May 25 2010

The Other Barbie

Birthdays are not to be shared. It’s the one single day you get to yourself, the day you were born – the day you opted into this planet. It’s your day. There’s no reason to be magnanimous about it.

I know this because the double birthday party I celebrated years ago with Debbie West was an exercise in being gracious, a task that was really too advanced for my consciousness at the time. Her mother made the most elaborate gingerbread house cake with colorful jellybean trimming. The sixteen candles – our ages added together – dispersed across its roof were too hard to blow out in tandem, the song lengthened uncomfortably at the point of our names. Debbie’s, of course, came first.

Most of the gifts we received were identical – the same duets of birthday wrapping paper folded around matching puzzles, coloring books and Spirograph kits. Except the Barbie Dolls that Susan Olsen brought: Each gift tag was carefully labeled with one of our names in the fine, formal handwriting I recognized as Mrs. Olsen’s, but obviously her mom must have randomly assigned the boxes which were packed with fraternal twin Barbies.

Debbie got the blonde doll. But she was a brunette. Shouldn’t she have gotten the doll with the matching hair? I opened my box in sync with her, noticing the hair color instantly. Before I could stop myself the words popped out, “but I want that one!” The doll in question, of course, the one in her hands, not the one in mine.

I’m pretty sure that everybody heard me, but it was as though each and every person – young and old – tacitly agreed to ignore what I had blurted out. My 8-year old self was too young to be gracious was nevertheless old enough to know that this was not the appropriately thankful response to a gift. I stared at the doll and pretended to love her, knowing the eyes of a roomful of good girls were upon me. But I could not contain the tears that naturally manifest after such a disappointment, tears which burst out from me at full volume.

“It must be too much excitement,” I heard my mother say, “all these girls and all these gifts.”

This is why when Buddy-roo has a moment like this, I redirect her frustration as a good parent should, but inside: mountains of empathy. I suppose if you asked De-facto for his point of view on my birthday spirit, he might suggest not that much has changed.

But birthdays are something. You gotta make them happy, or else they’ll make you sad.

Later at home, after the party, my mother placed the doll prominently on my shelf. I let it sit there, untouched and unloved, eventually letting it fall to the back of the queue of dolls and stuffed animals, neglected, rejected – the other Barbie.

May 21 2010

The Backroom

My hands are dry, parched from the handling of paper and the folding of cardboard box covers. My mind reels at the level of organization hidden within the disorganized mess of boxes and files stowed away, every box like another chapter of her life, the files of all her correspondence, drafts of her speeches, even all her travel receipts. My heart breaks, reading love letters my parents wrote to each other in college, his familiar scribble, eighteen times in a row writing out “I love you.” Or finding a letter my mother’s father left for my grandmother in an envelope that read: “to be opened only in the event of my death.” In it, his humble words of reflection on their life together and the tasks she would have ahead of her to continue without him.

There is a physical, mental and emotional labor involved in cleaning out my mother’s house, but especially so as we addressed the backroom, the room that waited behind a closed door, the room where our family’s stories have been stored for so many years. It is not a small room; it probably measures 15 X 20 feet. It was packed to the gills with files and crates of papers and memorabilia, magazines, empty boxes that were re-used every Christmas and board games we no longer played, old carpet remnants, photo albums, family scrapbooks. It must be said that you couldn’t really walk into the room except for the thin path to the blue recycling bins, kept just next to the 50-year-old standing freezer which contains jars of something that might have put there more than thirty years ago. We have yet to defrost it; that thaw is for another trip, I think.

She saved everything. A long box with our baby books, faded with time and love, and underneath them, all the tiny, corny, welcoming cards sent to her when each one of us was born. Every grade school portrait and class photo. Every single report card. The piece of paper that was pinned on my brother’s shirt so he would be shuffled off the school bus to the correct first-grade class (the pin still attached). All our schoolwork – I think she saved every piece of paper that came home, all of it stowed in reddish brown legal brief envelopes tied up tight and stacked in a cupboard in the backroom.

My sister and I would call out to each other, “Oh my god, come see this.” A carton with her budget records from the 1970s and envelopes filled with tax receipts from the same decade; a notebook in which she kept a record of every dinner party she hosted in 1967-1968, who was invited, what she served, how they were seated at the tables (and shifted for dessert), and all the thank you notes she received after each occasion; the diaries she kept in college, filled with the practical details of her day (“up at 7…”) but also an occasional reference to someone she had a crush on who smiled at her in a special way; scrapbooks from her youth in Havana, with theater programs and letters from her school and small calling cards bearing her maiden name; a large box, and then another, with all the condolence notes she received when my father died, and the record of how she acknowledged of each and every card.

One of the sagging cardboard cartons contained every letter I ever sent home from college. In the same box, a notebook with the letters written during my semester abroad in Denmark. I remember where I was sitting when I wrote most of them, at a square wooden table at the Café Peder Hvitfeldts in the center of Copenhagen, a Carlsberg Porter to my left to fortify me. It was stunning to see all these letters again, collected together. I drew my finger down the lines of little words, my fine, tiny writing filling every blank space of the page and it all rushed back to me: being a 20-year old stretching my legs to another continent. How strange and exotic it all felt, compared to life in my rural hometown, or even the small city that hosted my university. I was tasting Europe for the first time and it was thrilling. I remember writing home with all the details – some of it more than my parents ever needed to know – because I felt compelled to convey to them how I was getting it all, doing it all, growing into the woman that I imagined they hoped I would become.

The letters are painful to re-read, quite honestly, as now with some years under my belt I can see in them the naïveté and the obnoxious optimism I possessed. They are trying too hard to express something that I realize now I never needed to write because my parents knew it all along: mom, dad, I’m doing you proud, which somehow seemed so important then, and well, still is now.

Standing over this pile of letters, I realized it’s not just about grieving her death. Or my father’s. Or even preparing for the grieving of the loss of this old house – which when we sell it will be like saying goodbye to another family member, a friend that has hugged our family close for 53 years. Each time I open one of those crumbling boxes filled with the dust and dead cluster flies and the memorabilia of my earlier days, I am grieving a part of me, too, some part that was young and impressionable and looking to my mother for help and advice and approval and that just as my mother is gone,
so is that little girl. I wouldn’t mind to still be her, and just let someone collect my report cards while I run out to the orchard to play. But I have my own collecting to do, while my little girls run about and skip away.

Maybe nobody likes to admit to this, but I will: We mourn our grandparents and our parents and we miss them and their goodness and their guidance but we are also mourning ourselves and our own inevitable passage to the stage of life they were in before they died, which signals our own departure, too.

As my mother dies, so do the impish girl and the rebellious teenager and the emerging young woman that I used to be. As long as she was here, these parts of me lived in relation to her. Now that she is gone, I feel as though I’m on the threshold of another place in my life: it is papered with wisdom and prudence, furnished with a bit of grace, a shrug of humility. It is a place that she inhabited so effortlessly and left it in such lovely condition for me to step into – probably because she had that back room to store everything else.

May 17 2010

Skipping On

After the reading of the 23rd Psalm, not even five minutes into my mother’s memorial service, Buddy-roo tapped my arm. “This is not so interesting to me,” she said. There was still an hour to go in the service, and we were in the front row. “But can you stick it out?” I whispered. “For Grammy?”

She wriggled around to put her head on De-facto‘s lap. “If you scratch my back,” she sighed, handing me a Fisher Price motorcycle with a tiny person, borrowed from my childhood toy stash, “with this.”

I drove the tiny vehicle up and down her back – along her legs when she motioned for me to do so – happy to be caressing her. I can’t say I didn’t appreciate her restlessness, but this was one of those times I really needed to keep it at bay. Please Buddy-roo, I prayed, hang in there.

The chapel was packed. The count – we learned later – was at least 300 people. My mother was a woman engaged in life and in service; the communities she engaged with and served turned out. Beyond her extended family, who flew or drove in from points all over the east coast, a throng of friends from every part of her life came to remember and celebrate her.

When she was a bit younger than I am now, my mother lost part of her hearing. She never let it stop her, and as a result became an advocate for people with hearing loss. She wrote books and gave speeches, served on boards. She was even involved in drafting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. My mother had instructed us to arrange for an audio induction loop; people in the designated pews could set their hearing aides to pick up the transmission and hear every speaker in the service. We also invited a sign language interpreter, a long, elegant woman who brought every speakers words to life with her agile hands and her expressive face. Short-pants, whom my mother had taught to finger spell, was riveted. Buddy-roo wanted to know who that woman on the other side of the stage was waving at. The signing – it’s such a beautiful language – managed to hold her attention, too.

Buddy-roo pointed to my name in the printed program. “Why are you in there?” I whispered back that I was going to speak. Her eyes widened; the expression on her face reflected the nerves brewing in my gut. My father, a natural public speaker, used to say that if you weren’t at least a little nervous before giving a speech, then you didn’t respect your audience. Either that or you were afraid of crying uncontrollably in front of a large crowd. Buddy-roo pointed to the lectern. “You’re going to go up there?” I nodded. (Maybe now it was getting interesting?)

Each remembrance of my mother was tear-provoking or pride-inducing, or both. After her friends and colleagues lauded her, and my brother and sister delivered such poignant words, I wondered why I ever thought it was a good idea to speak, and regretted putting myself after almost everyone, near the end program. I made it through my speech without any serious faltering, but let the floodgates go after I’d returned to my seat, during the eulogy. Short-pants squeezed my hand. Buddy-roo decided she should cry, too, just to keep me in good company.

Now that all the busy-ness of the preparations and organization of the service are behind me, and the relief of it being over is satisfying and settling. There is a sense of being finished with something important. But just as things end, others begin – the completion of this event only means that something else is starting. I am vaguely nervous about this: there is now room for the feelings I couldn’t afford to feel up until now. I woke up at 4:30 am this morning, part jet-lag, part emotional turmoil. I’m restless as hell and on the verge of tears.

As for Ex-facto, we exchanged a few good-luck text messages over the weekend. I ran into his niece at my favorite hometown pub, and he stopped by to visit us on his way out of town on Sunday. De-facto instantly befriended his youngest son, who’s the same age as Short-pants, teaching him how to knock croquet balls around the back yard, and running with him through the apple orchard beside the house.

When my mother’s memorial service was finished, our family was escorted out of the front pews and down the center aisle and out of the chapel. Buddy-roo, after sitting still for more than an hour, sprinted out of the row. She skipped in wide dancing steps from side to side, prancing all the way down the aisle. I walked behind her, in the shadow of her joy, getting the quickest glimpse of the next generation preparing to take charge.

May 12 2010

Overlapping Moments

It was sometime last summer that my ex-husband called me to tell me of the latest coincidence in his life. He’d been driving around with his daughter – who I knew best, actually, when she was the same age as Buddy-roo or Short-pants – looking at places to host her wedding. A sobering piece of news: that someone you knew when she still believed in Santa Claus is now getting married. Just another marker of how time halts for no one.

A wedding. Mazeltov and all that, I thought. My ex (let’s call him Ex-facto) went on to say that while driving to one of the venues on her list, he recognized a landmark red-and-white-striped ice-cream parlor and realized how close he was (a mile) to my childhood home. Of the half-dozen places she was considering, this one was actually right in my little hometown. The venue in question was a ruin when I was growing up, but has since been restored to a majestic mansion with picturesque views, a perfect spot for weddings and other celebratory occasions.

A disclosure is in order: Yes, there was a man and some vows, many years ago. Our divorce was relatively elegant, as divorces go, and we remain not only cordial but compassionate toward each other. Our correspondence, though not regular, is frequent enough and always slightly nostalgic. He kept in closer contact with me when Short-pants was in the hospital, and also called me this winter when I was taking care of my mother. When Ex-facto’s daughter, the bride in question, was a student abroad, he encouraged her to come visit me in Paris. I was nearly 9-months pregnant, but I wanted her to experience French café society so I urged De-facto to take her out to some of our favorite bars in the neighborhood. I think what she enjoyed most about that night was running into our friends and answering the question, “so how do you know each other?”

Between De-facto and Ex-facto there is a striking sense of mutual respect. Ex-facto’s regard for De-facto, he tells me, is enhanced because of the things I write on this blog. For De-facto, it is the result of two precious tickets that Ex-facto once secured for him to see the New England Patriots play in the Superbowl. I suppose that could make a friend for life.

“If we choose this place for the wedding,” Ex-facto told me, “we’ll want your mother to be there.”

If she lives that long, I thought. By then, my mother had already outlived her doctor’s estimates; she was living month by month. On borrowed time, as she liked to say.

When my mother died, it was her wish to be interred quickly and quietly, and also her suggestion that we take our time organizing a memorial service, without the stress or urgency to make it coincide with her burial. Given the inclement weather last February, her wishes were more than sensible. After the private burial, we selected a Saturday in mid-May for her memorial service, dreaming of a sunny spring afternoon that would create hopeful dispositions and easier transportation.

Once the date was chosen, I called around to local inns and hotels to reserve a block of rooms for the extended family we expected to attend, and found it problematic. I managed to secure the very last rooms at one B&B, but I was surprised to find that otherwise, there was, literally, no room at the inn – or the hotel, or anywhere. My hometown is known for its summer tourism; it’s on a beautiful lake with lots of sailing and water sporting. But sold-out in the middle of May?

“There’s a wedding,” one of the hotel clerks told me.

What are the chances that Ex-facto’s entire family (and his first ex-wife and current wife) would descend on my hometown at the same weekend as my entire family will assemble there for my mother’s memorial service? Is this some sort of cosmic joke? Some strange vertigo-inducing vortex uniting our two families, again, par hazard, on this auspicious date?

I mean, you couldn’t make this up.

Do you think we’ll bump into them? I can imagine my aunt encountering my ex-mother-in-law in an elevator and wondering why the other seems vaguely familiar. Or Ex-facto’s cousin, studying my Uncle Buddy (who’s pretty memorable) in the breakfast room, puzzling about where she’s seen him before. Ghosts of the past inhabiting the present.

I suppose this is how life works. A tiny baby, like my new nephew, born last week, slips out into a waiting, welcoming world. A poised bride steps in a purposeful gait down the aisle toward her groom. A beloved woman, laid to rest, is remembered with words of tribute, gratitude and affection. For each one of us, there are significant moments marking our passage through life. And sometimes these moments overlap in rather extraordinary – if slightly awkward – ways.

May 8 2010

My Mother’s Voice

My mother’s voice, all those years, was something to roll my eyes at.

It was a scolding plea to pick up my room, take my papers off the table, move my shoes from the hallway. It was the never-ending question: “How was school today?” Or an occasionally mystified, “what do you mean I didn’t buy the right kind?” The voice of a woman entirely incapable of differentiating Lee from Levis from Wrangler; the voice of a woman who never once in her life wore a pair of jeans.

My mother’s voice, those years, strong and clear in conference rooms and at speaker podiums – an articulate, educated, diplomatic voice. A voice that incited admiration and rarely faltered. A voice I didn’t disbelieve, but yet I couldn’t fully appreciate it. How could I? All listening is selective, especially when there are things we don’t want to hear.

My mother’s voice is now a voice inside my head: a memory, a childhood song, a compliment, a reprimand. It’s a beckoning call from the back porch. It’s a gentle whisper from the other room.

My mother’s voice. I hear it when I speak to my children. Please pick up your toys before the cleaner comes. Please clear your plates when you leave the table. You can’t go out without socks. Now my own voice, that of a mother’s, echoing the voice that once annoyed me as much as it soothed me.

Sometimes I hear my own voice, responding to a sweet prideful request to “watch me!” or “look at this!’ with a half-listening, half-present, “Yes, that’s great.” Once Short-pants said to me, “Mama, do you know what I mean? Are you listening?” Or Buddy-roo, who said to me yesterday, “I’d like you to close your computer, maman.” I am often caught in the act of being distracted and pretending to care: A wake-up call that my voice isn’t always the mothering voice I want to speak with.

Soon enough they will roll their eyes at me.

Now I know what it was that I heard in my mother’s voice: the voice of a woman trying to juggle a full life, a voice answering the call of work, of her colleagues, of her community and of her husband and her children, a voice calling out to herself amidst a grand chorus of voices, a cacophony of demanding, needing, wanting voices. A voice occasionally gasping for air. A voice I recognize differently now, now that it is also my own.

May 5 2010

Food for Thought

There’s wired and then there’s wound up, and you might say I’ve been operating in both categories these last few weeks. The story is the same old tale, threaded through the fragments of my life told again and again on this digital journal: too much to do and not enough hours in the day to do it all.
I could use a month of Sundays and still be behind.

It doesn’t help that in the middle of the usual juggle, an upcoming business trip to a rather exotic country requires a visa for entree, the application of which has cost me more time than I can afford. I could boast that my passport is too full of stamps from all my travels, except the lack of consecutive and completely blank pages created havoc with the process. I was instead directed to go to my own consulate to beg for an insert of extra pages before I could even make an application to go somewhere else. And along the way a dozen little setbacks, enough to make me sweat and swear.

But I know that all work and no play makes me a dull boy, and so in honor of cinco de mayo, I treated myself – and a friend – to a fish pedicure, a most extraordinary beauty treatment that involves allowing a hundred little fish to nibble at your feet.

It started as a bit of a dare: my friend sent this link to me, knowing that I’d take the bait. I organized dual appointments so we could sit side by side and compare notes during the treatment.

Peering into the tank of tiny and apparently ravenous poissons, I must admit my hesitancy before plunging my pieds nus into the school of tiny garrarufa fish. They swarmed around my feet; there was no hesitation on their part to start munching away at the callouses on my toes and heels and ankles – and on the skin all over my feet, for that matter.

It was slightly irritating at first – unsettling more than anything else. But after adjusting to this sensation of something actually eating your feet, well, it was interesting. A bit like tickling. Or more like a continuous series of little electric shocks. Not really pleasant, but not entirely unpleasant, either.

Twenty minutes later my feet were as soft as they’ve ever been. All the little pieces of dead skin chewed away by little minnow-like friends. Twenty minutes later, I forgot about all the time I wasted on that silly visa. Things are in motion, it will all work out. Twenty minutes later I was unwound and unwired. And funny how everything on my list could wait.