Priceless

Yesterday was my birthday. Yup, I’m 53 now. Kind of crazy when I think about it. Time is flying by.

My Mom hosted a birthday party for me last night so I got to see my eldest brother and his family – including his son and his grandchildren. It’s been a visit full of memories and reminiscing. And what are birthday’s without gifts? I need nothing. Seriously, I don’t want a thing. But it seemed there were other plans.

My entire childhood I used to sit on the toilet lid and watch my Mom put her hair up. My Mother’s hair has always been long – she promised my Dad she would never cut it short. But I never remember one day, in all that time, that she wore it long.

Mom’s Tobacco Can

Every morning she pinned it up, back ratting it and then spraying it so that a Caribbean hurricane couldn’t budge one hair out of place. And she always kept her bobby pins in an old pipe tobacco can from my Dad’s pipe smoking days in the 1960’s.

I saw this can last week when she sent me into her bathroom to fetch something for her. Since I’m struggling with naming anything I want when all the contents of my childhood home are liquidated, I told her ‘I want that old tobacco can’. Surprise! Upon opening my birthday presents, it seemed she had cleaned it out for the first time in more than 50 years and it was wrapped up for my Birthday. I was touched beyond words.

Then I got the last piece from the dinner wear set we ate on when I was small. Sort of a Jetson’s meets the Space Race kind of deal. Seems appropriate since it’s the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing and we were eating on these dishes watching it touchdown on our black and white t.v.. I might have to hand carry that on the plane.

And this painting of my Grandma Maggie’s house in Seattle. I remember seeing it in her house when I was a kid and now I’ll take it home and keep it safe. It will be well loved and I’ll smile when I pass it hanging on the wall.

But the best gift – sorry, Mom – was Jeff’s. He’s back in Valencia and has been home alone for a few weeks. He woke me up to his rendition of Happy Birthday. Learning something new isn’t easy and I’m touched beyond words.

Jeff’s Happy Birthday

So, my presents aren’t store bought and shiny this year. They don’t have name brands or logos promoted on Instagram. And there’s no app for any of them. But I must say they’re more precious to me than any others I’ve received, because all of them are irreplaceable. Just like the people who gave them to me.

Well, this is a Surprise!

We were getting ready to go for a walk yesterday in my parent’s neighborhood. Time for a break. When from down the street a figure appeared walking straight for my parent’s house. Much speculation about who it could be … it was my brother, Todd. He’d had meetings in Los Angeles and decided to pop in on his way home to Maine. He came to see my Dad. Maybe for the final time. I was so happy he was here.

We haven’t seen each other in a while. Since my grandmother died a few years ago. It’s always interesting when he and I are in the same room. As kids we had a ‘Love/Hate’ relationship. I loved him and he hated me. That might be a little extreme but since I was born 2 years after him, he felt he was dethroned. Although he was always perfectly dressed like he was attending Wimbledon or Royal Ascot, while I was covered in mud with twigs coming out of my pig tails. He’d make me walk far behind him when my Mom made him take me somewhere.

That didn’t stop me from chasing him around and following he and his friends. But he knew I could be useful too. I was his personal crash test dummy. Any time they built a ramp to jump their bikes – I tested it for them in advance. I would be summoned, if I wasn’t already lurking. I mean, they wouldn’t want to get hurt or anything. Often it wasn’t well built and after I would crash and skin up my knees and elbows he’s step over me and gather his friends together to strategize about how they might redesign it. Of course, so I could test it for them, again.

‘Should I wear the football helmet?’ I would ask him – knowing that hitting my head was a real possibility.

‘Nah – you’re tougher than that.’ he’d tell me. ‘And besides, I don’t want it to get scratched.’

I took pride in my fearlessness and battle scars. Any tears would be saved for later, out of his view.

Emilie loves his stories and there are so many. And he loves to tell them. Stories I forget until he comes to town.

I always had money as a kid. I saved everything I ever got from birthdays, lemonade stand sales. Selling homemade (they’d call them bespoke today) potholders and bouquets of dandelions door to door. I was an earner. Todd was not as industrious back then, but often took on a management role – taking his cut, which I gladly handed over if he would smile at me for just a moment.

One day, he and his friend, Jeffy, asked me if I wanted a burrito from the local Taco Time up by the Big Dollar Shopping Center. I said yes and he said he’d be happy to get me a burrito, but alas, he had no money. Could I front him some cash? I ran up to my sock drawer and came back with enough to cover us all.

Todd and Jeffy rode their bikes and were gone a long time. They came back and went on and on about how good this burrito they got me was going to be. I bit into it and large chunks of meat came out. Looking over they were rolling on the floor. Finally, they admitted that they had made a side trip to the store to purchase some Alpo dog food and they laid out the burrito on the sidewalk and filled it with the dog food. They thought it was hilarious.

I wanted to cry. But I didn’t. I ate that entire burrito. Apparently, I freaked him out because I said how amazing it tasted. I remember thinking ‘I’ll show you how tough I am.’ I was 8 years old. And it’s why I was the perfect person to taste that first nasty batch of brown maple flavored Big League Chew in my Mom’s kitchen. Yuck!

Todd spent the day with us yesterday, making us laugh and since his flight to NY was cancelled he was back again today. It was good to see him and reminisce. Emilie likes hearing that I was an annoying little sister, just like her.

But the best part was today when my Mom and I left him alone in the house. He got a few hours with my Dad one-on-one. Just the two of them talking. After the car service picked him up and we waved goodbye, I came back inside and my Dad was crying. They got to have conversations they’d never had before. Things that needed to be said and acknowledged. It was good.

‘I wish I’d been a better Father.’ he told me. And I know why he said that.

‘Regret are pointless. We can’t go back and change it.’ I told him. ‘Its time to let it all go. It’s time for all of us to do that.’

But I know how hard it is. And I know it was hard for my brother today. But I’m so glad he came. Its not the crashes and dog-food burritos that matter. Because no matter how much water has passed under that bridge, we’re family. Time and distance won’t change that. And I’m so grateful.

The Big Yellow House

This is the first time I’ve been to my parents where I can truly see the end. I’ve been coming back to visit them from every city I’ve lived in – whether it was this continent or another – for 30 years. But in all that time I knew this place would be here. The Big Yellow House with the white fence. They would be going nowhere.

My Mother moved around a lot as a child. And when I say a lot – I mean that she went to one school for 2 weeks. She said there were times she would wake up at night growing up and have no idea where the bathroom was. As a result of this domicile roulette, she selected this house where I grew up when they sold their chicken ranch in LA, and never left.

Its why sifting through the lasagna of our family history here is like an archaeological dig in Pompeii. There were plenty of eruptions in our childhood. So it runs deep with shadows of our former selves, and it’s all still here. But up until now I could count on the fact that there would always be a next time. This house and my parents were going no where.

‘They’ll take me out feet first.’ She always said and I knew it was true. I used to tease her for being unadventurous and stuck in her ways. But she didn’t care.

She’ll yell at me for writing this. ‘I’m not dead yet!’ She’ll shout. And then she’ll hand me a Sharpie and tell me to write my name on the back of things I’ll want when the day comes.

But what I guess I have, that others in my family that live nearby don’t, is the benefit of perspective and time. I don’t see my parents as much as they do, and when I do it’s clear that the finish line is closer than I had thought.

Yes, my father is dying. And its a slow process. He’s been ill for awhile, punctuated by some very serious health crises and I see all that in sharp relief. But until now, I hadn’t really understood the impact it was having on my Mom. Sure, we talk all the time from Valencia. I keep up on doctor’s appointments and prognoses. I know about all the tests and the meds and the like. But throughout, it’s always surrounded around my Dad. She never really complains about the toll she’s paying to care for him. But its clearly mounting.

My parents both have big personalities. And they don’t overlap so theirs have collectively taken up a fair bit of available space in our house over the years. I understand it. I expect it. But not so much this time. My Dad sleeps most of the time now. And my tireless Mom is tired. And for the first time in my life she says so, repeatedly, throughout the day.

I’m the youngest in the family. And I live in Spain – the furthest away. I sit here in my old room upstairs and I wonder what it will feel like when this house isn’t ‘Home’ anymore. When the two biggest personalities I know are silent. Will I be an orphan in my 50’s?

A few years ago, my Mom gave us each a book with colored stickers and told us to put them on things we wanted and she’d keep a catalog of who got what. And she’d be the arbiter of any disputes. It didn’t work because we’re all too competitive and there was rampant cheating. But now as I walk around with the Sharpie I can’t seem to write my name on anything but a painting my grandmother did that no one else wanted. How do you choose from the memories that fill your entire life?

When we were little there was a grocery store at ‘The Big Dollar Shopping Center’ near our house. My Mom would tell us to each pick out a piece of fruit (so she’d know we would eat it). We’d run off and come back with our prize. My siblings picked out apples and pears. It will surprise no one who knows me to learn I came back with a pineapple or a melon. We’d all have fruit for a week! She’d always laugh and then she’d let me keep it.

So I know what I’d really like to do. Walk out to the back yard and write my name on the foundation of the Big Yellow House. Not so my siblings can’t have it – not at all. So that we always have a home to come back to. This home. Because suddenly the prospect of a future without it seems unimaginable.

I sit here and wipe my tears. I need to get a grip. But for all the teasing of my Mom over the years, maybe, just maybe I’m more like her than I’d like to admit.

Ancient History

I’m back at my parent’s house and this means I’m surrounded by my history. It’s not just that I’m sleeping in my old bedroom, still sporting the wallpaper I picked out in the 8th grade. Its the whole package. Family lore, family photos, and all the rest.

When Jeff and I moved to Valencia nearly 18 months ago there were things we just couldn’t part with, but also couldn’t justify putting in a box to ship to Spain. Things like every family photo album, high school year books, the kid’s baby clothes, and on and on. We just weren’t ready yet to let go of that stuff. What a difference 18 months makes.

We had filled a U-haul with gobs of stuff and driven it from Arizona to Portland in the middle of January, a month before we flew out, across 1700 miles. That’s just how precious we found some of this stuff to be. So valuable it was, that we couldn’t part with it when we had chucked a whole house full of stuff. So part of my mission this trip was to go back through those boxes I stored in my parent’s garage, and in the big walk-in closet in my childhood bedroom, and ‘decision’ it all (Jeff hates it when I use that word but it’s apt in this case).

I started in the garage this afternoon and swiftly set aside two boxes to be taken to the the Goodwill. Then I moved on. When our kids were growing up we had a large wooden box for each child. In it was stuffed all their art work, writings, scribbling and generally all the things we thought were so precious. Picassos and Hemingways they were, guaranteed! Turns out they didn’t think they were so precious after time to review the contents. And I am no longer feeling it either. So out most of it went.

I went through our wedding albums. All 10 of them. And the tough choices I couldn’t seem to make all those years ago? Yeah, it’s not a problem now. And some of the other photo albums? Who put those together with pictures of deer on some unknown hike we took to some unidentifiable mountain ridge? Gone!

I just threw away two large garbage bags of photos. I’m not sure what I was saving all that for. But I did discover that I wasn’t as chubby in high school and college as I had previously thought I was. Emilie was helping me looking through each pile.

‘You looked pretty good back then, Mom.’ she said surprised.

I’ve decided to take that as a compliment and not ask about any comparison to the current me that she might be using as a yardstick. I left some other stuff up on the shelves. Baby books that they can get later when they visit their grandmother. Then I found the ashes of the two greatest dogs that ever walked the planet – our beloved Golden Retriever, Mr. Perkins and our Newfie, Gus. They will be tucked in my backpack on my flight home as the precious cargo they are.

I’ve winnowed the rest down to what I can carry in two large suitcases. And that’s it. There will be a few family mementos in there but it will all fit. I;ll be heading up to Jeff’s Mom’s house near Seattle the first week in August to pick up a suitcase she’s been storing for us. It contains my wedding dress and Emilie’s adoption books. The dress will be going back with me. The adoptions books will be handed over to Em. She’s old enough now that her history before she showed up at our door is hers to know in it’s entirety, and she’ll be the steward of what happens to those binders.

There is one box that can’t be donated or the contents thrown away. And I don’t have a shredder, so I have a plan. My entire life my parents have had a fire pit. Every summer night we had a fire on the patio and we sometimes roasted hot dogs or marshmallows. Sometimes we just sat around it and talked into the wee hours until the coals burned down. So, between now and my last day in August, I’ll be using our old documents as fire starter. The papers we thought we couldn’t live without. Now, they’ll be going up in smoke as the kindling crackles and the smores are consumed. Poof!

Many, many boxes later, it feels great to let go. But I know we needed this time to get there. What a difference a year makes.

We’ll Always Have DFW

Made it! It was more than 40 hours from the time I got out of bed in Valencia to the moment I laid down again in my old bedroom upstairs at my parents house. Well, I did get that one hour of sleep on the floor at the airport, but other than that it was the longest day ever.

By early this morning at DFW we were all Airport lounge zombies. Every one of the hundreds of people wandering around the gates at 5 am had the same 1000 yard stare. Not able to function properly. Loafing and shuffling as we walked. Most in yesterday’s clothes, except me in my eclectic pajama ensemble. Eventually, I found an airport 7 Eleven and got a large coffee. Jeff and I were in communication at that time. He reminded me to get my free slushie at 7Eleven since it was, in fact, 7/11. But I had no quarter for the mere mortal slushie. I needed to be at top mental readiness if I had a snowballs chance in Hell of getting to PDX. This required American Convenience store Rot-Gut coffee. No tame cafe con leche or cafe au lait would do. No. Just the high octane of coffee that was not just brewed yesterday, but has that bitter taste of overnight fermentation would to get me across the finish line. The drink of early risers, college students and fishermen.

Coffee – A lifesaving brew direct from the Cathedral of San 7Eleven

To achieve this miracle, I did the only thing I could do – the gate standing thing. You go to the gate for the flight you’re hoping to get on. It could be your 4th or 5th of the day, but you go anyway. You look at the board and check your position on the standby list. Supposedly, this list is static. Your position shouldn’t change because they take people from the top. But we found out this isn’t strictly true and our positions were relative to others who were on the list too.

It seems they can manipulate the list and their algorithm also takes into account the class you were flying – both inbound and outbound. Do I understand it completely – No. I do not. But having watched the dance on a previous flight, I knew being in line first after you didn’t make a flight was very important to setting you up for the next flight. It would not only have an impact on your chances of getting on next time, but it was an opportunity to speak to the gate agent before they were completely worn out by all the other passengers.

But on this flight I was number 6 on the standby list. Out of 88. (the board only listed 64 names but I was close enough to the gate agent to hear her tell someone on the phone there were 88 passengers waiting for flights) Nearly a whole other plane. And then suddenly I was number 7. Wait what? I had the lowest number of those in my tribe – so I couldn’t complain. I just needed to wait and see.

They boarded all passengers with a seat assignment. This helps them figure out who is not coming. Then they start the calling out the names. And they did. Veeery Sloowly.

It reminded me of the first time I went to Lebanon on a boat from Larnaca, Cyprus to Jounni, Lebanon. They took your passport when you boarded the boat – supposedly to stamp them all in for Lebanese immigration while on board. I didn’t like it. But there was a war going on so they didn’t want people standing in the ferry terminal upon arrival when it could get bombed.

Just before disembarkation in Jounni they called out each person’s name and handed them their passport with a distracted ‘Awafe ya Shebab. Allah mauk’ Which means basically ‘Hi guys – go with God’ cause you’re gonna need it. It was a little scary. You wanted to get off the boat but it felt weird having this person call you out to come up and pluck your passport from his hands as he stood there in his military uniform in the belly of the ferry. Especially waving my US passport for all to see. And he had an angry intimidating scowl.

Yesterday, it was no different. Well, maybe a little. But the three people in front of me at the counter were from Saudi Arabia and were speaking Arabic, so even the language I was hearing was the same as on that boat from Cyprus. And the agent had that same intimidating scowl.

This time the gate agent calls out a name and waits. If they don’t come on the first try she’ll do it again. If they still didn’t show she moves on. Time is wasting. The plane needs to leave.

The third name on the list didn’t show. My chances were looking up. Others wandered to the counter lost – asking how they could get on the plane. The gate agent shooed them away and pointed to the standby list on the screen.

‘You’ll have to wait until I’m done here. All of these people are waiting to get on this flight.’ she pointed to the pulsing laser-focused crowd gathered. All of them had a ticket that said ‘See gate agent’. None of them had a seat.

Then she called another name. This was a party of 3 and she got them tickets and got them on. My name was next. But then I heard her say ‘I think we’re full.’

The guy next to her said ‘I think we still have x seat’ and she said they need to make a visual check but that she thought it was reserved. Maybe broken. I promptly offered to sit in the broken seat – unless it had knives sticking through the cushion. And even then I was open to negotiations. They went away and came back. I watched her slowly pick up the microphone. Would she say the flight was full? Would she say we would all just need to move on to the next gate for the next flight to Portland – doing this dance yet again? Could the first prediction that I wouldn’t get out until Saturday morning be true?

‘Kelli Feldrg@%*?’ she said – totally butchering my name. Even she seemed confused that all those letters came out of her mouth in that configuration. But she had me at ‘Kelli’

‘That’s me!’ I shouted and leapt before her. I felt like a contestant on the Price is Right! My tribe erupted in the gallery! They were cheering and I turned around and basked in the glow, raising my arms in victory above my head. I had just scored our only goal in the DFW World Cup. I could hear Freddy Mercury’s voice from the movie on the flight from London – We really are the champions! One of us made it out! The gate agent was unimpressed.

‘Come on. I don’t even have time to print you a ticket. You need to get on the plane.’

I crawled under the stanchion with my backpack and wheelie bag. I hugged her when we got to the door of the plane. She just grunted.

They didn’t even wait for me to be seated. They closed the door and pushed back. As though zombies might attack the aircraft before we got away. The flight attendant found a place for my bags and we were taxiing as I put on my seat belt. But I was on a plane – I would have stood on my head the whole way, if required.

When I got to Portland I was so tired I took the moving sidewalk – I never do that. Pro Tip: You don’t want to fall asleep standing up on a moving sidewalk. Because, like Shel Silverstein warned us all as children, ‘the sidewalk ends’ and you’ll fall off. In my head I knew this, but my body was so tired it wasn’t able to react in time. No matter! I didn’t care that others were openly gawking at my inability to stay upright in my own home town. I had made it! Even though I was still wearing my pajamas from my night trying to sleep on the floor of the airport. Nothing to see here, folks! As I popped right back up, a little dizzy.

Then something equally magical happened. I went down to collect my bags – not thinking clearly enough to realize that there was no way they could have loaded them on the plane when I didn’t know 5 minutes before push back that I was going to actually make that flight. Then I remembered they had told us at the counter when our initial flight was cancelled to check with the baggage guy to arrange to have our bags delivered. So I did. Both my suitcases were on my flight! It was a Milagro de Navidad de Julio! And there they were – coming out of the shoot like they were just regular bags!

At the curb, my Mom pulled up. Emilie had a coffee made especially for me and was playing Andre Bochelli on the in-car entertainment system. Heaven. When I got to my Mom’s she was playing all the culinary hits and she whipped me up a duck egg omelette. So it all ended well. I hope the rest of my tribe got out and are waking up this morning to a cloudy Portland sunrise – just that much more appreciative of being here. But I’ll never forget the night we spent together at gate C11. We’ll always have DFW.