The goose, Steph's essay, and the mess

Long before we met, Stephanie was once bitten by a goose. I don't remember whether she was camping with her family, or on a field trip with her school, but in my memory of her telling me the story, she's quite young. She was feeding geese, and one came closer and closer, and Steph thought, "Well, this must be an extra friendly goose," so she held out a piece of bread. The goose snatched the bread in its beak, along with Stephanie's finger, and it wouldn't let go.

Steph didn't go into the details of how she got her finger back, but hearing the story many years later, you got the impression there'd been a battle and some blood. When she told me about it, she held her finger as if it still hurt, and added the moral of the story, "Geese look nice, but they're mean. Really, really mean."

* * * * * * * * * *

Going through some of her childhood mementos, I see that Stephanie won the "Music in our Schools Week" essay contest, according to a newspaper clipping that's undated and doesn't mention what grade she was in. For all the other listed winners, though, the clipping lists the students as 1st grade through 5th grade, so let's assume this was from elementary school.

Here's Stephanie's winning essay:

Music, by Stephanie Webb

Music is the singing of toads in a pond.
Music is the sound of a breeze through the trees.
Music is the one language that can be understood by all nations.
Music is a song that all the world can sing.
Music isn't notes.
Music isn't instruments.
Music isn't a song book.
It's much, much more than that.
Music is a way of life.
Music is a way of feeling.
Music is a sweet thing.
Music is a beautiful world.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometimes I briefly wonder whether Stephanie would be mad at me for sharing such things, but I don't think she would mind. I hope she'd be proud, and I think her ode to music is quite good, especially for a little kid.

Other times I ask myself whether Stephanie would like this website, and honestly, I think she'd love it. We'd long ago lost the letters we'd exchanged after we fell in love, between her visit to San Francisco and moving there, but every time I wrote her a note — "Honey, working late tonight, I love you and I'll bring us Wendy's" — the note remained on her nightstand for months. So, yeah, I think she'd like reading all about herself and how much I love her, and that's what the website is.

I'm not sure whether she'd approve of the Shrine, though — that's the growing collection of the things she cherished, on shelves which now dominate the living room of our apartment. From the Afrin for her allergies to the unopened bottle of her favorite wine, the rack with all her favorite clothes, and her t-shirts and shopping bags tacked to the wall, there's nothing in the Shrine that isn't part of Stephanie's story. But I wonder sometimes whether she'd think it's a little too much. Kind of creepy, even? Hard to say.

To me, the Shrine is where my memories of Stephanie are stored. If that's creepy, well, she's not here to tell me it's creepy, so I'll never know. To me it's just sweet, like she was. There's a fairly large picture of her in the corner, clearly visible from my chair in the living room, and I look over at that picture often. It makes me feel better when I'm blue.

Some days I spend an hour standing at the Shrine, looking through the stuff on the shelves and remembering why each little item is there … but most days it's just five or ten minutes as I'm going to work or before dinner. It helps, so the Shrine will be there for as long as I'm alive. Like the rest of our apartment, though, it's not as tidy as it should be. Maybe that just adds to its authenticity, as neither of us was ever terribly tidy.

* * * * * * * * * *

On a vacation with some college friends, Stephanie once went to Memphis, where she saw Graceland but not the Grand Ol' Opry, since that's in Nashville. She told me several stories about her trip to Tennessee, and the one I remember clearest is that she was walking down the sidewalk with her friends when a drunken Rod Stewart impersonator burst out of a bar, in full Rod Stewart regalia. He briefly danced with one of Steph's friends on the sidewalk, before going back into the bar, presumably to continue the show. Who knew there were Rod Stewart impersonators? And isn't Rod Stewart a little too rock'n'roll for Memphis?

She also told me she'd visited the Pink Palace in Memphis, so of course I asked, what's the Pink Palace?

"It's the mansion where the founder of Piggly Wiggly lived." So of course I asked, what's Piggly Wiggly? I thought she was kidding or stoned, but no, Piggly Wiggly is a chain of grocery stores all over the Midwest and South. Being new to the Midwest, I knew nothing of Piggly Wiggly, but Steph educated me. It was the first grocery store where you could stroll the aisles shopping, instead of handing your shopping list to the grocer and waiting while he gathered everything.

And still, every time I drive by or shop at a Piggly Wiggly, I remember thinking Steph was pulling my leg. But no, the place is really called Piggly Wiggly. And it was founded in Memphis, and their piggy mascot is pink, so when Piggly Wiggly made its founder a millionaire, he built a Pink Palace in Memphis. You can't make this stuff up.

* * * * * * * * * *

In San Francisco, Steph was a bit surprised that Italian restaurants were expensive, because she'd grown up in Racine, a town where, she said, there were numerous Italian restaurants with good food at affordable prices. She took me to dinner at an Italian spot near the west end of the Sunset Tunnel; she'd heard that this place was good, and it was easy to get to on the N Judah streetcar, so we went, but her eyes widened when she saw the prices on the menu — they were double what she'd expected, more than we could afford, but we'd already waited and been seated, so we stayed and paid.

Racine is a smallish city, so I asked why it would have so many Italian restaurants, and she said, "The mob was pretty big in Racine." And at that, it was my turn to widen my eyes. Politically incorrect? Racial stereotypes? Or was she right? Years later, living in Wisconsin, we visited Racine often, because her parents still live there, and a few times Steph mentioned again that some of Racine's Italian restaurants had been known or widely believed to have been more about money laundering than fine dining. When I asked which restaurants and suggested we make reservations at one, she said this was long ago, and the places that she'd heard were Mafia-linked had all been closed for many years.

Steph said it, so it's either true or Steph believed it to be true, that organized crime once had a stronghold in Racine County. But curiosity compelled me to spend half an hour Googling to see what I could find about Racine's links to organized crime, and not much popped up on-line. No gory accounts of long-ago shootouts between cops and mobsters, or crooks on the lam who holed up in Racine. There are a few reports of old-time gang operations in Racine County, and a few from neighboring Kenosha County, but nothing particularly notorious. Maybe she was mistaken, but I can say this seriously, no sarcasm intended: She was rarely wrong about much of anything. So Google or no Google, I'd still wager she was right about Racine and the Mob.

* * * * * * * * * *

She liked reading newspapers, back when newspapers were still a thing. You'd put some coins into a mechanical contraption on the sidewalk, lift the lid, and take out a newspaper, and read it. That sounds hopelessly retro nowadays, but that's how people knew what was going on in America.

We read at least one newspaper, pretty much front-to-back, every day. Some days, we read two papers. If we were passing through a city, big or small, we always bought a paper and read it. When we lived in San Francisco, we bought and shared a Chronicle or an Examiner almost every day, and we frequently made a date of it — at a restaurant, at the beach, or at the park across the street, Steph and I would trade sections, sip some coffee or soda, and talk about the news as we were reading. It took an hour, maybe longer, and when you were done you were honest-to-goodness better-informed than before you'd read the paper.

We continued reading newspapers after we moved to Kansas City (The Star) and Madison (The Capital Times), but our subscription to the daily paper ended when the Cap Times switched to weekly publication some years back.

There's now just one daily paper in Madison, The Wisconsin State Journal, and it's a ten-minute read all the way through, with a conservative spin in a very liberal city. We don't subscribe, and rarely glance at it. Sometimes but not often, Stephanie or I would buy a copy of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which seems to still be worth the cover price, and we would share it at a restaurant or at the park.

Reading the news in a newspaper was better, I think — more informative than reading snippets from twenty different sources on-line, the way more and more people get their news nowadays. A newspaper tried, and a good newspaper succeeded, in giving you the news that matters. The internet gives everyone thousands of choices for getting the news, so newspapers are starving for ad money, laying off staff, reducing coverage, losing pages, and soon most of them will be gone. Meanwhile, more and more Americans are getting their news from shallow TV broadcasts or politically-slanted websites, leaving Americans less and less informed about what's going on.

* * * * * * * * * * 

With a few exceptions, we bought our early-era furniture at Goodwill, Salvation Army, and Habitat for Humanity's Re-Store store, where they sell items scrounged from houses that Habitat is rehabbing. Our couch, for example, cost $25, but we had to spend another $40 renting a truck to get it to our apartment. Our main dining table, which we mostly used as a desk, was a gift from Stephanie's grandmother, who'd used it for decades in her kitchen.

In our latter-era, when we weren't quite so poor, we bought some furniture from furniture stores, or on-line from Amazon. The new furniture was, of course, substantially more expensive than the used stuff, but for the most part the used furniture held up better and lasted longer.  

The bed was a nice surprise – Stephanie was coming home from being hospitalized, and at the time she still had two legs but walking was difficult. She couldn't get to her feet from a normal bed, so I purchased an extra high bed before she came home; with the mattress it stands about two feet above the floor. I hauled our old bed to the dumpster, put together the new bad, and crossed my fingers. It worked -- it was stable, made it easy for Steph to get in and out of bed, and made her very happy. We slept in that bed for the rest of her life.

She fell out of that bed while I was at work, during what turned out to be her last day at home. She was incoherent when I found her, but I lifted her off the floor, and called an ambulance. That was the beginning of the end.

I've napped in that bed a couple of times since Stephanie's death, but I haven't yet slept there overnight, and don't intend to. I sleep in the living room now.

A few days ago, I rearranged some furniture, and noticed that everything was kind of a mess. If it's OK to print things that might embarrass Stephanie, I can embarrass myself as well: this was the first time I'd touched the vacuum cleaner since Stephanie was here, and there was so much dust and accumulated floor-gristle that the vacuum made a loud boom and stank of melted rubber. Getting it fixed would cost $120 minimum, possibly more, or for fifty bucks I could buy a new one, so I ordered a new vacuum cleaner from Amazon.

It arrived yesterday, and I vacuumed today, and it's nice having the carpet a bit cleaner. Maybe I should vacuum more often. Maybe I should vacuum every couple of weeks, or once a month. Whatever normal people do.

A thought occurs to me: Is this the beginning of "moving on"?

Well-meaning people have told me that after the death of a loved one, you're supposed to grieve for a few weeks or months, and then start moving on. "I know you miss her, but at some point you have to put those memories aside and move on." That's their advice, distilled to a single sentence, so I've considered what they've said. And they're simply wrong. Maybe moving on works for some people, but it doesn't work for me. What is there to move on to? Why would I want to move on?

No, my plan is the opposite of moving on — I'm staying right here, wallowing in these memories of Stephanie Webb, trying to remember every detail about the very best lady, every good day and every bad day for the person I loved the most out of all the humans. And while I'm doing that, my plan is to vacuum the carpet a little more often.