The Hugging Pipe

My eyes flew open to the blue wallpaper. I could hear the heat kick on, two floors down. The loud clanging sounds meant one thing, getting louder and faster, sounding as if a lumberjack was locked inside the furnace and swinging his axe.

For three days, our house had no heat. My sisters and I wore hats and complained about the oil man as we played Sandwich between the couch cushions and kept looking out the window for his blue van. When he didn’t show, we trudged outside and our nostril hairs froze. We entertained ourselves by sleigh-riding down the side yard hill.

At the top of the hill, we positioned the long red sled between the rocks and the Mountain Laurel tree that we were not to touch because it was planted by the hunchback. We always sat in the same order: Laurette went first, and Rene was in the middle. Rene, being the baby, was not allowed to push the sled off the rocks using her hands. We didn’t want her fingers to be crushed. So Laurette pushed from the front and I pushed from behind and jumped on.

We started to pick up speed and leaned together to steer the sled into the giant maple tree root, which stopped us from flying onto the road. We went up and down a few times. On our last run we rolled off the sled and sucked the icicles on our scarf fringe. Since it was cold inside, we stayed longer on our stomachs in the snow and talked about when the hugging pipe would be back.

There were rules about the hugging pipe. Whoever got to it first did not have to share. We would wrap legs and arms around the heat pipe and wait for the warmth that rose from the furnace in the basement. We hugged the hugging pipe when we were tired, or cold, or upset, or bored. Or waiting for dinner. Sometimes I would let my little sister Rene hug the bottom if I had the top, which was nice of me.

But now it was morning and I sat in bed listening to the clanging. The oil man had performed a miracle. I ran down the steps to the thermostat in the dining room and pushed the dial to 80 so we would warm up quickly. Then I stood at the hugging pipe near the dark kitchen and waited.

My sisters walked downstairs in their nightgowns and there was no fighting over hugging pipe rights. We improvised and pressed our cheeks against its cold.

“Can you feel it?” said Laurette, worried.
“I can hear it,” said Rene.
“It’s by our toes!” I said.

Furnace pic

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Go Back to the Park

Author’s Note: This story has been hidden under a dull title! I’m reposting it today.

I walked inside the rhododendron bush that was two stories high, planted years ago by the hunchback, the first person to live in our blue Ardsley house.

We could walk in to this rhododendron bush as if it were a room. I sat on the “horse,” the long branch with a saddle seat curve that we hopped up and down on to make the tall bush shake.

But today I sat without jumping up and down. I was tired of this horse. I wanted a real horse, and I knew I would not be getting a horse.

Then I heard a Saturday mower.

The noise met me in the shade of the rhododendron. I lifted my chin to it.

Somewhere in the neighborhood, sounding its presence like a cavalry horn, was the first mower of spring. It ignited the sullen kernels of adventure in my ears and I got off the horse.

I knocked on front doors and said, “Let’s go to the stream.”

We were in walking distance to the “new park” and the stream along its far edge. New houses lined the stream on the other side, and people lived in them, but the stream was ours because we loved it.

Its bottom was soft and cushiony. We loved to lift rocks and peek for crayfish, scoop minnows and longed for its elusive frogs. We laughed and fought in the stream, threw buckets at each other and bounced on the wooden slats and shouted things like “I got one!” When we were hunting, we were careful to lift rocks slowly so we wouldn’t disturb the silt, which might allow an escape route for the living treasures underneath. We didn’t wear water shoes because they didn’t exist. Nor did we bring water bottles. We drank the stream. Sunscreen was for getting a tan at the beach and we actually called it suntan lotion. This was a playground, a safe extension of home that opened its world for us, every time.

I stood barefoot, the water pushing my shins, one with the stream. Then I was alerted by the scrape of a window opening. Its slow slide was infected but I still didn’t expect the rush of arsenic from her voice.

“GO BACK TO THE PARK!”

I registered the scream inside my body. We all did. We became statues, carrying her heavy poison.

We looked up at her in the little window, squinting.

Then we looked at each other, and back at her. She was in the house. Her face was violent. But the stream didn’t belong to her. We noted this quietly to each other.

“It’s not her stream,” we said. “This is our stream.”

We continued our searching, but there was hesitance to our play.

“GO BACK TO THE PARK! THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY!”

Without speaking to each other we left our sneakers on the grass and knew to walk a little further downstream. We stopped in front of her neighbor’s house. She couldn’t say anything to us here.

I thought we were home-free but then somebody in our search party mimicked her and that’s when I felt afraid.

“I’M GOING TO TELL YOUR MOTHERS!”

We didn’t think she knew our mothers but I knew she went to our church. Even coming back from Communion her face was sometimes contorted with a soundless rage, perhaps her skull was hot, and I think she may have been a candidate for a pill of today but back then, we gathered our buckets and began a march downstream to get away from her.

As the arsenic cloud lifted from our march, someone suggested going to Africa.

We looked ahead of us. The houses would soon stop but the hills cupping our stream continued on. We could see the thickening. Together, we knew it was there.

“Yes! Let’s go to Africa!”

We kept going until the stream had long thin branches that draped over us, sheltering our march that had slowed from the water’s cool depth. I looked over to my little sister and the stream was up past her stomach, her elbows crooked in the air but she was smiling, so I smiled, too. Here, it was quiet, the breeze above us. We were nature’s guests.

When we saw a large green frog on the bank, we knew we had made it.

“We’re here,” I whispered.

Epilogue: At a donut gathering in the church basement, the woman from the window approached my mother. I watched her talk. She was animated in an angry manner, using pointy facial angles and expressions. When my mother raised her eyebrows, a sign for her to cool it lady, I turned on my heels and took another bite of my donut.
Frog

The Surprise

I was the girl who could climb trees and outrun boys. Dusk made me invincible, as if I were running faster than I actually was, so I loved to play games like Manhunt when the light was fading and I could tear across a stranger’s lawn or an empty golf course. So, in Canada, when we were presented with a long ladder up an old-time fire tower that was taller than the treeline, I thought, Great!

I waited on line to jump onto the ladder. The people in front of me were so slow. I just wanted to get up there! To see. I always wanted to see, to look. Finally I got on and as we climbed the three-story ladder, I looked down. Nothing but grassy dirt and our nervous counselor. The higher I climbed, the more the tower swayed like a skinny pine tree in the wind, gently, but moving back and forth. There was no backing on the ladder to catch us if somebody missed a rung. On the top was a small cabin. Some of the rungs were either rusted or broken off.

When I got to the cabin and stood looking out over the trees, I sensed how the wind felt different up high, making me step a few feet away from the railing. As I blinked into the start of dusk, this difference held me rapt as I finally noticed how vulnerable I was. Up here, nothing impeded the wind, and it seemed to reign as it pushed around the tops of the pine trees. As if a mask had been peeled off, this was the true wind. I peeked over the railing with new eyes. The extreme height dictated good behavior in the small cabin, but two boys started to joke in a pushing manner so I left and climbed back down, holding on tight, aware that I would never be here again.

As we waited for the others, Eva and I went for a paddle by ourselves. We got into the canoe and paddled slowly because we didn’t have to keep up with the group. It was nice to just hang out, and Eva and I enjoyed being in the canoe talking and relaxing, the sound of our dipping oars in the lake. I looked up and examined bright pink clouds, surprised at their perfect fluffy shapes. I pressed my “mind camera” to remember this, knowing it was something special. Then Eva wanted to go across the lake so we paddled toward the tall reeds on the opposite bank, but when we turned the corner of those tall reeds, we got a huge surprise.

Eva reached for her camera, her oar clambering against the canoe. I stopped paddling, mouth dropping open, in awe of the enormous brown animal before us with horns as big as you can imagine. Not ten feet away was a giant moose.

I think with Eva’s camera snapping and the two of us exclaiming whatever we exclaimed, the moose ran. We stood in the canoe, balancing and grabbing onto the useless reeds as we watched the animal run into the woods. All we wanted during this trip, Eva and I, was to see a moose. Not realizing how rare that sighting would actually be, we decided this is what we wanted. Everywhere we paddled, we looked for our moose. That we actually saw a moose and didn’t get trampled by it is still a mystery. But it brought me back to how I felt at the beginning of the trip, to the notion that wishes can come true, and to expect that.

Moose in Velvet feeding in the wilderness

Big, Blue Duffel: Intro to the Canada Series

(circa 1980)

An original life is unexplored territory.
You don’t get there by taking a taxi—
You get there by carrying a canoe
. –Alan Alda

The Canada series starts in LaGuardia airport in New York, with my mother running after the camp director, yelling at his flanneled back, “Make sure my daughter takes her medicine!”

Did he nod? He had a plane to catch.

Those were different days, when kids ran out the front door saying, “Bye!” Or if they explained their whereabouts at all, just hopped on a bike and pedaled away.

Now my cousin and I hopped on a plane with our blue, camp-sanctioned duffel bags and headed to the great outdoors. Eva’s duffel bag was stretched tight at the zipper, full of Noxema, a big hand mirror, Sassoon jeans, little luxuries and functionalities but no snacks. The snacks would have come in handy, cousin. Me, I packed Jordache jeans, a brush, socks and underwear, a new bottle of pink Tickle deoderant that would barely break its seal, a notebook and pen.

I was so excited.

We were camping, heading into the woods. Not backdoor woods, but Canadian woods full of bears and blueberries and real tents and cooking over a fire and if the wood was wet, oh well! Eat crackers! The Canada I knew from the globe in the corner of the library at school would soon display an uncharted view of nature, including the decadence of uncountable shooting stars that would draw across the night sky above our sleeping bags. And it would make us strong. I didn’t know that then, of course, being 13 and half-wondering if I would ever be able to plug in my curling iron.

We would be gone for the month of July. It was my uncle’s idea. Eva would be in the front of our canoe, I would be in the back. Together, with our group of ten 13-year-olds and two counselors whom we considered ancient but were a mere 16 and 17, we paddled over 300 miles around Ontario’s lake regions, portaged over 20 miles, taking turns carrying the canoes themselves and the dreaded sack of cans that gave us bruise stripes on both shoulders. We were tough by the end, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild: Eva and I stole food, swam naked, swung a few punches, climbed a firetower so tall it swayed in the wind, ate chicken from a can and sucked on the bones, came nose to nose with a mother moose, jumped off a cliff, saw my first naked penis (several actually), slept under stars so vast that God was watching us sleep, saw the end of a giant rainbow, slid down mossy rocks on our bare feet laughing into the black lake. All without a cell phone. Or a registered RN on duty. Or special water bottles (we leaned over the canoes to drink from the lakes with our hands). Or supervision, for that matter. This was camp!

We were children set loose in the Canadian wilderness, trusted to look after ourselves. Just to be super clear, there were no music lessons with a guitar somewhere along the way, no water shoes, no arts and crafts projects, no adult. I don’t remember seeing a first-aid kit, but I can’t say I looked for it either, even when I twisted my ankle. I think it was Eva who brought along the Bandaids and nursed me back to health. I think I shampooed once. I say all this to set the stage. We did have Coppertone SPF 4 until it ran out, and a campfire every morning and night because we needed it to cook, to eat.

I sound like the old man who walked a mile to the one-room schoolhouse in the snow. I get you, old man! Since life now is so different, life then seems so unique! And since this eye-rolling Girl Scout begrudgingly sewed sit-upons out of used tablecloths while the boy scouts went camping, the heavy wish in my heart was now here before me, laid out like a prize, which taught me this: I should believe that wishes, even unspoken ones, come true. What a beautiful thing to come across at 13. How I would depend on this later.
Girl canoeing
Next up: Canada Series, The Send Off