Flight Lesson – 4

On Saturday nights the parents on “the road” would have parties. Sometimes my brother and I would get to be the greeters, or the coat bearers, but most Saturdays were spent with our grandmother.  We would be dropped off at her house freshly scrubbed clean, and already in our pajamas, before 5pm.  Grandma would greet us at the door with a hug that folded me into the folds of her flesh, and I would get lost in her housecoat and the smell of her orange blossom perfume. She was so wide I couldn’t get my arms around her, and she was so soft I didn’t ever want to let go.

My grandmother’s house was a tiny condo of curiosities. Each closet or cabinet was stuffed full of boxes, that were stuffed full of stuff.  Curious, mysterious stuff like rubber band balls, foil piles, knots of twisty-ties, and paperclip chains that stretched forever.  She had shoe boxes, hat boxes, picture boxes, dress boxes, and sweater boxes – each one waiting to be opened by grandchildren to discover what surprises were hidden inside. My grandma was a product of the Depression. She knew what “not enough” felt like all too well, so she kept everything to make sure she would always have enough all around. Her freezer was the most mysterious room in the house. It was packed with small foil wrapped balls of mystery foods.  Each one no bigger than your hand.  She said she kept them in case she had “a taste” for something.  A half a piece of cake, one chicken wing, or a couple spoonfuls of stuffing.  I’d sit at her tiny kitchen table and watch as she opened the freezer door and dug through the piles of foil “tastes.” Unwrapping  and smelling each one, before she finally found the one she wanted with her dinner.

Saturday night was Lawrence Welk night at Grandma’s – a chiffon covered celebration of everything light and graceful.   She would pour herself a tall glass of Diet Rite cola and red wine on ice, then nag us to get our trays ready before the show started.  My brother and I would lay on our stomachs at the foot of her chair. Our TV trays mounded full of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a food that was taboo in my parents’ house, and watch Lawrence Welk with her. When the show was over, Grandma would unfold the card table and tell us to get the Yahtzee game.  I knew it was always kept in the bottom right-hand draw of her mahogany writing desk, and that our names would be waiting for us on the top of the pile of score cards.  Then the three of us would play Yahtzee, laughing together, until it was way past our bedtime.

My grandmother’s writing desk sits in my condo in Lakeland, with a Yahtzee game in the bottom right-hand drawer still.  It has been with me ever since she was not. Behind it is a bookshelf full of books that were her husbands – the Grandfather I never met.  He was a reader and letter lover, that died inside when he went into his family’s funeral home business during the depression. His body died shortly thereafter, but in his books he lives on in my imagination.  I have stacks of beautiful hardback books by authors like Whitman, Shakespeare, Plato, Twain and Thoreau.  Each one with my Grandfather’s signature, or a handwritten note, on the first page. Except for Shakespeare and Twain, most of his books I’ve never read but I love the way they smell.  I imagine he smelled like hardback books, orange blossom perfume, and tobacco. I have moved that desk and those books from Indiana, to Michigan, to Florida, to Colorado, and back to Florida again. Thirty years of moving possessions and I don’t know how to move them anymore.

My condo in Lakeland had sold, and I had less than three weeks to decide what to do with all my stuff.  What to take and what to leave behind?  I kept telling myself, “Take just what you need, nothing more.”  But what did I need?  I was freezing up at the thought of moving, so I stopped thinking and just got in my car and headed to Florida.  After driving for two days in a fog of show tunes, I walked in my office, and saw my Grandmother’s desk. The sight of it knocked the wind out of me.  I curled up on the floor at the foot of her desk, holding my Yahtzee game, and I started to leak.  Then I cried, and then I sobbed. I felt so guilty because I had been given so much, and I didn’t want it. I was a spoiled little brat. I was stupid, self-absorbed, and selfish.  The more I told myself how horrible I was, the harder I cried.  I was tired and dirty and overwhelmed.  Melting down in a puddle of self-pity, clutching a stupid Yahtzee box to me like it was the Holy Grail.  I needed help.  iTunes!  Song ladies, help! I call them song ladies instead of song angels, because I see them as being dressed in pastel suits like the ladies that used to lunch with my Mom. I held my phone and whispered to iTunes shuffle, “Please tell me what to do?”  The song ladies answered with Carole King and James Taylor tucking me into bed with, “So close your eyes, you can close your eyes, it’s all right.”

I got up the next day and saw my problem clearly.  I had too much.  Too much is different for everyone, but 1700 square feet of stuff is too much for me.  I needed to unload all of it, that was the only solution.  In one week, with hundreds of trips up and down my steps, it all went to people who didn’t have enough.  As they carried out my Grandmother’s desk I told her. “Don’t worry Grandma. I’ll always have enough. And if I don’t have enough, our family taught me how to take care of myself and I’ll make enough. Please tell everyone not to worry anymore.”

My people are from Ireland and Scotland.  They came to the US as poor farmers and indentured servants.  All their DNA knew for centuries was “not enough.” Their children and grandchildren lived and died in the wars, and the Depression, from “not enough.”  My parents were raised with “not enough” and knew what it felt like in their bellies.  They worked every day so my brother and I would have enough.  We are the first generation in our family to never be hungry.  In my lifetime I’ve always had enough, and for most of it I’ve had too much – until we built Buddy.  Then my family tree started screaming at me that I should be keeping every dollar I have, tucked away safe, for my retirement.  Telling me I would be an old women alone, with “not enough.” Reminding me how stupid I was to spend my money on a plane.  Building Buddy taught me to listen to myself, and not to them. That only I knew what was important, and what was important to me was freedom and a few good things.  A good car, a good plane, and a collection of art from every place I’ve ever visited. I’ll leave Lakeland with what I can carry with me in my car, and some boxes stored in a rented hangar. I did give myself one present.  I kept all the books, every single one.  Three totes full of hardbound books that smell like my family, and are covered in their handwriting, to remember where I came from.  For the first time in my life, I have just enough.

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