It was the night before big trash day—you know: the day you put out your “big trash” on the curb for it to be carted away to the “undiscovered country.” Last month’s big trash day almost shamanistic-ally removed the deathbed mattress and our death-beige carpets. That initial purge was like grief Viagra—we were on a roll. Re-doing the house, beginning with the upstairs, became the largest chunk of our daily activities.
Some of it was marvelous— Grey and Kent moving through the house as ‘Tessa,’ redecorating wildly, all of us in stitches. The strong scent of paint filled the house, its acidic odor burning off the smells of disease, and the windows flew open, somehow washing the place clean with the freshness and oncoming frosts of November in the air.
But other parts were not marvelous at all.
Tonight I sat at the curb, my body unfathomably fatigued; it was all I could do to remain awake. My back and every muscle sore, my head dense with dulling fog. The steady rain upon the street, rooftops and curb fell upon me too as I sat in a tormented ball within the seat of my father’s black leather swivel chair—the noisy, worn out chair that lived-on in his office. The one my mother had always hated. The one I associated with the sound of his IBM typewriter, that still smelled of him and held the unmistakable imprint of his body. I sat, feeling that imprint left upon the worn leather, soaked to the bone in the freezing rain. I would stay there all night.
I am thirteen and sitting on the bed with Dad, frustrated beyond all reason by my homework for 8th Grade Money Management. I do not understand money, or how to manage it, and despite my horrific attitude, he is very slowly explaining everything with great patience until I absolutely do. Only a few years back, we sat in the very same positions reading The Chronicles of Narnia, and now I am being asked to manage money like an adult and I do not want to grow up. Most of all I do not want to disappoint him.
It is Thanksgiving 1998 and it feels as though everyone in (and several friends from out-of) town, are at 1367 gathered around our Chickering piano singing show tunes. Duets, solos, and finally, we all erupt in an emotional chorus of the Act 1 finale of Ragtime— my father’s eyes closed, his voice the strongest and most impassioned of us all.
I am fourteen and driving to my relatively new Groves High School with Dad, just as we have done every single morning since time began. He pulls up right in front of the back entrance on Evergreen Road. We hug, I kiss him on the cheek, and we exchange “I love yous” before I grab my purple backpack and run inside.
Before heading inside I catch the eye of Sarah Randall, a girl two classes ahead of me whom I’ve known since the summer before we moved to Michigan. She’s getting out of the car driven by her father, whom I wave to. Mr. Randall’s face looks thoughtful as I make my way inside.
I will learn a few years later, how much watching the Silbers say goodbye at the school entrance means to him. I’ll learn that when he’s having particular trouble with Sarah, that he will say, “you know how Al and Michael Silber say goodbye to one another every morning? If you could ever do that for me—just once—it would mean the world to me.”
I will learn, years later (when Mr. Randall also dies prematurely, in his case, from pancreatic cancer), that Sarah will listen. It will, in its own small way, change a little piece of their relationship.
It is the third Saturday of August 1995—the weekend of The Woodward Dream Cruise; a classic car event held annually in Detroit to celebrate the essence of Motor City.
After World War II, people began to “cruise” in their cars along Woodward, from drive-in to drive-in, often looking for friends who were also out for a drive, celebrating a new sense of freedom. Now the Woodward Dream Cruise is the world’s largest one-day automotive event, drawing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars each year from around the entire world.
We’ve lived here a year, and we decide to pull up to Woodward and take a peak at the event that spans all the way from Pontiac to the State Fair Grounds inside the Detroit City limits, just south of 8 Mile Road. It is absolutely majestic. Most of the cars on display are vintage models from the 1950s to the early 70s—muscle cars, street rods, T-birds and corvettes, but there are some turn-of-the-century gems, some custom, collector and special interest vehicles all dating across the last century and change.
The initial sight renders all three of us momentarily speechless.
I am in the kitchen and it’s one of the rare nights when Dad has taken it upon himself to “cook” dinner. Mom and I stare down at our plates—a mass of crunchy, practically raw vegetables slopped in butter lay before us in meager piles. The only indicator that they have been “cooked” at all is that their once-colorful skins are charred so black the food is indistinguishable, so close to barbeque coal one might as well be eating it straight from the bag.
“Dad?” I ask, careful not to pierce his pride, “What… is it?”
“It’s stir-fried vegetables!” he replies, with the enthusiasm of a college kid who has recently made their first batch of Kraft Mac N’ Cheese without calling the fire department.
“I see…” says my mother, pushing a few of the blackened vegetable turds around on her plate.
“Don’t panic—“ Dad urges, “It’s not burnt.”
“Eh…well then what is it?” I ask.
I am playing Miss Hannigan in the 3rd Grade production of Annie at El Rodeo School in Beverly Hills, California. It is my first theatrical experience and even though I am merely eight, I know that I am a hoot as I copy Carol Burnett’s performance from the film, down to every intonation and (inappropriately, for an eight-year-old) drunken idiosyncrasy. It is the morning of, the day of the performance and I am not the least bit nervous. At breakfast Dad says “you should eat.”
But I do not.
Despite never forgetting a movement, line or note prior to this day, I forget the words to my song for the first time ever whilst singing my big number. (Forevermore I have always eaten something before a performance).
I am on the banks of Quarton Lake getting ready for my very first ice skating sojourn outdoors, on a natural body of water. We have lived in Birmingham, Michigan for a few fledgeling weeks and Quarton Elementary School (where I have recently been enrolled in the 4th Grade) has an annual Quarton Lake Skate that features skating for parents and kids alike, as well as a vat of hot cocoa. I held my Dad’s hand as I took my first-ever steps onto a frozen lake, skating until my nose was red and dripping from the excitement of the cold.
I am at Dairy Deluxe on Woodward and 14 Mile; the classic Birmingham summer hangout that goes by many unofficial titles (among them, the "Twirly Dip," "Double D," "DD," to name but a few).
A Snickers flurry was a summer classic (that is most likely what I am enjoying), or some make it extra Detroit-y by adding Sander’s Hot Fudge on top (un-be-liev-ab-le.) The joy of a visit to Dairy Deluxe is indeed in the quality of the ice cream and various confections, as well as the little quirks that make it (and have kept it) so small-town-charming over the years. In reality Dairy Deluxe is really nothing more than a hut with a giant, neon ice cream cone sign atop it.
But it is much, much more. The same people have been running Dairy Deluxe for well over twenty years and they still write down your order by hand on bits of paper, count your change out with their minds and make your order themselves, handing it to you through a teeny tiny window box on the corner of Woodward and 14 Mile Road.
I am driving along Maple Road, rounding the strange curve any non-native Birminghamer would find confusing— right at the twisty point where suddenly you are confronted with what I always blasphemously referred to as ‘Christian Corner’— where the “First” Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches all appear in a clump, sprung up like eager flowers drenched in holy water.
On the same strip of Maple (between the churches) sits the beloved Mills Pharmacy; where as a kid Dad used to take me in to buy as much candy as possible for a single dollar (it was his way of teaching me about counting out and budgeting money). Individually wrapped Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids were only 10¢. Candy bars 50¢. Laffy Taffy, Pixie Sticks, Runts, Nerds, Necco Wafers, the list was endless. A charming bearded man behind the old-fashioned candy counter used to greet us, and he was so like the one in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory you practically expected him to burst into song at any moment. It was pure magic.
Passing Mills Pharmacy now I realize: every memory is now merely another painful nostalgic touchstone. None of it, not one single thing, will ever be magical again.
I am on the curb in the chair on big trash day.
I have been out here for hours.
I am soaking wet.
I am touched on the shoulder by Lilly.
The moment had arrived to just surrender...
When we woke the following morning, all had been cleared away.
If only all of it were that easy.