Elena’s Room

We brought Anabelle home when she was just a puppy the week before Christmas 2007. I think that Anabelle has a lot of the personality traits that Elena had — Kim thinks I’m nuts. There’s no reason we can’t both be right.

Kim noticed that Anabelle never showed any interest in Elena’s room. The dog loved to wander here and there in the house getting into trouble wherever she went but there was nothing calling her in Elena’s room. There was no life there–no scent–nothing to lure her in.

We didn’t keep Elena’s room as a shrine, we just never went in to clean it out. We weren’t ready to repurpose it in any way. We knew what the dog knew–it was no longer Elena’s room. We just weren’t ready to do anything about it.

And then last summer we got an email asking if we would house a Chinese teacher named Kevin. Kevin was one of a group of teachers from China who would spend a couple of years in Shaker teaching Chinese at the elementary schools.

We thought about it and decided that it sounded like a good idea. Maggie could share our bathroom so that Kevin would have his own and Kevin would stay in Elena’s room.

We emailed back the next day and said yes but someone else had already answered that they could provide a room for Kevin and so Elena’s room remained unused.

A couple of months later we got another email. Peggy, one of the other teachers needed to find another place to stay. Might we be willing to offer a room to a female teacher for the fall semester?

Again we answered yes. With a female we could even have Maggie share the bathroom with her. Our only condition was that the young woman come over and meet Anabelle. We weren’t getting the dog’s approval of Peggy, we needed to make sure that Peggy was comfortable with the dog before she moved in.

The other thing we wanted Peggy to know was that she would be staying in Elena’s room. We were clear that Elena hadn’t died in the room but we wanted to be upfront with her that she was staying in the bedroom of a young girl who had died.

Everything went well and we agreed on a day.

As the day grew near we knew that we’d have to clean out Elena’s room. Kim and her mom did most of the work. Kim had been giving clothes and other items away over the years but now she had to go through everything. I’d forgotten how tiny she was when she died–her clothes were so small. Although I hadn’t aged her in my mind I must have grown her a bit as Maggie grew. Elena was always this much smaller than Maggie so in my mind she kept pace.

Kim and her mom changed the sheets, put away the bed rails, packed away the clothes and toys and then they dusted, vacuumed, and scrubbed every inch of the room.

I brought the bagged items up to the attic and cleared away the coats and the shoes.

And that’s when I saw it.

Hanging on the back of the closet door was a purse that I’d made for Elena.

I had taken the girls to a yarn shop and had them each pick out colors for their purse. Maggie chose a maroon and Elena chose a mustard yellow. I knit a big floppy purse for each one of them. Maggie’s was maroon with mustard yellow trim and Elena’s was mustard yellow with maroon trim. A little bit of each of them in the other’s purse. I trimmed both purses with a few rows of fuzzy shaggy yarn.

Then it was time for each of them to transform their own purse. Elena came with me to the basement and felted hers. The floppy purse tightened up and became a beautiful smooth felt purse. Once it dried Maggie came down to felt hers. That year that was the only Channukah present I gave each of them.

I’d forgotten about them until I found Elena’s hanging from the back of her closet door.

Peggy moved in a few days later. We still refer to her room as Elena’s room. Then again we still refer to the house two door’s down as the Phelan house even though they moved out years ago.

Some time back, I don’t remember when, Peggy asked Kim if she could stay for the whole year. Kim said yes. At the beginning of February Kim stopped for pizza and gourmet cupcakes on her way back from work. Peggy happened to join us for dinner that night. As we sat down Kim asked Peggy when her birthday was. We had just missed it. So after the meal Kim put candles in one of the cupcakes and we sang Happy Birthday to Peggy. Peggy was very happy and asked Kim where she got those cupcakes.

That was the beginning of February. Somehow I thought Elena’s room would be empty again during this anniversary of the day of her death and the day of her birth. It was kind of nice that it wasn’t.

Last night Peggy came down the stairs around seven o’clock and said she’d was going out but would be back.

“Where did she go,” Kim asked me.

“I don’t know, she didn’t say,” I said.

“The library?” Kim pressed as if asking me more specific questions would help me remember something I didn’t know.

“I don’t know.”

An hour and a half later Peggy came back. “Sorry,” she said, “I got lost. Some of the streets were closed for construction.”

Kim made sure she was ok.

“Here,” Peggy said holding out a pink box.

“What is it?” Kim asked.

“Cupcakes,” said Peggy, “for Elena’s birthday.”

We decided we’d wait til morning to eat them as everyone was full. Maggie put the box up high so that Anabelle couldn’t eat them.

Peggy said goodnight and headed up to Elena’s room.

Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm  Comments (10)  

The Year of the Rabbit

A brown rabbit paused on our snow covered driveway a month ago.

I tapped Kim on the shoulder and pointed. It was the start of the Chinese New Year. This year is the year of the rabbit and there was a rabbit just outside of our kitchen window.


Peggy, the Chinese woman living with us this year, is the year of the dog. “That means,” she explained, “that I am twenty-eight years old.”

If you’ve looked at your placemat in most neighborhood Chinese restaurants then you’ve probably looked up the year you were born to figure out your animal in the Chinese zodiac. Of course it can be used the other way around. Once you know someone is the year of the dog then they are either twenty-eight or some multiple of twelve older or younger.

Kim and Maggie are both the year of the rat. I’m the year of the boar.

Elena was a rabbit. Along with her Chinese name we have an image of a rabbit on her gravestone.

On the new year I was thinking of my little rabbit running across a field with her head tipped back so her hair flowed behind her. Most of my memories of Elena have her embracing life and doing something with abandon.

If you’re going to do the hokey-pokey you might as well skip to the part where you put your whole self in and you shake it all about. No need to be coy and just put an arm or a leg in.

With those memories of Elena, I headed off to the cemetery to spend some time at her grave. There was snow everywhere. Deep snow. The only footprints in her section were animals. I walked across the snow covered graves towards hers. There was a solid crust on top of the snow. I stomped down near where her headstone should be and my foot broke through and sunk way down. I was up to my knee in snow with no real chance of finding her stone.

I pulled my foot out of the hole I’d made and stood for a minute. If this were a movie, a rabbit would appear from behind a bush and wink at me. It wasn’t a movie. And it was getting a bit cold. I brushed off the snow and headed back to my car. It will be the year of the rabbit all year. I can come visit her another time.

I’d never thought about it but the Chinese New Year is yet another axis for memories. We have stories of friends and families that come up each year when we celebrate different holidays. Telling and retelling these stories become part of our tradition. We have stories we tell on Christmas Eve’s and Passover Seder’s and Fourth of July’s. We remember where we were for those holidays and people who are no longer with us by telling of the year that something happened..

For the Chinese New Year in addition to these memories of celebrating the holiday each year there are these extra leaps backwards of twelve years. We ring in the year of the rabbit — do you say “ring in” for Chinese New Year — and you remember. You remember other rabbits or you remember the last time it was the year of the rabbit. I also think ahead to next time.

Twelve years is too long. Who can predict where they’ll be twelve years from now or what they’ll be doing? What will the world be like the next time we celebrate the year of the rabbit?

Silly to ask.

Published in: on March 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm  Comments (9)  

How are you – really

I’m ok with people asking “how are you?” when they don’t really care.

They do care – they just don’t want to know all the details.

When I was younger I was annoyed when people would say “have a nice day” or “how are you” but now I see it as a way of touching someone else, briefly, in a polite and possibly friendly way.

But every now and then someone asks “how are you?” and they mean it. You can feel the difference. They pause to hear what you are about to say. They look at you ready to find the truth behind your dismissive, “I’m ok.” They care. That’s a gift.

This morning my friend Mark met me for coffee — I’m always meeting people for coffee — and asked me how I’m doing.

I started to say, “I’m ok.” I didn’t want to bum him out. But I looked at him and realized he was really asking. So I told him. “I’m sad.”

This afternoon, the phone rang and a friend of Kim’s greeted me warmly and asked “how are you all doing?”

I knew what she meant and so I told her. “I’m sad.”

“I know,” she said, “tomorrow’s Elena’s birthday.” She remembered. She called to share the memory and take a little of the sadness. That’s a gift.

I’m not sad all the time. Mostly I’m very happy. Mostly life is filled with endless possibilities and wonderful friends. Kim and Maggie and I laugh a lot.

But some days I’m sad. I can’t explain it but being sad doesn’t make me unhappy. I still miss Elena. That makes me sad but it is somehow reassuring.

And that’s how I am. Really.

Published in: on March 2, 2011 at 11:00 am  Comments (4)