Sunday, January 2, 2011

Almost 15

Child Two loves the snow.  I’m not sure we realized just how much until this past week when we visited my familial cabin in the woods in Lake Tahoe.  There, Child Two bounced around in fresh powder, made snow angels, discovered his inner snowboarder and sledded down the neighborhood streets before the plows came to do what must be done on snowy passageways.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the boy so joyous – it was as though he was a fish who just discovered the joys of the open sea or a puppy let loose in a field of bouncing balls.  Child Two took to the snow like a duck to water, pouncing into drifts and throwing himself joyously into virgin fields of white powder with abandon.  The trip, it turns out, was slightly trickier for me. 

Almost forty years ago I put on my first pair of skis – they were wooden with cable bindings.  I had red leather lace up boots and bamboo poles.  I’m sure I complained about the cold and the shlep, but for the next twenty years or so, I bombed down mountainsides regardless of weather or conditions, first with my father and then with my best girlfriend.  I tackled slopes of any level and in any location.  And then, about twenty years ago, I moved to Los Angeles.  I was making little money and could barely afford rent much less the now expensive sport and I realized two terribly important things: first, that my best ski companion had always been my father and he was now dead; second, skiing is cold and uncomfortable and expensive.  I had bad circulation and no money.  And so I quit – cold turkey – no more skiing.  And that was it.  For twenty years. 

Then along came Sig Other who decided, just a few weeks ago, that I should get back on the horse (the horse, in this case, being a pair of skis).  For reasons I am still pondering, I relented, and Sig Other, Child Two and I packed up ridiculous amounts of gear and flew north to my family cabin.  We arrived in a near blizzard and muscled through blustery snow in a rented Yukon XL.  Four days of spectacular skiing and crazy snowstorms yielded fun and happy exhaustion.  Skiing, it turns out, is sort of like riding a bicycle and after twenty years off the boards, my muscle memory did not fail and I was back at it, knee deep in powder in no time.  For four days we bombed down slopes until finally, on our last day, we took it a little easy and ended up back at the house before sunset.  Child Two had been aching to sled, so I took him for a walk in the neighborhood in search of the perfect hill while Sig Other relaxed by the fire with an aggressive game of online Scrabble.  Child Two lugged a red plastic toboggan from the garage.  I wielded an orange plastic disc.  I wasn’t thinking really, as we wandered around looking for a place to slide.  

But just up the street from our family cabin in Tahoe is where my father died.  It’s a house directly behind ours, two blocks up.   The house belonged to friends and we’d been their guests for summers and winters of my childhood.  My parents fell in love with the area and, when they could finally afford it, bought a lot here and set about building their dream vacation house.  It was, to the best of my knowledge, my father’s greatest dream to build his own house – a house where his wife and daughters could spend time in the place he loved best.  And so our friends offered their house to him as he set about the task of building our home from the ground up – just him and a guy named Chuck.  Dad started in the spring of ’81 when the snow thawed. The plan was that he’d live in our friend’s house while he built ours and we would join him when school let out for the summer to help in the task of raising walls and hammering nails and painting wherever we could.  The plan was to complete the house before the first snow of that winter.    

But it was not to be.  A few months into the build, on the last day of school and just before we were to join him, my father died in the house up the hill from ours.  Peacefully we hope and just short of seeing the completion of his big dream.  My mother made sure the dream was made complete – she hired a contractor to carry out their original plans and the house was built as he would have wanted. 

For many years I defined myself first as the girl whose father died when she was fourteen – eight days shy of her fifteenth birthday.  Whatever else I was or wanted to be trailed far behind that simple fact.   Years passed as I struggled to shed that definition – to move past it to a sense of self that lived outside of childhood trauma.  And I did.  Two divorces and a good deal of therapy later and I can now pin my neuroses on other psychological traumas.  But I grew out of, or so I thought, being jus the girl whose father died when she was fourteen.    

And for years I avoided this house.  No one else in my family avoids it.  They like it.  They like coming here and living my father’s dream – reveling in the knowledge that this is what he would most like, this is what he would have wanted – families united around a fireplace, a game of Scrabble, a puzzle completed, a meal cooked together.  And after years of pestering and cajoling, Sig Other finally got me to come here.  Child Two should see the mountains, have a chance to try snowboarding, go on vacation by the lake.  And I went along.

And so I found myself, four days into my vacation, after Child Two had joined throngs of kids as they belly-flopped and slipped and slid down the unplowed road soaked through and happy, walking though the neighborhood.  I found myself walking past our old friend’s house up the street – the house where my father died.  Our friends don’t own it anymore.  The kids grew up and moved all over the country and keeping the house no longer made sense.  But there it was, a little spruced up, a little fancier and now owned by someone I don’t know.  And I recognized it just the same.  I remembered the smell of the upstairs bedroom – sort of a lofty attic filled with dumpy bunkbeds where the kids all slept.  I remember the smell of Bisquick pancakes smothered in Aunt Jemima served with Oscar Meyer bacon for breakfast – our parents cooking in long underwear and sweaters and getting us all ready for a long day on the slopes.  And I remember looking through the window from the front porch into the living room and through to the master bedroom – the room where my father died. 

His body was long gone by the time I last looked through that window, almost thirty years ago now.  But I could imagine how he was laying – was I told how he looked when he was found?  Did my mother say he was on the bed, on his back, legs crossed at the ankles as they always were when he napped?  Were his hands behind his head as he lay in repose?  I’m not sure.  But that’s the image I have – the image of his legs crossed at the ankles, visible from that front porch window only from just above the knee down.  And that’s what I thought about today as I walked by the house with Child Two.

“There’s the house where my father died,” I told him.  I’m not sure why I said it.  It wasn’t necessary and I hope it didn’t freak him out.  “Does it make you very sad” he asked.  No, I lied.  I didn’t know it was a lie in the moment.  In that moment I thought I was just walking by a house I used to know in a neighborhood I used to frequent.  But hours later, after dinner, sitting by the fire trying to read a book, I started to cry.  Coming back here, it turns out, turned me back into the girl whose entire identity could be defined by the fact that her father died when she was fourteen – eight days before her fifteenth birthday.

I’m home now, a little sore and wrung out by muscles exercised in mind and body not used for the past two decades.  And its Sig Other’s birthday today.  He is 48 – the age my father was when he died.  I’m glad I went to Tahoe, glad I skied, glad I stayed in the home my father built.  But it will always be a challenge for me, always be fraught with the bitter and the sweet.  And I will always think of myself, when I’m in that house, as the girl whose father died when she was fourteen – eight days before her fifteenth birthday…


Miss Whistle said...

This is quite beautiful, Mrs L, and brave of you to confront your ghosts here. I think it would be a rather good short story if you were so inclined. It's a an absolutely lovely, moving piece of writing.

andrea said...

What a beautiful and incredibly honest piece. I found myself quietly weeping as I read it. Very powerful stuff!Miss Whistle is right, what a wonderful short story.

Anonymous said...

this is hauntingly beautiful. thank you for writing it. it moved me deeply.

Young at Heart said...

wow...what a journey but I would say the time was obviously's tough to turn grief into celebration, you are doing well though you may not know it yet...