to be away from it and home.

So I got in my car and touched the “Home” icon on my GPS. It instructed me, once again, to get on The Dreaded I-5. As I sat in the traffic inching its way onto the highway, the GPS popped up with a blue screen and a choice: There was traffic ahead. Did I want to stay on this route or try an alternate route? I figured I’d stay on this route since I couldn’t see an easy way out of the traffic to get on a different one anyhow.

That’s when I discovered that I couldn’t reach the GPS and keep my foot on the brake pedal at the same time. My new-to-me car had an aerodymanic profile that includes a long windshield angled low, so that when I suction-cupped the GPS near the bottom of the windshield so it wouldn’t obstruct my vision, I had also put it too far away for my short arms to easily reach. Until I made a selection, the blue screen would remain, which meant I no longer had a map to guide me. In a calmer state I would have remembered that whether or not I could see the map, the GPS would still give me vocal instructions and I would still make my way home. But all I could think was that I was alone in the dark in the rain in heavy traffic and effectively blind as to where to go.

Eventually, thankfully, the traffic got so bad that it came to a complete halt, which gave me the few moments I needed to squirm my way up to the windshield and touch the icon for “Current Route.” The map reappeared. Half an hour later I pulled up outside our white farmhouse and before I even got out of the car, I pulled the GPS off the windshield and replaced it where I could reach it.

Then I went inside in a high dudgeon. I’d have railed to Bill if he’d been home but he was out somewhere, probably playing music. So I did something I nearly never do–all by myself I poured myself a small scotch. I stood in the living room, with the lights still off, drinking my scotch and looking out the window and thinking: All I wanted was a damned eye exam! It would have been the simplest thing in the world to drive down to Kingston and go to Vision Excel on 9w. If only we were still back there.

But here’s the thing. Yes there’s nasty, nasty traffic here, but Washington drivers are also different from the drivers on the East Coast, and in a good way. In retrospect, one thing that added to my general sense of unease on the drive to and from the eye exam was the complete lack of aggression on the road. No honking. Washington drivers almost never use their horns. They don’t tailgate or flash their lights at you, except to warn of a nearby cop. Eventually, I came to think of it this way: Washington drivers don’t think it’s their job to tell other drivers how to drive.

That makes them different from New York drivers–even Bill. If Bill finds himself driving behind someone going down a country road at five miles less than the speed limit, he’ll complain bitterly to me in the passenger seat, but also might find himself tailgating and maybe flashing his lights. And if someone is going slow in the left lane, rather than pass on the right he’ll communicate in every way he can that the driver ahead of him should pull the hell over.

Back in New York I had become accustomed to this sort of instruction (to use a kind term for it) from my fellow drivers. Washington drivers may go around you if there’s room to do it. But most of them won’t pressure you if they think you’re going too fast, or too slow, or waiting too long to make a turn, or whatever it may be. This live-and-let-live approach to life goes way beyond just driving. I think it’s a legacy of the pioneer West, as opposed to the colonial East.

They also look out for other drivers in ways New Yorkers don’t. The merging lanes onto Route 9 from Second Street near our house seem impossibly–dangerously–short to me. But that’s because, in my mind, I’m imagining how New York drivers would barrel by them, not giving entering drivers much space to join the road, making things awkward for everyone.

Washington drivers always, always let other drivers in. To a fault. The first time I merged onto Route 9, I saw a car coming up behind me and slowed way down, assuming it would fly past and then I’d merge onto the road. Only it didn’t fly past as I waited, going slower and slower. Finally I heard the rare sound of a horn and looked in my mirror to discover that the other driver had slowed to a crawl and was patiently waiting for me to enter the road.

What a weird experience.

Image: Travis Juntara via Creative Commons

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I5

Amaxophobia Part 1

Amaxophobia = The fear of riding in a vehicle. 

April 8, 2016

When it comes to some things, I’m a coward. Not that I’m not a courageous person in general–I think I’ve made some brave decisions in my life, as well as any number of cowardly ones. But there’s one activity where the fearful side of my nature emerges in full force, to the point where I’m nearly incapacitated.

Driving.

Most people I know are comfortable behind the wheel. But they didn’t live in Manhattan, then Iowa City, then Paris, and then Manhattan again–all places where most everything is walkable, there’s plenty of public transportation, and a driver’s license is nice to have but in no way a necessity. In concentrated cities with good public transportation such as New York or Paris, having a car can be more of an expensive nuisance than anything else.

Thus, though I took Driver’s Ed and got a driver’s license back in high school like everyone else, once I had the license I never actually used it except on the rare business trip or vacation until I moved to Woodstock at the age of 32. For the first time I began driving on a daily basis.

But Woodstock is very different from here. It’s 100 miles from New York City, whereas Snohomish is less than 30 miles from downtown Seattle. In Woodstock we were in the country. Snohomish is a small town, but drive a mile or two south on Route 9, and you’re unmistakably in the suburbs. Or you can just stand still and wait for the suburbs to come to you.

From my point of view, the big difference, the oh-my-God-this-changes-everything difference, is traffic. Living in Woodstock kept me out of any kind of traffic except on those rare occasions when I drove north to Albany, or even rarer, south to Poughkeepsie. I never drove to what we simply called The City–it was so easy not to, with the Metro-North commuter rail line right there on another North-South state road that paralleled a major highway and for some reason was also called Route 9. If you were smart, you stayed off the New York State Thruway northbound on Friday afternoons in summer, and then southbound on Sunday evenings. Other than that, traffic was something I never had to think about. Snow, ice, and winding mountain roads, yes. Deer leaping in front of the car were a constant worry. Traffic, no.

Here, traffic is all around, even on the thoroughfares through Snohomish (though we’re learning some back ways), up and especially down 9, on the way to Everett, which is what you might call our market town, and thick the moment you head in the direction of Seattle. And this is the West, where traffic is inescapable. You can’t ignore it by walking everywhere, you can’t circumvent it with public transportation, you’re stuck with it. It’s a major problem for everyone, but most people just find it deeply annoying. I also find it frightening.

Not long after we moved here, I decided to have an eye exam. Not because I couldn’t see but because I hadn’t had one in a while. As a matter of fact, I have the worst vision one can have and still legally drive without glasses in Washington State, although I always do wear glasses when I’m driving.

I made an appointment, headed to the eye place at Fred Meyer (a local big-box store), and found myself in heavy urban late-afternoon traffic. It was winter, and therefore rainy. I followed my GPS instructions onto I-5, also known as The Dreaded I-5. There are many good ways of going back and forth between Snohomish and Everett and none of them involve I-5, but nevertheless most GPS systems will send you by I-5 by default and I hadn’t yet learned any other ways to get there.

At least I wasn’t on the Dreaded I-5 for very long. In less than ten miles, I was instructed to exit onto Evergreen Way, a four-lane road that at that hour was a solid wall of traffic. The Fred Meyer was just over a quarter mile away–but on which side? The GPS would only tell me when I reached that quarter-mile. And if I guessed wrong, there would be no way I could get over in time. I eased to the right lane, partly out of a vague memory that it would be on that side and partly because the thought of a left turn in that mess gave me the heebie jeebies. By some stroke of luck, I guessed right.

Want to know what happens next? Stay tuned for Part 2.

Image of The Dreaded I-5: Jeff Wilcox via Creative Commons

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RoadSign

Not Confusing at All

There’s a song by the Emerald City Jug Band that our friend Drew played us when we were first planning to move here. It’s called “Don’t Come to Seattle,” and it’s all about how unwelcome new arrivals to the area are. Is that how locals (most of whom also started life elsewhere) really feel about newcomers? If they do, you can’t blame them–more people are moving here now than at any time since the Gold Rush.

I don’t believe new people truly are unwelcome, at least not in Snohomish, which despite severe economic pressure to turn itself into a far suburb of Seattle and Redmond remains a charming old-style small town. And people in Washington seem to be unfailingly friendly, warm, and generally happy–there must be Prozac in the water, Drew says.

So perhaps there’s some other explanation I can’t think of for the way streets and places are named around here which seems deliberately intended to confuse people and send them off in the wrong direction. Bill and I have encountered this phenomenon so many times we’ve developed a ritual around it.

Me: “That’s not confusing!”

Him: “Not at all.”

Take Second Street (not 2nd Street) in Snohomish. Logically enough, that’s a long street that runs parallel to the Snohomish River and is between First and Third Streets in the old part of town. West of Ludwig Road, it’s called Riverview Road, and it runs right along the river, at some point changing its name to Rivershore Road. (That’s not confusing! Not at all.)

Going east, from Ludwig Road through most of Snohomish, it’s called Second Street, then the same road, without turning, changes into 92nd Street, and a bit further, still without turning, becomes 88th Street. One result is that if you’re driving east on Route 2 and want to go into Snohomish, you have to take the 88th Street exit which puts you onto 92nd Street. That’s not confusing either.

In Seattle, it’s even worse. Everyone knows the mnemonic for the names of Seattle’s major thoroughfares–Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest–but can’t recite the names of the streets those letters stand for. And did I mention that each of these letters stands for not one street but two–Jefferson and James, Cherry and Columbia, Marion and Madison…you get the idea. Are you confused yet? I certainly am.

Even the Seahawks, who personify their city in so many ways, are in on this. Wilson successfully passed to Willson during their last playoff game this season. But here’s my favorite of them all:

In Monroe, the next town east of here, is Tye Lake, a man-made lake stocked with plenty of fish and set up for family recreation. In Concrete, about 80 miles further east and north, is Lake Tyee, a much larger lake with an RV community along its shores. Were both were named for the surveyor William Francis Tye, who laid out the railroad line across Stevens Pass? Who knows?

All I can say is this:

That’s not confusing!

Not at all.

Christmas Present, Christmas Past

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Chrismast past in Woodstock. Image: Luke H. Gordon via Creative Commons

Back in New York, we had a Christmas tradition of sorts. We would shop furiously in the last weeks before Christmas, mostly online, but sometimes in stores as well. (We did the frantic Walmart-on-Christmas-Eve thing a couple of times, but that gets old fast.)

Christmas Eve, if Bill’s daughter Alyssa wasn’t hosting a gathering (it’s also her birthday) we would watch Santa arrive on the Woodstock Village Green. For those of you not from Ulster County, it’s a thing–Santa arrives on the Green at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, Woodstock time, which means anywhere between 5:15 and 5:45. Every year it’s different. In past years he’s arrived by elephant and camel (real) hang glider (suspended from a crane), giant dove that landed on a giant guitar (in honor of the Woodstock Festival symbol), flying VW minibus, and this year, although we weren’t there, he apparently arrived by pirate ship in the pouring rain.

After Santa, we’d return home to frantic candy-making or baking, and then present wrapping. I’d sit on the living room floor, surrounded by paper, ribbons, and tape, constantly misplacing and re-finding my scissors, with a Christmas movie playing on Netflix. Bill would stand at the dining table with his own scissors and tape, we’d get an assembly line going, and usually wouldn’t get finished until much too late at night.

The next morning we’d wake, bleary-eyed, drag ourselves to the car, and race up to Catskill or Albany or Freehold or Medusa, depending on where the kids and grandkids were gathering. Sometimes we’d bop from one to the other if they weren’t all in the same place. I would start out grumpy, feeling put out, and wishing we could just have a quiet Christmas at home, but by the end of a day spent handing out presents to kids, unwrapping some of our own, and eating way too many sweets, I would feel festive and content.

But that was there and this is here. A year ago, the racing around we did was far enough before Christmas for us to send huge boxes, one to Bill’s daughter’s house, one to Bill’s son’s house, filled with presents we’d either bought locally or ordered online in time to pack up. This fall was so crazy that we didn’t get it together to do that and wound up sending presents purchased online directly to their recipients, and also a box of extra doodads and gift cards that in each case arrived on the day after Christmas. We spent Christmas with the friends who inspired our move out here, friends so close they are almost like family. No presents by prior agreement. But we missed the kids and grandkids back in the East.

Last year it didn’t bother me; we’d only just moved. This year, even though we’d spent a lot of time with Steve’s family in August and Alyssa’s family in October, it bugged me a lot. Christmas felt decidedly un-Christmasy and the relentlessly rainy Western Washington weather didn’t help. It would have been silly to fly home for Christmas when we’d been there less than two months earlier after Mom died. (Maybe that’s another thing that made Christmas not feel like Christmas.) But…next year?

Part of me likes the idea of going–I’m training myself not to say “home”–back to New York for Christmas. But then again, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss New Year’s here, which was so nice that I dragged myself to two parties with a bad cold and had a great time anyway. The Hungry Pelican, where the old Hawthorne crowd now congregates for its Thursday night open mic and jam, had a heckuva nice New Year’s party and most of the Snohomish gang was there. There was great food, even better music, and a champagne and a lot of noisemakers and streamers at midnight.

I wouldn’t want to miss that next year. I guess this is what comes of having one foot in two places that each in its way feels like home. Christmas 2016 in New York, New Year’s in Snohomish…? Something to contemplate.

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Mom & Me

Mom and Minda

My mother died at 91, during the night of Labor Day, apparently in her sleep. She looked peaceful, and so beautiful, say the people who saw her body. I was 3,000 miles away.

Mom had Alzheimer’s for 15 years before she died, needing increasing care, losing quality of life drop by drop until there was nothing left. Before we moved, I asked my stepsisters’ permission to leave, since they were the ones caring for Mom and my 102-year-old stepfather Bill as well. But I knew they wouldn’t say no. They had been coping with everything beautifully, with only the very occasional request for help, such as our last Christmas on the East Coast which we spent with Mom and Bill. Which in retrospect means I got to be with Mom for her second-to-last Christmas on earth.

My history with Mom was complicated and wonderful because she herself was complicated and wonderful. Born in a village in the Philippines, she ran away from home at 13–by stowing away on a boat!–to escape the marriage her mother had arranged for her. She sang to the troops during the war, and afterward became an actress, starring in more than 20 Philippine movies. She kept acting, and working in theater, after moving here.

She met my father while he was vacationing in pre-Castro Havana and she was performing at the Tropicana. He was a psychiatrist, in every way her opposite, which may have been why they fell in love. It was a marriage that could never work in the long run.

When I was small she doted on me completely, lavishing me with the over-the-top affection she brought to everyone and everything she loved. When I was 11, she left my father, which is where things first began to get complicated. She was right to go. He was a good man, and a talented psychiatrist, but not able to be entirely present in their marriage or any relationship. I would live with her of course. No one ever considered any other possibility.

When I was 13, our relationship began to unravel. It was the same age at which she herself left her mother’s home–not a coincidence, I’ve been told by a therapist. To my perceptions then, she was completely erratic. The same transgression that got little reaction one day would send her into a rage the next. Sometimes I walked around thinking, “I hate her, I hate her,” over and over. I told my father again and again that I couldn’t stand living with her and eventually he asked me to move in. He told her it was for a couple of weeks; he told me it would really be permanent. It was a brilliant maneuver–she never would have let me go if she’d known the true plan. For the next few years, our relationship was tense, unpleasant, occasionally confrontational, and then practically nonexistent

With hindsight I can now see that Mom was living on her own for the first time in many years. My 22-year-old half-sister, who had just relocated from the Philippines, lived with us for a while, but after she moved on, I was the only other person in the household. She must have yearned for me to fill some of that void. Whereas I, as an adolescent, was in that stage of life where you separate emotionally from your birth family in order to become part of a larger world. It was a case of spectacularly bad timing.

We recovered, because we both grew up. After I went away to college, I found myself rediscovering my mother on my trips home. She had found her footing as a single woman and she talked to me like I was another grownup which I suppose I was. When I graduated, she advised me on my job hunt and tried to get me a job at Time, Inc. When I found work in publishing, she celebrated my successes. She gave me a Philodendron 30 years ago to celebrate my first business trip. I regretfully left that plant, which had grown huge, back in Woodstock, but a descendent is sprawling across the bookshelf in my office here.

Because of this history, I now tell people struggling with difficult teenagers to hang on, that better days are ahead. For me and Mom, the good and bad days are all behind us. And yet, it doesn’t really feel like she’s gone. Maybe because, I’ve been listening to her voice in my head for all these years, and it’s still there.

Goodbye, Mom. This world had never seen anything like you, and it never will again. I’m so lucky that you’re part of me.

Meyer Barn

Norman and Amanda

September 15, 2015

(Catching up to the present with this post.)

Amanda Meyer was born in 1912, the same year as my father and died on Bill’s birthday last year, at 101. She lived 99 of those years in Snohomish, and 83 of them here in this house on Ludwig Road, where she moved as a 19-year-old bride in 1931.

Her husband Norman L. Meyer was born in 1906 in Wisconsin but lived most of his life here and grew up on this property in a house that burned down and was replaced by this one. He and Amanda went to school together and she said he teased her but she got even by marrying him. At least, that’s what one family member told me when they dropped by to check something on the property. Norman’s nephew is our landlord. Living in this house, where Norman and Amanda spent all 69 years of their marriage, you might say Bill and I are slightly obsessed with them.

I can’t imagine any of it. I can’t imagine living over 80 years in the same house, or marrying at 19 and staying married for life, or living as they did, on a family farm with cows, horses, chickens, fruit trees, and I’m not sure what else. Last weekend, some old friends on their way to visit their graves in the cemetery up the road pulled into the driveway on impulse to see who was living here now. “Norman did a lot of grafting,” one of them told us, solving the mystery of why the big cherry tree near the wood shed seems to bear both Bing and Rainier cherries.

The two of them, and then Amanda by herself, must have watched as the city spread and development filled in the farmland. Were they proud to see their city grow or sad to see the farming way of life disappearing? They built this graceful house, and married, in the midst of the Great Depression. What was that like around here?

The house next door to ours, even older than this one I think, was recently sold to the developers whose work is coming up Ludwig Road, straight toward us like a slow-motion freight train. Bill went to a hearing about it and learned there was no way to slow the process, or even make the developer save the huge and ancient oak tree standing on the property in a region that–to my East Coast eyes–could use a few more deciduous trees.

We thought they’d be slow to sell the houses they’d built so far–big houses a few feet from one another with almost no lawns. “17 Unique Floor Plans” boasts the sign for the development. Since there are more than 60 houses, the language maven in me has been resisting the urge to drop by with a dictionary and explain the definition of “unique.” But that’s the least of our worries.

Bill brought home the map of the planned development and it’s evident from the way its roads come to the edge of our property and stop abruptly that in their future planning this place is next. If that happens, it won’t be for at least a couple of years. In the meantime, construction will start any time now on the property next door. We’ll watch the ancient trees come down. Building will come to within two feet of our driveway.

A couple of weeks ago, Norman’s great-nephew was here, looking over the property, and we learned a bit more. Norman worked for Weyerhaeuser and was, his nephew says, “A lumber snob.” So that almost none of the wood in this house has even a single knot in it. Also that the last time the barn was re-roofed the people who did it were cursing Norman for “using so many nails.” Meaning that he didn’t just have the house built, and the barns, garage, woodshed, and chicken coop. He himself built them.

It seems the house with its outbuildings could be parcelled off from the rest of the nine acres that inevitably will be developed for housing and so we may try to buy it, though we’re not sure we can afford it. If we don’t, sooner or later, the beautiful knotless barn will be destroyed, and the barn owls who fly out every night to hunt will have to go elsewhere. And the house too will likely be demolished, Norman’s fine wood and excessive nails carted away as debris. Or else, it’ll be remodeled into something unrecognizable and moved to a tiny corner, as happened to the hundred-year-old house in the development next door.

Either way, I hope Norman and Amanda, wherever they are, won’t be watching.

Image: My photo of Norman’s knotless barn

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