Thursday, May 18, 2017

Remembering Carol

Tonight the name of an old friend came up; we lived through some difficult and dark days together. At some point our lives turned in different directions, we each ended up dealing with other difficult times without each other's support. When she passed away, I didn't know, and when I found out I was devastated. Just like the situation with my mother, I didn't have the chance to talk, express love and gratitude, or to say good-bye. Her name was Carol, and she was the inspiration for a chapter in my book, and also a short story called "Death by Chocolate." Tonight, in her memory, I reprint the chapter from my book, "Treading Water," and hope that, somewhere over the rainbow, Carol will look down on me and smile.

Finding Oz

My friend, Carol, insists that at her funeral I will sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. I’ve tried to back out of it, first by refusing to discuss the possibility of death – Carol’s, mine or anyone else’s; then by declaring that I would be much too upset to sing anything. “You can do it for me,” Carol insists.

For Carol, getting over the rainbow has meant fighting back from a devastating disease and surgery, followed by the end of a 22-year marriage. At 59, she found herself facing the world alone and unprepared. We spent many summer nights on my back porch, swatting mosquitoes, drinking countless cups of coffee and discussing her career possibilities and financial strategies. We swapped medical stories, comparing her spinal surgery to my thyroid disease and found out that both of us had lost our night vision.

We've even seen the rainbow, arching high over the yard, and we couldn’t decide if it was beckoning us or mocking us.

For me, getting over the rainbow is less tangible. Younger than Carol, but also recently divorced, it is the weight of time that leans on me. Time for my children, time to start over, time to write. For at least 20 years time has been my ally, my guardian, my temptation and my foe. Surely, over the rainbow, time stands still.

The rain fell sporadically in Syracuse. From a drizzle in the city it graduated to a downpour at Chittenango Falls. I sat with the other press trip writers underneath a log canopy, savoring a boxed lunch and the sound of the falls, a few yards away. On cue, the sun broke through just as we were finishing, bathing the waterfall's gorge in light. I stood at the top of the waterfall and looked down into the chasm below. Higher than Niagara, Chittenango Falls is a spectacle at any angle. I longed to hike down the trail, to the bridge way down at the bottom. “Sorry,” said our hosts, “Not enough time for that.”   
So, we piled back into the cars to continue our whirlwind tour of the area, the Erie Canal Museum, the Salt Museum, the reconstructed Jesuit mission, the archaeological dig at Chittenango landing, the Oneida Mansion House built by the religious sect called perfectionists, the Boukville-Madison Antique show – all the interesting and important sites of the area – sites interesting and important enough for us to write about when we got home. Yet, there was something that the publicists had failed to mention.

“Stop the car!” I yelled. My driver slammed on his brakes, almost giving the rest of the writers in the car whiplash. “I have to get a picture!” We were driving through the town of Chittenango Falls and it had started raining again. I shielded my camera lens as I knelt down in the street to photograph the aging, yellow building. Was it the “For Sale" sign that drew me, or perhaps the aging classic cars covered with dust in the big display windows? I stepped back so I could get the entire building in the frame, far enough to see the word painted on the side of the building and the big yellow arrow - “Oz.” Inside the window was a historical road marker, surrounded by potted plants. “Near here,” it read, “L. Frank Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz was born.” I could hardly believe that I was standing on the same ground that L. Frank Baum may have walked on. The writers in the car looked at me with the same strange expression I had seen on the faces of my children when I visited Poe’s grave in Baltimore.

My enthusiasm, however, was infectious. “This is nothing, said my guide. “You have to be here in May when they have the Oz Fest. There’s a parade, and panel discussions; we’ve even had some of the actors who played Munchkins as guests of honor.” It was quickly decided that a side trip to see the old Baum homestead wouldn’t take up too much time.

The house was a big, gray, Victorian flanked by two huge weeping willow trees. An iron gate ran around the property, keeping us firmly on the sidewalk. The giant trees obscured most of the house and I peeked around, trying to figure out which room would have belonged to young Frank. The house was situated directly across the street from an old graveyard and I wondered how this constant view influenced the writer in Baum. I snapped picture after picture as the rain began to comedown again. Wait ‘til Carol sees this, I thought.

We arrived at our next destination, the Americana Village, only slightly late. The village is a collection of buildings saved from the wrecking ball and moved to that spot. I could appreciate the good intent of the project, and the usefulness of the site for weddings and such, but I couldn’t keep my mind off Dorothy, the wizard, and the man who invented them all. That’s real history, I thought.

As we were preparing to leave, the rain slowed, and suddenly, arched over the village’s windmill was a huge rainbow. It seemed to stretch from one mountain to another. This is a sign, I thought as my camera clicked away. I couldn’t wait to tell Carol.

My fascination with Baum and the appearance of the rainbow provided plenty of conversation at dinner that night. The seasoned travel writers teased me a bit, but after all, I explained, I’m a family writer and I love children’s books.

Back in New Jersey, I took my six rolls of film to the closest one-hour developer and paced around my house until I could pick them up. I called Carol. “Its a sign,” I babbled. Maybe I was supposed to move to Syracuse and become the curator of the yet-to-be-built Oz Museum. Perhaps it would be I who returned the Baum house to all its Victorian splendor. And of course, there would be plenty of room for close friends, like Carol; and most of all, plenty of time to spend drinking in the magic of the area. It had to be fate.

I leafed through the pictures nervously, afraid they didn’t come out. There was the marker commemorating Baum’s birth, the dilapidated building proclaiming the way to Oz, the cemetery, and finally the House. The rainbow, however, was barely a hint of its brilliance; I hadn’t had time to set the exposure right. A bad omen, I thought.

Sure enough, several days later, one of the publicists who had conducted the Press Tour called me. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” she said. “I’m so embarrassed.” What followed was a long explanation leading to one point – the Victorian house in my pictures wasn’t Baum’s house after all, it wasn’t even close. Apparently, we had passed the location of the Baum house sometime earlier in the tour. All that was left was the land, the house was long gone. Well-meaning townspeople had purchased the land with the intention of building a museum, but all they had built was a sign that said that the land was now under the care of the cowardly Lion. I felt like someone had just dropped a house on me. I breathed a sigh of relief, glad that I hadn’t yet written any articles for publication about the famous Baum birthplace.

So, I didn’t get over the rainbow after all. But Carol calls me every few days. “Don’t forget,” she reminds me, “You are still going to sing that song at my funeral, even if you don‘t end up running things in the ‘soon to be built museum‘.” I nod silently, knowing that I am probably meant to stay put right here in Jersey. After all, there’s no place like home.

No comments:

Post a Comment