Jan 28 2012

Newly at Home

When Buddy-roo heard the long, loud buzzer, she leapt up and squealed, “They’re here!” She sprinted to the foyer to pick up the interphone, not even bothering to ask who it was, right away pressing the button to open the street door. She ran out into the hall to wait at the top of the stairwell, listening to the breathless (already) footsteps slowly winding up the four flights of stairs.

“I’m so glad to see you!” She threw herself at the mover, a young man who looked older than he probably was because of an unfortunate girth. I hoped there were muscles somewhere beneath his obese frame. He’d already made a delivery, it seemed, from his distinctive body odor. Buddy-roo recoiled as politely as she could, regretting that she’d gotten so close.

“We’ve been waiting for you to bring the Fisher Price toys,” she said. “What took you so long?”

Buddy-roo launched into a animated description of the toys that she was expecting – the house, the school, the village, the airport – and the people and pieces that accompanied each one and how she intended to play with them. He stared at her, still panting from climbing the stairs, unaccustomed to such an enthusiastic and informative welcome.

The boxes came up in slow motion, one by one. They’d been packed in September and already I’d forgotten much of what I’d decided to send. What I remember was being brutal with myself: eighteen crates of books whittled down to one. Three large cartons of sentimental objects became a single shoebox of can’t-part-with memorabilia. Aside from the toys and the chinaware, the other things I’d shipped were now like surprises. My father’s cocktail shaker and shot-measure, my mother’s beaded clutches, her blue-feathered toque hat, in its original hatbox. Two metal boxes of photographs from her youth: in Cuba, in college, with her young children. This is why I didn’t insure the shipment. Everything – the dishes, the toys, the artifacts of her childhood and mine – was irreplaceable. Had they gone missing, I couldn’t buy them back. The only thing in those boxes, really, was nostalgia.

~ ~ ~

The shipment was supposed to arrive in Paris mid-November, but it wasn’t until December when I got the email about its arrival, as luck would have it, on the day after I left for New Zealand. A day (or two) earlier and I could have processed the 37 forms needed to clear customs. Instead I was in a hotel in Auckland, scrambling during workshop breaks, negotiating with the hotel to get things printed, signed, and scanned and put the papers in order. Time was of the essence, or so I thought. Buddy-roo was hounding me about the Fisher Price toys. There were a few other items that I was eager to have in my possession, like the Christmas ornaments for our tree, and my mother’s good china, with which I’d hoped to set our holiday table.

I managed to get the papers in on time, but it turns out there wasn’t a truck available to transport the boxes from their point of entry in the UK to our home in Paris until January. The shelves we’d cleared for the Fisher Price toys sat empty for weeks. I ended up setting the table for Christmas dinner with our every-day dishes.

After more than four months and just as many supplementary payments – for the customs fee, the above-the-second-floor delivery fee, the our-truck-is-too-big-for-your-street-you-have-to-pay-for-a-shuttle-van fee and then last but not least, the our-van-got-a-parking-ticket fee, the boxes have arrived. Our home is now as cluttered as ever, with paraphernalia of my past pressing itself on the possessions of my present. There’s stuff everywhere, a reminder of how messy life is when you collect its souvenirs anywhere but in your memory.

~ ~ ~

Upstairs the sound of little wooden people moving back and forth among pieces of small plastic furniture assured me that Buddy-roo would be distracted for hours. Short-pants came home from her music class and the two of them fell deeply into their Fisher Price world. I set about finding a place for all the newly delivered items, unwrapping yards of tape and packing bubbles to reveal the round, gold-colored quilted cases that kept safe my mother’s china plates, bowls, cups and saucers. I started with the largest, opening it to see if any of the porcelain dinner plates had broken.

My hand on that zipper released the stories locked inside: how many times I’d unzipped those very cases, lifting out the plates, one-by-one, removing the plastic disc between each one, setting them on my mother’s table. I was required to iron the white linen tablecloth first, and she’d instructed me where to place the silverware, the glassware, the napkins. I’m sure at the time I complained about having to set the table, but I was remembering it now as if it were the sweetest moment of the year.

Another box of dishes hadn’t fared so well. Three of her fondue plates, the ones with separate compartments for different sauces and condiments, had cracked beyond repair. The sight of them in pieces shattered me, I sat there sobbing about some silly broken plates that I’ll probably never use because we don’t even own a fondue pot.

This I hadn’t expected. It’s been two years since we said our goodbyes to my mother. Two years, a mindful memorial service, a half-dozen trips to the house to clean and ready it for sale. I had my desperate moments emptying it out, but I fooled myself to think that with the house sold and the burden of its care behind us that the chapter of grieving was closed. Now I was standing in the middle of my own living room surrounded by just a few of her most precious belongings, and there it was again, as fierce as ever, that hole in the middle of my heart, and the tears that can’t possibly fill it.

~ ~ ~

Persuading Buddy-roo and Short-pants to move from the floor – and the elaborate spread of Fisher Price toys – to their pillows was no small task. We had first to put every little person on his or her little plastic bed. The toys are so old that the sponge mattresses have disintegrated into almost nothing. It doesn’t matter to the girls. To them, the toys are like new toys with a new home, our home.

Buddy-roo finally tucked snug under her covers, and the light switched off, I maneuvered through the Fisher Price minefield to get out of her bedroom. Outside her door, I looked back, surveying the toys, admiring how the girls had set them up, startled to see my childhood grinning back at me. How I loved those toys. There is something utterly reassuring about having them under our roof, just like the bittersweet possession of my mother’s china, a comforting reminder of all that was once home to me, and all that is even more home to me now.


Jan 21 2012

How to Flirt

“Antoine keeps dragging me.”

This is a turn of phrase I’m accustomed to hearing from my contemporaries, reporting about a wildish night out or even just what happened waiting for me to turn up at our favorite café for an afternoon beer. I didn’t expect to hear it from Buddy-roo.

Dragging is a classic example of Franglais. In this case a French word transformed into an English verb by adding -ing. My friends often do this with French words to be funny or sarcastic. Buddy-roo simply didn’t know the equivalent word in English: flirting.

This use of dragueur comes from the French cineaste Jean-Pierre Mocky and his 1959 film, Les Dragueurs, in which an unlikely pair of men, one a serial skirt-chaser, the other more reserved and eagerly seeking a wife, go out on the town in Paris, flirting with every woman they meet. It was called The Chasers when it was released to English-speaking audiences, and if you watch even a short excerpt of the film you’ll see that the title is apt.

The original verb draguer means to dredge or trawl. It’s also used to describe the task of minesweeping. But as a result of the film, the term is more commonly used to describe the act of hitting on someone. As a noun, a dragueur (or dragueuse) is the consummate flirt.

“What about Vincent?” I asked her. Last week he was Buddy-roo’s true love. “Or Ethan?” He was last year’s heartthrob, and it’s my understanding that kisses have even been exchanged between them.

“I still love them,” she shrugged, “but now I like Antoine, too.”

This all sounded too familiar to me, in that transparent, embarrassing way that your children mirror a part of yourself or your past. When I was going through the boxes I’d left in my mother’s basement, I found several diaries from when I was Buddy-roo’s age. I sat on the dusty chair under a single light bulb, reading the pages of dribble and cringing at the recounting of the romantic details of my life at age eight: how Kenny smiled at me in the lunch line, or how Billy said he loved me but I really loved Phil. Would Timmy hold my hand at the roller-skating party? Five pages later, the names were changed but the passion was just as fierce. How fickle, the flame of young love.

How do we learn about flirting? Is it something that just comes naturally? Is it observed or inherited? Short-pants can’t be bothered to think about the boys in her school as anything but classmates, while Buddy-roo intuitively creates a hierarchy of her romantic preferences. I’ve seen her in action. If those boys are dragging Buddy-roo, there’s a good chance they’re merely answering her coquettish call.

Should I talk to my daughters about flirting, its benefits and consequences? I know a bit about the subject. I was named biggest flirt in my high school senior poll and I’ve been told I’m not so bad at barstool banter. I’m a good wingman for my single friends; I’ll start a conversation and leave it for them to finish. One English summary of Les Draagueurs describes how the two bachelors think they’ve struck gold until “it becomes apparent that these two wily lasses only want someone to pay for their drinks.” That’s a motive I understand. It could be my epitaph: She only wanted him to buy her a beer.

My mother never gave me any advice about flirting. I don’t fault her for this. It wasn’t part of the logos of her generation. But I’m wondering if some kind of guidance isn’t appropriate. What would I say? How it’s fun but you have to be careful, how it can be hurtful to someone who takes you more seriously than you intend, or you can inadvertently hint at something you don’t mean to convey and get yourself in a sticky situation. How it’s a dance, but you have to be mindful how you step. Unless drawing attention to it only hastens the 50-yard dash Buddy-roo is already making toward the world of love and lust. Arming her with a bit of information could make her wiser – or just more wicked. Either way, I think we’re flirting with disaster.


Jan 6 2012

Easy On Me

She’d closed the lid on the toilet seat and was standing on it, looking at herself in the mirror. In her hands, she held up a plastic hairbrush with a green flowery pattern on the back.

“Was it you,” said Buddy-roo, “who put my brush away in the wrong tray?”

I can’t keep it straight, which brush – green or yellow – belongs to Short-pants and which to Buddy-roo. They always leave them in my way, so I toss any hairbrush I come across on the counter into either one of the plastic trays that are stuffed with girlie hair elastics and bubble-gum smelling sprays on their designated shelf.

“I don’t like it when you put my brush away in her tray,” she said.

Tell me about it.

A system for stowing prized items ideally means you spend less time hunting for them and more time using them. It gives us a semblance of order, at least about the placement of basic tools we require day-to-day, aiding the creative process – something usually considered messy – by providing an underlying structure. If you’re cooking up a masterpiece in the kitchen, you don’t want to spend fifteen minutes rifling through your drawers to find a whisk, right?

This was a pet peeve of my mother. I’d hear her opening and closing drawers and cupboards in succession, mumbling to herself, unable locate an essential utensil or serving dish because a visitor, usually her mother-in-law, had put it away, not only in the wrong place but in an illogical one, so that she couldn’t find it even with an educated guess.

“At least she was trying to help,” I’d say of my grandmother, picturing her bending over into a cupboard, her hand reversed on her hip, a gesture she and my father had in common. “She’s getting old. Give her a break.”

My mother’s compulsion is something I didn’t understand until now that I share it. When the rest of your world is a mess and you’re trying to run a household, it helps to have some ability to order something. The kitchen drawers might be the last bastion of control. A new babysitter and a new cleaning woman have recently joined our household, and despite a dozen years in the same kitchen, De-facto and I still aren’t aligned on where things go. My mother, wherever she is now, is snickering at me.

As much as she was irked by various visitors who couldn’t put things where they belonged, my mother suffered, paradoxically, from the same maternal dementia, the feeble post-partum memory, that plagues me. I know well the chiding I’m in for, having doled it out plentifully. My mother used to ignore my exasperated rebukes, or she’d offer a half-hearted apology. Now I get it: when your mind is processing so many things, preparing for a meeting, sorting out a problem colleague, trying to get this and that done and still pick your daughter up from school on time to go to the orthodontist, the brain matter gets allocated to things other than the placement of a hairbrush or a preferred brand of toothpaste.

“I’ll try to be better,” I said, evoking the nuance of mother’s half-hearted voice. I reached up to give Buddy-roo a hug. Standing on the toilet, she towered over me. She jumped down to the floor so I could put my arms around her.

“Someday maybe you’ll have children,” I whispered into her hair, “and you might find that your brain doesn’t work as well it does now.” I considered her ironclad capacity to retain melodies and lyrics from favorite musicals after only one viewing. Spelling words and vocabulary: not so much. I almost pointed out this discrepancy, but then I thought better of it.

“When your kids get all out of joint about you doing something wrong, I want you to remember this moment, this precious one right now. Then you’ll begin to know the meaning of the word compassion.”

“Compassion?” she said.

“You’ll see,” I said, walking out of the bathroom. It may take a couple of decades for her to get it. I hope I’m around to snicker.