All This Stuff

“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland.

Down the rabbit hole indeed. Yesterday I was fortunate to receive my first dose of the Covid vaccine. I was a little anxious because I know there have been anaphylactic responses to these shots and had read about a doctor in Boston whose only known allergy was to shellfish. He experienced the anaphylaxis. My allergy. So I brought my epipen to the facility and after the injection, was observed for twice as long as most people. Luckily, I didn’t have any issue. Upon returning home, I began experiencing side effects, mild fever, headache, sore arm and fatigue. The good news is that probably means I’m having a proper immune response which made me glad as people over 55, whose immune systems are less robust, generally have fewer reactions than younger people. I’m hoping the supply will be available for my second round as there is still so much virus everywhere. One day at a time. And on a side note, it certainly was strange to see so many people in one place. I wonder what life will feel if we get to a new normal…

Sleep is a continuing problem for me and I’d hoped to get some extra time last night but alas. I woke early. I made a few swipes at catching another half hour, but my son’s name was swirling in my head, making rest impossible. He’s been off in Peru for the past 10 days, working on a conservation project in the Amazon. I was really anxious about him traveling in the midst of a pandemic, not to mention all the potential hazards of being in such a wild climate during rainy season. This is not my first bout of parental angst as his work as a biologist has taken him far from home multiple times. And unfortunately, he’s had some brushes with animals, disease and accidents which have been really frightening. He’s been out of touch for days, on a river trip with no internet access. My mother, whose every negative thought was perceived by her as a portent of disaster, remains in my brain despite my best efforts to kick her out, along with that supposedly prescient contagion she put there. So when I was repeating his name in my head non-stop, I got up to try dispelling the sense of impending doom. I turned on my phone to see that he’d just sent me half a dozen texts which included the one above, of a gorgeous group of macaws. Maybe that’s a positive twist on my mom’s cosmic fears.

Much relieved, I decided to eat exercise, eat breakfast and begin to tackle more of the inside tasks I’d left for wintry days when being outside for too long was untenable. Maybe I was still distracted by my sore arm and headache. What I intended to do was put my many photos, which I’ve been sorting for months, into these archival storage units. My daughter had purchased them recently and I got spiffy colored ones with the goal of getting rid of large unwieldy photo albums.

Since my photos are in order by date, I figured this would be a piece of cake. Great space savers, that would mean I could cull more books, which despite multiple attempts to pare them down, continue to sprout like weeds.


Just as I was getting ready to start my task, I got a phone call from a really dear old friend of mine who’d just undergone a series of significant medical tests. I was eager to talk with her. My friends and I are getting to that age when the transience of time is more up in our faces than it was in our youthful days. We’ve barely seen each other in the past year because of the pandemic. Her news was good and we lingered in conversation.

I grabbed a big binder to look for photos while we chatted, not remembering what was inside. And so my diversion from what was intended began. First out of the box was the photo of my high school sweetheart and good friend Rich, taken somewhere on the shores of Lake Michigan. That was the least unsettling moment of the day.

Next find was one I didn’t realize I had. At the end of 2014, my mother had suddenly become violently ill with the flu and was unable to transfer from the hospital back to her assisted living facility. When she was admitted to the nursing home instead, there was little time given by her previous home to move out her things. In the midst of Michael’s illness and our attempt to get him into a clinical trial, I grabbed mom’s documents and photos in an essentially haphazard way and evidently scrambled some of her stuff with mine. I found myself looking at my pediatrician’s record of my life from birth to age six while a little girl in Sioux City, Iowa. I saw the date of my smallpox vaccination and my polio ones. I learned that I turned my feet out as soon as I started walking. I remember my shoes, tight oxfords built up on the outside in an effort to correct that problem. That never happened – I still walk that way. I read about inexplicable rashes, trends in my sleeping and eating patterns, and when I reverted to wetting my bed. I know when that was – the first time my mother was hospitalized when I was four. An envelope labeled Renee’s first tooth was there, too, but it was empty. There was however, an envelope labeled Renee’s first haircut, December 1952, age 18 months. Quite a sight. Also stashed in these folders was my birth certificate from Chicago – 8 months later I was an Iowa resident.

I found my first grade class photo. Interestingly, I don’t remember my teacher’s name although I clearly remember the one from kindergarten. I remember all my teachers from Chicago. The child I remember best was Connie, the girl with long blonde curls who brought me a May Day basket when we were in this class together. In addition there was my report card from that year. Apparently I was a good little kid. Thinking of the long journey from then to now was dizzying.

Moving on I came to the Dennis repository. He was the guy I dated on and off for a few years in college, in between break-ups with my first true love, Al, and before my friendship with Michael turned into the romance of my life. I really liked Dennis, even loved him as a friend. I have a handful of photos of him.

We’d stayed in touch for many years after we’d both married and had kids. He’d moved east and occasionally we’d see each other when he came back to Chicago to see his family. He started out as an architect and then became a veterinarian. He combined the two by designing and building his own vet clinic. I opened the stash of letters I’d saved from him and found a photo he’d sent of himself which had appeared in his local newspaper. Looking at this memorabilia made me so sad. His life which had seemed so full and rich went south. He got divorced, retired in his early 50’s and designed a home which he built himself in Costa Rica. But he regretted that decision, moved back home and tried to buy back into his old vet practice. They didn’t want him. I found out from his ex-wife that he committed suicide shortly thereafter, before meeting his first grandchild who was almost ready to enter the world. I was terribly saddened back then and again, as I revisited these memories.

I tried to stop there, going over to my photo albums to begin the transfer from them to those storage containers but I wanted to see what else was in that big binder. Next up was a stack of letters from me to my parents, written over a few years in the 70’s, right after I’d moved in with Michael. I was just shy of 21 when they started and they go on through the next three years. In my real adult life, which I feel truly begins when you pass thirty, I’d begun to see my parents through a different lens than the one I had when I was young. I knew that I’d carried a lot of emotional responsibility toward them that was inappropriate. We loved each other intensely but there were psychological boundary breaches that they were responsible for, not because of abuse or malice but rather because they were underdeveloped, more like peers than parents in many ways. My mom, whose health was always lousy, was in particularly bad shape back then. Two of my letters were addressed to her at different hospitals within just a couple of months.

Reading them was so depressing. I was either trying to bolster and support them, minimizing my own problems, and downright lecturing them as if they were my kids. I think we all wonder about our memories, what’s real, what’s embellished and what you’ve probably forgotten. This habit of mine, writing everything down, makes things much more clear and less papered over by the passage of time. By the time I got done reading those, I was in a decidedly sour place, not helped by my lingering vaccine headache.

I finally hung it up after I flipped to the next page and found this forgotten photo booth strip of my friend Fern and me. I think it was taken when we met up in Chicago at Marshall Field’s on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago after not having seen each other for a few years. I was married, she’d lived abroad and although we’d known and loved each other so well, there was some anxiety about seeing each other again, especially for her. I remember her saying she was worried that I’d have some old married lady hairdo and be too mature for the crazy stuff we’d shared. Another sad thing to see. Fern committed suicide in 1988, a few weeks before our 20th high school reunion. I knew she was teetering on the edge as she had been for years. The night before she died, I was urging her to hang on, come home and live with Michael and me for awhile so we could help her heal. We’d been on this road for years. The last thing she said that night was that the worst thing about thinking about suicide was how hard it would be for the people left behind, and one more I love you. She was dead the next day.

So much for getting anything done. I’d managed to make messes everywhere by pulling things out to sort in several different rooms. I decided to just leave everything.

Photos, comic books, CD storage bags, old comforters and computers, all just sitting there, even more disorganized than before. I went for a walk to reorient myself. Nature always helps.

I feel like my pile of chores got higher, deeper, wider – take your pick. Turns out that what I thought were my inside things to do are more intangible than what I had planned. I guess there’s always more when you go down those rabbit holes. Michael would say, “ there you go again.” Yup. I guess if I’m anything that would be consistent. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “ tomorrow is another day.”

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