Thank Goodness For Daddies

March 17, 2010


Longtail boats are like big canoes powered by an engine. Colorful ribbons and flower garlands adorn the prow, appeasing angry water spirits. The interiors are painted bright, jaunty colors. Longtail boats are beautiful to behold, but noisy to ride in.

This morning there were three passengers in the boat besides myself- a father, a mother, and their three-year old daughter. When the boat driver dropped the engine into the water with a deafening roar, I watched the child go rigid with fear. Her eyes got huge and she started screaming and crying. Her fingers flexed and she waved her hands in terror. She looked like the world was ending. She was terrified of the noise.

When I was a child, my parents would take us on ferry boat rides to Vashon Island. We would stand outside as the ferry engine started and the water outside the boat began to swirl. Everything was exciting until the men lifted the heavy chains from the dock and dropped them in huge coils onto the metal prow of the ferry. The sound was like a million guns going off at once, an explosion that violated the air.

Luckily, Daddy was always there. Early on, I learned that just before the ferry men dropped the chains, I could press one ear against Daddy’s denim-clad thigh, and he would cover my other ear with his hand. I would wrap my arms around his leg as the chains dropped, and he would hold me against him reassuringly. I always felt safe against Daddy’s leg. I could watch the excitement in safety, my delicate ears protected.

Today, when the girl’s eyes got huge in terror and she was moments from a meltdown, her Dad lifted her into his lap and pressed one of her ears against his chest. With the other arm, he held her close and covered her exposed ear with his palm. She clung to him like a monkey on a palm tree in a hurricane. But by the end of the ride, I saw that her small body had relaxed, and, both ears still protected, she was dipping her little paw into a bag of chips her mom had handed her. Safe and sound, snug in a world of strong arms and potato chips.

Thank goodness for Daddies.


Som

March 4, 2010


I walked quietly across the floorboards, careful not to disturb the sole customer in Good Hope. Pi-Ian was dozing behind the counter, and Nan, the seventeen-year old mother, was sleeping beside her newborn on the floor. I grabbed a homemade yogurt from the refrigerator and turned away.

Suddenly Som was there, tugging my arm and beaming. “Sah-dah!” she said. “Come!”

If I have a Thai mother, she is Som. In the time I have been coming to Had Yuan, Som has fed me, employed me, mended my clothes and put a roof over my head. When I turned twenty-four, she cooked a feast: french fries, spring rolls, phad thai and bananas in coconut milk. She told me to invite all of my friends, and we had a party on the beach. She clucks over my brother when he parties in Had Rin too often, and she interrogates my sister about her Thai boyfriend. What does he do? she fires off in Thai. Why doesn’t he come to stay with us?

I followed her into the kitchen. She reached into a knit shopping bag and pulled out a beautiful red dress. She held it up to my body and murmured in Thai. Nan woke up on the floor and smiled at us with sleepy eyes. “Try, try!” Som urged, so I pulled the dress over my head. She helped arrange it on my body, twisting it here, tugging it there. Then she stepped back and folded her arms across her chest, beaming. It was then I realized she was giving it to me.

“Did you buy it in Surathani?” I asked, knowing she had been on the mainland. She nodded and gave me a sly smile. “Si khaw,” she said, stroking my arm. White. She loves my pale skin. “Suai,” she murmured. Beautiful.

You are beautiful!” I told her, meaning it. “This gorgeous golden skin…”

“Uck,” she said. “Black…”

I promised that I would wear the dress for her tomorrow, and she nodded shyly. Then she patted me on the arm, and sent me off with my yogurt. I walked up the steps to my bungalow, right next door to the family, and was grateful to be here.


Island Time

February 27, 2010


On the beach, time slips through your hands like sand. Smooth. Warm. Gone.

When your hands are empty, and you look around, you realize life has slipped by while you’ve been dreaming. Somewhere, far away, traffic jams and red lights exist, supermarkets with florescent lights. Skyscrapers and business suits, contracts and wars and CNN.

But here on the beach, waves lap the rocks, and everything seems muted, peaceful. No one is in a rush to go anywhere. Life is soft and warm and right now.

My sister Brigitte has been living on the beach for years. She loves the waves, the sun, the seashell wind chimes. She adopts exotic orchids and hangs them from her bungalow porch. She makes bracelets and gives them to her brown-skinned boyfriend. She paints and naps and goes barefoot everywhere. She ain’t ever in a hurry.

She’s been meaning to make it over to this beach for days. Every morning I call her, she says, Yeah, today, I’m coming.

Her voice is scratchy and she’s almost irritable. I’ve clearly called too early. And every night I turn in, my big bed all to myself, and smile, wondering if she’ll ever show up.

This morning I called again. I’m coming today, I swear, she said, and I could picture her rolling over in bed, the shades drawn.

Whateva, I said. I’ll see you when I see you.

She still ain’t here. No problem. I wasn’t really expecting her. In this place, where waves are your lullaby and hammocks hold you captive for entire days, you have to account for Island Time. So I’ve accepted the fact that Brigitte is perpetually running about a week late.


Uncle John

February 27, 2010


Uncle John.

Later in his life, his hair was white, but when we were kids, it was brown, combed back. Dimples when he smiled. Laughing eyes.

He took us on adventures. Cliff-scaling seemed to be a favorite. In the San Juan Islands, my mother clutched my baby brother in her arms and watched Uncle John lead us up the face of a cliff, metal ladder rungs pounded into stone. It seemed so high, but I was only eight, so maybe it wasn’t as life-threatening as I remember. But my mother seems to think it was.

I dreamt about him taking you kids up that cliff years before it ever happened, she said. I was absolutely terrified when I saw it in real life. That John. Climbing up there with you kids…

I remember an aluminum slide at the top of the cliff, connecting one side to the other. The slide bridged an abyss, a crack in the cliff. If you fell off the slide, you’d fall waaay down and be wedged between two rock walls, inaccessible. Perhaps no one would hear your screams.

But we all slid across it successfully and perched on the other side like seagulls, wind in our hair, Mother a speck on the beach.

I recall aspects of John with perfect clarity. On camping trips, he always drank red wine. He laughed and slapped his knees with both hands. His dimples were deep, his eyes sparkling.

John, leaning on one knee, pointing with the finger of his other hand. Making a point, driving home a statement. Philosophy. World history.

John, reflective, pondering a question a child has asked him. Well, I don’t know Sarah Bean. Why do YOU think people have to die?

One of our last conversations took place in his study, at the very top of the house. The walls sloped down on either side, an inverted V. Bookshelves lined the floor, a dizzying array of titles, authors.

Descartes. Aristotle. Plato. Socrates.

War and Peace. 1984. The Grapes of Wrath.

The carpet was soft, sea green. If you stood up too fast with a book in your hand, you’d hit your head. Better to stand in the middle of the room.

John’s desk, a mysterious pipe sitting on it. The occasional smell of skunk in the air.

Potted plants, hanging plants. Plants on bookshelves, obscuring titles.

Exotic lamp shades, stained glass.

And always a jar of Andes mints on the floor.

We sat near the banister. He was advancing in Alzheimer’s by then, wouldn’t be living at home much longer.

So tell me, Sarah Bean, what do you want to do with your life? he asked again, dimples creasing his face.

I want to write, I told him.

Wow, he said, shaking his head in wonder.

That’s great. Just great.

He was so happy, so satisfied, even then. My ambition was exactly his cup of tea.

Like other members of my family, John had a deliciously inappropriate sense of humor. So in that spirit of absurdity, I share with you a moment…

Recently, I was walking through a coconut grove in Goa, India. Uncle John had died a week before on December 16th, my brother John’s birthday.

Birthdays, death days.

Sunlight streamed through the trees, yellow and warm. My flip flops slapped the dirt, and over the hill was the sea.

I had just spoken to my mother. She was coming from one funeral and going to the next. Three days later, she was attending a third.

Three funerals, no weddings.

Uncle John died, then Eunice, my father’s step-mom, and then Mrs. Breen, an old family friend.

Three funerals in one week.

I expected my mom to be a nervous wreck, crying. But she laughed, a sincere laugh. She found the humor in an otherwise black situation.

Can you believe it? she laughed. First I go to one funeral, then the next! And then this weekend, a third! Do I wear the same thing?

At Eunice’s funeral, she told me, they dropped roses on the coffin before it was lowered into the ground. The sky was gray. It was raining.

I’ve never been to a real funeral like that, she said. It was so morbid!

Immorally, perhaps, we laughed. But it felt like the right thing. It was utterly morbid, John, Eunice, and Mrs. Breen all dying in one week, roses on coffins, gray skies.

Walking through the coconut grove, reflecting on this conversation, I suddenly saw John’s face before me, laughing. He always laughed with his head thrown back. So much joy. Appreciating the absurdity of every moment. Life is absurd.

Without speaking, John and I had a dialogue. He was with me as I walked, and we laughed over the absurdity of life, and the absolute absurdity of untimely deaths! He roared with laughter at his own death, perfectly timed to coincide with two others.

Your poor mother, he said, wiping his eyes. What a hell of a week!

I floated through that coconut grove, totally present, light as air. John’s laughter echoed and his dimples were deep. He was with me, because I wanted him to be. It was that simple.

This is joy, I thought. This is what joy feels like.

A strange sentiment perhaps, given the circumstances, but sometimes life is strange. I felt utterly connected, separated from John only by a sheer piece of gauze, nothing more.

Death, what is death? Nothing but a physical void. John was there in spirit, every particle of him. He would always show up for a good laugh.


My Indian Family

September 24, 2009

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Preet’s “cool.”  She’s a Canadian-born Indian with Punjabi eyes and killer style.  She’s learning Ashtanga yoga and Hatha yoga, and she’s training to be a teacher in both.  She throws around terms like suptavandanasana, and capotadasana like it’s nothing.  She has a million bangles around her ankles, copper bands with snake heads, colorful strings with pink seashells, and silver chains with tinkling bells.  I don’t know how she sleeps comfortably.  She says they only get in the way when she’s doing certain yoga poses.  She wears hand-crafted suede vests, and turquoise beads around her neck.  Besides English, she speaks fluent Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu, and has traveled extensively in America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.  She laughs with her neck thrown back, and asks serious, pointed questions.  She says she has a strong, intuitive feeling that Goa is going to be “really, really nice this season.”

Preet and Purnima are best friends from Bombay, so the three of us kick it every night.  Purnima is like our clucking mother hen, shooing us out of the kitchen while she cooks pasta, and heaping more food on our plates.  When we shop, she insists that I buy everything I like, because “You never know if you’ll find that in the States, doll!”  Purnima rolls joint after joint, insisting that it “takes the edge off.”  She works for the famous yoga teacher we study with, and he drives her mad with his OCD idiosyncrasies.  “Oh!” she fumes.  “Can you believe that he’s making me do the brochure all over?!  I just spent five hours perfecting it!”  She’ll take a long drag off the joint, and then her face will transform into an expression of joy.  “But you know, today, he brought me fresh apple juice with foam on top!  Isn’t he sweet?”  They’re both completely bipolar.

If Purnima is my mother, Shukla-ji is my father.  Shukla-ji is the sweet older man who owns the guesthouse where I stay.  He makes me breakfast and lunch every day.  He combs his orange-dyed hair over the bald spot on his head, and is always dressed meticulously.  He is fluent in English, though it tends to be the old British variety, and he kicks up his feet and reads the newspaper in the sun, pausing occasionally to pull a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipe the sweat off his brow.  He makes masala chai for my sore throat, and insists that I chew all of the ginger at the bottom.  He scolds me if I don’t.  “Sarah, ginger is very, very good for your sore throat, do you understand?” he asks, eyeing me over his glasses.  I nod, and chew away.  “And put on long sleeves!” he continues sternly.  “Sun is setting now, it is not advisable for you to get cold!”

My life in this mountain valley has been beautiful and serene for the last three months.  I will look back on this place fondly, and hopefully return many times in my life.  These friends may scatter to the winds, but for now, they are my family, and I feel safe, loved, and cared for in their presence.  It’s amazing how you can be so far from home, but home always seems to find you anyway.


I Miss…

September 19, 2009

I miss long, hot showers.  I miss being able to wash my hair, my face, my body, shave my legs, scrub my feet, and stand under the water for a long time, all in one go.  I miss fluffy towels and carpeted floors.  I miss hair dryers and being able to curl up on the couch and watch a movie.

I miss bomb sushi.

I miss having a kitchen, and cookbooks, and utensils.  I miss making dinner.  I miss refrigerators!!!  I miss being able to open a soy milk, and have it be fresh five days later.  I miss taking my time drinking that soy milk, and not having to inhale it all in 48 hours, before it goes bad.  Oh, refrigeration…

I miss tall boots.

I miss my bike, and having a car, and even Metro!  Oh, how I long for public transportation where you can ride in (semi) peace without the entire bus staring at you.  People might pick their toes on Metro, and have horrible B.O., but they don’t stare incessantly, and point you out to their friends.

I miss quiet roads.  I miss sidewalks.  I miss orderly lanes, and horns that are only used when necessary.  I really miss sensible drivers who adhere to the motto, Pedestrians Have The Right Of Way.

I miss organic grocery stores!!!  I miss shiny, clean rows of vegetables at Whole Foods, so unlike the dirty roadside produce here that gets splattered with mud and cow shit before it is wrapped up in newspaper and sold to you.  I miss strawberries, and raspberries, and cantaloupe!

I miss calling up my friends and going out for tea.  I miss gossiping with Mohammad while he eats all of my food.  I miss Kelly’s sweet ass and colorful scarves, and Brigitte’s dirty jokes that make me pee.  I miss my mom’s cooking, and my dad with his feet kicked up on the couch.  I miss my sassy little sister, and my naughty little brother.  I even miss our furry cat, Boo, snotty and well-fed, with his shiny white tail stuck up in the air.  Unlike the bony, hungry animals here, Boo reeks of privilege and prosperity.

I miss my anonymity.  I miss not being stopped five times a day, and asked to pose for pictures.  I miss being a part of the majority, and not an obvious minority.

I MISS GOOD RED WINE!!!  I miss clinking glasses with my best friend and feeling that warm Merlot buzz.  I miss wine with dinner, and wine just because.  I miss ordering expensive bottles of wine at my favorite organic restaurant, and I miss looking at the view of the Space Needle while I drink it.  I miss friendly bartenders who pour you samples of Napa Valley cabernet, and I miss swirling it around in my glass and deciding, Yes!  This is perfect!

I miss getting my hair cut every six to eight weeks.

I miss cooking hippie food with Brynn… salmon with white wine, lemon and garlic, brown rice with cranberries and walnuts and basil, stir-fried bok choy and carrots, turmeric lentils, homemade polenta with goat cheese and tomato sauce, sweet potatoes with butter and brown sugar, seafood soup with coconut milk and cilantro, yogurt and banana shakes, and fresh fruit juice all the time.

I miss tips, big, fat tips that roll in every Thursday and Friday night, and swell my bank account to reassuring proportions.

I miss Volunteer Park, Golden Gardens, Marymoor, and Gasworks.  I miss Ravenna Park, with its winding paths and sunlit fields, and I miss all of the lakeside parks in Kirkland.  I miss watching the sunset from the old bridge in Juanita, while frogs catch the last warmth of day from lily pads, and couples stroll hand in hand.  I miss eating ice cream cones and walking along the docks at the Kirkland Marina, looking at boats and enjoying the sun.

I miss expensive Burt’s Bees products.

I miss clean public toilets!  I especially miss the beautiful restrooms at Pacific Place, all orderly stalls in a row, gleaming floors, and spotless mirrors.  I miss daily janitors and toilet bowl scrubbers.  I miss not having to squat down over a hole in the floor that is stained with black shit and smells so revolting I nearly gag.  I miss dependable sinks, soap, and hot water.  I miss signs that say, Employees Must Wash Hands! There is no such thing in India.

I miss hot tubs, and hot baths, and heaters, and hot water bottles.

I miss polite Western men, who know how to be friends with a woman without leering at her, or groping her from behind.  I miss gay, gay, gay Capitol Hill, where men only look at you because you are wearing cute boots, or have a fly haircut they are coveting.  I miss carrying my umbrella to protect me from the rain, not from the roving packs of slobbering Punjabi boys who barely flinch when I jab it in their direction and tell them to fuck off.

I miss my baby’s arms.

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Debbie

August 25, 2009

In an ongoing tribute to the people I love, I would like to dedicate this next piece of writing to my Aunt Debbie.

Debbie is my aunt by marriage.  She is married to my mother’s brother, John.  However, Debbie feels closer to me than many of my blood relatives.  She is enmeshed, an integral part of our family, the strong heartbeat that holds us together.  Debbie is the woman everyone can confide in, an essential ingredient in any family get together, the glue that ties cousins to aunts to uncles to friends.  She feels like the warm pulse at the center of it all.  Her youngest two children, Suzy and Joe, are the closest cousins I have.  Joe is the zany character who I could easily write a book about- he is impossible to describe in a few lines.  Suffice it to say, he has been known to tip over backwards in a fold-up camping chair from drinking too much whiskey, he gives himself intense headaches pondering the meaning of life, and he will affect any voice or facial expression to get a laugh out of us.  He is an utter nerd, the biggest geek, and so lovable.  Suzy is like the older sister I never had.  I go to her with my deepest heartbreaks and my highest achievements, and she holds me all the same.  The fact that these two wonderful people came from Debbie makes perfect sense, and makes them all the more special to me.

Debbie first came to be known to my family long before I was born.  She entered high school at Holy Names Academy on Capitol Hill in her junior year, I believe.  She was a new student, not yet friendly with the all-female population, or part of a recognized clique.  But she has told me many times that she spotted my mother right off the bat and decided, I want to be friends with her.  She looks like she’d be really cool. And so a friendship was born, a beautiful unity that to this day is the red-wine drinking, snorting and laughing, infamously un-photogenic combination of my mother and Debbie.  They are best friends and sisters-in-law.  They camp together, cook together, have regular over-nights together, and support each other through ups and downs.

When I was a child, I used to desperately want to be included in the close, exclusive friendship that Suzy and our cousin Paul shared.  Suzy and Paul were bonded at the hip, and on camp trips, family picnics, and cousin slumber parties, they would disappear together, laughing and tittering, slipping away on adventures that I longed to be a part of.  They were several years older than I was, and therefore, leagues cooler.  Getting them to include me in their fascinating duo was impossible, and the futility of trying often reduced me to tears.  One day, after they vanished without a trace, I stood crying alone in Debbie’s room.  I had followed them up the stairs, down the hallway, and I was sure they had disappeared into this room, but… they were nowhere to be found.  I had been eluded once again.  As I rubbed my streaming eyes with angry fists, Debbie came into the room and found me.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” she asked, kneeling down in front of me.  Through hiccups and sobs I explained to her that I had been ditched once again.  She looked at me with such concern on her face, and then gave my skinny arms a loving squeeze.  “Oh, Sarah, don’t worry,” she said.  “Big kids do that all the time.  Suzy and Paul love you, it’s just that their a little bit older, so they like to do their own thing.  You probably wouldn’t like what they’re doing, anyway.”  I sniffed, sure that she was wrong.  Of course I would like what they were doing!  Perhaps she saw the doubt in my eyes, because she took a seat on the ground and pulled me down with her.  “When I was a little girl,” she went on, “My older brothers used to ditch me all the time.  And you know what I did?  I made up my own games!  I climbed apple trees and played dolls.  I pretended my little sisters were babies, and I made my own books and illustrated them.  My big brothers missed out on a lot of good times because they were so busy being big kids.”  She looked at me carefully.  “But big kids don’t get to have all the fun, you know.”  She stood up and took my hand.  “Come with me,” she said, and I followed, sniffling.  She led me to the kitchen, where the commotion of ovens banging open and shut, The Beatles playing on the stereo, and tipsy adults seemed to obscure all of my worries.  Then she handed me a grape popsicle.  “Now go find Brigitte and Joe,” she said.  “I’m sure they could use a cool big girl like you to show them how to have fun!”  So I did, trotting out the door happily, purple juice already staining my lips.

As soft and nurturing as Debbie can be, she can also be a formidable disciplinarian.  Many years ago, my family traveled to France.  When I say my family, I mean my mother, my siblings, myself, my cousins, my cousin’s friends, several aunts and uncles, friends of my aunts and uncles, friends of mine, friends of my siblings… it goes on and on.  There were tons of us, and we had a huge old French apartement to stay in.  The kids slept upstairs in a sprawling loft, and the adults had bedrooms on the lower floors. Because we kids were all in our twenties (with the exception of my brother and his friend Tom who were far too young to be drinking, but were anyway), our nocturnal activities had everything to do with getting completely plastered every single night.  It was great fun.

One night we all dressed up in our most attention-grabbing clothes, downed several bottles of our parent’s gin, vowing to replace it the next morning before they noticed it missing, and hit the small, unprepared town of Nancy, France.  What followed was a swirl of tequila shots, bottles of Grey Goose on ice, more shots that were tinted pink and absolutely delicious, beer with lemons, more vodka on ice, more shots, and… the next thing I knew, we had all scattered to the wind.  Upon later recollection, as we put the pieces of the blurry puzzle together, it became clear to us that we women had behaved in a dazzlingly slutty manner, taking home Frenchmen like it was going out of style.  Jenny had disappeared with a black-skinned rugby player who tried to do unmentionable things to her with his unmentionables.  My best friend had teased and flirted with the Grey Goose-buying Gerard until he couldn’t take it anymore, and slammed her up against a wall in a fit of French-kissing passion.  I had found myself on the lap of un garcon named Phillipe, and as the sun rose over the park we were sitting in, I was horrified to discover that my monthly visitor had arrived as we smooched, and that Phillipe was now sporting a saucy red splotch on the front of his white button-down shirt.  Oops.  And my little sister… well, she was nowhere to be found.

This last, unfortunate piece of news came to my attention when Debbie shook me awake around nine in the morning.  My head ached with alcohol and not enough sleep, and at first I couldn’t understand what was going on.  Then it slowly sunk in.  Brigitte was missing.  She hadn’t returned all night.  Her bed was still made.  “You girls need to go find her immediately!” Debbie hissed, as I groggily began gathering my clothes.  “Do not return to this house without her!”  My best friend, the other notorious Brigitte, was already straggling into her pants.  I nodded and began pulling a sweatshirt over my head.  Debbie cocked her ear down the stairs to make sure no one was listening.  Then she looked at Brigitte and I very seriously.  “And do not let Sheila know that she’s missing!”

Indeed, if my mother knew that her youngest daughter had been out and about in the streets of France all night with an unknown young man, and that her whereabouts were still unknown, she would have panicked.  So Debbie casually suggested to ma mere that she and Patricia, my mother’s older sister, go for a walk in the nearby park, which was just lovely, and then check out the market for fresh pasta and vegetables.  “Find the freshest tomatoes you can!” Debbie urged, as my mom pulled on her jacket downstairs, and Brigitte and I spied from the wings.  “If you can’t find them at the near market, don’t hesitate to go to the farther one.  Pasta sauce is so much better when the tomatoes are fresh!”  My mother and Patricia heartily agreed, and started out the door.  Debbie called out after them, “And why don’t you think about seeing a movie?  Today would be a great day for a movie.”  The sun was shining brilliantly, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The door slammed shut and Debbie shot us a warning look as we hurried out the back door.  Return with Brigitte, her look seemed to say.  Do not even think about coming back without her!

We turned out into the street, desperate to find my sister.  The only lead we had was the crumpled up piece of paper I had in my wallet, emblazoned with the suave young Philippe’s phone number.  I had last seen my sister with Phillipe’s tall, handsome friend, as they leaned against the bar and took shots.  “But I can’t call Phillipe!“ I protested, when Brigitte urged me to do it.  “I got my period on his shirt!!“  “You have to Sarah,“ she replied.  “We have no choice.“  It was true.  So we found the nearest payphone and I dialed desperately.  Answering machine.  “Uh, bonjour Phillipe, c’est Sarah,” I began.  “Uh, my souer n’est pas rentre hier soir, et je pense qu’elle est avec ton ami…”  I looked wildly at Brigitte, and she urged me to continue.  My French was fumbling.  I had no idea what to say.  “Um… s’il vous plait, si tu elle vois, rentrez-elle a nous!”  (My sister didn’t return last night… I think she’s with your friend… if you see her, please return her!!)  Ten phone calls later, and ten broken, faltering messages later, my sister returned home, her hair wild, missing one shoe.  Debbie ushered her upstairs quickly, moments before my mother and Patricia returned.  An hour later, when we all appeared at the table to eat, Brigitte’s hair was nicely combed and everyone was smiling innocently.  “Look, Sheila,” Debbie purred, as we all heaped food on our plates.  “Look at your beautiful daughters.”  We smiled obligingly, and my mother smiled back, completely naïve to the fact that her youngest daughter had been missing for the better part of the night and day.

It isn’t just our family’s younger generation who can party, though.  Get Debbie and my mom together, throw in a few of their sisters, add an abundant supply of red wine, and watch out!  They get wild!  Debbie will be the first to take shots and cuss like a sailor.  “Ah, what the fuck…” she’ll say, if the party’s getting off to a slow start.  “Let’s just get drunk!”  The ladies sit in each other’s laps, take ridiculous pictures, throw off their clothes as the wine heats them up, and laugh hysterically with their feet in the air.  I usually feel tame and prim when I’m hanging out with them at one of our famous “Ladies Weekends.”  Debbie is always the instigator of trouble, asking the daring questions, poking and prodding at my drunken, heavy-lidded mom.  She’s like a wild college sister, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she stripped off all her clothes and began chain-smoking on the kitchen table.

For years, Debbie has taught English to college students.  When I began seriously writing several years ago, I decided to submit some of my work to Hedgebrook, a prestigious foundation that sponsors women writers, and offers residencies to a selected few at their beautiful property on Whidbey Island.  The piece I decided to submit was very deep, and very personal.  Besides the anonymous judges at Hedgebrook, I only shared that work with three other people.  Debbie was one of them.  I wanted her to look over it for me before I submitted it, because she has years of experience in critiquing and editing.  I also trusted her profoundly, and knew that I could share such a thing with her without judgment or worry.  She would look over it professionally, and continue to love me as dearly as always.

So I drove out to Ocean Shores one stormy night when Debbie was beginning to move out of their beach house.  She and John had bought the home several years earlier, but its purpose had been served, and they were now ready to sell it.  We sat together in the bare living room, sipping wine in front of the fire, and Debbie carefully read everything I had written.  I think I was trembling as she read it, and I was close to tears, but she was so compassionate and kind.  She critiqued what needed to be critiqued, and she made some very relevant suggestions.  Then we began talking.  Debbie told me about some of her own life experiences, trials that had taken her innocence, but made her a stronger woman.  She sympathized deeply with me, and our lifelong connection made it easy for us to share and understand one another in a complete, accepting way.  No questions were left unasked, and when the night had been dark for many hours, and the waves beat the shore, we said goodnight and went to bed, friends, adults, and much closer than we had ever been.

My uncle John, Debbie’s husband, deserves an entire tribute of his own.  I imagine I will offer him one in good time.  For here, I will say only that Debbie and John are one of the strongest couples I have ever known.  John is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s now, he walks with a stoop, and his hair is completely white.  My favorite memories of him are on our family camping trips, as he threw back plastic cup after plastic cup of cheap red wine and roared in laughter.  My family has a charming habit of getting drunk and trying to out-shout each other, each fighting uproariously to be heard.  My mom and John were perhaps the worst at this, carrying on two separate conversations at once, yelling in each other’s faces and gesturing wildly.  Debbie was often involved, as well, though in my mind’s eye, I can see her toppling her chair over backwards, and saying, “Oh what the fuck!  Now I have to take a leak!”

I look to John and Debbie as an example of how love can deepen and grow as it ages.  In my childhood, they were my favorite aunt and uncle, the ones who gave us popcorn and Coke, and put us in front of the T.V. to watch “Revenge of the Nerds” for the eighth time.  They clearly had a passion for each other, a deep passion that sometimes turned into wild fights we would only catch glimpses of, but more often led them to each other’s arms, where they held one another, soft-eyed and content.  They traveled together, with us, all over the world.  They were both teachers at Tacoma Community College.  They raised Suzy and Joe, and moved from the city to the country, and back.  They had two dogs named Scrappy and Max, and when they returned to Tacoma after their sojourn in Port Orchard, they left the dogs to live with some neighbors.  When they found out that the new foster family was not treating the dogs well (or perhaps they just missed Scrappy and Max, I can’t remember), they hatched a wild scheme to break into the home and kidnap the dogs back.  We children were electrified with excitement, but unfortunately, the plan never came to fruition.

Now, as John goes through the profound changes that late Alzheimer’s brings, Debbie is always by his side.  She loves him so dearly.  She takes his arm and guides him from the car to the house, and back.  She sits by his side as he eats, and gently teases him, putting food into his mouth.  She rubs his back and makes sure he has the seat closest to the fire.  She holds his hand any chance she gets.  She loves doing these things for him, because he is her other half.  But at Debbie’s core, she is like a rod of steel- so strong.  I know that when John is gone, Debbie will miss him, but she will continue to live fully.  She always has.  Even as John’s illness set in and became more and more advanced, she would plan Ladies Weekends, trips to the coast, and jaunts to Japan to visit Suzy and Suzy’s husband, Ian.  She laughs her husky, deep-throated laugh, and pads around in socks, smiling.  Perhaps more than anything, I am awed by her ability to remain happy and balanced through this process of losing her husband.  She will find him again.  I know she will.  If ever I’ve known soul-mates, it’s those two.  Their thirtieth wedding anniversary is today, and I want to congratulate them for it!  Not only have they made it through thirty years of marriage, they have done so with laughter, passion, and grace.  They have inspired me indescribably, and if I can touch that depth of love and passion with another person, and sustain it for thirty years, I will feel like I’ve done something right.  I love them both very much.

Thank you, Debbie, for being such an inextricable part of my life.  You are a rock, and an incredible inspiration.IMG_0346