PS, It’s Been Twenty-Five Years

Today is Pepper Day!   While Nano Poblano is only in November, Pepper Day is the 22nd day of every month, so it's extra Peppery!  Post something today.  A blog, a photo, a poem- anything at all! Tag it PepperDay!  Enjoy, and Happy Peppering!

As part of my annual goodreads.com reading challenges, I just finished “Postscript,” Cecilia Ahern’s followup to “PS, I Love You.” “PS, I Love You” was a story about a woman named Holly who starts receiving helpful letters from her recently-deceased husband. The letters send her on a journey where she rediscovers herself, finds a new path forward out of her grief, and so forth. It became a movie with Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler. The sequel picks up about seven years later, with Holly in a new relationship. When she retells the story of the letters from the first novel on a podcast, she gets pulled into helping a group of terminal patients who want to do the same thing, leaving messages behind after they die.

Ahern writes about grief with such insight that I was positive that she was writing from personal experience. As it turns out, she’s just a really gifted writer of fiction and a keen observer of humans being humans. In her own words, “when I wrote PS, I Love You, I was 21 and a lot of people asked if you hadn’t experienced grief. How can you write about it? But I do think that grief is made up of so many emotions that we do experience from the moment we’re born. We know what it’s like to feel loss, to feel alone, to feel uncertain, to lose a sense of ourselves and our identity. Grief is all of those things.”

Yesterday was twenty-five years to the day since the death of someone I loved with all my heart. I don’t talk about her as often now as I used to, but the people who have known me the longest know all about that part of my life because I wouldn’t shut up about it. Truth be told, I thought I had mentioned this countless times already on my blog, but I searched my own words tonight and I don’t see a single post talking about it.

For the three or four of you who don’t know the story, she died suddenly on February 21st, 1996. It was tragic and unfair and it really fucked me up for a long time. In the years that have passed since then, I’ve made an uneasy peace with some aspects of her passing. Twenty-five years is a long time to ponder things. I believe now that she didn’t love me as much as I loved her, but that’s not important. I know what she meant to me, and how that has shaped my life in the years since.

Which brings me back to Postscript, and the part of the novel that pushed me into writing about it here:

There is so much about me that Gerry wouldn’t recognize. I am older than Gerry ever was, I know things that he never knew, that he will never know. And it’s the little things that stop me in my tracks. He never lived to hear the word “hangry.” Every time I hear the word I think of him, he would have loved it when his belly was full and hated it when it was empty. The invention of things he would appreciate. New phones. New technologies. New political leaders, new wars. Cronuts. New Star Wars movies.

“Postscript,” Cecelia Ahern

…and this is a true thing. She would barely recognize the person I am now, despite my mostly-never-changing face. I’m more than twice as old now as I was when she died. Pre-1996 Steven was much more of a live-action Muppet than present-day Steven. I’m quieter now than I used to be, less boisterous. Her death was a catalyst for the path my life took afterward.

I’m certain that my friends have noticed in the years since that I take a truly insane number of photographs. I take pictures at family gatherings, parties, special events, and even just regular day-to-day things. (Seriously, let me show you my astonishing collection of photos of the avocado toast I’ve eaten over the years.) I’ve taken tens of thousands of photos in the last decade or so, and part of that is because of her. There are no photographs of her and me together. I have only one photograph of her, just one. It’s off to the right there. I realized years later that I needed more photographs of all the people in my life because you never know when you won’t have another chance to take their picture.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had been able to save her. The question, “what if I’d been there that day,” is a slow-burning poison, because it’s not something that can be changed. And if it could be changed, it would unravel the fabric of the person I’ve become in the years since. Less than two years after her funeral, I made a decision to enroll at the University of Central Florida to finish my degree. In the years since then, I’ve owned a home. I’ve traveled extensively. I’ve had more than a few failed relationships. I’ve come to know my own heart more precisely than younger me did. I’m not certain that any of that would have been in my path if she was still alive. It’s a dark trade-off to consider, but it’s another true thing.

Whenever I write about her, I feel self-indulgent and mawkish, and it’s NEVER what I was trying to say. My words are never equal to the burden of my heart. I will probably delete this post after a day or so.

Here’s to you, Vanessa. You changed my world when you were alive, but you changed it even more when you died.

Would a younger you recognize the person you are today?

8/52

Shadows of the Past

Palimpsest.

I was reading a novel, and the author kept using this word. I remember learning the meaning of palimpsest a long time ago, but I forgot over time because it’s not the sort of word that gets used a lot in casual conversation.

pal·imp·sest | ˈpaləm(p)ˌsest | noun 

• a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain. 
• something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

It’s an unfortunate and often frustrating fact of life, but things are always in motion. Entropy is the law of the land. I see it every time I return to places I used to live. I spent a large part of my life living in more or less the same area, and seeing the changes as I drive through certain parts of town makes me a little bit melancholy.

Time ate the 1980s for a snack. An ice cream shop I loved in childhood is long gone. The SupeRX pharmacy where my father worked when I was little eventually became a Rite-Aid. I don’t think many people even remember SupeRX.

I stole this image from a blog about the history of the Kroger-SupeRX drug stores. If you’re really curious, you can read the whole timeline here.

The movie theatre where I saw “Ghostbusters” and “The Goonies” and “Karate Kid Part 2” was razed and reborn as a Ross Dress For Less. The theatre where I saw “Superman 2” and “The Great Muppet Caper” was flattened and left as an ugly portion of strip-mall. The original, really awesome Chuck E Cheese was turned into a Cinema and Drafthouse until that too failed. (Which is good- I still blame them for my mistake of watching “Se7en” while eating pizza. Bad idea.)

The Candyland Arcade, a huge favorite in my high school days, is nothing at all now. The same goes for the comic book store that was a few doors down from the arcade. My father switched from SupeRX to Albertsons, but that store is gone now too, bought up by Publix.

Time went clogging on into the 90s. My mental map of Palm Beach Community College doesn’t contain all the buildings that are there now. It doesn’t even have a third of them. A big ugly fence went up around my old high school- as much to keep the kids in as to keep interlopers out, I imagine.

The Clock Family Restaurant, a big favorite haunt in the early 1990s, is long gone, replaced first by a Denny’s, and then later on by a Tijuana Flats and a Sleep Number mattress store. (There’s still a Clock in Gainesville, but it’s not the one I know.)

The Motorola factory where I earned my paycheck in 1995 has been demolished and rebuilt as fashionable condos and shopping. Dad started working for Winn Dixie Pharmacy, and he managed to retire before most of the Winn Dixie stores vanished from the area.

Four different movie theatres that I worked in have been closed or demolished. One of them is an L.A. Fitness now. The Carefree Theatre, home to so many of the best stories of my early twenties, was first abandoned, then knocked down, and is now an open field awaiting the construction of fashionable little condos. The car dealership next to it has been demolished to make way for, you guessed it, more fashionable little condos.

The places where I went to dance and love and breathe in the music in the late 1990s are almost all gone now. I already talked about the Embassy Music Hall in a previous post; it’s a Walmart Neighborhood Grocery now.

When I moved back to Orlando in 2017, after eighteen years away, the same thing happened. The places I knew in Orlando were gone, or irrevocably changed. The roads were different in places.

With all of this change, it’s no wonder that the word palimpsest resonates with me. With new names overlaid onto old places and the ghosts of all my past lives marching past with every visit, it’s a concept that I’ve been keenly aware of for a very long time.

When I go past a place that was part of my life before, I see every version of it that ever was. My memory is often absolutely terrible, but I remember the past clearly when it comes to this.

Palimpsest. The shadows of the past overlaid onto whatever crap is there now. I just wish it wasn’t such a clunky word. Palimpsest doesn’t really roll off the tongue easily, you know?

Now nostalgia… there’s a word that springs easily to the lips.

What are you nostalgic for?

46/52 (and 25 of 30!)

Maybe it was the “Enchantment Under The Sea” dance.

My dad would have been 82 years old today. It’s been roughly a year and a half since he passed beyond the veil, and it’s still a little weird that he’s gone.

I realized when I was writing my last post about my Dad that there was an awful lot I still didn’t know about him. I was learning new stuff about my dad all the way up to his funeral.

Beleaguered Servant posted a “mom and dad” picture all the way back on day 2 of Nano Poblano, and it got me thinking about this photo:

I’ve had this photo of my mom and dad for years and I still don’t know exactly where they were or what was going on. I can’t tell for sure if it was Halloween or New Year’s Eve or just a random costume party that had nothing to do with either holiday. For all I know, it could have been a normal party and that’s just how they dressed back then.

I do know that I have no memories of the two of them being that happy together. I know this is many years before I was born- it might even be before they had kids at all.

I also know that this is the only photograph of my Father where I can see my own face in his. In every other picture, we look like two very different people. In this one, I see myself.

I would love to be a time-traveling fly on the wall, to be able to observe them at this point in their lives. I wonder what else I might learn about my parents, after all this time.

Do you have any old pictures of your parents from a mysterious time before?

31/52 (and 10 of 30!)

That German Thing

Two years ago, in February of 2018, I went to a family wedding in Naples, Florida. My family is large and friendly, and any time a lot of us are in one place, we talk up a storm.    At one point during the festivities,  I was having a conversation with… well, I don’t remember who.  I think it was my aunt, and she put a fairly innocuous question to me.  Two years later, I don’t even remember what the question was.  What I remember is that my answer started with some version of, “I lived in Germany for three years, and…”  Ten seconds later, I was just cringing.

Even now, two years later, I am still wincing at what a pompous, self-important blowhard I can be.  That sentence, “I lived in Germany,” comes out of my mouth way too often.

OK, yes, I did live in Germany for three years.  I’ve been back in the US now for six years, though- twice as long as I was away.  The urge to bring up my time abroad in almost every conversation is a giant lurking, looming thing.  It’s like a pressure valve that I can’t properly close, and it threatens to spew garbage all over nearly every interaction I have with another human being.  It’s infuriating to me.  I replay conversations in my head afterward, over and over, beating myself up about things that I said when I would have been better served saying nothing at all.

My good and dear friend Charlotte wrote a post back in January of 2018 pondering whether being an expatriate was still part of her identity even after being back in her home country for more than three years.  One particular section from her post got me thinking:  “Now I’ve settled down in my life back here. I still feel years behind people my own age, and feel like this is the “this is what you could have won” section of a gameshow.

When Charlotte wrote her post, I had also been back home for about three years, and I was already feeling many of the same feelings and doubts.  Repatriation can be kind of weird and stressful.  I’ve said many times before that living abroad can be like pressing a giant pause button on your life, and it’s easy to feel like the rest of the world went on without you while you were away.  I commented on Charlotte’s blog that I had a similar post in mind and that I would write it soon.  That post is this one-  I’ve been writing it in fits and starts again and again over the last two years, without ever finishing it to my own satisfaction.*  I’ve kept a browser tab open to Charlotte’s post ever since, and I’ve re-read it many, many times, noting different parts of it on each subsequent re-reading.

The plain truth is that my time as an expatriate changed me.  How could it not have?  Packing everything I owned into eleven large boxes and moving five thousand miles to another country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have an apartment waiting was a huge adventure.  My brief German life is a major part of the fabric of my current identity, and it’s never far from my mind.   My time there allowed me to grow and become a better person in ways that I didn’t understand fully until I was back home.  I am absolutely not the same person I was before I left, and in some ways, I think that expressing that is a big part of why I keep harking back to my time in Germany.    That doesn’t make it sound any less pretentious when I hear myself saying those four words- I lived in Germany–  for the millionth time, though.

I saw one of those artsy motivational images recently with text that said, “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.”  It hit home because this particular worry and frustration has been living rent-free in my head since I came back to the US in late 2014.

I worry that my constant need to tie my current life back to my experiences in Germany is a personal failing.  I spiral through feelings of doubt: Have I become boring?  Am I living in the past?  Is there some deeper psychological failing that keeps me talking about that time? Why do I talk about the past so much- is my present life that uninteresting?  I suspect that I won’t know the answer to any of these questions in the very near future, so I turn my attention toward managing the symptoms instead of fixing the root cause.

In recent months, I’ve been trying to find ways to make the same points during conversations without tying it back to my time in Germany.   While talking about living in a place that is colder in winter than Florida, for example, I’ll just say that “I’ve lived in a place with real seasons,” or “I’ve lived further north than this.”  Sometimes the conversation rolls around to beer and the various types thereof.  I like to say that I became an accidental beer snob because of my time over there, but now I mostly try to just talk about the suds themselves without bringing my personal experiences into it.  This is absolutely impossible if I’m with friends in a German restaurant, though.  When I have a nice order of Sauerbraten and a cold Dunkel in front of me, my stein- and my urge to talk about Deutschland-  runneth over.

It would be better if I had no need to interject my experience into the conversation at all, though.  That’s the dream.  Keeping my stupid mouth shut and letting other people do the talking is what I aspire to do.  Now if only I could remember the question from two years ago that started this whole thing…

Do you have any topics that you can’t leave alone in casual conversation?

7/52

* – This post is still not completed entirely to my satisfaction, but finally publishing SOMETHING about this after two years will be a great relief to my Checklist Brain.   And, as a bonus, I can finally close the tab that’s been open to Charlotte’s post for the past two years.