Searching for the Ghost of Mark Twain. . .

One of the mannequin displays in Mrs. Thatcher’s Attic, an antique store in Hannibal, MO

It’s been years since my sister, Katy, and I got the chance to go on a mini-road trip, but we finally made it happen this past weekend.  Destination?  Hannibal, Missouri.  Why not?  Don’t laugh.  It was as far as we could go in the time given.  Katy wanted to junk shop, and I wanted to be an English teacher / nerd and find out more about our nation’s teller of tall tales, Samuel Clemens.  Mark Twain to you.  So, after looking up our destination on the map and our iPhones’ GPS systems, we headed out.  Oh, and Katy, being the radio DJ, had me listen to old school Michael Jackson songs as we pulled out of her driveway.  (Don’t judge.  You know if you heard “Billie Jean” and “P.Y.T.” you would be singing along too.)

Me (left) and Katy (right, in her heart-shaped glasses) on the 1st leg of our 2 day road trip.

We didn’t make it too far (only 3 songs in) before we stopped about 20 miles down the road to get coffee in the small town of Monticello, Illinois.  A little gem of a town, really.  It has a beautiful downtown with small shops on main street, and a sweet coffee shop that once was an old, small  church.  They serve great cafe mochas with soy milk (hold the whip cream).  Cue the angels on harps ad a light from heaven shines down on us.

Always the savvy traveller, Katy grabbed a few tourist pamphlets before leaving the heavenly coffee shop.  As we strapped ourselves into our seats, she mentioned that Monticello has a street once known as “Millionaires’ Row”.  Only a few wrong turns later, we found it.  The homes ranged from the Victorian Era to The Arts & Crafts Period.  One house looked like something out of a Jane Austen novel, complete with a long, wrought iron, gable-roofed greenhouse in the side yard.  People walking by waved at us as we lurked and gawked at the houses (even stopping to photograph a few with our cell phones).  Thankfully our windows were rolled up so they couldn’t hear us saying, “Oh my God!” and “Holy Shit! Holy Shit!” as we drove under the speed limit up and down the lane (twice).

The coffee shop that used to be a church in Monticello, IL

As we left town, Katy put in her Billy Joel Greatest Hits CD, Part 1, and we sang “Uptown Girl” as we headed towards Springfield, Illinois.  We spent the majority of our day there because we took our time touring Abraham Lincoln’s Museum and Library.  Katy loves history and I wanted my picture taken with the life size figurines of Abe Lincoln & his family, so it was a win-win situation.  Truthfully, the museum and library are well worth the stop and it is very interesting and moving, especially when you get to the gallery that documents The Civil War.  We rambled around downtown on foot in search of somewhere to eat, and landed at The Feed Bag restaurant (excellent potato soup, and old school slushy ice for your soft drinks).  After that, neither of us could resist spending more time and money in an old used book shop next door.  Both of us left with treasures and a bargain.

Later in the evening, we arrived in Hannibal, MO, the birthplace of Mark Twain.  The town itself is not noteworthy, and it appears that tourism is currently the only saving grace of this river town.  However, the two of us were happy to be in an historical town that glimmered with the possibility of good food, good junk, and good sites and stories.  On all three of those fronts we were not disappointed.  Katy drove us into the Best Western hotel on the River and our parking was so steep (Hannibal is built on river bluffs and cliffs) that she had to put on the parking brake.  We were looking at our brochure guides (again, Katy  has the knack of always picking them up at every visitor station or rest area we end up at) when I realized just how steep the parking was. My head was involuntarily leaning on Katy’s shoulder, and her shoulder was leaning on the driver’s door.  When we got our luggage out, Katy set hers down and it began rolling down the parking lot and would have gone into the oncoming traffic had it not been for her quick maneuvering (with a few “Holy Shits” thrown in for good measure).

After looking through more brochures, making phone calls to restaurants, and driving up and down the main streets for almost an hour, Katy finally convinced me to eat at “Mark Twain’s Dinette”.  I was a little skeptical only because I had my heart set on eating at Lula Belle’s (which was once a brothel until it was converted into a restaurant in the late 1960s), but once we sat down in the comfortable booth and started talking about life in general, I was happy to be there.  I was even happier when my perfectly fried catfish sandwich and hot, tasty steak fries were in my stomach.  As proof that I care enough about my sister’s opinion I will admit that she was right, and I was wrong.  (For any of you who are older siblings, you know how hard it is to express this sentiment in words.)  In retrospect, I should’ve just bought the Mark Twain Dinette coffee mug that had his silhouette on the front.

Mark Twain’s Dinette, Hannibal, MO

In the morning, I was the first to wake up early.  Not because I was super excited (which I was) but because the family next to us were loud, and their conversation was bizarre.  I tossed and turned as I heard the following riveting and meaningful conversation:

Wife:  “Why did you wear your socks to bed?”

Husband:  Mumble, mumble, mumble

Wife:  “Hurry up.  We’ll miss the free breakfast.  Let’s go.”

Husband:  Mumble, mumble, mumble

Wife: “Where ARE YOUR socks?”

Husband:  Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle

Our morning tour of Hannibal began with a short walk up a bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River.  Then, we bought our tickets and toured the Mark Twain interpretive center, a recreation of Huck Finn’s home, Twain’s boyhood home, a viewing of Becky Thatcher’s house, and the iconic fence Tom Sawyer convinced his friends to pay him money for the privilege of white washing.  It sounds silly, but it was worth the $10  (especially when that includes the Mark Twain museum and gift shop at the end of the tour).  My imagination was on fire to be walking the same streets Twain once did.  I laughed out loud as I read passages from his autobiography or novels that were artistically arranged around memorabilia or photographs of him.  I learned that Twain also had a boyhood friend, Tom Blankenship, after whom he modeled Huck Finn.  Huck is one of my favorite characters in literature because despite how uneducated, uncivilized and ill-mannered as he was, he had so much love, kindness and loyalty in him.  His free spirit, to come and go and do as he pleases (though he always does the right thing), is still something a lot of us wish we could tap into more often.  It was refreshing to know that a real life Huck Finn really did walk this earth many moons ago.

View from a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River
Recreation of Huck Finn’s house (i.e., Tom Blankenship, Clemens’ boyhood friend)
One of the vignettes inside Twain’s boyhood home
Outside view of Twain’s boyhood home
Tom Sawyer’s fence

Once the self-guided tour was over, the junk shopping began.  We came upon an antiques store on Main Street, and I’m so glad we stopped.  We found treasures galore!  Yet, the treasures weren’t ones to buy (though Katy did want a gaudy spider ring and bracelet).  Instead, we happened upon a lot of life-like (and often creepy) mannequins that were displaying the different styled and themed antiques.  Words fail me, but the photos don’t.

Creepy Mannequin
Little Spooky House on the Prairie
70s creepy Melancholy Mannequin
Katy & creepy Loni Anderson mannequin

Our last stop in Hannibal was Rockcliffe Mansion, which was built in 1898 for a wealthy logger, Cruikshank.  The drive to the mansion included not only a steep climb up a tall cliff, but hairpin turns as well.  Again, Katy was driving.   I noticed she was a bit nervous, not because she was muttering, “Holy Shit.  Holy Shit,” but because she was leaning forward in her seat, chin jutting out at a 90 degree angle, shoulders hunched, and hands gripping the wheel.  I started laughing, and she looked over at me and snapped, “Megan!  Lean forward!”  This mediocre attempt at physics made me laugh even more.  She turned and looked at me again and said, “I’m serious.”  So, I appeased her and leaned forward, laughing all the while, until we came to another hairpin turn and I leaned away from it and into her.  In the parking lot, I was making fun of her again and she tried to laugh it off while simply saying, “You know I was just joking, right?”  Yeah, right.

We joined a tour in progress and were told that the mansion was abandoned for 43 years until 2 private owners bought it a few years ago and began the restorations.  The mansion is still in some disrepair, but it was beautiful nonetheless.  Fortunately all the Tiffany stained glass windows are in excellent condition, and the chair that Twain used to sit in when he visited the family is still there.  The tour guide swore that the place has the signs of a haunting, but try as we might to capture something supernatural on camera, all we got were beautiful pictures of a bygone era (oh, and one of a creepy attic housing a dismantled, nude mannequin, but no ghosts that we could find).

Dismantled Mannequin or Fainting Ghost?

Despite this drought, the ride home was scenic and peaceful.  There is something about the Midwest that tugs at my heart strings.  Maybe it’s the rolling hills of varying fields of corn, soybeans and wheat, the trees, the beautiful, blue skies with white puffy clouds.  Or maybe it’s being in the company of my little sister who sings along to the Bee Gees and ABBA which makes me recall bygone days of our childhood when a family road trip was one of the most exciting and memorable moments of our young lives.  As I took my last photo of the trip of the the haunting and graceful windmills acting like sentinels of the farmland,  ghost-like memories of my past swirled in front of me and silently whispered of a future filled with happy road trips with my kid sister by my side.

This beautiful landscape of the Midwest

Post-Mess Disorder

As many of you know, I hate to grocery shop.  The mere idea of walking into a big, well-lit place teeming with all sorts of food is overwhelming.  I typically fall into a routine and follow the same aisles and purchase the same types of food and cook the same types of meals.  Bland, boring, and predictable.  Part of the problem is I live by myself, so I don’t have to get creative or feed a warbling brood of kids or a hulking beefcake of a husband.  The other part of the equation is that I have Chron’s disease, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the gastro-intestinal tract.  It’s an inconvenience for sure, and therefore I have to choose my food wisely and take medicine so I don’t have an episode or make a current symptom worse.

My Chron’s has been flaring up lately so I knew it was time to take action.  For years now, I’ve been religious about practicing yoga and even more conscientious of what foods I’ve been ingesting.  I’ve also been drinking lots, and lots of water to quell the burning sensation but to no avail.  This week, I began researching a diet plan for Chron’s, and I even checked out the Eastern medicine known as Ayurveda.  These on-line tips (from Dr. Oz to Dr. Deepak Chopra) gave me great suggestions.  I consulted my Vegetarian cookbook (which I use only when I know that turkey sandwiches and grilled chicken are getting to be too predictable and boring) and found a recipe for “Chickpea Patties”.  It is a Mediterranean / Middle-Eastern fare and I love that food.  The spices matched the doctors’ suggestions and it would be bland enough to eat, but tasty enough to savor.  Off to the grocery store I went to get a few of the ingredients that I didn’t already have.

By the time I got home, it was well past lunch time.  I didn’t mind.  From consulting my own doctor and from the research, I know it is best to eat your biggest meal in the middle of the day.  So, I took time to prepare it lovingly.  I got excited and washed up all the dishes I needed and cleaned off my counter.  I opened my cookbook to the following page.  The meal, if prepared right, would look like this:

The ideal meal

I smiled and turned up the music so I could get my “cooking mojo” going.  I set out all of my ingredients, chopped the small amount of onion and pressed the garlic.  I then poured the olive oil into the frying pan.  Those steps are the only thing I did right.

The rest of my creative cooking turned into a comedy of errors.

First, I burned the garlic, onion and spice mixture in the olive oil.  It turned into a crisp black glob of dirt.  I turned off the burner and set all of that aside.

I then poured the 2 cans of organic garbanzo beans in the blender (the recipe called for a food processor.  Seeing as how I don’t have one, I had to make due with a shoddy blender).  I then freaked out when I read “chickpeas” in the recipe and realized I had bought garbanzo beans.  But I thought the 2 were one and the same.  I became so OCD about trying to figure out the difference that I consulted my dictionary on my iPhone which was wasted time because the onion/garlic/spice blend by then was cooling off and clumping even more.

I poured in the rest of the ingredients into the blender:  1/4 cup of sunflower seeds and ground coriander.  Again, I took liberty with this part of the recipe because it read 2 cups of coriander leaves.  I couldn’t find those in the Dierberg’s grocery store.  I’m sure they’re in a fancy aisle somewhere near the organic produce but remember how I don’t like to grocery shop and therefore don’t like to waste a lot of time searching for exotic things like coriander leaves?  Yeah, me too.  That was my other mistake because I merely guessed at how much coriander was needed.

After that, the garlic/onion/spice globules went in the blender as well.  I turned it on to “puree” and waited.  The blender was working, but the mixture was  dry and hard to mix.  I worked on it for a good half hour:  taking out half the mixture and pureeing small amounts.  I even poured a little bit of olive oil and later water in there to get it “juicier”.  By this time, my actions were causing me to get a bit frustrated and careless.  Globs of brown chickpea mixture with black globs of garlic/onion/spice mix had landed all over my countertop.  I pressed on and ignored the mess.  I was bound and determined to make this food come hell or high-water.  20 minutes later, when the mixture was the consistency of sand, I consulted my cookbook.  There, in front of me, the recipe instructed me to add the chickpeas, sunflower seeds, 2 EGGS and the garlic/onion/spice blob.  “Ohhhh!  Eggggsss! Duh!” I said to myself as I reached into the refrigerator and pulled them out.  I folded in the flour as instructed, but realized I was using white flour, not besan flour (aka chickpea flour).  “Oh well, it’ll work,” I said optimistically.

The concoction was now at the right consistency (but with a bland taste that not even extra coriander nor salt could enhance); it was time to fry them in the skillet.  I heated up the skillet with more olive oil, powdered my hands with flour and stuck my hand in the bowl to form the patties.  As I dropped them one by one into hot skillet spitting out oil, I said out loud to myself and my dog, “I have a feeling these are going to taste like shit.”  I think the olive oil agreed with my prediction as it spit out hot grease onto my thin capri pants burning a hot pocket into my thigh.

Here’s the aftermath of my horrible cooking extravaganza:

A great big glob of gunk.

Here’s what I was determined to digest out of sheer stubbornness:

What are these things? Tofu burgers? Burnt play-doh? Chickpea patties? Blech.

I sat down to eat, making sure to add sour cream and cucumber slices to detract from the blandness.  I took a bite and realized Play-doh has a better flavor and consistency than this “shit on a shingle” as my dad would call it.  My dog begged for the food as I apologized to him and told him that these scraps were even beneath his taste-buds.  I got through 1 and 1/2 patties and finally, after a swig of Sprite, I threw them in the trash and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Real Estate Is the New Dating Game

For Sale

The first week my house was on the market, I got a phone call on a Saturday from my agent asking if it was Ok to do a viewing on Sunday.  I was in New Mexico on vacation, so everything was in order and my pets were out of the way.  I got so excited.  Similar to jumping back into the dating game (minus having to shave my legs all the time), I have been preening and cleaning my house so it looks appealing, attractive and desirable.  The day of the phone call, I began dreaming about how everything would play out.  The person would walk into my house, fall in love with it, know right away that it was the house for him or her and make an offer that day.  Miraculously, a 1920s Arts & Crafts bungalow in my favorite neighborhood would come on the market a few days later.  Then, when I walked over the threshold and noticed all the charming details of the warm-toned wood window casements, the sun porch, the brick fireplace, and the sanded and stained hardwood floors that brought back bygone days of old world charm and sophistication, I would make an offer.  A day or two later it would get accepted, and my new life in my new home would begin.

When I returned home from vacation, my real estate agent called to tell me that she would be bringing in agents from the area to tour my home on a day that works for me.  Obviously the first person who toured my home didn’t make an offer, but I was alright with that.  I rebounded quickly.  I told her “sure” and then again I began the process of cleaning my house.  My toilets were spotless and I went through at least 2 canisters of Clorox wipes.  I mopped my tiled floors with bleach water, and I even organized my crazy closets and drawers, those secret junk storage spaces we all have in our homes.  I was still excited and really believed that my house would sell soon (one must be a bit delusional to be so optimistic in this debunk real estate market).

I would invite you inside, but I haven’t cleaned it yet.

The agents came.  They all remarked how nice my house looked.  A few even left me their cards with their phone numbers and email addresses!  Oooh!  All the possibilities!  Surely they would tell their clients about this quaint duplex that has a pool, tennis courts, and club house right across the street and their clients would be in a bidding war over my home and I would take the best offer and that bungalow would magically appear as soon as I was signing the papers over to the new owner.

Every time my phone rang, my heart lodged itself in my throat.  Could this be my agent asking me when was a good time to show my house to a buyer?  Or could she be calling me to tell me she found my perfect home and asking me what date would work best for me to tour it?  As each day progressed and my phone rang less and less (or not at all), I started to become a little less optimistic, and a little more careless of where I placed my clutter and how often I cleaned my house.  “I’ll just dump the mail on the table and sort through it later,” I thought.  And that tiny action started a snowball of dejection.  Soon, I became resistant to picking up my shoes and eventually 3 – 4 pairs were scattered in practically every room.  One evening I realized I hadn’t washed the dishes in about 3 days and the cereal bowls stacked inside one another were sticky from the previous morning’s milk that I hadn’t fully rinsed out before setting them on the counter instead of placing them in the dishwasher.

One morning I looked around me and realized I was falling into a slump and I needed to rally.  I decided I needed my “wing man” to keep me in the game.  I called my friend Katie and asked her if she was interested in touring a home that my parents and I found a few days ago.   To make the offer even sweeter for my friend, I told her that afterwards we could go across the street and take the open house tour of  the 3 story Arts & Crafts home that sat on 1 1/2 acre lot and looked like an estate. She was game (and a bit excited to put her husband on “lunch & play time” duty with their 2 little boys). It should be noted what type of “wing man” I had recruited.  When Katie was 7 months pregnant with her first child and I was sad and blue and feeling like I was stuck in a rut, she offered to go out in St. Louis with me to help me find cute boys.  A few weeks ago, I texted her that I spotted a silver-haired fox of a man at the Toyota dealership when I went to pick up my car.  She called me back and told me to go inside and pretend that I had lost my Target receipt and I needed it so I could return an item.  I did.  And though I didn’t get the hot guy’s phone number, he did ogle me and act like a teenage boy.  He even walked over to me as he was leaving and looked me up and down and grinned and asked me how I was doing.  If it wasn’t for Katie’s  constant schemes and encouragement, I would have let a fun opportunity like that pass me by.    (On a side note, other things that make her awesome:   her dark sense of humor, her kick ass parallel parking skills, and her kind heart.)

Our date of touring the quaint bungalow finally arrived.  We met outside of the owner’s house and Katie had a big smile on her face.  “Oooh.  Nice.  This is cute,” she said.  It was a 1920s Arts & Crafts bungalow in a nice neighborhood with a boulevard and lots of shade trees.  The owner was super nice and he let us tour his home and he answered all of our questions.  He showed us all the work he put into it, and it was a lot.  True to form, Katie even pointed out the man looked to be single and he was good looking.  The home could have been a contender if it wasn’t for the awkward upstairs layout and the obnoxiously large backyard with a high maintenance koi pond and a crumbling garage.  The man could have been a contender too if it wasn’t for the fact that he was moving out of state.  Oh well, on to the next, Katie and I said.  We drove over to the other house and walked in and greeted Scott, the real estate agent.  It was obvious that we were too young and not rich enough to even consider a home like this, but we pretended we were new to the area and were looking.  I had concocted a story in which we stuck close to the truth by keeping our job titles and age, but diverged from it by saying that my fiance just moved to the area and he is an architect for a St. Louis firm and he loves the structure and charm of older homes.  Katie told me she would go along with whatever lies came out of my mouth. It didn’t come down to us having to lie, though.  I think the real estate agent suspected we were just gawkers, in return he was gawking at Katie too. (Did I mention she’s beautiful as well as awesome?)

After that fun day, I settled into a routine.  I kept my house clean, I searched for houses on the internet and around town.  I even toured another house this time with my sister and my nephew.  Nothing was working, however and soon I began to get discouraged.  I questioned whether my dream of owning a single-family home in which I could create a beautiful, inviting, cozy and welcoming space that I and  my future family could live in would ever work out.  This train of thinking led me down the path of worrying about my current situation. I’m still single, and I don’t wish to be.  I’m still living in a condo attached to another person and at her mercy when it comes to making big house decisions (don’t even get me started how long it took to convince her to get a new roof).  I still haven’t traveled to as many places as I had planned for this year.  I still have a bulging varicose vein on my leg that is painful and making me feel embarrassed (though that will be getting removed here in the near future).  The more I cut myself down, the less I felt grateful for what I do have.

Thankfully, a few things happened to me that took away my self-pity (something that is never effective when pursuing dreams).  The first was the opportunity to sub my friend Sarah’s yoga class a few times.  I had to put thought into not just the sequence of the exercises, but had to think about my students’ physical and emotional needs.  One of the students was a college girl who has just started her yoga practice.  Nothing is more humbling than teaching a beginner.  You can’t be egotistical and show off in front of them, and you have to know what their limits are and push them just a little so they will be challenged.  Knowing that I would be teaching her the following week, I made sure I got back into my yoga practice daily so as to be ready to teach her and to answer her questions.  My practice helped ground me and built back my confidence that everything in my life will work itself out as long as I stop trying to control every minute detail.

The other thing that happened was my mom invited me to come and hang out with her and dad for a day or two.  I’m glad I did.  My mom fixed us all lunch and dinner and later that night I watched one of the DVDs of converted family slides that included our vacations, holidays, and family members long since gone.  It was nice to reminisce and laugh with my parents.  My mom and I even took a drive that day to an antique store and bought some fun purchases.  On the drive she recalled a story from her youth where, out of sheer orneriness, she and her friend Nancy signed up for girl pen pals through a teen magazine and pretended to be boys from the hometown football team.  I became immersed in my daily life and was getting enjoyment out of just being.

Then it happened.  While I was still visiting my parents, I got a phone call while my mom and I were at the mall.  It was a realtor and she wanted to show my house between 1 – 2 p.m. that day.  I wasn’t sure just because I had left coffee stains on my countertop, dirty dishes in the sink, clutter in the usual places, and clothes sprawled on my chair in my bedroom.  The realtor informed me that she wouldn’t risk a showing just because of a lack of surface cleaning.  So I said, “Yes.”

I won’t bore you with the details of how the sale went down, but yesterday evening, two days after the interested buyer put in an offer for my house, I gave the green light to sell it.  Last night I became very reflective and even a bit sad.  I’ve lived in this condo for 8 years.  I have renovated it and it is move in ready. It has been a safe haven and a space in my life that has let me grow into a far stronger, more grounded woman.  This is the place where I really began to figure out who I am as a person and what I want in life.  This place has housed family and friends and my dog and my cat.  There are so many good memories here, and this sudden change (that was a long time in the making) almost feels like a bittersweet breakup.  But I’ll be Ok.  Because, by releasing this house, I am opening up to all the possibilities in a new home (that is yet to be determined).  And this new home will be a new space that will help me turn into a far stronger, more grounded woman where I can figure out who I am as this new person and invite in the new, exciting things and experiences I want in my life.

I have spent many a day here reading and sleeping in my relaxing hammock underneath my glorious shade trees. I will miss this.

At times this is an extended living room area. Family come out here with me to sit and visit while my dog Sancho roams the back yard. I have sat many hours out here grading in the sunshine (which is one of the only benefits of grading papers at home).