The rain is falling steadily now. This morning’s eerie silence, the calm before the storm that has now, after so much talk, finally reached land. We are still a whole day away from the stormiest part of Irene, which will pass over us or possibly just to the west, depending on which track it takes or which weather service you believe. However it turns, we’ll get a lot of wet wind, so we’re hunkerin’ down, bracing ourselves for the storm.
It felt counter-intuitive, yesterday, to be driving toward the storm’s intended path instead of away from it, but we’d sent Short-pants and Buddy-roo to Boston with De-facto‘s brother’s family while we went elsewhere to work for a week, and as news of the storm grew fiercer, so did my desire to be reunited with my children. I don’t think there’s going to be any catastrophe where we are, but still, the tight grips of last night’s i-missed-you-so-much hugs felt especially reassuring. I wouldn’t want this storm to hit while we were separated.
Earlier this week, in the midst of a workshop, the participants in our group stood up and walked out the door and went outside, right in the middle of an exercise. I hadn’t felt a thing, but the swaying chandeliers were enough proof until the news reports confirmed an unusual east coast earthquake. Its impact was slight, but disconcerting. It feels like the planet is rumbling at us.
Living in Paris, we don’t experience these kinds of natural disasters. The occasional mid-summer canicule stirs up a lot of press; I remember the summer I was pregnant for Buddy-roo and nearly 15,000 people died from the heatwave. But most of the disasters in France are inconveniences of human origin, like transport strikes, terrorist attacks and disgruntled instances of customer service.
With the exception of one year when I lived in quake-prone San Francisco, I have always managed to make my home in places where tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes are rare, something that happens elsewhere. Although I could note that the last (and only) time I witnessed a hurricane was when I was living in Boston, and Gloria drove up the east coast and battened us down. I spent most of that storm at the radio station where I worked at the time, listening to Van Morrison or The Doors, again and again.
“There’s a hurricane coming and I’m scared!” Buddy-roo’s first words as we got out of the car, stretching our stiff, cramped legs from the long drive.
“You can be scared if you want,” I told her, “but better to be smart.”
We started a list of all the things we needed to have on hand: flashlights, batteries, candles, food supplies and extra water for drinking and flushing. She tired of the task, so after she left we added the real necessities: wine, beer and playing cards.
This morning after shopping runs to the store, the lawn was mowed and cleared of all chairs and outdoor toys, the porch furniture was put away, the house secured. We are not close to water and mostly uphill within this suburban neighborhood so any serious flooding is unlikely. The hardest part of enduring this storm, for us, might be a few falling tree limbs and internet-interrupting power outages. I worry about the people who aren’t as sheltered as we are, and hope that they will weather the storm.
All we can do is cozy in for the evening. Good friends who live near will brave the rain to come over for what has been transformed into an indoor barbecue. A gaggle of kids that would otherwise run wild in the yard until dark may be forced to congregate around a DVD-inspired television in the family room while the adults tell stories and laugh in the kitchen. The rain outside will pound steadily through the night and we’ll sleep fitfully, dreaming about the eye of the storm until we wake up to tomorrow’s windy alarm.
There’s a storm-a-brewin’, all right. Let’s see what it brings.
“Don’t worry, it’s locked from the inside.” I heard Buddy-roo from behind the closed door. “No-one can come in. Our secret will be safe.”
The authority in her voice quieted her sister and her cousin, both girls older than her, but in this case, entirely compliant. I stepped to the side so I wouldn’t be visible through the crack beneath the door.
Were they doing something forbidden? Should I hover and try to hear what they’re up to? Should I knock and make my presence known and see if their response is a welcoming invitation or the sounds of scurrying about to hide something? If their secret involved some kind of contraband, it would likely be something evil only to their teeth, like sugar packets or stolen cookies. I couldn’t imagine a dangerous secret being harbored behind that closed door, so I let the girls have their little private moment. I continued up the stairs of this enormous, several-storied and multi-decked rental house that’s ours for the week, and said nothing about it, not to De-facto nor to anyone in his family who’s here with us. (Later I was told, unsolicited, how they’d been initiating their cousin into the secret fairy circle, affirming my hunch.)
In a few years, when they are outright teenagers, I could make the very same call and pass by that closed door only to miss the fact that they are piercing their own bellybuttons or cutting lines of cocaine on a mirror. I wasn’t much older than them when I went through a phase of smoking cigarette butts under the bathroom fan. Who knows what mischief is ahead for them – and what headaches for me – and whether I’ll choose to knock on the door and intervene, or walk on by.
~ ~ ~
The jet lag means I wake earlier than the rest of the household, so while De-facto’s family sleeps, I rise and turn on the coffee pot that my mother-in-love set up as good-to-go the night before. I write in my journal, catch up on some blog reading, attend to email, all before 7 am. Short-pants was up early this morning, too, so we walked down to the beach and took a stroll along the shoreline, pressing our bare feet into the wet sand just at the point where the sea water stretches its webbed fingers before it ebbing back into the ocean. We held hands and said nothing, partially because it’s hard to hear each other over the sound of the surf, partially because we had nothing to say.
Not far from the steep wooden stairs that lead to and from the beach, we found several empty canvas chairs left out in front of one of the beachfront homes. Since we were not yet ready to return to our house and the people who by now would be up and about making more coffee and eating cereal, we sat in them and watched the surf. Short-pants carved shapes in the sand with her nimble toes.
“What are you thinking about in your mind?” This is something my father used to say to me, just to make conversation.
“Nothing,” she said.
This is not her typical response. She usually volunteers some tidbit of information: a joke she made up, a poem she’s writing, a counting game she’s playing in her head.
I didn’t press her. The question is slightly impertinent and I never really expect an answer. Only now that I hadn’t been given one, I wondered if this is possibly the beginning of the unraveling that will occur between us, part of the necessary uncoupling of mother and child. The tell-all intimacy I’ve enjoyed up until now will take a hiatus for those teenage years, still far away but snarling at me from the future, like a secret behind a closed door.
~ ~ ~
Don’t we all have the right to some private thoughts? Our secrets, benign or malevolent, are the things that keep us company in our isolated moments. The private thoughts we keep to ourselves contribute to the richness of our inner lives. I cannot know everything my daughters are thinking and feeling, as curious as I am. Just as I have a need for my own private thoughts, they must, too. This is all part of letting go the reins, the walking the talk part of meaning it when I say, and I often do, that they’re just guests in my house.
I had a number of secrets from my mother. Maybe not deliberately hidden secrets, but things that never seemed necessary to mention. Not because I didn’t love her or trust her, not that I didn’t want her to know who I was. When I was a grown woman I tried to tell her more than she wanted to know. (She was expert at changing the subject.) But during the delicate sequence of tender teen years, and up to and through college, I cherished my secrets. They separated me from her, distinguished me within my family. They were rarely of any consequence: some boy I’d dated, some recreational drug I’d tried but didn’t care to use again, a class I’d opted to take pass/fail. Driving down to this beach house (we’re at the Outer Banks) I recalled a spring break where my friends and I did a drive-away to deliver a car in Florida without any inkling of how we might get actually get back to school in Rhode Island. (We ended up, miraculously, running into some classmates we vaguely knew and they let us make the 24-hour return-trip in the back of their station wagon.) My parents never knew about this.
There are probably hundreds of little stories like this – not bad, not good, just things I knew that they didn’t. There was never any real reason to tell them.
~ ~ ~
In the taxi on the way from Paris to the airport, the driver, a chocolate skinned man with an elegant West African accent, watched in his rear view mirror as I conversed with the girls. They had asked me a question about the riots in London and I attempted to answer in a way that gave them enough information to address their question but didn’t over-explain. Later he said, “Your children listen very attentively to you. You must tell them all that you really want them to know, now, while their ears are still open. Then it will remain firmly inside them, in the coming years, when they cease to listen to you so closely.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this little gem of advice, how it could be that there is a window of time to plant the words and ideas that might reinforce their future character and the decisions they make. They still listen to me now, but soon enough they’ll stop, just as they’ll stop talking and telling me things, too. And before you know it, they’ll grow into young women with secrets of their own, possibly with rich inner lives, and hopefully a few good stories to tell.
If she were alive, my mother would have celebrated her 80th birthday today. Short-pants left her a message in the sand, made with love.
I hesitated to put Flat Stanley in her bag, he was supposed to accompany Buddy-roo so we could snap photos of him adventuring with us during our vacation. He’d been an end-of-school project for the English section, and the notice that came with him stated very clearly: DO NOT LOSE FLAT STANLEY, there will be a ‘part two’ to this project in the fall. Her summer assignment: to keep a journal of all that Flat Stanley does with us while on we’re on vacation.
In case you don’t know Flat Stanley, he’s the protagonist in the book that bears his name in which large bulletin board falls off his wall while he’s sleeping and flattens him. He manages to survive without any injury, except that he’s flat-as-a-pancake. But in this condition, he has all sorts of adventures: saving his mother’s prized ring after it falls down a grate, being flown like a kite, traveling via the postal service to visit a friend in California. It so happens that Flat Stanley and I go way back: Short-pants already had her own summer holiday adventures to orchestrate with him and we’ve been the recipient of a few of our friends’ Flat Stanleys who wanted to travel around the world. Paris is, of course, a place Stanley loves to visit.
I remember rushing around that morning, the mother-in-love was packing a lunch for their drive to the country house, while I put the girls’ pillows, blankets, colored pens, books and papers in little bags and backpacks, keeping with my father’s car-packing rule of nothing without a handle. I thought better of slipping Flat Stanley into one of those bags. My children are not so skilled at holding on to things. Shortpants’ eyeglasses go missing at least once a week, I’m constantly finding Buddy-roo’s most cherished possessions in places where if I didn’t know better, I’d throw them out and they’d be lost forever. (Sometimes, alas, this happens.) De-facto has many talents, but remembering where he has put something isn’t his strong suit. Not that I’m without my memory lapses, but when it comes to locating whatever-it-is-that’s-missing-around-here, I still manage to have the best radar.
I contemplated taking Flat Stanley to Pamplona with me. I’d keep him safe in my suitcase and we could start his journal mid-July when I rejoined the family at the country house. Or I could let him have a little fiesta fun, and snap a picture of him at the bullfight, or leaning over our balcony watching the encierro, or dancing with us at the Ham Bar. That’d spice up his summer adventures. But Flat Stanley is her project after all, and I knew he probably should go to the country house in her care. Since he’s used to traveling in envelopes, I found a big white one and wrote Flat Stanley on it and slid his wafer-thin laminated figure into it.
“You won’t want to lose Flat Stanley.”
I attempted my stern-but-tender voice. “Each time you’re done playing with him, you should put him back in this envelope and then back into your back-pack and then you’ll always know where to find him.”
Buddy-roo agreed readily but I knew the chances of that kind of organization were slimmer than Flat Stanley himself. I looked over at my mother-in-love and gave her a pleading you-know-what-I-mean look. She reciprocated with a sympathetic I-know-what-you-mean look and I knew Flat Stanley would be safe, at least for the duration of her visit, which unfortunately was only for a few more days.
~ ~ ~
“He’s not in the envelope?” Buddy-roo looked up at me tearful and confused, “But I always put him back!” I’d returned from Pamplona and inquired about Flat Stanley’s whereabouts. She’d cavalierly produced the envelope, and we’d left it on a shelf, agreeing to take a walk and snap some photos that afternoon. I peeked in it later, and discovered that the envelope was empty. Despite a full search of every corner of the country house, Stanley was M-I-A. Trying to get Buddy-roo to remember when she’d last seen or played with him was like an investigation at a congressional hearing. She had no clear recollection.
Days went by with fruitless searching, scrupulous cleaning of closets and shelves and yet there was no sign of our flat friend. Subsequent detective work revealed that after my mother-in-love left, Flat Stanley made a long drive to Germany to see De-facto’s brother and had been accidentally left behind. One would think, then, that he could simply be returned via his favorite mode of travel, the post. Except De-facto’s brother is moving his family, coincidentally, to California, and Flat Stanley somehow ended up in boxes that are, at this moment, in a container traversing the ocean. The chances of him being returned in time to do her summer assignment, once again: slim.
Buddy-roo’s tears had more to do with losing her paper-doll friend than getting behind on her assignment, but I wasn’t about to give her any excuse to slack off on her summer homework. I found a picture we’d snapped of Flat Stanley before his disappearance – he’s totally visible except for his left foot – and with a little Photoshop magic, his image was successfully cropped, enlarged, enhanced, sharpened, and printed, so it could be cut-out and laminated, looking just like his old self.
Flat Stanley has been cloned.
Just in time. We have but a few weeks of summer adventures left to document, and this time, Buddy-roo vows she won’t lose sight of her Flat Stanley. But just in case (and don’t tell her) I printed a few extra copies. This has me thinking about part two of the assignment, in the fall, when she’ll probably have to send him in the mail to visit a friend or relative far away. We just might find that Flat Stanley really gets around.
The summer is waning, but daylight still lingers long after dinner. At this point in the season – summer seems to turn a corner when August settles in – I think we appreciate the precious sunny evenings even more, knowing that they are numbered. The good news is there is still a month of summer left. The bad news: there’s only a month of summer left.
Seated at the dinner table, you can look out the back door of our country house and see the sun making its leisured descent to the horizon. Even after the meal and the dishes, it still has a good distance to cover; there’s a whole chapter of the day left. Last night after dinner, Short-pants kicked off her sandals and slipped into her knee-high green boots, grabbing a metal bowl from the cupboard and sprinting out to pick blackberries from the wild bushes that line our property while Buddy-roo made a beeline for the rusty old swing set. Some friends have joined us in the country for a few days, adding their three children to the mix; the gang of rowdy kids clamored around the yard with the gleeful, wild abandon that a summer night deserves. I think this might the moment when you feel most free, as a child: playing outside after dinner, like you’re stealing extra hours of fun that the winter won’t permit.
I remember how my brother, sister and I would cross the road after dinner to meet up with the five neighbor boys and play touch football in their front yard. Somehow these just-before-dusk football matches morphed into a game we called Spook. A musty old sleeping bag – a thick and weighty brown one with a flannel interior that had drawings of Davy Crockett and other frontier accessories – was central to this game, which was in essence a dressed-up form of tag. The person who was it (the Spook) had to carry or use the sleeping bag in some fashion while chasing the rest of us. My brother liked to run around the yard speaking in ye olde English, like Prince Valiant of the Sunday comic strip, alluring us into his grip. One of the neighbor boys would hold the sleeping bag with arms stretched wide open like the wings of a bat while running around the yard screeching a high-pitched alarm. Another would just hunch on all fours under the sleeping bag, waiting for us to come up and kick or taunt him and then he’d turn and grab us. We’d play Spook until it was too dark to see anymore.
The night might finish when, long after sunset, all eight of us would pile into their red convertible (before seat-belts were mandatory) and drive to town for ice cream cones. This was the same car we’d squeezed into earlier in the afternoon, when its white vinyl top would be latched to the windshield and the windows rolled up and shut tight to make us as hot as possible during the two-mile drive to the beach. We’d pour out of the car, jump down the thick, uneven cement steps to the lakefront, tossing our towels and shoes and T-shirts aside as we’d make the final sprint to plunge into the water. At night, that convertible top would be unlatched, folded and tucked behind the wide back seat, leaving us open to the night air, hair blowing across our faces as we’d cruise down the steep hill to town. The ice-cream stand had drive-thru service; what a joyful thing it was, being one or two cars back from the ordering window, fretting over maple-walnut or mint-chocolate-chip or just plain strawberry.
Last night as the sun finally set, De-facto lit a fire in the backyard while Short-pants led an expedition of the other children to forage in the forest for long narrow-ended sticks suitable for marshmallow toasting. Those that didn’t drop into the fire were sandwiched while steaming hot between two cookies with a slice of chocolate, melting into the perfect S’more, the time-tested summer’s eve treat. We let the sticky-fingered pack of children run wild into the night, forgiving any bedtime curfews usually imposed. When they finally wore themselves out (and nearly put themselves to bed) the adults stayed out in the back yard by the fire, finishing off a bottle of wine, staring up at the night sky, pondering Cassiopeia. What precious moments, these long carefree summer evenings, unburdened by tomorrow’s deadlines. Thank god there’s still a month of them ahead. And zut, there’s only a month of them left.