May 10 2015

An Extra Day

I picked her up at her friend’s house – as usual she resisted the departure – and we walked toward the metro to make our way home, Buddy-roo swinging her bag of tiny plastic Pet-shop animals, describing the trades she’d made and the status of her expanding collection. She is eleven, dancing in the elastic world between child and adolescent, one moment knee-deep in blocks, dollhouses and little plastic pets, the next moment in front of her mirror, anguishing over an invisible pimple or the loss of a favorite hairband. blue_mother

“Do you know what tomorrow is?” she asked.

I knew where this was going, but I didn’t answer.

“It’s Mother’s Day!”

Again, I offered no response. It’s never been a holiday – if you can call it that – I am too attached to. Not that I mind the setting aside of a day to appreciate mothers of the world, but inevitably the day disappoints. There’s always a residue of “last minute” and the sentiment is short-lived. The home-made cards and big-morning-fuss are sweet and tender, but by mid-day everyone’s put it behind them and I’m the one folding laundry, replacing empty toilet paper rolls and nudging people to do the chores they’re supposed to do without me asking. Not to mention the kitchen sink is filled with all the dishes used to make me my special breakfast in bed.

“Did you know it was Mother’s Day?” she asked.

I didn’t want to answer this question, either.

“You knew,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I tried to explain how this is the sort of thing you don’t want to have to remind people about. You’re not supposed to make an announcement at dinner the week before, about how the coming Sunday is Mother’s Day so don’t forget to show me the love, folks. The idea is that I might be surprised and delighted by the gestures my family offers up without having to prompt them.

“But you should have told us so we could do something for you,” her voice revving up to a whine. “I haven’t done anything for you and it’s tomorrow!”

Part of me wanted to calm her down, to tell her she didn’t have to do anything because it’s a silly Hallmark holiday. Another part of me thought, really how could they not know? It’s in the window of ten storefronts on our street, it was advertised on web-sites all week and I received at least a half-dozen emails in the last few days promoting Mother’s Day specials. Mother’s Day always falls on a Sunday in May, so when May rolls around, how hard is it to pay attention? Why is it the mom that has to remember and organize everything?

“It just doesn’t feel right, to have to remind you,” I said.

~ ~ ~

We celebrated the Spanish Mother’s Day, which was on Sunday, a week ago. Short-pants delivered a cup of coffee with frothy milk to my bed. She does that every weekend morning, but this time it was presented with mom-appreciating aplomb. Buddy-roo paraded in with hand-made gifts she’d made the night before after bookmark_mamasearching the Internet for quick and crafty items. A bookmark she’d made smelled heavily of glue not yet dry, but charmed me with it’s design, and you have to give her credit for the quick recovery. De-facto left the bedroom and re-appeared with a bouquet of a dozen pink roses he’d hidden in her closet.

“She got mad that I’d put them in her closet without getting her permission,” he whispered, out loud. Buddy-roo glared at him and then turned to me and shrugged her shoulders.

The plan for the day was a family walk, up the mountain behind where we live to a small hillside restaurant for lunch. I’d asked for three uninterrupted hours to myself, first, to linger in bed with my laptop. The uninterrupted part of my request was not exactly achieved, but I was undisturbed enough to finish editing a chapter and feel like I’d made some progress on my manuscript, which is chugging along at a tortoise’s pace.

I don’t know what went wrong, exactly. Maybe the girls didn’t eat breakfast, or didn’t have enough to eat. Maybe De-facto’s repeated urging to finish homework before our walk annoyed Buddy-roo, who then kept asking her sister to help her, which put Short-pants in a bad mood. When it was time to put the dog on the leash and head out the door, both of my daughters were stomping and screeching at each other. Buddy-roo refused to go on the walk if Short-pants was going. Short-pants announced that she’d only go if Buddy-roo went, too.

After a few futile attempts to reason with them, reminding them how much I was looking forward to this Mother’s Day family walk, my annoyance was escalating, too. I was on the verge of screaming at them, “It’s my fucking day, put your damn shoes on!” As satisfying as that would have been, I’ve been a mother long enough to know that while such a command might achieve full compliance, it wouldn’t inspire the kind of we’re-happy-together experience that Mother’s Day memories are made of.

“Winston and I will be waiting outside,” I said, snapping the leash onto his collar and trying not to slam the door on our way out. I left it to De-facto to handle the girls. It was supposed to be my day off, wasn’t it?

~ ~ ~

At dinner that night we talked about what had happened. Buddy-roo apologized for missing the family walk. I told her I was disappointed, but I appreciated that she’d finished her homework in our absence and was in a good mood when we’d returned home. Short-pants, who’d rallied and joined us for the trek up the mountain and lunch at the café terrace, admitted that she’d enjoyed the walk even though her sister hadn’t accompanied us. one_day

“But it’s not fair,” said Short-pants, “that you get celebrated on your birthday, and you get Mother’s Day, too.”

“And Papa gets Father’s Day,” said Buddy-roo, “that’s not fair either.”

“Why isn’t there a Kid’s Day?” Short-pants said, with her mouth full of food.

“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I said, “and you do get Kid’s Day. It’s called Christmas.”

“You get Christmas, too.”

“Not like you do. And you also get Easter, and Halloween.” I was on a roll. “All those holidays are fun for kids, but they mean more work for moms. Is that fair?”

They shook their heads, in unison, quieted by my logic.

That’s why mothers get an extra day. And maybe even two extra days, since I snuck in a few special requests today, on American Mother’s Day, and everyone cheerfully complied.


Dec 24 2012

Flight of the Reindeer

They’ve gotten good on planes. They should be, they’ve been on enough of them. We take them back to the states every two or three years, they’ve flown around Europe and to the Caribbean. They’ve both been to Cambodia when we took an extended 5-week trip there in 2007, when it wasn’t a problem for either of them to miss school. This is Short-pants‘ third trip to Africa; Buddy-roo‘s second time. They have always done well on overnight planes and 12-hour drives. A perfect merger of nature and nurture; traveling is in their genes, and we’ve given them plenty of practice to get used to it.
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It’s a lot easier to fly away to an exotic place for the holidays when the myth of Santa Claus no longer needs to be maintained. We managed a Christmas in Cambodia, but it required an extra suitcase, a good amount of advanced planning and a tiring amount of conversation about how would Santa know where to find us? Fortunately we were staying with friends who had not one but three Christmas trees set up in their otherwise tropical apartment, which added enough magic to mask the charade. But now that the girls know about Santa, we saw the possibility of a holiday trip with only carry-on luggage, and seized it.

“Why did you have to tell me?” Buddy-roo has been giving me grief about last year’s revelation about Santa. I tried to remind her that she had asked me, no less than five times, directly, “Who puts the presents under the tree?” I tried to evade her question but it seemed clear that she already knew and to continue would be a bold-faced lie. She was almost happy to be in on the secret, at least at first. Now her short-term revisionist memory has taken over – or else she figured out she’ll get less booty now that Santa’s been outed – and she wants him back.

“I liked believing in Santa,” she said, “you ruined it for me.”

Short-pants, too, wishes out loud that we hadn’t had our discussion about Santa, but she’s gentler on her mother. Her sadness is occasionally expressed, followed by, “but it’s okay, mama.”

My sister, who still believes in Santa, in the way that adults who still love the magic of Christmas do, sent over a beautiful book, The Flight of the Reindeer, thinking it might help heal the wounds of my children’s scarred Christmas. The book is filled with evidence that someone who really wants to believe can point to as concrete. In a whimsically factual way, it winks at every reader: Sure, there’s a Santa. If you want there to be.
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It was my peace offering.

“This is a book about the magic of Santa,” I said, as they unwrapped it, “to keep his spirit alive.”

Short-pants’ eyes widened and she flipped the book open, ready to devour it. Buddy-roo studied me with pursed lips. “Why would you give us a book about Santa when you already told us he doesn’t exist?”

“I never said he doesn’t exist.”

“Yeah, Santa lives in our hearts.” She rolled her eyes. “But I want him to be real and I wish you hadn’t told us he wasn’t.”

“You can still believe,” Short-pants’ angelic voice. “I do.”

~ ~ ~

We opened all but a few of our presents early, the day before we got on the plane to Africa. We knew Buddy-roo wouldn’t stand waiting until our return after New Year’s, and we wanted to travel light. Dragging the gifts with us, even though there weren’t that many, and explaining them to various border guards between South Africa and Mozambique – our Christmas destination – felt like a hassle to avoid. We opened our gifts in rapid fire after dinner, rather than unwrapping them leisurely, with breaks for ice-skating and Bloody Marys, two of our usual Christmas day rituals. Although a few thin items were slipped in my suitcase to be opened on the 25th, it feels good to dispense with the merchandise aspect of Christmas. Maybe, we’ll just be happy to be together. Well, and being someplace warm and sunny; that’s a gift, too.

Short-pants has deliberately decided to believe again. The book from her aunt has given her permission. It’s too heavy to take along with us, but up until our departure she had her nose buried in it, reading out factoids that helped her build a case in his favor. She tried to share her revived faith with her sister, who would have none of it.

“Stop,” she’d snap. “You’re only making me miss Santa more.”

~ ~ ~

The friends we are visiting in Mozambique – the same ones we stayed with in Cambodia years ago – keep moving to far-flung places. They used to live across the street from us, and the friendship between the adults and the children of our two families has endured since they left Paris, for many reasons, but certainly aided by the fact that we keep traveling to visit them almostSanta_in_Africa everywhere they light. As we prepared for this adventure together, I brought up the subject of Santa Claus. Were there still believers amongst us?

It turns out – to my surprise – there were. Two believers, the younger one for certain, the older probably just hanging in for the gifts. I’d alleviated the problem of carrying Santa’s goodies for our kids to Africa, but now I had a new one. Would the girls spill the beans?

When I brought it up, Short-pants grinned and started hopping around, singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. This was just the excuse she needed to carry on believing. Buddy-roo scowled and crossed her arms. I braced myself for the if-you-hadn’t-told-us-we-wouldn’t-have-to-pretend retort. But instead her pout turned into a smile.

“Does that mean Santa will bring me presents in Africa, too?”

~ ~ ~

The flight was long, six hours to Dubai and another ten to Johannesburg. I can’t tell you how many hours we were in a car, either driving through Kruger Park admiring wild animals, or making our way across pot-holed roads or winding in and out of the dangerously crazy Mozambique traffic to get to our friends home in Maputo. We held our breath and crossed our fingers at the Mozambique border, hoping that the valid-for-6-months passport rule we read about on-line wouldn’t keep Short-pants out of the country, since hers is a temporary one, expiring in three months. Turns out it was a non-issue, or the charm offensive worked, as everyone got a visa and made it into the country. That our load of loot was light helped a lot; we meant it when we said we had nothing to declare.

Or I might declare one or two things: That I wish every one of you a merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is warm – if not in temperature, like ours, certainly in spirit. And no matter how far Santa’s reindeer have to travel to find you, may you be there together with the people you love most.


Jun 13 2011

Behind the Curtain

“The tricky part is right here, after the storm in Kansas,” De-facto said, pointing to the creased sheet of paper that had been folded and stuffed in his back pocket, removed and unfolded, again and again. These were the set change instructions and they looked relatively simple, which was what worried me. He was in charge of the sets for the performance; he’d crafted and painted many of them, built the stage extension and choreographed the scene changes with the director. His crib notes made sense, to him.

I’d been in the audience the night before, the opening night of the school’s English section performance of The Wizard of Oz. I know it’s easy for proud parents to crescendo their praise to a distorted level, but I think I am not exaggerating when I report that the production was a first class piece of children’s theater.

A truly dedicated group of parents, affectionately named the Yellow Brick Road Crew, started the engine on this production way back in March. The director of the play, a multi-dexterous woman with talent and tact motored it forward with a professionalism that far exceeded her volunteer status. The rehearsals started as a Saturday morning activity. Then Sundays were added, then Wednesday afternoons, too, as the dates of the performance drew near. Lines were memorized by small, elastic brains, songs transposed and rehearsed until they could be sung by heart. Dance steps were choreographed, even practiced by adults in the café, trying to figure out how four kids might skip together arm-in-arm on a narrow stage. A week earlier, the dress rehearsal for their classmates was chaotic and choppy – as a first full run-through in costume with sets usually is – and even then, the teachers and peers were seriously impressed. But the real test was opening night, in front of a (paying) audience of adults, teachers and family members. The debut was a glowing success, acclaimed by all the spectators who were present, many I suspect, who had come with modest expectations. It was, after all, just a primary school play.

Except it was so much more. Yes, the sets were low budget, sheets of calico painted by harried (but artistic) parents and a few exceptionally obedient children. The lights (operated by a father in oven-mitts) and mikes were borrowed and jerry-rigged. The costumes were puzzled together on a shoestring budget (though brilliantly executed). But it was the actors who really brought the stage to life: twenty-some kids under the age of eleven, who’d learned not only their lines, songs and dances, but also memorized their cues for entering and exiting – no small feat because in order to give more children parts in the play, there were multiple actors for many of the roles: five Dorothys, three Scarecrows, three Tin-men, two Wizards. One actor would exit stage left, her replacement would appear through the center of the curtain at the start of the next act. Short-pants was Glinda in act two, after the house lands in Oz, and then the Scarecrow in act three. This called for a high-speed costume change during the song “We’re off to see the Wizard,” as Dorothy (played at that point by Buddy-roo) and the munchkins (played by a gaggle of kindergartners and first graders) danced on the yellow brick road.

Short-pants has a natural temperament to be the Good Witch of the North and there was a sweet and special chemistry on stage with her sister (who was truly lovely as Dorothy), but it was in the role of Scarecrow that she really found her stride. It was like she able to access the part of her that really is the Scarecrow, that slightly clumsy, brainy, loyal, lovable friend. During her solo number, as she side-stepped across the stage singing “I could think of things I never thunk before,” my throat got all lumpy and choked up and my eyes got a little teary.

The casting had been handled marvelously, every child had a chance to try every role (although we learned only recently that Buddy-roo refused to read for any part other than Dorothy). Then the kids were seriously coached. They weren’t just reciting their lines, the director had drawn each actor into his character. She’d guided, suggested and cajoled to help them breathe life into their parts. But she also got out of the way to let each child interpret the characters on their own, and let their creativity come out. The children were clearly having a great time. This was observable and palatable; you could feel how much fun they were having on stage.

I think most of us in the audience were in awe: of the actors, of the director and the transformation she’d alchemized, of the world-class musical parents, who did more than accompany the performance; their music was like a soft blanket underneath, supporting the kids without ever upstaging them. We were in awe of the people behind the scenes, committed parents who were sorting costumes and props, working lights and projectors. (De-facto even donned a green wardrobe to blend in with the cast while hanging scenery.) This was a real show.

With a good performance under their belt, a bit of feedback (speak louder, project to the back of the room), the kids seemed confident and excited to have another go for the final show. My role, on night two, was to sit with the littler actors and help to keep them quiet between their munchkin scene and at the point when they’d all wrap themselves in green satiny capes to become the citizens of the Emerald city. But the guy who’d partnered with De-facto on the sets the night before expressed a desire to see his child in the performance, so I volunteered to switch duties with him. He briefed me and it seemed clear enough. Besides, I was working with De-facto. We work together all the time.

“After shaking the curtains for the storm,” De-facto said, “put out the props and then you have to run to blow the bubbles for Glinda.” My eyes were glazing over as I was reading through his set instructions, trying to make sense of the timing. Much of what we had to do happened between acts: changing the background scenery, placing or turning a painted cardboard tree on the stage, putting the witches legs out under the house; but it had to happen quickly and at the right time. In some cases, the only cue to help me was the previous line in the script, so I knew what I had to do, I just wasn’t always sure exactly how long before I had to do it.

The curtain shaking (“shake them hard,” he’d said, “but not so hard that you knock over the sets,”) went well and before I knew it we were blowing bubbles, a pointless act, really, as my little bubbles hardly flew far enough on to the stage to be seen and the giant-bubble releaser he was blowing through only seemed to work when he was practicing with it backstage. It was a minute later that our friend, the guy who’d worked with De-facto the night before, snuck backstage and said, “where are the legs?”

The legs! I ran for them, slipping and falling, toppling Dorothy’s suitcase under the prop table. We managed to push the legs out under the set of the fallen house, fortunately in time for the moment when the wicked witch turns to them and tries to pull the ruby slippers off and they recoil back under the house.

At least I’d messed up on the scene with my own kids. But I didn’t want to mess it up for any others. My confidence shattered, I pestered De-facto for the rest of the show, “Now? Do I do it now?” It was comical, how the two of us were running around changing sets and props. At one point we were holding the curtain back to create a great-and-powerful shadow effect for the wizard and I noticed the heavy (and possibly dangerous) canister of helium at the edge of the prop table, on the verge of falling onto the floor where it very easily could have rolled out on to the stage. I couldn’t reach to move it, the shadow of my arm would have been visible to the audience. I pointed to the table and mouthed to him, “the helium” but he couldn’t make out what I was saying. “What?” he mouthed back, fumbling over the table, touching every item on it but the helium can. Mouthing unintelligible words back and forth, our faces wrinkled in masks of confusion and frustration. If we could have spoken, we’d surely have been screaming at each other. “What?” “Grab the helium can for Christ’s sake!”

A frenzy of activity between each act, and then the lull before the next set or prop change, during which we’d stand around laughing hysterically at ourselves. I mean, we’ve produced some complicated events for our clients, but here we were scrambling to keep up. It was the Wizard of Oz, after all, a story we both knew by heart. How hard could it be? Then all of a sudden, the act would finish and we’d be scrambling again. At one point a costume crisis – key elements of the wizard’s garb went missing – had us running around like chickens with our heads cut off in search of a turban hat and the sequined cape, a panic which made De-facto late for one of his cues.

Having been in the audience the night before, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world that I’d missed the cue on the legs. If you weren’t seated in one of the front rows, you couldn’t even see them. At least they appeared in time for the moment they were most needed. I think our crazy panic during most of the show was contained back stage. Though we couldn’t see it, we knew what was happening on stage was another fantastic performance. The kids were awesome, each one of them giving something of themselves to the audience, in a poignant song, a creative gesture, a comical dance or an ear-piercing scream. What a gift they gave us, our little thespians.

What a gift, from the Yellow Brick Road Crew, all the time and attention given to our children so they could have a real theater experience, filled with all the hard work and risk and exhilaration that come with acting.

What a gift, to the parents. Despite occasional complaints about lost weekends and schlepping to all the rehearsals – even for those of us who were involved only on the periphery, it felt like it took a lot of time – this production brought us closer together. We bonded. I got to know people I didn’t know before, and the ones I knew, now I know them more. I have developed a deeper respect and affection for the other parents at the school; all it took was a make-believe storm in Kansas to help me see that all these amazing people have been there all along, right in my own back yard.


May 29 2011

A Special Equation

“Mama,” she whispered, “in that sugar-morning voice, “Can I watch Gulli before school?”

I’m not super keen on the cartoon channel and I dislike the noise of the television so early in the morning, but she’d asked me so nicely. The night before she’d done all her homework without complaint, and I had a lot to do to get ready to get out the door at the same time as the girls, so I acquiesced. “If you get dressed and get your cartable together, then yes.”

De-facto walked into the living room and saw her forking her scrambled eggs without removing her eyes from the screen. “What’s this?”

It’s usually De-facto who’s slightly more liberal about TV permissions, though he has taken to making Buddy-roo earn minutes in front of her coveted kids channel based on the number of words for her dictée that she can spell correctly.

“It’s a special equation,” said Buddy-roo, “Mama said I could.”

Thirty minutes later we were walking down the stairs en famille, Buddy-roo giggling with glee because both her mom and dad were walking her and her sister to school, something that usually happens only on the first day of the school year.

“It really is a special equation!” Buddy-roo repeated.

“Occasion,” Short-pants corrected her, “and it is a special occasion. It’s mama’s birthday!” She parroted something she’s heard me say more than once in the last few weeks: “it’s her very first 49th birthday.” I suppose that qualifies as a special equation.

The girls started singing happy birthday, again. We’d celebrated as a family the night before and I’d done my best “how lovely!” shtick after opening Buddy-roo’s gift, a wooden box she’d painted – part of an arts & crafts kit she’d gotten for her birthday – wrapped in an Air France baby blanket left over from one of their first trans-Atlantic voyages and now used for swaddling their dolls. I remember that, as a child, the not-quite-panicked-but-urgent press to give a gift but having no means or money to obtain one. I’d scan my bedroom for something I liked enough but wouldn’t mind not having anymore and present it with hopes that it would please. I think the best “Oh, this is lovely” performance was by my sister, who once made an enormously satisfying fuss over a piece of cotton in a small white box.

Modeling such graciousness is key, how else will they learn to accept all gifts with tact, focusing on the gesture and not just the gizmo? Not that it’s always easy (that’s another post, someday) but one must at least try.

Getting to school on time was slightly more complicated since De-facto and I were pushing bikes with us. The plan, unveiled to me in its semi-entirety only that morning, was that after dropping the kids at school I would be whisked away on an overnight to celebrate. The first stop: Gare de Lyon, the train station for the southeast gate of Paris. There we bulldogged our bikes onto the train that took us out of the city, to Fountainbleau, where we rode for a bit through the forest before stopping to tour the chateau there, a venerable museum of secret doors and French royal history. Then a picnic in the gardens there before we set out for the final destination, which turned out to be a 2-hour bike ride away, to a many-starred luxury hotel, Chateau d’Augerville.

The trip wasn’t a total surprise. De-facto had been watching my Google calendar to be sure I didn’t have anything scheduled, although we have differing accounts of when he informed me of the excursion and how much preparatory information was relayed. He’d arranged a patchwork plan that was part-babysitter-part-neighbor to cover child-care, though I felt compelled to intervene just a little to make sure all bases were covered, getting little people to and from rehearsals and recitals that made being out of town on this particular day slightly more complicated. But there have been enough butchered birthdays in the past for me to appreciate the complex level of scheming and planning he’d gone to just to assure that I felt celebrated on my birthday. That in itself is the best gift.

Though there were moments that I wondered whether the birthday trip was more for him than for me. Like when the hill I was pedaling up grew steeper and steeper and just when you thought it would crest it kept going and I wondered why I was on the 3-speed city bike with two of our three packs and he was on the mountain bike (albeit aging) with 15 gears. We’d borrowed bicyles from neighbors and friends – I don’t own one anymore because I Velib’ around Paris and the bike I gave him for his birthday last year is still a coupon in his desk drawer, despite my occasional nagging to redeem it – and he somehow ended up on the lighter more suitable-for-countryside-hills model. This was probably the lowest moment of my birthday and I let loose a few snarling expletives under my breath so that when he circled back to check on me I was able to keep the promise I’d made to myself to be appreciative at all costs.

Once we switched bikes, I sped by him while his gangly knees pumped up and down on the front-basketed Elvira-Gulch bicycle and my mood improved instantly.

Like every bike trip, there were highs and lows. Pedaling carefree along forested lanes, there’s nothing like the weee! of being on a bike in motion or happening upon the haunting ruins of an old cathedral, open to the sky. But also those typical rough moments: the one kilometer you’re obliged to travel (with a head wind) on a route nationale with 18-wheelers rushing past and nearly topping you off the shoulder, or the I-think-we-took-a-wrong-turn and that means we have to ride back up that hill we just raced down in a full weee! state of mind. Or the plan to stop at a café in the next village except the next three villages don’t have a café and your water bottle is empty and you’re parched but saving that orange in your pack for a real emergency. But if you know this about bike trips, you ride it out – pun intended – and in the end, when you pull into an elegant chateau and sit on the terrace with a cold draught beer, looking forward to a nap, a shower and a gastronomic dinner, well, then it’s all worth it. It makes for a very very special equation, no matter how you’re counting your birthdays.


Apr 28 2011

The Gifted Bag

After the buzzer rang, I pressed the button that unlocks the door to the street downstairs without asking who was there. I knew it was Buddy-roo returning home after a spontaneous play-date-turned-dinner-and-homework-date with a friend in the neighborhood. Normally a social activity of this nature on a school night would raise eyebrows, but this one included homework support from a native French speaking parent, so it was allowed. No doubt they covered twice the ground in half the time.

I opened and left ajar the door to our apartment, so that after climbing the four flights of stairs she would not have to ring the doorbell and wait again. This is our typical letting-people-in-the-door routine. How long it takes to walk from the entrance, up the stairs to our door depends on the urgency and fitness of the arriver. When it’s one of the girls, if they don’t get distracted by a neighbor in the courtyard or on the stairs, it’s usually within 3 or 4 minutes that you can hear their little feet and out-of-breath voices as they enter the apartment and close the door behind them.

A good long five minutes went by without any little feet. I went out to check, leaning out the long window of the hallway to peer into the courtyard. No sight of Buddy-roo, but then the distinct sound of her crying in the stairwell below. I called down to her. Her friend’s mother – who happens also to be a friend of mine – answered back. “It’s okay. We’re just having a little situation down here.”

I looked out the window at the not-quite-night-sky settling in on the rooftops and chimneys. It’d been such a calm, peaceful evening. We’d been downright civilized, De-facto, Short-pants and I, reading together, quietly. The wailing at the bottom of the stairs, a harsh reminder of what had been missing, up until now.

I pattered down in my stocking feet to where Buddy-roo was standing, in the foyer with her friend, the two of them in angry tears. The friend’s mother looked up at me apologetically. I tried to telepath to her a look that said, “No worries, this could so easily have happened on my watch.”

The story spilled out. The purse, a tacky, pink, vinyl, Winx-merchandized accessory (I didn’t buy it for her – it was given to us) had allegedly been a gift from Buddy-roo to her friend during a play-date a few weeks ago. She’d forgotten about it, I’m sure, until she saw it again on this visit. She probably made a remark like, “Oh, I left my bag here,” causing the severe dropping of the jaw of her little friend, who’d thought it was a present to keep, which is probably how it was presented. The discussion turned debate, and then turned debacle. The lovely afternoon-into-evening play-date was ending in a big fight, all about where that bag should live.

I said the trash would be an excellent location. (Not out loud, though.)

The objective, at this point, was to calm the girls down so they could part, if not as friends, at least without tears. But this ugly purse was the stumbling block. Buddy-roo insisted it was a loan, not a gift. Her friend believed that it was hers to keep. Neither one of them would give an inch – they were absolutely stubborn – leaving the mothers to negotiate.

After a few halfhearted and unsuccessful tries at mediation – in retrospect how ridiculous that I even tried – I put my foot down. I was tired, it was late and this was annoying. “I don’t know what else to do, guys, we’ll have to sort this out later because it’s time for bed. Now.” I shrugged at the other mother, who I’m sure would have loved to have done the same 30-minutes before, but felt she ought to try to bring Buddy-roo home to us in happier spirits. I dragged my wailing daughter up the stairs. I didn’t even notice, until after she’d gotten into bed and I was doing my own straightening-up-before-bed ritual, that the purse had been on her shoulder at the time, so it’s ended up back on our property.

And it’s sitting there, that ugly pink bag with all those cheezy smiling characters on it, taunting me. In the morning after the girls leave for school and I’m all alone, it whispers to me, “whose am I?” It makes me feel compelled to take the high motherly moral ground, even though I’d like nothing better than to bury my head in the pillows of my bed and wake up when Buddy-roo is twenty-six. (No doubt, she would have appropriated all my jewelry while I was slumbering through her dramatic puberty and adolescence…)

I’m of two minds. The first: we have to have a talk about it, and Buddy-roo needs to either return the bag that she gifted to her friend or make a real apology and come to terms with the misunderstanding. The second: Just drop it. It’s a silly fight between two 7-year-olds and though I’m still thinking about it (as is my friend, the other mother) the girls have both forgotten it. Next time somebody “gifts” something, we simply need to step in and model how to clarify: is it a gift for good, or just a little while?

One is correct. The other is convenient.

What would you do?


Dec 16 2010

The Posse

Over the years, gradually, it’s grown – this gang of girls. We share in common an extraordinary event, the best party of the year, every July, and although the duration of our stay in Pamplona varies depending on finances and family or work commitments, that moment – when the gun goes off and the champagne flows and the cathedral bells ring – is a precious moment when we are reunited and ready for anything to happen. Others start their new year on the first of January or in September with the new school season. The PPP (the Pamplona Pussy Posse) starts its year on July 6th at noon o’clock, and with a bang.

Dressed in white with red sashes and panuelos, we have our daily rituals, borrowed or invented over the years. We all know the general schedule (the Fiesta Nazi has done her best to train us) so if for some reason you don’t make it home or if you get distracted and pulled off to lunch with other friends, or you need a nap, or to put your feet up, you still know where to go, and at what time, in order to rejoin the posse. We are predictable that way, and yet within our rhythm there is deviation and surprise: a new favorite barman, a newly discovered out-of-the-way restaurant, a place to better view the fireworks.

The founding members of the posse are, though we don’t dwell on it, on the other side of forty. The younger members of the PPP are in their twenties and there’s a thirty-something amongst us, too. Together, we represent a range of the feminine experience. Young, daring, sexy things becoming thoughtful beauties and turning into witty, wiser (and still rather wanton) women. I’d like to think that when we’re out and about, we blend together. I know I’ve got a few more wrinkles and lot less stamina, but every one of us is laughing loud from the belly, dancing deep from the heart. These days, the younger ones get more attention, but I don’t mind as long as somebody buys us a drink while they’re flirting with our younger friends.

The posse experiences the fiesta fully. We watch the encierro every morning, vigilant for our friends who are running. At the corrida we bite our knuckles, shedding tears and/or applauding if it’s beautifully fought. We dance anyplace where there is music to dance (which is everyplace), turning strangers into friends at each stop. We befriend barmen, street cleaners and pastores. But there’s something that happens between us, in the middle of the non-stop revelry, when we look around and recognize how absolutely privileged we are to be here in the midst of it this madness, and to be in each other’s wild company.

In the wee morning hours (or else in the high heat of the day after a siesta) we’re splayed on the couch in the one air-conditioned room of our rented apartment, feet up on the table or soaking in a tub of ice-water, telling our stories. Funny stories about what’s happened to us at the fiesta morph into other stories about things in our lives outside the Pamplona party that we share, things that drive us, inspire us, annoy us, or amuse us. I love these talks. You can’t plan them; they happen spontaneously.

I couldn’t plan this, either – I wasn’t even aware of it until I was in the middle of writing this post – what I would gain from being part of this circle of women of disparate ages and life experiences. It’s one thing to be friendly with a few younger women who are at different places in their life, to be a colleague, or a mentor. It’s a whole different ballgame to go through what we go through in Pamplona, the intense highs and lows, moments of elation and disappointment back-to-back, feeling free and wild and strong, and then feeling instantly vulnerable as a result.

Knowing these women this way – and letting them know me – gives me a perspective about the curve of my own life. Who was I when I was at that age and stage? Who will they be, when they are in my place? And who and what are we all becoming? (Besides a little bit too drunk and really overtired.)

Those heart-to-heart late-night talks could happen anywhere, I suppose, but the exchange – and that’s the operative word, exchange – is somehow made more intense by the backdrop of the world’s greatest party, the boom-boom-boom of the music and people living out loud in the street, the constant roar all week long, all-day and all-night, these phenomenal moments when we get to be free, we get to be foolish, we get to be fierce, we get to be with friends, when we get to be the posse.

Photo credit, for the middle shot: Jim Hollander. (I have no idea who took the other two pictures.)


Dec 25 2009

Loving Christmas

Yesterday morning, Short-pants was early out of bed – a rarity – and crawled in with De-facto and me for a ritual cuddle. Buddy-roo came down a bit later and heard us whispering. She lurked in the hall outside our door, sniffling.

I took the bait and asked her what was wrong. She said she’d wanted to be the first in our bed for the morning cuddle. No urging could get her to let go of her disappointment and join us under the warm covers. She alternated between crying and pouting.

For a few moments she disappeared, and returned to deliver a picture she had drawn, indicating her love for me and her papa and sister had been withdrawn. She dropped it on the bed and returned to her post outside our door.

“I don’t care if she doesn’t love me,” said Short-pants, “all that matters is how much I love her.”

I’m not making it up; she really said that. As if we needed any more evidence that she possesses that little extra dose of love, strength and wisdom, and understands how to employ it.

After a long period of silence, Buddy-roo offered a suggestion.

“Mama, you know that store over near the Pompidou, with all the toys stacked in the window?”

“Yes?”

“You could go there and buy me something.”

“That’s one idea,” I said, in my best non-committal voice.

So this is Christmas, I thought, from one end of the range to the other.

In the spirit of both of my beautiful children, I’d like to wish all the readers of this blog – loyal and occasional – a Merry, Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Feliz Navidad, and don’t forget a belated Happy Chanukah. I send warm greetings to you for the whole season; may you find all the love, strength and wisdom – and toys – you need.

And thank you for reading Maternal Dementia this year, that’s the best gift I could ask for.


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.


Aug 3 2009

Random Evolution

It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that my two daughters came out of the same womb. At first glance, their blue eyes and blonde heads – and their complete familiarity with each other – make it obvious that they’re sisters. But spend some time with them, and you’d find they might as well have crawled out of
Shortpants_listtwo entirely different gene pools. It’s a real case for nature over nurture.

Short-pants says things like, “When you’re old, I promise to take care of you.” She even wrote, voluntarily, a list of things to do when Mama and Papa are too old which includes the tasks of making breakfast, buying what we need, earning money and doing everything we ask her to do. It’s enough to actually make you look forward to getting old.

Buddy-roo, on the other hand, approaches aging differently. She asks the question, “When you die, can I have that necklace?”

I don’t mean to paint Buddy-roo as jewelry-grubbing hound. Except she is a material girl and she’s very aware of the material world. Not that she is unkind or impolite; on the contrary, she is lovely and funny and sweet. Her requests are innocent. She’s just a wee bit demanding, especially when it has to do with things and having them. No amount of parental re-programming seems to have been able to counter this innate trait of hers. She is the poster child for the economy of obsolescence.

The other day I stopped in front of a store to admire a dress, a sequined little number that glistened in the window. “Do you like it mama?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “It’s pretty wow, isn’t it?” “Why don’t you buy it?” she asked. “I don’t have to buy it,” I answered, spotting a opportunity for a teaching moment, “I can just admire it and appreciate how beautiful it is every time I pass the store window.” Short-pants chimed in, “It’s true, we don’t have to have things to enjoy them.”

“But why don’t you buy it, mama?” I tried to explain again, but she persisted. “You should buy it now, mama. It will look too beautiful on you.” She found it incomprehensible that my attraction to the dress didn’t include an immediate aspiration to purchase it.

Does this come from me? It certainly doesn’t come from De-facto, who hasn’t bought himself a new piece of clothing since the late ‘90s. All I could think to do was stare at her.

“And when you’re tired of wearing that dress,” she said, “you can give it to me.”

Last week I was sequestered, more or less, with a gang of mathematicians and scientists who were charged with generating ideas for research projects under the subject heading Maths of Life. (As a passport-carrying American, I’m more inclined to say math, but being on this side of the Atlantic, I went with the European usage.) This particular workshop brought together the domains of maths and biology, asking a collected brain trust to think about the application of mathematics (oh, it is plural after all) to better understand – or even to accelerate – evolution. They were throwing about words like genes and genomes and genotypes and phenotypes. And stochastic. This was a word I heard a lot. Stochastic means, according to one of the maths experts, the incorporation of randomness.
helix_model
Oh but don’t I witness this at home! How much of whom my little creatures have become is simply the incorporation of a random combination of genetic codes? The strange splitting and mixing of De-facto’s chromosomes with mine, the seemingly random and yet stunningly deliberate mix of our DNA creates a humbling little piece of evolution. In this case, the continuation of a surname, born out in two very distinguished pathways.

When we returned home after being away for a week, Short-pants complained about our absence. I reminded her that sometimes her Papa and I have to go away to work, to earn money to keep our household going, to have food to eat, clothes to wear, so we can do cool things like take music and theater classes and travel to interesting places.

“But why don’t we just sell some of the things we own?” she asked, “Then you wouldn’t have to go to work and we could all stay home together, all the time.”

Buddy-roo, on the other hand, greeted us with a different sentiment than her sister. She poked through my suitcase, pretending to help me unpack. And then, when she couldn’t stand it anymore:

“Didn’t you bring me home a present?”


Mar 19 2009

Much Ado About Nothing

This could be just another case of the Emperors new clothes, I told myself, riding up the escalator to see an art exhibit about nothing. De-facto took the girls to the Centre Pompidou to see it at last weekend –- a gesture to give me a few hours of coveted quiet. They returned from the museum, boisterous and enthusiastic. “There were big, empty rooms, and we ran all around,” said Buddy-roo. I gave De-facto a scratching-my-head look. “Go see it,” he said.

“Nothing seems to me to be the most potent thing in the world.” This quote from Robert Barry, an artist featured in the exhibit, “Voids. A Retrospective.” He’s one of nine “radical” artists so fascinated with nothing that they all created exhibitions made up of completely empty spaces.
vide_voids1
The exhibit is just that: nine consecutive empty rooms. In the corridor, large panels of text describe the story of each artist’s dance with nothing. My favorite was Laurie Parsons, who in 1990 decided not to present anything for her third solo exhibition. She sent out invitations with the gallery address, but without her name or the date of the show. Eventually, she even deleted this show from her resumé, nearly erasing any trace of its existence. To respect her intentions, the exhibit literature reads, “the room devoted to her exhibition has no label.”

Because there is nothing to absorb the sound, a room with nothing in it is filled with a great quantity of noise. My footsteps echoed brightly against the empty walls. A row of spotlights hanging from the ceiling pointed at nothingdoorways1 along each wall. Without paintings or fixtures to absorb or deflect the light, it was almost blinding. I noticed, for the first time -– and I’m no stranger to this museum — the raw pattern of the parquet floors. Without anything in it, I saw the room for real: small imperfections in the walls, scuff marks on the floor, a lonely wire hanging from the ceiling.

I looked around at all the nothing. And then, something came to me.

A memory of another room –- an almost empty one -– in a building I once inhabited a long time ago, a renovated schoolhouse with long windows and cathedral ceilings. The rooms of the apartment were open to each other and filled with light. I remember just days after moving in, the man I lived with surprised me with a silver ten-speed bicycle for my birthday. We had only a few pieces of furniture, a handmade Shaker table, sideboard and a desk. I jumped on the bike right away and rode it around inside the apartment, a thin imprint from the tires marking a trail in the new carpet. When he wasn’t looking I took off all my clothes and rode the bicycle around in a circle again, in the nude, just to make him laugh. I remember how when he saw me, his head fell back and bounced upright again with a wide smile.

Well there’s a memory that came out of nowhere.

Whenever I walk through a museum, a blanket of quiet concentration wraps around me. As my eye is drawn to each work of art, the clutter of the day-to-day recedes from view, and a calm, focused state of mind sets in. It’s
room_door1like drinking a dose of culture, a thick and nourishing, aesthetic milkshake.

I found myself again in that art-altered state, but it was different. With nothing on the walls or in the empty room to draw my attention, my attention turned inward, to my own things, to my own empty.

The four bare walls in the next room stared me down, and even though they were of the same chalky white plaster as the first room, and the wood was the same strip-floor pattern, this empty room was different.

I thought about joining the empty room with my empty head. But I could not — as someone more disciplined at meditation would — turn away all the images that came to me. They seemed too precious, little gifts presented to me in empty boxes. Like the one I gave to my sister, when I was old enough to think of giving her a present for her birthday, but too young to have the means to purchase anything. I rummaged through the store of boxes my mother had stacked in the back room and found a small, square, white box with a thin bed of white cotton inside. I wrapped the box. My sister opened it, guessing, probably, as she tugged at the ribbon, that it was empty. How she marveled at the imaginary item, treating it as though it was the most treasured gift she’d ever received.
people_window
Given the excess of this decade, fueled by the shallow economy of obsolescence and the coercive vanity-inducing power of the media, an art exhibit about nothing feels like a vacation from the obligations of consumerism. Without the clutter of things, there is room to think, or room to unthink. And room to remember. There is room to count what matters. There is an unburdening.

Robert Barry described nothing as a way to be “free for a moment to think about what we are going to do.”

Another one of the empty rooms reminded me of a moment last summer. We’d cleared out our apartment – no small task with two small children – to re-plaster and re-paint after a particularly grueling roof repair that had lasted too long and damaged the ceiling in every room. When the painters were finally done, De-facto and I laid on the floor of our empty living room, holding hands and staring up at the pristine ceiling while the children ran around us in wide, noisy circles. Only the largest pieces of furniture remained in the room, draped in plastic. All the carpets had been rolled up and the little side-tables and child-sized chairs had been evacuated. An entire wall of shelves had been cleared out, all the books and pictures and objets d’art packed away in brown cardboard boxes. I felt no urgency to move the furniture back, or to unpack those cartons and restore the room to its cluttered, lived-in state. I liked its new wide-openness.

Later, two friends happened by, in the neighborhood taking their fresh new baby for a walk. We got the idea to call our friends Lucy and Ricky from downstairs, and an impromptu pasta dinner party ensued. I remember sitting at that festive table –- set up smack in the center of what was an otherwise empty room -– watching my children and listening to my friends. I remember wondering if I had the courage to never unpack those boxes, if I could just leave them and let the room rest. Empty of all the objects that I’ve acquired, there’d be nothing to distract me from what is most essential: family, friends, food and wine. Nothing beats that.