2010 - Livingston
Mom and I didn’t have far to drive that Sunday morning but a lot happened in the short distance. It started when an asshole came up behind us in a Hummer and rode my bumper like we were hooked together. I couldn’t move over to the slow lane just then. I had my cruise control set at eighty miles an hour and there was a car in the right lane that I was in the process of passing. All of a sudden the jerk behind me did the classic asshole move and weaved into the very narrow opening that only he could see and he sped past us on the right, right past Mom’s window before slipping in front of us by inches. In that split second Mom made eye contact with the man and flipped him off.
“What are you doing?” I yelled.
“I’m giving him the bird is what I’m doing.”
“What? He deserves it. Besides, he’s got a McCain/Palin bumper sticker and he’s driving a Hummer. You know he’s a jerk.”
The guy tapped his breaks and I almost slammed into him before he sped up to a hundred and took off blowing his horn as he did. All I could see was a big middle finger in front of me and eventually his car turned into a little dot.
“You can’t do that stuff Mom. What if he had a gun? People are crazy you know.”
“Sorry. I won’t let it happen again,” she said smugly.
“I would appreciate it. Jeez, I feel like I need another shower.”
A curious thing has happened to my mother since the death of my father and that has been her outlook on politics.
My strict but mild mannered father had always voiced his political opinions in a well thought out manner. He was a high school history teacher for thirty-five years and he understood the human condition and the rise and fall of civilizations. He was an open minded liberal who believed in unions, bargaining and working class rights. He’d been instrumental in the teacher contract negotiations in his day and he took pride in our democratic society. He warned us of its precarious nature whenever the opportunity arose.
When I was in seventh grade I wore a black arm band to school in protest of the Viet Nam War. He was disgusted with me that evening and it wasn't because of the arm band, it was because I was pissed off that my favorite T.V. show, Lost In Space, wasn’t going to be televised. I tried to leave the room rather than watch President Johnson when he came on to give his speech.
“Millie, get back in here. If you're going to wear arm bands then you’d better know what the heck you are protesting.”
So I flopped down with arms folded and kept my mouth shut tight as Johnson began, “I come to you tonight with a heavy heart.” It was like being in church or reading an insurance policy, after a few minutes my mind drifted away and I was lost in space anyway.
My mother on the other hand didn’t seem to be in the least bit interested in politics when I think back to those days with the exception of President Kennedy. He was shot when I was in first grade and we were all released from school for a few days only to find that the T.V. was taken over by crying people and his funeral procession. Other than that event and that president it seemed as though politics ranked only a sliver above sports to my mother in importance and sports just infiriate her.
Recently she's become interested in what is going on in Washington DC and she’s also become really ticked off about what is going on in Washington DC, now that her eyes have been opened.
Since my Dad’s passing she’s continued to watch the shows and listen to the radio programs that they'd been enjoying together in their retirement. She doesn’t go to movies, concerts and dinner parties, out with friends or furniture shopping anymore like she had when he was alive. These days she has lots of time to sit in her living room with her two cats, to listen and to learn, day in and day out.
“You told me I needed a hobby Millie. Well I have one now.”
“That’s good Mom. I’m happy that you have an interest, but just try to remember to use a filter. You can’t just say that Republicans are stupid. It’s rude.”
“Well they are Millie. Anyone who would believe that garbage has to be stupid.”
“There are plenty of Republicans who are smart and nice people.”
“Oh Millie. Have you ever heard of ALEC? They are not nice people and you are not going to convince me.”
“Well, could you at least try to remember that I have a couple of children who are republicans?”
“You know I love my grandkids Millie.”
“Well then try to think of them before you blurt out ant-republican stuff and flip people off.”
“Fine, but that guy was a jerk and he deserved that.”
“And, when I said that I was hoping you’d find a hobby, I was thinking of something along the lines of cross stitch or quilting, like normal people your age.”
"You know the cats aren't going to let me do anything like that and who cares about quilts?"
We decided to stop in Livingston, Montana for lunch. We saw the McDonalds Arches and I giggled internally remembering Jason’s and my romantic dinner date. I kept my eyes open for a house that was made into a hotel, but didn’t see one.
We ate at a Chinese Café, sitting in front of a window where we felt the warm sun on the white linen table cloth. The street was desolate aside from a few kids zipping around on their bikes. The mountains stood magnificently in the background with the temperature nearing seventy. It was a picture perfect September day.
Mom got up to use the ladies room just as a large woman holding a miniature poodle in her lap pulled up next to the curb in a mud-splattered pickup truck. She parked in front of the café and got out shooing the little white dog to the middle of the cab. She walked through the door into the restaurant and went directly to the counter in a pair of turquoise stretch pants and a navy blue sweatshirt to inquire about her order. The little white dog was like a spring on the front seat of the truck, pink ribbons flapping. For five minutes straight she sprang into view and out of view from the window like a ping pong ball on a trampoline. Although I couldn’t hear her barks I could read her lips. “Hey, hey, hey, hey.” I looked at the restroom door wanting to share the comical picture window show with someone. “Hurry up, Mom,” I said under my breath.
The woman paid for her order and walked out carrying a couple of bags. The dog immediately stopped jumping and ran to the driver side door and waited for the woman to open it. Her little tail wagged frantically. The woman shooed her over with one finger. The dog’s curly little head disappeared for a second sniffing the containers and then she climbed onto the lap of the large woman, stuck her head out the driver’s window and they drove off.
Mom came back and sat down across from me.
That‘s the last image I have before driving onto highway 89 South. We were heading to Chico Hot Springs, just another eighteen miles or so and we’d be there. We were in Paradise Valley; my Paradise Valley; everyone’s Paradise Valley. I’m not exaggerating either. It is named Paradise Valley.
“You can check in, but you can never leave,”
the Eagles sang loudly in my head. For all I knew I could have been nineteen years old, sitting in a little red Triumph with a black convertible top, Jason at the wheel and Belle behind me.
It was hard to concentrate on the road. My eyes were roaming and my neck was turning from side to side trying to see the grand mountains that jutted upward on both sides of the highway and the Yellowstone River that flowed through the valley. The problem is that when I turn my head the steering wheel turns as well, as though my head, neck and arms are on one link. I think they actually might be. I usually try to keep my head straight forward and rely on my eyes to do most of the work when I'm driving. Some how we stayed on the road and we made it to a sign that read CHICO,
and we followed the arrow that pointed left.
1977 –Chico Hot Springs
I’d been to Chico Hot Springs once before. It was the summer of 1977 and it was the same time that my mom had been there.
She and her friend Jayne, who were in their forties, along with my two little brothers T.J and Pitter, who were fourteen and ten, had driven out to visit Jason and me.
My dad stayed home to hold down the fort, which would have included the house, the dog and the cat. We four oldest kids were out on our own and scattered about and Mom had the young ones along with her. I understand now that my Dad did not draw the short straw that time either.
One of Chico’s many attractions is the pool that is filled by natural hot springs and no chemicals are added.
Every night it is drained and then refilled with the fresh hot spring water. A small area is kept at an average of one hundred and three degrees, and the rest of the pool runs a median of ninety eight degrees. The large area cools naturally due to its size, but in the hot summer cold water is pumped in to keep it at a comfortable level for the guests. In the mornings, evenings and in cool weather steam rises from the water.
That afternoon in 1977 we were sunning ourselves after slathering our bodies with baby oil. Everyone was having a good time except Pitter, who was whining that the water was too hot.
My right ear plugged up shortly after doing a hand stand in the pool and it was kind of annoying. I was shaking my head and wiggling my finger in that ear for most of the day and by late afternoon it was completely plugged up. I couldn’t hear a sound out of it, which left me feeling unbalanced and bitchy.
Then, my left ear started acting up and I began messing around with that one too. Slowly it closed up. I remember watching Jason’s lips move and hearing nothing. It was like I was living in a cave. I tried to tell my mom what was wrong and it sounded to me like I was shouting, yet she acted like I was barely audible. I shook my head and stuck my finger in the left ear again, nothing. I was deaf all right. Right there, on that beautiful day at Chico Hot Springs for no reason whatsoever, I’d lost my sense of hearing. I had taken it for granted my whole life and realized too late that I shouldn’t have. It was my new lot in life, to be deaf. It was the hand I was dealt. I tried not to feel sorry for myself, but the wine made it impossible.
After leaving the pool we all ate at the fancy five star restaurant that was on site. Other than discovering that I loved artichoke petals dipped in butter by scraping the meat off with my bottom teeth, I was super depressed.
There was talk all around the dinner table. I could see my mother disagreeing with T.J., about, well I didn’t know what they were disagreeing about. Then they all started laughing and I could see that Jason was telling a story. His hands were wildly gesturing.
I watched everything but I could hear nothing. Maybe he was talking about me. Maybe he was making fun of me. He noticed me staring at him and then he pretended to do sign language. He pointed at his eye. Next he grabbed his heart and then he pointed at me. I sipped my red wine and pouted. It wasn’t funny. The only thing that saved me from complete insanity was the buttered artichoke petals and the Cabernet Sauvignon.
I don’t remember the drive back to Gardiner that night and I woke up on Sunday morning with a bad sun burn, a bad headache and I was still deaf. I couldn’t get in to see a doctor until Monday and that would mean making a trip to Livingston. I was in desperate need of sunburn lotion, aspirin and hearing aids.
My mom, T.J., Pitter and Jayne were packing up the Pacer and giving Jason and I good by kisses that day and I couldn’t believe it. I was stone deaf and my mother was leaving me there in that dust bowl of a town in the middle of nowhere in my tormented state. I didn’t know any sign language other than my middle finger and the peace sign. How was I to survive? Maybe it was a case of tough love. Could she still have been upset that I’d gotten married and dropped out of college? She did break out in hives when Jason and I told her about our plans, but I thought she’d gotten over that.
It was possible that she didn’t have a clue what was going on in my young mind. I probably smiled and kissed her good-by. But couldn‘t she see the tears welling? I couldn’t understand a word she was saying to me. Maybe she asked me if she should stay longer, or maybe she asked me if I wanted to come along with her.
It was Gabrielle who took me to Livingston the next day. She needed birth control pills anyway and she had a car with all of its gears in working order.
You know what my hearing problem turned out to be? It was ear wax build up. How embarrassing. The doctor said it was piling up deep inside my inner canals. He couldn’t even see in there. My hand stand in the hot water had made the wax expand and it moved just enough to block the tubes off completely. The wax had been building up and waiting for years for the perfect storm that I’d given it.
It took him about twenty minutes to clear them both out by shooting warm salty water into my ears with a syringe that was a little bit like the power washers that we have today. I thought I was going to die, but when those black chunks of wax shot out and into the silver pan I was holding, I was overcome with a euphoria that has only been topped when giving birth to my two sons.
Gabrielle and I skipped out of there. I could hear again and she could have sex.
2010 - Chico Here We Come
[one_half_last]After that last visit to Chico Hot Springs one might think I wouldn’t be interested in returning, but I was. Mom was too, although as I recall she’d had a pretty good time there back in 1977. This time I promised myself that I would refrain from doing any handstands in the pool.
I tried doing a cartwheel about five years ago on the lawn next to a swimming pool and ended up having to see my doctor who confirmed that I had a torn muscle in my right arm. She said there was a reason that they don’t offer gymnastics to people over forty. It was stupid for me to think that I could’ve done a cartwheel anyway since I never could even when I was a kid, but the power of peer pressure had gotten to me that day. I would not be fooled again. As long as I kept my head above water and my palms off the bottom of the pool, Chico promised to be lots of fun and the perfect place to set up base camp, allowing us to visit Gardiner and Yellowstone Park and then return to the little piece of heaven every day.
It took a while for the two of us to get checked in. Our room was located on the second floor of the Lower Building which was a shiny log cabin with several units. It was directly across from the horse stables. [/one_half_last]I had every right to wear cowboy boots. We were staying at a place with horse stables and we could smell horse poop from our balcony and we could hear them snort from our room
We unpacked our clothes after deciding who got which drawers and hung up a few things in the closet by the door. Next I dragged the heavy cooler up the flight of stairs along with the rest of the loose crap that had been rolling around in the back seat of the car.
On my last trip into the room Mom was just discovering that she hadn’t packed her swimming suits. She’d had two lying out at home on her bed and had put them in her pool bag but vaguely remembered taking them back out of that bag to replace with something that would fit with them and then she must not have put the suits back in that bag or any bag for that matter.
I’d packed one swimsuit bottom and two swimsuit tops. They were tankini style. I’m not a fifty-three year old woman who parades around in bikinis. Cowboy boots perhaps. Bikinis? No. I knew that all we needed to do was to find another pair of bottoms and we could share the tops, but she was downright irritable. “How could I forget my suits? How, how, how? I’m sorry Millie. I’m such an idiot.”
“It does no good to cry over a stitch in time,” I said trying to cheer her up.
Things upset her so much more than they used to. I think it’s because everything is a struggle now. It’s weird. When my dad was alive she had all the confidence in the world. As a matter of fact I learned from a psychologist who basically saved my life at the age of twenty six that she’d actually ruled our roost while we were growing up. It hadn’t been my strict father at all. The doctor claimed that she was the strong one of the two. Since my Dad’s been gone I think I finally have it figured out. Not that it will do me any good, but I think they made each other strong. She was fun, opinionated, unforgiving, impatient, the life of the party, gorgeous and outgoing. He was patient and a good listener. He approached life with a slow and steady gait and rarely rocked the boat. When he told a joke the whole room grew quiet to hear. My parents had been soul mates and were still in love and living large until he died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot. I’d whispered in his ear in the hospital room that day that we would take care of Mom. That would have been his main concern besides being totally pissed off that he was getting the ax. He had a lot more living to do and they’d only been in their new condo a year and a half. He was already an active member of the board there and the go to fix it guy. His fishing boat was parked across the lake, at our cottage and his girl was close to two of her three daughters. His eyes had lit up when I’d shown him the copy and paste feature in Word the week before he lay in that hospital bed hooked up to life.
“Hey, there’s a gift shop on the other side of the horse stables,” I said to Mom. “Maybe they have swimming suits there and if not you can wear a pair of shorts and one of my tops until we find a different suit in Gardiner tomorrow.”
I really couldn’t imagine a swimming suit hanging in a shop window in Gardiner, but a lot of time had passed and I had to say something.
“For the love of God,” I heard her mutter under her breath.
We walked to the pool, via the gift shop and there in the back hanging on the wall I saw them and raced through the store.
Mom took a couple of bottoms off the rack that I do not believe she would have picked out in any other circumstance and tried them on. When she said one would do, I took the price tag up to the counter and made the transaction so that she could walk out of the dressing room and straight to the pool.
By 3:00 PM we were stretched out on chaise lounges with cocktails in hand and we were surrounded by baskets of bright pink and purple petunias and other vacationers in chaise lounges basking in the late summer sun or doing hand stands in the water. We eventually eased our bodies into the pool and sat on the ledge in the hot aquatic where we toasted each other for the fine time we’d already had and for making it all the way to Chico Hot Springs without a hitch.
Later we walked to the Chico Saloon for a burger and fries. I returned from the restroom after dinner and Mom introduced me to a beautiful woman with long blonde hair who was waiting to meet me.
“Millie,” my mom said, “this is Kim. She’s on her way back to Gardiner too. It’s been twenty-five years since she’s been there.”
Kim was traveling with her boyfriend Eric who was good natured about our reunion even though we’d never met. It’s not often that you run into people with the same memories, from such a tiny pinhead of a spot on the map.
Eric missed his opportunity that night to swim in the hot spring fed pool as we chattered the evening away.
Kim had been working in the park when the big fire came through in the eighties. She’d spent a lot of time in both Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs and had been friends with Bobbi.
“You knew Bobbi?” I said. “She was a friend of ours too.”
“That’s right, Bobbi did say she was from Wisconsin. Did you know she married that Miller boy? His parents owned the hardware store.”
“I did know that and I heard they had a couple of kids too. I’m hoping to find her tomorrow.”
“You won’t find her unless you go back to Wisconsin. They divorced and she moved back home.”
“Yes, after the kids were all grown up she left Gardiner. It was probably about eight years ago.”
“Wow, I had no idea. That’s a shame. So Kim, why did you leave Gardiner?”
“Me? I couldn’t deal with the aftermath of the fire. It was a very depressing time. All that had been green and beautiful was scorched and ugly. It was heartbreaking to work in The Park.”
“What brings you back now?”
“I can’t explain it,” Kim said. “I just have to go back, that’s all I know.”
“She’s been talking about Gardiner Montana and Yellowstone Park ever since we started dating," Eric said. “Why fight it?” I told her. Let’s stop in on our vacation so you can revisit your past and I can see what it’s all about. At least show me this mysterious place called Gardiner.”
Kim and I looked at each other and laughed. How would anyone outside ever understand what it really had been at a glance?
We exchanged email addresses and cell phone numbers. We snapped pictures of each other and the bartender took a group picture. Those snap shots are behind a protective glossy layer in volume number one out of three, labeled Gardiner 2010.
Her scribbled address, email and phone numbers on a bar napkin are safely tucked away somewhere on my dresser in one of those containers with all of my other sacred notes and things, undisturbed.
I hope they got up the next morning early in time to enjoy the hot spring water before they departed from Chico and I hope Kim quenched her thirst for Gardiner.
1976 - The Blue House Apartment
Our little brown cabin buzzed with life that first summer in 1976. People came and went all day and all night and I was getting bitchy about it. Since I was getting bitchy, Jason was getting crabby.
“There are five fucking bras hanging over the shower bar, Millie. Five fucking bras!” he complained one morning. “And you don’t even wear a bra.”
“I do too, sometimes.”
“You know what I mean.”
The year we were engaged I imagined Jason and I spooning away our lives under satin sheets after hours of making love, coming up for air, more hours of making love, attending an occasional dinner party, movie or field concert and then back under those satin sheets. Winter months would be the same except when we came out from under the sheets it would be to ride on a chair lift or inside a gondola to the top of a mountain so that we could slalom down through powdery snow. I had visions of a giant fire crackling in a stone hearth, in a log cabin lodge in the foothills by nightfall, with a glass of dark, red wine in my hand and a platter of cheese and crackers next to my crossed feet, covered in fuzzy slippers.
The circus like scene in the little brown cabin was nothing like my picture. It was no ones’ fault but our own and we didn’t own any satin sheets anyway and frankly I’ve since slept in satin sheets and I found them to be cold, slippery and annoying.
I didn’t have the heart to tell my sisters that they should find their own place.
As I ambled my way home from work one afternoon, Jason was leaning against the little brown cabin, arms folded, chewing on a long strip of grass, his unruly hair hanging in his eyes, but not hiding their shine.
“We moved,” he said, as I approached him, spitting out a piece of the grass.
“We have moved. No more bras or tampons than one little A cup woman can have and one man can stand.”
“Jason, you can’t just move us without asking me first.”
He just stood there with glittering eyes.
“So where the hell did we move too?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know what he‘d done. What had he done? What about my sisters?
“Right there,” he pointed across the driveway at the blue building that had always been there. It was a two story house with an apartment above and an apartment below.
“There is no way you are going to be mad at me when you see it. We are now renting the lower level. Come on, I’ll show you.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me across the gravel driveway, stirring up dust on the way.
The change in my pockets clattered as I ran alongside him.
Holy crap, I thought as I walked through the door, the kitchen was huge. It was ugly, but huge, stretching out forever with gold and green linoleum floors, dark Formica cupboards with big black handles. They encased the room backed by yellow walls. There was a double stained white sink and a little window that looked into nothing.
The living room was dark veneer paneled walls and the carpet was a well-worn earth tone shade with a green faux leather couch and a velvety gold chair that had spots so thin it looked like patchwork.
The bedroom wasn‘t much bigger than the little brown cabin bedroom, but it was the room of my dreams. It was ours and there was another one just like it across the hall.
The bathroom was down the same and only hallway, adorned with a turquoise sink and an old rusty white tub that didn’t even care that it didn't match the sink.
It was perfect.
“So, we’re just going to leave them over there in the brown cabin?”
“Do they know we moved?”
“Are they pissed we moved?”
“Nope, they’re in there fighting over who gets our bed.”
“Who’s going to pay their rent?”
“Not us. Come on,” he said, taking my hand and giving me a seductive smile. “I want to show you our new bed.”
So we became next door neighbors to all of the people in the little brown cabin. We could visit them, they could visit us and we could all go home. There was room for Belle to sit between Jason and me on our couch again.
We went directly to Good Will in Livingston and bought some crappy pans to go into the ugly kitchen cupboards. I’d been hoping to learn how to cook so that we could eat our meals at the table like married couples did.
Jason gave me a few cooking lessons, I had my Betty Crocker Cook Book to refer to and sometimes he made dinner because he really did like to cook. We did eat at the kitchen table but I think it was because there was no TV in the living room anyway.
Against Belle’s better judgment we took in a stray kitten and named her Snickerdoodles. It wasn’t long after that and Louisa brought home a little blonde puppy with huge paws, big brown eyes and a large black nose, who she named Fizz. He was loved by all of the people who lived or visited the little brown cabin.
Louisa adored that little ball of fur and her nurturing skills came to light the day that Fizz mistakenly got into somebody’s pot that had been carelessly left lying around. She reamed the owner and sat with her poor little buzzed puppy for hours, never leaving his side, never forgiving herself and never laughing once at his dizziness.
Fizz came out of the experience just fine. It took a while for Louisa to get over it. Matter of fact she still gets pissed if you bring it up.