We only unpacked the essentials at my mom's house but the thought of having to pick everything up and move again is still a burden I wish we didn’t have to shoulder. The nomadic life we have lived is a cycle I desperately want to break but on Friday we will once again enlist the help of family, rent a ten foot U-haul for $19.95 for the day plus $.99 per mile and start moving boxes. It’s as if we’re playing some giant chess game with our furniture as the castles and pawns laid out on a board spread across half a continent. Move sofa from square mom’s garage to upper level Prentice Park, Chair two to pole barn three in Andes, Check and Checkmate. The only problem with this analogy is that our game never stops. We continue playing, never getting all the pieces off the board and saying enough, checkmate, game over. This move is just a scrambling of the pieces as we set the game up on a temporary rented board knowing we will start the game yet again in a whole new place.
There’s frustration in this constant moving but there’s hope there as well. The transience of this constant moving gives rise to the knowledge that we haven’t quit the game. We continue to plot how we will succeed and move on to a better place. As in anything in life you have to hold on to hope and never abandon your dreams.
Every so often Rick, Emmy and I with grandma in tow all pile in the car and tour a different residential area looking at homes and dreaming of the possibilities. Each of us has his own set of requirements for our own utopia. For Rick right now it’s something small with a yard just big enough for a garden, and a fireplace to keep him warm in the winter. Emmy’s dream is very traditional. Her fairytale castle has two stories, a special room for her Breyer horse collection, and a white picket fence. I’ve been leaning more toward mid-century modern. I know it’s just a phase but those are the homes I point to. The whole experience is reminiscent of what I remember from my childhood. On many a late Saturday afternoon my parents would march us into the bathroom and scrub us clean, boys first and then girls. Mom slipped us into our pajamas as my dad prepared the car making pallets out of big wool blankets and pillow from our beds. We would then drive out to Shorewood, Nakoma, University Heights or Maple Bluff and dad would slowly criss-cross the streets as we all pressed our noses on the car’s windows dreaming of which house we would pick if we could have one of them as our new home. It was a game that was very real for me. I believed each house I picked would be the one I would eventually move into.
“Oh, look at that one, the one with the bricks and the wooden front door.”
“No, over here, the one with the big columns.”
“No, that one’s too old, oh quick, look over here at the one with the red shutters.”
The game went on until the light faded. Sometimes we kids just fell asleep. On other times we made it to the nearby A&W for a frosty mug of root beer and some curly fries brought out on a tray that the carhop attached to the rolled down window on our car, simple pleasures garnished with a sprig of desire.
Sometimes life means chasing your tail. You just end up where you started, driving around town looking at dreams.
When it became clear I could no longer subject Rick and Emmy to my mom's panic and fear induced delusions we began searching for a place we could call our own. We cast a wide net both geographically and economically. We looked far and wide but we wanted something close to both my mom's home and Rick's part-time job. Then we set a cap on what we thought we could afford. As we began to make our rounds, I kept a pasted smile on my face for the sake of Rick and Emmy but underneath festered the nagging question, "Who the hell is going to rent us a broom closet with a financial record including a zero credit rating, a foreclosure, an apartment eviction and no money in the bank?" I soon found the answer - almost everyone. Maybe our age, or our New York aura, or maybe it wasn't us at all, maybe it was the economy and we were just a couple of warm bodies but whatever the case most of the rental agents were more than willing to overlook all of our shortcomings and hand out a lease.
So now we've signed a lease and my hand is continuing to shake. Prentice Park, a two bedroom on three floors. It's new construction; the kind you see all over America but this one has a certain small charm. From the outside the complex looks like a little village with manicured grounds, a central swimming pool with a connecting clubhouse, a man-made pond, and meandering stone walks leading to brick facades with gabled roofs. You enter our townhouse either through the front door or through the garage. Because of the extreme cold in this part of the world almost all rentals come with individual garages or underground parking facilities. Once inside there is an entry with a coat closet and a huge laundry room. A flight of stairs leads up to the main floor showcasing a galley kitchen with a huge walk-in pantry, dining area, and a living room with a cathedral ceiling and a deal breaking fireplace, at least for Rick. There is also a master suite with another enormous walk-in closet and a bath with a whirlpool. From the living room you could exit out to a suspended deck with an outdoor storage area or ascend another set of stairs up to a good-sized loft with a half bath, a set of matching closets and a skylight. The loft will be Emmy's room and this was her deal breaker. All of this comes for a whopping nine hundred dollars a month plus a thirty-five dollar fee for Buddy. Finding a place that would take a dog was almost more difficult than finding a place that would take us. We think we can handle this until we get on our feet and then it should be a piece of cake. Rick's part-time job and his monthly royalty check from the furniture licensing deal should cover our rent and our food and transportation will still come from my taking care of my mom. We pinch pennies in ways we never thought about before and this is a lesson well worth learning.
Remember that the welcome mat has its honeymoon period after which you need to look at moving on. After a while even your mother can think you're a real pain in the ass, or vice versa.
This really came as no surprise but Madison was named by Children’sHealth as the second best place to raise a kid and since we have one we were pretty excited about the announcement. Not everyone has the opportunity we had in starting over. We didn’t have many choices. My family lived in Madison, all of them. Our move was going to be to Madison or to…Madison. So when Children’sHealth announced on the “Today Show” that Madison was second on its list of best places to raise a kid, we were very happy with the cards we were forced into playing. With criteria like childhood obesity, air quality, education, cultural opportunities and the number of fast food restaurants per capita, raising Emmy here was going to provide us with a better set of tools for helping a thirteen year old. Of course we had already known about many of these advantages. One, in particular, we had seen up close and personal was education. My sister, Ebby, has taught kindergarten for over twenty years in the Madison school system and has been at the forefront of some of the more progressive programs initiated into the system. She was named Madison teacher of the year, she has been at the forefront of new teaching methods and she waged a petition with the board of education to allow her to bring her dog to school as a teaching aide. She also created an outdoor forest in the interior courtyard of her school as a year round nature preserve. The school, itself, is a vintage example of the arts and crafts movement of the 1920’s with built-in bookcases and a fireplace tiled with a Jack and Jill nursery rhyme. Parents from outside her district regularly petition to get their child enrolled in my sister's class. Earlier in the year we watched her kids build a three-dimensional town out of old cardboard boxes and clay and then gasped in horror as she set a home on fire because they forgot to build a firehouse in their make-believe village. It was a small lesson in observation and in what makes a town.
For Emmy, her school placement did not happen by chance. Prior to moving to Madison we investigated all of the available schools in the area. Unfortunately, the middle school in the district my mom's house was in did not show up with rave reviews. It was a troubled school with a transient student body. One district over was a middle school rated one of the top 200 middle schools in the country but we weren’t sure how we could get her in on such short notice. What we decided on was the middle school that her cousins were going to attend. This was a much easier fix for us. We found a way around residency requirements by assigning my sister co-guardianship of Emmy. This gave Emmy the entry into her new school. Emmy’s school is one of the newer schools in the area and was built as a green, energy efficient edifice. This is so Madison. The building is so efficient it takes less than eighteen cents per day to run the heat and electricity for the entire school. Chalk that up to Scandinavian penny pinching ingenuity. Top this off with the fact that Emmy loves every one of her classes and teachers and I think we hit an educational home run.
If you have kids, make sure you know what the educational system looks like in your new city. Don’t assume you don’t have any choices. Many schools offer open enrollment for kids outside their districts and there are usually ways of bending the rules if you really want to dig deep enough.
I’m living a reverse life right now. The typical worker puts in his forty hours Monday through Friday and then clocks out for those two days called the weekend. TGIF is a mantra hummed from cubicles across the nation, but not from where I sit. Friday night means that for the next forty-eight hours I will be racking my brain trying to find things for my mom to do or following her around the house making sure she’s not harassing Rick or Emmy or getting herself into trouble. I can’t imagine the pain and confusion that swirl around her on a daily basis. Getting up in the morning not sure if the room you’re in is yours and then walking out into a hallway bustling with people you barely recognize. The fear this must cause is incalculable. To combat it she tries desperately to cling to a routine and to surround herself with only the things she can recognize and remember. I never saw my mother as a very prideful or willful person but her disease has shown me otherwise. There are those who approach the pronouncement of dementia pro-actively. Their reactions are to immediately search for what they can do to combat the effects of the disease. Then there are those, like my mom, who try everything they can to deny they have anything wrong with them. They argue that the forgetfulness is only a piece of growing older and they not only will not go out looking for assistance but they will refuse it when it is offered to them. My family has done their research, consulted with doctors, and tried to get my mom to participate in monitoring her illness, but her response is denial and more and more frequently anger. There are a set of pills my mom is to take everyday. While she was living alone she was given the responsibility to take these on her own. That didn’t work. The next move was for my sister, Bonnie, who picked her up and took her to work to check to see if she had taken her pills but that only worked on the week days. Then when we came into the picture and took up the role of pill police we began setting out her pills along with her breakfast thinking we had taken care of the situation. Some days were fine but on others she would question how I would know what medication she was supposed to take. She’s apparently a lot cagier than I thought. Last night, Emmy found a pill tucked behind the cushion of a chair in the living room. Then I discovered another half dozen hidden behind the molding in the kitchen cabinets. I assume her fear makes her think we are trying to kill her with death inducing medication, so she pretends to take her medicine, then palms it, and hides it when the coast is clear.
Our coming into her life at this stage of her disease has been very difficult for my mom and those suffering the most, besides her, are Rick and Emmy. Her short-term memory right now can last from two to fifteen minutes. Repetition is a way of life and no more so than on the weekends when at regular intervals she questions the day of the week and who is taking her to work, work being a euphemism for adult daycare. Thank god for my baby sister and her patience with taking my mom five days a week and giving me a weekend on the week days.
I hope Emmy can remember the bubbly, funny person my mom was and not the woman, who shows up in her room and tells her to turn off the lights and clean up this mess,
“This isn’t your house you know.”
Rick walked out of the back entrance of The Boston Store his mackinaw draped over his right arm and an oversized unopened beige duck cloth umbrella in his other. It was the end of his first day on the floor. He used the umbrella as a cane making a clicking sound as he walked on the concrete sidewalk. It had rained earlier in the day. The sky remained gray but the rain had moved east leaving a bitter wind behind. He scanned the parking lot for the car. As he stood there, his hand raised to shield the glare of the gray light reflected off the almost white surface of the vast parking lot, he looked very handsome. Except for the time when he was really sick and had stopped shaving he has always looked much younger than his actual age. His perfectly fitted dark suit over a blue striped shirt and a patterned tie made him look distinguished and elegant. He stood in contrast to the shoppers hustling by in their sweats and running shoes. It was three o’clock in the afternoon on a Monday, too early in the week and the day for students or young professionals to be trekking through the mall. The crowd passing by looked older, more mature, more likely to fit into a retiree demographic. These were the ladies and gentlemen who made up his customer base, coming to him for his advise on his first day.
He found the car and fell in laying the umbrella on the floor and placing the mackinaw on his lap. I had brought Buddy along with. He perked up when he saw Rick and insisted on jump onto his lap.
“So how did it go?” I turned on the ignition and flicked on the lights as I pulled out of the parking space.
“It was fine.” Like father like daughter I thought, it was like listening to Emmy whose response to every inquiry about her day comprises the same minimalist retort.
“Anything interesting happen? Meet any new people?”
Then piece by piece I started to hear about the day: the diversity of the customers, how he had to deal with exchanges, how he opened his first customer account by offering an introductory 20% discount on one customer’s $300 purchase, and then he told me about Edith. Edith was his co-worker, standing side-by-side on the floor with Rick gently guiding him through his first day jitters. Edith had stood in that exact same spot for over ten years, helping customers, ringing up sales and guiding the uninitiated. Rick went on about how nice and helpful she was in spite of some odd idiosyncrasies. Edith was born with a defective hip that made her limp when she walked and list to the left when she stood. This was fine and commendable of The Boston Store to hire people with disabilities but in addition to the limping and listing Edith’s disability also left her with constant uncontrollable flatulence. Whether she limped or listed she tooted, sometimes singularly and at times with a machine gun-like rapidity. I had to hand it to her employers for sticking with a ten-year tooter. As unlikely as it would be to fire someone because of a physical disability it would be even harder to let someone go for a fart, so Edith has continued to do her work one step and two toots at a time.
No matter how hard I try I can’t rid myself of the image of Rick standing in his Armani suit, a broad smile glued to his face, with the diminutive and slightly listing Edith at his side offering his assistance to an unaware customer accompanied by the sweet sounds of Edith’s trumpeting musical butt.
You take what god hands you and you do your best. You allow no one to look down at you. Everyone is at eye-level even if you list a little to the left. I, like Edith, hope to walk with my head held high tooting as I go and not giving a damn what anyone else may think.
Step one, toot two
The numbers on the spreadsheet were a rude awakening. It was horrifying to see it all laid out in black and white. In the space of three years our net worth had plummeted from just short of three million down to just short of three hundred, and I don’t mean three hundred thousand, I mean the three hundred with those two little zeros. Not enough to do much of anything and believe me there’s a lot to be done. The kindness of family is getting us through with a roof over our heads and food on a our plates, a car to get us from place to place and the all important connection to the internet. Yet the lack of funds is not damping our spirits or deadening our innovation. We are continuing to wake up every morning and look for good fortune under every stone.
Emmy took the first step by making herself a ginny pig for acne research, now Rick has cast his pride to the wind. Tomorrow he goes in for his initial training session as a salesperson in the housewares department at The Boston Store. Tomorrow will bring seven hours of learning how to ring up a sale, where to punch in your time card, and how to tell melamine from china. I figure he’s got this one pretty much under control. My guess is that within a fortnight he‘ll have the blue hairs and mall-walkers of Madison’s Eastside lining up for his advise on which sheets have the highest thread count and whether to go for 100% cotton or percale. Right now, the position is purely part-time and a means to give us a pinch of spending money and a modicum of self-respect. It also gets Rick out on his own in a foreign land making some of his own friends and stretching his independence. From the height of the new York design world to nine dollars an hour behind a counter at a mid-range department store, how low would you go?
Remember, a little is always better than nothing at all. If you have to start out small it’s okay. The road up means starting at the bottom and chugging on up, anyway you can.
There is a lot to learn from my mom who lives a life of strict routine. The chaos and upheaval of moving and trying to restart a normal life could use a few tips from mom about order and repetition and no more so than in regards to my physical being. At my age the body doesn't necessarily respond the way I want it to, nor the way I had been accustomed to when I was in my thirties. In New York, in my youth and financial affluence, I was able to join a gym and workout with a trainer. The routine was to go to the gym early in the morning, get my thirty minutes of cardio in, and then spend an hour with a trainer working the dead weight circuit and the mat. This was a three-day-a-week schedule that I kept to religiously. It worked well until Emmy came along. The first to be cast out was the trainer and then the gym. I was forced to try to remember all I had learned and translate this into something I could do at home. With space being an issue in most NYC digs and our designer's inability to allow any unsightly exercise equipment to foul our perfect home I found a little Stairmaster I could store under the bed. I added an upper body strength cord to the machine so I could combine some bicep and chest work along with my thirty minute cardio all done on the Stairmaster in front of the early local news show at 5:30am. This was my Monday, Wednesday and Friday wake-up call combined with a set of stomach exercises done on the floor. Then on Tuesdays and Thursdays I reduced the routine to only what I could do on the floor. The weekends were always free of any traditional form of exercise. Week day gym inspired exercise was replaced with weekends of carrying furniture up and down a steep flight of stairs at our store and weeding the garden. As Emmy grew older and getting her to school on time became a factor, my rountine started to show some signs of cracking. I was able to maintain a better track record during the summer but the school year was starting to be a little hit or miss.
Before we moved and Emmy had grown to middle school age, my routine had fallen to stomach exercises on the bedroom floor four days a week and if I didn't go to the country I might squeeze a couple of cardio sessions in on Saturday and Sunday while watching a repeat of Bravo's "Top Chef" or "The Housewives of Atlanta". I tried to combat this lack of physical exertion by eating healthy breakfasts, moderate lunches and sensible dinners during the week then casting fate to the wind on weekends.
Since we moved to Madison the exercise machine has remained packed away in the garage and my belt has gained another notch. Worst of all I discovered Culver's, home of the butterburger, deep fried chesse curds and concretes a malted so thick and loaded with butterfat you can turn it upside down and shake it without risking losing a single drop. You heard me right, burgers cooked in butter, deep fried cheese and artery clogging malts all in one meal. My waistline doesn't have a fighting chance.
It's not just the mind that needs a workout routine. Don't neglect some time spent on your body. Get out and take a walk, see some sunshine. It not only affects that sagging set of pecs but it clears the mind and lifts the spirits. Dust off that Stairmaster and start stepping.
I’m going to start right out with a major lesson: Don’t forget the all important exit plan. Call it what you want: Plan B, Mistake Reversal Strategy, U-Turn Policy, or your “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here” clause. It doesn’t matter what you name it, the purpose is indispensable. The game needs to be played knowing the outcome may not be what you intended it to be and you have to have some alternatives in place. Moving to Wisconsin has proved to be, at times, more than we could handle given the fragile condition of all the Shavers and Melahns. On one hand, there’s the former matriarch of the Melahn family reduced to being followed like a toddler unable to remember where her shoes are (usually under the coffee table or in her closet and sometimes miraculously still attached to her feet) or why that darn garbage disposal doesn’t work (we unplugged it for obvious safety reasons). My youngest sister takes my mom to work five days a week for a good chunk of the day but the rest of time falls on my shoulders and like the good son, I have become her shadow not only for her own protection but for the protection of my own family. This brings up the other hand, Emmy and Rick. There has never been a mean bone in mom’s body. Laughter and a laissez-faire approach to life have been the hallmark of her personality up until now. Now, there can be times of true anger and the recipients have been all of us. When she gets up in the morning it can be particularly confusing for her. She hobbles through the house repeating the same questions from the day before, “What’s this mess?” “Why’s that light on downstairs?” “You’re not living here?” It all plays out like a scene from “Ground Hog Days” but not in a funny way. Before we left I worked on visualizing the burden this would place on me, I failed to calculate the effects on Rick and Emmy. She’s my mom and I can shrug off any hateful comment but Rick and Emmy absorb the slurs like knife inflicted wounds. They both know the bad times have nothing to do with them but they remain defenseless unable to feel anything other than as unwelcome guests.
So we had to formulate our plan B. We established a goal of moving into our own place as soon it is economically feasible. We chose not to put a time limit on the move. We didn’t want to defeat ourselves if we were unable to meet an arbitrary deadline. We discussed the minimum requirements needed in a new but temporary home, and we discussed the need to keep the move close enough to my mom’s so I could still keep up with her during the evenings. To keep our goal real we have started looking at what’s available in Madison. In the late afternoon we take drives through different neighborhoods. Emmy points out the homes that meet her requirements: a big yard for her and Buddy, a two story house with a traditional façade, a screened-in porch for summer evenings. She oohs and ahs over canopied streets pointing to virtually any home that even remotely fits her qualifications.
Rick and I went to visit a converted tobacco warehouse that caught our eye. We scan the internet and look at ads in the paper like pirates looking for treasure. It gave us hope to see what you could rent here for one third the cost of our last New York apartment. Hope lives in dreams and goals and now we are beginning to prioritize.