WATCHING PAINT DRY

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It’s a warm, postcard-pretty afternoon here in Culver City and I am guarding my parent’s home. I’m sitting on the edge of a rented white couch, hunched over my computer. The sofa, with its array of white and blue throw pillows, looks better than it feels. A big black table has become my temporary workspace. I share it with an assortment of “coffee table books” arranged just so. Just SO the colors pop. Ersatz curtains frame the big picture windows and generic paintings, the kind of fluff you see in a doctor’s office, decorate the walls.

This house is “staged” to sell. We want to get it on the market. Yesterday. Before the flying saucers land in Omaha, before the stock market crashes, before something terrible happens in the world or in Congress or at Burger King. So I have been living my own episode of Flip this House. Minus the cameras and commercials.

My mother passed away July 4th. Independence Day. There is enough irony in that to keep the generators running. Suddenly I am faced with the one thing I have been dreading for years. Cleaning out my parent’s home. Perhaps it is intrinsic to that generation—the ones who lived through The Great Depression, a world war—that they don’t throw their stuff away. Did they think the whole mess of it would suddenly vaporize? Abracadabra! Well let me tell you about magic. There is no magic.

Before me is the story… The story of two lives stuffed into boxes and files and Hefty bags. The story behind thousands of black and white pictures that have lain dormant in a musty black trunk. I look at each photograph one by one. “Who the hell are you?” I ask over and over. Out loud. No year. No name. No nothing written on the back.

A few days later I am leaning against the wall in my daddy’s den, a room that hasn’t been cleaned since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. My jeans are coated with a thick layer of soot and dust. I’m reading my father’s love letters to my mother. He wrote them on a typewriter. Besotted, he was. He saved caches of greeting cards from my mother too, where she added flirty missives and lots of curly X’s and O’s.

Oh those kids…

So in love…

But I know how things ended. And they did not end well.

My father died 20 years ago and my mother kept his ashes in a purple-velvet bag on his desk. Once in a while she’d venture downstairs to his office, his bunker during marital wartime. There she is, my mother, standing akimbo at the door, hurling expletives at the purple bag. “You son-of-a-bitch-motherf…ker.”

It’s impossible to find the right greeting card for marriages like this. Something like: Call a truce, would ya? It’s your freaking anniversary. And have a nice day.

So back at the spiffed-up house, I am watching paint dry. Literally. The last thing on the “to do” list is to paint the front door. It has to remain open for a few hours and I’m channeling my inner German Shepard, sitting sentry even as I feel the memories within these walls begin to unfurl into the soft cushion of time.

Rodrigo putting the finishing touches on the front door. The bestest smile all day…

 POSTSCRIPT — THAT WAS THEN…THIS IS NOW

It took three months to clear out my parent’s home. Their essence faded away with each new coat of paint. Our real estate team, a mother-daughter (oh the irony…) helped at every turn with precise explanations, reassuring late night calls, hand holding and hugs. The house sold in less than two weeks, just before the election, and now a new family is writing their own story inside those walls.

It’s taken me this long to feel grounded again–in my body and in my life. From last summer, through fall, winter, into spring, it felt like my mental spark plugs were covered with gunk. Sludge. Goo. I transposed numbers, forgot people’s names, asked the guy at the grocery store where the garbanzo beans are…as I’m standing right in front of the garbanzo beans, and I made so many mistakes in my classes and at my gigs that it was no longer charming. In other words, life throws you for a loop. And you whirl.

Until you don’t. A few mornings a week I drag my butt out of bed and do a brisk walk. You know, that cardio crap. I trot right by THE house. I thought for sure this would churn up the woe-is-me stuff. But that hasn’t happened. My mother kept the shutters closed. Now I see sunlight splashing through the windows. It looks like a home that’s breathing. Again. And this makes me happy.

My parents hung in there for 51 years…

My mother and father did the best they could and I love them. I’m grateful that they got me here. But I arrived in their world. My mother’s mental illness is old. My great-grandmother had it and maybe many before her. My father was brought up by a single mother and an abusive alcoholic stepfather.  What did my parents know about a loving marriage that endures through the seasons of life?

Think of all the baggage that gets “handed down” to us through the generations. Sometimes we take it on—someone else’s burden—and make it our own.  And pass it along.

Or not.

Mom and dad at one of my fancy piano bar gigs

But this morning something wonderful happened to me.   I woke up.

I played music and talked to strangers in line at Costco, answered a few emails and wished a couple Facebook “friends” Happy Birthday even though I will never meet them in person. I got to say “hi ya” to my next-door neighbor and watch some amorous squirrels chase each other around the Eucalyptus trees that lean into our balcony. I got to look up…at the sky…and feel the warm breeze whoosh across my face. I ate something delicious with potatoes in it and enjoyed a yummy cup of Bengal Spice herbal tea. I got to hug somebody and somebody hugged me back.

My husband and I have a regular date after dinner. We watch Jeopardy. And we tell each other, out loud, how grateful we are for our sweet life.

LETTING GO

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Hoarding is a big problem. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, how much money you have in the bank, or not.  Maybe saving stuff is like saving little slivers of ourselves. We know how this story of life is going to end. That we are marching, crawling, dancing, back-flipping toward the inevitable. Does squirreling the stuff away lull us into denial? Mute the truth? Massage our egos just enough to make it through one more day and still feel tethered to this earth by another delivery from Amazon?

My mother passed away last July. My father died twenty years earlier and his stuff has been sitting dormant in their house all this time. The place needs to be cleared out, cleaned up and sold. I don’t have brothers or sisters. My husband helps when he can but the job of looking at every little thing–of holding it in my hand, maybe pressing it against my heart and saying “thank you” or “good bye.”  Of taking its picture then depositing it in the rented dumpster in the garage—a dumpster I will fill four times. This job is mine and mine alone. It feels like I’m riding a time machine as I plow through boxes, piles of papers, endless file cabinets and big black Hefty Bags stuffed with God-knows-what.  Of memories hiding in the sooty, crusty corners that haven’t seen the light of day since 1976.

My parents had lives before they had me and now I’m coming face-to-face with the old report cards and term reports and art projects. I’m talking about theirs, not mine. In other words, my parents saved everything.  And that’s just IN the house.  There is an attic too. It takes two dump trucks from the most wonderful people at 1-800-Got-Junk? to clear that out. Just the attic. A friend stands sentry with me as the crew shoves bag after bag, box after box down the rickety wooden ladder into “today.”  If I had the time and the energy I would have emptied and searched through each bag, each box.   But I am exhausted and overwhelmed and soon it all looks alike and smells alike and I just want it to be gone.

One of the Junk guys tells me that his biggest job took thirty-two dump trucks. Thirty-two trucks to haul the mess of “whatever” away. Can you believe it? Our two loads are positively dainty compared to that…

This is just the “entrance” to the attic…
I’m so grateful for the help. And dazed by the whole spectacle.

After my father died my mother’s mental illness spiraled out of control. Not that it was ever really “in control” but with him around–well kind of living his own life in his office, his hallowed space downstairs next to the garage–she wouldn’t go too far off the rails. But after he passed away the piles of stuff grew like bamboo in a rainforest. She got meaner and petty and petulant.

The dishes lay filthy in the sink, clothes slung over chairs, then over boxes. She slept in a ratty daybed in front of the television in what was supposed to be the dining room, wearing a parka, the same parka from last night, from last week, from last month. My mother let me into the house long enough to drop groceries by the front door and would start screaming if I ventured beyond the relatively neat living room to the chaos-zone upstairs. She wouldn’t let anyone else in either. But she liked to talk on the phone and was such a good actress that she convinced her buddies that things were peachy keen at the old homestead.

“I don’t have hot water,” she confessed to me one day. “Let me call a plumber,” I implored. “NO!” She’s screaming now into the phone. This went on and on. I tried to enlist others to help, but she would tell them, in her assertive telephone voice “there’s no problem.” And they believed her and not me. She did not have hot water for a year.

In retrospect, I should have called Social Services, but termites did a better job. Yes, Western Exterminators rocked her world. My mother had to vacate the place for three days or else die with the bugs. The guys were already inside, climbing over stuff, prepping the house, the tent was unfurling over the windows, it was getting dark inside and I still had to push that woman out the front door. To a local retirement home where they treated her like “your royal highness” and got her to sign on the dotted line to move in.

My mom had her moments.  She could be delightful.  Smart.  Laugh-out-loud funny.  Then, out of the blue, turn all Joan Crawford.  If you don’t believe me, read my blog Not Your Normal Trip to Trader Joes that I wrote last November.  And now, here I am, cleaning up her mess, the landscape-of-her-psyche. Made visible.

Self-help books and Hefty Bags…the story of hoarding in one picture.
The boxes and bags arrive at ground level from the attic thanks to the 1-800 team…
These guys and gal were SO kind and helpful. The stuff is sorted, donated, re-purposed and according to them, very little ends up in the landfill.

And then there’s my father’s stuff. He was the organized one. The scientist. The one who saved bills and receipts and their mailing envelopes, going back to when Franklin Roosevelt was president. He received so many awards for his work as a writer and aerospace engineer. I take pictures of them. I take pictures of pictures. I’m doing my own hoarding, storing these electronic images somewhere in“the cloud.” Besides that, I have to look at every single scrap of paper in his office, on a mission to find social security numbers.  I am keeping the shredding department at Office Depot very busy.

I found my father’s old pipes. My friends…please don’t smoke.

Once in a blue moon I have a dream that is so vivid it feels like all the characters are real. The place is real. The time is real. I had a dream like that the night after I scoured the bottom drawer of a tall file cabinet that was tucked into a dark, musty closet. That day I had gone back in time with him, reading the most excellent papers he wrote in high school. A young man before he became a husband or a father.

In my dream I am in a laundromat washing my clothes when I glance up and see my father a few machines over. He is middle-aged and healthy, long before emphysema reduces his world to the size of the bedroom where the massive oxygen tank is hissing like a metal silo of snakes. And keeping him alive.

But here he is, in my dream, doing his laundry. I can’t believe it. My daddy. I catch his eye. Daddy! Daddy! He looks at me. No, he looks THROUGH me. As if I am invisible. The sudden despair I feel is crushing. I can’t breathe and wake up gasping for air.

My husband and I talk about the dream over dinner. “What do you think it’s about?” he asks. I don’t believe for one minute that my father actually visited me, like a ghostly apparition. But I have learned that all the characters in my dreams reflect some aspect of myself. After all, I’m the one dreaming this stuff up. And there is something about washing. It’s about taking something and making it new again. A fresh start. The father in my dream is washing something and so am I.

The heart-wrenching part is that he doesn’t recognize me while, at the same time, I am so happy to see him I’m ready to dream-dance across the washing machines and hug him like there is no tomorrow. But this is my dream and those two seemingly disparate reactions belong to me. We are talking about letting go, aren’t we? He is letting go of me. And ultimately, I am letting go of him.  Maybe in this dream my father and I are setting each other free.

Part Two Coming Soon…

My mother and father…newlyweds and working in radio. A lifetime ago.
My parents hung in there for 51 years…

BE KIND AND THROW AWAY YOUR TRASH

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The folks in my ukulele group, The CC Strummers, are wise souls who have lived long. They run marathons and use Uber. They play their ukuleles even with arthritis and broken bones. We have folks who volunteer at food banks, fix toilets and do dry wall, take care of grandchildren, spouses and bake dreamy sweet potato pies. Some are poets and artists who work with oil, watercolors, leather, wood.  Our retired teachers are paying it forward. Our architect is still designing. Our jazz pianist is still performing.  I’ve seen one or two of our players show up in class after a funeral.  All of us, with seemingly ordinary lives, have extraordinary stories to tell.

Our Thursday Class

Of course we have different opinions about the hot-topics of the day—politics, religion, fill-in-the-blanks—yet the most astonishing and wonderful thing happens when class begins… Music becomes the deep well from which we ALL drink, and thankfully, it gives our chattering minds a time-out. After an hour of singing and playing together, we feel so good. “Better than a psychiatrist,” says our strummer Victoria.

Needless to say, I adore these people. They inspire me with their generosity, their stories and oh those glistening pearls of wisdom. Recently our Aikido master told me her philosophy of life. In seven little words:

Be kind and throw away your trash.

Mister Rogers, she is… AND Plato. Who apparently said this: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” In some way or another we are soldiering on, stepping through fields of daisies that grow in quicksand.

But what about trash? Litter, stuff, junk?  My mother passed away last year and her house had to be cleared out and sold. Quickly. My mom was a hoarder. If I dared remove an empty box or jar or a pile of yellowed newspapers decades old, she’d throw a tantrum that would put a four-year old to shame.

Once upon a time this was my parent’s bedroom

I have been dreading this task most of my life and now it is here. Let me be blunt. It is NOT kind to leave your trash, your mess, your stuff for someone else to clean up.

On the other hand, this mind-boggling excavation gave me plenty of “stuff” to write about. The process from beginning to end took three months and I shall begin to tackle the subject in my next blog. Coming soon!

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

In the meantime life goes on and I’m doing my teaching and music thing. Here’s a heads up for my Southern California friends:

Both my Five-Week Ukulele For Beginners Class AND my Four-Week OnGoing Ukulele Workshop & Jam start Saturday, April 22, 2017 at Boulevard Music in Culver City, California.

On Sunday, April 23, 2017 I’m presenting a show called “Songs of Culver City.” Just think about those MGM musicals, for starters. I’ve been playing tunes from The Wizard of Oz, American in Paris, Annie Get Your Gun, Singing in the Rain, Kismet since my piano bar days. And there will be a great big ukulele surprise too. If you live nearby, please join us. It’s free. Scroll down to see the flyers and thank you. Fellow storytellers!