Stared Awake

I was awakened yesterday morning – on my birthday – by a growing awareness of another presence quite close to me, hot breath on my cheek.

I opened my eyes slowly to see a rather large golden muzzle and a pair of big brown eyes staring intently at me from their resting place at the edge of the bed.

This vision unexpectedly brought up a hazy but happy image of my big sister doing the exact same thing to me, long ago and far away, when I was a young teenager and she, a university student in her early twenties, was visiting from New York City. Something I hadn’t thought of for years. I laughed out loud at the memory.

In those days, my parents and I lived in an historic 1880s home many miles outside of Philadelphia. It was an interesting old house, one with a nearly impossible amount of character. Over the many decades of its existence, various homeowners had added several stone additions to the original log cabin, each with its own personality traits.

The resulting jumble sat on two acres, surrounded by big old climbing trees. There was even a magical wishing well on the back stone terrace, surrounded by shady gardens.

Behind the house, there was a wooden carriage house of uncertain vintage, large enough to accommodate three vehicles, with tall wooden doors that swung wide open and needed to be anchored in place by sliding long metal rods down into rusted old metal holes in the ground.

On the backside of the carriage house, there were more gardens and an old stone stable with two stalls (for horses we didn’t have) and a hayloft, accessible only by a rickety pull-down ladder.

Even in the dead heat and stillness of long and lazy summer afternoons, I would climb up, throw open the large hayloft window and hang out either with one of my best friends or just by myself, reading or writing. It was my first studio, my first loft apartment.

Inside the log cabin portion of the main house, which my mother used as our dining room, there was a large hundred-plus year old stone fireplace with a cooking area on one side and an eating side on the other. The fireplace was so big that if you took care to stoop way down, you could actually walk right through it – providing there was no fire going. An enormous, black cast iron antique pot hung from a long iron arm anchored into the stone and could be swung in either direction across the fire, as needed, to increase or lower the heat on the contents.

The old wooden floors creaked a lot in this, the oldest part of the house. It took me awhile to learn which part of which steps to avoid if I wanted to creep up or down the back stairs, to or from my bedroom above, soundlessly.

And it was up there, under the eaves of the old log cabin portion of the house, in one of the twin beds, that my sister slept next to me when she came for a visit.

If she happened to wake up before me, which she usually did, she would get up quietly and kneel down on the old wooden floor next to my bed. Then, without touching me, she would stare at me fiercely until I startled awake from the sheer psychic pressure of her intense gaze. The moment she saw my eyes open in surprise, she would throw her head back and chortle with laughter, delighted at having awakened me by her sheer force of will.

This never, ever failed to amuse her.

Unnerving as it was for me, I liked that my big sister wanted me to be awake with her the moment she was up.

And all these years later, I love that Kiitos, my 8-month-old puppy, who has never done this before, woke me up in the same way on the morning of my birthday. It brought to the surface this long ago memory of a cherished sister who has not slept by my side for more than twenty years now.

It felt like she was here, with me, on my birthday – the first to greet me, the one to have, once again, stared me awake.

Best of all, she reached out to me through a dog. She loved her two dogs more than just about anything else in the world.

kristin & karen.jpeg

Except maybe me.

What a gift.

 

 

The Best Conversations

The journey through mind and memories continues….

Many weeks after my mother’s death, my heart holds a simmering stew of mixed emotions where moments of peaceful acceptance are spiced with shards of regret and seasoned with fragments of conversations that pop into my head, often when least expected.

My mother had her favorite places in Asheville – Malaprop’s Bookstore and 5 Walnut Wine Bar among them. But I think her favorite of them all was Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, pictured above.

There, over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard,

DSC02719.jpg

she and I would have long discussions about the affairs of the world, my kids, and good adventures from days gone by. Although her short term memory was terrible! – as she often exclaimed in frustration – she was clear and sharp in her stories from decades past of her travels and the places we’d lived. We could (and did) talk for hours.

This past year, however, she became a little reticent about leaving her little garden apartment, even to visit her favorite places.

DSC08168.jpg

When I suggested going into town together, an awkward look would pass over her face and she would say, somewhat apologetically, “How about if we just stay here?”

And so, every week I would join her in the dining room at her retirement village for lunch or dinner, and listen once again to the stories. Often we were there, still talking, after everyone else had left. She loved that.

“We have the best conversations!” she would exclaim when I eventually walked her back to her little flat – even if she had done most of the talking.

She’d call a few days later to thank me for coming over and tell me how much she’d enjoyed our visit, often ending with the same words, “We have the best conversations!”

Last February, I offered to take her out for a glass of wine in celebration of my sister’s life. She started automatically to demur, but when I suggested we go to Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, she couldn’t resist. And so we celebrated Valentine’s Day and my sister there together in the usual way – a glass of wine, some cheese, and of course – stories.

DSC02724.jpg

“We have the best conversations!” she remarked on the drive back to her place in Black Mountain.

It was to be her last visit to the Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. In the weeks that followed, she became increasingly reluctant to leave her little home.

She did admit, some weeks later, that she would love one more trip there. A mischievous little girl smile of hopefulness and delight lit up her face at the very thought of it.

But somehow I didn’t have the time, or make the time. I wasn’t sure she could manage it. Nevertheless, it still bothers me greatly that I didn’t somehow work it out for her.

Second guesses and regrets are part of the pain of dealing with death, but I’ve realized that trying to mentally outwit the sharper edges of remorse is often unproductive.

Rather, the best antidote to the relentless head-tricks and mind games we put ourselves through in the wake of loss might just be an unexpected little piece of magic.

And so it was the other night when a painting in a dark corner of the old Wedge building in the River Arts District caught my eye.

IMG_2066.jpg

I was wandering around a friend’s studio during a reception showcasing her work that was intriguingly titled, “Accidentally On Purpose.”

Mixed media artist Jacqui Fehl is a tiny, magical creature with large grey eyes and long ropes of platinum & black dreads. She describes her paintings as “a blend of grunge, whimsy and outsider.”

DSC04668.jpg

Influenced by music, lyrics, feelings, and stories, Jacqui’s art is unpredictable – playful, colorful and humorous with an appealing edge of darkness. Jacqui says her creative process is mostly intuitive; she may start out with an idea, but never really knows what the end result will be.

I’ve been a fan of her work for years.

“It is a dance of layering on, removing, covering up and revealing. I like my work to be loose, a bit flawed and not too precise or perfect.”

That sounds like my life, I thought, as I read her artist statement.

Even in the shadows, and even though it was not part of the show, I could see and feel there was something about this particular painting that was very compelling. The colors, the mood of it – it had a storytelling aura and lovely intimacy about it.

Another artist in the gallery caught me staring at it.

“You like this one?” she asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, unable, for some reason, to take my eyes off it. I was curious about – and drawn to – the random appearance of chairs throughout it.

IMG_2131.jpg

Knowing that Jacqui always gives her paintings interesting titles, I asked her if she knew what Jacqui called it.

She picked it up from the easel and in the low light of dark corner, squinted at the writing on the back of it

“The Best Conversations,” she said.

I stood there, speechless. And so she said it again, a little louder this time.

“It’s called ‘The Best Conversations.'”

A little magic, a little serendipity … remembering the many times my mother had said those exact words. My head flooded with delight – and relief. Finding this painting felt like forgiveness.

Accidentally on purpose, indeed….

IMG_2071.jpg

Jacqui Fehl’s delightful painting came home with me that night.

It now hangs in my little writing/breakfast room behind the kitchen –

IMG_2141.jpg

– just one of the many places where my mother and I often had ‘the best conversations.’