It is our 22nd summer in Memphis.
It is time now, in the midst of a global pandemic, racial reckoning, and massive upheaval, to tell the story of our house.
But the story of our house, our home, would be void of meaning without the story of how we got here. And so, to start, a replay from last June, all in one, long post:
We slept in the back of the truck, at a rest stop on I-70 or I-55, somewhere in Missouri.
(Is this safe? I asked, because I’d never slept in a truck at a rest stop before. And you laughed and said it was safer, not to mention cleaner, than any roadside dump motel. Plus, we had a dog, and most people, you said, were scared of dogs. And I decided you must be right, because you were tall and good-looking, and the truck was intimidating, with its scars from having survived hitting a deer, and by that point we were both bone-tired, so none of it mattered much anyway.)
We had been late leaving Omaha, sweeping the old pine floors, taking one last walk to the Joslyn Castle in the cool, late spring air. My sister had already left for Wyoming, the day before. Maybe it was earlier. (Some of this is hard to remember, even for me.) We stayed to clean and sweep and make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything (and also, I had to say goodbye).
It was late afternoon, almost evening when I put Ella in the forest-green Saab (the car you told me not to buy, because you said Saabs were persnickety), and you got in the truck (Henry’s truck, before he died, and now your truck, because Henry was dead), and we jettisoned, in tandem, off the prairie and toward the South, a land as foreign to you as any ever will be (though by now you’ve adjusted well enough).
We could stop by the Hermanhoff Winery, you joked, because this was a running joke from your first road trip to Memphis, years earlier, when you came for my sister’s wedding, and then you stayed the weekend and cleaned my kitchen and made dinner for me on Sunday afternoon while I was out playing tennis, and we opened the Hermanhoff wine (that you and John had bought on the drive down), and it was abysmal, and hilarious, and memorable. (The wine was abysmal, not the evening.)
We could have taken the blue highways, wandered through small towns and collected memorabilia, but we thought we needed to be efficient (I thought we needed to be efficient) because the movers were coming with all the furniture, and we needed to be at the house to meet them.
This is how things work, I said: there are schedules and responsibilities.
(This is not how things work, you said, and you were right: Life held nothing but freedom and adventure at the time, I just didn’t know it.)
So we agreed to drive as far as we felt comfortable driving, with me in the lead and Rand McNally as our guide, because we didn’t have phones (or you didn’t have a phone, because you hate having a phone, still), though by that time I knew the route well enough that the map was just a comfort, a thing to look at from time to time and say, oh yes, that’s right, keep ahead.
We drove through torrents of bugs hitting our windshields, watched the sun setting beside us until everything went black, except for the parade of oncoming headlights.
We drove in the dark for a while.
And then you passed me on the highway (I remember this part), and you pulled into the rest stop, and I followed.
We had only one dog then, Ella, and she was my dog (though I think she loved you more, after you saved her from drowning, once), and she rode in the car with me until we stopped at that rest stop (where she was relieved to get a walk and a pee), and then we all got in the truck, together, Ella snuggled on top of us, and we slept for a few hours, until the sun came up, and we were just uncomfortable enough that driving seemed better than resting.
Ella rode the rest of the way with you, listening to the Grosse Point Blank soundtrack (your favorite, still) and enjoying the open window and room to roam around, because, if you ask a dog, a 4Runner is a better ride than a sedan.
We crossed rickety bridges (that may no longer be open), and railroad tracks, and finally over the old I-55 bridge from Arkansas into Tennessee.
And then we were in Memphis, where the privet had just finished blooming, and the crickets were starting to sing, and everything was green. And the movers were five days late (so we slept on the floor, with no lights), and my mother was healthy (she thought), and we were just going to stay for a couple of months, until you’d finished helping me pull out the overgrown ivy, and replace a few rotten window boards, and tidy-up the house I’d kept as a rental while I lived in Omaha, alone, and you lived in Wyoming.
That was the beginning.
We rang in the new century with my sister and her husband and the open sky, looking at the stars over Snow King and drinking Moët.
This part I know you remember.
And then you stayed the winter in Wyoming, in the mountains that we both loved (still love), with your dog (not my dog), the dog who chewed through the gear shift on your truck (because he was lonely, while you were at work), and decimated the truck’s sun visor (look, you said, now I have moon visor), and ate the entire Easter basket that my mother sent to my sister (because sometimes that’s what dogs do).
And I went back to Memphis, to my little white clapboard house, with its roses and ligustrum and creeping ivy. I slept in my bed with Ella curled in the crook of my knees, read books, and watched Sex in the City.
In June we negotiated your return.
While you were building antler chandeliers and tuning skis (and skiing), I was making pitchers of cosmopolitans and sitting on the rickety porch with my neighbor and his boyfriend. I started wearing suits and heels again, because I had an office and meetings and a Palm Pilot.
While you were away I sold my business, took a job, got a cat (not my idea, but she is dog-like and keeps Ella company), had a miscarriage, joined my father’s tennis club, started smoking again (just a little), and thought about moving on without you.
And maybe I should have, but I didn’t. Because my friend said: I don’t think he’s right for you, but it’s your decision, and I’ll stand by you, whatever decision you make. And my sister said: He is what you need; he completes you.
My mother was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer, I said on the phone, and they’ve given her six months to live.
And you came back.
Our friends, the ones who invited us (and only us) to their elopement in Santa Fe, are here from Chicago, and we visit the roof of the Peabody Hotel, looking at the duck quarters, me in my pink-print maternity shift (my favorite) and the green Smith sunglasses that are actually yours but that you’ve given to me, because they look good (you say) and because green is more fun than tortoise (my usual), and I need a little fun, you say (and you are right).
That night, we sit on the porch (that needs rebuilding) and enjoy the cool June air, the perfume of the late spring garden, while you three kick back beers and I drink water, because I am seven months pregnant.
Why do we have a security system and bars on the windows, our friends want to know. That’s how things are in Memphis, we shrug (both of us, you and I, because we are beginning to take root here, despite ourselves). But also, you say, we have two dogs, and most people are scared of dogs, so we don’t really use the alarm system much at all.
On the weekends we load those dogs in your truck and head to Patriot Lake where we throw sticks and tennis balls and walk with our group of vagabond friends, almost none of whom are from Memphis. The truck smells like wet dog and lake mud on the way home, so we roll down all the windows to air things out.
All spring you have worked on the house (my house?), replacing the floor in the kitchen, patching and painting the room that will become the nursery. You cleaned up the yard, organized the garage, got things in order, while I was at an office doing office things.
I go to New York (for business), to Montreal (a wedding), and then we go together to Santa Fe to visit your mother.
While you repair the light in her kitchen and caulk the windows, she teaches me to string beads by hand, one at a time, using a needle to guide the knots until each one is snug against a pearl. She is very precise, your mother.
We do this work in the dusty room adjacent to the sunny studio, at a card table, surrounded by a sea of art and history. She walks me through the family tree, explains that I am the first non-Dutch, non-Catholic mother in your 500-year lineage. She asks if I know what I’m getting myself into.
We finish our projects, a necklace and a bracelet made from coin-shaped freshwater pearls and tiny round jade beads. My feet are starting to swell from sitting so long.
Your mother says, while we are tidying up: You are taking my smartest boy from me. Not the most educated, but the smartest.
The next day we go for a walk in the dry sun, and she shows me Wood-Gormley Elementary School, your neighborhood school when you were growing up.
We could live in Santa Fe, I say on the plane ride home. We could build a house next to your mother’s. We could start the art-and-cooking thing we’ve talked about, like Julie’s Supper Club in San Francisco, only better, and with more art.
When we get back to Memphis my mother (who has staged a stunning recovery) wants to help sew shades for the nursery, wants to know what she can do to help with the baby shower, to get ready for her very first grandchild.
My stepmother takes us to dinner, palms you a $10,000 check on the way home, says it’s contingent upon doing the right thing and getting properly married.
No, you tell her. We are not for sale.
It rained on Memorial Day, so instead of playing tennis, as I’d planned, I sat on the sofa with you, watched cooking and home improvement shows on television while our son crawled on the floor and played with the red, plastic fireman’s hat that he got at a Memorial Day parade and the green stretchy band that I am supposed to use for some sort of strengthening exercise that I don’t have time (discipline) to do.
Although it is the start of summer, there will be no June break. My firm won the PR contract for the new sports arena that is being built (my family is furious with me), and we are covered up with work work work.
So this is our schedule: Our son goes to my mother’s two days a week (my mother has proven surprisingly resilient), and then for two days to my stepmother’s (because she has a housekeeper who loves babies, only please don’t bring him before 9 and try to pick him up by 4), and you stay home on Fridays.
And I work; and I hate it.
Except that I also love it. I love having something that is mine, just mine.
I want to be two separate people. I think (mistakenly) that this longing will pass.
And you work, and you don’t seem to hate it, mostly because the little company where you landed is a Peter Pan band of Lost Boys, fun and unconventional in ways that are suited to you. (Mostly.)
On weekends we head to the park, load our dogs into the cargo hold where they slobber and wag and delight in this too-infrequent adventure. You pass the baby carrier through the side window, click it into the cradle and tug to make sure it is secure. Sometimes we have to take two cars (which is ridiculous), and I gently suggest trading the truck for something bigger, something with four doors and a third seat.
We are keeping the truck, you say, and that is that.
We had an impromptu cocktail party in our living room a few months earlier, invited our closest neighbors on the first warm, sunny day of the year, and our friend the judge married us, officially, while his wife held the baby, because that is what we decided, you and I.
It is just a piece of paper, you said.
It makes a difference, though, my friend said, even if you don’t know it yet.
One day in late June I walk to a meeting (hurriedly, because I am always in a hurry, and always late), wrestling with a raincoat as I walk, because it is starting to rain. At home that night I realize I’ve lost my bracelet, the hand-hammered silver one with raw emeralds that you found at an antique store in Wyoming and brought home to me, proud of discovering this hidden treasure. It’s different from anything I’ve ever seen, you said when you gave it to me. It’s rustic and elegant and I thought it would look good on you, you said.
I search my pockets and my car, frantic and embarrassed to tell you what I’ve done, because you are careful in gift-giving. You are the most careful gift-giver I will ever know.
Retrace your steps, you say. If it’s gone, it’s gone.
The next morning I walk, slowly, from the restaurant where I had lunch back toward my office, combing the sidewalk in a hopeless search.
And in there, lying in plain sight in a crosshatch grate on Union Avenue, is my bracelet.
We’re going to need a bigger house, I said. You were not sure.
The people who built this house and lived here for 52 years, the people who planted the twin dogwood trees in the front yard, they raised two children in this house, you said.
But both children were girls, I reminded you.
Our daughter was due in the fall, a month or so after my sister’s first baby was due, around the time our son would turn two.
This is a fairy tale scene under glass, a freeze-frame calm before a storm both literal (we called it Hurricane Elvis) and metaphorical:
It is early summer, not too hot. You are tall and trim, and I am short and stout, wearing my Bert and Ernie dress (that is what you call it, because it is cheerfully striped) and your Danskos, because they are loose on my feet.
All of our friends, the ones we’ve made, together, are still in Memphis, and my mother appears to have pulled off a miracle.
Our son goes to a neighborhood Mother’s Day Out program, where Ms. Shirley is teaching him to share. Another mother takes him to the zoo one afternoon, and introduces him to M&M’s, delighting him beyond measure. Sometimes we hang out with other parents, sitting in their kitchen eating homemade pasta and watching our toddler boys race Hot Wheels.
Most weeknights we are simply at home, in our little white house with the gardens you are cultivating, the tall crape myrtle you planted (for balance), the fragrant roses and lilies by the porch.
After dinner you get in the bathtub with our son and the fleet of rubber ducks, make funny mohawk hair-dos during shampoo time, draw pictures on the tile with water crayons, wrap him in the soft brown towel that has a bear face on the hood, slip him into Buzz Lightyear pajamas.
I curl in the chair with him, still warm from the tub, read Little Quack and Goodnight Moon, tuck him in the crib he’ll soon outgrow.
Then I crawl in bed next to you, read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while you read a spy thriller or play Tetris.
Remember this, all of it.
Our neighbor, the architect, draws plans for an addition, a master suite off the back so we can stay exactly where we are.
It would make ours the biggest, most expensive house on the street, you say, and that’s never a good position to be in.
We have to leave our little sanctuary, after the baby comes. We have to leave the floor furnace you’ve learned to repair, the wide plank oak you salvaged for the kitchen, the cat you buried in the flower bed, the cat we didn’t want but then mourned after she got hit by a car, before we discovered I was pregnant with our son.
We have to leave because we are having a second child, and it’s a girl.
Two is not twice one, my friend Joe says. It’s some geometric expansion that I can’t even explain to you.
Nurse the baby, feed the toddler (Cheerios), pack bags, shower, dress, listen to silly sing-song music, take the expressway route to the child care center because there is construction to see (look, it’s a backhoe! and an excavator!), go to work, leave work at 5:55 (because child care closes at 6), feed the children, read books, bathe children, read more books, nurse the baby, fall asleep.
I have a photograph of you from this year. I remember taking it, at a birthday picnic on an island in the middle of the river, on a mild summer day.
But, otherwise, I can hardly remember you at all.
When my mother died, you and a friend (a very good friend) loaded her furniture and books and clothes on a flatbed trailer and drove them to our new house, even though it wasn’t quite ready yet. You packed it all, even her unmentionables, and hauled it by hand, without complaint, in the dark. You carried the piano and her prized Queen Anne chest, the one she saved so carefully to buy. It’s one of my earliest memories, walking through the dark antique shop where my mother made payment to the red-haired woman who wore big, square glasses. All hail the Queen! you said, with great flourish, as you brought it in.
You have always known how to make me laugh.
My mother’s life’s archive, her manuscripts and medical records and Maid of Cotton memorabilia, is now contained in two rooms, stacked floor to ceiling like a wall of mismatched Legos, there for anyone to see from the front door of our cavernous house, four times the size of our old home.
We are storing things for a future reckoning, filling the vast emptiness with cardboard crates secured by strapping tape, tarps covering artifacts and mementos and dusty velvet chairs. It is like boxes in a dog kennel, you say, when the dog is still a puppy and overwhelmed by too much space. You intend for this to sound kind and lighthearted.
By coincidence, the neighbors across the street are neighbors from our old street, neighbors who have a son exactly our son’s age, who was also baptized at the same church on exactly the same day (though a different service) as ours, and who is also in our son’s daycare.
Three doors down is another family whose daughter is exactly our daughter’s age, and this child, too, is at the same daycare.
All of this is a surprise to me, but not to you. You have lived here, alone, months longer than we, plastering and painting, nailing trim boards in the kitchen, preparing for us to move in, while the children and I lived with my dying mother. In a frantic push for the finish, you were joined by friends and neighbors and colleagues who brought 12-packs of cold beer and took turns painting trim, laying flooring, so we would have a place to go when the inevitable happened.
One day I sat with my father’s cousin, perched on my mother’s bed, waiting for my sister to get to town. A month later I was perched on our bed (our mattress, at least), children lightly snoring, while you ferried our belongings up a long flight of stairs.
We hibernated until Easter, when we woke at dawn to hide plastic eggs in the monkey grass and azaleas, then guided pudgy fingers toward pink plastic and foil-wrapped chocolates.
You have scouted the street, become friendly with the natives in this new land. Not long from now, maybe a year or two ahead, the neighbors will joke that you are the mayor of our block, because you know the postman and the garbage men by name, know all of the neighbors’ comings and goings.
Now that the weather has warmed, our neighbors next door, an older couple, hire our son to bring the paper from the edge of the hill to their front door each morning. They think he is close to five because he is tall (like you), although he is only about to turn three. They give him a Dino piggy bank to keep his earnings. They know it is actually you, more often than not, who makes sure the paperboy duties are done.
They believe in us more than we do.
We set up the front porch, line it with plants that were gifts at my mother’s funeral, with rocks from her flower bed, and the statuary angel she bought me as a housewarming gift, when I bought the house we’ve just left behind. In the sea of mint, next to an ancient gardenia bush, you stake the copper marker from Silver Kitty’s grave, the marker you saved knowing the new owner would have thrown it away, you say, though I know there is more to it than that.
Whoa, an original Joe Ortega, you say, unpacking a box of my mother’s garden things.
A what? I ask.
Joe Ortega, from New Mexico, you say. You’ve seriously never heard of Joe Ortega? (I have not.)
You place the wooden figure at the corner of the porch, where he can see our comings and goings.
St. Francis of Assisi, you say (in your best New Mexico accent), patron saint of the A-N-I-M-A-L-S.
I buy a camera, a digital one, and reopen the musty bag of lenses and gear that has been schlepped from city to city, closet to closet, for more than a decade.
You coach t-ball. Your mother visits, sits at the kitchen table with our son, drawing pictures of windmills in orange and blue. Orange is the color of the Queen, he proclaims when we come home.
We go to Michigan, paint rocks, watch the sun set.
You throw the football with the boys in the neighbor’s yard.
We are utterly plain.
My stepmother wants to give us a portrait of the children for Christmas, and she makes an appointment for us while the artist is in town, so he can photograph the children in summer. She does this wanting us to be the kind of people who commission painted portraits of their children. She does this knowing that portrait painting is your family tradition.
You hate this painted portrait, but it hangs in our dining room anyway, still today.
This is the year, a dozen years ago, when we could have escaped.
It is so easy to see now, in hindsight, that this was the year to make our getaway, before our children started school, before the market crashed, before you planted crape myrtles and lilies and the Japanese maple.
We could have escaped the falling trees and car accident and disappointments that would leave us hanging. The tedium of working and living and juggling it all in a place we didn’t choose.
This was the year we could have left. But we didn’t.
We are too old now not to be honest in our retelling of some things, aren’t we?
And looking back, if we are honest, one of the reasons we stayed in Memphis was because we were waiting for my stepmother to die. Not wanting her to die, of course, but simply waiting as life unfolded, allowing time to wash by us.
We filled this time, our 10th summer in Memphis, with work and everyday busyness, with short trips and little family adventures. My sister finished her residency, and I went to Portland to celebrate. The family up the street who had a daughter our daughter’s age built a river house not too far away and invited us for a weekend escape.
It was the summer of Olympic celebration, and our neighbors banded together in full athletic dress to march in the July 4th parade. We had a picnic on the block, played games and let the children run in the sprinkler.
We ignored our house, ignored our yard.
Before school started, we drove to the beach, the four of us, for a week to stay in my stepmother’s condo where she and my father eloped, where they spent every spring and fall of their short nine year marriage.
You found a Rubbermaid container of pictures that I didn’t have time to go through. We’ll look through them next time, I said.
You found my father’s tackle box, full of hand-painted lures, saltwater flies, and his alligator knife. You went through the ancient box piece by piece with our son, being careful of his small fingers and six-year-old curiosity. To his delight, you rigged a rod and took him out to the water for a test run (a generous gift, because you hate fishing).
Our son slept with the box by his side.
We’ll leave it here for our next fishing expedition, I said as we packed up the next day.
I think you ought to stick it in your car, you said. It’s something of your dad’s that you should hang on to, in case anything happens. And you tucked it in, between the suitcases and stuffed animals, and brought it home.
It is the start of our second decade in Memphis; our children are five and seven. I know you remember this summer at least as clearly as I do.
This is the summer of camp on our block, when each family took a week (or two) with all of the children together. One neighbor had a lemonade stand, walked the children to the store and used the money from the little sales venture to buy food and cook dinner for the parents. One neighbor had swim week, with popsicles and afternoon naps. There were games and t-shirts, a scavenger hunt and photo album.
My camp week was crafts week. We made trim little flags and papier-mâché piñatas, with Martha Stewart as our guide. I had a lesson plan and a schedule. This is how things work, I said (as I have always said): there are schedules and plans to follow.
This is not how things work, you said (as you have always said). Your week was full of exploration, combing the alleys behind our houses, collecting rocks and discarded items, using boxes to make robots, pouring sheetrock mud for misshapen mosaic stones.
The children remember this, still. They remember walking in the alleys looking for bottlecaps, how you let them use tools and make messes.
This year our neighbors become fully our family, with no one else here to compete for holidays and birthday celebrations.
My stepmother died not long after Christmas, from an unexpected complication after an elective surgery. I drove her son, the drunk, to meet the lawyer, who looked mournful when he reported that the Will in her lockbox, the only official one, was written after her divorce decades earlier, before she met my father.
After her funeral, the housekeeper let me into her house to quickly gather what things I could find of my father’s. His Webb School class picture, his baby book, a few Christmas ornaments that you look for every year to hang on our tree.
They didn’t know their names, much less how to walk on a leash. They weren’t housebroken. They were heartworm positive and required treatment.
You said: Put your dogs in the car, and let’s go.
We had driven down to a rescue group’s house in rural Mississippi to check out a pair of chocolate Labs I’d found on PetFinder, a few weeks after the last of our original dogs died. I’d written a letter to the foster family, explaining that your dog – the one who ate the gear shift and the visor in your truck – had died unexpectedly. I explained that we allowed dogs on the furniture, that we walked them and went to Shelby Farms and had children for the dogs to play with.
I said: Look at them! These dogs are pretty, and they seem sweet, and they need a home where they can stay together.
You said: It’s nice not having to vacuum every day, not worrying if we get home in time to let the dogs out. It would be nice to go out of town and not hassle with getting a house sitter or paying a kennel. If we just wait, the right dog will find us.
I said: We’ve always had dogs, and I feel more comfortable having dogs in the house now that you are working nights.
You said: We have an alarm system.
I said: Right, but that’s not the same as having a dog. The thing is, though, I don’t want to get these dogs if you don’t want them, if you won’t help me train them, because you are the dog whisperer, the man who can talk to the animals.
And you said: Put your damn dogs in the car, and let’s go home.
So I did.
They peed on the living room rug, they ate your shoes, and then one of them bit the cat.
We kept them anyway.
This part does not last long:
You work nights, so you can pick up the children after school, drive in the carpool line and talk to the teachers. I take the children to school in the mornings, while you are asleep, and we listen to books.
You work nights because of retirement benefits and orthodontic coverage. I work days because by now it is a career (though by default more than design).
You work nights, and I almost never see you.
You were sleepy (and a little grumpy) when you came downstairs, into the kitchen, to get something to eat and then go back to bed, because you were still working nights and tired all the time.
You said: What are you doing, playing on the computer?
I said: I’m not playing; I’m writing.
What are you writing?
I think I’m going to start a blog.
What’s a blog – like Facebook or something?
Something like that, yes.
What are you going to blorg about?
(You have always been like my father this way, using silly-sounding, made-up words.)
I’m not sure, maybe cooking, or maybe it will be photos – a photo blog that’s like a gallery.
You’re not going to put any pictures of me on your blorg, right?
Well, I might, yes.
Memory is a kind of fiction. It’s the story we tell ourselves, the one we decide is true because we want it to be true.
These stories are my memories of you, of us, in our 20 summers living together under the same roof. These stories are my truth.
Fact: By this point in our story, six years ago, I am raising our children and keeping the house almost entirely by myself.
Fiction: All of this is fine. We are doing fine.
Fact: You blacked out and totaled your car one afternoon, on the way to get the kids from school. The doctors run scores of tests and can’t find an underlying cause.
Fiction: We can make it six months with one car, one driver, until you are allowed to drive again.
Fact: This is fucking impossible.
Fiction: The American dream.
You work all night, and you sleep all day, and I hardly ever see you.
I have only a handful of photographs of you from this entire year, all of them taken on a winter’s trip to see my sister. This picture of my nephew with you, in your signature hat and coat, on my nephew’s first trip down a mountain on skis, is among my favorites of all time.
It’s ironic, because this is the year I wonder, again, whether or not I need you, whether absence makes the heart grow fonder, or if absence is simply absence.
I have a career, I fix lunches, I walk the dogs. I have plans and schedules. I travel for work, serve on committees. I am the president of our school PTA.
In the summer, I take our son to Sacramento on a business trip, and we tack on a side trip to visit our old neighbor, the one who always believed in us more than we believed in ourselves. The one who brought us wine and See’s candies, who picked our gardenias every summer, who moved to California after her husband died, so she could see her first great-grandchild.
She treats us to lunch, our son and me, tells us funny stories, asks our son about school and his hobbies. She insists that we visit the car museum because, she says, what 13-year-old boy isn’t in love with cars?
But what she really wants to know is how we are doing, you and I.
She says: What I really want to know is if the two of you are taking care of each other. Are you? Because there’s nothing more important. You think there is, but there isn’t.
This is the summer our dog dies.
She was the dog you had been waiting for, the one you encouraged me to wait for when I insisted instead on a quick fix.
You found her in a field, abandoned. A show-quality mastiff who had been bred and dumped (or perhaps ran away, escaped a fate we didn’t want to consider).
You named her Lulu. She had soft, silver ears, and we loved her.
She sat by my feet on Saturday mornings, during my writing time. She curled in a chair in our bedroom to watch over you during the days while you slept, before you finally gave that shit up and said working nights was just plain stupid, that it was going to be the death of you, of us.
Lulu dies in my lap after our morning walk, the week after I turn 50.
It’s the only time our children have seen us cry.
I roll out some clay and make an imprint of Lulu’s paw before you wrap her in a blanket and take her to be cremated.
I write the date in the clay and realize, absently, that it has been almost exactly 20 years since you and I first met, since the day I stood on a deck, squinting in the late afternoon sun with my sister, watching you bound down Snow King.
You took me to the demolition derby at the Teton County Fair, said I didn’t know what I’d been missing if I’d never been to one of those before.
Where did those people go?
Fiction: We are aging gracefully, accepting the ups and downs of life with Zen-like wisdom.
Fact: We are so far from where we started that it is almost impossible to see a way back.
Our friend the judge, the one who married us, and his wife, the one who held our baby, invite us to their daughter’s wedding. You drag out your suit (that is getting tight) but refuse to cut your hair. I put on wrinkle filler and Spanx and lipstick (but not red, because you hate that) and the antique crystal necklace you gave me for Mother’s Day when our children were babies.
We should take a picture, I say, while we’re dressed up.
And that makes you laugh.
This is the summer when I take a month off, cart the kids to the beach and get sunburned. I sign up for a water aerobics class, and you offer, every day, to play Bill Murray and slip a Baby Ruth in the pristine water while no one’s looking.
It’s the summer I start a new job, and you build a table I can use for meetings, paint a large dry-erase board on my wall, carefully taping the outline so it is level and square, because you want it to look good, to be impressive.
It’s the summer our kids, both of them, go to camp for a month, the same month, and leave us home alone. We cook dinner and pick figs and sit on the porch. They write us letters. We begin to relax.
It’s the summer my dementia-ravaged, alcoholic cousin – the one who sat with me while my mother died, who sat next to me at my 50th birthday, just one year before, the one who has been closest to me of all my relatives, for all my life – paints a hateful target on you and forces me to choose between money and marriage.
You are not certain what I will decide.
I choose you.
These are, you understand, just inflection points, the ones that shape the arc of my plot.
Fact: All of these stories are true.
Fiction: These stories are the only truth.
This summer is our musical summer, capped at the end with Van Morrison on your 50th birthday.
Early in the summer we venture downtown to the river, on a glorious night, on a date (this sounds ridiculous), while our children are away.
We run into friends (my friends, but also your friends) who ask about our children, and about us. They tell us about their children, who are grown, and about the flood in their house and all the mess it has caused.
We have known this couple almost the entire time we’ve lived here.
You are talking to the wife, the lawyer, about home repairs. I am talking to the husband, the artist, about you. He says: Did you ever think we’d all be standing here, the four of us, having this conversation, still in Memphis? (I did not.)
The lights flash, we gather our things and head to our respective seats. They’re good people, you say, as our friends walk the other direction. And I think how like a dog you are in this way, with a keen sense of everyone around you.
Your truck (Henry’s truck), the one you drove to Memphis (an eternity ago), sits on the parking pad behind our house (still with its New Mexico license plates), where it has sat, flat-tired, for a dozen years, neglected.
Our son, the child who used to sit in the bathtub with you making shampoo mohawks and blowing bubbles, is 16 and driving, and he wants a 4Runner, because all of the boys his age want 4Runners. So we agree that you and he will rebuild Henry’s truck (your truck) for him to drive. No one will have a truck like this, you say. And you are right.
We agree to this plan for many reasons, one of which is that your truck is a standard shift, and it’s impossible to text and drive a stick-shift at the same time. Also, almost no one else will be able to drive it. Also, the truck is charmed, in its own magical way. Mostly, I understand now that you can never relinquish this truck. It is part of who you are.
You are excited about this work. And your excitement becomes contagious. You buy a second truck, for parts, and tow it home, where our backyard now looks like a junk heap, like a Joe Dirt movie set.
I am thrilled and mortified, thrilled for a father-son project, thrilled that our son is excited, thrilled that you want to teach him what you know about fixing things, and mortified by the sight of the mess, a throwback to my grandparents’ farm and its display of discarded, rusty cars.
You work all summer, you and our son. You teach him about brake calipers and fuel lines and solid axles. How to paint an even primer coat. You teach him the things you know by heart, by instinct. You get sweaty and greasy and cross with each other when neither of you stops to eat lunch.
Then you get dejected, because it takes longer and costs more, because teaching is sometimes frustrating. You get dejected, but you keep going.
Our son cleans out the car, removes the sheepskin seat covers I gave you (how many years ago?), and starts to take them to the trash.
No! you yell. Those are real sheepskin, cool in the summer, warm in the winter. You’re gonna want to keep those in the truck.
And he says: Dad, dude, these things are gross. They’re dirty, and dusty, and I don’t even want to know what that stain is.
It is deck stain, you explain, and you tell the story, a not terribly interesting one, about spilling it. Your memory is sometimes fuzzy, but when it is clear, it is precise and detailed, just like you.
You compromise and agree to take the seat covers to the cleaners. Then you shuffle off, grumbling about kids these days. Our son shuffles off, grumbling teenage grumblings.
Whatever we had dreamed of, long ago, about ourselves and our lives and our children, it was not this. But this is real, and it brings its own kind of comfort.
You come back to the truck the next day. You work all summer and into the fall.
We are on the porch eating dinner, one night one the front-tip edge of our 21st summer together. The days are warm and nights still cool. Our kind of weather. I think of this time of year as our season.
Our son (who drove his truck, your truck, Henry’s truck, to school on this particular day) is telling a story about meeting with the college counselor.
So, I met with the college counselor today. (Great! I say. How did it go?)
Well, I sat down in her office, and she pulled out my records, and she asked what I want to do with my life, what I’m interested in. And I tell her I’m not sure yet, but I like putting things together, like when Dad and I built the truck.
And she says, so tell me about your dad, what does he do?
And I say, he’s a carpenter, he fixes things.
And she says, OK. Where did he go to college?
And I say, he didn’t.
She writes some notes, and then she says, OK, do what about your mom, what does she do?
And I say, well, she runs a nonprofit. I can’t remember the name of it but I tell her where it is, and she knows it.
Yeah, yeah, she says, I know that place.
And where did your mom go to college, she asks, and I tell her. And she starts laughing, like hard.
And she says, Wait: Your dad is a high-school graduate who works as a carpenter, and your mom went to Princeton?
And I say, Yep.
And she’s laughing so hard she has to end the meeting, says she’s going to need a minute to think about this one.
And that’s how it went.
Seriously, Mom, our daughter says, I mean, look at you (her brother says: Right?). How did this even happen? How did you two even get together?
I have practiced this story. I know it by heart. The words assemble quickly in my head, and I prepare to pour them out, again, like little glasses of lemonade.
We met in July, I will say, high summer in Wyoming. I was visiting my sister to meet her fiancé, your roommate, and we were standing, she and I, on the deck, at the bottom of Snow King, when you came bounding down the hill.
I will detail, again, that you were the best man in my sister’s wedding, the one who stayed a few extra days, cleaned my kitchen and cooked me dinner. You went to Ireland, saw Van Morrison, turned Guinness coasters into postcards that you mailed to me, one by one, in a series, to tell of your adventures.
I’ve told this tale a hundred times (or more), and it always starts this way: We drove from Omaha to Memphis with my dog in your truck, to fix a house and then head back west to the mountains where we belonged.
I will skip all that’s happened in between. Our children have asked how things got started, and I will tell them.
But you surprise me and speak first. I have never heard you answer this question.
Your words are short and elegant, your delivery steady. This is not something you’ve manufactured on the spot. You’ve never been one to do that.
Your answer satisfies them – no, “satisfy” isn’t the right word. Your answer quenches them, reconciles something that had been unresolved in their minds. This is your truth, about me.
It seems I’ve been found out. Known from the very start, from that same day, on that same hill in Wyoming, looking from the other direction.
Our son says, kindly: That is so you, Mom. (Our daughter agrees, yes, that is SO Mom.)
They gather their dishes, and ours, and start toward the front door. Our daughter says, over her shoulder: And we all know why you picked Dad, because Dad’s just cool (her brother says: Right?).
They go inside. You walk out into the yard, set up the sprinkler. I sit on the porch, digesting this feeling, this unexpected turn of tables. It is an unusual feeling, not entirely comfortable, but not unpleasant, either.
And I wonder if this, actually, is the beginning.