Monday, August 15, 2011

No One Knows Me

Ginger is gone. She went back to Texas. Ginger is one of my blog buddies. I follow her because she was a transplant like me and because I admired how she was trying to make a living farming. She and her family were kind of like hippies (I don’t know if she’d like that characterization but that’s how I thought of her because of the goat cheese, the books, and PBS) and they really lived off the farm. They milked their own cow, grew vegetables, heated with wood, and Ginger sold cake and bread down at the local farm market made with flour she ground herself. She ground it herself. Very hippie-like.

She didn’t know how to do all of these things at first. I imagine she knew how to bake bread, being a hippie and all. But she had to Google how to slaughter a chicken and castrate a bull. I could never slaughter a chicken myself, even if someone actually showed me and I didn’t have to resort to Google, but I appreciated that she did. Not that she killed an animal. It was her lack of hypocrisy. How she was humane and grateful, thanking the animal and taking good care of it. If you have to kill an animal, at least be humane and grateful. But I couldn’t do it even if my heart was in the right place. I think I could castrate a bull though. I’ve seen horses getting done. Afterwards you take the testicles and throw them up on the barn roof for good luck. I don’t know if Ginger threw the testicles up on the roof.

Everything was going well, as well as can be expected on a farm with goats getting out and weeds coming in and whatnot, and then Ginger’s husband Philip died. He was from New Jersey, like me. He and Ginger met in school and she also lived in Jersey for a time, until they moved here. That’s how we started talking, yakking on e-mails in between the blogging. She lived in Jersey, I lived in Jersey. She lived in Texas. I lived in Oklahoma. That was close! When you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you don’t know anybody, you’ll latch on to any little shred of something you have in common even if the link is as precarious as being from neighboring states.

But after a while, Ginger didn’t reply to e-mails. I don’t think it was me. She was busy with her church friends. (She was a hippie but she was also from Texas.) Besides castrating animals and butchering chickens, church is the other thing people do out in the country. They get religious. I’ve even seen it with my own friends who left New Jersey and moved to the country and all of a sudden they’re thanking Jesus on their Facebook and saying prayers for everyone who has anything whatsoever wrong like their car won’t start or a horse got kicked. I myself turned to it as well, even though I felt like a fraud. Then I quit when the pastor called gay people evil. But that’s a whole other story—how I found religion and lost it just as quick.

I understand why people are drawn to it. When you’re in the country and there is no neighborhood bar or crowd of mothers holding the hands of backpacked kids waiting for the school bus on every corner, when you are in a place that’s so remote (if you can count having Internet and Dish TV and everything a person could want at her fingertips down at the Minute Market as being remote), that you calculate the cost of a tank of gas and the time getting there in deciding whether it’s worth joining the book club or even going shopping, and the only sounds you hear are the birds and your own voice if you test it now and then by clearing your throat or talking to the dog, the only people you see are the mailman and Eldon on his tractor or Pearl when she brings you something—a pie, cucumbers, a flyer for vacation bible school—you need something. Church, out in the country, is the community. All activities come packaged with the church. The spaghetti dinner? It’s down at the church. The kids are going to the water park. It’s sponsored by the church. The bluegrass festival? It’s in the pastor’s field. You need to find a good plumber? Ask Ray about it in church on Sunday.
And so when Philip died, Ginger’s church friends rallied around her. I wanted to go and visit her when I heard. But I wondered if the death of one’s husband was a good time for blog buddies to meet in real life. Plus I knew she didn’t need me. Her freezer was jam-packed with enough meals the church ladies made to last for God knows how long and all the church husbands were stocking her up with wood and fixing her fences. They even helped outfit her kitchen with an industrial oven so that she could bake bread efficiently and make a living without Philip.

When my mother died, a few months later, Pearl brought me over a pie and took me to a flea market to get me out. She even helped me rescue some rusty old motel chairs discarded behind an old barn that I had my eyes on for years, which I later sanded and painted, saving them from the Dumpsters and making them look cute on my porch.
I’m grateful to her for that. But that was it. I don’t go to church so I had no other support system. Almost immediately I wanted to go home. My mother wasn’t there anymore but I was suddenly very homesick for where she’d been, for the people who knew her and would be shocked when they ran into me at the supermarket and I told them she died (she died—it still doesn’t sound real), and for all the things I took for granted that were linked to her, to my family, to me—the ocean, ticking spinning wheels at the boardwalk, taverns with diamond-shaped windows in the doors, stoops, docks, shamrocks, doo-wop, Bruce Springsteen, lobstermen, Italian bakeries, Soprano accents, Elk’s conventions, the tunnel, the garden, handball, skeeball, stickball, Hoboken, the Statue of Liberty, even the New Jersey Turnpike.

I remember when the turnpike was being built. My sister, annoying as always, called it the “turnapipe.” The pavement was brand new, bright and white and surrounded by crow-weeds and cattails like a road in a state park going to the beach. And it did in fact go to the beach; it went down-the-shore, to Keansburg, to the little town where we rented a bungalow in the summer. When we passed the real estate office that was shaped like a ship in Laurence Harbor, we knew we were almost there. And there was my mother, only 24-years-old, driving her 1968 Dodge Charger with the black stripe on the back end, Crystal Blue Persuasion playing on the radio, and three kids in the back seat kicking each other, vying for a window.

There is no one around here for me to tell this to. People smile and nod when I tell them how she loved her cars—a red Mustang, a gold Cadillac, the Charger, a two-toned Grand Prix that looked like it belonged to a pimp, to name a few—and how she was a flaming redhead until she got sick—this was no old lady who got leukemia and died! But no one around here knows her. No one really knows me.

I imagined that Ginger was having it even worse. She lost her husband, her partner on the farm. How would she manage without him? At least I didn’t have to worry about that. How would she castrate the bulls? Did she even know how to use a chainsaw? (For firewood, not the bulls.) Could she drive the tractor? What if the truck doesn’t start? She had it doubly bad. And with kids too.

But she seemed to be doing it. She got the oven. She planted seeds. They even wrote an article about her in the newspaper. They called her “the mighty widow.” Everyone was impressed by Ginger. Because, let’s face it, it would be hard to make a living on a farm with a husband, never mind without one. Yes, she was heartbroken about Philip and blogged about sitting on the deck at night all by herself, looking at the stars, listening to the whippoorwills and thinking about him. But she was getting on.

I was surprised. I thought she was going to go back to Texas as soon as the funeral was over. And jealous. I was not getting on. I suddenly hated it here. I didn’t even ride my horses anymore because all I wanted to do was go home. We put the house up for sale and I dedicated myself to selling it. Dedicated is too mild a word. I’m obsessed. Fixated. All I do is work at keeping up with it, cleaning it, improving it, marketing it.

I wished I could be like Ginger, and still like it here, still get all teary-eyed over the mountain view that is so beautiful it looks fake; I wish I was still tickled when Eldon, in his straw hat and overalls, waves to me when he drives past the house on his tractor, or I see the filly across the road sticking her head through the fence trying to get some clover that is somehow more delectable than the knee-deep grass she’s standing in. Like she’s doing right now, as I type this. But I don’t care about any of it anymore. Since my mother died.

If I went to church, I’d probably feel better because I wouldn’t feel so alone here. I’d have a community. But I’m not going to church for that reason. And so I suffer in silence, posting ad after ad for this house, thinking up creative ways to get it sold, analyzing, scrutinizing, second-guessing myself about why it’s not and what’s going to happen—am I stuck down here?—am I going to get cancer like my mother and die down here all alone?—and not living in the now, not being present and enjoying my life, because all I’m doing is dreaming of home and figuring out ways to get there.

Then, to make matters worse, Ginger up and left. First she started blogging about it. She decided to do it. She was leaving. Going home to Texas. In a way, I felt relieved. I was not crazy wanting to leave such a beautiful place after all. Even though she had all those church friends, that wonderful community who supplied her with wood and fixed her leaks, in the end, she still wanted to go home too. I warned her it was going to take time to sell her farm. I offered to send some of my prospects her way. She didn’t take me up on it. Such confidence! (She had no idea how bad the real estate market is.) Then I read about how she was planning to leave in the summer so she could get the kids settled in before school starts in September. I thought, good luck with that. I figured for sure I would be out of here before she was, but then the next thing I knew, even without selling the farm, she left. Poof. Gone.

And now I’m even more jealous. How come she can leave and I can’t? Well, technically the reason is because I have to sell my house and she didn’t. I don’t know why she didn’t have to sell her house. Maybe she got life insurance money when Philip died. Maybe she just doesn’t care and she simply abandoned it. I don’t know. Doesn’t matter.

What matters is I have to stop white-knuckling it because I can’t force it to happen. I have to find peace and acceptance, like it seemed Ginger had, when she was here, and when she left, so I can live in the now. Because the now is all I have. Stop the obsessive cleaning and fixing. Stop cutting the grass with a toenail scissors like they tell you to do on Designed to Sell. Start riding my horses again. Go back to the clubs. Take a good look at that mountain behind the hay field.

And maybe get a hold of some testicles to throw up on the roof.