Veronica's Garden

I originally started this blog to promote my novel, Post Rock Limestone Caryatids. Now I write essays and poetry about everything, including the Flint Hills, healing, parenting, etc. WARNING: emotional content, sometimes intense. Read at own risk of feeling.

Tag: motel

NaPoWriMo Day 7: Found Key


Mid-century modern design is trendy again.

She found a key in the bottom of her purse.
It must have been there for ages. It came from a motel,
with an old plastic fob the color of metallic gold.
She had to think for a while to guess
that the strange word printed on the fob
was a motel where she’d stayed the last time
she’d been out to the west coast.
The kids were small then, it was so long ago,
and it was embarrassing to have kept the key.
Nonetheless, the proper thing to do would be
to mail it back. They’d have changed the lock
by now, maybe installed a card key system.
Maybe it wasn’t a motel anymore. Maybe
the building had been converted to apartments
or storage units. A flea market, an artist retreat center,
band practice spaces, a produce market, or offices.
It couldn’t be possible that they’d been renting out
that room for ten years, missing a key.
No one there would still remember her,
or that she had failed to return the key.
They definitely did not want this key back.
It would be sensible to toss it in the trash.
But there would be some miniscule satisfaction
in returning it: in a decade of lost keys,
forgotten promises, blown deadlines, delayed
decisions, and work left undone,
there could be one thing
she would finish.


When the taxes hadn’t been paid
—or filed, and the accountant called
from Topeka to ask why, I didn’t tell her
about the long months after the baby
when death was my greatest longing
and deepest fear. I didn’t tell her that
when you run a motel, it’s never a question
of whether there is a leak, or a clog, but
of which room. Rooms. I didn’t tell her
how I’d come to dread the ring of the phone,
how I jumped at the sound of the
doorbell. What’s wrong now? I didn’t
tell her about the words —trapped, helpless,
that had come to be like
fat lazy friends who crowded me
on the couch with the baby. Or that
my marriage had changed in ways that
I didn’t understand, that I couldn’t trust
my perceptions, that her understanding
of causality probably wasn’t relevant to
the question she was asking.
I’d met that slender woman before,
in person, seen how she looked at me, with her
coif and pantsuit and briefcase that
matched her shoes. I in cutoffs with
a toddler on my hip and a failing
business and a debt I could not pay.
I didn’t tell her that I’d had a good education
from a respectable liberal arts college,
could’ve done anything, and I chose this.
This was what I chose.
I told her that my husband had a job
elsewhere now and that there was more
work than could be done in the hours
available, which answer did not satisfy.

She had a girly first name but her
last name rhymed with penis,
and I did not mention that, either.

Room 8, looking east

I often dream of motel rooms.

50 years: thirties

Part four, a memory for every year I’ve lived. First decade, second decade, twenties. Here are my thirties.

31.The best Valentine anyone ever gave me was when Kevin (the cool bass player from last decade) surprised me by renting a car and driving from Chicago to Strong City to bring me our cats. It was a difficult time in my life, and having them with me helped me maintain my shaky sanity.

Toulouse and 23

Toulouse in the foreground, the late 23 behind him.

32. Another time he was visiting me and drove me to work at a fitness club in Emporia, then took my little ’85 Celica for the day. (All-time favorite car, stick shift.) While I was working, a big storm came up. When Kevin came to pick me up, the sky was dark and menacing. Back in Strong City, the cats were outside, so we rushed to get there and bring them safely in. The rain was so heavy, we might have waited it out in Emporia, had it not been for the cats. On the highway, visibility was severely limited. We had the radio on, and the remote reporter was talking about a barrage of hail near Saffordville Road. Before we got there, the hail pelting the car was deafening, and the reporter’s voice dissolved to static. Kevin was at the wheel. We were afraid to stop. A vehicle approaching from behind might not be able to see us before we were all dead. I kept my eye on the white line to make sure he didn’t cross it, until the hail and rain were so thick I couldn’t see the line. I couldn’t bear to think what terror and danger the cats were in.

Finally I could see the line again, then the hail was behind us. We were past Saffordville Road, in an ordinary thunderstorm at night. We got to my house a few minutes later. The cats were waiting for us on the front porch, barely wet, their luxuriant coats not the slightest bit ruffled.

33. I celebrated the birth of a new millennium at The Light Center in Baldwin City. Shortly after that, I moved back to Chicago. Kevin appreciated me and supported me, and it wasn’t clear that I made much difference to my family in Kansas. He deserved me more.

34. One of the things I did in Kansas was go to the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, the third weekend of September. Kevin went with me the second year I was there, and when September rolled around again, we decided to make the trip from Chicago. We didn’t want to leave our precious cats for any longer than we had to, so we decided to drive them to Kansas and board them with Kevin’s parents, who are animal lovers too. 23, the tabby, would suffer motion sickness in my little Celica, so we thought it kinder to rent a nicer, bigger car for his comfort. On the day we left, first thing in the morning, we got in our car to drive to the rental agency. Kevin turned on the radio and we found out that the World Trade Center had been destroyed.

We still managed to get the rental car. As we left Chicago, not yet knowing the extent of the attacks, I felt that I had what I needed, if we never came back. The cats were in carriers in the back seat, my violin and guitar were in the trunk, and we were together.

We dropped in on my Dad in assisted living in Emporia before we went to the festival. Years prior, he had been disabled by a stroke, which left him unable to speak or write. Kevin and I came into his apartment to find Dad hunched in front of the TV. When he saw me, he made a frantic noise in his throat, and held up a hand imploringly. It hit me that for two days he had been watching the nonstop coverage of the collapsing towers and their aftermath, unable to tell anyone that his daughter lived in New York City. “Melora’s okay,” I couldn’t tell him fast enough. “I talked to her. She’s okay. Sebastian’s fine. Hollis is fine.”

35. Before we married, we went to an astrologer named Bovani for a consultation. She told us that if we married in June, it should be after the 21st, because Gemini isn’t a great sign for beginning a marriage, but Cancer is much better. She said there was no doubt we were meant to be together (which we already knew), and that Kevin’s job was to keep me uplifted, while my job was to ground him. Being on the cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius, he was really an Aquarian, but came in on the goat side to ensure he’d be good at getting things done. She also said that when we have sex, the angels like to watch.

36. I was thirty-six when I read The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, after Amy Carlson gave it to me for Christmas. I had a strange affinity with every character in the book, as if I could be the person that character was modeled after. They were like mirrors of my essential nature, even though they were all different from each other. The main character Chip is kind of a loser who’s never been able to get his shit together, despite high intelligence. His lack of success is a source of anxiety, and whenever confronted with failure, he looks for the nearest attractive woman and creates a fantasy about her. At one point his anxiety is particularly acute, but there’s no one he can fantasize about because he’s in Manhattan and every woman in the vicinity is thirty-six and pregnant. I wasn’t pregnant, but I felt I could be one of those women.

37. We had a contract to buy a motel in Strong City, near both of our parents. We quit our jobs, packed everything into a truck, and took our cats to Kansas to purchase our first property and start a business at the same time. Shortly before we left, we found out I was pregnant.

38. After Rowan was born, I had an incredible surge of creative energy. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I’d always been creatively stifled, but suddenly I knew I could do anything. But how long would it last? I was terrified that this newfound ability would pass, and I’d have done nothing with it, because I had a sweet little baby who needed my constant attention. I could get about thirty minutes between nursing her to sleep and having to pick her up again. So I put her in her little baby rocking chair just inside the patio screen door, and went into the back yard. There were some switches that had been trimmed off the hedge. They were mostly around three or four feet long, and flexible enough to weave together into geometric shapes, which I hung on the fence around the yard. Kevin was baffled as to why I was doing that, and I couldn’t really explain it either.

39. Rowan had night terrors. It was terrifying to me too. She would huddle up to me, stiff with fear, and bury her head in my arm. I would ask her what she was afraid of, but she was too afraid to talk.

40. Both times I was pregnant, I slept as prescribed on my left side. As my belly got bigger, cat Toulouse found my torso and belly made a nice spot to sleep on. It was comfortable for both of us.


What We’re Doing With This Place

It’s closing in on a year since we closed the motel. People still ask questions occasionally, so I’ve decided it’s time to speak a few things in public.

Sometimes when people ask me about “what we’re doing with” this place, I get a hint of a sense that we are sitting on a great opportunity, which we’re squandering by not even trying to take advantage of it. Surely if we rented some rooms now and then, we’d have some income we wouldn’t have if we keep them closed up. Why on earth live here and turn down customers who show up at the door?

It turns out that it’s not that simple. If you haven’t operated a small business, you’d be surprised —amazed, really— at how many of the expenses don’t change with the amount of business we have. That means that it’s all or nothing. We operate at full capacity or we lose money. (Which is not to say that operating at full capacity guaranteed us profit; toward the end, we were constantly trying to figure out how to calculate whether we’d lose more money by being open or closed.)

In the beginning, we thought we had a reasonable business plan, and had professionals look at it, but it turned out that we underestimated our basic expenses. We took the difference out of our own pay, and ended up working for nothing, while borrowing money to pay the bills. Then Kevin found other work, and used the pay to float the motel, while I found myself turning down (paying) massage work to try to keep things from falling apart in his absence. Eventually it felt like we were doing someone a huge favor, but we had no idea whom, or why.

I’m sure seasoned businesspeople will see all the above as common mistakes people make when they start a business without knowing what they’re doing. Another mistake is thinking that the visible parts of a business are most of what it entails. We all know that cleaning motel rooms and checking in guests are essential parts of operating a lodging, but the invisible work is actually a bigger job. That includes, but is not limited to, what I call the “businessy tasks:” accounting and bookkeeping (including meetings with accountants); filing taxes and talking to tax collectors, inspectors, and insurance people; managing the bank accounts and payments and payroll (if you have employees —we tried to do as much as we could ourselves, which was probably also a mistake).

Walk down a commercial street and consider that every successful small business you see —the coffee shop, the art gallery, the nail salon— requires many hours of these invisible tasks every day. You may have worked in one of these businesses; you may be excellent at pulling espresso, making customers happy, or purchasing apparel, but you will never have a successful business if you can’t manage the office, or find someone who can. It’s not something you can squeeze in at the end of the day when all the fun work is done. It’s a job, and it has to be done well.

In the end, maybe it comes down to being burnt out. We’re done. We’re doing other things now. We’ve exhausted our resources and we are no longer enthralled by the dream of providing a place for travelers to stay.

Still, it’s true that there is potential here. The location is convenient and visible; the 50s-style motel architecture is appealing to those who enjoy quirky nostalgia; tourism at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, five minutes away, is steadily increasing. The air here is fresh, the prairie is in arm’s reach, the Milky Way is visible on any clear night. If you’ve read this far, and you’re still itching to say, “Why don’t you reopen the motel and hire an office manager/ market to [rail enthusiasts/ astrologers/ birdwatchers], or convert to apartments/ professional offices/ a laundromat?” consider that it may be your job to do that, not ours. Now that you know what mistakes to avoid, maybe you’ll be the one to make that dream blossom. If you think you can do it, make an offer. This place could be yours.

Towels, and the Lessons They Teach

Wined Towel

Two men have been friends since they served in Viet Nam together. Every year they get together and catch up over some wine. This year they stayed at the Prairie Fire Inn and Spa. They were very friendly and we talked a bit about Kansas politics and the urban organic farm one of them owns. They liked our place, and didn’t mind the weedy parking lot or that one of them had to sleep in a twin bed because our rooms aren’t big enough for two big beds.  The one who checked out in the morning apologized for having spilled some wine, and using a towel to clean it up.

They were so nice that, later, when I found the blue towel, I decided not to get annoyed. I liked these guys, and would be happy for them to come back any time. I made a mental list of reasons the towel wasn’t important. It was a hand towel, not a bigger one. We just bought hand towels, and are not short on that size. They really aren’t expensive when you buy them by the dozen from a hotel supplier.

The funny part is that this whole little episode raised what might have been an obvious question. To whom was I doing a favor? The guests were off enjoying the prairie, or having lunch, and they would never know if I got annoyed, or not. The only person who would suffer for my reaction was, of course, myself.

So what about the others, who I don’t happen to take a liking to? What about the ones who ruin a towel after making a racist remark at check in, or complaining about the ants eating all the pizza crumbs they left in their bed? How much do they suffer from a hundred miles away, while I silently stew over their boorishness?

What if I just pretended they were someone I liked? I would still have to replace the towel, but I wouldn’t have to suffer. Of course, ego says, oh no, they’re not getting off that easy! But ego and I will have a talk when the time comes.

And one other question: why am I forty-six and just now figuring this out?

Dandelion Syrup

Prairie Fire driveway

I have a strange way of gardening, which would surely drive most gardeners crazy. It turns out that, when you get to know them, a good number of weeds are edible, even wildly nutritious, if not downright medicinal. Hence, I don’t weed much. In fact, year after year, I get the best yield from the least interference with the ways the plants grow, whoever chooses to show up, whatever ways they are useful.

Sometimes it takes a while for me to discover their properties. One annoying, invasive plant appeared one year, and I let it grow big so I could study it. I couldn’t find it in any of my books, and the leaves didn’t look appetizing. It’s a tall, kenspeckle thing that doesn’t look pretty anywhere. In the fall it turned reddish brown and produced a strong seed stalk, which would look nice in dried flower arrangements, so that’s something. But still, it could not be mistaken for anything but a weed, so finally I gave up and tried to pull it, which was impossible, so I started digging. I found an enormous tap root, which was a brilliant yellow inside. Now that got my attention. A root this big had to have some kind of power. I left some of the plants for next year.

Eventually I happened to get in my hands a book on medicinal weeds, and I looked for this one in particular. It turned out to be yellow dock, also called curly dock, and other names, and it has dozens of purported uses. I harvested most of them, leaving some in what I hoped would be less-than-conspicuous places.

I’ll tell you more about yellow dock later. Today’s post is really about dandelions. Normal people are supposed to get rid of them. Would you stay at a lodging with a lawn that looked like this one above? If a business owner is this inattentive to the first thing a potential customer sees, what on earth might be inside? A dripping faucet? A cricket in the bed? If a customer pulls into the driveway and turns around and leaves, I can’t blame her. She doesn’t know that I loathe herbicide, that I’m no stranger to a dandelion digger, but that I’m very intentionally saving these dandelions, and not just for the honeybees.

Last year I read about dandelion syrup, also called mayhoney, though honey isn’t necessarily part of it. It is a European tradition (naturally, since that is where dandelions are from, after all). Dandelion syrup can be used as a sweetener, like other syrups and honey, and it can also be used medicinally as in cough syrup. But most of the recipes I read called for about a quart of dandelion petals, no green parts. The smallest recipe I could find required four cups of petals. That seemed like an awful lot of dandelions. I didn’t think I had enough, but I kept thinking about dandelion syrup all year, and never got around to doing anything about all those weeds. They’re one of Kiran’s favorite flowers, after all.

Well, not surprisingly, there are more of them this year, and that time has come around again. I hunted up a recipe for dandelion syrup today, and found one that could take as few as one hundred blossoms. Now, that would be easy. The kids and I gathered roughly 150 in a few minutes.

dandelion blossoms in a basket

Then I had to separate out the petals. Kiran loved caressing them.

dandelion petals

Our 150 blossoms yielded three and a half cups of petals, enough to double the recipe. The petals simmer and infuse overnight. They told me they wanted to be in the sun, so I’m putting them in a sun tea jar outside. Tomorrow I’ll strain, add sugar and lemon, and cook it all down to a syrup.

Next time you pull up to a motel, and you see what looks like an unkempt property, think of all those weeds as raw materials, medicines, and foods. It’s hard to partake of them and control them as well. That picture at the top of the page? I took it after we had harvested the 150 blossoms from that very spot. I couldn’t even see a difference. Kevin intends to mow them today, but of course we all know the bees will get their fill from the new blooms that pop open tomorrow.

And isn’t that exactly how it should be?

Dreams of lots of rooms

For many years I’ve dreamt of houses, of looking at a house I might purchase (even when I knew I had no money), living in a new house, discovering new rooms in a house I was about to move out of. Most often it’s dilapidated and cluttered with junk, but as I wander from room to room, I find great potential, and am enthusiastic and hopeful that I will get this place cleaned up, fixed up, and enjoy the wondrous pleasure of having so many rooms that I can choose what I want to do in each. This one will be my sewing room. Here I’ll sit and drink tea and read. This room with its trough sink and windows all along the wall would be ideal for starting seedlings and keeping the garden tools. Across the hall will be where the kids study.

I grew up in a house where there were more rooms than people, but, inexplicably, I never felt I could find space or privacy. The house never seemed big enough. I sometimes went into the attic to hide away and read. That was the biggest residence I’ve ever lived in (unless you count college dormitories, and the dorm-like coop I lived in in Madison, Wisconsin). Every place I’ve lived had a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom or two, perhaps a dining room. Every room was designated to an obvious purpose, and to use it for another was always a sacrifice of some kind. There was also a loft for a while, which, naturally, had no rooms at all. At that place I set up a tent of sorts, to carve a massage room out of my designated space. But always, I had the dream. Always I would wake from it and wonder, will I ever have that place, the one with so many rooms I get to decide what I want to do in every one?

I don’t mean to imply that it is something I, or anyone, particularly deserves. I’m well aware that most people in the world have smaller homes than we have here in the US, that in many places, the sizeable room I hated sharing with my sister would have been occupied by a large and grateful family. I do believe that dreams, especially those with repeated themes, can be a guide to a person’s highest purposes. The key, however, may not be to recreate the dream physically, but rather to find what actions and choices lead a person into the ineffable feelings present in the dream. While the physical conditions are more often than not simply impossible, the feelings are always present within us, sometimes waiting to be awakened, when the moment is right.

About eight years ago, we bought a motel. The house on the property was bigger than anyplace Kevin and I had ever shared, with good-sized rooms and a big kitchen. But, it didn’t take long for things to get cluttered, and Rowan was born before the end of the first year, followed two years later by Kiran. As with all our Chicago apartments, we ended up habitually putting excess stuff in an unofficially designated room, which becomes too full of stuff to use. Then I cleaned out my parents’ house (remember that one that was never big enough?), and moved a lot of stuff into the motel rooms that hadn’t been renovated yet. Our house no longer seems big, or to have enough rooms.

A few months ago I woke from that dream, and thought, will I ever have that house, with so many rooms? Shouldn’t I already have the key to whatever that dream means? Where is it? Then I thought, I own a motel. There is no shortage of rooms.

We have all these rooms, and more. Room 1 is at the far right.

I made it my goal for the year to clear enough stuff to make a room for myself. It won’t be all those rooms of the mansion of my dreams, but it will be my space, and big enough to do the things I want more of in my life, to keep some crafting supplies, set up my sewing machine, and to have a good desk for writing. Motel room 1 has no shower (can’t be rented), and it’s full of stuff. That’s my job for the year.

But New Year’s resolutions rarely make it through the end of February, the cruelest month. Dar Williams was spot on when she wrote that song. “The night is long and cold and scary/ Will we live through February?” Besides my getting overwhelmed with massages, writing, being the art lady at school, and being a mom, feeding and clothing everyone every day; the motel business screeches to a standstill, the checks begin bouncing, bills come in faster than I can keep track of. I actively manage my serotonin level. My Clearing and Creating My Space Journal has been on the shelf for weeks.

But the dream comes back, reminding me not to give up. This morning I woke from a dream of exploring all those rooms, finding so much stuff left by the previous owner. A surprising amount of it appeared useful or even valuable, if not to me, then to someone who would like to buy it. It was collected by someone with a neurotic attachment to material things, who then left it for me to deal with. This is raw material for me to transform, alchemically, into what serves my current purposes.

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