Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Missing Chapter in Little House...

There's something about Laura Ingalls Wilder that has always fascinated me. Perhaps it was her tenacity and rebelliousness. I mean she was the one who refused to say "obey" in her wedding vows. Perhaps it was her resiliency through every disaster and hardship a person could experience. Perhaps it was her determination and drive to succeed despite the odds always being stacked against her. Perhaps it was her wandering spirit and desire to see and do more. Or perhaps, since I related to none of the aforementioned characteristics when I read her book as a 6 year old, it was the her tiny house and her family that I felt most connected to. A middle child with brown hair, bucked teeth, a tomboy attitude and a little house I called home.

With a Dad that worked nights and a mom that worked days this house wasn't always filled to the brim with the five of us. And nothing was ever perfect. While Laura's Pa struggled with the stresses of bad crop seasons and making ends meet on the salary of a farmer, my Dad struggled with the stresses of a bad shift and making ends meet on the salary of a city beat cop. Yet like Laura I looked up to my Dad as a hero. Someone invincible, indestructible and steadfast. While Laura's Ma struggled to educate her children and keep them fed, my Mom struggled to work a full time job with minimal childcare and an incredibly tight budget. And I looked up to her as someone who could make it all work.

My parents married very young. By the time they were my age they had three children under the age of ten, two of the most stressful jobs in this country, a mortgage, and an ever growing stack of bills. Overtime and holiday pay meant we could stay afloat and like the Ingalls', we were ok for another month. And it continued to be this way, within this tiny house, for years. While my Dad never pulled out a fiddle and sat around the campfire, he did introduce me to the twin fiddles in George Strait songs and we all huddled around that kerosene heater during the Blizzard of '94. 

The more books in the Little House series I read the more I drew parallels to my life and Laura's. When my family moved to the country I could only reason with myself that I had actually entered the books as Laura herself (now with orthodontic assistance) as snow engulfed our house, we grew most of our own food in the summer time, there was a general store, and there was nothing to see for miles but wide open spaces and mountaintops. Our house was bigger yet my parents worked tirelessly to provide for their children. My sister and I never shared a cup and our presents were never shiny pennies or candy sticks we had to save. But like Mary and Laura the competition between my older sister and myself was strong. And in the same likeness so was the discipline handed down to make sure all three of us knew better. 

As I grew older the idea of laying roots grew more obscure and the dream of having wings took shape. I had the drive in me to venture away from the little town and make something of myself on my own. Like Laura, my heart was set on independence and roaming with a purpose. And I looked to my parents as two strong oak trees that would withstand the strongest winds in the Big Woods and survive the raging waters that sometimes came to the banks of Plum Creek... just like Ma and Pa . 

But the book ended. 

It ended without a preface in italics preparing you for what was to come. There were no Garth Williams illustrations to make the impact of the finality more comforting. The Ingalls Family was no longer comparable to mine. And the parallels I had spent over 25 years drawing between my family and Laura's came to an abrupt and permanent end. While the children were grown and on their own, the home Laura would come back to and the faces around the dinner table she knew would be there when she walked through the door, were gone.

The finality of Ma and Pa... the finality of my parents... was nowhere to be found in a Little House on the Prairie book. I knew how to prepare for floods, famine, failed jobs, bullies, blizzards, and blindness. But despite every disaster Laura held my hand through she never guided me through divorce. And after more than 30 years as the daughter of a Mr. and Mrs. I find myself the daughter of two people who share the same last name but no longer the same address. 

Can I be angry that my family dynamic has changed into something I never predicted it would be? No. I try to rationalize that being angry serves no purpose but to create friction and tension. Can I be confused and apprehensive as to what the next steps are in this new uncharted territory? It's absolutely inevitable. Not only did Laura Ingalls Wilder not prepare me for this detour in my life but there are actually no books out there for grown children who have recently divorced parents. There are plenty of books for children on this topic essentially letting the child know "it's not your fault" but it's as if adult children should know what to do and how to do it without question. Unfortunately that's not the case. We may not have to worry about custody agreements but we're faced with the looming question, "What now?" 

What about Christmas? Mr. Edwards can't come and fix this one with presents he has packed in brown paper and sweet potatoes he hid in his pockets. No. Christmas means figuring out a balance between each parent while trying not to lose yourself in the mathematical equation of times, places and side dishes. Holidays mean a separate but equal existence in a situation I never thought could be shared. Reservations arise about the first date small talk I'll have to make and saying the words, "they're divorced." Hesitations arise about first dates in general because not only will there be mine in the future... my parents will have their own. 

You're continuously told "you want them to be happy, don't you?" and "it's always for the best" and my personal favorite, "nothing is really changing since you're an adult." Everything is changing. Maybe despite all my growing, life experiences and spreading of wings I still find myself a little girl in that little house sitting around that kerosene heater. I still find myself the untamable teenager staring down the road to what's ahead yet looking back over my shoulder at the two solid oak trees standing side by side knowing what's behind me. 

Without question I want my parents to be happy. And at times I feel selfish and immature for taking a while to process what happened and how it happened. But at the same time, unlike a little kid, I had a longer time period to see my parents together and establish what "normal" was for our family. Divorce is not easy on any party involved. Everyone is hurt. Everyone is confused and knocked off balance for a while. It may not all come at once to each family member. One may feel it first. Stand back up. And walk straight. While another starts to waver, loses their step and begins to process. There is no playbook for this situation. There is no manual. There is no 19th cross-stitch embroidered quote sitting on the Ingalls' hearth that will answer all the questions divorce creates. 

But there is time. There is patience. There is honesty. There is the realization that decisions made by one person or two people have a ripple effect. Everyone is essentially brought into the situation. I guess that's the problem with a family. You think your actions are solely yours but they actually shuffle the entire deck thereby changing the cards everyone is holding. It's ok to feel like you need time to wrap your head around the new normal. Just as it's ok to make decisions that you believe are made for the greater good. It's ok not to be ok. 

It was always obvious that Pa Ingalls, despite his continuous set backs and trials, knew that everything was going to work out in the end. The crops would grow. The wagon would be fixed. The horse would be found. Ma Ingalls would provide that moral support and do what was best for the family at the end of the day. And perhaps I find some comfort in that as I try to find the Ingalls in my parents once again. Divorce is not failure when it's done because it's what is best for the family and with the mindset that everything will work out in the end. 

So perhaps that's the crossroads we stand at right now. Through time, patience, honesty and an understanding that the new normal will somehow find it's way into each of our own little houses. My Dad's little house. My mom's little house. My siblings little houses. And my little apartment. We're no longer all under one roof, stepping on each other's toes and reaching for that last piece of cake at the dinner table. We're a group of little houses that have their own kitchen tables. Their own tin cups. Their own kerosene heaters. Their own fiddles and nighttime stories. And hopefully we'll all be able to take a piece of each little house we call home and bring it together to eventually make that one little house again. A house that's no longer broken and divided but pieced together to create a little house, in it's entirety, that's just... our family. 

I may no longer be the daughter of a husband and a wife. I may no longer be Laura Ingalls Wilder inside her parent's home eating Ma's cooking and listening to Pa's stories around the kitchen table. And that's ok. Because the one thing that can't be taken from me is the pioneer spirit in my heart. And one day, like my own covered wagon across the prairie, I'll take an Airstream and pick up where Laura left off. And still come back to a little house... 

Friday, May 12, 2017

When a Photo Remembers a "Boy Like That"...

It started with a photo. You see I'm not someone who will just add someone as a friend on social media because we had biology together in 1998. I at least want to make sure there is a reason we're cyber-friends and that I actually remember more than what you wrote in my yearbook about my summer plans. Unlike most people who have been on Facebook since 2004 my list of friends is pretty selective. So when I received a notification that I was tagged in a photo yesterday I was intrigued because I hadn't seen that person in almost 15 years. I was tagged by a mutual friend and when I opened the image up I was taken right back to that day: November. 2001. Dress rehearsal. Fuller Hall. West Side Story. My screen was filled with names I hadn't thought about (or even remembered) in a decade and a half. There were names of people who I could never forget. And then there were those names that I said, "who?" when I saw them. It amused me that I had spent dozens of hours- even days- of my life with these people and there were countless faces that I could not remotely remember. But it amazed me to go back to November 2001 and just sit there for a moment (wearing something American Eagle and smelling of Cucumber Melon of course) and think.

In November 2001... 
- I was hoping the big envelope would come from Belmont University so I could move to Nashville
- I had just begun to date my very first boyfriend and was beyond twitterpaited about this reality
- I had pictures of George W. Bush on my wall and in my locker
- My brother and I got along about as well as a cat and a dog
- I wanted to be a district attorney
- My best friend had brown hair, an infectious laugh and lived 2 minutes away
- I drove a 1991 Ford Taurus with a cassette player payed for by a summer job washing dishes
- I had no idea how to process or make sense of what happened two months prior

In November 2001... 
- I had never lived on my own in a city called Nashville sometimes choosing electricity over food
- I had never had my heart broken by any boy or heard the harsh words, "It's over."
- I had no idea the pictures on my wall would be framed photos of me and George W. Bush
- I didn't look up to my brother as a source of guidance or an invaluable friend
- I didn't know I would never go to Law School or even apply to one
- I didn't know my best friend would still have brown hair, that laugh but live 2 time zones away
- I never imagined a monthly car payment on a SUV or how much gas it uses
- I had no idea that I would truly never process nor make sense of what happened 2 months prior

I spent all day and into the night thinking about the impact that this photo had on my mind and heart. Obviously in my own photo albums I will stumble across images I remember because I have seen them so many times before going through boxes and flipping through scrapbooks. But I had never seen this photo. I hadn't seen those "tagged" names in what seemed like a lifetime. I found myself remembering events that I had long since filed away in my memory Rolodex but I fondly remembered the comfort of American Eagle clothing and the sweet smell of Cucumber Melon.

Maybe it's the historian in me that takes my hand and walks me down these winding roads of my past bringing alive the memories of every single detail. Every question left unanswered. Every wish that was never granted. Every dream that never came true... As well as the ones that did.

But one memory stuck out above all the rest. 

He had orange-red hair. He laughed from what seemed like his very core. He had green eyes and a huge smile. He loved to write poetry and read old novels. He was thin, he was funny, he was sweet (and if John Hughes was casting him in a movie-Farmer Ted would have definitely made the cut over Jake Ryan). But in November 2001 with Train's "Drops of Jupiter" playing in my 1991 Ford Taurus he asked me to be his girlfriend on the way home from West Side Story rehearsal. And I said, "Yes."

It was November in Vermont which meant snow was inevitable. I remember saying to him "I think the perfect first kiss would be one in the falling snow when the you have a couple of flakes on your eyelashes." And he said, "I think we could make that happen." And as God as my witness it began to snow when he said those words. And we had our first kiss. (This scene can't be made up. It is so incredibly clich├ęd and Victorian that my now sarcastic and jaded mind could not concoct this type of scenario). And so began what one could only declare the best possible high school sweetheart I could have asked for my senior year. I fell in love but made sure he knew my love came with an eviction notice: August 2002. He was a junior and I was leaving that little town as soon as I could.

When August came I moved to Nashville... and (like a Hallmark movie you want to turn off but you're too lazy to find the remote to do so)... we stayed together. No cell phones. No social media. Just 1200 miles connected by handwritten letters... cards... poems... short stories... phone card dates... and then his decision to follow me to Nashville upon graduation. We were that couple. That one you just wanted to hate because he could make it snow on cue somehow for the perfect first kiss and I had a car that could play handmade mixed CDs filled with country love songs and Train.

But not everything stays on a Hallmark movie. Sometimes you find the remote and you change the channel to something less romantic and more real. Some times all good things end and that's exactly what happened to this sweetheart relationship: 3 years in and he decided we were done. And for the first time since November 2001 I didn't know who I was but I knew I would never trust or love innocently again. We went our separate ways. We didn't stay in touch. We didn't follow each other on social media. We just lived completely separate lives in the city I had wanted to live in my whole life and the one he moved to because he once loved someone there. For once I saw real life. For once I felt what heart break truly felt like. You don't forget that kind of pain and it changes you in every possible way. It will make you stronger (you hope). It will make you more jaded. It will make you less trusting and more hesitant to fall in love again. It will leave a mark on you that somehow, a decade down the road, a photo will bring you right back to. That night. That time. That person.

I went about my life changing careers a few times, finding new hobbies, discovering new passions, meeting new people, writing new chapters and closing a few along the way. I made new friends. I learned valuable life skills (how to survive a Flood). I fell in love. I fell on my face. I moved around the city. I set roots and I held tightly to my wings. But I kept his letters and cards in a box with our pictures. I wondered if he had stayed in Nashville. What he was doing... if he was happy... if he was married... did he remember me? Our breakup was anything but pleasant. I knew he feared my Dad. Had he entered Witness Protection just to be safe?

It was about 6 years ago that I ran into him one night in Nashville. Somehow God woke up that morning and said, "I'm in a really good mood. I'm going to give Kristen the best hair day ever and some random doctor is going to ask her out on a date in the afternoon for dinner." (Have I thanked you lately God?) So with the best hair day of my life and an incredibly good looking doctor (who may or may not have been visually impaired-I still question what happened if not just divine intervention) I went to a bar. When I got there I felt the presence of someone from my past. And when I heard that laugh I turned around and immediately knew who it was. When I said, "Hey, I think I know you" and he looked straight over: November of 2001 was right there in front of me. Over the music we answered generic questions like, "How's your family?" and "What are you doing these days?" (I'm a historian/I'm an English teacher!) He complimented my hair (it was inevitable). And like a perfect scene out of a movie (I swear I can't make these things up) when he asked if I was there alone, over walked the incredibly good looking doctor who gave me the glass of whiskey he had just stood in line for half an hour to get and I said, "No I'm not." He smiled and nodded. I smiled and introduced him to the "One-Date-Only-Perfect-Timing-Miracle-I-Owe-You-One-God-Doctor" and said, "We better be going." We promised each other we would catch up- maybe over coffee or a drink- but we never exchanged numbers. And we both knew it was just a way to be polite. Unless our paths haphazardly crossed again in the next 6 years.... that was our moment. That was our way of the universe checking in to make sure I knew I survived a breakup I never thought I would and although scarred, I was ok after it all. I never saw that doctor again and I never was able to get my hair to have that bounce or perfect shine ever again either. But I had a moment of closure I never thought I would experience. And for that I am grateful because I don't have to question "if" or "does" anymore. I know.

Every now and then those memories will come back. Whether it's the song remembering when as "Drops of Jupiter" plays on the "classic pop" station or it's a photo that brings you back to a moment you had forgotten. I had no way of knowing that the perfect high school sweetheart relationship would end the way that it did. I had no way of knowing that 15 years after my first kiss I would still be single having what could be one of the longest runs of bad luck with guys that really only country songs are written about. I had no way of knowing all the things that I knew then were eventually going to change. Life always has other plans and there are always more questions than answers. So yesterday I spent some time back in the Fall of 2001. Back when I was dating a Jet and Feeling Pretty. I was younger. I was starry-eyed. And I was certain Something Was Coming.

I had no way of knowing that when I took the stage for that final curtain call in November of 2001, I was taking a bow to the innocence of youthful fairy tales and setting the stage for reality. And part of me is glad I didn't know how the show would eventually end because maybe I wouldn't have auditioned in the first place.