I left New York on a Wednesday, stopping to pick up bagels and tofu cream cheese from Murray’s in Manhattan, before starting on the 7-and-a-half hour drive to Cleveland: my friend, Nora’s, hometown. She was flying in from Copenhagen for a friend’s wedding and I was to be her guest. I was welcomed by Nora and her family with soup and wine and much general cheer. It was a merry reception after the long drive, made longer by traffic. The weather had been summer-like in New York, but in Cleveland, it wasn’t yet spring! Daffodils brightened the otherwise wintry landscape and the temperature was chilly. We did some shopping and then went back to prepare for a party that evening. The whole extended family was to come over for a feast of Lebanese/vegan goodness, so Nora’s mother put us to work making desserts and putting the finishing touches on appetizers. I had the job of assembling the trifle, dousing the cake with Grand Marnier and layers of fruit and (vegan) whipped cream. The weather warmed up and spring started springing before my eyes.
The next evening, we went out for dinner in a cute part of Cleveland and then to a speakeasy themed bar, where we met up with the wedding party. Saturday morning, I finally got to try out Yours Truly – the restaurant chain owned by Nora’s family.
Having grown up in a food service family, myself, I know how much a restaurant is like a character – another member of the family. We dined on deliciousness and then stocked up on things from the pharmacy before heading back to the house to get ready for the wedding.
The ceremony took place downtown in a stately old spired church. It was a gorgeous day – blue skied and breezy. We took a tour of the city before the reception, driving along Lake Erie and visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We had beer and pierogies at a cute little spot and then headed to the reception at a hotel downtown.
Sunday, it was time for Nora to fly back to Denmark and for me to drive home to Arkansas for a visit with my parents.
Going home has such comforting connotations. The notion of returning to one’s emergence point is romantic. Here I find myself at the only home I ever knew until I was 17. I’m lucky that it is still the same place, down to the large raccoon, painted on a sandstone rock gleaned from a local riverbed. He sits on the front porch, next to the willow stick table my mother and I augmented long ago with willow harvested from that same riverbed.
My former bedroom is now home to dad’s multitude of birds, so, they spend all day looking at the mural of tropical fish I painted there when I was a teenager.
The bedroom I shared with Erika – which later became hers – has become the guest room. However, Rosie. Oh, Rosie – Erika’s hair-shirt of a cat – made it unfit for guests.
Rosie lived in Erika’s old room for several months and she managed to infuse it with the smell of acrid cat urine. The smell has yet to be removed, though many methods have been tried and Rosie has been living happily in the basement for a couple of years now. There, she may defecate when and where she pleases and no one will scold her. She even has an enclosed outdoor area so she can be in the sun and enjoy the fresh air, without the risk that something toothy and hungry might carry her off in its jaws.
Rosie was declawed by her first owner and survived an apartment fire before Erika adopted her. I can only imagine that before the fire, she was a perfectly normal cat: a dainty little Siamese with a white blaze on her forehead and an oatmeal colored saddle on her back. Each paw is differently marbled in white and grey-brown. But the trauma of the fire she lived through left her with a propensity to poop and pee in unwarranted locales, which makes her a bit of a challenge to love, despite her other marvelous qualities. She is also a challenge to photograph and she makes it difficult to write, as she needs ALL THE CUDDLES immediately, please.
By her size and her enthusiasm, one might guess she was an adolescent, but we determined that she was 18 years old when Erika died, so now she’s 22. Nearly four years have passed since Erika died. It is hard to believe. It is also hard to believe that Erika managed to keep Rosie in her care for a decade and rarely complained about – or even mentioned – her bad habits.
I had romantic notions that I would spend the afternoon on the pollen-covered back porch, sunning and writing. But Rosie meowled hoarsely below me, pacing to and fro in her little enclosure.
I finally went to fetch her and attempted to cuddle her on my lap and write in the dappled shade, but she needed to be in my makeshift bedroom in my dad’s den. Yes. On the bed, she immediately rolled and curled on the comforter, doing her best imitation of one of the fat white grubs we would sometimes dig up as kids. I did get to write, eventually, despite her best effort to distract me.
Being home is nice. Comfortable, but foreign, because I am here so little. It is a bit like revisiting a dream. I know where everything is and what it is. The den is full of knickknacks – some genuinely old, some just appealing items, like an oversized brass key and a faux Egyptian vase I once bought at a flea market.
Antlers, antlers, everywhere. Antlers small and large, some attached to mounted heads, familiar faces I’ve known all my life: a white mountain goat, a small German deer with horns like little slingshots, a pronghorn, an audad the size of a small horse with a long fringe falling from its neck, a moufflon ram with majestic horns and its hide splayed on the wall above it, still attached.
I spent a summer sleeping in Dad’s den when I was 13 and I named all the taxidermied heads and attributed them personalities according to their looks.
That was the summer I got shingles on my back, and though I didn’t feel all that stressed, consciously, I must have been going through something in my subconscious mind. Looking back, I guess it might have been the fact that I had no place of my own that summer. Though I loved the animal heads, the books and shells and butterflies and arrowheads of my father’s den, I was 13 and that was not an easy age for me.
I can’t recall much about that summer when the shingles hit, but I remember the tingle and the pain as the pox was upon me. I thought it was poison ivy at first, but then the boils swelled and ached and I couldn’t sleep for several weeks, since it was too painful to lie on my back and too uncomfortable to sleep on my stomach.
Now, I sleep peacefully in this fold-out bed and pay visits to my old rooms to go through boxes and suitcases full of the correspondence and bric-a-brac of high school and college – flyers for kathak dance programs in India and French homework from when I studied abroad. It is the stuff of my life, in no particular order. I sing standards to the birds to quiet them as I get lost in old writings and drawings, ticket stubs and birthday cards. There are a couple of postcards from Erika – one from Madrid, the other London, scrawled with her neat, loopy handwriting. Sculptures, a snowglobe, reel-to-reel tapes for a player which appears to have vanished, though I still have the bag it was in when I bought it from the architectural salvage in Sarasota, many moons ago.
I need to weed through these barnacles of mine. Compress and cull and show no mercy. But I’m a sentimental fool, and I like remembering old times and places, old thoughts and feelings. Pictures from Governor’s School, from summer acting camps, from freshman year at college. My diploma (keep) – my cap and gown (toss). Old clothes are thrift store bound. The boots I bought in Camden Market in London as a teenager, black over Union Jacks, are going at last. I heard recently that Camden Market has been torn down, the area flattened to make way for high rises.
Mom brought home a wounded bird one afternoon. She’d found it on the road, a wing missing, poor thing. His fluffy head and one wing seemed uninjured – his tail was a tawny scissor of feathers and its belly was a downy pale yellow – but the other wing was missing entirely, along with parts of its side, exposing his raw inner workings in a way that made it certain he wasn’t going to survive. All we could do was keep him comfortable for whatever time he had left. We put him in a shoebox with a towel and he seemed to be in shock, and therefore relatively calm, despite this being his first time in a shoebox, I’m sure.
Mom’s friend came over for a tarot reading from yours truly and then I headed off to Fayetteville to see my friend Jake, aka my high school sweetheart. It was nice to be out in Fayetteville and enjoy some of the local music and beverages, after which I made him watch Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.
Because that’s what friends do.
The next day, our string of beautiful weather ended and the rain commenced. After a quick wander through the Farmer’s Market in downtown Fayetteville, where I visited Possum Leather for a change purse for my father and bought some elderberry balsamic drizzle for my mother at the Mercantile.
I headed back to Green Forest, via the same old roads I’ve driven a million times in the past. Now certain small towns are bypassed and there are four lanes.
The Ozarks were blooming and blossoming and greening – lush and well on the way to summer.
The drive home always takes me down Highway 103, since the is the one from which our county road branches off.
I made it back home to find that the little bird had not yet died. I looked him up in an Audubon book, and determined that he might be a Greater Crested Flycatcher. That evening, I was going to a party that my mom’s friend, Tina, was throwing. I bathed in my childhood tub, first making sure it was clear of spiders, and then tried to get the little bird to drink some water, to no avail.
Mom left to pick up a few things from town, and while she was gone, the little bird suddenly flailed and fell over. I tried to right him, but he looked at me, so weary, and I knew he was dying. A few more seconds and he was still forever. I closed the lid on his box and brought it out to tell dad. He said he’d bury him tomorrow, once the rain stopped.
I harvested some of the heavy-headed peonies, some fragrant pink roses and yellow irises, adding bunches of the purple rocket that grows wild in the yard, and a few daisies for contrast. I trimmed a bit of ivy for greenery and wrapped up the bouquet in newspaper to take to Tina’s house.
I drove down our county road, crossing the low-water bridge, still above the rushing chocolate-milky water, stirred up by all the rain. By the time I crossed the cattle guard and navigated the long unpaved driveway – not unlike the one to our house, though ours is more vertical and has no cattle guards – the party was in full swing. Mom was at the helm of the bar so Tina could make the rounds and greet her guests. My irises were dwarfed by hers, but I was proud of the arrangement I made.
I chatted with mom and Lisa and some of the other guests at the party, discussing morels and pawpaws (and their blossoms). I asked mom’s friend, Judy, about the bird we found, and she confirmed that it looked like a Greater Crested Flycatcher to her.
I chatted with a former teacher of my sister, Erika’s, and learned that she is from the same town in east Texas where I once spent a summer working at a camp, teaching nature and crafts, swimming in Fern Lake, among the Piney Woods.
When I got home, I retrieved Rosie from her basement apartment and brought her up to sleep with me, for which she was eager to show her appreciation with excessive and enthusiastic cuddles.
The next day was mother’s day and Dad and I joined mom at church after Sunday school. We would have gone kayaking after church, if it weren’t for the weather, which continued to be tempestuous. Instead, we drove to Bentonville and the Crystal Bridges Museum.
There was an exhibition on the evolution of abstract impressionism – Van Gogh to Rothko. It was really quite good. We meandered through the rest of the museum and then wandered the grounds a bit. The paths and features are well-tended and beautiful in way that is at once wild and artful.
We went out for lunch at Atlanta Bread Company, at mom’s request, before heading back to the homefront.
I had loosely planned to leave the next day, but I extended my stay to finish dealing with the dreaded boxes in my closet, guarded by dad’s shrieking birds. The last several boxes were filled with books and they were easy to go through and mostly reject. I’ll never read most of them again anyway, but I kept things I thought might appeal to Skye’s kids: books by Madeleine L’Engle and Zylpha Keatly Snyder, Piers Anthony and L. Frank Baum; a wizard snowglobe music box and some dolls and dress-up clothes for the girls. In the end, I winnowed down to just a few boxes in the closet – my childhood art and report cards among them.
It was a pretty afternoon and mom said we should try for a quick float trip on the nearby Osage River. We loaded up the boats and took two trucks up the road to the low-water bridge I’d crossed two days before, but now the bridge was covered in the turbulent, rushing water, which flowed a third of the way up the hill that slopes down to the bridge. Clearly, our kayaking plans were foiled.
We backed up the hill and returned home, where I mixed us up some “sundowners”: mom’s favorite melange of red wine, bubbly stuff, and lime. We went out the the party patio – an homage to Erika – and sipped our drinks and snacked.
Black raspberries and some strawberries had volunteered in the rain garden mom built into the patio. Dad showed us the large piece of limestone he found on the property. They already had a plaque which read: Erika Kupfersberger April 15, 1978 – September 4, 2011.
We went in and made dinner and then the house went to sleep.
In the morning, I loaded my little car up and hit the road, heading east again. I made it as far as Knoxville, where I spent a delightful evening with my aunt and uncle – a second set of parents to me, in some ways. The next day, I stopped in Asheville for lunch before continuing to Durham for a visit with MC and her family.
I dallied in Durham a couple of days, but I needed to be back in New York by Saturday, for my cousin’s baby shower. I couldn’t wait to see her, and celebrate this new babe, soon to be.
The last stretch to Brooklyn was hard and DC sucked me in like a vortex with the gravity of all that slow moving steel. I cursed the city as I tried to break free of its orbit and finally succeed and sailed into Pennsylvania, where things are more sane. I ran the final gamut of Staten Island, which is like a videogame of a race, only the track is under construction and full of potholes. And at last I was home. It was past midnight and the city was humid as I unloaded my belongings and reinhabited my little room.
And now I’ve been back home in New York for half a week and, though the weather has been bizarre, I am glad to be back again. And the next blog will most likely be when my nephew comes to see me in a few weeks!
Love and miss,