Every morning, the dogs look for Katie in the usual places. When I open the bedroom door, they burst through the house in tongue-wagging hopefulness. Perhaps the one they truly love has returned from whatever mysterious place she disappears to most of the week. I wonder what that place is to them, wonder if they have created a second life for her, where she wakes and loves and pats other dogs. Are these the dreams they have when they snarl and twitch and sometimes howl in their sleep?
The morning always brings hope, and it is a mad dash into her empty office, then a rumble down the basement stairs, and finally a quick peek out the front windows where she would spend time filling birdfeeders or watering the flower beds. Once they have confirmed that she is not back—not yet—they do not despair. Never despair. They rush out the dog door to tend to morning routines, while I fill their bowls with food.
They are not the only ones who wait. I find myself forgetting at times that she is not here, that for this year she is teaching four days of the week at another university three hours away. While watching a TV show, I laugh, point, and say to the empty spot on the couch, “Wasn’t that funny?” Or suddenly, while making a snack, I shout over the hum of the refrigerator, “Help me find the jam.”
At night, the dogs and I take our usual positions in bed. I occupy the right side, and the dogs nestle into their spots—on the pillow beside her head, the space where the crook of her knees would make. While there is so much room on the king-sized bed, none of us creep over to where she would be. That place remains vacant, like a missing puzzle piece. The dogs and I hope she will return and occupy that spot, and then my hand, which is often lonely at night, will find the swale of her hip.
It has been a year of changes and adjustments. Besides Katie accepting a teaching job three hours away, this summer, after the school year, we are moving from the hills of upstate New York to the lush flatness of Florida, and this past November, my wife’s mother, Dinny, passed away from pancreatic cancer.
For so long Dinny has been what signified home for Katie. It was not the flat of the Midwest or the horses grazing in some pasture that she often reminisces about; it was a woman who talked her through the most difficult of times, a woman who always remained level-headed and rational, a consistent presence in Katie’s life.
Months after Dinny’s death, my wife still looks for her. Her number remains in Katie’s cell phone, and once, while driving three hours home, she accidentally called it, thinking she could pass the time by talking to her mother. There are other times she forgets. During college basketball season, especially when the University of Illinois’s Fighting Illini are on court, any major tennis tournament, and the Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. And when Katie remembers, her chest is heavy, laden with loss.
We have inherited much of her stuff. Her recliner, which has become “my” chair. But often, I can still see her in it, peeling a juicy pear. Her desk, where recently Katie pulled out a small drawer and found a note that said, “I love you! –Mom Pom.” Her polar fleeces, her lamps, her jewelry. Her night light, her kitchen utensils, her photo albums. Her old letters, her blankets, her sweet dog.
In death, we become infused in objects and familiar places. Our loved ones see not a tree, but us climbing the tree. They see not a canoe, but us in it, coasting down some Colorado River, fishing for trout. They see not the backyard, but us on our knees in the backyard planting the petunias. It is what haunts Katie; it is what pulls at her heart. Though she speaks of her mother in the past tense, she still looks for her in the usual spots.
I have been watching ghost hunting shows on TV. It’s my secret vice, an obsession I don’t like to admit to, and when I do I laugh and say, “It’s stupid, but I can’t help myself.” Regardless, on Wednesdays, I hunch in front of the television to watch ghost hunters walk around century-old houses, decrepit prisons, old theaters with EMF meters and digital recorders.
According to many paranormal researchers, there are two main types of hauntings. An “intelligent haunting” simply means a paranormal experience that responds and interacts with the living. You wave at it, it waves back. And though I love when these hauntings happen—it heightens up the drama; makes me sit at the edge of my seat—the more common type of haunting is “residual,” where an entity relives an event over and over. Most of the time, this event occurs at the same time, and the “ghost” does not respond or even acknowledge that the living are there; it simply proceeds with its daily life, as if the world had not changed. It knows not of the wall you put up to split up the kitchen and dining room. It does not know that the vanity mirror it so longingly sat at was auctioned off on EBay years ago. It only knows routine.
You don’t need to be a ghost to understand the comforts of a routine. For years, between the ages of six and ten, I waited for my father to come home from work at exactly 11:28 every evening. If he stopped for chicken wings, he’d arrive home at 11:41. I knew the sound his Oldsmobile station wagon made, knew the thud and rattle as it drove up the cracked driveway. I listened for the garage door to lift, for the station wagon to come to a stop, then the door to close again. It wouldn’t take long before he shuffled down the steps to the back door and emerged through the laundry room, where I’d be waiting for him, arms crossed behind my back, beaming at his return. He’d make an exasperated sound, a sharp intake of breath, as if I was a ghost that seemed to materialize from air. I shouldn’t be up, he’d say. A young boy like me should be in bed, he’d say. But my father would be smiling, glad I was there, knowing I’d be waiting.
We expected to see each other. His return each evening was the completion of my day. If he was late—and he seldom was—I would find myself in a state of panic, thinking the worst, needing my father to calm me when he’d eventually arrive home.
For me and my immigrant parents, routine took precedent. I lived in accordance with The Rules posted on the refrigerator door, rules that instructed me on what time I should brush my teeth and how often I should bathe; but also, The Rules advised me on how to be a proper Thai boy. Routine is what drove my mother and father to rise like clockwork to go to work, always taking the same streets, always utilizing the same lanes. My family shopped only on Mondays and Thursdays at The Jewel, the local grocery chain. On Saturdays, we made our way to Chinatown for dim sum, picked up a few items from the Asian grocery store, and brought home roasted duck, crispy pork, and soy sauce chicken from Wing Chun’s for dinner. On Sundays it was temple.
Routine meant we made it through another day in a country that scared the hell out of us. If something disrupted that routine, it was yet another obstacle to overcome, another shadow of doubt about whether this was truly home.
I expect the autumn to bring apples. I expect the tornado sirens to go off when the Midwest sky turns green. When I was sixteen, I expected to see my mother parked at the sewing machine after I arrived home from school. I expect Katie to fall asleep while I watch my ghost hunting shows. I expect the dogs to greet me each and every time I enter the house with toys stuffed in their spaniel mouths. When my mother calls from Thailand, I expect her to ask me if I’ve eaten. When my father calls from Thailand, I expect him to ask for money. Each morning, I expect to see Katie drink her same tea—Earl Grey decaf—and eat her same peanut butter-smeared toast. The dogs expect to be fed at 6:30am and 5:30pm. They also expect a lot of Milkbones in between. I expect one of them to sleep under my desk as I write. I expect the other to be with my wife as she writes. We expect the earth to continually rotate around the sun, and the sun to continually warm and give life to our planet. We expect to age, day by day. We expect to see the light in the morning and the dark at night.
Six years ago, Dinny told Katie and her brother John their old house in White Heath, IL, was for sale. This house that I’ve heard so much about was the center of Katie’s childhood. All her joys and fondest memories revolved around White Heath. Moving from it was like an exodus.
Because we were in town for a visit, Dinny scheduled an appointment to see the house. She had no intentions of buying it. Already, her knees were giving out, and it would have been tough to negotiate the stairs and keep up the maintenance on the barn and mow the pasture. It was only a trip to see what had changed, to see where their lives used to be.
When John pulled into the driveway, I became witness to the life of a family I knew very little about. I understood this moment. It’s the same when I return to Chicago, and I begin to point out the places I hung out, kissed a girl, caused mischief. Immediately the siblings darted out of the car like they were seven, pointing and talking a mile a minute about the places they hid and played and rode the horses.
“The trees, man, they’ve grown,” said John. John wore a Savoy Firefighter T-shirt. He dreamt of being fireman then and was one now.
“Your father and I planted the pines,” Dinny said.
“They were tiny,” said Katie.
“Not anymore,” said Dinny. “I wish Chip and Dorey could see this.”
The trees and the overgrowth in the pasture seemed to be the only change. The house, Katie told me, looked exactly the same. Two-story. Green. A barn and horse ring. I followed like a ghost from one place to the other, listening in on their pasts.
Every inch of the house was a memory.
“Remember how we had to feed the horses in the morning?”
“Remember how we had to get the ice out of the water buckets in the winter?”
“Remember how your father built the stalls?”
In the living room: “Remember how Grandmommy drank bourbon every evening here?”
In the dining room: “Remember how Chip blamed the broken window on the dog?”
In the boys’ bedroom: “Remember how Dorey pulled Chip’s ears, trying to make him a Vulcan?”
In the girls’ bedroom: “Remember, after Dorey’s accident, she wanted her big toe kissed?
Katie and John, despite the years, knew this house like the blood in their veins. When they opened the closet door where they used to hide from the tornadoes, they saw their names in pencil still on the wood ceiling.
Dinny stayed a few steps behind, and I imagined this was what she did back then, always a few steps behind in order to see where her children were. The sight of this house seemed to give her the energy she didn’t have. Seemed to straighten her walk to the point she didn’t need her cane. Seemed to remind her of the mother she once was, the Morgan horse trainer she used to be. Now, for only this hour, she was resuming her role again.
John and Katie could’ve stayed there forever. They could’ve slipped back into their routines without skipping a beat. It would be summer and the two of them, the youngest of the siblings, would run into the pasture to bring Crest, Diamond, and Lady in for the day, and later, Katie would slip out again, crawl under the grape vines to her secret spot, the big tree in the Wild Area, she called it, a place to sneak away from the world of grown-ups, a place no one would find her, but her mother’s voice calling her back home.
“All right, kids,” Dinny said after an hour, “It’s time.”
And like they did then, I assumed, following the command and comfort of their mother’s voice, John and Katie promptly got into the car and slowly drove away, Katie looking back until the pines, which had grown so tall, were tiny like how she remembered them.
Since moving back to Thailand in 2004, my mother has begun another life. She has left America behind her. It is as if she had never lived in Illinois, never worked as a nurse for thirty years in Chicago, never raised and packed her son’s lunch for grade school. She has severed her life there, and when she calls now, she tells me of her life in Thailand, and it is dissimilar from the life she left.
What I know of her is the woman who used to live here. I know of the sad woman. The fearful one. The disappointed one. I know of the woman who sewed every day after the divorce. I know of her playfulness, her times when she was a not a mother, but a child herself. I know what scared her most here. I know what gave her the most joy. I know where to search for her—by the bay windows overlooking the neighborhood, in the backyard hanging clothes, in the kitchen chair facing the stove reading a Thai magazine. I know how to contact her, how to get to her if I needed too. I know what McDonald’s meal she liked and her favorite steakhouse on Cicero Avenue.
Since her move, I am learning her new life. I am relearning my mother.
Moving is an act of disassembling.
Each day, there is less of us in the upstate New York house. Months before the movers arrive and haul our belongings over a thousand miles south, Katie and I begin to feel the house we’ve lived in for six years slowly slipping from us. Our moods shoot up and down. One moment we are driven, energy bursting from our ears, and the next we are crying or looking longingly at the empty shelves that once held Kipling, Whitman, Dickinson. The dogs are in a state of restlessness, wondering where their favorite toys are or the soft places for them to sleep. They sense our unease, our tension. One of them is always under our feet, the other one hides in corners. Our lives, for the moment, have been placed on hold. Our lives have become boxes and packing paper.
When moving, you live in a constant state of flux. The rhythm of the day is erratic. You wake up and pack. You stop living in the house. You end all dreams of a future here. You look ahead. Already, Katie and I think about our new home in Florida, imagining where we will place our bookshelves and framed art, our couch and television. What rooms will be our offices? Where should we place the bed? This is what gets us through the days. We are preparing our brains spatially, finding new spots for familiar items.
Despite my mother’s new life in Thailand, she shipped all the furniture from our house in Chicago across the ocean. When I visit, her new house in Chiang Mai looks much the same as the house in Chicago. The black leather couches still face each other, and the same photos—mostly of me—dot the walls. In the kitchen, there’s the same rice maker, the same dish scrubber in the sink. There’s the same wooden chair and dresser in my bedroom. My mother uses the same pencils, with my high school and university insignia on them. She jots notes on the same yellow legal pad she used for at least twenty years (I’ve begun to think the damn thing is magical with its endless supply of paper). There are the same magnets on the refrigerator, including one of a cardinal—her favorite bird—frozen in flight.
The birds are lost. For six years, we fed them. In the front yard, hung two suet feeders for the woodpeckers, a tube feeder filled with niger seeds for the finches and red polls, another feeder filled to the brim with sunflower seeds for cardinals and doves and blue jays, and a feeder of sugar water hanging off the eaves of the house for the hummingbirds.
When we took the feeders down, a day before we left for Florida, the birds came and flew to the empty places where the feeders were. The chickadees were loud with their complaints. The hummingbirds buzzed in and out. One goldfinch kept flying and flapping, flying and flapping, expecting to perch on a feeder. Watching the finch, I wondered if it still saw what was no longer there, wondered if they needed us, as much as we needed them. The birds had come accustomed to the food. It was what remained constant even during the worse of upstate winters. Now the feeders were gone, packed in boxes, headed to another part of the country.
“The thing about birds,” Dinny once said to us when we were away from home and were worried about the birds, “is they always will find food. All they have to do is fly to other spots.”
This is true with everything else.
We will find our usual spots again and again. We carry them with us—in our hearts, in our memories—wherever we move, and fly to them when we most need to.
This essay appeared in Indiana Review 31.2, Winter 2009, and was later published by the University of Tampa Press in Ira Sukrungruang’s collection of essays, Southside Buddhist.
Anna Cabe (Non Fiction Editor): Ira Sukrungruang’s “The Usual Spots” transforms the idea of “routine”—the most mundane practice of daily life—into something beautiful and enduring. In this essay, ghosts can, for a moment, be returned to life just by remembering their everyday tasks, and moving to a new home only means finding new “usual spots.”
Ira Sukrungruang is a first generation Thai-American, born and raised in Chicago. He’s had stories appear in Witness, Indiana Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and numerous other literary journals.