Oct 30 2015

A Final Bow

I’m almost too busy to grieve. I say almost, because when you’re busy, you still grieve, it’s just pushed underground. If you don’t make time and space for the grief, it takes its own, and never at a good time or with enough space to permit you to delve in. Grief doesn’t fit itself neatly into the daily juggle of life and kids and work and an airplane to catch. Grief commands you to stop and pay attention. If you don’t, or you can’t – or think you can’t – you’ll find out too late, you should have bowed to its call.
I’ve just said goodbye to a friend. We knew each other for only ten years, but in that time he showed me great kindness. He was older, leaning toward the end of his life even when I met him, yet he cultivated friendships with younger minds and spirits. Part of this was denial; he would not see himself as aged. Part of this was delight. He could never truly hide his amusement while he feigned surprise or mild disdain for the words and acts of the younger generation around him. He kept himself young by keeping such company.

He was just shy of eighty when he died, with years of achievement and adventure behind him. A hero of sorts among a special crowd, my San Fermín friends, he was known for his courage as a runner, back in the day, and for his chivalry and generosity until the end. He was the last man standing on the longest of fiesta nights, even at his ripe age, signaling a strong heart that could have kept him going for another decade, surely, but for his liver which he’d taxed too much, and his mind, which, like all of ours, wasn’t what it used to be.

I was too far away when he died to join the community of mourners at his memorial service. I got the news while at a meeting of 300 people. I stuffed the feelings down – the show must go on – until it could seep out later on a transatlantic redeye, the high altitude cabin pressure no doubt attributing to the release of emotion, my teary sniffles muffled by the constant hum of the jet engine. I made it home, tired, with puffy eyes and a heavy heart.

Winston met me at the door, his paws and long snout bobbing at me. One of the great things about having a dog is this enthusiastic welcome no matterteary_eye how long you’ve been absent. After a week away, he was especially excited to see me. I knelt down to scratch behind his ears and Short-pants came around behind me and placed her hand gently on my shoulder, her calm intention distinct from the peripatetic affection of the dog.

“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” she said to me. I pulled Winston closer, wincing to keep from crying again.

“It’s okay to be sad,” she said, stroking my back.

~ ~ ~

Grieving is messy business. I think you rarely grieve for only one person. Saying a permanent goodbye to someone you’ve known and loved triggers a memory of all the others you’ve lost. It’s like they’re all called out on the stage again, taking their place in line, holding hands, the full cast of the beloved, stepping forward for their encore bows a second, third, and fourth time. Side by side, the line splits in the center to make space for the newly departed, and together dipping their heads, skipping forward, their farewell bows perfectly synchronized. There you are in the audience, clutching a tissue and fighting back tears for each and every one of them, all over again.

Buddy-roo danced around the living room, throwing words at me I wasn’t prepared to take in. The test she thought she was ready for (but wasn’t), a misunderstanding with a girlfriend, the stuff of every day life that she likes me to know about. It made me think about coming home to them just after my mother died. I’d been gone three weeks, accompanying her through hospice. The girls had been desperate to reconnect with me, to catch up, to tell me of their lives, needing me to know, to respond. And I, jet-lagged and grief-stricken, listened half-heartedly, distracted by an internal conversation of my own, wondering how it would be for them when it was me who was gone for good.

This is the part that’s (mostly) unspoken: When we grieve all the others, there’s the hint of grief at our own demise. Each time there is a death around me, I know that contigo_torosomeday it will be my turn. What will happen to me is a mystery. I don’t know what to believe about any existence of my consciousness after death. But I know what it will be like for the girls, and if I could take that heartache away from them I would. But just as Short-pants says, it’s okay to be sad. Mourning is as much a part of life as laughing or loving or any of the experiences we covet.

I’d seen my friend just over a month ago. I walked him down a long corridor to surgery, a surgery he recovered from but extenuating circumstances numbered his days and took his life. His departure is a reminder that all things have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that it’s the people we love who keep the memory of our existence alive, albeit with their heartache, calling us back on stage to take yet another final bow.

Aug 29 2015

Plum Pickins

Two greengage trees, on the edge of our property, produce the sweetest plum-like fruit. Last month, the trees were flush with little round green plums, promising a bountiful harvest when they’d ripen, at the end of August. Knowing we’d return to the country house for the last week of summer, I envisioned the pies, tarts and marmalade that would result from such a robust yield.

I didn’t even know the trees produced fruit until the Pastry Ace paid us a visit and with her keen culinary eye, pointing out all sorts of fruit growing on or around our property that I’d never noticed. Since then, I’ve watched these plum trees fill out with little round fruit, but I don’t always get to harvest them because often we’re gone when they ripen. Last year our cross-America tour pulled us away for the last half of the summer. Who knows what it was the year before; we were moving to Barcelona and otherwise occupied. We tend to use the country house in July, and do other things in August, sometimes returning for the last week, sometimes not.

~ ~ ~

After my annual escape to Pamplona in early July, I returned to our country house just in time to make the neuron-cake that Short-pants requested for her birthday. (Try that with a hangover after a week-long party.) Soon after, neuron_cakeDe-facto and I flew to the states for work – a neighbor stayed here with the girls – returning to the country house for a week or so before a wedding in Italy called us to the Adriatic coast. We crawled back to Barcelona in heavy traffic, wanting only to stay put, quietly, which we did for a week or so before a return to the country house for the last week of summer, our last hurrah, and maybe finally some time to relax, before submerging again into the routine of work and school.

August is the height of the vacation period in Europe. The cities turn quiet – both Paris and Barcelona, like other European capitals, seem to lose half of their local population. Streets clear out and the energy of vacation covers the city like a heavy beach blanket. It’s still full-on summertime, warm and sunny and relaxed, but the moment the calendar clicks from July 31 to August 1, there’s a sense of melancholy. July is bright and bouncy with the youthful energy of summer fun. August comes with a big sigh, signaling that all good things must end, that summer is rolling by, rapidly, and fall is just a few footsteps away.

~ ~ ~

But I had the greengages to temper my August melancholy. On our drive north from Barcelona to the country house, I pictured those trees covered with juicy, yellow-green plums, and I promised Short-pants and Buddy-roo I’d make pies with top crusts bulging with fruit. Maybe I’d even freeze one and leave it for our return in October.

Minutes after our arrival, I sprinted out to the corner of our land where the two trees stand, ready to pluck a plum off a branch and savor its sweetness. The next day I’d fill up a big bowl and move the fruit directly from tree to pie, but I was impatient to appreciate the inventory. Winston galloped after me, not knowing why, but sensing my anticipation.

I ran down the road and jumped over the ditch and found my two trees, thick with green leaves fluttering in the late afternoon breeze – and not one single plum. tree_sin_mas

Gone. They were all gone.

I recall, now, a few summers ago, going out to inspect the trees in August to find them empty. But it had been a very wet spring and summer. I hadn’t gotten any grapes that season either. It was weird, but it was an anomaly, so I thought. But given that just a few weeks ago I’d seen both trees covered in fruit, something was very wrong.

I looked closer. This couldn’t be the work of birds. The tree had been cleaned, top to bottom. Not even one stray plum hung from any of the branches.

I’m bewildered that someone would clear out all the fruit from both of the trees. Though near the road, they are not obviously visible to a passing car. Somebody knows that the trees are there and possibly they’ve come every year – except the years we happened to be here in August – to help themselves. They must see our house locked tight without a car in front, and they stop and clear out our plum supply. But seriously, they must have had a ladder! There were plums all the way to the tops of those trees. This was a deliberate harvest. Not just let’s grab a few fruit while passing by. They took everything.

Grudgingly, I bought greengages (known as Reine-Claude in French) at the market. They are a precious fruit, coveted (apparently). I had my heart set on a plum pie. Buy it’s not the same, not the same as pruning the tree, weeding around it, watching the little beans turn into berries and into plump little plums, picking them yourself and knowing they came from your own land and your good effort. There’s that, plus the sheer cheekiness of the perpetrators and the feeling of violation that accompanies the loss of something you believed to be yours.

They must have been yummy. This summer has been hot and dry, and this is good for all the fruit on our property. The grapes that get morning sun are already ripe; I picked them yesterday and served them with our luncheon cheese plate. The grapes that see sun only in the afternoon are not quite ready for harvesting, but there have never been so many grapes hanging from my vines, in all the seasons I’ve been tending them.

The endrina (a.k.a. sloe berry) tree on our property is also bountiful. And another one at the end of the road, on our neighbor’s land, is covered in little blue fruit and far easier to reach. I’d been eyeballing it, thinking about the next batch of patxaran. I might not have thought much about helping myself to a few of those blue berries, until now. Yesterday, I walked down and private_propertychatted with the neighbor, asking if she minded if I took a few bowls of those berries before I left.

“Take them all,” she said, waving me off. “We can’t use them.”

I am reminded that my children and my man – and my mother-in-love, who is with us now – are all safe and healthy. And the fruit poachers did not break into our home and damage or remove anything. Not that our purposefully rustic country house contains any possessions of great value, but such theft or vandalism would disrupt the peaceful rhythm of our stay here. Still, it smarts, that somebody stole my plums and dashed my dreams of the perfect pie. Of course, there’s always next year’s crop. We’ll just have to come up with a strategy to keep those plum thieves away.

May 10 2015

An Extra Day

I picked her up at her friend’s house – as usual she resisted the departure – and we walked toward the metro to make our way home, Buddy-roo swinging her bag of tiny plastic Pet-shop animals, describing the trades she’d made and the status of her expanding collection. She is eleven, dancing in the elastic world between child and adolescent, one moment knee-deep in blocks, dollhouses and little plastic pets, the next moment in front of her mirror, anguishing over an invisible pimple or the loss of a favorite hairband. blue_mother

“Do you know what tomorrow is?” she asked.

I knew where this was going, but I didn’t answer.

“It’s Mother’s Day!”

Again, I offered no response. It’s never been a holiday – if you can call it that – I am too attached to. Not that I mind the setting aside of a day to appreciate mothers of the world, but inevitably the day disappoints. There’s always a residue of “last minute” and the sentiment is short-lived. The home-made cards and big-morning-fuss are sweet and tender, but by mid-day everyone’s put it behind them and I’m the one folding laundry, replacing empty toilet paper rolls and nudging people to do the chores they’re supposed to do without me asking. Not to mention the kitchen sink is filled with all the dishes used to make me my special breakfast in bed.

“Did you know it was Mother’s Day?” she asked.

I didn’t want to answer this question, either.

“You knew,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I tried to explain how this is the sort of thing you don’t want to have to remind people about. You’re not supposed to make an announcement at dinner the week before, about how the coming Sunday is Mother’s Day so don’t forget to show me the love, folks. The idea is that I might be surprised and delighted by the gestures my family offers up without having to prompt them.

“But you should have told us so we could do something for you,” her voice revving up to a whine. “I haven’t done anything for you and it’s tomorrow!”

Part of me wanted to calm her down, to tell her she didn’t have to do anything because it’s a silly Hallmark holiday. Another part of me thought, really how could they not know? It’s in the window of ten storefronts on our street, it was advertised on web-sites all week and I received at least a half-dozen emails in the last few days promoting Mother’s Day specials. Mother’s Day always falls on a Sunday in May, so when May rolls around, how hard is it to pay attention? Why is it the mom that has to remember and organize everything?

“It just doesn’t feel right, to have to remind you,” I said.

~ ~ ~

We celebrated the Spanish Mother’s Day, which was on Sunday, a week ago. Short-pants delivered a cup of coffee with frothy milk to my bed. She does that every weekend morning, but this time it was presented with mom-appreciating aplomb. Buddy-roo paraded in with hand-made gifts she’d made the night before after bookmark_mamasearching the Internet for quick and crafty items. A bookmark she’d made smelled heavily of glue not yet dry, but charmed me with it’s design, and you have to give her credit for the quick recovery. De-facto left the bedroom and re-appeared with a bouquet of a dozen pink roses he’d hidden in her closet.

“She got mad that I’d put them in her closet without getting her permission,” he whispered, out loud. Buddy-roo glared at him and then turned to me and shrugged her shoulders.

The plan for the day was a family walk, up the mountain behind where we live to a small hillside restaurant for lunch. I’d asked for three uninterrupted hours to myself, first, to linger in bed with my laptop. The uninterrupted part of my request was not exactly achieved, but I was undisturbed enough to finish editing a chapter and feel like I’d made some progress on my manuscript, which is chugging along at a tortoise’s pace.

I don’t know what went wrong, exactly. Maybe the girls didn’t eat breakfast, or didn’t have enough to eat. Maybe De-facto’s repeated urging to finish homework before our walk annoyed Buddy-roo, who then kept asking her sister to help her, which put Short-pants in a bad mood. When it was time to put the dog on the leash and head out the door, both of my daughters were stomping and screeching at each other. Buddy-roo refused to go on the walk if Short-pants was going. Short-pants announced that she’d only go if Buddy-roo went, too.

After a few futile attempts to reason with them, reminding them how much I was looking forward to this Mother’s Day family walk, my annoyance was escalating, too. I was on the verge of screaming at them, “It’s my fucking day, put your damn shoes on!” As satisfying as that would have been, I’ve been a mother long enough to know that while such a command might achieve full compliance, it wouldn’t inspire the kind of we’re-happy-together experience that Mother’s Day memories are made of.

“Winston and I will be waiting outside,” I said, snapping the leash onto his collar and trying not to slam the door on our way out. I left it to De-facto to handle the girls. It was supposed to be my day off, wasn’t it?

~ ~ ~

At dinner that night we talked about what had happened. Buddy-roo apologized for missing the family walk. I told her I was disappointed, but I appreciated that she’d finished her homework in our absence and was in a good mood when we’d returned home. Short-pants, who’d rallied and joined us for the trek up the mountain and lunch at the café terrace, admitted that she’d enjoyed the walk even though her sister hadn’t accompanied us. one_day

“But it’s not fair,” said Short-pants, “that you get celebrated on your birthday, and you get Mother’s Day, too.”

“And Papa gets Father’s Day,” said Buddy-roo, “that’s not fair either.”

“Why isn’t there a Kid’s Day?” Short-pants said, with her mouth full of food.

“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I said, “and you do get Kid’s Day. It’s called Christmas.”

“You get Christmas, too.”

“Not like you do. And you also get Easter, and Halloween.” I was on a roll. “All those holidays are fun for kids, but they mean more work for moms. Is that fair?”

They shook their heads, in unison, quieted by my logic.

That’s why mothers get an extra day. And maybe even two extra days, since I snuck in a few special requests today, on American Mother’s Day, and everyone cheerfully complied.

Apr 29 2015

In the Kitchen

It all happens in the kitchen. The heartbeat of a home, the source of our meals, the place where everyone ends up congregating at a party. The kitchen stands for warmth, nourishment and togetherness. The stove and oven cook food that gives us comfort and strength, its refrigerator and lil_kitchencupboards conveniently store everything we need for sustenance. A kitchen has a family connotation. Before I had children, I thought all a kitchen needed was a bottle of champagne in the fridge and a bottle of vodka in the freezer. Once we had a family, I realized – or remembered – what a kitchen really means.

Just after Short-pants was born, we tore down a wall in our Paris apartment to make our kitchen, dining and living spaces into one big room. In her bouncy chair on the table, or on her play-blanket on the floor, she could remain in line of sight while I warmed her milk or made a vegetable puree. During those early years when she and Buddy-roo could too easily walk into trouble, we could keep a safe eye on them. As they grew, the girls would stand on chairs on the other side of the kitchen island and help me chop vegetables or decorate Christmas cookies while De-facto watched from the couch behind them.

That open-styled kitchen – an “American kitchen” in French real estate terms – hosted many dinners, Thanksgivings and spontaneous pop-up parties (after school meeting and performances) just because it was easy to host a gang in such a big open space. Everyone would stand around the kitchen island and keep the cook company. And when I was the cook, I still got to be at the party.

Our Barcelona apartment has many fine features: a larger space than we inhabited in Paris, more rooms, enough for the girls to have their own bedrooms and both De-facto and I to have separate offices. The in-suite bathroom in the master bedroom is a boon and the girls have two sinks in their bathroom; no fighting for mirror time in the morning. But when it comes to the kitchen, it’s a disappointment. At first glance, it seems nice enough: marble countertops, light wood cupboards that reach all the way to the ceiling (no need to stand on a stool to scrub away grease that collects on top). But it’s too small: 6 X 9 square feet. Look closer and it’s a bit worn. The appliances are tired, not particularly energy efficient. But my big grievance: this kitchen has a door. oh_no_pasta

It’s a wide door that slides open to a small dining area that’s open to the main living room, so at first glance I thought it would be fine. But in fact, when in the kitchen I am entirely separated from the rest of the apartment. I find myself cooking dinner, alone, because even if the girls are on the couch, they’re in another room. I can’t see them and I can hardly hear them. I can’t participate in their conversation unless I keep stepping out of the kitchen. And when we entertain, I’m in there all alone, checking on the hors d’oeuvres in the oven, or else four people have planted themselves in the kitchen with me and I am constantly grabbing my guests by the shoulders and moving them from side one side to the other in this tiny room, to get into a cupboard or access the sink. Inevitably, somebody is standing exactly where I need to get to.

We rent this apartment, so there’s nothing to do about what is clearly a first world problem. But it’s raised my awareness about the impact of a kitchen on the life of a family.

~ ~ ~

A kitchen is a store of fertile childhood memories. I remember, in my mother’s kitchen, pacing around and around the stove and counters and table that together made an enormous island. I remember the drawers, one above the other, that I could pull out to create a short set of stairs to reach the top shelf on the snack cupboard. I remember my mother shifting her weight from foot to foot while standing at her kitchen sink, washing the dishes by hand and putting them in the drainer for me to dry with a dish towel. I remember the wide wooden board that she’d pull out from a slot between the drawers and cupboards to create extra workspace, and how at Christmas, it’d be covered with wax paper and cookies freshly frosted, waiting to be decorated with colored sugar.

I remember my father standing at the stove making Welsh Rarebit on Saturday afternoon, pressing the tiny square buttons to raise or lower the heat on the burners. I remember the bar he’d set up on the the kitchen counter whenever they entertained, and his law partner and best friend chastising my sister and me for putting an ice tray back in the freezer without heart_in_a_boxre-filling it. Like it was yesterday, I can remember my father leaning against that same counter, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral, mystified at his own grief.

I can tell you the color of every floor we ever had in that room, the linoleum of my early childhood and the carpets of two renovations that followed. I remember the decorative carving on the shelves that held my mother’s delicate demitasse teacup collection, shelves my high-school friends and I emptied and filled with beer bottles when my parents were out of town, the cups carefully replaced in exact order prior to their return. I remember standing in the kitchen looking out the window at the sheets on the clothesline the day my mother died, and feeling her absence so fiercely, that this was her kitchen and always would be and she will be standing in it forever, in my memory.

A kitchen like that, a room with so many stories, that’s what home is all about.

~ ~ ~

When De-facto and I bought our country house, in 2006, it didn’t have much of a kitchen. Some formica-topped furniture that didn’t attach to anything, a wood cooking stove, a sink. We brought down an old 3-burner electric stove – the one we’d replaced when we’d renovated in Paris – and a fridge we inherited from who-knows-where. The house, that first summer, required massive attention so we focused on fixing walls and floors. We slept in a tent outside while we made the inside livable. There were enough kitchen pieces to cobble together a meal, and we manage to function in that make-shift kitchen, kind of like camping inside. Not just that first summer, but year after year. Each time I’d suggest that it should be the next project on our list, I’d be persuaded that creating another bedroom or insulating a wall and finishing the side room was more critical. I succumbed in part because De-facto (and his brother who owns the house with us) had good arguments. The kitchen was workable, after all.

Last year I finally put my spatula down and fronted the cash to turn the skeletal cooking space we’d been enduring into a real kitchen. A workable kitchen, with plenty of counter space, mice-proof (mostly) cupboards, a light and fan above the stove, an eye-level oven, a cupboard with vertical shelf just for cutting boards, cookie sheets and long casserole dishes. A local contractor took his time – because he could, we were gone all winter – building and fitting the cupboards, giving us a new kitchen that matches the rustic feel of an old country house. I even persuaded De-facto, usually parsimonious farmer_sinkabout such acquisitions, that we should invest in a Cadillac sink, a mammoth porcelain farmer’s sink that matches the original one. I like an auxiliary sink, for cleaning vegetables, or putting champagne on ice. I even shipped over a stool from my mother’s kitchen, and it tucks just under the lip of a big square island, a centerpiece for people to stand around and lean on while preparing a meal, together, in a room that’s not only functional, but hospitable.

We just spent ten days at our country house over the school spring break. After a few initial rainy days, we were graced with sun and spring temperatures. We opened all the windows and aired out the house. I washed all the laundry that had piled up over our winter visits. De-facto mowed the lawn and planted the garden while I pruned the hedges and liberated the rose-bushes that I neglected last year. And every evening, when it was time to make dinner, I could spread out all the ingredients in front of me, with ample workspace to chop onions, slice vegetables, marinate chicken, roll out a pie crust – whatever we needed to prepare the family dinner, all of this in the spirited company of my daughters, in a kitchen I hope they’ll always remember.

Feb 19 2015

Getting Caught Up

I didn’t exactly push them out the door. At the moment they were leaving, I had pangs of regret that I wasn’t going with De-facto and the girls to France. Our country house holds for me the sense of being outside of the day-to-day, on retreat from my busy life. Things move slower there. Nature embraces us, distracting us from our mental to-do lists pointing us toward more physical roadactivity. We clear the yard of brush and fallen branches and leaves, tend the grapes, adjust the tiles on the roof, hack away at other renovation projects in progress. The dog goes in and out of the house as he pleases – Winston is at his happiest in the country – and we take him for long walks and runs, watching him sprint up and down the lane, halting to sniff about, then bolting away to explore the world without a leash attached to his collar. I love to cook in the new kitchen we installed there last year, and how we sit around the table talking to each other after dinner, without anyone running off to finish homework or be on a conference call with some client in a time zone 6-hours behind us in the thick of their workday. I love doing nothing when I’m there, which, when you think about it, is what a country house is for.

I was aching not to be joining them, despite the long drive, despite the cold house they’d encounter. But I was also looking at a long string of days to myself, alone at home, a luxury that I rarely experience. I get my solitude on long airplane rides and in somber hotel rooms when I travel for work, but I can think of only two or three other times in my life, since the girls were born, when I’ve had such a stretch of time to myself – six consecutive days – in my own home, left alone, without anyone else around to take care of.

I’d like to tell you that I shut the door behind them and crawled back to bed. Or that I sat at the piano for hours conquering the Mendelssohn piece I used to play flawlessly and now stumble through. Or that I immediately set about adding chapters to my manuscript. I’d like to tell you I read all week, went for aimless walks, binged-watched on Netflix. I considered using these days granted to me to do just that, to escape my routines and to rest, alone, quietly doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Or doing nothing. But that’s not what happened.

One of the reasons I gave to De-Facto for not joining them in the country is that I feel exhausted by care-taking: our children, our household, my clients, the dog, any outside projects. Some days – and I know I’m not the only mother who feels this way – it seems like all I do is take care of other people. I longed for five days just to care for myself.
Taking care of myself, it turns out, was less about saying fuck you to the world and staying in bed with a Donna Tartt novel, and more about clearing the clutter that inhabits my life. Especially after the last grueling month, when De-facto was of town for two weeks and I was up to my ears in fairly demanding work and juggling the kids and finding myself scrambling to keep up. I had to keep my eye on the prize: do the most important things. That meant all the little tasks that weren’t urgent or (as) important were relegated to a different list. In principle, this is good time management, until all those minute, delayable tasks become urgent and important and merge together to become an albatross. It’s not just from the last month, this has been accumulating for a long time. And looking ahead to a trip I will make next week, an intense work schedule in March, and more travel in April it became very apparent to me. Taking care of myself meant getting these things out of the way or they’d hound me all spring and into the summer.

Maybe other people don’t mind the nagging list. They just ignore it or they don’t even see it. I inherited my mother’s productivity compulsion. It bothers me that I haven’t submitted medical insurance claims because the paperwork sits in a tray on my desk. It irks me that an iTunes upgrade wiped out my playlists but I haven’t had time to find them on my back-up disk or to rebuild them with fresh music. Try as I do to minimize paper filing, there are still papers that need to be kept, and put where I can find them. This pile is one that sneers at me from the mess on my desk which has reached a level of chaos now spreading to piles on the floor.

These nagging tasks aside, there are the bigger projects that suffered during the last month: professional assignments that are perfect examples of my extraordinary capacity to overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take to do it; documentation and research and web-site maintenance; preparing for new initiatives that require new strategies and thinking.

So I split my time: half of it making progress on the big projects, and the rest tackling the nagging tasks. Those, somehow, were the most satisfying: changing the vacuum cleaner bag that was bursting at its seams; cleaning the dog poop off the bottom of one of Buddy-roo‘s shoes, which had been on our balcony for three weeks waiting for this attention; sewing a button on a sweater, one that fell off before Thanksgiving; running an anti-virus scan on my computer and upgrading to Yosemite; shoring up medical forms and tax receipts; taking the lone Christmas ornament that we found on the tree after packing away all the decorations and simply taking it upstairs to put it in the box in the closet! I reorganized my desk, washed the throw rugs from the just_tryin_to_livebathroom floors, washed and dried every piece of dirty clothing in the house, folded it and put it away, which required a little extra organization in the girls’ wardrobes. Things are coming together. I’m still not caught up, but I’m no longer drowning in random, rogue tasks.

What I needed was a vacation from my life, so I could get caught up with my life. Isn’t this ridiculous? That life is so fast and furious and filled with duties and obligations – let alone the things I want to do – that I find myself scurrying around trying to catch up? How did I get so caught up in getting caught up?

I’ll never be all caught up. I know this. There’s always something to be done, and new opportunities add new things to the list. But at least when my family returns home tomorrow, I’ll be more caught up than before, and more than ready to catch up with them.

Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

I cleared out the fridge, making swift decisions about what to pack in the cooler, what to discard because it wouldn’t travel and wouldn’t last until our return. I’d packed three small suitcases the night before – we keep a set of clothes at the country house so we don’t need to take much – and created the shopping bag stuffed with things to take with us: the rug that doesn’t quite work in our living room, an old lamp, and some worn clothes being retired to the country house wardrobes. I thought I’d gotten a head start, but as usual, I found myself scrambling at the end, rushing around pulling things together when we wanted to have left Barcelona an hour before.

De-facto commanded Short-pants to help him carry the bags down to the rental car, while Buddy-roo occupied the dog, who was suddenly very winston_in_carnervous, seeing all the activity. Did he know what was going on? Did he see all the bags and think we were leaving him? Did he sense our mild stress, always present at the moment of departure? What do dogs think? Now that we have one, I wonder about this.

A final sweep of the house to make sure the lights were off and the windows locked, and we all piled in the car – the dog, too – and headed north to France. Winston stepped around and on top of the girls in the back seat, unsure of whether to burrow himself between the two of them or take advantage of the view out the window. A few barks to express his excitement, or consternation – what was he thinking? – before he settled in as the car sped along, leaving the light city traffic for the open highway.

We’ve passed the 3-week trial period designated by the animal rescue center, so there’s no turning back. There have been moments when I wanted to march Winston up the hill to those dog pens and hand him over. The initial chewing incident was an anomaly and he hasn’t ruined any of our clothes or furniture, but his digestive tract has been in adjustment mode. Probably we changed his food too drastically or else just from the change in general, so he left us some presents in the mornings that weren’t particularly pleasant to discover, or to clean up. At least the mess was on the floor, and not on a rug or on the furniture. I’d like to think he did this in desperation, not as a mean-spirited gesture. I used to have a cat that deliberately avoided her litter-box when she was mad at me for traveling. She did her business by the door instead, and it wasn’t fun to come home to.

~ ~ ~

Winston is folding into our family. He’s not nervous anymore. His barking has diminished. He heels more often, though not reliably. He’s a good dog, even if he is a bit cheeky, sneaking in the kitchen though it’s forbidden, nosing into the bathroom if someone leaves the door open. You know, doing doggie things.
In the country he was liberated. As far as possible from the caged life at the rescue center, he was completely free. He could come and go from the house as he pleased, without a leash, to explore the woods and fields around our property. There were new smells to sniff at, green ones, strong and natural. There was tall grass to run in and dirt tracks to run along. We were cautious at first, wondering if he’d run away or get hit by a car. But he strayed only far enough to explore, and managed to avoid the occasional traffic that passes on our road. The best part, though, was taking him out for a run.

Winston would trot beside me, his ears flopping wildly until he stopped to sniff in a ditch or a fencepost. He’d root around and eventually lift his leg to leave a calling card before looking up to see I was ahead of him. He’d sprint to catch up and pass me, running ahead with glee until some other scent would capture his attention and he’d fall to the side of the road to investigate, relieve himself once more before sprinting up to catch me again. Biking with Winston was even better: he’d hit full throttle to overtake us on our bicycles, his nose jutting forward, all four legs stretched in a fully extended stride. After a week I noticed three things: Winston didn’t smell like a city dog anymore. Winston got stronger and more muscled. Winston seemed really, truly, happy.

I grew up with a dog. He was part of our family before I was even born. Bum – yes, that was his name – was a mutt, a variation of golden retriever mixed with who-knows-what. My father called him a woodchuck hound, because he liked to hunt them down and return home triumphantly with the small dead animal clutched in his jaw. Owning a dog when you live in the country is relatively fuss-free. We never had to put Bum on a leash, take him for a walk or carry plastic bags to pick up after him. Bum_at_lakeHe’d scratch at the door to go out, and then again to come back in. (In a renovation years after the dog had died, my father refused to replace the doors because Bum’s nail marks were, as he put it, part of this history of the house.) Dogs belong in the country, I’ve always thought, not cooped up in a city apartment. And yet now we have a dog, and we live in an apartment. I suppose it’s better for him than being cooped up in a cage at the pound, or with a family that can no longer care for him, but this week reminded me why I haven’t owned a dog my entire adult life, up until now. A dog’s life is so much better in the country.

If fact, I think Winston found his footing within our family because we took him to the country. We gave him freedom, with a measure of safety, and he started to trust us. Maybe it would have happened anyway, over time, but being in that environment accelerated the bonding process. He’s really part of the family now. He seems to like us. And he’s absolutely nuzzled his way into our hearts.

~ ~ ~

The closing up of the country house is a series of rituals. I clean out the fridge, stow all the counter-top appliances and utensils behind closed cupboards, put away the good pillows and bed linens, and sweep and vacuum to put the place in some semblance of clean, knowing that dust and cobwebs will begin to accumulate the moment we leave. De-facto locks all the exterior doors and drains the toilets and the water heater, shuts off the water. Last one out flips the electricity switch before securing the door. The house always looks sad, standing dark and lonely as we drive away.

This time, our departure reminded me of a moment on last summer’s trip when we visited my hometown. It was a quick stop, just one overnight, enough time to see a few friends, visit my parents’ gravesite and drive up the hill to see the house that was my childhood home. We sold it three years ago, but the new owners have already put it back on the market. Too much work and expense to keep it up, that’s the rumor. Now it stands empty, void of furniture and family. The row of short bushes around the front porch, kept in check by the gardener my mother employed and befriended, sprawl uneven and overgrown, the shrubs beside the back stairs are fast becoming a overgrowth_by_stairswild thicket, the peony bushes in the side yard flattened by the weight of the dead blooms that hadn’t been pruned. It broke my heart to see my old house like this, cold on the inside, untended on the outside.

Across the street, another lonely house. Once the home of a family with five boys – my first childhood playmates – now not even a carpet remains inside. I’d heard these neighbors were planning to move but I hadn’t prepared myself to see their house emptied of all its belongings. We stood on the cement porch, pressing our faces up to the windows, cupping our hands around our eyes to see into the rooms I hadn’t thought about in years. A living room once filled with books and a framed print of the mysterious (to me) Peaceable Kingdom, a kitchen that always smelled of fresh baked brownies – we used to pull out the pots and pans from the corner cupboard and turn the lazy-susan inside it into an amusement park ride – the playroom where I spent many afternoons until my mother called from across the road to come home for dinner.

Two old houses, longtime friends like the families that lived within them, now stand across from each other, hollowed out. There is no life inside them, only memories, and only a handful of us who remember. As we drove away, tears were unavoidable. Tears for the people who are gone. Tears for those empty houses that for so many years knew warmth and laughter and the vibration of the good life within them. Now their windows are blank, like wide eyes staring across the street at each other in disbelief.

There were once doggies living in those old country houses. I remember Windy, a feisty black and white Boston Terrier skittering around on the neighbor’s cement porch. And our Bum, who occasionally crossed the road to sniff at Windy before running off to the apple orchard to hunt down an errant woodchuck. Those dogs had it all, living free and unfettered in big rambling houses with loving families and fresh country air. That’s the good life, for a dog. Winston got his taste of it, but now he’s back to being a city dog again, lying on his blanket on the couch until one of us picks up his leash to take him for walk or, if he’s lucky, a run up to the carretera on the mountain behind us. I bet he misses the good life of the country. I know I do. It’s a good life for humans, too.

Jun 19 2014

The Other Man

After I’d called to arrange to see him, at his place, I felt dirty. I hadn’t been with anyone else for a long time. What would it be like? I mean, you get used to someone. Someone who knows what you like. Someone who knows how to make you feel good. Someone who knows your secrets. It’s an intimacy you develop over time. You’re with the same person for years. You build a trust. Why would you go anywhere else? It could ruin everything.
I stared at his number, grinning up at me from the WhatsApp dialogue cloud. He spoke English and French, if that would make me more comfortable than having to do this in Spanish, a language I’m still acquiring. In fact, he was French. He’d know how to do this.

I looked carefully at myself in the mirror, fussing with my hair. There’s a kind of conversation you have in these moments, close to the mirror, face-to-face with yourself. The candid, truthful tell-it-like-it-is self-talk, where you call yourself by your last name. Are you really going through with this?

His place was in a ritzy neighborhood, near Turo Park. At least it’d be fancy. I have two friends who live on the park, but I didn’t want to see them on my way there. I didn’t even tell them I was going. I wanted to be discreet.

Later, standing before him in my robe, he combed his fingers through my hair, grabbing it and pulling it from the roots, marveling at its thickness.

“How long have you worn it this way?” he said. “It suits you.”

I thought about my coiffeur in Paris and the first time I went to see him, eight years ago. I was mired down with a too-busy-with-two-toddlers-to-care hairdo, a straight and blunt pageboy cut. He persuaded me to sport a messier, spiky hairdo. There were tears as he cut my long, even locks into layers, but in the end, there was no question that the new, wilder look worked much better. Not only that, it helped me get my mojo back. I was different after that haircut, more like my previous pre-mom self.

“Don’t worry,” he said, leaning in. “It won’t hurt.”

He put his hands on my shoulder and turned me toward a long, flat, reclining chair. He moved behind me and eased me into the black leather seat, cradling my head carefully as against the porcelain sink. I heard the water before I felt it, and his hands squeezed the water through my hair, making sure it was damp before he applied the perfumed shampoo. His strong fingers massaged my head, and I felt myself letting go.
Sitting in front of the mirror at his table, I watched the chunks of my hair fall to the ground. He had his own way of trimming it, circling around my scalp in a quick rotation, each pass clipping off a bit more. It was different than what my usual coiffeur does, but I had no choice now. I was in the hands of this man. He would butcher my hair or, who knows, maybe he’d make it better. There was no turning back. I exhaled, nervously.

“Close your eyes,” he whispered. “You just have to trust me.”

What is it, this thing we have with our hairdressers? I know I’m not the only one. The Fiesta Nazi, one of my favoritest friends in Paris, has been going to the same woman for thirty years. My mother saw the same man for just as long. Do a survey of the women around you. I’d wager most of them have a steady hairstylist, one to whom they are fiercely loyal.

Finding the right one is like dating. You have a lot of one-night-stands where the walk of shame is just about walking out of the salon wishing you’d never gone in. You’ll go to anyone who’s recommended, politely explaining the various quirks and hairlicks you’ve lived with your whole life. It’s always about finding the right balance between their expertise and your knowledge of your own head. Once you happen upon the hairdresser who gives you a good cut, time after time, and who makes the best out of how you look from the neck up, well, you hold on tight. You only leave because you have to, or because of a very, very compelling recommendation. Which is what took me, eight years ago, to my coiffeur in Paris, the second most important man in my life.

When De-facto and I first talked about moving to Barcelona, I checked out the flight schedules to Paris. If I could think ahead and get a good fare, or fly through Paris on my way to other places, could I get back every six weeks or so? My hair grows like a field of weeds, I used to cut it every four weeks. I could stretch it if I had to, but the last days before the next appointment were sloppy ones. Remarkably, since we’ve moved to Barcelona – just under a year – I’ve managed to have legitimate reasons to travel to Paris almost every month. Each time I paid a visit to my coiffeur. Until now. It’d been 10 weeks since I sat in his chair. The mop on my head was a Medusa mess.

“Mama,” Buddy-roo shook her head at me. “Your up-hair is all down.”

She was right. No amount of product could keep my thick mop in the preferred vertical position. I’d pinch and twist it to stand up, but within 5 minutes it wilted. I looked like I’d slept with a bowl on my head.
A number of people have noted that eventually, if we stay in Barcelona, I’ll have to find a new hairdresser. I’ve acknowledged this with a mildly-affirmative grunt. I don’t want a new hairdresser. I love my Paris coiffeur. He is the second most important man in my life. De-facto knows this and indulges my almost monthly trips to Paris to see another man, if only in a cranial sense. But he’s given me my style. He’s played with my color, moving me from blonde to red to my current shade, honey-badger. He experiments enough to keep it fresh, but not enough to ruin the look he has created for me. He’s a coiffeur coveted for his runway experience, but he’s not as hard on the wallet as you’d think, especially given the consistent quality of my color and cut.

But I feel like I cheated on him, going to see another hairdresser. Even though the other man did a perfectly fine job. He was quick and confident with his shears, he stayed true to the spirit of my original hairstyle, cutting my hair very much like my signature look. I had to wash and style it again myself the next day, but it does, mostly, what I want it to do. It’s good enough. Just good enough to carry me through until I can get to Paris again to see the second most important man in my life.

May 31 2014

All that Promise

In those days way before 9/11, you could accompany a departing passenger through security and wave goodbye at the gate. My parents drove me to the airport and stood beside me as I checked my bags. The agent handed me my ticket, her fingers red from the ink on the back of each of its multiple pages. On the way to the gate, my father made conversation by asking consecutive “what do you suppose” questions, thinking they would inspire me or keep me from getting nervous. Now, years later, I suspect he was living vicariously through me. When they announced that my flight was boarding, I hugged my mother and father goodbye, walked to the gate agent and showed her my ticket and without looking back, headed down the jetway.
Later that day, I watched the other freshman on my hall moving in, their fathers like Sherpas behind them with boxes and blankets, their mothers overseeing the move-in or sitting on the bed chatting with the new roommate’s parents. I’d arrived on campus in a taxi and happened to find a dorm counselor – still a friend to this day – who helped me carry my suitcases up to my room. I was glad to be there without the burden of parents, liberated from any of the eye-rolling data points my mother might share, conspiratorially, with the parents of my new peers. College was a time to go off on your own, and that is, literally, just what I’d done.

My new roommate’s parents had driven her up from Philadelphia. I escaped their sympathy – “but you’ve come all by yourself?” – by slipping out to take a walk. I headed nowhere in particular, wandering the streets around the stately campus. It was the first week of September, the leaves had just started to turn. The late afternoon sun, low in the sky, cast my shadow long on the sidewalk. Just like my future, it stretched out before me. I’ll never forget that moment and its sublime promise: anything can happen, and it’s all going to.

~ ~ ~

I made that walk again, last weekend, returning to my university to celebrate a big reunion. I wasn’t particularly rah-rah when I was a co-ed, and I haven’t been the heartiest alumna, but lately I’ve been crossing paths with more of my college compatriots, and this reunion – my 30th – seemed like a good occasion to be more deliberate about reconnecting. I spent much of the weekend running to different events and parties with friends and old classmates, but stole a moment one morning on my own to take a quick detour, one that I knew would take me back to where I’d strolled that first day on campus. I walked up that same street, alongside an iron-gated quadrangle and under trees thicker and taller than when I was there years ago. No shadow was cast – it was a different time of the day and there was cloud cover – but I could picture the long shape that once loomed before me and the emotions that had accompanied it. All that promise. Have I fulfilled it?

~ ~ ~

How did I end up at one of my parents’ cocktail parties? This was my thought, the first night of the reunion. There was a big dance on the campus green to kick off the weekend’s festivities, but we got to reconnect at a pre-party just for my class, under a big tent near the athletic center. I looked around at my classmates, and though I recognized many faces, whether they were people I knew reasonably well or only smiled at passing them on my way to a lecture hall, I was stunned at how we’re getting older. They’d all remained, in my memory, young and wrinkle-free because dog_in_mirrorI hadn’t seen most of them since 1984. Now to see the graying or receding hairlines collected together was a bit of a shock. Maybe it’s just that I tend to live life from the inside out, looking out at the world knowing the the years are adding up, but always feeling, inside, a static, youthful age. An event like this holds up the mirror, a reminder of how relentlessly time passes. Not that we’re in such bad shape, in general my classmates have taken care to attend to their fitness and appearance. But we aren’t the feisty spring chickens we used to be.

The weekend was a mash-up of nostalgia and discovery. The campus is changed. I can still find my way around, though I noted the absence of a buildings where I’d spent the bulk of my time, now demolished and replaced by new landmarks. I visited a favorite professor, one who challenged me and made me think harder and deeper. He says he can no longer read and analyze, but at least takes pleasure from painting and listening to Irish music. I left his house soberly, guessing it might the last time I’d see him. There were those two inseparable girls who never managed to make eye contact with me when I was an undergraduate, still joined at the hip and unable to acknowledge my presence. Back then I’d wondered what was wrong with me. Now I wondered what was wrong with them. The nice surprise from that guy who seemed way out of my league all those years ago; it was with him and his lovely wife that I had one of the most thoughtful, engaging conversations of the weekend. Finally the after-party on the last night, like stepping back thirty years, a hundred people packed into a cinderblock-walled dorm room, crammed in the kitchen, lining the hallways talking and drinking out of red plastic cups, dancing with abandon in the dark with friends from way too long ago.

I’d like to tell you that the reunion was one oh-my-god-how-are-you hug after another, all-elbows with friends from the past, our shared history bonding us together inextricably. Maybe I’d hoped for that when I signed up, but even then I knew that the weekend would be filled with moments of reconnection and disconnection. It wasn’t at all the impress-fest that it could have been – I found people to be very genuine – but there was an element of standing across from each classmate encountered and trying to figure out who not only who they’d become, but who I’d become. They all seemed to fall right back into place with each other, I was still trying to figure out where I fit in. There were moments when I felt like an outsider, not an uncommon feeling for me, but a mildly discomforting one to carry at such an occasion meant for reuniting. It wasn’t until we were all assembled on the steps of the library for the class photo that I felt that feeling of detachment slip away. Instead of standing face-to-face, we’d all turned to arrange ourselves together on the steps, side-by-side, facing a photographer perched on a ladder. I felt thirty years slip away, and all those people were beside me, with me, shoulder-to-shoulder, facing exactly the same thing. A shorter future than before, but not without its continued promise.

~ ~ ~

A few of my friends sported a P’15 or a P’17 on their name tags, indicating their children were currently enrolled at our alma mater. At the big footstepscampus-wide dance, my sophomore roommate ushered me over to re-introduce me to her son. Only moments earlier I’d been laughing with the son of another classmate. Both young men were charming, articulate, good looking. Just the kind of guys I’d wish upon my daughters about a decade from now. Less than a decade, actually, for Short-pants. She’ll be thirteen this summer. College may not be just around the corner, but it’s not far down the bend. I would never press her to attend the same college as I did. But what if she wanted to?

I went to one of those universities that gets a boatload of applications every year and only a small percentage get accepted. I’m pretty sure that if I applied today I wouldn’t get in. My guess is that Short-pants has a reasonable chance; she’s bright and quirky, fits the profile. But is she bright enough? Does she need to ramp up her extra-curriculars? Would it help if I were more involved as an alumna? Should I be adding an extra zero to my checks for the annual fund? Do I have to start thinking about this stuff already? Do I have to think about it at all? Nobody’s strong-arming me, but the gentle suggestion from friends who’ve been there is do what you can, just in case she wants to apply.

I have a great appreciation for my undergraduate experience, and though I’ve been subtle about expressing it over the years, a strong loyalty to an institution that helped me come into my own, on my own. It’d be a kick to see a P’23 or a P’25 on my reunion name tag some day. I’ll happily drive them to the airport and wave goodbye. I can picture them roaming around the streets of the campus, wondering about what’s ahead. But if it’s going to happen, it’s really up to them. That’s the promise of the future, isn’t it? Anything can happen. And it’s all going to.

Jan 20 2014

How Fitting

The saleswoman directed us to the fitting room, a long row of closets where we could undress and try on our selections. Short-pants and I had toured the lingerie department thoroughly, in search of new bras. We used to find them easily in the girl’s section, the starter bras for budding young women. I’d noticed the week before that those easy-to-buy standards were not only a bit ragged, they were too tight. It was time to buy her a real bra.

I’d wager that most women remember the acquisition of their first bra, and not always happily. It’s a question – and I’ve asked different circles of girlfriends over the years – that’s always met with groans. How could such a simple step into womanhood have so many unpleasant stories? My experience is a classic example: My mother, noting that my nipples were popping through my favorite striped turtleneck sweater, drove me to McCurdy’s department store. It was “out of town,” meaning it was a 30-minute drive (that was a good distance in those days) so you didn’t go there for every-day things. It was a special trip. This was where we went to do Christmas shopping, or to buy back-to-school clothes. I remember coming home after those late August shopping trips and laying all the new outfits on my bed and feeling the discordant mix of excitement about going back to school along with a deep sadness about the waning of summer and its late sunsets long after dinner, stretching the hours of play to the maximum.

In the same shopping plaza as McCurdy’s, there was a lingerie store called The Ethel Abraham Shop. It was classy place. My underwear worldview, in house_of_underwearthose days, was fairly polarized. You bought underwear at a department store like McCurdy’s, or by mail-order from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which was reserved for people kinkier than my mother or her circle of friends. Lingerie was an evocative word. It spoke of the unspoken: sex. Or so I thought, until Ethel’s little boutique became part of my awareness. Its balance of quality silk and satin with just a very tiny hint of sensuality (at least what ended up in our home) opened my mind to the possibility that you could wear silky underthings without being one of the models in the Playboy magazines I’d found stacked in the bottom drawer of an old junky cupboard in the backroom of our house.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s turquoise Chevy Impala, I pictured us going to Ethel Abraham’s, imagining what it would be like to walk out of the store with one of her distinctive boxes. They were usually plain on the outside, but when opened a bright flowering print exploded from the interior of the box. A metaphor, I suppose, for the lingerie she sold: something beautiful but kept inside, hidden beneath a simple, unremarkable exterior. My father used to go to Ethel’s on the day before Christmas and pick up gifts for the women in his life: my mother, his sister and his mother. The shop carried a lovely array of nightgowns and robes, silky and lacy and soft to the touch. One year he gave my mother an elegant pink quilted robe that came in a long flat brown box. When she opened the lid, her face conveyed her delight. The robe was folded in the bottom of the box and I couldn’t see it until she held it up for us, but I knew right away it was from The Ethel Abraham Shop because of the flower print on the inside of the lid.

Forty years later, cleaning out my mother’s backroom, I found that box, or one just like it. My mother recycled boxes for years – she piled them on a table next to the cupboard with the hidden Playboys – and you could find any size you wanted for any occasion. This was especially handy for gift-wrapping at Christmas. The box from Ethel’s was used and re-used and re-used again, saved because of its beauty or perhaps because of its nostalgia. I had a hard time throwing it away and even included it in the shipment of things I sent to France. It was only there, out of the context of my family home and its thick web of childhood memories that I could see it for what it was: a dilapidated, overused 40-year old cardboard box. Even the pattern on the interior had faded. I finally put it in the recycling bin and watched the garbage truck pick it up and haul it away, but not without a deep sigh.

My mother parked the car in front of the entrance to McCurdy’s. I was mildly disappointed, and yet at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, I was old enough to reason that I wouldn’t be fitted for my first bra at Ethel’s. I was excited enough about the acquisition I was about to make to erase any disappointment. I was also a bit nervous. Like any adolescent girl, I was self-conscious about my body. I knew I’d have to strip and let my mother examine me. I was embarrassed just thinking of it.
It played out pretty much like my worst nightmare: the racks of the bra department were thick with cupped, hanging devices that looked like a jungle to navigate. The saleswoman was right out of central casting: pointy-heeled shoes with skin-tight pants in a leopard print (when leopard was out of fashion), a thin sweater over her thick middle and cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. When she asked if she could help us it was more of a screech than a request. Her voice was incapable of any volume but public broadcast.

My mother answered, matching her volume. “Yes, we’re here to buy a bra for my daughter. It’s her first one.”

Every other shopper in the department turned to look at me, the newbie. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run out of the store – I really wanted a bra, all my friends were wearing one – and just dropped my head, cringing inside, praying that being “out of town” meant none of the people who could overhear this conversation might actually know me.

The saleswoman ran her eyes up and down my chest and torso, then reached out and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing them back and thrusting my very small breasts toward her.

“Stand up tall, sweety, let me have a look at you.”

A half-dozen white “trainer” bras were placed on the glass counter for my mother to inspect, which she did by holding them up so that everyone in the store could inspect them, too. When I could escape to the dressing room, I pulled the curtain closed, fussing with it to keep it fully shut in order to achieve the privacy I felt I deserved. My striped turtleneck came off and on the chair and before I had a chance to clasp one of the bras around my body, my mother had thrown the curtain open.

“Let me see, honey.”

She was helping me to adjust the straps when the bobcat-dressed lady barged in and asked for viewing rights. She pushed her way in, taking over for my mother, instructing me to bend over into the bra, and fill the cups – not that I had much to fill them – before standing upright. Her cold hands poked and prodded to make sure it fit correctly, adjusting the shoulder straps and then snapping the strap in the back – ouch! – to see how tight it was.

I was sure everyone in the lingerie department could not only see into my dressing room, but could hear my mother and this tacky woman discussing how to fit a bra to my barely-existent breasts. They kept handing me different models, and ripping the curtain open before I’d hooked them on. I felt like a mannequin being dressed and undressed in the window. I was cold, cranky and tortured. I just wanted to get a bra and get out of there.

Later, in the parking lot, a bag of new bras in my hand, I eyed the sign for The Ethel Abraham Shop. When I had real breasts, I told myself, I’d go there. It had to be more civilized.

~ ~ ~

While perusing the racks for the right style of bra for someone Short-pants’ age, I came upon several models that appealed to me as well. The straps on my best black bra were on the verge of disintegrating, I needed a new one to wear under my favorite black sleeveless sweater. So as we speak_the_truthwere bra hunting for her, I collected some for myself. We entered the dressing room – at the Corte Ingles, a much upscaled version of McCurdy’s – with our hands full. The saleswoman didn’t stay around to assist us, a slight disappointment as I’ve outgrown the need for privacy while bra shopping and it’s actually nice to have someone at your beck and call to fetch better sizes and make suggestions based on a full knowledge of the inventory. There were intercom phones in the dressing rooms, in case we needed to call for a size change, but our hands were full with multiple sizes of the same models.

“Do you mind if we use the same dressing room so I can help you?” I asked.

Short-pants wasn’t at all reluctant, she seemed delighted to be sharing the experience with me. We both stripped to the waist and took turns trying on what we’d brought in. I showed her how to bend over and fit herself into the bra, just as I’d been taught, but with a deliberately gentler explanation. She seemed genuinely eager to learn the nuances of putting on a bra. We hooked and unhooked each other, admiring the fabrics and the patterns – teenager’s bras are far more interesting today than in my day – laughing at the ones that were too tight, too big or just too quirky. We stood side-by-side under the fluorescent lighting, staring at each other in the mirror, mother by daughter, in different phases of our lives, but still two women standing together in their bras. Freeze this frame in your memory, I told myself. She won’t want to do this with you forever.

In the end, none of the bras I’d tried on fit. But Short-pants selected two pretty white ones and a deep burgundy satin number, something a little bit soft and ever-so-slightly sensual.

“The thing about nice lingerie,” I told her, while standing in line to pay, “is you wear it for yourself. It’s a gesture of self-respect, having something pretty on, but just for your eyes only.” I didn’t mention that sometimes I keep De-facto in mind when I select my bra and panties for the day. She’ll figure that out on her own.

“Like the purple one?” she asked.

I nodded. “Wear that one on the days when you feel a little down. It’ll give you something to smile about, every time you remember how you’re wearing something beautiful underneath, something just for you.”

~ ~ ~

I learned about the pleasure of lingerie when I moved to France. It’s said that French women spend 20% of their income on their undergarments. It’s certainly a habit I picked up while living there. But recently, in New York on a very quick transit stopover, I spent a Sunday afternoon with two college friends and the subject of lingerie came up. After a long lunch, including a bottle of wine, we walked back out on to the street debating what to do. pink_negligeTwenty years ago this same trio would have gone to a movie or hit a favorite jewelry shop. Last Sunday we went to Sugar Cookies, an exclusive lingerie shop. It was about to close, but stayed open for the three of us. We opened the curtain between the side-by-side fitting rooms and tried on nearly every bra in the store. I wished Short-pants could have been there to see us, each with dozens of silk and lace contraptions going on and coming off, modeling for each other, frank feedback flying back and forth, giggling, oohing and aahhing, viewing ourselves in the beautifully made undergarments. Unlike my experience at Corte Ingles, where nothing came close to fitting me, nearly everything I tried on seemed to work. An hour later, I laid a pile of lacy things on the counter. The saleswoman rang them up and wrapped them, and my friends and I walked out of the door swinging our bags, exhilarated by the items that only we – or perhaps a special somebody – would get to see.

I’ve overcome any collateral damage from my early bra-buying trauma, though it’s never been a task I’ve relished. At least that awkward first occasion produced the awareness to construct a different experience for my daughters. It occurred to me, giggling with my girlfriends in the dressing room, and reflecting on my shopping trip with Short-pants, too, that trying on bras can actually be something fun to do. How fitting to discover this hidden pleasure, just in time to pass it along.

Nov 24 2013

The Plastic Question

The girls seem to have forgiven me for breaking the news about Santa Claus, but this means that their Christmas wish lists are now addressed specifically to me. At least the dialogue has changed. I always felt uneasy perpetuating the you’d better be good because Santa’s elves are watching myth. Our discourse now is a more rational one about how many toys you really need and the santa_on_a_springdifference between having things and doing things. Last year we took a trip over the holidays, so the gift booty was limited to just a few items before we left and one or two things to open on Christmas day. De-facto and I kept repeating how the biggest present was the adventure we were having together. Short-pants bought into this idea completely. Buddy-roo was happy to have the trip, but felt her Christmas had been a little thin.

It started, this season, with Short-pants’ initiative to create her Christmas list, delivered to me with a disclaimer that it was a long list so I’d have choices; she didn’t expect to get everything she’d asked for. She’d written down about a dozen specific book titles, plus a Spanish dictionary and an herb book (?). Short-pants is always the easiest to shop for; a few balls of yarn and a book and she’s delighted. But that’s her chemistry. She slept on a mattress on the floor, and kept her underwear and socks in shoe boxes for the first two months we lived here. When I finally got her a bed and a dresser she threw her arms around me in appreciation. About the bookshelves I bought for her, she said, “Mama, that was more than I ever imagined to have in my room.”

Once Buddy-roo saw her older sister’s note on my desk, she needed to write one, too. The objects of desire on her Christmas wish list are considerably different: a Barbie dream house (with an elevator), the Playmobile castle (at 197 euros: ouch!), an iPod Touch, an iPad Mini, and a dog. For her birthday, just last month, we gave her a the simplest iPod, the iPod Shuffle, pre-loaded with songs I knew she’d like (Best Song Ever) or that I thought she should like (Bohemian Rhapsody). My strategy is to inch her into the technological gadgets, stretching our budget, and her attention span, as long as possible. Last year for her birthday she begged for a manual typewriter, which was no simple task to procure. The reason she still uses it as that she doesn’t have so many other toys to distract her. But despite her love for this new little iPod – it’s great to see and hear her with her earbuds on, rocking out with herself – she always asks for more, bigger and better. It’s in her nature. She always wants what she doesn’t have.

We’ve tried using her hunger for things as an incentive for doing her school work, but it always backfires. The reward we promise isn’t based on grades or scores, it’s about being responsible about her homework, bringing home the right bright_ideabooks, getting started on her own each night without whining or dilly-dallying. She starts out all excited, inspired that simply by being conscientious she might get that dollhouse, or that gadget, or a dog. Three days later, fatigued by the effort, she gives in to her lazy impulses and proclaims that she’ll never get what she wants because the work is too hard and it’s not fair and we’re the cruelest parents in the world.

Which was fine with me in the past because I didn’t really want to give her any more gadgets or any more toys with little plastic pieces, and our apartment was too small for a dog. But now I actually would like to have a dog and here in Barcelona we live close to the mountain, which means a great, open, outdoor place where a doggie could run and frolic and do what dogs are supposed to do. But we can’t reward her current school behavior so at the moment we are pet-less.

~ ~ ~

Two new friends from Buddy-roo’s class have invited her to work with them on an exposé for extra-credit. The subject they’ve chosen to explore: the large toxic plastic island forming and floating in the Pacific ocean. Her research involved collecting images for their poster board – leave it to Buddy-roo to volunteer to do the easiest part – so I set her up at my computer and she clicked on Google images to search for pictures of the floating plastic. What she found was disturbing: a mass of plastic containers, bottles and bags, partly deteriorated by the salt and sun but never fully degradable, pressed together in the middle of nowhere by ocean currents, forming a continent of debris that is killing the wildlife around it and bleeding toxic chemicals into the sea water and into the fish that are eaten by the fish we eat.

We scrolled through the images, selecting the ones she wanted to print and show to her schoolmates. She was disgusted by the volume of plastic garbage that has accumulated. She kept scanning through the images, horrified by the photographs of animals choked by or wrapped in pieces of plastic. It was the turtle whose shell was malformed – it looked as though it had a Barbie doll waist because it had grown within the ring of a plastic six-pack carrier – that made her cry.
“Those poor animals,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks, “how can we let that happen?”

I didn’t have an answer.

It must have stayed with her all night, those images, that question. The next day, on the way to school, she brought it up.

“How come they keep making all that plastic? It’s killing the animals. Why don’t they just stop?”

“It’s all about money,” I told her.

It made me think of The Graduate, when Benjamin, who has no idea what to do with his future, is cornered by one of his parents’ friends offering unsolicited advice: “One word. Plastics.

“Money?” she said.

“I bet you the men who run those big plastic factories were outraged about the pollution on the planet when they were ten years old, just like you are. But then they grew up and got jobs and got married and had families they had to support. Little by little they forgot what they knew when they were ten, and they started taking jobs and making decisions based on how much money they could make, because they wanted buy their kids what they needed: food and clothes and toys…like big, expensive dollhouses, made out of plastic.”

We walked along quietly. I could tell she was thinking about it, weighing her anger at the mounds of plastic in the ocean and what it was doing to our environment with her ardent desire for that overpriced plastic dollhouse.

“If you buy me that that castle, or that dollhouse,” she said, “I’ll play with it for years, and I promise to recycle it.”

We’d arrived at the gate of the school courtyard. She reached up and kissed me before running in to find her friends. I watched her as she joined their circle, opening her school bag to show them the images we’d printed, field_of_princessestelling her friends, I gathered, about the research she’d done. You could see the anger and sadness on her face. She was animated, outraged. But is she outraged enough to stop asking for plastic toys?

Are any of us outraged enough to stop using plastic? Even if we are, can we slow or stop its production? Could we function in this plastic-wrapped society without ever touching plastic? The throw-away economy promised us convenience and delivered. But what do we do, now, with the environmental mess it’s created? That’s another question I can’t answer.