don’t call that vintage: your old room

I had been back in my hometown for about 30 seconds when I heard my name being called from across the street. I stepped out of the car into the welcoming warm air to see my parents’, and formerly my, diminutive and ever-busy neighbor waving at me. 

I waved back and she called out again, “Come here, I have something for your dad.” I followed her into the house that was neat and tidy and light and airy. I knew the floor plan well – it matched a third of the houses in the 1950’s tract neighborhood. Another third looked like the house I’d grown up in. She handed me a basket with a card for my dad who was healing up after surgery and on the mend. The basket was full of fruit, and I recognized the same distinctive curly cue handwriting that typically graces the first Christmas card that shows in our mail box each year. She asked about the boys and told me about her grandkids and we said our goodbyes, so I could unload the car and get the hospital to see Dad. Before I could even pull the suitcases from the trunk, one of the next door neighbor “kids” who was probably a good 15 years older than me, rounded the corner on his way to his dad’s house (who’s floorplan matches ours). “Hey there!” he called.

I was fumbling for my old key when I found two very warm cartons of milk sitting on the doorstep. It was Thursday, milk delivery day. My parents have had the same milkman my whole life – Dave…Dave, the milkman. When I mentioned the warm milk to my mom later, she said with a sigh she’d have to reduce the order again. Dad’s drinking soy now.

“You can’t quit the milkman,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

Though I eventually grew to at least enjoy the uniqueness and kitsch factor of having a milkman, I may have at some point asked “why can’t we get our milk at the store like everybody else?” (I know now that kids don’t appreciate things, as much as you beg them too. The hope is that someday they will, I suppose, and then be brave enough to tell you as much.)

My brother was in town too. He’d staked his claim by tossing his stuff in the blue room, which was most recently mine. I took my INXS poster out of there when I left for college, but alas it was truly Scott’s old room. It had only become mine, and blue, when Scott graduated from college and took his Jimmy Buffett and English Beat albums out once and for all. I think he half expects back rent for my time spent there, and maybe an additional fee for the intense shade of baby blue I’d insisted on immediately upon his departure.

That would put me in the smaller green room for this stay; the room where my canopy bed once was, and where the Tooth Fairy could find me, where I’d lip sync to the Go-Go’s, and where the neighbor kids would come to knock when it was time to play. John and I call it the Sleep Chamber; its blackout shade allows the lucky slumberer to blissfully snooze to noon with nary a care. No TV, but that’s ok, the sleep chamber was secretly a boon.

A couple of days later, after much discussion over the weirdness of just the four of us in the house for the first time in 25 years, Scott vacated the blue room to get back to his family. So with mom and dad both home and watching the news (hellooooo, every day of 1986), I started nosing around my old drawers and shelves.

Enough had changed in each room to keep them from looking like shrines to our childhood, but enough had stayed the same to never let memories be too far out of mind. In addition to stacks of photos – childhood friends, puppies, neighbors, vacations, there were a handful of toys, including a miniature Strawberry Shortcake wearing a nightcap and nightgown. I followed my first instinct which was to immediately put her to my nose and take a huge sniff. I really didn’t expect to smell anything, but there it was….the unmistakable smell of Strawberry Shortcake. If you’ve ever smelled her, you know what I’m talking about. It’s strawberry and something else, I don’t know what, but it’s very specific to her. And as I stood there maniacally smelling an old doll, the summer of 1982 came back in one crazy rush, as it tends to do when you’re already feeling nostalgic. Seeing both E.T. and  Annie in the theater and hitting the mother lode on my birthday – I got Strawberry Shortcake, an Annie electric toothbrush, the Annie locket, a huge book about Princess Diana, a chic ribbon choker, stuffed E.T., and E.T stickers, and that’s just the stuff I remember.

The smell was also very specific to one glorious sleepover that summer. I had friends, sisters from the church I attended, who had a pool, matching strawberry pajamas (including a set for me) aaaaand……waterbeds. We splashed in the pool until we were good and sunburnt, then focused on Strawberry Shortcake and her cohorts Apple Dumplin’ and the Purple Pie Man, bringing them to life to befriend Barbie. I was more than likely wearing one of my sparkly appliqué shirts with a cool saying like, “Foxy,” or “Nano Nano” from my favorite TV show, Mork & Mindy.

We do the same kind of archaological dig when we visit John’s old room….we find term papers; Michael Jordan basketballs, posters, and clippings, John’s Student Body President campaign trucker hat, and inevitably his prized possession – his model of the General Lee, from The Dukes of Hazzard. I’ve never seen him smell any of it.

I half-heartedly looked around for the Nano Nano shirt to show the boys, but came up empty handed. Instead, I tucked Strawberry Shortcake into a plastic bag to preserve whatever scent was clinging to her little body.I proudly handed her to John to smell when we were reunited. He says he couldn’t smell anything. Boys.

a tree falls in side yard

Last week, I pulled into the garage without noticing that the tree that once stood taller than our house now lay across the side yard. John came home an hour later and gave me the report as I stared lamely at him. At first I couldn’t even picture what tree he was talking about…I don’t venture to that part of the yard much, I guess. (You would think we lived on 30 acres instead of a regular suburban smallish lot). But I finally figured out that I knew quite well about 5 feet of that tree, somewhere near its middle top.

It once grew majestically outside Zachary’s window, with a narrow trunk and long graceful branches that would thwap against his window in the wind or create sinister looking shadows in the night. I don’t know what kind it was, but it was a resting place for many a bird who would chirp their greetings to Zachary inside.

Zach went to his room to look. “There aren’t any branches there anymore,” he said, “That’s where the birdies were.” I thought about the birds too, but was hopeful he either wouldn’t notice, or would celebrate the fact that they wouldn’t startlingly crash into his window anymore. His sweet face looked sad, and the way he said “birdies” made me want to go buy him a pony.

John stood outside surveying the situation. The tree had fallen into a wacky corner of the yard, missing our neighbor’s fence by a few feet. The neighbor stood there too. “Now I have to look at your boring, window,” he told John with his usual charm.

The subsequent days have passed in a flurry, and the tree continues to lay there, beached. Every time the subject comes up, Zach mentions the birds. I have to stop talking about it altogether because every time I do, he flashes me his big brown puppy dog eyes, and I instinctively move toward the candy shelf for a distracting treat.

A few months ago, my parents had to have two of their three front yard trees removed, because alas, the old trees had died…suffering what I imagined a stoic and noble passing befitting of a couple of fine Modesto Ash. Now that, I did notice. I gasped when I drove up to their house for the first time without my old leafy friends there. The home base tree of my childhood, right there near the corner – gone. The hide-and-go-seek tree at the far end – dunzo. My parents have since picked out replacements, but they are baby trees, and I don’t think I could very effectively hide behind one, unless I shed a dangerous amount of LBs.

We’ve taken down diseased trees at the church, and today on my way to work, I saw what looked like a 20-man hard-hatted crew perched on some poor soul’s roof, collectively eyeballing a huge Oak tree. By the time I drove home, half of it lay in the street in front of a wood chipper.

Now, I’m eyeing the palm tree in the backyard. The wind has brought down these pieces that resemble huge pencil shavings, and frankly it looks weird standing next to the uppity, haughty redwood. There’s the orange tree in the back corner. Sure, I like the idea of a fruit tree, but I’ve never actually eaten one of its oranges. My guess is that I’m so much of a city girl that I can’t possibly imagine that any plant life that I’m responsible for could produce actual, edible fruit.

I’ve come to realize, people are weird with trees, me included, which even I find odd since I refuse to camp. Trees are scary or friendly or wise depending on what Disney movie we are watching. They serve as literary metaphors for everything from life to growth to the passing of time, and if I were more well-read, this list would undoubtedly be longer. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been on my reading list for about 5 years, but I would be willing to bet that’s chock full of smarty pants examples.

I cannot stand that horrible book, The Giving Tree. I so loved Shel Silverstein’s provocative and intoxicating A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, that I would memorize the poems and recite them for whoever would listen. My copies, with my name written in my 3rd grade script, sit on Jake’s shelf, and are now favorites of the boys as well. But The Giving Tree sucks big time. Spoiler alert! The kind tree gives and gives and gives until it is taken down to a stump for the selfish brat of a protagonist to sit on in his old age. The only moral I take away is don’t be awful, or you will end up tired, alone and confused on a stump.

Heck, the trees in the Bible are kind of a big deal – there was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve couldn’t resist, getting them kicked out of what up until that point, had been a pretty sweet living situation. Jesus invited little Zaccheus down from his tree so they could break bread. And of course, there was Jonah. Jonah sat and waited futilely and with spite for an entire city to suffer God’s wrath. As he sat there pouting, sweating and waiting, probably still reeking of whale innards, God gave him a shade tree, which promptly withered and died. Jonah grieved and ranted and, much to God’s annoyance and utter frustration, showed more feeling for that day-old tree than he did an entire population of people. And again we learn, don’t be awful or you will end up tired, alone, and confused on a stump.


You’ve been there. Your kiddo’s been sick, or you’ve been sick, and you are on lockdown; a self-imposed quarantine. Not to be melodramatic, but being in the house for now going on 3 days is starting to feel like an experiment. Not gross or demeaning like that reality show and beacon of debauchery, Big Brother, but like something far more domestic and yet…. psychologically intriguing.

The first hours were consumed by tending to the little guy with the stomach bug who looked up at me with his big brown “why me mommy?” eyes. As he finally started to mend, he dismissed me from my spot next to him to wander through the house like a phantom in yoga pants and a hoodie,  far enough to give him some space, but not so far that I could not be at his beck and call. John was officiating the lovely wedding of two lovely people and was busy shuttling Jake to football games and maneuvering through baseball sign-ups and Sunday duties at church.

The at-home assignment was mine.

I didn’t notice my demise until a good 32 hours into the… “experiment,” and this is its  manifestation.

Cabin Fever List of Things I Learned While on Lockdown (2010 edition)

  • The bottoms of the living room curtains don’t match up. I looked at it for a minute and tried to fluff them, but they are linen and don’t really fluff. Eeeh….*shoulder shrug*… whataya gonna do?
  • Tetris is therapeutic. It’s science, yo. Jake’s weekend assignment is to prepare a speech about a development in science. And thanks to the fine folks at Oxford, we now know that the best video game ever, Tetris, can ease the flashbacks associated with some milder cases of post-traumatic stress. But not Pub Quiz, the other game in the experiment – so don’t try Pub Quiz – because what Oxford is surely implying is that Pub Quiz is stupid and does not fix PTSD. Just to be clear….this is a class project. I do not assign him speeches about science for fun, though if the ‘tween eye rolling persists, I may give that a whirl.
  • Now two weeks after the glorious World Series, MLB Network is still going strong. Only now the on-air “analysts” have all the time in the world. We were about an hour into the Cliff Lee “analysis” before I cajoled Jake into changing the channel.
  • Captains in football have a C on their jersey.
  • If there are weird hard-to-find ingredients in a recipe, I simply will not make it. I will not scour the Internet looking for ideas on suitable substitutions – I will just simply not make it, and I will, henceforth, edit my recipes accordingly.
  • If you stare at Hex Nano Bugs long enough, you forget they are little vibrating robots and not real bugs. And then when you do realize it, you can’t decide which scenario is actually freakier…actual bugs or robot bugs.
  • There was a week this summer where Jonathan Franzen and his serious face and serious new novel “Freedom” made it into every magazine I subscribe to. Good for you Franzen, you should relax a little and enjoy it.
  • The BRAT diet is quite addicting, and somewhat luxurious if you haven’t been the one doing the throwing up. Saltines and white toast and rice and applesauce with Gatorade to wash it down. I’m enjoying it because by tomorrow night, I’m sure mac n cheese will surely be back in the request queue, and I’ll be obligated to re-introduce vegetables into my repertoire.
  • Every door slam is loud and suspicious. By the end of day 2, I was that lady. Peeking out through the curtains (not the uneven ones) to see just what everybody was doing out there. Noticing  when they left and when they came in. What time did they check their mail? How long did their gardeners stay? Why on Earth do the neighbors on the corner have the U-Haul trailer every weekend?
  • Being tucked away inside provides one an odd sense of security when there have been multiple mountain lion sightings in the neighborhood in the last week. Perhaps said mountain lion saw me peeking through the curtains, and thinks I am taunting him, and is now lying in wait behind that Pontiac Grand Am across the street.

So If you were to peer down into the living room right now where I am typing this, and you were to look past my messy ponytail and oversized hoodie (heat rises! It’s cold down here! Be nice, or I will make you do a speech on air density) and you could zoom in on what I’m writing you would be relieved that it does not in fact say All work and no play makes Colleen a dull girl. All work and no play makes Colleen a dull girl. All work and no play makes Colleen a dull girl*. I’m not typing that, so don’t worry.

Necessary Sidenote: Rear Window is one of my all-time favorite movies, but I always thought Jimmy Stewart’s character was a bit much. I totally get him now, and that’s after just over a day of being at home. If I was restricted to a wheelchair and blue button down pajamas in my 3rd floor walk-up, I’d have the cops investigating every one of my neighbors, I’m sure.

Not-as-necessary Sidenote: I was in fact stuck in my San Francisco 3rd floor walk-up apartment for many many days after my knee surgery years ago, but most of that was spent in bed, and I could not sit by the window and spy on my neighbors which is for the best. I had already discovered to my dismay, that the older couple across the courtyard preferred to eat breakfast in their underwear. During that stint at home, there wasn’t fancy “wi-fi” so books and the E! Network were my windows on the world while John was at work. One of the Deacons from my church showed up with a casserole. Nobody had ever brought me a casserole and I didn’t know casserole etiquette so the entire operation stressed me out. The lady was very nice, but anxious to drop it and go. I can’t blame her, I probably looked kind of scary – wild eyed and pale from the sunlight deprivation. My dad would call me at the same time every day to check on me, presumably to ensure that I hadn’t lost my mind.

*and yes, oddly enough, The Shining is my other favorite suspense movie of all time, though I far prefer Grace Kelly’s outfits to Shelly Duvall’s.