House fire

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The Downtown Mall in happier times.  Photo: visitcharlottesville.org

I have no memory of my first visit to Charlottesville. I was a baby in my mother’s arms. She would have been in Charlottesville visiting Aunt Lillian – her mother’s older sister. I would visit that home, near the Downtown Mall, many times as a child.

I grew up in Harrisonburg, VA, a small town about an hour from Charlottesville and travelling there always felt exciting – like going to a real city. There have been many trips to Charlottesville since that first one some 60 years ago, including a dozen years that I lived there beginning in the early 80’s. My father and my sister went to college there. My mother took her last breath in a hospital there. Charlottesville has always felt like a second home to me and what happened there on Saturday has broken me.

Disclaimer: This is not a political blog post. If you’ve followed me at all on any social media you most certainly are aware of my leanings. No, this is a personal post – more of a lamentation if you will. I am grieving another loss – the loss of what little innocence remained in my life. Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced a great deal of loss – my parents, my longtime partner, and a job I dearly loved – that’s just a bit of the inventory. I’ve become comfortable with loss. No, I don’t like it but it feels familiar to me.

When you suffer such loss, you tend to cling tighter to happier times – you grip those memories with white knuckles and you don’t let go because sometimes you feel like your life – or at least your sanity – depends on it. So over the years, my memories of Charlottesville have been a virtual safe house for me. It was a place I could go in my head to feel whole and happy again. I am either blessed or cursed with a wicked memory and I can see my times in Charlottesville like a movie I’ve watched a dozen times.

I can see my dad and me on a sun-dappled October afternoon in Scott Stadium watching UVA play football. I can hear him cheering – more like yelling – and I can feel his big bear hugs after a touchdown. UVA would more often lose than win but my father, ever the eternal optimist, would always put his arm around me as we walked out of the stadium and say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda.”

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Win or lose – a happy place for me and my dad.  Photo: virginiasports.com

I can see my mom at Mother’s Day brunch at the Omni Hotel, dressed so elegantly and relishing being the center of attention as she sipped – more like gulped – her champagne. Good Lord, my mother loved champagne. I can also see her take that last breath at Martha Jefferson Hospital on a blustery cold night in December. That may sound morbid to you, but I don’t intend it that way. My mother was in death as she was in life – a lady – and she exited with courage and grace and that moment is one that I will cherish until my last breath.

I can see my former partner and me at an apple festival. So many apple festivals! I’m not even that wild about apples but those festivals were such pure joy – folks out in sweaters and fleece enjoying the grand weather, eating apple everything, listening to bluegrass music. I wonder now what we possible could have worried about back then.

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A bushel of fun.  Photo: tripsavvy.com

I suppose it was a simpler time everywhere across our nation but Charlottesville is my personal frame of reference for a precious time of great contentment.

That was until Saturday. I don’t care to recap the horror that unfolded in downtown Charlottesville, not far from Aunt Lillian’s house. Heather Heyer, 32, is dead and several people are recovering from injuries. And a beautiful city has been terrorized.

I know what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday is way bigger and far more important than me. It happened to our whole country and the national grief is palpable. I feel it – you feel it. But my grief is also personal and I don’t know where to go with it.

My safe house has been burned to the ground.

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The end of the innocence.  Photo: nytimes.com

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It’s in the cards

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My sister has moved 22 times as an adult. And no, she’s not in the armed services, the French Foreign Legion or the witness protection program.

I guess you could say that she’s a rolling stone.

She’s lived in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia (twice), California, Maryland (twice),  Ohio (twice) and is now back in California.

And she’s been through many acquisitions and purges in her 35 years of moving  but there has been one item that has always made the cut – a box filled with every note, letter and card I’ve ever sent her starting when she went to camp when she was 12.

The box is not organized in any way, shape or form and if you knew my sister at all, you would laugh at the very idea of her organizing such a thing.

I pulled out the box while I was visiting her this week and it was a little like that weeper movie, Somewhere in Time, where Christopher Reeve is swept back in time by looking at an old painting. Years and years documented by Hallmark.

My sister is seven years younger than me and she was only 38 when we lost both of our parents. That’s terribly young to lose your rudders and the loss has certainly informed much of her life since then.

As the older sister I was always somewhat of an authority figure (okay, you can say bossy), even if she rarely took my advice.  When our parents died in 2002, I became sister and mother, a dual role I desperately want to get right.

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This is the essence of my sister.

Rummaging through the box, I have made several observations:

  1. My handwriting over the years has declined from marginally legible to Straight Outta Serial Killer. I wonder if it’s too late for med school.
  2. I pick out the best cards. I knew which ones were from me before even opening them. And many of them made me smile – again.
  3. Almost every note to my sister is a form of a pep talk – only the subject matter is different depending on the decade – boyfriends, jobs and diets, always diets.
  4. Postage has really gone up a lot in 40 years.

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    Those “Forever” stamps are looking like a good investment.

I pulled out a letter from 1981 that I had written my sister – on yellow legal pad paper, my stationary of choice for many years. She was living in Lynchburg, VA with my aunt and uncle and taking general studies courses at the local community college. Her grades in high school were not stellar and she was feeling like a loser while many of her friends were enrolled at various colleges and universities.

I was trying to make her feel good about herself and her future and my letter made me laugh out loud when I got to this part: Don’t look back – the past is nothing but a bunch of Kodak snapshots dumped in a box in the closet.

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Sisters, circa 1974.

How prophetic I was!

I don’t know if my letter helped her but it all worked out well as she went on to study at The University of Virginia and is now managing several breast cancer centers in Southern California.

But it’s the cards that really get to me. Almost all of them have a picture of two young girls on the front and that is the image that has sustained me over the years – the two of us, together – usually laughing and usually up to some shenanigans.

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The inscription on this cards says, “I’m so glad I always have you to lean on.”

It is a rare and precious thing to be deeply known by another human being – especially one that you are related to and my sister knows me in all manner of ways. That’s why she had a case of seltzer water (orange) chilling for me upon my arrival and vases of fresh-cut hydrangeas (my fave) throughout the condo.

And she knows my heart and my pain and she has suffered greatly these past few months since I lost my job – a job that was more like a calling to me. She was 3,000 miles and three time zones away as we weathered this great storm together. And yet, she walked every step of this ordeal with me.

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Some of it was good. Some of it wasn’t. But through thick and thin, they stayed close, and they were sure they always would. And this made the world good again.

That’s why I was so grateful to have the opportunity to share a special dinner with her on my first night here. I sat across from her at the table and looked into her sweet face and told her that in my entire life, I’ve never felt another person be so present to my pain.

She cried. I cried. I think the waiter might have even cried.

We’ve had so much fun together this week and “no fights” as she remarked the other night, which initiated a hilarious “greatest hits” recap of some of our most famous disagreements.

My favorite story is from years ago. I was living in Greensboro at the time and she was in Kensington, MD. We got into a heated argument about, well, who knows, and I got so mad that I threw the phone, the portable phone mind you, against the wall and it shattered into pieces. She called back a minute or two later and my partner answered the phone. My sister said very earnestly, “I think Addison and I got disconnected.”

I’m giggling now thinking about how clueless she was to my rage.

Fortunately, most of our disconnections have been few and far between over the years. Nothing a call or, yes, a card couldn’t repair, but I’ll tell you one thing, we’re going to need a bigger box.

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My sister, my lifeline.

 

 

 

 

No. 1 Grandpa

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I’ve been looking at this photo a lot today.

My brother-in-law snapped this image of my grandpa and me two years ago, capturing a tender moment between us. It was a Saturday evening in April, and we were all gathered at my aunt’s house in Pennsylvania celebrating my grandfather’s 95th birthday.

008It was the first time in a very long time that the whole family was together. Four generations under one roof. There was a giant sheet cake and presents, old stories and new grand-babies, laughter and tears. We traveled from five different states to celebrate the life of this amazing man, our grandpa.

I do not recall what we were talking about the second the camera clicked and froze this moment in time, but the photograph warms my heart every time I look at it. I love the way my grandfather is leaning in closer to talk to me and how whatever it was he was telling me was making me smile. But what I love most about this photograph is the intimate moment we’re sharing in a room packed with aunts, uncles and cousins engaging in multiple conversations simultaneously while seven great grandchildren were whirling around us. But here we were — my grandpa and me — in the corner of the room, talking as if no one else existed.

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