I spent most of the month of June in my car. I’m not exaggerating. I started the month with just over 48,000 miles on my car. On the morning of July 1 when I took my son to camp, I saw a number in excess of 52,000 on the odometer. Barring a coast to coast drive, I didn’t think it was possible for me to put that many miles on my car inside 30 days. I did it, though, all the while listening to audio books, drafting stories in my head, revisiting my past, and blasting 80s music on Sirius radio.
I was in my car so often because we own a condominium in Waterville Valley, NH that we have decided to use as a rental property. My husband bought it in 1997 and until he and I began dating in 2005, it was used as a weekend home base for him and his daughters during their competitive skiing lives, as well as a summer home for his former wife and their daughters. Built in the 1960s, the architects squeezed five bedrooms and two baths, plus a living room, an eat-in kitchen and an attic loft into 1,500-odd square feet. The color scheme is awful – all muted trees and yellows, nothing bright, nothing cheery to make the space appear lighter and more open, but instead determined to make the space claustrophobic and dark. The walls are covered with random, obvious yard sale relics, and whenever we did use the place, it took me hours to clear the musty smell by lighting Yankee Candle candles and opening up the floor to ceiling screens.
The kitchen/living area now boasts a hard wood floor.
The front halls and upstairs hallway are now a glacial bluish-purple color, bringing in much needed brightness. The tchotchke-ridden walls are cleared of most clutter, and the shelves and closets have been cleaned of the books, movies and detritus that was the life of its former tenant. The showers have been re-tiled with bright white and non-moldy grout, there are new toilets. Soon all the remaining wallpaper and paint will be replaced, as we plan to replace the bathroom floors, vanities and all the remaining carpeting. Voila! The transformation will be complete.
Ironically, now that we are in the midst of renovating, it is becoming a place I might like to visit, to spend a weekend or even a week. If I could just get over the fact that it was once my husband’s ex-wife’s favorite place on earth.
I hated going there, resisted with everything I had. The facts of the long drive, none of my own things or my little boy’s toys being there, at least a thirty minute drive to the closest grocery store – hell, to civilization – no television or internet service unless I bring my mobile hotspot (or unless I want to pay for cable and internet service nobody will be using 99% of the time). All of it screamed flee, dig in your heels, hold on tight to your space and your familiar. After many years of debate on the subject, my husband and I agreed to renovate a little bit and put the place into the hands of the property management company for renting out as a vacation spot to skiers in the winter, hikers and bikers in the spring and summer, leaf-peepers in the autumn. Hence, I spent the month of June hoofing it up MA Route 3N from Boston to Concord, NH, US Route 93N from Concord to Waterville Valley, NH.
Thinking. Ruminating. Considering. Dissecting. Grieving.
When I was young and still had a fairly regular relationship with my biological father, he lived in Nashua, NH with his second wife and her two daughters. On the occasions he picked me up for the weekend, on time or at all, we would drive up MA Route 3N to exit 7W. During my regular drives to Waterville Valley during June, I drove past that exit every time I headed north, every time I headed south. Each time I saw a different piece of my childhood cloud my vision. Most of them weren’t pleasant.
There was the fact of the second wife, my step-mother in name. A woman who called herself my mother’s best friend, who encouraged a close friendship between her own daughters and me, who ultimately slept with my mother’s husband and broke up their marriage, albeit, not without significant assistance from my biological father. A woman who deliberately set out to destroy my mother’s marriage and my life simply because she was a lazy cow who couldn’t be bothered with the consequences of sleeping with her best friend’s husband. A woman who, when my biological father adopted her two daughters, told me – a five year old child – that he was their daddy and could no longer be mine; I’d have to find another daddy.
She was a beast, and on days I look pityingly at the misery, the ultimate disaster her marriage became and how it destroyed her two innocent children’s lives, I remember her telling me I had to find a new daddy, and my hatred for her burns infinitely hot. For while she wrecked my home, I ultimately did find a new daddy. In fact, I lucked out and got the best father any child could have asked for, a man who loved me and supported me, adopted me and gave me his name, and never for a moment has treated me any differently than his own biological child, my sister. A man who gave me the love, support, guidance and courage to live my life and make mistakes, so that I could grow up without fear. A man who adopted me at age 21 just because he loved me and because I asked him.
Her own children were not as lucky. My step-sisters, two young women who were adopted by my biological father and were truly my sisters in emotion. I loved them like sisters. We fought like sisters, laughed like sisters, shared like sisters … almost. They were destroyed by their mother’s second marriage, and for that I blame my former step-mother, among others who failed them. I grew up with them, but when their mother’s marriage exploded in horror and insanity, I lost them. My luck in finding a new daddy saved me from the horror they lived, and I was a constant reminder to them of that awful time in their lives, so I lost them. Two of my sisters, a chunk of my childhood gone. Despite the access to information granted us by the internet, I have not seen either of them in over twenty years.
I think of my sisters when I drive past exit 7W. I think of sleepovers and letters written in wavering childish scrawl sharing the little tribulations of our pre-adolescent lives. I think of the bike rides, the shared adventures exploring the woods around the apartment complex where they lived. I think of the time we were all laughing so hard while riding our bikes that I couldn’t see the parked car in front of me and so slammed into its back bumper, causing the metal handlebar edge to gouge an inch-long hole in my left leg at the edge of my kneecap. I remember screaming and screaming until my biological father came and picked me up to carry me back to the apartment. I remember his wife running cold water in the sink, and him holding me while the water ran over the hole and poured red down the drain to reveal the wound, so deep we could see the bone. And I remember him driving me to the emergency room to get my knee stitched up – garishly so, given that it was 1975 – holding my hand while the kindly young man sewed up the hole, marking me forever.
I am so used to the nasty scar on my knee that I hardly notice it unless questioned about it – usually by my son or another small child – but I have been thinking of it almost incessantly since I started my marathon drives to New Hampshire in June.
Just before exit 7W is exit 6, which leads to Silver Lake State Park in Hollis, NH. I think about swimming in the sandy lake with crystal clear water, frolicking and playing with my sisters as though we were little fish, getting my first sunburn, just two rings of red on my eleven year-old shoulders. I remember the square dancing my biological father and his wife did, my sisters and I watching the broad skirts of the women spinning like great snowy tornadoes as they kicked and leaped with into and through their partners’ arms. And I remember my older sister playing on the seesaw with some other kids whose parents were dancing, as well. Until the other child jumped off the seesaw while she was in mid-air and the board came crashing down to the ground, her face hitting the handle hold, her lips opening, blood spraying as if propelled from a pressurized can, fine mist covering the toy and those of us standing nearby as her vocal cords were rubbed raw by her guttural cries. Then my biological father sprinting across the playground area, gathering her up in his arms, carrying her to safety and first aid.
I asked him later how he knew it was her; he said that he just knew her screams. I puzzled at that as a child, but knowing what I now know, perhaps it was more than that. There is part of me that will always surmise it was more, despite my certainty that no matter what the background if my little boy screamed, I would know it, feel it in my bones.
Of course, all the memories triggered by exit 7W lead me down the street called stream of consciousness and onto so many other paths, into dark corners and my own personal nightmare on Elm Street, but those I can’t relive in a single motion while driving. For those, I need the security of my family, the safety of what my hard-fought battles have reaped. I cannot do it while operating an automobile at 75 MPH on the highway. I need my couch, a blanket, a good stiff drink and my husband’s arms around me while I cry.