Dec 23 2015

Time for Christmas

I’ve lost ten hours of my life to that bank. Ten hours I didn’t have to spare. Hours of fussing with the new on-line interface that won’t connect, or calling help-lines and being put on hold. Hours standing in line at a branch office, the only one that deals with my problem, a problem that can be addressed at only one desk, the one with six people waiting in front of it. I will lose at least three more hours opening a new account in a different bank, and trotting down to the previous one and attempting to withdraw all my funds. I suppose it will eventually get sorted and in the context of all the other horrible things that are happening in the world, this is a luxurious problem. But I’ll never get those hours back. clocks_times_three

It’s not a time when I can be generous with hours. An array of projects lie unfolded before me, marked by a mosaic of bright Post-it notes on the wall above my desk or Skype calls inked in my calendar. All of these need time and take time. Each one of them something important or at least fascinating to me, none I would be prepared to discard. Yet all of them, all at once, fill up the hours of the day, and quickly.

I have so many things I want to write. Website updates and posts about all those interesting projects. A book to finish editing (for work). A book to finish writing (for myself). So there’s no pleasure in the time spent on bank interfaces that won’t work, or calling our internet service provider about the strange undulation of our allegedly high speed, high quality fibre optic wifi, or hunting down viruses that have snuck into my computer, or scheduling doctor’s appointments I should have made weeks ago.

The girls, of course, need time from me, now more than ever. Short-pants is carrying the stress of her schoolwork. Always conscientious about homework, she manages it without assistance, but lately you can see the burden of the workload – it increases in intensity and volume every year — taking its toll on her. Each week, her introverted self gets depleted by Thursday. She explodes in anger or bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. Especially when it’s her sister who drops it.

Her sister, who is going through her own existential crisis, spiraling down into dark thoughts. Don’t laugh: I remember going through this myself when I was Buddy-roo’s age, conjuring up weird fantasies about what would happen if I was dead. Never enough to make it happen, but wondering about it, which leads to wondering about why are we here anyway, and for Buddy-roo, pondering what’s the point, especially if she doesn’t have a iPhone like all her friends?

The only antidote to their various bouts of teenage angst – both legitimate and dramatic – is time. Time spent sitting on the couch beside them, listening, chatting, or just being there and doing nothing at all. Time when I step away from the computer and give them my full attention. Time when they get to feel like they are the most important thing on my to-do list.
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And then there’s Christmas. The time of year for spirited joy and treasured family traditions. Time-honored traditions that take a lot of time. It’s a holiday that’s hardest on moms, even if dads play along. Or maybe it just hits me the hardest. Me and my mother, who used to get all wound up at Christmas and I never understood why until I was the one buying, wrapping, baking and planning. Though nobody’s holding a gun to my head to bake 4 dozen ginger-bread men and 8 dozen Christmas cut-outs (because that’s what the recipe makes) every year.

“Because it’s your tradition,” De-facto says, when, wincing at my sore shoulders, I ask myself out loud why I do this every year.

I do know why. The girls love it. They jump up and down at the mention of the seasonal baking. Now they’re old enough to really help – as opposed to when they were toddlers, when their “help” had a short attention span – and they do their share by mixing the ingredients to make the dough, rolling it flat and cutting out the angels and stars and fir trees and Santas. They know how to add the food coloring to the sugar, and how to sprinkle it on the cookies while the icing is still soft. That’s time well spent, and spent together, but it makes me long for a time when I was the one standing on the stool watching my mother read from her recipe card while she blended the ingredients with her foley fork, admonishing me, with affection, not to eat too much of the raw dough.

Because for me – and I know I say this every year – Christmas isn’t entirely joyful. It’s a time when I miss all those people who used to come together for the holidays, whose collective presence seated around my parents’ living room was the most comforting thing in the world. Christmas makes me want to regress to an earlier time, a time when I was the one marveling at the tree and its trimmings and shaking the decorated packages beneath it, when my only responsibility was playing the elf who distributed the gifts as we sat around and opened them one-by-one, and maybe setting the table or drying a few dishes after Christmas dinner. I long for those days when the hours between now and Christmas morning seemed an eternity, when time couldn’t move fast enough. If only we could put those restless, protracted hours in the bank when we’re young and impatient, and withdraw them later, when we’d appreciate them so much more. (Santa, can I open that account for Christmas?)

In the meantime, the speed of how we experience time is variable but (mostly) out of our control. There’s nothing to do but take in this moment now: Buddy-roo squatting before the Christmas tree, keep_outbemoaning how many days there are still before Christmas while I put a “keep out” sign on my office door and scramble to finish wrapping presents. This is what she will remember, and some day she will long for it. That’s the most enduring gift I can give those girls, a string of Christmases to remember fondly, even if the memory is always a little bit bittersweet.


Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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


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?


Feb 4 2013

Hierarchy

“I love Mama the most. Then my sister. Then Papa.”

I cringed to hear Buddy-roo‘s ranking, even though I came in first. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone in the family the same? Except I remember doing exactly the same measurement, when I was just about her age. My sister always got first billing, with my mother close behind. My father and brother alternated third and last place. It didn’t mean that I didn’t love them. But for some reason, I needed a hierarchy. Someone had to be on top.
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I looked at Short-pants to see her reaction to being in second place. She seemed unfazed.

“I love everyone the same,” she said, filling in my supposed to box, except I think she really meant it.

“Wait,” Buddy-roo corrected her earlier pronouncement, “I love my sister first, because she always gives me my favorite chair.”

One of Short-pants’ household jobs is to set the dinner table, and she’s deliberate about making sure Buddy-roo is seated in her preferred chair, the one in which the caning was recently replaced. It’s lighter and smoother, unblemished. Sometimes the chairs get moved around as they get used for other things during the day, but Short-pants always looks for it and puts her sister’s favorite glass there, too.

Funny how setting the table becomes and act of generosity, or revenge. Someday, perhaps, Short-pants will be annoyed at her sister that she will withdraw her attention to detail and put her at any old chair, with any old glass. Or worse, she’ll deliberately set her sister’s place at the chair with the broken leg, the one we only use when the company at our table requires every chair around it. On those occasions it’s Buddy-roo who sits in the broken chair; we wouldn’t offer it to a guest and she is the lightest among our family. She takes one for the team, willingly. But how would she feel if it was designated to her because she was on the outs with the table-setter?

I know about this because I was once a designated table-setter. And I used to wield my power.

My mother had a set of salad bowls, I think they were a wedding gift. One of the little bowls had been left overnight in a sink full of water, damaging its finish. It looked as though it had leprosy. My mother always scolded us if we left a wooden utensil or bowl soaking in water – now I admonish my family for this too – all because of how it had ruined that one salad bowl.
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Who knows how or why, but my sister and I started the practice of giving the “bad” bowl to whomever we were mad at. We shared the duty of setting the table, and relished this opportunity to express our displeasure at anyone in the family. If you got the bad salad bowl, you knew you were in the dog house. I’m not sure everyone else in the family fully understood the code, maybe my brother did. If we weren’t particularly angry with anyone, the bad bowl ended up on his placemat. He was the default recipient.

Years ago, at my grandmother’s memorial service, my cousin stood up before the congregated family and friends and talked about how she’d always felt that she was Grammy’s favorite. We all nodded when she added that she was certain that all the other grandchildren felt the same way. That woman had a very specific relationship with each of her nine grandchildren, and each one of us felt like the one she loved most.

“Which daughter do you love the most?” Buddy-roo asks this more frequently than Short-pants, but both of them have posed the question. My answer always a variation on the same theme of how they are different people so I love them in different ways, but that if you add it up, side-by-side it’s the same amount: infinity.

Or they’ll ask this: “Who do you love more, Papa or us?” Sometimes I’ll tease them, “I love Papa the most, on Tuesdays in months that have an R.” loveBut other times I tell the truth: “I had to love Papa first so that we could make you. I don’t love him more, but I’ve been loving him longer.”

I could spiral into worry about why they’re asking these questions, but I don’t. I think it’s a normal passage for their age. As they begin to see themselves as separate from their mother and father, there must be some assurances required along the way. And the proclamations, the hierarchy of who they love most, I think it’s natural, too. I hope they’ll outgrow it. But it makes me think about how important it is to help them feel the most loved, and yet loved the same as everyone else. I hope I can swing that one. I had good role models, which I think is what it takes.

And for the record, I love my brother the most, and just as much as I love everyone else.


Nov 3 2012

Chair Stories

After dinner, we huddle around the wood stove to keep warm. “Tell the one about the Pepper-chaser,” Buddy-roo begs. De-facto has told so many stories about this childhood pet, a daschund named Pepper, loved and tortured by the four siblings in his family, it’s as if Short-pants and Buddy-roo have a memory of the dog themselves. De-facto falls into the story, like a musician answering the audience’s call for a tired hit song, and Buddy-roo squeals and claps her hands. She knows how the story ends, but she loves to hear it again, and again, anyway.

This is what happens at the country house, especially now, as autumn bleeds into winter. The after-dinner routines of summer – foraging for blackberries, a badminton match or running down the road to see the lambs – cease to be viable. Darkness drapes around us before dinner is even on the stove. Our reflections in the windows accompany the meal and the cleanup that follows. It’s chilly in this old stone house, so we hover around the cylindrical stove, warming our legs until they’re too hot to touch, pushing our chairs back away from the fire until we’re too cold, then hustling close to the fire again to keep warm.

There is no Internet – even though it would make it easier to stay here for longer stretches – it’s hard to justify the expense. We’re here no more than 15 weeks out of the year; the obligatory two-year contract seems like a waste. But that’s not the real reason. If we had the Internet, we’d spend our evenings on it. Since we don’t, the evenings are spent with laptops closed, face-to-face around a fire, playing cards, laughing, adding to the collection of family stories that Short-pants and Buddy-roo will tell, someday, when their children say to them tell us a story about your childhood.

~ ~ ~

The shipment of things from my mother’s house, designated for our country house, arrived in September. We couldn’t be here, so a helpful neighbor met the movers and let them in. Not knowing where things ought to go, everything was left in the middle of the main room, which is where we found them when we arrived this week. We spent two days sorting through the boxes and re-arranging furniture to accommodate the new possessions.

A wooden table, with leaves folded like arms at its side, now stands against the fieldstone wall. I see it instead as it used to be, in her living room, beneath the portrait of an old Dutch man in a brown cape, smoking a pipe. A long, shallow dish filled with gold-painted gourds rests on top of the table, with two gold-colored candles in gold-plated candleholders on each side. I think no matter where we end up putting the table here in this house, when I look at it, I will see it there, as it was, all those years, in her house.

Two enormous fauteuils made the trip from upstate New York to the southwest of France as well. We didn’t really need them here, but I couldn’t bear to give them away. The shipping cost was a bit extraordinary, but now that they are here I am certain the indulgence was a good one. They, too, have a place in my memory, when I sit in them I am transported back to other rooms and other parts of my life.

~ ~ ~

You tell a story, Mama,” says Buddy-roo, after the Pepper-Chaser story is finished. I am slow to think of one. It’s as though I get lost in my past when I go digging for a story to tell. Buddy-roo gets impatient. “Tell us one about the big chairs.” She points to one of the fauteuils, its huge cushions flattened unevenly from the last person who sat on them.

“The chairs,” I say, “they used to be red.” I picture the chairs as they once were, in a room with wood floors and a faded blue rug. I get stuck in the details. Was there a couch? What color were the walls? There was that coffee table with the gold border, what ever happened to it? And the piano in the next room, it was painted white…

“They used to be red…” Buddy-roo repeats, nudging me out of my reverie.

“Red velvet, with a row of thick golden tassels all along the bottom, a skirt tickling the floor, like the fringe of a flapper’s dress.”

Her eyes widen.

“The chairs belonged to my grandparents before they gave them to my parents. There’s an old photograph of me sitting on the living room floor, and my grandfather is behind me, sitting in one of the chairs. His half-moon-shaped eyes smiling at me, like he was utterly amused.”

This isn’t really a story, but rather a chain of memories unleashed. One scene after another, how the chairs were moved upstairs to the room next to my parents’ bedroom, next to a table with a telephone – a green rotary phone – where I used to sit and talk to my friends for hours. How I sat in one of those big chairs and called my friends to tell them I had to miss the sleepover party to go my grandfather’s funeral. I have a video of my mother sitting in one of the chairs, telling me about her great aunts and uncles, sketching out for me a branch of the family tree.

After a big renovation project the chairs were reupholstered in green velvet. They looked beautiful, like brand new. Except nobody sat in them any more. After my father died, they were placeholders in his empty dressing room. They seemed a bit sad, two lonely armchairs in an unused room, their cushions always plump, never sat upon.

~ ~ ~

I have just finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes a book that wraps you up in the lives of the people in it. The book chronicles first the collection of a family’s heirlooms and then the dismantling of its grandest household. The circumstances in the story are more severe and turbulent than that of the disassembly of my mother’s house – the possessions, too, much more valuable – but reading it made me think of those disheartening days when we watched her belongings get carried out the door. Even when it is voluntary, the separation of beloved things that have belonged together in a room is heartbreaking. It’s not so much about the things as it is the loss of what those things coupled together represent. As I wept for the family in the book, I wept for my own childhood home, its details still entirely intact in my mind, like golden gourds on a golden plate or puffed-up cushions longing for someone to sit on them.

A consolation, at least: I’ve read this book while curled up in a fat and familiar green armchair. The girls play at my feet, on the floor with the Fisher Price castle – one of the last of my childhood toys also included in the shipment – acting out stories that they make up as they go along. They are debating who should be rescued, the prince or the princess. The rain is steady outside. De-facto has just stoked the fire in the wood stove; the house is finally getting warm. I close the book, lay it on my lap and let the tears roll down my cheeks, happy for all my family’s stories, lucky to have had such good things to grieve.


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 10 2011

The Recovery

At dinner that night I glanced down at my watch to see that it was nearly half-eight. That’s 8:30 in the morning home in Paris. I’d meant to call the girls during their breakfast, to catch up in general but especially to wish Short-pants well for her viola recital that evening. I leapt up from the dinner table and rushed to the meeting room, where I’d left my computer. I punched the phone number into Skype, counting each hollow ring, one after the other, until our message machine picked up. I tried the babysitter’s number, too, her phone providing the same lonely sound with no answer either. She was probably already walking them to school.

So many times had I said out loud to my colleagues I must call the girls tonight so I reach them at breakfast. How hard can it be to remember one simple promise to myself? Pretty hard, apparently, as the dinner conversation with colleagues and clients – accompanied by a glass of wine – distracted me enough to miss the thin window of opportunity to talk with them. Another example in my list of failed parenting moments.

Except it was about to be Thursday for me, Wednesday for them, the day they get out of school at noon. So I figured I had still had a chance to wish Short-pants luck before her recital if I could just stay up until half-past midnight to call and reach them at lunchtime in Paris. But my eyes were drooping shut by eleven o’clock, I surrendered to sleep fast and heavy – as one does within the wake of jet-lag – but at least I’d set my alarm, which went off shortly before 1 am.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo’s enthusiasm at hearing my voice, instant reassurance that they hadn’t forgotten me.

“Hey,” I said, yawning and groggy. “How are you sweetie?”

“Mama, when are the Fisher Price toys going to get here?”

These old toys of mine were sent with the other things from my mother’s house, a shipment that left the states in October and has not yet cleared European customs. I assured her that I’d filled out all the paperwork and I was just waiting to be given a delivery date.

Her enthusiasm disappeared for the rest of the conversation: How are you doing? Fine. How was school? Good. Did you have fun at the birthday party last weekend? Yes. I opted not to ask about homework, as much of a chore this year as last. We dog her enough about it, that there’s nothing I can do from so far away to move things along. Best not to touch upon a sore subject.

“Can I talk to your sister?”

I heard the phone clunk down on the counter and the footsteps the followed as she ran off to get her sister. I desperately wanted to speak to Short-pants before her concert to let her know I was thinking about her, so that she’d tune her viola knowing that, even from far away, I was rooting for her. Mostly that she’d know she wasn’t forgotten. It’s hard enough, I think, to have an event like this that your parents cannot attend. Worse if it goes by without a crystal clear message that being absent doesn’t mean uninterested.

Short-pants came on the phone.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mama,” she said, “I’ve practiced every night. I know it by heart.”

This conversation an echo of so many exchanges from my childhood. Within it I heard my father’s carefully chosen words to acknowledge preparedness over perfection. And her response, like mine probably was, couched with the intent to please. Add this moment to all the rest – good and bad – where you catch yourself parenting as you were parented.

As a young violist, just about Shortpants’ age, I remember my father once complimented me after an orchestra concert and I told him, with some embarrassment, that I’d actually lost my place during one of the pieces.

“What did you do?” he’d asked.

I told him how I’d faked it until I could find my place in the music and rejoin the rest of the orchestra. I remember his long fingers, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose to adjust them as he summoned his thoughtful response.

“It’s not the fall,” he said, nodding, “it’s the recovery.”

This advice I’ve passed on to others, but I seem to forget to apply to myself.

Despite all the self-talk about how the kids are fine, they’re better adjusted because we’re not hovering over them all the time, how seeing us go away and return is good for their self-esteem, how they’ll be more independent as a result, the truth is I feel like shit about missing this recital. It was her first one ever, and I wasn’t there. I wish I could have beamed myself home, and that it wasn’t the babysitter and her family who’d be there clapping in the audience, but me and De-facto amongst the other proud parents.

I could hear Buddy-roo crying in the background, asking to have the phone back. I reminded Short-pants how much I love her and told her to break a leg, an odd turn of phrase to use, given that her broken leg at age four had its own complications. But she knew what I meant.

“Why do you have to be gone so long?” Buddy-roo asked, through tears. I told her it was because I had to go so far away. It was hard to console her, knowing I had still another full week before I could even say I’ll be home soon.

“When you get back home,” she said, “then will the Fisher Price toys come?”

I assured her they would.

“Okay,” she said, composing herself. I may have fallen from her good graces for being gone so long, but I think I know just how to make a full recovery.


Oct 3 2011

Empty Rooms

The movers from the Second Hand Shop descended upon my mother’s house, infiltrating each room with boxes and newspapers and packing plastic. The women quickly set to picking up the little pieces of my mother’s past: the small bowls and ashtrays and decorative items that had been once carefully placed on end tables, coffee tables and the shelves of her secretary, the bookends and clocks and other decorative items stripped from the shelves of those tall rooms. My siblings and I took the things that had sentimental value to us, but we left even more behind; none of us have the room nor do our homes have the same décor to receive the bounty of my mother’s good taste.

I watched them wrap each piece in paper, all the little dishes and coasters, her translucent Belleek vases, the small ceramic plate from their trip to Greece, the leather-covered decanter we always imagined had a genie living inside it. I knew and appreciated the stories of all these objects, yet none were compelling enough to inspire putting them in my shipment to Paris. Still, I was sad to see the lovely things all taken away.

They wrapped the odd sets of china that none of us could fit on our own cabinets, and then the silver serving dishes. I had to turn away when one of the women wrapped the dome-topped silver casserole, the one that usually housed the green beans at Thanksgiving. How many holiday meals it was a fixture on her table among the other platters and bowls dedicated to the meat or the mashed potatoes or the long silver tray with its linen liner that folded up and wrapped the just-out-of-the-oven parker house rolls. I don’t set such a formal table – few people do these days – I would use this serving dish only once a year, if at all. Plus I have no place to store it. So it goes away, hopefully to add elegance to someone else’s holiday table.

In the meantime, the men grunted down the long central staircase carrying beds and bureaus and long heavy mirrors. We’d each taken a few favorite pieces of furniture, but so much was left, all that had been acquired over the years to fill the thirteen rooms. Some of it ended up in friendly homes: the dining room set is already in the house of one of my mother’s colleagues, a photograph sent to us to show its placement. That other people are gathered around that table gives me immense pleasure, though now I wish we’d thrown in the casserole server; it was so at home on that table.

The wrapping and packing and hauling was intense for several hours. In the midst of it, my movers came to collect my boxes from the basement. Nineteen years ago when I left the states to adventure in Europe, my mother supported this dream of mine by building shelves and laying cement on what had been a dirt floor in the cellar, so I could store my possessions for the few years I expected to live abroad. Though I culled those boxes down about five years ago, there were still a dozen left and some furniture I’d loved too much to sell. There were also a few things from my mother and both grandmothers that I chose to send across the ocean. And the Fisher-Price toys: for months after my mother died, Buddy-roo harangued me, “what are you going to do with all those toys?” I’ve decided what the hell, I’m shipping them. They’re on their way to France.

~ ~ ~

I embraced my brother goodbye a second time (he made it halfway to the car before turning back for another hug) and after he drove off, I stood on the porch and thought about how my mother must have felt each time we left her standing there. Did she feel as empty as I did now? Or was she happy to see us go? (Maybe a bit of both.)

Inside I toured each room of the now empty house. The echoes of everything that ever happened there filled the vacant rooms. I could picture each room in all its iterations over the years. This one once painted pale blue, with a white piano and a picture of our house, painted by my grandmother, hanging on the wall. The Christmas tree went in the corner. Later the room was painted light green and carpeted in the same color. The day that they laid that carpet, the room was empty just as it was now, and I rolled back and forth from one end of the room to the other until I was too dizzy to stand up. My mother scolded my brother and sister for writing their names, with their fingers, in the fresh pile of the carpet. My father came home and showed them a better way to do this, with a yardstick, and he, too was admonished.

There, on the floor by the front screen door, as it rained a gentle summer shower outside, I remember listening to the newly released Sgt. Pepper’s album and reading the liner notes. Or taking over the two front rooms and setting up all the Fisher Price toys and playing with them all day (and decades later, watching my children do the same thing). The card table was placed under a lamp in which my father would hide a puzzle piece before offering a prize to the person who put in the last piece. In that corner over there, the newfangled 8-track player had been placed on its custom-made stand, with Billy Joel’s The Stranger playing on it while mom and I trimmed the Christmas tree. She’d coach me to hang the bigger balls on the bottom and the smaller ornaments on top. She couldn’t help but correct my improper placement and I suffer this compulsion, too, with my own daughters.

In each room a hundred stories could be told, and in this empty condition they all screamed at me at once, or in succession: mom and dad’s cocktail parties, the Christmas mornings, the “talks” after I’d misbehaved at school, the impromptu parties when my parents were out of town, the family celebrations, the quiet Sunday afternoons. All of it: the happiest moments of my life, and probably some of the saddest, too, dancing and circling around me in the empty rooms of my childhood home.

~ ~ ~

I walked through the airport like a zombie, shell-shocked from the emotions dispensed these last days. On that last morning, a final tour through the empty house with an out-loud thank you, heartfelt, to each room for the stories it yielded and for the protection given to me and my family for so many years. I paid special attention to my hand on the doorknob, closing the back door for the last time, locking myself out, the key inside in a box in a drawer, left for the next owners. I slid my hand down to the bottom of the door, pressing my fingers into the grooves carved there by our old woodchuck hound. For all his fourteen years, he scratched his paws against the door to let us know he wanted to come in or go out. Long after he’d died, my parents renovated the house but opted not to repair or replace the doors, leaving his nail-marks embedded there, keeping his memory in the house. I scratched at the door, just where he used to, not really wanting to go back in, but not wanting to stay out, either.


Sep 3 2011

The Lost Sandal

“Tell me a story from your childhood,” she pleads, “tell the one about the lost sandal.”

Buddy-roo is the captain of remorse, the herald of items-loved-and-lost. It is impossible to perform the seasonal clearing out of drawers with her present; shirts that no longer fit are still too precious to part with, she’s steeped in sentimental logic about why we should keep those pajamas, even though they are too tight to even fit over her shoulders. She still pines for her blue checked seersucker sundress, the one with chocolate stains down the front, which was already two sizes too small for her when I finally gave it to the good-will, at least three years ago.

The sandal: a white patent leather thong with a cherry-red flower stitched under the ball of the foot, visible only when the sandal was off, but when you were wearing it you knew you had a secret beneath your toes. The leather was thick and spongy, like walking on a mattress. I loved those sandals.

That summer, the farmhouse down the road was inhabited by a family with two children. It was my first experience with what is very common these days – a famille recomposée – but I’d never before met two siblings with different last names. The family was of very modest means, their clothes frayed and slightly soiled, their personal hygiene wanting, though I was admonished by my mother not to point it out and to treat them kindly and fairly despite how different they seemed. I was happy to play with a girl my own age – Linda was two years older – and I spent a fair amount of time down the road with her, though I was always slightly relieved when their brown rotary phone rang, summoning me to the cleaner familiarity of my own home which did not have the very-slight stench of urine that seemed to pervade theirs. I was always intrigued by their recklessness, how she disobeyed her mother without regret, how her brother Ray, two years younger than me and looking like a shoe-in for a casting of The Little Rascals, used to boast about riding his banana bike down the steep hill near our house at 80 miles-per-hour and pulling a 200-foot skid. To this day, my brother will repeat this claim, with the same I’m-a-little-tough-guy cadence, leaving my sister and me in stitches.

One evening after dinner I opted out of the activities with the boys across the street and ran down the road to play with Linda. The cows – belonging to the farmer who owned the property and rented to them – had been moved to another pasture so we were playing near a pond where they often grazed. We took turns running around the pond, timing how fast we could make a full lap. When I felt one of the sandals slip off my foot, I turned immediately to retrieve it, but I couldn’t see it anywhere.

The sandal had just come off – I’d taken maybe two more steps, because of my momentum, before I turned back – but it had already disappeared, sucked into the mud. Linda came around to help and the two of us, on our knees, pawed away at the dirty, muddy soil in search of what should have been a clearly visible bright, white shiny sandal. I heard the phone ringing in her house but ignored her mother’s shouting out that I had been beckoned home. I couldn’t leave. I had to find that sandal. Dusk was turning night; we could barely see what we were doing when my sister came down the road to fetch me.

She promised that we’d come back first thing the next day and search until we found it. It couldn’t go too far overnight, she reasoned. I could not believe that my favorite sandal had vanished into the mud and that I would have to leave without it. I hobbled home, one sandal on one foot, in tears.

The next morning, my cereal bowl half-finished, I ran down to hunt for the lost sandal. Hours of searching and digging and crying followed. It never surfaced.

This cursed event occurred forty years ago. All these years, every trip home to visit my mother or to look after the house, I pass that pond and think of my lost sandal. Linda and Ray are long gone, that rickety house has been cleaned and renovated, its lawn now mowed and manicured. But the pond remains, just as it was; often circled by cows that turn and stare at me, just like the cows before them, pretending they don’t know where my precious patent leather flowered sandal has gone.

I’ve told Buddy-roo dozens of stories about my childhood: of cherished Christmas rituals, of piles of fragrant autumn leaves, of lemonade in striped glasses sipped under the split-leaf elm, a chorus of summer crickets and fireworks viewed from our cupola. Yet this is the story she remembers most and wants to hear again and again; the one about my treasured sandal, lost forever.

“Do you still miss that sandal?” she says.

I picture the lonely sandal – I refused to discard it – gradually falling to the back of my closet, tumbled under each autumn’s new pair of Buster Brown school shoes, until years later my mother insisted, during a spring-cleaning rampage, that we throw it out. Perhaps this is why it took three years to give away that seersucker dress that was already too small for her, and why those beloved pajamas still reside in Buddy-roo’s drawer. The love of those lost, treasured items – or treasured items about to be lost – seems to run in the family.


Aug 5 2011

Precious Evenings

The summer is waning, but daylight still lingers long after dinner. At this point in the season – summer seems to turn a corner when August settles in – I think we appreciate the precious sunny evenings even more, knowing that they are numbered. The good news is there is still a month of summer left. The bad news: there’s only a month of summer left.

Seated at the dinner table, you can look out the back door of our country house and see the sun making its leisured descent to the horizon. Even after the meal and the dishes, it still has a good distance to cover; there’s a whole chapter of the day left. Last night after dinner, Short-pants kicked off her sandals and slipped into her knee-high green boots, grabbing a metal bowl from the cupboard and sprinting out to pick blackberries from the wild bushes that line our property while Buddy-roo made a beeline for the rusty old swing set. Some friends have joined us in the country for a few days, adding their three children to the mix; the gang of rowdy kids clamored around the yard with the gleeful, wild abandon that a summer night deserves. I think this might the moment when you feel most free, as a child: playing outside after dinner, like you’re stealing extra hours of fun that the winter won’t permit.

I remember how my brother, sister and I would cross the road after dinner to meet up with the five neighbor boys and play touch football in their front yard. Somehow these just-before-dusk football matches morphed into a game we called Spook. A musty old sleeping bag – a thick and weighty brown one with a flannel interior that had drawings of Davy Crockett and other frontier accessories – was central to this game, which was in essence a dressed-up form of tag. The person who was it (the Spook) had to carry or use the sleeping bag in some fashion while chasing the rest of us. My brother liked to run around the yard speaking in ye olde English, like Prince Valiant of the Sunday comic strip, alluring us into his grip. One of the neighbor boys would hold the sleeping bag with arms stretched wide open like the wings of a bat while running around the yard screeching a high-pitched alarm. Another would just hunch on all fours under the sleeping bag, waiting for us to come up and kick or taunt him and then he’d turn and grab us. We’d play Spook until it was too dark to see anymore.

The night might finish when, long after sunset, all eight of us would pile into their red convertible (before seat-belts were mandatory) and drive to town for ice cream cones. This was the same car we’d squeezed into earlier in the afternoon, when its white vinyl top would be latched to the windshield and the windows rolled up and shut tight to make us as hot as possible during the two-mile drive to the beach. We’d pour out of the car, jump down the thick, uneven cement steps to the lakefront, tossing our towels and shoes and T-shirts aside as we’d make the final sprint to plunge into the water. At night, that convertible top would be unlatched, folded and tucked behind the wide back seat, leaving us open to the night air, hair blowing across our faces as we’d cruise down the steep hill to town. The ice-cream stand had drive-thru service; what a joyful thing it was, being one or two cars back from the ordering window, fretting over maple-walnut or mint-chocolate-chip or just plain strawberry.

Last night as the sun finally set, De-facto lit a fire in the backyard while Short-pants led an expedition of the other children to forage in the forest for long narrow-ended sticks suitable for marshmallow toasting. Those that didn’t drop into the fire were sandwiched while steaming hot between two cookies with a slice of chocolate, melting into the perfect S’more, the time-tested summer’s eve treat. We let the sticky-fingered pack of children run wild into the night, forgiving any bedtime curfews usually imposed. When they finally wore themselves out (and nearly put themselves to bed) the adults stayed out in the back yard by the fire, finishing off a bottle of wine, staring up at the night sky, pondering Cassiopeia. What precious moments, these long carefree summer evenings, unburdened by tomorrow’s deadlines. Thank god there’s still a month of them ahead. And zut, there’s only a month of them left.