Dec 11 2012

Adjustments

I tiptoed up the stairs, knowing how if you are laying in our bed the sound of footsteps echo in our hallway and you can hear them drawing near. I slipped the key into the lock and turned it slowly, quietly pushing open the door and then easing it closed behind me, noiselessly. In the apartment, I set my suitcase down gently, surveying the cluttered living room. I was home, and so far nobody knew.

Too wired from the travel, but exhausted from the adrenaline-dip that follows every job, I was restless. I wanted to unpack, but I was afraid it might make too much noise. I didn’t feel like climbing into bed, but I didn’t want to stay up either. Mostly, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I snuck into the bathroom to wash my face when I heard De-facto and Short-pants talking to the neighbors in the hall outside our apartment. They’d gone next door to wait for me, but I had eluded them with my stealth return. The rush of hugs a clear indication of how happy they were to see me. I was happy to see them, too. Mostly. I also wanted them to leave me alone.

Buddy-roo was at a sleepover with a friend, which in retrospect was a good decision on De-facto’s part. Sliding back into the household is hard enough. Her particular brand of attention can be overwhelming and I wasn’t yet ready to be that enthusiastic mom who re-channels it with grace.

The thing about being away is that you get used to your own company. You get used to looking at only your stuff and nobody else’s. You get used to that quiet hour before bed and the luxury of having only yourself to get ready in the morning. The clients and meetings can be demanding, but their requests fall within a reliable frame. And once the door to the hotel room is closed, there is nobody calling you to get out of bed to scratch their back, check for a fever or scare away the monster under the bed.

I remember when De-facto and I were “dating.” Ours was a long distance relationship for more than three years and we’d jet back and forth between Boston and Paris, getting to know each other one long weekend at a time. There was always an adjustment period, during which awkward feelings and questions threw darts at the initial delight of our reunion. It’d take a day or two to get in sync again. I suppose that hasn’t changed. I know how it feels when he returns from a long business trip and I’ve been running an efficient household without him. Surely my return interrupts the rhythm he and the girls have established. Not to mention how jarring it is for me.

All of a sudden, I’m a mom again. I have to attend to boo-boos and aches and pains and the combing and braiding of hair. I have to get excited about art projects and stop whatever I’m doing to watch the latest ballet move. I have to press little noses to the grindstone on their homework. I resume my role as Vice President of Errands: the book of verb conjugation I have to buy (for tomorrow); the trousse d’écolier is missing a glue stick or it out of ink cartridges for the fountain pen; the music teacher requires the purchase of a metronome and a battery-powered tuner – the tapping of feet and my old-fashioned tuning fork aren’t sufficient. One girl needs metro tickets for a field trip, the other baked goods for a school party. These requests are presented haphazardly and of course, at the last possible minute.

What’s remarkable is how quickly you get out of practice. I was only gone for two weeks, but I’ve gotten sloppy. Last night, when De-facto came home from an evening out, I’d just barely put the girls to bed. He grilled me on our activities.

“Did they do their handstands?”

Short-pants has to achieve this for her gym class, so they’ve started practicing every night at home to strengthen her arms. I shook my head; I’d forgotten.

“Viola practice?”

I hung my head in shame. “No.”

I had to confess to him that I’d fallen asleep on the couch while Short-pants and Buddy-roo played on my iPad. Some stellar parenting, that.

He smiled. “A little rusty, are you?”

Instead of getting perturbed, he pokes fun at me, which, I suppose, is just what it takes to help me make the adjustment to being back home.


Aug 2 2012

Tough Discussions

We had a rendezvous-vous at the discussion bench at 3:00, Short-pants and I. This is a designated space in what she refers to as her forest. It was built by her uncle, an artist whose work involves constructing objects as much as painting them. He visited us at the country house a few years ago and cleared some winding paths in the woods behind the house. At the end of one of these trails, he built a bench out of wooden planks he found in our barn. Short-pants decided she wanted to name it the discussion bench.

Her forest is her escape zone at the country house. She will invite Buddy-roo there to play and they have all sorts of stories that take place in those trees, but it’s mostly a place for Short-pants to find the solace and privacy she requires. And each summer, it seems, there are several moments when the two of us retire to the discussion bench to have a little talk. Sometimes it’s a discussion about how to handle her sister. Sometimes it’s just about reflecting on the events of the summer or anticipating the events we have ahead. This is my father coming through me; he had a strong connection to the seasonal rhythms and the passing of time and often summarized for us what we’d had the privilege of experiencing and what was still in store. “It’s always important,” he’d say, “to have something to look forward to.”

De-facto and many other friends agreed it was time for the talk. Short-pants is going into 6eme at the collège next year – that’d be middle school in North America – she shouldn’t be caught unaware and subject to the teasing of her school mates. We needed to tell her the truth, and the discussion bench was the place to do so.

~ ~ ~

Sometime in mid January, last winter, Short-pants came to me and told me she was ready to learn how babies were made. A few months earlier I’d given her a book – that is the most comfortable way for her to learn – called The Care and Keeping of You, and after she read it we sat down to talk about it and I asked her if she had any questions, which I answered, all of them about how a girl’s body will change and why.

“Do you want to learn how babies are made?” I asked, “Or do you want to wait a while and digest all this first?” I didn’t want to overload her with too much data at once.

“I’ll wait,” she said, looking almost relieved. “I’m not quite ready yet.”

But after Christmas she must have changed her mind, so we made a date one afternoon to meet upstairs in her bedroom while her sister was away at a friend’s house. I had another book, First Comes Love, given to us by a friend who understands Short-pants’ penchant for reading, and we read it together with my color commentary on every page.

We talked about what we’d read. Then I added a few last words about how sex is for grown-ups, there’s no reason to rush into it because with it comes responsibility and consequences. And how when she gets older and feels ready to try it, I hope she’ll always feel like she can talk to me about it. It was a pretty good spiel, an even blend of don’t-even-think-of-going-there-yet with when-you-do-let-me-help-you-do-it-smart. I had to restrain myself, though, from blurting out a closing phrase: “Oh and by the way, there’s no Santa Claus.”

~ ~ ~

The pathway to the discussion bench is a bit leafy these days, we had to hack our way through the some overgrown brush to get there. Once we were seated, we exchanged a few pleasantries, talked about how the summer was going, the weather, how the bench was holding up. I danced toward the subject at hand, reminding Short-pants of a conversation we’d had a couple of months ago about the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. The seed of doubt had been planted by an episode of the TV show Jane and the Dragon, giving me the opportunity to come clean and wipe this maternal responsibility off of my plate. Coins may still make their way under pillows in exchange for lost teeth, but the fairy ruse is over.

She’d taken it well. I thought this left the door nicely ajar for the next big conversation: about Santa Claus. Buddy-roo had extracted the truth from me last Christmas and I’d made her promise not to tell Short-pants until after the holiday. Remarkably, seven months later, she still hadn’t spilled the beans, though she frequently asked me when I planned to tell her sister.

“Now that you know there’s no Tooth Fairy, what do you think about Santa Claus?”

She contemplated this for a while – maybe 20 seconds. I waited, focusing on my breathing.

“Is it you?” she asked.

I nodded. “And Papa.”

She stretched her mouth into a wide smile, a forced smile, a smile with tears backed up against it like a dam about to burst. She wouldn’t stop grinning at me, every piece of metal on her teeth entirely visible, while I explained how Santa Claus is a beautiful myth, a metaphor for the generosity that we’re all capable of, how Santa exists in each one of us, he is the Christmas spirit, where we give gifts to the people we love, without thinking about getting anything in return.

“Except cookies and milk,” she said. And then, after some consideration, “Do you eat the cookie, too?”

“Sometimes I let Papa have a bite.”

She held her smile firmly in place. I asked if she’d been wondering about Santa, maybe she’d already guessed. Her yes wasn’t very convincing. We sat side-by-side on the discussion bench, quietly, letting it all sink in.

“I think I’d like some time on my own now,” she said, on the edge of tears.

I kissed her forehead, squeezed her hand and stood up and walked away, silently cursing at myself as I made my way out her forest. By the time I crossed the road and went to my equivalent of the discussion bench, a shady spot in a grove of trees beside three rogue grapevines, I was crying, too. I felt like I had stolen something magical and marvelous from her, that in my attempt to protect her from the presumed cruelty of her comrades at school, I’d injured her innocence. Why shouldn’t she believe in Santa Claus as long as possible? Why did I ruin her Christmas reverie? I could have at least waited for her school mates to ruin it, and been there to pick up the pieces. Except somehow, with Short-pants, I felt like that would be too hurtful; it’d be better to hear it from me. But was it?

Later, I found her in the kitchen. She was composed, though her eyes were still a little red.

“Did I do the wrong thing, by telling you?” I asked.

“I wish you hadn’t told me,” she said, “but I am glad to know.”

Little by little, the truth trickles in and myths of childhood fall by the wayside. My young girls keep growing, soon enough they’ll be little women with far more complicated preoccupations than Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Certainly there are more tough discussions to come, much tougher than this one. I suspect there are also some very interesting discussions ahead. All this, I guess, is what I have to look forward to.


Mar 4 2012

Just Us Girls

Feeling proud that I’d conducted the entire business of buying our train tickets in Spanish and not once reverting to French, I pointed the girls toward the train station café. Buddy-roo strutted ahead of me, pulling the miniature rollaway valise – my mother’s old weekend travel case – that I’d packed for all three of us for our overnight trip. I liked the idea of one of my daughters dragging that same little black case behind her, evidence of the good-at-traveling gene successfully passing from generation to generation.

It’s comforting to me, the sound of a suitcase rolling behind you. I like hearing muffled departure announcements in another language that you have to strain to understand, or can’t comprehend at all. I’m at home at a train station café with a perk-me-up-coffee or a celebratory beer, anticipating the voyage ahead. I love to travel, so did my mother, and her mother. I think I’ve succeeded at infecting my girls with the bug, too.

“Why isn’t Papa coming with us?”

“He has to work. But we get to play.” The timing of his job was perfect. The girls were on vacances scolaire, a two-week winter break. We’d headed south, making stops in France and northern Spain, before driving on to Madrid.

“I thought it’d be good to have a little excursion,” I said, “just us girls.”

I’d envisioned the three of us, mother and daughters, traveling light with only our curiosity and a change of underwear, winding our way through narrow and yet unexplored (by us) cobblestone streets. A friend suggested a day trip outside of Madrid. I figured De-facto could use a quiet night to himself – a projection of my own preference for solitude before a job starts, or so he protested, when I informed him of my desire to stay overnight with the girls in Toledo.

Except it wasn’t De-facto who needed the break, it was me. We’d survived, remarkably well, through several long car trips and the zipping and of unzipping suitcases in a different hotel every few days, but I was reaching my limit. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until we were at the station café, waiting for the call to board our train to leave Madrid. The girls battled fiercely about being next to or across from me, a good indicator that they, too, were over-saturated with our 24/7 companionship. My admonishments were met with pouty and insolent responses until eventually we sat at three separate tables. I questioned my sanity about being the sole adult chaperone at this ¾-mark in the vacation.

I looked at the barman and shrugged. “Una caña, por favor.” He nodded, knowingly, and poured me a cold glass of beer.

The train ride was just the ticket to distract them from their argument. The excitement of finding the right track, the correct coach and our designated seats obliterated the conflict that had caused such severe enmity. Thirty minutes later, our first view of the medieval walled city had them holding hands and jumping up and down. They were even good sports while we wandered in search of our hotel, a task made more challenging because of the maze-like pattern of Toledo’s narrow streets, and because we arrived at nearly the same hour as a public demonstration. We had to move fast or get stuck in (or run over by) the mass of marching protestors. I spotted a café-bar just ahead of the crowd; we sprinted to it and stepped inside, just in time to watch the long parade of chanting, banner-carrying protestors passing by.

“Who are all those people?” said Buddy-roo.

“They’re demonstrators. It’s like a manifestation in France, a political protest.”

“What’s a political protest?”

“They’re asking the government to change something that they don’t like.”

Redonculous,” said Short-pants. “Why don’t they just write a letter?”

I explained that many letters had probably been written, but in certain situations a collective demonstration is necessary to get the government’s attention.

“It sounds like a big temper tantrum to me,” she said.

“Sometimes that’s what it takes.” I reminded her of the picture of my mother at the ERA convention in the 1970s. That wasn’t a protest, rather an attempt to make a law that would protect the advances already made by the determined women who’d protested and demonstrated so that women could enjoy the same rights as men. “As women – at least in our culture – the two of you have rights that you’d never have if the women from two and three generations before you hadn’t demonstrated in the streets, just like these protestors.”

“You mean like all those women who couldn’t go to the stoning, unless they were dressed as men?” Buddy-roo said.

We’d stayed two nights at a small rural hotel in the north of Spain that had a curious collection of VHS and DVD movies. The Life of Brian, though perhaps not the most ideal family entertainment, was one of the few movies we could watch in English. There is a scene where the participants at the public stoning of a criminal are women (or Monty Python cast members pretending to be women) dressed up as men. We’d had to explain, several times, the significance.

“Yes,” I said. “But I hope you never find yourself at a stoning, dressed as a man or a woman.”

“That’s redonculous,” said Short-pants, “there are no stonings anymore.”

I didn’t tell her – not yet, I will when she’s a little older – that there are places in the world where stoning still occurs, without anything resembling a fair trial. Or how the rule of law – and its boundary with religion – grows blurrier in my own culture these days. I read with furrowed brow the news about proposed legislation to define the personhood of a just-conceived zygote, or attempts to restrict a women’s access to birth control and advice about reproductive health care. When the term slut is used unapologetically by a national media host to describe someone standing up for her rights to birth control, I wonder if something akin to public stonings – with women as the primary target – aren’t coming back into vogue.

Mostly, I worry that my daughters’ generation could end up with fewer rights than mine. It doesn’t impact them now, living in France. But what if they moved back to the United States? Would Short-pants and Buddy-roo would be willing go to the streets in protest to protect the rights achieved by generations of women before them?

We spent the evening wandering the streets of Toledo, sampling tapas at various bars. The girls had stayed up for the late Spanish dinner hour two nights in a row and no doubt this contributed to their ornery outbursts. My strategy was to get a feel for the city by strolling and snacking on enough tapas to feel like dinner. An early night would replenish the sleep in their banks and permit a better mood for tourist activities the following day. The girls are still just shy of the age to fully appreciate museums and churches, but I’d hoped to do at least a drive-by the cathedral and one of the synagogues and if possible peek into the El Greco museum. If I could squeeze in just that small taste of culture, I might be a bit less ornery too.

They resisted the idea, but once I dragged them inside, they marveled at the vaulted nave of the cathedral. While we’re not a church-going family, we respect the opportunity it provides for contemplation and prayer, so we found a pew, seated ourselves quietly and bowed our heads. After her prayer, Buddy-roo made the sign of the cross and looked up at the likeness of Jesus on the crucifix.

“Hey, that looks like Brian,” she said, recalling their (now favorite) movie. The two of them broke into a whispered chorus of the film’s closing song, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Too tired to protest, I hummed along halfheartedly, hoping – praying – that we always can.


Dec 22 2011

A Blinding Grin

It happened the day before my first junior high school dance. I’d been to the orthodontist several times, enduring that mouthpiece filled with the cold, white, plaster of Paris concoction – both before and after getting those extra, unwanted teeth pulled – leaning forward and breathing, barely, through my nose while the imprint of my teeth and gums hardened. My casts would join a hundred other sets of jaws displayed in glass cases along every wall of the office, in Dr. Zappler’s museum of overbites. Still, I was surprised when an army of razor edged silver bands were cemented on each and every tooth, connected by a single wire that joined me, unwittingly, to the club of children with braces.

The monstrous dental chair faced a picture window looking out over a lake, a calming view before the tempest of tears that would follow when I got home and went directly to the mirror over the bathroom sink. My mouth was overtaken with metal, a silver smile behind swollen lips unaccustomed to the foreign objects in my mouth. My inside of my cheeks were sore. My heart dropped.

Because there was a boy, sort of a bad boy – or he soon enough would become one – and my crush on him was fierce. Just thinking about him conjured up a stirring in my 12-year-old body, a tickle that was a bit confusing and a bit intriguing. I guessed that if he would ask me to dance or possibly steal a first kiss, it could only get better. It was rumored that he might, friends had reported that he’d been glancing over at me frequently in the cafeteria.

Staring in the mirror, all hopes of his attention darkened. My first seventh grade dance would be the one where I sat alone on the wooden bleachers while my friends rocked back and forth with their boyfriends in that arduous circle otherwise known as a “slow dance.” My life was ruined.

Contrast this with Short-pants, who was thrilled about the acquisition of her braces. She marched home from the orthodontist triumphant with a blinding silver smile. She showed them off, beaming wide and proud to everyone she met, “Notice anything different?”

A few things have improved in the world of orthodontia. Instead of the wide bands wrapped around each tooth, she has but a tiny button cemented on the center of each one. You can barely see the wire that connects the teeth, there’s not as much metal in her mouth. Most important, Short-pants thinks it looks like she has diamonds on her teeth. Her smile is bejeweled.

I told Short-pants about my memory of getting braces, and the timing, and how different my response was from hers. (I left out the “stirring” part.) She listened thoughtfully.

“Did he dance with you?”
“No.”
“Mama,” she fell into her Mother Teresa voice, “if that boy didn’t dance with you just because you got braces, he wasn’t worth liking.”

Then she flashed me a beautiful, blinding grin.


Dec 18 2011

No Protecting

He was wearing seersucker Bermuda shorts. He’d already kicked off his white boat shoes, they were laying on the floor in front of my seat. He wore a light charcoal colored T-shirt betrayed (or enhanced) by the stains of a long backpacker tour. His Justin Bieber hairdo was greasy, like the shirt. His muscled thighs were thick and he sat low in his seat so his knees fanned out to the sides, encroaching on the woman next to him, his young girlfriend who didn’t seem to mind, and on me on the other side, not so thrilled about sharing my airspace with him. He never once looked at me nor spoke to me; he only grunted when I asked if he might move his shoes, and his knee, to make a bit of legroom for me.

This is just the guy that keeps me up at night. I see him, when I’m walking Short-pants and Buddy-roo home from school. We pass by a lycée, its clumps of teenagers spilling out into the middle of the street. The girls look ridiculous, awkwardly pinching their cigarettes between superficial puffs. The boys shout vulgarities at each other across the street, the mating-call of the adolescent male. They shake their haircuts into place and wave their arms in the air, revealing five inches of black boxer shorts above the waistband of their jeans. I realize this is the current fashion – as a teenager I was slave to such timely styles, too – but still I constantly fight the urge to go grab their belt-loops on each side and hike those low-rider pants up until they fall correctly on the hips. Either that or give them the full wedgie they appear to be begging for.

This was that guy. He had the look, the bad-boy cool, which is really just a mask for his lack of confidence. Adolescent girls are easily blinded to this fact, which is why they always fall for him, with disappointing results. Even that I can take: teenage heartbreak is a part of growing up. But he’s the one that messes, purposely, with your daughter’s self-esteem. He kisses and tells, doesn’t-kiss-but-tells-he-did-anyway, callously adds her to his list of cavalier conquests. I knew this guy in high school, and in college. That’s why I can smell him a mile away.

At least I was on the aisle seat, so I leaned left and studied my Sudoku puzzle while the airplane taxied down the runway. Except on the other side of me there were two young American women, maybe just 20-years-old, swapping stories about their travels. Their conversation was loud, one of them in particular insisted upon broadcasting to a wide radius around her seat. I’d already turned on my noise-reducing earphones but I could still hear her clear as a bell. I was impressed with her capacity to incorporate the word like a minimum of three times in every sentence. Plus, you couldn’t help notice that rather than sharing her thoughtful insights about traveling, she was, like, showing-off, how, like, in-the-know she’d become.

I knew this girl, too. I was once her. Over-inflated, full of myself because finally I was out in the world, doing all the grown-up on-your-own things I’d dreamed of doing. I’m sure I spoke with the same overzealous disclosure, a would-be reflection on my experiences that was really just a chance to boast. But hopefully, at least, I did it with a little less volume, so only my immediate seat-mates were compelled to roll their eyes, not the entire cabin of the plane.

What saved me was that my in-flight entertainment screen wouldn’t work, even after two re-boots, so I was moved to another aisle seat further back, amongst sleeping, movie-viewing people who had no desire to impose or impress.

Sitting in the dark, in the rear of the plane, I wondered what it was that summoned my harsh judgments against these two young people. I worry about that type of guy preying on my daughters, that despite all the seeds I’ve already planted and all the prescient mother-daughter conversations yet to come, that they won’t recognize and steer clear of him. And I’m afraid that despite all the reminders about using their inside voice or any tips on art of conversation that I would hope to impart along the way, they will become that girl, that nearly intolerable it’s-all-about-me airplane conversationalist.

But there’s nothing I can do about it. They will meet that guy. They will encounter that girl, too, whether it’s in their circle of friends or in the mirror in front of them. They’ll meet bullies who torment them, friends who flip on them, humorless teachers who squelch their spirit. I can’t protect them. Even if I could, I shouldn’t. So much of life is what you figure out on your own.

When they’re little babies, there are compelling reasons to protect them. Now, as they grow, too much protection is helicoptering. I don’t want to do that. I want them to grow up fully, with the benefit of their own realizations and experiences. I want to help them to be free-range kids. I want to let them fail, at least a little, and figure out, on their own, how to recover. That’s how I learned to smell danger a mile away, that’s how they will, too.

Still, the urge is there. To warn them. To make them wiser. To help them skip the awkward phases of maturing and get through it faster, easier, better than I did. I know I can’t control what they choose to do in their lives, but I hope I can at least teach them how to make good choices. But how much longer do I have? They’re growing up fast.

On my way home from New Zealand, I stopped midway, in Los Angeles, to visit some friends. They have two teenaged children who look you in the eye, ask if they can help, share interesting, relevant facts about themselves when asked, and possess a sense of humor that is intelligent and thoughtful. This gives me much hope that when Short-pants and Buddy-roo are teens that they could be palatable individuals. I suppose part of that comes from steering them the right direction, and the other part, maybe, from holding your breath, crossing your fingers and just getting out of their way.

Shout Quietly Please is a painting by Dan Walker.


Oct 7 2011

Little Vermin

The little vermin choose always the most inopportune time to visit, when things are busy and De-facto’s out of town. I’m speaking of lice. It’s inescapable. Every year, once the girls are back in school, one of them starts scratching repeatedly and absent-mindedly and I put my aging eyes to work to inspect a scalp for tiny parasites. Before long, the other one is scratching, too.

I remember being horrified the first time they got lice. Somehow, I escaped this childhood pestilence, so it seemed even more plague-like to encounter it with my own children. How was I supposed to get rid of it? How did they even get it? Was it a reflection on our hygiene at home? After some intense Googling, I learned that lice do not discriminate: they like all heads, dirty or clean. Maybe even the clean ones are more alluring, like being the first to move into a new cul-de-sac of McMansions.

“Bad news, mama,” Buddy-roo said to me, running into my arms outside the school, “I have les poux!”

This news made my heart sink. In a flash, I saw ahead of me an entirely new itinerary for the evening. It didn’t matter that I’d planned to do a little clothes-shopping together and guide them through their homework while preparing dinner before an out-of-town-guest arrived. The entire night was now hijacked. A panicked trip to the pharmacy to pick up the latest and least-toxic-as-possible de-lousing treatment, sheets and pillowcases stripped off the beds and thrown into the hottest-water wash, and hours of picking over the head and behind the ears, through every strand of hair with the metal-toothed comb. The quiche I intended to bake would become a call to Pink Flamingo Pizza. Homework would get pushed until after dinner and bedtime delayed. Wine consumption would, no doubt, increase. Those few little things I didn’t get to today, but I hoped to take care after the kids were in bed and the dinner guest was gone: they’d never get gotten to. Once the children were horizontal, that’s all I’d have stamina to achieve myself.

Buddy-roo deserves much credit, though. It is most unpleasant to have little bugs crawling in your hair and just as awful to sit still for the hours it takes to have an oily product combed through repetitively and the nits and bugs removed one-by-one, or as in her apparently advanced case, bunch-by-bunch. Somehow we hadn’t noticed the scratching, which had probably been going on for days because she was seriously infested. She remained unusually un-dramatic, a very good thing because there were so many lice in her hair that I was nauseous – and I usually handle bugs and spiders fearlessly. I was so overwhelmed by the volume of lice and nits that it took every ounce of control not to drop my head and sob in despair. How will I ever get it all out? is what I kept thinking to myself. “You’re doing great,” is what I said out loud to her, in my chirpiest voice, “we just gotta keep at it.”

Hours later, empty pizza boxes lay open on the counter, a second bottle of wine had been uncorked by my friend and Buddy-roo toiled away at the homework she couldn’t write while I’d been working on her head. It was late and she was tired, but she plodded through and finished it all. A double dessert was volunteered for her good spirit, and once (or twice) consumed, teeth were brushed and I went to tuck her into the guest-bed, with its yet-un-loused sheets that I could wash the following day, in case I hadn’t managed to get every single nit out of her hair.

I sat on the edge of the bed, caressing her bare arms as they stretched over the covers, complimenting her on how she’d been such a great sport through the whole ordeal. “But maybe,” I suggested, “it’s not such a good idea to come into my bed in the morning.” It usually takes a few comb-throughs to catch all the lice, I didn’t want to any stragglers to be deposited on my sheets until I’ve checked her a few more times.

“I don’t so much need the morning cuddle anymore, Mama,” she said, “I just do it sometimes because I know you like it.”

Oh.

I knew this moment would come, didn’t I? But I didn’t expect it so soon. She’s only seven. And after I just spent two long hours in a back-breaking position with my fingers in her louse-ridden hair, risking my own contamination, putting on a happy it’s-all-gonna-be-fine face so as not to distress her, gently goading her on while she otherwise lollygagged through her homework so that her humorless and unsympathetic French teacher wouldn’t punish her. This is when she chooses to inform me that she doesn’t need the morning cuddle anymore? Like it’s all been some kind of favor when she crawls in bed with me and De-facto in the morning – much less frequently it occurs to me now that she’s mentioned it – she’s been merely gracing us with her cuddling presence?

“I suppose this is as good a time as any to change our routines,” I said, swallowing a lump I’d discovered in my throat. “But you know, you’re always welcome. For the morning cuddle. If you change your mind.”

Little vermin. Doesn’t she know I’m not ready to get her out of my hair?


Sep 20 2011

Bidding Adieu

I’d pass the tailor’s shop every day, on my way to the bus or the metro, or to school to get the girls. He’d wave at me and step out of his shop into the street, looking a bit like Burt Lancaster as the old Doc in the Field of Dreams. His greeting was always accompanied by a sparkling-eye smile and polite cheek-to-cheek kisses, softened by his long, white beard. As warm as he was, he retained an old-world formality. He always used vous and insisted upon calling me Madame, no matter how many times I begged him to use my first name instead.

This man, Monsieur Atlan, touched me in rather intimate places. Being my tailor, he was obliged to pinch and tuck at the curves and bends of my body. He always did this with care and respect, bordering that sensual territory that is often present between a man and a woman, especially when his fingers are dancing around her waist checking for a proper fit. Yet there was never a hand misplaced, never an inappropriate gesture or remark. He’d pin everything perfectly and stand back and give me a genuine compliment, “Vous êtes vraiment belle,” and while it was an admiring comment, it had no charge. I was safe in his hands.

Comme ça?” he’d say, looking into the mirror at me, gauging the length of my pants has he folded and pinned them. Then he’d draw his fingers up the outside seam of my leg, to the waist. “Ici, ça va?” He’d pull the belt loop, revealing how much room gaped at the top, pinching it in and pinning it to show me how it would fit properly. He’d thoroughly inspect the entire garment, not satisfied to merely shorten the length to fit with my new shoes, but to be sure it fit perfectly at every seam, zipper, button or stitch.

Once I took him an old coat, a cream-colored leather-looking vinyl number, a hand-me-down from a friend who worked in the fashion industry. She’d clean out her wardrobe every season and pass some pretty fabulous things on to me. After years of loving wear, the silk lining had started to shred into strips. I wore it anyway, but not without occasional embarrassment. When I noticed a client eyeing the inside of my coat as I stretched my arms into its sleeves, I knew I had to take it to Monsieur Atlan.

He surveyed the coat carefully, taking his time to admire the workmanship of the stitching on the outside, nodding, approvingly. When he saw the inside he dropped his arms in despair at how I’d let the lining go. “Can you replace it?” I’d asked. “Mais oui,” he said, but the coat had to be cleaned first, and not just at any cleaner. “Most of them are thieves,” he said, picking up the phone and calling his preferred dry cleaner to say that I was coming and to please turn the coat around quickly and give me a fair price. Then we had a lengthy discussion about the lining, its color, pattern and the quality of material. As usual, what I’d hoped would be a 5-minute errand turned into a 25-minute in-depth discussion. But this was always the case with Monsieur Atlan. He wasn’t just a tailor, he was my tailor and he took seriously the job of taking care of my wardrobe. I think everyone who went to him felt this way.

His shop was a mess of material and thread and ancient sewing machines and an old-fashioned ironing stand. I’m sure it hadn’t been dusted or cleaned in years, you had to remember not to put your clothes over the bar that held the changing cabin’s curtain, the dust that had accumulated there would rub off on the very item you’d brought him to repair, or you’d walk out with a gray line across the front of your clothing. But as haphazard as his housekeeping may have been, his sewing was meticulous. And when you came to pick up whatever garment he’d repaired, you couldn’t just skip in quickly and grab it on the way home. He’d stop whatever he was doing to show you with pride the detail of what he’d done: the extra stitches he’d put in to reinforce it, or the care he’d taken to fix it from the inside. It was obligatory to admire his fine work. This wasn’t hard to do; he could fix even the most impossible garments and make them fit like a glove. Monsieur Atlan repaired more of my retail mistakes than I care to report.

Most of all, he loved my children. When I was pregnant, there was nobody in the neighborhood more thrilled to hear the news. He was certain of the gender, telling me each and every time I saw him that it would be a boy. When the second baby was apparent he made no further predictions, but doubled his enthusiasm. He marveled at Short-pants and Buddy-roo as they grew up walking down the street in front of his shop. He’d step out and beam at us as if we were his own family, repeating his mantra about how good health and the love of your family are what count the most. “La santé et l’amour de la famille, c’est principale.”

He was loved by everyone in the neighborhood. This must have sustained him when his health failed. Last winter he was diagnosed with cancer, what type was never revealed to me. He turned gray and hollow and though he worked as long as he could, soon he couldn’t and the occasions I would see him were only when he happened to be visiting the shop and by chance I would pass by.

“It’s a real battle,” he told me, “without your health.” He shook his head and his words trailed off. I finished the sentence for him, “but you have our love, c’est principale.”

His eyes still sparkled at that.

Last week a sign on the shop, which has been boarded up for most of the summer, announced a memorial service for him at the temple just across the street. I knew this was coming, it wasn’t a shock. Still I could not contain the tears as I stood on the street and read the words on the sign, again and again.

So much has changed in our neighborhood. Too many services and locally-run stores have moved away, forced out by high rents and the chain stores that have become, unfortunately, signature shopping in the Marais. Monsieur Atlan’s little old-fashioned shop and his thoughtful, attentive service remained steadfast as the neighborhood shifted from eclectic and ethnic to chic and trendy. His departure is another step away from the authenticity that was the hallmark of the quartier. I’m going to miss seeing him on the street. I’m going to miss his conscientious care of me and my wardrobe. I’m going to miss his warmth, his smile. But I won’t forget Monsieur Atlan, and I won’t forget his wise words: Your good health and the love of your family, c’est principale.


Mar 29 2010

End Pieces

Just as quickly as Buddy-roo’s black-eye ballooned into a swollen mess, it began to heal. For a few days, she looked like she’d rather fight than switch, but now there is only a faint bluish-yellow bruise that is about to vanish. Kids heal fast. At first she didn’t like all the fuss, but it soon became a badge of honor. She strutted around the school courtyard, and nobody messed with her.

De-facto pointed out a small discrepancy in my account of the accident: I wrote that buddy-roo “grabbed on to the railing, a good instinct except for the railing on a moving walkway is perpetually in motion.” This implies that the ground was stationary. He reminds me that the floor of the moving walkway is always moving in sync with the railing. So my reasoning (she stopped and the railing didn’t) can’t be the why she fell.

Listen, I’m a writer not an engineer. I saw her go down and it wasn’t pretty.

Short-pants and I passed that fateful ramp this afternoon when we made our way to the Conservatory. Long before we got to the ramp, she announced, “Mama, when we get to that dangerous part on the walkway, you shouldn’t run down it. I’ve decided from now on, we should always walk on it.”

Speaking of good decisions, you can imagine I was dying to hear what happened when Short-pants declined the invitation to join the Group.

“Well, I was nice about it,” she said. “I told them no, thank you.”

Apparently her answer was met with some resistance, but they were unable to persuade her to change her mind. I probed for more information, hoping to get a little more detail about who were these friends and what was their collective purpose. “It’s called the G-group,” she said, “for girls only. And anyway, I don’t want to be part of a group that doesn’t have boys in it. It’s not interesting enough.”

One of my good gal-friends, a pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant (and award winning truffle-maker to boot), stopped by the apartment last week to say hello and was shocked to see the laundry rack in our living room, laden with clothes hung out to air dry.

She admitted that when she read about our broken dryer and how we weren’t going to replace it for environmental reasons, she thought, “we’ll see how long that lasts.” I’m happy to report, in case there are any other doubting readers out there, that yes, we continue to dry most of our clothes on the drying rack.

It should be noted, however, that just a month after the dryer broke, our washing machine died as well. (Oddly, we’ve had to replace every single major electrical appliance in our home in the last year.) We opted to purchase combo washer-dryer; that is to say it’s one machine in which you can wash the clothes, and then you change the dial and it dries them. So we do have a dryer now. Though use of this drying function has been designated for towels and jeans, only. Everything else goes on the rack. We’re trying, at least a little, to change our carbon footprint.

The weeks seems fuller than ever before. The constant motion of getting everybody everywhere with everything they need, while juggling a self-regenerating to do list leaves no time to rest, little time to grieve, just barely enough time to notice that spring has arrived here in Paris.

But it has, and that’s worth an Alleluia.


Jan 13 2010

Dry with a Twist

It was a workhorse, working so hard – harder than it should have. European appliances are known for their interminable cycles, but even after the very dry setting, lasting much more than an hour, I’d have to add another 20 minutes. And sometimes more. The fatigue was apparent.

I should have cleaned the filter more often. Not the regular lint filter in the door, but the one in the tray underneath, the über-filter. It’s not that this didn’t occur to me. Along with the all other should do things that come to mind over the course of a day, it was on that list I never quite get to.

Last week it just gave up. It turns and turns and turns, but it doesn’t dry. The handy guy who always helps us out with these questions said the repair would be difficult and costly. And he’s a scrapper. If he wouldn’t fix it, then it probably isn’t fixable.

The dryer is dead. Long live the dryer.

Except there won’t be an accession. We’ve decided not to replace it. We’re leaning green, going line-dry.

We all say we care. We do care. But are we willing to change our habits – really change them – to help the environment? It’s easy to justify our choices in the name of convenience, or make excuses about how such a little energy-saving gesture saves nothing compared to the amount of energy wasted by entities far larger than our household. The same goes for recycling. What difference will one family really make, given the amount of garbage that is disposed of so carelessly? Is it even worth the time and effort it takes to wash those bottles and containers and separate plastic from paper from glass? Half the time I wonder if it all doesn’t just end up in the same landfill anyway. Do we really know what happens to the contents of our recycling bins?

In the scope of things, it is a small gesture. One tiny green decision not to replace an appliance. But I am reminded that small changes add up. Maybe the kilowatt hours of electricity we save won’t make a difference, but at least I can mean it when I tell Short-pants and Buddy-roo that I’m concerned and conserving. Walk the green talk, at least a little.

There is another reason that De-facto‘s so pleased with this decision: it’s cheaper. Except for the touchy issue of the crunchy towels. Fortunately (or maybe not) there is a laundromat across the street from our building. So when I’m not dutifully hanging small garments across the wires of the drying rack that creates such an elegant aesthetic in our living room, I’ll be collecting coins and running up and down four flights of stairs with a laundry basket, just to give those towels a softer touch.

How long do you think this will last?


Aug 5 2009

Really, So Sorry

I’d like to suggest a new definition of the term RSS, otherwise known to mean Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. Mine is: Really, So Sorry.

Really, so sorry because I’m going to ask you, if you happen to be someone who has subscribed to my blog via RSS, to do me the favor of re-subscribing. This way I can have a better idea about who’s using my blog and how much. Even though my stats are very modest, it’s nice to know, ya know?
girls_computers
So if you would, please click here or just move your cursor over to the sidebar of my blog and tap away at that sweet little orange button that says Subscribe via RSS. It takes just a moment. (It will route you to my FeedBurner page, where you can select the RSS reader of your choice.) It’s pretty effortless.

This request applies only to RSS subscribers. If you signed up by typing your e-mail address into the subscribe field on my sidebar (which means each time I publish a post you get a little e-mail saying so) then pay no attention to any of this technical mumbo-jumbo. Things are business as usual for you.

Really, so sorry. Thanks for taking a moment this emerging geek-girl out.