Jun 29 2009

The Carousel Con

Each ticket costs two euros. You can buy eight tickets for ten euros. So, knowing that the summer was ahead, knowing how the girls love a good turn on a merry-go-round, fully believing that we’d absolutely use all these rides on this carousel at some point over the summer, I went for the deal. Eight white, plastic, rectangular tickets slipped toward me through the half-moon opening in the Plexiglas window. Two of them then immediately dispensed to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, who’d waited (relatively) patiently while I made the transaction.

“Hold on to the ticket until the man comes to take it from you,” I said. “And don’t lose it,” I added, injecting a little menace into their amusement. (In my defense, it is all too easy for a five-year old to manage to lose a ticket in the span of ten feet and twenty seconds.)

The children scrambled on to the carousel. When it was nearly full, and there were no other apparent riders-in-waiting, the man came out of his little ticket-selling booth and maneuvered his way around the horses, ponies and carriages, collecting a plastic token from each excited child.

I stood aside, admiring my daughters and their whole-bodied joy as the creaky, century-old menagerie began to spin around and around, eventually gaining speed. The calliope tooted and chugged like a little engine that could. At each pass, I waved to the girls like it was the first time I’d ever seen them go by.
When it slowed to a stop, a chorus of cries and pleas. “Again! Can’t we go again?” I succumbed with a firm, “just one more ride,” and they scrambled back on to the platform, rushing to select a different horse, a more coveted one, one with a pink saddle or a golden mane. (Actually, Buddy-roo chose a pink-colored pig.)

After two dizzying rides, and despite their desperate requests for another turn, I took their hands in mine and dragged them home. Later, I pulled the remaining tickets out of my pocket and put them on the shelf by the door, in a little basket that is the depository of paper clips, metro tickets, coins of minimal value, grocery receipts and other little pieces of nothing that get picked up during the day and that seem, when we clean out our pockets, too precious to discard.

That was a few months ago.

On Saturday – in a proud non-dementia moment – I rifled through that little basket and extracted the remaining unused carousel tokens as we set off to do some errands. Knowing there was a reward for good behavior, the girls dutifully followed me to the dry cleaner, the photo shop and the pharmacy, discussing all the while which animal they would mount once we arrived at the menagerie.

Since I’d broadcast the fact that I’d actually remembered to bring those leftover tickets, the girls thrust their greedy palms toward me the moment the carousel was in view. I produced the two little plastic rectangular tickets. “Hold on to them until the man comes to take them,” I yelled out after them. And then because I really can’t help myself, “hold on to your ticket!”

They ran – cheering in unison – to find a horse to ride. When the ticket-selling man left his little booth and stepped on to the platform, circling the carousel to collect the tickets that he recycles day after day, selling and retrieving them, Buddy-roo pressed her white plastic ticket into his hand.

Non,” he grunted, “Ce ne marche plus.” It’s no longer valid.

Buddy-roo turned to me, her eyes in a wide panic. I stepped up to argue with the man, protesting that I’d bought them here, on this very carousel. In fact, he was the ticket vendor who’d sold them to me.

Mais oui,” he said, holding up a handful of red plastic tickets. He explained that the carousel has changed management for the season, and they no longer honor the white tickets. Even though the same name (of the menagerie) is written on the tickets. Even though they’re identical except for the color. Even though I protested that I purchased them less than three months ago. Even though both my daughters were on the verge of tears, he shook his head without any apparent remorse.
I had no choice. You cannot vote with your feet when your children are tearfully clutching the reigns of a brightly painted wooden horse (or pig). I followed him back to the booth. “How much?” I asked.

“Two euros each. Or eight for ten euros.” He smiled, showing the gap where his teeth were missing. I pushed a crisp 10-euro note through the hole in the window and watched him count out the bright red tickets and pass them back to me.

Jun 26 2009

How It Adds Up

This morning, when I went to wake up Short-pants from her heavy slumber, I found her curled up on the floor beside her bed. She’d removed herself and her covers from the mattress and appeared to have slept on the floor. Every light in her room had been left on overnight. Her bed was covered with little one-inch squares of paper, each one with a math problem, column addition or subtraction. Each one with a solution. There were at least a hundred of these little squares peppered over the bed, like confetti after a victory parade. What midnight madness seized her?

The thing is, I do kvetch about my kids, and they do tire me out. But when I come upon a scene like I discovered this morning – the fascinating evidence of a little mind at work, overcoming her insomnia, entertaining herself with math problems in the middle of the night – well, then it’s clear that the positives outweigh the negatives on this whole mothering thing. In the end, it all adds up to something pretty good.

Jun 24 2009

The Inscription

I should have arrived earlier. I know better. I’d filled out all the inscription forms to enroll Buddy-roo in the music conservatory weeks ago. I even remembered to phone her pediatrician and request a certificate medicale for
waiting_conservatorythe dance class. He left it posted by the door of his waiting room, her name at the top in doctor’s scrawl, with a perfunctory check in the box for “no apparent contra-indication to practice a sport.”

I meant to arrive at least an hour in advance, but other errands delayed me. It was 1:15 when I walked into a mob of parents in the main office of the conservatory, all waiting for the registration to start at 2:00. Someone mentioned a list, so I pressed forward to the front desk to put my name on it. I was given #53.

* * *

Two years ago when Short-pants was going into the first grade, the mother of one of her classmates – also a friend of mine – suggested we sign our girls up together for a class at the music conservatory in our arrondissement. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a local conservatory, let alone at what age you were supposed to start there. I’m really not sure what I’d do without these friends-in-the-know; I am often so often out-of-the-know when it comes to things mothering and things French.

On the opening day of registration, and we rode our bikes over together, arriving thirty minutes before the door was to open, joining a dozen other mothers who had already formed a queue. The process was relatively painless; we handed in our papers and left feeling confident that both girls would get in.

By the end of the summer, I hadn’t received the obligatory self-addressed envelope that I’d included in the application, and Short-pants’ name was missing from the roster posted on the conservatory window. I called to find out why. After much shuffling of paper and several long pauses on hold, I was informed – without much empathy, I might add – that Short-pants was not enrolled in the initiation music class.

“But I was one of the first in line on the first day,” I protested, repeating the date and how I’d arrived early. They had no record of it. She was not on the list. I wanted to scream, but I kept myself in check. This was not the time to need to be right.

“It’s unfortunate,” I conceded, “but how might I enroll her in a class now?”
Mais non,” I was told, with a fierce cluck of the tongue. “There is no more space in the initiation class. It’s full.”
“But certainly…”
“I am certain, madam.”

My friend – her daughter had fallen off the list, too, but she was quicker than me and got it sorted before it was too late – told me about a woman who’d been in this same situation the previous year and who managed to squeeze her son in by enrolling him in chorale, which did not have a prerequisite course. Once in the system, he was accepted for the initiation course the following year.

Listen, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if Short-pants wasn’t in music class at the conservatory. There are other places to learn music in Paris. Except it’s a really good program, with a reasonable fee, and if you don’t get in by a certain age, you can’t get in at all. I felt like it deserved at least a college try.

I went to the office in person. I explained my story – three times – to two different people at the main desk, who kept pulling up their computer records and telling me what I already knew, that there was no place for Short-pants. But I kept asking the same question: how could there be no place for her when I was one of the first mothers to arrive on the first day of inscription? (When in doubt, repeat yourself again and again, this I learned from Buddy-roo). Eventually I was referred to the bureau of scolarité.

The Director was apologetic enough, but insisted, as before, that there were no more places in the debutante program. I’d have to wait and enroll my daughter next year.

“Then perhaps you could give me some advice,” I said. “How might I ensure she gets accepted?’

“It’s very simple,” she smiled, “You just come on the first day of registration, and I suggest you come early.” I explained that this was exactly what I had done, but still my daughter hadn’t made the list. She gave me the quintessential French shrug and moved the file folders around her desk, a gesture that I believe was meant to indicate that it was time for me to leave. So I pulled out the wild card.

“I heard that it is possible to enroll in chorale, without the first year of solfège. Is that by any chance true?” (I felt like Columbo, teasing out the truth with a more-or-less innocent question.)

She raised her eyebrows. “Beh, oui, c’est vrai.” She nodded slowly, sizing me up. “En principe, c’est possible.” In principle? Who’s principle? Certainly not hers, since you might note that she didn’t volunteer this option, despite my earlier polite, desperate pleas. I had to ask for it.
She turned to her computer and typed at the keyboard. She studied the screen. “Alors, let me check.” She ran her finger along the screen, as if counting the students with her fingers, “It’s nearly full.” She typed a few more key strokes. “But there is an opening on Thursday afternoons,” she smiled like it had been her idea, “Would you like to enroll your daughter?”

That’s how Short-pants got in to the Conservatory. The following June an invitation to re-enroll arrived in the mail, and sure enough she had priority status and was instantly assigned to the debutante music class. So this year she took a basic theory as well as chorus. Next year, she’ll start an instrument. She’s thinking about the viola.

* * *

In an unusual breach of custom for French functionnaires, the administrator organizing parents-in-waiting this afternoon was exceptionally friendly, counting off out loud, calling our names and ushering us into the waiting room one at a time when it was our turn. There were three employees receiving us, as well, so it all operated rather efficiently: the examination of the application papers, checking to be sure we’d put postage on our self-addressed envelopes (while I was waiting, a previous mother was told her application would not be considered without an envelope), stamping the date with aplomb on our receipts.

I was given no indication if there will be space for Buddy-roo in either a music or a dance class next fall, just two small strips of paper with official date stamps. But at least this time I can prove I was in line, even though – in the 53rd place – I may not have made it in time.

It still floors me how taking care of these young girls is such a responsibility. It’s much more than loving and feeding; it’s also enrolling them in school, in music classes or theater or judo, keeping track of vaccinations, monitoring homework – even just getting them out the door in the morning and picking them up at the end of the day is a chore that requires concentration. There’s everything to remember to do, so much to be thinking and caring about – let alone just hanging out with them and listening to what they have to say.

I do hold those girls close when they come to me, knowing they won’t want to be close forever. At the same time I dream of the day when they won’t need me anymore. Then somebody always reminds me that by the time they don’t need me, I’ll wish they did. It’s such a paradox, this whole mothering thing. I had no idea, at the inscription, what I was in for.

Jun 21 2009

Good Fathering

The thing that I probably never make clear – but I ought to – is that De-facto is an exceptionally talented father. Sure, it’s much more entertaining (at least to me) to paint him as ever-so-slightly out of touch. But I have to come clean: that’s not how it is.

He’s never been that kind of father who, as a gesture merely to indulge me, takes the kids out for an hour on a Saturday, returning home only to wash his hands of any further childcare responsibility for the day. I have friends with marriage licenses who endure this from their partners. My guy may be a de facto husband, but he’s the real deal when it comes to being a full time parent.

In the beginning, he’d get up and change the diaper before handing the baby off to me for the middle-of-the-night feeding. He’d stay awake and return same baby to her bassinet when she was full, so I could swiftly fall back to sleep. During the pull-your-hair-out toddler stage, he’d sweep them up and disappear for a few hours, so I could read a chapter of a good book, take a nap, organize a closet or something – anything – without being interrupted. Not just once in a while, he’d do this for me every day. We’d go to dinner parties and he’d take the lead doing that silly thing that we parents do, hunched over behind an 18-month old, holding tiny up-stretched hands attached to a waddling short little body stumbling into a new world. And when I’m gone on a trip, I know the girls will be fed, bathed and dressed (okay, maybe not well dressed, but they’ll be clothed) and on time for school.

When it comes to parenting in our home, it’s a shared experience. He may do a bit more of the horsing-around stuff while I’m the one filling out the medical forms and school paperwork, but I don’t have to turn around to find him. He’s standing right beside me.

These days, this is not so rare. Many fathers are more than capable of being perfectly at ease with their kids or even comfortably in charge of childcare. And we keep hearing how the economic bust has upped the enrollment in the stay-at-home-dads club. Yet it’s not uncommon for an on-duty father to be asked if he’s “babysitting for the day.” A New York Times blog about parenting (it’s called Motherlode, so right there you see part of the problem) suggests one reason why men are still getting strange reactions when they act as primary or equal-time caregiver:

Our lexicon for describing what fathers actually do is limited at best: “mothering” is the standard description of what we need when we want to be comforted; “fathering” is a word, just not one I’ve ever heard anyone actually use.

Well, it is a word I can use: Fathering is what De-facto does when he’s teaching his daughters how to throw. Or how he looks forward to walking them to school so he can ask them about what’s happening in their lives. Or how he invites them to cook dinner with him, teaching them how to chop
following_papavegetables and spin a pizza crust. Fathering is how he steals into their room to cut their toenails while they’re asleep. It’s how he says, “that’s not the same answer I got, why don’t we both try again?” when a math equation doesn’t add up. It’s making a big, fun project out of planting the garden or teaching them how to swim. It’s cranking up the volume when his favorite Springsteen song comes on, summoning the whole family to the living room to dance and then explaining what the lyrics mean. Fathering is hearty, exaggerated laughter because his two silly girls have purposely put their pajamas on backwards. It’s putting the yellow stuff on their impetigo scabs. It’s insisting that they brush their teeth. It’s reading Encyclopedia Brown at bedtime and solving the mystery together. It’s respecting both of those little girls as unique and creative individuals, and letting them know it, so they grow up knowing how it feels to be respected by a man. It’s smiling whenever he thinks about his daughters, and thinking about them a lot. Which might explain his persistent smile.

That’s what fathering is. It’s what De-facto does every day, naturally, without ever being asked. And since it’s Father’s Day I thought maybe it might be a good idea just to let him know that I’ve noticed.

Jun 15 2009

That Might Change

“Then I’m not your child anymore!” Buddy-roo screamed it at me.

This was after I refused her a DVD movie viewing during breakfast. She stuck out that bottom lip and stomped away.

“That might change,” Short-pants said to her.
“No it won’t,” argued Buddy-roo.
“You can’t be sure.”
“Yes I can.”
“Well, that might change, too.”

How does Short-pants know such things? With absolute certainty she answers her little sister’s angry attack (at me) with a response that sounds like it’s being channeled. Who lives inside her? Some kind of Buddha?
I ask her how she finds these wise words. “Did you think of it? Did you hear somebody say that?”

“I just heard it in my head.”

Last week I asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She said she needed a new pencil eraser for school. Okay, I agreed, but what else, what would you like for you, that’s for fun? She had to stop and think about it. “Well, I’d like a new princess dress, and I can share that with my sister.”

She doesn’t get this angelic genetic coding from me.

When Short-pants was in the hospital – years ago, when she was three – the day before her second brain surgery, the neurosurgeon who was to perform the operation granted us a meeting in her office. Short-pants had already been in the Intensive Care Unit for nearly four weeks, after being rushed there in a coma caused by a tumor that turned out to be a brain abscess. The drugs that were supposed to shrink the abscess weren’t working, so the doctors had decided to operate again. The surgeon placed the ominous MRI negatives up on the florescent board and traced the outline of the large circular mass just behind the forehead; it looked like a hurricane on a weather map, gathering strength as it moved in on the coast. Then she described to us how they would simply carve it out and extract it from my daughter’s little head.

“And afterward, what will be left?” I asked.
“Nothing, just an empty space.”
“What will you fill it with?” De-facto asked.

From the look on her face, this baffled the surgeon. Probably not something she’d been asked before. But she managed a good recovery: “What would you have me put in?”

Without missing a beat he told her: “love, strength and wisdom.”

The surgeon softened, and let loose the smile she had tried to conceal. And then, it seems, she did just as he asked.

Jun 9 2009

My Mother’s House

porch_railingI enjoy a luxury that many of my peers do not: my mother lives in the same house that I inhabited for the first 18 years of my life. Her home is our family’s homestead; going there is not only a visit to see her, it’s also a return to my own history.

It helps that my mother has been in no rush to throw away the artifacts of my childhood. The toys that I played with as a little girl are still here, stowed in boxes in a dusty backroom, pulled out whenever a visiting friend brings a grandchild along, or when her own come to stay. The subject folders from all of my high school classes, with homework in the left pocket, tests in the right and notes in the hole-punched center section, are stacked in chronological order on the top shelf of the closet of the room that was once my bedroom. The room has been renovated to receive overnight guests, with the exception of the interior of the closet, which looks as it did when I left it so many years ago, like a hidden shrine to my youth.
I asked my mother to walk through the rooms of her house and tell me their stories. In each room, she’d settle herself in a comfortable chair and then she’d look up, as if she was looking into the recesses of her memory to find an anecdote. Something about the makeshift dining table my father constructed when they first moved in. Or how the long bedroom upstairs was filled with glass cases, like a museum, when the previous owners lived here. Or about how she won the dispute with my father during a renovation, about making a unused door into an elegant window. In the living room she recalled setting up extra tables and making seating arrangements for dinner parties and the laughter that these events produced. Upstairs she remembered when and where they bought the bedroom furniture, and named her uncles and aunts in all the miniature black and white photographs hanging together on the wall.
This morning I lay in bed, staring out the window as the sun stretched its arms across the fields beside our house. Thirty years ago, on any June morning, I might have lay in just the same way, looking out at the leaves on the branches outside the window, motionless in the fresh new day. The sounds of morning in this room are as they always have been; the chirping birds, an occasional car racing down the road in front of our house, a water pump clicking on and then off down in the basement, muted but audible on the second floor of this old Victorian farmhouse.

I tiptoed across the hall and peeked in at my mother, soundly asleep on what has always been her side of the bed, even though she’s slept alone in it for the last twenty years. I slipped under the covers beside her, just like Short-pants or Buddy-roo cuddle up to me on any given morning. I remembered how once, years ago, when I was about 10-years old, I’d curled up on the couch with my mother and she said to me, “Are you ever going to be too big to cuddle with me?” And I told her, “Never.”

Jun 6 2009

The Family Carrot

My father pretended to be furious when my mother gave away the family carrot. Mom had purchased the small plastic carrot for two cents at a flea market, thinking of friend who coordinated a puppet show for children about healthy eating habits. It took my mother at least three months before she got around to delivering the carrot, and in that short time it literally became part of our family.

Funny how it had a way of turning up in coat pockets, or in purses and book bags, in the centerpiece on the dining table, in the coffee pot, and in various other obscure places that one would never expect to find a plastic carrot. It was my father who started mischievously hiding the faux vegetable, and then my brother, sister and I joined in. We hid it everywhere; it was fun to annoy my mother.

Each time the carrot was found in some unexpected place, my mother would give us a look as if to say “what a nuisance you all are.” She’d beg us to leave it alone, it was meant for her friend. When she finally delivered the carrot to its intended recipient, we all followed my father’s cue, feigning disgust and disbelief. “How could she give away the family carrot?” he said, shaking his head. We all shook our heads with the same dismay.

For several years my father would bring it up. “And what ever happened to the family carrot? My siblings and I would nod along with him. We let my mother know that it was a tragedy to have lost the beloved plastic vegetable and how betrayed we felt. It was awful that she had simply given it away.
Yet the tradition of the family carrot was restored. Once I found a small stuffed cloth carrot in a novelty shop, which I purchased as a birthday present for my mother. My sister found a wooden one at some yard sale and bestowed it upon my mother. Then my brother sent a carrot-shaped magnet to her one mother’s day. Over the years, any and every carrot of any material or function (except the real deal) has been acquired and presented to my mother.

These days she’s in the mood to clean things out, preparing for a time when she will leave her house of more than 50 years. I’m visiting, so I’ve been enlisted to help. Today we tackled the study, one of the rooms that has collected the most memorabilia of her life, throwing out papers and magazines, telling stories, remembering some celebrated event and laughing about the strange objects we end up holding on to for so many sentimental years.
“Mom, where are all the family carrots?” I ask, thinking about the dozens of carrot gifts that we’ve bestowed upon her over the last three decades. She gave me the look, the same one I saw her give my father hundreds of times, a look of “okay I’ll indulge you but you’re really wearing this one out.” Then she pointed toward the kitchen.

Why is it always so much fun to annoy your mother?

Jun 1 2009


The streets of Freedom are wide and tree-lined, an open road to a late afternoon swim. Or else they’re narrow, winding and cobble-stoned, a labyrinth in the middle of an age-old village. They’re filled with festive, musical people. Or still and quiet, greeting a new morning. However you want it, it’s like that in Freedom. I know. I used to live there.

In Freedom, there are no children clamoring for you to attend to them. Nobody knocking on the bathroom door. Nobody wakes you up earlier than you’d like in the morning. Nobody needs you to “watch this.”
In Freedom, you never have to rush home. When an old friend you haven’t seen in ages stumbles into the bar just as you were about to relinquish your stool to head out, you can change your mind on a dime. Step backward and keep your seat. Order another round.

You can go to the train station and buy a ticket to anywhere without having to tell anyone where you are going or for how long. Not because you intend to do anything so very secret or illicit, but because you feel like being anonymous or alone, just to have a little privacy.

In Freedom you can stay out all night and sleep in all morning and heat up last Thursday’s pasta in the fry pan with butter and eat it all yourself, right from the pan, in front of the TV. You can wear your pajamas all day and nobody comments. You can play Creed or Coldplay or Puccini at full volume, you can belt it out with Ella singing Cole Porter and nobody looks at you cross-eyed. You can clean up or leave a mess; you’re free to do whatever you want.

I haven’t been there in years. I do an occasional drive-by and I think about strolling down those avenues lined with nostalgia. What hangs from the trees are long strings of selective memory. It seems like a paradise from where I am now. But it wasn’t always so rosy. Freedom was wild and spontaneous and occasionally decadent. It was also – more often than I’d like to admit – a bit lonely.

I miss Freedom. But I don’t live there anymore. I don’t even think I could go back. I just pass by it every once in a while and I remember, with fondness, the mostly-good old days.