Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Empty Rooms (Part 2)

The following story is the final post in the Seven Rooms series.  If you missed part one of the Empty Rooms, click here: 

 After locking the door to the apartment, I carried the vacuum down to my white Chevy and drove two miles home. Lately things were looking up financially. I now had the bonus check from this cleaning job to look forward to, and a second job working on a landscaping crew to begin the next week.  A friend whom I met at the garden center owned a lawn maintenance company. Although it was unconventional to hire a white woman to work on his all male Mexican and Guatemalan crew, he knew of my situation and offered me the opportunity to help with edging and trimming lawns while his guys drove the mowers.  Over the next several weeks, I would ride around the city in the center seat of a truck between two young men, both named Jose'.  We stank of sweat.  The truck smelled like old lunch.

The two Jose's learned English by listening to the radio and watching television.  I learned more Spanish by listening to ranchero songs and their occassional conversations.  Mostly, we just worked.  Sometimes we ate lunch in the truck together and I nodded my head a lot.

At the end of a day operating a gas weed whip, I could barely lift my hands to my mouth to drag on a cigarette.  It was a brutal workout, and I often asked for help pulling the start cords.  The younger Jose' would be the first to come to my rescue.  After work, I was often too exhausted to fix a meal and would come home and belly flop on my bed.  Perhaps it would have been easier to drive a mower all day, but being new, I was happy to do the grunt work.  It was thrilling to work outdoors, visiting beautiful neighborhoods and completely free of the burden of talking.  There was no need to explain anything about my current situation because of the language barrier.  I just worked all day, ate a little, and slept.  It was a good way to survive the first summer when Emily was gone, having much needed time with her dad.  I was working too hard to have time to be an emotional wreck.

The truth is, I was a walking bag of pain.

And my harassing co-worker at the apartments knew this.  It's funny, but even while he tried every single day to get me to laugh at his dirty jokes, tried every hour to get me to pay attention to him in any kind of way, I developed a soft spot in my heart for him.  I was in this strange situation of feeling creeped out and full of pity.  What an odd turn in my life. I hadn't planned on growing up to wear steel toed boots and a tool belt, becoming a maintenance apprentice for this dirty old man driving me around in a rickety golf cart with bags of garbage and plumbing parts rattling in the back. The confusing part of my dilemna was that he genuinely liked people and wanted to be everyone's friend. It was difficult to ignore his enduring qualities, which took the edge off my disgust. On our routes around the complex fixing things like leaky garbage disposals and caulking bath tubs, he would talk to the residents about their lives and made them feel like someone cared.  For many, this was a rare gift to be seen as a person with feelings and problems.  One sunny day at the end of my shift, Frank (not his real name) pulled up to our workshop in the creaky golf cart and stopped to talk with a man sitting on the steps with a cloth laundry sack at his feet.  Frank was asking this man about joining the Moose Lodge and going out for a drink.  They talked about someday going sailing in the man's sailboat. In the middle of this conversation, (Frank was a long talker), the man unexpectedly interrupted to ask who I was.  Clearly annoyed at the interruption, Frank said, "oh, that's just JEN."

When the man reached over Frank to shake my hand and introduce himself, I was surprised by a feeling of instant recognition that passed through me like an electric current.  The charge of the moment made Frank feel defeated, and so he abruptly crafted an excuse to lock up the cart and put away tools.  I went home with the memory of that introduction floating around in my soul.

Some tall, dark and gorgeous man wanted to know my name.

I didn't know this, but before that meeting on the steps by the laundry room, my new friend had noticed me walking with my blue plastic bucket and my trash picking tool.  He was sitting in his car, and while I walked within his line of sight, he literally heard a voice in his head say "there goes your wife."

He shook his head a few times and wondered if he was going mad, then drove to work.  He forgot about the woman with the bucket and the voice until he saw me again at the steps.

A few days after that first meeting, I saw him at the mail boxes with a cocker spaniel.  I was driving home, but gave into a magnetizing impulse to stop and roll down my window. I said "hi" and we talked for a few minutes.  I asked him where he worked, and when he said (insert name of company where my ex husband used to work) I squelched an urge to step on the accellerator and drive out of sight. Ignoring that impulse, we discussed the idea of having coffee.   I gave him my number.  He repeated it to himself over an over on the way back to his apartment, which I learned later was the same apartment that I had been asked to clean.

Discoveries like this tell me that in life, there are no coincidences.  There is a plan in the making, and with our willingness to participate in blind faith, God shows up in a big way that will leave you with vertigo at the magic of it all.

My new friend was a humble guy who owned some clothing, tools, and a guitar.  He had a few dishes and a couple of pans.  He had been living on a sailboat before moving to our city, and the apartment he was now renting was devoid of furniture. What he lacked in material wealth, he made up for in emotional riches and layers upon layers of intelligence.  There was a depth to our conversations that sparkled with energy and light.  If I had been feeling sorry for myself, the pain of my suffering would be cared for in his tender understanding.  He was also recently divorced, and when I asked him where he was originally from, he said "misery."

But you wouldn't know it.  He wasn't the feel-sorry-for-me kind of person.  He was a survivor and a champion.  When I was invited to his apartment for dinner, I opened the door to this:

An empty room, suddenly furnished with a cardboard box table, covered with cloth and set with tin foil candle holders and tea lights.  Music I was comfortably familiar with played on a stereo, and the sound of a meal sizzling in a pan mixed with a delightful aroma was my welcome. I walked in to find him at the stove, dish cloth over his shoulder, tending beautiful little cuts of breaded veal and some vegetables.  No man had ever prepared a meal just for me. When we sat on the floor in the tea light, with this beautiful and simple gormet meal in front of me, I looked up into his smiling face and cried.

In every bite, I tasted kindness.  Care.  Compassion.

I didn't talk very much while he cleared the table and began to wash the dishes.  I think I just stat there in stunned emotion while he talked and washed up, too overwhelmed at the gift and the atmosphere of love he had created.

I went home and replayed the entire evening in my head until sleep finally came.  In the morning, everything was new.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year from my family to yours!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Empty Rooms (Part One)

While I was able to comfort my infant daughter when she cried during the night, during her childhood there were many times when nothing I could do or say would stop the tears.

The first day of kindergarten was traumatic.  When the bus arrived, five year old Emily, looking fresh and smart in a plaid skirt, locked her desperate arms around a telephone pole and refused to get on the bus.  The driver invited me to ride along with her, and my acceptance of the offer was the only way she released her determined grip.  This new situation of school struck terror in her heart.  As I sat in our seat, the children in the rows ahead turned to stare at us.  Again, as with my failure to uphold the advice of Ferber, I gave up trying to be the socially acceptable firm parent.  My daughter was crying, and it weakened my heart to see her suffer.

In the years that followed, Emily would have to change and adapt to a new school five times.  Most of those moves happened in the middle of the academic year, when classroom friendships and loyalties had already been established.  By the time we found ourselves in North Carolina, I remember feeling a wash of helplessness as I sat on the edge of her bed while she cried about yet another new school with a completely different set of expectations and people.  Her second grade teacher said she was silent and withdrawn.   The instability of our many moves was making a negative impact, not only on Emily, but on my relationship with her father. So many moves in such a short time prevented me from continuing my education or establishing myself in a job. I wondered if the tendency to pack up our family and relocate was a predictable pattern that could go on forever.

I became more isolated with each move.  More desperate for a sense of autonomy, friendship and empowerment.  When I saw a sign advertising "help wanted' at a local garden center, I called the number and was invited to an interview the following day.  After five minutes of this interview, I found myself shaking hands with the owner and agreeing to start on Monday.

Here's a brief version of what happened next:

I fell helplessly in love.  With my job growing baby plants in a beautiful greenhouse.  I also fell into a terrible situation with the grower.

And then suddenly I was standing in the empty rooms of my first apartment as a single parent.

 Emily had to change yet another elementary school.  And later say a heartbreaking goodbye to her dad when he moved back up north four months later.

Emily's wounds were so deep and raw during that time, and my self hatred and desperation so acute, one day I took her for a drive so she could scream at me and kick the back of my seat until emotion would subside in the rush of exertion.  We came back home to that spare apartment with white walls, defeated and drained at the unfairness of it all.  People wondered when I would give up and move "back home."

Even I wondered. Especially when the garden center closed and I lost my job.  Especially when the state couldn't find a record of my employment to offer me unemployment benefits.  Especially when I found myself at the department of social services, waiting a dreary eight hours in line for food assistance.  People wondered when I would give up and go home. The sight of an under-weight person is something that makes people feel uncomfortable.   I did honestly consider going back to Michigan, but at that time of struggle I experienced an unseen power holding me steady in place. An invisible magnet seemed to keep me driving the same routes every day, leaving me without a common sense explanation as to why I felt so strongly rooted to this place.  All of my family lived over seven hundred miles away.  Friendships were light and casually floated on the conversations of small talk.  Or, they were negative friendships based on unmet need.

I'm beginning to recover from a time of great stress and survival in this photo.  I don't have pictures of me at the lowest weight as we didn't have a camera.

It was a hard, dark time.  But in the middle of this grieving, there were signs of hope that life was going to improve.  I found a part time groundskeeper position at an apartment complex that allowed me to be home every day when Emily was home from school.  At my new job, one co-worker was sexually harassing me.  Every day, as I rode around in his dirty golf cart while we picked up cigarette butts in the parking lot, I listened to his lame attempts to get me into another bad situation.  I would come home and shower, never able to completely wash out the creepy feeling of his hungry eyes.  I kept going to work every day in spite of the shame. My mom sent funds to help us pay a month's rent while I waited for my first check, and the food benefits and medicare for Emily started to arrive. Later, my ex decided to start sending monthly funds and to call Emily every single day.  We made friends with other single parents and their children in our building and formed a little community of support.  I let go of my desperate hope that the grower would ever appear in my life in a positive way.

One year after my separation, I filed for divorce.  Soon after the papers were in process, my supervisor asked  if I would like to have some extra work cleaning an apartment for a new renter who needed to move in within the week.  Normally this job was already done by husband and wife, but they were out of town and in order to seal the deal on the new lease, this apartment needed to be ready for move-in in three days.

I worked for six hours one afternoon, degreasing a stove, scouring tubs and tile, cleaning windows and blinds.  I left the empty rooms with a feeling of accomplishment, wondering about the people who would make this place a home.

As I locked the door, I had no idea that this wouldn't be the last time I would see the inside of these empty rooms.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Emily's Nursery, The Fifth Room

I remember that I have left you at the moment I'm saying goodbye to my roomies and my freshman dorm room.  Someone wondered whether or not I was able to return and complete my studies.  Yes, and no.  I was able to return for my sophomore year, this time sharing an apartment with Heidi, Heather and Stacy.  This was a tough year for me, as my father was undergoing cancer treatments that nearly killed him. Frequently he was in and out of the hospital.  My mother was unable to leave his side, so I was unable to visit.  When a friend from high school learned of my dilemma, he offered to drive me back and forth on weekends when he wasn't working.

This high school friend later became my first husband and Emily's dad.  You can learn a lot about a person on a long drive.  You can talk in an easy manner while the world rushes past the window.  You can light up a smoke and listen to rock music, without caring about much of anything.  When it doesn't feel possible to accomplish anything, dreams fade and the comfort of a dependable, kind friend sets in.

 Three months after I married my friend, whom I also loved, we discovered that we were expecting.  I was totally unprepared for this news.

I had just signed up for classes at another university.

After holding my acceptance letter with conflict in my heart, I cancelled my participation in those courses because I had no idea that I could be a mom and a student at the same time. (I do know that it's possible now, but then, I had no confidence.)

So instead of books, we bought a rocking chair and a crib.  Both sides of our families threw us baby showers.  We lived in a lower level apartment, so the windows in the bedrooms met the ground. The window in Emily's nursery was large and let in the morning sun.  There was soft tan carpet on the floor and a large closet to hang the tiny little dresses we received as gifts.  My mother crocheted a white sweater set with a bonnet, and a little pink sweater with matching booties and some darling little buttons in the shape of flowers.  It was delicate and soft and I have kept it all these years.

Emily's nursery had a crib with a mobile that played music, and a night light that emitted yellow star shapes on the ceiling.  In one corner stood a laundry basket full of stuffed animals, in another, a small cabinet for baby books and lullaby tapes.  Every nap time and every evening, I would rock this new, pink skinned, beautiful miracle in my arms while I sat in the corner of her nursery, listening to the lullaby tapes and learning to sing all the lyrics.  Was it those early months of lullaby singing that imprinted something?  Emily has a beautiful voice and has loved to sing since the time she learned her first nursery songs.  She grew up to join the choir in middle and high school.   I know that one of the things she loves to do is to sing in the car when her favorite music comes on.  Her voice is beautiful and strong and if she would let me, I would take her to a college and encourage her to sign up for a music major.

 In the nursery, the world outside faded into nothing and I fell into a routine of attention, nurture and play.  She had a little white quilt with a cross-stitched teddy bear on the front, and I would lay her on this soft blanket, watching in amazement how she learned to reach for the stuffed blocks just out of her grasp.   When she was a little older, I hung a bouncer in the archway and sat cross legged on the floor, soaking up her delight in the freedom of baby bungie jumping.  If you happened to call me on the phone during these months, you would hear my voice rambling...  "Emily learned this today, and this, and this..."  She was so bright and smart and noticed everything.  She was afraid of strangers though, and would cry if they talked to her in the grocery check out.

  Emily was my entire world.  For the first two years I didn't work or take classes. I lived an hour and fifteen minutes from my parents and we only had one car.  There was no internet, and if there was, I didn't own a computer.  Phone calls were expensive.  It was just the two of us.  Emily's dad worked second shift, and took on as much overtime as was offered, so we didn't see him much.  I didn't have any friends, but I had a beautiful baby girl with blonde curly hair. She wasn't fussy very often, and so most of the time we were free to play, take long walks, watch Winnie the Pooh videos and sing.  I put off laundry until it was a mountain in the closet, left dishes on the counter, and responded quickly to the sudden arrival of tears or frustration.  I held her often and had a baby backpack to carry her in when we went shopping.  People called her spoiled.  Now they call it "baby wearing."

Then one day, when my husband thought we might need some socialization, he introduced us to some friends he met though work who were also new parents.  These parents were fans of parenting books and recommended that we read The Ferber Method to help Emily fall asleep on her own and sleep through the night.  I read the book, thinking that this was something I was supposed to do, and we tried it.

   Emily screamed and screamed at being left alone in her crib.  Her voice was piercing and the neighbors pounded and pounded on our ceiling for her to be quiet.  I kept thinking there must be a gentler way to do this, but my husband was determined.  My parents, God bless them, invited us to try the Ferber method at their house.   Emily screamed herself sick.  She put her chin over the side of the bars and gagged herself in distress.  I would go in to reassure her at the appointed time, completely heartbroken at her misery.  At five am, my father said, "that's enough." He had survived his cancer battle, and lived to be a grandparent!

   Back at our apartment, Emily and I shared a family bed from then on.  She was later able to fall asleep in her own bed if I would hold her hand or sit with her for a while, but usually would come in to crawl on my side of the bed at two a.m.    Her will was stronger than mine.

But what, in the end, was so wrong about that?  I wanted a happy baby who felt secure, not a baby who was traumatized by the fear of abandonment.  And by the time she was fourteen, she was so independent that she was able to make the very tough decision to live away from me.  The things we worry so much about usually are things that don't ever matter in the end.   I'm thankful now that I had those precious, fleeting years for just the two of us.  It was a gift more important than my college degree.

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