My father used to say that sometimes you think you know a person, only to find out that you don't. That life, when it comes to people, is full of surprises. I've found this to be true. You think you understand someone, only to realize that you didn't. That you were wrong all along. Perhaps this is why I have chosen to live in such a remote placea ramshackle house on a spit of land on the Pacific Coast.
Friends who live elsewhere tell meand they may be rightthat this California coast isn't a place where anyone can live. That it is meant to slide, collapse, or drift out to sea. But I'm not uncomfortable on the edge of disaster; I'm not uneasy being where it might all fall apart. My father, who sold insurance for a living, also had a sense of taking risks and this was one of the things he imparted to me.
For years I've led a straightforward life. No wild parties, no mad flings. Still, sometimes I drive too fast along the Coast Highway. And I run in the mountains where cougar roam. Cougar, my son, Ted, likes to remind me, are predatory animals and they will stalk you to your front door, knock it down, and eat you in your own kitchen. I know I shouldn't drive fast or run alone where cougar dwell, but I take these small chancesthese little risks. They don't seem so bad and, after all, this is why I have chosen to be in this part of the world.
Otherwise my life has been stable. One marriage, one divorce, two kids. Until recently I didn't seem to want anything big to happen, having felt that enough had happened to last me a lifetime.What I needed now was peace and quiet. I was fairly close to this California version of Nirvana when the first invitation arrived. It was slipped under my door on a sun-drenched morning when I was out on my run. I must have stepped over it as I came in.
The air had a sweetness to it that day and I'd gone way up into the hills, then jogged down to the shore, where the yellow ice plant bloom. I followed the beach for a mile or so, the waves crashing at my feet. Then I climbed the dunes home. I have my routine. Walk in the door, grab a water bottle from the fridge and a towel from the drawer. Cool off, then shower.
I was taking gulps of cold water and wiping my face when I noticed the envelope lying on the floor. The envelope had a cat's face printed in the upper-right-hand corner and in blue lettering, "Home of the Winonah Wildcats." The mail doesn't come until after noon so I knew it must have gone to Betsy, my nearest neighbor. I hardly know Betsy except to wave, but often, for reasons neither of us can comprehend, we get each other's mail.
It was handwritten (a nice touch, I thought), addressed to meTheadora Antonia Winterstone. A mouthful, I know. More name than a person like me needs but there you have it. When I was growing up, nobody called me by all those names. I was Theadora to my teachers, Tess to my acquaintances, Tessie to my friends, Squirrel to my family.
In my family we all had nicknames. We were, looking back until a certain moment, a happy family. When my father wasn't on the road, selling insurance or settling claims, we had our meals together. At night we were tucked into our beds. In the summer there were barbecues, a ball tossed around. Dogs, report cards, food fights. Normal things. I have no doubt when it all changed. But before, before that, Jeb was Trooper and Art was Squirt and I was Squirrel. "Trooper, Squirt, and Squirrel," our father called when he was back from his days on the road.
Why was I Squirrela name some family members still call me affectionately or if they want to tease me; why Squirrel? In part because I scurried about, and still do, dashing from here and there, but mainly because I collected thingshoarded them, wouldn't let anything go. My pockets were filled with feathers and bones, stones and coins, stamps, seed pods and bottle capswhatever I found on my way home from school. Leaves I pressed between wax paper, doll parts, ribbons. Whatever I found in the Cracker Jack box. Grudges. And my share of secrets too. I've held on to these as well. Stuff, my mother called it. Squirrel and her stuff.
My mother, Lily, was always checking my pockets when I came home from a walk in the woods, trying to toss out whatever she could. For God's sake, she'd tell my father or my brothers, "Don't give her any more stuff." There was a certain dread when it came to cleaning my room. But my room was not a hodgepodge of these things. No, it was a carefully arranged place, museum quality, with everything neatly ordered, dusted, labeled on my shelf. Bird feathers, shells. Periwinkles, scallops, cockleshells. Souvenirs from outings we went ona star key chain from Starlight Lake, a small wooden carved bear from the Dells.
Anything ever given to me, anything ever found, if anyone ever said, "Here, Squirrel, you can keep this," I kept it. It was mine. I kept things for a long, long time and when I outgrew something, I put it in a box, labeled and tucked away, until Lily, on one of her massive cleanups, would go into the basement and throw it away.
Because of this side of my character, there were many speculations about what I'd grow up to bea rag picker at rummage sales or a researcher for the CIA were among my less flattering prospects, but my father was sure I'd become a great collector and classifiera biologist who discovered new species like that tiny East Indian owl, believed until recently to be extinct. Or a curator of ancient objects, a lawyer with a genius for precedents. Chief librarian at the Library of Congress. My father had great dreams for me and it was a known fact among the members of the Winterstone family that I had an archival mind.
But in fact I did not become any of these things. Nor much else, for that matter. I suppose I've been a bit of a professional dilettante, dabbling here and there. Though many things in life have interested me, I never landed on anything that would really matter very much. Looking back, I know that there are reasons for thismoments I can pinpoint in time.
Nothing ever came of all the stuff I collected until now. It is the remnant of my archivist's nature. I know how to put things in order. Every fact, every date, who was where and when.
This is what enables me to tell this story now. I know where everything is.
I examined the folded sheet with its goalposts and letter sweater with a big "W" for Winonah emblazoned across the front. As I headed to the shower, I tossed it into the recycling bin. When I left home to go to college, I had my reasonsand they were good onesfor going away. I thought one day I might return to the Middle West to live, but I never did. Twice a year I flew to Chicago to see my parents, but I never drove up to Winonah. I kept my distance. I stayed away.
I moved as far as I could and still be within the continental United States. I went to college in Berkeley. Then I married Charlie and had two kids. After my marriage broke up, I moved down the coast just below Santa Cruz, where I now live. I bought a stone house, built by Francis Cantwell Eagger, the poet whose work has had a recent surge of renown. It is the second place I've ever called home, and I intended it to be the last.
I tossed away the next invitation, which arrived a few months later, as well. I didn't even have to think twice about it. I wasn't going and that was that. It was my daughter, Jade, who dug the third and final reminder out of the bin. Pack Rat Jade, we call her, always rummaging in the trash. The apple didn't fall far with this one. Snooping through my things. We are alike in this way, my daughter and I. Jade is great at flea markets and in musty basements. "Wow, Mom, look at this," she'll say, holding up an old doorknob, the cuffs of a long-gone fur coat. Jade can find a use for anything or can just sit for hours reading my old letters; nothing I'd ever meant for her to see.
It's pointless for me to buy lipstick because she'll snatch it, or have a private life because she'll uncover it as well. My daughter, the sleuth. So when she found this paper, she put it in front of me as if she'd just discovered evidence of some heinous crime. She pointed a bitten fingernail at the page.
"What's this?" Jade asked, hovering beside me, running her handanother nervous habit of hersthrough her close-cropped hair.
"It's an invitation to my thirtieth high school reunion," I said, snatching the paper from her.
"Wow," she said, "that's so cool," as if she thought it really was. She looked at me, defiant almost, as if it were a dare. "Well, you're going, aren't you?" It was inconceivable to her that I would not. But in fact I wasn't. Winonah, for me, wasn't a place to go back to.
"No," I said, "I'm not."
"Not going where?" Ted put in, walking out of his room. From the corner of my eye I could see his door open. On the door the words "Clato Verato Nictoo" appeared. I didn't know what these words meant and Ted wouldn't tell me. I tried dozens of times to unscramble them as if they were an anagram, to read them backward, to extricate their meaning. "If you have to ask ..." Ted said whenever I wanted to know. Clato Verato Nictoo. Just one more thing that keeps me from my son.
"It's an invitation to Mom's thirtieth high school reunion." Jade snatched it back and held it up as if she were dangling a dead rodent by the tail.
"Oh, Mom, you've got to go," Ted said, swinging the peace medallion with the shark's tooth he wore over his surfer's shirt. His buzz-saw cut revealed the pink of his skull. "It will be fun."
"It will be boring and probably sad," I told them but they continued to protest.
"You might have a good time; you'll see everyone again. Besides," Jade said, giving me a wink, "you never know."
For years now they'd been trying to get me to go out, meet someone new. We live south of Santa Cruz, where a cool, winter mist makes this the artichoke capital of the world. It is true our house looks on to the sea and I can tell you a million things to do with an artichoke, but it's not as if I live in the Bay Area or even Marin or Sausalito, where I might get a chance to meet someone new. I've had a few relationships since my marriage ended, but nothing has really stuck.
I suppose the end of my marriage stunned me. Charlie sat across the table one evening while I was clearing the dishes away and said he wanted a divorce. It was a Thursday night in summer and the kids were playing outside. I could hear their voices, calling to friends in the yard. A ball bounced in the street. When I asked him why, he replied, "Because I don't really know you. You don't give anything away."
I looked around, thinking for a moment that he meant my stuffthe hats and jewelry and antique coffee grinders that cluttered our house. "We could have a garage sale," I said.
Charlie shook his head. "That's not what I mean at all."
We went back and forth, breaking up, staying together for several months, and then it was over. There have been a few othersbrieflysince. I dated a psychologist from UC Santa Cruz the longest. When he drove off after our last date, a pebble hit me in the head. Since then, when the kids ask how a date was, I reply, "Pebble in the head." Now I can just point to my forehead and they know what I mean. I suppose Charlie was the one I really loved. At least, looking back, I recall it as a true passion. The kind where you think about this person all day long and when you lay down beside him at night you feel like you've been plugged into an electric socket. But in the end Charlie saw it more accurately than I. It was never quite right. There was something missing. There always seems to be.
I have no idea what has drawn me to one person and away from another. I've never been the most insightful person about myself, not like some people I know. Once or twice I've gone for counseling, but it never added up to much. It helped me get some new hobbies, though, that sort of thing. But it didn't enable me to understand what pulls me in one direction as opposed to another.
Probably what I do with my time doesn't help either. I always seem to be running around. First there's the kids, the house, and my plans, once the kids are out on their own, to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. A few days a week, to make ends meet, I work for my friend Shana, a real estate broker, where I show time-shares and seasonal rentals in Carmel. And in my spare time I volunteer for a wildlife rescue league.
I didn't go to school to learn how to do this, though I have studied on and off. Before I had a family, I worked for Fish and Game. They sent me to some remote locations where I counted salmon swimming upstream. I watched them shattering their bodies against the rocks to feed their young; this gave me lots of ideas. I even began to write a little book of aphorisms about this experience called Reflections from the Salmon Counting Tower, but nobody wanted to publish it.
After a while mammals became my focus. I seem to have become a kind of local expert on beached thingswhales, dolphins, orphaned otter pups. They bring them all to me. The whales I can do little about, but I've been surrogate parent to a number of sea otters. I am convinced that what makes a creature beach itself isn't a suicidal tendency as some experts claim. I think it's a blip on the radar screen, a sonar misfiring that sends the wrong message.
Who knows why the message goes wronga virus, noise pollution, a genetic flawbut the animals turn mysteriously in the direction of their ruin. I am left with the remains, with what has washed up on the shore.
I had no intention of going to the reunion or anywhere else, for that matter. Over the years I have tended to stay put, not to wander far from this coast. Besides, I didn't want to see people I hadn't seen in thirty years and would probably no longer recognize. Or open the proverbial can of worms. But the morning of the reunion Jade and Ted appeared at my room with my bags packed, a plane ticket which they'd charged on my Visa in hand. "Surprise," they said.
"I'm sick," I told them. I'd been fighting a cold. But they had the Tylenol ready. They looked to me as they once had when they were small on my birthday or Mother's Day, standing with a breakfast tray in hand, a pleased look on their faces.
"You're going," Jade told me. "We want you to." It was a fait accompli, they said.
As I flew home for the reunion, it was the summer of the great floods. The Missouri and the Mississippi had left their banks, burst their levees. So much for the Army Corps of Engineers, my father would have said. Below me, what had once been a great river appeared as a series of lakes with channels connecting one to the next.
From what I'd read in the newspapers I knew that people had drowned. A family went for a boating expedition as the waters rose; all were lost. Two boys had tried to go fishing; their bodies were found in a tree. Houses sat like little islands in the midst of these pools. As we flew over them, it was a clear day and on the roofs of some I could see the numbers of their insurance policies scrawled. This would have driven my father wild. He'd be racing from farmhouse to farmhouse, helping the farmers file their claims.
Before I was ten, I knew how to read a disaster, how to calculate the loss of life and limb. I understood what landfall meant, what an 8.2 on the Richter scale was; I knew the damage an F5 tornado (inconceivable) versus an F6 (unimaginable) could do. Debris paths, flood basinsnone of this was news to me.
And I'd learned a few things about odds. "What are the chances?" my father used to say. "If it's three to one a tornado will blow through southern Illinois during the tornado season, then what're the odds it will blow through the Loop?" Actuarial statistics were the subject of family dinners. The death of a child wasn't worth a fraction of the death of a working spouse. Loss of income was greater than loss of consortium (the word my father used when he referred to companionship). Property costs more than grief. Dollar signs lurked behind every heartbreak. Over dinner I heard tales of farms foreclosed, policies lapsed.
From an early age I came to associate my father with bad weather. I developed a fear of oncoming stormsa phobic dread of wind and rain. I can't say I've ever gotten over it completely. When thick black clouds gather over the Pacific, I have to brace myself. When my father was on the road or even when he was home, I listened obsessively to weather reports, scanned the skies for that blue-gray sky that threatened snow, a yellow-green cast that foretold a tornado touchdown. It all meant claims. It meant that once again my father would be taken from me. I had no idea how much or how far, though in the end it wouldn't be the weather that took him away.
Now as I flew home, the flooded plain stretched below me. My father had always been opposed to the levees. He knew the rivers. He'd been born near them, grew up along their banks. He said when it came to rivers, and I suppose to anything else, for that matter, let them flow. Don't try to contain them.
A river will find its own shape and direction. There are two hundred sunken steamboats from the Missouri River that now lie at the bottom of plowed fields. This is because the river has chosen to go its own way. You can't trust the river; you never know when it will burst its banks and reroute itself.
My father knew better than to tell the farmers not to live on the silt-rich soil that lined the floodplain. Along the riverbanks you could reach your hand into the dirt and pull up the richest black earth in the worldfistfulsand my father wasn't one to tell anyone to live elsewhere. But he did try to convince them to build on higher ground.
If my father were flying in this plane, looking down at this water-clogged land, if he were looking at what I saw from this height, he would have felt very sad and very vindicated. He would say, "They should've asked me. I would've told them."