Unsettling the kid in me

00:03, Apr 22 2014

Yesterday, my parents' neighbour of 30 years met me in her open garage, where she stood, hands on hips, surrounded by boxes holding tea pots, baking tins, flour, and ceramic bowls, all up for grabs.

I walked across our front lawn and her driveway in flip-flops (one of a thousand summery details I am still marvelling over after four months in Montana) carrying Easter bread my mom had made that morning, trying to find a clearing in the hedge between the two houses.

Last month when my mom told me Michelle was moving to Hawaii and the house was up for sale, I was sitting outside the saloon at the ranch I had been working on for the winter.

Spring was less about the sight of green grass and more about snow sliding off the roof, scaring me as I sat bundled up outside on the deck as the huge masses shook the windows.

When Mom told me about the move, I had a flashback to being six, and coming home from our road trip up to Canada and back in my parents' pea -green VW van. I remember pulling into our driveway to see this couple with their young son - younger than me!

After years of being the baby on the block, uninvited to basketball games; left behind in the dust of banana bikes and roller skates, I could be the boss of someone! - with moving boxes in their arms.


During the next few years I grew up being included in outings to the pool (Michelle had a key that got us into the super cool swimming pool at a boarding school up the road) and an outdoor theatre one town over with her son, Gabe, so we could watch Gabe's dad direct plays, while we sat bundled up in blankets and drinking hot chocolate from a tartan thermos my mother had sent along.

Michelle was a ceramicist by trade and during the years her business grew.

Sometimes I would go over to her studio in the backyard and she would show me how to make a bowl or a mug on the wheel, and I would be sent home with a plastic bag of leftover clay.

Our mudroom still has the scent of clay from all those years of me trying to imitate Michelle's work studio in and around my family's collection of shoes, towels and boogie boards.

And her cooking.

Oh, her cooking. Each year she would bring over a chocolate Yule log at Christmas. Decembers always meant a full month of me pretending to be helpful in the kitchen.

All while quietly opening the fridge to lift the plastic up and take a swipe at the thick, rich layers of dense chocolate ganache, a big smear of chocolate around my mouth as I then went back to solemnly washing dishes.

When I was old enough to babysit Gabe, and eventually his baby sister, Zoe, who came along a few years later, I remember coming over to a kitchen full of Gourmet magazines that I would flip through after attempting to make a cappuccino on this contraption on the kitchen counter (an espresso maker was a big deal to an 11-year-old in 1989) and dip the biscotti Michelle made and kept in a container in the cupboard, into the coffee and foam.

I would do all this while sitting in one of her stylish bar stools, legs crossed and at an angle, as I imagined my grown-up self would eventually sit in her own stylish kitchen one day.

And I did grow up and move away (the stylish kitchen and bar stools have yet to be attained) and Michelle's pottery, especially her tile designs, became famous.

The hedge between our driveways became thicker. A fence was erected for more privacy.

I haven't seen Gabe for years, but sometimes when I am back at my parents I will see Michelle and Zoe - who towers over me now - walking the dogs in the morning as the fog burns off above the alfalfa fields. We always wave hello.

During the rare summers when I have been home - usually straight from a Southland winter -  Mom and I have gone over to her house to swim in the beautiful pool, lined with Michelle's tiles, and took naps on the chairs, wearing big sunglasses.

Sometimes she would come out to chat. But more often she was away.

When I brought the bread over yesterday, Michelle took me for one last tour of the house that I hadn't been inside for years.

It was almost completely empty. The walls had her designs everywhere. She leaves her mark there for whoever pulls up next in a moving van.

It's strange, I thought, as I sat there that night on the porch on the Montana deck, listening to the snow slide and thud.

Strange that I am so totally sad about Michelle moving to Hawaii.

I have had a conversation with Michelle maybe four times in the past five years.

Again, I thought my feelings about this were odd as I crossed through the brambles of the hedge, leaves and branches slapping my face and tangling my hair a month later.

Then I realised I was because it felt like an actual crossing over into an understanding.  

The homefront is changing. The kid in me is disturbed by this.

For me to travel and move around from place to place, I need everyone else to stay put.

I am troubled when people who were guardians and teachers in my childhood decide to up and leave the cemented figures they have been to me, and burst out of the Shire to do something crazy cool (picking up and moving your life of 30 years to go and start over on an empty plot of land in Hawaii and build a house from scratch is pretty crazy cool).

I came back from Michelle's with a brown bag filled with baking ingredients. And as expected it was the best of everything.

Olive oils, sugars, chocolate, flours we didn't know how to use.

Later that day  one of Michelle's ceramic bowls and four wine glasses appeared on a table in the living room.

Dad said they had been brought over - one of many last minute items she was leaving behind - and they were mine for whenever I decided to settle somewhere.

Michelle had also cleaned out her freezer the night before, and found a zip lock bag full of her homemade biscotti.

We sat on the couch last night, dipping the biscotti in coffee while watching Downton Abbey. When I bit into the parts that had dark chocolate and candied ginger, I felt 11 again.

I don't know when I will have a place to put the ceramic bowl and the wine glasses.

But I know when I do finally use them, I can rest assured that my pre-teen self would be pleased at how stylish I had become.

The homefront is changing. I can't stop it. But at least the kid in me has a piece of the old neighbourhood to take with her.



The Southland Times