Aug 24 2010

Let Them Eat Cake in a Bag

Summer is when routines get interrupted. The daily grind of getting little girls to school is suspended. The constant rigor of a weekly schedule is relaxed. Bedtime is fudged, partly because in France the sun sets so impossibly late during the months before and after the summer solstice that the kids won’t believe that it’s time to go to sleep. Mornings, for the most part, are easy going: we wake up when we wake up. De-facto and I have very little work. Only our uncivilized American clients schedule projects in July or August and we do our best to minimize our participation in such gainful activity when it’s summertime.

Yet within our routine-less summer we quickly develop routines. I go to Pamplona every July. Then I join De-facto and the girls at the country house for the rest of the month. We return home to catch up with our on-line lives, take advantage of the Plage and the quiet of Paris in August. The real truth: we come home so we don’t miss out (too much) on what has become a big routine in our building: the infamous courtyard lunches.

Most of the owners and tenants go away for most of the summer, and those who stay are congenial or at least cooperative and don’t mind that nearly every other weekend, it seems, Ricky and Lucy host a courtyard lunch. Their apartment opens directly on to the courtyard, and their adjustable table is easily moved outside and strategically positioned near the stone wall of a raised flower bed, making for extra seats to compensate for their lack of chairs. Ricky is the most expressive cook among us and happily carries the burden of providing eats. He can do things with tomatoes and olive oil that would drive any foodie to brink of ecstasy.

There’s nothing as pleasant as those very first moments, when people arrive: Ricky sweats over hot burners in his kitchen, stepping out to the courtyard and greeting guests with a dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. A glass of something, usually bubbly, is thrust into your hand and then one by one, plates appear on the table with delicate combinations of Mediterranean ingredients. There’s always a little surprise: mint replaces the basil on a tomato bruschetta, a spoon of virgin olive oil teases the essence out of the canteloupe. These intriguing flavor blends generate no shortage of oohs and ahhhs around the courtyard table.

The champagne – though this past weekend the aperitif was a watermelon cocktail with a vodka kick, and then we had champagne – is eventually replaced by wine, often rosé in color, and this flows steadily. Just when we think Ricky has fed us already too well, he’ll produce a risotto or something with seasoning and ballast that nobody has room for but nobody dares to miss. It’ll be too good.

Neighbors who pass through the courtyard on their way in are spontaneously invited to join us. Those on their way out are inspired to return, and often do after stopping at a local wine seller to contribute to the table. In this fashion, the lunch that starts at 1:30 or 2:00 often bleeds into the evening; sometime around 8:30 or 9:00 Ricky disappears again into his magic kitchenette and produces some kind of pasta concoction, a bit of sustenance – or absorption if you like – to carry on.

It’s rare that a courtyard lunch finishes before midnight.

While all this is going on, our children are not totally forgotten. When she’s not dancing around the courtyard, Short-pants plays waitress and has been known to carry around a sign that says “Please give me some work to do.” Buddy-roo hides out in the bedroom loft, watching consecutive Barbie movies that she’s only allowed to watch one-at-a-time, once-a-day under normal circumstances. Sometimes that big doll makes an appearance and everybody groans but she keeps the girls occupied and this is only one of many reasons that I have not yet found a way to make her disappear from our lives.

There is a moment, however, that marks the true spirit of the courtyard lunch. It’s around 5:00 in the afternoon when the oven begins to emit the most remarkable aroma, a sweeter-than-anything-your-grandmother-ever-baked perfume that makes everyone stop their bantering and storytelling. Hush Sweet Jesus the toaster oven is on bake. We all turn to Lucy. She nods her head affirmatively – smugly in fact – and the courtyard erupts into cheers, “Cake in a Bag!”

Of course Ricky’s culinary prowess is admired and appreciated – even lauded. His effort is the cornerstone of courtyard lunches. But Cake in a Bag, it’s too divine to describe. Lucy makes it all seem so…effortless. After all, it is: open the bag, pour in the pan (okay, and add her secret ingredients) and bake.

Ricky sighs, shakes his head, throws the dirty linen tea towel over his shoulder and shuffles into the kitchen to brood. But his theatrics last only for a moment before he returns to the fold of his friends and he is once again in the routine of the charming host, offering us more wine or a strong shot of espresso. He always comes back, and sometimes he’ll even eat a piece of cake.

If there’s any left.

Aug 14 2010

Her Closet

Once I got over the childhood fear of what might lurk in the back of my mother’s closet, it became my preferred place of refuge. When it was bath time (on her schedule but not mine) I’d go there and hide for a moment to prepare myself for the inevitable. When the Edge of Night’s twisted plot was too intense to bear, I’d crawl behind her clothes and pull myself together. If I needed to hide or think or calm myself, or suck my thumb without anyone catching me, her closet offered me comfort and privacy.

I’d leave the door ajar; a band of light across the linoleum floor shed enough light for me to see and meant I was not submerged in total darkness. I’d split the row of hanging dresses apart like thick foliage in a jungle and crawl to the back of her closet. Some of the garments were stored in dry cleaning bags, I was careful to steer clear – the fear of suffocation had been impressed upon me when it came to plastic bags – though I liked the feel of the plastic on my shoulders and sensed that the garments within those casings were her most prized, saved for the elegant occasions when other boxes from the top shelf were brought down and set out on the table, boxes with long gloves, beaded bags and silk shoes.

In the back of that closet I could be alone, but still with my mother. I could slide through that curtain of her clothing and squat in the corner and wait. I was waiting for courage, waiting for affection or just waiting until boredom took over – but while I was there waiting, the scent of my mother surrounded me. I was at home among her lightly perfumed clothes and the mildly stale but not unpleasant smell of her shoes. All the things in this closet were hers: the things I saw her wearing and carrying were stored in this private place, it was her domain but it was mine too, for different reasons. It was where I could return to a silent and simple union with her. I could be embraced by her here, by all her things, even if she was somewhere else.

Last winter I was at home to help my mother for about a week before my siblings joined me to say our goodbyes to her. Each day, the rapid decline of her physical capacity required more from me. I could barely find a moment to dress and brush my teeth between the tasks required to assist her; a nearly constant observation became necessary at the end. One day I felt close to some edge – the edge of exhaustion from caretaking a dying woman; the edge of grief, preparing to lose someone I loved too much; the edge of longing, being too far and too long away from De-facto and the girls. So when my mother drifted into an afternoon nap, I found myself drawn to her closet. I ran my hands across the shoulders of her hanging dresses and blouses. I burrowed through and behind her clothes to the corner of the closet, just like I used to, and with my back against the wall, slid down to sit on the floor, letting the plastic dry cleaning bags brush against me (no longer afraid of suffocation) and permitted myself a short regression to everything that this closet meant to me, to a time when everyone around me was older and larger and their major preoccupation – at least in my view – was to take care of me.

I sat there in the back of that closet for only a few moments, my long limbs fit in that corner less comfortably than they did 40-some years ago. But it was long enough to remember what it was like to feel safe and protected, long enough to let tears spill and let go the mounting pressure, long enough to long for the security that something as simple as a mother’s closet could provide.

* * *

My sister and I just spent a week together at my mother’s house to continue the process of emptying it of her personal effects. We have purposely not rushed this process, knowing that grief takes its time and we should too. Yet we know better than to lose momentum, so each month my brother, sister or I (or some combination) travel to the house and endeavor to empty a few more boxes, to give away and throw away a few more things, to prepare the house to be shown to prospective buyers and ultimately to be sold.

The focus of last week’s trip was rather specific: the closets. I had partly to clear out the paraphernalia of my own past. I’d left in her care shoe-boxes filled with letters to friends from summer camp, high school and college folders, and several stuffed animals about to lose their stuffing. But the real task was to address my mother’s wardrobe. For six months we had left her things hanging, but now was the time. My sister and I stood side-by-side in my mother’s closet, touching each and every article of clothing, recalling the occasion when she wore this suit or that sweater-set, remembering how she’d had this skirt made from silk she bought on that trip with the two of us. Once in a while we were even a little surprised at what we found (wow, she owned a leather jacket?) but mostly we were reminded of her good taste and how careful she was to take care of her beautiful garments.

“What are your tears like these days?” said the woman who we’d been told to call to come and take away my mother’s clothing. How naturally she broached the subject, knowing that tears can vary in nature and degree over time. She did not insult us by tiptoeing around our grief. This made it easy to trust her. She gently directed us to attend to other tasks in other rooms while she set about quietly emptying the contents of all my mother’s closets. We did not have to watch her pulling out the hangers and folding our mother’s clothes into black plastic bags. We did not have to help her remove these items that we treasured too much, that held in their fabric too many precious memories. Her discretion was a delicate gift. She was like an angel sweeping in to do the hardest job, and somehow finding a way to take tender care of us while doing it.

After she left, I stood at the door of the closet, emptied of its contents. The shelves were bare. Only a few stray hangers remained. The row of hanging garments that once buffered me from the rest of the world had been dismantled. I stepped in and closed the door behind me, leaving it ajar to let in the familiar strip of light. I swear I could still smell my mother in that closet: the faint hint of Shalimar, the familiar scent of her worn shoes. Was that for real, or just in my memory? Does it matter? As we give away the things that were hers, we commit them to our memory. And our memory of her is something that we’ll always get to keep.

Aug 9 2010

Not a Shy Tribe

I stepped on to the escalator and let it lift me diagonally toward the second floor. At the top, a group of women stood in a circle, laughing. Behind them, more women waited in line at the registration desk. I became aware of something gnawing uncomfortably in my stomach: that would be butterflies. I was nervous.

Kind of ridiculous, I told myself. I’m no stranger to conferences and conventions. I learned early in my career how to work a room. I’ve organized, presented and facilitated meetings of all sizes and shapes. And this time I had no responsibilities whatsoever, only myself to consider: What sessions do I want to attend and which parties to drop in on? What was the big deal?

It’d had all come together at the last minute. I’d put the BlogHer ’10 conference in my calendar knowing it was nearly impossible to attend. A mid-summer air-fare. A non-essential trip away from De-facto and the girls. Another excursion just on the heels of my annual escape to the fiesta. But a client’s shifting of dates worked in my favor, landing me too close to the conference – in proximity as well as timing – not to feel absolutely entitled to take a few days and join in.

I knew nobody. Except that’s not true – I knew a lot of bloggers. I’d read their stories, empathized with their rants, gasped at their brave disclosures. If you read someone’s blog – even sporadically – you can know them in ways that are more intimate than you know people who live down the hall from you for years. Still, I was nervous. What would it be like to meet, in the flesh, the bloggers I’d admired and appreciated? What if I never managed to meet any of them? Or what if nobody wanted to meet me? What if it turned out to be a haughty bunch of competitive women, an inner circle of high-trafficked web-mistresses, a network woven too tight to penetrate, a clique around which I’d feel inept and inadequate?

It made me think of something that happened two weeks ago, when Buddy-roo was begging to go to the Centre de Loisir. She was tired of having only her older sister to boss around and interested in the arts-n-crafts-n- things that go with organized summer child-care. On our way to the centre, she skipped with glee. She couldn’t wait to get there.

Until we reached the door. While waiting to register, she moved out of my view and hid behind me. She gripped my hand tight, pinching my fingers. When it was our turn to fill out the paperwork, she began to cry. Her imagined joy about being there had crumbled to the dingy reality in front of her: she didn’t recognize anyone. I knelt down and said all the things you’re supposed to say – you can imagine the pep talk – but inside I was giving myself the big eye roll. Com’n Buddy-roo, don’t be a wuss. How could that bold girl who’d skipped fiercely down the street shrink so swiftly into a timid mama’s girls crying to go home?

Now I knew. Because it did occur to me, standing at the top of the landing that I could make an immediate U-turn to the down escalator and out the door and away from this crowd of smiling women who all appeared to know each other already and to know everything there is to know about blogging.

This is what the girls go through, I thought, every time there’s a new or a first something. First day of school. A new music class. Starting a dance class. Registering at the Centre de Loisir. Whether you’re four years old or in your forties, entering the unfamiliar can be daunting. I’d forgotten how easy it is to feel shy.

But by lunchtime I’d run into Magpie. I’d said hello to another Maggie, Dammit, and shook hands with two of my heroines Mom 101 and Mominatrix. It took me a while, but I managed to track down Amanda and I bought two books for Sweet/Salty to autograph at her book-signing.

But it was just before that very book signing moment that I bumped into two British women bloggers. Nothing against the ‘mericans – I’m one of them and always will be – but there was something reassuringly familiar about these accented voices from the other side of the pond, feeling slightly other, just as I was. That they were interested in finding a bar didn’t hurt. We bonded over Berry BlogHers, a special drink concocted for the conference and I knew I’d found my tribe. So special thanks to Sian and Jay and Jen. And also Minnie and Liz who rounded out our international circle with west coast flair and made it all that much more fun.

I could add several dozen more links: four truly inspiring activists who risk their lives to blog, a number of women (and men) who spoke intelligently and articulately on panels, composers of the cleverest of tweets or people who just cracked me up making conversation in the ladies room. By the end of the conference, I was fearlessly riding up and down those escalators, going where I wanted to go, meeting exactly who – it turns out – I needed to meet. Not feeling shy anymore, and feeling very much part of the tribe.