In January I flew back to Washington State to spend the first week of the New Year with my nephew and his wife. A happy event.
I’ve lived 3,000 miles away from my roots all my adult life. And for the first 20 years away, I maintained the same good-girl behavior I always had. I wrote, I called, and for a long time all my vacations were spent going home: a combination of heaven and hell. It’s the most beautiful place in the world. If you’ve seen Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, picture her twirling on the green hills with snow capped mountains in the background. Add lakes, beaches, a beautiful harbor and friends.
It’s also where my mother lives. It took me several years to understand why I’d get strep throat or bronchitis before a trip back. When I figured it out, that ended. Before the trip in January I had a sore throat. I took tons of vitamin C and Echinacea. I wasn’t going to see her. No one would even risk telling her I’m there. But just thinking of being in the same town with my now 96 year old mother makes me sick.
Safety was never an option. Confrontation only engorged her rage, but 3,000 miles between us allowed a sort of life for me. It’s taken 50 years to gain perspective to put the puzzle of my mother’s mental health together. I wrote a play 25 years ago with this line. “A woman may understand why her husband beats her, but she still has the bruises.” Staying away didn’t change anything, just lowered the count of the bruises.
Back in the mid 80’s my mother’s husband had a condition that required the amputation of one foot. He wasn’t doing well, so I convinced him that if he would stick with his physical therapy he should come out east and have Thanksgiving with me. The bargain was that I would visit them for Christmas in Arizona where they spent their winters. I heard the words come out of my mouth. He accepted the deal.
He wasn’t stable enough to climb the stairs in my house so I booked a lovely hotel room for them. I put a flower arrangement, fruit and magazines in the room as a welcome.
My mother was on her best behavior in my town. She was a spring loaded to launch but she contained herself, barely. For over thirty years I had developed a strained politeness, a contained irritation. The stress between us could create a diamond but I had made a deal. One night at my dining table someone dropped a knife onto a plate and the sound made my mother jump a foot off her chair with a scream. Today a childhood friend remembers my mother as high strung. Oh if only that were it.
I took them to my office, introduced them to my business partners and to friends. We visited friends of my parents who lived there. When it was time to take them to the airport in Baltimore I couldn’t drive fast enough. But the real test would be the Arizona Christmas.
After they left town I got a call from my mother’s friend we had visited. She was stunned by something my mother told her and thought I should know. My mother actually said that having seen my beautiful home and business, she might have “invested” in the wrong child. It was the first glimpse the friend had of the way my mother’s mind worked. But they never really saw her in action.
When my mother’s husband retired they bought a motor home. She confided in me on one of her rare truthful moments, that the reason she married my father was that he was in the military and she could see the world. We never lived anywhere exotic. That made her mad.
She and her husband now planned at least to see all of this country. But he could no longer climb in and out of the motor home. So they bought a teeny plot of land in one of those retirement parks in Arizona where they spent winters. There were five thousand of those spots. And the other 4,999 people parked there were in kind of the same situation. No one could travel the miles they had dreamed of so they stopped there for the winter. They all traded their motor homes for larger trailers. It was easy to get lost in row after row. They each had the same white painted rocks, and the same one cactus. I could see the same newscast on the televisions flickering at night in every home. Men reminisced about the 8 or 9 miles to the gallon they used to get with the motor homes. Women complained about their children who didn’t visit.
I had been there before but stayed in a motel. This time I was saving money instead of my sanity by staying with them in the trailer. My mother’s husband wouldn’t let me drive his car because he said I had an out of state driver’s license. That made no sense but I was stuck in the back seat while my mother “naggergated,” as he called it.
At night I slept on a fold out couch in the living room area of the trailer. So I was pretty much in their space. That’s fine for people who get along. I pretended that we got along. And I never betrayed her friend by revealing I knew what had been said about “investing” in the wrong child. We were in her territory and my mother was being herself. Her husband’s hearing was pretty bad by then. His understanding of anything that was going on was through her filter.
Now in previous years, the only two men in my life who met her and spent time with her, each asked why in the world I subjected myself to her, even allowed her in my life. My only response was that she was my mother. They didn’t see it that way.
On that Arizona Christmas Eve three nearly dead carnations were delivered to me from my brother and his second wife. For decades I had never gotten even a card from them so this was odd. I have many, many, many faults, but I am not a hypocrite. I couldn’t work up any excitement about those dry spindly carnations. I made a comment.
And that was it. She had held back since Thanksgiving and bam, now she was going to let me have it. She pinned me into a corner of that long metal submarine of a house. At her highest pitch she got her husband to take a whack at me with his cane, a full swing like a baseball bat. He was nearly 80 and had only one good leg so I was able to jump out of the way of some of the blow.
I didn’t call the airline to change my flight. I didn’t rent a car or book a motel room to get out of there. I stayed. I woke each day and got out of the living room. While it rained outside every morning I stood in the teeny shower and quietly cried.
Finally the day arrived to escape. I was up and dressed and to make it go faster I went across the little road to say goodbye to their neighbors. But I noticed my mother and her husband watching. They came outside to get me even though there was plenty of time. I only realized now decades later they were terrified that I might tell the neighbors that I had been hit with the cane. She should have known how well she had trained me. But I never stayed under the same roof with my mother again.
So I went to Russia, or the then U.S.S.R. in the summer of 1987 to see a friend I thought was dying. By the time I managed to get a visa she had recovered. # 35 Russian Adventures Part III (11/27/12). About two weeks into the trip I was taken to a dacha outside Moscow for what was billed as a picnic. Now I was leaving Moscow with our group tour, carrying slides of illegal paintings to bring back to America. I was tearfully implored by Nadia to contact a German banker in New York. He was in some way involved with Russian artists. And the only other thing I knew was that they were desperate.
Telling my friend and the artists that I knew nothing about the business of art, meant nothing. They entrusted me with a mission. My mission was to help save their lives by getting them known in the West. I just wanted to get the slides home without trouble.
This is no travel journal. But in order for me to get perspective of why in the hell was I putting myself through this for strangers, it helps to remember what the world was like then, and to remember my own world. I had shut down my business and spent months buying time just to get the visa. I was living on my dwindling savings. Before the trip I assumed that I would return to New York and broadcast advertising.
I had already completed my goal. As promised I had seen my friend. The citizen diplomacy I was exposed to was a bonus. Now we were on our way to Central Asia.
We took Aeroflot out of Moscow to Tashkent. On the first flight into Leningrad from Luxembourg a couple of weeks earlier, I remember the long, really long delay. We watched several mechanics on the ground for hours trying to work on our plane. No matter what a miserable trip I’ve had on any airline here, with delays, bumps, cramped seats or no food, it was a day at Elizabeth Arden by comparison. (Not a good example because the Swedish masseuse there was pretty tough.) On that day in Luxembourg, the mechanics had dwindled down to one, and he scratched his head. About an hour later we boarded the plane anyway.
In Tashkent our brains snapped in another direction. The only Russian novels I’d read didn’t prepare me for palm trees. And no geography class covered the vastness of 11 or 12 time zones of the U.S.S.R. We weren’t going to Kamchatka, a much coveted territory in the game of Risk. But it wasn’t Kansas either. When we stepped out of that plane in Tashkent, we were hit in the face by the heat of an open oven.
We spent our days in mosques, cultural centers, and markets. By this leg of the trip we were all exhausted with too little sleep and not enough protein. Food supplies were skimpy and I was running low on the peanut butter and dried fruit I brought with me. Blistering hot nights were constant. Air conditioners were not.
One afternoon in 115deg. we were at a cultural center for dance and music. Our hosts got us all up to dance in the sun, so by the time we left we were each drenched in sweat. We wanted to go back and if at all possible burn our clothes. When we reached the hotel, our tour leader announced that we were going to meet some university students. We were united in one big damp groan but we went.
We chatted with the lovely students, all speaking excellent English. One young woman made a new dress just to meet an American. I don’t know of any other time in my life when someone wore a special outfit to meet me. When the event was over, we all slogged back in our damp clothes to the elevators. One of the men in the group said, “They’re going to tell their friends, ya know, Americans are pretty nice. But they all smell like a bunch of wet sheep.”
In Tashkent a friend of Nadia’s came to pick me up for a visit. He wasn’t allowed in an international hotel, so he stood outside holding a very worn National Geographic so I’d recognize him. He was originally from Moscow but had lived in that region for many years. I had an amazing visit with his wife, her mother and their child. Then he took me back to the hotel. Again, this was something I wasn’t supposed to do, and every time I re-entered a hotel, it felt like there would be trouble. There were always different check points, several stations to go through before being allowed to go upstairs.
The next day our flight out of Tashkent was stuck on the ground without air for four hours. It was 117 degrees outside. Sorry about the weather report, but that’s something you don’t forget. A female student on our trip was very sick. She was seated between two women who kept passing a naked baby back and forth over her. At one point the baby peed on the girl who was too sick to care.
By the time we got settled into the mountain town of Alma-Ata, where Russians trained for the Olympics, all but three of us were knocked out by something in the Leningrad water. They all wanted to die, and very nearly did. We spent a lot of time with Russian doctors.
During our travels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan we visited everything from blue snow fed lakes to steamy silk factories. There were towns with beds outdoors on the street for a rest in the midday sun. By this time Blanche was beginning to flirt with local men and we watched the little widow from Louisiana ride off on the back of a young man’s motorcycle. She did return.
After about a week in Central Asia it was time to go home. We came back through Luxembourg and then to JFK. Some had missed connecting flights so they stayed with me on Long Island. We were all chattering so much the next day in the car I got us miserably lost on the way to La Guardia, a trip I had made many many times.
Back home in the U.S. it was time for me to consider how I could help the artists. I called a friend from my broadcasting days because he was an art collector. So he made one phone call and got back to me in minutes. He was on the board of a Wisconsin Art museum and it happened that they had one of Dimitri’s pictures in their collection. I considered it more than coincidence. My friend was intrigued and offered to help research. He arranged a meeting at a gallery in Manhattan with the “German Banker.”
I’ll call the banker Helmut. That is not his name but he could be a Helmut. He was a big man with a wad of self-assurance. Though his English pronunciation was good, the sentence structure was creative and he had a quiet voice. I had to pay close attention. He kept kind of winking at me with his face. I didn’t know if it was a facial tick or flirtation. We all met at a gallery where he and the gallery owner showed us one painting after another. These were not Russian paintings but I thought that this was part of our education.
My friend and I both admired one painting and he suggested that we buy it and take turns hanging it. I replied that I had no wall space. Because of my own “stupidity” it takes years, sometimes decades for something to sink in. I was borrowing the house of a friend at the time so I had no wall space of my own. It must have sounded as though I had so much artwork that I didn’t dare buy one more painting.
We were shown into a conference room. I sat at one end of a gigantic table and the German sat at the opposite end. It was such a big table I could hardly hear him. When I got out my case to light a cigarette, he stood and glided the many yards to snap a lighter. I tried not to appear impressed.
My friend and I just listened because we didn’t know what the German was doing for the artists. It never occurred to me to make money at this. I was not conscious of it at the time, but my role must have been as confusing to them as it was to me. Now I was stepping out onto another ledge of life, this time an international one.
Another friend from my broadcasting days loaned me an office in Manhattan in the then Pan Am Building. I used his company phones. Each call I made led to another contact. I spoke with a famous film director who led me to Peggy Guggenheim who was interested in helping Russian artists. Just about every conversation led me back to the German Banker.
So it was time to go to his Wall Street office to meet with him again. I did not look forward to that. He was an overpowering man. Between his soft-spoken accent and that face he kept making, I was uncomfortable. Being around him made me wobbly in the knees.
About ten years ago I was working long hours as a publisher of a regional magazine for a large broadcast company. I was learning how to be a publisher from the staff and from generous publishers around the country. I hadn’t taken any time off for a couple of years, even for my nephew’s wedding. Wasn’t that a sad choice?
I had been living on M&M’s. I wanted to get healthy and if at all possible in a week. A spa was the answer. I hunted in the relatively new online world of spas, and found one and only one that was affordable in Sedona. I loved Sedona, I’m reverential about Sedona. This particular place was about a quarter the price of any other place. I took it.
I landed in Flagstaff and drove a little red tin can of a rental car though falling snow. It was late in the day and I was glad to find the destination. It didn’t look like the brochure. I parked out on the road and went in just to make sure I was at the right place.
From the front door I entered a cavern of a dining room and there was no one there. I mean not a soul in that huge room. But this was the right place, and a teen aged girl retrieved my bags so I followed her down a long hall to my room. There was something odd about the whole place but at that price I reserved judgment. Each of the rooms had a little window onto the hall, odd I thought. When I entered the room, I was also struck with an antiseptic-like smell. It was an awkwardly shaped room. Everything was pink and turquoise but not an Arizona kind of turquoise. It was a pink and turquoise that’s painted over to make a place seem like something it’s not. I was tired and hungry and I needed sleep. That’s when I found out the bed was really two beds pushed together with a flimsy mattress on top.
I never try to get to breakfast at any inn. But I wanted to talk with the manager about the bed, and just about everything else in that dreary room. I woke early enough and hungry enough to go sample the healthy food described in the advertising. So I went to the big room I had seen the night before, essentially the hub of the place. Again, no one there.
The tables and chairs seemed especially low to the ground. The fireplace in the room did nothing to warm the pink and turquoise atmosphere. There was an open kitchen at the other end of the room, but I was looking for someone who ran the place. I was not happy and I was not shy about letting someone know I was not happy.
A very young man appeared introducing himself as the manager. He had a bottle of wine in his hand at 9:30am. He invited me to sit at one of the empty tables and offered me a glass of wine. No thanks.
He told me that he had just been named manager the night before. He was the chef. The manager was fired. The wine was really for him. He poured himself a glass and it wasn’t his first.
Now he tells me the whole story. The owner of the “spa” had several places like this in Louisiana and Mississippi. Just weeks earlier it was a kind of nursing home. But it wasn’t a place for recovery or care after surgery. It was specifically a place to die. Just weeks earlier they converted it to a spa.
Part of me felt sorry for the young guy who was trying to drink his way through this story, but most of me wanted to leave. Before I showed up that morning he had already found a room for me in a bed and breakfast. The only room available in town. This place was so bad they knew no one would stay. But the bed and breakfast was just a room. I wanted the carefully prepared diet of health and purging of the chocolate in my blood and the warm water from the pool and the yoga class and the facials. I was desperate for them.
He didn’t know what to do and neither did I. There were no other guests because no one else had believed the bargain. So there was no yoga instructor. I couldn’t use the pool because it wasn’t open. There were no exercise classes, no facials. But there was a newly promoted chef. I don’t remember what his job had been the day before.
The now inebriated manager got the owner on the phone, who said a lot of things to me to try to get me to stay. I wanted and needed a spa experience. I wanted warmth and comfort, even bargain warmth and comfort. The owner said he’d cut the price in half and they’d bring someone in for facials and massage, I just needed to pay those fees. They’d get a better mattress and I think even a new TV. So that was our deal. I was to get my week with healthy meals, massage and facials as I wanted, and they’d even have me driven to some sights as advertised in the brochure. I walked back to the room, to find flowers which were pathetic. But apparently it was some way of trying to make things better.
I returned later for lunch and met the newly appointed chef. He was an eager young guy who asked me what I’d like to eat that week, anything at all he’d prepare. I said that it sort of defeated the purpose of the spa experience. The point was for them to feed me healthy food, because left to my own devices, I had already lived on M&M’s. I wasn’t fat but I wasn’t healthy either. He was ready to show off his talent at making pastries and everything with cream. I couldn’t get him to understand why I was there. So we split the difference. He couldn’t feed me rabbit food but he would try not to clog my arteries either.
Arrangements were made for a wonderful woman to come over each afternoon or evening from the most exclusive resort in the region for salt treatments, wraps, hot rocks, facials, you name it. For someone who had never used a moisturizer, this was an education. The chef kept his bargain and not only cooked individually planned meals for me he shopped each day just for me. He also doubled as my tour guide. He took me to little known caves with ancient drawings. I learned all about his life there and his station wagon that was kind of falling apart. I ate delicious balanced meals, alone.
In the mornings I’d grab apples and fresh cookies and head out for an adventure in the little red tin can. I went to a center where you pick a psychic. It was astonishing, but that afternoon I got horribly lost on a long hike alone far too close to sunset. The psychic should have seen that coming.
Finally by the weekend, there was one couple staying there. We took turns with the spa lady. By the time I left there were a few people at breakfast. Otherwise I was completely on my own.
I made the trip home and told the story of my spa/nursing home experience. I don’t think anyone believed me or cared. I thought it was funny. I still do. I did challenge the company that sold me the trip. They said they had no idea, but then someone there admitted to knowing the condition of the place. I did get some money back.
I’ve still never had a luxurious spa experience. I’m not sure I’d know what to do if I did.