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Monday, April 13, 2009

The First Days are the Hardest Days

The Second Part of the Trip (you can read the first part here):

You were correct that I spent the day with Julie, but you'll need to wait until the third part to hear that story because currently, my mind is back in Massachusetts.

I am not a fan of punishments, have never believed in them. We don’t punish the twins, regardless of the act. But we teach consequences. If you don’t eat your dinner, you’ll be hungry. If you take too long to get ready for bed, you’ll miss the twenty minutes of your movie. If you throw a tantrum in a store, you’ll lose my trust and I might not take you out in the future.

The consequence follows directly from the act—if we can’t connect the two events, it makes no sense. I mean, how does not eating dessert connect to not picking up your toys? It just doesn't make sense and I think children are left focusing on the lack of connection rather than learning the lesson. So...basically, I'm a fan of consequences; not such a fan of punishments.

Except that I left Massachusetts with a desire to have consequences dolled out and if consequences didn't neatly exist, I was absolutely fine with punishments. I wasn't fine with the fact that the people who transgressed were unscathed and yet I had lost a great deal. In other words, I was essentially being punished--and not just by fate, but by actual people.

A few years after I left Western Massachusetts, I googled this man who had been the reason I left and discovered that while it was several years too late, consequences had finally been doled out. It still didn't feel like enough. Doesn't time do that? Make you feel as if the consequences or punishments should be more enormous, more elaborate if you were made to wait for them?

In googling him, I found his blog, which is now defunct, and read a story that gave me pause. When he was a boy, an accident happened and his brother died and he had witnessed the event. It was a terrible convergence of finally feeling vindicated mixed with a human impulse to understand how someone could become a monster after witnessing something so terrible so early in life.

But even knowing that, I didn’t want to forgive him.

The course of his life was changed, but so was mine.

Being up there made me wonder if it is right for us to crash into each other like this, affecting each other’s lives so deeply. On one hand, you have the connections such as the ones that arise out of the LFCA daily. We are crashing into each other’s lives in such a positive manner, affecting it for the better, that you can't see anything wrong with stepping through social barriers to make a connection. And on the other, the darker side is that we also have the power to completely derail another person’s existence, set them on a different path, one they might not have wanted to choose.

And this is not to say that it isn’t a case of all’s well that ends well. I am quite happy with my life and I'm not sure I would have been quite so happy with the path I intended to take. By which I mean that I was on a path that I thought would make me happy, but in retrospect, probably would have made me miserable in the long run. So did he do me a favour by accident?

These are the things I thought about as we drove past the empty fields.

It feels a bit anticlimatic to go through the minute details of the trip once you have gotten the overarching sweep of the emotions that came from traveling back to Massachusetts, but I write this anyway because I need a record of the events; I need to process these thoughts. And frankly, I’m not sure if I can explain the end of the trip, which includes Julie and so, by extension, all of you, without talking about the first half of the trip.

A lot of the trip was about regaining muscle memory. I couldn’t give directions when we’d turn on the car, but we’d be driving and my arm would shoot out at last minute, point at a turn off and I’d shout, “there!” Josh spent a lot of time turning around the car.

Being there was like viewing the life not taken, like meeting an exboyfriend with your husband and kids in tow. When I was 21, I thought that after graduate school, I would get married and have children and move into a house in Leverett. I’d teach, go to shul in Northampton, volunteer on a farm. I couldn’t imagine anything better, anything different. I was exactly where I wanted to be and I was so certain of this fact, that I once went to a realtor to look at housing prices in the area. My father warned me not to buy, saying it would be too difficult to unload the property if I changed my mind after two years. And he was right, it was good advice. I wouldn’t be there two years later, it turns out.

So as we drove through Leverett on the way to the Peace Pagoda, I tried to imagine how different my life would be in a small clapboard house by the river.

The Peace Pagoda was for me, though we told the twins that it was for them. Isn’t that the hallmark of a bad mother? We started up the path, pausing to pee in the outdoor urinal behind the nuns’ house (the Wolvog was extremely impressed with the idea of peeing alfresco and said, “I just love this!”). The ChickieNob wanted to know why we weren’t going into the nuns’ house and I didn’t have an answer. Shyness. I haven’t been inside in almost ten years. It is difficult to knock on a door, barely remembering anyone’s name and say, “I’m here.”

They loved the incarnations of the Buddha (though out of habit, I told them that the Buddha was sleeping when we came to the gold encrusted depiction of his death and then couldn’t gracefully retract that statement and mention that they were seeing his death) and we went through the story of his life.

They climbed on the stones by the pond and talked to the fish in the water. When we walked back down the path, I kept thinking to myself, “this could be your last time doing this. You may never come back here.” And then I’d catch myself saying, “you never know when anything is a last time. I mean, that could have been my last bagel this morning. You just don’t know.”

And that’s how I put things in perspective. You know, berating myself.

We went to the Book Mill, my favourite book store in New England. They have a bumper sticker that says: "books you don’t need in a place you can’t find." I think anyone who loves books should make this a vacation destination. Seriously. I’m not sure you can get better than a used book store next to rapids in a river, with a cafĂ© and restaurant on the property. It is not only a full day excursion, but a multi-day excursion. Plus, the rest of the area is so lovely.

We had some time before dinner so we swung by the campus, knowing it would be difficult to park the next day once classes were in session. The campus was quiet, we only encountered a few students walking towards the library and campus union, a few town people exiting the theater.

The ChickieNob wanted to see my office and I told her that I wanted to take the stairs. The reason was simple. Before I left, I had stopped taking the main stairs and only took the elevator to avoid running into certain professors. We climbed the four flights to the top floor.

And then the ChickieNob saw that I was crying.

And she wanted to know why.

She seemed appeased with simply knowing that I was so unhappy in this space. We paused in front of each office and classroom and she asked me questions. Was this person nice? Well, no, they weren’t. They were only helpful once they stood to get in trouble for not being helpful. Was this person nice? Yes, she gave me some of the most important advice I received while I was there. Where did I sit when I was in this room? I couldn’t even say the words. I just pointed to the red chair where I sat for workshop and the brown one where I sat for Shakespeare. It was the same room for both classes.

She wanted to write on the board and she took the chalk and just wrote the word “sad.” I’m not really sure why but it seemed like the right thing to do so I didn’t erase it.

Josh asked me what it was like being there and honestly, it felt like entering your bed again after a nightmare. It felt like even though I knew nothing bad could happen to me, the people who hurt me were long gone, it felt like I shouldn’t be there, that I was stepping into a dangerous space. And that was silly. Just because you had one nightmare doesn't mean you'll have another if you return to bed. And being there, it was just a building. But I felt the same way as we drove down certain streets. I would twist my neck to watch a house now void of its former occupants, my heart pounding as if I expected to see him out of his lawn even though I knew he was miles away. It just felt risky.

On our last night, we discovered that the museum we wanted to see would be closed the next day so we researched maple farms in the area. In the morning, we woke up to the rain and decided to go regardless after I spoke to the kind farm owner on the telephone and she told me to bring the family over, she'd "get one of the boys to explain the whole thing even though they took down the buckets that morning." We swung by the local burrito place to eat one last time before we got on the road.

I took the ChickieNob to the bathroom, reading the new graffiti that had appeared since the last time I ate at the restaurant, long before the twins were born. It's a college town--I obviously couldn't read any of it to her, but I explained that it was a series of proclamations. After I walked her back to the table, I returned to the bathroom and took out my pen. And wrote the obvious. Knowing full well that while it wasn't clever and it wasn't going to even be noticed amid some of the brasher statements, that it was the truest thing I could say in the moment and an important point to leave behind as we drove up I-91 and into Vermont.

Have you ever returned to the place which was the source of a tremendous amount of emotional pain--returned to the same clinic, returned to an area, returned to high school? How did returning affect you? Did you feel as if you had taken back the space or approached it differently the second time?

Part Two fini; the final part coming soon...


luna said...

what a wonderful journey -- I hope it was cathartic for you to be there with your love and your lovelies.

Lori said...

Oh, boy. I am so curious now about what happened back then.

How long will I have to wait for part 3 to find out if the bed feels safe again?

Fascinating which word ChickieNob chose to write (and that she can write it!).

And I loved the pix of the Peace Pagoda.

Cassandra said...

The painful places have always been well-integrated with the rest of life. By hanging around, they become commonplace, and the good and bad memories intermingle. The ice cream stand where I went with my friend and her daughter the day of my first miscarriage is also the ice cream stand where that almost-3-year-old daughter burst into tears because the ice cream spoons weren't pink. Given that I didn't actually miscarry at the ice cream stand, the two memories end up being equally strong.

Now, you have a new set of memories to join the old set with its good and bad.

Emmy said...

What a journey you took.

I have returned to places that I have strong negative associations with. 7 years after the fact, I went back to the spot where my brother and I watched our father die. I was really nervous and afraid to go there, but felt I had to.

I certainly cried and was glad to have B with me at the time. After, I felt relief and was glad that I went. That was 6 years ago, and I haven't been back again. I know that I can though, and that feels good.

I'm spending the night at my mom's house tomorrow, which has become one of those places since my brother died. I dread going there, but know my mom needs me. It's gonna be hard, but is better once I'm there.

I can't wait for part 3!

UnicornMommy said...

My place of sadness isnt because something has happened there, but because someone isnt there anymore.

My Mom passed away three years ago at the age of 55. My son was a month shy of turning two.

We had just moved to my HD home town, which was hard because I was a homebody. I missed my home town. But after my Mom passed away I was happy that I was no longer there.

Possibly twice a month before she died I would drive the hour and half to go "back home" to visit family All my siblings and my parents. All my friends.

The two years after her passing I think I visited "home" maybe five times. it was just too painful. Everywhere I went I saw her, or rather didnt see her. The pain was excruciating.

But it did give me the chance to build a life in my new town. Which is now Home.

There are moments that I have a difficult time "back home" but having my five year old excited to be at Grandpa's makes the visit in itself.

Julie said...

What lovely bookends, what the ChickieNob wrote and what you wrote.

Clare said...

I love the way you describe this. Our memories, our pain, our association with the place. I have a place too, to which I don't return. In fact I feel like I can't return to a whole city as I experienced so much pain there when I was a child. My family often takes trips down there as they enjoy the area but I never join them. At first I thought it was just because I didn't fancy going on such a long journey, but I realised it was something much deeper inside that didn't want to go. When my mother recently said she'd like to move down there, I pleaded with her not to. I said I would find it hard to visit. Which made me think I should get over it and just go. But I feel comfortable with having that uncomfortable place of painful memories far away from me. Weird how a city - just streets, stores and buildings - does that to you.

serenity said...

After my cousin died, I didn't go to my aunt and uncle's house for years. And when I did almost 8 years later, I tiptoed to the room which had been hers, my heart in my throat, barely breathing from the grief. I opened the door, fully expecting a museum dedicated to her... and found a messy teenage boy's room.

My other cousin had moved into it, see. It was his room now.

And then I walked the path behind the school where she had taken her own life. And I saw no trace of her. None. No shrine, no memento, nothing. She was gone.

And everyone had moved on.

It was such a dichotomy for me - to feel such pain from remembered images (after all, she and I had shared a room when I lived with them for three months my sophomore year of school, and we did go to the same high school), but to see no trace of her.

And yes, I suppose it WAS like going back to your bed after a nightmare.

Thing is, after that first time, I started going there more and more. And it wasn't as BIG in my mind anymore, you know? Nothing that even came close to that first time.

I just wish you lived closer to that part of Massachusetts so you CAN make new, stronger memories. The more times you go there, the vice of that pain will lessen. Until it's a little tiny spot on your heart that hurts only when you press on it.

At least, that was my experience, anyway.


m said...

OMG Mel, you are in my head.

I just wrote this morning after a sleepless night after a very strange week where I was both elated and unsettled to find a gaggle of people I used to know on And of course, there were pictures of other people and other places that were so much a part of my life at one point, but seeing them again now is just, well, I guess I was ok with the images I chose to keep in my head and not the full catalog.

Feeling like I want to reach out to some of them, but say what? An earlier email to one of my best friends (and perhaps someone I was far too invested in?) is still unanswered, which makes me doubt the friendship, doubt sending the email, in short, it makes me filled with self-doubt. Which is a shitty thing to be filled with.

Your story hits someplace deep inside me, Mel. I'm sorry those places caused you pain. How very wise of ChickieNob to acknowledge your sadness and to both share it and let you have it for yourself. Sometimes we have to hold the sadness first to let it go.

Kristin said...

It sounds like an incredible journey.

I love that ChickieNob wrote sad on the board.

Melissa G said...

Wow. I completely identify. Very well said.

I recently spent some time with my husband in a town that I frequently visited with my highschool boyfriend's family. This boyfriend completely shattered my heart.

When we pulled on to the main drag, my breathe caught and the heartache he caused hit me like a ton of bricks. I did NOT see it coming. It took a day or so to get it out of my system. It's amazing how buildings and towns are haunted with old memories. I made a lot of new good memories with my husband in that town. And drove home thinking about the many years I'll have to make more with him.

I hope you find your peace at the end too.

Jude said...

You were in my neck of the woods! I'm sorry the experience was bittersweet but I am happy to see that you were right down the road!

A Mom in Jacksonville, FL said...

Glad you were able to "process" and get some cobwebs out...but sorry it was painful along the way.

How insightful of your sweet girl to write "sad," and leave it at that.

Orodemniades said...

Dude. You totally kinda passed by me on the way to Harlow's.

I hear you on muscle memory, though. Some things, though cathartic, are still hard to get through.

LJ said...

I wish I could have been there to hold your hand as you climbed the steps. When my grandmonster died, we had to drive through the poconos, which was such a horrible place at time. I could feel myself tensing as we got closer and closer, but I did indeed survive.

It's scary and painful and cathartic and we breathe and we get through it - hopefully with the ones we love by our sides.

Bea said...

I have usually felt released upon returning to places of bad memories. Maybe I just don't have bad enough memories.

I do hope there is a sense of release for you, too.


Anonymous said...

Wow, sounds like an emotionally draining time, but hopefully healing in the long run.

I haven't gone back to a lot of places of pain since I'm a bit of a nomad. But I did find myself in a situation several months ago that was unexpectedly provocking of pain. I went to get my post c-section HSG test and did it sedated due to problems with the test in the past. I found myself overcome with emotions once the nurse hooked up my IV and it brought back all the memories of my difficult pregnancy and almost losing my son.

I just wasn't expecting that at all. Looking forward to the end of the story.

Kami said...

Interestingly, I have been blogging about returning to my clinic for the chance of a sibling and how it is hard because of what happened before.

I hope the journey was healing for you. I'm still finding out about my journey.