A Woman of a Certain Age: Stories From Higley Hill

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I sometimes feel guilty now that I live in Vermont and am devoting my days to writing. My husband and I are not well-off. We do own our house, have no mortgage, and have reduced our expenses considerably but we could use some extra cash, and a lot more savings.

It hasn’t been for a lack of trying. I applied at the local coffee shop after I moved to Vermont and was spending a lot of time there because I was off the grid. I hadn’t filled out a standard job application in years. I usually just bring my resume. It took me an inordinate amount of time to fill out the form. I had to look up phone numbers in my cell phone for references. What was the street address of my college? What’s the zip code for Pompano Beach? When you graduated in 1979 does it really matter? I should have used a pencil. I had to cross out a few things.

I didn’t get the job. I’m not sure if it was due to my sloppy application or they considered me overqualified. Or under-qualified. I don’t know how to operate those hi-tech cappuccino machines. But I didn’t mention that, and I am a quick learner.

My hairdresser told me about a man who owns several rental properties in town. She gave him my phone number and we set up a time to meet. He looked like Hemingway and we wasted a lot of time talking about his sailing trips throughout the Caribbean. When he finally got around to telling  me he’d had five bookkeepers in eight years he was losing me, but then he said he was willing to pay me ten dollars an hour.

When you get to be a woman of a certain age you can pretty much say whatever you want so I replied, “Well, that explains why you can’t keep a bookkeeper.” He laughed. I held firm at twenty five an hour. I later heard from several people in town that he is a slumlord and known for his bad temper. Having graduated from college in 1979 I am old enough to regret the fact I will never get that afternoon back.

This is not the first time this has happened to me. When I lived in New Hampshire, I met with a man who imported old floor boards from Holland, refurbished them, and sold them to clients like Restoration Hardware and Anthroplogie stores. The boards were all over his house, leaning against the walls and the sofa and the dishwasher in the kitchen. He told me he could only pay me eight dollars an hour.

“We’re talking about your money,” I said, outraged. “I’ll be taking care of your finances. My sixteen year old daughter works at Panera and makes nine dollars an hour. I’d rather get a job there. It’s less responsibility.”

I’ve worked at so many jobs and had so many bookkeeping clients I can barely keep track of them all. I started working at twelve, six days a week, delivering newspapers on my bike. In high school I ran the brake at the kiddy roller coaster at Rocky Point Amusement Park, worked my way up from usher to box office at the Warwick Cinema where The Sound of Music played for a year, and served burgers and fries at Howdy Beef ’n Burger.

Recently I saw a job opening for a four day consumer survey at a local gas station right here in Wilmington, Vermont. I would be asking customers questions about purchasing food items while in the gas station – slices of pizza, pre-packaged sandwiches, steamed hotdogs, and Green Mountain coffee.

In the cover letter I sent, I played up my experience one summer after junior year in college working for a market research company. Yes, as I’ve mentioned, I graduated in ’79 so this would be the summer of ’78 but it’s still relevant, right? I had experience approaching strangers in shopping malls and offering free samples if they answered a few questions about shampoo and razor blades and other consumer goods. Sometimes I worked in the office and made phone calls. On one big project, I went door to door trying to get people to give me forty-five minutes of their time to answer questions about the Providence Journal. You wouldn’t believe how many people said yes, even if I rang their bell at dinner time. One night an older gentleman asked if I wanted some beef stew. Jimmy Carter was president back then, and the nation was experiencing a gas shortage, leading to long lines at the pumps and irate motorists. Only on designated days could you buy gas depending on whether the last number on your license plate was odd or even. People had strong opinions about the news coverage and they were more than willing to answer my questions regarding the Providence Journal, particularly if they pertained to the op-ed page. We didn’t have Facebook back then where we could bitch every day.

The marketing guy for the gas station survey called me and told me I had the job. Score! The following day he called back to tell me the gas station canceled the survey. Bummer! I was really looking forward to the work, if only for the stories I would hear. I have a series of Stories about Gas Stations on my blog. It’s amazing how many ideas you can come up with while filling your gas tank or buying coffee at 7-11. Or maybe this is just me.

A few months ago I applied for a job at the Chamber of Commerce. They needed someone to answer emails and promote the town of Wilmington on their social media sites. Come on now, I am highly qualified for that type of work. Look at me, I’m everywhere! Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. The want ad said experience with WordPress would be a plus. Hell yeah, I’m typing this blog right now on WordPress!

I not only emailed my resume through the job site Indeed, I also delivered it in person and pitched myself to a receptionist behind a tall counter. I never heard from them. Whatever happened to the days when you got rejection letters and taped them to your dormitory wall? Yes, again, that was 1979. Those days of common decency and respect are long gone. Just another discarded common courtesy. And why is that? It’s easier nowadays, just plug in the applicant’s name and shoot off a form rejection email.

But then again, just look at our president.

I wasn’t surprised by the Chamber of Commerce rejection. It’s one of those jobs where you need to know someone. Once, during a fourteen month layoff, I worked at the Exeter town hall as the tax collector for six weeks. I sat behind one of those old-fashioned bank teller windows with the metal bars. I enjoyed chatting with so many of my friends and neighbors and they were all surprised to see me there.

The people I worked with weren’t as friendly but I didn’t really have much contact with them, until a woman told me she wasn’t going to pay her real estate tax unless her assessment was adjusted. She felt it was too high.

“Let me get someone who can help you,” I said.

I knocked on the assessor’s door and told her about the problem. She stepped back from me with her hands up, as if I had the bubonic plague or was looking for a fist fight, and said, “That’s your job, not mine.”

My job? I was the tax collector, a temporary one at that, and I had been on the job for a mere two hours and was still learning the computer system. I didn’t know anything about assessments and it said right there on her door, Town Assessor. I went back to my bank teller’s cage and told the woman to knock on the assessor’s door. “She’s here today. She’s in her office,” I said.

I worked my butt off for six weeks, came back from a 4th of July weekend on Cape Cod to work on the 6th – the day taxes were due – although we had been invited to spend the whole week, and on the 7th the town administrator told me they had hired someone else. At the end of the day, a woman who worked with building permits and had a sign on her desk that said “Crying children will be beaten” told me a police officer’s wife was offered the job but they didn’t want to start her until after the tax rush because she had no bookkeeping or office experience.

I really wanted that job. It was close to home, had great health insurance benefits, and a pension, and I had been been laid off for twelve months, making COBRA health insurance payments to the tune of $1250 a month while looking for full time employment with benefits.

I recently went through the query process for my finished fourth novel, searching for a literary agent who might get me a traditional publisher. Seventy-five percent of the agents I contacted do not send rejection letters. Instead they say you will hear from them only if they are interested in seeing more of your novel. It seems arrogant to me but I gave it until the 4th of July, which was three months from the time I sent the queries. After all, I graduated from college in 1979. What am I going to do, wait ’til I’m seventy? When I can self-publish?

Through the magic of social media I know a blogger who is friends with a published writer I follow who is extremely well-connected in the New York literary world and the Ivy League buddy system. She breezed through the doors of traditional publishing. Now her friend, the blogger, has been picked up by the writer’s agent. Apparently traditional publishing is like those cushy town jobs. It’s not what you know but who you know. But when you reach a certain age, you already know that.

As Sam Ryder says in my 3rd novel, Life Is All This, “Fuck the man.”

On one of my recent road trips this spring, I met a woman at a bar in the Phoenix airport. I had a three hour layover so I had time for nachos and a margarita. She was my age, lived in Phoenix, and was flying to Sacramento to help her aging parents. Her name was Marcia and she told me her mother had Alzheimer’s so I shared some of my mother’s stories. I also told her about the inn Rich and I managed in Connecticut.

“Although we were disappointed and angry about the way we were treated by the inn’s owner and how it all went down, I believe it was meant to be. The job brought us back to New England and we left the inn just as my mother was failing,” I told the woman from Phoenix.

“But all of that is over now. It’s been a year since we left the inn and I haven’t found work, if we don’t count the hours I spend writing. It’s not that I haven’t been looking for a job. Just before I left for this trip I applied for a job at a farm stand set in the middle of a large apple orchard. I was very excited about it because it seemed like a fun place to work and it’s seasonal so it wouldn’t really interfere with my writing. I told the owner all about my social media skills, my bookkeeping experience, and the five years I spent working as a sales rep for speciality food sales in supermarkets. She seemed really excited and told me I could help her with so many things, from setting up displays to doing payroll. And she told me she hadn’t posted on her Facebook page in months. I told her I’d be happy to help with all of that but it’s been over a week and I haven’t heard from her.”

Marcia grabbed my arm and said, “It’s age discrimination, you know. I’m having the same problem.”

She was laid off from a job as an office manager at a doctor’s office and had been looking for another job for over a year now.

“You’d think the medical field would have lots of jobs,” I said.

“Yes, you would. And they do. But I’m a woman of a certain age. They don’t want to hire women our age. But now, after talking to you, I’m thinking it’s meant to be. You know, now that my parents’ need me.”

“That could be true,” I said, not really believing the bullshit pep talk I had given her about leaving the inn at the so-called right time and how it was meant to be. We both ordered another margarita and continued along the vein of convincing ourselves it might not be our age. It might be fate.

On Monday I have an interview at a temp agency in Keene, NH. I have a lot of marketing plans for my new book including taking the book on the road and meeting with book clubs. I need the funds.

I’ll also be needing your help. Obviously I want you to buy the book when it comes out. If anyone is interested in hosting a book club or a reading sometime in the fall please contact me at sheilablanchettetheauthor@gmail.com

You may be surprised at how far I will travel, or maybe not if you regularly read my blogs. I am a road warrior.

I also will need those all important Amazon and Goodreads reviews from you. I can never emphasize enough how important they are to the success of a book. And if you enjoyed my previous books and haven’t written a review yet, by all means get on there and write one!

Thanks for your support over the past few years. More is on the way. Stay tuned.

“Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” ~ Rumi

 

 

 

From The Road: Flying Coast to Coast

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguarding, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us” ~ John Steinbeck

In Flight

I met Pat in the Los Angeles airport but I forgot to share the story. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about it often. I think about it almost every day, especially when I’m listening to music and suddenly get the urge to tap dance.

While waiting for my delayed flight to Detroit I bought coffee and a blueberry muffin at Starbucks, then luckily found an empty seat in the crowded terminal full of irate travelers. LAX was in the midst of a major construction project repairing runways and most flights leaving the airport had been delayed. Little did I know this was about to set off a domino effect that would ripple across the country.

Pat was sitting next to me. She looked to be about my age, petite with shoulder length shiny silver hair. We wasted no time striking up a conversation. I told her about my flight out of Reno and the frenzy here in L.A. to get another flight after I was bumped from standby on my scheduled flight to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Pat had been visiting her son in LA so this was her first flight of the day. Her son is a struggling screenwriter married to a dancer. She was flying home to Tiverton, RI via Detroit then on to the Providence airport, which is really in Warwick. That was also the route I was now traveling.

We talked about our kids and our work. Pat owns a dance studio in Tiverton, RI. She plans to work for a few more years before she retires. She also has a daughter who is moving from L.A. to Maine. Pat’s retirement plan is to sell her old house in Rhode Island and spend summers in Maine with her daughter and winters in California with her son, although her kids don’t know this yet.

“They’ll be on board with it,” she said.

Then she told me the loveliest story. Years ago an older man called and asked if she offered individual tap dance classes. He was in his late seventies and told her he had just one problem. He couldn’t get around without his walker.

“I need to hold on to something when I’m tapping,” he said.

“I have a ballet barre,” she told him. “I think we could make that work.”

The tap dancer is now in his eighties. He spends winters on the Gulf Coast of Florida and  summers in Rhode Island where he still tap dances with Pat several times a week. Each winter he flies her to Florida and puts her up in his guest house where every day for two weeks they tap dance together.

There was something about Pat’s story and our time together on an otherwise difficult day of travel,  a day that would most likely stress and piss off most people, that made the airport anxiety disappear for the both of us.

An hour later, when we finally boarded the plane, we were quite sure we were going to miss our connection in Detroit so we made plans to share a drink.

Sometime around 10:30 p.m. we landed in the Motor City, and yes, we did miss our flight. Delta provided us with a free night at a hotel. The airport was quiet; the bars were all closed. Pat and I decided we would check in and then go out for a drink. We were hoping our hotel had a bar. Pat got a room at the Sheraton. I got a room at the Days Inn. Both disappointed, we made plans to meet in the morning.

In the Days Inn van, fifteen tired travelers bonded in anger and frustration. A young man was supposed to be at a funeral at ten the next morning in Brattleboro, Vermont.

“I’m driving through Brattleboro tomorrow. I can give you a ride,” I told him. It was one of those days and one of those situations when generosity rises to the occasion. Unfortunately, the funeral was at ten a.m. and he was flying to Hartford and I was flying to Providence. Everyone in the van tried to work out the logistics. Could he change his flight to Providence?

“I’ll still miss the funeral, ” he said.

A few people mentioned he might be able to attend the reception afterward.

“I’m just going to get on another plane and fly home. What a waste of time and money,” he said, dejected. We all encouraged him to try to get a reimbursement for the flight.

Another man had asked for a free rental car in exchange for the night at a hotel in Detroit. His son was graduating from Howard University in DC the next morning. He said he could drive all night and make it in time for the ceremony. Delta said no. No car.

Now the van was getting rowdy. Everyone was swearing about the airlines. “They treat us like shit,” someone said.

Again we all encouraged the upset Dad to get a refund, although everyone understood that would be a poor substitute for missing a graduation and a funeral.

The Days Inn lounge was supposed to stay open until midnight but it had closed at 11:30.  I went to bed and fell fast asleep.

The next morning the flight out of Detroit went smoothly. It was a brand new day with no delays or hassles.  Pat had told me a friend was picking her up at the airport and they could give me a ride to my daughter’s apartment in Providence. He was waiting for us in the terminal and warned me his car had a strong doggie odor. I pulled out my phone and showed him a picture of my daughter and her dog.

“Don’t worry about it. I was traveling for a week, from Lake Tahoe to Colorado, with Athena, the boxer,” I said.

He took my overnight travel bag and put it in the trunk.  “You managed to travel a whole week with this little bag?” he asked.

“I travel light,” I said. “It’s all in how you fold and roll.”

I literally felt as light as my bag when I hopped in the back seat of the old car with two new friends I barely knew. I had been on the road for almost a month. This nomadic existence created a sense of living in the present that I enjoyed. Aware of the moments of my life as I lived them, it was a case of here and now.

Driving through traffic, we laughed as we told Pat’s friend about our airport hassles. We made it sound like a grand adventure, and in a way it was. We also compared notes on the Providence restaurant scene, the serenity of Vermont, and the Rhode Island beaches. I told them about the cop in Battle Mountain, Nevada and my two days traveling alone across the deserts of Utah and Nevada to return the rental car to Reno because I didn’t want to pay the surcharge for dropping the car off in Denver.

The ride went much too fast but I have Pat’s phone number and I plan to meet up with her soon. As I hugged the two of them on the sidewalk outside my daughter’s apartment, I felt like the world was good and kind, despite the daily news.

I felt like I was twenty-five not sixty. I felt alive. I felt like I could do anything, knowing that whatever happened, whatever hassles and problems I came across on the road of life, I could manage, on my own, keeping my wits about me, making friends, and rolling along with the endless numbered days ahead.

No one was home at the apartment. My daughter and her boyfriend were gone for the day, but I had a key and let myself in. I gathered the things I had left in the guest bedroom. I found ice coffee in the fridge and helped myself to a tall cold glass.

I opened my lap top and found Fred Astaire on You Tube then moved to the almost empty room between the kitchen and the living room where I pushed the yoga mats aside, and tap danced before heading home to Vermont.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time and Memory: Stories From Higley Hill

The only things that are important in life are the things you remember ~ Jean Renoir

old Vegas photo 2

Rich and I on a cross-country road trip 1985 or ’86 Las Vegas, NV

Last weekend my friend, fellow writer, and amazing editor Connie and I attended a discussion on memoir with Dani Shapiro, Andre Dubus, and Ann Hood. It was held at the beautiful Providence Athenaeum and was an inspiring literary afternoon.

The following night, back home in Vermont, one of Rich’s older brothers, Tom, called to tell us he was driving north from South Carolina and needed directions to our new house. He was only twenty miles away, down the road in Brattleboro.

Tom is famous for dropping in unexpectedly. He would sneak up through the backyard at our house in New Hampshire and knock on the deck door, shouting “Hallooo!”, scaring the shit out of me. But in his defense, we didn’t have doorbells and we still don’t have them at our house in Vermont.

Our kitchen is in the process of a slow moving renovation. The china hutch and various other items are crowded into the guest room. That night we were without a stove. Luckily, I had defrosted four burgers we could cook on the outdoor grill. I threw together a salad, microwaved leftover brown rice, and opened a bottle of wine.

We showed Tom around the property and shared stories about how we discovered the house, the reconstruction of the collapsing foundation, and the ingenuity of the former owner Mr. Compoletero, whom we affectionately refer to as Compo.

Rich has an annoying habit of interrupting me when he thinks I’m not telling a story accurately. He remembers things differently and almost always thinks his version of the story is the correct one. He was annoying me that night, so when dinner was ready I told him I wanted to share two stories from the literary discussion I had attended the day before.

“And please don’t interrupt, “ I told him. “It’s fascinating and it’s something you need to think about.”

The first story regarding the personal nature of memory and its inadequacies was shared by Dani Shapiro, the author of the newly released memoir Hourglass: Time. Memory. Marriage.

Years ago her parents had been in a terrible car accident. Her father didn’t survive. The first time she wrote about the real life event it was included in a work of fiction. She described the phone call she received, the clothes she was wearing, the hospital room where she sat by her mother’s bedside. Her father had passed away and his body was in another room. When her uncle arrived he asked, “Where is your father?”

Ms. Shapiro had been estranged from her parents at the time of the accident. She was raised an Orthodox Jew and religious tradition requires someone stay beside the deceased from the time they pass away until they are buried. Her immediate reaction was that she had failed her father once again.

Years later Shapiro wrote a memoir, Slow Motion, about that time in her life. She rewrote the story of the accident without referring back to her earlier writing. When she had finished, she compared the two versions. Everything was the same; the clothes she was wearing, the hospital room, the phone call. The only thing that was different was that it was her stepsister who arrived at the hospital and asked where their father was. Shapiro’s reaction was exactly the same. She felt she had once again failed her father by leaving him alone.

James Salter once said, “We know that most great novels and stories come not from things that are entirely invented, but from perfect knowledge and close observation. To say they are made up is an injustice in describing them. I sometimes say that I don’t make up anything—obviously, that’s not true. But I am usually uninterested in writers who say that everything comes out of the imagination. I would rather be in a room with someone who is telling me the story of his life, which may be exaggerated and even have lies in it, but I want to hear the true story, essentially.”

Shapiro has never asked her stepsister which version was true. She can’t explain why she remembered it one way and years later another. From my perspective, she seemed to be saying the important take away for her was that she had failed her father. That is the essential truth she remembers. That is her story.

Andre Dubus, the author of House of Sand and Fog, then shared a story of the night he hosted a dinner party for two sisters. At the end of the evening, while he was washing the dishes, he overhead the sisters discussing their memories of their father. Always the writer, Dubus stopped cleaning to eavesdrop on the conversation.

One of the sisters complained about how their father never loved them. The other sister disagreed. Andre knew their Dad. He was a man who ran his own business, worked 60-70 hours a week, sent his daughters to private high schools and good colleges. Why would he have done those things if he didn’t love his daughters? But one daughter saw it differently. She remembered the dinners he missed, the school activities he never attended, the hours spent away from home.

Dubus noted the difference between fact and truth. The facts reveal that a father worked hard to give his daughters a better life, but one of his daughter’s truth was that he was never there to share the things she wanted and needed from her father. The moments she felt represented love.

In Richard Ford’s memoir, Between Us, a story about his parents, he writes this: “I can recognize now that life is short and has inadequacies, that once again it requires crucial avoidances as well as filling-ins to be acceptable. Most everything but love goes away.”

But even love is open to interpretation if we consider the story Dubus shared. In the age of alternate facts and fake news how do we interpret this? Why do we remember some things and not others? How can siblings grow up together and have completely different childhood memories?

I don’t think Rich understood the story I told at dinner was related to him. I went on to tell another story that he interrupted with one of his own “facts”. Tom was clearly listening. He said, “Dad always used to do that to Mom. One night Uncle “So and So” (I have already forgotten which uncle) said, “Let her tell the story, Dick.”

~~~

I recently wrote a blog on my first Mother’s Day without my mother. I had to dig deep to come up with memories of her before Alzheimer’s and illness erased the mother I once knew. There were also the years my parents lived in Florida. I too had moved away from home shortly after graduating from college and I wasn’t as close to my parents as my siblings were. Long ago childhood memories were lost in the fog of time and distance.

~~~

The other day I heard the news of Gregg Allman’s passing. It shook me up. The Allman Brothers Band are very much a part of the soundtrack to the chapters of my life titled My Marriage.

Rich and I met at a bar, the Tam O’Shanter, across the street from my apartment in Boston. An Allman Brothers cover band was playing that night. Years later we eloped. Four months after we got hitched, we had a party in the backyard of our old house built in 1728 along the Squamscott River in New Hampshire. We danced to Revival. I was two months pregnant with my oldest daughter.

Years before, when we were first dating, we saw Gregg play at the Paradise in Boston. It was during a time in his career when he was in a slump. He was playing small clubs. There was no rock ’n roll tour bus. At the end of the night he and Dangerous Dan Toler exited out the front door along with their fans and climbed into a Ford Pinto. That little story ended up in my novel Life is All This. My main character Sam Ryder’s internet moniker is @MidnightRyder. His motto is “trying to make a living and doing the best I can.”

I’m sharing this story because it’s another example of the elasticity of time and memory. Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I am thinking.” Dani Shapiro says  that when writing she focuses on “the soft, pulsing thing that is true.”

Often when I write a blog it rambles and circles back and forth, searching for the truth and coming to some sort of conclusion I never expected. I’m thinking out loud.

Late that night, I shared my Gregg Allman memories on Facebook and when I read it to Rich the next morning, he said, “It wasn’t a Pinto. It was a Plymouth Duster. There is no way Gregg Allman could fit into a Pinto.”

“Well yes, I remember it being difficult. Dangerous Dan got in the backseat. Gregg rode shotgun and bumped his head climbing into the Pinto. He had to twist those long legs of his like a pretzel.”

We’ve had this argument before but this was the first time I heard this particular make and model.

“It was a Plymouth Duster. And it was tan,” Rich insisted.

Marriage is a series of compromises. Essentially, its success is based on the shared takeaways. For Rich and I it is the love of music, cooking and sharing meals, (as James Salter once noted, “life is meals”), travel, and adventure. We are risk takers and comfortable with change. Restless souls who get bored easily. But I suppose if you asked him, he might say something different.

One thing I am sure about. The make and model never change when I tell the story. The car Gregg Allman drove off in that long ago night on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston was a Pinto.

A Blue Pinto.

“For it is, always is, however we may say it was.” – Thomas Mann

Suggested Memoir Reading:

Richard Ford: Between Us

Dani Shapiro: Hourglass

Andre Dubus: Townie

James Salter: Burning the Days

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Jeanette Walls: The Glass Castle (see my post on how this related to a day on the road in Battle Mountain, NV and my own particular imperfections)

 

12 States, Seventeen Days, 3,100 miles on $75 A Day: How We Did It

Sometimes I look at my Instagram feed and realize people who don’t really know me must think I’m a trust fund baby or a retired Wall Street robber baron.

That is so far from the truth it isn’t even funny. It’s actually scary. If I let it be.

Rich and I turn sixty this year. I’m already there. He was a late November baby. We have a minuscule retirement. Our social security isn’t going to pay many bills.

We’ve always lived like this, paycheck to paycheck. It was never a conscious decision just a circumstance of the times we’ve lived through. He is a self-employed carpenter and house painter, I was once a self-employed bookkeeper. By the 1990’s I was forced to take a variety of jobs to obtain ever-increasing, unaffordable American health insurance. We worked long hours, fifty weeks a year.

Over the years there have been job layoffs, along with lack of work in the home improvement industry due to recessions and stock market crashes. Self-employed insurance and COBRA payment costs continued to rise and always interfered with our plans to save for retirement.

But that was then, this is now.

We currently live in a small, funky old house that we bought for cash with the equity we earned from the New Hampshire house and the improvements we made. I am sharing stories of our current minimalist home improvements on Instagram.

Since moving to Vermont I have been on the road half the time. I was able to spend much of last summer in Rhode Island with my Mom before she passed away from Alzheimer’s. I also have more time with my daughters in Providence and Lake Tahoe.

Retirement will be elusive. I’ve finished a fourth novel and I help Rich with some of his work. We’ll do this until our knees and backs give out. If my query attempt with corporate big-time publishing goes as expected, I am planning to take my self-published book on the road in the fall.

The inspiration comes from Joshua and Ryan. If you don’t know who are they are, check them out on their Instagram account and watch their documentary on Netflix. They call themselves The Minimalists. Their wisdom and advice will change your life.

~~~

Here is how Rich and I managed to spend 17 days traveling 3,100 miles through 12 states on $75 a day.

The trip was an escape from winter. Rich and I drove my 2002 Subaru. I bought this car a little over a year ago for $6000 cash. It had 40,000 miles on it. A mechanic noted the date and mileage and asked, “It’s a church car, isn’t it?”

“What?” I replied.

“You bought it from a little old lady. She only used it to go to church, am I right?”

“Why yes, I did buy it from a little old lady. You must be right.”

The trip took us from Vermont to Amelia Island and the Florida Panhandle then north through Alabama and South Georgia to the Shenandoah Mountains.

The Lodge at Shenandoah

The Lodge at Shenadoah National Park, VA

17 days. 3,100 miles. Total gas cost $313.11.

Driving back home we had figured out which states had better gas prices so we were wiser regarding when and where to fill up or stop and top it off. We learn as we go.

Most days we shopped at grocery stores, packed the cooler, and made sandwiches. We bought beer and wine at discount liquor stores and supermarkets. One day in Binghampton, NY we shared the footlong sub of the day at Subway. That lunch with drinks cost $7.66. Breakfast sandwiches and coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Statesville, NC cost $11.90.

The first day we drove for nine hours and found ourselves at a highway rest stop with limited dining options. We chose the Ruby Tuesday and ordered entrees along with the unlimited salad bar and a drink. Wine for me, beer for Rich. Often our drink tab is more than the cost of food but we now pre-game at the hotel with our cooler full of wine and beer and keep the bar tab to one drink each. The bill came to $46.30 and although we had leftovers and ate them the next day for lunch we decided we could have just ordered the salad bar and been satisfied with that.

San Blas FL

San Blas Beach – The Panhandle, FL

When we lived in Florida, my husband loved the sandwiches they made at the Publix grocery store deli counter. A jumbo sub sliced in half and shared costs $7.30. There were lots of Publix along the route.

We do enjoy sitting at bars and meeting people. Some of my best stories come my way while sitting on a bar stool so there was a happy hour at the historic Palace Saloon in Fernandina Beach, FL where we spent $10 on draft beers.

Our friend Peter stayed with us in our hotel room on Amelia Island so he sprang for golf the next day and Rich bought a $6.00 beer in the club house. There were also beers oceanside the night we arrived on Amelia Island. Peter also picked up that tab because he was spending two nights with us. We stayed at a Residence Inn with a private bedroom, a pullout sofa in the living room, and a full kitchen where we kept leftovers, cold cuts, beer, and wine.

At a Piggly Wiggly in Apalachicola we bought cinnamon Danish and bananas and helped ourselves to the free coffee. That breakfast came to a grand total of $3.85.

There was a night of live music and dancing at the Tamara Cafe In Apalachicola along with drinks that cost $32.00. At a belated birthday dinner beachside in Panama City we ordered a dinner that started with a tuna sushi appetizer and ended with creme brulee. The entire dinner with cocktails and tip cost $83.55. At the lodge in Shenandoah National Park we had dinner accompanied by a music from a local folk singer. The meal cost $24.00.

Al fresco Panama Beach

Al fresco dining at Harpoon Willy’s ~ Panama Beach. FL

We splurged at a Publix in the Panhandle for dinner supplies for our friends at the pecan farm in South Georgia. We grilled shrimp kabobs with prosciutto, chicken with pesto, and street corn. We had stayed with them for five nights in Lake Wylie, SC and four nights at their pecan farm in Colquitt, GA. They insisted on feeding us delicious meals each night. In exchange for their generosity we helped clean up and Rich did a few home improvement projects at both houses.

We also stayed with friends in Greensboro, NC and they brought us to the Pinehurst Golf Course. We treated them to the lunch buffet in the clubhouse. That came to $112.71 for four with drinks.

Pinehurst

The putting Green at Pinehurst, NC

There were a few other nice dinners along the route at the Amelia Tavern, Apalachicola Seafood, Carey Hillard’s Fried Chicken outside Savannah, and lunch with a beer at the historic Globe Tavern in Athens, GA. We do enjoy good food and nice restaurants but we think we can refine this on future road trips.

Irish Writers Athens GA

A tribute to Irish Writers at The Globe in Athens, GA

Total food and drink bill came to $505.11 for 17 days.

A key to the affordability of our trip was friends. Out of seventeen nights on the road we spent seven nights in a hotel. The two nights at the Residence Inn didn’t cost anything because we used Marriott Points. The Motel 6 in Lexington would have cost $69 but I had Expedia points so the cost was reduced to $39.91. In Apalachicola, we spent two nights at Rancho inn, a flash from the past that brought me back to the ’60’s but it was clean and quiet and cost $207.10. The beachfront hotel with an ocean view in Panama City, FL was our only night of slumming. At $89.77, the room was clean but the bathroom was old. I thought we were going to have a deck but all we got was a clouded window with a view of the beach. I did take a sunrise walk along the shore and the place was quiet.

Panama Beach Footprints

Footprints from an early morning walk on Panama Beach, FL

The cabin in Shenandoah National Park cost $120 and was an as expected and well-loved rustic National Park lodging experience. I saw one of the most amazing sunsets of my life that night.

Skyland Sunset

Sunset at Shenandoah National Park, VA

Total lodging cost for seventeen nights: $456.78.

I guess you could say that offset some of the food expenses and gave us the luxury of dining out once in a awhile. All I can say about the lodging cost is, You’ve gotta have friends. It is one of life’s greatest gifts.

Total trip: Seventeen days. 3,100 miles. $1275.00. That comes to $75 a day.

I once backpacked through Europe for two months on $15 a day. That was in 1981. Reagan had just been inaugurated. We didn’t know where the nation’s future was headed. My college loan payment was $35 a month. My rent at my apartment in Boston that I sublet during the trip cost $220 a month including utilities. It was a rent controlled building in Brighton along the Commonwealth Avenue subway line. I didn’t own a car.

I don’t how we got from there to here. Well, yes I do, but that is not what this blog is about. I’m sharing this information to let you know you can live the life you want despite your financial situation. $75 in the year 2017 is not a bad deal.

This is today’s post from Joshua and Ryan:

“Everything is ephemeral: on a long enough timeline, everything ends. Your relationships will end. Your happiness will end. Your depression will end. Your life will end. Nothing lasts forever—not even those diamonds in the advertisement. Yet we live our lives like the best things will continue into perpetuity—like the good stuff will stick around and the bad stuff will go away once we obtain everything we want.”

I’ve been living one day at a time my whole life. It’s been a very good and interesting life filled with friends, travel, and memories. There hasn’t been a lot of money and we own no “valuable” possessions.

There is another way to live life. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. A pile of money waiting for your future is not necessarily the answer. Possessions don’t make you happy. How you spend your time and who you spend your time with is what makes you happy. Travel is my thing, yours may be something different.

Our time is now. Today. It is the only thing we have for certain.

***As some of you know, I unexpectedly traveled through five more states after I returned home. I will share the accounting for that trip, too. In total I spent a month traveling 17 states. I could never have done this a few years ago. I didn’t win the lottery. I simply ignored the onslaught of advertising and consumerism, and then pared it down even more. It is still a work in progress but there’s no looking back. Time is what it’s all about. Each precious minute. Time is now on my side.***

Do you have any travel tips for saving money? Please share them in the comments.

12 States, Seventeen Days, 3,100 miles on $75 A Day: How We Did It

Sometimes I look at my Instagram feed and realize people who don’t really know me must think I’m a trust fund baby or a retired Wall Street robber baron.

That is so far from the truth it isn’t even funny. It’s actually scary. If I let it be.

Rich and I turn sixty this year. I’m already ready there. He was a late November baby. We have a minuscule retirement. Our social security isn’t going to pay many bills.

We’ve always lived like this, paycheck to paycheck. It was never a conscious decision just a circumstance of the times we’ve lived through. He is a self-employed carpenter and house painter, I was once a self-employed bookkeeper. By the 1990’s I was forced to take a variety of jobs to obtain ever-increasing, unaffordable American health insurance. We worked long hours, fifty weeks a year.

Over the years there have been job layoffs, along with lack of work in the home improvement industry due to recessions and stock market crashes. Self-employed insurance and COBRA payment costs continued to rise and always interfered with our plans to save for retirement.

But that was then, this is now.

We currently live in a small, funky old house that we bought for cash with the equity we earned from the New Hampshire house and the improvements we made. I am sharing stories of our current minimalist home improvements on Instagram.

Since moving to Vermont I have been on the road half the time. I was able to spend much of last summer in Rhode Island with my Mom before she passed away from Alzheimer’s. I also have more time with my daughters in Providence and Lake Tahoe.

Retirement will be illusive. I’ve finished a fourth novel and I help Rich with some of his work. We’ll do this until our knees and backs give out. If my query attempt with corporate big-time publishing goes as expected, I am planning to take my self-published book on the road in the fall.

The inspiration comes from Joshua and Ryan. If you don’t know who are they are, check them out on their Instagram account and watch their documentary on Netflix. They call themselves The Minimalists. Their wisdom and advice will change your life.

~~~

Here is how Rich and I managed to spend 17 days traveling 3,100 miles through 12 states on $75 a day.

The trip was an escape from winter. Rich and I drove my 2002 Subaru. I bought this car a little over a year ago for $6000 cash. It had 40,000 miles on it. A mechanic noted the date and mileage and asked, “It’s a church car, isn’t it?”

“What?” I replied.

“You bought it from a little old lady. She only used it to go to church, am I right?”

“Why yes, I did buy it from a little old lady. You must be right.”

The trip took us from Vermont to Amelia Island and the Florida Panhandle then north through Alabama and South Georgia to the Shenandoah Mountains.

The Lodge at Shenandoah

The Lodge at Shenadoah National Park, VA

17 days. 3,100 miles. Total gas cost $313.11.

Driving back home we had figured out which states had better gas prices so we were wiser regarding when and where to fill up or stop and top it off. We learn as go.

Most days we shopped at grocery stores, packed the cooler, and made sandwiches. We bought beer and wine at discount liquor stores and supermarkets. One day in Binghampton, NY we shared the footlong sub of the day at Subway. That lunch with drinks cost $7.66. Breakfast sandwiches and coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Statesville, NC cost $11.90.

The first day we drove for nine hours and found ourselves at a highway rest stop with limited dining options. We chose the Ruby Tuesday and ordered entrees along with the unlimited salad bar and a drink. Wine for me, beer for Rich. Often our drink tab is more than the cost of food but we now pre-game at the hotel with our cooler full of wine and beer and keep the bar tab to one drink each. The bill came to $46.30 and although we had leftovers and ate them the next day for lunch we decided we could have just ordered the salad bar and been satisfied with that.

San Blas FL

San Blas Beach – The Panhandle, FL

When we lived in Florida, my husband loved the sandwiches they made at the Publix grocery store deli counter. A jumbo sub sliced in half and shared costs $7.30. There were lots of Publix along the route.

We do enjoy sitting at bars and meeting people. Some of my best stories come my way while sitting on a bar stool so there was a happy hour at the historic Palace Saloon in Fernandina Beach, FL where we spent $10 on draft beers.

Our friend Peter stayed with us in our hotel room on Amelia Island so he sprang for golf the next day and Rich bought a $6.00 beer in the club house. There were also beers oceanside the night we arrived on Amelia Island. Peter also picked up that tab because he was spending two nights with us. We stayed at a Residence Inn with a private bedroom, a pullout sofa in the living room, and a full kitchen where we kept leftovers, cold cuts, beer, and wine.

At a Piggly Wiggly in Apalachicola we bought cinnamon Danish and bananas and helped ourselves to the free coffee. That breakfast came to a grand total of $3.85.

There was a night of live music and dancing at the Tamara Cafe In Apalachicola along with drinks that cost $32.00. At a belated birthday dinner beachside in Panama City we ordered a dinner that started with a tuna sushi appetizer and ended with creme brulee. The entire dinner with cocktails and tip cost $83.55. At the lodge in Shenandoah National Park we had dinner accompanied by a music from a local folk singer. The meal cost $24.00.

Al fresco Panama Beach

Al fresco dining at Harpoon Willy’s ~ Panama Beach. FL

We splurged at a Publix in the Panhandle for dinner supplies for our friends at the pecan farm in South Georgia. We grilled shrimp kabobs with prosciutto, chicken with pesto, and street corn. We had stayed with them for five nights in Lake Wylie, SC and four nights at their pecan farm in Colquitt, GA. They insisted on feeding us delicious meals each night. In exchange for their generosity we helped clean up and Rich did a few home improvement projects at both houses.

We also stayed with friends in Greensboro, NC and they brought us to the Pinehurst Golf Course. We treated them to the lunch buffet in the clubhouse. That came to $112.71 for four with drinks.

Pinehurst

The putting Green at Pinehurst, NC

There were a few other nice dinners along the route at the Amelia Tavern, Apalachicola Seafood, Carey Hillard’s Fried Chicken outside Savannah, and lunch with a beer at the historic Globe Tavern in Athens, GA. We do enjoy good food and nice restaurants but we think we can refine this on future road trips.

Irish Writers Athens GA

A tribute to Irish Writers at The Globe in Athens, GA

Total food and drink bill came to $505.11 for 17 days.

A key to the affordability of our trip was friends. Out of seventeen nights on the road we spent seven nights in a hotel. The two nights at the Residence Inn didn’t cost anything because we used Marriott Points. The Motel 6 in Lexington would have cost $69 but I had Expedia points so the cost was reduced to $39.91. In Apalachicola, we spent two nights at Rancho inn, a flash from the past that brought me back to the ’60’s but it was clean and quiet and cost $207.10. The beachfront hotel with an ocean view in Panama City, FL was our only night of slumming. At $89.77, the room was clean but the bathroom was old. I thought we were going to have a deck but all we got was a clouded window with a view of the beach. I did take a sunrise walk along the shore and the place was quiet.

Panama Beach Footprints

Footprints from an early morning walk on Panama Beach, FL

The cabin in Shenandoah National Park cost $120 and was an as expected and well-loved rustic National Park lodging experience. I saw one of the most amazing sunsets of my life that night.

Skyland Sunset

Sunset at Shenandoah National Park, VA

Total lodging cost for seventeen nights: $456.78.

I guess you could say that offset some of the food expenses and gave us the luxury of dining out once in a awhile. All I can say about the lodging cost is, You’ve gotta have friends. It is one of life’s greatest gifts.

Total trip: Seventeen days. 3,100 miles. $1275.00. That comes to $75 a day.

I once backpacked through Europe for two months on $15 a day. That was in 1981. Reagan had just been inaugurated. We didn’t know where the nation’s future was headed. My college loan payment was $35 a month. My rent at my apartment in Boston that I sublet during the trip cost $220 a month including utilities. It was a rent controlled building in Brighton along the Commonwealth Avenue subway line. I didn’t own a car.

I don’t how we got from there to here. Well, yes I do, but that is not what this blog is about. I’m sharing this information to let you know you can live the life you want despite your financial situation. $75 in the year 2017 is not a bad deal.

This is today’s post from Joshua and Ryan:

“Everything is ephemeral: on a long enough timeline, everything ends. Your relationships will end. Your happiness will end. Your depression will end. Your life will end. Nothing lasts forever—not even those diamonds in the advertisement. Yet we live our lives like the best things will continue into perpetuity—like the good stuff will stick around and the bad stuff will go away once we obtain everything we want.”

I’ve been living one day at a time my whole life. It’s been a very good and interesting life filled with friends, travel, and memories. There hasn’t been a lot of money and we own no “valuable” possessions.

There is another way to live life. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. A pile of money waiting for your future is not necessarily the answer. Possessions don’t make you happy. How you spend your time and who you spend your time with is what makes you happy. Travel is my thing, yours may be something different.

Our time is now. Today. It is the only thing we have for certain.

***As some of you know, I unexpectedly traveled through five more states after I returned home. I will share the accounting for that trip, too. In total I spent a month traveling 17 states. I never could done this a few years ago. I didn’t win the lottery. I always simply, ignored the onslaught of advertising and consumerism, and then pared it down even more. It is still a work in progress but there’s no looking back. Time is now on my side.***

Do you have any travel tips for saving money? Please share them in the comments.

Mother’s Day ~ Imperfection: Stories from Higley Hill

Mother’s Day: Part Two

We are all imperfect. We make mistakes, we are unsure of our choices. We live with regrets. Sometimes on social media I feel lost in a sea of perfection. Beautiful children, healthy food, gorgeous scenery.

I’m sometimes guilty of posting those photos, too.

However, I often try to balance it with the nitty and the gritty. I can’t ignore the difficult places and the hard stories. Especially these days when it seems so very inappropriate to ignore what’s happening to our country. I don’t understand how people go about selling their jewelry, their books, their clothing line, their sobriety, and their yogi lifestyles as if all is normal. They were appalled days after the inauguration but they’ve quieted down now. It’s back to business as usual.

Bar in Battle Mountain

The Barr in Battle Mountain, Nevada

But then again I am guilty of working in references to my books when it seems to fit the story.

We are all a series of contradictions and we all need to make a living.

So, here we are on Mother’s Day. The perfect Hallmark holiday. There have been a few posts on Instagram that I liked about people who had difficult Moms and I appreciate the honesty although I don’t see too many people pointing the finger at themselves.

I once had a group of friends in New Hampshire who would meet for wine emergencies. These were days when everything went wrong. Days we questioned our skills as mothers. Days we needed friends who were honest, self-deprecating, and sympathetic.

I have just returned from an unplanned road trip with my oldest daughter. She had some recent upheaval in her life. A breakup with a boyfriend, a broken hand from a snowboarding fall, a broken car, and a dog in tow. Her lease was up, temporary housing didn’t work out, and she was moving on but she needed some help getting from here to there.

Chelsea and Athena

Arches National Park, Utah

I know. I just returned from a road trip. I promised an accounting of how Rich and I did it on limited resources. That blog is coming, I promise. For this trip I received a buddy pass on American Airlines from our friends in South Carolina.

My first night in Reno convinced me I was doing the right thing despite pulling the credit card out a few times. I do have my faults and inadequacies but I always show up and rise to the occasion.

From The Road: The Stories Mothers Write Last night just before dark I walked the streets of Reno, Nevada. I passed a young girl in hot pants and a midriff baring tube top. Her face was pale, her lips were fire engine red with two pierced silver earrings top and bottom. Tattoos covered her thin arms. On high heels that made her wobble she paced the sidewalk outside one of the nicer hotels. Her legs were as thin and delicate as a heron. A few blocks later I saw this mural on a parking garage and it broke my heart. I am here to help my daughter move after some unexpected upheaval in her life. I flew in yesterday and am driving to Tahoe this morning to pick her up. On a TV in the Phoenix airport yesterday I heard the news of America closing her heart to millions of Americans. The elderly, the addicted, the jobless, the self-employed, the pre-existing. I don't know who we are anymore. I don't understand the people who say they care and continue to go about their daily lives without speaking up. I don't have a lot of money. I will probably lose my health insurance. But what is important to me in this one life I have is to be there for the people I love while also trying to make the world a better place for them and everyone else. Yesterday America told us those are no longer our values. That girl on the street in Reno is somebody's daughter. Just because she's not my daughter doesn't mean she doesn't exist. Where is her Mom? Where is her support system? What is wrong with America? That girl is America's daughter. She deserves a good education, a decent job, an affordable place to live, health insurance, and a Mom who shows up when she needs her. We live In a nation where the wealthy and the well connected can thrive and it's about to get much worse. America is not showing up. #storiesfromtheroad #mothersanddaughters #speakup #saveaca #instagramwriters #instagramstories #wordsandpictures #streetart

A post shared by Sheila Blanchette (@sheilablanchett) on

My daughter has been on her own since she was nineteen. She has lived in New York, Missoula, Steamboat Springs, and Lake Tahoe. She rarely asks for help, is strong and independent, and feisty. The teenage years were difficult at our house but as my mother-in-law always said, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

The time we spent together on the road was wonderful. There’s something about hours spent in a car and miles and miles of road that had us sharing previously untold stories. We laughed and talked seriously. We complained about the bugs on the window that ruined our road photos and at the end of the day she was patient with my driver delirium when I took a wrong turn or got cranky.

 By the end of the trip, I was in love with her boxer, Athena. Now that I am home I miss the both of them. Athena would sit in the back seat, her head resting on the center console between us. If my daughter went in a gas station to get coffee or snacks or water, Athena stood up and stared out the window, quietly making sobbing sounds.

Sleepy Chelsea

The Motel 6 in Green River, Utah

On our last night together we unpacked her belongings, rearranged furniture, and hung pictures on the wall. Together we made chicken parmesan in the two pans I bought at the grocery store. She drank beer and I drank wine. And this leads to a story I did not share on Instagram for fear of being judged for my imperfections but it seems rather foolish as I was in the state of Nevada and doing nothing illegal.

Me & Athena

Me and Athena in her new home

It happened when we passed through Nevada. I traveled this road with my husband back in September when we came out to Tahoe in the fall and we ran out of gas. On this trip I was hyper-vigilant about filling the tank when it reached the half-way mark.

When we stopped in Battle Mountain for a refill I told my daughter I wanted to drive through the town. I had read Jeanette Walls memoir, The Glass Castle, years ago. I wanted to see the place she wrote about.

The Three Gossips - Arches

The Three Gossips at Arches National Park, Utah

Before we hit the road, she had taken a few tokes from her pipe. Marijuana is recreationally legal in California and Nevada and in case you don’t indulge, it is a tremendous stress reliever. I was driving and wasn’t stressed so I didn’t need relief. One of my great pleasures in life is driving the open highway. For me it works like Xanax.

Battle Mountain was a photographic gem. A rundown rural American town I love to capture. The forgotten places that led to the election of Donald Trump. The places it seems no one is interested in talking about but me. I was so excited to pull over and capture it all I drove right through a stop sign.

The Owl Family Dining Battle Mountain

The back of the Stop sign in Battle Mountain

“Whoop, whoop.” The siren on the police car behind me shouted.

“Shit, what did I do? Roll down the windows, I think the aroma is clinging to you,” I said, my heart pounding.

I pulled into a little park. The police officer followed right behind me, got out of his car, and peered into my open window. He pointed to the very large stop sign on the corner across the street.

“You didn’t see that stop sign?” he asked.

No I did not and yes, it was rather large. But it was on the sidewalk in front of the building I was so captivated by. I started babbling about the long ride from Tahoe, how I flew in from Rhode Island the day before.

“Aaah, that explains the accent,” he said.

I told him I was so busy looking at the scenery I missed the sign.

“Really? All these beautiful places you’re traveling from and to and you stop here in Ugly to take a picture?”

Battle Mountain ugly

Battle Mountain, Nevada

I mentioned Jeanette Walls and her book and how I wanted to see the town for myself.

He peered in the back seat. Athena was panting, her tongue hanging out, her tail wagging.

“Where you headed again?”

“Colorado.” I told him about the move.

He looked at my daughter. “Ski bum, aren’t ya? Well, I’ll tell you something. My Mom would never have done anything like this for me.”

He stepped aside for a moment and spoke to someone on his radio. My heart was still pounding.

When he came back to the car he said, “You know that Walls woman, she got a lot of things wrong about this town. First of all we don’t have tortoises. I don’t know if she really lived here or not but people swear she graduated from the high school.”

“Really?” I smiled. “Well, you know there’s a lot of memoirs out there now and I guess people elaborate or make things up to fit the story.”

“Yeah,” he said, waving his hand around the town. “You can take a picture of the little monument we got over there.” He pointed to the sign we saw coming into town. Welcome to Battle Mountain. It had a few pieces of rusted farm equipment on the dirt in front of it.

Battle Mountain

“I’m not gonna give you a ticket but I do need to run your license.”

I could feel my breathing slow down. I got my license out of my pocketbook and handed it to him. He went back to his car.

After he returned my license my daughter took Athena for a walk and I leaned my head back on the seat and took deep breathes. When I opened my eyes I saw him talking to her.

She returned to the car. After we pulled out of town, I asked her what the cop was talking to her about.

“He said, ‘You know the places you’re driving through on this trip?’” she said. “Then he held up his hand and lifted one finger at a time and said, ‘Legal, legal, illegal, legal. You know what I’m talking about?’ Then I nodded.”

“You didn’t say anything?” I asked.

“I said. Yes. I know what you’re talking about. And then he said, ’In Utah it’s a felony. If you get pulled over in Utah your mom is going to jail. So make sure you don’t have it in the car when you cross the border.”

“Oh my God,” I said. “You have to clean that pipe. I knew he was smelling something. You don’t have any left, do you?”

“No, that was the last of it.”

That night in Park City we told our friend Steve the story. He told us in Utah it’s a felony to even drive across the border with liquor from another state!! We started talking about Jeff Sessions and how he’s encouraging the legal communities to throw the book at criminal defendants and push for the toughest penalties possible. I told Steve about the 60 Minutes episode I saw about Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia who was found guilty of corruption and bribery but when his case reached the Supreme Court, SCOTUS overturned his conviction. He was vindicated, his felony charge was dropped, and his legal license reinstated.

I guess it depends on who you are in America. Who you know. How much money you have. What kind of legal defense you can assemble. As a Mom I worry about these things. Income inequality, the environment, the future for my daughters, the loss of democracy for all.

In Tahoe the rents are so high kids squeeze into condos or rent little houses that were once sheds. I  picked my daughter up at this house where her friends live:

Little house

Rental House in Kings Beach, CA

I realize there are people out there who will judge me. I can take the heat. My first novel, The Reverse Commute, helped me develop thick skin. There was nothing illegal going on here. The police officer was a decent, kind man who knew and respected the laws of Nevada.

Welcome to Utah

Nevada/Utah border

After we left Utah and entered the safe haven of Colorado we shared a few tokes. Across the street from our Super 8 motel there was a legal dispensary. My daughter purchased some special blend marijuana formulated for soothing the nerves. There was no smoking of any kind allowed in the hotel. Several people were out in the parking lot partaking and chilling out after a long day on the road.

I have many friends who do the same thing now that their kids are adults. Over the past month as I traveled across eighteen states I have seen the hypocrisy of the self-righteous.

I was never very good at discipline. I am no angel and I have made my share of mistakes. During the more difficult, tumultuous times for our family, my daughter told me she thought I was a very tolerant person. I took this as one of the highest compliments she could give me.

The series on Instagram is titled Stories Mothers Write. Mothers are not perfect people. We make mistakes. But with love, honesty, tolerance, and open hearts we do the best we can.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Mother’s Day ~ The Cemetery: Stories From Higley Hill

MOTHER’S DAY STORIES: PART ONE

Cemetery.

Recently my Dad took me to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave. This would be my first visit since the funeral and what he actually said when he invited me to come with him was, “Let’s visit your mother at the cemetery”.

I have different ideas about life after death. I did not feel my mother’s presence in that strange place and I hated thinking of her lying in the coffin beneath my feet. We didn’t stay long. He said a prayer and I watched a wild turkey walk through the gravestones.

My father was concerned about the flowers. A pot of tulips had wilted. A hyacinth was drooping and looked weary. He doesn’t know much about gardening so I explained to him they were bulbs and if I planted them in the ground they would return each spring.

The next day I bought bright yellow shasta daisies and a spade and returned to the cemetery alone. It’s in the neighborhood where I grew up and where my Dad still lives. He runs through there almost every morning to visit my Mom.

I quickly threw myself into the task and started digging. Many of the graves around me had gardens in full bloom. Little trinkets were left at the headstones. Teddy bears, heart rocks, seashells. There is a section of the cemetery where a community of Mung Chinese are buried. On holy days the families bring hibachis and cook chicken shish kebab on wooden sticks that they leave for their deceased loved ones.

A man parked behind my car and stood by a nearby grave while I planted the bulbs. His hands were folded in front of him, his head bowed. Every once in a while he wiped his eyes with his finger. He left before I finished planting the Shasta daisies.

Walking back to my car to get a bottle of water for the plants, I passed the gravestone where the man had stood. His name was carved on the stone along with his birthdate. He was a year younger than me. His wife was four years younger and had passed away three years ago at the age of fifty-four. I wondered how often he came to visit and what these visits did to ease his sorrow.

I didn’t stay long at my mother’s grave. It felt awkward and I couldn’t stop thinking about her lying in her coffin. I set out for a walk around the cemetery, trying to remember her the way she was before Alzheimer’s stole her from us.

I had seen a gravestone years ago when my father brought me here to show me the plot. The stone was already in place with both my parents’ names on it along with their birth dates. It seemed so morbid and strange but I told him it was a nice location. The grave I was looking for had a photo of a man in his forties. He liked motorcycles and trucks. I know this because there was a collection of them placed along the grave. He had a sense of humor too. Carved on his headstone was the following admonishment: “I told you I was sick.”

I thought about other cemeteries I had visited. Mount Auburn in Cambridge with its beautiful flowering springtime trees. Boston’s historic Park Street Cemetery in autumn when fallen leaves cover the ground where Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and  Mother Goose are buried. The cemeteries in Spain where people place ashes in rows of boxes that reminded me of the post office.

My mother’s brother is buried at Notre Dame in Pawtucket, RI where large statues of angels greet you at the gates to the cemetery. At the graveside following the funeral my Uncle Eddie brought a boom box and played Judy Collins’ version of Amazing Grace. After the service, as I walked back to my car, I passed an angel resting her head on a large tombstone. I turned and saw my brother still standing by the grave with his hand resting on Uncle Donald’s coffin.

My brother visits my mother’s grave regularly and so do both my sisters.

Driving alone in my car in my Uncle’s funeral procession,  the Foo Fighters song These Days played on the radio. It was a raucous, rebellious tune with crashing drums and loud screams. I irreverently rolled the windows down and played the song really loud.

One of these days the clocks will stop
and time won’t mean a thing
One of these days your eyes will close
and pain will disappear
One of these days your heart will stop
and play its final beat

My Uncle fell ill suddenly. He didn’t feel well on his annual road trip from Rhode Island to Florida where he wintered. The doctors in Florida told him he had liver cancer and his prognosis was not good. He had only a few days to live. He gracefully accepted the news and told them he was seventy years old and had lived a good life that had come full circle. All he asked of them was that he not suffer. He went home, ordered a hospital bed, and placed it at the window with the view of Fort Lauderdale Beach.

He was a gay man back in a time when many people were “still in the closet” and he didn’t “come out” until his divorce after ten years of marriage to my Aunt Linda. I remember she always liked books and one Christmas she gave me a copy of V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. I don’t know where she is now. I haven’t seen her in decades. Memory is a tricky thing. I don’t know why these are the random thoughts I keep and why I am sharing them here.

My mother’s last years were difficult. On the other hand, her brother called his friends and invited them to visit him in his final days. He told them there would be no tears and if anyone cried they would have to leave. This was to be a celebration of life. I admire him for this and his bravery in the face of the unknown.

My mother entered the scary unknown long before she died and her last weeks were difficult.

There was a graveyard in New Brunswick, Canada that my husband and I stopped at while vacationing in the Atlantic Provinces. We were looking for the grave of the young daughter of a man, Al LeBlanc, who worked with my husband. She died along with five of her high school teammates on an icy night after a hockey game. Their car slid off a bridge and crashed through the ice. They are buried side by side, their pictures on the headstones.

While they worked together painting houses, Al would talk to Rich about the sadness that pervaded his marriage after the accident. His wife never recovered from her loss and would often say, “We never should have moved back to Canada.” As if, had she not made this one choice, she could have saved her daughter from the tragedies of life.

I never met my father-in-law but I have visited his grave in the town center of Sudbury, MA. Also buried In this graveyard are the children of two people my husband knows well. Placed at the headstone of infant twins who didn’t live long after their birth are toy cars and plastic ponies and teddy bears. The other grave had fresh flowers although the teenage boy who was killed in a motorcycle accident died many years ago. The last time I visited this cemetery I was not yet a mother myself but I understood a mother’s heartbreak must be one of the deepest of all sorrows.

Not long ago I visited a very old, neglected graveyard in Vermont with a friend of mine who is a stonemason. Rows of tipped headstones made from thin slabs of granite were hard to read. The inscriptions were worn from time and weather. A few of the gravestones were fused to trees that had grown up around them. Loved ones no longer visited this place. Instead Nature wrapped her arms around the deceased and covered them with moss and dried leaves.

My friend told me about the art of stonemasonry as we walked through the cemetery. He pointed out the poorly constructed stone arch at the entrance to the cemetery and we looked for small rocks for chinking. I had just started my fourth novel and in that graveyard in Vermont a character came alive that day.

James Salter once wrote, “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

All of these memories swirled through my mind as I planted flowers at my mother’s grave. I wasn’t thinking about her and this left me feeling sad. Where was she? Where were the free floating memories that should have come to me as I knelt by her grave? Instead I felt awkward and forced to think about her in this uncomfortable place.

Memories come easier in places where I once shared a day with someone. Music and photographs also trigger memories. Or making scrambled eggs with onions.

It wasn’t my mother who made her eggs that way. It was a friend of ours who died too young. Anytime I make scrambled eggs with onions I am transported back to a beach house in the sand dunes on Cape Cod where Mark made the eggs with onions. He didn’t ask if everyone liked their eggs that way because he automatically assumed we all  scrambled our eggs with onions.

That moment in time with a friend who is now gone ended up in my third novel, Life Is All This. I gave it to a character named Timothy who also died too soon.

James Salter also said, “Writing is not a science… every writer I know and admire has essentially drawn either from his own life or his knowledge of things in life…. Almost all great books have actual people in them.”

My mother didn’t like to cook. She was a homemaker, someone who loved to decorate and sew. She made curtains and reupholstered chairs. One year she made Easter outfits for me and my sisters that included pillbox hats like the ones Jackie Kennedy wore.

My mother had a difficult childhood. Her father worked in the textiles mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and when she was very young he contracted pleurisy. He was bedridden for a long time and my grandmother had to go to work. They had no family to pitch in and daycare was nonexistent in those days so they brought my mother to a nearby orphanage run by French speaking nuns.

I remember the stories my mother told us about the orphanage. The rows of beds, the bowls of peas that she never ate again once she left. How she hated it there. When my daughters were young we loved reading the Madeline books. My mother said she never read those books to us because it reminded her too much of her time in the orphanage.

Her parents would visit on Sundays and bring her gifts that the nuns would later take from her because the other girls were truly orphans and no one brought them presents. I can no longer remember how long she stayed there but she carried those memories with her all her life. She was a nervous, anxious woman and often had migraines. I remember the smell of vinegar on the damp facecloth she put on her forehead when she retreated to her dark bedroom.

After her parents financial situation improved and her father got better she returned home. Because they both worked, she spent her summers in Brooklyn with her Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Pete. They were childless and at one point wanted to adopt my mother.

Uncle Pete was from Sweden and captained a tugboat. I loved the stories my mother told about riding with him along the Hudson River. She also met an older gentleman on the rooftop of their apartment building. He was a painter and he bought my mother an easel and taught her to how to paint. I have one of her paintings in my home in Vermont- a couple riding in a sleigh through the mountains. A memento of my wedding in Lake Louise.

After the fire at my parent’s condominium my mother’s Alzheimer’s worsened. She spent six weeks in a hospital In Providence where the doctors tried to adjust her medications and calm her down. She slept all day and at night ran through the halls calling for her mother and father. Her memories were gone but somewhere deep inside was the little girl who didn’t understand why her parents brought her to an orphanage.

My mother never blamed her parents for what happened. It was the Depression, times were hard. She understood that none of us are perfect and life is often hard. We are often faced with difficult choices or no choice at all. Years later, when I was what my mother considered a rebellious teenager, she  would call her mother every day and ask for advice.

I don’t know that my Mom ever really understood me but I do know that she loved me. Although I was never as close to her as my sisters’ were I never doubted her love.

I was an adventurous risk taker and unconventional. All my mother ever wanted was a conventional life. She was an anxious worrier. Bob Dylan once said, “People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.” My mother often worried about me and I think some of the things I did overwhelmed her. She didn’t understand choices like quitting a good job to backpack through Europe. To her, security meant everything.

Now that I am a mother I have come to better understand my own mother and my grandmother. Being a mother is one of the most difficult jobs you will ever do, and it never ends. Life is full of sadness and loss when all you want for your children is joy and happiness.

Two days after I planted the flowers at my mother’s graveside I found myself unexpectedly not returning home to Vermont. Instead I was flying across the country to Lake Tahoe to help my oldest daughter move to Colorado.

After arriving late at night and before driving to Tahoe, I spent the night at a hotel in Reno, Nevada. My Dad texted me at six a.m. on the East Coast. It was three a.m in Nevada.

His texting has improved. He no longer writes sentences without spaces between the words. This is what he sent:

You did good work on the grave mom will love them dad

To Be Continued…..