We slip out of the house before dawn, into the cold morning air. The neighborhood is still and the sky is clear so we can see what we’ve come for: Orion presiding majestically over the southern sky, the three stars of his belt in a perfect line. He has spent the entire night crossing the heavens, and he is about to slip behind the trees to the west, heading on to distant skies before the sun arrives in the east. And there is Leo, just behind him, four tiny white dots that somehow look like a lion. And the big dipper, ursa major, a giant ladle scooping out the liquid darkness of the sky.
It is the season when the church speaks of waiting, of watching for the light to come and banish the darkness. At night we read Wombat Divine, about the wombat who wants to be in the Christmas pageant but can’t find the right part until he gets called on to play Jesus. We read A Wish for Wings that Work, a story about the impossible becoming possible. We read Someone’s Coming to our House: “Who is coming to our house? Someone, someone, whispers Mouse.” We light candles at dinner each night to ward off the night.
But the stars in Orion’s belt, the stars that outline the lion – these are not lights that chase the darkness away. These are lights that live in the darkness, that make the darkness come alive with legend and myth. These are lights that tell a story. If it weren’t for the darkness, we would miss the light.
A conversation about a school art project leads us on a circuitous internet search that ends at a map of Detroit. It turns out that I remember, somewhere in the depths of my mind where such things are stored, the street address of both my grandparents’ homes. It has been decades since they lived there, and yet, as soon as I zoom in and switch to street view, I know exactly where I am.
Both houses – the one in Detroit, and the one just a few map-clicks away in Ohio – are more run down that I remember, the trees in front of them bigger. But there is the porch where my grandmother served us ice cream in cones, and the side drive that sidles up to the house, the doorway that leads down to the basement where my grandfather’s darkroom was. There is the hill we ran up and down, there is the long stairway up to the front door. A few clicks more and we are down the block at the school where we climbed the stone wall on long afternoons before heading back to the house that always smelled like fried chicken.
I’ve been checking the news all morning, all week, clicking from the Times to NPR to CNN. There’s no news, and then there is. Our neighbors are outside playing soccer, and I go out to tell them. We check several sources to be sure it’s true.
A friend down the street texts: we have a bottle of prosecco, do you want to come celebrate in our back yard? So we do, and we toast on their back deck, masked, while the boys jump on the trampoline. We talk about where we were in 2008. She was in San Francisco and a party erupted in the street outside. We were in Virginia, our one-year-old asleep in our tiny condo.
In the evening, friends come over to sit by the fire. The weather is unseasonably warm, a gift. They bring Nutella for the s’mores, and we watch the victory speeches on a laptop propped on a TV tray, marveling at the history happening in front of us, marveling that it is happening at all.
I wanted it to be a landslide, and I don’t understand why it wasn’t. And yet, the relief comes not only from the victory, but that the process worked. The long lines, the record turnout: we still believe that we each have a voice. We believe in the power to govern ourselves. Democracy endures.
I wake up before the alarm. I slept uneasily, the way I do before an early morning flight. Weeks ago, I signed up to be a poll worker, but only received my assignment yesterday and I have to be there at 5:00. The morning air is cool but not cold when I go out to the car, and the streets are quiet. The streetlights haven’t yet turned on for the morning.
There’s a line forming when I get to the polling place, though the doors won’t open for another hour. I slip past the line and join the group in the church gym, where people are already at work setting up the machines and hanging up signs on the walls.
Once the polls open, time slips by unnoticed, and it’s three hours, five hours later. We haven’t been given particular jobs, so I make a spot for myself standing behind the check-in tables. I am glad to not be in charge, glad to not be the one they look to when the clerks can’t find someone’s name in the database. Instead, I point people toward voting machines, scanning the room for open spaces. There are two open in the far right corner, I say. Straight back, under the basketball hoop. I try to save the close machines for the woman with the walker, the man with a cane.
It’s a steady stream of people, a parade of humanity: Older couples who come in together and wait for each other by the exit. A few children with their parents, and least one infant. A middle aged man who asks me in a thick Greek accent how to work the machine. The first time voters: the college student who just turned 18 last spring, the immigrant woman who speaks in hesitant English, the older white man in jeans and a baseball cap. I wish I knew their stories. The inspector – the woman in charge of this vote center – wears running shoes and seems to be everywhere all at once. Every time someone hands her a form to sign, she pulls her reading glasses down from the top of her head.
It’s messy, and not everything is right. The wait is too long. The ballot doesn’t always print correctly and has to be redone. An address in the system doesn’t match, requiring a call to headquarters and a longer delay. But with very few exceptions, people are patient, and kind.
I like the messy humanity of it, all of us just people, trying to figure out how the best way to live together.
On the very last day of October, I pull up the zucchini and tomato plants from my summer garden. The zucchini has been going strong for months – I’ve long since run out of new recipes and have resorted to stockpiling zucchini muffins in the freezer – but the season has shifted, as seasons do, and the once mighty leaves have finally given in to the inevitable fade of the sun’s light.
I yank on the thick stalk, expecting a fight, but the roots give up the earth easily, as if knowing they have done all they could. I understand now why people talk to plants. I want to say thank you for feeding us so well for so long.
The tomatoes are still growing, though their leaves are wilting too. There are a dozen or more green ones still on the vine; if this were August they’d be ripe next week. But it is the end of October, and the nighttime temps will fall into the 20s in the next few days. Their time has come as well.
Someone told me recently that when he was growing up, his mother would wrap the last of the green tomatoes in newspaper at the end of the season. She’d store them under her bed until the week before Thanksgiving and then let them ripen on the windowsill. That was fifty years ago, he said with a shrug, as if it might not work anymore.
But tomatoes haven’t changed all that much in fifty years, even if we have, and so I save as many as I can when I pull them up from the ground. (These roots come up easily as well; I am the one who isn’t ready.) I tuck them away in a box lined with newspaper, and hope for the best.
The day before our seventeenth anniversary, we somewhat impulsively decide to pull the carpet up from the dining room floor.
Home improvement projects are not our forte. Both of us know how to use a drill and a screwdriver, and we can, you know, put together furniture from Ikea, and that’s about it.
But a couple of google searches and a youtube video convince me that we could at least pull up the carpet and see what was underneath. If it was unusable, we’d throw an old rug over the whole thing or eat in the other room until we could get a professional to come help. It’s not like we are throwing a dinner party anytime soon.
The carpet is the cheap kind installed to sell the house, to make an old house look fresh and new. It is not the kind intended to catch the crumbs of rushed weeknight dinners, or to be tramped across with dirty feet several times a day, and we are not a family who takes our shoes off at the door. We don’t even try very had to keep the dirt out of the house. We are not inclined to tread lightly on a carpet, especially not a cream-colored carpet, easily stained, in a high traffic area with direct access to the kitchen and the back door.
So, we start pulling, prying up one corner first, hoping there might be something lovely underneath, and mostly just curious about what we might find. The pulling is satisfying somehow, the tiny ripple as the sharp points of the carpet strip let loose their grip. All four of us help, pulling or cutting or prying up the staples and the strips, managing not to impale ourselves on all those tiny nails. All of us – except Jonathan, who has another few inches before he faces this particular danger – whack our heads on the chandelier, no longer guarded by the table we had moved into the den.
The floor underneath is lovely, in fact. It’s a very old hardwood, probably original to the mid-century ranch this house used to be before the additions and renovations turned it into something else. The floor shows its age; there are a few broken boards, and some scratches. A realtor would likely advise us to cover it back up. It doesn’t really match the darker brown of the artificial wood floor in the kitchen next door.
I am surprised to find myself tearing up a bit when we pull up the last scrap of carpet and we can finally see the whole thing. My family rolls their eyes – I cry at the silliest things – but I feel like we have taken off its mask, and we finally get a peek at who this house really is. I imagine the footsteps of other families across that floor, the scuff of chairs pulled up to holiday meals, little feet that patter across and get bigger and slower with the passage of time. Somehow the wood, no longer muffled by the carpet, whispers those memories back to us.
We sweep and mop and put as much of the old carpet in the trash can as will fit, and leave the rest in a pile in the garage to be dealt with another day. We aren’t done yet; the baseboards need some work, and we have to do something about the edge of the floor as it transitions into the living room, projects that will push the limits of our home improvement skills and which we will likely put off for another few months from sheer inertia. But for now, just before we pull the table and the chairs back in, the late afternoon sun pours through the window onto the unguarded floor and it is radiant.
Gin and grapefruit juice, with extra lime, on the front porch at sunset after too many Zoom calls and too many problems with no answers. “It’s not the safest choice,” he says after we have all but decided to send the kids back to school in person. “We have to acknowledge that.”
I almost always make the safest choice.
At the pool last week – masked when we arrive for our reserved time to swim, keeping a constant eye out for people coming too close as the kids do handstands and flips – my mom touches my arm and points under water. “What is that?” she asks. I glance, and at first think it is the rock we’ve been using as a dive toy. We thought it had gone missing, which was embarrassing, because we probably shouldn’t have brought a rock to the pool in the first place, and now someone was going to stub their toe on it. I duck my head under to be sure it’s the rock, but it’s not, it’s a foot. A very small, very still foot. Two of them, actually, attached to a very small, very still body on the bottom of the pool.
And then I realize that no one but me seems to know that she – I decide immediately it’s a she, maybe 3 years old – is there. For a split second I wonder why no one seems to be missing a child, , but then adrenaline takes over and I am diving down to get her, realizing on the way down that when I bring her up she will not likely breathe again.
When I get to the bottom, and swim over her small lifeless feet to grab under her arms to lift her up, I discover that she does not have a head. This information takes some time to sink in, and my brain first tries to convince me that I have stumbled onto some gruesome crime, that things are even worse than I had feared, before I realize it is a mannequin. There never was a head, never life in those still, quiet feet.
I drag the body – plastic, not flesh – by the arm, deposit it on the edge of the pool, and look up toward the lifeguards, who seem unconcerned about the situation. One of them comes over to collect the mannequin, with just a glance toward me, and I gather that I have somehow interrupted some kind of training exercise. (I feel slightly guilty about this for awhile, until I decide that planting a child-size mannequin at the bottom of a pool full of unsuspecting people is a terrible idea.)
I have to sit down for a moment, then, to catch my breath; the dive to the bottom of the pool wasn’t long, barely five feet, but it takes a long time before my heart starts pounding.