Mar 29 2010

End Pieces

Just as quickly as Buddy-roo’s black-eye ballooned into a swollen mess, it began to heal. For a few days, she looked like she’d rather fight than switch, but now there is only a faint bluish-yellow bruise that is about to vanish. Kids heal fast. At first she didn’t like all the fuss, but it soon became a badge of honor. She strutted around the school courtyard, and nobody messed with her.

De-facto pointed out a small discrepancy in my account of the accident: I wrote that buddy-roo “grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion.” This implies that the ground was stationary. He reminds me that the floor of the moving walkway is always moving in sync with the railing. So my reasoning (she stopped and the railing didn’t) can’t be the why she fell.

Listen, I’m a writer not an engineer. I saw her go down and it wasn’t pretty.

Short-pants and I passed that fateful ramp this afternoon when we made our way to the Conservatory. Long before we got to the ramp, she announced, “Mama, when we get to that dangerous part on the walkway, you shouldn’t run down it. I’ve decided from now on, we should always walk on it.”

Speaking of good decisions, you can imagine I was dying to hear what happened when Short-pants declined the invitation to join the Group.

“Well, I was nice about it,” she said. “I told them no, thank you.”

Apparently her answer was met with some resistance, but they were unable to persuade her to change her mind. I probed for more information, hoping to get a little more detail about who were these friends and what was their collective purpose. “It’s called the G-group,” she said, “for girls only. And anyway, I don’t want to be part of a group that doesn’t have boys in it. It’s not interesting enough.”

One of my good gal-friends, a pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant (and award winning truffle-maker to boot), stopped by the apartment last week to say hello and was shocked to see the laundry rack in our living room, laden with clothes hung out to air dry.

She admitted that when she read about our broken dryer and how we weren’t going to replace it for environmental reasons, she thought, “we’ll see how long that lasts.” I’m happy to report, in case there are any other doubting readers out there, that yes, we continue to dry most of our clothes on the drying rack.

It should be noted, however, that just a month after the dryer broke, our washing machine died as well. (Oddly, we’ve had to replace every single major electrical appliance in our home in the last year.) We opted to purchase combo washer-dryer; that is to say it’s one machine in which you can wash the clothes, and then you change the dial and it dries them. So we do have a dryer now. Though use of this drying function has been designated for towels and jeans, only. Everything else goes on the rack. We’re trying, at least a little, to change our carbon footprint.

The weeks seems fuller than ever before. The constant motion of getting everybody everywhere with everything they need, while juggling a self-regenerating to do list leaves no time to rest, little time to grieve, just barely enough time to notice that spring has arrived here in Paris.

But it has, and that’s worth an Alleluia.


Mar 26 2010

The Group

On the way home from school, Short-pants told me about the group.

“I need to wear grown-up clothes tomorrow,” she announced, “because I’ve been asked to join a group.” Her enthusiasm was fierce; she was proud to have been invited. I asked her to tell me about the group. “I don’t know,” she said, “I just know who’s in it, and we’re supposed to wear grown-up clothes.”

After a moment of reflection, I decided to offer, carefully, an unsolicited opinion. I told her how I belong to a few different groups: teams I work with, professional associations, friends from school, from college, from Paris. I told her how groups are good for sharing common interests and getting support and having fun, as long as membership in them doesn’t require being rude to others to or excluding people in an unfair or mean-spirited way. Then I asked her, “Do you think this group is like that?”

“No Mama.”

“Well good, then,” I said. We started brainstorming what kind of grown-up outfit we might put together for her to wear that next day.

I guess this is the age when social groups become more clearly delineated. Instead of being part of a mass identity of the children, small clusters of like-minded, like-interested, informal clubs begin to form, not always with the best intention. I remember when I was a little bit older than Short-pants, a group of tough girls used to select a classmate at random, the tauntee-du-jour, and for any kind of reason they could invent, pick on her and lobby the other students to ignore her, or worse, to mock and ridicule her along with them. I lived in fear that I would become their target. I remember once they taunted a homely girl who was a Jehovah’s Witness, circling and kicking dirt at her in the playground. I didn’t participate, but I stood by and watched them jeer at her without saying a word or stepping in. Later that night, I felt like I should tell my mother about it, but I didn’t. I was too ashamed.

I still regret that.

In high school, I ran with a pretty congenial group. We might have been a clique, but I don’t believe we were intentionally cruel to anyone. (I say that, but my memory may be selective.) One of my friend’s parents owned a motel, and on graduation weekend they let the senior class take it over for a huge party. We barbecued, drank beer (the drinking age was 18 back then) and did our own fatiguing version of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, singing into beer bottles as if they were microphones. When someone suggested a midnight swim, I went to get my bathing suit and it was nowhere to be found. Someone loaned me another, but the next day I found mine crammed into the toilet of one of the furthest motel rooms. The perpetrator, we believed, was a girl from another group, a group made up of some of those same taunting girls from earlier in my childhood.

It hurt. It wasn’t the first time I was picked on or teased, but there was something violent – or violating – about it. I suppose it says something that I remember it now, decades later.

Maybe I should tell that story to Short-pants.

I’m stunned at the vitriol between groups – political groups – in the United States right now. I imagine this was the tenor of things during the civil rights movement, but I was shielded from that by my parents, good old-fashioned Rockefeller Republicans, a breed that seems to be an endangered species these days. By the time I came of political age, things were tamer. The Democrats and Republicans disagreed, but the reaching across the aisle that Obama aspires to was not so extraordinary, a little quid-pro-quo-cross-parties was the natural order of being effective in Washington. I think it was like that. Wasn’t it?

Most of my friends supported the passage of the health care reform bill. I also know people who opposed it. But I cannot imagine any of them – on either side of the debate – lashing out at the other side with such venom and physical violence. Threatening the safety of the representatives who supported the bill? Vandalizing their homes and offices? Harassing their families? Bullying everyday citizens simply because they support Obama or the health care reform? I realize that my view of America is shaped by idealistic text-books from the 1970s, but this is not how I understood our democracy to operate. Was I fooled by those cheezy film-strips (beep) or has the typical American’s respect for the rule of law changed so dramatically in the nearly twenty years I’ve lived abroad? Since when is freedom of speech interpreted as the right to be downright rude, to insult, slander and cause physical damage to people in the other group, the ones who think differently. How can it be okay to hate and hurt like this? Not only can groups be mean. They can be dangerous.

The next morning, Short-pants crawled in beside me for her morning cuddle. We started to talk about her wardrobe and what she should select to wear to look grown-up. She wasn’t very responsive to my questions.

“There’s another thing,” she told me, “they said if I want to be in the group, I have to change my hair.” This would mean removing the broccoli-like ponytail she’s taken to wearing, the one that sticks straight up, just over her forehead.

“How to you feel about that?” I asked.

“Well, I like my hair this way.”

We went over her choices, listing the different ways she could respond: Change her hair and join, keep her hair and not join, keep her hair but ask if she could still join. Were there other choices? Maybe, she thought. She wanted some time to think about it.

Later, at breakfast, with a mouthful of pancakes, she told me her decision.
“I think I’m going to tell them thanks but I don’t want to be in the group after all.” She tugged on her vertical ponytail.

My daughter, it seems, has the makings of an Independent.


Mar 23 2010

The Shiner

We walked down the stairs to the metro platform, boarding the train while eating a gouter of peanut-butter and Nutella sandwiches. Two stops later, at Chatelet, we exited the train to make our way through the tunnels to the neighboring station of Les Halles and the entrance to the Conservatory. It’s not pleasant to be underground for so long, but it’s the most direct route and it avoids waiting at crosswalks and inclement weather.

Between the two stations there are two long tunnels, both with a moving walkway to assist commuters with what feels like an endless walk. The usual rules apply; stand to the right, walk to the left. The second walkway has a rather steep ramp just at the beginning, inspiring a game that has made the tunnel journeys a bit less boring. Singing a long steady note, we hold hands and jog down the ramp, making a funny noise that gives us a good giggle. It’s kind of silly, but we invent these things to distract our children – and ourselves – from the drudgery of such a commute.

This week De-facto has business out of town, so yesterday I had both girls in tow when I took Short-pants to her music theory class. Remarkably, both of them got out of school on time and at the same time, so our journey from the school to the conservatory was made, for a change, at a reasonable pace, contrasted with the usual press required to get there by 5:00.

As we approached the ramped moving walkway, Buddy-roo let go my hand and charged ahead. There were very few people on it, so I let her go. She ran down the ramp, gleefully singing. Short-pants and I followed, in harmony. Buddy-roo was speeding right along when I realized she might need help stopping. Usually I’d be holding her hand, but because she’d rushed ahead, I wasn’t there to steady her.

She grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion. Buddy-roo’s feet tried to stop, but her hand kept going, dragging her body with it and whipping her face against the metal siding. By the time she actually fell, I was there. But it was too late. Within seconds, the side of her face, just under her eye, was swelling. A black eye had been born.

Shrieking isn’t enough of a word to describe the noise coming from her. I pulled her over to the standing lane of the walkway, held her and let her wail – what else is there to do – and watched the small red bump under her eye protrude from her cheek and spread left and right. Short-pants made a college try at consoling Buddy-roo, except the things she was saying, like, “it’s getting very red,” or “your eye is hardly open now,” served only to upset Buddy-roo further, prompting me to ask Short-pants, as nicely as I could under the circumstances, if she could just be quiet, which I managed to do a bit too firmly, it seems, so that she, too, erupted into tears.

At the end of the walkway, I steered both girls off to the side of the corridor so we could calm down and have a better look at things. This is when Buddy-roo, by now in hysterical tears, managed to gasp, “and I’m still sad about Grammy.” Buddy-roo tends toward the dramatic, and lately, any time she gets hurt or reprimanded, she falls into tears and often invokes my mother’s death as a reason. De-facto says that sometimes when you get sad it makes you think of other sad things. That is true. Sotto voce: I’m just not sure if it’s always true for Buddy-roo.

What I told her: I miss Grammy, too. What I was thinking: If my mother could see me now, squatting like an idiot in the metro tunnel, with two bawling children and now I’m crying too and I feel lost and at a loss about what to do next. (This is a perfect occasion for missing your mother, whether she’s alive or not).

And then, it hit me: Get thee to a bar. That eye needs ice. Now.

I dragged my two crying children through the metro – you can’t imagine how many turnstiles and corridors and flapping doors and escalators there were before we could find sunlight – with people staring at us, all three of us in tears, one of us with a puffy eye. “No, I didn’t hit her,” I found myself muttering under my breath, wishing I could just undo that one tiny second. If only I hadn’t let her run down that ramp. Why do I always get it wrong? I end up scolding them when I should let them play, and here I was playing when I should have been prudent. It’s like I’ve been away so much the last few months, I’ve forgotten how to mother.

I managed to deliver Short-pants to the conservatory and then Buddy-roo and I limped over to a nearby café. The barman recognized me (this is why it’s good to have a local café in every arrondissement) and did his best to restrain his reaction to the swollen eye. We lay Buddy-roo down on one of the banquettes with a towel of ice against her face. I took a deep breath.

This morning the eye was swollen and purple. Buddy-roo slammed the toilet seat down and climbed up on it to examine herself in the mirror. The tears were unavoidable. It made me remember the day I got braces, the same day as the 7th grade dance, and how I stared at my reflection, horrified by my metallic smile. Nothing anyone could say made me feel better.

So I didn’t say a thing. I gave Buddy-roo the biggest hug I could and rocked her back and forth. Which is what my mother probably did for me, that day I got those ugly braces, knowing words offered no consolation. Which is what most mothers know to do, which is why when they’re not around to soothe us with that knowing, silent hug (which is all we really need anyway) we miss them that much more.


Mar 10 2010

Of Whales and Women

We trudged along the sandy path lined with scallop shells, following it to the edge of the camp and down a narrower path leading to the beach. We were a symphony of sporting gear: our waterproof pants shooshing back and forth in rhythm with each step, our knee-high rubber wellies marching out a hollow gahlump-gahlump percussion as we crossed the sandy flats to the rocks where the pangas were moored. Each one took her turn sitting on the gunwale, swinging legs over into the small boat until six plus the guide were situated on the flat bench seats and Ranulfo, the driver – who’s father was the first person to touch a whale in this lagoon – pushed off and drove out, away from the shore.

A 5-minute open-throttled ride until we reached the point at the edge of the lagoon, where the boat slowed and stopped, radioing “Tico, Tico, Tico!” for permission to enter. Tico, guardian of the lagoon, squawked his okay on the radio and waved back to us from his chair on the shore. The panga motored forward and into the dark green waters of the lagoon.

This escape, a whale-watching trip to Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, was the inspired idea of my friend the Fiesta Nazi, a woman who needs no excuse to abduct her gal-pals for a good adventure, and yet she used the occasions of a rather monumental birthday and International Woman’s Day as reasons to invite a gaggle of girlfriends from every stage of her life to join her in the Baja in search of gray whales. Imagine a remote camp on the beach with 18 wildish whale-smitten women. The days were sunny and slow, pivoting around patient excursions into the lagoon to watch for whales. Happy happy happy hour started at sunset and stretched through dinner and late into the night. Many of us, liberated from motherly duties, took advantage of these un-dutied days, as did those not encumbered with family appendages, equally happy for the leisure. One imagines that the crew at this camp – kind and most attentive – didn’t expect a pack of women to consistently stay up as late, drink as much beer and generate as much sexually innuendoed humor as we managed to stir up. Plus we were crazy about the whales.

“Look, eleven o’clock,” someone shouted, pointing just left of the bow. A football field’s length away, the shiny body of a gray whale thrust itself straight up out of the water. “That’s a spy-hop,” said our guide, José. Everyone in the boat fell silent, probably pondering what it would be like to be able to push more than a third of your own body weight vertically out of the water without touching the sea floor. “Why do they do that?” someone finally asked. José’s answer became one of the trip mottos: “Because they can.”

“Three o’clock!” All heads turned to starboard. About 15 meters from the boat, a 20-foot long gray whale dipped out and back into the water. Ranulfo turned the nose of the boat and inched forward respectfully, taking us to get a closer look. “That was the baby,” José said, “now look for the mama.”

Everyone sat upright, on vigil, heads left to right scanning the water, cameras poised. The sea held its breath like we held ours, until a long thick mammal came into view, submerged, hovering – maybe even teasing us – before breaking through the surface and baring her knuckled spine.

She was in no hurry. Her thick spotted body skimmed the water in first gear, turning slightly just before she disappeared, leaving only an odd rounded footprint into which the waves could not penetrate. Ranulfo cut the engine so we heard only the waves lapping against the wooden panga. We sat, frozen, for the longest, quietest minute. Just when I had given up, certain they had swum beneath us and far away, both whales, mama and baby, sliced open the surface in tandem, gliding in slow-motion through the water only a few meters from our boat. The mother’s body was thick and spotted, decorated with patches of barnacles. The baby whale – José estimated it was a month old – was smoother, newer, no discoloring on the skin. It had not yet picked up the marks that scar and give character to an older whale, the markings that mamas (and women of a certain age) collect over time, the wear and tear and bumps and barnacles that come from navigating an ocean from one lagoon to another season after season.

The timing of this trip was not uncomplicated. When I made the decision to attend, I did not know that I would spend three weeks away from home this winter, caring for my mother. I engaged in a serious debate with myself to decide if this trip was still doable. I was not sure I’d have the stamina. I wondered about the wisdom of a third transatlantic aller-retour in 6-week window of time. I was also a little bit afraid that escaping to a secluded camp with no technology to distract me would be too much of an opportunity to confront my grief. Running about and being busy is further protection from the pain that still feels so close, a long shadow just below the surface waiting to breach.

But De-facto and his mother offered their full support, so I hugged my little girls goodbye, again, and boarded the plane to find myself removed from the strain of the recent chain of events and enveloped in the rounded embrace of the best friends of one of my best friends: clever, accomplished, adventuring women, in abundant possession of wise words, crazy spirits and a good dose of humor; well keeled women unafraid to camp outside and live out loud.

On the other side of the lagoon, we cruised directly into the patch of birded water filled with flocks of gulls and terns and egrets, and the occasional pelican with his beak pressed shut as if keeping a secret. Some of the birds took wing as we sped by; others paid us no attention, perching nonchalantly on the surface of the water. Beside us, three dolphins danced in and out of the water like lords-a-leaping, keeping pace with the boat. Just ahead, a whale breached the surface of the lagoon, twisting and slapping the water with its fluke as it slowly dove back in. It felt as though the birds and whales and dolphins had opened a door to us, pulling us fully into their watery world. We were no longer observing the wildlife around us; we had joined it.

What a privilege to spend a string of days with nothing to do but pet a whale’s nose and look her right in the eye, go for long walks on the beach, eat fish tacos and drink shots of mezcal or cold cervezas from a continuously re-stocked ice-chest. Each day, a little of the weight of these last weeks was chipped away. Each day, a few salty tears fell back into the ocean. Each day, I felt a little more restored. I return to my world, hopeful.

Nothing makes up for the loss of one’s mother, but the healing company of so many compassionate middle-aged sisters sure helps. Like the mama whales, we’re all a little bit worn; we’ve collected the marks that build character. We’ve endured the wear and tear and bumps and bruises that come from caring and crying, from coaxing ourselves through the odd passages of life that test and jeer at us. We keep swimming forward with grace, navigating what life hurls at us, season after season, each one of us breaching and spy-hopping and dancing in the water in our own unique way, because we can.


Mar 4 2010

A little bit of Polish

…will abolish just what’s bothering you, as the song goes. Never mind that it’s a song about shoe polish. My guess is nail polish has the same uplifting capacity. Much like my aunt who proselytizes the restorative power of a good hair wash, I’m a believer that a pedicure is sometimes all you need to set things right. A good soaking of the feet, scraping away the dead skin, trimming of cuticles and cutting/filing the nails and then the deep red or sweet rose or mysterious vamp that reminds you every time you look down that you’re the kind of woman who makes the time to care for your feet.

Before I went home to take care of my ailing mother, a friend told me to take a picture of her hands and feet. “Because years later,” she said, “I couldn’t remember what my mother’s hands looked like.” It’s not so silly, except I can’t imagine forgetting this detail. My father’s well-manicured hands with his long and elegant fingers are something I can picture exactly now, as though I’d held them yesterday.

You all must be so tired of hearing about my dead mother. But I don’t know what else to write about. Everything seems banal compared to what I have been through these last weeks. I’m still losing my mind. The kids have made a train wreck out of my life. De-facto’s a prince, or then he’s not a prince. Short-pants is angelic and Buddy-roo is impish. It’s the same as it always was. Except it’s not the same.

I know this is a question of time. I still miss my father, but the constant ache and daily despair about his death no longer plagues me, though the occasional sting of wishing he was here when something important happens has not lost its venom, even after more than 20 years.

I try to do normal things. I stop to buy a baguette. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you,” says the baker’s wife. I tell her I’ve been away a lot. The way you say this in French is “J’avais beaucoup de deplacements.” Yes, I’m feeling very displaced, I think to myself in the pseudo-language of Franglais, a butchering of both French and English versions of a similar-but-not-quite-the-same words. Another good example: déranger, a disturbing verb in both languages, but more often used as an adjective in English. Sometimes in my head – or even out loud, to like-minded friends – I mumble, “I hope I’m not deranging you.” It’s a funny little language we expats use to effect a hint of sarcasm.

“And it was good, all your traveling?” she asks.

I want to tell this friendly, familiar local baker-woman that I’ve been gone because I went to help my mother die. It feels like I should tell her, she knows me well enough to notice I’ve been gone. It feels like she might care, but that doesn’t mean she will or that she should. Just because I am so tender doesn’t mean I should blurt it out and then have to continue the conversation, the answering of questions, the prolonged explanation to a kind stranger who has no context.

“Yes,” I say, “it was all good.” I don’t want to derange her with my grief.

Keep doing normal things. I make soup. Except it makes me think of those soups I used to make for my mother the last nights before she decided to stop eating. I do laundry. Except folding the sheets makes me think of her. Hanging the little socks on the drying rack in my living room makes me think of the only time she wrote something other than praise after reading one of blog posts, the one about our decision not to buy a new dryer when ours broke down. “You’re a busy working mother with two children,” she wrote, “so buy yourself a dryer.”

I miss seeing her name on emails in my box. I’ve actually left one of her last messages in my Gmail account, and occasionally I mark it as unread, so I can read it again, like it was new, like she just sent it. I know this is pathetic.

I get my haircut. I remember getting a trim the day before the last time I went to see her, how I cried through the entire appointment. I go to the aesthetician to get a bikini wax. This doesn’t remind me of my mother at all but it hurts so much and I’m so spent that I cry anyway. “Does it hurt that much?” she says, kneading the ball of caramel in her hand. “Yes. It hurts that much.”

Raquel, the Brazilian manicurist/pedicurist who comes to my home to attend to my nails arrives late as usual, so this feels a little normal. She massages my feet. This reminds me of seeing my mother’s face settling into a feline smile as I pressed my thumbs into the balls of her feet, massaging them for her before she went to sleep. Don’t go there, I tell myself. Don’t make everything a signifier for something sad, something lost, something about her.

While my feet are soaking in warm soapy water and my hands are drinking in the mystery treatment provided by her special magical coated plastic gloves, Raquel turns to Short-pants and Buddy-roo and says, “Who’s first?” They won’t let me near them with a nail-clipper or emery board in my hand, but they race to her. She is the Pedicure-Whisperer, the intuitive tender of nails, calming any child, even my two wild fillies, enough to cut and clean their fingers and toes. Buddy-roo chooses a dainty, unsurprising, princess pink; it’s Short-pants who startles me by pointing to a dark, vampy burgundy, close to my own preferred color. Raquel glances up at me, her eyes seeking permission. Why not? I shrug. She’s not the daughter I worry about taking this color to heart.

Later, as the varnish on my toes is drying, the girls arrive with their dolls, asking if they can paint their toenails, too. My first instinct is no. They’ll make a mess. They’ll ruin the dolls. “Sure,” I say, remembering that nail polish remover has already been invented. “But get our polish from the basket in our bathroom.”

There is jumping and cheering and running back and forth and setting up the dolls in small child-sized chairs. Raquel offers a few tips to the girls as their shaky hands struggle to paint the polish on the tiniest of doll nails. They do a surprisingly accurate job, and parade proudly around the living room displaying the polished extremities of their dolled-up dolls.

“Careful,” I warn them, “Keep them away from the couch.” (I can’t help myself.)

“We know, mama,” Short-pants says, “don’t worry.”

They march and laugh and celebrate (with aplomb) a splash of color on tiny toenails. They sing a song about nail polish, one they’ve made up on the spot. For the first time in a long time, things seem almost normal. This, I suppose, is how life goes on.