Feb 4 2013

Hierarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Oct 13 2012

They’re Becoming

The two shadow-like figures hovered beside the bed, standing still, waiting in the dark for me to take notice. I’d been curled in a fetal position facing the center of the bed. Nobody talked or touched me, but their lurking presence was enough to stir me from my pre-dawn sleep. I turned and lifted my head, squinting in the dark, squinting without my glasses.

“We’re ready for school,” one of them said. It was too dark and too early for me to distinguish their voices.

“What time is it?” My head raised off the pillow, an alertness emerging as I realized I might have overslept. I reached for my phone on the bedside table – it doubles as my alarm – and pressed the center button. The small screen illuminated the room and showed me the time: 6:45 am.

“We’re all dressed,” said Short-pants.

I wanted to be pleased, but they didn’t have to leave for school for another 90 minutes.

“So can we watch a movie?” said Buddy-roo.

“I’ll make breakfast myself,” said Short-pants.

How did this happen, this spurt of maturity and self-reliance? Just yesterday I was spooning yogurt and bananas off of their chins and into their mouths, holding their hands as they took those first foal-like steps, celebrating the first diaper-less dry nights. Now they’re dressing themselves and negotiating video time by preparing their own breakfast. I groaned.

“Would you like me to make you coffee?” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

I wasn’t a particularly pleasant pregnant woman. I know some women love it; they glow, nest and rub their Buddha bellies. I wasn’t among that tribe and I did not pretend to be. Once the children moved out of my womb – the first of many times they would leave a mess behind them – I enjoyed them as butterballs with fine tiny fingers, but to a point. I struggled with the adjustment. And if someone made the mistake of assuming my fervor for motherhood, this happened a lot, with “Isn’t it wonderful, being a mom?” I would answer truthfully that despite my grand affection for the babies, I didn’t find the day-to-day of mothering so wonderful.

These conversations, filled with admonishment for my lack of enthusiasm, always ended with the clichéd “but it goes by so fast!” Eventually I learned to shake my ahead and agree, lest my protests would prolong an already tiresome conversation, or get me reported to child services.

But indeed, it has sped by and now those babies have grown into young girls, with a decade of stories to tell. They’ve survived broken bones and brain surgery and broken hearts and ex-best friends. Along the way, they’ve taught me how much I love having them close, just in time to turn around and start teaching me how to let go.

~ ~ ~

Now that my mother is gone, my memories of her seem precious. When she was alive they were just flashes of the past, vignettes of her standing on the back porch, seated at the head of the table, in the car beside me, driving home after my piano lesson. Now, there’s something much more deliberate about these memories. I’m calling upon my brain to use extra ink to embed these nostalgic images of her so I don’t lose them. I’m afraid I’ll forget the details about her, the things that for so long I took for granted.

Not just the images. Her words also have extra ballast, too.

“I never thought you’d be such a good mother,” she told me once. This could be construed as a backhanded compliment, but it wasn’t. I knew what she meant. Given the ambitions I expressed as a young woman, mothering wasn’t on the list of things she expected me to be good at. She wasn’t being mean-spirited; she was actually expressing her delight.

“My only regret,” she said to me, in those final cocooned days just before she slipped away from consciousness, “is that I won’t get to see who your children will become.”

This was one of last coherent things she ever said to me. Sitting at her bedside, my imagination rushed ahead to future graduations and weddings, milestone events she wouldn’t get to see. In this case, I supposed, it didn’t go by fast enough.

Well, mom, Short-pants has become long and lean and lovely. She’s supremely conscientious and creative; her homework is always completed, her room is always a mess. She cooks scrambled eggs and French toast all by herself and operates my coffee press like a barista. She’s sage beyond her years, yet there’s a poignant innocence about her wisdom. She reads books like a fiend, draws mandalas for fun and knits without dropping a stitch. De-facto is a going to get a beautiful scarf for Christmas.

Buddy-roo is becoming a force. She has the best day of her life and the worst day of her life in the span of an hour. She sings to herself in the shower. She purrs like a cat when you scratch her back, just like I did. She likes to straighten her room before she goes to bed at night. Despite the necessary nudging on her homework, she’s also rising to the task, surprising us occasionally with her initiative to do tomorrow’s assignments tonight. She has her own fashion style – leggings with everything – and she wants a typewriter for her birthday.

They’re becoming extraordinary, these granddaughters that you wondered about. They’re becoming real characters, good little people with big hearts. They’ve become everything you could have imagined – and as you might have imagined – they’re becoming even more than that. And for the record, it’s just not the same without you here to marvel at it.


Nov 10 2010

All the Greats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But won’t she be a great something?”

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

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


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.