Life As a John Irving Character

I grew up reading massive volumes of books. We moved around frequently and I rarely got connected to the libraries outside of the elementary school ones, with their age-specific selection, but Ma was also an avid reader and often had books on hand that I would read after she’d finished, before giving them back to the lender. My two all-time favorite “childhood” books were written by John Irving: The World According to Garp, and The Hotel New Hampshire. I read both of them repeatedly, and the openness of other sexualities in both had a profound effect on my own self-recognition and my ability to come out at the age of thirteen. Reading books like these very likely shaped my outlook on life in general, since I began the infatuation before I was ten years old. The oddities of the experiences therein are portrayed with an amusing perspective, and I think the point of view rubbed off on me in terms of how I perceive the world around me. It reflects in my observation of happenings around me as well as my subsequent storytelling. It’s something I’ve been reflecting on frequently, of late.

Especially after the adventure of taking Ma back home to Guerneville after a flood evacuation. A week prior I went to pick up Ma up in Guerneville at her home, to evacuate her from the flood zone and bring her to our home in San Francisco til it passed. I drove up in the height of the storm, and when we retreated we found ourselves driving out River Road as water crested the road in Forestville. For me, it was a thrill. She had been here with us in San Francisco for five days, only two weekends prior, for Christmas. And the following weekend, we’d hosted Tony’s family for New Year’s. This flood evacuation was the third and fourth consecutive weekend of hosting family.

On a very sad note, Ma had to have her cat put to sleep two days before evacuating her, and I’m glad she got to be here for some company. On the drive northward to return her to home, she remembered she had told the vet that she would be picking up her cat’s ashes that previous week she’d been at my house, and wanted to call him to make new arrangements. She didn’t have his name or number on hands, but she could remember was that the vet was both a veterinarian and dentist in Occidental (a very small town in western Sonoma County) and operated out of a caboose in the woods. I looked up the only vet in Occidental and we called, but of course it wasn’t them. I explained the situation and the receptionist wasn’t familiar with this vet, after 30 years herself working at the only vet office in the town, but she said she’d ask the doctor. Came back a minute later with “Oh! She knows him. Retired guy up in the hills. Here’s his name and number.” I called him and we chatted and he asked when she wanted to pick up the ashes, and Ma thought early next week would work (with her caregiver who brought her to the vet in the first place). He said he was in and out all the time, so he would go out right now and leave the ashes in a bag in the dog crate on the caboose steps, and she could pick them up any time. Ma seemed happy with that.

Ma knew she’d be wanting a meaningful container for her cat’s ashes, and we stopped by an antique mall along the way to look around. The narrow, twisting aisles lined with expensive and breakable items piled high and close were difficult to navigate with Ma’s cane and prerequisite travel mug of cold coffee in hand, but we broke nothing in the end. We ultimately passed on buying anything, not knowing what exactly to expect in terms of volume for the ashes.

A few miles down the road I decided we should just go pick them up. I know I would rather have my pet’s ashes now, if it were me, and I could get them. I hadn’t gotten the guy’s address because I wasn’t planning to go when we spoke, so we went into Occidental and found the vet office. I asked if they knew where he was, and they didn’t. But, they gave me his last name and I was able to Google him. Off we went.

My excitement was a little too inappropriately evident when we passed Western Hills Botanic Garden, which I’ve always wanted to visit. I didn’t drag Ma in, of course. Not today. My excitement continued when I found the guy’s address shared a fence with the back of the Garden. Anyway…

The property is eclectic. There’s a meadow with a mannequin sitting in a chair. And a pasture that was planted with mannequin legs. And old toys like rocking horses and rubber duckies placed in trees and on rocks and peeking out of the woods. Then we came to this caboose. It was surrounded with all sorts of toys in the woods all about. The guy wasn’t there, and the only thing in the dog kennel was bags of medications for other animals. I wasn’t terribly surprised, because we’d only called an hour before, and had indicated it would be days before she arrived for them.

We were going to leave disappointed, but I decided to walk up the road farther. I mean, his address was the only one on this drive, and I knew he was a retired vet who worked from his own property, so there would likely be another building. Around some trees I came across this massive, massive Georgian mansion. But with old toys strewn about. And broken statues, and fading Christmas lawn decor. All tucked into redwoods. As I mounted the steps, I could see through the big glass French doors in front and right out the other side of the house. The whole thing was three stories high and only maybe 12 feet deep. I knocked.

Music somewhere upstairs turned off, and a minute later the retiree came stolidly towards the door in his disheveled grey hair and beard, muck boots, bath robe, and puffy vest. I introduced myself and complimented the house and property (with utmost sincerity, because it was fucking awesome). He said he’d modeled the place after an historic mansion in Santa Rosa, and that the other side was a mirror image. Pointing at a paper Safeway bag of black bits and pieces, he said he hadn’t completely processed her yet because of the weather, and needed a few minutes. The heavy storms had put out his crematory; he’d completed the cremation, but the pieces were wet still and he hadn’t crushed them up yet. He said he’d bring them to the caboose in a few.

I grew up with Ma working at the mortuary in Willits, and had watched a cremation from start to finish, so there was nothing morbid to me/us about him needing to still crush up the bones. I wasn’t expecting to see him dump them out on a stone right then and there, and take a pestle to them. (The mortuary in Willits used a good ol’ kitchen counter-top meat grinder. The manual kind.) I headed back to the caboose.

Back at the truck, surrounded by rubber duckies and rocking horses, we waited for Ma’s cat’s ashes. The wait lasted long enough that I started wandering around, snapping photos of the scenery. I had to go take a wiz in the woods, and when I finished Ma wanted to as well. Her balance is off, so I had to brace her feet under mine and hold her hands so that she could lean back with her ass pointing out and do the deed. It was a typical mother-son bonding moment, by anybody’s standards.

Eventually we heard his muck boots crunching along the drive from behind the trees, and he rounded the corner with a styrofoam shipping container. He walked up and casually talked about the wet ashes, and opened the box to show us inside. The ashes were loose in the container, and he stuck his hand in to show us they were wet, as if his fingers were a toothpick testing a cake, and explain that we’d want to open the container and leave it to dry for a few days before transferring to a decorative box or urn.

On the slow and winding exit from the caboose, and Occidental in general, Ma hugged the styrofoam box in her lap and rested her head on it, and cried. I took the trip slow and gentle, pulling aside to let cars pass, so that she could have this reunion time. Along the way I had to stop by her pharmacy to pick up some pills, and to drop off Christmas cards for her favorite cashier and for the store at large. At the post office, I took the opportunity to sift out anything I thought could lead to her making catalog purchases, and dropped off another card, for the post office itself.

We had not found a container for the cat’s ashes along our trip, but Ma had a music box she knew would fit the bill for size. Incidentally, it plays a classic lullaby. The ashes were too wet for it, of course, so I transferred them to a dry saucer to air out better than in the box. They were largely clumped into the corners of the styrofoam container’s interior and needed to be dislodged, so I used my fingers to scrape out the gritty ashes. It’s not unlike sharp shell-laden beach sand, mixed with cigarette ash. I scratched out every bit I could, leaving a charcoal grey flood line inside the box, and set the bowl in the window, on the settee that was the cat’s favorite sunning spot, where the ashes could dry sufficiently to enclose for the year that Ma plans to keep them before scattering. Once dry, she would pour them into a zipper baggie and put them in the music box with the collar and tags.

At the sink, I nonchalantly picked bits of cat out from under my nails while we made smalltalk to avoid emotion. Parting after dropping her off is always an emotional one with lots of goodbyes and ILoveYous, with an intensity as if we may not meet again. Her cat had been the one draw to returning home, to an apartment and a town that she either loved or hated depending on the latest hour’s events. With the cat now gone, the ride home had been a quiet one on my part, fearing an emotional breakdown I would need to quell. It never came.I fixed the breaks on her walker, took out the trash, showed her how easy it was to cook the frozen single-serving dishes she had in the freezer after she mentioned having nothing to eat, and now, with the last bit of cat dislodging from my thumbnail and clinking down the drain before me, I knew the moment of departure was nigh. Ma was more composed now than I was myself at the loss of my own dogs a few years ago, which surprised me more than anything. We said our goodbyes as I gathered my things and put on my jacket, and tried unsuccessfully to pocket a frozen honey-glazed ham she was passing on to me.

In the truck for the beginning of another two hours on the road, I looked at the ham in the passenger’s seat beside me and mused that I should strap it in. I cranked up the heat on my feet and opened the windows – my favorite combination – and put it in gear once again.

On the way home from visiting Ma, I always like to gas up at this cheap station at the north end of Mill Valley around Strawberry Village. For years I could never remember which exit it was, always relying on visual clues, then I paid attention to the fact that it’s southbound Seminary Drive. All of the sudden it clicked for me, from my childhood reading. In Irving’s Hotel, the family is opening a Hotel New Hampshire in a building that was formerly the Thompson Female Seminary, and had such engraved in the stone facade over the entrance. Stonemasons are in the process of carving out the old name so that the new one can be carved in its place, and stop for the weekend with half the letters gone. What they left was “male Semin”, and that visual stuck with me for life. I would never again forget where the gas station is.

Pulling out on the Seminary exit, that visual in mind, I had a revelation that the stories of my life are like I’m a character in a John Irving novel. It seemed fitting, and spurned my recent self-reflection on the topic. Is my perspective on life based on having read him so young? And how about seeing Woody Allen movies at the drive-in when I was five? My day had been every bit worthy of a novel: I’d found a small-town individual through good ol’ asking-a-local, I’d had a photography spree in a rural garden of fake body parts and derelict toys, I’d balanced my pissing mother (and only the day before I had bathed her, all the while humming to myself the mother-scrubbing song from American Dad), I’d watched bones being ground on a stone amid rubber duckies on the porch of a faux Georgian mansion at the end of a dirt road deep in the woods, I’d dug ground cat out from under my nails… I can certainly see how I could relate that to a John Irving sequence. Or do these things happen to me – do I allow them – because of the fact that I read books like these in my formative years, and normalized the absurd situations that arise in life? Is my outlook based on influence, or is my experience based on influence? I’m sure it’s some of both.

The day had been long, and quite irregular. It was full of absurdities and quirks, emotional highs and lows, comforting and laughing. Yet, as odd as the day was, as “abnormal” as the day’s events had managed to be, nothing felt out of place. There was not a thing unusual about it.

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