Story idea/art therapy

2 Jul

I’ve told several friends recently that this summer feels like an art film about middle age. I’m revisiting childhood haunts & connecting with old friends. The playlist (library CDs and college radio) feels a bit heavy-handed at times, but I’d still buy the soundtrack because overall the music is so good.

My 8 year old and I are in my hometown, working together to clean & repair an empty house our family bought as a rental a few years ago. She and her cousins haul sidewalk furniture and eat watermelon in a weedy backyard while I interview contractors and scrub the walls. Neighbors (nosy and otherwise) stop by to admire chalk art in the driveway.

We’re here to spend time with my extended (and I mean extended) family while my father’s health declines. The town is a popular rural tourist destination: large trees, rolling hills, quaint shops, fantastic little cafes, wine tasting & farmer’s markets. Walla Walla is gorgeous, especially during this mild summer. My daughter has more first cousins than I can count and she especially loves going to my brother’s house to collect eggs and ride dirt bikes. We attended a #FamiliesBelongTogether March with other earnest & outraged liberals, giving her a taste of home in Seattle.

Like all good coming of age/homecoming movies, this one has darker aspects. Obviously, my dad’s illness looms over everything, tying together the all the other aspects of the story. Cousins who haven’t seen each other in years (many I can’t recognize) hug and tell stories while our kids build forts. As we gather at his shop and drink beer in his backyard, there’s a sense of hope that everyone (except him, obviously) will be closer and/or find closure or at least learn something about themselves by the end of the summer. We laugh together about the mean things crazy Aunt A said this afternoon, shake our heads about cousin B’s health problems, change the topic when controversial family member C comes up.

In the movie the crazy and/or addicted relatives would probably be shown as central characters with an arc that promises hope and happy endings. Alternatively, one person would be a brutal sidebar whose funeral happens before the patriarch’s. This may be presented humorously, ironic, or in a bittersweet manner. The painful reality of multi-generational trauma can be handled with grace and/or grit.

I should write a novel or short story collection about this summer. It would sell, and it really would make a hell of a movie. Doobie Brothers blaring in the back of a VW Golf filled with laughing blonde children, middle aged mom/aunt singing along. Later, she enjoys a rye whiskey and red wine hybrid, hyper-local cocktail while putting together a curtain rod in an echo-filled living room while the children sit on an air mattress to watch a movie. Focusing on the 8 year old’s experience would give fresh perspective to this well-used theme. Who doesn’t want to watch her fall in love with a neighbor cat, or put together lawn ornaments?

Even while I consider the options for loosely fictionalizing this experience, I have to admit: this sucks.  Walla Walla is lovely and my daughter is building relationships and creating memories. It’s also painful and confusing to be around people who think they know me and/or want to talk about shared history that I prefer to forget or remember privately (or pay a therapist to help me navigate). The crazy relatives are comic relief, but they are also triggering. My father’s looming mortality is terrifying and sad. Our family’s dysfunctional dynamics exhaust and depress me, almost as much as the changing economy of this bucolic small town.

I’m grateful to have a supportive community of people who’ve been through similar experiences. They endure my texts, hand me tissues, make jokes & buy beer. I’m lucky to have the financial security and flexibility to stay here comfortably. It’s important to remind myself that we’re making memories at the same time I’m revisiting them. The kid is working hard to keep up with everything happening around. I want the version of this story that she remembers to be positive, or at least a time in her life that she can recall as helping build resilience. At the very least, she will know the words to Black Water.

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