Tag Archives: reminiscin’

The best time I accidentally ate snails.

Getting caught in a rainstorm today when we were walking home from the grocery store, I was reminded of a misadventure I had with a friend while traveling in Europe in the summer of 2000. During the early part of my trip, it was really hot everywhere I’d been, but toward the end when I got to Germany it had started storming. My friend and I had spent much longer than we’d planned trying to get to the Black Forest, and started out in Stuttgart and then found out we couldn’t get there that way, so then we took the train to a small town near Freiborg. We’d planned a hike through the Black Forest that day, a sparsely-traveled footpath that went from one very small town to another with a couple of teeny places in between. Before we started, we went into one of the two tiny shops that was open in town (it was a Sunday and virtually everything was closed tight), and the shopkeeper recommended we try the local specialty version of Kirschwasser (a traditional cherry brandy), so we bought a couple of teeny airplane-sized bottles, figuring what the hell, to go with our trail mix or whatever snacks we’d brought with us. Once we started on the trail, the only way to get back to a main train station was to turn back to where we’d come or to continue on, and neither of us was one for giving up.

The down side to this hike in the Black Forest, the most fairy-tale place I’d ever been (seriously, it was not at all difficult to imagine most classic Grimm tales in this setting), was that just once we’d truly gotten into the forested parts of the trail, it started to rain. We each had a light rain shell but were wearing jeans and sneakers, not exactly ideal for a long hike through the dripping wet forest. And did it ever drip. It dripped and poured and the rain ran down our faces and into our inner layers, and it splashed up our shoes to soak the bottoms of our pants. Every so often we’d come out of a copse of trees and the trail would lead us by someone’s cow pasture or someone’s agricultural field, and sometimes the sun would poke through the clouds, but mostly it was just dark, cold, wet trees whipping themselves at us as we walked and then trudged, socks and shoes sodden, ever onward.

We passed two churches that had to really have been individual prayer stations of some sort, because when poking our heads inside it was clear they weren’t big enough to hold more than one medium size or two smallish people at once. We passed areas that looked as though a bear who had once been a person could burst out of the brush at us at any moment. And we got colder and wetter and more physically miserable. But our spirits remained relatively high, and my friend suggested we pull out the kirschwasser, that it might warm us up.

So it might be pertinent to mention here that I was just 21 years old at this point, and my tastes and appreciation for various alcoholic beverages was immature at best. My friend’s preferences weren’t much more refined than mine (he tended to go in for either beer or really sweet wine). We were expecting, I dunno, cherry-flavored liqueur? Kind of like Apple Pucker or butterscotch schnapps, only cherry flavored. What we got was bracing and not even remotely sweet and it tasted like a cough syrup-scented lighter fluid? It was certainly not something either of us enjoyed, and we chalked it up to one more component to our ongoing misadventure that day.

Finally, we made it to the other end of the trail, which was another really small town with a train station. It was still Sunday, so everything in this town was closed except for one not-cheap (read: pretty fancy) restaurant. But after hours of walking through the forest in pouring rain and cold, wet feet we were really hungry and just wanted to sit someplace warm for a little while. (I’m sure the other patrons of the restaurant thought we resembled drowned rats, which we probably did.) Everyone else in the place was dressed nicely and here we were, bedraggled and disheveled soaking wet American tourists. The server brought us a menu, and we did our best to navigate it with our extremely primitive German. Food words in German aren’t THAT much different than many English food words, so usually it wasn’t too much of an issue, but we saw the prices and realized the only thing we could afford to eat in the place was soup. Which was sort of just fine with me; I was soaked through and chilled to the bone and thought it might help warm me up.

Two soups were on the menu, and we had no idea what kind of soup either of them might be. So my friend ordered one and I ordered the other one, and we decided we’d share both bowls. When our soup arrived, mine had a chowdery sort of broth with what in retrospect might have been some little matzoh ball-like dumplings? I think there was some chicken in it as well, but it was definitely a white broth. My friend’s soup had a clear broth and was quite savory, with chunks of vegetables, and some odd gray rubbery things. We put the bowls in the middle of the table and traded bowls after a while, and decided that my soup was better because those rubbery gray things were just weird. My friend fancied himself a gourmand of meats and had to know what he was eating, so he asked the server when she stopped by to fill up our water glasses what the things were in his soup.

“I think they are, how you say, snakes?” she replied.
“SNAKES?” exclaimed my friend, and made a motion with his hand like a snake going through the grass. She laughed. “No, no. I think instead snails.”

Snails. We’d spent hours on a train in the wrong direction, hours finally hiking through the forest in pouring rain with only trail mix and lighter fluid Kirschwasser to sustain us, we were paying more for that soup than we’d spent on the previous day’s meals, and we were eating snails.

I lost my appetite. I know people talk about how delicious escargot is and I’m sure they’re right, but I’ve never had any interest in trying it since those gray rubbery lumps in that mysterious soup.

When we’d finished our soup, the server asked if we’d like anything else. I decided what the hell, and ordered a slice of Black Forest cake. I was in the Black Forest, after all.

Do you know what traditional Black Forest cake is flavored with? Kirschwasser.

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Toxicodendron diversilobum

On Friday evening, I was out for a walk, gathering blackberries (like I do, most days). I leaned over a fence to reach a prime specimen, only to have the nearest support beam spit in half and drop me, my camelback, and that particular section of split rail fence into the blackberry bush.

For those of you who live in places that blackberries don’t grow wild, they’re a pernicious weed that produces delicious fruit and is covered in wicked, curved thorns of varying sizes. Even the leaves are thorny. And for those of you who don’t live on the West Coast, one of the other extremely common plants native to this area is Toxicodendron diversilobum, aka poison oak. Poison oak grows EVERYWHERE around here, and can take many different forms – that of a tree, a bush, a vine, or a small, ground-level plant. Every part of the plant produces a toxic oil called urushiol that causes contact dermatitis (read: a gross, weepy, disgusting itchy red rash) in 4/5 of the population.

So I fell on a blackberry bush, and my arms and stomach got covered in blackberry scratches, and it was difficult for me to pick myself back up as I had a backpack full of water on my back and a half-full container spilling with previously-picked fruit in my left hand. I extricated myself from the thorny canes as best I could, only to notice in the dim twilight that smack dab in the middle of the bush was a bunch of poison oak. Great.

After I finished my berry picking (because I wasn’t going home empty-handed), I walked home, stripped off my clothing, tossed it in the washing machine, told Dan not to touch me, and headed straight for the shower, where I soap-and-cold-watered myself from head to toe. (Soap on fresh blackberry scratches hurts, by the way.) After my shower, I scrubbed myself with rubbing alcohol to disperse any residual urushiol. (Rubbing alcohol on fresh blackberry scratches hurts even more.) When I was rash-free the next morning, I figured I was in the clear.

* * * * * * * * *

One summer when I was in college, my boyfriend and I lived in a big house with a bunch of other people. At the very beginning of the summer, he went for a hike one day with a friend, came home, and told me all about how they’d blazed a trail through some low scrub when they’d been out too late to see the actual trail. He took off his clothes that he’d hiked in, but didn’t shower, and I put his clothes in the washing machine. Of course, we slept in the same bed that night. The next morning, when we woke up, both of us were absolutely COVERED in the most uncomfortable and painful and itchy rash I’d ever experienced. It spread up and down our arms and legs, torsos, middles, and faces. I’d not been in so much full-body discomfort since my terrible case of chicken pox at age eight, and in some ways this was worse.

We knew the “low scrub” my boyfriend had walked through must have been poison oak, and the oil must have gotten on me through touching his clothes and sharing a bed. Somehow, I’d gone 20 years without managing to catch poison oak, and my first case happened to be secondhand. We tried a variety of folk remedies but nothing made either of us feel much better, and both of us were miserable and swollen and itchy and uncomfortable in places that you never want to experience that. (Yes, he got it there.) One of our housemates suggested we see a doctor because of how bad both of us were reacting to the poison oak, where we were each prescribed a regimen of prednisone (a cortical steroid used to stop the body’s severe autoimmune reaction to the skin that contacted the urushiol).

* * * * * * *

About 24 hours after my ill-fated blackberry gathering, one of the deep scratches on my arm erupted in itchy welts. Then another one. Then, a spot where I’d been poked in the chest, just under my right breast, started to itch. Shit. We walked to the store on Sunday morning where I got some topical stuff that’s supposed to help minimize the symptoms of poison oak, and I put it on when I got home. It seemed to help, some. The rash spread to both my upper and lower arm, and down my chest and up the underside of my boob. My skin was obviously Not Happy, and I surmised that those specific scratches must have been from the poison oak plant rather than from the blackberry thorns. Which meant the oil had gotten under my skin, and maybe into my bloodstream, and who knows where it might erupt next.

* * * * * * *

Prednisone, if you’ve ever had to take it for a situation like that, has its own unfortunate side effects, as you start out with a high dose and then have to taper down. The prednisone I took for that case of poison oak back in college made me ravenous, which, coupled with my disordered eating at the time, made me feel like a horrible person for giving in to the hunger. It made me extremely irritable. And it made it so I Just Could Not Fall Asleep. Two days after I started the prednisone regimen, I had a job interview for a summer job. I explained to them why my face looked the way it did (read: covered in swollen, gross welts) and lucky for me, I got the job, though I’m not sure how as I’m sure I looked like absolute shit. The first week at work I was basically a zombie because, while my itches were getting better, I wasn’t able to fall asleep until 3 or 4 AM and having to get up at 6:30 to go to work. One night I had finally fallen asleep sometime after midnight when the significant other of one of the housemates called the house phone. I guess nobody else was around to pick it up, because I chewed the person on the other end of the line a new asshole for daring to call so late after I’d finally fallen asleep. (The whole thing was just really not pretty.)

* * * * * *

Today, Dan told me that the skin on my arm looked like leprosy. I’m erupting in tiny patches of more contact dermatitis in random places (further evidence it got into my bloodstream) and the major rashy areas are now blistered and weepy. I’m basically a huge mess, but if I can avoid paying a fee at the clinic to be prescribed prednisone, and avoid having to take prednisone altogether, I’m going to do so. While we’re no longer in touch, today is my college boyfriend’s 34th birthday, and that coupled with my leprous arm is making me think back to that time he got poison oak on his pink bits. I do hope, for his sake, that he never got it there again.

October 17, 1989

Six weeks into the new school year, and I’d made a couple of new friends in our new town. They lived in the neighborhood behind our back gate and through the abandoned vineyard, and if you squoze in between the two pieces of fence you wouldn’t have to go all the way around. It was how we got to the bus stop every morning. I’d been invited to hang out after school with perhaps E or was it C (they were best friends and I was someone new and therefore maybe interesting), and the three of us were riding our bikes up and down the street and around the cul-de-sac named for a wine grape varietal, just like every other street in the subdivision.

We’d watched TV and had snacks and all their little sisters were playing together, and I was just getting used to riding my bike on pavement instead of a dirt road or field like I’d grown up doing, when all of a sudden it felt like the bike was being pulled sideways out from under me. I fell over.

At first I chalked it up to my still-wobbly riding skills (unused to smooth surfaces as I was) but then I saw the little sisters huddled in E’s doorway. “There was an earthquake!” one of them yelled. No wonder I was disoriented. We went to C’s house and the TV, which had been tuned to the Giants-A’s world series game, became instead breaking news about the earthquake.

I decided that instead of watching all the scary things on TV at my friend’s house, I’d go home and watch them there. When I got home, my mom said that she and Lissa had been on the California king-sized bed in my parents’ room, and at first she thought Lissa was shaking the bed. After a few seconds, however, she realized that it was an earthquake. There was no damage to anything in our house, and though we were all a little shaken up (no pun intended), we turned on the news to see the first footage of the massive destruction that the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake had caused all over the bay area. Fires raged in the Marina district of San Francisco. A piece of the Bay Bridge fell down. A mall collapsed in Santa Cruz. A whole section of freeway fell in the East Bay, crushing ~40 people to death instantly, and days of rescue efforts to extract remaining survivors from their cars would continue. We sat, speechless. It was the first time I ever remember feeling truly mortal.

Many years later, the 1989 quake became a touchstone for people living in California, people with ties to California, fans of the Giants or the A’s. We’d learn that because of a quirk of fate, the World Series game scheduled for that day in which the two Bay Area teams competed meant that a disproportionately large number of people were indoors watching the game rather than in their cars on the bridges and freeways, and therefore probably saved many lives (normally, at 5:04 PM, many thousands of people would have been commuting). I’d go on to date a boy in high school who celebrated his 11th birthday that day, and marry a different boy who had his own story about the quake, even though he lived three states away when it happened. Looking back, what I remember most was the feeling of disorientation, the feelings of dread and fear the scenes of destruction caused. I felt many other earthquakes over the years, and every time, as I stood in a doorway, I flashed back to that sunny afternoon on my bike. I think about it sometimes when we’re on a bridge, silently saying the “No earthquakes” chant like someone on Press Your Luck says “No Whammies.” The possibility and, honestly, the likelihood of an earthquake is just something that comes with the territory when you live on the West Coast. The uncertainty is one of the prices we pay for living here, just like uncertainty in general is one of the prices we pay for being alive.

Giant. Gold. Letters.

It was evening, and it was sometime early in 1997. I was at my boyfriend’s apartment and we’d probably just had dinner and were hanging out watching TV or studying or whatever we did then. It might have even been my birthday, because my mom called my boyfriend’s house (this was, of course, long before cell phones) to chat with me. It was during that phone conversation that mom broke the news to me.

“Jessica got engaged,” she said.

“What?!” I responded in disbelief. Jessica was my cousin. She was 18, just like me. She’d been dating a boy off and on for a year or so, I’d heard, one that was a few years older. When we were 15 she’d sent me a letter (it was truly the dark ages) telling me that she had a huge crush on this boy, Jimmy, but I shouldn’t tell my parents because she didn’t want her parents to know how much she liked him. Then all the drama happened with other boys and partying and alcohol poisoning and Jessica went back to her pious ways. While I was preparing to go to college, she was suddenly dating that boy she liked way back when she was 15. We’d been about as good of friends as cousins who see one another maybe once a year could be, and as my mom told me about their news all I could remember was the time maybe two years beforehand we shared a bed in the pool house and Jess mentioned how ‘far’ she’d gone and with whom. At that point, all I’d done was kiss a couple of boys, and I remembered thinking she was way ahead of me. I wasn’t ready for any of that sex stuff at 16.

So as I heard the details of her engagement to that boy she’d pined for at 15, all I could think of was that she was crazy. We were both 18 and I was light years away from wanting to make any sort of lifetime commitment to anyone. I hadn’t even chosen a major yet. Apparently, their best friends, another couple, had gotten engaged at Christmas and so Jess and Jim decided if their friends could do it, so could they. A date was set for late in the summer.

As I hung up the phone, the phrase kept going through my head: she’s crazy. Who makes that sort of life decision so young? She’d hardly ever dated anyone else! She was so young! Marriage was a huge commitment! What about college? Were they going to have kids right away? I was at such a different place in my life – staying the night at my boyfriend’s apartment sometimes, sure, but also studying and working toward a degree, going out and having fun with my friends, enjoying a bit of adult-ish freedom for the first time in my life because I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. Why would she want to give all that up?

Later that year, we went to Texas to visit my great aunt, and on the way home we stopped in San Diego to go to Jessica’s wedding. My favorite part of the event actually happened the night before, after we got to the hotel. Somehow, my sisters and I got into a silly physical altercation over a shoe on the lawn, and my mom must have taken a photo. My memories of this incident are among the best from that time in my life – just getting to be silly with my sisters when most other people around were stressed out about all the wedding fooferaw.

I cannot for the life of me remember why we fought over a shoe.

The next day, we got all gussied up (I’d had a difficult time finding a dress that was age-appropriate and fit well without showing off a ton of nonexistent cleavage, and so I’d actually sewed a piece of lace to the top of the too-big dress) and drove to the ceremony, which was at a giant megachurch in Del Mar. It didn’t look like a church so much as a big complex, with plenty of southern California styling; lots of palm trees and adobe. Above the entrance to the…chapel? Sanctuary? Place where the ceremony was going to be? was the word Jesus in giant gold script letters. JESUS! Then, we walked inside, and above the…alter? was an even bigger JESUS! in giant gold letters.

I knew that Jessica’s and Jim’s families were both religious, but I didn’t realize quite how much they’d decided to fall in with those beliefs; the last time I’d talked to Jessica, she wasn’t going to church at all. But that was probably a year beforehand. I wasn’t raised with any sort of religious tradition, and while I’d occasionally attended a very liberal low dogma church (mostly so I could sing in the choir and go to youth group) for a while, I was, at 18, very much not religious. I’d attended another wedding that summer and knew I’d need to be respectful through this service, but seeing the giant JESUS threw me off a bit, and then when the ceremony started I didn’t even know how to respond to all the weirdness. I sat in flabbergasted silence while the minister went on and on about Jesus, about how he would be at the center of their marriage. It got to the point where I felt like he was advocating that they have a three-way marriage, and I found that to be exceedingly creepy. As part of the service, we were all commanded to bow our heads in prayer (I did not, and instead kept my eyes on the crowd) and then asked if anyone had decided to accept Jesus as their personal savior as a result of the service, because Jessica and Jim really wanted everyone to do so. I saw a few people raise their hands. It was uncomfortable and kind of gross and I just couldn’t wait for it all to be done so we could go eat (I was hungry).

That was the first wedding where I ate Jordon almonds, and the first time I realized this divide in my extended family: the ones who were super religious (either Catholic or born-again Evangelical Christian) and the ones who were not. My sisters and I were seated at a table with our godless heathen cousins, and we all laughed and commiserated about how weird the service was.

Letting off steam after attempted conversion

* * * * * * *

That wedding was 14 years ago today. Jessica and Jim went on to have four kids, the first born nearly two years after they got married. Jessica never did much schooling after high school – maybe an early childhood certification so she could work in a day care. We’ve attempted to stay in touch through the years, but it was more difficult after my parents split up and we’ve really only seen one another at weddings. We went to their house once, during the trip to move me to Colorado, and there was religious stuff all over the place. But we had fun with them and their (at the time) 2 young kids, even going out to dinner with them and were delighted at how well-behaved the kids were. Her husband never did manage to make a paid career out of youth ministry and instead has been managing various branches of a fast food restaurant. Recently, they moved to Texas to facilitate the opening of a new branch of the same restaurant. Jessica’s devoted her life to being a Mom – homeschooling, gestating, rearing children. And now we keep in touch via facebook.

Today she wrote something about their anniversary: “I guess sometimes 18 year olds can make good decisions.” While I’m thrilled it’s worked out so well for them (and it hasn’t all been sweetness and light; they’ve been through their fair share of hard times, health scares, and at least one miscarriage), I think they’re exception rather than the rule. The best friends, the ones who prompted their early engagement, went through a nasty divorce due to infidelity right around the time of this wedding. They’re now a couple thousand miles away from the rest of the extended family. But they’re happy and healthy and it seems like my cousin really did make a good decision for herself. Would I have done the same thing she did, or advise someone else to do so? Never in a million years.

Odd Man Out

A message popped up on my Facebook screen. “Recital tomorrow at 6:30!” Heather wrote. “I know; I asked Denise about it a few weeks ago,” I responded. “I’m planning to be there.”

It was a hot Saturday of Father’s Day weekend, so of course it was time for recital. It’s always sunny and always hot, and they always have to pull the curtains on the high windows at the Citrus Fair so it’s always stifling with the hundreds of bodies in seats. We rushed back from Scarlett’s party in Santa Rosa and I made it to the Citrus Fair building with approximately two minutes to spare. I was greeted at the ticket table by my old youth group leader’s wife, who had the biggest grin on her face when she realized who I was. “I’m so happy to see you!” she said. We made a bit of small talk, and then she mentioned that I should look for her husband during intermission, as he’d be running the spotlight during the show. “John E. had a brain tumor,” she told me, “so if he doesn’t recognize you right away, just tell him your name and I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to see you.”

A brain tumor? I’d had no idea. I paid my $8 (some proceeds going to help defray medical costs for one of the four-year-olds at the studio, fighting stage four testicular cancer) and, taking a deep breath, I walked into the dark auditorium. I squinted at the sea of people, but didn’t see any convenient empty chairs, so I made my way to the top of the hard wooden bleachers at the back of the room. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I began to recognize people, I couldn’t help but remember all the other times I was here for the recital; only mostly those times I was up in the oven of a dressing room, wrangling littles, attempting hair and makeup that wouldn’t melt under the spotlight, wrestling into lycra-heavy costumes, my skin sticky with the miserable damp sweat you get in a tiny 120-degree room on a June day. Not two minutes after I sat down, Heather’s voice came over the sound system. “Welcome to the Cloverdale School of Dance annual recital. Tonight’s theme is ‘Wish upon a Star.’ There will be a 15 minute intermission.” Studio teachers, some in costumes and some in street clothing, stood in front of the curtain for introductions to the audience. Denise has been working on this for more than 20 years, I thought to myself. She grew herself a studio and teachers to teach for her, so she’s not teaching every class anymore. Good for her.

Spotlights, music, curtain.

* * * * * * *

I found myself squinting in the dark at the program, trying to make out the names of those children in each class, each dance. Who was the teacher or older student for each group? Which children had parents I knew? Parents my age? Parents who, the last time I saw them, were stumbling from lack of sleep after an all-night Project Grad? Or at my ten-year-high school reunion? I was so far back from the stage that I couldn’t tell whether any of the kids were easy to pick out as being related to someone I knew. It was difficult to relax into “watch tiny kid do cute things” mode; I was looking around at the audience with their babies and toddlers, their fluttering programs, trying to move the still air around a little. Which people might recognize me, there alone, no babies or toddlers, no nieces or nephews in the show?

* * * * * * *

It was mid-June of 1996, and I had just graduated high school the day before. Someone had picked me up at 5:30 AM with my hard-earned prizes from the very same building to which I’d be heading back in a few short hours. I’d been hypnotized, played casino games, attempted to counteract exhaustion with caffienated soda but still felt like a zombie, and at home I slept on the couch for a couple of hours because my grandmother was sleeping in my bed. We’d had whirlwind days: Lissa graduated 8th grade, and then my last day of school and high school graduation, followed by a party at our house and then Project Grad. I’d never been so tired, and I knew I’d be expected to be at my best for another whole day despite the lack of sleep. People couldn’t be quiet enough in the main part of the house to let me sleep, so I gave up, got up, ate something, and headed right back to the Citrus Fair building for dress rehearsal. It was going to be a really hot day, I knew, which meant those upstairs dressing rooms would be miserable. We dress rehearsed; we wrangled small kids who weren’t pleased about the hair and the makeup and the costumes and the heat; we put wet compresses on Heather’s heat blisters (!), and the four of us who had graduated and been up all night just gritted our teeth, went out there, and did our best to perform the dances we’d been preparing for months. The very last dance included a large group in traditional ballet costume performed to Pachelbel’s Canon. To this day, that song for me evokes not weddings but that sweltering June day, the pink tights and black leotards, my sleep-deprived performance.

* * * * * *

I couldn’t help but remember that day, as I sat in the dark room and watched some of the younger girls from that Canon dance were now teachers in my old school, credited in the program for their choreography. The dances were all done to Disney songs, and each teacher or older student came out with a group of littles to help them do their dance. I continued to study the program, and then I noticed a high school friend (with a niece in the show and two young nephews in the audience) standing at the side of the room. We had a short, whispered conversation in between performances, during which time I learned we weren’t the only ones from our class in attendance. “Toni’s here, Darren’s here, Liz. It’s like reunion,” she said. Only those other people had little girls or little boys in the performance; that was the difference.

At intermission I went up into the balcony to say hi to John E. “Emily!” he exclaimed, and gave me a giant hug. It was awesome. I hadn’t seen John E. in at least a decade, and his daughter I’d once babysat was now one of the teachers for the studio. “My youngest kid, Jordy? He just got his driver’s license yesterday!” he told me. I never even met Jordy, because I’d been too busy to babysit for most of senior year. “You’re making me feel old!” I told him. John E. was super proud of his kids, and was thrilled to see me. I hadn’t expected to see him at the recital but I was glad I did. As my high school youth group leader, he’d seen me at my worst (an angsty teenager) and still always saw the best in me. He was the kind of dad I wish I’d had, and I was glad that at least for a couple years there was an adult man I felt like I could count on to listen when I had something I needed to angst about. “I hope your kids spoil you rotten tomorrow,” I thought to myself. “I hope they know how lucky they are to have such a great guy for a dad.” Downstairs, I said hi to Liz and a few other people I knew in the audience, and then I spotted someone I never thought I’d see in a million years, someone I’d danced with at my previous ballet school; someone I hadn’t seen in at least twenty years. I gave her a hug, and she told me her daughter had been a mouse (as had Heather’s daughter and Liz’s daughter) in the Cinderella dance. “I’m not the only one here!” she told me, and led me over to her friend, who was someone ELSE I’d danced with as a kid and hadn’t seen in 20 years. We hugged and chatted a bit, and I told her my sob story about why I had to quit ballet. “I just stopped sometime in high school, because I thought it wasn’t cool,” she told me. “Now sometimes when I take my Pilates class I peek in at the adult ballet class next door and think about taking it.” We talked about how once we’d been those little girls on the stage. Now we were both here watching the children of our friends perform the same steps we’d once performed (or, at the very least, looked cute in costumes on a stage for a few minutes.)

The show started back up again, and the older girls began to do their own dances. I was no longer looking at last names in the program, because most of these kids were too old to belong to anyone I knew, but I did recognize a brother and sister as being the children of one of my sister’s elementary school teachers (you don’t forget a name like the daughter’s), and they were among the best dancers. Many of the families of the little kids had left after intermission, so there were quite a few empty seats. I found a space for myself and started to focus on the choreography and technique. I hadn’t even noticed until I looked to my left that another high school friend, M, with a daughter who had danced in the Mary Poppins number, was still there watching the 8-18 year-olds perform. “You used to do this, didn’t you!” she whispered to me. “Yes, and I’m still friends with the owner of the studio,” I whispered back. “Who are you here to see?” she asked.

Myself, I wanted to answer. Myself, but I haven’t danced on this stage since a swan song the summer I was 18, a solo interlude to help give the studio’s dancers time to change costumes. I was working at the pool that summer and at the Boys and Girls club, and I divided my time between being waterlogged and sweating in the studio to learn a 3-minute solo, the calluses sloughing off my toes and into my pointe shoes; my feet constantly bloody. I knew after my diagnosis it would be the last time I’d ever dance on stage, and I don’t know that anyone in the audience of that recital realized just how much I’d be giving up. I was so good, even if I could never have been pro because of my body type. Compared to some of these girls dancing in this recital, I was so, so good. And I can never do it again.

My daughter or son, I wanted to answer. The child I haven’t had yet. The one who will, someday, be the reason for me to come to a performance or a competition or a meet. I’ll be the one in the audience with the giant grin on my face, with my son or daughter the one in the cute costume mugging or frowning at the dark sea of faces. Or, if he/she takes after my sister, will be the one directing everyone else on the stage during the performance.

“Heather’s girls,” I said.

* * * * *

Dancers

After the recital, someone from the school (possibly Denise?) put this photo up on Facebook. It’s that group of dancers from the Pachelbel’s Canon number. We were doing a photo shoot with a professional photographer a couple of weeks before recital, and I think this was one of the outtakes – a “silly” photo. I’m the standing furthest left, and looking at this photo, it’s hard for me to believe that was really me. I was 25 pounds underweight. My eyebrows were caterpillars and my skin was terrible. I was exhausted from rehearsals for recital, for the play I was in, for all the huge end-of-year school projects. I didn’t have any boobs or a butt or muscle in my arms. But I was beautiful.

Four of the girls in this photo are now mothers, and one has her first baby on the way. At least five of them were once or are currently teachers at the studio. One I know absolutely nothing about. I’m the only one I know of for sure who can no longer dance. And I’m glad I can’t go back and tell 17-year-old me that in 14 years she’ll be right back in the same place, watching her friends’ kids on the stage, knowing it will be many years, if ever, before the kid on the stage in the costume is hers. It might just break her heart.

But I must gather knots of flowers, and buds and garlands gay

The beginning of the dance

Last week, Helen Jane kept writing about May Day on twitter. I tweeted back at her about how, when I was in 3rd grade, I’d danced the May Pole at the May Day festival in Geyserville. Someone else, who I don’t know but must live in Geyserville, responded that Geyserville still had a May Day festival. I googled, I thought, I asked Dan if he’d be up for attending a (free!) quaint small-town festival. He was game, so on Sunday we drove to the ‘ville, to the Hoffman Picnic Grounds (formerly known as the Geyser Peak Picnic Grounds), where Geyserville’s May Day festival has been held since around 1991.

Old oak tree

* * * * * * *

May Day is a long-standing tradition in this little hamlet. Geyserville’s had a May Day celebration since at least the 1920s, and from then until the early 90s it was held on private land known as the Hoffman Grove. I looked forward to the May Day festival every year when I was a kid. There were sweet things to eat, and face painting. There were pony rides, barbecue, a Dixieland band with old men and brass horns in little white hats. Prizes could be won if you fished the right duckie out of the kiddy pool, and the fire department would compete with the one from Cloverdale to see which hose could push the ball better. (Because that wasn’t suggestive.) But the absolute best part of May Day was the dancing of the May Pole. I remember being very small, probably four or five, and thinking how big those 3rd graders were (in Geyserville, it’s always the kids from the 3rd grade class who get to dance the May Pole). Each boy got a small boutonniere; each girl a wreath of flowers for her head with ribbons hanging off the back. When I was little, I was so jealous of those big kids and couldn’t wait for it to be my turn.

Geyserville 3rd graders pose in their finery

In 1987, the year I skipped second grade and into third, I was completely miserable. Skipping into a class of kids, many of whom had been held back at some point so they were two years older than I was, in a school where there was only one classroom per grade so EVERYONE knew who I was and that I had skipped a grade, did not do wonders for my social life. In fact, it wasn’t until we moved to another town that I ever felt comfortable around classmates again. But I’d been looking forward to being in third grade FOREVER, because that meant on May Day it would be my turn to dance the May Pole. All the miseries and the teasing and the taunting and the shunning were swept aside in April, because April was when our morning teacher, Mrs. Garrett, began to teach us the May Pole dance. We heard the same music over and over. We practiced the motions around a bare pole before we got to use any ribbons. I remember that it was vastly important, during practice, that one get a “good” ribbon color. And then, finally, the day came. I wore my favorite dress, and I got a beautiful wreath for my head. It’s been nearly 25 years, so I don’t remember what color ribbon I got. But I still remember how proud I was that I got to dance in front of the whole town with my classmates.

Which color would you want?

* * * * * * *

I wasn’t sure about this May Day festival. Living here these past several months, I’ve run into all kinds of people I hadn’t seen in decades, and I didn’t know how up for that I was on Sunday. I also wasn’t sure what kind of activities there might be, but the website said the May Pole would be danced at 1:30 PM so we got there around 1. The Picnic Grounds are no Hoffman Grove (the May Day festival, I learned by talking with one of the town’s patriarchs, had moved from the Hoffman Grove after Mr. Hoffman died and Mrs. Hoffman was concerned about liability issues with having hundreds or thousands of people on the land ever year), but they’re still pretty. We looked at the historical displays of photos and newspaper clippings. I recognized people with whom I’d gone to elementary school. I recognized my old bus driver. A Healdsburg resident toting a large camera and I struck up a conversation about the festival’s history and my memories of May Day Festivals Of Olde, and he was the one who introduced me to the Grizzled Town Patriarch. I even learned something less than savory about the land we lived on and the little cabin we lived in when I was growing up. Mr. Bosworth (said Grizzled Town Patriarch) mentioned that when he was young, his father and grandfather, town undertakers, had to collect the body of a hunter who had been shot in his cabin by “Indians” (his word) who were interested in robbing the man in order to buy liquor. (His story, once again.) The father and grandfather retrieved the body and brought it to town, and young men in their cups dared one another to see if they could run from the bar, across the street, to the basement where the corpse was held before burial to see how long they could stand the smell. The cabin where the hunter lived and was killed was, of course, the very same structure where I lived from birth to age 10. No wonder I saw ghosts when I lived there.

Grizzly death stories aside, we both found the event pretty charming. Everyone brought their kids, and there was a rock climbing wall and a bouncy castle. People were painting faces. People were selling ribs and other food. The fire department had a booth, but didn’t bring out any hoses. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Garrett, was there, and she remembered me (!) and told me she was still in charge of teaching the kids the May Pole Dance. We found a spot in the shade to wait, while Dan people watched and I tried to figure out whether that person over there was so-and-so’s mom, or my friend’s old neighbor, or whatever.

Then, at long last, it was time. I moved into the sun in good position for taking photos, and Mrs. Garrett went around to whisper to each kid not to stop dancing if the music stopped. One little girl said to another, in a Very Serious Voice, “It’s not like practice. It’s the REAL THING.”

Nearly ready to go

Mrs. Garrett gives last minute instructions

Two little boys sat grinning under the pole to keep it upright, and then the same old tinny music came out of the speakers.

Someday, when they're grown, these boys will remember when they held pole.

The ribbons flew, and the kids skipped, and the ribbons shook and the kids wove.

Weaving ribbons

Nearly finished!


Here’s what the dance looked like.

And here’s what they made, at the end.

Wrapped May Pole, post-dance

It was a ritual that’s been done for hundreds or thousands of years, along with the rabbits and the eggs and the flowers – all signs of fertility, spring, new life. It’s been done in Geyserville since the 1920s. And its still done, in 2011, by 8- and 9-year-olds who probably have no idea that this 32-year-old lady watched and remembered when it was her turn to shine in the May sun in front of the whole town, with the same teacher whispering the same thing in her ear: “Don’t stop if the music stops; just keep going.” Maybe when those kids are 32, they’ll remember their hair garlands and their ribbon dance, and maybe even then the third graders of Geyserville elementary school will be learning the May Pole dance.

The best bad guy ever

One of the first movies I remember going to see in the theater was Return of the Jedi. It came out in 1983, which means I probably saw it when I was four years old. Most of what I remember about that first time seeing the film was, of course, the ewoks – the little mobile teddy bears that lived in a primordial redwood forest and somehow managed to take down the Evil Empire despite hardly even having opposable thumbs. I know they were the 1983 version of Jar Jar Binks, and I’m sure the teenage boy contingent hated them, but to a little girl the Ewoks were the best part of Return of the Jedi. They were cute! They kicked ass! They stole speeder bikes and sang the chub yub song! And I’m glad there was something to appeal to four-year-old me in the film, because there sure were a lot of scary parts.

I don’t have much memory of what scared me about Jedi, although having seen the movie dozens of times since then, I can probably guess. Jabba and many of the creatures at his palace; the saarlac pit; Yoda dying: all would have been quite frightening to a four-year-old me. But the scariest part of all, and the only other real memory I have of that first viewing of Jedi, was Darth Vader.

Darth Vader is the best bad guy ever. He’s got a deep, frightening voice, and his breath is all HOOOOOOH HUUUUUR, and his head looks like a shiny insect carapace. That beetle helmet slowly descends onto his scarred head, with a hiss of smoke or steam, and he looms. Scary music follows him wherever he goes. He can choke people with his mind! People who aren’t even in the same room! (Though, now that I think about it, why didn’t he just force choke Obi Wan when he thought about him during the time interim between Revenge of the Sith and Jedi, while Obi Wan was still on Tattooine?) Darth Vader fights with a red laser sword and everyone is afraid of him, and did I mention the HOOOOOOOH HUUUUUR?

That’s the part I remembered the most, for several months after I first saw Jedi. I had nightmares about hearing the breathing and seeing the shiny black helmet-clad bad guy coming after me. I think Darth Vader played my own personal boogeyman until I saw the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit and then it was Gollum for years and years, or maybe it was Gollum first but he got a break for a while and Vader took his place. My memories of early childhood aren’t especially clear.

What is clear, though, is that Darth Vader holds up as a great bad guy all the way until George Lucas has to go and show us why he became the monster that he did with Episodes 1-3 (and Episode 2 goes a long way; I mean, the guy obviously had some anger management issues and wasn’t especially good with people even before he betrayed everyone he loved and murdered a bunch of children) and we get 2 movies of whiny Hayden Christensen. It’s hard to see Episode 3 and then watch Star Wars again and still feel the same twinge of fear or apprehension when he orders the hit on Alderaan, since the previous time we saw him groveling and sniveling, limbs charred and face half-gone, after his big lava planet fight with Young, Hot Obi Wan. He is, however, still good for this. (Use it wisely. I’ve found many occasions where it came in handy.)