Apr 22 2011

Country Rhythm

She set up the chairs at the edge of the property, just as the sun bent low in the sky. The sunset was ahead and she wanted a front row seat. The invitation was so clear, so soft, and because it was issued without whining words or direct demand, all the more irresistible. The dishes could wait. The evening chores – scanning the lawn for tools left out, closing barn doors and latching the shutters – this could happen later. There’d be plenty of time before it got dark. There was a moment, there, waiting: Please sit with me, she said without words. Please sit with me and say goodbye to the sun and to this beautiful day.

The rhythm of the country house is a welcome break from the hectic pace at home in Paris and the creative chaos of last week at CREA. Here we slow down. There are fewer interruptions. We are alone as a family. We are focused on the basics, occupying ourselves with simpler concerns: What to eat? Are you warm enough? Shall we go for a walk? The kids are even freer here than last week, the country provides fields and forests for exploring and escaping. They run in and out of the house, down the road to see the sheep or the neighbor’s dog without the chaperone that is required in the city. This is freedom for De-facto and me, too; since we are not needed as escorts, we are left to finish that long chapter or nod off into a late afternoon nap.

Oh but if the country house were just that: long lunches and lazy afternoons, reading thick volumes and dozing off mid-sentence. That is the ideal country house, one that might be pictured in Homes & Gardens: replete with perfectly distressed tables and painted wicker chairs. But anyone who owns a country house – not just a second house or a vacation home – but a fixer-upper country house, knows that there’s little time to rest and repose. A country house is mostly work.

This morning, the blinding sun on the staircase reveals the fact that I have not swept since last October. The mice who’ve so kindly kept an eye on things since we were here in February left us many little presents on the shelves where we store the plates and glassware. All must be washed and replaced, I’ll clean it now but I know this task will be repeated in July. The lawn is knee-high and the lawnmower needs to be repaired. The garden is to be tilled and planted, the weeds plucked from the back stone terrace. The cobwebs cleared from every corner of every room in the house.

Then there’s the laundry. Several loads from the suitcases we brought from Italy. Three more loads of clothes and sheets we could not wash last winter because it was too cold and damp for them to dry. In the wash now, a load of blankets that smelled of fireplace smoke after the long, locked-in winter. If I had to choose my Sisyphean task, I know what it would be; in front of me all the laundry to do, and more laundry.

We have no dryer at the country house, so doing the wash requires meteorological knowledge. On a warm sunny day, it takes 3-4 hours for clothes to dry on the line, an hour less if there’s a brisk wind. When it rains, the drying time could be up to 3 days – and in the meantime the cumbersome and not particularly aesthetic drying rack becomes the centerpiece of the house. Some say make hay while the sun shines, I say wash clothes. Five loads yesterday. More today.

Buddy-roo runs into the kitchen, screeching with glee after making a trip to the neighbors to feed their chickens. In her outstretched hand, a large brown egg, hatched overnight, a gift that will become a fresh omelet. Short-pants returns after an hour in her forest; she’s been sitting on the discussion bench (she named it) knitting, and she returns to show me her work. She’s getting good, the rows of purple yarn are entirely uniform; I can’t see even one dropped stitch. It is the beginning of a hat, she says, and for the first time I see it could be something to wear.

I can hear De-facto in the loft of the “new room,” a hopeful room we’ve been renovating for years. He’s fashioning a windowsill out of an old slab of oak he found in the barn, telling the girls how reusing this piece of wood means we didn’t have to kill any more trees. They run to the barn to find more wood that might save a tree, but on the way they forget their mission, caught up instead in the chasing of dandelion fuzz that is dancing with the gusts of wind. The breeze is brisk, it stirs up the pollen and makes us all sneeze, but it sure to dry the laundry well and fast. This might even leave me some time to read and rest.

This post is about nothing, really. It has no point to make. It’s about the day-to-day of the country house. It’s about simple tasks and basic pleasures. It’s about being in nature. It’s about the kind of manual labor that frees the mind to wander. It’s about being away from the distractions of the world and folding into my family. It’s about no other moment than this one, this moment now, taking its place in the string of moments and memories that will always be part of our peaceful escapes to the country.

Or maybe that is the point.

Feb 19 2011

For a Few Days

I’m tucked under the comforter of my bed, the space heater generating barely enough juice to keep my hands from freezing, the children tumble into a world of instantaneous imagination in the living room below me. They weave stories as they go, shouting out commands to each other – it’s always in the past tense, “and then you were calling for help” – turning the plot into a new direction. A wood-crafted puppet theater becomes the television, Buddy-roo pretends to change the channel, a box of chalk as her remote control, and Short-pants performs a feat of improv, acting out each program: a news report, a weather forecast, a show about dancing animals, a documentary about the first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell.

When the puppet theater accidentally falls over, the two of them shift seamlessly to a new scene. Buddy-roo calls a repairman on her pretend phone, Short-pants runs out the side door and comes around to knock on the front door for her next role. “What’s the problem ma’am?” She says in her deepest alto voice. Buddy-roo explains the catastrophe: her TV has fallen and broken and what will she do? The repairman inspects the damage. “I’ll have to take it to the shop, for a few days.” The damsel in distress cries out in despair and faints on the couch. (Art imitates life.)

There are so few toys at this country house, mostly remnants of broken ones, old board games and puzzles (with pieces missing) handed down from the neighbors down the road, a few old Barbies and a their torn dresses, a small plastic stove, some costume jewelry that the mother-in-love brought after a major paring-down-of-her-possessions. But it is enough to amuse them for hours. We have more toys and more books at home in Paris, but the “I’m bored” cry is heard there, and not here, in the country.

In the country we wake up naturally, without an alarm. There is no school. There is no rushing through breakfast. There is no out-the-door-you’ll-be-late. There is no internet (unless I walk down the road to borrow our neighbor’s wi-fi). There is nothing but the slower rhythm of time that is more natural, more civilized than what motors us in the apparently civilized city. I do not know if I could take this suspended pace all the time, but several times a year, as it coincides with the school holidays (it’s winter break now) it is just what the country doctor ordered. Fresh air. Deep sleeps. Long walks. Manual labor. Less media.

In the evenings after dinner as night lays down around us, we huddle around the wood stove. There is no checking of the email or watching a DVD or answering the phone or Skyping with a client in a far away time zone. We sit, the four of us, around our stove and talk. And laugh. We play Mille Bornes. We tell stories. We look at each other. We’re a family together, we four.

Did I say the four of us? I am mistaken, because we have an extra body here. As we were packing she caught my eye. I was startled by her as is often the case, there’s something so wrong about That Big Doll, something about her height coupled with her anatomical proportions and those oversized, alien-like eyes – if I catch sight of her out of the corner of my eye I jump a mile. “Should we bring That Big Doll?” I asked. The girls hopped up and down, cheering.

I had to get her out of the apartment. That Big Doll has become a liability. The boy guests at our house are a bit too fascinated that something their size could have such breasts, and the conversations she is provoking amongst my children, though hilarious and manageable, are conversations I’d rather have a few years from now. Removing the object of their origin may not thwart those discussions – Pandora’s box has already been unhinged – but I’m sure we’ll all live happily ever after if we don’t have to look at her every day.

That Big Doll made the car trip on her back (her preference, I suppose) on the panel under the rear window of our rented car, evoking interesting glances from cars on the auto-route. She was a bit out of sorts in the country at first; clearly she’s a girl used to the streets of the city. She quickly acclimated, however, and has shown herself to be quite the nature girl. Who knew?

Short-pants peeks into the bedroom where I’m working and hands me a piece of paper. Please come to the show ‘The Four Accidents’ at 3:30 pm. Signed, the Puppeteer. She watches while I read, waiting for my response.

“You’re going to do a show!” I know my enthusiasm is important to her.
She nods her head, her two front teeth like barn doors in the middle of her smile.

“Is it going to have a beginning, a middle and an end?” I ask.

She nods again. You may think me harsh on this count, but if you’ve sat through any of those homemade productions that go on forever with no clear plot line, you know the pain I’m trying to avoid.

“And tension,” she volunteers, “that gets resolved near the end.”

That’s my girl.

At 3:30 there’s murmuring in the living room, as the crowd of three plus That Big Doll assembles to view the advertised performance. The puppets dance on her fingers as the four accidents are revealed, one by one. There’s a wizard, a princess, a knight and a chef, all of whom suffer in their own way. When a dragon sets the castle on fire, a repairman arrives to rebuild the castle, with his invisible team of helpers. But between each accident, this narration: “And they live happily ever after for a few days.”

It seems our little playwright has a practical streak.

Tomorrow we return to Paris. I’d stay another week if we could; I’m thoroughly rested and relaxed from the fresh air and slower rhythm of life. But work calls and for that a more steady internet service is required. It’s true if we installed a connection here, we could stay on and work from the country house as easily as we do in Paris. But then we wouldn’t have the feeling of being truly unplugged. Our afternoons wouldn’t be surrendered to walks in the woods, visiting the lambs down the road, pruning in the yard, plastering in the new room. We wouldn’t linger around the wood stove every night with the same feeling of freedom and peace that comes from having no other option, really. I wouldn’t want to be here forever, without the Internet, but I can live happily ever after without it…for a few days.

Dec 31 2010

A Year, Defined

Her coughing echoed off the walls of our hotel room. Just as I’d doze off, Buddy-roo would cough again, violently, waking herself up, and keeping De-facto and me from any semblance of real sleep. Only Short-pants, who could sleep through a train wreck, got any shut-eye.

The cough started last weekend, on the tail end of a mild cold, a typical flight-path for this kind of winter malady. Here is every parent’s dilemma: hover over your child and rush her to the doctor every time she sneezes?
Or help her gut it out because, usually, a little TLC, tea and honey and homemade chicken soup will let it run its course. It’s never comfortable, but kids get sick – everyone gets sick – and you get through it. Of course, Short-pants once had a cough and flu-like thing that turned out to be a brain abscess and required surgery and six weeks in intensive care. This could have turned us into full-fledged helicopter parents. We’ve tried, very deliberately, not to overreact to subsequent illnesses based on that experience, which was a statistical anomaly. I’m kinda proud of that.

Why is it that a child’s cough or cold always gets worse the day just before a holiday weekend or in the middle of a vacation? It’s like they wait to get really sick until your trusted pediatrician is out of reach or until you’re in a strange place where you can’t handily call a doctor. Then you wished you’d addressed it when they were just a little sick, except then you’d feel a bit silly, calling your doctor because of a runny nose.

After one particularly severe coughing fit, I switched places with Short-pants (who barely woke up and moved to the other bed like a zombie) in order to be next to Buddy-roo. I wanted to check her heart-rate, to feel if she had a fever, to try to slow her breathing by slowing mine beside her, or at least try to reassure her with a mother’s embrace.

“Mama,” she said, in that sweet middle-of-the night voice, “the coughing is keeping me from continuing the beautiful dream I was having.”

“I’m sorry peanut,” I soothed her, “tell me about your dream.”

“I was standing in the courtyard at school and there was a big white cloud stretched across the sky. The cloud got closer and closer and I saw it was Grammy standing on the cloud in a really beautiful dress with gold wings…”

She erupted into another fit of coughing.

“…and then I stepped onto the cloud, it was soft and warm, and then I had wings and a halo, too. Just like her.”

I’m glad this felt like a beautiful dream to Buddy-roo, but to me it had the makings of a nightmare. Was this a message from my mother or just a coincidence? I vowed to myself that we’d see a doctor, and soon.

During the last week of my mother’s life, we talked about communicating from the other side. “If you can,” I pleaded, “could you tell Short-pants to pick-up her room?” It’s true I wouldn’t mind such a nudge from the afterlife, but the real reason I said it was that I knew it would make my mother laugh – the full circle of it all – and she did. Laugh, that is.

After some back scratching and tandem breathing, Buddy-roo’s coughing subsided and she fell into an even sleep. But now I was wide awake, left to further consider the meaning of her possibly prophetic dream, after which I turned to something I’d been pondering all day: my defining moment(s) of the last year. This is one Reverb10 prompt that I’d considered skipping; I think I’ve written enough about it already. Click on this blog’s dying or grieving tags and you’ll see I’ve documented, explored and exhausted the subject. Even my most loyal readers must be bored with it by now.

But there in the darkened hotel room, pitch black but for one thin line of pre-dawn light where the drawn curtains didn’t quite meet, the rest of my family slept and I ran through it all again, the whole constellation of moments that defined 2010 for me, plotted around the event of my mother’s death.

I remember at the calling hours at the funeral home, when, for a moment I actually stood outside myself, like an observer, watching the scene unfold. I saw my brother, my sister and myself greeting the friends and colleagues of my mother – of both my parents, in fact – who came to pay their respects. There’s a remarkable thing that happens at a time like this, a mutual healing occurs when the people who’ve come to console you discover their own grief and you end up consoling them. I think this is why we have calling hours and funerals and memorial services. Grief has its private moments, but its public expression has a place in the healing process, too.

I saw that somehow, despite our own exhaustion and grief, we’d pulled ourselves together and done what had to be done to move things along, to make all the arrangements, to show up and dig deep and find the words to appreciate each person who’d come to console us. I saw the three of us, doing this just the way my parents would have done it, just the way they would have wanted us to do it. And I knew that if my mother were watching, she’d have been proud.

The defining moment, perhaps, is what happened next, when I realized that I didn’t need to make her proud anymore, and I hadn’t needed to for a long time. I understood, in a deeper way, that it’s about making myself proud – not her, not my father, but me. Or even thinking ahead – maybe it’s a little bit about making my children proud, the way my siblings and I were so very proud of our mother.

What defined me this year was not that I lost my mother, but what’s happened since she died. Not to go overboard here; it’s too easy to canonize her now that she’s gone and it should be said that we had our fair share of frustrating, eye-rolling moments, typical for most mother-daughter relationships. But in the end, we were good friends and we relied upon each other. I’ve had to learn how to be afloat without her gentle ballast in the background, and that is what will define this year for me.

At breakfast the next morning I asked the hotel proprietor to suggest a local doctor. She could, it turns out, and she even made a few calls on our behalf, returning with several options, the best of which was a general practitioner with open office hours until 10:30 am, in the village halfway between our hotel and the ski mountain.

Vous avez évité une catastrophe,” the doctor said, pressing her stethoscope against Buddy-roo’s chest and looking at her throat and ears with the proper lighting. Buddy-roo coughed, violently, and smiled. “What’s a catastrophe?” she asked me, in English. “A big mess, and we’ve avoided it,” I answered. “Is that good?” she asked. I nodded, feeling her forehead.

At the pharmacy I handed over the prescription, waiting and watching as the pharmacist meticulously fulfilled the doctor’s requests, one item at a time. He placed each box of medicine in front of me with an explanation of how much, how often, at what time of the day to administer it. When he put the package of suppositories – for a cough – on the countertop, he must have noticed my expression. “It’s the French way,” he said, in English, smirking at me. I’m pretty sure he never had to administer a suppository to a 7-year old child. If he did, I bet he’d choose another form, despite its slower efficacy.

Our last day of skiing could continue as planned. I was prepared to sit it out in the lodge with her, but Buddy-roo wanted to have another lesson and another few hours on the slopes. At least now she was fortified with some medicine and tonight she’d sleep without interruption. In a week’s time she’ll be fine; already she seemed on the mend. I felt the clouds lifting, rising high and away, and I knew that if my mother were watching, she’d have been proud.

Not that it matters (ahem).

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Kathryn Fitzmaurice: Prompt: Defining moment. Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.

Dec 24 2010

Hard to Believe

The holidays, though filled with beautiful moments, have their fair share of hard parts that make you want to slowly, quietly lock the bathroom door and sit on the side of the tub and have a good cry, ignoring any small fists that rap on the door calling your name. It can be for any kind of reason, general fatigue or specific disappointment. It doesn’t help that expectations get artificially raised at this time of the year, and I happen to be susceptible to their augmentation, despite annual proclamations that this year will be otherwise.

The holidays are a little bit hard for me because I always think of my father, who died a week before Christmas, twenty-some years ago. Losing him so close to the holiday painted a shade of blue around all the red and green. I remember Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas on the radio while I was riding in the town car behind the hearse on the way to the cemetery. The driver was the father of a school friend, at her slumber parties he used to sit at the kitchen table and laugh out loud with us. I could see his eyes in the rear view mirror and they were red and wet with tears. Everybody loved my father and nobody could believe he was gone.

It’s easier now, time helps, though I still cry a little when I hear that song.

The holidays are hard because it’s a lot of work. Even if you think ahead, and I do: when I travel throughout the year, I pick up indigenous specialties and earmark them as gifts for the following Christmas. Living overseas inspired my organization: I needed, just once, to wait in the long line at the post office the week before Christmas only to learn that the charge to ship the presents to my family so that they’d arrive before the 25th would cost more than the gifts themselves. Now everything gets wrapped by mid-November and shipped to the U.S. at a reasonable cost or sent home by a visiting courier.

But even with this apparently organized approach, Christmas creeps up and crowds the calendar. I still find myself with last minute shopping that thrusts me into the throngs of crazed shoppers. Somehow I’m still up at 2 am baking cookies for the school party or to give to the neighbors or just to have around the house. I do this because that’s what my mother did. I make her recipe, I use the same cookie cutters (I inherited hers), I frost and sugar the trees, stars, angels, bells and Santas the same way she did. And I work myself into the same frenzy that puzzled me so when I watched her as child.

The holidays are hard because they’re over commercialized, and somewhere along the way I bought into it. I agreed to the Santa and presents and lights and tinsel deal, hook line and sinker, and now I don’t know how to backtrack my way out of it. Here’s how ridiculous I am: I buy special “Santa” wrapping paper – the goofy, tacky kind that I would never otherwise use to wrap presents – and this paper is designated for gifts from Santa only. I’ve been doing this for years, but seriously, have they ever said (or thought): “Oh, those presents that just arrived under the tree last night have their own distinctive wrapping paper fashioned by Santa’s elves?” I’m sure I’m the only one who gets it.

Last week while wrapping a few gifts for the girls, presents not from Santa, but from me and De-facto, and I ran out of the classy, heavier-stock wrapping paper I prefer. All that was left was the end of the roll for Santa’s presents, which have already been wrapped and hidden away. Mid-way through cutting a piece of this cheesy paper I thought to myself, “What am I doing? This paper’s for Santa’s presents, I can’t use it on ours. They’ll know.”

What if they do? I’m tired of this whole Santa ruse, anyway. It’s hard work perpetuating this little lie (about which I have only mild guilt) but most of all I’m tired of doing all the work for which Père Noël gets all the credit. I want them to stop believing, but it’s too hard to tell them – and certainly not right now, days before Christmas – though I am starting to get impatient for them to figure it all out. For this reason, I went ahead and used the tacky paper to wrap the not-from-Santa presents. We’ll see if anybody notices.

I did get a question, a few weeks ago. Apparently someone in the school courtyard claimed there was no Santa Claus and the girls asked me if that was true. I could have said, well guys, actually, your friend in the courtyard is right. It would have eased the burden, moved us into the next phase of celebrating Christmas which means family holidays in a place with palm trees and drinks with little umbrellas in them, much easier to enact once the concern about how Santa will find us doesn’t have to be addressed and a full suitcase of Santa’s gifts needn’t be carried along.

But I chickened out. “What do you think?” I answered with a question. They both tipped their heads to the side, waiting, until Short-pants said, “I still believe.” Buddy-roo agreed. “Well there you have it,” I said, shooting myself in the foot.

Because even with its hard parts, I still love Christmas. I love the rituals: the smell of the sapin de Noël and how it transforms when we string up the lights and hang the ornaments. I love the Christmas carols (with the exception of the monotonous Twelve Days of Christmas) and the decorations in the stores and on the street. I love selecting beautiful wrapping paper and folding it evenly and taping it invisibly and tying ribbons into fat bows to make beautiful packages. I love the quiet that falls upon the world as business closes on Christmas eve, the cozying in and gathering ‘round and being with family. I love the way the children run to bed, knowing that the sooner they go to sleep, the sooner morning will come.

I love all our holiday traditions. I realize, especially now, that these are the things that have kept my father alive in our hearts – and will keep my mother there too – which is, no doubt, the reason that I insist upon continuing them so diligently. Christmas is hard work but it’s also comforting, a regression to a previous place and posture that for me, is the heart of my childhood.

Tomorrow, Christmas day, my sister will phone me and say, “Did he come?” And I will say, “Yes, he came.” And in that short exchange, an exchange that happens every year in exactly the same way – the same question and the same response – everything we know and believe about Christmas is captured: everything that’s hard and sad and also magical and joyful. That’s when the hard parts of the holiday season fade away and it’s easy just to let it go and really mean it when you whisper back Merry Christmas.

Nov 10 2010

All the Greats

We were four, side-by-side in the bed. Buddy-roo claimed the prized position between De-facto and me. Short-pants pressed in close on my other side. The girls crossed and kicked their legs, piling them on mine and over each other’s, vying for top placement. De-facto attempted to ignore us; I was sure any moment he’d pull himself from under the oven of covers and leave us to find peace in one of the girl’s empty beds. Then we’d have the big bed to ourselves for an all-girl cuddle, as they like to call it.

Short-pants offered an enthusiastic report (I think). She lost a tooth. One of the loose molars on the top row finally fell out. I sensed some dismay mixed in with her delight – she didn’t say it but I wonder if she’d expected the Tooth Fairy to come during the night. She lost the tooth after our goodnight rituals; she hadn’t told me. Was she now putting two and two together to guess the real identity of the Tooth Fairy? Would she opt not to bring this up because she wants to get a 1€ coin even if it means ignoring new knowledge? Or would she remain in the group of faithful believers? It’s not the first time the Tooth Fairy has been a bit of a slacker; perhaps Short-pants has just learned to be forgiving. Or else she just likes believing in the Tooth Fairy.

I have an aunt who likes to believe in the Blue Fairy, a magic helper who does all sorts of tasks you’d prefer not to do yourself, like cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. I love that what started as a polite ploy to prohibit any of us from helping her wash up (the Blue Fairy only comes if you leave the dishes on the counter and close the door behind you) turned into a myth that persists. My aunt speaks about the Blue Fairy with admiration and awe. I think she enjoys the act of pretending to believe.

Buddy-roo, despite a loose tooth that will not fall out – even with the adult tooth growing over it – had no comment about the tooth fairy. She was staring up at the ceiling, moving her lips as if counting or considering something important. This went on for a good 30-seconds before she verbalized her thinking.

“I had a great grandmother,” she announced, “and a great, great grandmother. And a great, great, great grandmother…” The recent visit of the mother-in-love just one of the reasons she’s thinking about all great things grandmother.

She continued, emphasizing distinctly each great in the series of great, great, great, greats. She was digging back into the lineage of women before her. I pictured the old sepia photographs, once hidden in tattered, black-paged albums until my mother’s big project to frame them and hang them together in one room to make what became of gallery of our ancestors. There were plenty of men on this wall, but it’s the women who stood out: my grandmothers, great grandmothers and other elegant, austere or well-hatted women standing in poses stylish for the portraits of their time.

Now that technology permits, we keep this family lineage on-line; my sister took the initiative and it’s been amazing, the information we’ve acquired by going social-network with our family tree. Now all those faded photographs on the wall have names to match and for once I understand who they are and how they are related to me.

“…and then there’s a great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother.” She kept going.

I told her how she stands on the shoulders of many women who lived interesting lives, like her great grandmother who moved, with a husband she’d known only for a few months, to Cuba, where she knew nobody. Or another great grandmother who passed through Ellis Island when she was a girl, younger than Buddy-roo. Or her mother, who was pregnant during that long voyage across the Atlantic. Or on De-facto’s side, a great grandmother who was married twice, to the two loves of her life, both marriages lasting more than thirty years.

De-facto, until now silent – pretending to be asleep – piped up, pointing out that Buddy-roo’s two grandmothers also had two grandmothers, meaning she had four great grandmothers. And each of them, in turn, had two grandmothers, which makes for eight great, great grandmothers, and so on, making this big story of all the grandmothers an exponential one. I had never considered this, how many great, great women existed just to make me, so that I could make Short-pants and Buddy-roo. There’s a long line of women with wisdom, style and sass who’ve been before us.

“But what if I get children, like you and Papa got me?” (I love Buddy-roo’s choice of verb. She isn’t going to have children, or give birth to them, she’s just going to get them, like, at a store or something.) “What will they call her?” She pointed to her sister.

“She’ll be an aunt to your children,” I said.

“But won’t she be a great something?”

Considering her unwavering faith in the Tooth Fairy, Short-pants is poised to be a believer in the Blue Fairy, which puts her in good stead to become a greatest kind of aunt.

“Of course I’ll be a great aunt,” Short-pants volunteered, “I’m a great sister, aren’t I?”

Nov 1 2010

All the Saints

Because the interior walls of the country house are not at all soundproof, we usually overhear the girls talking to each other as they ready themselves for bed. Last night they were wired from all the sugar and excitement of trick-or-treating. They also get to share a room with the mother-in-love when she joins us at the country house so going to bed is always a bit of an adventure, sharing those last just-before-sleep moments with their grandmother.

“Oh, will you stop it,” Short-pants screamed, “You’re talking about dead people again!” Buddy-roo protested. She was missing my mother and remembered sharing a bedroom with her when we took our family vacation to Punta Cana. And for that matter, she was also missing Grandpa Artie, De-facto’s father, who died before I was in the picture and long before Buddy-roo was considered, let alone conceived, but she has a special kinship with him because they share the same birthday.

(While I was in labor for Buddy-roo, we worked on the New York Times crossword – a visitor had brought it and left it – and were more than slightly stunned when the central word around which the entire puzzle was written was his name, A-R-T-I-E.)

My mother-in-love came up the stairs and into their room and heard their dispute. She made the expected, gentle inquiries. Short-pants remained exasperated. “She keeps talking about dead people and it’s useless.”

“But I miss Grammy,” Buddy-roo countered. Mother-in-love launched a sensitive and sensible explanation of how the people we love who die are never really gone; they stay with us when we think of them. So it is good to remember them.

“See?” Buddy-roo defended her nostalgia.
“I still say it’s useless,” said Short-pants.

I remember how famously my mother and my mother-in-love got on. De-facto’s mother admires everyone without envy, and she’s a great listener and a strong woman in her own right with as many fascinating accomplishments as my mother. Sipping iced-tea on the back porch, exchanging stories, admiring their grandchildren – I loved that that the girls could enjoy the company of both grandmothers at the same time. Though the way my mother was with the girls was different than how my mother-in-love engages them, the feeling of having both of them side-by-side had to be a real treasure. At least it was for me.

That my mother is gone makes me even more appreciative of the visits we have with De-facto’s mother. I always knew – but now I really know – how crucial it is to drink in every moment, every encounter, every single visit with her. She is so good to us, worthy of sainthood (who else volunteers to defrost your refrigerator?) and we shouldn’t ever take her for granted.

We worked our fingers to the bone. De-facto put up wallboard in the new room and I tended the grapes. She weeded along the front, side and back of the house, mulched any patch of exposed ground, trimmed roses, structured our new compost, hauled firewood, made a soup, colored puppets with the girls and a dozen other tasks to improve the quality of our country living. She is a powerhouse in a way that is surreal; she is as wise as her years demand but just as spry and fit as a woman twenty-five years younger.

For Halloween she dressed as the Countess Duvet who lives in the graveyard. She moved in – very temporarily – to the abandoned barn across the street, with candles and theatrics in order to add another trick-or-treating stop on our sparsely populated road.

“I eat my supper off the tomb of the Count,” she said, with a dramatic accent that made her claim believable. The girls jumped and squealed, not quite sure whether she was funny or frightening.

She cannot replace my mother but her presence somewhat palliates the loss, because she is my friend, because she knew my mother and loved and admired her, too. Having loved and lost her own mother, she respects the necessary passages of each generation. My mother-in-love knows everything I know, and so much more. But she won’t spoil it: she smiles at me, watching as I mother and cook and work and love and garden and grieve, and just puts her hand gently on my back from time to time to let me know she cares, which is just enough to remind me that there are saints here on earth.

Jul 23 2010

Tour de Luxe

There’s nothing luxe about our life at the country house. We have what we need: a stove with an oven, a fridge, a table and chairs. There’s a shower with hot running water, two functioning toilets attached to a septic tank. Beds with linens – albeit old ones. One set even dates from my first post-college apartment,which means they’re something like 25 years old. (They’ve never seen the inside of a dryer, which might be why they’re still in use.) It’s all livable, just not particularly luxurious. A bit rough around the edges.

The country house is a renovation in progress. This means we live beside the dust and mess and clutter that is part and parcel of do-it-yourself construction. It’s part of any type of renovation, but particularly so when achieved the snail’s pace of 2-weeks at a time, three or four times a year. But we did not buy a ready-made chateau; we bought a rundown house attached to a barn, previously inhabited, for 30 years, by an eccentric bachelor. Which means we bought into the idea of slow motion, by-our-own-hand improvements from the start. Part of the pleasure, or so De-facto tells me, is solving the puzzle of what to fix and learning how to do it as you go.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to keep things sparse. And yet the house has still become the dumping ground for every odd piece of furniture, unwanted rug, blanket, throw-pillow or lava lamp. Nothing matches; our plates are all left over from other sets of china from our past, the silverware is abundant but with very few matching place-settings. I’ve vowed not to decorate, nor to buy any furnishings or appliances until the house is closer to finished. As a result, we live with what’s been inherited or donated, a hodgepodge of eclectic furnishings and belongings.

It’s amazing what you can live with – and without.

The electricity at the country house is more or less jerry-rigged, the wiring is so ancient that they don’t make plugs to fit some of the outlets in the house. If we use the oven and the burners on the stove and try to run the washer or plug in the speakers for music, we’re likely to trip the short-switch on the fuse-box. There is no landline for a telephone. There is no cable. There is no Internet.

Which is challenge for someone like me who writes 3 blogs and conducts most of the prep work for her business on-line. There are no less than a dozen moments a day when my natural reflex to check email or Google the answer to something goes un-satiated. In order to access the rest of the world, I must walk down the road 100 meters to our neighbors, who have kindly given us the code to their wi-fi. I sit on the bench outside their kitchen door and send/receive messages and bathe in the data I can download before I feel my presence is an imposition. You can imagine this makes posting somewhat problematic; but managing an on-line conference call meeting with colleagues has to be carefully timed and executed as well.

In the mornings De-facto toils in the side room we’ve been renovating for the last three years, maneuvering a support beam in the foundation or plastering or painting. I hole up in the upstairs back bedroom and write, surfacing at noon-thirty or so, just in time to make lunch for my hungry tool-belted man and our girls. My primary chore in the country is cooking, not the easiest task when only two of the burners on the stove work and there’s hardly an inch of counter space. But that’s life in the country; you get by with less than perfect conditions and in the end, it’s perfect.

After lunch there’s always some project, the cleaning out of shelf that’s been overtaken by cobwebs in our absence, trimming the tree branches over my grapevines to keep them in the sunshine or liberating them from the ferns that spread furiously when unattended. Or laundry. The country house is a high-speed factory for dirty clothes.

And then. The Tour. The high point of the afternoon is that moment when we pull out our old 20″ television (miniature compared to current models) to watch the Tour de France. That we have no cable is a handicap, but De-facto broke down and purchased an antenna, a set of rabbit ears which if correctly configured on the table just outside the door, permits a reasonable picture, though a bit snowy – at least it’s enough to watch the cyclists in action. We turn it on around 2 o’clock and let it blare in the background as De-facto paints the ceiling or I cut back the rose bushes. As they close in for the finish of the stage, we draw closer, staring intensely at the screen with fingers crossed. This year Schleck is our favored rider; his 8-second lag behind Contador seems like an eternity.

The girls, well, they run wild. In Paris they are somewhat incarcerated, on top of each other in our apartment and requiring an adult to accompany them to go anywhere outside our building. In the country, they run unhindered. Short-pants disappears into the forest behind the house while Buddy-roo wanders down the road to visit our neighbors. They run in and out of the house at will. They are free.

When the stage is over, and the post-tour television wrap-up is completed, De-facto makes his announcement, “Family bike ride!” This is met with some protest, as Short-pants is not so fond of bicycling and Buddy-roo makes a habit out of being contrary. But eventually it gets sorted out, who rides solo and who rides on the extension attached to De-facto’s bike (which makes for a bicycle-built-for-two). We peddle down the road. Our destination: the pasture with the shaggy pony. The sky is unblemished blue. The late afternoon sun turns us into long shadows on the pavement. There’s fresh air and a little exercise and the laughter of children. What about this isn’t a tour de luxe?

May 12 2010

Overlapping Moments

It was sometime last summer that my ex-husband called me to tell me of the latest coincidence in his life. He’d been driving around with his daughter – who I knew best, actually, when she was the same age as Buddy-roo or Short-pants – looking at places to host her wedding. A sobering piece of news: that someone you knew when she still believed in Santa Claus is now getting married. Just another marker of how time halts for no one.

A wedding. Mazeltov and all that, I thought. My ex (let’s call him Ex-facto) went on to say that while driving to one of the venues on her list, he recognized a landmark red-and-white-striped ice-cream parlor and realized how close he was (a mile) to my childhood home. Of the half-dozen places she was considering, this one was actually right in my little hometown. The venue in question was a ruin when I was growing up, but has since been restored to a majestic mansion with picturesque views, a perfect spot for weddings and other celebratory occasions.

A disclosure is in order: Yes, there was a man and some vows, many years ago. Our divorce was relatively elegant, as divorces go, and we remain not only cordial but compassionate toward each other. Our correspondence, though not regular, is frequent enough and always slightly nostalgic. He kept in closer contact with me when Short-pants was in the hospital, and also called me this winter when I was taking care of my mother. When Ex-facto’s daughter, the bride in question, was a student abroad, he encouraged her to come visit me in Paris. I was nearly 9-months pregnant, but I wanted her to experience French café society so I urged De-facto to take her out to some of our favorite bars in the neighborhood. I think what she enjoyed most about that night was running into our friends and answering the question, “so how do you know each other?”

Between De-facto and Ex-facto there is a striking sense of mutual respect. Ex-facto’s regard for De-facto, he tells me, is enhanced because of the things I write on this blog. For De-facto, it is the result of two precious tickets that Ex-facto once secured for him to see the New England Patriots play in the Superbowl. I suppose that could make a friend for life.

“If we choose this place for the wedding,” Ex-facto told me, “we’ll want your mother to be there.”

If she lives that long, I thought. By then, my mother had already outlived her doctor’s estimates; she was living month by month. On borrowed time, as she liked to say.

When my mother died, it was her wish to be interred quickly and quietly, and also her suggestion that we take our time organizing a memorial service, without the stress or urgency to make it coincide with her burial. Given the inclement weather last February, her wishes were more than sensible. After the private burial, we selected a Saturday in mid-May for her memorial service, dreaming of a sunny spring afternoon that would create hopeful dispositions and easier transportation.

Once the date was chosen, I called around to local inns and hotels to reserve a block of rooms for the extended family we expected to attend, and found it problematic. I managed to secure the very last rooms at one B&B, but I was surprised to find that otherwise, there was, literally, no room at the inn – or the hotel, or anywhere. My hometown is known for its summer tourism; it’s on a beautiful lake with lots of sailing and water sporting. But sold-out in the middle of May?

“There’s a wedding,” one of the hotel clerks told me.

What are the chances that Ex-facto’s entire family (and his first ex-wife and current wife) would descend on my hometown at the same weekend as my entire family will assemble there for my mother’s memorial service? Is this some sort of cosmic joke? Some strange vertigo-inducing vortex uniting our two families, again, par hazard, on this auspicious date?

I mean, you couldn’t make this up.

Do you think we’ll bump into them? I can imagine my aunt encountering my ex-mother-in-law in an elevator and wondering why the other seems vaguely familiar. Or Ex-facto’s cousin, studying my Uncle Buddy (who’s pretty memorable) in the breakfast room, puzzling about where she’s seen him before. Ghosts of the past inhabiting the present.

I suppose this is how life works. A tiny baby, like my new nephew, born last week, slips out into a waiting, welcoming world. A poised bride steps in a purposeful gait down the aisle toward her groom. A beloved woman, laid to rest, is remembered with words of tribute, gratitude and affection. For each one of us, there are significant moments marking our passage through life. And sometimes these moments overlap in rather extraordinary – if slightly awkward – ways.

Apr 23 2010

Where it Starts

I watched them run ahead toward the grand dining room, confident, at ease. Short-pants set her book down on a table and grabbed a plate, Buddy-roo was already surveying the buffet table and deciding how to choose among the abundance. They forged into the crowd forming around the tables, picking through the platters of seafood, pasta salads, Italian meat and fried vegetables and filled their plates. On the way to their table, they stopped to chat with adults – new friends and old – engaging them in conversations about how the conference was going. My big little girls, so poised and polite. I stood aside and watched them, shaking my head.

We have been taking our girls with us to the CREA conference since its inception in 2003. That first year Short-pants was just under 2-years old. The hotel found for us a babysitter who spoke only Italian, so each day I made little drawings of bottles or a sleeping child next to the hands of a clock, indicating her schedule. I was also pregnant at that first conference; Buddy-roo was the wild idea growing strong-willed in my belly.

Which is to say that the girls are well loved among the community of leaders and participants who return to CREA each year. Many are friends we know from years attending the Creative Problem Solving Institute, (CPSI), the original creativity conference (which also happens to be where De-facto and I first met). The one year that I came to CREA alone, I was chastised for not bringing the girls. “They are our inspiration,” my friends said.

We are not the only people in this clan who have children, but perhaps we have been – up until now – the only ones crazy enough to bring our young creatures to the conference for the whole week. This has never been easy. Both De-facto and I are usually running core programs that require our attention as facilitators for most of the very long days, and there’s always a bit of extra planning and adjusting of the program to do in the evenings that requires our time and attention. A wide menu of concurrent activities calls to us at any given moment, not to mention nights dancing at the CREA pub or hanging out at the bar with friends. There’s a lot to do without the kids around, let alone when they are tugging on your shirt for some mama-time after missing you all day.

We’ve experimented with different child-care formulas: hiring a local babysitter through the hotel, bringing our own babysitter from Paris, using the mother-in-love, taking turns trading the kids off to each other. It’s never ideal and there’s always the feeling of being totally stretched. Yet it has always been worth it: our kids have something special in them as a result of rubbing up against all these open-minded, open-hearted adults, some of them eccentric, many of them equally as childlike, all of them in awe of the sacred uninhibited spirit that lives in children who have not yet had their creativity taught out of them. This community covets that spirit, and in turn, keeps it burning in our children.

This year, with a bit of coordination in advance, a few other CREA friends brought their children, too, and we initiated the first unofficial CREA kids program. Ten youngsters from the ages of 6 to 14 – an entire pack of CREA-rats – made the Grand Villa Balbi Hotel their playground. My friend, la maman créative, brought her mother to help with oversight and to work with the kids to produce a journal every day about their activities. The mother-in-love and other CREA leaders and parents helped us to create a schedule of events and activities for the kids. There was a session on creativity by playing with light, another on meditation. Two about knitting, with fingers and with needles. One leader even organized a Harry Potter tour – arranging in advance with locals in the town to pretend not to see the kids when they passed by in their invisibility cloak.

Short-pants herself facilitated a session on how to make mandalas, which I was unable to attend because I was running program. A bunch of the kids helped la maman créative to lead a session titled Taking time to be Creative as a Family. De-facto was there for that, but unfortunately, I couldn’t attend – a session I was running was scheduled at the same time. The irony of this wasn’t lost on me.

I did find one opportunity to play with the kids: We rolled out a 10-meter long sheet of blank paper on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and set out jars of paints and brushes. The instructions were this simple: paint. “What do we paint?” was what most of the adults asked. The kids didn’t wonder why or what or how. They simply got down on their hands and knees, picked up a brush and some color and started painting. They didn’t need instructions. They just started.

The beautiful thing about seeing the gang of CREA-rats running around the conference is that you see immediately how they belong there. It is in their nature to be creative. There is no hesitation to step into the flow of their imagination. Most children don’t even know that they are being creative; they are simply at play. It is their way. This is, perhaps, why their presence at the CREA (or the CPSI) creativity conference is not only natural, it is just what we need.

(If you’re interested in attending one or both of these creativity conferences, the next CREA is April 13-17, 2011 and CPSI, which has an official youth program, is coming up very soon, June 21-25. You can also read more from other bloggers who’ve been to CPSI: Jonathan Vehar, Cynthia Rolfe, Amy Basic, Gregg Fraley, Pablo Munoz, Whitney Ferré and Missy Carvin.)

Jan 19 2010

After Shock

When Short-pants was just a little girl, she had a big story with menacing words like convulsion, coma, and emergency surgery. A massive growth in the right frontal lobe of her brain was originally diagnosed as cancer, but post-surgery lab tests gave us a break; it was just a brain abscess. Still, there were complications: a secondary infection, meningitis and persistent vomiting as a result of the nasty cocktail of intravenous antibiotics that didn’t seem to be shrinking the abscess as predicted. The MRI made it look as if it was re-forming, like the image of a hurricane gaining speed and force on a tropical weather map. A second brain operation was required to remove the abscess for good.

All hands were on deck. De-facto’s family appeared en masse and quietly took over our home, attending to Buddy-roo, organizing our lives, making sure we ate meals of substance and nourishment. My brother the doctor was on call every night to interpret the medical-speak we encountered each day. My sister, who happened to be in Viet Nam at the time, managed to inspire the Archbishop of Hanoi to put his priests to work in prayer. An e-mail tree was established; we wrote a message every night that was sent out to a few people, who sent it to other people, who sent it to more people, until a web of friends and family had the latest news about Short-pants and put us in their prayers.

We were in crisis mode. We didn’t hesitate to ask for help, and people didn’t hesitate to offer it. Perfect strangers came to our emotional and spiritual aide. Doctors who were friends of friends reviewed her dossier and offered additional opinions. We accepted anything that was given to us, without quid pro quo worries.

As awful as it was, fathoming what life would be like if she didn’t survive, or what it would be like if she did survive but with serious complications, there was also something really simplifying about it all. De-facto and I had a crystal clear sense of purpose every day: to give emotional support to our daughter, to do the medical interface, advocate for her care and to try to hold each other – and our family – together.

A crisis can produce this kind of clarity. We do what needs to be done. We make quiches, soups and casseroles. We bring blankets, we send money. Priorities become certain, we function in highly effective ways despite the lack of sleep, loss of appetite, and moments of extreme despair.

In other words, we rally.

The nightly e-mail network we branched together pales in comparison to the force and velocity of information sharing that exists today. The brute force of the Internet is staggering: a well-loved blogger has a stroke, an entire on-line community assembles to support her family, not only with words, but with money and real-time assistance. When an amazing child whom everyone read rooted for doesn’t make it, there’s an outpouring of financial and moral support from an electronically connected community. An earthquake devastates an entire country and the world rallies to offer aide. It all makes you feel good about what human beings can do.

After Short-pants was released from the hospital and well into her rehabilitation, people started to forget about our family crisis. The urgency of our news diminished; without a daily calamity to report, our update messages went from daily to weekly to monthly to rarely. Everyone returned to their regularly scheduled life, and assumed that we had, too.

Except our life was still upside-down. We were thrilled that she was home, but schlepping out to the rehab hospital three or four times a week, juggling doctor’s visits and follow-up tests as we tried to recapture our own professional schedules was wearing us out. Being careful about keeping a steady stream of attention on Buddy-roo in the midst of all this took energy, too. This was when I was most afraid that I might break down. Not in the thick of the crisis, when everyone was cradling us, when there was clarity and singularity of purpose. It was just as hard – and I had less personal stamina – when we were “out of the woods.” The crisis was over, but our lives were still far from normal.

The awkward memory of this après-crisis phenomenon was prompted by reading one of the blogs in my sidebar, Generation Y, written by a Cuban woman who has to work miracles just to get her posts on the Internet without being censored. She writes, “It especially frightens me that three months from now the suffering will no longer be a headline in any newspaper and people will have ceased to feel the urgency of the Haitian drama.” I’ve thought about that, too. We send our money and we go on about our life. What else can we do?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The crisis in Haiti is still full-throttle, and will be for some time. Help is needed now. If you haven’t donated, here are some reputable aide organizations. (I donated here.) Or if you’re in the States, all it takes is a single text message. If you blog, here’s another creative way to raise funds. Sending $10 – the cost of two draught beers at my favorite café – will make a difference, when you consider how many millions of people are donating just that. It adds up, fast.

Just remember that the crisis may end for us when the media coverage dies down, but not for them. Whether it’s for Haiti or any other cause – the charity of your choice, or the friend across town who’s grandmother just died – it’s so important to follow up and check back in. Maybe it’s another donation, another mention, another offer to help – even just a quick hello that says you haven’t forgotten – that could mean more than we know.

Well, in fact, I know. It means everything.