Jun 29 2015

The Triangle

The little red dot on my telephone indicated a message was waiting. I’d put my phone on silence during a meeting, and the breaks were so busy that I didn’t even check. I rarely get calls, so sometimes I forget to monitor the phone. If you ever leave me a message, don’t count on me getting it right away. Email is a much swifter way to reach me.

I dialed in to the voicemail and there was Buddy-roo‘s signature greeting, “Mama?” with an upward inflection at the end, as though, despite the recorded message, she was still holding out hope I’d answer. The message that followed was in a tone that conveyed anger not panic, which relieved me. The call I dread getting when I’m far away is from a fearful child. Anger I can handle, it’s a more assertive emotion, easier to manage from a distance. But if they call me all wound up and afraid, I’m gutted.
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What followed was a litany of irate complaints. She’d been at the end-of-year party at school, always an event filled with too much excitement and too much sugar, and she and her two girlfriends had gotten in a big row. Buddy-roo had stayed overnight with one of the friends the previous night, and my guess is the other friend felt left out. The mother of the other (allegedly excluded) friend got involved, blasting the girls for being rude. Buddy-roo was indignant, protesting that they hadn’t been rude, they’d tried to include her and she’d shunned their approaches. The mother’s reprimand was apparently caustic enough to elicit the father of the other accused girl to intervene, rebuking the outspoken mother for jumping to conclusions and for scolding them with such severity. Personally, I was very glad to be out of town.

It could be that Buddy-roo and her friend were inadvertently (or even deliberately) rude to the third girl. I’d hope otherwise, but I know Buddy-roo has it in her to take the low road – she does occasionally with her sister – and I also know that she sees the world from her own vantage point (don’t we all?) which is sometimes rather distorted. But since I wasn’t there, and I was in another time zone and frankly in another frame of mind, I opted not to call back, at least not right away. In the absence of my feedback, Buddy-roo would have to sort this out on her own. It’d be interesting to see where she ended up.

As for the parents involved, they are both only acquaintances. I could venture a guess that the angry mother, who tends to be protective of her daughter, stepped over the line and the retaliating father, who in my brief experience is relatively good natured, was probably sorry to get drawn in, but something must have rattled him. These guesses of mine about shout_outas far as I want to go. I’d prefer to keep this argument in the domain of our children.

The next day Buddy-roo phoned again, this time while I was on a break. I contemplated letting her call go to the voicemail. I do want to encourage her independence, but I also want to be available to her when she needs guidance. I steeled myself and answered the call. I got an earful: one of the girls (the one whose mother was worried they’d excluded her) was now telling Buddy-roo they could only be friends if she refused to be friends with the other girl. Buddy-roo didn’t want to take sides, but if she had to choose she didn’t know what to do. Just a reminder about how awful teenage (and pre-teen) girls can be. Especially in groups of three.

Actually, I participate in a few trios of girlfriends. Two dear college pals who live in New York get on very well without me, but seem to embrace me fully when we’re all together. My fiesta circle has several trios within it, depending on who attends each year, and it seems to work without incident. I’ve tried to hold up these examples to Buddy-roo, whenever a conflict with her friends comes up. But I must acknowledge her not-yet-fully developed brain has a hard time talking in these terms. It’s still somebody else’s fault.

“Whatever you do, be kind,” I told her. “You don’t want to be one of the mean girls.”

I’m not sure that helped. But it was the only advice I could think of. And about as much as I wanted to meddle, until further notice.

When I returned home on the weekend, I asked Buddy-roo how things had turned out. In the end, the three girls had made up, though probably a fragile reconciliation. One of them left early for the summer, and with only two days of school left, Buddy-roo and the other friend had time to heal. Tomorrow is the last day of school and two months will pass. If I recall how things go at that age, come September they’ll greet each other with open arms, as if nothing had ever happened. Or they’ll end up in entirely different don't_be_meancircles as the classes get shifted around, and the crisis of this fight will fade into a vague memory.

But I wonder, and I watch, carefully, as Buddy-roo (and her sister) launch into what I recall was the most challenging time of my life when it came to making and keeping friends. How to help them avoid getting bullied without being the meddling parent who makes things worse? And, how to make sure they aren’t the ones perpetrating the bullying, deliberately or by default when they watch passively from the side? These years are a treacherous minefield among even the best of friends, especially when it comes to threesomes.


Feb 25 2013

Dream On

It was an expensive drug. I wavered, at the pharmacy counter, absorbing the shock of the price of the dose of Malarone for our family of four. I wasn’t even convinced the anti-malarial drug was necessary. Our friends who live in Mozambique take it when they travel to someplace remote. But our African trip had enough risky elements – arrivals after dark and one temporary passport – I did not want to add another.

I was afraid that the drug would be harsh, but it wasn’t. The hardest part was getting Buddy-roo to swallow her two pills every morning. With a bit of coaching and a glass of mango juice, she achieved this right of passage of pill-swallowing that her sister had already conquered. Lucky that, since Short-pants had to take three pills each morning.
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What I noticed, several nights into the trip, was how vivid my dreams had become. I attributed this to vacation-relaxation, how once it sets in that you are really away from the stresses of your day-to-day, you sleep in a different way, and so your dreams change. Then our hosts, better informed about the use of the drug, informed me that this is one of the side-effects of Malarone: heightened dreaming.

Such good dreams. Vivid, colorful, explicit, full scenarios with story lines that made sense, somehow always pleasant. They lingered after waking up; I could remember the dream long enough to retell it, in detail. I could live in the dream for several hours. As it became habitual, this dreaming, I relished the nights the good dream(s) that would come.

My parents made repeat appearances. Sometimes they were younger than my age now. And though the places in the dreams were sometimes arbitrary or unclear, as is normal, when they were specific, it was often in my childhood home. Over the course of the four weeks of drug-enriched dreaming, I dreamt about being in that old house a dozen times. Sometimes as I last remember it, in its best-kept state, carpeted, painted, redecorated, but occasionally these dreams took me back further, to the earlier memories of the house and its cold linoleum tiles, splintered floors, peeling wallpaper and red velvet fauteuils. What struck me, in either case, was the detail. The black and red blended colors of a plaid blanket, the carved legs of the upright piano, the crease in the large map glued to the wall, the soot-darkened carpet just beneath the heating vents – these images the familiar backdrop of my safe and protected childhood. I’d wake up in the morning squeezing my eyes shut, not wanting to lose the feeling have been there, of stepping back into my youth, into the period of time when my responsibilities were few and everything was taken care of for me.

~ ~ ~

“Do you ever scream bloody murder at your kids?” I asked my friend over coffee. We’d just finished a school-related meeting, and it felt like a luxury for both of us to linger a few minutes longer to catch-up.

“Yes, and when I do it’s never really about them,” he answered, without hesitating. “It’s about something else that’s bothering me.”

“Yeah,” I said, hesitating.

Last week was a nightmare. A perfect storm: the combination of jet-lag after 9 days in a time zone 9 hours behind, multiple professional projects to manage in full-steam-ahead mode, and solo parenting with De-facto away for as many days I was prior to his departure. Could there have been a worse time time for Short-pants to have extra practice and additional rehearsals for two upcoming orchestra concerts? Or for both girls to have gates_of_hell_maskbeyond-the-usual homework assignments to prepare for exposés at school? Or for that volunteer project I offered to do for the school, months ago when things were quiet, to come through, this week?

I’d screamed at Buddy-roo that morning. She hadn’t prepared her backpack the night before, and we were already late out the door because of a last-minute hairstyle change. She realized she needed an essential piece of school equipment, urgently, that she’d neglected to tell me about the night before, despite my multiple appeals to double-check.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the tiny little action that doesn’t mean that much in and of itself, but the accumulation of little things not done, done poorly, put off – or needed immediately at an unreasonable time – mounted high enough so that I lost my capacity to take a breath and firmly say “okay, let’s go get it fast,” or “sorry honey, you’ll have to live without it today.” A horrifying string of expletives later, their terrified faces stared back at me before our uncomfortable descent down the stairs, the two of them wailing and me rolling my eyes and wishing I could just go back to bed and get up and start this day all over. Or just go back to bed and stay there.

If I could quit my job as mother, I would have tendered my resignation in that moment. I’m not good at all this. I’m not good at cheerful nagging and nudging. I’m tired of the reminding and reprimanding. I just want a little peace in the morning, you know, a quiet breakfast, a leisurely stroll to school and back. I just want some rest in the evenings, a lovely dinner and a movie on TV, or crawling into bed with a book. I’m tired of having to think about dinner and washing the laundry and reminding them to bathe and do their homework and getting them to and from all their activities (that I signed them up for). I just don’t want to have to take care of anyone else.

But mothering is not a job you resign from, and there are aspects of the position I would miss desperately were I to be fired.

Later that day, when they came home from school, I sat with each girl, separately, discussing the morning’s blow-out. We talked about what led up to it, we talked about other more productive ways I might have responded. But I know I’m teaching them in mixed signals: how to lose it like a banshee, and how to clean up afterwards with grace. It could be worse, I suppose. But it’s not great. I finish feeling flawed and foolish.
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De-facto has returned, and our home is settling back in to its normalcy of shared parenting and back-up support on the details. This meant I could have a bit of a lay-in this morning, staring at the ceiling and thinking about our our long vacation this winter, with its warm temperatures and sunny skies and consecutive days of leisure without needing to needle the children. It made me long for those Malarone-mornings and the velvety haze after a dreamy night, when I could shut my eyes and snooze my way back into the soft, cozy dreams about a time when I was little and loved, and the floors were tiled and the chairs were red and somebody else took care of me.

I can dream, can’t I?


Jan 28 2013

Push Me Pull You

It was going to be a slow morning, the way weekend mornings should be. Little feet pattered about in the hallway and the kitchen, but ostensibly my assistance was not required. There was nowhere to go, no rushing to get up and out for school, no running to an appointment. I snuck into the kitchen to make a coffee – my second cup, since Short-pants had already brought me the first – and slipped back into bed. I puffed the pillows upright against the wall and surveyed the towering stack of books beside my bed table, wondering which one to choose for a leisurely morning read.

“Who drank the milk I left in the glass?” Short-pants yelled from the kitchen. Maybe not so much a yell as a cry, and it was followed by angry tears.

I could picture it: a tumbler, its glass discolored from years of dishwasher wear, filled halfway with milk. It’d been on the counter, next to an empty bowl. I’ve seen that glass of milk a hundred times, after just as many breakfasts, left on the counter unfinished. We try not to waste food in our family, so I always set the glass aside and use the milk in my coffee. It’s regularly the source of milk for my second cup of the morning.
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Just moments before her forlorn cry, I’d dumped that very glass of milk into the frother and used it to to top off the cup of coffee I’d re-heated in the microwave. It was in the cup I’d brought back to bed with me.

“I think I used it, sweetie.”

Short-pants stormed into the bedroom. Her face was red, her lips turned down. “I was going to use that to make hot chocolate for Papa!”

I apologized and did my best to assure her that it was okay, her papa could live without it. De-facto didn’t protest. This did not assuage her anger. Remembering that I’d seen some light cream in the fridge, I suggested we could mix that with a little water and froth it up for him and it’d be perfect, maybe even better than milk.

“Really?” She wiped the tears running down her cheek. “Will you help me?”

Would I make the lazy mother’s choice? Having just put myself back in bed for a few moments of peace, that was my first instinct. I tried to explain where the cream was and how much water to mix in, but this only resulted in a blank stare from a girl on the verge of more tears. Since I’d profited from what was apparently the last drop of milk in our home, I felt obliged to help with the situation. I flipped back that cozy comforter, pushed myself out of bed and followed her to the kitchen. We found what was left in the small carton of cream and mixed it with a little water to thin it. The frother whipped it up into a cloud of warm foam, allowing her to achieve her objective of serving her papa a cup of hot chocolate in bed.

While I was in the kitchen, Buddy-roo called to me, asking for help with some research for her school presentation. I’d been nagging her to do it for three days, she was finally starting. I figured I could make a quick detour to the table where she was working, point her in the right direction and then return to the warmth of my bed and the pile of books beside it. As I worked with Buddy-roo – which wasn’t as quick a detour as I’d hoped – Short-pants returned to the kitchen and exploded into tears, again.
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“I didn’t get any milk this morning.”

I wanted to strangle her for making such a big fuss out of this shortage. We could all live one morning without dairy in our drinks. Except she’d made a milky beverage for everyone in the family before making one for herself. Selfless, some might say.

After a discussion about the nature of this crisis and whether it merited such outbursts, then a quick brainstorming about how the problem might be solved, it was decided that she could get dressed and go to the store to buy some milk. A glance at the clock shocked me into the realization of what time it was; my Saturday errands ought to be run sooner rather than later when the stores get crowded. So much for my thirty minutes of peaceful reading in bed.

We both dressed and headed out together. The plan was to go to the little Arab store and get a bottle of milk, then she’d take it back home and I’d go off and do the rest of my errands. Her mood brightened as we descended the four flights of stairs and opened the door to the street. Sometimes just getting out of the house can make you feel better about anything. At the little shop, we selected a bottle of milk and I paid the shopkeeper, a man who used to watch me navigate (precariously) the narrow aisles of his store with Short-pants in her baby-stroller. He made a comment about how she’s grown. I nodded with a dual expression of pride and bewilderment.

Outside the store, I offered her the change he’d given me. “Buy some pain-au-chocolate for you and your sister.”

“That’s what I was already planning to do.” She opened her palm. It held several coins she’d taken from her own piggy-bank.

“Here,” I gave her my coins anyway. “Use mine. Get one for Papa, too.”

Smiling, Short-pants reached up and kissed me, turned around and walked – almost running but not quite – down the street toward the patisserie. She has a signature gait, it’s a little off center, pronounced because of her lengthening legs. I watched until she disappeared into the bakery. Tears in my eyes, now, my heart hurt from the morning’s mix of angst and awe. She’s oh so sensitive, but at the same time so very strong.
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That’s it, isn’t it? The push-me-pull-you of parenting. It’s the fiercest can’t-you-just-leave-me-alone-for-a-moment juxtaposed with a desperate please-don’t-grow-up-and-go-away-yet. Both feelings rushing at you in the span of thirty minutes, thirty quiet minutes that you thought you’d have for yourself, but instead thirty minutes of full-throttle parenting, dancing to the highs and lows of little people inhabiting your life, ultimately marveling at the size and breadth of their hearts, little hearts that push and pull at every string in yours.


Dec 30 2012

Unnecessary Narration

It is inevitable that spending several consecutive days in close quarters with the people you know most can be disastrous – even though you love them – if you don’t get a little space from each other. Vacations, they say, can make or break a couple. Too much togetherness reveals our most interesting habits. I remember an early getaway trip with De-facto; we went skiing in Switzerland and then took a train to Naples where we rented a car and drove around the boot of Italy. There was a moment during that trip when I said to myself, he’s a nice guy but obviously we are not going to work out. I’m not sure exactly what happened to turn that prediction around, but (I think) I’m glad for it. family_on_bridge.jpg

There have been some parallels on this trip, our holiday in Africa. They are a nice family but obviously this is not going to work out. I’m not afraid to admit to an occasional fantasy that they are absent from my current reality. It is short-lived, but a luxurious thought. It is free of little voices and constant questions. There are no demands for help to find or fix something that all of a sudden is dear to them, and then ten minutes later it is left behind on the floor for me to trip over. Most of all, in this fantasy, there is quiet. The chattering in the back seat ceases.

“She won’t play with me,” Buddy-roo complains even though she ignored her sister’s overtures to engage in a game, less than twenty minutes earlier.

“Can’t you just be quiet?” Short-pants screeches, even though an hour ago she was the one driving us all batty with a constant stream of words, attributing wild animals to her favorite literary characters by their first initial: “Hermione and Harry are hippos, Ron is a rhino, Neville is a nyala…”

Now it’s Buddy-roo who keeps on talking, spiteful in her aim to punish her sister. “Look! We’re all wearing something blue except Papa! I’ve got blue shorts, you’ve got blue pants, and mama has a blue shirt…”

From the backseat a litany of inconsequential facts continue to pour out of Buddy-roo like water from a fire hose. Everything is delivered with authority, especially the facts that she makes up on the spot. As an extrovert, she only really knows what she’s thinking if she says it aloud. She requires constant stimulation and if something isn’t filling the space, she will.

Short-pants, on the other hand, is a bona-fide introvert, à la Susan Caine, and if there’s too much of anything for too long – too much talking, music, tree_roots_entangled.jpgnoise, chaos – the meltdown can be impressive. But she has a sense of her own preference, usually removing herself from an over-stimulating environment with a polite, “I think I just need a little alone time.”

It’s hard to remove yourself politely from the backseat of an economy car in the middle of a wild game park, so the meltdown is unavoidable.

“Enough!” Short-pants slaps the car seat hard with her hand. “I’ve had it with the unnecessary narration!”

De-facto and I glance sideways at each other, suppressing our laughter. Her angry outburst shocks Buddy-roo into silence, bringing a temporary peace to the car. Two beats later, the both of them start crying in tandem.

~ ~ ~

When Short-pants was ten months old, we took her to the United States to introduce her to our family up and down the east coast. De-facto’s brother loaned us his 1970’s Volkswagon bus, an iconic touring vehicle that broke down every other day. Half of the photos from that trip are of De-facto with his head stuck in the rear of that bus, trying to sort out why the engine wouldn’t run much faster than 45 miles per hour.

It was slow going, but Short-pants was a good sport. When she got a little fussy, I’d entertain her with a crew of little plastic wild animals that had been given to us by one of our friends who hosted us along our route. There was a tiny impala, a giraffe and other wild, hooved beasts. Short-pants was fascinated by them, especially when I moved them up and down her legs and thighs, as though they were walking across her body. We must have discovered this simple distraction while near our nation’s capital, because I started humming Hail to the Chief as those little hooved creatures made the trek around her lap. I did not know the words to this anthem, so I used crooner syllables dah-dah-doo-wah throughout the entire song. I played this game with her for hours, while she kicked and giggled in her car seat.
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Six months later, Short-pants’ was on another trip, this time to South Africa where De-facto and I were working at a conference. Our hosts organized a game drive and we took her along, on my lap. The open-to-the-air truck barreled down a long dirt road beside a grove of trees and made a sharp 90-degree turn. Right in front of us, in the middle of the road, stood a tall giraffe, nearly twenty feet tall. The truck halted and we all lurched forward, staring up, speechless, at the long-necked creature.

“Dat-doo-waaaahh!” Short-pants’ little voice expressed the awe of everyone on the drive.

That was when we realized she’d associated my lyrics of the President’s theme song with the little plastic animals. Now that she’d seen a real one, it had been named. Our family has its own words, and this is one of them. We don’t say giraffe; we say dat-doo-wah.

It happens now and then, these days, that she’ll mention a dat-doo-wah in the company of friends who then give her a blank stare, not knowing the folklore of this word in our family. She’ll laugh nervously, at her own joke, wondering why nobody else is laughing with her.

“You can’t just blurt it out,” we remind her. “You have to tell the story, or people won’t get it.” In this case, a little narration is necessary.

~ ~ ~

This morning the two siblings were attached at the hip in an amicable game of pretend fairies, but now they’re at each other’s throats, having strung up shirts from headrests of the car seats to draw the boundaries that shall not be crossed in the backseat of the car. The tears have abated but their sniping continues, an ongoing (and unnecessary) soundtrack of stay on your own side! and don’t touch me! dahdoowahThere’s nowhere to stop and let them out to run off their angry energy; we’re an hour away from our camp and we have to get there before the gates close, in just about an hour.

As if on command, a long, lanky giraffe appears on the side of the road.

“Look! Up ahead.”

Short-pants and Buddy-roo lift their eyes to see what I’m pointing at.

Dah-doo-wah!” their voices in tandem.

In an instant, the bitterness between them gives way to excitement. The words they exchange now are enthusiastic. Together they admire the elegant animal standing tall before them. Short-pants reports that the dah-doo-wah has the same number of vertebrae as a human. Buddy-roo wonders how this could be true, with such a long neck. Their chatter, as constant as ever, but at least the incessant narration has turned friendly again. Obviously, if this is going to work out, that was necessary.


Feb 5 2012

A Mid Crisis

I’m typing away at my computer. It’s 3:45 in the afternoon and I’ve just hit my stride. The fits-and-starts of my own creative process now oiled and operating, I’m thinking crisply and spitting out maximum-words-per-minute. It feels like I could cruise in this productive lane for hours, but for the hands of the clock, sweeping in on the witching hour. De-facto, best co-parent known to womankind, volunteers to fetch the kids at school. I’m grateful for an extra thirty minutes to profit from my momentum, falling back into my flow as soon has he’s out the door.

Until I hear their cherubic voices in the stairwell. It should fill me with anticipation – if I were a good mom – but instead I feel dread. Here comes the hell storm of the evening grind. The door bursts open with the blast of post-school fatigue. Both girls, in high volume screams, run to me crying, each with her unique sob story. I have one too, but I know I’m supposed to swallow mine.

I wait without comment until the home-from-school-crisis fades, the screeching ceases and the tears dry. We agree to homework before dinner, which is when we discover that Buddy-roo’s new water bottle has leaked all over her cartable. Her schoolbooks are more than damp, her pencil case drenched, after sitting in the bottom of the bag with ¼-inch of water. I know I should be coolly pulling things out and laying them on a towel, but now I’m ticked off. It’s just another damn thing to do, another project for the evening that isn’t fun, restful or even interesting. It’s probably only fifteen minutes to lay out all her notebooks to air and blow-dry the interior of the bag, but there are a half-dozen other unexpected tasks just like this that result from being a mom to 8 and 10 year old girls, creatures old enough to be independent, but not at all autonomous.

I slam each of the books on the floor, not cursing with words but cursing with gestures. Short-pants slips around me and upstairs to avoid my mood. Buddy-roo has no choice but to witness it; she knows she can’t abandon me to dry out her schoolbag on my own. I turn toward the backsplash and breathe deeply, pursing my lips so I don’t utter a word that will be irretractable. I reach for a water glass to give purpose to this moment’s removal from the chaos of their presence in my life, and these few seconds taken to fill the glass and quench my angry thirst and calm me down so that I can be civil toward my offspring. I grab two towels, hand one to Buddy-roo, and we dry off the books as best we can, spreading them out, open to the air. We lay all the pens, erasers and other paraphernalia of her pencil case on another towel to dry overnight.

“Don’t be mad, mama,” she says, “I didn’t know the water bottle would leak all over.”

I’m not mad about the water bottle. I’m mad about the train wreck of my life every day after 4:30, and how I can’t manage my time better so that I’m poised and ready for them after school. Mad that I don’t have what it takes to be more compartmentalized, more together, more agile about the juggling act that is my life. I’m mad about the Sisyphean list of child-oriented household tasks, the laundry, the hang-up-your-clothes and wash-your-hands and do-your-homework-for-your-humorless-French-teacher and did-you-practice-your-viola grind, the acquisition of school supplies that have run out, the purchase of birthday presents for upcoming parties and the orchestrating of who-goes-where-and-how whenever De-facto and I are both out of town on the same days, the day-in-day-out-to-do-list that by the time they are in jammies and stories read and lights out, leaves me ready only to collapse into bed, falling asleep before even one page of my book is turned, wrung out from the last four hours of the day.

“I won’t be mad anymore,” I answer, assuring her with a gentler voice and my open arms, inviting her to an embrace. “Now we know not to use that water bottle in your school bag.”

She wraps her arms around me and squeezes. Is it a hug of appreciation, or relief? I really wish I hadn’t lost my temper; this gives me no leg to stand on when they start screeching. But what to do when everything you’re supposed to do, being on time, being conscientious, cheerful, responsible, reliable and all such hobgoblin behavior, is heavy on your shoulders when all you want to do is escape and run away, as far away as you can?

There is, for some, a point in a marriage where he buys a red sports car and has an affair, or she joins a book club or takes a pole-dancing class and has an affair. It’s the midway, midlife doldrums, when the grind of the day-to-day bears down one day too long, too hard, too much. The routine that was once cozily reassuring becomes relentlessly tiresome, compelling us to rebel and misbehave.

Is there such a point in parenting? A mid-parenting crisis? If there were, wouldn’t it settle in about now, halfway through their childhood, at age eight or ten with as many years left to go before the promise of an empty nest? The sleep-deprived diaper-changing infant and toddler years behind, you’d think it should be easier now. Supervision is still required, but at a diminished level from those formative years, which are as full-on as it gets but somehow that baby smell, the sweet odor emitted by newborns and small children, acts like a drug, seducing you to think that it’s really okay that your life has been turned totally upside down. The scent has worn off by now (replaced by the smell of lice shampoo) but the work is far from over. Even if you’re the best kind of limit-setting French-styled parent, it’s still a lot of work to keep up with your mid-childhood aged kids, no matter how well behaved they are.

I’ve had contact, very recently, with two of my college friends who have children in the midst of their junior-year-abroad. While remote mothering is still necessary, the relationships have shifted. They’re already speaking with pride about their nearly-adult children. I suspect, eventually, you turn some corner and you get to stand back and observe the success of your offspring, and relish the result of nearly two decades of parenting labor. Like you get to retire from intensive parenting and become a parent emeritus.

I’m in between the nascent parent and the at-the-finish-line parent. Halfway through the job of raising little souls, a balancing act between honoring their nature and enriching them by nurture, even though their nature’s starting to wear on me, the day-in-day out of dragging them out of bed and getting them out the door with the right coat on and their teeth brushed, and acting as PA with an entirely different schedule of pick-up-and-take-there every day of the week, all of this exacerbated by my attempts to continue to nourish myself and my own career. And I have an equal partner in parenting. I can’t even imagine the daily existence for parents with spouses who can’t or won’t help as much, or most of all, for the single-parents, moms or dads, who do it all without a sympathetic cohort.

It’s about now that I reach back and try to grab hold of the faded drama of our bleak hospital days, when Short-pants was in the ICU and we didn’t know if she’d reach her fourth birthday. I made no shortage of bargaining promises to any and all omniscient gods and higher powers who’d hear us, pleading against an unimaginable outcome that would remove her from our family and our lives. It feels petty to rail about being at the end of my rope in a mid-parenting crisis in light of that experience, a true and bonafide crisis. I know my current problems are little and luxurious. My children are healthy, creatively-tempered yet obedient-in-the-right-doses. They give abundant love, and all those gifts, expected and unexpected, that children deliver to their parents. I’m told, again and again, that it all goes by so fast and I should cherish these days, because soon I’ll long for them. But I know the days I’m longing for now, and they aren’t these.

A good friend likes to remind me that my children will be a comfort to me in my old age. But right now, I’m middle-aged and only midway through their childhood. It’s still my job to comfort them. I know this is a sob-story, my tiny mid-parenting crisis, but swallowing it hasn’t made it go away, and the idea taking up pole-dancing seems more appealing every day.


Sep 24 2011

Le Catch-22

Living in France, one is obliged to become expert at paperwork. There is no way to avoid it. At the start of every school year, I fill out no less than four pages of paper per child, each with the same basic parental and caregiver contact information. (I actually photocopied these sheets to use next year – even scanned it to my desktop – but I bet they change all the forms.) Every year, the same copies of the same vaccination pages from the cahiers de santé are required, stuffed and sealed in special envelopes. You’d think this would be a document that could live in a file cabinet – or a computer – in the nurse’s office. Mais non.

At every turn there is more paperwork. This could be said of any country but it seems particularly burdensome in France. Yet this is where we have chosen to raise our children. Both girls were born on French soil and both possess French birth certificates, a document with its own administrative quirks. After a baby is born, you have up to (and no longer than) three days to go to the local town hall, the mairie, to register the birth and obtain an acte de naissance. The hospitals dog you to attend to this detail in a timely fashion, one wonders if they are penalized if you fail to do so.

When you need to use this birth certificate, say, three years later, in order to enroll your child in the école maternelle, it’s no longer valid. You must return to the same mairie (in the arrondissement or town where the clinic or hospital was located) and take a number and wait to be called up to the desk where you make a request for a newly signed and dated version. This updated document can be used to procure whatever additional privileges you’re seeking, as long as you use it within three months, before it, too, is deemed invalid and another trip to the mairie is required.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo are both eligible for a special kind of made-in-France-resident-card, but De-facto and I haven’t gotten around to addressing the paperwork for it. The girls were born at the American Hospital of Paris, which is actually in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and it’s a bit of a schlep to out there to get a new copy of their actes de naissance. A neighbor told me it was possible to avoid the trip by making the demand on-line, and so this week I finally I forged through the website and found the form for an acte de naissance and filled in fields and scanned my own papers and pushed the button. A big red exclamation point informed me my application could not be processed unless I could provide a copy of the original birth certificate. I was able to dig out previous outdated originals and scan and attach them to the application. But isn’t it all a bit ludicrous? The very document I wanted to obtain was unobtainable unless I had a copy of it.

Maybe it’s just me, fed up with calling around to arrange this and that, weary of the forms and protocol I must fill out and follow, tired of jumping through hoops. I want to be done with the school meetings and sign-ups and last-minute school-supply runs. I feel like I’ve become a PA to my children, and I’d like to get on with my life. Plus a last-minute trip to the states – my mother’s house has finally sold and we must empty the last of its belongings – puts a press on my agenda and makes me impatient with the inefficiencies that seem to be standard practice here.

The viola teacher from the conservatory called to remind me to get an attestation d’assurance, proof of insurance, in order for Short-pants to be given an instrument. I asked her if we could have same viola as last year; it was actually a very good instrument and more importantly I already had the attestation de valeur, so getting the insurance would be easier.

“Non,” she apologized. Short-pants had grown and needed a bigger instrument. I asked if she could provide me with the name of the fabricant of the new instrument. “Mais, non,” she said, unapologetically, she didn’t have it. She didn’t know the maker or the value.

I explained that my insurance company couldn’t insure the instrument unless they knew the value. And they couldn’t know the value if I didn’t have a certificate from the maker. I’d need the name of the luthier so I could obtain this document, in order to obtain another document, in order to get the viola.

“I’m not allowed to give you the instrument until I have the attestation d’assurance,” she said.

“But I cannot get insurance,” I said, “until I have the instrument, or until you tell me the make and the exact value.”

I mean, she’s been doling out these instruments to students for years now. Doesn’t she know this?

The good news is that my insurance agency is a cozy neighborhood bureau that I’ve been going using for more than ten years. The very reasonable woman who works there immediately appreciated my conundrum and agreed to write a very general attestation of insurance for an instrument of the same value as last year’s. Then, she told me, once I could give her the real details of the new instrument, she’d adjust my policy issue a more official attestation.

Within 48 hours her letter arrived in the post, so I sent Short-pants off to her lesson with the paperwork in hand and she was given her new viola. After the lesson, the teacher nabbed me and dragged me into the office. I’d wanted to avoid any administrators, hoping I could get the official certificate first. I was leaving the next day for the week-long trip to the states, so I was deep in departure-preparation panic and not so interested in the time I would lose attending to a bureaucratic detail like this, a detail that was not at all a priority on the day before a voyage.

The viola teacher deposited me at the office and conveniently slipped away, leaving me to fend for myself across the desk from the austere and humorless functionaire who’s job it is to handle the insurance certificates for probably hundreds of music students. This can’t be fun, it might be Sisyphean, which would explain her comportment. A close inspection of the letter revealed its lack of specificity and gave her reason to remove her glasses and set them down before informing me that she couldn’t let us take the instrument if I didn’t have a more detailed letter of insurance.

I explained, again, the predicament. I have no idea how to say Catch-22 in French, but if I knew, it’s the phrase I’d have used.

“The teacher should have given you this information.”

“I asked her, several times,” I said, “but she didn’t have the name, or the value.”

“But she must.”

“But she didn’t.”

“But why not?”

“I don’t know,” I said, giving her my best French shrug.

“Well I cannot leave the instrument with you, then.”

I stood up abruptly and pushed in my chair. Short-pants looked at me wide-eyed.

“What am I supposed to do?” I said, “The requirements are impossible and all my daughter wants to do is play her viola!”

I think standing up did the trick.

She scratched “attestation provisionelle” across the top of the page in big dramatic letters, insisting I get a detailed certificate to her as soon as possible.

We walked out of that dim conservatory, squinting into the afternoon sun. Short-pants held my hand while I fumed quietly. It’s all such a waste of time. Shouldn’t each instrument come with its own attestation? Shouldn’t the conservatory have gathered this information? Why is it the mother’s job to do this paperwork? Did my mother have to do all this crazy-making organization for me?

A few blocks later, I stopped and knelt down in front of Short-pants. “I’m sorry I lost my temper with the lady at the conservatory. I could tell it frightened you.”

“It’s okay mama.”

“I’m a little bit on edge today,” I said. “Do you know why?”

“Because you have a lot to do before you go away?”

This was surely part of it, but it’s not the real source. All week I’ve been a bit impatient and emotional.

“It’s because I’m going to clean out the furniture and the final things from Grammy’s house, and I’m sad and nervous about it.”

“I understand.” She leaned in and hugged me tight. “But look, I got my viola, right?” She stepped back, raised the instrument case up into the air and smiled, victoriously.


Sep 11 2011

This Mad World

All week I’ve been mad at the world. Blame it on the rentrée, which each year feels more brutal than the previous. There is the onslaught of work that I should have done over the summer, let alone the full-time job that is getting the kids back-to-school, with the long lists of books and supplies that must be acquired precisely as indicated and the organizing of their extra curricular calendars for the year. Mothers all over the city nod at each other knowingly; a friend with whom I had a rushed lunch answered the obligatory question how goes the rentrée? with a long sigh and an eye-roll. She didn’t have to say a word.

It’s not only what you have to do, it’s how long it takes to do it. I want to minimize Short-pants’ weekly trips to the conservatory, so I went over in person to try to schedule her classes back-to-back on the same day. But nobody there could help me. An hour later I left with an email address and no certain solution. Buddy-roo is begging to take tap-dancing classes (thanks to Ann Miller and Kit Kittredge) so I rearranged several appointments in order to arrive at the dance school early enough to assure her a place on the list. That’s when I learned I that the tap-dance teacher doesn’t participate in the standard inscription process, I needed only to phone him to sign up. (Thanks for putting that in the flyer.) Once again, a reminder that I’m an outsider here. No matter how long I’ve lived here or how much as I’ve figured out how to System D on some fairly challenging tasks, I’m still slapped in the face, each and every year, with some shrugging French person who explains, “C’est comme ça.” That’s just how it is.

Sent home in Buddy-roo’s cahier de correspondance, a letter from her new teacher outlines in detail the punishment system within the classroom; no mention is made of the learning objectives or the educational climate. Oui, but it’s a traditional French school, I tell myself, why should I expect anything different? And why am I in France? These are the geo-existentialist questions that come to mind every year about this time.

So I grumble about town, muttering under my breath while running inefficient errands and waiting in line to discover I didn’t need to, feeling like the clock is ticking away while I manage all these angry details of what I wish was somebody else’s life.

~ ~ ~

Ten years ago, my mother was visiting us in Paris when some crazy men flew those airplanes into the big office towers. Like most everyone, I can tell you exactly where I was that day; just like my parents could for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or my grandparents for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Short-pants was just shy of two months old, my mother had come over to meet her. She was so tickled to see and hold that little baby; I think she’d given up on me in the grandchildren department and it was a pleasant surprise to have a new little grand-daughter but also to see me with that child in my arms. I’d sworn off children in high school, after a particularly terrorizing babysitting incident. She’d begun to believe I really meant it.

That afternoon we strapped Short-pants into her stroller and ventured out to show my mother an artist’s squat on rue de Rivoli. I’m not sure that she was so curious about the squat, an old ceilings, ornate molding and marble fireplaces that had fallen into disuse and was then inhabited by artists who collectively managed the building. The city shrugged its shoulders and allowed them to stay, letting eccentric culture win over law-and-order and by-the-book. My mother was much amused by it, each room a working space of a different artist, some set up very typically as an artist’s studio, others more daring and whimsical, showing their eclectic work under black light or with rhythmic music to set a mood. The squat is still a working studio and public gallery; in those days it was open to the public only once or twice a week.

When we returned home, I went to my computer to check email, ignoring the news item that flashed on the welcome page, something about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. I dismissed it as a light-craft error, and didn’t investigate further. Short-pants was still asleep from the walk home, I wanted to take maximize my time on-line. It was not until my sister, on a business trip in China, phoned and prompted me to turn on the television that we learned the severity of this “freak accident” which wasn’t a small plane and wasn’t an accident, either. It had all been done very much on purpose.

In the days that followed we sat, stupefied, around our television watching the crumbling towers, the jumpers, the ash and dust everywhere, the heroic fireman and rescue workers, the grieving families. It was all so horrible, yet I couldn’t take my eyes away, as if I had to see it repeatedly to believe it was true. While Short-pants nursed at my breast, I’d watch those two towers fall, again and again while her little paws beat against my chest. What kind of world had I brought this little child into? Listening to the new reports as events unfolded, and subsequent anthrax scares and the fear that gripped us all so fiercely, I thought to myself – and probably out loud to De-facto – that the world had gone completely mad and that this was the beginning of the end. Would we spiral down to dystopian religious wars and Short-pants won’t live to be ten years old? I remember caressing the soft flesh on her arm, touching the tip of her nose and fingers and toes and wondering what the world would be like in 2011. Would any of us survive? I really thought the world was about to implode in a series of well-timed terrorist plots. The outlook was pretty bleak.

Three years later, when Short-pants fell sick and I was desperately searching for the reason, I wondered if breastfeeding in front of that repetitive, horrible news had put the mysterious abscess in her head.

There was, on a positive note, such a tremendous amount of good will shown toward the American community by the French on 9/11. Families opened up their homes to stranded air passengers, people in the neighborhood who knew I was American would stop me and ask if I knew anyone who’d been in the towers or at the pentagon or on any of the planes, expressing their condolences to our grieving nation. Despite the horror of what happened, it produced an element of hope from that outpouring of thoughtfulness and solidarity, and I remember thinking how glad I was that we lived in France. It was probably safer here, and people were being awfully considerate.

~ ~ ~

I had the best intentions of taking the girls to the 9/11 memorial service at Place du Trocadéro. It rained steadily all day – and poured even harder at exactly the time we would have had to leave – so I opted to stay home and commemorate the somber occasion with the television news. Neither one of them could have any memory of the event and it’s not a subject we’ve talked about other than as an explanation for why it’s necessary to practically disrobe when we go through airport security. They fired questions at me as the coverage of the ceremonies droned on in the background: Why did the plane fly into the building? Why are those people covered in dust? Why are you crying, mama?

I couldn’t really explain why. I wasn’t trying to spare them any pain that might come from the knowledge of what happened that day. I simply couldn’t find any words, or enough words, or the right words to convey what was lost that day. All those lives, lost. All the potential memories that will never happen because a parent disappeared that day, lost. The dignity that accompanies liberty and privacy, the compassion for foreigners and (what I thought was) our signature religious tolerance – if not lost, is seriously diminished. I long for the optimism we knew prior to September 11, 2001. Even though life eventually returned to a normal rhythm, something I couldn’t imagine at all during those mad, panicked days immediately following the event – it’s still not the same. It never will be.

I didn’t lose anyone that day. If anything, I was given extra time with my mother, who was grounded in Paris, and with other close family friends who happened to be visiting France that week. We huddled together and comforted each other, watching the news, non-stop. With the exception of the nuissance of airport security, my day-to-day life is more or less unscathed by 9/11. Listening to the victims’ family members as they took turns reading out loud the names of those killed, one by one, I felt pretty silly. Silly for my exasperation about the rentrée and all its inconvenient errands. Silly and sorry for those harsh words I snapped at De-facto the other night or my impatience with the girls when they pick at each other. It all seems just plain silly when you think about what these families have endured. Just like Short-pants’ hospital scare put everything in perspective, so does this occasion give me pause to remember – and relish – how absolutely lucky I am, with all of my luxurious burdens, to be alive and breathing in this mad, mad world.


Sep 10 2010

#Fail

If you could evaluate my mothering style for the last week, it would be a giant hash tag: #Fail. I’ve been impatient, quick to shout, rushing through the to-do list, rushing through the apartment, rushing through my angry life. This is partly due to a big job, one with tentacles that reach far beyond the original scope of the project. It’s also due to the rentreé – what the French call this moment of back to school, back to work after taking most of August off. Or maybe it’s just me, drowning in my own expectations.

Despite my foresight in July to buy all the girls’ books and school supplies before the crowded and dreaded last week of August, I still scrambled to get them out the door fully prepared for their first day of school, and it didn’t keep me from being subjected to the annual French pedagogical practice of scorning the parents. There were messages from the maitresses in the Cahiers de Correspondence reminding me that their books have not been properly covered in clear plastic wrap (akin to working with fly paper) or the wrong kind of colored pencils have been purchased, we have to send another box of tissues to the school, we need ID photos for the kids by the next morning and even though it’s 7:00 and I just got home and there’s still homework to finish and dinner to be made and another teleconference at 9:00, something I try to avoid but inevitably with colleagues and clients in other continents this rule gets excepted and tonight of all the nights I have a call but yes we’ll find pictures of you both and print them out for school tomorrow.

Oh and what’s this other note from the teacher? I have to fill out medical forms with the name, address and all phone numbers of mother, father and babysitter, a form much like the three forms I filled out and sent to school with each child (6 forms!) yesterday, only I must attach a copy of the their vaccination records even though I did this last year and the year before and don’t they keep these records on file? Even though everybody would be happier if they just computerized the system mais non it wouldn’t be the same if those faded photocopied forms weren’t sent home every year to be filled out exponentially.

As you can tell, I’m about to lose it.

De-facto smartly steps back and leaves a larger path for me to run my Tazmanian Devil routine. My murmuring and muttering in the kitchen – and by the way why can’t he load the damn dishwasher correctly – is less offensive if heard from another room on the other side of the apartment. The girls attempt to console me, but they are wrapped up in their own dramas: new teachers, an increased load of homework, back to the weekday morning up-and-out when they’d rather hang-around-and-play. Everybody is adjusting to something.

Then the Skype phone rings. If I answer it, something that I’ve been trying to handle for the last three days can disappear from my list. I hesitate. I don’t want to answer it, but then that something will keep stalking me. The headset goes on.

I swear, after each job, that from now on I will be the kind of mom that does not work between 5 pm and bedtime, in order to be present, help with homework, sit on the couch and tickle, cuddle or read together, to sit calmly at dinner and inquire about their day, to be the mom who gives them the most precious thing ever – more precious than any new toy or gadget – the precious thing of time. But I am not really that mom. I cannot even manage this simplest part of mothering without interruptions.

Then I realize that I’ve failed to be the mom I want to be, the one who’s busy enough to set a good example about being engaged in the world and having a purpose and a profession, but also that mom who’s present: listening, understanding, caring, being there. I’ve failed to be zen, calm, cool and together. Failed to juggle it all the way I proclaimed I would when I was in my twenties imagining myself as the über-working-mother. Failed to live up to my own expectations. Failed to bridge the widening gap between my real self and my ideal self.

While I’m on the call, Short-pants stubs her toe on the kitchen island but it happens just at the moment I am building up to the climax of that critical point I really needed to make. Instead of comforting her, I hold my finger up to my mouth and she runs upstairs to her room screeching. Then it’s all pointless; I’m not really listening to the other side of the call anymore because I’m feeling the hollow dent in my gut as I join, once again, the failing-mother’s club.

By the time I finish, my daughters are at each other’s throats and I head upstairs to mediate. I am too exhausted to cope – I have spent an entire day being polite to people, listening through conference calls with far too many participants, carefully crafting emails meant to inspire a positive response. I have spent every ounce of my poise on other people and now, at home, hungry, tired and exasperated, I fly off the cuff at the littlest thing. I even use the F-word, much to my chagrin.

“Mama,” Short-pants says, “you just said fuck.”

“I know,” I say, “that’s really bad.”

They stare at me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

“Shall we all say it together now?” I’m on a roll. “Ready one, two, three.”

We all scream it out loud and then I say “Okay it’s a bad, bad word. Let’s none of us ever use it again.”

They nod at me, still in shock.

“Okay, maybe one more time, to get it out of our system.” I count to three and we all scream it again at the top of our lungs and then fall on the bed giggling and laughing. Which turns to crying. Crying because it’s all so much, it’s all too much. Too much to do. Too much to miss. Too much to manage. There’s too much everything. Too much love and too much pain. There’s just too much.

Sometimes I feel like I’m failing spectacularly. Of course this not true: if you spend an hour in the presence of my daughters you’ll experience them in the most positive way: They are engaging with adults but still magically childlike. They are polite but expressive. They are little thinking, feeling people. They open their hearts to the world, without making too much of a fuss. I like to joke about Buddy-roo‘s materialism, but she has a good heart and she can surprise you with her thoughtfulness. And Short-pants, she’s as wise as a crone. They’re both turning out just fine. But still, my mothering is flawed and sloppy, inconsistent. (Clearly, it must be De-facto’s influence.)

Listen, I know this is all just a lot of noise. I know that the most important thing is to love them and to let them know they’re loved. I know that it’s better for them to see me as a real person with regular human frailties, not as some sort of bionic super-mom. But even though I profess that I’m not trying to be perfect and do it all – it’s a big fat lie. I know it’s impossible and futile, but honestly I can’t help myself. It’s in me.

What worries me is that I will pass this on, that it will be in them, that somehow they will think that they have not been good enough, that they will perceive my impatience as a reflection on them. It becomes imperative to let go, to lighten up and laugh at it all. If not for my own sanity, at least do it for theirs. But can I do that while under pressure? Not yet, apparently. But I’m working on it.


Feb 26 2010

Other Stages

We climbed the four flights of stairs to the olive green door of our apartment. Short-pants was ahead of me. She stopped at the landing, just before the door, and turned toward me. “Grammy’s happy now,” she said, “It’s just the rest of us who are sad, the ones left behind.” The edge of her mouth spread into a wide-open smile, her oversized chalky teeth in full view. She beamed awkward and proud at once, fully aware that she could console me with her wisdom. Where does she come up with these things? As if she could read my mind, she went on, “I read that in my Molly McIntire book, but it makes sense.”

Funny what our mourning minds construct to soften the blow of our loss. She’s happy now, we say. Is she? Happy lying in a polished box under the frozen soil? My mother, a card-carrying member of Republicans for Choice, now buried a mere stone’s throw away from a newly placed memorial that I’d never seen before, a marker engraved with prayers for the lives of unborn children “in hopes that our nation will stop the abortion that kills them.” Is she happy about that?

She’s with Daddy now. Is she? Although my last post was engineered around this idea, I have no evidence to prove it. He’s been dead for 23 years. Did he wait for her in some celestial green room with a monitor, watching the rest of her life before she came to join him? What if he reincarnated? What if right now he’s some pimply teenager fumbling his way to second base in his parents’ suburban basement?

I suppose this is would be the anger that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross referred to in her five stages of grief. Anger being the stage that follows denial, which is what I guess I was doing for the last year because my mother didn’t look or act like somebody with a terminal illness. My anger rises from the dust and residue of all the clichéd things we say about a good death, and how she didn’t suffer and how her family was with her, and she died on her own terms.

They weren’t my terms.

I wanted to be able to ask her advice about how to manage my girls when they are rotten and unruly teenagers. She had some experience in this domain, having survived my adolescence. I wanted my mother to watch my daughters grow into young women, to see them graduate from college. I wanted her to be around. I wasn’t done yet.

I keep wondering what do I have to do to wake up and be in a different reality where she’s still with us. Is that bargaining? Check the box for the Kübler-Ross’s third stage, too.

Right away, Buddy-roo noticed the ring on my right-hand ring-finger, a narrow gold band with two rectangular blue amethysts set with two miniature diamonds. I told her how my mother bought the ring from a jeweler in the Russian market in Phnom Penh. My sister was living in Southeast Asia at the time – hard to believe it was 10 years ago – and organized for us a Christmas trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was a trip filled with indelible images: two sisters sunbathing on an island beach on Koh Samui; my mother, tired and proud after climbing the steep and treacherous stairs to the very top tower of the Temple of Angkor Wat; we three lined up in a row, each in our own single-seated cyclo, complete with toothless drivers and the backdrop of Hanoi’s chaotic traffic.

The jeweler – his name was Sarat, my sister’s most favored vendor in the market – was charmed by my mother, like everyone we introduced her to.
He spent nearly an hour showing her all the rings he’d designed, telling her about his gems and precious stones and where he found them in Cambodia. I remember how, after my mother went to bed, my sister and I would sit at the hotel bar and shake our heads. Everyone was always so enamored with mom. If they only knew what we knew, we’d mutter to each other, knowing that what we knew was a daughter’s privilege, and that despite all her motherly flaws, we, too, admired her fiercely.

Buddy-roo wanted to try on the ring. I twisted it off my finger and handed it over. She held the band, turning it back and forth to make the stones sparkle under the light. It was too large for her ring finger, even too big as she pulled it down over her thumb. “Can I have it someday?” she asked. “Sure,” I told her, “someday you can have it all.”

I’m haunted by that someday, that future moment when I will leave Short-pants and Buddy-roo to their grief, when they will rifle through my earliest love letters to
De-facto, making fun of my copiously worded and disclaimer-ridden proclamations of affection, or when they read the letters in that shoe-box that I should probably destroy now while I can, the syrupy ones I wrote to my parents when I was an introspective, awe-struck student seeing Europe for the first time. Or when they go to write my obituary and realize that I used to be somebody, somebody who was a competent professional before becoming their quirky, forgetful, imperfect mother.

As I begin to sort through the relics that belonged to my mother, I see her anew. I study her photographs a different way. A college friend of hers writes a note about some mischief they stirred up on campus; I am surprised to think of my mother involved in such antics. Now comes a new view, I suppose, to see her as someone beyond my mother, to frame her in larger context, as a woman coming of age and living a range of life experiences. A regular person – just like me.

It makes me look at the girls and think this: by the time you can possibly understand who I really am, it will probably be too late to know me. Then you, too, will know this hollow, cheated, bereaved anger.

This isn’t a pretty post. It’s agitated and discomforting. It doesn’t resolve and tie up in a pithy bow at the end. You were a bit too whiney in that one, someone will say, after reading it. Why, I wonder, when a woman speaks the truth about anger or frustration, this is called whining. Were I man, I’d be allowed to punch holes in the plaster wall. Which is what my words are meant to do right now, because I have been on an airplane all night and I am tired and honest and angry that my mother has been taken from us.

Everything else I’ve written about her death has been well-behaved. Why can’t the poignant be joined by the raw and unrefined? I want to write it as it is: real, rough, full-bodied grief, something that’s messy, mad and just a little bit selfish, something that will be diluted if there are too many drafts and edits, something that’s ugly and maybe hard to read. Something that screams at me to just press publish.


Jan 23 2010

All Blue

Her entire mouth was blue. Lips, chin, cheeks, and tongue – all blue. The initial shock (Is it blood? What is it?) was replaced too quickly with anger when I realized what it was. Ink. It’s always ink. Why her school insists the kids use a stylo plume is beyond me. It’s not easy to write with – especially if you’re a lefty, like Short-pants. It makes a huge mess on the paper and covers her hands with ink every time she does her homework. But it is required.

I looked down at the floor. The beige carpet, selected for neutrality and alleged durability, colored with huge blotches of blue. There were blue stains everywhere, on her bed sheets, on the comforter cover. The final punctuation on the wall: a perfect handprint, in indigo.

I’d like to tell you I laughed out loud and took her over to the mirror and showed her how silly she looked, like a creature from an Avatar tribe. I’d like to tell you I calmly asked her about the blue ink covering face and hands and clothes and most of her bedroom floor, inquiring, gathering data, seeking to understand what had happened. I’d even like to tell you I counted to ten, releasing my anger so that if I had to scold her, at least I could do it in a sensible, thoughtful way before asking her to disrobe for an impromptu bath.

But no. It’s a classic parenting scenario. And I blew it.

I yelled at her. Sharp, angry, questions: “What’s on your face? How did it get all over your hands? What were you doing?” And when I saw the blue on the carpet, I started firing ballistic missiles.

She exploded, of course, into tears. Repeating, again and again, I’m sorry, Mama, I’m so sorry. Breathless crying. I didn’t spank or hit her, but I suppose I struck her with the violence of my words. It took an entire bath for her to settle down.

“I hate myself,” I said later, tossing in bed, unable to sleep, “I should know better.” De-facto turned and spooned with me, wrapping his arm around me, pulling me close. “You have a lot on your plate right now,” he said, “don’t add this.”

There’s always a bit of stress when we have a job, but this week put me in a spin. To get the kids fed and dressed – let alone to get myself prepared to get out the door – and scurry them to school and sprint to the metro to make it to the meeting in time was a real grind. I only have to do this once or twice a month. I’m in awe of mothers with regular jobs who handle this every day, week-in-week-out. Three days in a row floored me.

That I am going away for two weeks (or more?) adds fuel to the fire. It’s less about getting ready to go and more about getting ready to be gone. Lots of little details: paying bills, organizing child-care, anticipating school assignments, leaving little notes for De-facto. The unspoken stress about the trip ahead, well, that just gets folded and packed in the suitcase with the rest of my clothes – all of which really could use an ironing out but I’ll deal with that – with all of it – when I get there.

I’m too often stretched to the max like this, squeezing in to the short days all the things that must be done so that when 4:30 rolls around, honestly, I’m not ready for them to be out of school. I want a few more hours of solitude. I’m not ready to scramble off and get one and take her here and go back to get the other and take her there and have you done your homework or please finish your dinner or get in the bath or brush your teeth. It’s not like they just take orders and say “yes, ma’am.” There is a fantastic production of lollygagging and goldbricking and stretching out of tasks on their part. I may need to move the night along chop-chop – so I can finish that project or prepare for tomorrow’s meeting or write the post that’s been seeding in my brain all day, or hell, just have a few minutes to sit quietly, read, watch a movie, or simply collapse into bed – but that doesn’t mean they will comply.

It’s not that they are so terribly misbehaved. They are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do! They’re playing. They are marvelously distracted by the present, by the current thought that just crossed their mind or by the toy they just happened to see in front of them on their way up the stairs to do something else, like, for example, that fascinating coloring book – the one with the ink on the pages and a stencil to scratch it off, and wow, look what happens to it when it gets wet. (The source of all that blue, we find, was not the stylo plume, but a high-tech coloring book.)

In order to let them play, I have to juggle what role I want to play.

I did not audition to be a nagging, scolding parent. I idealized a version of me: firm but friendly, rigorous but respectful. Strict but sassy. I usually start out that way: questioning, encouraging, firmly polite rather than barking orders. But sometimes things spiral down. There are those days when I just don’t have the patience, or the feelings are simply too strong, when I hear my own voice shift from being stern and admonishing to just plain hollering. The momentary release brings a very temporary satisfaction, but then it feels worse. And it doesn’t solve the problem the way I’d hope for my girls to learn to solve problems. I’m willing to “talk hard” as we say, but I hate it when I have to yell.

So we sit down to sort it out. I ask questions and listen. I tell them how I feel and what I need. There are tears. Some half-hearted smiles stretching into honest-to-goodness ones. Apologies extended all around. Hugs. Promises. Resolutions.

Then later, when it’s quiet, I go upstairs to check on them, leaning close to sweep the hair off their sleeping foreheads and to plant kisses on their spongy cheeks. Each has her own distinct smell, one like cookie-dough, the other like corn silk. In their slumber, they are oblivious to me and to the world outside their cozy attic bedrooms. They breathe rhythmically – even snoring lightly – sleeping still and sweet and I see how perfect they are, blue fingers and all.