Dec 23 2015

Time for Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 22 2012

Still Walking

Any journey starts long before you walk out the door with your suitcase – or backpack – in hand. So it may be hard to pinpoint exactly when my Camino started. Was it the moment I decided to walk it for my birthday? The first time I heard of it? When I first read about it? I remember that De-facto and I took a vacation in Spain and Portugal some years ago. Passing through Santiago, we parked the car and visited the enormous, opulent cathedral. We saw pilgrims, apparently finishing their walk, and I think I might have wondered how could they possibly make that journey. I’d never felt compelled to walk 800 km just to get to a church.

On that same trip, interesting to note, we ended up in the Basque city of Vitoria, where I witnessed my first Basque fiesta. A man sporting a metal bull costume – and it was spewing sparks – chased the children around the town square as they squealed with terrified delight, and I thought, isn’t that an odd ritual. Not even a year later I would meet the Fiesta Nazi and she would start chewing my ear off about another feria, in Pamplona, and soon something else I never thought of doing became something I do.

Also worth noting about that trip to Spain: while driving around, De-facto and I decided that we should start trying to have a child, as I was getting up in years and who knew how hard it would be or how long it would take to get pregnant. Short-pants was conceived within a month’s time.

~ ~ ~

Lately I’ve been trying to meditate. This was a regular part of my life, along with Yoga and Aikido, when I was in my late twenties. Of course we go through different phases and fascinations over the course of our lives, and the discipline I surprised myself with during those years slipped away in my thirties, and the time required for parenting hasn’t made it easy for me to take back those practices with any regularity, despite the fact that now more than ever they would do me good.

It was a David Lynch video that inspired me to try it once again, and ever so gently – no grand proclamations here – I am trying to set aside 15 or 20 minutes here and there each day to still my mind. I’m not very good at it; my mind chatters away. But I figure sitting still and breathing deeply for a few moments now and then certainly can’t hurt and is likely to be restorative in some fashion. This is easier to do in hotel rooms and airplanes, harder to accomplish with the hundred household tasks whispering at me while sitting in my living room, but I’ve managed to at least start a habit over the last month. On the Camino it’s a walking meditation most of the day, but nonetheless I take the time to sit still and deliberately meditate, thanks to all the churches along the way.

And aren’t there some Churches? Many so grand and gilded, I stand awestruck at the altar, impressed by the opulent beauty, disgusted by the power and wealth embedded in the bejeweled reredos. I see just as much beauty in plain, little village chapels, homey and welcoming, peaceful because of their simplicity. Like the one pictured here, empty and unused but for the crude stone altar plastered with handwritten notes and pictures and stones and private pleas from passing pilgrims.

Whether you are pious or politically opposed, there is one thing you cannot deny: when you are in a church, large or small, magnificent or modest, there is a thickness in the air, an invisible weight hanging, magnified by the silence or by the distinct echoes of prayerful footsteps on stone floors. Within the thick walls of an edifice that for centuries has been the repository for the prayers of believers, you can feel the faith that’s suspended there, even if you don’t share it. Like a thick velvet blanket it drapes around you, lowering upon your shoulders and pressing your awareness down, calm, and within. In a church, I can meditate in an instant.

~ ~ ~

In 2004, Oliver Schroer walked the Camino de Santiago, carrying his violin, making a musical pilgrimage. He recorded himself playing in 25 churches along the way. This very short film tells the story of his walk, and the music that came out of it.

A good friend of mine, who also happened to know Oliver, introduced me to his recording, Camino, several years ago. I heard only the opening bars of one song, and went immediately to iTunes to download it. It’s become classic Sunday morning music in my household, but useful also in the workshops I lead, when I want to create a mood that makes people stop and reflect on their experience. Each morning, while readying my pack, I hear this song in my mind and I’ll hum along out loud. Once, in one of those cool, darkened churches, I took out my earbuds and plugged them into my phone and listened to him bowing fiercely on his violin. Looking up at vaulted ceiling, I wondered if this was one the churches that hosted his beautiful music.

Sadly, Oliver Schroer died of a form of leukemia in 2008, a year before my mother was diagnosed with the the same disease. Wherever they’ve both ended up, I hope the music is as beautiful as what he created while he was here. And I hope my mother can hear it.

~ ~ ~

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When I go into a church, any church, I always move to the left side and up the aisle, taking a seat in a pew about 2/3 of the way toward the altar. This is where my father preferred to sit, at this 9:30 position within the congregation. It’s comforting to be there, at what has always felt like our place in church. I think of long sermons on summer mornings, the patch of blue sky visible out the side door of that church, beckoning, and my father beside me, ready with his crisp, ironed handkerchief the moment I succumbed to a pollen-induced sneezing attack.

I’m not especially religious, growing up in a multi-faith household where neither parent was pious. But my father appreciated the quiet and the lack of interruptions afforded during the church service, and told me this many times, as if he was giving me permission not to be devout, but rather encouraging me to be contemplative.

Which is harder and harder to do these days, in this world that commands us to rush and run about and measure our satisfaction and self-worth by the number of things we get done in any day, rather than by the clarity and quality of our thoughts and actions. On the Camino, I have the luxury of little to do, except to walk, and a lot to ponder. I like this pace. I want to keep this pace, to walk through life rather than speed through it. Apropos of this, it’s worth reading the transcript of a commencement speech given by Nipun Mehta – this link, incidentally, sent to me by a close friend of my parents, both of whom seem especially present with me at this moment on the Camino – advising the 2012 graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, as they “walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought…to remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness.”

When my Camino started, exactly, probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I’m on it now. That I started, that I left and returned, that I’m still at it. That every now and then I try to sit still and listen, for the quiet thoughts – or the lack of thoughts – and then, I lift my pack up on my back, look down the trail, content, under the heat of the sun or even in the pissing-down rain, to know this most basic of pleasures: I’m still walking.


Dec 10 2011

The Recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I talk to your sister?”

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

Short-pants came on the phone.

“Are you ready?”

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

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

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

“What did you do?” he’d asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I assured her they would.

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


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.)


Mar 4 2010

A little bit of Polish

…will abolish just what’s bothering you, as the song goes. Never mind that it’s a song about shoe polish. My guess is nail polish has the same uplifting capacity. Much like my aunt who proselytizes the restorative power of a good hair wash, I’m a believer that a pedicure is sometimes all you need to set things right. A good soaking of the feet, scraping away the dead skin, trimming of cuticles and cutting/filing the nails and then the deep red or sweet rose or mysterious vamp that reminds you every time you look down that you’re the kind of woman who makes the time to care for your feet.

Before I went home to take care of my ailing mother, a friend told me to take a picture of her hands and feet. “Because years later,” she said, “I couldn’t remember what my mother’s hands looked like.” It’s not so silly, except I can’t imagine forgetting this detail. My father’s well-manicured hands with his long and elegant fingers are something I can picture exactly now, as though I’d held them yesterday.

You all must be so tired of hearing about my dead mother. But I don’t know what else to write about. Everything seems banal compared to what I have been through these last weeks. I’m still losing my mind. The kids have made a train wreck out of my life. De-facto’s a prince, or then he’s not a prince. Short-pants is angelic and Buddy-roo is impish. It’s the same as it always was. Except it’s not the same.

I know this is a question of time. I still miss my father, but the constant ache and daily despair about his death no longer plagues me, though the occasional sting of wishing he was here when something important happens has not lost its venom, even after more than 20 years.

I try to do normal things. I stop to buy a baguette. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you,” says the baker’s wife. I tell her I’ve been away a lot. The way you say this in French is “J’avais beaucoup de deplacements.” Yes, I’m feeling very displaced, I think to myself in the pseudo-language of Franglais, a butchering of both French and English versions of a similar-but-not-quite-the-same words. Another good example: déranger, a disturbing verb in both languages, but more often used as an adjective in English. Sometimes in my head – or even out loud, to like-minded friends – I mumble, “I hope I’m not deranging you.” It’s a funny little language we expats use to effect a hint of sarcasm.

“And it was good, all your traveling?” she asks.

I want to tell this friendly, familiar local baker-woman that I’ve been gone because I went to help my mother die. It feels like I should tell her, she knows me well enough to notice I’ve been gone. It feels like she might care, but that doesn’t mean she will or that she should. Just because I am so tender doesn’t mean I should blurt it out and then have to continue the conversation, the answering of questions, the prolonged explanation to a kind stranger who has no context.

“Yes,” I say, “it was all good.” I don’t want to derange her with my grief.

Keep doing normal things. I make soup. Except it makes me think of those soups I used to make for my mother the last nights before she decided to stop eating. I do laundry. Except folding the sheets makes me think of her. Hanging the little socks on the drying rack in my living room makes me think of the only time she wrote something other than praise after reading one of blog posts, the one about our decision not to buy a new dryer when ours broke down. “You’re a busy working mother with two children,” she wrote, “so buy yourself a dryer.”

I miss seeing her name on emails in my box. I’ve actually left one of her last messages in my Gmail account, and occasionally I mark it as unread, so I can read it again, like it was new, like she just sent it. I know this is pathetic.

I get my haircut. I remember getting a trim the day before the last time I went to see her, how I cried through the entire appointment. I go to the aesthetician to get a bikini wax. This doesn’t remind me of my mother at all but it hurts so much and I’m so spent that I cry anyway. “Does it hurt that much?” she says, kneading the ball of caramel in her hand. “Yes. It hurts that much.”

Raquel, the Brazilian manicurist/pedicurist who comes to my home to attend to my nails arrives late as usual, so this feels a little normal. She massages my feet. This reminds me of seeing my mother’s face settling into a feline smile as I pressed my thumbs into the balls of her feet, massaging them for her before she went to sleep. Don’t go there, I tell myself. Don’t make everything a signifier for something sad, something lost, something about her.

While my feet are soaking in warm soapy water and my hands are drinking in the mystery treatment provided by her special magical coated plastic gloves, Raquel turns to Short-pants and Buddy-roo and says, “Who’s first?” They won’t let me near them with a nail-clipper or emery board in my hand, but they race to her. She is the Pedicure-Whisperer, the intuitive tender of nails, calming any child, even my two wild fillies, enough to cut and clean their fingers and toes. Buddy-roo chooses a dainty, unsurprising, princess pink; it’s Short-pants who startles me by pointing to a dark, vampy burgundy, close to my own preferred color. Raquel glances up at me, her eyes seeking permission. Why not? I shrug. She’s not the daughter I worry about taking this color to heart.

Later, as the varnish on my toes is drying, the girls arrive with their dolls, asking if they can paint their toenails, too. My first instinct is no. They’ll make a mess. They’ll ruin the dolls. “Sure,” I say, remembering that nail polish remover has already been invented. “But get our polish from the basket in our bathroom.”

There is jumping and cheering and running back and forth and setting up the dolls in small child-sized chairs. Raquel offers a few tips to the girls as their shaky hands struggle to paint the polish on the tiniest of doll nails. They do a surprisingly accurate job, and parade proudly around the living room displaying the polished extremities of their dolled-up dolls.

“Careful,” I warn them, “Keep them away from the couch.” (I can’t help myself.)

“We know, mama,” Short-pants says, “don’t worry.”

They march and laugh and celebrate (with aplomb) a splash of color on tiny toenails. They sing a song about nail polish, one they’ve made up on the spot. For the first time in a long time, things seem almost normal. This, I suppose, is how life goes on.


Feb 26 2010

Other Stages

We climbed the four flights of stairs to the olive green door of our apartment. Short-pants was ahead of me. She stopped at the landing, just before the door, and turned toward me. “Grammy’s happy now,” she said, “It’s just the rest of us who are sad, the ones left behind.” The edge of her mouth spread into a wide-open smile, her oversized chalky teeth in full view. She beamed awkward and proud at once, fully aware that she could console me with her wisdom. Where does she come up with these things? As if she could read my mind, she went on, “I read that in my Molly McIntire book, but it makes sense.”

Funny what our mourning minds construct to soften the blow of our loss. She’s happy now, we say. Is she? Happy lying in a polished box under the frozen soil? My mother, a card-carrying member of Republicans for Choice, now buried a mere stone’s throw away from a newly placed memorial that I’d never seen before, a marker engraved with prayers for the lives of unborn children “in hopes that our nation will stop the abortion that kills them.” Is she happy about that?

She’s with Daddy now. Is she? Although my last post was engineered around this idea, I have no evidence to prove it. He’s been dead for 23 years. Did he wait for her in some celestial green room with a monitor, watching the rest of her life before she came to join him? What if he reincarnated? What if right now he’s some pimply teenager fumbling his way to second base in his parents’ suburban basement?

I suppose this is would be the anger that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross referred to in her five stages of grief. Anger being the stage that follows denial, which is what I guess I was doing for the last year because my mother didn’t look or act like somebody with a terminal illness. My anger rises from the dust and residue of all the clichéd things we say about a good death, and how she didn’t suffer and how her family was with her, and she died on her own terms.

They weren’t my terms.

I wanted to be able to ask her advice about how to manage my girls when they are rotten and unruly teenagers. She had some experience in this domain, having survived my adolescence. I wanted my mother to watch my daughters grow into young women, to see them graduate from college. I wanted her to be around. I wasn’t done yet.

I keep wondering what do I have to do to wake up and be in a different reality where she’s still with us. Is that bargaining? Check the box for the Kübler-Ross’s third stage, too.

Right away, Buddy-roo noticed the ring on my right-hand ring-finger, a narrow gold band with two rectangular blue amethysts set with two miniature diamonds. I told her how my mother bought the ring from a jeweler in the Russian market in Phnom Penh. My sister was living in Southeast Asia at the time – hard to believe it was 10 years ago – and organized for us a Christmas trip to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was a trip filled with indelible images: two sisters sunbathing on an island beach on Koh Samui; my mother, tired and proud after climbing the steep and treacherous stairs to the very top tower of the Temple of Angkor Wat; we three lined up in a row, each in our own single-seated cyclo, complete with toothless drivers and the backdrop of Hanoi’s chaotic traffic.

The jeweler – his name was Sarat, my sister’s most favored vendor in the market – was charmed by my mother, like everyone we introduced her to.
He spent nearly an hour showing her all the rings he’d designed, telling her about his gems and precious stones and where he found them in Cambodia. I remember how, after my mother went to bed, my sister and I would sit at the hotel bar and shake our heads. Everyone was always so enamored with mom. If they only knew what we knew, we’d mutter to each other, knowing that what we knew was a daughter’s privilege, and that despite all her motherly flaws, we, too, admired her fiercely.

Buddy-roo wanted to try on the ring. I twisted it off my finger and handed it over. She held the band, turning it back and forth to make the stones sparkle under the light. It was too large for her ring finger, even too big as she pulled it down over her thumb. “Can I have it someday?” she asked. “Sure,” I told her, “someday you can have it all.”

I’m haunted by that someday, that future moment when I will leave Short-pants and Buddy-roo to their grief, when they will rifle through my earliest love letters to
De-facto, making fun of my copiously worded and disclaimer-ridden proclamations of affection, or when they read the letters in that shoe-box that I should probably destroy now while I can, the syrupy ones I wrote to my parents when I was an introspective, awe-struck student seeing Europe for the first time. Or when they go to write my obituary and realize that I used to be somebody, somebody who was a competent professional before becoming their quirky, forgetful, imperfect mother.

As I begin to sort through the relics that belonged to my mother, I see her anew. I study her photographs a different way. A college friend of hers writes a note about some mischief they stirred up on campus; I am surprised to think of my mother involved in such antics. Now comes a new view, I suppose, to see her as someone beyond my mother, to frame her in larger context, as a woman coming of age and living a range of life experiences. A regular person – just like me.

It makes me look at the girls and think this: by the time you can possibly understand who I really am, it will probably be too late to know me. Then you, too, will know this hollow, cheated, bereaved anger.

This isn’t a pretty post. It’s agitated and discomforting. It doesn’t resolve and tie up in a pithy bow at the end. You were a bit too whiney in that one, someone will say, after reading it. Why, I wonder, when a woman speaks the truth about anger or frustration, this is called whining. Were I man, I’d be allowed to punch holes in the plaster wall. Which is what my words are meant to do right now, because I have been on an airplane all night and I am tired and honest and angry that my mother has been taken from us.

Everything else I’ve written about her death has been well-behaved. Why can’t the poignant be joined by the raw and unrefined? I want to write it as it is: real, rough, full-bodied grief, something that’s messy, mad and just a little bit selfish, something that will be diluted if there are too many drafts and edits, something that’s ugly and maybe hard to read. Something that screams at me to just press publish.


Feb 21 2010

So We’ll Never Forget

I have always been the documenter of our family’s history. As a child I would stack together multiple pages of paper, folding and cutting them to create pocket-sized books. I’d write about our family rituals or offer how-to advice. These books were a source of great entertainment to my family and good fodder for teasing me, still, to this day.

My most famous title, The U.D.T. Rool Book, a palm-sized field guide I wrote when I was 7-years old, described, step-by-step, our family’s summertime swim-in-the-lake ritual, as practiced by the Underwater Demolition Team (U.D.T.), a club invented by my father to get us out of bed and in the lake every July morning. Another family favorite: the handy pamphlet titled
The Key to Popularity, my very first (circa 4th grade) effort at parody, a tongue-in-cheek embellishment of my mother’s theory that if she just made sure we all learned how to ice-skate and water-ski, we’d be popular.

As happens with the artifacts of our childhood, these little books disappeared. And then, during renovations or severe spring cleanings, they re-appeared. When my mother recovered The Key to Popularity, probably in the back of some drawer, she put it in its rightful place on the kitchen counter, in that the space that is a magnet for all manner of junk – those old, chewed-on, unsharpened pencils, pens that no longer work, worn nail files, remnants of note pads, tchotchkes and campaign buttons – the miscellaneous counter in our kitchen (we all have one, don’t we?) where things just end up and somehow, stay there.

Every time I went to visit my mother, The Key to Popularity was still there, wedged in a square lucite box meant for Post-it notes that were used up over a decade ago. This little book, like many of the masterpieces I authored as a child, was a charming chapter of our family jokelore; she couldn’t bring herself to throw it out. But I cringed every time I saw it.

When my father died – twenty years ago – at the age of 59, we assembled in shock, unprepared and unbelieving. Things we’d meant to say had gone unspoken. Nothing so dramatic that he didn’t probably know already, but still, it felt as though he was plucked away from us; his life was interrupted. The painter who made a portrait of him, later, purposefully didn’t finish the canvas, in homage to his unfinished life.

On the day we buried him, prior to the mass, there was a small private service at the funeral home, the last viewing of his body before the casket was closed. We stood around him, shedding tears – and giggling. “What are you all chuckling about?” my mother asked, mildly perturbed as she approached us at the casket. She saw the little trinkets and photographs we’d placed beside him and she smiled. When I showed her The U.D.T. Rool Book tucked in the breast pocket of his blazer, she took my hand and squeezed it. She even chuckled with us when she saw what had been slipped under my father’s lifeless arm: the previous Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle and a sharpened #2 pencil. “You kids,” she said.

How many times I heard her say that: You kids.

But the truth must come out: It was my mother who started the tradition of doing the Sunday Times crossword when my parents were dating in college. She was, by her own report, quite skilled at crosswords – more adept than my father. But she figured out quickly that if she didn’t answer all the clues she knew right away, it would take longer to finish the puzzle, elongating their afternoon date. This was a surprise to me; I’d always associated my Dad with the Sunday crossword. I asked her about this and she shrugged. “He got so good at working the puzzle, I let him take it over.”

My mother told us, knowing it was futile, not to put anything in her coffin with her. I teased her that I would bury her with the family carrot, but in the end I had a better idea. I tucked The Key To Popularity in beside her, next to the white satin interior of her casket, just a little helpful guidance for heavenly social interaction.

There was something else lying around on that kitchen counter: a hand-made origami oracle that Short-pants gave to my mother last year, to “help her with important decisions.” Constructed out of intricately folded paper, this device resembles an egg carton in which you insert your thumb and index finger and move the triangled peaks this way and that way. With a ritualized guess of numbers and colors, the correct answer to all-important questions can be divined, much like the famous 8-ball, with oracle-like responses under the folded flaps: Yes, of course or Maybe not.

Though I was not present during the days that my mother made her decision to stop treatment and enter hospice care, I have this fantasy that she stood, leaning against her kitchen island, moving her fingers back and forth within the folded paper, asking the question, “Is it time to go?” and that Short-pants’ oracle gave her the response that settled it once and for all.

This folded contraption was also placed in the casket with my mother, in case she needs to make any decisions in the afterlife.

My mother’s mother, my Grammy, used to tell us that she and Grandpa had a plan to meet up after death at the entrance to Macy’s on 34th street in New York. When she died, I imagined some purgatorial dimension where their fantasy was lived out, returning to the roaring twenties that belonged to them when they were roaring, in their twenties, and finding each other again.

So I imagine my mother, holding her edition of The Key to Popularity, meeting up with my father, with the original U.D.T. Rool Book in hand, comparing notes about the memories of their happy life together. “Sure glad she wrote it all down,” they’ll say, marveling at my little handbooks, “so we’ll never forget.”

And then Daddy will pull out his copy of the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, and they’ll work it together, for eternity.


Dec 24 2009

Mère Noël

Why is it a man who gets all the credit for Christmas?

Santa Claus, Père Noël, Father Christmas; they’re all guys. I don’t see this as a holiday powered by men. Sure, there must be exceptions – wonderful, thoughtful, fatherly anomalies – but I would wager that in most households, it’s the mother who’s driving the Christmas train.

This is not meant to dis De-facto. He even agreed to come with me, this year, to do the Christmas shopping for Short-pants and Buddy-roo. But on the designated day, our downstairs neighbor knocked on the door complaining about a leak (endemic to this ancient part of Paris) and De-facto felt obliged to take on the task of plumbers and insurance forms. As much as I dislike shopping with throngs of people in an overheated department store, it beats waiting for a plumber and filling out French paperwork. So I plunged into the store myself, and came out, two-plus-hours later, exhausted and thirsty.

Christmas is not a holiday for mothers. We’re working. Up to the event, and all through the day. There’s a lot to do: the wrapping – and hiding – of all the presents, the baking of cut-out cookies in all the Christmas shapes, frosting them when they’ve cooled and decorating them with colored sugar. The tree has to be trimmed. Okay, maybe we find some strapping guy to carry it in and string up a few lights, but it’s usually the chicks who are hanging ornaments and recounting childhood Christmas memories. Meals to be planned, food to be ordered, good wine and champagne to be selected – the day has to be at least a little bit choreographed if it’s going to come off.

I have it easy compared to my mother. She managed a much more complicated production than the modest holiday traditions we have. She pulled out the good china, silver and crystal for every meal, preparing gourmet menus for Christmas day brunch and dinner, all this while making beds for out of town guests and shuttling people to and from the airport.

With all due respect to my father – a fine man and a great dad – his contribution to the preparation of Christmas was, as most men of that generation, minimal. My mother was the engine behind the holiday. Most of the gift tags “from mom and dad” were written in her elegant handwriting. There’d be at least one present that you knew my father had selected himself, labeled with his distinctive signature, but it was always one of the last gifts to be placed under the tree. He was the king of Christmas Eve shopping and its end result, what he proudly called the hot wrap; gifts wrapped so close to the moment they’re opened that the paper hasn’t had time to cool.

That’s one tradition that my li’l nuclear family here has taken on with aplomb. This year is no exception. Another tradition that’s made the cut: the Christmas morning Bloody Mary break. With a fresh stick of celery, it’s a festive red and green holiday cocktail that quenches your thirst throughout a long morning of gift opening. This was also my father’s idea. So I guess he did contribute to Christmas, in his own way.

I remember my mother getting stressed out about Christmas, and I’d think to myself, “what’s the big deal? We’re all together aren’t we? We could eat peanut butter and be happy!” But when it was my turn to host a few elaborate holidays with out of town visitors, festive menus and thoughtful gifts for everyone, I finally got it. If you want the holidays to be special – the kind that makes memories your family will cherish – it takes work. And maybe a little vodka.

There’s an old Irish custom – I don’t know how much it’s practiced any longer – to celebrate Women’s Christmas on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. Legend tells that on this day, the men take on the household tasks and give the women a day off. Now that’s a Christmas present.

So guys, give the moms in your life a break. And please don’t wait until January 6th to do it. Christmas is a beautiful day, but it’s hard work being Mère Noël. Lend a hand, and let her put her feet up.


Dec 6 2009

Remember Where

One last Cuba moment that seems worth the telling:

On the last night of the conference in Havana, there was a gala reception featuring the Tropicana Cabaret dancers on a stage constructed in the courtyard of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Everyone got all dolled up. Papaya-champagne cocktails we placed in our hands as we entered the museum. A swarm of servers in black-vested uniforms hounded us with trays of hors d’oeuvres.
tropicana_girl
The music was live and loud, the spotlights were hot and blinding, the dancers were costumed in wild colored giant plumes (and that’s about it). I’m glad I got to see a few numbers; it seemed appropriate to sample this part of Havana’s decadent history. But my colleagues and I all agreed, we’d rather go to a club where we could dance, too. And we were hungry, because the hors d’oeuvres, though annoyingly abundant, left us wanting, um, something else.

We left the museum and walked down the street hoping to make our way to a restaurant, a paladar that I’d been to earlier in the week. We happened by the entrance to the Bacardi Building, an historic art-deco skyscraper. I remembered my mother telling me that her father’s office had been in this building, so I stopped to take a photograph. The door was open and it was light in the lobby, so I crossed the street to peek inside. A guard stood beside the curved reception desk, which was marked with an ornate capital letter B. He gave his permission for me to take pictures, and beckoned me inside.
bacardi_elevator_doors
While I was framing shots of the elegant old post box and the decorated elevator doors, he asked if I’d like to go up to the top of the tower of the building. By now my three colleagues had found me in the lobby and they, too, were admiring the marble interior. Of course we wanted to see the tower. Another guard went to fetch a key, and motioned us toward the elevator. We rode all the way to the top floor and then climbed four more flights of narrow, jangling, metal, spiral staircases until we got the uppermost balcony of the building.
havana_skyline
There it was, the view: the nightscape of Havana. The wind was a warm blanket on my bare shoulders, and the rows of dull streetlamps blurred as they webbed out to the edge of the city, beyond my view. It was one of those moments, where you stop to consider where you are and why. I knew I was privileged to be able to visit Havana, but I was also aware of the privilege my mother’s family enjoyed when they lived there. They were expatriates, I suppose much like we are expatriates here in France, borrowing someone else’s culture to live out a dream.

Returning to the street level, I thought about Grandpa, and how he must have stood in that elevator hundreds of times. Of course the building has been renovated since he worked there six decades ago, yet it appears as though nothing significant had been changed, just a fresh coat of paint. It probably looks much the same as it did then. He must have come through that lobby every morning and every night. He walked on these floors, long ago, ages before he even knew me as the little impish grandchild who begged him always to “itch my back.”

It made me think of going to my father’s office when I was a little. It was such an other world place. I felt important when I was there, even if I was just sitting on the polished wooden chairs in his waiting room looking at the rows of leather law books lining the shelves. It smelled like cigarettes and serious business.

Later I wrote to my mother, to tell her about my impromptu visit to her father’s office building. She emailed back:

When I was little and my father worked sometimes on a weekend, I would go to the office with him. I loved having so many pencils at my disposal and a pad of paper that said Old Time Molasses Company on it. I felt so important, like a secretary! And also when I went to the dentist on another floor of the building, I would always go up to his office and say hello.

What is it about being little and going to your father’s or mother’s office that makes you feel important? Short-pants and Buddy-roo don’t know that pleasure. The only office De-facto and I go to is a virtual one, meeting our colleagues around a digital conference table, video-shots of our heads bobbing up and down on bright-colored avatars. But that’s another post.

It reminds me how many memories that we keep are associated with where they took place. When I’m in my childhood home – and I’m lucky enough to still go home to that house – I’m haunted by the stories of my past. But even if you can’t go in to the house or dorm or school or office that used to be
havana_storm yours, just being in close proximity can conjure up a cascade of feelings and facts that are otherwise forgotten. But what if you can’t go back to touch those places again? My mother’s family left Cuba in 1948, not unaware of the political unrest in the country, but still, a decade before the revolution. They never expected that they wouldn’t be able to easily return to see the touchstones of their life there. How many memories, I wonder, are locked up in all those unvisited places?


Jul 24 2009

Good and Hot

Man, it was hot. The sticky, close, humid kind of hot. The serious dog-days-of-summer kind of hot. And guess what came to mind? Potato salad.

The sliced onions were soaking in vinegar and I was making chunks out of potatoes and setting them to boil. I was probably pursing my lips the same way my mother does when she’s concentrating (her sister does it too) and I started to wonder about this urge of mine, inspired by the heat wave, to make a potato salad.

I remember, growing up, how we handled the heat of summer. We’d all walk around the house in our underwear – it’d be too hot wear clothes. We’d put screens in every window and pray for even a slight breeze. My brother would pull the Twister mat out of the box and take it outside, laying it flat on the small slope by the dining room window. He’d hose it down with water so my sister and I could take turns sliding down and cooling off. We’d jump up, covered with grass, running to escape a direct hit from the hose as he’d chase us around the yard. And my mother, she’d make a potato salad, chill it in the fridge all afternoon, and serve it for dinner with a thick slice of cold ham and little French’s mustard on the side. It was the perfect hot summer supper.

It makes sense, then, that I would associate potato salad with a heat wave. But what explains the urgency I felt to make it? This wasn’t a casual, “you know, it’s a bit hot, so maybe a cold potato salad would be a good option for dinner tonight.” No. It was visceral, almost instinctual, like some restless genetic coding was agitated and would not be silenced until I started peeling potatoes.

Last week, my mother-in-love cooked up a pot of homemade soup after roasting a chicken the night before. She added onions and green beans and even some fresh carrots pulled right from our country garden. The aroma filled every room in the house and made us feel hearty. When I offered Buddy-roo a bowl, she turned up her nose. I said to her, “You don’t know what’s good.” De-facto shot me a puzzled, what did you just say? kind of look. “Don’t mind me,” I told him, “just channeling my father.” That was my dad’s standard response when we didn’t appreciate his favored delicacies, like creamed tuna and peas on toast, Welsh rarebit, and gherkin pickles.
shadow_of_her
Without thinking, I say and do the same things my mother and father said and did. There’s nothing deliberate about it; it’s entirely automatic. The actions are involuntary. Or the words just trip out over my tongue. It isn’t until after they are spoken that I realize I’ve said exactly what she said, or he said, all those years ago in a very different time – but probably in the exact same circumstances.

I suppose nothing brings you closer to your parents than the act of being a parent yourself.

After a few hours in the refrigerator, my potato salad was perfectly chilled and I scooped it onto the dinner plates that Short-pants had put out when she set the table. Buddy-roo stabbed the potatoes with her fork. “What’s this?” I could tell by her expression that she was suspicious. “Potato salad,” I said, “try it.” She carved away the tiniest piece possible on the tip of her fork and tasted it. “I don’t like it,” she whined.

“You don’t know what’s good,” I told her.

But I bet she will someday – some hot, summer day – in about thirty years.