You can never rewind

Posted 06.06.21

When I was much younger, I remember sitting at my Mom's kitchen on the good days after school where she would lean against the yellow counter humming, boiling water for our tea, and we'd listen to Dialing for Dollars on the radio.

She'd act out all the scenes, amping up the drama during the musical parts. We could never quite follow what was going on, but that made it all the more fun. She always looked so graceful, so perfectly poised in her long khaki skirt and wide leather belt, pouring the water over our tea bags and sneaking a ton of sugar when she thought I wasn't looking.

The porch door would be open and even though the air still had the bite of young blood, I could smell the signs of summer coming soon. The lilacs were just starting to bud on the branches outside. My mom grew up with an enormous lilac bush right below her window and she loved the smell in an almost spiritual way. So as soon as they started blooming next door, I'd break off a few branches every day and present her with a bouquet.

She was virtuous to the point of uptightness, but she never told me it was wrong to steal, like that time she caught me with the candy bar. Instead, she'd sprinkle the petals with warm water and fill a vase, adding a little sugar. Light purple, dark purple, and white. As she arranged the stems, she'd sing a tune in her pretty voice:

    Green grows the lilacs all sparkling with dew.
    Green grows the lilacs now that winter is through.
    Each time I see lilacs my heart breaks in two…
    Because springtime is here and it's here without you.
I've kids of my own now and I have a lilac bush growing out back. I can't believe it was over half my lifetime ago that I listened to TV movies on the radio. That I am the age my Mom was then. Every evening she used to wonder "Where did the time go?"

Now I know. It spools out behind us. You can never rewind.

The first time I met Gayle we were outside of First Steps Daycare, picking up our kids. Katya and I walked out hand in hand; she was singing a little song they had learned about loving your friends. Garrett tore by and she called out a hello. He waved goodbye and then upon seeing his Mom's beaming face, began to scream obscenities, which ended with: I'm not going home with you!

I was floored. Not only had I never heard a kid swear like that, he had the face of one of those cherub angels you see on postcards in Museum gift shops. Wide blue eyes, white blond hair, big red cheeks.

"Garrett, you're being a bad boy!" she called out. "When we get home you're having a time out."

I could tell right away she didn't mean it. Apparently, so could Garrett.

"I'm sorry Mommy," he smiled sweetly, got right into his car seat and buckled up.

"There's Mommy's good boy. When we get home, we'll make cookies, right?"

She smiled at me. "He watches too many videos with his brothers."

I smiled back, thinking she was nuts, but liking her instantly. On the walk home Katya asked me what each of the new words she had just heard meant.

Later, I ran into Gayle at Sam's, and she told me which aisle I could find the fresh salmon, the chocolate chip cookie dough, the frozen shrimp.

"But don't buy the fruit here. Go to Adam's they have the best produce."

I didn't have the nerve to tell her that toasting bread was my definition of cooking.

Gayle called me up the next week, and asked if they could come over for a play date. I was so excited. She was my first friend since we had moved to New York. When they came over, Garrett looked worn out and he just wanted to play by himself.

Katya was the cruise director of the play date and she brought out one toy at a time. When he was done playing with it, she'd put it away and bring out the next. It seemed to work for both of them.

"I think he's a little tired," Gayle said to me.

"Did he go to bed late?" I asked. We were curled up on either end of the couch, drinking coffee.

"No, we went to a late movie, while his Dad packed."

"Oh. Where's his Dad going?"

"He's moving out," she answered in that half-volume voice Moms use when their kids are nearby and they don't want them to hear whispering, but they don't want them to hear what they're saying, either.

"Right now?" I asked, totally floored.

"Right now." She smiled at my expression. Later, we laughed about it.

"What? You were expecting small talk?" She knew right away I was incapable of bullshit.

Gayle was the kind of person who would call me first thing on a Saturday morning, both of us still in bed with our PJ's and morning breathe, and she'd ask, "Do you want to come over for waffles?


"Great! I'm just going to hop in the shower," her voice filled with delight. "I'll see you soon, right?"

Garrett would be hollering in the background, "Is Katya coming? Can Katya come, too?"

Katya and I would race to get ready, because you'd have to be nuts to pass up time with Gayle and Garrett. She was always happy to see me when I stopped by, no matter what was going on. Just knock on her door and she'd say, "Oh hi! Hi! Hi!"

Each one a little higher than the last. Her hug so warm, her smile filling the room. We'd hunker down on the stools around her white tiled bar, talking about men and drinking her bad coffee. If it was warm out, her kitchen windows would be open and I could smell the scent of flowers in the air.

Each Spring she'd offer me some of her lilac bushes, she had tons growing out back. And each Spring I'd take a rain check. Our yard was such a disaster filled with sky high weeds, dead trees, and nails. I wanted to make it pretty before I put anything pretty in.

I hated driving at night, especially to new places, and each summer Gayle would scoop me and Katya up for the Fourth of July and we'd drive into Saugerties for the carnival and fireworks. Parking at the bank, we'd trek to the field, the two of us herding the kids down the sidewalk, the air warm and light. She'd always have Garrett's wagon loaded down with snacks and water bottles and blankets and little goodies.

"Garrett, watch out for the car. Wait for Katya. When we get to the field we can have chips and soda, right?" her voice lilting with excitement, face radiant under the soft night lights.

With Gayle you could be talking about something as mundane as the laundry and you'd find yourself thinking, "The warm clothes just out of the dryer. The smell of clean against your skin. Like a hug first thing in the morning. She's right -- laundry is the best thing ever. "

We'd pull into our square of field and she'd immediately set up two goals with water bottles, unearth a soccer ball from the wagon, and she and the kids would run all over the place trying to hit the ball under the darkening sky. I'd cheer them on from the edge of the blanket, not quite at ease with myself to join in.

As soon as the Carnival lights flickered off, Katya would get tired and curl up in someone's lap, chowing down on chips, while Garrett ran around at top speed. "Hey, Katya, you know what?" He'd ask over and over and every time she would respond patiently, "What, Garrett?" Even though she knew there would be no answer just the same question.

But I think my favorite time with Gayle was just a short ride we took. It wasn't even for a happy reason, but we had fun just being together. Garrett's dad wasn't doing so great. In and out of the hospital for drinking, he'd almost died a couple times. She needed to track him down and have him sign over full custody. We drove the half hour, talking about college and motherhood, laughing the way women laugh when men aren't around. His driveway was empty, and there was a note on the door that said 'AA.'

"Where do you think he goes for AA?" I asked.

"I think he goes to the one at the church."

We looked at each other and cracked up. I lived behind the church. We sure had taken the long way around. So we drove back to the church and parked in the lot and waited for him to come out. It was a long wait and I was glad. She's been so busy lately, it was nice to have some time alone with her. We sat in her car and listened to CSNY, singing along, and she told me funny stories about the people coming out of AA. She knew almost all of them.

Lane was one of the last people out, looking exhausted and haggard and heavy, but alive. He smiled when he saw her, pretty and small and bright, leaning against his white SUV, but there was pain in his eyes. He knew what was coming. He signed the papers without a fight.

"Whatever you think is best for the Pumpkin."

After, she drove me around the block, and we hugged goodbye. I watched her drive away, already missing her. It's like someone said later, a long time later, you could never get enough Gayle.

It doesn't feel like it's been a year. I feel like if look over, she'll be standing by my Mom's old kitchen table, cell phone clipped to her jeans, wrapping all the little gifts for Katya. All the dollar store presents looking so much better than if they were from anyone else. I remember being so impressed with how she created cards out of the wrapping paper, instead of getting all stressed and tearing up the house for leftover cards, like I would.

She had brought over all the things I needed to make Katya's cake for her school party, because I couldn't drive. I've never been too good at establishing boundaries with my friends, always worried that I might lose them. But that day, I was still so fragile from the migraine and the hospital stay and the steroids, I knew that if I spent too much time talking with her I'd have no energy for Katya. After about a half an hour, I told her I had to rest.

She gave me a big hug goodbye, and I was so weak I could barely hug back

"It's so hard seeing you like this," her voice quivering a little.

"I'll be better soon," I promised.

If I had known that that would really be the last time I would see her clear blue eyes, her pretty smile, smelled her Gayle smell, I would have kept her there forever. No house fire. No ruined family. No burnt bodies - one big one small, wrapped up against each other.

Things weren't going so great for her oldest son, but she was taking him to a doctor the next day - a new one, she told me on the phone. Maybe this one would listen and not ignore her questions. Both our kids were bugging us to get on the phone so we cut our conversation short, we'd be seeing each other in a few days for Katya's pool party.

Katya took the phone and went into her room and shut the door. She had just recently gotten the concept that talking on the phone with a friend was almost as good as seeing them. I could hear her through the door, rattling off the names of all our pets.

"We've got Cereal. I named her after cereal bars, because that's all I ate back when I was little. I almost named her Cheerios, but cereal bars was a little more appropriate. And then there's Utah. My Dad named her after the license plate not the state, but she's dead. My Mom thought she was a kitty snob, because she wouldn't eat around the other cats. And then there's Fridge and Pancho. I think Pancho is the white one, but I always get them confused. Anyway, the white one is mine. She was my Mom's, but it didn't work out, so she gave him to me. And the gray one is Maggie's but she doesn't really pay much attention to him. So I have two cats and everyone else has one. And then we have the kittens. You haven't met them yet. We got those for my Dad's birthday last month. We named one Kung Pao because we brought him home in a Chinese take out box. Did you know in China they eat cats? And we named the other Velcro because he wouldn't let go of my Dad. We had two dogs, but Half-Pint died and we gave Max away. Half-Pint was my Mom's dog and whenever I ask her who she loves best, she says, 'Half-Pint.' Are you coming to my birthday? I'm going to be eight!"

Later, after they got off the phone, she mentioned that Garrett was talking a mile a minute and I wondered to myself how he had managed to get a word in at all. That was the last time we would dial their number and hear those sweet voices at the other end. The last time I'd hear Gayle's lilting voice. "We need to do girl's night out again soon, right?" Like she ever had to ask.

The morning of the party Gayle called and left a message saying Garrett couldn't come because she was sick and his Dad wasn't around. I remember watching Katya walk down the hallway, little shoulders slumped.

"It won't be a party without Garrett."

And I remember thinking about suggesting picking him up on the ride to the YMCA, but it just felt like too much. There would be other parties.

I think about Lane now and my heart breaks for him. I remember what Garrett's First Step's teachers said at their Memorial Service, that Garrett used to get dropped off by his Dad late, faced covered in ravioli sauce from their favorite breakfast. How he loved to be with his brothers and his Mom and his friends at school, but what he loved most was playing with his Dad. I remember Lane staring at their graves clutching a stuffed fish, from Finding Nemo, a movie where the dad spent the entire time searching for his son. He'd already lost the love of his life, Nemo was all he left. Lane left the toy next to Garrett's grave.

I think of those lilacs out back, how afterward I could see them right from the road. The middle of the house blown away, the remains of their lives framed by the horror, I could stand on their front steps, recently painted a happy white, and look right into the back of their house. There were the steps leading up to Garrett's room, where he and Katya played fire truck and held his little bunny. I could see the hole in the ceiling where they fell through.

The front yard is so surreal, like nothing happened. There's Garrett's wagon, his little garden sign, his plastic sword from the circus. There's her big tin watering can, still full. Her gazebo, with the little bench and the pond with all the goldfish, still waiting for visitors. Her car still parked in the drive.

Springtime is here now. Everywhere I look, there are flowers and cardinals, everything breaking out in color for miles. Our lilac bushes are in full bloom, their scent filling the air. Life just seems to go on. And it doesn't matter how many calls I make at work or how hard I punch the heavy bag at the gym or how often I water their lilacs that now live in my pretty yard, they're still dead. And I just don't understand, how can springtime really be here without you?

Copyright © 2006 Becca Friedman/Log Cabin Chronicles/06.06