Road Trip

My daughter likes me to tell the “kooshoo” story. It takes place back when I was a little girl, and my parents, my three sisters, my brother, and I were staying in a hotel room on our way to somewhere exciting, like Florida, for a spring break trip, far from our cold Michigan home. We had been driving all day on an interstate, fueled by the gum my mother passed back to us, the activity books we burned through, and the promise of going swimming when we got there. While we unpacked in search of our swimsuits, my younger sister, Karen, found the room key my father had set down and put it inside suitcase while no one was looking. When it came time to leave the room, my parents asked her, after searching for a while, if she knew where the key was, and she answered honestly. But she couldn’t say the word “suitcase” correctly. In the version I tell my daughter, each child politely takes a turn asking the next youngest child if they know where they key is, and every time it’s my little sister’s turn, she says, “It’s in the kooshoo!” Finally, someone figures out what she means. Everyone laughs in relief and we quickly find the key, then head out the hotel room door to a happy ending in the pool.

Now I live far away from the siblings and parents with whom I once shared that hotel room. When I tell the story, I think of how it felt to be six years old, riding on long trips in the back of the station wagon, cramped but happy with my little sister, the suitcases, the collie snuggled alongside us. I consider that we rode without seat belts, and without a sense that not wearing a seat belt was wrong.

My kids, my husband, and I sometimes travel by car from Oregon to California to see my husband’s family. We stay at hotels with pools, somewhere halfway, like Medford, or Ashland. We swim as soon as we get there, and if we have enough time, we let the kids swim again in the morning. They splash and race and jump and fight. We threaten them with leaving the pool; they somehow make up, and then we swim some more.

I know enough about road trips now to know that my memory and my re-telling of the “kooshoo” story flows too happily over what that day must have really been like, like a skimmer that skirts over the surface of the pool without even touching, let alone lifting out, any of the leaves and twigs that float on its surface. I know my siblings and I were probably terrible in the car. I’m sure we repeatedly asked, even after being told not to ask anymore, when we would get to the hotel. And when we got there, and got ready to swim, our bodies simultaneously exhausted and impatient, and then had to wait in that little room crowded with beds covered in dingy bedspreads and scratched-up mismatched suitcases, while my parents searched the room for the key, we probably whined and refused to help. If I were my parents, I might wish I had never had taken five kids on such a long trip. I might have said that if we didn’t help find that key RIGHT NOW, none of us could go swimming. Likely we did not laugh when we realized what the “kooshoo” was. Likely we blamed Karen for using up our valuable swimming time, and pushed past her when we at last ran to the pool. “DON’T RUN!” my parents probably called after us. We ran anyway.

* * * *

About a month ago, a few days after Christmas, I learned that one of my colleagues at the college where I work had been killed, along with her husband, in a car accident, on their way home from a trip to see family. Their four-year-old son survived. Another father of a young child, driving the van their car hit when they were struck from behind, was also killed.

I didn’t know my colleague well, but I recognize myself in her. I know she was a kind and loving person, but I wonder if she ever felt impatient, and if all she could think about that day was getting home. I wonder if she worried more than she should have, or if she let her son’s calls from the back seat fray her determination to be patient. I think about the car accidents I have been in—twice hit, close to home, while my daughter was in the riding with me, and how those stories could have ended differently. I think about her son, secured in his car seat, and yet now unfurled into a world with such unhappy endings.

My daughter likes the “kooshoo” story because it transforms the hard things about the everyday life of children—a lost key, a misunderstood word, impatient kids and parents—into family comedy. In the version I have created for her, all of us look for the key together, undeterred by a long day of driving past McDonald’s on our way to peanut butter sandwiches at the next rest area, of sitting in the stale air at the back of the station wagon, of losing patience with the people we love the most. None of that matters. The four-year-old has hidden the key in a way that entrances all of us—“kooshoo” is the magic word. It keeps us safe. When we find the key, we laugh, because we can all go swimming. Together.

For Shannon O’Leary, Adam Clausen, and Robert Burke

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Finnish Nights, American Dreams

The news from America frightens me. I wake up at night, notice that the Finnish sun still shines outside my window, and worry about Donald Trump. I have more time to read the New York Times here, glimpsed on my phone in spare moments of parenting, than I do when the pages of my paper copy get covered with breakfast dishes during the morning rush back home. I wonder if my worry has also taken on new proportions, with American politics swelling with an urgency I see more—and fear more—because of my distance. I lie awake and worry, and I try not, in those twilight hours, to read the news on my phone.IMG_0983

 

Twelve years ago, my family moved to Germany for a year. I taught American Studies to engaged university students in Regensburg, though they grew more critical of their subject, it seemed, in the approach and wake of the November 2004 election. Their questions contributed to my ongoing discomfort with American life. My husband and I would spend increasing time in the months to come seeking ways to stay in Europe beyond the time of our Fulbright grants. I did not want to return to the America I had left behind, which may have had as much to do with rejecting what I perceived as the complacency and consumerism of the small Midwestern city and university I had left behind as it did with making a statement against George W. Bush. In the end, we could not find a way to stay in Europe that secured the better life for our son that we wanted, so we returned to America in July 2005. I cried a little when we landed at that prairie airport.

Looking back I see that Patrick and I did a very American thing in response to our discomfort upon returning—we decided to start over. I left the job I had been working for years to get, and we moved West to Oregon and a more uncertain future. As it did for the “pioneers” before us, optimism won over a willingness to settle for where we were. Optimism can be shortsighted, but I do think we made the right choice.

Now, a decade later, our nine-year-old daughter asks, “Are we going to move to Canada if Donald Trump wins?” Patrick’s colleague, herself fearful of how what’s happening in America will affect her children, asks if we would stay in Finland if we could. And our thirteen-year-old son follows the election with an avidity he has formerly reserved for sporting events. (He woke up very early to watch California primary returns.) This election will not resolve as neatly as those depicted on The West Wing, I want to tell him. Nor can we only brush Trump off with the humor of the Saturday Night Live skits he loves to watch. I am deeply shaken by what Trump says and the cloud of hatred that he raises; I also fear his sheer ineptitude for running a government that I want to trust. Unlike the re-election of Bush, which presented us with, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, “known unknowns,” I fear Trump for the unknown knowns, an ambiguous but pressingly certain dread that he, were he to become president, would topple some fundamental pillars of the America I love and cause devastation that I cannot fully anticipate.

I have a plane ticket to return to America a month from now. I imagine, that, as the time approaches, others will ask me whether I want to return. I have been thinking about this question as the light has emerged and strengthened in my life in Finland in the last few months, making it possible for me to look up from the work it has taken for my family to live here and take in what I can appreciate in the place around me.

EamonTeresaPathWhat I notice here reveals how hard it is to take America out of the girl. I run on a path that winds through a forest next to a lake, and I feel poised between wilderness and civilization, hovering on the frontier ideal. I visit a Multicultural Center that helps immigrants and resettled refugees adapt to life in Finland, and it reminds me of the social services organization in my neighborhood in Southwest Portland, a direct descendent of a settlement house that opened there over a hundred years ago. I ride my bike or the bus around Jyväskylä, and I live the dream of an American—to be able to go wherever I went, whenever I want, and without any traffic! I watch the immigrants in my Finnish class trying to master a difficult language so they can seek jobs, and I am reminded of ancestors like my great-grandparents, who came from Hungary to Pittsburgh, and gave their ten children all-American names like Barbara and Jennie and Steve. I see students studying quietly in a library, determined to complete their degrees in the time allotted by their education benefits, and I think of the struggles of my first-generation college students back in Portland. Even when I shake my head over the price of an occasional meal in a Jyväskylä restaurant, I feel a little better when I think about how the tax I am paying contributes to what I hold, in my core beliefs, as an American ideal (one we don’t do very well at living up to): food and shelter and health care and education for everyone. When I look around me here, I see what I miss most about, and want most for, America.

I miss the American life I have made for myself, the one that generations before mine have made possible for me, the one I want my children to have. I recently asked a man who moved to Finland several years ago what he missed most about America, and he answered, without hesitation, “the unfettered optimism.” I belong in America, even if it scares me.

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Slow

In late March, my thirteen-year-old son had a virus that kept him out of school for nearly two weeks. He feels much better, and we finally finished watching the entire series of The West Wing, him on the couch taking it in, me between couch and kitchen and laundry, moving in a sad and frustrated circle as I waited for his fever to go away and his energy to return.

In our routine American lives, his illness would have not only worried me, but also upset the fragile, frenzied “balance” we manage between work, kids, and home. But we are living in Finland, and I am on leave from my job. I have time to sit on the couch and watch The West Wing. I’m just not very good at doing it. My trouble with sitting still and waiting for my son to recover highlights something I can notice from my remote vantage point. American life does not set us up well for slowing down.

I hear lots of Americans pay lip service to the idea of slowness, and I have tried to do so myself. We emphasize the importance of quality time; we hate our reliance on “fast food.” We obsessively count how much time our children spend on screens and push them into “enrichment” to fill their hours instead. But I think these efforts do more to highlight the problem than to remedy it, similar to the way in which many Americans practice yoga: it offers a “break” from everyday life, rather than a substantial effort to re-think it.

Our obsession with how we spend our time doesn’t mean we’re getting better at it—it means we can’t stop thinking about it. We count every minute. My children’s American school has already announced that it will have an extra day next fall to make up some of the time lost to snow days this winter. My work is measured by how many emails I send, how many papers I grade, how many meetings I attend. I plot every commute I make on my phone first so I won’t lose time by taking the more trafficky route. My family relies heavily on Google Calendar to make sure we can all be where we are supposed to be when we are supposed to be there.

I rarely look at Google Calendar in Finland. And I’m not entirely sure that the people around me (those, unlike me, with jobs) are doing so either. I don’t have many unfettered conversations with Finns, but I don’t get the sense that people around me are talking, as Americans do, about how busy they are. They are working, they are spending time with their kids, and they are heading back and forth between these responsibilities, but they do not look like my frenzied American self.

Life in Finland does not resemble the slow European “good life” along the lines of the Gemütlichkeit people praised when I lived in Bavaria, or the romantic notions of Italy spread through Under the Tuscan Sun. I don’t see many people sitting in cafes lingering over a cup of coffee. Slowness in Finland is, rather, a kind of patient endurance with life as it happens and a willingness to set a pace that does not tempt disaster.

Such patience, for me, means waiting two weeks for my son’s fever to go away. It means doing a load of laundry every day, and waiting for it to dry on the rack in our bathroom before I can do another—not saving up piles of dirty clothes for a marathon weekend session. It means walking to the grocery store almost every day, because I can’t carry enough home to last longer than that—not trying to shop for an entire week in one death-march through a crowded store on a Sunday afternoon. It means walking or biking places—the library, downtown, my kids’ schools—not just because I don’t have a car, but because this is what makes sense here. You don’t try to cram as much as possible into one day, juggling sick kids with commute with work with groceries with laundry. You pick a few of those things and do them well, and you keep up with daily life as it happens. Methodically. Anything else, and you’ll slip on the ice. Wait a little, as we have done in recent weeks, and the ice will melt.

Since I doubt that a Finn would find it useful to sit and reflect on the beauty of life’s pace, I won’t consider whether my life in Finland is richer. It’s just slower. I am getting better at it, but not so much that I don’t imagine that American life will pull me back into its fast grip within a few weeks of my return. To avoid that, I’ll need something else I have observed in Finland—a grim determination to move forward, known here as sisu, sometimes translated as “guts.” When the American world begins to swirl around me again, I’ll try to have the sisu to keep trying to do what I am trying to do here in Finland: slow down.

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Taxes

Moving halfway around the world, to a far northern country where the sun only shines for six hours a day, prompts deep reflection on identity and purpose. I find myself thinking about life here in Finland and its stark distinctions from and nuanced overlaps with my life in Oregon. My thoughts lure me far into the cold clouds above, but I cannot stay there for long. Taxes bring me back to the here and now, where I sit at the kitchen table with my laptop, newly updated tax software, and an envelope full of a haggard paper trail haphazardly traveled over the past year. Taxes remind me, without much nuance, of one version of who I am.

I began them early, on account of an upcoming application for financial aid. I wonder, though, whether the early start only gives me more time to fret over how I answer the questions. What percentage of my cell phone bill can fairly be considered a self-employment expense? Did the mortgage company correctly record the amount we paid in property taxes? My software reminds me, at each twist and turn, of how my answers this year compare to my answers last year. Have I changed? What does it mean that my charitable donations have increased more than my income? On the dormant brown vines outside my kitchen window, a Finnish squirrel, with ears pointier than those of squirrels back in Oregon, appears. He looks out over the snow, then leaps and runs away. He has his own concerns—food and warmth, far more concrete than the numbers swimming before me.

Finishing the form early does at least offer one path to a stronger claim on who I am. Last year, several of my colleagues found, when they went to file taxes close to April 15, that someone else had filed using their information. Filing early supposedly decreases the odds of that happening. Claim who you are and what you owe soon, the logic goes, or others may claim your identity for themselves.

I have thought about hiring an accountant. Give the papers to someone else, someone who can navigate this path with less angst. But I cling, perhaps irrationally, to the idea that being able to wrangle these numbers represents a reckoning with who I am.

I do not mistakenly believe that what I earned, what I spent, or where I fall in the tax bracket, represents my identity. Rather, I cherish my ability to produce and stand by those numbers honestly and fully. The person behind my social security number, married to the person with my husband’s, has stood up to say who she is in the eyes of the tax code, what she owes to the country she has left behind and will return to again, where she fits within its complicated, fragile fabric of income, class, and security. Once I have answered these questions, I can move on to the more important ones—ones I owe not to anyone but myself.

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Inspired by making lunches to post on my blog (for the first time in almost three years . . .)

Honor Thy Mother

I am the mom who
Tells you, “Stop crying!”
Makes excuses for being late to pick-up,
Never cleans old receipts out of her fat messy wallet,
And “forgets” to schedule play-dates.

When I pack your lunch,
I try to make sure that you get one fruit,
One vegetable,
One treat.
I once thought it would be nice, and maybe even more important,
To always put in a note that encouraged you.
But I don’t.

(And most of the time,
Your dad makes your lunches.)

I say “maybe” when I should just say no,
Letting your hope for a trip to an amusement park
Linger too long.

I let you eat snacks in the car,
Though I swore no kid would ever get to do that,
Then I scold you for making a mess.

I nag you about homework, your room, your hair,
The same things I still fail at.

I hope you’ll remember
The way I kept you up late, reading just one more chapter,
of Betsy-Tacy, or watching just one more episode
of 30 Rock, the way we shared our pleasure
in funny stories with a strong female lead.

When we drive past that hill in the park–
You know, the one
Where I took you that day after camp
To tell you that we put the dog to sleep?
I hope you’ll remember the way I cried with you,
The way I didn’t try
To make you feel better.

I made you practice your instruments
And told you that I never complained about it—
But I also sat down with you.
Remember how we made music together?
(I remember how you told me not to sing.)

When the two of you get together someday,
And share stories
I hope you’ll remember
The way I made you apologize specifically,
Saying what you did,
And why it was wrong,
And then I made you say,
“I love you.”

Maybe you’ll remember
The way I hugged you with my eyes
When you didn’t want me to hug you in the school parking lot.
The way I told you that you could give me your worries
When you couldn’t sleep at night,
The way I told you
Even when you didn’t really listen,
Or didn’t really believe me,
That I loved you,
No matter what.

I am the mom
Who made the messes
And griped about cleaning them up
And who didn’t always see you
As the children that you were,
The adults you were becoming,
The forces beyond her control.

Please don’t remember me
As a different sort of mom.
Please remember the mess.
Please remember
Me.

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Orientation

Twenty-two years ago, my parents took me on a cross-country trip from a suburb of Detroit to the heart of Houston, Texas, so that I could begin college.  I am the fourth of their five children, and perhaps they wanted to hold on to me a little bit longer, because instead of heading straight south, we drove to Texas by way of Arizona, for a back-to-school camping trip.  I looked out over the surreal landscape of Lake Powell, where the sky hovered starkly blue over a jagged desert lakeshore, and wished I were at college already, away from my parents. “What’s wrong?” my mother asked. “Come and help,” my father demanded. I wanted to jump into the water and swim, away into the future I felt so ready to conquer.  I had no idea just how cold and deep the water would be.

Now I look back across the years from the other shore.  My kids are just big enough now, at ten and five, to not need me quite so much.  I have glimpsed the coming day when they will be eager to wave goodbye to me at the threshold of a college campus.  Last week I watched them march off happily back to school.  My son left the fifth-grade open house before I had finished talking to his teacher, off to play soccer outside with his friends.  My daughter let me take one picture before she ran, her backpack swinging heavy over her stubby legs, towards her first day of kindergarten.  She paused at the door, looked back to see that I was there and watching, then plunged in.  They don’t always think they need me, and someday they really won’t.  I never moved back to Michigan after college, and now I live far away from my parents, in Oregon.  Where will my kids live someday—and who will they be?

I also spent time last week watching other parents say goodbye.  At the college where I teach, I have, for the last several years, led a special class for parents during the new student orientation.  The kids are off exploring the campus; the parents, looking abandoned, gather in a classroom to hear me speak about the freshman humanities course I teach.  A few times, I have shared with them a passage from The Aeneid, in which Aeneas visits the Underworld and sees his dead father, who gives a long speech about the glory for which his son is destined.  I have pointed out that, although Aeneas appears to listen solemnly, he may be thinking instead about the ex-lover he just ran into.  It’s possible he misses a thing or two his father shares with him, and it’s possible that failing to listen to his father’s advice will make life difficult for him.

The parents in my classroom nod with recognition.  Their children aren’t listening to last-minute advice about laundry, studying, or avoiding entangling alliances with the first cute kid they meet in the dorm.  And now these parents—and someday this will include me—face the particular sadness that comes with each fall orientation.  We mourn losing our children, and we regret that, like Aeneas, they aren’t always going to follow our advice.  But perhaps we cringe most at what we remember from our own long journeys: that no matter how excited our children are to leap out of the nest, they have a hard flight ahead of them.

This year, when I met with the parents of the new freshmen, I tried something different.  I asked them to speak up about a book they had read around age eighteen that now seemed particularly meaningful.  For a moment, the room remained silent.  Then someone spoke about Bless Me, Ultima, assigned in a freshman English class, and how it had allowed her to step into a new world. Someone else spoke of reading The World According to Garp and trying to convince everyone they knew to read it, too.  One parent, who had brought his daughter to the same college he had attended, spoke of reading a book with a name he couldn’t remember, but that he knew had made him newly aware of the natural environment and his relationship to it.  “It led my to my career,” he told us, speaking slowly, as if looking back through his recently acquired bifocals and seeing the path he had traveled emerge from its background for the first time. “It made me who I am today.”  The parents seemed to grow less sad about leaving their children on campus, and more jealous of what their children would experience.  The chance to leave home, to change—both willingly and despite resistance, to stretch and to grow so that home would never quite fit again.

I think of the girl sitting on the edge of Lake Powell, wishing she were away from her parents, and I regret that she wasn’t willing to sit there, just a little longer, enjoying their company and the comfort she thought she had outgrown.  She was not as ready to begin that journey as she thought she was; she let herself believe she was jumping off the shore when instead she was being gently carried to it.  I wish I could be with her now; even if she wouldn’t listen to me, I would point to the far side of the lake.  “You’ll find your way there,” I would tell her.  “But don’t forget to look back.”

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Emergence

The house down the street has emerged from a cocoon.  I pause with the dog on our walk to look at it.  Hidden for a long time by a high hedge, and then, even after workers hauled the hedge away, by layers of old paint, it stands now on the final brink of renovation, freshly painted and ready to be lived in again.  I would guess that it is at least one hundred years old.  Someone has poured money and care into its renaissance.  Back in Minnesota, my husband Patrick and I owned an old house, and we learned the hard way that we were neither handy enough to tend it nor rich enough to pay others to.  I know the true costs of salvaging this home.

I like to imagine, as I stand here letting the dog smell the grass, that this house might be put up for sale.  I also like to imagine that I am a high-end Portland real estate customer, ready to start a bidding war, and then, after I win it, I will move my family in.  The wood floors sparkle; the glass in the built-in cabinets reflects my smile.  The kitchen purrs with the sound of new stainless-steel appliances.  I look out the window over the sink as I fill a vase for the bouquet I picked up at the Farmer’s Market that morning.  My children play happily in the xeriscaped backyard; Patrick tills the large raised garden beds that capture full sun.  I carry the vase to the dining room table, set for the meal I have prepared (with local, organic ingredients, of course).  I will walk through the living room filled with furniture I didn’t buy at Ikea, turn on classical music at the stereo cleverly hidden in a Craftsman cabinet, and dance my way to the back door.  Did I mention that I have worked all day at a fulfilling and well-paying job, but I’m not tired, and neither are my children?  “Dinnertime!” I call melodiously as I step out onto the porch.  A little blue bird lands, singing, on my hand, and my cartoon version of my grown-up life is complete.

And completely ridiculous.  I am dreaming an impossible dream.  The house belongs to someone else.  A landscaping crew is gently setting rosebushes into the dirt of the front yard, wondering why I am standing here watching them.  The dog is pulling me impatiently to the open park across the street, and I release my hold so we can walk on, to the park, and then back home.  My 1979 ranch is down the road a piece, around a curve, past where the pavement gives way to gravel, with moss on the roof, and poised just before the dead end.   When the dog and I return, we see weeds growing at the edges of the driveway, and smudges on the front window.

*   *   *   *   *

“Why don’t we have a pool in our house, Mommy?” Teresa asked me the other day, as I tried to tidy up.  At the moment I felt glad that I did not have a pool to look after; I was already overwhelmed by 1100 square feet of clutter.

“Are you asking me that because of Annie?”

Teresa nods, bouncing up and down on the couch.  The Annie in question is the Annie with red curls, the one adopted by Daddy Warbucks.  The movie version from the early 1980s shows her swimming in a lovely marble indoor swimming pool.

“We don’t have a pool inside our house because we’re not rich.”

“When will we be rich?”

“Probably never.”

“Why not?”

“Hmm,” I say, considering this carefully, watching where I tread.  “Because you have to do certain things to be rich.  Have certain kinds of jobs.  Jobs that can earn a lot of money.”  I didn’t bother trying to explain about inheriting.

“And teachers don’t earn a lot of money?”

I pause from stacking up the library books and newspapers that had found their way across the living room floor and look at her.  She has that look kids get when they are figuring things out—her head is tilted slightly to the side, and she holds one hand, open, in the air, expectantly.

“That’s right.”  The newspaper is stacked now, and I set it aside to recycle.  “But, you know, compared to some people, we are rich.”

“Like the people at Christmas,” she nods.  I know what she means without more explanation.  We have traveled through this territory before.  She is thinking of the money we saved at Christmas for Heifer International, the canned goods we donated to a food bank, the people asking for money while we wait our turn to merge onto the Ross Island Bridge.

“So,” I say, explaining this to her, and maybe to myself, “if we wanted to be really rich, we’d need to get different jobs.  Jobs that earn a lot of money.”

“I know what job you can get.”

“Oh, really?  What’s that?”  I’m eager for her advice.

“You can stop being a teacher and start being . . . a zookeeper!”  She bounces up and down again, full of her great idea.

So, zookeeper it is.  Of course, I already have that job.  I keep house for two small children, one Betta fish, one Labradoodle, and the five caterpillars who are making their way into painted lady butterflies.  We have a lovely net cage for their cocoons, and after they emerge, they will stay in it until we have had our fill of watching them flutter around the flowers we have scattered at the bottom. I am too tired at night to scrape moss off my roof, and to poor to pay someone to do it, but not too tired or poor to find the website where you can order caterpillars and a cage, to try to Google a free shipping coupon, and to pay to have the kit sent to our house.  The net hangs from a hook screwed into my decidedly unfashionable spatter-plastered ceiling—near my son’s battered old school desk, above a worn linoleum floor, before the faded blinds that hang on the mud-splashed sliding glass door.  Behind the butterfly cage, taped to the glass with masking tape, I see the sun catcher my daughter made out of tissue paper scraps, hung proudly in a construction paper frame.

When we let the butterflies go, they will flutter off into our weedy back yard, over the sagging fence—and as we stand and watch them go, we will be sure, not to back into the garden bed my son Eamon and I built from old railroad ties a few summers ago.  It gives splinters at the slightest provocation.  But it also grows things quite beautifully.  No birds land on my shoulder, but my zoo seems well kept up, after all.  Looking back at the house, I see the suncatcher Teresa made, its colors emerging from the shadows of the house.  Looking before me, I see Eamon and Teresa, dancing with the dog, their voices raised in joy.  Patrick calls to them to watch out for the tomato plants.  Unlike the silent house down the street, my zoo feels alive.

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