Two Red Maples

If the two red maples standing at attention on my front lawn could have talked, they probably would have bemoaned how annoying I was, always hanging around. I spent countless days lodged up in their branches for all kinds of reasons, but usually it was to be alone. What I loved most about them was how they offered me the privacy of being able to sit comfortably, and be hidden from view so that I could think about what I wanted to think about and daydream. I spent an inordinate amount of my time fantasizing and daydreaming, mostly about who I wanted to be instead of who I was, which lately, was a constant pressure cooker of emotions. I felt big, and I expressed big, and sometimes it was exhausting and embarrassing.

I was always so much more calm, cool, and collected in my daydreams, so much less emotional. I sometimes hated how sensitive I was and how intense all my feelings were. The hardest part was not always understanding what it was I was feeling. I could feel the tension rise between my parents by just one small gesture from my mother when she walked past him. I could sense the despair when my father’s favorite song came on the radio and he didn’t turn it up, or when my mother needed me to repeat something three times for her to actually hear me. Or, when one of my “friends” pointed out my blemishes on the school bus and said, “It’s like you’ve got a constellation all over your face.” All of these things—everything—pierced my heart like a spear and then simply sat in my gut, heavy.

In my fantasies, I was the unflappable girl who didn’t ever seem to get riled up by anything, unlike the real me who got riled up by everything. In some of my fantasies, I would tell off the older girls who rode by on their bikes and laughed at me and my sister. In others, I would walk by boys I liked and pretend like they weren’t even there. Or, sometimes, I would scream at my parents all of the things no one else was saying. I would sit up in those trees and wait for the day I could be like that, and the trees didn’t tell me it would never happen. They just blew in the breeze and held me in their sturdy arms.

They bore the initials that I would carve into their trunks, of me and whichever boy held my attention at the moment. It frequently changed. None of the boys ever knew I “liked” them, and as quickly as I fell into delirious love with them, I would just as quickly be over them and on to someone else. I felt a bit bad for the trees, to be honest, what with all the carvings into their sides I did, aside from the fact that it also made me look like a slut. I had dumped Jason only days after our roller skating date and I had no idea why.

The two trusty trees overheard the conversations Tami and I would have about Jennifer Stife and the eerie coincidences that, surely, were “a sign.” Of what, we hadn’t quite figured out yet.

“I opened the Bible the other day and it opened right up to page 47!” she would whisper quickly to me.

“No way!” I would say, incredulous. “What did it say on the page?” We would try to decipher what Jennifer Stife may have possibly been trying to tell us from the grave through page 47 of The Bible. If that didn’t shed some light on the mystery, we would sometimes count to either 42 or 47, slowly and with anticipation, and then wait with bated breath to see if anything happened. Nothing ever did. If the maple tree in which we were perched could talk, it would have rolled its eyes and muttered, “Idiots.”

It lent its branches to me when I swung from them and tried to show off for Jacob, who came down the sidewalk on his bike. I wanted him to see how strong I was, and how limber, that I was able to climb the tree gracefully and without any grunting or difficulty, like boys did. Sometimes I would succeed and then watch him from the canopy of leaves to see if he noticed, but he always just rode by on his bike, oblivious to my grace. Other times I’d slip off and fall with a thud, at which point I would pretend I didn’t see him at all and skip away toward my house, unable to breathe, to show him I wasn’t hurt in the slightest.   In case he had been watching.

The big Red Maple also hid the awe and fear that Tami and I felt whenever the Hot Dog Man walked by. Neither Tami nor I knew from where the Hot Dog Man came, or where he was going on his walks. We only ever saw him pass by the maple trees on his way into town and on his way back. He stood about six feet tall and was huge and lumber some. Not fat- huge, but just big-boned burly-huge. And he was bald. We would sometimes see him coming a few blocks away. Sitting among the leaves chattering away like one of the birds, we’d quickly lower our voices to a barely perceptible whisper as he neared. He walked slowly and didn’t look at any of his surroundings as he passed. When he walked toward town, he was always empty-handed, but when he walked back to from wherever he came, he always had four hot dogs in his hand. No buns. Just cooked hot dogs, four in a row, and he held them like one would hold cards. Fanned out. He would bumble home and eat them just like that, fanned out in his hand, nibbling them from top to bottom. And we’d sit so perfectly still as we watched him walk by, eating his hot dogs that were fanned out in his hand. At first, I thought it was so weird that he ate his hot dogs like that, but then again, the way I ate my Pop-Tarts was kind of weird too. Maybe The Hot Dog Man and I had something in common. There was something about him that made me want to come down from the trees and say hello.

The real me never would. I was too scared, but the fantasy me did all the time, and I found that he was very nice.

I’d later heard, maybe from my mom or dad, that he lived in the halfway house a half-mile down the street on the other side. I didn’t know what a halfway house was, but I knew he lived there because he needed to, because something wasn’t quite right with him. Did he feel everything too much too? Did he wish he were different than he was? Did he feel anything at all? Every time I passed by that house afterward, I would stare at it through the backseat window and wonder what he was doing in there, if he was just sitting there, rocking in a rocking chair or eating hot dogs. Or, maybe he was hiding behind a curtain and looking right back at me from his bedroom window upstairs, like I watched him from the tree?

Sometimes, I would give him a weak smile and a friendly wave on my way by, just in case he was.

Bliss is an endless aisle of soup cans.

My parents had wonderful timing. Just as my toes inched their way to the precipice of puberty, the ground began to crack beneath me, causing me to lose my footing before I had even begun. Just as my insides began to go haywire, my outsides began to tremor, blurring my point of reference. As I pushed open the door to adolescence, I quickly began to learn that I had an uncanny knack for stressing myself out in the most benign of situations. Or maybe I was already stressed and just trying to find ways to calm myself down.

I first noticed this seemingly useless and senseless behavior while watching Little House on the Prairie after school. Well, first, I had to sit through Guiding Light because it was either that, or The People’s Court with Judge Wapner who always seemed so grumpy and was always yelling at people. Both were painful to have to sit through, but in the end, I always chose to sit and watch Bud and Reva Shayne fight. They were always kissing and then arguing and then kissing and then arguing, week after week. I guess that’s why they called them daytime dramas. I suppose a show certainly wouldn’t get good ratings if their two main characters merely snapped at each other, rolled their eyes at each other, or questioned why the other had used that tone of voice and then didn’t speak to each other for two days. That would be boring for anyone to watch, even though in real life it still somehow left you on pins and needles.

After the last dramatic bombshell was dropped, however, and the screen froze on the face of the shocked and betrayed (yet again) Bud, Little House would come on and all was right with the world again. As opposed to Reva and Bud, Ma and Pa were always laughing and kissing,  and laughing and kissing.  Even when Ma got annoyed because Pa traipsed through the house with his muddy boots on, they were always able to laugh it off and kiss and be happy and grateful as they ate their bread and butter. Laura and Mary always responded with “Yes Pa,” or, “Yes Ma,” and Pa always came home in such a wonderful mood, despite having worked at the Mill from dawn ‘til dusk.

I wondered which one was closer to the truth: The incessant cycle of fighting and making-up between Reva and Bud, or the perpetually happy and pious Ingalls family. And where did a family like mine fit in.

After the scene of Laura and Mary sitting on a tree stump and laughing faded, a commercial would start, thus catapulting me into my habitual race against time. I would jump up and sprint into the kitchen to make my staple peanut-butter-toast-with-chocolate-milk snack. Knowing I had only two to three minutes before Little House would be back on, I would already have gotten out and prepped the peanut butter, the plate, and the chocolate syrup so as to cut back on time. I would stand in front of the toaster, knife poised, ready and waiting. As soon as the toast would pop up, I would frantically start spreading peanut butter and listen to the TV to make sure commercials were still on. Quickly pouring the milk and stirring up a chocolate frenzy, I would hear a commercial starting to wind down, and would grab my stuff. Barreling out of the kitchen like a bull out of its chute, through the dining room and back into the living room, I would often spill a bit of milk on the way, just to make sure I was physically back in front of the TV when Little House resumed.

The perplexing thing was, it wasn’t about not wanting to miss any part of the show as much as it was that I just felt as though something bad would happen if I didn’t get back in before the commercial ended. I had no idea what, but I didn’t want to find out. Once I was in the room I would settle back down into the couch, set my chocolate milk on the stack of VHS drawers and savor my warm and melted peanut butter on toast.

My sister, sitting in my father’s arm chair, had on his pair of gigantic headphones. They were his big grey clunky ones, with the heavily padded ear pieces, and were far too big for her tiny, almost-six-year-old freckled face. Her rat’s nest was poking out in the back and her freckled cheeks squished from the tight padding. She was listening to her all-time favorite song by Bobby McFarrin, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and looked up at me smiling, singing off-key far more loudly than she needed to, so that she could hear her own voice. She swayed her head back and forth, her feet bouncing to the rhythm while I diligently nibbled the perimeter of my toast like a chipmunk.

I also had a proclivity for stressing myself out while simply lying in bed. For instance, I’d have a song stuck in my head, like “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung, and I’d be singing it or humming it over and over, moving my toes back and forth to the rhythm. But then, I’d start to feel like I had moved my left toes back and forth a lot more than my right toes and my feet would start to feel unbalanced and weird, at which point, I would do a succession of quick back and forth toe-moving with my right toes just to even things out a bit, until I had reached a state of equilibrium. This would happen numerous times as I lay there trying to fall asleep. Once I recalibrated my toes to a nice state of symmetry, I’d start moving them back and forth again, maybe this time to “The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” by Gloria Estefan, when I’d inadvertently move my left toes back and forth more than my right. And round and round I’d go. If I didn’t even things out, my foot would start to feel funny and then it would start to radiate through my whole body. I’d feel kind of “off-balance” because of it, so I did the only thing I knew how to do. I would lay there in the dark of my room, my toes moving back and forth like little pistons just beneath the covers until everything was balanced again. Then I’d sleep like a baby.

My quirky idiosyncrasies weren’t solely relegated to the confines of my living room or bedroom however. Sometimes they made themselves known while out at the supermarket with my parents. Grocery shopping was “fun” for me, mainly because of the endless opportunities for me to indulge in my guilty pleasure of imposing order on my surroundings. In the canned fruits and vegetables aisle, my mother would stop and flip through her coupon book looking for the three-for-one on canned peas (my favorite). She’d lick her fingers and thumb through them, her delicate hands deft and quick. My father and sister would be fooling around with the cart half-way down the aisle, my sister on the end while my dad did pop-a-wheelies to make her squeal. Then there was me—the life of the party. I was lagging behind them all, straightening all of the awry cans of sliced peaches and French cut green beans that other slovenly patrons so carelessly shoved aside or knocked over and which the stock boys were clearly missing. Sometimes, my mom would dawdle, and I would tackle one entire section of canned corn, stacking the front row all by twos and turning the cans so that the Green Giant was in the exact spot on each and every one. I wasn’t always able to get to all of the cans in the aisle as my parents would move on, but I would do what I could in what little time I had. The soup aisle was my favorite what with the endless rows of cans lying on their sides pleading for me to right them again. When I was done, I would stand back and revel in the beautiful and breath-taking order of the Campbell’s tomato soup section. An Andy Warhol painting in the flesh that made me giddy and gave me goosebumps. Out of the corner of my eye, I would see my family disappear around the corner and have to eventually tear myself away from my masterpiece.

One of the perks of having such a strong desire for order and punctuality was the fact that my Caboodle was immaculate. For all intents and purposes, Caboodles could be described as brightly colored, plastic toolboxes. Mine was aqua-blue with a pink trim. You undid the latch at the front of the caboodle and inside there were compartments and sections with a moveable upper shelf and cache of room in the bottom. Whenever stress seeped into my body, I would simply open up my Caboodle, put on some Martika and organize the shit out of it. My white Timex watch went right in front (it wasn’t a Swatch watch like the one Tiffany had, but it was close enough). My hair ties were in a neat stack on the left end of the moveable shelf, organized by size, or color, depending on the day. The right side of the shelf housed my barrettes. The bottom held any headbands I had, nail polishes, and fuchsia colored lip-sticks that my mother never actually let me wear beyond the borders of our front lawn. Each group of items was neatly placed in rows on each shelf, and at the very bottom was my hairbrush and hairspray. I loved to empty out my entire Caboodle, lay everything out before me, maybe add a few new items I had gotten here and there, and then meticulously rearrange everything again, sometimes in different places, just to shake things up a bit.

Clearly, I was learning how to manage myself like we humans all do. My father turned his love of movies into a cinematic library, had a life-time supply of White-Out on hand at all times and used and re-used the same envelope for his grocery list for years. I organized grocery store shelves, my closet, my bookshelf and my Caboodle during the day and spent way too much time focusing on my fingers and toes at night. It was simply hard-wired in me to head in that direction. I guess when things started to feel like they were getting messy or falling apart, I was trying to figure out ways to make some kind, any kind of order in my life. Then, there was my sister.

One year—my third year of taking dance lessons—we had our annual dance recital. After months of being dropped off at dance lessons in the basement of our local Methodist church at six, it was finally time to perform in front of real people instead of pictures of Jesus and Mary. My costume for this year consisted of a flapper-like skirt that was made of elastic at the waist and was covered in shiny beads. From there, the rest of the skirt was just hundreds of strings that dangled down to my knees—red string that swayed back and forth with every move. I would often put my hands in front of my knees and crisscross them just like they danced in the 20s. Unlike my other outfits that were worn once and then discarded shortly thereafter, this skirt would get use for months to come.

After my recital, my sister decided to start wearing it on her head. She would wear the elastic waist part around her head, like a hat, because then she could pretend she had long hair. She was another victim of mom’s insatiable need to never, ever let our hair grow below our chin. Erin found a way around that by wearing my old skirt on a daily basis, and for months upon months we simply came to regard it as “Erin’s long hair.”

She wore it around the house constantly, shaking her head so it would sway, and flipping the strings over her shoulder as if it was in her way and annoying her. She wore it outside to play, she wore it to bed, and she wore it to dinner. Sometimes you’d spy her sitting on my dad’s ottoman, running her fingers through her long hair and zoning out. At the end of the day, as my mom picked up the trails of mess we had left throughout, she would always bend over and pick up “Erin’s long hair” and hang it on a hook in the doorway of our basement. The next morning, Erin would open the door and stand there, “Mom! Mom! Can you get my hair down please?” My mom would come from wherever she was and take Erin’s long hair down from the hook, yet again. If Erin couldn’t find her long hair, she would freak out, crying and tearing her room apart, only to remember that she had slept with it and it had fallen behind her bed. Then, she’d find it and put it on, and all was right with the world again.

My mother was surrounded by VHS tapes. She watched her older daughter organize the entire grocery store, and made sure to always, always keep track of her younger daughter’s fake, long hair, God forbid. What else could she do except try her hardest to keep us all happy? We each had our ways of coping with the hard, cold fact that we were all comically messed up humans and all had to co-exist.

One day in July, for my sister’s sixth birthday, she got a Pogo Ball as a present. A Pogo Ball was the same concept as a pogo stick, but instead of a long pole with two places to put your feet, it was a ball with a ring around it. The ball itself was a fluorescent orange color and the ring around it, a bright yellow. It looked like Saturn. The object of playing with the Pogo Ball was to stand and balance on the ring, while simultaneously squeezing the ball with your feet and bouncing around. It looked so much easier to do than it was. Outside in the oppressive July heat, shortly after my sister opened the box, she and I tried to figure it out. My mom and dad, who were most likely just milling around the house doing chores, saw Erin and I playing with it and decided to give it a shot themselves.

My father, ever the diligent rule-follower, immediately retrieved the directions from the box. In the driveway, my mother hopped onto the ring part of the ball, giggling and unsure, as my dad read the directions:

“Step 1: Wearing sneakers, place one foot on the disc, pressing your instep against the ball.”

My mother followed accordingly. “Okay.” She smiled.

“Step 2: Bring your other foot up, pressing your instep against the other side of the ball. Grip the ball tightly between your insteps. Step 3: Push down with both feet to begin bouncing.”

Having followed all of the directions to a T, my mother held on to the trunk of our new blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. We’d finally ditched the old, rusty truck and bought a shiny, new car just a couple months prior. Getting her bearings, my mom giggled as my dad folded up the directions and put them in his back pocket, a smirk on his face. Getting her bearings, she let go of the car and attempted to bounce around on the ball, only able to get out two or three jumps and a few squeals before falling. My sister and I laughed hysterically. Not only because our mother just took a digger on the asphalt in her pretty, matching skort outfit, but because she was laughing so hard too. Mom was always so busy doing laundry and cutting coupons and making doctor appointments, she didn’t really have time to laugh a whole lot.

Then, my dad wanted to try. He too, balanced himself on the back of the Oldsmobile, but was more serious about the ordeal, and kind of stared down at the Pogo Ball, trying to remember the directions before finally letting go and attempting to hop his way toward the end of the driveway. It hurt to look at the Pogo Ball. Clearly, my father had surpassed the maximum capacity of weight allowed on the poor toy, and with every bounce, it looked like the plastic bubble just might explode. If the Pogo Ball had been alive, it would have definitely been screaming for mercy. Luckily, he only got to hop three times before he also wiped out on the asphalt. My mother, laughing loudly at him threw her head back and put her hand to chest, yelling, “It’s so hard to squeeze your feet and jump at the same time, isn’t it?” But, my dad was too out of breath from jumping and laughing at himself to really answer. He took out his handkerchief from his back pocket, wiped his eyes from laughing so hard and blew his nose. My mother would hop on again and give it another go. All of us did. Each time, we were more and more determined to make it to the end of our drive.

My sister Erin, who weighed all of 45 pounds, easily hopped onto the ball and bounced around. My parents looked on, smiling and catching their breath.

“Wow! You’ve got it Erin!” my mom exclaimed.

“Stop showing off!” my dad teased her, as she bounced around proudly and effortlessly.

I tried for a minute, but didn’t really care about how far I could get. I think I wanted to watch them do it. We all stood in a circle as each one of us tried it out over and over. For just a few minutes, things felt so different and so nice. It’s almost as if my mom and dad forgot they were mad at each other, or stressed out about things. No one was rushing to work, or swearing at the broken garden hose nozzle, or organizing anything. We all just laughed at each other and ourselves, even if only for a short time.

Who would’ve thought that a cheap little pogo ball would have been such a gift?

 

New Kids On The Block

There are certain rites of passage that all junior high girls must pass through, and pass through together: smoking your first Newport cigarette that you stole from your friend’s parent’s coat pocket; stumbling upon their porn stash and being forever traumatized by a nude Tom Selleck and his obscene mustache; figuring out how to French kiss using their pillow; and developing an obsession, bordering on delusion, with any member of the boy-band currently at the top of the charts, which in 1990, was New Kids On The Block.

At the innocent and wide-eyed age of 13, I was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I would marry the youngest member of NKOTB, Joey McIntyre, in just a few short years. I knew it would happen. I had no doubt in my mind that one day I would be Mrs. Michelle McIntyre.  The alliteration itself was serendipitous.  Devouring my subscription to Teen Magazine every time it arrived in the mail, provided me with everything I needed to know about my future husband: his favorite color (blue) and his favorite first date (dinner and a long walk on the beach). I knew he grew up in Boston, I knew he had blue eyes, I knew he had numerous sisters and I knew what he looked for in a girl (“cool, chill, fun to be around”). I could only hope that he would find my budding neurosis and love of making lists “fun to be around”.

The only thing standing in my way was the small task of getting him to realize that I existed. Luckily, Tami was also planning her nuptials to Jordan Knight. “Tami Knight” didn’t quite roll off the tongue as readily as “Mrs. Michelle McIntyre” did, but I didn’t want to bust her bubble that because of that, things might not happen for her, so I kept quiet. What could we do? How could we make ourselves known to the loves of our lives? As we sat beside my new dual CD player/ FM radio, listening to John Gerabedian’s “Open House Party,” one Saturday night it came to us:

Make Joey and Jordan a dance video and mail it to them.

We wanted to be smart about this, however. Sending a VHS tape could be construed as a little weird– a little desperate.  So, sitting in my bedroom surrounded by no less than 86 different posters of Joey, and the entire band as a whole, we decided that we didn’t want to come off as too over-the-top-obsessed because that would be creepy. We didn’t want to scare them off. We didn’t want them to think we were some crazed hill-billies living in Podunk, Vermont, but more mature, cultured girls with a variation of tastes in music and experiences. With that in mind, we wanted to choose a song to dance to that was not theirs. We wanted to show them there were other songs besides “Please Don’t Go Girl” and “I’ll Be Loving You Forever.” So, after much deliberation sitting on my floor, making our lists and charts and throwing out songs back and forth, we mutually and excitedly settled on a song that we felt was catchy, but not an obvious choice:
Milli Vanilli’s chart-topping #1 hit, “Girl You Know It’s True.”

 

“Yes!” I hissed at Tami, who always had better ideas than I did. “Perfect!” This was going to be a slam dunk. Filming needed to start immediately. Our hopes and dreams were being realized with each passing hour. We were going to showcase our many talents to Joey and Jordan, and could picture them watching the tape on their tour bus, in between shows, being blown away by two girls in Swanton, Vermont, and feeling the need to get in touch with us right away.  I’d decided that I would carry a bouquet of Lilies down the aisle.

We chose my backyard as our setting. It was spacious and somewhat scenic with our big spruce tree towering over the house, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else anyway. We got ourselves ready in my full-length mirror teasing, blow-drying and spraying our hair, carefully picking out our clothes, and chirping away about all of the possibilities that were about to open up for us. I had to make sure to put on some concealer as I had begun getting pimples left and right. Tami’s skin was flawless. Always. Not only was she petite with dark brown hair and sparkly, dark brown eyes, but she had the most porcelain skin to boot. I always had zits, which merely served to compliment my braces and permed brown hair.

We decided to use my parents’ boom box to play the Milli Vanilli song during filming. We weren’t quite technologically adept enough to figure out how to dub the song over our video afterward, and I had a sinking suspicion that my parents were not going to help us figure that one out. My dad was walking around the house in an angry stupor not talking to anyone, and when I asked my mom if I could have Tami over earlier that morning, she half-heartedly responded with “I don’t care”—although it felt like maybe she might have been talking about something else. There were more “I don’t cares” and long silences as of late, which was both annoying and beneficial. Annoying because you walked around on your tiptoes, yet beneficial because when you wanted to use the VHS recorder to make a home video to send to New Kids On The Block, no one cared.

The VHS recorder weighed as much as a small child. I had to hoist it up onto my shoulder, squint my left eye and look through the lens with my right eye, and make sure to hold it steady so it didn’t shake. Having taken one of the thousands of VHS tapes from my father’s collection, we schlepped the thing around out back looking for the perfect spot. There was the back of my garage, the spruce tree, the back fence, my parents’ garden that was clearly neglected, and our picnic table.

Choosing to do our opening scenes against the spruce tree, we began filming, introducing ourselves first before getting to our many talents. I let Tami go first, probably because I was being bossy, wanting to run the camera and tell her what to do. I liked directing people. She stood against the backdrop of the tree, poised and smiling while I positioned myself and the camera. My thumb on the record button and my left eye squinting, I said, “Ok. Go.”

“Hi! I’m Tami. I’m 13 years old and live in Swanton, Vermont.” She seemed nervous, so I made her do it again explaining to her that we didn’t want them to think we were trying too hard.  Didn’t want them to see we were nervous.   We did another take, and after reviewing her introduction and being satisfied, it was my turn. I took her place in front of the towering Spruce and tried my hardest to come off as “chill, cool, and fun to be around.”

“Hey! I’m Michelle. I’m 13 and live in Swanton, Vermont.” I didn’t smile too widely, and may have even slouched a little to give off the effect that making this video was really not that big of a deal to me—I could be doing other things.

After reviewing them again and being satisfied with our introductions, we milled around my backyard lugging the 45-pound VHS recorder along. What to do next? We could do some acrobatics over by the fence to the music, or simply record ourselves walking around lip-syncing like in the music video? We had spent the better part of the evening memorizing the lyrics to “Girl, You Know It’s True.” There were two members of Milli Vanilli and so we each took a part and divided up the song like that. Going over my lines in our heads, we spotted the picnic table. Perfect! We would combine the lip-syncing and the dancing and use the picnic table as a kind of prop.

I let Tami go first again. We used one of my father’s 455-foot extension cords that was plugged into an outlet in our garage and plugged it into the boom box that we positioned near the picnic table, but concealed and out of sight in an attempt to make this as professional as possible. We had agreed that we would start off-camera, but then jump in front of the camera right when the song started. With Tami standing on her mark, poised to jump in front of the camera at just the right time, I quickly ran over to the boom box and hit Play, ran back to my mark, hoisted the cumbersome VHS camera on to my shoulder, squinted my left eye, yelled “Ready,” and hit Record.

We spent an entire afternoon running back and forth from the boom box, back to our marks, hitting record, hitting pause, reviewing our work, dancing, lip-syncing, re-winding, changing the dance moves, redoing our hair and occasionally yelling at my little sister to “Get out of the way!”, lest she completely ruin our plans. What a turn off it might be to see my immature little sister making faces at the camera while wearing my old dance recital skirt as a wig.
I can’t remember if we ever sent off our video. It may be sitting in my father’s collection somewhere, or maybe he found it and didn’t know what it was and taped episodes of The Rifleman over it. Or, maybe we did send it off, and Joey and Jordan just never got a chance to see it. That would probably explain things. It may have been a blessing in disguise, seeing as how only a few short months later it would be found out that Milli Vanilli was all a hoax. One of the biggest scandals to have rocked the music world.  And to think that we used their song in an attempt to impress NKOTB?  I could only hope they didn’t actually watch it.

We were not deterred however. For NKOTB’s “Summer of Magic” tour was kicking off, and Tami and I had tickets to see them!!! It would be a summer of magic for sure. If our home video hadn’t made it to them, then we would just have to make it to them ourselves. Lucky for us, Lake Placid was not so far from where we lived, only a few short hours. My mother (bless her heart) and Tami’s mother (bless her heart) agreed to take Tami, my little sister (seriously?), and me to see them.  In person.

It was happening. It was really happening. We were going to be in the exact same arena as Joey and Jordan. We were basically going to be in the same room as them! Again, we spent an obscene amount of hours choosing our outfits, fixing our hair and going over what we would say or do if and when we met them. No, not if. When.

Having grown up in Swanton, Vermont (population 3,000) and not having really gone anywhere else except Malone, NY, made arriving in Lake Placid feel like being in a completely different country. The people, the traffic, the buildings, all the flags. There were so many flags near the arena, which was massive. I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that me and the NKOTB were in the same city together. They were seeing the same flags I was seeing and experiencing the same things I was. I could barely contain myself. With explicit instructions from both my mom and Tami’s mom to stick together and meet us back out at the van when it was over, the three of us scrambled out of the car and walked toward the towering Olympic Arena.

Swarms of girls our age, covered in NKOTB attire were pouring through the doors.  Thousands of love-sick girls wearing t-shirts, sunglasses, purses. Some of them were carrying posters, and all of them were giddy. The closer we got to the doors, the more quickly we became swallowed up in the masses. Some man looked at our tickets, pointed to a set of stairs and doors we were to go through, and we were on our way.

I had never been in a place with so many people before. I was from Swanton. The biggest gathering I had ever experienced was our school assemblies in the gymnasium. I felt so small and the arena only made me feel smaller.   The countless nights I had spent daydreaming about my fantastical love for Joey and our inevitable relationship suddenly seemed comical and pathetic when I was forced with the realization that the thousands upon thousands of other girls in the arena had all been doing the same exact thing.

Somehow, we found our seats in the dark, which were not ideal: it was the nose bleed section. Behind the stage. Behind it. Was I even going to see him?

Drunk with delusional love, the music began, the screams of everyone else’s delusional love became deafening and all of my concerns were swept away as the concert started.  The lights all around me dimmed and the stage lit up.  Well, the front of the stage lit up.  I could see the dancing silhouettes of NKOTB and the familiar music I had only ever heard on my dual CD player/FM radio.   I was exhilarated. I was smiling. I was laughing. I was dancing.  I was giddy.
I was bawling my eyes out.

I had never cried so hard in my life for absolutely no reason. It was all just too much. Seeing the love of my life from a half-mile away (I’m pretty sure it was him), was just too much for my hysterical heart to handle. I sobbed. And so did Tami. We were akin to the Beatles’ fans I had seen on TV in black and white: teenage girls shaking their heads in hysteria and grabbing at their hair in ecstasy. Well, we weren’t quite that bad, but bad enough. My poor little sister, smooshed between two sobbing 13-year-olds, looked first up at me, then up at Tami, completely befuddled over our tears. Being the impressionable little sister that she was, she eventually started bawling herself, because apparently, that is just what you do at a New Kids On The Block concert when you’re 13 and it’s the biggest thing you’ve ever been to in your life thus far.

On the ride home, coming down from my high, I won’t try to deny that I was a bit disappointed I didn’t actually get to meet Joey, or that our seats were literally behind the stage, and that I only got to glimpse him when their dance routine caused them to move from one far end of the stage to the other. And even then, I had to try and figure out which one he actually was. I couldn’t deny that all of my big plans were not falling into place. It is a hard pill to swallow to learn that the fantasies in which I had been indulging in order to escape my mundane life were only ever going to be that. Fantasy.

Later, when the excitement had worn off, and reality had settled back into our days, Tami and I were lying in my bed, begrudgingly coming to the realization that Joey and Jordan were most likely never going to have the chance to meet us. So, we commenced taking down the86 posters I had splayed all over my bedroom walls. It took a good half hour to take them down. I folded over the edges of tape and put them in a neat pile in the bottom of my drawer. We went downstairs, grabbed a big bag of Cheetos and some soda, went back up and sprawled out on my bed. We put on Air Supply and wallowed in our misery together. With our feet perched against the slanted ceilings in my room, and the sounds of us reaching into the bag for another handful of Cheetos and loudly chewing them, we emotionally ate our pain away to the crooning words, “I’m All Out Of Love/I’m So Lost Without You.”

I couldn’t figure out which was worse: falling on your bike in front of the love of your life, or being faced with the fact that you’ve spent an inordinate amount of energy banking on an impossible and ridiculous fantasy coming true. Why did so many girls my age go so crazy for boys who were totally unattainable? Maybe for me it was because I didn’t dare fall for anyone real just yet. As I stared at my feet pressed against my floral wallpaper and licked my orange fingers, I reasoned that it seemed a whole heck of a lot safer than the real deal. Real-life love was filled with silent treatments and the slamming of cupboards. It entailed arguments over one person not helping out around the house enough and people leaving each other in some form or another. It had nothing to do with walks on the beach or being cool, chill, and fun to be around. It seemed to entail anything but that, and so I didn’t think I really wanted any part of it. Maybe I preferred to have loved from afar because at least you could always tell yourself that the reason it didn’t work out was because you never even got to meet—not that you did, and you just weren’t good enough.

 

For a very special mother.

Her name was Eleanor, my husband’s mother, but I always called her Mrs. Spaulding.  I smile when someone calls me that today.

I met Mrs. Spaulding when I began dating Jon, back in 1995, and I liked her right away.  She was warm and welcoming and probably excited to have a girl around the house since she had given birth to three boys.   She was light-hearted, an excellent cook, and would sometimes break out in a modest dance while moving around the kitchen in her apron.  She is the person from which my husband gets his goofy ways–one of my favorite things about him.  Over time, the longer we dated, his home slowly became my second home.  I spent so much time at Jon’s house, and with his parents, that I could drive from my house to his, blindfolded, and predict every turn, every dip in the road and every frost heave along the way.

Sometimes, the four of us (me, Jon and his mom and dad) would sit in their tiny living room and watch Wheel of Fortune or Entertainment Tonight. Sometimes, I would just sit in the kitchen and chat with her while she cooked.  Sometimes, if I spent the night because I was too tired to drive home at 1:00 in the morning, she was bit more quiet with me the next morning and I felt guilty.

For four years, I slowly became part of the family.  By our third Christmas together, she started signing my gifts “love, mom and dad”.  She smiled and winked at me and said, “It’s time you started calling us mom and dad”.

When I graduated from college in May of 1999, Mrs. Spaulding gave me a beautiful framed picture as a graduation gift.  It was a stunning photograph of Mt. Mansfield with a full moon overhead, and snow on the tips of its peaks.  At 21 years of age, it felt like a mature gift to me.  Something you might give someone who was older and more settled.  Someone who might appreciate it more than I probably did at the time.   At 22,  I was feeling more and more restless in life and in my relationship with Jon.  After 4 years of coming home from college to spend every weekend with him, I felt like I wanted to bust out of my skin.

So, shortly after my graduation, shortly after she gave me the beautiful photo of Mt. Mansfield, I broke up with her son.   We were apart for 7 years.  While we did stay in touch and hang out every now and then, I never seemed to feel ready to settle down yet.

But, I never once lost track of Mrs. Spaulding’s photograph.  For whatever reason, I brought that framed photograph with me through 5 different apartments, through a handful of different relationships and packed and re-packed it in numerous boxes that held other things that I kept in the back of closets.  One time, after I had moved out of an apartment with two other girls and settled into my own, I realized that I had left the photograph on a shelf, high up in my old bedroom closet that was then being occupied by another person.  I raced back to that apartment days later, ran to the closet, threw open the door and was relieved when I reached my hand up, felt around in the dust and it landed on the picture.

On a September day, in 2003, I remember driving home from work one afternoon and my mother calling me on my cell phone to tell me that Mrs. Spaulding had died.  She had suffered a brain aneurism.  I had to pull over as I tried to wrap my brain around the fact that she was gone, and that her son, whom I had loved so very much, was in an enormous amount of pain.  The next time I would see him, and her, would be at her wake.

7 years after I broke up with Jon, 7 years after I got out whatever craziness it was that I needed to get out, we eventually came back together again.   After having spent 7 years trying to “find myself”, I realized that I never actually felt more myself than when I was with him, and everything became very crystal clear to me.

So much time had passed, that we quickly began starting out lives together.  We married, had our first son in 2007 and then a year later, found out we were pregnant with our second son.  With this news, we decided to build our own house back near our hometown, where all of our friends and family lived.

After living with my own mother for a few months, moving in with Jon’s father for a couple of months, waddling around taking care of my older son while my younger son incubated, studying for my licensing exam in Psychology and while Jon helped with the building of our new house, we were finally able to move in one month after my younger son arrived, in May of 2009

After 4 years together, 7 years apart, two boys and our own home, we both felt like we had finally arrived.  On the day we moved in, my husband and I were standing at our big back-deck windows, overlooking where our deck would eventually be, taking in the beautiful view that was our backyard.

“Wow, look at those mountains.  What a gorgeous view we have!” I said, my husband coming up beside me, nodding his head.

“Yup, I believe that’s Mt. Mansfield” he said back to me, “you can still see some snow on its peaks”.

At his words, I froze for only a second, as my heart began beating and I caught my breath, before quickly turning around, running into the dining room and opening  the brown box that I had placed on the dining room table.  On top, sat the photograph that Mrs. Spaulding had given me exactly ten years before, almost to the day, when I graduated in May of 1999.

I ran back into the kitchen unable to get my words out fast enough as I held up the picture next to our window, with two mirror images of Mt. Mansfield:  one from exactly 10 years ago, and one of the view that we would have in our home every single day.  I will never, ever forget that moment, as we stood in silence in our new home together letting this discovery sink in.

I felt close to Mrs. Spaulding when she was alive.  I loved her, I enjoyed spending time with her and we got along very well.  I can honestly say, that even though she isn’t here to hug or talk to, I still feel close to her.  I still talk to her sometimes, when I don’t understand my husband or I feel like I just wish she were here to give me advice on something, and there have been times when she has made it clear to me that she is listening.

We hung her picture on the wall right next to our deck windows, just as a reminder that she is here watching over us, which feels so good–although when I’ve lost my cool with my husband and said something not-so-nice to him, I do tend to wince at the thought that she probably saw that.

Her birthday is today and Mother’s Day is Sunday.  We’ve also been in our home exactly 7 years, this special month of May.  We are thinking of her and missing her and thanking her.

Happy Birthday and Happy Mother’s Day……….Mom.

 

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