Jul 18 2016

The Joyride

I sliced peaches into a bowl of vanilla ice-cream while Buddy-roo scrolled through the options in my computer’s movie folder. It had been an ideal summer day at the country house: bike rides down the lane with Winston running joyously beside us, a little bit of yard work, trimming grapes and pulling ivy off the walls of the stone house, De-facto making progress on a construction project in the bergerie. A late afternoon trip to the lake with sailing and swimming, followed by an apéro on the back terrace, then burgers and chicken from the grill with a chilled pale rosé. As soon as the sun set – and it sets late at this time of the year – we’d planned to gather around my computer to watch a movie. Buddy-roo, our media-kid, had been begging for one all day, and was sustained through the outdoorsy activity only by the promise of a movie after sunset. It was between Guardians of the Galaxy and Malificent, in her mind. I was lobbying for The Way Way Back, when I heard De-facto shouting from outside. I ran out to see him doubled over, just down the road. He motioned to me, urgently.

“Winston’s dead.” His voice strained. “A car. He ran into the road. Wouldn’t come when I called.” His chest was heaving, his face anguished. I held his hands; they were shaking.
black_heart
“I heard the sound. When he was hit. It was awful.”

“But where is he?” I needed to see Winston, lifeless, to believe it.

That was the worst – or the weirdest – part. De-facto couldn’t find the dog. They’d been at the edge of a track road that runs into a main road behind our house, a road on which cars speed by. Winston can be cheeky, but he usually minds us when call him to head back home. This time he’d dashed into the road and stood there, his head was probably extended upwards sniffing at something in the air. De-facto heard the car coming and yelled to Winston to get out of the road. Though he didn’t see it happen – the tall field grass was in the way – De-facto heard clearly the sound of car meeting dog. He’d cried out,”Nooooo!” but we did didn’t hear him, crowded around our kitchen island contemplating movie titles, 300 meters away.

De-facto ran to the road, expecting to find the mangled body of our beloved dog. There was nothing there. No evidence of an accident. No broken plastic pieces from a car. No blood, no hair. No dog. He looked in the ditches, but no sign of Winston. That’s when he ran back to the house, when he called me to come outside.

By now the rest of the family joined us. Buddy-roo saw De-facto holding my hand, his head bowed, and noticed the absence of our dog and collapsed in the road. Short-pants and my mother-in-love hugged each other, shocked at the news.

“We’ve got to find him.” De-facto’s anguish commanded us to the task. He started barking orders, which we all accepted dutifully. He and Buddy-roo drove off in the direction that the car had been going, to see if they could find Winston or its driver. I ran down to the spot in the road where the accident occurred to search again for his body.

I couldn’t piece it together, everything went into a spin. He couldn’t be gone. I pictured Winston’s empty basket, the bed he sleeps and his food and water bowls; how we’d look at them dog_pulls_metomorrow, empty, and how we’d grieve. We haven’t had him in our lives even two years. It took half of that time for him to get to know us, to let go whatever fear he carried with him from his life prior to us bringing him home from the rescue center. For more than a year, he was even standoffish, a dog that only loved us loving him. It was until very recently that I had the feeling he had actually started to love us back.

We’d become a family with a dog. And now – way too soon – our dog was gone.

There was nothing on either shoulder of the road. I scoured the ditches for a red-haired body with its blue harness. Maybe the impact had thrown him away from the road into the thick of bushes and trees. I was about to head home and change out of my sundress and flip-flops into long pants and boots in order to search in the weeds and briars beyond the ditches, when I saw De-facto, in our car, driving toward me.

“He’s alive!” He stopped the car. “Get in!”

We rushed back to the village – at least a 1.5 km distance – where I saw Buddy-roo standing with a young couple, staring at the front of their car. De-facto pulled in beside them; I didn’t wait for the car to stop before jumping out. There was Winston. Neatly wedged into the front grill of the car, his paws hanging out comfortably, his head moving from side-to-side. He panted and blinked, like nothing was the matter. He did not bark. He did not whimper. He looked only slightly relieved to see us after his little joyride.

The couple in the car had already called the pompiers, and though De-facto wanted to take the bumper apart and free Winston immediately, we persuaded him to wait. There was no blood, and Winston did not appear to be in pain, but who knew what kind of internal injuries he might have suffered. They would have tools to extract him carefully from the grill of the car and avoid further injury.
Winston_joyride
It was probably only 15 or 20 minutes, but if felt like hours before the firemen arrived. They probably did exactly what De-facto wanted to do, dismantled the bumper and stretched open the grill where Winston had been squeezed in. Winston stepped out, like slipping out of a train berth, and even stood up on the sidewalk for several moments before collapsing. There was not one cut on him. No external marks or bruises. All bones appeared to be straight. No blood, anywhere.

I’m still not sure why the driver of the car didn’t pull over sooner, why he drove past several turn-offs and driveways and continued all the way to the village. Winston must have had the ride of his life, a full front bumper view of a French country road for nearly 2 km.

The pompiers helped us locate a veterinarian, who, even at 10:00 on a Saturday night, opened his office to attend to Winston. After a thorough physical examination and a series of X-rays, Winston appears to have suffered only 2 cracked ribs and some mild internal swelling. He’s on anti-inflammation medicine now. He’s moving a bit slower, as you’d expect, but he walks, and even trots a little. He still manages to be underfoot, sitting in exactly the spot you want to stand, in front of the very cupboard you need to access, or just at the base of the refrigerator at the moment you want to open it. Not only is he alive, he’s his old self.

If things come in threes, then I’ve used up two of the three miracles I’m allotted in this life. A dozen years ago we almost lost Short-pants and even the doctors called her recovery a miracle. Searching the ditches for Winston’s body, I was transported back to those brutal days when we didn’t know if Short-pants would make it or not, standing on the threshold of grief, wondering if we’d have to enter its dark room. The pain of almost losing our dog reminds me of the pain of almost losing our child, which puts me in touch with the pain of so many people this year who did lose someone they loved: in Paris, Istanbul, San Bernadino, Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, just last week in Nice, and dozens of other places that don’t get enough media attention but merit our mindfulness as well. There’s so much loss in the world, it’s hard to hold on to hope.
Winston_on_white
Short-pants felt terrible because, as she put it, she loves Winston the least in the family. It was a wake-up call to her, thinking he might be gone, to appreciate him more. Near-misses like this can be gifts, it’s true, to remind us to appreciate the present and the people – and animals – who are here for us to love right now, in this moment. We don’t know when they will be swept away from us. (Even if it’s if only for a few moments, in the grill of a stranger’s car.) Seizing the joy of the day is how we avoid regrets.

Yesterday Buddy-roo and I took Winston back to the vet for a controle to check that everything is okay. He’s been vomiting repeatedly and the vet took another X-ray to look at his internal organs. There’s some additional inflammation in his stomach and esophagus that’s causing it, and we hope the medicine will kick in soon and he’ll start eating normally again.

While he was getting his X-ray, Buddy-roo and I sat together in the waiting room, running through the events – and the rollercoaster of emotions – of the previous 24 hours. We keep going through it in our heads, again and again, what happened, what could have happened, what didn’t happen. We’ve all been shaking our heads, doing a dance between disbelief and relief. I’m exhausted from the rapid cycle through so many emotions in such a short span of time.

Buddy-roo reached over, took my hand and caressed it.

“Mama,” she said, her voice pitched perfectly between laughing and crying, “tonight, can we just watch a movie, rather than living it?”


Oct 30 2015

A Final Bow

I’m almost too busy to grieve. I say almost, because when you’re busy, you still grieve, it’s just pushed underground. If you don’t make time and space for the grief, it takes its own, and never at a good time or with enough space to permit you to delve in. Grief doesn’t fit itself neatly into the daily juggle of life and kids and work and an airplane to catch. Grief commands you to stop and pay attention. If you don’t, or you can’t – or think you can’t – you’ll find out too late, you should have bowed to its call.
tendido_sign
I’ve just said goodbye to a friend. We knew each other for only ten years, but in that time he showed me great kindness. He was older, leaning toward the end of his life even when I met him, yet he cultivated friendships with younger minds and spirits. Part of this was denial; he would not see himself as aged. Part of this was delight. He could never truly hide his amusement while he feigned surprise or mild disdain for the words and acts of the younger generation around him. He kept himself young by keeping such company.

He was just shy of eighty when he died, with years of achievement and adventure behind him. A hero of sorts among a special crowd, my San Fermín friends, he was known for his courage as a runner, back in the day, and for his chivalry and generosity until the end. He was the last man standing on the longest of fiesta nights, even at his ripe age, signaling a strong heart that could have kept him going for another decade, surely, but for his liver which he’d taxed too much, and his mind, which, like all of ours, wasn’t what it used to be.

I was too far away when he died to join the community of mourners at his memorial service. I got the news while at a meeting of 300 people. I stuffed the feelings down – the show must go on – until it could seep out later on a transatlantic redeye, the high altitude cabin pressure no doubt attributing to the release of emotion, my teary sniffles muffled by the constant hum of the jet engine. I made it home, tired, with puffy eyes and a heavy heart.

Winston met me at the door, his paws and long snout bobbing at me. One of the great things about having a dog is this enthusiastic welcome no matterteary_eye how long you’ve been absent. After a week away, he was especially excited to see me. I knelt down to scratch behind his ears and Short-pants came around behind me and placed her hand gently on my shoulder, her calm intention distinct from the peripatetic affection of the dog.

“I’m sorry you lost your friend,” she said to me. I pulled Winston closer, wincing to keep from crying again.

“It’s okay to be sad,” she said, stroking my back.

~ ~ ~

Grieving is messy business. I think you rarely grieve for only one person. Saying a permanent goodbye to someone you’ve known and loved triggers a memory of all the others you’ve lost. It’s like they’re all called out on the stage again, taking their place in line, holding hands, the full cast of the beloved, stepping forward for their encore bows a second, third, and fourth time. Side by side, the line splits in the center to make space for the newly departed, and together dipping their heads, skipping forward, their farewell bows perfectly synchronized. There you are in the audience, clutching a tissue and fighting back tears for each and every one of them, all over again.

Buddy-roo danced around the living room, throwing words at me I wasn’t prepared to take in. The test she thought she was ready for (but wasn’t), a misunderstanding with a girlfriend, the stuff of every day life that she likes me to know about. It made me think about coming home to them just after my mother died. I’d been gone three weeks, accompanying her through hospice. The girls had been desperate to reconnect with me, to catch up, to tell me of their lives, needing me to know, to respond. And I, jet-lagged and grief-stricken, listened half-heartedly, distracted by an internal conversation of my own, wondering how it would be for them when it was me who was gone for good.

This is the part that’s (mostly) unspoken: When we grieve all the others, there’s the hint of grief at our own demise. Each time there is a death around me, I know that contigo_torosomeday it will be my turn. What will happen to me is a mystery. I don’t know what to believe about any existence of my consciousness after death. But I know what it will be like for the girls, and if I could take that heartache away from them I would. But just as Short-pants says, it’s okay to be sad. Mourning is as much a part of life as laughing or loving or any of the experiences we covet.

I’d seen my friend just over a month ago. I walked him down a long corridor to surgery, a surgery he recovered from but extenuating circumstances numbered his days and took his life. His departure is a reminder that all things have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that it’s the people we love who keep the memory of our existence alive, albeit with their heartache, calling us back on stage to take yet another final bow.


Mar 31 2013

And in the End

I’d given up being organized by the time I got to this part of the Camino. At the beginning, I had to think through my itinerary in order to squeeze it into our family schedule and wrap it around my birthday celebration. But during these last two weeks I was very much in the groove of landing where I landed, sorting out stopping points and sleeping accommodations when it was time to stop or time to sleep. I had all my gear all the time – despite the pre-Camino back injury I never needed to use a bag transport service – this meant I was at liberty to call it a day, or continue on, whenever I wanted.
menacing_sky
After Santiago, I’d heard, there were fewer places to stay and many might still be closed for the winter. I called ahead to a guest house/albergue in Augapesada, 11k from Santiago, to be sure it was open. This would be a respectable distance to walk given a mid-afternoon departure after the pilgrim’s mass. The sky was a threatening shade of gray, and I wanted some assurance of a bed under dry cover. The next option wouldn’t be for another 10k and I wouldn’t make it there before it was dark. I’m told you can always knock on any door that has a shell on it, along the route, to ask for help,or shelter. I think that’s to be saved for a real emergency, not for poor planning.

The gray clouds turned out to be much more than threatening and I arrived at the front door of the albergue thoroughly soaked, apologizing to the proprietor for the mud I was about to drag in. He was unperturbed about my wet backpack and my dirty boots, and showed me not to a room of bunk beds, but to a room with a princess canopy hanging from the ceiling, draped over a big bed with a thick, quilted cover. After a hot shower, I was invited to make myself at home in the salon in front of the fire while his wife did my laundry and cooked me dinner. I ended up being the only boarder that night, and it felt a little bit like I was in the tender care of surrogate parents.

The next morning, my host asked how I’d slept. “Como los meurtos,” I said. Like the dead.

Apropos, since this part of the Spain is called Costa da Morte, or the death coast. The pagans believed that this is where souls went before ascending into heaven. Before Columbus and Magellan proved that the earth was round, it was believed that this was the end of the world, and to go out to sea beyond the horizon would mean sailing over the edge to your death, the ultimate end.

I was merely prolonging my ending, continuing from Santiago to Finisterre. I knew another end was in sight, at the coast, but I also knew it would take a few more days of walking to accept it. That’s the thing about poles_markerendings, they’re hard to accept. Even when you know what’s next. At the end of a trip, you’re sad that it’s over, but you know what you have to do: go home, do your laundry, get back into your routine. When you finish a big project, you grieve at the end of it, even if you’re a bit relieved. Maybe you don’t exactly know what’s ahead but you have an idea, and soon enough the next assignment, vague at first, takes shape. But when you come to the end of your life, you don’t know what’s next. Is there a heaven? A next life? Is it just the end – that’s what my mother thought – before an eternity of nothing?

Funny, this Camino, a religious path for so many people, turned out to be an existential one for me. Someway along the way, between O Cebreiro and Portomarín, I kind of wanted to know, like, why we’re here.

I’m not the first to ask this question and I won’t be the last. And it’s not that I haven’t asked it before, although I’d wager it was a more intellectual query. This time it had a different timbre. Walk 500 miles across the north of Spain, you have some time to think, maybe about things you thought before, but you think about them longer because you don’t get interrupted. This presents an opportunity to pursue a string of thoughts much further than usual. And that’s how I got here, during the last days into Santiago and the days beyond, toward Finisterre, with this what’s the meaning of it all story. I imagine this sounds ridiculous and navel gazing to those of you reading this, but truly, you do get a little crazy, walking for fifteen days by yourself.

Maybe it was the rain. After five rainy days in a row, even though I’d surrendered to it, even though I didn’t even try to stay dry, even though I knew everything I was wearing would be soaking wet by the time I got where I was going, I still had to ask myself, why are you doing this? I suppose with so much time to think about it, that very simple why expands to a larger, metaphorical and then metaphysical why. Every step I’ve taken from the French border to the coast of Spain is very meaningful to me now. But in a hundred years, nobody will know or care. In the end, what’s the point? Why are we doing this walk on the planet? Why do we even bother?
camino_cross
The religious view on this, one I respect as comforting to many but unsatisfying to me, attributes it to the will of a higher being. But why? The reincarnationists would have that we live over and over again to learn our life lessons. But why? Scientists say we are the product of a big bang that over billions of years led to life forms that crawled out of the muck and evolved into the sentient creatures we have become. But why? No matter which I might believe or understand to be true, the reason for the time spent on this earth – at least for me – is still unanswered.

This isn’t the question I started out with, in those early, organized days of the Camino, when I wanted to walk and think about how to make the most of the rest of my life after a milestone birthday. I imagined that the question would evolve, and it’s true that several questions emerged along the way. But the more time that passed, and the more I played by this land where you land playbook, the more I landed back this unanswerable question.

I walked 90 more kilometers beyond Santiago, more than half of that in the rain, the other half with the threat of rain. I slept in a damp, drafty, heatless albergue, on a bunk crammed in a room of snoring, coughing pilgrims. I found dryer, comfortable shelter, too, like the one with the princess curtain, or another, where I was all by myself in a room of eight beds. I navigated trails of deep mud, hopped over puddles nearly the size of a pond. I walked alone the entire time, the only pilgrims I passed, but for those I met at the albergues, were the ones coming the other way, returning to Santiago. This was the perhaps the most isolated leg of my entire trip. I experienced moments of private euphoria as never before, and moments of aloneness that were neither good nor bad, just profound. Every night I was relieved to remove my pack and take off my boots. Every morning, champing at the bit to put my pack back together and and set off for the next day’s walk.
careful_on_the_moors
I landed in Finesterre on Good Friday. I crossed the moors that morning in the fog. I could smell and hear the ocean before I could see it. As I descended the wet, sandy and rocky slopes to the coast, the Camino gave me a last rain shower to make sure I got wet, one final involuntary baptism. That night the procession of the Saints, the Spanish tradition for celebrating Easter, passed by the window of my pensión, a parade of cloaks and hoods carrying saints and crosses like a funeral march to mark the end that comes before a new beginning.

The next morning, a huge surprise and a great gift, outside my window: sunshine. The real deal, with blue sky and good clouds, the kind that don’t portend imminent rain. This morning’s walk a very quick jaunt, just three kilometers to the tip of the cape of Finisterre, truly the end of the (old) world. I found a smoother rock amongst those on the craggy cliff and sat on it, thinking, meditating, talking to myself, watching the surf crash against the shore. So violent, its arrival, as if the water itself was surprised to encounter this outcropping of land.

It was still early. I was ahead of the tour buses that, in a few hours time, would crowd the parking lot on the other side of the lighthouse. I sat alone on those rocks for a good half an hour before a few random pilgrims came along – some I recognized from these last days on the route – and found their own perch. Quietly together, we looked out at the horizon.
surf_at_finisterre
At the end of it all, there, looking out at the ocean, I could only shrug at this notion of why. I never came to a definitive answer. But there’s another question, the one that follows naturally, one that absolutely did get answered for me during my walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I may not know why we walk this earth, but I think I know how:

Go a little bit slower so you don’t step in the mud. Look up, so you don’t miss the beauty. Smile whenever you can, it’s contagious. Be kind, kinder still to those who aren’t; they need it the most. If you need to be snarky (because it is therapeutic) do it under your breath. Take everything that is offered to you and be prepared to give away what you have, because other stuff will come. Figure out how, even if it’s hard, to be grateful. It’s better for you than being angry.

Throughout the Camino, but especially here, at this ending point, I couldn’t help but think about my parents. They both loved to travel, and though they never would have endeavored this pilgrimage themselves, they would have appreciated my journey, my mother especially. I wished I could see her and tell her about it. And I knew that if I was missing my mother that much, my little girls were probably missing me something fierce, too. It was time now, I knew, for me to go home.

I pushed myself up off that rock, my perch at the end of the Camino and the end of the world, and picked up my pack and my poles, and made my way back to town, and the next day, back to Paris, to my man and my girls, to see if I could practice what I preach. This time, though, I did look back, so I wouldn’t forget how far I’d come.


Mar 28 2013

Ultreïa

As I came out from under a canopy of trees, the skies opened up. The rain had been steady all morning, something like a constant sprinkler, but now it came down in sheets. In just minutes, I was drenched. During the days before, the rain had been gentle or playful, intermittent, volleying back and forth with the sun. This morning it was unyielding. The wetness was inescapable. I have rain 20130329-203023.jpgpants and a Gortex jacket, but this kind of rain finds its way under your sleeves and seeps into your clothes. I pulled the strings of my hood tight, closing it around my head. I leaned in to the rain and the wind, focused on my muddy boots. One foot in front of the other, step by step. Just a little further to go.

The night before, at dinner, a new friend – I appreciated having some company after so many days of eating alone – asked if I ever listened to music while walking, and if it might be interesting to listen to Oliver Schroer‘s recording, Camino, on my final leg into Santiago. He’d learned about Schroer from one of my blog posts, and even downloaded the album for himself. I haven’t listened to the music function on my phone at all during the Camino. I carry the earbuds only to transcribe, in the evenings, what I may have dictated during the day using a recording app. A string of words will come to me and if I want to remember them, I have to capture them quickly. These little snippets become aural markers of the route; musings with the sound effects of my footsteps, birds and dogs and passing tractors. Other than that I’ve tried to leave my phone in my pocket, except to take an occasional photograph. I prefer to be present – sight and sound – with the walking experience.

It wasn’t until this very wet moment that I remembered his suggestion to have a soundtrack to accompany me into Santiago. Ahead there was a tunnel under the highway. I stopped beneath it, set my backpack down on “dryer” ground and dug deep inside to find the plastic bag with my earphones. I selected the music, figured out how to tuck in the wires and keep (hopefully) electronic things dry. When I emerged from under the overpass, the rain pounded against me, almost horizontally.

The first song started out jubilantly. It made me smile, buoying me as I ventured out from the cover into the downpour. But the chords soon turned minor and introspective, matching the somber rhythm of the relentless rain. It was kind of a perfect storm: a violin playing in a minor key, every note enhanced by the acoustics of ancient churches along the Camino, played by a man who died of the same disease as my mother. This, on the last day of my way to Santiago, another ending. It wasn’t my intention when I put the music on, to put myself into a state. But there I was, marching along, dripping, drenched, so wet that I didn’t even try not to get wet anymore. The rain 20130329-205738.jpgdripping off my hood into my eyes, the rain dripping from my nose and eyelashes. The rain, the music, the end, all of it dripping together. That’s when I began to weep.

Why was I crying? I wasn’t sure: I thought I was glad and proud to be finishing the Camino. Then I recognized it, the feeling. It was grief. I was grieving the end of this walk, a journey that I had been planning and looking forward to – and in the midst of – for over a year. I was grieving some part of me, a part I don’t need anymore, but a part I was used to. I was grieving, again, good people who’ve passed on: my mother and my father, grandparents, my friend Dilts and the pilgrim I hardly knew, Mark from Michigan, the one who shared his olives with me the day before he died. Another friend called Bomber. Not that we were close, but that it’s recent and he was young. A whole list of people who now live only in the world of memory. The violin played on, track after track. My tears indistinguishable from the rain.

~ ~ ~

For the last week I’d been toying with the idea of continuing on the Camino, after Santiago, to Finisterre, the furthest outpost of land on the European continent, the edge of the old world. The Camino extends beyond Santiago to the two coastal towns of Finisterre and Muxia, 90 kilometers further. When I planned this last leg, I estimated 12 days to Santiago, but I bought a return ticket a few days later, a buffer in case I needed a day midway to rest, or for an extra day in Santiago, to go to the pilgrim’s mass. When I found myself making better time than I expected, going further, all the way to the ocean, became a real possibility.

Ultreïa means to keep going, or literally, still further. The term comes from Latin, it’s heard in a French song about the Camino, and I heard it and saw it written in various forms along the route. I had understood it as an encouragement to keep going, to go further than you think you can. As I approached Santiago, I felt this call, Ultreïa. Since I am not particularly religious, the Cathedral and its pomp and circumstance and the sin-expiating power of the compostela carried less weight for me than simply making the journey. If anything, it made more sense for me to end this pilgrimage not at a big church, but instead at the western coast of Europe and the Atlantic ocean.

scallop_shells

The Camino was originally a pagan route, and the Christianization of the region involved incorporating this ritualized road of the Druids and the Celts who were here first. I also heard that the original St. James pilgrims had to walk all the way to Finisterre first. To prove that they’d done so, they had pick up a scallop shell, distinctive to the area, and bring it back to Santiago. This is how the shell became the symbol of the pilgrimage. Nowadays it’s given to you when you start, or you can buy them along the way. Most pilgrims attach the shell to the back of their backpacks, like a badge, worn with pride.

~ ~ ~

It was raining too hard to even unzip my rain pants and reach into my pocket and pull out the map to check the distance to the next hamlet where I might find a café or bar to rest and dry out, or at least have a break from the rain. I kept walking and hoping – nearly praying – for a place to stop. Finally, a corner turned and a small casa rural with red and white checked tablecloths on the tables. I stood at the bar, unable to speak. The owner tried to offer me something in Spanish, and in English. Then he understood that I was too moved to speak or too wet to answer, or both. He left me alone for a few minutes so I could compose myself.

I wanted caldo, but it was only noon and the cook didn’t come until one o’clock. The proprietor said he could make me a sandwich but otherwise the kitchen was closed. Ten minutes later, he appeared with a bowl of soup. He must have heated it up himself. He poured me a glass of red wine and pointed to the heater where I could put my wet outer clothes to dry. I have insufficient words to describe my gratitude in that moment.

I could have stayed there. He had rooms. I could have checked in, had a warm bath, pulled myself together and hiked in the last 8 kilometers in the morning. It would have been an entirely reasonable solution, given the weather. But after the soup, and then a second course once the chef arrived, and a bit of time to rest and ready myself, there was no question. This was the day I was to arrive in Santiago. I was too close. I could go further still. Ultreïa!

~ ~ ~

The violin music was the right serenade for the walk through the initial urban sprawl of Santiago, I wish I’d thought to use music while traversing the outskirts of other larger cities along the route. It eased the discord between pilgrim and progress. The rain was merciless, but now I was laughing at it. As20130329-200155.jpg I approached the entrance to the city center, it let up slightly. I walked up the first narrow street into to the medieval part of the city, and just as the top of the spires of the cathedral came into view – I kid you not – the sun came out. Briefly, barely, but it was a brighter light beaming through a thinner cloud.

A bagpiper droned in the street, standing under an arch, playing a somber but celebratory march as I came around to the entrance of the cathedral. I’d stood there once before years ago, as a tourist, never imagining I would approach this grand stairway having walked 500 miles to get there. Strangers congratulated me. A tourist wanted to take my picture (“look, a real live pilgrim”). I wanted to laugh and to cry, so I did a little of both.

The next day, my Latin inscribed compostela in hand, I went back to the Cathedral. I’d heard my father’s voice in the back of my head, “You’ve walked this far, go to the mass.” I found the pew where he would have sat, a third of the way back on the left side. I tried to think of the last time I was at a Catholic mass. Maybe at someone’s wedding, years ago. I certainly don’t go to confession anymore; I’m not convinced that the priests’ sins aren’t worse than mine. I have little faith in the Church, a mixed-faith upbringing, and questionable faith in my daily practice. But I was still comforted by the familiarity and the rituals of the mass. It reminded me of my childhood, those long, boring services, about which my father used to say, “it’s a good time for thinking because nobody interrupts you.” So I sat and I thought and I meditated, and I stood up and I sat down and stood up and sat down. Just as I was getting restless like a kid in church, it was time for communion. I remembered how my father would give us the knowing nod, and we’d follow him up to the priest, take the host, and then follow him out the side door to the parking lot so we could get to the ski mountain or to the lake and to our little sunfish sailboat. De-facto‘s father used to pull the same stunt, sneaking out after communion. So I gave a knowing nod to both of our fathers, 20130329-175842.jpgand took my cue just as the others in my row stood up and moved to the center aisle, I picked up my pack and poles and scooted out, around the back of the church, nodding goodbye to familiar faces and fast friends made during the last days, and slipped out the side door.

I’d been to the Galician tourist office that morning, they gave me a walking map to Finisterre. I had to hunt around a bit, to find the first marker, indicating the route out of Santiago. Just at the edge of the square, between the city hall and the Parador, I found it. A bright yellow arrow, a familiar friend, pointing west, pointing me further still on my way. Ultreïa!


Nov 3 2012

Chair Stories

After dinner, we huddle around the wood stove to keep warm. “Tell the one about the Pepper-chaser,” Buddy-roo begs. De-facto has told so many stories about this childhood pet, a daschund named Pepper, loved and tortured by the four siblings in his family, it’s as if Short-pants and Buddy-roo have a memory of the dog themselves. De-facto falls into the story, like a musician answering the audience’s call for a tired hit song, and Buddy-roo squeals and claps her hands. She knows how the story ends, but she loves to hear it again, and again, anyway.

This is what happens at the country house, especially now, as autumn bleeds into winter. The after-dinner routines of summer – foraging for blackberries, a badminton match or running down the road to see the lambs – cease to be viable. Darkness drapes around us before dinner is even on the stove. Our reflections in the windows accompany the meal and the cleanup that follows. It’s chilly in this old stone house, so we hover around the cylindrical stove, warming our legs until they’re too hot to touch, pushing our chairs back away from the fire until we’re too cold, then hustling close to the fire again to keep warm.

There is no Internet – even though it would make it easier to stay here for longer stretches – it’s hard to justify the expense. We’re here no more than 15 weeks out of the year; the obligatory two-year contract seems like a waste. But that’s not the real reason. If we had the Internet, we’d spend our evenings on it. Since we don’t, the evenings are spent with laptops closed, face-to-face around a fire, playing cards, laughing, adding to the collection of family stories that Short-pants and Buddy-roo will tell, someday, when their children say to them tell us a story about your childhood.

~ ~ ~

The shipment of things from my mother’s house, designated for our country house, arrived in September. We couldn’t be here, so a helpful neighbor met the movers and let them in. Not knowing where things ought to go, everything was left in the middle of the main room, which is where we found them when we arrived this week. We spent two days sorting through the boxes and re-arranging furniture to accommodate the new possessions.

A wooden table, with leaves folded like arms at its side, now stands against the fieldstone wall. I see it instead as it used to be, in her living room, beneath the portrait of an old Dutch man in a brown cape, smoking a pipe. A long, shallow dish filled with gold-painted gourds rests on top of the table, with two gold-colored candles in gold-plated candleholders on each side. I think no matter where we end up putting the table here in this house, when I look at it, I will see it there, as it was, all those years, in her house.

Two enormous fauteuils made the trip from upstate New York to the southwest of France as well. We didn’t really need them here, but I couldn’t bear to give them away. The shipping cost was a bit extraordinary, but now that they are here I am certain the indulgence was a good one. They, too, have a place in my memory, when I sit in them I am transported back to other rooms and other parts of my life.

~ ~ ~

You tell a story, Mama,” says Buddy-roo, after the Pepper-Chaser story is finished. I am slow to think of one. It’s as though I get lost in my past when I go digging for a story to tell. Buddy-roo gets impatient. “Tell us one about the big chairs.” She points to one of the fauteuils, its huge cushions flattened unevenly from the last person who sat on them.

“The chairs,” I say, “they used to be red.” I picture the chairs as they once were, in a room with wood floors and a faded blue rug. I get stuck in the details. Was there a couch? What color were the walls? There was that coffee table with the gold border, what ever happened to it? And the piano in the next room, it was painted white…

“They used to be red…” Buddy-roo repeats, nudging me out of my reverie.

“Red velvet, with a row of thick golden tassels all along the bottom, a skirt tickling the floor, like the fringe of a flapper’s dress.”

Her eyes widen.

“The chairs belonged to my grandparents before they gave them to my parents. There’s an old photograph of me sitting on the living room floor, and my grandfather is behind me, sitting in one of the chairs. His half-moon-shaped eyes smiling at me, like he was utterly amused.”

This isn’t really a story, but rather a chain of memories unleashed. One scene after another, how the chairs were moved upstairs to the room next to my parents’ bedroom, next to a table with a telephone – a green rotary phone – where I used to sit and talk to my friends for hours. How I sat in one of those big chairs and called my friends to tell them I had to miss the sleepover party to go my grandfather’s funeral. I have a video of my mother sitting in one of the chairs, telling me about her great aunts and uncles, sketching out for me a branch of the family tree.

After a big renovation project the chairs were reupholstered in green velvet. They looked beautiful, like brand new. Except nobody sat in them any more. After my father died, they were placeholders in his empty dressing room. They seemed a bit sad, two lonely armchairs in an unused room, their cushions always plump, never sat upon.

~ ~ ~

I have just finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes a book that wraps you up in the lives of the people in it. The book chronicles first the collection of a family’s heirlooms and then the dismantling of its grandest household. The circumstances in the story are more severe and turbulent than that of the disassembly of my mother’s house – the possessions, too, much more valuable – but reading it made me think of those disheartening days when we watched her belongings get carried out the door. Even when it is voluntary, the separation of beloved things that have belonged together in a room is heartbreaking. It’s not so much about the things as it is the loss of what those things coupled together represent. As I wept for the family in the book, I wept for my own childhood home, its details still entirely intact in my mind, like golden gourds on a golden plate or puffed-up cushions longing for someone to sit on them.

A consolation, at least: I’ve read this book while curled up in a fat and familiar green armchair. The girls play at my feet, on the floor with the Fisher Price castle – one of the last of my childhood toys also included in the shipment – acting out stories that they make up as they go along. They are debating who should be rescued, the prince or the princess. The rain is steady outside. De-facto has just stoked the fire in the wood stove; the house is finally getting warm. I close the book, lay it on my lap and let the tears roll down my cheeks, happy for all my family’s stories, lucky to have had such good things to grieve.


Feb 7 2012

Hundreds of Heavens

Two years ago today, my mother took her last breath and I began the process of putting my knowledge of her, and my love for her, into the folds of my memory. Ramping up to this anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about her last days, and how remarkably courageous she was, opening and closing that last door.

She was too pragmatic a woman to stir up any drama, and opted instead to put her life in order so that task wouldn’t be left to us. She marched stoically to her grave, much to the bewilderment of the undertaker, who confided in her when she insisted upon an appointment to discuss the details of her own funeral, that he “wasn’t accustomed to speaking with the deceased.”

Last night an email in my inbox, titled only Goodbye, linked me to Toddler Planet, a blog by Susan Niebur, astrophysicist and mother (among many other things, I’m sure) and cancer survivor – until yesterday, when her husband posted the news of her death. I never met Susan, but I read her blog, the posts of which elicited small gasps, sighs, and tears. You may have noticed the No Princess Fights Alone badge in my sidebar, placed there as gesture of quiet support, but also as a reminder of how life dishes out surprises, good and bad, and there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I and other such reality-checking sentiments.

I’m sad to learn that she’s gone. I wonder, where has she gone? And when she gets there, wherever it is she’s going, will she run into my mother? My college roommate’s father died within a few days of Freddie Mercury, and she had this fantasy about their encounter in purgatory’s green room, the two of them making small talk while waiting to be called in to meet their maker. She held a position of some influence in the music industry and imagined her father, upon learning of Mercury’s occupation, launching into a proud fatherly pitch, as he was prone to do. “Oh, you’re a rock star? You must have known my daughter, she works at MTV!”

I think we’ve all imagined – whether we believe or not – what an afterlife might look like. My heaven has the same dark-blue-and-pink-flowered wallpaper that hung my parent’s dining room. In fact, my ancestors are seated around the dining table; my mother is in her customary place and my father at the other end of the table with all my grandparents seated between them. There are a few empty chairs, waiting for my siblings and me, I presume, but sometimes they are taken by other friends who’ve passed on and who occasionally pass through my vision of the afterlife. Timmy, a childhood sweetheart who died in his mid-twenties, his silver-capped tooth in the center of his grin. Dilts, who died of a brain tumor six months before my daughter didn’t die of one, carries his old Smith Corona typewriter and offers a mischievous shrug to beg their pardon for placing it on the table. Even De-facto’s father makes an appearance from time to time, lamenting to my father that they never got to meet Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

My mother didn’t believe in an afterlife. I asked her point blank, “what do you think will happen to you when you die?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Life will just end.” Then, probably in response to the display of dismay on my face – because maybe I wanted her to believe in something – she’d rattle off all the good and interesting things that happened to her. “I’ve had a such a beautiful life. It doesn’t owe me anything.”

The renown atheist Christopher Hitchins wrote a number of essays on this subject, and gave interviews that were especially poignant when he was dying of cancer. He said that the hardest part, for him, was being told he had to leave the party knowing that it would go on without him. He also wondered – and I paraphrase, because I can’t find the link where I read or heard this during the flood of articles about him after he died – if heaven wouldn’t be someplace awfully dull, that the sustained condition of bliss over such a long time as eternity might be terribly tiresome.

It’s a valid point. Literature isn’t any good if there isn’t some tension. Wouldn’t it be the same for the afterlife?

As a devout pluralist, I’m open to any eventuality: a monotheistic-ruled paradise or an eternal dial tone. Or reincarnation. Do we come back in order to learn new lessons so our souls can evolve? Then we’d get a vacation from the boredom of a blissful heaven. But if you were an American, is your reincarnation shorter? Do the French demand a lifespan that’s the equivalent of all-of-August? Do you have to earn your vacation? Can you opt out?

I’d like to believe in something like a blissful afterlife. But I don’t know what happens to us after we die, and in the absence of knowledge, I feel that any guesses I make are fictional. But I’m not disturbed by believers. I respect their faith, and might even admit to envying it.

Maybe we need heaven because it’s hard to imagine that someone you love could simply cease to exist. Maybe there isn’t one heaven. Maybe each one of us has our very own heaven, mine with its ornate wallpaper, someone else’s rests on a cloud or it’s a long stretch of sand with waves lapping against the shore. Maybe heaven is for the living, a place for us to keep alive the memory of people that we don’t want to stop loving.

If that were the case, there’d be hundreds of heavens – or more – for Susan Niebur. It’d be like looking up at the night sky, every heaven like a star in her beloved universe, a twinkling remembrance of her and her courage. And there’d be just as many heavens for my roommate’s father, and for Freddie Mercury, too. And for my mother, yes, hundreds of heavens, each one fashioned in the faithful imagination of every friend and colleague, and everyone in her family, all the people who adored and admired her, and who still miss her so much. Thank heavens, we have a place to keep her.

~ ~ ~

Susan Niebur spent five years battling inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that presents without a lump. I’m making a donation in her memory. If you’re inspired to do the same, you can donate here.


Jan 28 2012

Newly at Home

When Buddy-roo heard the long, loud buzzer, she leapt up and squealed, “They’re here!” She sprinted to the foyer to pick up the interphone, not even bothering to ask who it was, right away pressing the button to open the street door. She ran out into the hall to wait at the top of the stairwell, listening to the breathless (already) footsteps slowly winding up the four flights of stairs.

“I’m so glad to see you!” She threw herself at the mover, a young man who looked older than he probably was because of an unfortunate girth. I hoped there were muscles somewhere beneath his obese frame. He’d already made a delivery, it seemed, from his distinctive body odor. Buddy-roo recoiled as politely as she could, regretting that she’d gotten so close.

“We’ve been waiting for you to bring the Fisher Price toys,” she said. “What took you so long?”

Buddy-roo launched into a animated description of the toys that she was expecting – the house, the school, the village, the airport – and the people and pieces that accompanied each one and how she intended to play with them. He stared at her, still panting from climbing the stairs, unaccustomed to such an enthusiastic and informative welcome.

The boxes came up in slow motion, one by one. They’d been packed in September and already I’d forgotten much of what I’d decided to send. What I remember was being brutal with myself: eighteen crates of books whittled down to one. Three large cartons of sentimental objects became a single shoebox of can’t-part-with memorabilia. Aside from the toys and the chinaware, the other things I’d shipped were now like surprises. My father’s cocktail shaker and shot-measure, my mother’s beaded clutches, her blue-feathered toque hat, in its original hatbox. Two metal boxes of photographs from her youth: in Cuba, in college, with her young children. This is why I didn’t insure the shipment. Everything – the dishes, the toys, the artifacts of her childhood and mine – was irreplaceable. Had they gone missing, I couldn’t buy them back. The only thing in those boxes, really, was nostalgia.

~ ~ ~

The shipment was supposed to arrive in Paris mid-November, but it wasn’t until December when I got the email about its arrival, as luck would have it, on the day after I left for New Zealand. A day (or two) earlier and I could have processed the 37 forms needed to clear customs. Instead I was in a hotel in Auckland, scrambling during workshop breaks, negotiating with the hotel to get things printed, signed, and scanned and put the papers in order. Time was of the essence, or so I thought. Buddy-roo was hounding me about the Fisher Price toys. There were a few other items that I was eager to have in my possession, like the Christmas ornaments for our tree, and my mother’s good china, with which I’d hoped to set our holiday table.

I managed to get the papers in on time, but it turns out there wasn’t a truck available to transport the boxes from their point of entry in the UK to our home in Paris until January. The shelves we’d cleared for the Fisher Price toys sat empty for weeks. I ended up setting the table for Christmas dinner with our every-day dishes.

After more than four months and just as many supplementary payments – for the customs fee, the above-the-second-floor delivery fee, the our-truck-is-too-big-for-your-street-you-have-to-pay-for-a-shuttle-van fee and then last but not least, the our-van-got-a-parking-ticket fee, the boxes have arrived. Our home is now as cluttered as ever, with paraphernalia of my past pressing itself on the possessions of my present. There’s stuff everywhere, a reminder of how messy life is when you collect its souvenirs anywhere but in your memory.

~ ~ ~

Upstairs the sound of little wooden people moving back and forth among pieces of small plastic furniture assured me that Buddy-roo would be distracted for hours. Short-pants came home from her music class and the two of them fell deeply into their Fisher Price world. I set about finding a place for all the newly delivered items, unwrapping yards of tape and packing bubbles to reveal the round, gold-colored quilted cases that kept safe my mother’s china plates, bowls, cups and saucers. I started with the largest, opening it to see if any of the porcelain dinner plates had broken.

My hand on that zipper released the stories locked inside: how many times I’d unzipped those very cases, lifting out the plates, one-by-one, removing the plastic disc between each one, setting them on my mother’s table. I was required to iron the white linen tablecloth first, and she’d instructed me where to place the silverware, the glassware, the napkins. I’m sure at the time I complained about having to set the table, but I was remembering it now as if it were the sweetest moment of the year.

Another box of dishes hadn’t fared so well. Three of her fondue plates, the ones with separate compartments for different sauces and condiments, had cracked beyond repair. The sight of them in pieces shattered me, I sat there sobbing about some silly broken plates that I’ll probably never use because we don’t even own a fondue pot.

This I hadn’t expected. It’s been two years since we said our goodbyes to my mother. Two years, a mindful memorial service, a half-dozen trips to the house to clean and ready it for sale. I had my desperate moments emptying it out, but I fooled myself to think that with the house sold and the burden of its care behind us that the chapter of grieving was closed. Now I was standing in the middle of my own living room surrounded by just a few of her most precious belongings, and there it was again, as fierce as ever, that hole in the middle of my heart, and the tears that can’t possibly fill it.

~ ~ ~

Persuading Buddy-roo and Short-pants to move from the floor – and the elaborate spread of Fisher Price toys – to their pillows was no small task. We had first to put every little person on his or her little plastic bed. The toys are so old that the sponge mattresses have disintegrated into almost nothing. It doesn’t matter to the girls. To them, the toys are like new toys with a new home, our home.

Buddy-roo finally tucked snug under her covers, and the light switched off, I maneuvered through the Fisher Price minefield to get out of her bedroom. Outside her door, I looked back, surveying the toys, admiring how the girls had set them up, startled to see my childhood grinning back at me. How I loved those toys. There is something utterly reassuring about having them under our roof, just like the bittersweet possession of my mother’s china, a comforting reminder of all that was once home to me, and all that is even more home to me now.


Oct 3 2011

Empty Rooms

The movers from the Second Hand Shop descended upon my mother’s house, infiltrating each room with boxes and newspapers and packing plastic. The women quickly set to picking up the little pieces of my mother’s past: the small bowls and ashtrays and decorative items that had been once carefully placed on end tables, coffee tables and the shelves of her secretary, the bookends and clocks and other decorative items stripped from the shelves of those tall rooms. My siblings and I took the things that had sentimental value to us, but we left even more behind; none of us have the room nor do our homes have the same décor to receive the bounty of my mother’s good taste.

I watched them wrap each piece in paper, all the little dishes and coasters, her translucent Belleek vases, the small ceramic plate from their trip to Greece, the leather-covered decanter we always imagined had a genie living inside it. I knew and appreciated the stories of all these objects, yet none were compelling enough to inspire putting them in my shipment to Paris. Still, I was sad to see the lovely things all taken away.

They wrapped the odd sets of china that none of us could fit on our own cabinets, and then the silver serving dishes. I had to turn away when one of the women wrapped the dome-topped silver casserole, the one that usually housed the green beans at Thanksgiving. How many holiday meals it was a fixture on her table among the other platters and bowls dedicated to the meat or the mashed potatoes or the long silver tray with its linen liner that folded up and wrapped the just-out-of-the-oven parker house rolls. I don’t set such a formal table – few people do these days – I would use this serving dish only once a year, if at all. Plus I have no place to store it. So it goes away, hopefully to add elegance to someone else’s holiday table.

In the meantime, the men grunted down the long central staircase carrying beds and bureaus and long heavy mirrors. We’d each taken a few favorite pieces of furniture, but so much was left, all that had been acquired over the years to fill the thirteen rooms. Some of it ended up in friendly homes: the dining room set is already in the house of one of my mother’s colleagues, a photograph sent to us to show its placement. That other people are gathered around that table gives me immense pleasure, though now I wish we’d thrown in the casserole server; it was so at home on that table.

The wrapping and packing and hauling was intense for several hours. In the midst of it, my movers came to collect my boxes from the basement. Nineteen years ago when I left the states to adventure in Europe, my mother supported this dream of mine by building shelves and laying cement on what had been a dirt floor in the cellar, so I could store my possessions for the few years I expected to live abroad. Though I culled those boxes down about five years ago, there were still a dozen left and some furniture I’d loved too much to sell. There were also a few things from my mother and both grandmothers that I chose to send across the ocean. And the Fisher-Price toys: for months after my mother died, Buddy-roo harangued me, “what are you going to do with all those toys?” I’ve decided what the hell, I’m shipping them. They’re on their way to France.

~ ~ ~

I embraced my brother goodbye a second time (he made it halfway to the car before turning back for another hug) and after he drove off, I stood on the porch and thought about how my mother must have felt each time we left her standing there. Did she feel as empty as I did now? Or was she happy to see us go? (Maybe a bit of both.)

Inside I toured each room of the now empty house. The echoes of everything that ever happened there filled the vacant rooms. I could picture each room in all its iterations over the years. This one once painted pale blue, with a white piano and a picture of our house, painted by my grandmother, hanging on the wall. The Christmas tree went in the corner. Later the room was painted light green and carpeted in the same color. The day that they laid that carpet, the room was empty just as it was now, and I rolled back and forth from one end of the room to the other until I was too dizzy to stand up. My mother scolded my brother and sister for writing their names, with their fingers, in the fresh pile of the carpet. My father came home and showed them a better way to do this, with a yardstick, and he, too was admonished.

There, on the floor by the front screen door, as it rained a gentle summer shower outside, I remember listening to the newly released Sgt. Pepper’s album and reading the liner notes. Or taking over the two front rooms and setting up all the Fisher Price toys and playing with them all day (and decades later, watching my children do the same thing). The card table was placed under a lamp in which my father would hide a puzzle piece before offering a prize to the person who put in the last piece. In that corner over there, the newfangled 8-track player had been placed on its custom-made stand, with Billy Joel’s The Stranger playing on it while mom and I trimmed the Christmas tree. She’d coach me to hang the bigger balls on the bottom and the smaller ornaments on top. She couldn’t help but correct my improper placement and I suffer this compulsion, too, with my own daughters.

In each room a hundred stories could be told, and in this empty condition they all screamed at me at once, or in succession: mom and dad’s cocktail parties, the Christmas mornings, the “talks” after I’d misbehaved at school, the impromptu parties when my parents were out of town, the family celebrations, the quiet Sunday afternoons. All of it: the happiest moments of my life, and probably some of the saddest, too, dancing and circling around me in the empty rooms of my childhood home.

~ ~ ~

I walked through the airport like a zombie, shell-shocked from the emotions dispensed these last days. On that last morning, a final tour through the empty house with an out-loud thank you, heartfelt, to each room for the stories it yielded and for the protection given to me and my family for so many years. I paid special attention to my hand on the doorknob, closing the back door for the last time, locking myself out, the key inside in a box in a drawer, left for the next owners. I slid my hand down to the bottom of the door, pressing my fingers into the grooves carved there by our old woodchuck hound. For all his fourteen years, he scratched his paws against the door to let us know he wanted to come in or go out. Long after he’d died, my parents renovated the house but opted not to repair or replace the doors, leaving his nail-marks embedded there, keeping his memory in the house. I scratched at the door, just where he used to, not really wanting to go back in, but not wanting to stay out, either.


Sep 27 2011

Pulling Apart

We pulled in the driveway. Rather, the driveway pulled us in, the way we have been pulled into the embrace of this old house for half a century. Driving toward it on the country road, there comes a point where the cupola is visible and then the wedding-cake layers of the house below are revealed, and a whole world of familiarity and fond memories beckon. The car slows and dips into the long curved driveway. Do we stop halfway, where dad always used to park? Or pull in all the way to the garage, at the foot of the back stairs, to mom’s place? They are both gone, but their parking spaces – and other routines of living in the house – remain our habits, too.

All the many times I have pulled into this driveway: Like a bat out of hell when that quick errand for my mother lasted three times as long as it should have. Or stealthily with the engine and lights off when I was coming home too late after my curfew. Triumphantly, returning after a first semester at college. Somberly, after the long, sad, drive with the news that my father had died. Or gingerly, the way we pulled in the driveway this time, my sister and I, honoring that this might be the last time we come home to this house.

“It looks small,” I said. She agreed. I’d not been to the house for a year and all these months that I’ve been bracing myself for its sale, I’ve been mentally walking through its rooms and committing to memory any and all things that happened in each corner and corridor. So many of these little anecdotal visual memories hail from the time in my life when I was small, giving the house much larger proportions in my memory.

We stood outside and looked up the stairs, my sister, no doubt, remembering the same thing I was: how Mama would come out the porch when she saw (or possibly heard) the car pull in the driveway, she’d push open the screen door and watch you walk up the stairs, her full anticipation of the visit entirely given away by the broad, boundless smile.

“You’re here,” she’d say.

Inside we walked through the house, wordless, side-by-side surveying each room. Last year we emptied it of her personal clutter, but the furniture, paintings, objects d’art and a few books remained, left in place so the house would show well. It was a bit like walking around a museum of our past – and we are the docents – taking a last tour to store our knowledge away before it closes. Soon the house will be emptied of the last of our family’s artifacts and filled with the belongings of another’s. As it should be; it’s a house that needs a family running around in it. It’s a house that has ample room for laughter and love and its walls have already been conditioned for both. It’s a house that we are obliged to say goodbye to; the most valuable thing inside it is already gone. Without her standing on the porch waiting to welcome us, it is a different house. Little by little, it ceases to be ours.

~ ~ ~

I don’t want her to be gone. I want her to be upstairs in that big bed, sleeping. I want to hear her slow steps down the stairs and the footfall of her path in the dining room and across the creaky floor in the kitchen. I want her to peek into this study and say hi sweety. I want her to offer to make breakfast and I want to taste her scrambled eggs and perfectly browned and buttered toast. I know which fork she would use to scramble those eggs, and I want to see it left on the counter as we carry the plates into the dining room and sit with the sun streaming in the window from the back porch, that window that used to be a door and then she could tell me the story I loved to hear, about how she and Daddy argued over whether to leave it a door or make it a window and in the end he’d told her – and he meant it – that she’d been right.

~ ~ ~

I’m finding myself pulled apart, teary at every turn, probably too sentimental for my own good. But how do you say goodbye to a house that was the one you came home to from the hospital after you were born, and then came home to from school every day, from college, from every other place I lived as an adult, where I surely felt at home, still, this house was still the original “home” to me. It’s not so much the things that are here – although the decisions about their distribution and disposal are fatiguing – it’s the end of that feeling of safety of what it meant to be here, even as a grown woman. So I am grieving again my mother’s departure, but also my father’s, and I suppose also the end of my childhood, and the swells of emotion that are part of this grief are giant waves to ride. After each crest, I wipe those tears away, pull yourself together I say under my breath and clear my throat and try to take comfort in the fact that these memories are all good ones and I get to keep them forever. But saying goodbye to the touchstone of those memories, that’s what’s in front of me now, and it’s daunting.

At least I am here with my siblings. In the mornings, we sit on the steps of the back porch, sipping coffee, looking out over the orchard beside our property, telling stories, making a plan for what’s to happen during the day. We have done this for years, when we lived here and when we visited; this porch is the place where you perch to slowly shake off the cobwebs of a heavy sleep and to ramp gently into the tasks of the day. Later, at wine-o’clock (or scotch-thirty) we gather around the kitchen counter, and despite the sadness that brings us together, we find a way to laugh and march forward, united as the orphans we’ve become, good friends always – but perhaps appreciating each other more than ever through this process. If my mother could see us, if my parents could see us, they’d be delighted. Perhaps the memory of your parents is best honored by acts of kindness toward your siblings.

Last night our cocktail hour held on the porch – though the wicker furniture is no longer set up so we were obliged to sit on the floor – we gathered around a box containing the last items that needed to be distributed among the three of us. One by one, my brother pulled out the small bundles of tissue paper, some of the paper so fragile, having been folded and wrapped so many times that it was softened like cotton. Inside each little package a Christmas ornament, some of them clever and charming, the little hand-knit mitten or a santa made of empty thread-spools. Others kitsch and retro: faded, striped balls with bent wire hangers, not necessarily that pretty but steeped in sentimental beauty. The obligatory ones, hand-made by us when our hands were little, faded and worn, but kept for decades and treated as treasures. One by one we admired each ornament, remembered where and how they used to hang on the tree and which ones were her, and our, favorites.

We have driven so many decisions this last year: who gets those chairs, who wants that painting, who’s taking the china, the silver, the demitasse collection. All of this achieved without a battle. This box was no different, though its contents evoked sighs and giggles and tears as each ornament was examined and claimed, each negotiation handled generously until all the little bundles were distributed. The separation of these sentimental items that lived for so many years in the same worn-out cardboard box just as poignant as the dismantling of this entire house: pulled apart piece by piece to be put in a new place, but in our memories they will stay here in this house, all together, the backdrop of a thousand stories we have the rest of our lives to remember.


Sep 24 2011

Le Catch-22

Living in France, one is obliged to become expert at paperwork. There is no way to avoid it. At the start of every school year, I fill out no less than four pages of paper per child, each with the same basic parental and caregiver contact information. (I actually photocopied these sheets to use next year – even scanned it to my desktop – but I bet they change all the forms.) Every year, the same copies of the same vaccination pages from the cahiers de santé are required, stuffed and sealed in special envelopes. You’d think this would be a document that could live in a file cabinet – or a computer – in the nurse’s office. Mais non.

At every turn there is more paperwork. This could be said of any country but it seems particularly burdensome in France. Yet this is where we have chosen to raise our children. Both girls were born on French soil and both possess French birth certificates, a document with its own administrative quirks. After a baby is born, you have up to (and no longer than) three days to go to the local town hall, the mairie, to register the birth and obtain an acte de naissance. The hospitals dog you to attend to this detail in a timely fashion, one wonders if they are penalized if you fail to do so.

When you need to use this birth certificate, say, three years later, in order to enroll your child in the école maternelle, it’s no longer valid. You must return to the same mairie (in the arrondissement or town where the clinic or hospital was located) and take a number and wait to be called up to the desk where you make a request for a newly signed and dated version. This updated document can be used to procure whatever additional privileges you’re seeking, as long as you use it within three months, before it, too, is deemed invalid and another trip to the mairie is required.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo are both eligible for a special kind of made-in-France-resident-card, but De-facto and I haven’t gotten around to addressing the paperwork for it. The girls were born at the American Hospital of Paris, which is actually in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and it’s a bit of a schlep to out there to get a new copy of their actes de naissance. A neighbor told me it was possible to avoid the trip by making the demand on-line, and so this week I finally I forged through the website and found the form for an acte de naissance and filled in fields and scanned my own papers and pushed the button. A big red exclamation point informed me my application could not be processed unless I could provide a copy of the original birth certificate. I was able to dig out previous outdated originals and scan and attach them to the application. But isn’t it all a bit ludicrous? The very document I wanted to obtain was unobtainable unless I had a copy of it.

Maybe it’s just me, fed up with calling around to arrange this and that, weary of the forms and protocol I must fill out and follow, tired of jumping through hoops. I want to be done with the school meetings and sign-ups and last-minute school-supply runs. I feel like I’ve become a PA to my children, and I’d like to get on with my life. Plus a last-minute trip to the states – my mother’s house has finally sold and we must empty the last of its belongings – puts a press on my agenda and makes me impatient with the inefficiencies that seem to be standard practice here.

The viola teacher from the conservatory called to remind me to get an attestation d’assurance, proof of insurance, in order for Short-pants to be given an instrument. I asked her if we could have same viola as last year; it was actually a very good instrument and more importantly I already had the attestation de valeur, so getting the insurance would be easier.

“Non,” she apologized. Short-pants had grown and needed a bigger instrument. I asked if she could provide me with the name of the fabricant of the new instrument. “Mais, non,” she said, unapologetically, she didn’t have it. She didn’t know the maker or the value.

I explained that my insurance company couldn’t insure the instrument unless they knew the value. And they couldn’t know the value if I didn’t have a certificate from the maker. I’d need the name of the luthier so I could obtain this document, in order to obtain another document, in order to get the viola.

“I’m not allowed to give you the instrument until I have the attestation d’assurance,” she said.

“But I cannot get insurance,” I said, “until I have the instrument, or until you tell me the make and the exact value.”

I mean, she’s been doling out these instruments to students for years now. Doesn’t she know this?

The good news is that my insurance agency is a cozy neighborhood bureau that I’ve been going using for more than ten years. The very reasonable woman who works there immediately appreciated my conundrum and agreed to write a very general attestation of insurance for an instrument of the same value as last year’s. Then, she told me, once I could give her the real details of the new instrument, she’d adjust my policy issue a more official attestation.

Within 48 hours her letter arrived in the post, so I sent Short-pants off to her lesson with the paperwork in hand and she was given her new viola. After the lesson, the teacher nabbed me and dragged me into the office. I’d wanted to avoid any administrators, hoping I could get the official certificate first. I was leaving the next day for the week-long trip to the states, so I was deep in departure-preparation panic and not so interested in the time I would lose attending to a bureaucratic detail like this, a detail that was not at all a priority on the day before a voyage.

The viola teacher deposited me at the office and conveniently slipped away, leaving me to fend for myself across the desk from the austere and humorless functionaire who’s job it is to handle the insurance certificates for probably hundreds of music students. This can’t be fun, it might be Sisyphean, which would explain her comportment. A close inspection of the letter revealed its lack of specificity and gave her reason to remove her glasses and set them down before informing me that she couldn’t let us take the instrument if I didn’t have a more detailed letter of insurance.

I explained, again, the predicament. I have no idea how to say Catch-22 in French, but if I knew, it’s the phrase I’d have used.

“The teacher should have given you this information.”

“I asked her, several times,” I said, “but she didn’t have the name, or the value.”

“But she must.”

“But she didn’t.”

“But why not?”

“I don’t know,” I said, giving her my best French shrug.

“Well I cannot leave the instrument with you, then.”

I stood up abruptly and pushed in my chair. Short-pants looked at me wide-eyed.

“What am I supposed to do?” I said, “The requirements are impossible and all my daughter wants to do is play her viola!”

I think standing up did the trick.

She scratched “attestation provisionelle” across the top of the page in big dramatic letters, insisting I get a detailed certificate to her as soon as possible.

We walked out of that dim conservatory, squinting into the afternoon sun. Short-pants held my hand while I fumed quietly. It’s all such a waste of time. Shouldn’t each instrument come with its own attestation? Shouldn’t the conservatory have gathered this information? Why is it the mother’s job to do this paperwork? Did my mother have to do all this crazy-making organization for me?

A few blocks later, I stopped and knelt down in front of Short-pants. “I’m sorry I lost my temper with the lady at the conservatory. I could tell it frightened you.”

“It’s okay mama.”

“I’m a little bit on edge today,” I said. “Do you know why?”

“Because you have a lot to do before you go away?”

This was surely part of it, but it’s not the real source. All week I’ve been a bit impatient and emotional.

“It’s because I’m going to clean out the furniture and the final things from Grammy’s house, and I’m sad and nervous about it.”

“I understand.” She leaned in and hugged me tight. “But look, I got my viola, right?” She stepped back, raised the instrument case up into the air and smiled, victoriously.