Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter

Treasure Trysts

This week I received a meaningful and thoughtful gift from my stepmother Lois. The treasure box was full of old photos of my father’s paintings, a few 8×10 photos of me, a 1972 letter to the editor written by Dad concerning the construction of a nuclear power plant in Point Arena on the California Coast, and a small booklet of pen and ink and watercolor sketches by my sister Veneé. After discovering the gifts inside this box, tears rolled down my blotchy-rosacea cheeks for thirty minutes or more.

You may ask why this gift moved me so strongly, but perhaps first, before telling the story of the package and its contents, I need to tell you a bit about my life prior to this point—specifically, my kinetic life after my marriage dissolved.

In the summer of 1987 I packed my car with as many of my “things” as I could stuff into it, said a tearful goodbye to my husband and drove off. Caught the ferry to Anacortes and drove all the way to Monterey. This break-up was not the first. I had left several times before but always came back. Ultimately, I felt like I was going crazy and that leaving was the only solution. If I were on my own, I could finally be myself, not a wife and not an emotionally distraught step-mother. To some degree, that came about when I left this last time, especially after I reentered college.

With only what I could carry in my car, I left everything behind. I had to start anew. Get an apartment, get a job, and buy all new bed and blankets, and chairs and kitchen equipment. I virtually lived on the floor of my apartment in Monterey for months.

Along the way, after leaving my husband and after a half-assed attempt to get back together again, I moved several times, each time having to give up more of my belongings. I moved to Chico to go to school, from there to San Jose for graduate school, then on the Monterey to be close to my demented mother who died one week after I moved, and then I moved north to Fort Bragg. From Fort Bragg I moved east to Sacramento, and then finally on up to Florence, Oregon. With each move I gave away more of my possessions and wound up buying more items, like beds and chairs and computers, etc., only to have to give them away too. Here in Florence I had to move out of my first good apartment and into a small, narrow, cold, and moldy old travel trailer. Out of necessity, I got rid of more things and bought lots of plastic to cover all the non-thermal-pane windows. Finally after 3 years in the funky trailer, I was old enough to get into low-income senior housing, where I’ve been since early 2010, with only one move to a downstairs unit, and in the process of that last move and all its attending frustrations, I tossed many more things into the dumpster.

Before moving to Florence, planning for the very real possibility that I might actually become homeless and have to live in my car behind some lonely and/or isolated gas station, I gave my brand new bed and other furnishings to Salvation Army; I gave several framed paintings and a Futon sofa/bed to my good friends in Merced—I should say they were gracious to take my paintings off my hands. I gave away my top-notch stereo system to the son of a friend who had done some work repairing my PC. I gave my desktop PC to him also. I gave away my smaller portable record player used for folk dancing sessions. All of my precious art books, collected and well-used for over 27 years, I donated to the Sacramento Fine Arts Center to do with what they pleased. I gave away my drawing table and stool, purchased when I had finally gotten my first dedicated artist studio in our 2500 square foot house on Orcas Island, which helped to relieve my migraine headaches. I gave away all the large and heavy items I knew I could not carry in my car and then hauled what I could in three car-loads to Florence, Oregon.

I entrusted into the care of my sister our family photo album, consisting of pictures of our childhood years with photos representing us through all the grades on into high school and in all the front yards of our many lived-in houses; photos of our parents when they were younger and celebrating their marriage with a photo taken at a Hollywood lounge; pictures of our automobiles, pictures of grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, and pictures of our family dogs and cats and chickens and roosters and ducks and nasty angry geese that we had cared for over the years; images of my mother’s garden before it and she became ravaged by dementia. Images, each representing a miniscule part of who I was and who I’ve become, given away when I gave custody of those items to my sister in 2003 just before my final trip north. I also entrusted to her my wedding album which not only included pictures of our wedding in one of Dad’s unfinished houses, but also pictures of the husband’s family, all our Christmases spent with his brothers and sisters, his mother, pictures of our stepson, and his growing years; Christmases on Carmel beach at the mouth of the Carmel River on cool, blue-sky sunny days.

I knew Veneé would take care of these photo albums. She had done an extensive genealogical study of our family and had been tacitly elected as the family archivist. Memories come flooding back to me. Little did I know at the time that she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2008. Dreams gone, lost, dead, buried in the dark depths of my sister’s subsequent struggle with Alzheimer’s. I have no idea what happened to all of her things, to the family albums and to the book she had created about our family history.

I loaded my car up with a new laptop so I could stay in touch with people, my clothing, a few kitchen items, a small TV, paintings and art supplies, and drove to Florence. I shipped six boxes of books via UPS, so they could haul them up the stairs for me! I made three trips with my car loaded with small items. Again, I lived off the floor in my new Oregon apartment. I slept on an air mattress, ate and worked at my simple portable table. I bought an unfinished door and placed it across two plastic light-weight saw horses and this became my new painting table with an art stool.

Along each step of the way, with each looming move, I gave up more of my precious belongings. It was just stuff you might say. You can buy more stuff when you get settled somewhere, you might say. That might true, but only if one had the extra money to do so. But you cannot replace all those old photos if they disappear into a black hole. Due to financial necessity, I had adjusted to living light, to living without my old belongings and without much new stuff, but I felt the loss. I not only lost my husband to his errant ways, but I lost the stuff of my life. At each step of the way I gave away a bit of my self, never to be found again, except in memories, and those were fading fast.

When Lois’ package arrived this week filled with old photos of Dad’s paintings and sketches, photos of me learning how to throw a pot on the potter’s wheel, and of my sister’s wonderful watercolor sketches, and the insightful and revealing letter to the editor written by my father in 1972, it opened a flood gate letting loose the waters—I was awash with memories and emotions. I remembered who I was when I was 17, 18 and 19— that trusting, fresh, young spirit—and it reminded me of long losses of time between then and now at age 66, but I am so pleased to have these old images filling in my memory gaps.

Rapunzel, Save Me! Save Me! Real photo by Scrib.

In the old brown portfolio were several 8×10 black and white photos of me. One, an image of my face as I leaned against the upstairs window sash looking out of an old abandoned building in Mendocino. My eyes, shielded by lowered eyelids and dark lashes, looked down at Scrib the garbage collector as he pointed his camera at me. He was a professional photographer who supported his family by collecting garbage and hauling it off to the bluffs and dumping the trash into the ocean and on to the rocks. For decades that’s how the northern coast folks got rid of their garbage.

rapunzel2_for_blog2I wrote about Scrib in my memoir Fragments: Growing Up Bohemian Poor in Dementia’s House:

Rapunzel’s Save me! Save me!

There I was in 1964, not yet 18, in Mendocino at my father’s place, insecure and on the brink of a breakdown for fear of being unlovable. So what do I do? I fall in love with the married garbage man. I had a thing about falling in love with unavailable men—married, gay or just plain emotionally, physically or intellectually unavailable.

Charismatic, intelligent and witty, Scrib drove a large green garbage truck. In those days detritus was garbage and recycling non-existent, but for dumping it all back into the sea from whence we all came. Scrib backed the old rusty truck up to the edge of the bluffs just off Main Street and tipped the bucket, spilling garbage on to the rocks and sand 100 feet below. Ultimately, all of it dispersed by the ocean’s crashing waves.

Even though I knew he was married and had two kids, I flirted with him. He didn’t seem to mind. When he was not acting the garbage man, he was a fine art photographer, a writer and poet. We had trysts in the derelict buildings that dotted Mendocino. He shot many photographs of me standing in front of open doors and windows in the streaking dust-filled sunlight. With long brown hair and hazel-green eyes, I was his Rapunzel, flaunting my sexuality, enticing my prince of a trash collector to climb the blackberry vines and pick me. Choose me, my heart called out. Save me! Save me!

After I moved to Santa Rosa to attend Junior College, Scrib surprised me by showing up at the motel where I was staying. My roommates were a bit surprised that the quiet and shy Susan had an older boyfriend. However it appeared, though, ours was only a brief summer platonic encounter. My romance with Scrib was seemingly innocent and safe. We were sexually attracted to each other, but no sex beyond kissing. I trusted him implicitly. He was married. I didn’t have to make a commitment, nor did he. We both knew this and we both knew it was morally wrong.

I missed seeing Scrib, I missed his attentions and pined for him after he left that day, but I very quickly fell in love with another unavailable man—oh so cool Dan, a Santa Rosa guitar player/folk singer.

Our relationship remained platonic probably because at age 17, I knew nothing about sexual matters.

I thought Scrib’s photos of me were lost. To see one of them again was a sweet treat. It brings back my carefree summer salad days as a young adult in 1964 -1966 Mendocino. Whether I want to or not, I recall all the young men I flirted with and dreamed about, and over whom I pined and suffered countless hurts: Scrib the garbage man and a photographer who took many photos of me on our secret trysts; Philip the writer and poet who once wrote me a love poem that I carried in my wallet for over 25 years; Dan the coffee-house singer and guitarist I stalked at the Santa Rosa Coffee house and as fate would have it, whom I sat next to on the bus to San Francisco and thus began our brief encounter; the fishermen boys from UC Berkeley, John a pianist and Gil a classical guitarist, both students wigged out on pot and other drugs and the Beatles, and now gone; then on to beautiful and handsome Peter, a counselor at a youth camp near Philo and stealing away together in the middle of the night to climb down the bluffs on the Bodega coast; and Russell the intellectual with his blond hair falling in his eyes, his rough pock-marked face oh so serious yet smiling at me in the Caffe Mediterraneum living in his tiny purple Berkeley apartment with the orange kitchen, and who cared for me when I needed caring; and Lee the blonde film student from San Francisco State who created a short film of me and a young man running through the sunlit dappled forest to a romantic tryst—after all these years, I now see this was a proverbial love scene with film students and commercial movies. Not too original.

Then, in 1968 another John showed up in my life in Pacific Grove who enlisted and went to fight in Vietnam soon after we met and came home married to a Vietnamese woman; and finally the man I married, Antonio who played classical guitar and with whom I had secret liaisons at the Monterey Peninsula Cemetery…because at the time he was married, and his wife was wont to show up on campus! I knew all along that if he would liaison with me while he was married to someone, he would eventually liaison with others while we were married, but in my bliss, I ignored all the signs!

It’s a long tragic list for which I do have a few fond memories and many unpleasant and embarrassing moments. I was cute, flirtatious and alluring and I easily became infatuated with every man who crossed my path.  A romantic addict, I wanted to be loved and to be in love. I often wonder how I survived. What strength I must have had to survive that time of hippies and drugs, innocence and ignorance without becoming a drug or alcohol addict? How did I survive falling in love so many times yet remain so naïve and trusting? Or was it that I was too frightened to get drawn into all that free love and sex, and the reckless lifestyle of drugs? I often think all of my neurotic fears saved me. They kept me out of serious trouble!

Next week’s post will consist of another cherished artifact found in my father’s old brown portfolio.

© All Rights Reserved. Susan Canavarro.

This fence belonged to the motel where I stayed one week when I came back to Fort Bragg for a painting vacation. The Beachcomber Motel located on the bluffs at the mouth of Pudding Creek River overlooked the river and beach, the rocks and ocean, the trestle bridge, and the foggy trees on the bluffs that I painted so many times. The motel was also adjacent to the walking and bicycling path that ran for seven miles up the coast starting at the old railroad trestle that crossed over Pudding Creek. The path followed the railroad tracks that had been ripped out years before.
Standing there on this morning, on this side of the fence, looking between the fence boards, I saw the mouth of the river and the beach. I watched the river shimmering its way around the sandbar. A misty white-light haze hovered over the distant bluffs. A few rooftops of houses and buildings on the bluff shimmered here and there. The dark fence, a perfect foil, set off the magnificence of the light on the bluffs and houses. 
I liked the idea of looking over the jagged top of the fence and seeing a sliver of bluffs and buildings emerge from the white mist. The focus of this painting is ambiguous. You don’t really know whether to look at the fence or at the distant bluffs. I liked the push/pull effect of this ambiguity and the contrasting edge created by the dark fence against the light of the bluffs: the man-made structure juxtaposed against nature, one enhancing the other. That’s what caught my eye and inspired me to paint it.

Fort Bragg Landscapes

I’ve uploaded four of my Fort Bragg landscapes, painted during the time I lived in Fort Bragg. I painted with black and white Gesso and watercolors. This combination of media gives the paintings a milky appearance. Despite the awful events occurring behind my apartment, Fort Bragg inspired the creation of many paintings…which are now sold.

These four images are of a coastal park at Pudding Creek, about one mile north of Fort Bragg proper. I fell in love with these bluffs and trees and the small beach and cove at the mouth of Pudding Creek. A very active logging and supply rail-line crossed this creek high above on a trestle bridge. The natural cove and ocean sparkle provided a stunning backdrop for this man-made structure.

The Park area had seven miles of paved recreational trail from the bridge north. Off the paved trail were smaller trails leading out to the edge of the land, to the area where the trees were leaning with the force of prevailing winds. I had hoped for the bicycle/walking  trail to be extended over the bridge one day so one could ride or walk the rest of the distance into town, but while I was there it remained closed and inaccessible. A non-functiong structure except for the beautiful enhancing contrast to nature that it provided.

My Fort Bragg paintings

The Asphyxiation of Christmas

Soon after I settled in Fort Bragg in 1997, I had the great luck of witnessing the town’s annual Christmas Lighted-Truck Parade. I walked two blocks over to Main Street (a.k.a. the Shoreline Highway, a.k.a. Highway One) and stood with the crowd on the sidewalk waiting for the parade to begin. It was cold, just after dusk, but excitement vibrated the brisk air as kids and adults waited for the first semi logging truck to roll by.

I remember thinking as I stood and felt the palpable excitement what a great thing it was to live in a small town where everybody showed up to enjoy all the town’s special events, from the Paul Bunyan Days Celebration to the Lighted Truck Parade and several other festivals—small towns celebrating themselves and special holidays, always a bit quirky and bizarre.

It made sense, the lighted trucks, because lumber and logging were Fort Bragg’s biggest and only industry for many decades. The Union Lumber Company was a big name in Fort Bragg. Residents were loggers, mill workers, and train and truck operators. Plaid shirts abound, with baby-shit brown Carhartt pants and jackets, and rugged leather boots with steel toes. It was a rough and ready place, alive with the smell of wood and sawdust and exhaust fumes and a few dozen quarts of lager. Logging was rough and dangerous work.

When the logging industry died out due to environmental issues, the town and shop owners learned the benefits of tourism. Fort Bragg gentrified itself into a budding art community. It was a long haul competing against the well established art mecca of Mendocino, but it had one thing going for it, it was a less expensive place to live in those days. Their new gentrified town included the Headlands Coffee place with great music and coffee. The Headlands was where I read Bell Hooks and Anne Proulx and where in 1998 I began writing my memoir. A new artist co-operative opened on Main Street and grew into a successful business, along with other art shops and galleries, one failed visual arts center where I volunteered my time and where the Director made faces at people behind their backs, an art supply store that had been there for years, and other necessary shops. Restaurants were beginning to serve upscale California cuisine. And an ordinary hole in the wall breakfast place on Main soon gained a reputation for the finest breakfasts on the Northern California coast… and boasted waiting lines to get in the door. Fort Bragg was a brief stop on the way to somewhere else, but had become a destination in its own right by the late 1980’s.

That night at my first lighted-truck parade I waited in the cold. The big logging semis rumbled into town from the north as if they were coming with a load of logs on their backs, only this time they were hauling Christmas lights and decorations. As they rolled past us, they pulled their deep-throated horns and everybody yelled and hollered. The loud smog-belting diesel trucks an incongruous sight decked out with colorful Christmas lights captured everybody’s fantasies. Trucks of all types and sizes, fancy and plain, sponsored by various businesses, groups and organizations,  rolled between the big semis all lit up in a blaze.

Back then, simple lights outlined the shape of the vehicles and their flatbed trailers. Today, the lights define more intricate and sophisticated holiday related themes and designs, reindeer, santa, trees, elves, like every other contemporary Christmas parade. The lighted-trucks have become more like colorful Rose Bowl floats, which removes the charm of the small town event.

As the line of sparkle and music snaked its way south on the coast highway it turned left on a side street, rolled one block east, and turned left again onto Franklin and north to Laurel. A two-way street with two lanes, the trucks rolled up each lane and came to a halt just beyond the Laurel Street intersection. They filled up three or four blocks.

When they parked, they left their engines idling to generate the lights. The parade-goers wandered in and around all the trucks for a close-up view of everything, visited with friends, and their kids scrambled for Christmas candy. I too wandered among the rumble. The roar of all the big semi engines in close quarters was like the deep-throated rumble of motorcycles as they cross the Siuslaw River Bridge during Rhody Days in Florence, Oregon. Hundreds of bikers cruising into town, black bikes line up with riders wearing black leathers and chains sitting atop their bikes like black crows on a telephone wire. The vibrations rumbled through my body from head to toe, then and now.

While wandering among the trucks, I began to feel weird, like I was suffocating. The engines were spitting out powerful noxious diesel exhaust. The fumes, trapped on these two lanes between tall buildings had nowhere else to go. An inversion layer of smog hovered over Fort Bragg for a few hours. Among the idling engines, the air got dirtier and thicker and heavier and more blue and warmer as the minutes ticked by. I became nauseous and developed a headache. As I walked among the lighted trucks, the carbon monoxide spewing from their tall blackened pipes was asphyxiating, starving our lungs and bodies of much-needed oxygen.  

I had to get out. I walked the two blocks back to my small apartment behind Paul Bunyan’s Thrift Store. I thought it was funny at the time, one of those odd and bizarre funny things that happen at small town events, but now I see it as ironic. Those beautiful lighted semi trucks, as toxic and asphyxiating as is the commercialism of Christmas today snuffing out the meaning of Christmas. Instead of the simple beauty of tiny lights twinkling against a dark sky, instead of being a celebration, the big diesel trucks with their exhaust were a harbinger of things to come.

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