Six summers ago, I spent a month living in the basement of the mother of my employer.
It was my first year working at a Jewish day camp in Kansas, and this homestay arrangement gave me privacy, a place to decompress after a long day herding other people's kids, and a nice riding distance from the camp venue.
That first June, the synagogue arranged to borrow a bicycle and trailer for me to use, to tow my guitar and books back and forth. The very first morning of Staff Week, I saw the darkening sky and big drops of rain, and pulled out my rain jacket. Judy, my host, demanded to know where I thought I was going in this weather. "It's only rain," I replied breezily. "I ride in it all the time in Portland."
(below: the loaner bike and trailer in 2013, after I'd replaced the seatpost and fixed the brakes.)
Just then, we saw the entire sky light up an eerie white, and fingers of lightning reached down to the ground. Judy counted the seconds -- one for each mile -- and when the thunder boomed shortly after she surmised that the lightning had struck only four miles away.
"You're not going anywhere in this weather, except in my car," She ordered me. "Unload the trailer and I'll go put on my shoes." And with that, she drove me to the synagogue, where she informed her daughter (the camp director) that her house guest was some kind of nut with a death wish.
Judy, a smart and highly opinionated lady who was recently retired from
her day job and was volunteering with the local Jewish historical
archive, then had to explain to me why riding in the rain in the Midwest was a bad idea. I nodded and and promised not to attempt it again.
We got along just fine after that.
The following Saturday, after I came home from Shabbat services, I rode to the store to restock for the week's coming sack lunches. By the time I rode home again, the clouds had turned an odd shade of almost yellow and the air was sticky with humidity. I went home, put my groceries away and took a nap. Two hours later, I was awakened by the loudest clap of thunder I'd ever heard. I sat bolt upright in bed, listened, and when I heard wind and heavy rain, I went upstairs, where Judy was waiting for me. She'd set out two glasses of iced tea at the kitchen table, with two chairs facing outward and the shades open. "You can see the storms best from this side of the house," she smiled. For the next half hour we sat in near silence together, watching the thunderstorm come and go.
It's my favorite memory of her.
That June, while I was there, the loaner bike had some mechanical issues, so I rode it to the nearest bike shop I could fine (some five miles away), bought some oil, a multi-wrench and new brake pads, and repaired the bike in the garage. When I was done, I left the wrench in a little plastic toolbox in the garage, in case I needed a tool again during my stay.
But there were hints of difficulties to come. A door left unlocked, a forgotten pot on the burner which boiled the water completely away until the bottom was blackened and smoking. I caught those, and a few other near mishaps that told me something was wrong. Before I went home, I shared my concerns with her daughter, who thanked me for the information and told me they'd suspected something for awhile. Now that a stranger noticed, it was time to see the doctor.
The next time I talked to the camp director a couple of months later, she told me that her mother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
Over the next three summers, I'd visit each June and make sure I could see Judy, even briefly. Each year, she got smaller and more frail. By my fourth summer, she could no longer remember who I was. Last year, I was advised that Judy would only be seeing family, and I understood.
When camp ended in June of 2017, I let it be known that I would come and work the whole camp session for just one more year, and after 2018 they'd need to find someone else. I was tired; my Crohn's and other issues had taken a toll and I no longer had the same energy I'd enjoyed when I started working at the camp. I shipped my bike home and anticipated staying somewhere a little farther away from the camp because of changes in available homestay options.
This year, Judy finally moved out of her house and into a Memory Care facility in the next town over. The camp director had been promoted to education director for the entire synagogue, and this year her responsibility was to pick me up each morning and bring me to camp. This morning, on the way to camp, we stopped at her mother's house. I was surprised how much of it I remembered, even after a fresh coat of paint and some changes to the window dressings.
In the garage, I found the plastic toolbox. And inside, I found the dumbbell wrench I'd bought and then left there. The box, now mostly empty except for that wrench, the four worn brake pads I'd replaced and some bent nails, was in a pile of things bound for the dump. So I quietly took back the wrench, pocketed it and tonight I tucked it into my suitcase.
I'm not sure why, exactly. I don't actually need it at home. But it felt like another piece of the final lap of this journey, my final year at a camp that might not survive after this year due to bigger transitions beyond my control or understanding.
(After all, I don't live here. I'm always Just Visiting.)
I'll bring it home along with the pannier and spare pedals I left here last year, and eventually they'll find their way to a refugee bike or to the B4H nonprofit shop. (There's nothing like that here in the pristine suburbs of Kansas City, or I'd leave them here.) This morning, I also tossed all my extra guitar instruction sheets and old camp lesson plans into the recycling bin.
It feels as if part of me wants to leave no trace when I go. Or another part of me is taking a series of little Last Looks Backward. I don't know which.
It's been a wonderful experience, and it's time for someone else to take over. I head home Monday, with no regrets and a heart filled with gratitude.