We stood in the middle of the apparatus bay admiring the thick, old beams and high ceilings that was traversed by pipes and electrical conduits. The room was still filled with boxes and odd bits and pieces of a life. A pile of photos, some loose, some contained within broken-paned frames littered the large built-in workbench. I wandered over to a box of old records and began to sort through some of the top ones. I lifted a copy of “Peter and the Wolf,” the same children’s classic that I had grown up with and it seemed like a sign. I know these people, I thought.
EJ explained to us that sellers were elderly and that the husband had done a lot of the work in the house himself until he was diagnosed with kidney disease and wound up on dialysis. The wife was now ill as well. It was clear that moving out had been a difficult process and there was still a lot of stuff around that they clearly either didn’t want or didn’t know how to get rid of. The scissor lift was a case in point.
“They will be accepting bids on Tuesday, but they have said that if a cash offer came through they would seriously consider it. I get the feeling this will become a bidding war.”
I looked at Jim. I could tell he knew what I was thinking. It would deplete my nest egg, but I could conceivably come up with a cash offer. The thought was terrifying.
“I might be able to do the cash thing,” I said, in what felt like a whisper. Could I really be considering buying another house?
“Would you want to do that?” Jim asked.
“I don’t know. But I think I could. My financial guys won’t be happy though. They will want me to sell Pine St. (my existing house).”
EJ got on the phone and found us an inspector who could do an inspection at 10am the next morning. We bid farewell, and drove away in a daze.
“Are we really seriously considering doing this?” I asked Jim.
“I don’t know. Are we?”
“The house is perfect for the both of us. It has a huge workshop for you, a double lot, historical interest for me…”
“But I don’t know much about the neighborhood,” Jim said.
“No. It will be a haul to get downtown. It’s a long way from my place.”
“But close to my work, and to the highway.”
“Yeah, it’ll be a 5-minute drive for me to get to work, and it’s only about 3 minutes to the highway.”
“Well, that’s certainly a plus.”
Our conversation mimicked the circles around the neighborhood we were now driving to try and better acquaint ourselves with the area. The local houses were generally non-descript, mid-century homes, interspersed with a few lovely old craftsmans. Along the main drag, a Safeway, RiteAid, MacDonalds and a handful of other fast food restaurants offered a kind of convenience not available in my existing neighborhood.
At home, we poured over Google maps looking at the house from every angle, researching the history (see the 2nd photo under “horse-drawn chemical Engine #1 for a picture of Fire Station #33), finding old photographs of the Firestation and Rainier Beach. We hunted the online archives and found that the city had some of the original architectural drawings. We discovered snippets of history about the fire station and grew more excited. I browsed the listing again and again, looking at the photographs, trying to glean as much information as I could. I set up a Pinterest Board to contain all the existing photos and to collect inspiring decorating ideas; everything from stair designs to what it might look like if I painted the interior all white to attic bathroom ideas.
I called my financial advisor.
“I like the idea of your downsizing,” he said. “I assume this means that you will be selling the Pine St. house?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m hoping that maybe I can rent it.”
“I’m not sure that will pencil out,” he said cautiously. “But we can talk about it in more detail if this works out. In the meantime, we can put the money together if you decide to move on it.”
His next question was inevitable.
“If you do buy it, you will need to decide how you are going to purchase it with Jim. Will it be Tenants in Common or Joint Tenancy?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you have any kind of agreement between you and Jim as to the payment of the property, what will happen if something happens to your relationship, that sort of thing?”
“No, not really. I guess we better think about that.”
“Well, you will need to be very clear what happens to the property if something happens to you. Do you want your kids to get the proceeds? Does Jim have heirs?”
“God, it sounds like we need a prenup.”
“It’s not far off. You need to get all those questions answered before you buy a house together.”
“Yeah, I guess we do.” It was beginning to dawn on me that buying a house with Jim demanded a deeper look into our relationship together. Buying this house was going to mean a lot more than just buying a house with Jim. This was going to take our relationship to a whole new level. Were we ready to make that leap?
This post is the 3rd in what I expect will be many episodes I have dubbed “The Fire House Chronicles.” See Episode 1 & Episode 2.
South side of house with blackberries.
The house is surrounded by blackberries that creep within 3 feet of where we stand, just outside the barn doors. They disappear up a slope at the back and side of the house and it’s impossible to see how big the property might be. Two huge maple trees covered in ivy, serve as giant columns that flank the rear of the house, shrouding the area in dappled sunlight.
The barn doors are old and in poor repair, but it’s possible to imagine that this was where the horse came in and out of the station, with a area in the back for them to graze.
We head back inside and make our way upstairs.
To the left, there is what looks to be a closet with no door. The walls are lined with an array of pipes, that look like the arms of an octopus.
“What is this room? And what’s with all those pipes? I ask.
“Some sort of heated room? EJ suggests.
“Maybe it’s where the firefighters dried their gear,” Jim suggests.
“Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Very cool.”
We continue into the bright living room that we have seen from the pictures. The room is enormous and sunny, painted the same off-white as the rest of the house. The ceiling light fixtures are the first thing we notice – a row of five simple brass fixtures each holding a large clear, round bulb. Although not original to the house, they suit the space well.
The brass fire pole in the corner of the room goes from ceiling to floor, but the hole in the floor is a false one, a circle of the fir flooring a foot below the living room floor blocks the way down.
“No sliding down that,” Jim says. “That would have to change.”
We move a circular cover on the floor not far away to reveal the hole where another firepole had been. We peer down into the apparatus bay, a dizzying height.
“Maybe we could put this pole back too,” I suggest. “Though landing down there would be awkward. Those cabinets down there are in the way.”
At one end of the living room, behind the closet with the pipes is another closet-like room, but this one has a window. It seems cozy and I immediately imagine a single chair and shelves full of books.
“This could be the library!” I say, excited.
A wooden bar-height counter opens into the kitchen. The cabinetry is lovely, but the kitchen itself is awkwardly laid out. On one side is a stovetop that, when standing at the stove, looks out to the living room, but there is no oven in sight. Behind the stove is a counter with a brass bar sink at one end and a fridge at the other. This counter is topped with a tall hutch that cuts the room in half. The hutch has several shallow cupboards with glass fronts, pretty but not big enough to hold more than a few glasses. On the other side of the hutch, another larger stainless steel sink and countertop, with a dishwasher beneath creates a galley-like kitchen. I find the wall oven built into the hutch, but on the side with the dishwasher, far from the stove.
“It’s hard to believe this kitchen was actually planned this way,” I say.
“Maybe this side was for entertaining,” Jim says waving his left hand at the area with the bar sink and stove, “And this side was for the servants to clean up,” he says, pointing with his right.
“Servants? You think the owner had servants? It’s all so weird,” I say.
As we walk back into the hallway, a man, obviously another realtor is making his way up the stairs with a youngish couple following. They head to the living room and we all smile tensely at each other.
In the enormous bathroom, the original shower stall made from beautiful Carrera marble takes up one corner. Beside it, the original white porcelain urinal, and a newer toilet. An antique armoire, obviously not original to the house, houses a sink and wall lighting.
“Do you think it still works?” I ask no one in particular pointing at the urinal.
“One way to find out…” Jim says. I shake my head and follow EJ to the next room.
Back room with doors to nowhere
The back room is bright despite one window boarded up and the other covered with a very worn out blue tarp. It looks as if has been there for many, many years. Light comes from a pair of old doors, and there is a window in what appears to be a tower. Jim slides the lock and the doors swing outwards. There is no railing or balcony, and the drop below is easily 20 feet.
“I think this may have been the hayloft,” Jim says. They would’ve hauled the hay up into this room. There was probably a davit over the door at one time.”
“This definitely needs a railing,” I say, standing well away from the opening, trying not to look down.
“There is an opening in the floor in this corner,” EJ says, pulling a board away to reveal a hole cut into the floor. I bet the hay was dropped through it to the stable room below.”
We find a similar hole in the opposite corner of the room.
A set of makeshift wooden steps in the middle of the room leads to the attic above, creating a loft, under which, illogically, are a washer and dryer.
“Do you think they always intended for the stairs to the attic to be here? It doesn’t make sense. This is the nicest room in the whole house, with that view of the property.” I can see it being a perfect bedroom, except for those steps. We would have to find another place for them.”
Jim and EJ are already climbing to the loft. As they reach the top, there is no railing, and they step gingerly onto the floor above and disappear. I hesitate, not liking the height, but then step bravely into the dark space. The T-shaped area is huge. We enter what was clearly intended as the master bathroom. At one end is a room, not much bigger than a closet with a door. Jim already has it open, and there is nothing but a toilet that faces the door.
“How odd,” I say.
Beside the toilet room, there is a single pedestal sink in front of a rectangular mirror and on the opposite side, another identical sink and mirror.
“It’s the dueling pianos of bathroom sinks!” Jim says.
Beside the sinks, nestled under the slope of the roof, is a waist-high, framed out structure that is too short to be a shower, but that has a fan and light fixture above it.
“What the heck was this supposed to be?” I ask.
“No idea. It’s like they started the renovation, and then just put the hammer down and walked away,” Jim says.
“Maybe some sort of bathtub?” EJ suggests.
The rest of the room is empty and enormous, as it covers the floor area of the entire house. The ceiling and walls are all sloped, but there is a tall peak in the center. At each end are windows that seem tiny compared to the giant room. From one window there is a view of Lake Washington through trees and houses.
“Looks like this was going to be the master bedroom,” EJ says.
“So sad that they weren’t able to see their dream realized,” Jim adds.
I am busy scoping out the room, trying to figure out where a set of stairs might go.
“Maybe if we take them up through the bathroom downstairs? or those closets by the living room? They must be right about here,” I say, stepping to the area I imagine the closets to be.
Making our way back down the stairs is frightening, first, because there is no railing at the top and also because we have left the ‘doors to nowhere’ open, and one misstep would land you 20 feet down. I am shaking when I finally step onto the floor.
Back in the hallway, I look up, trying to imagine a set of stairs in the bathroom.
“Stairs could go here,” I say waving my arm above, pointing at the spot.
The other realtor and his clients are now just leaving the kitchen, and EJ signals for me to be quiet.
“Don’t want to show too much excitement,” he whispers, smiling.
This post is the 2nd in what I expect will be many episodes I have dubbed “The Fire House Chronicles.” Episode 1 is here.
Hands cupped against glass, we peer into dusty windows. Given the photos in the listing, we know the place is empty, so we sneak our way around the perimeter of the house, squeezing past tendrils of blackberries and a huge rusted orange lift of some kind parked against the back of the house. The lift partially hid holes in the shingle siding and blue tarps covering some of the upper windows.
Inside, the “apparatus bay” as Jim calls it, is enormous. There are boxes and piles of junk. The walls are lined with workbenches and tools.
“This is your dream workshop!” I say. Jim appears speechless.
“Yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” He finally says.
Before we have even gotten around the whole house, I am pulling my phone out of my pocket.
“Should I call EJ?”
“Yeah, let’s take a closer look.”
“You’re sitting in your car in front of a house you want to see right now, aren’t you?” EJ says. I laugh.
“Uh, yeah, maybe,” I say sheepishly.
We arrange to meet after lunch for a full tour. Over lunch at a local wood-fired pizza place that has become one of our favorite date spots, given it’s close proximity to Renton airport, where Jim sometimes keeps his small amphibian plane, we talk about the house excitedly. It seems like a perfect fit: A sublime mix of workshop, property, old house and off-the-beaten-track neighborhood that seems to epitomize the nature of my and Jim’s relationship.
“But do we want to live in Rainier Beach?” I ask. I love my beautiful neighborhood, it’s 10-minute proximity to downtown, Captial Hill (an area where many of my writing events take place), Lake Washington, and highway. I know the location is going to be the hardest hurdle for me to get my head around. For Jim, the new location will put him closer to his work and is a 3-minute drive to the highway. Still, Rainier Beach does not have a great reputation. It is perceived as being a hub of gang activity, shootings, and crime. That said, my neighborhood is no better for similar activity.
We meet EJ on the front lawn. He is wearing a suit, which gives him a professional flair, surprising me for a moment, since I am used to seeing him in t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. I realize I haven’t seen him in quite a while, and I have forgotten how he is both formal in his posture yet extremely friendly, quick with a laugh and smile. He shakes my hand and then Jim’s.
“This is so cool!” He says looking up at the front face of the house.
We enter into a large room, the original “captain’s office.” The ceilings are 15-20 feet high. There is a worn gray carpet on the floor, two old drafting tables in each corner, one covered in business cards of realtor’s who have already visited, the other with pictures of the house. There are old shelves, empty of their contents, huge windows, with transom windows above them. The room though dilapidated is full of light. I mentally adopt it as my eventual office.
From the office, we pass into a hallway. The floor is old, grooved cement. To the right are a set of steps to the upper level, to the left, a huge french door leading into the apparatus bay that we had seen from the windows. We step inside, and gasp at the enormity of the room. It is approximately 50′ x 25′. Three huge windows line the south wall, but the overgrown trees outside let in only dappled sunlight. The front face is a giant garage door, that following the tracks up, folds into the 20′ ceilings crisscrossed with a byzantine array of pipes and beams and electrical conduits. Gigantic school house lights bathe the room in soft yellow light.
The house has the personality of an old man, very strong and solidly built, dressed in his best suit, which is well cut, but frayed a little on the sleeves. He’s full of wonderful stories, and the sound of his voice is soothing as he tells them, deep and resonant. You feel safe with him, but want to help him at the same time, sensing in him a desire to keep up with his colorful life.
“That must be the old fire pole,” Jim says. In one corner, there is what remains of a brass pole, hanging about 3 feet from the ceiling. Copper pipes are threaded up through it. “Too bad they cut it off.”
“Oh, that is too bad,” I say. From the pictures, the pole was clearly visible in the living room. What wasn’t clear was that it was cut off below.
“We can put it back,” Jim says with certainty. “We are definitely having fire pole!”
As we marvel at the room, EJ tells us what he has learned from the listing realtor.
“The owners have owned the house since 1974. They did quite a bit of renovating, but a few years ago, he got sick and was unable to continue. She told me they will be accepting bids on Tuesdays, but that if a cash offer came in before that, they would seriously consider it.”
I look at Jim. He gives me a look that tells me he knows what I’m thinking. My mind is spinning. My finances are precarious as far as my financial advisors are concerned since I am overleveraged in real-estate. This seems to be a genealogical financial state in my family. I think of each of my parents, and realize I was educated to love and invest in houses from a young age, having traipsed around old houses and buildings with my father as a kid. Standing in a room with him, he’d point to the walls that could be torn out, floors that could be easily repaired, kitchen cabinets that could be renewed with a few coats of white paint. I learned to see through cosmetic imperfections and focus instead on “the bones” of a place. The structure, the layout of rooms, the soundness of the foundation, the “location, location, location.”
Potentially, it’s possible for me to put together enough cash, with the caveat that in the long-term, I pay myself back with the sale of my present house. My heart clenches suddenly at the thought of selling it. Perhaps I rent it for a time and pay myself back slowly? I’m not sure how the finances might work between me and Jim, but I’m sure we can figure it out.
At the back of the bay, there is another room.
“What is this room?” I ask no one in particular. It appears to be another workroom. There is a strange half-loft, with an opening in the wall that we discover later is a hidden cavity (with a painstakingly tiled floor) created by a dropped ceiling built over the next room over. A built-in cupboard with a false back that opens into yet another secret cavity, a plank supported by two tall old radiators that may or may not be hooked up with bulletin board on the wall above, to which is pinned ziplock bags filled with tiny screws and nuts and who knows what else are the only furnishings. In my mind, despite not knowing what lies beyond, I am tearing down the wall between this room and the room at the back of the house, to create a larger space. We dub this room “the weird room.”
We continue to the back of the house, into a dark room filled with a collection of old wood, stacked in one corner. In one corner is an incongruously pretty bathroom, painted yellow with lace curtains, and white, hexagon-tiled floor.
From the grimy cement floor, it is necessary to step up into the bathroom and we guess that the owners were planning a new floor above the cement one. The back windows are shrouded in sheets, covered in dirt, dust and hundreds of fly carcasses and cobwebs. There are is a giant double door, of barn door proportions, windows now missing and covered over with plywood. Jim reaches up and pulls a chain that connects to a spring locking mechanism, but the door doesn’t open until he lifts another bolt-like lock that slides into the cement floor. Suddenly the room is flooded with light and the doors are open to the back yard, but it is impossible to step outside, due to the giant lift blocking the way.
“What is that thing?” I ask.
“Some sort of scissor lift, I think.” Jim replies.
“Doesn’t look like it’s worked in years,” EJ adds.
“What on earth do we do with it?”
“You could probably have it carted away by one of the junk haulers,” EJ suggests.
“Or we could fix it. Could be useful,” Jim adds. If anyone could fix it, it would be Jim.
“The place is very tall. It must have been used to get up onto the roof.” Jim doesn’t hear me, as he is already clambering on the machine to check it out.
It’s a day I don’t care to remember but one we are implored to “Never Forget.”
I spend a morning visiting Vashon Island, giving a tour to a woman who is in town to attend the launch of a biography about Betty MacDonald and given that she lost five years of her life to intense Betty-ism and research, I am only happy to oblige her with a tour of Betty’s house. The day is beautiful, sunny. She is in a state of euphoria as we walk around the house and along the beach. We drink special tea and eat miniature pies at the kitchen table with “the boys,” to whom I have rented the house and who maintain it with such adoration.
Driving off the ferry, a call lights up my phone with a 416 area code, Toronto. CTV News. Can I do an interview in an hour? “We use Facetime now,” he explains. At the fire station, I find myself answering familiar questions as I stare into my blank cell phone as it sits propped up on the kitchen counter. I am unclear why I have agreed to do this.
The following evening, the eve of 9/11, Jim and I fly above a twilit Seattle and it feels like freedom from the chaos below. As we fly over the baseball stadium, we can see people projected on the giant TV screen. I realize that it’s Jamie Moyer and his wife, and I reminded of all the grieving kids that their foundation has helped through Camp Erin, and shake my head at the irony.
At dinner, a family walks by the window, and I watch as a man swings his young son onto his shoulders, his wife looking on, smiling. The son’s face is painted blue, and I know they’re coming home from the fair, which we can still hear. My heart grips for a moment, as I place myself in that scene with them, not so much remembering, as imagining Arron hoisting a similar sized Carter, face painted, onto his shoulder.
As I crawl into bed the phone rings again. My brother. I assume it is the beginning of the many phone calls and emails I will receive over the next 24 hours, but he calls to tell me how he got down on one knee in a restaurant and proposed to his girlfriend. I wish I could join them in dancing joyfully around their kitchen, drinking champagne.
15 years and this is how it goes. Beauty, soaring, irony, reminders and joys.
My facebook lights up as I write this, so thank you all for thinking of us today, for all the emails and phone calls and facebook posts. They are certainly one of the many joys we receive on this day.
After four years together, Jim and I were trying to combine our lives and were experiencing some turbulence. Jim had grown tired of living between his bachelor basement in Georgetown, Seattle’s gritty, hipster neighborhood, his fire station and my house, in the more gentrified, though still quirky neighborhood of Madrona. When I moved from New Jersey to Seattle in 2005, I had found my dream house. Full of light, a view of Lake Washington, in a fun, beautiful neighborhood. It was a perfect place to raise the kids, but I assumed when they left home, I would downsize. Now that time was drawing near, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave. Finances, however, looked to be making the decision for me.
Plus, I didn’t account for Jim in that vague downsizing plan. In my imagined relationships, dreamed up before Jim came along, I never considered the move-in together phase. Or if I did, I just assumed he’d move in with me. I had no any idea what it would mean to combine two well-established lives.
No matter what way Jim tried to fit himself into our house, he just couldn’t quite settle in. It was like squeezing a puzzle piece into a hole that looks to be the right shape, but isn’t quite. You turn it one way and then another, and finally just try to jam it in there with your thumb. Jim was feeling the squeeze. His desk was under the stairway in my office, his wheelie chair often rolling into the middle of the room, where it was necessary to walk around it or try and shove it back in place. With nowhere to put the picture of fighter jets his father flew, he placed it in front of the large mirror, but would come home to find it pushed out of the way, whenever my daughter needed a full-length view of herself.
The garage, which I had given over to him in the midst of our compromise was slowly being fashioned into his dream garage, with large metal cabinets to which he attached wheels, tools moved into them, plastic tubs organized.
In its new pristine state, the garage became a lure for my son who was rebuilding a motorcycle engine, a project that Jim had introduced him to. After two years of Jim mostly working on the engine by himself, my son finally discovered that having a motorcycle was cool and had taken a new interest in the project. Jim now returned to his garage sanctuary to find his tools in disarray or lost, plastic bins dumped and filled with old oil, garbage littering the floor. How to both encourage my son’s industriousness and teach him responsible tidy habits?
Jim and I went for brunch one morning, trying out a new, trendy spot located in a renovated warehouse. We forked chorizo hash, sitting in a loft area overlooking a large ground floor, filled with rusty September sun.
“Look at those huge glass garage doors,” Jim said. “This would make an awesome workshop.”
I looked around more closely. Two sides of the large space were walled with giant glass garage doors that clearly rolled up in the warm weather. We sat beneath thick, old growth, roughly hewn beams, surrounded by exposed brick walls. My imagination took over. An old warehouse, with a large garage area below and a funky renovated second floor for living. For the first time, I could see how Jim and I might combine our disparate lives. He with his planes and motorcycles and tools, me with my books and writing and cooking.
“Maybe we should look for an old warehouse,” I said. Looking back, I laugh thinking about how many young, hipster, Seattle couples have likely uttered the exact same sentence. Excited, I took it a step further and right then and there called a realtor friend. I’m glad I couldn’t see him roll his eyes when he heard my request.
We drove around after brunch, looking at warehouses in various semi-industrial areas of Seattle. At home, I hunted the Internet. We wandered around a strange old place with what looked like a few cool, white-washed and brick apartments with a working train track that ran along building with barely four feet of clearance.
I quickly realized we were looking for a unicorn in the hot Seattle real estate market.
So I set up a series of Zillow searches, providing glimpses into houses, workshops, and garages, and tried to picture a life combined with Jim’s. For a year, the emails came every morning. Sometimes I’d look at them, but more often I’d delete them, not having the time.
But that Thursday morning in June, I clicked. The first property listed was a tall, tutor-style house. The price was in range. I clicked further. Jim at his under-the-stairs desk was right behind me.
“Oh, my God,” I said aloud. “Look at this place! Jim, it’s an old fire station!”
I write to you full of compassion for the grief you are enduring right now. When my husband was killed – murdered – in the World Trade Center, I too was flung into a spotlight I didn’t want, didn’t expect, didn’t know how to cope with. I had people, strangers, the whole world mourning with me. People I barely knew arrived at my door crying, and I embraced them, comforting them with the vapors of my compassion, numb in my grief.
There are no words. There is no understanding someone who commits the vile act of purposely taking another’s life. You will find no comfort in vengeance. There is none to be had.
Today, I attended “Camp Widow” in San Diego, a place where people know loss. In memory of your loved ones, we were each given a stone bearing the word “hope,” a symbolic token meant to ground us, remind us of the love we once shared, to remember you in your grief and your loved ones. One of the slogans of this camp is “Hope Matters,” and I can think of no better message to impart to you in these dark days of your grief.
To each of you, I offer my rock of hope to hang onto, to ground you in the dark days ahead, to remind you that you are not alone.
I can tell you that it gets easier. The pain of grief never leaves, but it gets easier to breathe, to smile, to laugh.
You have the option to choose one of two paths in your journey of grief: you can choose to shut down, curl up in a ball, be angry, bitter, lash out. And you will do all of these things. But then you will get tired. So tired. It is exhausting to hold onto a ball of fire and eventually you will need to let go before it burns too badly. The other path is to find meaning in your grief, to release that burning ball you hold as you begin to see a little light breaking through the cracks in the darkness.
There is something different about this shooting, sadly, another among many, but Orlando is different. Can you feel it too? This country is tired of the shootings, the guns, the violence, the bullying, the terror. Enough is enough. The crack is getting wider and you, families, and me, and all the other families of innocent victims of terror around the world are poised to usher in the shift.
Your power lies in your ability to forge ahead in life, to make your loved one’s death and your own life meaningful, to teach others how to turn tragedy into love and joy, to help others through their own tragedies, to love again.
There is life after unimaginable loss, and I just want to shine a little of that light in your direction, so that you can find your way out.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph The Angel in the House
In her keynote talk at Vortext, a weekend of writing workshops put on by Hedgebrook, Ruth Orzeki talked about a poem called “The Angel of the House,” written by Coventry Patmore (what a name!), first published in 1854. The poem exemplified the Victorian ideal of a perfect woman, whose best traits were grounded in her children and home and doting upon her husband while men were best suited for public pursuits outside the home. The term “Angel in the house” came to represent the Victorian female ideal of a gentle woman devoted to her home and children and who acquiesced to all of her husband’s needs without complaint.
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
Ruth explained that Viginia Wolfe, in a speech that riffed on this poem, questioned the feminine ideal, saying about her angel in the house, “she bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her.”
Ah, those voices of judgement. How often do we sit idly by and let them rule us?
Ruth’s overall message was that to write is to be brave, that we must kill our angel in order to tell the absolute truth in the best way we know how, perform an act of ancarchy.
Her words clanged me over the head. I thought about my unfinished memoir that lives in a cloud, disjointed and confused, hiding where it’s safe, just where the Angel of the House thinks it should remain.
In its place, I have taken up a “fun” project writing about a dancer in Bali for no real reason other than she had an interesting life and I’ve always wanted to go to Bali, and what better excuse? A Balinese dancer is safe. There is no death or grieving. Instead there is color and gold headdresses and world travel, love affairs with Indian princes and making movies with Bing Crosby.
But Ruth and her killing of Angels got me thinking.
But there was more. Reiko Rizzuto, who uses Tarot cards readings to help her in her writing did a reading for the entire group asking the question, “What is it about your project that’s important?”
Just that question alone had me questioning everything.
I am sure we all took away our own personal messages from her reading. For me it was about uncovering hidden truths, committment to the truth, having the will/drive, healing, making sacrificies and liberation from guilt.
My memoir in the cloud rumbled, a distant thunder. Suddenly the Balinese dancer seemed like a silly child.
Later, sitting next to Ruth at lunch, I explained my dilemma.
“Write the fun one!” she said. “Write the one you’re excited about.”
I know this too. You have to be excited about a project in order to write. If a project is trudgery, it will never get written. But what about “committment to truth” and “making sacrifices?”
I’m on a teeter-totter of projects. One is fun and easy and for the other, I must kill an angel.
Gift of gifts, I have been offered a short stint in a cottage at Hedgebrook, so I am madly trying to untangle from my life for 4 days in the quiet woods of Whidbey Island where I can teeter-totter to my heart’s content. How lucky am I?
A college trip to Boston, New York, and Philly. See friends. A mother-son trip, our first and perhaps last. For him, New York was to be the highlight.
Carter asks to go to the 9/11 Museum, a trip I dread, but if my kid wants to go, I will go with him. I make an appointment and am told we will have use of a family room if we need some time to ourselves. Perhaps seeing the museum through a 16-year-old’s eyes, who I assume is less emotionally attached given he was a two-year-old when the event occurred, will be easier. But it will not be easy.
At six, Carter built a cardboard model of the towers. He knew their height, which floors of the towers the planes hit, how many people were killed, minute technical details. The night before his first-grade “show and tell” presentation, I made him promise not to show the Time Life magazine’s more graphic pictures to his class.
His learning about the event seemed as emotional for him as learning about volcanoes or dinosaurs. He learned facts. He loved gory details. He did his show and tell and I rarely heard about 9/11 again. He no longer needed to pour over that ghastly book.
The afternoon before our visit to the museum, we noodle around Times Square, jostling along with the hordes of people, noting that the Naked Cowboy is still there (is he the same guy as 15 years ago?). We are hustled by the guys “giving” us their Hip Hop CD demos for a small “donation.” They flatter and cajole over what are probably blank CDs. Finally, we escape the mayhem and find a quiet Indian restaurant on the second floor of a building on 49th or so.
“I don’t think I like New York as much as I thought I would,” he says. “It’s cool and stuff, but all that consumerism and greed. It’s so in your face.” I agree that Times Square is certainly a good example of greed. “It’s weird to be here,” he says. “I mean, it’s New York, and that’s exciting, but it’s also where Daddy died.”
I too feel uneasy in New York. I always have. Its over-the-top tallness, crushes of people, blatant displays of both wealth and poverty. In just over an hour, we are both on edge, feeling a strange, jittery unease.
“After we do the museum tomorrow, we can go to some other areas that are a little more tame. A little nicer. Not so consumeristic,” I say. I picture walking along the tree-lined streets of Greenwich Village or sitting in a nice outdoor cafe in Soho watching people walk by.
We carry on our short tour, avoiding Times Square by walking through Rockafeller Center, down 5th to 41st and ducking back into the Port Authority to make our way to Montclair to see friends.
The next morning, I wake Carter early and we say goodbye to our friends in their driveway. He looks pale, but I assume it is the early morning awakening. We pull out and drive 100 feet down the road when he starts to heave. He flings open the car door and is sick.
This is not new. Usually, it happens on the way to airports. I spent many flights next to him, holding open the garbage bag that I had nabbed from a hotel or airport washroom as he threw up, rubbing his back, every half hour until we arrived home. We nearly spent one Christmas in an Atlanta hotel when the flight crew wouldn’t let us board. That was the year I learned Olivia’s ability to stand her ground, no matter who was in her way. I credited her for getting us on that flight.
The significance of his episodes always happening before a flight only dawned on me years after they began when he was finally able to articulate that he was afraid of flying because he thought bad guys could get onto the plane and fly it into a building.
“Should we go back?” I ask him. I know we probably should. This isn’t likely to end soon.
“I ate a bad Philly Cheesesteak last night,” he says. “I’ll be OK.”
This too has happened. A one-time deal, where he gets out whatever doesn’t agree with him and carries on. I put the car in drive and continue driving. At the Port Authority parking lot, I slow the car and the door flings open again.
I should turn around and go back to New Jersey, but I still hope for him to have his fun day in New York City.
We get off the subway at the World Trade Center (previously called Chambers Street, I realize). He stops to barf into a trash bin. On the street, we follow the crowds down Vesey Street. He slows into a blocked corner, cordoning off ongoing construction. I leave him there to find Dramamine and return to find him sitting on the sidewalk away from the splatter. I hope the first dose works quickly. I picture the museum’s family room having a couch and running water and make it our destination.
At the museum, I find the “family” ticket window. We are directed to stand in line. Lines are not good. I feel around my purse for the plastic bag I begged from a subway Hudson News. I panic seeing the airport-like security screening. Counting back the minutes from the last episode, I estimate we have 15 minutes before the next.
I am shocked by the number of people filing into the museum with us. It seems ghoulish. Why do they come? Why is this now one of the major tourist attractions in New York? I assume it’s for the same reason people used to watch public hangings or rubber neck at highway accidents. But what is the curiosity about? Affirmation that it couldn’t happen to them?
I see a giant steel girder. We are really here. The few times I have been to the site, I have been conscious of being in the place where Arron died. I feel as if I am stepping on his body, as irrational as that is. My heart pounds.
I get us to the cafe on the second floor and put Carter in a seat. He rests his head on the table. I buy water, give him another dose of medicine. I notice a woman, a security officer looking at us. I approach a docent, who oddly, doesn’t know where the family room is located. He asks the security officer who has been watching us. I explain our situation to her. At first, she is all business and asks to see my ticket. She walks up to Carter, who is still resting his head on the table.
“You’re not feeling well?”
He shakes his head and looks up at her.
“Follow me,” she says so abruptly that I scramble to collect bags and coats and she is standing by a door holding it open as I scurry after them.
We are led into a room where I am relieved to see a couch and two chairs. Carter flops into one. I hunt around for a garbage pail. The security guard pulls out a large container from under a sink in the corner. Within a few minutes, Carter is heaving into it.
When he is done, the security guard, who I have now learned is named Maria, leaves to get me tea.
He begins to sob. I hold him close, something I realize I haven’t done in a while. What 16-year-old boy wants comfort from his mom? I let him sob until he is spent. We let go and he flops back in his seat, looks around.
“This room is creepy,” he says. The walls are covered with photos of loved ones, etchings of names from the memorial, children’s drawings, prayer cards, things that family members have brought to add to the walls. This strikes me as odd. Who are they for? The other family members who come to this room? Is leaving a piece of their loved on in this room comforting in some way? Happy people smile at us – a guy on a bike, a young woman in the prime of life, another whose portrait is somehow haunting – she is gaunt with large, worried eyes. Did she subconsciously know her fate as I believed Arron did?
Through obscured windows, painted with a dotted pattern, I see the crowds lingering around the South Tower memorial. The waterfall from inside the huge box falls into a pool with a square hole at its center, and water pours further down the abyss.
The throwing up continues. Maria sits on the edge of one of the chairs and I learn a little about her. She worked in the medical field. Her brother died in 9/11 and her son convinced her to take the museum security job where she has learned to leave her emotions at work because every day she encounters another heartbreak.
She tells of trying to help a young man, sobbing in front of one of the displays, a group of drawings of the Twin Towers made by traumatized area school children. He was with several friends, who were clearly uncomfortable with his display of emotion. She asked him if he had lost a family member but he shook his head. He pointed to one of the drawings. “I drew that in 5th grade,” he said. We both had tears in our eyes.
Maria also tells of the many wonderful things she sees every day. The humanity, the compassion. She is reminded of the strength of the city and it’s people on a daily basis, is humbled by the thousands of people who visit the museum every day, to pay their respects, learn, understand. I begin to see the crowds as less ghoulish and more compassionate.
Later, Carter finds his way to the couch and sleeps. I eat a sandwich. Another security guard offers to take me to the wall to see Arron’s name. Maria insists I go while she stays with Carter.
I learn that Bobby, my escort, is a retired New York City Police officer. He took the job for many of the same reasons as Maria. “I lost 30 friends and colleagues that day,” he says. “It’s my way of giving back.” I wonder how many on staff at the museum work for this same reason. A form of healing, assuaging the survivor’s guilt that so many survivors must feel.
We find our way to Arron’s section, N21. Almost 22, our shared birthdate. His name is centered between the two people who joined him at the conference that morning. The two people he hired only weeks before. It is strange to stand there, looking into an acre-sized square hole filled with water, a giant grave. The impossibility of it all hits me again. Bobby explains how people are surprised by how far apart the two buildings actually were. “People assume they were very close since it looks that way on TV,” he says.
Carter is still sleeping when I return and Maria asks if I want to go downstairs. I have been glad to have Carter as an excuse not to go. “My boss will accompany you,” she says gently. I am torn. I don’t want to go, but feel I should, somehow. Am I strong enough? Is there any benefit? I wanted to see the museum with Carter, not a stranger, even a very kind stranger. Maria gently pushes me and I agree to go.
My new escort Claudio is a retired NYPD Lieutenant. He drove to Ground Zero that morning, positioned at the head of his fleet of motorcycles and commandeered hundreds of busses to evacuate people from the area. He didn’t stop working for 42 days. We descend into the gloom and he points out things as we walk quickly past them, ducking in front of people gazing at the displays. Much of the info I already know, and we breeze along so quickly, I don’t look closely at much. The pit under the North Tower memorial I remember from the one-year anniversary when we were corraled down the ramp into it. The slurry wall is like a vast sculpture with its giant bolts poking from it in regular intervals. Claudio tells me that during hurricane Sandy, the pit filled with 9 feet of water. “You can see the watermark there, on the steel girder. That was the last one they extricated from the site.” The girder is covered in flags and graffiti and names, the lower ones blurred where they had been underwater. The amount of water that must have flooded the area is unfathomable.
Claudio shows me how to find Arron’s name on a touchscreen, and make it appear in the small theater nearby. I am sorry that I have never recorded something to go along with Arron’s profile. I wish there are other photos of him as well, but at the time they were collecting such things, I wanted nothing to do with this place. I didn’t want Arron there either. Now it seems a shame.
I am fascinated by the display of the time lapse radar imaging of all the US flights that day. At 8am, the little yellow planes that scurry around the US map look like a swarm of bees slowly dying as the lapse continues through the day and the planes are grounded.
Claudio’s stops by a display showing the view of the burning towers from the space station which just happened to be flying over New York at the time of the attack. Even on satellite, it’s possible to see the billows of smoke. He shakes his head, “they just happened to be flying right over at exactly that time,” he says. “What were the chances of that?”
On our way out, we pass a huge photo of one of the towers taken from someone standing on the ground looking up. Although the display is below ground, sunlight from a window above casts a prism of rainbow on it, that lines up perfectly with the angle of the side of the building.
A rainbow cast on the left side of this photo of the tower
Now nearing 4pm, I rouse Carter. He is slow to wake up, but it has been a few hours since his last episode. I am hopeful that we can make it back to the Port Authority and carry on t0 Philadelphia. It seems necessary to get Carter out of the building and out of the city.
“I just want to see Daddy’s name,” he says. I look for Maria to say goodbye. “She’s on her break. She refused to take one all day,” another officer tells me. Once again I am humbled by the care of people in this city and the kindness they have always shown us.
At N21, Carter breaks down into sobs once again and I stand feeling tiny under his 6’3″ frame, long arms draped over my shoulders.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. There are no words.
Somehow managing to conceal himself within his hoodie, he takes a photo of his father’s name.
At the Port Authority, Carter leaves one final parting shot, his own form of commentary. We emerge from the Lincoln tunnel as if from Hades, into blinding sunlight, and drive south, happy to be heading in another direction.
Another reminiscence of my childhood… Seems to be a theme lately.
I lay on my stomach, my hands covered in charcoal. The polished stone floor was shiny and I could see the individual pebbles that were embedded within it. The paper kept rolling up at the edges, and so I positioned my body on it lengthwise as best as I could to still be able to write. The door to the classroom was open and I could see all the other kids leaned over their desks working. Miss Elkington, my third-grade teacher walked around the room in her long skirt, her white hair piled into a bun on top of her head with wisps falling around her face. Every now and then she would crouch down to speak quietly to one of the kids.
“Write a poem about a place where you feel calm,” she told the class. Her writing lessons were my favorite part of the day. I could tell it was her favorite part of the day as well. She loved poetry and words and reading. She always asked what we were reading and I read voraciously that year, just so I could have a good answer. In the life of most kids, the year a family splits up might be considered a tumultuous year, but I don’t remember it that way. I loved going to Miss Elkington’s class. She was the steady constant for me that year. My sister and I moved out of our house to a tiny two-bedroom apartment across the park with my mom and Larry, a friend of my mom and dad’s who had been living in the third floor of our house, and who would eventually become my step-father. My mom and Larry made it into an adventure. “It will be like camping! You’ll sleep in sleeping bags on the floor. And we can go to Thirfty’s and get you some new overalls!” I didn’t cry about how lonely my dad might be until later.
Miss Elkington suggested I copy my poem onto a larger paper and ripped a piece off a big roll. She handed me some charcoal. “You might want to do a drawing to go with your poem,” she said. I felt special because I was the only one that she gave large paper to and allowed to sit in the school hallway to write out my poem. It was a poem about listening to the silence of the sea. I was proud of it. I wrote it as big as I could on the wide page, trying to make my letters neat. I drew the sea beside the words, with whitecapped waves crashing onto the rocks. The whitecaps didn’t turn out like I wanted, they looked more like scribbles, but I was happy with it otherwise. Miss Elkington stood over me looking down at my work.
“It’s beautiful, Abby. Let’s roll it up so you can take it home.” She carefully rolled it and secured it with an elastic band.
In the lunch room later, Cecilia, an older, grade 4 girl with thick glasses, who was in the special ed class, accused me of showing off because I was practicing my cartwheels in the hallway.
“You think you’re so great!” she said.
“No I don’t. I just like doing cartwheels.” I was very scared of her. I knew the other girls in my class were scared of her too. She came and stood inches from my face and shoved me. It was very unexpected.
“Stop it!” I screamed, my hands flailing to try and push her away. One of my hands caught on her classes and they went flying. I watched them skid along the floor in what seemed slow motion. Bouncing off a wall, one of the thick lenses popped out of the frame. I held my breath.
“TEACHER!!” she cried. “That girl just tried to beat me up and knocked my glasses off and now they’re BROKEN!!” She ran over to the teacher on lunch duty, who looked at me.
“Did you do this?” She glared at me and I burst into tears.
“I didn’t mean to.” I couldn’t say anything else to defend myself through my tears. We were both sent to the principal’s office. We sat side by side on the wooden chairs just outside the principal’s door.
“You’re going to be in BIG trouble,” she said. “They can’t get mad at me because I’m in special ed.” I responded with more tears.
“Cecilia, can you come in please?” he said. She turned and stuck her tongue out at me.
A few minutes later, she came out. As she walked past me, she whispered, “You’re in BIG trouble!”
“Abby, can you come in now?”
I sat in a big chair in front of his desk.
“Well, Abby, I’ve called your mother. She’s on her way.” I imagined my mom being very mad to have to leave work to come and get me. I cried more.
“Can you tell me what happened?” The principal said gently. I wiped my tears and sucked in a breath.
“She got mad that I was doing cartwheels. She thought I was showing off. She pushed me, and I pushed back. My hand knocked off her glasses, but it was an accident.”
“Ok,” he said. “That’s fine. I know that Cecelia can be a little… excitable. You just try and stay away from her from now on OK?”
“Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?” he asked. I looked at him blankly. I couldn’t imagine what else I would talk to this man about. I had never spoken to him before. I shook my head.
“OK, well, why don’t you wait outside until your mother gets here, OK?”
I sat for what felt like hours. Lunch was long over and everyone was back in their classrooms.
When my mother arrived, I started crying again. She came and gave me a hug. “I’ll just go and talk to the principal for a minute and then we can go, OK?”
I nodded. She came out of the office a few minutes later. She didn’t look too mad.
“OK, are you ready? Let’s go to your classroom and get your things.”
“OK,” I said.
In Miss Elkington’s class, I felt weird taking my coat and my book bag. All the kids were looking at me.
“Don’t forget your poem,” Miss Elkington said, handing me the rolled up poem. She turned to my mother.
“Abby wrote a beautiful poem today.”
We sat in the car, still in the school parking lot. My mom turned to me. “So what happened?”
I told her the story again. “She’s crazy, Mommy. Really.” I said.
“And nothing else is bothering you?” She looked at me intently.
“Well, the principal thinks you might be upset because of what’s happened between your dad and I.”
I was taken aback. My parents hadn’t entered my mind at all. It never really occurred to me that my strange new living arrangement, the walks across the park clutching my three-year-old sister’s hand, telling her it would be OK, that I would be her mommy when we were at daddy’s, might have an adverse affect on me. To me it was an adventure and I got to be grown up and take care of my sister. Except for feeling sad for my dad, I didn’t see it as a bad thing, until now.
“No. I’m not Mommy. You have to believe me. She was just crazy, that’s all. She pushed me because I was doing cartwheels. All the girls are scared of her.”
“OK,” she said, not looking convinced. “Well, I hope you will talk to me if you are having a hard time with everything that’s been going on.”
“OK.” I said.
“So can I see that poem you wrote?”
I unrolled the paper and showed it to her.
“That’s lovely,” she said. “That’s beautiful writing.”
Reading the poem now, I understand the adult’s concern for a young girl whose parents have just split up. The poem is about a lone child who watches the waves roll in, before running down to the beach to listen to the sea “more loudly,” watch the seagulls, pick up a shell to hear the sound of the sea inside. The day is cloudy, about to rain. The poem is melancholy and lonely. But I don’t remember feeling that way when I wrote it. I remember dreaming about seeing the beach, and feeling lulled by the sounds and the calm that I found there. At the young age of 8, I had not yet seen a real ocean and it was something I longed to see.
I must have written more poems in Miss Elkington’s class, but I don’t remember them. No other poems were saved. Somehow, the magic of writing poetry was lost to me that day, though I was never aware of it, nor could have explained why.
I sat on a wooden bench waiting for the ballet class to let out so the next class could go in. Several young girls came in and sat nearby, yanking off their boots and pulling the familiar pink slippers out of their bags. I noticed their slippers had two crisscrossed elastics instead of the one I remembered carefully stitching on by hand when I was 10.
Inwardly, I groaned every time another 12-year-old girl took her place beside me and after putting on her slippers, bent her head over her phone. What am I doing here? The woman on the phone had said the class was mixed. “Everything from 10-year-olds to 70-year-olds,” she’d said. All I saw were the young girls.
Soon, a parade of purple leotarded girls came barreling down the steps from the studio, signalling the end of their class and the beginning of the next. The purple leotards reminded me of the pale blue leotard I used to wear, with a matching elastic around the waist (so the teacher could see your waist) and pink, almost white tights. The outfit was regulation Royal Academy of Dance, and I remembered the excited trips to the Capezio store in Toronto to buy them, along with the pink slippers that each came with a length of pink elastic that I had to sew myself into the shoes, folding down the backs, and sewing the elastic where the back met the sides.
I trudged up the steps behind a slim, ponytailed girl in tights, her boots unzipped. A blonde woman wearing black workout tights and a white t-shirt was my saviour. I watched her place her things in the corner of the room and did the same. We smiled shyly at each other. Two portable bars were moved into the center of the room, perpendicular to the mirror, which I found odd. I was used to the bar being attached to the mirror so that you mostly faced it. Perhaps tonight I would be grateful to not have to watch myself so closely.
The man teaching the class was older than I was, which comforted me somewhat. He’d be understanding when I fumbled, though after a 35 year hiatus from ballet, fumbling was the least of my worries.
“We don’t use 3rd position anymore,” he said, clearly for my benefit. “So it’s first, second, fourth and fifth.” He demonstrated each position, plié-ing at the end of the sequence. The familiar piano played and muscle memory took over. I felt like laughing. My knees crunched with the plié, but it all came back. I had to work harder to remember each sequence, in part because the instructor’s demonstrations were a little haphazard, stopping as he did in the middle of each one, to explain some nuance of form and then forgetting where he left off.
I followed a young girl in front of me, who wore a black leotard with sparkling straps. I smiled at her young, flingy form, still so new to ballet, that the solid, controlled form was not yet developed. Her back swayed with each backward leg lift, arms a kimbo with each fifth position bras bas.
I surprised myself with each new exercise, realizing how ingrained each was into my brain. “Does anyone know what “Frappé” means? Whipped, I thought. The ball of my foot magically hit the floor in a quick tap, and then quickly curled itself back around my ankle in response to the word.
During a break, I approached my ally. “I think I’m going to be very sore tomorrow,” I said. She smiled. “Yes, I’m sore for two days after every class.”
“I am surprised how much this is all coming back to me,” I said. “Have you taken ballet before?” I asked her.
“For a year when I was in fourth grade.” She had a slight accent. Perhaps French. “And you?”
“Yes, quite a bit actually. From age 6 or 7 till 9th grade.” I hadn’t really thought about how long I had done ballet before. It seemed quite a while. I took classes on Saturday mornings at Canada’s National Ballet School, a rather prestigious private bilingual school that used their Saturday morning classes for recruiting purposes. I remember the harshness of the classes: sitting with legs straight out, pointing toes, trying to touch the floor with them. If they didn’t touch, the teacher came around and pushed the tops of our feet hard until they did. At the time, my feet were dry and cracked from cold, wet winter boots, and the act was painful and I cried.
Still, I took an exam one Saturday, along with hundreds of other tiny ballerinas, each in our blue leotards pinned with a number. I was one of the few accepted, and, despite the trauma of cracked feet, longed to go, but my family could not afford the tuition. Years later my mother told me their assessment of me was that I would be too tall and have trouble with my knees as I got older, which amazed me in its accuracy.
Back at the barre, we did some exercises facing the mirror and I was horrified to see a big woman’s body in place of the child-like waif I expected to see there. I averted my eyes, watching one of the unruly girls instead, mentally critiquing her form and trying to make mine better. I had forgotten too, how competitive I used to be.
We practiced pirouettes, something I still did from time to time in the middle of my kitchen. The teacher was again confusing everyone in his demonstration, so we whirled around like dervishes, hopping on toes, landing with thuds. I was relieved to be in good company.
As I slipped into my rubber boots after class, I felt as if I had claimed and old piece of myself, a little girl in a pale blue leotard and pink tights with one strap hand sewn onto her slippers. I am glad she is back. I’ve missed her.