May 29 2011

A Special Equation

“Mama,” she whispered, “in that sugar-morning voice, “Can I watch Gulli before school?”

I’m not super keen on the cartoon channel and I dislike the noise of the television so early in the morning, but she’d asked me so nicely. The night before she’d done all her homework without complaint, and I had a lot to do to get ready to get out the door at the same time as the girls, so I acquiesced. “If you get dressed and get your cartable together, then yes.”

De-facto walked into the living room and saw her forking her scrambled eggs without removing her eyes from the screen. “What’s this?”

It’s usually De-facto who’s slightly more liberal about TV permissions, though he has taken to making Buddy-roo earn minutes in front of her coveted kids channel based on the number of words for her dictée that she can spell correctly.

“It’s a special equation,” said Buddy-roo, “Mama said I could.”

Thirty minutes later we were walking down the stairs en famille, Buddy-roo giggling with glee because both her mom and dad were walking her and her sister to school, something that usually happens only on the first day of the school year.

“It really is a special equation!” Buddy-roo repeated.

“Occasion,” Short-pants corrected her, “and it is a special occasion. It’s mama’s birthday!” She parroted something she’s heard me say more than once in the last few weeks: “it’s her very first 49th birthday.” I suppose that qualifies as a special equation.

The girls started singing happy birthday, again. We’d celebrated as a family the night before and I’d done my best “how lovely!” shtick after opening Buddy-roo’s gift, a wooden box she’d painted – part of an arts & crafts kit she’d gotten for her birthday – wrapped in an Air France baby blanket left over from one of their first trans-Atlantic voyages and now used for swaddling their dolls. I remember that, as a child, the not-quite-panicked-but-urgent press to give a gift but having no means or money to obtain one. I’d scan my bedroom for something I liked enough but wouldn’t mind not having anymore and present it with hopes that it would please. I think the best “Oh, this is lovely” performance was by my sister, who once made an enormously satisfying fuss over a piece of cotton in a small white box.

Modeling such graciousness is key, how else will they learn to accept all gifts with tact, focusing on the gesture and not just the gizmo? Not that it’s always easy (that’s another post, someday) but one must at least try.

Getting to school on time was slightly more complicated since De-facto and I were pushing bikes with us. The plan, unveiled to me in its semi-entirety only that morning, was that after dropping the kids at school I would be whisked away on an overnight to celebrate. The first stop: Gare de Lyon, the train station for the southeast gate of Paris. There we bulldogged our bikes onto the train that took us out of the city, to Fountainbleau, where we rode for a bit through the forest before stopping to tour the chateau there, a venerable museum of secret doors and French royal history. Then a picnic in the gardens there before we set out for the final destination, which turned out to be a 2-hour bike ride away, to a many-starred luxury hotel, Chateau d’Augerville.

The trip wasn’t a total surprise. De-facto had been watching my Google calendar to be sure I didn’t have anything scheduled, although we have differing accounts of when he informed me of the excursion and how much preparatory information was relayed. He’d arranged a patchwork plan that was part-babysitter-part-neighbor to cover child-care, though I felt compelled to intervene just a little to make sure all bases were covered, getting little people to and from rehearsals and recitals that made being out of town on this particular day slightly more complicated. But there have been enough butchered birthdays in the past for me to appreciate the complex level of scheming and planning he’d gone to just to assure that I felt celebrated on my birthday. That in itself is the best gift.

Though there were moments that I wondered whether the birthday trip was more for him than for me. Like when the hill I was pedaling up grew steeper and steeper and just when you thought it would crest it kept going and I wondered why I was on the 3-speed city bike with two of our three packs and he was on the mountain bike (albeit aging) with 15 gears. We’d borrowed bicyles from neighbors and friends – I don’t own one anymore because I Velib’ around Paris and the bike I gave him for his birthday last year is still a coupon in his desk drawer, despite my occasional nagging to redeem it – and he somehow ended up on the lighter more suitable-for-countryside-hills model. This was probably the lowest moment of my birthday and I let loose a few snarling expletives under my breath so that when he circled back to check on me I was able to keep the promise I’d made to myself to be appreciative at all costs.

Once we switched bikes, I sped by him while his gangly knees pumped up and down on the front-basketed Elvira-Gulch bicycle and my mood improved instantly.

Like every bike trip, there were highs and lows. Pedaling carefree along forested lanes, there’s nothing like the weee! of being on a bike in motion or happening upon the haunting ruins of an old cathedral, open to the sky. But also those typical rough moments: the one kilometer you’re obliged to travel (with a head wind) on a route nationale with 18-wheelers rushing past and nearly topping you off the shoulder, or the I-think-we-took-a-wrong-turn and that means we have to ride back up that hill we just raced down in a full weee! state of mind. Or the plan to stop at a café in the next village except the next three villages don’t have a café and your water bottle is empty and you’re parched but saving that orange in your pack for a real emergency. But if you know this about bike trips, you ride it out – pun intended – and in the end, when you pull into an elegant chateau and sit on the terrace with a cold draught beer, looking forward to a nap, a shower and a gastronomic dinner, well, then it’s all worth it. It makes for a very very special equation, no matter how you’re counting your birthdays.

May 17 2011

The Naked Truth

“Why are you all laughing?” The guide looked around as the group of 9 and 10-year olds congregated before the naked statue. The children giggled again, like Munchkins. She persisted, in a high-pitched voice, with her mouth shaped like she’d just bitten into a lemon. “Mais pourquoi vous riez?”

She explained that Rodin, like many sculptors, had carved nudes in order to portray the power of the human body. “If this statue were clothed,” she said, “you wouldn’t have the same sense of its power, would you?” The childrens’ heads turned side-to-side in a definitive non; they were obliged to agree with her.

I do appreciate the guide’s attempt to confront the children’s nervous laughter as they stood in front of a nude statue, but her manner was a bit patronizing and served only to fuel it. Couldn’t she remember what it was like to be ten? When body parts were all a big mystery? Or was she born a docent, immediately sensitive to all sophisticated artistic notions and nuances?

When I saw the note in Short-pantscahier de correspondance soliciting parents to accompany the field trip, I wondered whether the Musée Rodin was one I’d choose for a group of students that age. Rodin is a favorite of mine; his work so sensual, approaching the erotic in a tasteful, artistic way. At an earlier time of my life, this museum was the kind of cultural excursion I’d suggest to someone whom I hoped to know as a lover. I think maybe the last time I was at the museum was just before I seduced De-facto.

But hey, I’d rather my children learn about love and lust from art than from some mysterious link on Facebook. Plus I was curious how it would be handled, so I signed up to accompany the class.

~ ~ ~

Last weekend, we were heading down the stairs, on our way to a Wizard of Oz rehearsal, when Buddy-roo gave me her most impish look, a knowing, coy smile out of the corner of her eyes as she gazes up at me, slightly embarrassed but with a sense of superiority woven in. I know this look. Something interesting usually follows it.

“Do you and Papa do the sex?”

I love the use of the definite article. I’m not sure if this is a translation from French, where some words have definitive articles that wouldn’t in English, or if it’s just a quirky thing she picked up from talking about it in the courtyard with her school mates, which is where she says she first heard about the sex. I think De-Facto and I should start using it, too:

HIM: Would you like to have the sex now?
ME: The sex? Sure!

It’s not the first time she’s asked this question, so she wasn’t asking because she didn’t know. She just wanted to talk about sex. Rather than risk dismissing her question by referring to our previous discussions – I want her to feel like she can bring up the sex with me anytime she wants – I answered her as though it were the first time she’d asked.

“Tell me, what does it mean to you, to do the sex?”

Her answer, through a sheepish grin, “it’s when you get naked and you kiss.”

“Oh, well yes, Papa and I have done that.”

“There are two kinds,” she said, switching on her authoritative voice. “There’s the sex, and then there’s the sex at the beach.”

A pastel-colored drink with a miniature umbrella came to mind, something with a sugar-induced headache the next day. But I asked for clarification.

“Well, it’s when you get naked and go swimming,” she said. And then, after waiting a moment, “Have you and Papa…?”

I nodded – not too vigorously – but affirmatively.

She covered her mouth with a curved palm and giggled.

~ ~ ~

When it comes to handling questions of a sensitive nature, I try to use plain language, keep answers simple and address only the question that’s been asked. “Did I really come out of your belly?” is answered with, “Yes.” There’s no need to explain how a baby got in or out of my belly – unless someone asks. Once Short-pants did ask, and I told her a woman’s body changes in amazing ways when it’s time for a baby to be born, everything stretches to make a big opening, and then goes back to normal (more or less) after the baby comes out. She was satisfied with this response.

I read this advice in a parenting book and so far it seems to work. It’s not foolproof, as evidenced by this video, a link for which, coincidentally, was sent to me by two different people on the same day, the very day I went to the Rodin museum with Short-pants’ class. This got me thinking. Am I copping out on the sex talk? Me, Ms. In-touch-with-her-sexuality? Ms. I-once-did-lots-of-research-for-a-TV-documentary-about-sex-in-Paris? Now that I’m a mom, have I developed a prurient streak?

At the museum, one of the other mothers who’d come along to chaperone leaned in and asked me, “Have you had the sex talk yet?” I immediately answered yes, thinking about a book I’d given Short-pants called The Care & Keeping of You, a lite version of Our Bodies, Our Selves written for little girls. It contains dozens of helpful explanations about all the changes that happen as you enter puberty, with a few anatomically-descript cartoonish-drawings in the section about menstruation. Then I had to correct myself; this book has nothing in it about the boy’s plumbing, and nothing about the deed itself. We do have a book that’s about the birds and the bees, First Comes Love, (Short-pants likes books, and apparently so do I) but it’s still stashed in my closet, waiting for its moment to be presented.

“I’m waiting for her to ask,” I said.

~ ~ ~

When I was seven years-old – younger than both Short-pants and Buddy-roo – I remember playing a little you-show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine with the neighbor boys. It was all very innocent and we tired of the game rather quickly, returning to the dirt track and quarry we’d carved out of the sandbox for our Tonka trucks. But I understood that being naked – even partially – had something to do with making babies. That night, lying in bed, I convinced myself that I was pregnant. The next morning, I told my mother.

“Oh honey, don’t worry,” she said, “you’re not pregnant.”

Did my mother wonder why I thought I was pregnant? Wasn’t she at least a little curious what prompted my question? I don’t fault her. She was from a different time and generation. But I was left to fester with my concern, because I hadn’t asked the right question.

I ended up going to my sister, who was in the bathtub shaving her legs, and when I told her I was probably pregnant, she explained to me why I wasn’t, very matter-of-factly. I was repulsed.

I think this is the reason why we avoid the sex question, no matter what generation you’re from. I don’t think we do it to protect their innocence, we do it to protect ours. Up until now, there’s this last pocket of privacy between the adults in the household, something those damn kids don’t have their runny noses poking into, something that’s ours alone. The minute the children understand how they came to exist, and how it involved this rather (until you’ve tried it) unseemly act, it’s all over. They’ll look at us differently. They’ll sneer at us and whisper about our body parts intersecting. The respect that they’ve granted us as parents will be degraded into the disgust one has for a dog that’s humping a fire hydrant. (Just for De-facto, of course.)

If Buddy-roo knows it’s about getting naked and kissing because it’s a subject of conversation in the school courtyard, and Short-pants has a book with drawings of a developing girl’s body, chances are they know a good part of the story, like I did. Do I wait for them to ask the question directly, leaving them in the dark, or the partial-dark? Or is it time to volunteer the whole naked truth?

May 9 2011

Wicked Mother’s Day

After sprinting down the stairs and turning the corner, Short-pants stubbed her toe on the step into the living room and exploded into screeching tears. I was careful not to run to her too swiftly – I hate to fuel the crisis with more panic – but still, a young girl’s throbbing toe deserves a little sympathy. I kissed her dirty toenail (only a mother would do this) and offered the standard, reassuring words before turning back to finish unpacking the suitcase from our weekend trip.

“No, there’s something else.” Tears were dripping down her cheeks like open faucets. “It’s Mother’s Day. I just saw it on my calendar. And we didn’t do anything for you!”

Of course this was not news to me. I’d deleted scores of Mother’s Day promotional emails that fell into my inbox because of the various mom-blog newsletters I read. But since we don’t consume a lot of media in our home, let alone American media, the over-marketed Mother’s Day messaging somehow didn’t reach anyone else in my family. I am perfectly capable of hinting at it, “You know what I’d like to do for Mother’s Day is…” and in the past I have. But sometimes it just feels akward to be pointing it out.

I’d pretty much put it aside. Who wants to be held emotional hostage by a Hallmark holiday? Though if anybody deserves an extra day of appreciation – even if it is the commercial idea of a greedy greeting card company – it surely is your mother, often the most taken-for-granted person in the family.

My brother did call to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, inquiring if I’d been celebrated sufficiently. “Look at it this way,” he said, “you didn’t have to pretend to enjoy that burnt-toast breakfast and wax enthusiastically about the handmade cards.” He had a point.

~ ~ ~

De-facto had reason to be in the UK last week, and another project scheduled there again early this week, so instead of him doing a back-and-forth, we decided I’d bring the Short-pants and Buddy-roo across the channel and we’d play London tourists for a weekend. We have some new colleagues-turned-friends who generously offered us accommodation, tackling the hardest part of being a tourist in London: the cost of hotels. With a little bit of juggling schedules, training in and out of the city and making use of the left-luggage service at the station, we choreographed a busy weekend: the London Eye, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, and a matinee show of Wicked, the story of the Wizard of Oz before and after Dorothy lands in Munchkinland. Both De-Facto and I had seen it on a kid-free London theatre weekend a few years ago, so we labored a bit over the decision. Both of us wanted to see something that we’d not been to before, but in the end I pressed for Wicked knowing the girls would love it. Besides, they’re both stars in the Wizard of Oz school play, so this was relevant backstory. (Shouldn’t “parenting travel” be tax-deductable?)

One of the cool parts about being a mom (or a parent, for that matter) is introducing your children to culture. It’s not the first time we’ve taken them to the theatre, they’ve seen stage performances of On the Town, Les Misérables and The Sound of Music in Paris at the Chatelet Theatre, which is pretty special. But nobody does theatre like the West End. And we had brilliant seats that were just-the-right-amount close to the stage. I spent as much time admiring my children’s open-jawed, concentrated-awe as I did watching the actors performing their story.
My favorite moment: at a climatic point in which Elphaba, who was good-hearted and thoughtful before becoming the Wicked Witch of the West, stood on stage with Glinda, who’d been vain and self-centered before growing into the more gentle-hearted Witch of the North, and they sang to each other about the important exchange their friendship had yielded. In one song, an ambiguous complexity of life expressed: how circumstances can turn someone good into someone wicked, and inspire someone wicked to do something good. Short-pants moved her hand on top of mine, and I turned to see a tear sliding slowly down her cheek.

“It’s sad,” she said, “but it’s also happy.”

Much like the sappy scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts’ character goes to the opera and gets it, not only did Short-pants love the staging and the magic of the performance, she also understood the poignancy of this moment in the play. To witness how this moved her, well, I suppose that’s right up there with the coolest Mother’s Day presents you can get.

~ ~ ~

She sobbed in my arms. I’m sorry maman, we should have done something for you today. I didn’t even make you a card.”

Here’s what you’re supposed to read next: “and in that moment, I realized this was the joy of motherhood, and the only acknowledgment I needed.” But I’d be lying if I reported to you that in an instant I relinquished any residual, though mild, disappointment I’d been harboring.

I’m a little more wicked than that. It took me a few more breaths, a couple of my own tears at being forgotten (except of course I know I’m not) and a short visit to the memory bank. I’d spent a fair amount of time, on this Mother’s Day, thinking about (and missing) my own mother, whom I took entirely for granted as a child, and whom I treated with the typical disdain of a teenager. I grew to admire her, and then (especially) to appreciate her after becoming a mother myself, when I began to understand what kind of a sacrifice is required to be a mom, and how she’d done it so elegantly. I never knew if it had been hard for her or not.

Then, okay, I could get there, to see the message in this beautiful expression, this whole-bodied apology – how my little girl’s heart was breaking because she was afraid she’d broken mine. So when I said that “this hug is the best gift you could give me for Mother’s Day,” I really meant it.

We embraced for a long time. Buddy-roo even came over and put her arms around the two of us and joined the love-in.

“But wait,” Short-pants said, lifting her head, “we still have French Mother’s Day to celebrate.” Her eyes lit up with an idea. “I’ll make you breakfast in bed!”

May 2 2011

Comparing Saturdays

She had a rehearsal, for the school play, an abridged version (thankfully) of the Wizard of Oz. Short-pants is Glinda the Good Witch of the North in one scene, and she plays the Scarecrow in another. It’s a brilliant touch, I think, to cast several children in each of the roles: it cuts down on the pressure to memorize an entire script and gives many kids a chance to star. Buddy-roo is, of course, one of the Dorothys, and has perfected the turn of the ankle that shows off the ruby-red-slippers. But that scene wasn’t being rehearsed this weekend, so I had only Short-pants to fetch.

The rehearsal, it turns out, was held at an apartment just two blocks from where I lived when I first moved to Paris. Walking along the streets of the neighborhood, a gale of memories blew in, not quite as fierce as Dorothy’s voyage through the cyclone, but just as vivid. All those familiar faces and feelings that come when you return to a place that was once yours. I had sub-let a fantastic 100-square-meter Haussman-era apartment, decorated in an arty, eclectic style that suited me perfectly. I remember moving in and feeling at home in an instant.

The residue of those early days in Paris stays with me. I used to pinch myself to make sure I was really here. I’m sure I was a lot lonelier than I ever have would have admitted to myself; the thrill of living in Paris can keep you from realizing how unhappy you might be during those first months of adjustment. In retrospect, I had my share of uneasy-and-really-alone moments. But, oh, what I wouldn’t give to be that lonely again.

Saturdays were different then. Morning started at noon, and if I happened to be awake before twelve, it was only to make coffee and slip back into bed. I read all the time. The pile of “books on deck” much more reasonable than it is now, as it spiders off my bed-table and onto the floor in multiple piles that I never seem to read through. When I’d finally venture out of the apartment, it was often with no particular destination in mind. I explored the main boulevards in each direction, wandering off side streets and into alien neighborhoods. I walked the city. I’d stop at a café simply because it looked inviting. I ate lunch or I didn’t. I’d explore until I got tired and then I’d find a metro station and make my way back home, sometimes staying out until it was late and dark, but having followed every single whim of mine, all day long.

Sometimes there’d be lunch dates, lovely long appointments without boundary. We’d linger as long as we wanted after the café had been served, then go window shopping or stop at a gallery or just walk and talk and then go somewhere else for another café or a carafe of wine. There wasn’t anything else to do. At that time, my job involved work that could be completed during the week. My workday ended when I was done with work, not when the kids were done with school; those last precious hours of productivity before a typically late dinner meant I rarely had to work on the weekend. Saturday was just a day for me. To go out, or stay home, to do nothing in particular, to do whatever I wanted. On my own clock.

These days, I’m usually trailing the kids to some activity, eyeballing those single, childless people at café tables in the midst of their extended lunches and leisurely afternoons with no small amount of envy. I can still make lunch plans with friends – and I do – but it’s different. There’s a window of time. After a few hours, as delicious as it’s been to sit out at the terrace and eat and drink and people-watch, there’s always something nagging at me. There’s a clock ticking. I need to be home by 3:15 because De-facto has something he has to do, or I promised Buddy-roo I’d do a project with her or it’s just not fair to leave one parent in charge all day long without at least touching base. I can’t remember a Saturday where there wasn’t an gnawing itch of something I ought to be handling: getting a child to a rehearsal, a play-date, a birthday party, addressing paperwork that I couldn’t get to during the week, monitoring homework, drafting that thing I’m supposed to write, cleaning out that shelf, going through that pile. There’s always something or somebody that needs taking care of.

But this Saturday actually had a tinge of something from those earlier, freer weekends. I picked up Short-pants at her rehearsal and we set out. She was on her scooter, speeding ahead, but stopping at each street crossing and waiting for me to catch up. We walked home via Lil’ Weasel, a tiny knitting store in one of Paris’ charming off-the-tourist-path passages to pick up some double point needles she’d been asking for. We meandered for a while, stopping to look in store windows. We sat at a café and shared a panini for lunch, making up stories about the people who walked by. We went by my new favorite store on rue Rambuteau, La Pistacherie, its shelves stocked with apothecary-shaped jars of nuts of every kind, each one salted or spiced or enrobé with cheese or wasabi or some eccentric ingredient. We test-tasted as many nuts and berries as the store-keeper would let us, our eyes widening at each treat he offered. We walked to Ile St Louis and sat on the curb watching a buskerer let loose enormous soap bubbles in the wind.

We ended up meeting De-facto and Buddy-roo at the school courtyard, open exceptionally this last Saturday to host a vide grenier for people who took seriously enough their spring cleaning to have brought belongings to be sold at the school-sponsored flea market. A friend visiting Paris (the spring visitor season has officially commenced) joined us and we wandered home, almost aimlessly, stopping at an ice-cream kiosk for a treat. The sky was mostly sunny blue but for that one very dark cloud hovering just above us; we had to take shelter in the doorway of a church during the 6-minute rainstorm-in-the-sun. And then, slowly, we made our way home.

It was almost like the good ol’ days. Almost. Okay not really, but at least Saturday afternoons are no longer hampered with diapers and naps and hungry melt-downs. I should know better than to compare my life now with life before; better to be present with the current reality and look forward to what’s ahead. Maybe I’ll get those lazy all-about-me Saturdays back, probably just about the time I won’t want them anymore.