The Second to Last Box

For years, I thought I had nothing but one box in my parents attic. Well, nothing but a set of china I inherited from one aunt and a rug I inherited from another, and one box.

Today, my mother informed me that my father’s caregiver/her helper had turned up another box with my name on it. I’m going home tomorrow, and I could have just chucked the box in my trunk, but I decided that I should open it and see if there was anything I could easily decide to toss before I left.

The box was a mishmash of stuff—the most recent items being from my second year of school librarianship (2005) and the earliest from 7th grade.

The 7th grade item was a play I had co-written with my best friend. Titled A Missing Banana, it was performed by my friend, me, and a handful of our fellow Girl Scouts to the delight and/or bewilderment of primary school students in a gymnasium on a Saturday morning. My most vivid memory of working on the play is that my troop leader somehow spilled green dog shampoo on my pink princess dress, which my sister had worn as a bridesmaid. My sister had spent a lot on the dress, and even though she had no plans to wear it again, she was annoyed that my mother had let me wear it as a costume.

What I was surprised to find was a writing portfolio from 9th grade. I’d been required to write in cursive from 3rd grade-6th grade, and in 9th grade, I still hadn’t broken the habit.

I had known at the time that my teachers were sadistic to require me to write in cursive when it was obvious that I would never be able to do it well. Looking at the portfolio today, I realized that they were also masochistic, because they had to try to read it.

I was carrying the folder to the recycling bin, and I stopped walking before I had consciously decided to. I’m not ready to let this go, I realized. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to decipher it, but I decided to bring it home.

Most of the other items were from college. I had saved some notes from my mentor and playwriting professor. She died in 2008, and I still her so much. I got a lump in my throat reading her instructions for our tiny class to run itself on a day she had to be absent.

There were some pages from a statewide journal listing the research topics of my graduating class in library school. Trash.

The items from my 2nd year at my first school job were a newspaper clipping of a profile of me the local paper had done, and a note from the superintendent. I remember he wrote me a positive note after the profile was published.

I didn’t read either because I knew they would make me sad. Two years later, I’d be chewed up and spit out by that school. The superintendent would write me another note on the same stationery telling me it had been a hard decision whether or not to overturn the actions of my principal—he backed the principal—and thanking me for my “many contributions.”

It turned out for the best, as I moved on to bigger and better things (and that state froze teacher salaries and defunded schools) but it still stings a little.

I did find a few things to toss—a program for a play I attended that I hadn’t even liked, for example. I found more to donate—baby dolls, a model airplane, my favorite Barbie outfits. I’m not sure why I kept Day to Night Barbie and Crystal Barbie’s getups with out saving the dolls, but they were there carefully folded and wrapped. Perhaps the dolls would not fit in the box.

I had saved the Barbie clothes for a daughter who would never be born. And that’s why my mom lets me get away with leaving that last box, because that’s all it is. Things I had hoped to pass on.

A cousin is coming to get my aunt’s china. It’s beautiful, but you can’t put it in the microwave. I need to ask my mom about that rug. I haven’t lived in a place with space for it since I left my first school. Maybe my cousin will take it when she comes to get the china.

The writing though, is coming home with me.

My Father’s Brain

My father’s brain is falling apart.

My father’s brain is falling apart.

Lord, grant me patience.

My father’s brain is falling apart.

I repeated this to myself all the way to Costco. When I got there, I felt a little better.

It was cold and windy as I walked across the parking lot. I shivered a little in my short sleeves.

The weather changed suddenly today. It was supposed to be in the high 70s the whole visit. I had thought about bringing a jacket just in case, but then didn’t because I figured I could just borrow one from my Dad.

I knew I would need a jacket before I left for Costco. I put it on and it smelled. I tried another one. It smelled too. I gave up. My father rarely showers these days, so I figured there was no use trying the other one.

That’s what all the yelling was about earlier. His caregiver arrived, woke him up, and tried to get him to take a shower. He did get out of bed, but he would not shower.

He told my mother he had just showered. She tried to reason with him. She showed him the dry shower curtain and the dry towel. She sometimes forgets that he has become immune to reason.

Eventually, my mom and the caregiver gave up. They all came downstairs. I went over with my mom what she wanted me to get at Costco.

My dad was in a better mood. He was telling the caregiver that I inherited all my good traits from him. I thought he was joking around, and I said, “Well, I got this belly from you, that’s for sure.” I looked over at him with a smile.

He did not smile back.

“No,” he said. “You are fat. But you are fat by choice. It has nothing to do with me.”

My mom and the caregiver both admonished him, but I shook my head.

“I started it,” I said.

And then I left.

And now I’m sitting in the parking lot. Ed just texted me that dinner will be ready in 15 minutes. I need to turn the key in the ignition. I need to get on the road.

My father’s brain is falling apart.

My father’s brain is falling apart.

Lord, grant me patience.

My father’s brain is falling apart.

You Know I’m Fat

Yesterday about nine a.m., I said to myself, “I’m going to take about half an hour and write a post.” I knew what I wanted to write about—a particular moment, or set of thoughts I’d had earlier in the day, but I couldn’t figure out how to explain why any of it mattered without going way back to my childhood and even things that had happened before I was born. I ended up writing for over three hours.

I know that must seem so strange to those of you with children and full time teaching jobs, but it is easy for me to lose track of time writing because my life is so quiet, especially right now.

While I was writing, I was trying to think of a word that was not as harsh as fat or obese but more accurate than curvy or voluptuous. I am obese, according to my doctor and the CDC. I was curvy 15 years ago. I tried plus-sized, but that seemed too contemporary. I knew the word I wanted was out there, just out of reach. I eventually settled on “heavy.” Twenty-four hours later, I suddenly realized that the word I wanted was “stout.”

I was underweight as a teenager into my twenties. The weight started creeping on after my 25th birthday, and the gain accelerated when I went to grad school. I managed to lose 30 pounds at one point, and then I gained it back. Five years later, I did Weight Watchers, worked really hard for months, and lost about 15 pounds. And then I gained it back. At this point I would saw off my pinky toes to be the weight I was when I first went to Weight Watchers.

My mother occasionally comments on my weight or what I’m eating. I’ve mentioned to her that I am well aware of how fat I am and that her remarks are not helpful.

When I was a child, I assumed that I took after my mom’s side of the family, and that I would grow up to be tall and lean, just like all of them. My father’s brothers and sisters were all heavy and quite short.

When I was about 14, I saw a picture of my father and some of his siblings at the beach when they were kids. In the corner of the photo, there was an almost scrawny teenage girl in a one piece bathing suit. I didn’t recognize her, and when my father told me who it was, my mouth dropped open. That was the aunt with the biggest weight problem of all four of my father’s sisters.

My first thought was, “Oh, crap.”

Triggered by Cornstarch

My father was born the youngest of eight. He had three brothers I never knew well, and four sisters I did. Mary was grandparents’ eldest child. She was born in 1916, and followed by two boys. Adelaide was the next daughter. She was followed by Fernanda–who started calling herself Fanny the minute she left her father’s house–and then Emma. After Emma, there was a baby boy, Emmanuel, who survived only a few weeks. And then, another boy, followed by my father in 1931.

In the 1950’s, my four aunts plus their aunt and my dad all lived together in one side of a duplex in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. At the age of 38, Mary would shock them all by eloping with an much older man she knew from work. For a time, she and her husband lived in the other side of the duplex, but that was long before I was born.

The other three sisters never married. Until somewhere around 1988, they lived together in that same house in DC. Aunt Adelaide had had at least two proposals, but as she would tell me later, she didn’t like to cook and clean for herself, let alone some man. Aunt Fanny never spoke to me about it. Aunt Emma did.

Emma adored children. I was the youngest niece or nephew she had, by almost nine years, and she doted on me. I was about seven or eight–old enough to notice things and be curious, but not old enough to have much in the way of social graces. I can’t remember the exact question I asked, but I do remember she was taken aback.

“You can’t just ask that, Kathleen,” she said. “It’s not polite.”

“I’m sorry”, I said. I was sitting on the white couch in my aunts’ living room, and I kind of slumped in to the corner.

“Sit up,” she said.

I obeyed. She rocked a little in her antique rocking chair–the one that now sits in my living room. She frowned.

“I think,” she said, “maybe you do need to hear this. I never regretted not getting married. Never. I have my own life.”

I thought about this. I didn’t know what it meant, but I would remember it.

She looked at me, and then out the window, over my head.

“I do wish,” she said, “that I could have had a child. I would have liked a child.”

I have no memory of what happened next, but if I had to guess, my Aunt Emma probably offered me a cookie or some ginger ale. She was willing to use sweets to end a conversation. Since I had limited cookies at home, and never ginger ale, I always accepted whatever she offered.

My father’s single sisters were major figures in my life as I grew up. Two of my grandparents had died before I was born, and the other two died before I was old enough to remember them. Whenever I felt sad about that, my mother would remind me that I had my aunts. I was closest to Emma when I was little, and then to Adelaide as a teen, and finally to Fanny from about the time I finished college. Of course, I had more time with Fanny. She died soon after her 90th birthday in 2014. Adelaide had died in January of 2000, followed by Emma in March of that same year.

I found myself thinking about them, and Emma in particular, this morning. Before I was more interested in my friends than my family, I would spend weekends with my aunts roughly ten times a year. Until I was old enough to insist that I could bathe unaided, Emma would help me out of the tub, wrap me up in an enormous fluffy towel, and then dust me with cornstarch. I thought that was a weird old-lady thing that I would never, ever do.

This morning, I took a shower. I dried myself, hung my towel, and then used a blue shaker to put some cornstarch into my hand. I put the shaker or the counter, and put my hands together. I took my hands apart, and paused to look at the cornstarch on both palms. I thought of my aunt. Now that I am the heavy woman in late-middle age, I understand the cornstarch.

“You win, Aunt Emma,” I thought, smiling a little to myself.

I imagined her reaction. She would laugh, and then peer at my hands. “You need to buy a powder puff,” she would say, and then shake her head. “You’re not an animal.”

Takes One to Know One

Earlier I was on a Google Meet with some high school-era friends. I started to feel too warm, so I got up and went into the bedroom to change from a sweater to a T-shirt.

I had muted my mic, but didn’t turn off my camera. While I was gone, one of my friends took a screenshot of my kitchen. When I came back, they had all changed their backgrounds to that image—so they all appeared to be in my apartment.


The Facebook Effect

At some point a few months into the pandemic, some of my friends from high school decided that we should have a mini-reunion over Zoom. We fell into a routine of meeting every other Thursday night.

Until I moved in summer of 2019, I lived within an hour of three of the people on the call, and I saw them somewhat to very frequently. Another friend lives far away, but near my husband’s family, so I’d see him once or twice a year. It was never odd chatting with those four friends.

What has been odd is the resurfacing of people I hadn’t seen. It’s not that I forgot about them—they were memorable, and also, Facebook—but it’s weird to have routine chats with people you haven’t seen in person in a decade or more.

There is someone else I had once been good friends with, more after high school than in high school. Sam was three years ahead of me, and while we had friends in common, I didn’t know him well.

I withdrew from college spring semester of my freshman year. I went home to my parents. Sam and I might have been the only people in our social circle not away at school. Sam had always treated me like an annoying kid sister, but that spring and summer, I ended up morphing into the kid sister who has grown up and has some interesting thoughts. In the years that followed we kept in touch, even as we both moved around to different places.

A dozen years later, I was living alone in a city where I knew no one. I was working incredibly hard as the sole staff member in the library of an infuriatingly under-resourced school. I ended up in the hospital. Sam had some time off between the end of one job and the beginning of the next, so he came to look after me for two weeks.

It wasn’t that I had no one—my mother had come immediately when I called from the hospital and told her I was going to be admitted. The doctors didn’t want me home alone after discharge—for some reason that I can’t recall, my mom couldn’t stay that long. My now-husband Ed offered to come but he had just started a job several states away, and I did not want him to miss work, I remember that. Everyone was relived when Sam said he could come.

I appreciated his help during that time. That school year eventually ended, and I moved on to a new job closer to Ed and a number of other friends. I saw Sam once as he was passing through town, and then he settled—as much as he could settle, back then—far away.

A few months later, I heard from him that he had reconnected over Facebook with a woman he had dated in high school. I’d had classes in high school with Claire, and we’d ended up at the same college and in the same small program. We’d never been friends despite our proximity, but I couldn’t remember why.

I was a little alarmed when a few days later Sam emailed to say that he had decided to move across the county to live with Claire. A friend of my mother’s had found a high school boyfriend on Facebook and they’d gotten married shortly after meeting again. These people were in their seventies, and had likely changed more than Sam and Claire, but their marriage had gone very bad very fast.

A few months later, an event at Claire’s and my college was announced. I planned to attend, and to bring Ed, and I thought Claire might be coming with Sam. I decided to send her a Facebook message.

She wrote back to say that no, they would not be attending. “Sam and I are planning a very small wedding in May, and we need to save money for that.”

“OK, Claire,” I remember thinking, “I hear you. Loud and clear.”

I wasn’t invited to their wedding, of course. I sent a gift when their first child was born. It was not acknowledged.

Ed and I did see them once, at a backyard picnic at someone’s parents’ lake house. Ed and I had been the last two through the buffet, and when we went to sit down, the only seats available were at opposite ends of a very long table.

Ed sat next to Claire. I know, because once we were on our way home, I was about to say that I must have misjudged Claire as she seemed perfectly nice, but before I could open my mouth, Ed said, “You were right about that Claire Delaney. She is THE WORST.”

When Ed and I became engaged, I thought about sending them an invitation, but I was afraid it might be seen as a gift solicitation.

I heard from Sam after I shared wedding pictures on Facebook. He messaged something about his invitation being lost in the mail and sounded a little hurt. I was a bit bewildered—I had thought we weren’t that kind of friends anymore.

And then I didn’t hear from him again. And the night of that first Zoom call, just about a year ago, I hadn’t heard his voice since that day at the lake.

Impatient Patient

Last night I was talking to my husband, Ed, just before we fell asleep.

I said, “I haven’t been myself since I came down with coronavirus….and I really miss myself.”

He said, “You’re just going to have to be a little patient.”

I said, “It’s been six weeks!”

He said something else. I don’t know what though, because I fell asleep in the middle of his sentence.

Unexpected silver lining: I no longer experience insomnia.

Follow-Up Questions

My husband Ed has three nieces, ages five, six, and eight. The older two—I’ll call them Beatrix and Ruby—are sisters. The youngest I’ll call Ella. All three live on the other side of the country. Until this year, we always saw them at Thanksgiving, and usually at least one other time during the year.

Last year we saw them the first week of March, during my spring break, just before everything shut down. We haven’t seen them in person since, of course.

Before the pandemic, we gave them quite modest presents for Christmas and on their birthdays. Ed and I agreed that it was better to spend money on them in person, taking them to play mini golf or visit the aquarium—things like that. Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Ed are pretty good sports: Pump it Up is the only place we refuse to visit. I mean, again.

During the pandemic, we decided we needed to up our gift game. (OK, I decided, but Ed was on board.) Before Christmas, we sent them treasure boxes with a little present for every day December 1-24. The presents were extremely minor—pencils, Chapstick, a hair clip—you get the idea, but I had fun putting everything together, and the kids seemed to enjoy it.

On a normal Valentine’s Day, the girls might receive a card from us with a dollar or a sheet of stickers. This year, I sent the younger one, Ella, a guided journal from a Wirecutter list of gift ideas for kids. The older two, Beatrix and Ruby, got a rock painting kit (also recommended by Wirecutter) and a copy of Uni the Unicorn. I knew they were into unicorns, and when I found a unicorn book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, I figured I had found a title that the girls would like and that their parents could read to them without wanting to gouge their eyes out.

Ella’s mother sent us a video of her daughter thanking us for the journal. Ella either liked it or is good at faking gratitude.

The older two FaceTimed us. After the hellos and how-are-yous, the six-year-old, Beatrix, said, “Thank you for the rock paining kit.”

Ed said, “You’re welcome, Sweetie.”

I said, “Was there something else in the package?” I had ordered the items online, and they were supposed to ship together.

The girls looked at each other uncomfortably. I was about to ask the obvious question, but then Beatrix said quietly, “A book we already have.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “You can pass it on to a friend, or else your mom or dad might be able to send it back and get something else.”

All of the above is long, drawn out backstory for the text exchange I had yesterday with my brother-in-law. I would like to share the gist of that exchange with you now.

Brother-in-law: Can you suggest some books? For Ruby and Beatrix?

Me: Sure.

BIL: Thanks.

Me: Do you know what they thought of the books I sent them for Christmas?

BIL: Christmas was two years ago. What we they?

Me: One was Front Desk, about a girl whose family runs a motel. Another was Ballet Shoes, which is an old book I loved as a child. I thought it might be good for family read-aloud. I can’t recall the other two.

BIL: I honestly don’t know if they have read them. I’ll have Ruby read Front Desk next. She’s been reading Captain Underpants. Again.

Me: Ok. Do you have any goals for the books I suggest?

BIL: I want to exchange the duplicate.

Me: Do they still like picture books?

BIL: I’m not prepared for follow-up questions.

Me: Ok, I’ll just send you a list of things I think they might like.

BIL: Thanks. I’ve been reading them Lord of the Rings at Ruby’s request. It makes me want to jump out the window. I forgot how much I skimmed as a kid. I’ll read them Ballet Shoes next.

Me: You might want to read a chapter on your own first.

BIL: The worst part of LotR is that Ruby likes the most boring parts the most.

Me: What does Beatrix think about the book?

BIL: She always falls asleep.

Me: Well, that’s something.

Cross and Resentful

Many years ago, when I worked at the elementary level, I loved to read the book “The Great White Man Eating Shark” by Margaret Mahy to the children. It’s a good story, but it also works as a mentor text for rhythm and word choice. One of my favorite sentences in the story is, “This made him cross and resentful.”

Those two adjectives together perfectly describe a particular mood. When you say them aloud, they pack more punch than other words that mean more or less the same thing, for example cranky and indignant.

Sometimes, I’ll notice that I am not feeling great, and I will ask myself what’s going on. I find it helpful to name the feeling—scared, sad, overwhelmed, whatever—rather than just muck about feeling bad.

Occasionally, I will say to myself, “I am cross and resentful.”

That’s where I find myself tonight. Cross and resentful. It’s not a good look.

I have wet clothes in the washer. Most of them I can’t put in the dryer. I am going to deal with those clothes and then I am going to get ready for bed.

Some days I just have to cut my losses.

Detours, Crossroads, and the Rearview Mirror

I participated for the first time in the March Slice of Life Challenge back in 2015. I was in my first year in a high school position and taking a grad class on writing across the curriculum with a wonderful and inspiring teacher who encouraged us to take up the challenge.

In 2015, I was back in K-12 after a six-year detour into public library work. I had started my career as an elementary school librarian in 2003. My first school had been through seven librarians in ten years. I had thought I could change the culture, and I had been so wrong. My second elementary school had handed me new and different heartbreaks, and I had been quicker to accept that I needed to move on.

At the public library, I had spent five years as a teen services librarian and one as a department head. In 2014, I’d taken a little bit of a pay cut to return to K-12, and I was worried I had made the wrong call.

I hadn’t. It wasn’t all wine and roses, but fast-forward to March 2019 and I was feeling good about the work I was doing and my role at the school.

Now, in 2021, I live in a different state. I work part-time at a community college. I have some time on my hands. I remembered the Slice of Life Challenge, and I thought it would be good for me to write and to connect with other teachers.

It has been good to write and connect. The challenge has also made me think more about how I miss being a high school teacher-librarian.

I spent most of today writing about the choices and events that took me from where I was in the March of 2019 to where I am today.

I wrote in thick detail about March through June of that year, and I wanted to write a sentence or two about August 2019-March 2020. I couldn’t. I couldn’t summarize those months in a way that felt honest, but I also didn’t want to spend to much time thinking through the particulars.

I’m taking a break. I’m going put the sticky draft aside. It will be there if and when I want to pick it up again.