I duck my head to step beneath a branch laden with dainty pink blossoms. A cluster of multi-colored tulips bloom at the base of the cherry tree, slender leaves shaking in an almost-chilled breeze.
“It’s so beautiful today,” I sigh into my phone. Ian and I have been taking walks “together” after lunch, me through our neighborhood and him through the University of Washington campus. We both run into a wall of restless midday procrastination and taking a break like this helps both of us get our heads back into our respective games.
It’s also good for me to wander like this, taking in the gardens and parks that make our neighborhood so picturesque. I love the mishmash of wild, unkempt yards next to thoughtfully maintained urban oases. Regardless of how homesick I am for, I’ve found so many things to fall deeply in love with in Seattle, from the perfection of sailboats heeling in a golden Puget Sound sunset to the shop down the street that offers enormous scoops of locally made ice cream. There are very real treasures to be had and I’d be a fool to not take advantage of every single one.
The Northwest has always been a bittersweet second home for me. I never forget that days like this, warm at last with the bursting of spring and the promise of an even more glorious summer to come, are the reward for surviving another winter. Endless gray skies and cold, damp everything have me desperate for anything, anywhere but here every single day from October through March. Yet even the winter comes with its frosty benefits. Long days of desolation are tempered by an almost obscene joyousness when the black sugar ants plaguing our neighborhood are forced into hibernation.
We already knew about the ants when we bought our house and for years tried to keep up on the problem ourselves. We refreshed boric acid traps, laid barriers of cinnamon and peppermint and diatomaceous earth. Wiped down, swept up, vacuumed, and sealed away. But these ants are relentless and we have (equally relentless) children. The ants came back worse every year, turning the home I love into another source of despondency. I wiped up thick piles of black ants, shuddering as they crawled all over my hands. I admit it: I cried from having to deal with them. They were gross, and made me feel even grosser.
“At least they’re not cockroaches,” I’d mutter, which is true. The ants are disgusting, but they’re nothing compared to the enormous brown bombers that terrorized my childhood.
Running For Cover From the B-52s
One of my earliest memories is of cowering near my father’s legs while my mother slapped our outdoor broom against the dining room wall. A giant flying cockroach evaded her wild dancing and Dad laughed at his wife’s performance. I, on the other hand, failed to see how any of it was funny. Okay, so maybe Mom did look a little ridiculous, but this was serious.
Flying cockroaches were terribly, horribly, serious.
Not every roach could fly, but you couldn’t tell whether or not it could until it was already airborne. And those fuckers didn’t fly away from people like flightless roaches did, skittering under the oven or behind a bookshelf whenever we turned on a light. Instead, they flew, not just towards you, but at you with what seemed like real aggression.They seemed to know that their mere existence was the biggest, baddest weapon they had been endowed with by Satan himself. The sound of their rapidly fluttering wings were more terrifying than any monster that could possibly be hiding beneath any bed.
Mom was usually the one tasked with going after the flying roaches. The tumors growing on Dad’s inner ears left him off-balance, prone to falling. He could whack a crawling, land-based demon with his blue rubber slipper just fine, but when it came to chasing their winged brethren he let his wife do the slaying.
Mom continued to chase the roach, leaping higher and higher as it evaded her blows. The dining room ceiling was vaulted and if it went much higher Mom wouldn’t be able to reach it. I held back tears, waiting for Mom to give up and shoo us off to bed where the roach would find us and crawl across our faces as we slept.
But finally she let out a loud “Heyyyy! Got ‘um!” and I loosened my grip on my father’s leg. I didn’t let go, however. I mean, cockroach.
Thick, white roach guts burst from the carcass, clinging to the stiff yellow bristles. Dad cheered, maybe. I stood beside him, horrified. Grandma made us sweep the garage with that broom! Now it was polluted and if I had to touch it, I would die. I would absolutely, positively die.
“Yuck,” Mom said as she took the broom back outside. I gave her and that filthy implement the widest berth possible and shuddered when it was time to kiss her goodnight. She may have just saved my life, but I couldn’t shake the image of her dancing so close to that dark flying terror.
When The Scourge Is Just A Fact of Life
On Sunday mornings, my sister and I were tasked with collecting the coffee mugs Mom and Dad had left out the day before. I’d creep towards the end table next to Mom’s spot on the sofa, breath held in horrified anticipation. Leaning forward, I’d peer into the mug to check. Had Mom’s cream-and-sugar coffee claimed another victim?
Some mornings (not most mornings, but enough of them to ruin my life), a kill was confirmed by sleek black antennae clinging to the inside of the mug. As I shrunk back, Mom tsked from the kitchen sink.
“Oh it’s already dead,” she’d huff. “It’s not going to hurt you.”
But as I took those few short steps from the living room to the kitchen, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the dead roach sloshing in the bottom of my mother’s coffee mug. I walked at exactly the right pace, getting to the kitchen as soon as possible without risking having the coffee and its carcass spill onto me.
I’d always push the mug onto the counter as Mom loaded the dishwasher, then turn to sprint away. I never was fast enough.
“Poor it in the sink,” Mom would command. I knew better than to protest, but I did anyway.
“But there’s one kakaroach in it!” My nearly tearful whining just made her tsk again.
“Jus’ poor it in,” she’d repeat, and I’d have to obey.
As I tipped the mug over carefully, I could feel the dead roach slide out of it. I shook with fear until I heard the dull thunk of it landing in the kitchen sink. And then I was finally free to run away as fast as I could as Mom turned on the garbage disposal. I imagined a fountain of roach guts erupting from the sink and covering the entire kitchen. I wondered if it’d be easier to burn the neighborhood down or move away.
We just had cockroaches. Always did. We had strict rules meant to keep the roaches at bay, but ours was a townhouse in a row of six, all the attics connected in a massive cockroach sharing operation. If one family had roaches, everybody had roaches. And everybody, everybody, had roaches.
They laid their eggs in our popcorn ceiling, little black pills incubating the next generation unless Mom or Dad spotted them in time and crushed them with a broom handle. (That poor, polluted broom.) Sometimes when I woke up in the middle of the night, a roach would be on the ceiling right above me. I froze in terror, waiting for it to land on my face either by flight or by falling.
Every once in awhile the homeowner’s association would have the entire subdivision tented, row after row of brightly striped salvation. In between those tenting sessions, however, we were on our own. For our family that meant Roach Motels in every room and keeping a watch on the ceiling for any evidence of new eggs buried in the dull white popcorn.
The Joyful Holiday of Their Armageddon
Whenever Mom and Dad had saved up enough vacation time and money, they’d book us a room at the Turtle Bay Hilton out on the North Shore and we’d all look forward to a grand weekend together. But these vacations were never mere holidays. We’d load up the car with luggage and coolers of food, then open every cupboard and closet. Close every window as tight as the glass jalousies would allow. Us kids would wait into the car while Mom and Dad moved quickly through the house, setting off a half dozen slender canisters of Black Flag roach foggers. We’d make the hour-long drive along Kamehameha Highway, the entire car faintly reeking of the poison clinging to their clothes. The year my sister was finally “allowed” to help set off the foggers was the worst. Sitting in the back seat with her stinking next to me was not the best way to start a family vacation.
Those weekends spent on the North Shore are some of the happiest in a childhood that already felt like one long celebration. Dad would swim with us in the pool while Mom sat on a chaise under an umbrella, reading the latest Sidney Sheldon or Danielle Steel. During the hottest part of the day we retreated to the air-conditioned room where we drank Hawaiian Sun, ate potato chips with clam dip, and played round after round of Trumps using the deck of cards worn out from Mom’s habitual shuffling.
Mom and I were always partners, which meant we usually lost because we played it straight while Celine and Dad blatantly cheated.
“Hō, da hots,” Dad would say, fanning himself with his cards, letting my sister know his hand was flush with hearts . Or he’d ask with a thrust of his bushy chin, “What, you like one club sandwich?” even though we’d just had lunch and club sandwiches were not on the list of things my picky sister agreed to eat.
It was Dad jokes and trickery all rolled into one.
Mom would grumble while Celine and I cackled at how utterly hilarious our father was. And the very best part of this long weekend of family togetherness was knowing that back home to roaches were suffocating on a thick fog of Black Flag.
Grandma, who would head to Nānākuli to visit her other set of grandkids instead of staying in a double queen hotel room with four other people (five, once my brother Evans came along), usually got back to the house hours before we were due home. Her job was opening windows to air out the house and sweeping up roach carcasses so us kids didn’t see them. Sometimes we got home before she was done and there they’d lie dead on their backs, legs crossed as if in a final prayer to their horrible overlord.
But even if Grandma had been home long enough to remove all the dead cockroaches, there was still the chore of washing every dish and glass and Tupperware of the poison that would grant us an only temporary reprieve from our infestation. The loads of laundry we needed to do if we didn’t want to go to school smelling like bug spray, though sometimes we did anyway. It was always the most jarring descent back to reality after the bliss of a North Shore family holiday.
The Christmas Miracle of Dying Bugs
The first thing I noticed when I moved to Washington State was how quiet everything seemed to be. It was the beginning of January so only seagulls and crows called out to one another in the thin winter sunshine. As the cold melted into a gorgeous Port Angeles spring, life came back. Life, of course, meant an array of completely foreign bugs that made me want to run away all over again.
My heart pounded with a familiar terror the first time I saw a crane fly. A huge brown winged insect? I’m sure I leaped out of my seat in fear. But once I realized that crane flies were awkward and bumbling instead of aggressive war machines like Hawaiʻi’s flying cockroaches, I breathed a little easier. I also killed them. Relentlessly. And maybe just a little too gleefully, but really who could blame me.
The picture perfect summer cooled into Autumn, then stilled again through the frozen hush of winter. I noticed the crane flies, house flies, and mosquitoes disappearing from the evening air. I realized that it was too cold for insects. Any agitation I felt over a four-thirty sunset seemed like a small price to pay for the gift of having disgusting little creatures freeze to death.
Really, this has always been the largest draw of the Pacific Northwest. As bereft as I am through the dark days of winter, there is still a kind of satisfaction that comes from feeling the crunch of frozen grass beneath my boots. All year long I give thanks that there have been zero cockroaches (flying or otherwise) in my house. And even though I have shed many, many tears over our sugar ants infestation, they hibernate during winter. They do, for a while, go away.
I cried one too many times, talked about nuking the house from space one too many times, and we finally started paying for an exterminator. Nowadays a nice person in a truck stops by every other month and sprays along our foundation. The only ant that’s been in my house in the past year rode in on the cat because he rolls around in the yard where the ants still reign because that’s outside and they can do whatever they want out there. Otherwise, there have been no ants in the house and I haven’t had to cry about them. And one less thing to cry about is an unmistakable victory.
An Excellent Life In This Beautiful City
I walk back towards the house and Ian says it’s nearly time for him to head to his next meeting.
“Thank you for walking with me,” he says.
“Thank you,” I tell him. “My head is feeling much clearer now.”
“Good,” he says cheerfully. “I hope you get some good writing in.”
“Me too,” I sigh before hanging up the phone.
I walk up the front steps to our empty house and close the door behind me. I sit in my chair and add another two hundred words to a slowly growing short story. I work on another blog post about missing home. Neither one of these things are intended to earn me any money but this is still considered my work. I am blessed, and I know it.
Ian and I talk about moving back to Hawaiʻi at least once a month. I scour real estate listings while he looks for jobs in Network Engineering. Every month we have the same grudging realization. Housing prices are nearly twice of what we pay up here, yet salaries are less than half. I’d have to give up my artsy-fartsy writer lifestyle for and head back the land of real jobs, but even with both of us working it’d still be a stretch.
“My brother wouldn’t move back,” I say to Ian one night as I’m cooking dinner.
“Would your sister?” he asks, knowing that is the more important question.
I pause. Celine and I talk about it all the time. Sometimes it’s all we can talk about. But if moving back home would be a stretch for me and Ian, it would be even more difficult for my sister I think.
“Probably not,” I admit. And just like that, we can’t move home.
It makes no sense to move back the homeland if it means I have to leave my family behind. To trade the aching of one homesickness for another. Seattle may not be my homeland, but she is my home, at least for now.
We take a walk around the block after dinner. Twilight comes later and later every day and I am thrilled with this completely normal development. But I need the orange glow of sunset in the evening instead of the afternoon. Need to know that this Seattle is the city I’ve waited all winter to see. I wrap my arm around Ian’s waist and pull him towards me as we step beneath a row of cherry trees that make the sidewalk appear covered in pink snow.
“It’s a nice life, Mr. Cote,” I tell him, but that is of course an understatement.
After our walk, I write a little more while Ian gets Iliana ready for bed. In the morning I notice a smattering of food has been left to dry at Jonas’ place at the dining room table. I think of cleaning it up but decide to leave it for him to take care of when he gets home from school. It stays there all day, untouched by the heinous plague of cockroaches or even our minor plague of sugar ants. I smile, victorious.
Seattle does have her many benefits. And I am going to enjoy every single one.
Image credit: Celine McLean (woohoo you’re famous now!)
This post was lovely. It’s amazing how even the “gross” memories end up being cherished when you move away from home. Thanks for sharing!
Hahah, I don’t know that I’d say I cherish cockroaches, but I definitely do cherish the moments we spent avoiding them. 😀
Mahalo for being here, Liz!
Your descriptions of the cockroaches made my skin crawl! I’m glad I live somewhere that doesn’t have them. Or doesn’t have big ones. Or flying ones. I don’t even know. I haven’t seen one and I prefer to believe that they just don’t exist here.
I also find the combination of living in a place too cold for cockroaches (at least year round) and believing they don’t exist here at all to be super comforting. 🙂
[…] than pack as if for some kind of idyllic tropical vacation. We’re even staying at a non-cockroach hotel this time, because it’s a stretch but yeah we actually can afford these things and […]