Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Blast of Water From the Past (while I deal with the blast of water in the present)

This week, I am dealing with a fairly serious flooding situation. It is nowhere near the experiences of some people in the Midwest recently, for that I am both grateful and saddened. I wish strength to everyone dealing with the damage done by the catastrophic flooding, tornadoes, and other disasters, and hope they get assistance from FEMA soon.

For me,  the situation is not that dire. But it is a continuation of what I'd like to call my "watery" adventures, and the reason for the title of my book "Treading Water." (Available here, and also on Amazon.) And yes, this is a shameful plug for that book, new sales of which might assist me with my less serious flooding situation. Below is a little tale that happened after the publication. And perhaps, once all the clean up and repairs are done for this recent "adventure" I will find a funny story in there somewhere.


Another Watery Adventure


Yesterday, an appliance malfunction reminded me that water-related events continue to haunt me. I thought I was safe when the 100-year flood in Jamesburg only brought water into my yard and right up to my deck, but not into my crawlspace or house. For the past several winters I have scrupulously avoided frozen, burst water pipes by always remembering to let the kitchen faucet trickle, just a tiny bit. And the Atlantic Ocean has allowed me to maintain my dignity by not knocking me down or removing my swimwear during my summer visits. But, the water may be still, but it is running deep. I have a toilet that refuses to be fixed, and will run water incessantly if not closely monitored. The way the little chain manages to knot itself up, despite numerous adjustments, points to more at work than faulty parts. Which brings me to this week's adventure, in which two elements conspired against me, water AND fire — or at least smoke.

In preparation for a seminar in NYC, I threw in a load of laundry that included just about every seminar-suitable piece of clothing I own. I also included the only jeans that fit me comfortably. Basically, I left out formal wear, outfits that require panty hose, and sweats. As the washer filled up, I filled the teakettle (with what else, water). When the teakettle whistled I came back into the kitchen and noticed an odd smell. The air seemed to have a lot of teakettle steam in it. As I poured the water into the teacup, I realized that the smell was more smoky than steamy, that it was getting worse and that the washer had stopped. As soon as I got near the washer, I realized the smoky stink was coming from it, and my first thought was that the motor was burning up. I tried to pull the washer out so I could pull the plug, but of course, true to the way my life goes, the washer was full of water. I turned it off, but the stink was growing and I expected to see flames behind the washer at any minute. A fireman's brigade was quickly formed to empty the water from the washer and dump it in the sink, using a bucket, a pot and some water bottles. My eyes burned and my throat hurt as we bailed and bailed until finally the washer was light enough to move. Thankfully, the plug was not hot, no wires were burning, at least on the outside of the washer. No flames were evident, and with no power, the washer cooled down. The smoky stink clung to everything in the house.

My mind flashed back to the apartment I lived in when I was 18. A basement apartment. An apartment that might not have been legal due to the insufficient plumbing. The way I learned about that was the day I came home to find sewer water spewing up out of my toilet and my kitchen sink. It was 4 inches deep in the kitchen. Luckily, at that time, I had a portable washer, and I spent a long evening with a bucket, dumping the water into the washer, and then putting the drain hose out the window to get rid of the fouls smelling stuff. I was able to break my lease shortly after that. Getting the smell out of my belongings took a lot longer.

Today, I hauled all the sopping wet clothes from this recent washer adventure outside and hung them to drip dry. I skipped the seminar (having nothing to wear) and began the "waiting for the repairman" ritual. While waiting, I counted all the pennies I could find to try and determine if I could replace the stackable washer and dryer if indeed the motor was fried.  It was looking more and more like I would be patronizing the disgusting, expensive laundromat in town.

I greeted the repairman like a teenager meeting a pop star, and hovered nearby as he began to take apart the washer. Taking off the cover let out a last gasp of choking stink, and we both coughed. The repairman did his thing while I tried not to overwhelm him with anxious questions. Finally, his head came out from under the washer. In his hand was what looked like a giant seal from a mason jar. It was black and crunchy. It was a "belt" and it had slipped out of wherever it was supposed to be, and it had burned the only way rubber knows how to burn — by stinking up the place. He replaced the belt, we ran the washer through its paces, and to my great relief, it worked fine! The specter of the laundromat faded from my brain. I could hear my checkbook actually sigh with relief.

Later, as I reloaded the washer with the original load of clothes, I thought, maybe the water stuck in the washer when it stopped wasn't again the universe's damp way of compounding a problem for me. Maybe the water was there to protect me, in case the overheated belt actually did start some flames. Maybe water is finally my friend. I may have to stop torturing it in the teakettle.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Father's Day 2019 - I had a Father, and a Daddy, and I Miss Them Both

(L) Robert Allen Serjeant (R) William Johnston Braman

William Johnston Braman died on May 2, 1955. I got to visit him in the hospital once, and according to my mother, I cried the whole time. I was, after all, less than one month old. With no memory of him, it may sound strange to say that I miss him, but I do. Not the sound of his voice, not the familiarity of his face, not the wonderful experiences we had together. No, I had none of those things. No, knowledge of him is based in some photos, some rare stories from relatives, my mother’s even rarer mentions of him, and a long, detailed ancestral history thanks to my cousin’s wife. I carry with me his DNA, and so do my children and grandchildren. We have all inherited his genetics, and whatever ways it manifests itself in our bodies.  My pointed nose, and a grandchild’s blue eyes may be his influence. And that leads to what I miss about him. I have the “nature” part of him in shaping me, but not the “nurture.”  That part of me formed completely without him, as happens to anyone who grew up without one or both biological parents.



Robert Allen Serjeant came into my life when I was two years old, and became my “Daddy” on April 12, 1958. I was so happy about this, that I announced, at the top of my lungs, “I have a Daddy now!” in the middle of a subway car. My “aunt,” who was taking care of me while the newly-weds honeymooned, felt the need to explain to a group of strangers about my father’s death and my mother’s remarriage. It was the 50s after all.



“Daddy” was the only father I knew, and his was the “nurture” role. Pretty soon he had two more little girls to raise. He wasn’t always easy to live with, sometimes meting out tough discipline. He was the source of an unpleasant nickname that still haunts me today. The older I got, the more we clashed. My mother’s alcoholism and his own problem drinking didn’t help any of us.  Yet, I never once felt that I wasn’t his daughter. Despite tempestuous times, I always went back to mend fences for the sake of “family.” And when grandchildren came into the picture, we saw a man softened by life whose strong hands were the only ones that could soothe those gassy babies. He and my mother died within months of each other when both were in their early 50s. It was a devastating loss – not the least of which was knowing that there were many things left unresolved. In the ensuing years, I have had more than one occasion to think, “Daddy would not have let this (whatever was happening to me) happen.” This was the “nurture” part of my life. A complicated, unresolved mix of experiences and feelings.  And another presence in my life gone too soon. He has missed a lot since then, and I miss him for that.



On Father’s Day, we reflect on what, or who, a father is and what they mean to us. It is a personal exploration, and no one can, or should, try to tell us how to feel. It has taken me many years to work through the legacies of my parents – all of them. And I have come to make peace with the fact that the Father and the Daddy that I had, shaped me into the person I am.  In loving myself, I love them and all that we pass down to the next generations, through both “nature” and “nurture.” Including how to say "Semper Fi" to the two Marines I lost too soon.

EDIT June 14, 2019
Had a good cry in the car this morning, as CBS-FM played Mike and the Mechanics' "In the Living Years." A song that goes right to the heart of what growing up in a dysfunctional family is like. And in the end, we grieve for what never was, and what will never be.


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Regarding Things, Thoughts, and Time


There is a reality hanging over my head that I cannot escape. It is the same reality that we all face, some sooner than others. My father’s reality was that his life ended at age 23. My mother’s reality was that her life ended at age 56. I don’t think either one of them thought about their mortality or worried about legacy, memory, or flummery.

But here I am, way closer to fatality than puberty, and wondering about the things. I’ve recently read about Swedish Death Cleaning, and the practical idea of cleaning up one’s own mess instead of leaving it behind. I am constantly replaying the emptying of my parent’s house in my head – and the difficult notion that one day there will be nothing left of me but the stuff. The stuff to put out for garage sale. The stuff to donate. The stuff to trash. And in this time in history, the electronic data—and its widespread path across the internet—as well as the phones, tablets, computers, memory cards and household appliances with their apps and digitized functions.

In fact, it appears that “settling my affairs” without me could be a huge task. Oh, there are books and notebooks, and computer apps —“Things my children should know.” Facebook allows you to designate someone to take over the reins of your page once you are gone. But your digital trail remains.

I wonder how, I, a once very organized person, have let all this get out of hand. I used to have a cabinet strictly for storing bought-ahead birthday gifts for my kids’ friends. My writing work was filed away in file cabinets – file cabinets that stand today in my shed, where they have been since the day I moved to this too small house 20 years ago.

It could have been the maelstrom of divorce, and all the destruction that caused, both physically and mentally. My kids and I moved to a townhouse in which my bedroom was the basement. Boxes of all our “stuff” filled the one car garage. From the day we moved in there, I felt like there was no room for me, and that those boxes were not only filled with toys, baby memories and holiday decorations, they were also full of me.

When we had to move again to an even smaller place, a backyard shed took the hoard. Over the years I have sporadically attempted to tame this storage. I pulled out my entire Barbie doll collection, refused to look at it, and sent it off to auction. Only later would I realize that there were some things in those boxes I really wanted to keep.

I gathered up many years’ worth of midcentury glass collecting and sent them off too. The money I got for it was embarrassingly little. So, I offered some of my “stuff” to my children. However, as many baby boomers are finding out, our children don’t want these things. Where I once wished my mother had left me a set of china, my Christmas dishes and Blue Willow set languish unwanted. And in the meantime, that which I could not unpack got replaced in my house and in my mind.

Even things that really belong to my children are left with me. School rings, yearbooks, photos. Every so often I am cautioned to not get rid of these things. We may all be in a type of denial, not recognizing that time is marching forward and I need to do something with my things, and with my thoughts.

Because when I’m gone, some of that will vanish instantly, and some of it will go to the garage sale, the donation box, or the trash. Whether I am finished with it or not.