Farm memories in an unexpected place, unpacking a little at a time

North Myrtle Beach, Cherry Grove, SC., day three. A mourning dove landed on the rail outside the window as I made my coffee alone in the kitchen. I felt heavy, the kind of heavy when you almost need to remind yourself to breathe. Massive pastel high-rises and the constant hushed drone of traffic on the street side of the beach house is a stark difference to the camp—which I think of constantly, longingly. In fact, I think I’m in love with its rugged simplicity hidden in the forest. At night the waves of the beach here are mesmerizing, and less terrifying then when we’d first left the boat. At that point I hadn’t planned on using a pool noodle in three-feet of water, let alone step foot on the deck of a boat ever again.

I mindlessly listened to coffee brew in the oversized, complicated coffee maker and, for the first time, really thought about the farm. It was purely by accident. It slipped into my thoughts as the dove cooed the long, sad tone of its namesake. And I allowed it linger. The farm was teaming with mourning doves—and Kevin loathed them. Apparently his first-wife’s roommate in college had one, and it was the bane of his existence. I made a point to joke about what a good year it had been for them during our last summer there. One pair had made a nest in a curled bandsaw blade hanging on the wall of the overhang, where Kevin once kept his tools. In another life.

I was snapped back to the sounds of the city when the coffee marker loudly beeped. I suddenly longed for the crow of roosters and to feel the soft udder of a goat that had just come into milk. I took a long, jagged breath, and decided I wasn’t going to start my day wallowing. For several weeks I’ve struggled to think positively upon opening my eyes. Demons just beyond my grasp nibble on the last vestiges of dreamland as I surface into each day.

Of all places, this concrete jungle harkened the memory of those naked little dove chicks with blue blobby eyes still sealed under thin pink skin. Their pure white eggshells littered the ground below. They seemed too plain for a wild bird. Like miniature white eggs from the grocery store, laid by confined unhappy chickens that would never be allowed to scratch for bugs in green grass. The front of the nest had been blown away in the high winds atop the little mountain. I’d waited for the mother to leave, and gently tied a rag across the front to ensure they didn’t fall out. Upon my moving their little home they sprang into action, opening their impressively-sized mouths to receive a gift from their mother. Surely Kevin had done his customary slow head shake, possibly even a classic eye-roll, the next time he passed them. Not that he would hurt them.

I’ve kept busy writing, and reading obsessively. I finished most of my vacation read on the uncomfortable and arduous car ride down. It was a way of keeping my mind off the pain of my fractured tailbone, an injury from falling on the ice a couple weeks back, that I fear my recovery has been set back further. The ride was spent flipping from one cheek to the other in the back of the van, amongst the comical amount of junk that my mother-in-law openly admitted to overpacking. Even the salt and pepper shakers had come to the fully-furnished rental. She was, and is, incredibly grateful for the ride and help settling in to her winter home. I am trying to hide my yearning to get back to mine, hundreds of miles away. I’d happily exchange the warm sand of the beach for snow. After our time here, we plan to stay on our boat for a bit.

Yesterday, Kevin dropped me off at the bookstore while they went shopping to stock up for the long stretch of time she will be alone here once we leave. I hadn’t been in a physical bookstore in years—maybe a decade. My sudden passion for reading has returned. I bought four books, and joined their club. Something I rarely do. I hate giving out my number and address to corporations. This time I did it freely, without hesitation.

Waiting for them to return from shopping to pick me up, I ravenously consumed two chapters of one of the new books. Outside, in front of the mega-mall, the sun set through a bare tree planted to suit a parking lot blueprint, in an expanse devoid of nature. I looked back down at my book. My rule is to never have more than three going at once. I wanted to start another so badly, that I stayed up past midnight to finish the last one later that evening. I also have a half-finished one at home that was too thick to reasonably travel with. It harkens me back to an idealistic, younger Mandy that missed opportunities due to the constraints of having children so young, and being so poor.

My mother-in-law is still recovering from breaking her ankle in late September, when she had lived with us for eight weeks. That time together has made it easy to work together, and understand each other. The dogs that once drove me so crazy, are calmer now. They know this place. When they lived with us in Winterport, they barked nonstop. It was a major anxiety trigger for me. So much so, that I wore earplugs much of the time in the last few weeks when Kevin was home to hear her if she needed a hand. I assured her it was the dogs, and not her, I was hiding from.

As I cut her dogs loose into the beach house, they zipped around the house like puppies. Katie rushed from room to room with much more excitement than her sister. It struck me that she might be looking for her human, my father-in-law who passed, a year ago last week. Though likely the contrast in behavior was Lacey’s poke-along attitude in life. I swear she’s part cat. Chip, who never visited, thought it was a wonderful game and chased after them as if they were wild rabbits—something he surely misses back on the farm.

This morning when I left our bedroom, my new shoes by the front door I’d bought at an outlet store on the trip down startled me—they looked like his. Something I hadn’t noticed until that moment. I wondered if mom had noticed too, if I should wear different ones, and return them to their box. I worry about her alone here, not just because of her injury that continues to hold her hostage, but for the haunting of his memory of their years spent here, together.

During her initial recovery in our home, she had a front-row seat the family drama I have endured for a lifetime. Though it was a mere glimpse into only one side of my family. I haven’t spoken to my father’s side in over a year after he asked if my transgender son has balls. I had shared a proud mom post on Facebook about my son’s graduation with honors, impressive scholarships, and upcoming move to a university. As time passed, I’m glad he said that. At first it bore into me, like maggots into a festering wound that never healed. It allowed me the perfect guilt-free way to sever that rotten branch from my family tree.

My children come first, always. He had never put me first. We had been on-and-off for years already. I have no interest in seeing him again, even on his deathbed. This is something people say in the heat of the moment, and often don’t mean—but I do. I hope he regrets his nasty words and treatment of me—but he has a way of justifying and lying to himself, so I doubt that will be the case. I have an estranged half-sister. I long to be a part of her life—but also don’t want to push her away. I have to wonder what he has done to her.

For weeks, I brooded over the unexpected move from Winterport to the little camp in Bradford with no firewood, road access or power. We forage for firewood in the snow, and bring it inside to melt on and around the wood stove, with hopes it will burn. Kevin lugs water from the frigid stream 10-gallons at a time.

Angry and upset that we were suddenly no longer welcome to buy the family home, after my mother made it clear I wasn’t welcome. Overreacting about a non-issue, that had nothing to do with her, prompted her to call me screaming, then hang up on me. I saw red. I was beyond furious and tears welled in my eyes. I panicked and sat in my closet under the dresses in the corner until I calmed down.

My parents have always criticized my parenting, openly disagreeing with punishments in front of James, and lapping up his exaggerations and flat-out lies about our treatment and care of him. They went so far as to call child protection on me while we were on a week-long moose hunt out of cell range, to make it appear we were dodging the calls from DHS. They showed up at our home even though I told James to leave if he thought the grass was greener there. In time, he realized it was not.

After a lengthy interrogation which they called an interview, she insisted on seeing our bedroom and offices upstairs, places entirely off limits to all of the kids. When I refused, she said she’d need to call her supervisor. I told her to do it from her car, and to get out of my house. James was 17 at the time. The case was dropped later that month, which given the bureaucratic system we have, seems remarkably quick.

I thought things were different with my mom and step-father (whom I refer to as ‘dad’) were in an accident. I think of my father as a sperm doner, and was hesitant to take the 23andme DNA test—I’d long-fantasied I somehow wasn’t related. When I’m asked my maiden name, I’d give my step-father’s.

In this place so far from home I have a fresh perspective on all of it. Of all the skeletons and baggage haphazardly overfilling my closet. Coming out of the closet isn’t just for scared queer people who worry they will lose those the ones they love with news that doesn’t even concern them. This post is enough to elicit angry text messages. That’s okay with me, though truly not my intention. Feel free to jump to conclusions if it makes you feel better. I get that. I’m opening the preverbal closet, letting the bones clink to the floor—but keeping most of the baggage zipped, for now. Unpacking it all at once is too much.

Watching the dove made me realize I’d packed the farm in a tight suitcase, sitting on top and forcing the strained zipper to seal off the memories of things I might come to regret, or hurt me to remember. I stuck it under the other bags, the heavy ones covered in dust. I hadn’t filled those bags and, honestly, I’m not sure what I’ll find in them. I fooled myself into thinking I’d forget that suitcase in there.

Before we left on our trip I stopped by an old neighbor’s house, down the road from the farm. When unpacking at the camp I’d found the garage door remote for the farmhouse. We had planned to drop it off and visit the old place, before hanging out with our neighbor, Salty. But it was too soon for me, and I bailed at the last minute. Telling Kevin to stop the car and drop me off on the way up the mountain. He continued up without me.

The anxiety drained from me once my former dog, that Salty adopted, went bananas over our entrance. Danny had come along to visit; it was the last day before we left for this trip and he’d have to stay behind with his father to attend school. Danny was nearly as excited as Saul Gooddog was. The lanky mutt bounded around the house and leapt on me with amazing speed and agility—and foolish yelps of joy as he danced on his hind legs and waved his front paws like a circus animal.

Once he settled, we all sat on Salty’s couch and howled as loud as we could with Saul. I don’t know how long we howled, but it felt good. Freeing. Maybe I should howl more often. We didn’t stay long. A storm was swiftly blanketing the road in slush and weighing down the trees with freezing rain, and it was a school night for Danny.

Last night I regaled Kevin in a rambling three-dimensional conversation, often looping on itself like a backwoods family tree, trying to tease out things that mattered. There are so many things we could do, and see—or stay and build. Sometimes I think of so many things at once that it’s overwhelming. On those occasions, I turn to a white board and post-its, with earplugs to focus. Thought bubbles allow grandiose ideas to release into the wild, most with little chance of survival. Once I can see them everywhere all at once, I feel freed. Word docs and notebooks just can’t handle the mental diarrhea.

The world is still our oyster. It’s time to pry it open and see what pearls (or turds) awaits inside. Being out of our remote rustic-living bubble makes our crossroads more obvious. It’s more like a spider than a cross, with wiggly lines every which-way, each beckoning and tugging at our adventures spirit. I intentionally leave spirit singular here, because we share it in a deep way that is indescribably comfortable and intense. The connection between us never wavers, fades or loses its luster. He is an incredibly good listener, can fix anything, is more brilliant than he takes credit for, and is willing to take chances and make leaps of faith.

At risk of comparing myself to people profoundly accomplished, which is not my intention, I can only wonder if the great creative minds of the world felt the same, and let it swallow them. Ernest Hemingway, who won the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature shot himself, years later his granddaughter Margaux Hemingway also took her life. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with rocks and walked into a river. Naomi Judd gave in to the darkness one day before she was to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. What if they had a whiteboard and an emotional-support-human like Kevin? What if they had felt free of the stigma, and spoke out?

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