Dec 28 2014

The Let Down

The days leading up to Christmas are filled with such eagerness. The hidden shopping bags, do-not-enter warnings and the sound of gifts being wrapped behind a closed door. The setting up and trimming of the tree, and the moment that the decorated packages are placed beneath it. The restraint that we’d promised ourselves obviously abandoned mid-December, boxes with ribbons and bows multiply in the ramp up to Christmas. Then there’s the relished ritual of making cut-out cookies and decorating them with frosting and colored sugar, complete with festive carols blaring in the background. Ella’s Swinging Christmas maybe not the most traditional collection Santa_glasses but I’ve made sure that years from now it’s the one my girls will remember. The case of champagne – or here in Barcelona, it’s a case of cava – is carried home and the a treasure of foie-gras and special cheeses fills the refrigerator. School finishes and the shortest days of the year keep us close and home. We light the menorah, too, to celebrate the ritual of my mother’s religion, not that she practiced it piously but because it acknowledges another holiday that overlaps and shares a spirit of family and gratitude. Candles flicker, lights blink on the tree, the quiet of Christmas eve settles in and the anticipation mounts.

We can’t escape the commercialization of Christmas. It’s impossible, living the world we live in, not to absorb the materialism that has overtaken this holiday. We do our best to minimize it without taking away the delight that comes from receiving a small pile of new items that help to refresh a wardrobe, restock a bedroom bookshelf or add energy to the toy box. I remember this delight: as a child studying the Sears & Roebuck Wishbook and dreaming about what might be mine if Santa answered my pleas. I’d flip through the catalog for hours, staring at those pages so long I knew them by heart. Even now, looking at an archive of old Wishbook pages from the ’60s and ’70s, I’m stunned at how many of them I recognize. I never got everything I asked for and I knew I wouldn’t, but my mother always managed to buy enough of the most coveted items so that those first moments of Christmas morning, coming downstairs to see what toys Santa had left – unwrapped for immediate pleasure – were exalting. All the waiting had been worth it.

Then the rest of my family would arise or arrive and once breakfast and its dishes were finished, we’d sit in the living room, going around one-by-one opening our gifts with oohs and aahs. A break halfway through for Bloody Marys and cheese and crackers, and the gift opening would resume. We’d stretch it out all day, to the delight of some and distraction of others, until, finally, the space beneath the tree was evacuated of its treasures, a few stray ribbons the only evidence of the abundance that once existed there.

After the last lovely box was unwrapped, the final thank yous circulated and someone was compelled to say, “Wasn’t that best Christmas ever?” We’d nod and sigh and begin the process of tidying up, collecting the scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon that hadn’t landed in the trash bag. There was the satisfaction ofSanta_figurines a stack of new possessions, but also a sadness: Christmas was, for all intents and purposes, over. Yes, the Christmas dinner was still ahead and more time together as a family. But the electricity-producing part was over. It was always a bit of a let down.

And you knew it shouldn’t be. You didn’t want it to be. But you couldn’t help it. Something hollow in your gut, no matter how your brain would explain to you that it had been a great day with beautiful gifts and favorite people around. There’d been such a build-up, and so much of it crafted by marketing masterminds. Even in those simpler Sears catalog days, it was a strong feeling. You just had to work through it. By the next morning things were fine. It had been a great Christmas, maybe the best one. But you had to move through the sad bit before you could calibrate back to normal.

I watch Buddy-roo wrestle with this. Despite all the gifts she received this year, many of them specific requests and a few things she’d admired in my presence and then forgotten about, adding to her delight as she unwrapped and re-discovered them, when we were done opening everything, she got all mopey.

“If only I’d gotten an iPad cover.”

I gave her the really? look, more of a scorn, and she ran upstairs in tears. I followed, because this is important. I wanted to acknowledge her feelings; they’re real. I also wanted to give her a reality check: you’re lucky to even have an iPad. Let alone all the new presents that just arrived. But I wanted to deliver both these messages in the right balance, because it’s complicated, even the mildest form of post-festum let down.

The thing is, I know where she gets this from. Because I had it when I was her age, and I still feel it now. Some years more than others. For different reasons. It’s the adrenalin drop after all the build-up. Even though you got truly terrific presents, it’s the not getting that one thing you kept answering with every time someone asked, what do you want for Christmas? It’s how we keep saying it’s not about the gifts, but then if that’s the truth, why is there so much hype about them? Mostly, though, it’s feeling a bit disoriented in the aftermath of all the activity and anticipation, lost and alone even though you’re with the people you love most and who love you most.

My father used to tease us, when an important event approached, like a birthday or a much-anticipated holiday, by telling us he’d heard on the radio that it’d been cancelled. winston_as_santa This is a family joke I’ve perpetuated, and Short-pants and Buddy-roo laugh and roll their eyes whenever we say it. So I don’t know if they’d believe me if I suggested that next year we cancel Christmas. I’m serious. What if we took away the merchandise and commercial part of it, that makes it so much work, and creates such expectations and disappointments, and just did something simple together? It’s not a new idea. Lots of families choose to travel rather than plunge into the trim-the-tree-open-presents-at-home routine. We’ve done it before. We spent Christmas away, in Cambodia and in Mozambique. Both times with warning that there’d be fewer presents because the trip was the gift we were giving ourselves. Yet as Christmas day approached, because the kids were young, because we’re victims of the media, we’d cave in and start shopping. Granted, the booty was contained, but it was still booty.

This seems so appealing right now. But chances are in eleven months time with the Christmas season in full stride, I’ll be sliding right into my role as executive producer of Christmas: shopping, baking, planning menus, coordinating our Christmas Eve open house. I’ll buy the extra paper so that when De-facto sticks his head in my office and says, “do you have any wrapping stuff?” I can answer affirmatively. I’ll watch the girls get excited and help them select gifts for each other and for their father. Christmas is, most of all, magic for the kids, and it’s still magic for us, watching the kids. I’d wager that the let down, if we didn’t do anything, would be more than the little let down that follows Christmas now. As long as we have kids, I think it’s a guaranteed tradition.


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.
winston_on_the_road
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.


Aug 3 2014

A Little Adventure

The black band of highway stretched and curved through the dry desert hills. An occasional cactus stood at attention, in a half-salute. The cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky. The white markings in the center of the road slipped one by one under the car. The mountains on the horizon ahead loomed in shades of grey and blue until they weren’t in the distance anymore, and we were driving among them. This scenery had been breathtaking at first – and still was – but we’d grown accustomed to it after six hours on the road.
road_ahead_and_feet
“Are we there yet?”

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The classic road trip call and response. We’re used to it because we drive a lot, back and forth to the country house, during the last spring break we drove to Croatia, Milan, Paris and back home to Barcelona. The girls are more patient that most, they’ve been trained to make long car rides. Even Buddy-roo, who gets nauseous on any curvy road or one with too many stops-and-starts, is a good sport. I collect air-sickness bags from the seat pockets of airplanes; they come in handy when Buddy-roo throws up in the car. I have at least a dozen on hand for this road trip, since we’ll be in a car for nearly a month straight, traveling west to east across the United States, from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

~ ~ ~

When I was eight, my parents had the idea to take the family on a trip around New York, so that we might learn about our home state. My brother, sister and I fidgeted in the back seat of my father’s Delta 88 while we drove from our home in the Finger Lakes to to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Fort Ticonderoga, Ausable Chasm, and the North Pole, NY at Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. That was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Certainly it was the least favorite stop of my brother, who’d just turned 16. His discomfort was obvious when you saw the photograph in which he was forced to pose with Santa Claus for that year’s family Christmas card.

We stayed in modest motels and ate at family restaurants and diners. I remember loving the motel with rows of rooms wrapped around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with its blue twisted slide. There’s a picture of me in my red, white and blue two-piece sailor-styled bathing suit, its white skirt lifted by the wind, clearly loving this vacation. I also remember the disappointment of the guest house the following night, its tired upholstery, pilled white bedspread and a musty, closed-in smell. That it was only for one night was beyond my comprehension, I was indignant that we would stay there. (Ask De-facto, not much has changed on that front.)

At breakfast my father set a dollar limit for breakfast, barely enough to cover eggs and toast. He disappeared and returned with a stack of post cards that cost as much as two breakfasts. We begrudgingly wrote cards to friends, as commanded, and thus started the family tradition of writing postcards at the breakfast table. If you ever get a post card from me, chances are I wrote it with my morning coffee and a plate of eggs.

~ ~ ~

The girls and I had a long layover in Vancouver. De-facto was making his own way to San Francisco but our frequent flyer itinerary forced us to wait eight hours before our connecting flight. We stowed our luggage at the airport and took the sky train into the city. A security guard – Buddy-roo called me out for flirting with him – saw us studying the map and offered to help. girls_on_tracks Instead of connecting to a bus to get to the Granville market, he suggested walking along an unused train track. A more scenic route, he said. Buddy-roo, who’d been whinging earlier about the long plane ride, the lengthy layover, her hungry tummy, now started jumping up and down, begging me to take his advice.

Sure enough, just behind the parking lot of the train stop, a set of tracks rolled out from under a locked chain-link fence, a good sign that the tracks were out of use. We marched along the thick wooden rail-ties, feeling very happy-go-lucky and on-the-road. The theme song to the Andy Griffith Show came to mind. We could still see the street and it was broad daylight, so it felt pretty safe. If the fence across the tracks wasn’t enough to assure me that we wouldn’t encounter a moving train, the overgrowth of wild, thorny blackberry bushes along the tracks and between the ties was another strong clue. Short-pants is a blackberry picking fiend, it’s her favorite pastime at the country house and she had lamented leaving before the berries on our property were ripe. She, too, had been hungry and as a result, grumpy. But the sight of all these bushes lifted her mood instantly. The dense clumps of black raspberries were like magnets, pulling her from the tracks as we walked along. She’d lag behind and then run to catch up, her hands filled with sweet, fat berries to share with us.

When the road veered away and the chain link fences on either side of the tracks turned into cement walls twenty-feet high, I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to be having this hobo adventure. It occurred to me not to overreact, but at the same time some motherly-hormone kicked in and presented me with the worst-case scenario: an indigent needle-carrying hoodlum lurking in the bushes, surprised to see a happy, unsuspecting family skipping along the tracks, taking all sorts of terrible liberties with us. I had a fair amount of cash on me, and the more precious cargo: my daughters. Were I alone I’d have sprinted along without thinking of it. Worry is too strong a word, but I did wonder about the safety of our surroundings. This led to the conversation we often have about being smart, not scared – our motto, as Short-pants says – and we managed to navigate the tracks to our destination without any incident, and having experienced the freedom of going off-piste, and the thrill of having made it out alive. The girls’ whining had ceased, entirely. Nothing like a little adventure to help you forget your misery.
golden_gate
San Francisco treated us to visits with family and friends, a hike in Muir Woods, a beach day at the Presidio and a big birthday bash for De-facto (hint: ends in a zero). After a few days, we picked up the vehicle that will carry us east across the country for the next several weeks, and headed south with overnight stops in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. We’ve stayed with friends and family, who treat us like royalty and protest that we should stay longer, but we are trying not to impose on anyone for too long. Besides, we’re a family on the move with the whole country left to traverse.

~ ~ ~

I can’t say I was thrilled about this taking this trip. I wasn’t looking forward to hours on end in the car. We just put in a new kitchen at the country house, I wanted to linger there over the summer and enjoy it. I don’t really like being in the states too much, I get overwhelmed by the enormity of everything: the stores, the portions, the people. I’ve done vagabond traveling in my life and loved it, but I had only my own backpack to manage. Supervising the preparation and maintenance of several suitcases and the other odd belongings that get picked up along the way (nothing without a handle, channeling my father’s car-trip mantra) could be classified as my Sisyphean task. My attempts to empower my daughters to keep track of their stuff have been in vain. I know I should let them live with the consequences of their sloppy suitcase habits, but in the end I’m the one who has to buy them another pair when their sneakers are left behind, so it’s hard not to be craning my neck vigilantly behind them. Even De-facto can’t manage to get out of Dodge without losing something. Already he’s had his bathing suit mailed to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.

But my mother-in-love has been politely asking to visit for too long. She’s awfully good about flying to Europe to spend time with us there, but she wanted to host us in her own home, and we wanted to grant her this as well as to enjoy her lovely hospitality. If we’re going to go all the way to Santa Fe, De-facto argued, we might as well visit some other people on the west coast, and then why not friends in Chicago and on the east coast too? And shouldn’t our American children, both born abroad, get a taste of the good ol’ US-of-A? It’s the passport they carry, after all.

You can see how the conversation went. During the weeks leading up to the trip I’d think about what it entailed and the dread would rise up within me. Yes, it would be an experience, a great adventure, something we’d always remember. Yes, we’d see good people we love to see. But this kind of touring doesn’t count, to me, as a vacation. It’s hard work, shuttling a family around for so many miles.

But, anyway, smiles everyone.

~ ~ ~

I’d been the one to set the alarm for 5:00 am, but I groaned the loudest when it went off. We’d been up this early the day before, too, to beat the traffic out of Phoenix and get up to the Grand Canyon early enough to enjoy the afternoon walking along the rim. De-facto called for a family hike down into the Canyon before we left, and that would mean getting up before dawn, again, in order to beat the heat but also to get on the road in time to make it to his mother’s house, in Santa Fe, for a late dinner. The night before, I’d extracted from the girls promises of cheerful faces in the morning, vows broken before their heads even left the pillows.

De-facto maintains marvelous poise in the company of grumpy women, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut and let time do its magic. Despite the girls’ protests, and my ambivalence, he herded us to the trailhead. It didn’t takecanyon_wall long for me to fall into the hiking zone, the path transported me instantly to my days on the Camino and the euphoria of walking in nature. The majestic beauty of this early morning walk wasn’t lost entirely on the girls, their complaints abated for a while as we snaked down into the canyon. But when we turned around to make our way back up to the rim, the combination of an uphill climb, the growing heat of the sun and a desire for a breakfast beyond the granola bars and orange slices made for a reprise of the chorus of complaints.

I slowed my pace, distancing myself from the grumpy girls so I could stay in my “Camino high” and marvel at the grandeur of the canyon. It’s the kind of vista that compels you to take in fully the moment. It’s the kind of vista that makes you amazed and privileged to be where you are. It made me glad that we’d pressed ourselves to get up and out early to make this hike, glad to be in the Grand Canyon, glad to on our big cross-country tour, in a car, with my family, making an important memory. Maybe, I figured, this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I thought. Nothing like a little adventure to help forget your misery.


Dec 22 2013

Not that (Christmas) Mom

It must be disappointing for my daughters, how I am not particularly adept at motherly school functions. I’m not the one who volunteers to organize the parties and send emails around about baking goodies. I’m not the cheerful enthusiastic I’ll-make-costumes mom. I love those moms, headless_with_palmI’m so glad they are exist at our school. But I’m not one of them.

Call me the do-we-have-to? mom or the oh-not-again mom. Each time I get a notice about a school event or activity that requires parental assistance, I groan. It’s not that I’m not delighted by the extra-curricular school events that break up their mundane scholastic routine. I want those things to happen, and in technicolor. I just don’t want to have to do them.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. I think many of us pitch in because we know we’re supposed to. It’s not that we want to be doing it, rather that we want to see it being done. But it’s taboo to say so out loud.

I could blame it on the new school. Just as the girls have had to forge new friendships here, I, too, need to put in the effort to make friends with the other mothers. This is happening to some degree: a bit of small talk waiting at the school pick-up, the exchange that happens when dropping a kid off for a play date or to work on a school project, the friendly women I’ve met at monthly coffees. But all these relationships are nascent, and still awkward. I miss what had become effortless in Paris where the school activities didn’t feel like a burden and there was always the invitation to go for a beer afterward, to catch up with pals while doing our parental duty.

But even though I may have relished the social aspect, I’ve always felt inadequate at these school functions. I’m the mom who hasn’t managed to buy the right school supplies or who doesn’t have the time to go across town to get that one book that’s on-order so my kid has to look on with another student and work from photocopies. I’m the mom that misses the parent meetings because I’m out of town on a trip or I have a conference call or because I didn’t see the note in my daughter’s cahier de correspondence. I’m the mom who doesn’t come to the Christmas choral concert because I didn’t understand that parents were invited, the mom who doesn’t quite understand the system, and manages to figure it out just a bit too late.

It’s always comes down to this: living up to the elusive perfect mom. I can picture her. When I was in my twenties imagining myself as a mother I looked just like her. Cheerful at breakfast in a business suit, shooing my heirs out the door to school and going to work, leaning in all day but simultaneously plugged in to the little lives of my children, scrutinizing their school, up-to-speed on all the goings on in their extracurricular lives. I turned out, instead, to be a lot sloppier. I’m much better at leaning back. And while I’m there, I tell myself I really should do more. I could do better.

~ ~ ~xmas_snowglobes

You know what kind of mom I am? The I-hate-Christmas mom. Every year I proclaim, to myself, and here on this blog, how I dislike what Christmas has become. I’m disturbed by the ubiquitous commercialization of the holiday. Each year it starts earlier and there are more useless things to buy not because they are special or thoughtful but because there is a marketing engine prodding us to buy more. Store shelves are stocked with unnecessary decorations and novelty gifts that have little to do with the spirit of giving and even less to do with the birth of Jesus. Except crèches are a big deal here in Catalunya, but then, of course, there are hundreds of different figurines to buy – some of them in scatalogical poses – to add to your standard manger scene.

I know we aren’t forced to buy any of this merchandise, but I hate that it’s ubiquitous. I hate that it feeds an insatiable desire in Buddy-roo, who is overwhelmed by all the gadgets on the shelves, screaming at her to want them.

Maybe I don’t hate Christmas. I do love the Christmas that we create in our family. I’m just repulsed by much of the Christmas that goes on outside our door. We try our best to keep the holiday grounded, the promises embedded in our responses to the girls’ wish-lists are carefully crafted to create reasonable expectations of the loot that Santa might bring. Though now that they know who Santa really is, they don’t buy the “Santa can only carry so much on his sleigh” argument. I keep pointing toward the family traditions. We unwrap the ornaments from their wrinkled tissue paper – the same paper that my mother wrapped them in for decades – and tell the story of that angel, or that red ball with my name on it, or the ugly silver lantern-shaped ornament that always hung on the tree, albeit in the back. We have our open-one-gift-the-night-before tradition and our Bloody Marys on Christmas morning, our one-at-a-time gift opening marathon that lasts all day, and sometimes even for days as we like to take a break to stop and relish the first presents we’ve opened. There are traditions from De-facto’s family and from mine, forged into the rituals of our nuclear family, and this is what I hope my children will remember years from now. Not that they did or didn’t get the Barbie house with its own elevator (they didn’t) but that we laughed and did Christmasy things together, whether that was making cut-out cookies at home, or going someplace exotic to treat ourselves to a family Christmas adventure we could share together.

Despite my self-proclaimed deficiencies as a mother in matters of school activities, I will take credit for my resilience carrying on a certain ritual: the baking and decorating of the Christmas cut-outs. Each year as I cream the butter and sugar that cutout_cookieswill make the dough, I nod upwards at my mother who would no doubt be pleased, if not entirely surprised, at my adherence to both the tradition and her recipe. It’s a demanding process: the rolling out the dough to the right thickness and maximizing the cut-outs from each batch – using her original cookie cutters – and baking them just enough, pulling them out of the oven before they brown. Then there’s the icing, though mine is made with butter instead of Crisco – what was in that anyway? – as her carefully typed recipe card called for, and the preparation of the sugar for decorating. Two drops of food coloring in petri dishes of granular sugar, ready to be spooned on to the freshly frosted cookies. When I was little there was a definite rule to how these cooked were sugared. Angels were blue and yellow, Christmas trees were green, stars were yellow. Santas were sprinkled with red sugar and the bells were done up in blue. I suggest this guideline to the girls but never enforce it. They have too much fun designing their own color combinations. And in the end, they all taste the same.

~ ~ ~

It doesn’t rain much in Barcelona but unfortunately it was raining last week on the day of the school’s Marché de Noel, which is a shame because the palm-treed courtyard is expansive and would have been a lovely venue for this Christmas market. But due to the rain, everything was scrunched together under a smaller covered area. I could feel the dread rising as I walked to the school, the rain dripping down off my umbrella. I gripped tight the Tupperware of cut-out cookies I’d brought to be sold at Buddy-roo’s class table. I wanted to be going anywhere but to this event where there’d be a hundred wild kids running around, amped up on sugary Christmas snacks, and table after table of items made by students that I’d be compelled to buy to support their effort but would end up cluttering my home and breaking any vows I’d made about buying unnecessary items just for the sake of Christmas. I disliked this activity at the other school, where I knew everyone and had my posse of moms to hang with. Going now as the new mom who hasn’t yet been integrated only made me feel more isolated.

I’m always a little lonely at Christmas. Even though it’s a time when world quiets down for the day and we cocoon as a cozy family. Even though I’m with the people I love most in the world, I always feel a little disconnected. Maybe it’s the pressure to have a lovely Christmas, when the truth is it’s a lot of work. Maybe it’s walking in and out of store after store looking forSanta_Buddha something meaningful to give to people who already have everything they need, and feeling fatigued and uninspired, just ticking off the boxes. Maybe it’s that song, the one I heard too often the Christmas my father died that takes me back to that sad, disappointing holiday. Maybe it’s every Christmas that passes without my mother’s newsy year-end letter – the one I used to roll my eyes at but now I’d give anything to read it – or my grandmother’s homemade rhubarb pie. The holidays are supposed to be happy, even if they’re not.

But you can’t wallow in Christmas sorrow with kids around; their expectation for joy is a big, fat, red wake-up call. So I snap out of it and dance around the Christmas tree, break out the paper and start wrapping, and roll out another batch of cookies. Or I just grab Buddy-roo’s hand and march into that schoolyard Christmas market, head high, whistling a familiar carol, and watch her marvel at the lights, the music and the shiny offerings laid out at the gift stalls, eyes bright and wide, taking in what is, for her, all that she loves about Christmas.


Nov 24 2012

The Best Sandwich

Up until now, November 21st was a date I thought I’d never ever forget, the way you remember the birthdays of your siblings or a wedding anniversary. Every year, slouching into the shorter, darker days of November, I’d anticipate the anniversary and think about where I was and what happened – and what could have happened – on that day eight years ago. But this year, the day came and went without a thought of it. Not until yesterday, when I was describing to a friend what for me is the very best part of Thanksgiving: the turkey sandwiches the day after.

The day before Sunday, November 21, 2004, I kissed the girls goodbye, checked the long note I’d left for the babysitter and made my way to the airport to fly to New York. De-facto’s family was congregating for my mother-in-love’s 75th birthday party. Much preparation had been done, decorations, food and drink, a parody Playbill has been produced to honor her theatrical career. It wasn’t just the family who’d come for the event, a huge crowd of friends had RSVP’d affirmatively to attend the celebration.

The morning of the party, we learned, through a series of disturbing phone calls from Paris, that Short-pants had fallen into a coma. An ambulance had come and taken her to the hospital. A CAT scan and MRI had revealed a tumor the size of an orange in the right frontal lobe of her brain. Surgery was required, urgently.

“Could she die?” I asked my friend, who’d dropped everything to accompany Short-pants to the hospital. A long silence before she answered, “Yes, she could.”

Within hours we were on our way to JFK and back to Paris. You might imagine the agony of that overnight flight. A telephone conversation with the surgeon, competing with the boarding announcements, informed us that she’d survived the surgery, but the doctor didn’t sound optimistic. His words before hanging up, and he switched to English to be sure I understood, “You’ll want to come directly to the hospital after you land.”

Which we did. The news was grim. The MRI images horrifying, the foreign mass in her brain like a hurricane on a weather map. The surgeon believed it was a cancerous tumor, and he’d tell us how to treat it when the lab tests came back. Much of his medical terminology was too much for me to consume and comprehend, my brain at its breaking point from the cocktail of shock, fear and jet-lag.

~ ~ ~

The waiting room of the neurosurgical intensive care unit was a tiny windowless room with dull textured wallpaper and mismatched furniture. On every wall, children’s drawings were mounted in black picture frames, the subject matter and brush stroke typical kindergarten genre: houses with happy smoke puffing out of chimneys, round green tree-tops, bold yellow suns in the corner of every picture. This did little to cheer the parents who spent hours in that room every day, when the nurses would ask us to leave our children so they could wash them, perform some procedure or medical test. Waiting out a surgery – that was the worst to endure, and the hardest to witness. The look of worry and fatigue on a parent’s face in a moment like that is heartbreaking.

Two days after our first meeting with the surgeon, he came to find us in that waiting room. He motioned for us to follow him to an empty office nearby, asked the nurse who occupied it to leave, and ushered us in.

“It is a great mystery to me,” he said, “but this is not cancer.” According to the lab report it was an abscess, an infection in her brain. This was an entirely different prognosis. No cancer. No radiation. No chemo-therapy. It required a long antiobiotic treatment, but there was a 99% chance of full recovery.

We occupied ourselves at Short-pants’ bedside for all the hours that the ICU nurses would permit us to be at her side, even though she was in a coma. Getting a turkey was the last thing our minds and our neighbors – the same ones who had gone with her that terrible Sunday – knew this and invited us to be part of their Thanksgiving dinner. De-facto and I reluctantly left the hospital early and joined them. I remember staring at my plate, piled with turkey and all the obligatory trimmings, listening to the laughter of everyone around the table, reminding myself that I had much to be thankful for: that the babysitter called the ambulance in time, that the surgeon had saved Short-pants’ life, that the illness she struggled with was not fatal and that she would recover – a miracle, given how perilous her condition had been just four days before.

But she was still in a coma, still in a lonely hospital room, and there were still so many questions. What caused it? How long would it take for the drugs to work? Would she have any brain damage as a result of the trauma? Would she be different? I was relieved for what I had to be thankful for, yet my gratitude was tempered by worry.

~ ~ ~

The next day, the nurses came to fetch us from the waiting room with good news. Short-pants had moved her fingers. She was starting to come out of the coma. De-facto and I sat beside her, chatting with her, hoping she could hear us, feeling hope for the first time. When we were asked to leave her room so they could change the bandages on her head, we found our friends waiting for us with two large shopping bags filled with foil-wrapped packages. In each one, the perfect turkey sandwich: a blend of white and dark meat, leftover stuffing, cranberry sauce, all squeezed between two thick slabs of bread. The waiting room was packed with other parents, many of whom we’d come to know during the hours of waiting and wondering in that room. How quickly these bonds had formed, as we suffered together, waiting out long surgeries, reeling from the doctor’s reports, waiting for a the nurses to come call for us to return to our children’s bedsides.

There were dozens of sandwiches, so we passed them out, explaining the tradition of the American Thanksgiving and how the cold turkey sandwich is as coveted by some as the feast itself. For a moment, the long faces in the room lightened, and there was chatter and laughter, as everyone tasted the homemade sandwiches, certainly an improvement over the hospital cantine. My appetite during this hospital adventure was particularly un-vigorous, but I do remember enjoying that sandwich. Maybe I finally believed that Short-pants really was going to get better. Maybe it was breaking bread with some strangers who had become friends by way an intense shared experience in the waiting room of the ICU. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it was the best turkey sandwich I ever tasted.


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.


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.


Jan 7 2011

Porch Stories

That back porch could tell you some stories. It’s a porch that was good for licking melting ice-cream cones and sipping gin & tonics from tall glasses. It’s a porch where, as a young girl, I spent hours reading every book I could get my hands on, escaping into the thick forests of Narnia or sitting in a crowded courtroom with Scout Finch. It’s the place where I sulked and stewed, indignant that my parents would not let me go to town with my friends, forcing upon me an unjust incarceration in my own home. It’s a porch where sheets have been hung out to dry, in any and every season. I’ve swept its long, thin boards and shoveled snow from them more times than I can count. This porch I have shared with my family all of my life, an extension off the back of our home like a giant cradle where good things could and did happen, its balustrade like teeth in the smile of a happy childhood.

I remember a Saturday, last May, sitting alone on this back porch, steeped in an after-everything feeling. My mother was gone. She’d been buried for months, but now that her memorial service was behind us, it felt real in a way it hadn’t before. The house had been ordered and cleaned, the refrigerator emptied of everything but ketchup, pickles and a few jars of jam. The doors were locked, the alarm was set, and my ride had just called to say he was approximately thirty miles away, in a town with a name he mispronounced marvelously. I did not mind that traffic had delayed him; this gave me a little pocket of contemplative time.

I pulled out my journal and seated myself in one of the wicker rocking chairs on the porch, facing out over the grove of trees along the border of the property. It used to be you could see the lake beyond the thick of trees. Now the hedge is taller, fuller – as is every living thing that’s grown behind it – and the view, though still lovely, no longer includes the lake.

Just as I put the pen to paper, I had a flash, a sense of something different, something distinct from the sadness and grief that I’d known for the last many months. For a brief set of seconds, not even ten, I felt free. The feeling wrapped itself around me, singing a light song to lure me in and then, as quickly as it came, it slipped away.

It made me a little bit giddy, jumpy, kind of electric. Giddy like I felt that first day on campus, wandering around the cobblestone streets near my university. The sun was setting but I was rising, my whole life ahead, and this great collegiate opportunity about to launch me into it.

Or standing on the Metro North platform, after leaving the keys to my apartment on a table inside before closing the door behind me. I’d sold my car to a woman, a stranger, who then drove me to the station to go to New York for a quick overnight before flying to Europe – to live. I had with me only three suitcases and a red wide-brimmed hat. I giggled out loud as the train rushed into the station, the wind from its passage fierce against me as I held the hat firm on my head.

Or giddy like the first night in my first Parisian apartment, listening to Miles Davis with a bottle of Burgundy, or the Indian summer weekend I moved into my second Paris apartment, unpacking boxes and listening to a mixed tape given to me by a younger De-facto, wondering if the next time I moved house it might be with him beside me.

The thread in all these giddy moments: I had just let go, but I had not yet grabbed on to what would be next. That next was still unknown or unclear, and yet – and there was trust involved – ripe with promise. The prevailing thought: What can happen now? Anything.

~ ~ ~

When I was in college I slipped away one long weekend to take part in a seminar that was an offshoot of the Werner Erhardt personal growth movement. The reasons I was compelled to go are better left for another post, or it suffices to say that I’d taken my sophomore slump a little too seriously. The workshop did me a lot of good. A few of my friends remained involved in the program, but I was done after attending two levels. I couldn’t afford it on a student’s stipend and the pressure to proselytize, though not overbearing, was implicit enough to put up red flags warning me to keep my distance.

I remember going home to tell my father about the workshop. I wanted to express to him how it had changed me, how I felt so much more alive and in touch with myself. He interrupted me, reminding me of the occasion when I had eaten, in its entirety, my first Big Mac.

It was on the way to summer camp Yaiewano, circa 1972. The challenge must have been issued when I had pronounced it impossible. Not that my father was so interested in my consumption of a special-sauced hamburger, but I imagine he was trying to teach me something about setting and preparing for a goal, or turning an idea once considered implausible into something entirely feasible.

“Your Big Mac story,” he said to me, in that voice of his that could be comforting and frightening at the same time, “is one of many stories that you will have in your life, as is the story of this seminar. I hope you make the most of every single one.”

He was expert at having the last word.

But he was right. It’s easy to tell yourself a story and then begin to believe it’s your only one. Sometimes when it feels like Short-pants’ hospital story comes up too frequently I tell her just what my father told me. It is an important story, one that changed her life irrevocably, but it’s not her only story. I want her to know that. I want her to own that.

~ ~ ~

A thoughtful reader sent me an email, this week, with an excerpt from The Love Queen of Malabar, a memoir about the friendship between its author, Canadian Merrily Weisbord and the Indian poet Kamala Das. The timing – that this fell in front of me while I was musing on the subject of stories and freedom – was uncanny. This passage especially:

A writer moves away from family, old relationships, very far with the speed of a falling star,” she says. “Otherwise the writer is destroyed, and only the member of the family remains: the mother, sister, daughter, wife. The writer at some point must ask, do I want to be a well-loved member of the family? Or do I want to be a good writer? You can’t be both at the same time.”

I often wonder about this. Except it was the shock and awe of having children that (finally) propelled me to get serious about writing. My earlier story ideas languished, but the manuscript about the paradox of motherhood is the one that is (nearly) done. The number of posts I’ve written about my mother is growing out of control, but her departure from this earth provoked a stream of words from me like nothing before in my life. These roles of mother and daughter have not inhibited my word count.

But have I told the truth, the real truth, my truth? Not entirely, and I probably won’t, as long as my partner and children and siblings are alive and can read what I’ve written. That’s not out of fear, it’s out of respect.

Still, there is a shift now that my mother has joined my father in the land of gone. Sad as I am, I am also free. I was never deliberately constrained by her, but as long as she was alive, her influence was present. It wasn’t a conscious, I couldn’t write that, what would she think? kind of influence – if anything, I carved out a good portion of my identity by doing exactly what my parents thought I should not do. But therein lies the kernel. Some part of me has always been his child, her daughter. Now that they are gone, I am free to do as I please without worrying them, free to be who I am, without pleasing or displeasing them, free to write the story that is mine, unencumbered. Not that there is something so terrible to tell, or that I couldn’t have written already for them to see. But now, free of their reaction or judgment – negative or positive – the core stories within me are mine to tell.

This is what comes to me, then, after reading every post I’ve written during the Reverb10 challenge to reflect on the last year of my life. It’s as if I am once again alone on that back porch, staring out at the trees, wondering how it is they grew so tall. Let go. Grab on. What can happen now? Anything.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Molly O’Neill: Prompt: Core story. What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.)


Dec 25 2010

Bloody Mary Christmas

I’m not sure how this became a tradition in our family, but it endures.

I like to imagine that my parents started making Bloody Marys just to survive the clamor and chaos of Christmas morning. With kids up at the crack of dawn, pulling presents out from under the tree, ripping the wrapping off and losing the tags, that would inspire the need for a bit of fortification. By the time I started remembering Christmas, such things were entirely under control, but the ritual had been established. Sometime around mid-day, after a good half-dozen rounds of gift opening – we’d always open them one-by-one – my father would call a pause to what he referred to as the oh, isn’t that lovely! show and disappear into the kitchen and my mother would follow. I remember this short respite as a moment of absolute joy. The day was young but already we had discovered Santa’s booty, and the first presents to have been opened were new and exciting but there were still many thrilling gifts under the tree yet to be unpackaged.

After about a quarter of an hour, my parents would return in tandem, my father holding a black tray with his famous Bloody Marys in their signature glasses and my mother carrying a cutting board with crackers piled artfully around a cheese ball. I couldn’t imbibe in the cocktails until I was older, and this in itself was a rite of passage, but I always admired the glasses – eventually I inherited them – and I loved the spirited nature of this mid-morning snack.

Decades later, Christmas evolves. For years I boycotted the family experience, not for any reason except I needed to do something different, to break away. Then I had my own family, and found myself enacting, with inane precision, all the rituals my parents had unintentionally embedded within me. The best one, without doubt, the habit of a Bloody Mary pause at about halftime of the opening of the presents.

But what are rituals if they are not shared?

So my Christmas present to you, indulgent readers, is the simple but absolutely-tested recipe for the Bloody Mary my father used to make, as recorded by my mother in her inimitable fashion, organized in an excel spread sheet with exact measures for varying amount of servings (from two to twelve). These are not reserved only for the holidays, but this is when we love them most.

Christmas Bloody Mary (6 servings)

18 oz tomato juice
3 oz lemon juice
3/4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons horseradish
6 dashes of salt and 6 dashes of pepper
6 jiggers of vodka
tall stalks of washed celery

It won’t surprise most of you that I add a wee bit more vodka and as many dashes of Tabasco as Worcestershire. But of course all of these family traditions are meant to be adapted.

And with that, I’ll take this chance to wish a happy Christmas to all of you. Whether you like your Mary virgin or bloody, I hope it’s a good one.


Sep 1 2010

Morning Questions

Now that they are older, they wake up at a reasonable hour, something later than eight o’clock and occasionally after nine in the morning. (Well, until school starts tomorrow.) They totter down the stairs with that first-steps-in-the-day stiffness; their thumping like a gentle alarm clock alerting me that they are awake and they are coming my way. Then appears one of them – it could be either of the girls, though Short-pants is prone to rising earlier – pushing open the door to our bedroom, which sticks and sometimes requires serious muscle. A little sprite appears, donning just a pair of pink Cinderella underwear, lifts up the white comforter cover and crawls in between the sheets for the morning cuddle. It might be moments later – or as long as an hour – when the other one arrives and squeezes into the bed on the other side of me.

These cuddles are mostly wordless, except for the three questions:
Did you sleep well?
Did you have any good dreams?
Did you wake up feeling loved?
Short-pants adores the ritual of this Q&A, and answers each one with a deliberate “Yesssss,” letting the s stretch out for emphasis. I rarely ask Buddy-roo; before I even finish the first question she interrupts, “I don’t want you to ask me those questions.” I’ve asked her why not, dozens of times. The best I can get out of her is that she just doesn’t like them. So we cuddle in silence.

I’m struck by how the character of the morning cuddle has transformed over the years. When they were babies, this was the moment when they took my breast for the first meal of the day while I savored those last minutes of precious sleep. Then they were toddlers and we were constantly at war, fighting to keep them out of our bed until the sun had risen (our line in the sand), when the morning cuddle revealed the true pyrrhic nature of all those little battles we’d won the night before. This morphed into another stage in which their arguing, despite our admonishments, would crescendo into tearful screaming matches about who got to be on what side of the bed next to which parent – a prize that was hard to predict because De-facto and I never knew which of us was the coveted parent and we could fall out of favor at the drop of a hat.

Until now, a new phase, when they seem very content to wake up slowly, rising softly and silently and joining us in bed with little expectation of conversation, just the warmth and comfort of their parents and another twenty minutes of dream-time and morning slumber. (This is a great phase.)

I came across a photograph of my mother that I took a little over a year ago. Aware of her impending departure, I tried to capture little vignettes of her – things I wanted to remember – like the expression on her face while she washed the dishes (I snapped this without her noticing, from outside the window above her kitchen sink), or seeing her seated in her designated place at the head of the dining room table or curled on the couch watching television with her eyes closed. One morning I even photographed her sleeping in her bed, with her back toward me. I realized I didn’t have a strong memory of her sleeping alone in her bed; when I lived at home my father was usually beside her. Then there’s this: she was always up earlier than me. I never saw her sleeping in. Until that morning.

I took note of the details: the color of her tousled hair, the lace trim of the familiar nightgown against the skin on the back of her neck, her hand raised next to her pillow, clutching a piece of Kleenex. After I took the photo, I lifted the covers and slipped into bed beside her and put my arm around her. I wished somebody else was there to take a picture of the two of us in our morning cuddle so I could show Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

Instead I told them about it, which I suppose is even better because they had to conjure up their own image of the occasion in their minds. This prompted an inquisition: When you cuddled with Grammy, did she ask you the morning questions? No. Why not? I made them up for you. You made them up for us? Yes. Why? I don’t know. But why? I guess maybe to ease gently into using words after a long sleep. Gently? Why gently? (You see where this is going.)

This morning, they arrived within minutes of each other, their long, lithe bodies quickly snapping up the covers and diving into bed with us. We dozed in and out of the velvet pocket of morning sleep. When it felt like enough time had passed for words, I ran through the three questions with Short-pants. She answered with an emphatic and serpent-like “Yesssss,” pulling her arms tighter around me with each response.

I know Buddy-roo hates the questions but I keep thinking maybe someday she’ll change her mind and share this little ritual with us, and remember it later in her life as a good moment in her childhood. So occasionally I try them out on her anyway. This morning I braced myself for her usual scorn, but instead – surprisingly – she answered me.

Did you have a good sleep? It was okay, except it was too hot in my bed. Do you have any good dreams? I don’t remember if I dreamt or not. Did you wake up feeling loved? Maybe, if there are pancakes for breakfast.

Not so gentle, but not a bad way to start.