Dec 162010

Here’s a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece from Robin Oliveira, former dg student, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA graduate, winner of the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and author of the novel My Name is Mary Sutter

For a complete list of “What it’s like living here” texts, click here.


What it’s like living here

By Robin Oliveira on Cougar Mountain, just outside Seattle

You live on Cougar Mountain, the first mountain on the right as you leave Seattle. The children—your reason for moving to the mountain—have moved out, and yet you cling to the house in which you raised them, unable to let go of the memories. Cougar Mountain hovers between wilderness and civilization. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night to yapping coyotes surrounding and terrifying some poor mammal they then eat. Before they die, the animals cry, a sound so human you leap from your bed and peer out the window. Black bears sprawl on the hillside behind your house, watching passing cars. Startled deer wander in the former meadows houses now occupy. They seem puzzled, these animals, incapable of altering their patterns in the face of encroachment. One day, on a bike ride, you gut out the steep climb from Puget Sound to the top of Magnolia, a hill long ago urbanized. A cougar has been spotted in the park, where for days, the fields of tawny grass camouflage him. You wonder what ancient memory has led him back into the city. You are sad when the park rangers capture the animal. Where do they take it? You don’t know. Maybe to your mountain, where the historical society exhibits pictures of the old days, when men hunted cougar for sport, then hung them upside down and posed beside them. Another day, flames shoot above the red cedar and Douglas fir behind your house. You turn on all the hoses and water the roof while your husband and neighbor attempt to douse the advancing fire. The flames lick thirty feet high; you breathe smoke; embers fall onto your shoulders and into your hair. Then the fire trucks arrive and unleash a spray of white foam that in two minutes extinguishes the blaze.

Now that the children are gone, you have all day every day to work. In your office, you turn on a sun light to ward off S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder, which struck you down about the middle of the nineties, fifteen years into your interment under the drizzly menace that is the Pacific Northwest sky. With the fake sunlight bathing your retinas, you write. Ten thousand luxes a day are the prescription for your well-being—about thirty minutes worth—but you indulge and keep the light on all day. When the real sun breaks from behind the clouds, you play hooky. Microsoft money has littered the mountain with mansions of ridiculous dimension, but you climb on the paths above them, through preserved corridors of wilderness, where it is still possible to meet a cougar or a lone coyote, so you carry a stick. You climb until you see the fingerling glacial lakes that strike northward and the snow-topped Cascade Mountains, coolly indigo against the eastern sky. To the west, the Olympic Mountains shimmer jagged against the western horizon. If you had a pair of binoculars, you could see the Space Needle floating beneath them.

Your son calls from college with a story he’s written. Will you look at it? he asks. He’s a good writer, your son, already finding the pathos in a life he says he can’t remember. When he told you once that he had no memory of his childhood, you told him we lived in Paris for a decade. But what had you been crafting all these years, if not your children’s lives? Your daughter rarely comes home. She is busy practicing independence in a place you would never want to live. You are not sad. But you are shocked that what you’d given your heart to is now only a fragile memory. You wish to go back again and do it over, pay better attention to the moments. You tell this to young women in the throes of early parenthood. You remember telling yourself this very thing. It will go fast, you said, but it didn’t go fast, it bled out.

One day, for work, you drive over Snoqualmie Pass to an old mining town on the eastern side of the Cascades. You hunt down the old-timers who worked in the mines fifty, sixty years ago. You ask what it was like, how the underground air felt against their skin, whether it was loud or quiet in the tunnels, what the shock of sunlight was like when they emerged from the darkness. You park your car along the old railroad tracks and trespass on some company’s land, hunting for the old mine opening, gauging your direction by blueprints you’d studied in the mining museum housed in an old log cabin. You tuck your pants into your jeans to fend off ticks and scramble through knee-high brush uphill, searching for the cemented-over portal, and when you find it, you pocket nuggets of coal and look out over the valley and dream of a century past. You return triumphant to the mining museum to declare your success and the docent says, I hope you wore orange. It’s elk-hunting season out there.

For Thanksgiving, you rent a house in the San Juan Islands for a family getaway. The day you take the ferry, it has been snowing for three days and the island roads are iced over. The house is at the top of a steep dirt drive without guardrails, which your husband barrels up in the darkness with all the bravado a Los Angeles native unacquainted with winter driving can summon. The next day in the daylight, he takes one look at the driveway and declares it unsafe to descend. You walk with your family the mile into the little town of Eastsound and slurp mushroom soup in the café and nibble eggnog truffles at the chocolatier next door. You visit the bookstore and buy Faulkner and Le Carre, unselfconscious about your eclectic taste. You hike back on the icy roads and make pumpkin pie and the next day roast a turkey in the rented oven while your husband and son watch football on television and your daughter knits hats for her brother’s friends, who’ve made special requests and sent carefully chosen yarn to his artistic sister. After dinner, you play cards. The next morning your rise early and sip coffee and stare at the mists filtering over the bay while your family sleeps in their warm beds. Fishing osprey pierce the morning quiet. For years you have come to the islands every summer to ride your bike and sit on the rocky beaches to watch killer and minke whales cruise by. On one especially hot summer day, you rode to the south end of San Juan Island, climbed down a cliff, stripped off your bike clothes, and plunged naked into the sound. A thousand needles pierced your skin, and you shot out of the water, shivering.

Your friend dies suddenly. At her funeral, her grown daughters give a eulogy full of the radiant love she showered on them. At the reception, you watch the other women chatting, their long history of construction paper and car pools having knit them together forever. You purposely avoided motherhood’s outward trappings, joining the PTA but never attending meetings, retreating into the writing life while other mothers organized the booster club and bake sales. When the children graduated from school, you lost your connection to the community. Now you think you missed something. Later, another woman shakes her head. You didn’t miss a thing, she says. They weren’t very nice to me.

Your husband has surgery for complications from treatment for a childhood cancer. You drive him to the hospital where you met when you were working as a nurse and he was a resident. You rub his feet while you wait for the surgeon to finish the case before his, one that is dragging on and on. The delay is a reminder that anything can happen. You don’t know how long you have or how long the people you love have. Your husband is taken away on a gurney and you kiss his forehead. You think, this could be the last time you see him. Your husband’s surgery, too, drags on and on. Waiting in the lobby makes you feel powerless. You try to read, to write. Impossible. You walk to the coffee shop, eat the horrible cafeteria food. The beeper the surgery desk gives you goes off. He’s okay, the surgeon says. He looks tired. You used to deliver news like that, but all you can think is, thank you.

Afterward, you pull into the driveway. No lights are on; no one is home. Your husband wants to move, but you know he doesn’t understand that this place is a dream-catcher for your life. That with a move you will acknowledge that motherhood—the day to day wiping of noses, assiduous attention to nutrition, faithful nightly read-alouds, daily traipses to the grade school, and the navigating of the terrible passage through middle school and high school—is now your catalogued past. That if you leave, you fear you will forget your family’s life, which is stored not in your memory, but in the fractured, unrepaired door jamb your son ran into on the tricycle you let him ride in circles during one endlessly rainy winter, and the purple and magenta splotches on the white linoleum in the upstairs bathroom, where your teenaged daughter expressed herself for several years with neon hair dyes. This house cradles your memories, remembering who you once were. It is where your life took on its meaning. You eat dinner and afterward, doing the dishes, you look out into the backyard. It is raining, and you almost don’t see it. But then the movement catches your eye. A bobcat is creeping along the back fence, remembering.

—Robin Oliveira

  40 Responses to “What it’s like living here — from Robin Oliveira on Cougar Mountain, just outside Seattle”

  1. Is “Cougar Mountain” a coincidence, or did they name it after Robin? 🙂

  2. This is beautiful, Robin! I love all the places (both physical and emotional) you take us, and the way your house is imbued with meaning–“he doesn’t understand that this place is a dream-catcher for your life”–lovely!

  3. This is fantastic. There is so much here, but it never feels overloaded, and by the end I scrolled back to look at the length and was shocked at the brevity of the piece. The voice is so utterly candid. I loved the lines, “It will go fast, you said, but it didn’t go fast, it bled out.” Also, “You didn’t miss a thing, she says. They weren’t very nice to me.”

    Thank you for this.

    • This is incredible. Thank you for this beautiful portrait not only of where you live, but of motherhood remembered. My girls are home today for a snow day, and I think I’ll appreciate them a little extra today for having read this piece.

      • Anna Maria, merci. I’ve seen pictures of your beautiful girls, who no doubt appreciate their mother’s love of art. Looking forward to seeing you in Vermont.

    • Vanessa, my thanks. It’s so funny. Often the lines that end up working are the ones you consider throwing out the most. Those almost made it to the wastepaper bin several times.

  4. Robin, I will endeavor to remember this with my two little ones: “You wish to go back again and do it over, pay better attention to the moments … You remember telling yourself this very thing. It will go fast, you said, but it didn’t go fast, it bled out.”

    A finely tuned elegy, of sorts. Thanks for posting.

    • Thank you, Court. I often see little ones and instantly remember my children’s tousled hair, the sweaty feel of them asleep against my chest, their utter trust that they were safe in my arms. Those are my strongest memories.

  5. Wow, Robin, this is lovely. You’ve triggered my own melancholy memories of raising children on the edge of wilderness in the Pacific Northwest. Thank you. And the picture of the bobcat–what a catch!

    • I wish I could take credit for that picture, but I can’t. That image was captured by my neighbor, David Moosbrugger, who happened to have a camera handy when I didn’t. That bobcat stayed around a long time, balancing on the fences, hopping into people’s backyards, reminding us all who was here first.

  6. “You purposely avoided motherhood’s outward trappings, joining the PTA but never attending meetings, retreating into the writing life while other mothers organized the booster club and bake sales.”
    Wow. I was just reflecting on this the other day as my daughter is halfway through sixth grade. I just realized all the “maybe next year I’ll help out in the classroom or volunteer more” talks I gave myself have produced nothing but an unfinished novel. Now I have one semester left. What happened?

    • Hi, Tricia. I did volunteer some in my children’s classrooms, enough that they knew I cared, but I protected my writing time, too. But I did that never knowing whether or not the book I was writing would be published. I kept wondering whether I was doing the right thing. Which way would I be sorry? Devote myself entirely to my children, or take time for a project of uncertain outcome? It was an emotional, daily gamble.

  7. The bobcat, too, has been displaced, has moved on, returns, wishes. Thanks for this, my friend. More than once your mother wisdom has fortified me.

  8. Thank you, Robin, for posting this wonderful write-up. I felt as if I were viewing photographic glimpses of your life as I was reading the words. As a fairly new empty nester myself, I can sympathize with you about where you are in your life at this point. It is a wonder, where time has gone and where it is going to lead us, so soak up every moment you can with the ones you love.

  9. Wonderful, Robin! Just read parts of this out loud to my wife. Thanks for sharing it. Props for the bobcat picture to your neighbor as well. 🙂

  10. tears in my eyes as I finished reading this – mom would be so proud of you – such a beautiful piece – love you.

    • Love to you, too. I didn’t think of Mom when I wrote this, but I just remembered when you mentioned that that she once told me how hard it is for a woman to leave her home. Did she plant the seeds of this essay long ago? Maybe.

  11. Thanks for the great read, Robin! I completely appreciate the desire to stay in the home where you’ve raised your children. There’s something very comforting about having my grandsons racing around on the same floors where my own babies ran. I’m trying to get my daughter to appreciate the chaos in her home while it lasts, because it really does go by quickly.

  12. Robin,

    Reading this piece completely changed the way I was feeling this evening. Thank you.

  13. Just so you all know: an easy way to see all the “What it’s like living here” pieces on NC (and it’s an impressive-looking list) is to click on the “What it’s like living here” tag at the bottom of the post.

  14. Wow, Robin. I know all these stories, but reading them in your wonderful writing voice makes me feel like I’m hearing them for the first time. Love you.

  15. Robin, I agree with Anna Maria–a wonderfully rich and layered “portrait not only of where you live but also of motherhood remembered.” Thanks for sharing.

  16. Damn. “It will go fast, you said, but it didn’t go fast, it bled out.”

    Thank you for this amazing piece.

  17. I love this and I hate it. My poor children had a childhood of many houses, as both I and my ex-husband moved around as we settled into our divorce, and they went back and forth to each of us, to each new home, so are left without that memory of the one house where they grew up. For a time I faithfully replicated the growth chart in each of their closets in each new home, but eventually it was forgotten and our new home makes no attempt to measure out their years. And now they are grown and I want a re-do on so many things. Beautiful story, thank you for sharing it.

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