May 10 2015

An Extra Day

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

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

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

“It’s Mother’s Day!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

“You get Christmas, too.”

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

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

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


Dec 24 2012

Flight of the Reindeer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never said he doesn’t exist.”

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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


Nov 24 2012

The Best Sandwich

Up until now, November 21st was a date I thought I’d never ever forget, the way you remember the birthdays of your siblings or a wedding anniversary. Every year, slouching into the shorter, darker days of November, I’d anticipate the anniversary and think about where I was and what happened – and what could have happened – on that day eight years ago. But this year, the day came and went without a thought of it. Not until yesterday, when I was describing to a friend what for me is the very best part of Thanksgiving: the turkey sandwiches the day after.

The day before Sunday, November 21, 2004, I kissed the girls goodbye, checked the long note I’d left for the babysitter and made my way to the airport to fly to New York. De-facto’s family was congregating for my mother-in-love’s 75th birthday party. Much preparation had been done, decorations, food and drink, a parody Playbill has been produced to honor her theatrical career. It wasn’t just the family who’d come for the event, a huge crowd of friends had RSVP’d affirmatively to attend the celebration.

The morning of the party, we learned, through a series of disturbing phone calls from Paris, that Short-pants had fallen into a coma. An ambulance had come and taken her to the hospital. A CAT scan and MRI had revealed a tumor the size of an orange in the right frontal lobe of her brain. Surgery was required, urgently.

“Could she die?” I asked my friend, who’d dropped everything to accompany Short-pants to the hospital. A long silence before she answered, “Yes, she could.”

Within hours we were on our way to JFK and back to Paris. You might imagine the agony of that overnight flight. A telephone conversation with the surgeon, competing with the boarding announcements, informed us that she’d survived the surgery, but the doctor didn’t sound optimistic. His words before hanging up, and he switched to English to be sure I understood, “You’ll want to come directly to the hospital after you land.”

Which we did. The news was grim. The MRI images horrifying, the foreign mass in her brain like a hurricane on a weather map. The surgeon believed it was a cancerous tumor, and he’d tell us how to treat it when the lab tests came back. Much of his medical terminology was too much for me to consume and comprehend, my brain at its breaking point from the cocktail of shock, fear and jet-lag.

~ ~ ~

The waiting room of the neurosurgical intensive care unit was a tiny windowless room with dull textured wallpaper and mismatched furniture. On every wall, children’s drawings were mounted in black picture frames, the subject matter and brush stroke typical kindergarten genre: houses with happy smoke puffing out of chimneys, round green tree-tops, bold yellow suns in the corner of every picture. This did little to cheer the parents who spent hours in that room every day, when the nurses would ask us to leave our children so they could wash them, perform some procedure or medical test. Waiting out a surgery – that was the worst to endure, and the hardest to witness. The look of worry and fatigue on a parent’s face in a moment like that is heartbreaking.

Two days after our first meeting with the surgeon, he came to find us in that waiting room. He motioned for us to follow him to an empty office nearby, asked the nurse who occupied it to leave, and ushered us in.

“It is a great mystery to me,” he said, “but this is not cancer.” According to the lab report it was an abscess, an infection in her brain. This was an entirely different prognosis. No cancer. No radiation. No chemo-therapy. It required a long antiobiotic treatment, but there was a 99% chance of full recovery.

We occupied ourselves at Short-pants’ bedside for all the hours that the ICU nurses would permit us to be at her side, even though she was in a coma. Getting a turkey was the last thing our minds and our neighbors – the same ones who had gone with her that terrible Sunday – knew this and invited us to be part of their Thanksgiving dinner. De-facto and I reluctantly left the hospital early and joined them. I remember staring at my plate, piled with turkey and all the obligatory trimmings, listening to the laughter of everyone around the table, reminding myself that I had much to be thankful for: that the babysitter called the ambulance in time, that the surgeon had saved Short-pants’ life, that the illness she struggled with was not fatal and that she would recover – a miracle, given how perilous her condition had been just four days before.

But she was still in a coma, still in a lonely hospital room, and there were still so many questions. What caused it? How long would it take for the drugs to work? Would she have any brain damage as a result of the trauma? Would she be different? I was relieved for what I had to be thankful for, yet my gratitude was tempered by worry.

~ ~ ~

The next day, the nurses came to fetch us from the waiting room with good news. Short-pants had moved her fingers. She was starting to come out of the coma. De-facto and I sat beside her, chatting with her, hoping she could hear us, feeling hope for the first time. When we were asked to leave her room so they could change the bandages on her head, we found our friends waiting for us with two large shopping bags filled with foil-wrapped packages. In each one, the perfect turkey sandwich: a blend of white and dark meat, leftover stuffing, cranberry sauce, all squeezed between two thick slabs of bread. The waiting room was packed with other parents, many of whom we’d come to know during the hours of waiting and wondering in that room. How quickly these bonds had formed, as we suffered together, waiting out long surgeries, reeling from the doctor’s reports, waiting for a the nurses to come call for us to return to our children’s bedsides.

There were dozens of sandwiches, so we passed them out, explaining the tradition of the American Thanksgiving and how the cold turkey sandwich is as coveted by some as the feast itself. For a moment, the long faces in the room lightened, and there was chatter and laughter, as everyone tasted the homemade sandwiches, certainly an improvement over the hospital cantine. My appetite during this hospital adventure was particularly un-vigorous, but I do remember enjoying that sandwich. Maybe I finally believed that Short-pants really was going to get better. Maybe it was breaking bread with some strangers who had become friends by way an intense shared experience in the waiting room of the ICU. Whatever the reason, I’m sure it was the best turkey sandwich I ever tasted.


Dec 28 2011

Revelation

It didn’t help that I was horizontal, trapped in bed by a gastro that’s been going around. De-facto and Short-pants were out on the last of the Christmas-eve day errands: buying bread for the foie gras, tabasco for the Christmas Day Bloody Marys and paper for the last few unwrapped boxes. Drifting in and out of sleep, I heard Buddy-roo occupying herself around the apartment, singing to her Pet-Shop animals (those Fisher Price toys have, maddeningly, still not yet arrived), pushing the baby-doll stroller around the kitchen island, or shaking the presents already placed under the tree.

I was on the mend, but I still couldn’t sit or stand upright for too long. She’d come in every fifteen minutes or so, climbing up on the bed to check on me. She’d brush my hair away from my forehead, give me an I’m-sorry-you’re-sick look; she was caressing me, I imagine, exactly as I have tended her maladies. I was grateful for her quiet company, until she broke the silence.

“Does Santa Claus really come, or is it you who gets up in the night to put his presents under the tree?”

Were I standing in the kitchen, attending to any household task, I could have looked the other way and made a light-hearted of-course-it’s Santa kind of comment to brush it away. But I was pinned like a wrestler beneath her, and she was looking me square in the eye.

“What do you think?” I said.

I’ve been conflicted about the continuation of the Santa Claus myth. The excitement he conjures up is charming, but it’s fatiguing to keep the charade going: wrapping his presents in special paper and making sure no trace is left, remembering which presents are from Santa and which are from us, the required oblique responses to questions about him, his elves and his reindeer. I’m eager for a time when the girls are non-believers and we can exchange the dozens of parcels under the tree for a family trip to somewhere warm with sand, surf and spa. Here it was, the moment to start turning this Christmas train around, and I was chicken.

“I don’t know,” she said, “that’s why I’m asking you.”

Up until now, they’ve both appeared to be believers. Short-pants diligently wrote her letter to Santa and warned her younger sister about the spying elves. When we baked and decorated my mother’s Christmas cut-out cookies, she worried out loud about which one to leave for Santa on Christmas eve. Buddy-roo seemed less devout. It was harder to get her to scribe anything to Santa; she even seemed a bit aloof. But then she told De-facto that “the best thing about Christmas is you can ask for whatever you want and it doesn’t cost anything.” She compared this with her birthday, when you didn’t know what you were going to get and somebody had to pay for the presents. So, it seemed, she still believed, too.

“Santa is the spirit of Christmas,” I told her, “he represents the magic of giving gifts without thinking about what you get back.”

I was stalling. I wanted her to find out from someone other than me, like a classmate or a cousin. Perhaps that’s what had happened and now she was coming to me for the ultimate truth.

“But who puts the presents from Santa under the tree?”

Her question was too direct. It was time to answer. Besides, I justified, this might lay the foundation for the dialogue between us in the years to come; how I handled this could be a precedent for future honest answers from her.

I told her. The truth. Then I braced myself for her response: a backlash of angry betrayal or tears of disappointment that all this magic was just a myth.

“Really?” Her eyes widened. “It’s you?

“And Papa, too.” I had to give him some credit.

She inched herself up closer to me, her smile widening. She threw her arms around my shoulders.

I wanted to say: You’re not mad at us? Instead I said: “It doesn’t mean that Santa doesn’t exist. He’s in all of us, at anytime of the year. He just comes out more generously at Christmas.”

“Who eats the cookie we leave out?” she asked.
“I do.”
“And the carrot, for the reindeer, who eats that?”
“Papa.”
“How come you get the cookie?”
“That’s how we roll.”

Now I wondered about Short-pants. She’d been doing such a fine job of believing – almost too good a job for her age – that I’d started to think maybe she was playing along to humor us. I did this: for three years I was well aware who was really putting those big-ticket gifts under the tree, but I didn’t fess up. The booty Santa brings is always more interesting. How do you think I got so many of those Fisher Price toys?

I asked her if Short-pants still believed.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation. “She still believes.”

“Will you give me a present, then?” I asked. She nodded solemnly, to match the tone of my request.

“Please. Don’t. Tell. Her.”

I remembered how crushed she’d been, running to her room in tears when she learned that the Bastille Day fireworks weren’t really in honor of her birthday, something De-facto and I had perpetuated as a charming story – we thought – as the fireworks in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where she was born, started just a few moments after she was born.

“At least not until after this Christmas.”

Buddy-roo promised, and it was a promise she kept. In fact, she played along so well with the entire ruse that I realized that I’ve set no precedent whatsoever for any honest answers in the coming years. But we had peace at Christmas, in a festive kind of way, which is what I needed, and what I wish for all of you for the remainder of the holiday season.


Nov 25 2011

Tout Turkey

It’s not like you can just walk into any grocery store and select a Butterball from the shelf. If you want to do Thanksgiving in France, you have to order a turkey in advance. Not that it is obligatory to celebrate. We could easily sneak by the holiday without any mention. It’s business as usual here on what is the quietest Thursday in America; quiet but for the sound of pots and pans in the kitchen, cutlery and crystal at the table and the blaring of the football games on televisions across the entire country.

Except that it’s a ritual that reminds us, pleasantly, of our childhoods, and we like the gratitude part. The idea of having a designated dinner party to express our thanks, deliberately, seems like a good thing to pass along to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, so each year we fashion some facsimile of a Thanksgiving feast, hobbled together with fine French products and a little American ingenuity (and nostalgia).

Just down the street from where my tailor used to work there is a brightly lit boucherie that I pass whenever I’m walking the girls to or from school. Its floor is covered with saw-dust. Red slabs of meat hang on hooks from the ceiling above the glass refrigerator cases that display even more raw meat and poultry. Two hefty men in long white aprons stand behind the counter, shouting and smiling at the same time, bantering with each other like talk-show hosts, entertaining themselves as much as their customers.

Bonjour,” I said, entering the shop. This is a required salutation in France. Too many Americans walk into Parisian shops without any kind of a greeting, so their first utterance to the shop-keeper is “how much is this?” The French, rightly, take this is an insult. We’ve tried it in that states, too; it’s amazing how just saying hello to someone before asking them for help can pave the way for a more productive encounter.

Bonjour!” The butchers, one of them with a thick mop of gray hair, the other with fine white hair that hangs over the top of his wire glasses, answered in unison.

I asked if I could order a turkey.

En entier?” The gray haired one was surprised that I wanted a whole turkey.

Oui,” I shrugged, “Je vais faire le Thanksgiving Americain.”

Mais, non,” said the white haired one, “C’est en Decembre!”

I politely informed him that Thanksgiving always falls on the last Thursday in November. He continued to disagree with me, defiantly sure of the wrong month. I explained that just as (some of) the French celebrate the Beaujoulais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November, we Americans have our special fête on the last Thursday in November.

Je n’y crois pas,” he said. He still didn’t believe me.

Monsieur, pardonnez-moi,” and then I switched to English, “I know it’s in November. I’m an American. I’m sure of it.”

The two of them looked at each other, in disbelief.

“Would you like to see my passport?”

“Okay, she wants a turkey, she’ll have it,” one said to the other in heavily accented English. Now I really did feel like a guest on their talk show. They interrupted and corrected each other, comically, as we went back and forth about my order. Pinning them down on an exact weight or price was impossible. Even the delivery date was sketchy. But this isn’t unique to this shop. De-facto used to schlep over to a butcher on rue Montorgeuil that had been recommended to us for turkeys at this time of year; he went through the same song and dance. He’d come home cursing with a bird 2 kilos and 20 euros more than we’d hoped for.

Those of you in the homeland are already digesting yesterday’s big feast, you’ve already gobbled the rogue turkey sandwich late last night – maybe you’re already sick of the leftovers. But since French businesses and schools stop for no American holiday, we opted to postpone our Thanksgiving a day. So this morning I stuck my head in the butcher shop to pick up the bird that I’d reserved.

“We sold it to someone else,” the white-haired butcher said. “Anyway, your Thanksgiving was yesterday. It’s too late.”

“That’s okay,” I told him. “I ordered a turkey down the street, just in case.”

“Touché,” said the other one, pulling the enormous bird out of the chrome refrigerator.

I braced myself for the weighing part. The turkey barely fit on the scale, and it registered 7.6 kilos (nearly 17 lbs). At the cash register, I feigned a Fred Sanford heart attack while handing over my carte bleu. Sure enough, 2 kilos and 20 euros more than I ordered. But it was butchered especially for me, and it’s even kosher.

Plus it’s cooking right now, smelling up the whole place like dozens of November Thursday afternoons embedded in my memory, that savory roasting aroma, the comforting smell of gratitude, everything that turkey is to me. Happy Thanksgiving everyone…


Jun 2 2011

Top-Seeded

It was the sound of birds, chirping and singing – not just cooing pigeons – that woke us. The bright sun streamed in through the square skylight, hinting at the beautiful day ahead. No school. No clients. No phone. No rush. I do love waking up at the country house.

Buddy-roo, who’d opted last night for a sleeping bag at the foot of our bed rather than sharing a bed in the other room with Short-pants, slithered out of her nylon nest and climbed in between De-facto and me. She was still half-asleep, and the three of us hovered in that barely-awake state.

“Do you know how amazing it is – what’s happening in the French Open?” asked De-facto. (Okay, I’d thought we were all mostly asleep.)

“No.”

“Do you know who’s in the semi-finals?”

“No,” I said, into my pillow.

“Not one name?”

“No.”

“Come on, you can’t name one well-known tennis player?

“André Agassi.”

“No, a current champion. Can you name one?”

I couldn’t. I am not an avid spectator of sporting events, tennis and golf least of all. Since I don’t care, I don’t track on the names. My brain is so far from sticky and there’s already too much data that I’m trying to hold on to with my maternally-challenged mind, I have to push out all non-essential pieces of information. I put tennis in this category.

“You’ve never even heard of Federer?” I detected more than a hint of disdain in De-facto’s voice.

“Yes, I’ve heard of him.” This was true. I’ve heard this name volleyed about in the company of real tennis fans or on the sporting news. De-facto gave me the synopsis of his career, how he holds the record for major titles and if he wins the Open that would give him the second grand slam of his career.

Since I couldn’t come up with any other modern tennis greats, he filled me in on the other three of the four top-seeded players who’ve made it to this year’s semi-finals: Nadal, who’s aiming to tie Bjorn Borg’s record of six French Open titles, Djokovic, who broke the winning streak record shared by MacEnroe and Lendl, two tennis players I have heard of – and the underdog Murray, who just wants to win a French Open after three near-misses. I can see why Roland Garros is the place to be this weekend, though I’m very glad to be here at the country house instead.

“Am I supposed to be listening to you guys talk,” Buddy-roo protested, “or are we going to have a morning cuddle?”

It wasn’t her admonishment that quieted us, but that De-facto and I were trying not to laugh at her irritation. I didn’t mind, though, the end of my little tennis lesson.

This weekend is a long one, due to school and bank holidays. France is famous for its pont weekends, when an official day-off falls on a Thursday, so people take the Friday off to bridge it into a long weekend. These usually happen in May; the Ascension and Pentecost guarantee two long weekends, and if labor day falls propitiously, there can be three pont weekends in one month. This year, because Easter fell so late in the year and labor day was on a Sunday, May was holiday-free and all the long weekends have been pushed into June.

We decided to take advantage of the extra days off to see how the garden we planted last April has fared in this spring’s drought. It’s a 4-hour drive to the country house, not worth it for a regular weekend but by sneaking out of Paris on Wednesday afternoon (with every other Parisian, ergo the slog of traffic we endured) we get at least four sleeps in the country air.

Short-pants hobbled in to our bedroom, her long, lean bones still creaky with morning stiffness. She slipped under the covers beside me so that I was now sandwiched between my two daughters.

“Why is there no school today?” she broke the silence that had ensued after the abrupt end to the tennis talk.

“It’s the Ascension,” I said, “or the Assumption, or some religious holiday that starts with an A.”

“The Ascension,” Buddy-roo clarified. “Because it’s when Jesus went up, like in an ascenseur.” (That’s the French word for elevator.) She went on to tell the story of Jesus rising from the dead. “He looked around and he said, ‘My work here is done, people,’ and then he went up to see his father.”

“And Murray, he’s really funny,” said De-facto. “He says, ‘if I win a tennis match, then I’m English. But if I lose, then I’m Scottish.'”

“I’m talking about Jesus,” said Buddy-roo, irritated, “I don’t want to talk about tennis.”

“What do you mean?” he said, “Jesus was a huge tennis fan!”

“Papa, they didn’t have tennis back then.”

“Are you kidding? Jesus loved tennis.” De-facto flattened his voice like a sportscaster: “Jesus goes into the corner, skidding on the clay, and he loses his sandal!”

“You’re right about one thing,” she said, “he did wear sandals. And a dress.”

“He had a wrathful backhand,” said De-facto.

“Stop!” Buddy-roo screamed. “Jesus didn’t play tennis. I’m the one who goes to Éveil Chrétien. None of you go. I’m the one who knows.” You can tell she’s still a little angry that her sister is excused from the class to go to her viola lesson.

“I used to go to Catholic religious classes, too,” I said, “and I even had to go on Saturday mornings!”

“I thought we were Jewish,” said Short-pants, “because of Grammy.”

“According to the Jewish religion you are,” said De-facto, “but your mom only celebrates when it’s convenient.”

“I grew up going to church every Sunday,” I said, “but it’s your Papa who went to a Jesuit high school, where he had priests for teachers! He knows something about Jesus.”

“How come there are so many religions?” Short-pants asked.

I explained how, over time, different people came up with different ways to believe in God, and how some people even believed that there was more than one God, and how maybe all the Gods were the same God, just with a different name – nobody knew for sure, and how unfortunately a lot of wars were fought because people thought their God should be the only one. It’s like fighting over who’s the best tennis player. They’re all good. You could just take all the top-seeded Gods and send them to Roland Garros each year to see who wins the title. It’ll always be an exciting match.

“That’s ridonculous,” Short-pants said.

“What? Fighting a war over God, or getting the Gods to play tennis?”

“Both.”

“I’m telling you,” Buddy-roo said, “Jesus did not play tennis.

Oh, but if he did.


Dec 25 2010

Bloody Mary Christmas

I’m not sure how this became a tradition in our family, but it endures.

I like to imagine that my parents started making Bloody Marys just to survive the clamor and chaos of Christmas morning. With kids up at the crack of dawn, pulling presents out from under the tree, ripping the wrapping off and losing the tags, that would inspire the need for a bit of fortification. By the time I started remembering Christmas, such things were entirely under control, but the ritual had been established. Sometime around mid-day, after a good half-dozen rounds of gift opening – we’d always open them one-by-one – my father would call a pause to what he referred to as the oh, isn’t that lovely! show and disappear into the kitchen and my mother would follow. I remember this short respite as a moment of absolute joy. The day was young but already we had discovered Santa’s booty, and the first presents to have been opened were new and exciting but there were still many thrilling gifts under the tree yet to be unpackaged.

After about a quarter of an hour, my parents would return in tandem, my father holding a black tray with his famous Bloody Marys in their signature glasses and my mother carrying a cutting board with crackers piled artfully around a cheese ball. I couldn’t imbibe in the cocktails until I was older, and this in itself was a rite of passage, but I always admired the glasses – eventually I inherited them – and I loved the spirited nature of this mid-morning snack.

Decades later, Christmas evolves. For years I boycotted the family experience, not for any reason except I needed to do something different, to break away. Then I had my own family, and found myself enacting, with inane precision, all the rituals my parents had unintentionally embedded within me. The best one, without doubt, the habit of a Bloody Mary pause at about halftime of the opening of the presents.

But what are rituals if they are not shared?

So my Christmas present to you, indulgent readers, is the simple but absolutely-tested recipe for the Bloody Mary my father used to make, as recorded by my mother in her inimitable fashion, organized in an excel spread sheet with exact measures for varying amount of servings (from two to twelve). These are not reserved only for the holidays, but this is when we love them most.

Christmas Bloody Mary (6 servings)

18 oz tomato juice
3 oz lemon juice
3/4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons horseradish
6 dashes of salt and 6 dashes of pepper
6 jiggers of vodka
tall stalks of washed celery

It won’t surprise most of you that I add a wee bit more vodka and as many dashes of Tabasco as Worcestershire. But of course all of these family traditions are meant to be adapted.

And with that, I’ll take this chance to wish a happy Christmas to all of you. Whether you like your Mary virgin or bloody, I hope it’s a good one.


Dec 24 2010

Hard to Believe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jul 23 2010

Tour de Luxe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Apr 4 2010

God Won’t Mind

“But why do I have to go to the Jesus class?” Buddy-roo whined.

Religious instruction is an optional class at their school and Short-pants is excused from it because we opted to schedule her viola lesson at that time, to avoid an evening commitment at the conservatory. The reason Buddy-roo attends the class: convenience. It’s part of our strategy to limit the number the days when they get out of school at different times (it already happens twice a week) in order to make end-of-the-day school pick-up less complicated. Besides, a little religious instruction won’t hurt Buddy-roo. She’s the rebellious type; this will give her something to reject later in life. As De-facto says, we might as well put up a couple of false walls, ahead of ourselves.

“Well anyway,” she said, “I know that there are two Jesuses. The one that died on the cross, and the one you talk about when you’re mad.”

Oh, yes, that Jesus.

I guess you could say we’re not particularly religious. I was more spiritual before I had children, when I had the time to meditate and read provocative books by the Dalai Lama, Carlos Castaneda and Eckhart Tolle. Children may be closer to the spirit – miracles that they are – but I’ve found that having them gives me much less time for such sacred contemplation.

Short-pants practices her own religion of angels, healing energy and metro tickets, much of it the result of her hospital experience and fueled by our belief that the intentions and prayers of all the people who were rooting for her recovery created an energy that was directed at her and absolutely made a difference. Buddy-roo prays at the altar of our DVD player, finding meaning in the plots of every movie she watches. Her favorite film of the week, appropriately, is The Ten Commandments.

I am the product of a mixed marriage: a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. I know the Jewish faith claims me because of maternal lineage, but there was no temple in my rural hometown and only a handful of Jews. What I knew about the Jewish faith was Chanukah and Passover. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were remotely in my awareness only because they were printed on a calendar my mother used to mark her appointments.

So my brother and sister and I were baptized and fulfilled the sacraments of the Catholic Church, not because my father was so devout, but because those rituals teach lessons about life, about coming of age, taking responsibility, being a kind and responsible Christian (as opposed to a gun-brandishing, tea-bagging Christianist). And as my father used to say, “Church is a good place to think. The phone doesn’t ring. Nobody interrupts you.”

One thing my father and De-facto’s had in common – and they never knew each other – was a penchant for ditching church early, after communion. After receiving the host, we’d walk with hands folded and heads bowed to the transept and out the side door. In the winter, we’d be the family clumping down the aisle in our laced-up ski boots, making our early exit to drive right to the small mountain 45-minutes away for a few Sunday runs.

When my mother was dying, she consulted with a friend, a Jewish history professor, about what she might suggest to us to bring a few Jewish customs into her memorial service. He wondered about having a minyan to pray for her, but worried that it might be hard to collect ten adult Jews from our community. In the end, he advised her that the minyan could be constructed of people from any faith, because, “God won’t mind.”

This is the kind of religious tolerance I grew up with, and that I hope to pass on to my children. Our girls get a goulash of religion: They go to a Catholic school (it helps that it has a strong English section). We live in the pletzl, in
heart of the Jewish quarter and we have Muslim neighbors. We trim a Christmas tree and we light the menorah. We color Easter eggs and eat matzah. We did our own truncated version of the Haggadah at our Passover Seder. We’re doing an Easter feast (and Ricky’s roasting the lamb). And why not? It’s all very Cambellian in our home.

Earlier this week I was at the local butcher shop buying a bone for our Seder plate. I was waiting patiently for my turn – not an easy task when it felt like the butcher was taking his time, entirely unconcerned that the line of customers in his narrow little shop was spilling out into the street. I reminded myself to just keep smiling. Demonstrating exasperation in this situation only invites condescension. Not that being patient ensures you will be treated kindly. But it puts the odds slightly in your favor.

When I was next to be served, I took a deep breath. I’d rehearsed my appeal, having been rejected at two other butcher shops the day before.

“Pardon me, sir, I hope you can help me. Do you, by any chance, have a zeroah?”

He stared at me like I was from the Vatican.

Mais, non,” he scolded, “C’est vachement trop tard.”

Yes, I’ve been told it’s too late. But I’ve been a very busy half-goyim, and this weekend is the only time my Jewish friend, who’s also very busy, and I could organize ourselves to do our Pesach. And anyway, isn’t it enough that I’m trying to carry on the ritual and pass it down to my children? Isn’t that the idea anyway, tell your sons and all? Does it matter if it’s early or late?

“Jesus H. Christ on a Crutch.” I said. (Not out loud though.)

He continued to stare at me, waiting for me to leave, boneless.

“I realize this is very unusual,” I said, not really meaning it. I thought you could celebrate a Seder anytime you wanted during Passover. “But due to personal circumstances, this is how it must be in our home this year. Wouldn’t you please suggest to me another kind of bone I might use? I’d like my children to experience the Seder.”

He shrugged that brilliant gesture of indifference that is part of the French genetic code and suggested a small lamp chop. I nodded.

“It’s okay,” I said to him, as he was wrapping it up in butcher paper. “God won’t mind.”