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Precious, dark secret

I am marooned on my bed.

In the early evening, the apartment complex maintenance man steers his mower over the lawn under my window, the blinds tipping in and out from the slight breeze. The smell of the freshly clipped grass blends into the sound of the blades moving backward and forwards across the earth until the gardener accidentally scrapes against one of the concrete window wells. The trees outside splash shadows on the floor; the white carpet is my sea. I sit on top of blue and white striped sheets, and the thin, summer comforter sprinkled with exaggerated and recurring images of Raggedy Ann and Andy, tulips, and rabbits carrying baskets of flowers.

With great effort, I pull my wooden toy wagon over to the edge of the mattress. The cream wagon is on wheels that often lock like one of the carts my mother maneuvers between the fruit and vegetable aisles at the grocery store. The wheels squeak so I cannot pull too hard or risk alerting my mother to my project. When the wagon is close enough to my bed, and I can reach into it from my perch, I survey its contents.

I have to decide which toys to save.

Luckily, my bed floats in water, but the toy wagon, I know, will sink to the bottom of the sea once I have retrieved my favorites. Those I do not choose will be lost. Once I select the lucky ones, I will push the wagon away from my bed with my tiny feet and set it adrift.

Nearly every summer afternoon, I played this game when I was supposed to be taking a nap. Teddy, my favorite bear, is not sure if he likes this game or not. He does not like to imagine being lost at sea.

“Will anyone find us,” my cherished companion whimpers surveying the wagon’s pile of toys beside the bed.

“Yes,” I whisper, stroking his soft fur behind his worn ears. “A sailor will find us, and we shall be safe, and then we shall have tea. Don’t worry,” I assure him. “Let’s decide which toys to save so we can play with them when we are rescued.”

Carefully, I begin pulling my toys out of the wooden chest, examining each one before stacking my most treasured ones on the bedspread. I will save all the stuffed animals first. I will not save the plastic rings that stack like doughnuts on a pointed bar. I will save the round puzzle with a picture of a miniature doll’s village painted on wooden pieces that my grandmother gave me.

I do not think I can save my battery-operated yellow dog even though she is wearing a red ribbon around her neck and white tufts of hair sprout from her head and paws. I adore this barking dog and the way she marches as she yelps when I wind her up, but she is too heavy and cannot be saved. I am immeasurably sad about this loss and resolve to save her the next time I play this game.

The caterpillar, each plastic segment decorated with a red dot inside yellow ones, is also awkward to keep. The wind-up clock plays Frére Jacques and may keep us company in the dark when we float at sea, so I carefully lay it on the bed next to my pillow. I retrieve a stuffed bunny from underneath a second puzzle, thankful that I have found him to join the other animals on the bed. By the time I finish sorting through my toy chest, the bedspread is nearly covered with puzzles and books, stuffed animals, and coloring books. It may be some time before the sailor finds Teddy and me, so we have to be prepared for many days at sea.

Finally, I retrieve my red purse that opens like a fish’s mouth and empty its meager contents on the bedspread in front of my crossed spindly legs. I count out the worn and tarnished coins: 15 pence and one quarter. Maybe that will be enough for Teddy and me to survive when we are rescued. I don’t know. I look at my wares arranged in neat piles in front of me and decide that I cannot leave my barking dog behind after all. I rescue her from the toy wagon before pushing it away from the edge of my bed.

I do not tell anyone about my little game, not my friends at school, not the neighbor brothers, Kendall or Willis, not my mother. I am not convinced anyone would understand my rationale for such a sad fantasy.

This precious, dark secret belongs only to me.

I do not have to choose between my toys stacked untidily in my wagon. I do not have to leave my barking yellow dog behind or my brightly painted caterpillar. If I wanted to, I could save all my toys and hoist them onto my imaginary life preserver. I am not lost at sea, nor do I really think I ever will be. Still, each summer afternoon when my mother closes the bedroom door, this fantasy, with all its sinister gloom, yet curiously vast solace returns, and once again, I am marooned.

Maybe I will lie down for a little while and close my eyes. I will be safe on my bed. My toys will be safe, too, I repeat to myself as my eyes begin to droop, and the hard edges of the toy wagon begin to soften. I imagine the waves lapping up against my mattress, and I snuggle down deep into the soft sheets. This bed is my home and my universe. Maybe being marooned would not be so bad, I conclude, before my thoughts become scrambled before I fall asleep dreaming, I am drifting alone in the middle of a great blue sea.

Mandy, by Julie Edwards

Home

The central character in a cherished worn and tea-stained children’s book I still own is a cheerful orphan. Befriending younger children coming to the orphanage after their young lives implode, the little girl is kind and generous with her heart. The child is good too, eating all her vegetables and meat without complaint before wiping her dishes clean. But in the evenings, when the ten-year-old child should be studying, instead, she sits on the window ledge in her attic bedroom looking past the orphanage’s black wrought-iron gates and flintstone orchard wall.

Her daydreaming spirals into an obsession until one day, the good girl resolves to see the other side of hunger. On her ascent, she scrapes her knees on the flinty stone before scrambling down the plump apple tree branches.

Mandy, by Julie Edwards

Curious, the child follows a grassy path through the woods only to find an abandoned cottage. The girl sneaks through the orchard through the seasons and climbs the wall to visit her cottage each day. She pulls weeds and plants the flowers she buys with her pocket money, sweeps the creaking wood floors, and washes the windows in the room with walls made of seashells. The child, Mandy, has found the object of her desire – four walls she can call her own — nursing a private ache that she does not share with anyone, a longing she, herself, barely understands.

The first time I read the book, Mandy, I was on an airplane with my mother flying the well-worn path of my childhood from London to Chicago, finishing the last page as the sky lightened, and the plane began its heady descent into America. At the time, I was not an orphan like the central character though I think I was “the good girl” as a child, eating my meat and vegetables and diligently finishing my homework on time.

Maybe I was even a good friend to others before friendships became situational, often connected with jobs skating the surface like an early frost before history and loss began to chip away at my heart.

The book I first read on an airplane, worn from years of love and desolation, is one I sometimes reread when something triggers the acute hunger I have never learned to satiate. I keep this hunger close and do not tell those around me that after all these years, I am still looking for a place that truly belongs to me, one where I might finally banish the “ghost of belonging” from my cellular memory.

Like my fictitious heroine, I always wanted a house. A house of my own, not one owned by a relative. Not an apartment or a duplex either. Not a communal house shared in college with roommates I do not remember.

My late-blooming transformation between ‘worst home occupier/renter on the planet’ to tidy, organized, ‘borderline OCD homeowner’ materialized the day the ink of my signature on the purchase papers had barely dried.

I bought my first house at the age of forty-four and six months after my multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Unlike Mandy, I hired window washers and fumigators, painters and stone workers to cleanse a house that may have been ours but one that still housed the remnants of the previous owner everywhere. Still, I scrubbed every bookshelf and kitchen counter, bought a new refrigerator and freezer, and labeled every spice container in the spice drawer.

When I cleared my mother’s apartment, I was reminded that she kept her clutter out of public view.

My mother’s hallway between the front door and the bedrooms was lined with floor to ceiling closets, each shelf, every inch of the floor locked in a war for space. In the ‘office supply’ end of the far closest opposite, my adolescent bedroom stacks of envelopes of every size leaned precariously. Inside, I found battery stashes and dozens of unopened scotch tape rolls, post-it note packages of every size and color packed into a cardboard box with the Union Jack on its lid. Paper clips and file folders, white and yellow padded envelopes, tubes of brightly colored Christmas paper scattered with images of scarf-clad penguins and bow-tied teddy bears, bags of bows, all had been saved for a day that will never come.

The home my mother had created gave her sanctuary from her memories of my father’s arbitrary, war-induced rages, her loss of England, and the foundation for a new life. I plucked random objects infused with invisible memory: objects I lived with through high school and college. Still, others that my mother added later, ones that appeared during the years, I tried to put my own life in order, others where no memory resonated for me. In her absence, the once familiar vase or salt savor I held was strange to me as if instead, my hand stroked an unfamiliar object like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the pit of loss away. Now, I was the one left behind to salvage an unfinished life.

In hindsight, I recognize that my false, manic transformation, obsessed with order in our new house, was misplaced grief. Grief over my mother’s death. Grief over my diagnosis.

In my past, apartments and houses were simply an address, a place to sleep, a refuge to lament another broken relationship; these structures were not places to make plans or dream of possibility.

Even the address of our house was promising on the first day I stepped over the threshold. Eldorado. The Lost City of Gold, the city of the Muisca chief who covered himself in gold dust and became king. The mythology of Muisca represents energy constituting creative power. Place. All that I have sought, to find a place of belonging, a place of meaning, a place of sanctuary.

 

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

Treading another’s path of loss

Three days before my mother’s memorial in Bury St. Edmunds, my husband and I enter my mother’s, now my own bungalow with the estate agent. I walk across the house’s slanted floorboards, my fingers tracing the wall cracks brought on by damp, and purse my lips in disappointment. The house that my mother once told me was her last tie with England was a dump. When a gleam of light in the middle of the living room’s wall catches my eye, I discover that I can put my finger in a small hole through the mortar and have a keyhole view of the front garden.

Though my mother had spent thousands of pounds a few years ago to refurbish the kitchen and the bathroom, the well-executed improvements had the appearance of roses blooming in a patch of thistles. Marginally better outfitted and constructed than one of the college houses I preferred to forget, this house was legally mine. With the conclusion of probate maze, my husband and I were now absentee landowners of a dilapidated house built between the First and Second World Wars when building materials were in short supply.

The house my parents bought for $4,000 pounds from old Mrs. Ridley, a friend of my grandmother’s whose failing memory lead to her death when she forgot to turn the gas off the stove and accidentally asphyxiated herself, the house that once had been the answer to my mother’s dream of reclamation of her English life was the cornerstone of my modest inheritance.

The scales abruptly fall from my eyes; the prospect of ever living in this house has never been dimmer. The diagonal crack in the wall may indicate damp seeping through the plaster but may, in fact, be more damaging; the house is likely sinking into the earth recently saturated by weeks of rain.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

“I’m afraid this house should be torn down,” Steve whispered as I opened the back door to the rickety conservatory my parents had built in the 1970s. Upon invitation, I played with the tenant’s children in this narrow tube, scuttling in and out of the open doors. Painfully overgrown and neglected foliage blocks any view of the cantilevered fence I once climbed over from my great Aunt Stella’s garden. I can neither see the present nor the past in this garden, in this house and now the prospect of its future dissolves.

“With the departure of the current tenants, new ones will have to be found unless you want to sell,” my mother’s estate agent muses. “Trees will have to be seen to and clipped back, too. The garden is truly in a wretched state,” the woman, with a verbal pace of any Londoner, frowns.

Tracing a pattern with my shoe in the dirt, I pick dead leaves off a bush. Thinking? Dreaming? Panicking? Finally, turning my attention from the bush in need of much more help than my distracted pruning, I respond.“I think it’s best, Pat, if we find another tenant. Though my mother made some improvements to the bungalow over the years, I fear that the house has some structural issues that should be addressed before we hope to sell it. I agree that the trees in both the front and back gardens are sorely overgrown. Please go ahead and contact a trimmer as soon as possible so it can be done before another tenant moves in,” I answer, noting that my statement is my first instruction uttered as a property owner and will likely be far from the last one.

I turn away, not quite ready to tread my mother’s path of loss.

Each morning, a cacophony of crisis emails flood my inbox. Cracks in the house’s interior walls widen. Plaster disintegrates into dust. Rainwater and birds destroy the roofing—roots from a tree near the front door rupture the concrete walkway. Bit by bit, stone by stone, tree by tree, the property that was once my mother’s salvation has become my inherited nightmare. Though I approve bids for repairs long overdue and request detailed accounts of work completed, paying invoices from contractors suggested by the estate agent, the house, and its future, like my mother ignoring her chronic, life-threatening symptoms, is terminal.

The proverbial shoe I waited for dropped like a bomb six months into my overseas ownership: the degrading of the mortar in the brickwork jointing was due to a chemical reaction, probably a sulfate attack requiring mortar/brick testing to be taken from the affected walls for laboratory testing. A sulfate attack, the source of the house’s crumbling in the mortar joint, had been evidenced when I poked my finger through the brickwork after my mother’s memorial. The rapid expansion of the evident plaster cracks diagonally crossing the house’s interior walls suggested a weakening of its structure.

With this internal assault of chemistry and its resultant damage, all my suspicions pointed in one direction; my mother’s house, the first house I have ever owned, was crumbling.