Jul 31 2010

Yesterday and Today

Yesterday morning we made pink pancakes, played with the doll house and drew mandalas with colored pencils before I sat the girls down and explained. “Mama leaves tomorrow and she has a lot to do to get ready to go.” They nodded. They know it’s serious when I speak about myself in the third person. De-facto‘s out of town for a few days, so I needed a strategy to get some work done. I offered a barter: if they’d leave me uninterrupted until lunch time, then I’d take them to the pool at the Paris Plage in the afternoon. The prospect of swimming provoked whooping and hollering and they ran upstairs to the small attic rooms we call their universe and started to play. I installed myself at the kitchen table with my computer – that’s my universe I suppose – and dove in.

Today the alarm sounded just as the light filled my bedroom. I was sandwiched between my two girls, one of them snoring lightly and the other one burrowed deep beneath the covers. I maneuvered my way out of the sheets, over their little bodies and out of bed. I hated to pull myself out of their sleepy embrace, but my packed suitcase waited for me by the door. I had only to shower quickly and dress and wait for the babysitter to relieve me of my responsibilities.

Yesterday, despite our agreement, Short-pants and Buddy-roo both interrupted me no less than 2-dozen occasions, breaking my concentration and cutting my productivity in half. At first I responded politely but firmly: “Not now sweet.” Once again in the third person, “Mama’s working now.” Each interruption progressively more annoying, I found myself running my hands through my hair, the thing I do when I’m agitated.
I cursed my decision to keep them home. Had I insisted they go to the centre de loisir, I’d have had the whole apartment to myself for the whole day. But I didn’t want them to be gone all day, not on the eve a 2-week trip, and there is no half-day option at this French version of day-camp. So they stayed at home with me. There were more than a few moments when I regretted this decision.

Today I spent hours alone, navigating airport security lanes and the world of duty free. The long flight was nearly wordless, but for choosing pasta or chicken, or white or red, or coffee or tea. I read the IHT cover to cover, and further nourished myself with issues of The Atlantic and The New Yorker.
I watched two bad movies and accomplished a dozen little things: tallying my expenses, writing a letter, cleaning my computer desktop, reviewing important files. There was something satisfying about the silence, except I wasn’t entirely at ease. I missed my little girls. I wished they were close.

Yesterday I snapped, “What is it you don’t understand about the phrase leave mama alone so she can work?” Short-pants ran out of the room in tears and I felt like shit. I went to find her and apologize, not for my request but for my tone, and Buddy-roo cornered me. “Can I watch a movie?” “Non,” I said, curtly, which provoked pouting and crying and stomping out of the room after exaggerated proclamations about what I never let her do. The day wasn’t turning out as I’d planned.

Today a family with two wailing toddlers, a few rows ahead, put the entire cabin ill at ease. Passengers tossed uncomfortable glances at each other, wondering if this would continue through the whole flight. A steward tried to distract the children, but only heightened their cries. The mother visibly panicked and struggling to quiet her disruptive offspring. I took a deep breath and sent her vibes of patience and composure. Hang on, I told her silently, they’ll calm down once we take off. I closed my eyes and fell into a taxiing-on-the-tarmac sleep, very conscious of the fact that she could not enjoy the luxury of this little runway nap. I thanked the gods of air controllers that I was alone, and had no children with me who were thirsty, hungry, bored, needing to pee or puke or needing a stitch of my attention.

Yesterday they kicked and splashed in the pool, screeching with the glee that only children know. I’d grab Short-pants and spin her around several turns before lifting and throwing her up and out so she’d plunge back into the water. “My turn!” from Buddy-roo and she’d get the same treatment. We bobbed around together in our swimming caps, mother and daughters in sync and in step. Show me how you can swim. Throw me mama! Again! Our commands (both ways) asking not for obedience but for playfulness. After our swim, we strolled down the boardwalk that is the Paris Plage, eating ice-cream, telling corny knock-knock jokes and watching the boats in the Seine.

Today, waiting for my luggage by a carousel, I thought about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and what an interesting pair they make. One sweet, the other sly, they get on marvelously when they are not trying to bite each other. They weave in and out of my days, sometimes with ease and laughter, an hour later needing firm words and reprimands. They are a blast to be with or they are brutally banal. They are remarkably poised and independent, until they are clamoring for my attention and I can’t wait to extract myself from the never-ending-needing-of-me in stereo.

Last night, they resisted bedtime, knowing I would be leaving early this morning. I was looking down the barrel at at least four more hours of work and prep and packing, so I cut another deal: “Go to bed now without a peep, and when I’m done I’ll come get you both and you can sleep with me.” They bounded up the stairs and this time, I did not hear another word. At two a.m. when I’d done all I could do, I moved my suitcase into the hall, turned out the lights, turned down the sheets and fetched my girls, their long limbs hanging heavy as I carried each one down the stairs. Sleeping with them was a bit of a nightmare; they kicked and snored until dawn. Sleeping with them was a little slice of heaven; two angels curled on either side, nestling up to me in the night.

This is the paradox of motherhood. Yesterday they drove me nuts as much as they delighted me. Today I am restored by the lack of interruptions, but aching for their quirky humor and unbridled affection. It’s maddening. But the boundary between maternal bliss and discontent is not a straight line. It’s up and down and crooked with tricky hairpin turns. It’s a wild ride, and it’s the one I get to take every day.


Jul 23 2010

Tour de Luxe

There’s nothing luxe about our life at the country house. We have what we need: a stove with an oven, a fridge, a table and chairs. There’s a shower with hot running water, two functioning toilets attached to a septic tank. Beds with linens – albeit old ones. One set even dates from my first post-college apartment,which means they’re something like 25 years old. (They’ve never seen the inside of a dryer, which might be why they’re still in use.) It’s all livable, just not particularly luxurious. A bit rough around the edges.

The country house is a renovation in progress. This means we live beside the dust and mess and clutter that is part and parcel of do-it-yourself construction. It’s part of any type of renovation, but particularly so when achieved the snail’s pace of 2-weeks at a time, three or four times a year. But we did not buy a ready-made chateau; we bought a rundown house attached to a barn, previously inhabited, for 30 years, by an eccentric bachelor. Which means we bought into the idea of slow motion, by-our-own-hand improvements from the start. Part of the pleasure, or so De-facto tells me, is solving the puzzle of what to fix and learning how to do it as you go.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to keep things sparse. And yet the house has still become the dumping ground for every odd piece of furniture, unwanted rug, blanket, throw-pillow or lava lamp. Nothing matches; our plates are all left over from other sets of china from our past, the silverware is abundant but with very few matching place-settings. I’ve vowed not to decorate, nor to buy any furnishings or appliances until the house is closer to finished. As a result, we live with what’s been inherited or donated, a hodgepodge of eclectic furnishings and belongings.

It’s amazing what you can live with – and without.

The electricity at the country house is more or less jerry-rigged, the wiring is so ancient that they don’t make plugs to fit some of the outlets in the house. If we use the oven and the burners on the stove and try to run the washer or plug in the speakers for music, we’re likely to trip the short-switch on the fuse-box. There is no landline for a telephone. There is no cable. There is no Internet.

Which is challenge for someone like me who writes 3 blogs and conducts most of the prep work for her business on-line. There are no less than a dozen moments a day when my natural reflex to check email or Google the answer to something goes un-satiated. In order to access the rest of the world, I must walk down the road 100 meters to our neighbors, who have kindly given us the code to their wi-fi. I sit on the bench outside their kitchen door and send/receive messages and bathe in the data I can download before I feel my presence is an imposition. You can imagine this makes posting somewhat problematic; but managing an on-line conference call meeting with colleagues has to be carefully timed and executed as well.

In the mornings De-facto toils in the side room we’ve been renovating for the last three years, maneuvering a support beam in the foundation or plastering or painting. I hole up in the upstairs back bedroom and write, surfacing at noon-thirty or so, just in time to make lunch for my hungry tool-belted man and our girls. My primary chore in the country is cooking, not the easiest task when only two of the burners on the stove work and there’s hardly an inch of counter space. But that’s life in the country; you get by with less than perfect conditions and in the end, it’s perfect.

After lunch there’s always some project, the cleaning out of shelf that’s been overtaken by cobwebs in our absence, trimming the tree branches over my grapevines to keep them in the sunshine or liberating them from the ferns that spread furiously when unattended. Or laundry. The country house is a high-speed factory for dirty clothes.

And then. The Tour. The high point of the afternoon is that moment when we pull out our old 20″ television (miniature compared to current models) to watch the Tour de France. That we have no cable is a handicap, but De-facto broke down and purchased an antenna, a set of rabbit ears which if correctly configured on the table just outside the door, permits a reasonable picture, though a bit snowy – at least it’s enough to watch the cyclists in action. We turn it on around 2 o’clock and let it blare in the background as De-facto paints the ceiling or I cut back the rose bushes. As they close in for the finish of the stage, we draw closer, staring intensely at the screen with fingers crossed. This year Schleck is our favored rider; his 8-second lag behind Contador seems like an eternity.

The girls, well, they run wild. In Paris they are somewhat incarcerated, on top of each other in our apartment and requiring an adult to accompany them to go anywhere outside our building. In the country, they run unhindered. Short-pants disappears into the forest behind the house while Buddy-roo wanders down the road to visit our neighbors. They run in and out of the house at will. They are free.

When the stage is over, and the post-tour television wrap-up is completed, De-facto makes his announcement, “Family bike ride!” This is met with some protest, as Short-pants is not so fond of bicycling and Buddy-roo makes a habit out of being contrary. But eventually it gets sorted out, who rides solo and who rides on the extension attached to De-facto’s bike (which makes for a bicycle-built-for-two). We peddle down the road. Our destination: the pasture with the shaggy pony. The sky is unblemished blue. The late afternoon sun turns us into long shadows on the pavement. There’s fresh air and a little exercise and the laughter of children. What about this isn’t a tour de luxe?


Jul 20 2010

Just as Much a Mom

She was probably a neighbor, a friend of your mother, or the mother of one of your friends. She could stand in, when necessary, for any maternal exercise: tending a boo-boo, offering up an afternoon snack, tucking you in during a sleepover. Occasionally she reprimanded you – and she had the right – you may have spent as much time at her house under her supervision as you did at your own. It’s hard to describe everyone’s childhood, and it’s tricky territory because not all of us had a pleasant one. But I’d wager that most of us have at least one memory that includes this formidable female role, one that deserves its own archetype: the woman who is just as much as a mom to you as your own mother.

Mine lived across the road. Mary was a mother to five handsome, thoughtful boys (who’ve grown into handsome, thoughtful men) and, by default, just as much as a mom to my brother, sister and me while we were growing up. It was on her cement porch that I fell chin first, and I’m not sure who took me to the hospital for stitches, my mother or Mary. It was in her kitchen that her youngest boys and I removed all the bowls and dishes from the corner cupboard with the lazy-susan inside so we could spin around until we were dizzy. It was in the old boat-building workshop behind her house that I learned to ride a 2-wheel bicycle without training wheels, and it was in the abandoned chicken coop within her view that I stole my first kiss.

It was the aroma of her brownies that drew us in from the fields beyond her yard to wash and rest a moment, the only thing worthy of interrupting the hours of imaginary battles we fought and the stories we played out. When I decided to experiment as a coiffeur – unfortunately on one of her sons – Mary threatened, in the nicest way, to chop off my hair, too. When I called him nicknames that displeased her, she knew exactly which diminutive of my name to call out to cease the teasing.

In high school, when I hosted unapproved parties while my parents were away, she said nothing. But on every other occasion, she had the perfect words to offer: I still have the card she mailed to me as a freshman in college, the letter she sent when I moved abroad, the note from her when my father died. I’ve saved her poignant emails, usually a short message of only a few lines but every single word well used. She wrote to me just after my mother’s memorial service: “Sometimes when the tasks fall away, grief increases.” One short sentence that drew from me a stream of tears pent-up, her words apparently the exact key to fit that lock.

I learned last week that Mary has passed away. A memorial service held for her over the weekend, which I could not attend, was described as original and beautiful. She had chosen passages for each of her sons and their wives to read, and selected the music that should pace the event. I wept that I could not organize my schedule to be there.

There was another woman who was as much a mom to me as my mother, during my high school years. We called her by her first name, Kitty, and we called her husband Mr. Hunk (he was salt-n-pepper handsome). She deftly guided our teenaged souls through the travails of adolescence, permitting enough wildness so that we could test our mettle, but reeling us in before we embarrassed ourselves. She knew things about me that my mom didn’t, and made it her business to help me rather than tell on me – all of this, somehow, enacted without any disrespect for my mother. That’s the trick, what makes this role so important: the woman who’s as much as a mom to you is a quiet, wise advisor, a guide on the side who relates to you in ways your own mom cannot. She’s a mother without baggage. I can still picture Kitty: salt-n-pepper classy and sharper than nails. She’d hold court at her kitchen table, letting us know that she knew exactly what mischief we were up to. Her memorial service was years ago; I regret that I missed it, too.

In February when my mother died, I walked across the road to share the news with Mary. Her house was like something out of a fairy tale, cozy with crocheted blankets, elegantly cluttered with handcrafted objects d’art and pictures of grandchildren. We sat at her table. The sun streamed in the window highlighting the distinctive line of her jaw. She must have known the purpose of the visit, but waited to let me spill the words. “Well there it is,” she said, when I told her.

It meant everything to us that all five of her boys and their families came home last May to attend my mother’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen them all together in one place at one time in nearly thirty years. After the service, I stood on our porch and looked across the road at their familiar lawn, alive with people: not only the boys, as we called them, but their wives and their children – Mary’s grandchildren – running about, engaged in every kind of game. The occasion that collected them was sad, but I remember thinking how lovely for Mary to have her entire family around her. Maybe that was my mother’s last gift to her, to bring them all home together for her, one last time.

How stunning is a lifelong friendship? Mary lived across the road for all of the fifty-plus years that my mother lived in our old Victorian farmhouse on the hill overlooking the lake you can’t see anymore because the trees have grown tall and broad. She and my mother were pregnant together, they reared toddlers at the same time, they readied children for school, standing across the street with their youngsters, pushing them on to the bus with metal lunch boxes and kisses. They took turns keeping an eye on eight children running amok in the fields beyond our two homesteads, or jumping on rooftops or playing spy-ring in a dank basement. Each with her distinctive call beckoning her own children home, together a duet of discipline and encouragement that crossed the road back and forth – unlike the rest of us – without having to look both ways.

Two women raised their children together, sent them off to college at the same time, buried their husbands but kept on living; worked, retired, became grandmothers, wizened women and family matriarchs. That they died within months of each other makes perfect sense, and yet the reality of it is still a shock.

The recent process of clearing out memories of my mother produces questions, and I was hoping, on my next trip home, to cross the road, walk up the long lawn to knock on Mary’s door and sit at her table with the sun streaming in and ask her those questions that now must be answered in my imagination. Instead I’ll walk up to the tree where her ashes are resting to place a stone there to thank her for her tenderness toward our whole family, to thank her for the caring eye she kept on my mother during the last year of her life, and mostly to thank her for being just as much a mom to me.


Jul 16 2010

Running Rituals

The alarm goes off, but we have already been awakened by someone on the street buzzing our door to come up for the encierro. Our balcony overlooks Calle Estafeta, where we can see the bulls on the street below as they run by, so we extend invitations to various friends (and occasional strangers) to come up to watch the ritual running of the bulls. Our instructions are precise: come at the last possible moment, minutes before 7:00 when the street is blocked off for cleaning before the run begins at 8:00. The drop key, permanently tied to a long white string, is lowered through the stairwell to allow our guests to pass the locked door at the bottom of the five flights of stairs to our apartment. We usher them out to our balcony so they can watch the street as it’s prepared for the run, and we go back to bed. That extra twenty minutes of sleep can mean everything.

But before 8:00, we, too, must be up, dressed and ready to run. Not with the bulls, but between our living room, where we can see the bull-run on the television, and the balcony, where we charge out as the bulls turn the corner to run up our street. Their broad brown backs rush forward, the bells on the steers that accompany them make the soundtrack to their morning run. On a good day, the bulls are still packed together with the steers as they run toward the corrida, and a few skilled (or lucky) runners sprint ahead of them, just off to the side of their horns.

After the instant replay of the encierro and ensuing TV commentary, we rush our guests out the door and head to the Bar Txoko where many of the runners we know go to swap stories and drink ritual morning drink: Kaiku y Cognac, a sweet vanilla milk mixed with a double-shot of cognac. It so happens that the street cleaners choose that moment to clean the very patch of the Plaza de Castillo where we stand, so we are forever maneuvering our conversations around to accommodate the sweepers and hose-masters who are kindly cleaning up after the previous night’s party, only part of the party that goes on for nine days. These guys are the true heroes of the fiesta, constantly cleaning the streets of the gray goop that is a mixture of beer and wine and urine and puke that accumulates during the week.

A quick drive-by to greet the brothers Carmelo and Fermín at the newsstand where we buy a paper with the photographs of the previous day’s bullrun and bullfight, and then on to our breakfast club, a long table set up in the street where friends meet to eat greasy eggs or pochas or bull stew. Such nourishment can be acquired anywhere, but we always take it here to be in the company of a few very distinctive jota singers who serenade us with traditional Navarran ballads with poignant lyrics (like wishing to be an ivy vine in order to crawl up to your window just to watch you sleep).

The midday rituals have some variation, but might include a long meander through the city streets in search of the Gigantes, a troupe of eight giant figures that represent the kings and queens of the different continents of the world. This year I saw them no less than a half-dozen times, their towering figures turning side-to-side in an enchanting dance in step to the music of the high pitched txistulari pipers. The Gigantes are at least three times the size of the men who carry and spin them for hours every morning; occasionally you see the figures stop and appear to stand still in the street as the men slip out from under the robes and duck into a nearby bar for a rest and a drink. In the meantime, parents carry their toddlers up close to examine the clumps of pacifiers that dangle from the wrists of the giants. When Pamplonese children are ready to stop using their binkies, they give them up to the Gigantes. This is a ritual I find priceless; I can imagine the conversations between the child and parents as the fiesta approaches, the building up to the ceremonial hand-off of the prized pacifier, tying it to the enormous hand of their chosen Gigante. I had a fine childhood, but if I could do it over, I’d do it in Pamplona.

This is the moment that seems to have become a ritual for me, when I wonder why Short-pants and Buddy-roo and De-facto are not there with me, swallowed by the sea of white and red and music and magic. I have kept the fiesta San Fermín as my annual escape, but each year I wonder, how can I not share this with them? For how long should it remain my getaway with my girlfriends and my “Pamplona friends?”

The fiesta is embedded with rituals, those offered up by the proud Basque culture, the noble Taurino traditions, not to mention those that my friends and I have invented for ourselves in the years we’ve been attending. Like our Hemingwayesque ritual of taking two days in the green Navarran countryside just prior to the start of the fiesta, when my girlfriends and I stay at our favorite B&B. Here we slide into the Basque culture, nibbling our favorite asparagus and drinking homemade Patxaran. We retire early and sleep in, padding the sleep bank before the fiesta quickly depletes it. In the morning, we take over a table to create masterpieces of jewelry we bead together with small plastic bulls that have been borrowed from Tequila bottles from a Mexican Kmart. Our own spontaneous designs that every year we make, wear and give away: the running of the bull-earrings.

Each day in Pamplona, a brief afternoon nap rejuvenates us to make the run for sandwiches and cookies (and a chilled bottle of Rosado) to carry into the corrida for the post third bull snack. The bullfight itself is a remarkable ritual, a 3-act drama of skill, bravery and intimacy. Though I am far from an aficionada, there was one moment this year that moved me to tears: the matador raised his hand to stop his cuadrilla as they came to his aide. He knew he had done his work well, the bull was ready to die, and so he stood back with his hand raised, and waited for the bull to fall. It happened swiftly; a good death, with grace and honor, the kind we all hope for. It made me think of my mother, of course, how nobly she fought during the last year of her life, and the dignity of how she finally let go.

Each year I painfully extract myself from my friends and the festivities and leave to be with Short-pants to celebrate her birthday, which falls the day before the end of the fiesta. I could have gotten a pass this year, I suppose, having done my duty with the big party last month, except that I want to be with her on her birthday. As hard as it is to leave the fiesta early, the return is always a relief. This year was no exception: I was as glad as ever to see De-facto and the girls waiting for me at the train station, waving wildly when they spotted me.

“I missed you so much,” cried Short-pants, throwing her long arms around me. “Where did you get those white shoes?” said Buddy-roo, who notices everything, especially if it has to do with new items of clothing or jewelry.

Over the last few days, the final post-fiesta rituals have been enacted without fail: the detoxification, the redepositing of sleep in the bank; the gradual removal of those haggard circles under my eyes; the return to an exercise regime to address the abnormal number of carbohydrates consumed at the fiesta; the washing of the whites, which requires the special formula of
bleach and Coca-Cola (this tip given to us by a Spanish grandmother we met in the supermarket) to get that gray goop off the bottom of all my white jeans; the telling of stories (only mildly toned down) and the fierce expression of gratitude toward De-facto, who always lets me run just as far as I need.


Jul 3 2010

Fiesta

My suitcase is stuffed with everything white. White pants and skirts. White T-shirts and tank tops. White jean jackets (I have two) and several pair of white sneakers. Where I’m going, it’s all about wearing white and just a splash of red. A red pañuelo around the neck and a red sash at the belt. This is the uniform of San Fermín.

The fiesta San Fermín in Pamplona has become my ritualized get-away with the girls. Not my two little girls, Short-pants and Buddy-roo, but two older girls, my wanderlusting girlfriends, otherwise known, during the coming week especially, as Fiesta Nazi and Mother Theresa. (I’m called Whim of Iron.) Every year we meet up in Pamplona for one of the wildest parties in the world, the fiesta that Hemingway made famous in The Sun Also Rises.

I think the post I wrote last year on the eve of my departure, The Mom Also Rises, pretty much sums up perfectly why I go to Pamplona every year. If you’re ever going to dig into my archives, this is a good one to read.

I love the fiesta. I love the encierro, though I’ll never be among those who run with the bulls; I watch from a balcony above the route. I love the party that goes on day and night and the cast of characters I meet up with every year. I love the perpetual music in the streets, and the parade of peñas making their way toward the bullring every afternoon at 6:00. I love the corrida, for the drama of the bullfight as much as the sandwich after the third bull. And what’s not to love about the rear view of the matador and his cuadrilla?

What I love most about the fiesta is the feeling of being lost in the present moment. It is the perfect place to be here now, to move through the crowds in the street without any particular direction, to be drawn into a bar because the musicians who’ve taken it over call you in, and after a few laughs, some dancing and a cold caña, moving on to the next impromptu party around the next corner, at another bar, the back room of an eating club, in the park, at a long table set-up in the street, with strangers waiting outside the bullring – anywhere you turn there is a spirited party in progress. Pamplona, for me, means no duties and no to-do list, only the spontaneous delight of following my whim of iron, wherever it takes me.

(Photo Credit: The matador shot is by Jim Hollander, 2009. It’s worth noting that Jimmy’s published a beautiful book of his fiesta photographs, but for a long time has contemplated producing one called “Bull Butts” with more pictures like this. Don’t you think he should?)