Our vacation: a pop quiz

You get one clue.
You get one hint.

Dave and I spent a week up north to be in nature, see some colors, and generally relax. In the list below, can you spot the 2 things we DIDN’T do to make our vacation a success?

  1. Locate vacuum cleaner immediately upon arrival and vacuum entire cottage.
  2. Replace  fluorescent  bulbs with LEDs purchased at hardware store in town.
  3. Sweep front steps and walk, though no one’s coming over we hope.
  4. Rearrange living room furniture. Twice.
  5. Outfit the dog for woodsy hikes in bright orange hunting vest, bright orange hunting collar, and blinking light for collar, then mostly walk on the beach.
  6. Purchase a sled.
  7. Consider purchasing a 1000-piece Jesus puzzle but ultimately decide on a pack of cards.
  8. Nestle in front of the fire with dog curled adorably in shower stall.
  9. Plan and cook meals that make best use of the available pots and pans.
  10. Confess ourselves genuinely surprised by Tennessee Williams and Gypsy Rose Lee.

The first correct guesser gets a jar of Cherry Republic cherry jelly — because Donna says it’s better than jam.

Or bust.

White CRV, Wisconsin plates, M-22 bumper sticker.
White CRV, Wisconsin plates, M-22 bumper sticker.
As soon as I realized Ruby’s car had been stolen out of my driveway, I wanted to vacuum the living room.

First I wanted to walk the neighborhood, hoping I would see it, sure I would see it parked around the next corner, wheels gone or door open, but there. The thieves would have gotten in and seen the tub of caramel corn in the front passenger seat, the summer tops on hangers, and the Pig Roast or Bust travel book Ruby had made, spiral bound and including section dividers. If they’d paged through it, they would have seen one tab for Fabric Stores between Madison and Alexandria, another tab for Motels, another for Campgrounds, and a Summary page linking the likely stops with approximate travel times between them (MT & Dave’s to Yoders in Shipshewana 2½ hours, Yoders to something in Ohio 3 hours). They would have seen the first bag of fabric from a store in Crystal Lake, and they would have said, “We can’t take this lady’s car. We like the spirit of this lady and we want her to make it to the pig roast.”

But Dave and I walked the neighborhood, as soon as I’d woken him and made him understand that “Ruby’s car is gone” didn’t simply mean she’d left early. As we looked around corners for her familiar car, one we’ve seen every August for the past ten years when we meet up in Michigan for a week, it became clear that what the thieves had actually said was, “1999 CRV, it’s a chopshop favorite. Let’s go.”

The thieves couldn’t know that the pig roast was in honor of Ruby’s first boyfriend, Slim, who died earlier this year. They couldn’t know that Ruby hadn’t been able to make it back east for his funeral, or that a funeral had anyway seemed an odd thing to connect with Slim but the summer pig roast his friends always threw felt like a better place to say goodbye.

When Dave and I got home from our neighborhood search, Ruby had already talked to the police and found a 2pm train for Madison. We offered her our car to continue the trip east but she wanted to get back home and start shopping for a new CRV. I held off on vacuuming until we took her to Union Station, and then I held off again because some other friends were arriving in their rental car from Midway. I wanted to erase the event by vacuuming and then maybe also mopping, but instead I had to say to my other friends, “Did you get rental car insurance?”

When they said no, we had them put their car inside the gate, and we parked ours in front of it.

There were also three bottles of dressing in the CRV, because Ruby’s pig roast task was salads. I believe there was also a Recipes tab in Pig Roast or Bust but I can’t be sure. I only got to see Pig Roast or Bust for a minute, standing on the driveway as Ruby got an overnight bag out of her car, paging through it and marveling at how a drive to DC suddenly seemed short and fun when you looked at it in terms of 2-3 hour fabric store destinations. And marveling at Ruby, who continues to interact with daily living in a way that is unlike anyone else I know yet mostly manages to pass for normal.

I’d almost asked to hold on to Pig Roast or Bust and bring it inside to look at longer, but when Ruby reached for it I knew I’d feel terrible if she ended up forgetting to put it back in the car in the morning. Like the last conversation you don’t get to have with someone you’ve loved, I couldn’t have known there’d be no car to put it back into.

Coming back

Clown noses from Dale's birthday
Ruby said the noses were cheaper in bulk.

When we got back from vacation I realized Django is old. I’m afraid to say that because I don’t want to look like I’m projecting. I can’t help it. I’m turning 50 and she’s turning 12. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just what happened. So coming back and hearing that all the warnings and nightmare scenarios I’d given Kelso and Karl, “she goes ballistic at skateboards, she will attack toddlers on scooters, she intensely hates a white dog named Princess,” came to nothing, I had to wonder: Had I prepared them for a younger Django? Had I written up two full pages of instructions on leash-gripping and treat distractions for a dog that no longer exists?

She looked so old on our first walk this morning. It was hot here, full of humidity which I’d forgotten about after our days in northern Michigan. There, the heat was dry and breezy, soft across your skin. Here it pushes heavy and intractable. We walked down Sunnyside. Django did her business and then, when Dave turned into the alley to toss it out, stopped dead in her tracks. Paws pushed against the pavement, head down, eyes staring up under half-closed lids. “She’s not even going to make it around the block,” I said despondently. Kelso and Karl probably wondered why my instructions said “three walks a day, at least”  when clearly all she can manage is a trip around the yard. “She wants her ball,” said Dave.

I looked again. We were standing near the head of the alley, the spot where we usually throw a tennis ball if no one’s around. Granted, she wasn’t actually in the alley, so she wouldn’t be able to see the ball if I threw it. Perhaps she’s too old to remember she needs to be able to see. Anyway, I threw the ball and she tore around the corner. She chased it down, brought it back, and got her treat.

Because of the heat, I only threw it a few times. I worry about her collapsing. In Michigan, Ruby said that after 50 you start second-guessing every ailment, every ache. You think, “Is this it?” she said patting her chest. But a day later, on her husband Roy’s 49th birthday which we celebrated with clown noses and a horrible clown statue and “Send in the Clowns” playing on Tara’s iPad and a clown sundae created by the waitstaff, Roy said age is nothing, not even worth thinking about. To some guy who said he’s not really 49 because he’s now in his 50th year he said, “Whatever.”

We continued walking east, until Django pulled south to go to Hanover Park. That’s what Kelso and Karl called Horner Park accidentally, and I like it. It sounds prettier, more European. No one really cares what a park is called, as long as you know how to get there. It always surprises me, how many small freedoms are ours for the taking.

Leaving California

sign for California, Unncorporated
Population unknown.

The ones who leave always stay in my mind. At a writing festival I went to, the famous writer who introduced the show left at intermission with her suitcase. She was flying in from or out to somewhere important. When I hosted a short film festival, the noted keynote speaker cut out after three films, with her entourage and a bag of popcorn. Today, as we walked through an Amish community with our cabinet designer, she talked about a deaf Amish child who’s being schooled with the English. Now that he’s learned to sign, he’s become much happier and better behaved. She wonders whether he’ll stay in the community after school. His parents have learned a bit of sign language, but not much, and they’re the only ones. Even if he learns to lip-read, they mostly speak Swiss German, except to outsiders. Maybe he’ll find he agrees with their principles and believes their religion, but would I want to stay somewhere people didn’t even try to speak my language?

This second trip to California, Michigan has been anti-climactic. We arrived an hour early, trying to anticipate the time change our designer had already compensated for when she told us what time to show up with the truck. Instead of being finished with lunch and prayers, the Amish family is just sitting down. Good thing we came to the designer’s farm first and didn’t barge up the dirt path to the family’s. “Hey, we’re here for our beautiful cabinets we’ll never cook with, is that God you’re talking to? Thank him for the money and credit cards and stuff, what’s for lunch?”

The designer takes us on a walk around the community, since there are no stores close enough to drive to. She points out houses and farms, and I’m able to ask a few of my million stupid questions about the Amish – “Does their religion make them uniformly virtuous?” “Duh, what do you think?” – and it’s all interesting, but it’s hard to beat singing for the Amish. More accurately, watching Dave sing for the Amish. Back in January, standing in their barn, bundled in my puffy Michelin Man jacket, smiling at the line of women and children who smiled back but did not speak. They’d allowed us to bring Django into the barn too, though their dogs stayed outside, and as she nosed around I hoped she wouldn’t see the dirt floor as an invitation to do anything inappropriate.

Dave examined a set of cabinets they were building for another customer, and praised things I didn’t understand at the time – inset doors and some kind of hinges and some kind of joins. The father and his sons seemed not to hear the praise. They’d wait til Dave was done speaking and then explain the next thing they wanted him to know. Where the wood came from, how the stiles were designed. Then the designer told them Dave was a musician.

“We don’t have instruments here,” said the father, “but we sing. Do you sing?”

“I studied German lieder in college,” said Dave.

“We would like to hear you sing.”

Dave laughed. “Well, when we come back for our cabinets I’ll have to…uh…prepare something.”

The father waited.

Dave laughed again. “You mean, right now?”

“Yes,” said the father, “we would like to hear you sing.”

The sons waited. The wives and children waited. I looked hard at Dave, willing him not to freeze up like I would. But he opened his mouth and out came 16 bars of some beautiful German art song. He abruptly stopped. “That’s all I remember.”

The family smiled. The father continued to wait. “Uh, there’s a Russian folk song,” said Dave. And he sang a melancholy song he’d learned when he played Andrei in Three Sisters. When he finished, the father nodded. He didn’t say, “very good” or “very nice,” but he seemed to be satisfied. When we left, one of the women said, “’Bye,” and I said, “Goodbye, thank you!” I felt like we’d established ourselves somehow. I wondered what to bring back as a gift when we came for our cabinets.

But now that we’re here, I’m glad I couldn’t think of anything. The father and sons carefully pack each beautiful cabinet and load it onto the truck. They are genial, but the father doesn’t ask Dave for any more songs. A few of the women come out and I extol over how perfectly they’ve finished each piece with Deft oil. They smile absently, but like all the praise that falls so effusively from our lips, it seems to be just stuff people like me say to people like them. It’s Cottonwood fluff. They quietly ask the designer for the check, so they can get to the bank before it closes.

My friendly overtures are irrelevant. Our one reason to be here is as customers, and with that transaction complete we become a benign interruption. When we pull away in our truck, we allow them to resume their world. If that boy leaves the community when he’s old enough, will he stay in anyone’s mind? Will they wonder how he’s doing in a world that doesn’t seem to count for them? When he comes back to visit, will he be a star or an interruption? Or are these concepts that don’t even have meaning to them?

As we drive back to Chicago, I munch on peanut butter pretzels from World Market and figure I’ve learned exactly one thing: my million questions about the Amish may not be exactly stupid, but they’ll probably never be answered in a language I can understand.