May 29 2011

A Special Equation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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