Caroline and Owen (Happy Birthday, Jordan!)

So Caroline’s engaged. Which is cool.

She seems a little young—she’s five—but, they say when it’s right, you just know.

He’s unemployed. He’s in school part-time. If she takes his name, she’ll be Caroline Blackburn.

He comes from a great family. In fact, I didn’t even hear from Caroline that she was getting married. Her fiancé’s mother, Jordan, sent me an email. Apparently, Owen popped the question while they were in kids’ club at the gym. Caroline said “yes,” that it would be “fun,” but that she doesn’t want to have babies because she doesn’t like getting shots. Read the rest of this entry »


Jogging Memories

I could do this with my eyes closed, this jog around Wayne, Pennsylvania, though I’ve lived away from here half of my life. A step onto the front porch, and it could be any year, the trees are lush and big; the June heat thumps, even early in the morning. The two dogwoods in the front are gone, due to a recent storm. A burly maple fell from across the street, sparing my dad’s house by inches, but the front hedges and the dogwoods did not fare as well. There are no bushes on the side either to separate our lawn from the lawn of my dad’s “new” neighbors, who’ve been there at least five years. We needed those bushes when we were growing up next to “Ginny,” the old lady who threatened to shoot our golden retriever if he crossed onto her property, which he did often. Dan and Matt would play football in the front and purposefully toss the ball over the hedges, then make diving catches through them. It was not the dog that Ginny had to worry about—but she knew that; for some reason she just couldn’t threaten to kill the boys. We had a lot of action in the backyard, too, but the front seems a more poignant place, I think, as I stretch to touch my fingers to my toes: the place of prom picture posing, of chats with neighbors. It’s where I would sit to see my brothers coming home from big league baseball games, to see my dad coming home from work. It’s where my college-graduate sister stood, carrying a backpack bigger than she, before leaving for Europe. When my mom was home with hospice care before she was completely bed-ridden, she asked me to lead her to the front door. She sat there in her wheelchair, quietly taking in the view.

Sidewalks are a little worn, though that crack at the foot of our driveway—the one that would get skateboards airborne—has long since been repaired. A turn left would lead me up a small hill to the old bus stop; but a turn right is the running route, and my feet start mechanically in that direction. Two houses down from Dad’s is the big tree carved into a bear, the tree which was just a tree when I was growing up, but is now a 15-foot Flyers fan—an orange hat perched on its head—and a big favorite of the Lenehan girls when we take walks around Pop Pop’s neighborhood. The teenager who lives there now mows my father’s lawn every Tuesday. The teenager, Tommy Walters, who lived there before him also used to mow my dad’s lawn. Tommy was a quiet kid with a quiet father and a lovely, loving mom, and on Mother’s Day years ago, he called home from a pay phone as he was dying from a knife wound.

Lisa lived across the way, and when we were growing up, we were rarely separated. I’m not sure what I contributed to the relationship, but she had a Barbie and a three-speed bike. We often swapped bikes: hers for my single-speed, which by now may be en vogue, but back then, at least for me, having more of anything was better than having less. As I run by the military academy parking lot, I see the small wall I flipped over while road-testing Lisa’s three-speed. I may have totaled her bike, but I’m sure at the time the focus was on me and the “calamity” involving the “great wall”—at least that’s where I would have demanded the focus to be. My brothers called me “Bratty” for substantiated reasons.

I am heading towards the middle school, across Lancaster Avenue towards Aberdeen, the road to freedom, the road to Mary Kate’s house. We gossiped, spent our parents’ money tying up phone lines. We passed notes in homeroom. It was all wonderfully safe and cliché. Matt had a nickname for her as well, and as I was sifting through old letters in my childhood room, I found written in my brother’s scrawl on a scrap piece of paper a phone number next to the name “Mary Brat.” The school is unrecognizably new—no more roofed walkway attaching two aged buildings. Once when I was an 8th grader I was waiting for the bus outside of the main building when I saw a girl I thought to be my friend Sandra nearing the annex. I yelled something sassy about her questionable choice in outfit (maybe it was a dress-up day?) and realized only when she turned around looking bothered that it was not Sandra. That may have been an initial moment of adult awareness: I should keep some thoughts to myself…and get my eyes checked.

The public library across from the middle school looks the same on the outside; though built in the 1970’s, the building is still too modern a place to be attractive. I remember a summer reading contest when I just bled books. If I could have spent my middle school years in the library or at the piano, I would have. But the mean-girl stuff was an ever-present concern, and I was not always at the receiving end, I’m afraid. I was a worrier, a bit of a follower, some of the things I’d like my Caroline and Lexi never to be. I remember success in the classroom, though—a project in math involving a slab of wood, nails set in a geometric pattern, and colored yarn. Of course English: I spent hours working on one of Mrs. Santee’s projects, sitting in our backyard sketching a robin, observing blades of grass, identifying cumulus clouds, writing poetry. It is no wonder Thoreau struck a chord in college. It is a wonder listening to Caroline repeat Shel Silverstein’s “Sleeping Sardines” by heart and seeing Lexi at work on “Melinda Mae.”

I’m circling the town of Wayne, rather than heading into its hub. I like the perimeter. There were kids who’d hang out in town, but I always went there with purpose: for slices at Real Pizza, for a movie at Anthony Wayne, to Kaleidoscope to buy stationery or the Paisley Shop to buy post earrings. WaWa is now so close I can smell the Amoroso rolls, as I again approach Lancaster, heading back towards North Wayne. I am stopping to pick up coffee for Dave and me, so once I cross the street, I’m free to walk, but I sprint to the finish in case there are any old boyfriends around. I leave WaWa, a sweaty mess balancing two massive cups of caffeine in a 4-cup carry tray.

The last time I was in the Baskin Robbins to my left was when cancer had destroyed much of Mom’s appetite, but in true Regan form, she still loved her ice cream. We left the house for a root beer float and then a pedicure, and we happened to see Mrs. Walters at the nail salon. I’d not seen her in years. She looked older and sadder, but then again, so did I. I felt like since we used to go to her Christmas party each year, since I used to babysit her kids, that I should explain to her why my mom was now so thin. I should tell her how sorry I was about Tommy. But the moments passed, and she left, and Mom and I came home from the last outing we ever had together.

True Value, next to Baskin and Robbins, is now South Moon Under, but the hardware store served a higher purpose by connecting me with my future husband. I worked there half a summer in college, inventorying paint among other things, and a neighbor of mine walked in one day to buy a gallon of Smoky Mauve exterior. He told me I could make a dollar more an hour painting houses and that’s all he needed to say. I quit before we completed our conversation and was enjoying prime tanning, listening to WMMR, and taking long lunch breaks before I could say “Phillips Head or Flat Blade?” The only person obstructing my way to a stress-free summer was the foreman, Dave Lenehan, that guy from my swim club and church who had attended a neighboring high school. Mom said something about him having a nice family because she played tennis with a friend of his mom’s, but Dave was a tad too attentive to his job to get a lot of attention from me. He was not unfriendly and kind of cute, so I married him 15 years later.

He must be in desperate need of coffee by now, I think as I cross North Wayne Avenue for the sidewalk under the train tracks. The walls beneath the tracks are smooth and black like tar; I’d forgotten. The thought of touching them was always slightly alluring, and when I did, I found them to be dry and cool, not slimy like they looked. When I was feeling brave as a child, I would avoid the street altogether, opting for the tunnel path underneath the tracks. Rumors of dead-people buried, smells of urine, darkness, and sounds of approaching trains all triggered imagination, which would without fail, cause me to quicken my pace when I took the tunnel. I am close now: past John’s Market, where hoagies flow; past the big evergreen where neighbors would gather to sing Christmas carols; up the street that winds with the crooked creek. Two more blocks to Dad’s, and the coffee’s still warm.

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As we leave to return to Annapolis, Caroline walks off of the front porch slowly. She and Lexi had collected leaves and pinecones for Pop Pop and left them in a pile on the porch. She eyes them now then turns around and raises those blue eyes up to scan the house before her. She grabs my hand: “Oh, Mommy, this is such a beautiful home. Why does Pop Pop live here all alone?”

When my mother was first gone, I shared the same concern, but I feel differently today. There was nothing solitary about my morning run. I had plenty of company. My dad reads the paper; he goes to work; he cooks a pork chop; he watches the Phillies; and I’m sure there are moments when he feels alone, possibly lonely, but I understand why he stays put. He’s easy to locate on Woodland Avenue. Memories know just where to find him.


On Seeing and Songwriting

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about my ex-boyfriend. I imagined losing 10 lbs and then running into him at the grocery store. I would meet his wife and understand with other-worldly clarity what the word “fine” meant. She’d be wearing a pale pink sweater that bulged at the waist and she’d greet me with a limp handshake. He could have hair—or not. Really, it had always been her that I’d worried about. He could still talk in that low, comfortable voice, but she needed to squeak a bit. Even though he had been decidedly self-absorbed and awful, I got hung up still on the unknown of her: Who was this woman who was better than I?

“Regan you need to get over it.” My friend Joey nicknamed everyone; I felt privileged but a little left out since he merely called me by my last name. He called himself “Erdessy,” a play on his last name “Ersek,” and often referred to himself in the third person: “Erdessy needs a beer.” We were Philly transplants sitting in the Zoo Bar across the street from the Washington DC National Zoo. I always thought Joey should have stuck out more in DC, but he assimilated fairly well: He dated attorneys; he stomached the steak sandwiches; he frequented sporting events but just didn’t root, root, root for the home team. He loved the Zoo Bar because it was dark, small, and a bit grimy. “Something Philly about it,” he would say—likely those gorillas across the way.

“Get over it? That’s a problem,” I sighed. Joey asked why and my response was immediate: “Because I don’t know what to do next.” But in fact, I had been thinking about how pathetically I’d been handling the latest break up. I was not the sap that I made myself out to be because I managed to keep friends, read books, and go to work. I wasn’t incapacitated. I had always been quick to laugh at myself; in fact, this latest chapter in my life seemed to fit right in with what I’d been teaching my high school English students. It struck me as I progressed through the American Literature program that I was in the company of some classic nut ball 30-year olds, single and troubled about it: Nick Carraway, following Gatsby around in a West Egg haze; Blanche Dubois seeking the kindness of strangers; and Emily Grierson from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” poisoning her ex and then cozying up to his corpse each night. Considering the post-30 crowd in our curriculum, I’d been handling my situation fairly well. But—it was time for a change.

“What you do next,” Joey said, “is what you wanted to do this time last year, before you met that bozo Frank.” I smiled, thrilled Joey had remembered and that he was still interested. “We start the band.”

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If I could compare this marriage of drummer (Joey), lead guitarist (Dave), bass player (Matt), and singer/keyboardist (me), to a marriage between husband and wife, and then compare the process of naming the band to naming a newborn, finding a name that fit those involved in the marriage was almost a deal breaker. We would have found good reason to annul since we obviously were not going to be able to work together on even the most basic of tasks. The DC residents (Dave and Matt) ultimately caved when we came up with Blue Route, named after a Philadelphia highway. We had less trouble deciding on a song list since together we really didn’t like too many of the same songs. Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks, the Replacements, the Police all provided us with our first set.

We convinced Joey’s housemate Dan that we would be able to practice in the attic without making too much noise. Dan owned the house, so in exchange for the space, we as a group, well, we did nothing. The onus was on Joey, who mowed the lawn without prompting and kept the kitchen a little cleaner. The guys were upwards 30 as well, so they had dispensable cash flow, but none of us liked the idea of spending 20 to 40 bucks per hour renting a practice space. That would have been another deal breaker. The attic arrangement bought us some time and the four of us had dispensable time since none of us were married or even dating anyone seriously. As a result, we spent at least two days a week together as a band for almost three years.

I always felt a little self conscious saying the word “gig” as it applied to our performances. When I think of “gig,” I think of stoners in the high school cafeteria talking about their weekend plans: “Dude, coming to our gig on Saturday?” The same applies to even the word “band”—I feel the need to prolong the /a/ sound like I’m Sean Penn in Fast Times. Even after three years, I didn’t take myself seriously as a “band” member, but, that’s likely the reason why I look back on those years as being perfectly successful—no record label; maybe 25 “gigs”; and an aborted attempt at recording. But a lot happened in those three years, and in retrospect, being a rock star was one of the most stabilizing things I could have done. The Zoo Bar encounter was at the millennium’s shift. Basic math lands 9/11 right smack in the middle of those three years. In July 2001, one of my closest college friends died in a motorcycle accident. Exactly a year after his death, I lost my mother to cancer. Throw in the memories of Bozo Frank and you’ve got yourself some potentially expensive therapy bills. Though I bought another keyboard and several rock star outfits (I didn’t go leather when I could have—and now, post-babies, it’s too late!), Blue Route put us in the black not the red. And the only couch-time spent was on break in Dan’s attic, eating Doritos and checking Phillies’ scores.

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The Blue Route song list turned from covers to originals as the “band” practiced and gelled and discovered its sound. For me, inspiration to write songs has always come from a need to put voice to feeling; otherwise feeling threatens to debilitate. Sadness, grief, and uncertainty all seem to get the phones buzzing (contentment deadens the lines), so I was a prolific songwriter during the Blue Route years. Now, I’ve been married happily for four years and in that time, though I’ve produced no songs, my husband Dave and I have produced the two most beautiful girls I’ve ever known. For now— playgrounds and play dates. Soon enough— I’ll challenge myself to get back to playing the piano without angst as inspiration.

“After You” was one such song— inspired by the break from Bozo Frank. I fired it out in one sitting; the lyrics and melody came easily and (thankfully) at the same time. I had recently read a song writing guide and had decided to pay closer attention to the structure: Though the initial outpouring of words can be liberating, listeners need a pattern, a clear link from point A to points B and C. It’s the song writer’s duty to make it easy for the listener, unless of course, the songwriter is Bob Dylan, in which case, he can do whatever he wants. “After You” was a simple song, word-playing with the title phrase. Three verses, a bridge, a chorus, just a few chords, catchy in a Tom Petty kind of way, if I may. With a friend’s help, I managed to record “After You” along with a few other songs, and on a whim, I sent the disc to the Songwriters Association of Washington (SAW) writing contest—deadline August, winners announced in November. Like Bozo Frank, SAW never called.

And that was fine. Blue Route would do something fun with “After You” and the fans would love it. More originals surfaced. We managed to garner crowds because we all had friends and co-workers who needed to get out more. We mustn’t have sounded too bad, because they came back to hear us play at Staccato, the Metro Café, Tommy Joes, Whitlows, IOTA, and the Grog and Tankard.

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My parents came to one of the Grog shows. At the time, my mother didn’t know she had cancer. She was too busy losing her vision to Macular Degeneration. The irony was not lost on me, the fact that my mother—the one who misses nothing—couldn’t see. She had the wet and wicked kind of the disease, where the blood vessels grow and leak into the retina, causing straight lines to look wavy. Other things potentially happen: doorways look lopsided; close objects seem further away; intensity of colors fade, but whatever the symptom, the result in my mom’s case was complete loss of central vision. When she was at our “gig,” though, she took it all in, every thud of the bass.

She and I never spoke about my lyrics, though a loving parent would have recognized upon one listen how sad her songwriting daughter must have been. Years before I’d ever stepped foot inside the Grog and Tankard, after an earlier break-up had stunned me, my mom wrote me a letter suggesting that I refocus my attention. Concentrating on the sadness can be addictive, she wrote. The best way to beat it is to look up and out. She must have known that songwriting and then performing was my way of doing just that. She didn’t have to actually see me on stage at the Grog; she could hear me muscling through my disappointment. It strikes me now that I saw about as much as she did that night, under the watchful glare of a hundred people and some serious stage lighting. I was looking up and out, refocusing my attention from staring faces and bright lights. And she was right—I was happy.

When our family went to the beach, months before the Grog show, my mother allowed that she could still see the ocean and the stars, each so vast that her peripheral vision could accommodate. Months after the Grog show, I drove up to Philly from DC for a surprise visit. Periphery is okay when you’re looking at the stars and the ocean, but not when you’re dying of cancer trying to see your own daughter from a hospital bed. I felt small, invisible, like nothing. But the way she looked at me, just the same—the way she held my hand as she bragged to the nurse about her “beautiful daughter”—that both broke and mended me. And there was her portable disc player by her bedside; she told me she’d been listening to my cd.

Seven years since her death and I still stew in the sadness. I have to stop myself from looking too deeply in and too far down when I miss her, when I wish she’d met my husband and my girls, when I wish she hadn’t lost her sight before she died. It is hard for me to come to terms with that last one, to find a silver lining. But my dad, my siblings, and I were all so muddled and worn when she was sick—my mom never liked to see us sad.

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What does it take to see what’s important, or feel it if our eyes aren’t clear? How do we look directly, with genuine appreciation and deserved wonder at what is in front of us every single day? Straight lines blur and colors lose vibrancy when I wallow, when I get anxious about what I don’t have or what I haven’t done.

One November night, years ago, I walked into the Clarendon Grill, a music venue in Virginia. The Songwriter’s Association of Washington was holding the 16th Annual Mid-Atlantic Song Contest Awards Ceremony. First and Second Places were allotted in every category: Country, Folk, Children’s, R and B, Jazz, Pop, Rock, Gospel, etc. Some winners were going to play that evening. It was a Sunday night; I didn’t have much going on, and I wanted to see what I was up against, as a songwriter who’d just started to call herself a songwriter. Who were these people that could structure and sing? Who were these writers that were better than I?

I hadn’t ever been to a bar alone before. I didn’t even order a beer. I grabbed a glass of water, sat on a stool in a quiet part of the room and started to flip through the program that I’d picked up at the door. For kicks I went to the page—Adult Contemporary. I’d submitted three of my songs under that category just months earlier. Geez, I thought, not only is there a First Place and a Second Place, but there’s a slew of Finalists…I counted them, 8…and another slew of Honorable Mentions…I counted them, 8—and there it was in writing, the last on the page: “After You—Katie Regan, DC”.

SAW never did call, but in early December, I received in the mail an Honorable Mention certificate—the same kind of certificate I got when I finished my sailing class at summer camp, on that rough paper, the writing a bit raised. I still have it somewhere, but I can grab from memory that moment in the Clarendon Grill a lot faster than I can put my hands on a piece of paper. I smiled–fine, alone, and smug as hell to be 18th on a list. I bought myself a beer and took a good look around, ready to let those songwriters make my life a little easier, singing me through to points B and C.