For this exercise, I’ll tell the stories behind five photos over the course of five days.

The Wedding Industrial Complex. I have huge problems with it. My latest complaint is the wording of wedding invitations. So many of them refer to “starting our lives together,” as to invalidate the time that the couple spent together before the wedding. Case in point: Mike’s and my dear friends were together for 17 years before getting married 2 1/2 years ago.  Their lives together didn’t start with their wedding.

This brings me to today’s photo. Mike and I met Aug. 1, 2012, and a week later, he invited me to go to down the shore for the weekend with him and his friends and family. We went for a walk on the beach one morning, and I spotted him gazing at something in the distance. It took my breath away — he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen. I told him to hold still and took this photo.

Six months later, we were house hunting. As of this moment, we’ve been living in our lovely South Philly rowhouse for nearly two years.  And later this year, we’re getting married.

From day one, Mike and I were inseparable; there was no doubt that he was the one for me, and vice versa. That’s when we started our lives together. That beginning won’t be on our wedding day. And this photo symbolizes the start of “us” to me.

Mike in Ocean City, NJ on Aug. 11, 2012
Mike in Ocean City, NJ on Aug. 11, 2012

 

For this exercise, I’ll tell the stories behind five photos over the course of five days.

I adopted Cali in December 1996 from Morris Animal Refuge in Philly. Morris is a kill shelter, and a note on her cage indicated her time was running out. She was a 6-year-old morbidly obese calico, and she rubbed the side of her face on the bars of her cage when she saw me. I decided she was the one, and I signed the papers for her. She was the first cat I adopted on my own as an adult.

She was so heavy that I wasn’t able to take public transportation back home to West Philly, where I lived at the time, so I had to take a cab. The cab driver was worried that she’d pee, but I said she wouldn’t. Luckily, she didn’t.

Cali was affectionate and loved people. Everyone in my  life loved her back. She was smart, too — she learned how to manipulate me as I’m sure she had done to others in the past. She had a loud, raspy meow and she was always, always hungry. I began to understand how she got to be so fat: She’d beg with that crazy, hoarse meow, standing on her back legs to get her face as close as possible to mine, until I fed her. Then she’d practically tremble with eagerness when I filled her dish, then dive into her food. When she was done, it would begin all over again. Eventually I had to put an end to this and although she never really lost much weight, she didn’t gain much either.

She lived with me at five different addresses in Philly, two addresses in Columbus, Ohio and one address in Las Vegas. Because she hated all other animals, I was never able to have other pets, and so she was the star of my life. I have so many photos of her and even VHS videos (not that I can watch them anymore). She had a lot of dog-like qualities — she’d run to greet me whenever I came home, she’d follow me around and she’d try to come with me whenever I left.

I was at my desk at the Las Vegas Sun one morning in April 2003 when my ex called to say Cali was dragging herself across the floor and appeared to have lost her ability to walk. He was rushing her to the vet. I was on deadline (it was an afternoon paper at the time) and I felt like I couldn’t leave, but one of the editors heard me crying at my desk and came over. I explained the situation she she told me to go.

The vet said she had a fatal blood clot and there was nothing he could do. She was 13 years old.

I didn’t feel like I could be there when she was euthanized. I feel horrible about this now. I understand why I made that choice back then, though — it seemed unfathomable to me to be there to see my special girl die. We petted her and cried and told her we loved her as she howled and meowed and looked at us with huge eyes and breathed through her mouth. She was taken into an exam room and I signed the papers. As I walked out into the parking lot, I could hear her raspy meow from all the way down the hall.

I went back to work and cried all day. I think my podmate must have thought I was crazy, but he didn’t understand. Losing a close friend is is profoundly devastating. She died on a Wednesday, and every Wednesday for the next two years I wore all black to work. And up until two years ago, I kept her urn in a place of honor in my home. Even now, a small framed photo of her is on a shelf to my left. I’d go on to love many more cats in my life, ones I adopted, fosters and ones I care for at the shelter where I volunteer. But Cali was the original cat who captured my heart and she’ll always be so special to me.

(A few months after Cali died, I adopted two new cats from the Nevada SPCA, Magilla and Callie. I’m sure it appeared odd that I chose a cat with the same name, but it wasn’t intentional. I grew to see it as a tribute to the original.)

That night at home, we both cried as we put away her cat dish (believe it or not, I still have it in my momento bin) and her other things. I didn’t have the heart to sweep up the stray pieces of cat food on the kitchen floor.

Cali
Cali

We looked through photos of her — this was back when photos were tangible. So many of the photos I have of her are close-up and blurry because she was always trying to get on my lap. Eventually we found the one I’m sharing. It was turned upside down, like it is here.

“It looks like she’s flying,” my ex said, and we both started laughing. “She’s flying to heaven!”

Despite my grief, it felt so good to laugh.

I didn’t really intend on this being a memorial to Cali, and I didn’t mean for it to be sad and I didn’t mean to go back to the “dead loved ones” theme that I seem to fall into in my blog. Once I started writing, though, that’s where it needed to go. I used the blog I kept back then to fill in the details.

I did something significant this week.

After being a lazy jerk for almost three months, I returned to the gym.

I stopped going right before Christmas because it was too cold — I know, it sounds ridiculous. The gym is just a few blocks away, less than a half mile, but Philly had so much snow and ice this winter and sometimes the temperature was below 10 degrees and the gym fees so far when it’s cold. The thought of going out in that even for something fun was daunting, but to go out and do something not fun? No.

I decided to take a break one morning in December when I slipped and fell on the ice while walking Sassy and I got a scrape on my hand and a bruise on my knee. No big deal, but I will look for any excuse to stay home from the gym. So my three-month excuse became the weather.

Meanwhile, Mike continued to go, even in the snow and ice.

Now that it’s getting warmer, and now that I have a new coat to shield me from the last cold days of the season, I realized I was running out of excuses.

Morning is when I’d go, because that’s when Mike goes. Getting up early is so hard, and I can’t just get out of bed and go. I would do my makeup as usual, which takes about a half hour, then go. Ridiculous, right?

I started thinking about going in the early evening after work instead, but that would be just as difficult, for different reasons. I toyed with the idea of just not working out at all.

But it makes me feel good. And when I do it in the morning, I’m guaranteed to have a better day than I would if I had spend an extra hour in bed. Plus, I want to be healthy, and it feels good to get my heart rate up and to challenge myself.

Thinking about all of this while still in bed Wednesday, I had an “a ha” moment. A few days earlier, a friend challenged me and some other people to post a photo of ourselves without makeup on Facebook. And I actually did it! In the photo I’m standing in the kitchen wearing a coral dress that had just arrived — I’m wearing it in my dear friend’s wedding this fall. I asked Mike to take my picture so I could send it to her.

I had just woken up and my hair is in a topknot and I am wearing smudged mascara from the night before (sometimes it’s too much trouble to remove all my eye makeup, but I always wash my face) but other than that, I’m makeup free. I was shocked at the positive reaction I received! Seriously, shocked.

Lying in bed, I remembered the likes and comments on my photo, and I realized that I don’t need to go to the gym in full makeup. That’s kind of weird anyway, right? Nobody else does that.  No one cares what I look like at the gym and I shouldn’t either. And, if I forgo putting on makeup, I could sleep in a little later AND still get to the gym before work.

So, I got up and didn’t bother with my makeup at all. It felt really good! But like an idiot I continued where I left off on the elliptical and nearly died — I could only do 26 minutes. At least I went, though. And I’m going to keep going back.

I’m proud of myself that I posted that photo — I put myself out there and let people see what I really look like, and in return I had the confidence go to the gym without primping. (Still, posting the photo on my blog feels scary for some reason…)

Like blogger Jessica Lawlor preaches, it’s important to get gutsy and push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. In this instance, I did that and it paid off in a really unexpected but amazing way. Insecurity has held me back in other ways throughout my life, and I know I’m not alone.  Can you relate?

A confession: I have not been back to the gym since Wednesday. It’s snowing in Philly now — yes, I’m pulling out the same old excuse. But when I do go back Monday, I will do so without caring about how I look.

 

 

My brother Doug stayed with me and Mike this weekend. Doug has Down Syndrome, and he’s been living with one of my sisters for the last two years. She was going away for the weekend and so I said Doug could stay with us in the city.

I was looking forward to it — I hadn’t seen Doug since around Christmas — and thought it would be a lot of fun! But, it turned out to be really stressful and exhausting. Like I mentioned in my previous post, I lived with Doug from Monday through Friday for two months after our dad had a stroke in the fall of 2012. It was a lot of work caring for Doug, but he was in his own home so it made it easier. This weekend, we planned stuff and keep him entertained, but I really feel like I failed.

Brother and sister on Saturday night with Magilla.
Brother and sister on Saturday night with Magilla.

Even though he’s in his 30s now, Doug is still very much like a child. In fact, he’s still into a lot of the stuff he liked as a kid, like The Muppets. It doesn’t take much to make him happy — Diet Coke, pizza and a movie or TV show he likes will get him excited.

I took the train out to the suburbs to meet him, then we rode the train to Philly together, and then jumped on the subway to my neighborhood. On the train we watched Muppets videos via You Tube on my phone, and he had a huge smile when we were walking down the sidewalk on my block and I pointed out our house. But within minutes, shit hit the fan.

My dog Sassy, who is 14, is really territorial but I thought she’d be okay with Doug. After all, she was with me when I stayed with Doug for those months and they would hang out together.

But she ran down the stairs directly to him and bit his ankle as he sat on the couch. It was a scratch, but it bled a little and he winced in pain when Mike applied peroxide and I put a Band-Aid on him. I felt really, really awful.

Then Mike and I couldn’t find her muzzle. We were both upset and I was being a brat and that fun weekend I’d expected became a stressful, nervewracking mess.

We brought Doug along on our usual Saturday errands, then I took him to see the Sponge Bob movie while Mike stayed home with Sassy so we could both decompress and he could let her out. I think Doug liked the movie. Then that night Mike made a nice meal for us — he and Doug had ahi tuna steaks and black beans and I had marinated tofu — and we watched “Annie” on Netflix.

Sunday, we planned to go bowling so we walked to the bowling alley, but it was closed. We had checked the website before leaving and we even called while standing on the sidewalk in front of the place, but there was no answer. It sucked because Doug seemed excited about bowling, and it was too late to do something else, like the zoo or the aquarium, because we had to catch the train at 3. We walked home and Doug reclaimed his spot on the couch and we watched “The Brady Bunch” until it was time to walk to the subway.

That was pretty much it. I feel bad that we didn’t do more with him. Making things even more complicated, Doug needs a lot of care — he needs coaching while showering and brushing his teeth, and he’s not that great at shaving his own face — but he doesn’t necessarily want to be helped doing these things, so he got grumpy, too. (At home with my sister, he does these things on his own, but he doesn’t really do a very good job; his showers last less than 30 seconds if nobody is there to tell him to wash everything.)

Proof that they used to be friends. This is from 2011.
Proof that they used to be friends. This is from 2011.

I’m not used to caring for another person, and I failed what’s probably the cardinal rule of mom-ing — always have tissues or napkins on you at all times when you’re out and about, because he’s not the best at blowing his nose.

Still, it felt good to be with him, kind of like slipping on a pair of old, familiar shoes. We grew up together, but I was still old enough to participate in his care when he was little. I used to get up early with him and I’d tie his bib on and situate him in his high chair and feed him.  Then I’d lay on my back in the living room and pull my knees back to my ears, and Doug would lay on my feet and I’d give him a ride, placing him in a pile of pillows as he giggled. We’d do that over and over. Sometimes I’d lay with him in bed and we’d hold our eyes very close and blink, tickling each others’ eyes with our eyelashes. And I used to love dressing him up and putting makeup on him. He didn’t like it but was a good sport.

My parents let me hold Doug on the way home from the hospital when he was born. I sat in the back seat of my dad’s VW and held this little baby, who would not stop crying (no seat belts or car seats either!) My mom began taking him to “school” when he was two weeks old and leaving me home alone as a second grader. Since I was a first-time big sister, I thought all babies went to school.

This was before he began hating dress-up.
This was before he began hating dress-up.

It seemed like everyone was always fussing over him in an overly concerned way, but I assumed it was because he was a baby. When he was about a year old, maybe less, one of my sisters told me Doug has Down Syndrome and explained the chromosomes. Suddenly it all made sense. I don’t know why my parents never told me. The “school” he was attending was an infant stimulation at the Montgomery County Association for Retarded Citizens, where he was working on his motor skills, and my mom was forming friendships with other parents of Downs kids.

My dad always credited my mom for advocating on Doug’s behalf and getting him the interventions he received when he was young. When Doug was a baby, as my dad described it, Doug’s Downs upset my dad so much that he wasn’t able to discuss it without crying.

I don’t see Doug very often anymore, since he began living with my sister. I’m estranged from her (long stupid story) and when I do see him, my communication with her regarding Doug has the whiff of two divorced parents who are discussing visitation arrangements.

I’d like a do-over, though. I want him to stay with me and not get bitten by my dog, participate in fun, active stuff rather than watching movies and television all weekend. And next time, I’ll make sure to have tissues or napkins on me at all times.

When you think of the concept of “home,” do you think of where you currently live, or does your mind jump to somewhere else?

Although I love my current home, I still yearn for the house where I grew up, 701 Concord Way in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. From where I’m sitting now in my house in Philadelphia, 701 Concord Way is technically only 25.1 miles away, but it’s worlds away in reality.

Although it still exists, it really doesn’t anymore. Not how I knew it, anyway.

On the front porch of the house.
On the front porch of the house.

I can’t go there anymore — my dad sold the house in the summer of 2013, after having owned it since the mid-70s.

My brother Doug and I grew up there. My dad knew the guts of the house like the back of his hand, and my mom could locate any object in it, as if she had the contents memorized. She also kept it extremely clean, earning her the nickname “Immaculate Mary.”

I knew every floorboard squeak — what kid doesn’t? Up until two years ago, the house was the only one Doug ever knew. The house was a part of all of us.

Although it’s not a living thing, I believe houses and places can have souls, of sorts. Just like New York was a treated as a character on “Sex and the City,” locations have their own life forces that hold secrets, tell stories, bring comfort and also remind us of pain. Just like I’m endlessly processing the deaths of my parents, I’m also grieving the loss of my childhood home.

It was 2,100 square feet with four bedrooms, two full baths and one powder room. My parents never did any wholesale rehabbing, just some stuff here and there, like the downstairs floors, the refrigerator and oven range.

The bathrooms were like 1970s time capsules with the goldenrod toilets and sinks. It never occurred to me that anything was wrong with that until my dad put it up for sale. Home buyers don’t appreciate vintage bathrooms.

ISh75o1z0jmt910000000000When we first moved in, I had my own bedroom because none of my four older sisters wanted to share with me. They doubled up, and by the time Doug was born, some of my sisters had moved out so Doug and I each had our own rooms across the hall from each other.

Our bathroom, dubbed “the big bathroom,” had double sinks and a long counter, where I’d spend hours playing with hair and makeup as an adolescent (my love for bathrooms has deep roots!) The lighting in there was amazing, and after I moved out for college, I lamented that I never lived anywhere that had such perfect lighting.

My parents were proud of the house — it was a typical suburban colonial, but they took great care of it. They sunk a lot into landscaping, plus my mom planted flowers, and my dad planted all of the trees that still stand on the property today.

In the mid-90s my parents installed a large wooden gazebo in the back yard, equipped with screened windows, a ceiling fan and cable TV, where my dad would watch baseball games at night during summer. At some point they got the siding redone, so the house went from being green to gray.

Lawsons in the yard sometime in the 90s.
Lawsons in the yard sometime in the 90s.

Even though it was just one box with a roof in a sea of boxes with roofs, we did feel a little special because the house was different from all the others around us.

It’s the first house in a development called Pelham Green, and there are four or five basic models that exist “in the back,” which is what we called the streets that snake deeper into the development.

But, ours was built by a completely different developer for some reason. It was completed first, we bought it and moved in, and within a year, the others were built and bought and occupied by the families who would become our neighbors and our lifelong family friends.

While our neighborhood was still a construction zone, our dog Sam, a German Shepherd/Collie mix, escaped and ran a few streets down, leaving dog prints in the sidewalk concrete. Sam’s dog prints are still there.

Over the years my sisters and I moved out, and only Doug and my parents were left. It’s still the place we all went home to for holidays and birthdays or just to visit. I lived in different parts of the country for almost a decade, and sometimes I’d go on Google Earth and look at my old familiar places in Philly as well the house, feeling a little homesick.

After a brief bout with brain cancer, my mom died in the house, on Dec. 13, 2006, in a hospital bed that we had set up in the dining room. After that, it was just my dad and Doug. My sisters and I helped as much as possible, but my dad felt the burden of trying to keep the house running. He had never cooked, cleaned or paid bills in his life.

Tumbleweeds of dust formed and the house became grimy. My dad came up with a laundry system that involved installing a makeshift line in the dining room where he hung clothes to dry. He never wanted anyone to come over anymore, but we did what we could, when we could. It was so sad because my mom was so meticulous about keeping everything clean at all times, but he couldn’t keep up. This is what he wrote in his memoirs about this time:

What was amazing was that for 50 years I had always thought that Mary should not have to go out and work for the family finances. That was my job. Mary’s job was to take care of the kids and the house. I thought that was the easier of the two major tasks. It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that I was wrong. Very wrong. When I pray I ask her to forgive me for minimizing the effort that it took to keep the family on the straight and narrow.

My dad had a stroke in his bed in October 2012. The morning that he was brought out of the house by paramedics was the last time he was ever inside 701 Concord Way. (We found out later it wasn’t a full-fledged stroke, but it was enough to make his left side weak, so he relied on a wheelchair most of the time until he died.)

Luckily, my workplace was just a few minutes away, so I packed some stuff and grabbed Sassy and began living at the house, taking care of Doug, during the week. From Friday night to Sunday afternoon I was back home in Philly hanging out with a cute guy named Mike.

My life felt scattered and bifurcated, and by Christmas we came up with a more permanent solution: Doug would move in with one of my sisters and she’d become his legal guardian. By January 2013, none of the Lawsons lived at 701 Concord Way anymore.

The kitchen table I grew up using is in the lower left corner of this real estate photo.
The kitchen table I grew up using is in the lower left corner of this real estate photo.

During those idle months in early 2013, before the house went on the market and before Mike and I bought our own house in April of that year, I’d sometimes still crash there. I worked at a newspaper and had an erratic schedule, 9-5 some days, 3-11 others, so it was convenient.

Sometimes, if I was in the immediate area, I’d even pop in and eat lunch there alone, sitting on the kitchen counter. It felt like I was visiting a friend.

When the real estate listing was posted online, I was struck by the fact that my family’s kitchen table was in the photo. It’s just a small thing, and I know it’s commonplace.

But still, it felt too personal somehow. That’s the only kitchen table I ever knew growing up, and if I had enough room or a place to put it, I would’ve taken it when the house was being cleaned out. As for where it is now, my guess is a thrift store (or maybe it’s been purchased by  now) or a landfill.

The house sold in August 2013 to a young family. I drove by exactly once after that, and some kids sports equipment was in the driveway. I immediately felt tears coming — this was real. There were strange cars in the garage and strange people in there. They were ripping up my parents’ landscaping and probably ripping up the inside. The key I’ve always had on my key chain wouldn’t work in the door locks anymore.

But, I’m comforted by the fact that 701 Concord Way is helping and watching another family grow. The kids attend my elementary school, AM Kulp.

So, it’s like the cycle of life is starting all over again for the old house. Even though the house has moved on, and I have too — after all, I haven’t lived there for 20 years — 701 Concord Way will always be my home in my heart.

If the current owners of the house ever read this, please email me or leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you. 🙂

 

Doug blowing out birthday candles at the kitchen table.
Doug blowing out birthday candles at the kitchen table.

 

Me blowing out birthday candles on the kitchen table. I love how my dad is behind me being protective.
Me blowing out birthday candles on the kitchen table. I love how my dad is behind me being protective.