shades of teal

My maternal grandmother lived in a red shingled house on Broadway in Carle Place, NY. It was a three-story house sitting on a tall foundation with a generous-sized porch, and for part of my childhood, an above-ground pool in the backyard. The front door opened to a long hallway that led to the kitchen. My arms can remember the effort it took to heave open the thick front doors of her house with my small body, and my hands the cold, tacky feel of the wood banister that led to the second floor. Even though they’re the farthest away, most of my memories are of being a child in that big house surrounded by tall people.  

My two older cousins lived with my grandmother when they were teenagers. During holidays and get-togethers, I’d lock myself in the bathroom just to try on their makeup, and then I’d wipe it off before returning to the party. From what I can remember, my grandmother’s bathroom was various shades of teal. I even remember the soap being a blueish-green color. Either way, the bathroom always smelled like whatever soap my grandmother used. And even when she was cooking, which she almost always was, my grandmother smelled like it, too. 

I have a washcloth in my bathroom right now, which I’ve had for as long as I can remember, and it’s a very faded shade of teal. I must have brought it to summer camp once because it has my name written on it in Sharpie. I don’t know if it belonged to my grandmother, but I swear it smells like her. It smells like the soap from her bathroom. When it’s fresh from the wash, I wet this washcloth with hot water, drape it over my entire face, and breathe in deeply. I breathe in like I’m taking a sip of something. There’s hardly anything to it anymore; it’s so thread-bare, but there’s something about the heat that brings out the scent of her. 

 It’s amazing how we can bathe ourselves in a memory. Traveling back in time is possible, but just in mere moments, when something inconsequential, like the color of a washcloth, tugs at our insides.

My grandmother is still alive. The last time I saw her was from 6-feet away through a partially open window. She couldn’t hear me, and she knows my face, I’m sure, but not my name or how we know each other. I blew her kisses for our fleeting 20-minutes together. She just chuckled. I could see her smile in her eyes. When I waved goodbye, she touched her hand to her mask and blew me a kiss. That, too, will tug at my insides forever.  

hemlock

Last week, I took an early morning walk at Skolfield Shores Preserve in Harpswell, Maine, just a short drive from my new home. There were no other cars in the parking lot when I pulled up. I knew I wouldn’t be seeing anyone else on the trail that day. I opened my thermos of Houjicha tea in the car to test if it was cool enough to sip. Steam rose into the light along with that toasty, vegetal aroma I love so much. It was still too hot to drink, so I set out on the trail. The sun was bright and the air crisp, but the temperature mild. The damp ground cradled my feet as I walked. The intermittent sound of cars on the road grew fainter as I made my way in, towards the farthest point of the preserve.  

I consciously took deep breaths, drinking in the oxygen, and those wonderful coastal smells of salty, fishy seagrass mixed with pine. After one loop, and then the next, passed fairy tree stumps and beds of pine needles, I came to the end, marked by a bench under a big Hemlock tree. I sat down and unscrewed the lid to my thermos. The tea was still a bit too hot. I looked out to the marshes, which were golden, and then around at the ground foliage just emerging, then out to the water, and then up at the canopy of dark green needles. The morning sunlight filtering through made some kind of magic as I rested with my eyes closed, taking in the quiet. I was alone, and felt it, for the first time in a long time. It was medicine. Before I left this little sanctuary, I kissed the Hemlock, and then headed back to sit down by the water. I had been waiting for these woods for a very, very long time.      

In the summer of 2016, I was very depressed and anxious. My daily life felt intolerable. Attending my usual places with the usual people was incredibly exhausting. The sad feelings I struggled to hide landed like cement bricks in rooms of people determined to keep the mood light. I kept my sadness in a zippered pocket day after day until it snapped me in half.  

At that time, I loved my car because it was the only place I could be alone. Being alone was the quiet my sorrow needed in order to be free. In the car I would cry, I could think, I would pray, I would even talk out loud to myself, and no one from work or the yoga studio would attempt to convince me I was one silent meditation away from bliss.  

My tolerance for human interaction was low and my anxiety was high, and for good reason. During that time, I was living on Long Island and managing a food establishment, and I wasn’t being paid. Although I did eventually get all my money, I say wasn’t because I was never paid on time, nor the full amount of back-pay owed to me. I created the menu, trained the people, handled every aspect of the business within my control, but I had to ask for my money. Whether or not I was paid was dependent on the health of the business, which was within the discretion of the owner who had total control of the finances. A year after I left Long Island, the owner sold the business. Now someone else is profiting from the business I built.  

Up until recently, I’ve resented myself for ending up in that situation, exploitive and boundary-less. For four years, I hopped from one low-paying service job to the next. And I needed this job, and once I was in it, with employees and perishable food in the fridge depending on me, I didn’t know how to get out, especially without another job prospect. And I wanted my money.  

While at work, I’d escape out back. I’d sit under the trees, noticing the light pour through the branches and dance on the ground. Even though the café was on a busy road, compared to the noise inside, this small patch of woods was quiet enough for me to hear the sound of my breath. I worked there for 2 years and then moved to the Hudson Valley. I was running. I ran from this experience, and all the ones before it.  

It seems wrong to write about something so peaceful and beautiful – the Maine coast and the comfort of trees – and something so rotten in one essay. But that’s very much life – good and bad existing at the same time. We need to practice holding the good close in order to realize that the bad can’t touch it.       

While walking that mossy path in Harpswell last week, I realized that these tall pines and coastal waters are going to heal me, heal me from everything I experienced in New York.