March 22, 2014, 5pm
“Let us begin,” I say solemnly to my computer screen and my iPhone leaning against it, hoping to mark the occasion of the long distance distribution of Mom’s wardrobe with some ceremony. Seven clothing boxes stand silently behind me. The boxes have been here for a week but it just in the last hour they have begun omitting the scent of Mom’s perfume. I feel like they are humming with energy but I could just be making that up because I’m nervous.
I flip to a cable music channel that emits something called Soundscapes. It’s calm without being annoying. I also apply too much red lipstick. I also do that when I’m nervous. I look for the bottle of Clorox.
Sissy pops up on my screen. Actually, Sissy’s feet pop up. “Hello! Hello! I’m here! Just creaming up my feet while I was waiting!” We are shameless foot-creamers and there isn’t a place we feel prohibits us from kicking off our shoes and slathering our feet. It comes from a barefoot family that becomes enraged at signs reading, “No shoes? No service!”
As kids running wild on the South Shore of Massachusetts, we ran the rocky granite jetty and the cracked streets sans shoes. By nightfall the soles of our feet were black and Yaya would make us soak them in a solution of lanolin and Clorox bleach.
Anyone from New England will attest to the fact that we firmly believe Clorox to be The Nectar Of The Gods. Back in the 60′s Yaya instilled an edict in us that exists to this day. “If you walk into someone’s house and it doesn’t smell like bleach, the house is dirty!” I know deep down this isn’t true, but I can’t help it – we’re New Englanders. If my friend and fellow Yankee Rosie is coming over, I make sure all the floors are scrubbed until we can hardly breathe. I know when she walks through the front door, she’ll inhale deeply. If she coughs and nods approvingly, I’ve done my job.
Yaya’s house always smelled like Clorox. But Yaya wasn’t known for her house cleaning acumen and as an adult I realize that when someone came to visit, Yaya probably dumped half a gallon of bleach down the kitchen sink and the other half into the bathtub, thus allowing the harsh perfume waft as a testament to her cleanliness.
Even though my sisters are visiting via video, I bleached my floors.
Gale beeps on through to my phone. She chirps, “Oh geez, hang on, I’m getting a glass of wine!”
“OK!” I say, “Let us start!” I make a move for the scissors.
March 22, 2014, 5:22pm
“OK!” I say again. “Let us start!”
“You’re being too strict!” Gale says. Yes, I am not my usual fun and games self.
We have already discussed all of our children, Dad, Anderson Cooper, Skinny Pop (a low-cal popcorn that I add butter to and call Fatty Pop) and the missing Malaysian plane. I’ve read aloud from the family newspaper – The National Enquirer – and we are safe in the knowledge that “scientists predict the end of obesity by 2018.” Fatty Pop!
“Start?” I ask.
The girls nod and I carefully open the first box. Everyone agrees that there won’t be any arguing over who gets what, even though we don’t fight – we three. We never have over the years. Not like other families anyway. Everyone wants something to hold and keep. My sisters can actually wear Mom’s cool funky stuff. At a lusty size 12, I just want to make sure they get anything they want to keep. The remainder will be shipped back to Mom’s favorite charity in St. Petersburg as a donation in her name. Mom volunteered at CASA [Community Action Stops Abuse] and although there are many such places here in Miami, it seems right to send them to her charity.
The first box is full of long cotton beach dresses and bathing suit cover-ups. The faces of my sisters reflect the tightness in my chest.
“I call smell Mom’s perfume,” I say.
“I can smell Englewood,” Sissy seconds. “And bleach. I know you bleached. Admit it!”
“I smell everything,” Gale closes.
Englewood Florida, One century into another
I can’t remember when my parents began to spend endless summer weeks in the small west coast beach town of Englewood. A haven for fisherman and visitors, the Englewood Trip Advisor boasts a list of “39 Things To Do In Englewood.” Most of those things involve fishing, swimming, cooking outside and collecting sea glass and shark’s teeth. It’s a wonderful place to sit in the sand or stand in the water, gossiping and having a cocktail.
Memorial Day was the annual meeting time for as many family members available to congregate on the house by the sea my parents rented every year. In many ways, I think Englewood was Mom’s Scituate.
Our young years were spent, as I have written, on the coast of Massachusetts. Nana and Poppy began as “summer people” in the 1950′s and eventually moved there to be year-round residents as the 70′s rolled in. It was our summer touchstone until Poppy and the house were washed out to sea in the Blizzard of ’78.
Much as Mom enjoyed Scituate, I think she always felt as if it was her mother’s spot to host the family. By host, I actually mean be in total control of every single thing from menus to visiting cousins. Except discipline. Nana and Poppy never quite got the hang of that. We were freely allowed to misbehave because as Poppy always said, “They’re half Greek, they can’t help it.”
The Scituate house was also party central for the neighbors and Mom was never one for boozy all night Irish raves. Later, when we moved to Florida, she fell in love with the Zen of a lazy summer day on the quiet rock-less beach with real sand and reading. Calm nights visiting with us late into the night and listening to the waves.
Dad was just happy to fish.
It began with Mom and Dad renting a house in Pelican Shores, a small cluster of cottages crammed up against the water. They visited so often, the owner had a huge trunk set out for them so they could store the psychedelic towels, brightly colored glassware and interesting mismatched plates Mom discovered in the local thrift store. Every year, for just a few weeks, she made that rental house her own. And Nana could visit but she was not in charge. This, as she once said, “really chapped” her ass.
One of the few times I saw my father cry was on a balmy Englewood dawn. Because of work, most of us couldn’t make it over for Memorial Day. Baby J and I had a work schedule change and decided to go. We arrived late and rather than wake up the sleeping house, we grabbed air mattresses and settled ourselves on the porch. In the early morning Dad nearly tripped over us on his way down to the shore to fish. He started to cry and said, “Look! It’s my girls! You came!”
Then he caught himself and gruffly ordered, “For chrissakes, get in the house! The neighbors will think you’re a couple of homeless people!!”
As our babies became kids, we soon outgrew staying in one house. The night my adult step-brother Rick was resigned to an air mattress under the dining room table and Sissy and I were crammed into a bed with two other guests, we began renting our own cottage a few steps away from the bigger house.
Dad was happy as there was less chance of the toilets clogging up. We have never been able to live down the Christmas the guest bathroom toilet overflowed into the hallway. Just out of her toddling years, my niece Nicole stood in the middle of the rushing flood in her velvet holiday dress and loudly announced, “Grandpa! I did NOT flush a teddy bear down the toilet! No I did NOT!” Eventually the soggy bear was fished out of the drain and my Dad gently concluded the bear must have attempted an escape on his own. But for evermore, we have been warned about clogging up the toilet.
In the middle of tiny compound there is a pavilion guests can reserve for outdoor parties but after the first couple of years, no one challenged our bid to for Memorial Day. And why would they? Dad invited everyone in the Shores and all of their guests! Rick and I always bought a pick -up truck full of food. Ribs, steaks, chicken, lobsters, corn, salads, sodas. Mom and I made trays and trays of her special baked beans.
[I’m not really a recipe girl, but try this. Get a disposable lasagna pan. Fill it with eight cans of Great Northern Beans. Be sure to take the beans out of the cans first and, you know, throw the cans away. I guess most people understand that. Mix in a pound of brown sugar and a big chopped onion. Cut a pound of bacon into squares and layer the top. Cook covered with foil for 5 hours at 300 degrees. Then pull off the foil, kick the heat up to 350 and cook until the bacon is done!]
For dessert, there was always one huge birthday cake with the names of everyone born during the summer months. I remember a year one of my girlfriends from the movies (and another Yankee) came for the weekend. Alison Troy. Greek and Irish, she has always been a member of Mom’s extended “family girls.” Mom made sure Ali had a birthday cake and staid northerner she is, Ali’s eyes still got shiny when the cake came out.
And we played the radio and danced. Dad loves to dance and he’d whirl his granddaughters around the picnic tables to old rock and roll tunes.
For a few years, we also had Tattoo Day. We found a shop willing to stay open and added history to our tanned bodies. At sixty-eight, Mom chose a shamrock for her hip and Dad finally gave in – at age eighty.
A veteran who never found the need to brand himself, one sunny Englewood morning, he was still resisting our cajoling.
Then suddenly, Dad looked around at those of us who enjoy a little pain and suffering for art now and then and set down his coffee with a thud. “I do what I want!” Where’s my keys?”
Not only did he choose the hugest shoulder Screamin’ Eagle American Flag Special but he demanded a senior citizen discount from the young kid behind the counter.
“Uh sir,” the kid began, “that’s like $150.”
“I’ll pay fifty. I’m a veteran!” Dad commandeered the closet chair. He got his tattoo for fifty bucks, chose a dreamcatcher for the other arm another year and to this day still likes to roll up his sleeves at the golf course, showing off his ink to his old guy friends.
Sissy and I chose a Family Crest that year. A stained glass heart, cracked but not shattered.
The late night chats on the high wooden porch, the time I backed the car into the breezeway and almost knocked the house down. Catching Mom and a sister I won’t name smoking a joint in the backyard. “Oh lighten up, she said I should try it and it’s kind of fabulous!” Standing in the warm tropical water with my mother and sisters for a whole afternoon, just talking. The babies, the boyfriends, the husbands, the near perfect days for an imperfect family. I should have banked them.
I never thought those Englewood summers would be unattainable. As the granddaughter of a woman who accurately read the future from instant coffee grounds, I’m a terrible forecaster.
The night of Mom’s funeral my sisters and I upended her glass blocks and Mason jars full of little shark’s teeth and chunks of smooth sea glass and ran our hands blindly across the piles of Mom’s Englewood. We read the summer Braille, the silent language of what was and won’t be again. It was a sad book to feel.
I have learned only one thing about grief so far. Just when you think you’re moving, you realize it’s only because you’re walking backward.
March 22, 2014, 5:25pm
“Do you want it? I don’t mind if you want it…”
“No, if you want it, it’s yours…”
My beautiful sisters are trying to console each other by not claiming any of Mom’s things. They are both talking over each other due to digital delay and I’m getting a headache.
The smell of Cinnibar perfume and Clorox is overwhelming. Mom must be getting antsy. “Get on with it!” I can hear her say.
Enough of this shit. I have tried to act like an adult and not only is it ineffective, it’s just not my style.
I slap on my game face, bend under the table and don Mom’s miniskirt slip like a do-rag. I pop up with the slip on my head and a handful of Mom’s fancy underthings in a fist.
My sisters scream with laughter. “YOU, YOU, YOU LOOK LIKE A CONEHEAD!” Gale howls. Sissy waves her feet joyfully at the screen.
I shake the lingerie like an auctioneer.
“OK, WHO WANTS A FREE BRA? Get ‘em while they’re hot!!!”
We finally, as Poppy would have said, get this show on the road.