Apr 29 2015

In the Kitchen

It all happens in the kitchen. The heartbeat of a home, the source of our meals, the place where everyone ends up congregating at a party. The kitchen stands for warmth, nourishment and togetherness. The stove and oven cook food that gives us comfort and strength, its refrigerator and lil_kitchencupboards conveniently store everything we need for sustenance. A kitchen has a family connotation. Before I had children, I thought all a kitchen needed was a bottle of champagne in the fridge and a bottle of vodka in the freezer. Once we had a family, I realized – or remembered – what a kitchen really means.

Just after Short-pants was born, we tore down a wall in our Paris apartment to make our kitchen, dining and living spaces into one big room. In her bouncy chair on the table, or on her play-blanket on the floor, she could remain in line of sight while I warmed her milk or made a vegetable puree. During those early years when she and Buddy-roo could too easily walk into trouble, we could keep a safe eye on them. As they grew, the girls would stand on chairs on the other side of the kitchen island and help me chop vegetables or decorate Christmas cookies while De-facto watched from the couch behind them.

That open-styled kitchen – an “American kitchen” in French real estate terms – hosted many dinners, Thanksgivings and spontaneous pop-up parties (after school meeting and performances) just because it was easy to host a gang in such a big open space. Everyone would stand around the kitchen island and keep the cook company. And when I was the cook, I still got to be at the party.

Our Barcelona apartment has many fine features: a larger space than we inhabited in Paris, more rooms, enough for the girls to have their own bedrooms and both De-facto and I to have separate offices. The in-suite bathroom in the master bedroom is a boon and the girls have two sinks in their bathroom; no fighting for mirror time in the morning. But when it comes to the kitchen, it’s a disappointment. At first glance, it seems nice enough: marble countertops, light wood cupboards that reach all the way to the ceiling (no need to stand on a stool to scrub away grease that collects on top). But it’s too small: 6 X 9 square feet. Look closer and it’s a bit worn. The appliances are tired, not particularly energy efficient. But my big grievance: this kitchen has a door. oh_no_pasta

It’s a wide door that slides open to a small dining area that’s open to the main living room, so at first glance I thought it would be fine. But in fact, when in the kitchen I am entirely separated from the rest of the apartment. I find myself cooking dinner, alone, because even if the girls are on the couch, they’re in another room. I can’t see them and I can hardly hear them. I can’t participate in their conversation unless I keep stepping out of the kitchen. And when we entertain, I’m in there all alone, checking on the hors d’oeuvres in the oven, or else four people have planted themselves in the kitchen with me and I am constantly grabbing my guests by the shoulders and moving them from side one side to the other in this tiny room, to get into a cupboard or access the sink. Inevitably, somebody is standing exactly where I need to get to.

We rent this apartment, so there’s nothing to do about what is clearly a first world problem. But it’s raised my awareness about the impact of a kitchen on the life of a family.

~ ~ ~

A kitchen is a store of fertile childhood memories. I remember, in my mother’s kitchen, pacing around and around the stove and counters and table that together made an enormous island. I remember the drawers, one above the other, that I could pull out to create a short set of stairs to reach the top shelf on the snack cupboard. I remember my mother shifting her weight from foot to foot while standing at her kitchen sink, washing the dishes by hand and putting them in the drainer for me to dry with a dish towel. I remember the wide wooden board that she’d pull out from a slot between the drawers and cupboards to create extra workspace, and how at Christmas, it’d be covered with wax paper and cookies freshly frosted, waiting to be decorated with colored sugar.

I remember my father standing at the stove making Welsh Rarebit on Saturday afternoon, pressing the tiny square buttons to raise or lower the heat on the burners. I remember the bar he’d set up on the the kitchen counter whenever they entertained, and his law partner and best friend chastising my sister and me for putting an ice tray back in the freezer without heart_in_a_boxre-filling it. Like it was yesterday, I can remember my father leaning against that same counter, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral, mystified at his own grief.

I can tell you the color of every floor we ever had in that room, the linoleum of my early childhood and the carpets of two renovations that followed. I remember the decorative carving on the shelves that held my mother’s delicate demitasse teacup collection, shelves my high-school friends and I emptied and filled with beer bottles when my parents were out of town, the cups carefully replaced in exact order prior to their return. I remember standing in the kitchen looking out the window at the sheets on the clothesline the day my mother died, and feeling her absence so fiercely, that this was her kitchen and always would be and she will be standing in it forever, in my memory.

A kitchen like that, a room with so many stories, that’s what home is all about.

~ ~ ~

When De-facto and I bought our country house, in 2006, it didn’t have much of a kitchen. Some formica-topped furniture that didn’t attach to anything, a wood cooking stove, a sink. We brought down an old 3-burner electric stove – the one we’d replaced when we’d renovated in Paris – and a fridge we inherited from who-knows-where. The house, that first summer, required massive attention so we focused on fixing walls and floors. We slept in a tent outside while we made the inside livable. There were enough kitchen pieces to cobble together a meal, and we manage to function in that make-shift kitchen, kind of like camping inside. Not just that first summer, but year after year. Each time I’d suggest that it should be the next project on our list, I’d be persuaded that creating another bedroom or insulating a wall and finishing the side room was more critical. I succumbed in part because De-facto (and his brother who owns the house with us) had good arguments. The kitchen was workable, after all.

Last year I finally put my spatula down and fronted the cash to turn the skeletal cooking space we’d been enduring into a real kitchen. A workable kitchen, with plenty of counter space, mice-proof (mostly) cupboards, a light and fan above the stove, an eye-level oven, a cupboard with vertical shelf just for cutting boards, cookie sheets and long casserole dishes. A local contractor took his time – because he could, we were gone all winter – building and fitting the cupboards, giving us a new kitchen that matches the rustic feel of an old country house. I even persuaded De-facto, usually parsimonious farmer_sinkabout such acquisitions, that we should invest in a Cadillac sink, a mammoth porcelain farmer’s sink that matches the original one. I like an auxiliary sink, for cleaning vegetables, or putting champagne on ice. I even shipped over a stool from my mother’s kitchen, and it tucks just under the lip of a big square island, a centerpiece for people to stand around and lean on while preparing a meal, together, in a room that’s not only functional, but hospitable.

We just spent ten days at our country house over the school spring break. After a few initial rainy days, we were graced with sun and spring temperatures. We opened all the windows and aired out the house. I washed all the laundry that had piled up over our winter visits. De-facto mowed the lawn and planted the garden while I pruned the hedges and liberated the rose-bushes that I neglected last year. And every evening, when it was time to make dinner, I could spread out all the ingredients in front of me, with ample workspace to chop onions, slice vegetables, marinate chicken, roll out a pie crust – whatever we needed to prepare the family dinner, all of this in the spirited company of my daughters, in a kitchen I hope they’ll always remember.


Sep 21 2014

Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.


Nov 7 2013

Home Away from Home

I needed a knife to test the cake, to see if it was done. The oven door open, I reached behind me, to the top middle drawer in the kitchen island, an automatic gesture after using that kitchen for twelve years. My hand landed on cardboard boxes of biscuits, crackers and grains instead of the cutlery tray I expected to find. The drawer is no longer the silverware drawer. I had to clear the old memory and replace it with new information. Our tenant has made himself at home in our apartment, as he should. Part of that includes organizing the kitchen to fit his logic. I don’t mind and many of his alterations are improvements. But even after several days of operating in the re-arranged kitchen, I couldn’t override my old habits. I kept reaching into drawers and cupboards and finding something other than what I’d reached for. Those mental pathways are etched in my brain like deep ravines.
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We’d driven into Paris in the late morning, managing to avoid the rush hour and also to get to our street before it was infested with the pedestrian tourists that accumulate around lunch time, making it impassible. It was all familiar: turning the key in the street door that opens into the cobblestone corridor with the leafy courtyard – now with red leaves that I love to see every year at this time – up four flights of stairs to our door and into the apartment that for so many years, until two months ago, we called home.

Because our tenant is heroic and also a good friend, he understands that from time to time we want to come back to Paris, to see people and stay connected. He organized a trip last week that would coincide with our desire to come visit, so we could stay in the apartment while he was gone. One of our objectives: to collect another van-load of personal possessions to move to Barcelona. Buddy-roo was thrilled because it meant that she could celebrate her birthday with her old gang of Paris friends. She’d had a very small party with a few Barcelona friends before the school break, involving hot dogs and pony rides. We had a family celebration at the country house; she’d been a good sport about spending most of her actual birthday in a car. She’d been missing her Parisian friends – me, too – so I organized for her a little boum (that’s a French dance party) and invited not only a handful of her friends, but their parents too.

By the time we carried our things up to the apartment, I had only a few hours to run errands and shop, decorate for the party, set up the music playlist and bake a cake. I found myself running at the familiar Parisian pace: a brisk walk without time to spare, to the department store, the pharmacy and the grocery, before running home to crack eggs in a bowl and cook up a cake. The cake pan wasn’t anywhere to be found, not even in its usual spot, so I had to rifle through a box of kitchen stuff stashed behind the couch. Luckily I’d hidden the birthday candles on the top shelf of an obscure cupboard, so Buddy-roo’s cake had candles to blow out.

We were still downloading Ylvis from iTunes and blowing up balloons when the doorbell started ringing. The younger guests batted the balloons around the room while the older guests congregated around the kitchen island drinking wine and telling stories (completely unaware that the contents of its drawers were completely changed). It felt good to be withpeace_flowers old friends, good to touch base and stay in their circle. It felt natural to be there; and why shouldn’t it? It was our home until just recently. We haven’t been gone long enough, really, to feel like strangers when we return. Yet standing there I knew something had already shifted. It still felt like home, but I knew it really wasn’t.

The rest of the week ran at the same pace, with dozens of errands and appointments. I saw the beauty nurse and my coiffeur. The girls saw their pediatrician – a gentle, lovely man who is part Groucho Marx and part Ghandi – because we needed a health certificate from him for their Spanish residency. It was worth the two hours spent in his waiting room because he is a wonderful man and the girls love him so. And it never hurts to have a check-up. If we stay in Barcelona, we’ll need to find new doctors and care-takers, but for now it’s good to inject a little of the familiar into all the change and tumult in our lives these last months.

Moving is a messy experience and doing it as we have, in small bites, a trip at a time, has its benefits except each time is just as messy as the last. By the end of the week, the apartment was turned upside down, again, with boxes and bubble wrap strewn about, several packing tasks concurrently half-completed and the clock ticking down fast before the return of our tenant and our departure back to Spain. There wasn’t enough time to do all of the things I wanted to do – my ambition to sort through that office cabinet or empty that medicine cupboard was greater than the time allotted. Or I stopped trying to do it all and just let it rest while I slipped out to my favorite café to sit on the corner stool and smile at the barmen while my children paraded around the bar in their thrown-together Halloween costumes.

De-facto can pack a car like nobody’s business, and in his usual fashion he bull-dogged every box and basket and table and chair that had been designated for this trip into the small van we’d hired. The girls are used to it. They don’t even blink at being squeezed into the back seat with suitcases stuffed beneath their feet. Nine hours later, they took their places in assembly-line form, unpacking the car and getting things on the street, into the elevator and into our apartment. bottles_cans_in_order

It must have been after 10 pm when we’d brought in the final box, and though I’d risen at 6 am that morning to finish packing and cleaning what used to be home in Paris, I had to start unpacking right away. I needed to put the kitchen right, adding the second wave of dishes and utensils that hadn’t been essential when we moved two months ago – things like my mother’s pancake-batter bowl, my favorite serving platters, the champagne flutes – but now would make the kitchen complete. This snowballed into an entire kitchen cupboard re-org, but when I was done, later than midnight, I had the feeling that the kitchen wasn’t so funky after all and maybe it was starting to feel a little bit like home.

There’s still a lot to do to pull our apartment together, furniture to purchase, pictures to hang and shelves to fill with books and objects d’art. But for the first time I had the feeling that this apartment in Barcelona could be home, that it felt good to be here, good to be at home away from home.


Sep 8 2013

Finding your Place

The huge green gate swung open and the dozens of moms and dads, congregated to fetch their children after the first day of school, plowed into the courtyard. The children stood in a clump, all of them slightly hunched over from the weight of backpacks that contain every school book they own. The first parents through the gate created a tall wall that made it nearly impossible to find your own in the mob of children waiting to be claimed. I paced back and forth behind the crowd of parents, craning my neck to locate Buddy-roo. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t find her, but more concerned that she would panic not having been found. The school is so much larger than our little corner primary school in Paris. There were so many kids, and as many adults. I stood for nearly ten minutes looking for her.

Then that moment. It happens at every school pick-up, and warms my heart each time. It was ten times more robust on this day, the end of her first day at a new school. I saw her and she saw me and her face exploded into a huge grin. My whole body sighed with relief. She’s happy. It went well. She inched through the swarm of people to reach me.

“I made five friends today!”

She is a voraciously social creature; achieving new friends is her measure of success.
paris_in_heart
“And I love my teacher!”

I didn’t expect her to have difficulty, but I know it’s not easy, adjusting to a new school and a new life in a new city. That morning, standing outside the school with her, I felt as though we were alone in the sea of families greeting each other warmly, catching up with their friends after the long summer vacation. I pictured us in the courtyard of our school in Paris, where we’d be hugging our friends and chatting and laughing, all of it too loud and the directrice would have to remind us, repeatedly, to be quiet as she called out the name of each student. A sharp dagger of regret not to be there with our friends instead of here amongst these strangers. I let it wash over me, not accepting it, not fighting it either. In moments of unfamiliarity, the familiar always has a halo. You will find your place here, I told myself. So will they.

~ ~ ~

The van we’d rented was stuffed to the gills. Every space was used. Boxes and suitcases stuffed to the ceiling, rendering the rear view mirror useless. De-facto even unpacked some of the smaller bags I’d prepared, breaking my father’s cardinal rule of nothing without a handle – sage guidelines always appreciated when unpacking – and stuffed the girls shoes and T-shirts into the nooks and crannies. The front passenger seat was pushed so far forward that only Buddy-roo could sit comfortably in it. Half of the back seat was given to storage so Short-pants and I squeezed in the other half. We were like the Clampetts, riding toward Beverly Hills in an overloaded jalopy.

Moving sucks. Even if you have a moving company with a big truck coming to transport your life in cartons to your new doorstep, it’s brutal. I wanted to hire such a mover. I pictured those muscled men hoisting our boxes away and then miraculously appearing again at the other end to carry each box in, placing it where I’d point. De-Facto, being a scrapper, resisted the idea, reminding me not only of the unnecessary expense – we aren’t taking that much furniture – but also how when you have just a small load they try to pack you in with other larger shipments and you end up at their mercy. It took weeks to coordinate a delivery date for the small shipment from my mother’s house, about the same amount as we are taking to Barcelona, and it was not without surprise charges and additional headaches. So our plan: take a load of stuff with us, find our apartment, unload it and then De-facto would drive back to France for our second load, the pack for later load. Anything else could wait until the fall school holiday, when we could make a third trip to get any other longed-for items. The plan was not to move our entire home – we have a renter in Paris who’s counting on most of our furniture – but to take just what we’d need.
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Things were going along according to plan. We hit the ground running, saw a fabulous apartment on the first day and three more very livable options the next. At each apartment we visited, Buddy-roo and Short-pants would run off to explore the bedrooms while De-facto and I inspected the main rooms and kitchen. They’d sprint back with a report on who’d claimed which room. They moved into every apartment, in their imaginations, instantly.

Then, last Monday, we found it. A slightly eccentric apartment with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide open against a balustrade, giving the effect of being indoors and yet on a terrace. It’s a duplex, too, so the girls can keep their upstairs universe, only this time with more headroom than in our attic apartment in Paris. De-facto and I have agreed, more or less, on the viability of all the apartments we’d seen, but now we turned to each other and it was obvious: this one. We made an offer – with the rental market as it is in Barcelona it wouldn’t be sane to pay the asking price – and negotiation started. On Tuesday we reached a verbal agreement. Conceivably, the contract could be signed mid-week and we could move in on the weekend, which would give us time to move out of our temporary digs and leave them in mint condition for the return of the friend who was loaning her apartment to us while she went to Burning Man.

On Wednesday the owner, our potential landlord, wanted more information, requesting financial documents that we never guessed we’d need and had left packed away. Our new tenant in Paris – fortunately a good friend – was heroic in his willingness to scavenge for these papers and scan and send them to us. This would delay the signing, but we still had time. That afternoon, however, the small side window of our van was smashed and we were robbed. In broad daylight. We’d had the sense not to leave our most important possessions in the van, there were just boxes of sheets and towels, toiletries, a large suitcase of De-facto’s clothing (I actually wish they’d taken that), some books and papers. There was nothing of demonstrable value except the one item we’d forgotten to bring in because it was hidden in a secret floor compartment that the thief managed to find: the small black bag with our video camera. I could care less about the camera, we stopped filming years ago. It was that all our cassettes were in the same bag. Every video of Short-pants and Buddy-roo, coming home from the hospital, kicking in their highchair, learning to walk, playing at the beach. All of them surely tossed in a garbage bin somewhere in Barcelona.

“It’s okay,” I consoled a tearful Buddy-roo. She’d been watching the videos just last week, relishing the images of her own childhood. “I had no videos of my childhood and but I still remember it was a happy one.”

It was time for Plan B. We moved everything that was left in the van into our tiny temporary apartment, and De-facto, worried that a stack_of_gripsvehicle with a broken window would only invite another theft, decided to drive it back to Paris, that night. He’d return it and get another van – a bigger one even – and on the way back he’d stop off at the country house to pick up a few pieces of furniture, returning to Barcelona on Friday. Our heroic friend and renter even volunteered to drive back with him; an extra muscle to move things, a co-pilot and relief driver, and in general good company. In the meantime, I’d sign the lease and we’d move everything in on Saturday.

Except on Friday, while De-facto sped down the autoroute toward Spain, I got a call informing me that the landlord wouldn’t schedule an appointment until he could review our tax returns, which meant not until Monday. I should mention that the night before I noticed that Short-pants was scratching her head and a close inspection confirmed that she had lice, and so did Buddy-roo. We were up until after midnight combing out their hair. The only saving grace is that the metal long-tooth combs and tea-tree oil were in the box of toiletries we’d been forced to bring in from the van after the theft. This, probably my lowest moment of the move, so far: operating on four hours of sleep, a van of our belongings on their way to Barcelona, another van’s worth of boxes and suitcases in our tiny temporary apartment that we needed to vacate before Sunday, and no apartment until at least Monday, or later.

I was never thrilled about plan B. I’d have waited until we signed a lease before making a trip back to Paris. But De-facto had valid reasons for pressing forward this way, and when he wants to get something done he’s tenacious. Or he trusts that if things go wrong, he can solve that problem later. It’s foolish, sometimes, what we get ourselves into. It does keep our problem solving skills in sharp order. It’s definitely not boring. But now I had to devise a plan C. There, on the ground, and fast.

I asked our real estate agent for a list of the best storage units, and with his advice, managed to contact one and make a reservation. I’d already been scanning Air BnB apartments to rent in case our homelessness stretched beyond the weekend. I sent a bunch of messages inquiring about places to rent for a few days, or up to a week. I met the girls at school and tried to be cheerful as I explained that we’d have to wait until Monday to find out about our apartment. I think they’re used to this “suspended” situation we are in; they just shrugged and asked for a snack.

~ ~ ~

Night fell around us as we sat on the balcony at the home of new friends introduced to us by our friend/tenant who’d accompanied De-facto to Barcelona with our things, new friends who’s daughter happens to be, by chance, in the same class as Short-pants. While we’d driven the van to the storage unit and unpacked it – how reassuring to see my grandmother’s two velvet fauteuils ready to be in our new home, wherever we make it – these friends cooked up a paella and set the table on their terrace. In the course of dinner conversation, we acquired the name and number of a cousin in Barcelona who has an apartment we can rent a day at a time until we get our own. A crisp glass of white wine, children playing together happily inside, the night air warm and easy, it felt like things had somehow turned around. A few angels here and there, a helpful friend, a generous stranger. Maybe it was hope, maybe it was just the wine: we even started to laugh at our own situation.
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You learn a lot about your decisions when you think about undoing them. There’ve been many moments this week when I thought about how much easier it’d be if we’d just stayed in Paris. But after each flash of frustration or fatigue, I’d looked around and notice something like a palm tree in front of the school and remind myself that we came here for a reason, even if I don’t know what it is yet. As for the apartment: we like the other ones on our list well enough, but we love this one. The thought of not giving it one or two more days to come together feels short-sighted. Perhaps tomorrow things will fall into place and we’ll have a new home. If not, we’ll have to concoct a plan D.

As I write this, De-facto and the girls are in the other room, crowded around his computer, laughing out loud at a string of videos: two little girls singing “Twinkle Twinkle,” the kids playing poker with their uncle in the back yard of the country house, footage from our stay in Cambodia. As it turns out, he’d archived some of those early family videos on his hard drive. A few motion pictures of the girls’ charmed childhoods still exist. Seeing the videos reminds me of all the places we’ve been, how happy we’ve been in all of them, and how we just have to give it some time before we all find our place here in Barcelona.


Jun 20 2012

The Hand-Off

They hoisted their heavy cartables up on to their back, the lift and twist on to one arm and then reaching the other back, blindly, to find the strap and slip beneath it. It’s a motion they enact several times a day without thinking. Each time I see it, I wince. Their school bags are so heavy. The number of books and notebooks the girls are required to cart back and forth, daily, is pretty serious. Some days it feels like Short-pants‘ bag weighs more than the pack I carried on the Camino.

They trampled down the four flights of worn, wooden steps and out the door to the street. The morning was fresh, a downpour during the night had cleared the air and cleansed the streets. Short-pants grabbed one of my hands and Buddy-roo seized the other, sandwiching me between them.

We talked through the order of events for the day: how I’d come back to school to help out with the line rehearsal for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the year-end production of their theater atelier in which I was also implicated, having volunteered to create and manage the changing of sets via Powerpoint presentation; how our “sitter” would come to get Short-pants and sweep her off to an orchestra rehearsal; how Buddy-roo would go home with a friend because I had an appointment, how the sitter would pick her up later and get them dinner; how the rest of the week’s homework had to get done early because of the school play. Every day has been like this, a full schedule of meetings and hand-offs, the three of us shuffling around to all the final rehearsals for theater, orchestra and tap-dance performances that culminate during these final weeks of June.

It was perhaps not the best planning that De-facto would leave Paris the day after I returned from Spain. I’d hoped to be on the Camino few days longer, but the reality of my responsibilities stepped into the spotlight and delivered a long monologue about how I’d been away already a luxurious amount of time and I had no right to even think of sulking a moment about returning home a few days earlier than my original plan. And by the time I got to León, I missed my family something fierce. I started to dream about the girls throwing their thin, pale arms around me, the sweet smell of their breath, and their soft, smooth, hands in mine.

Apparently they missed me, too. The day before I returned home I got a message on my voicemail from Buddy-roo, describing what had been the “worst day of her life” and how she wished I’d come home. Once I was in the door, after two days of train travel to get there, De-facto appeared with a small tub of a water and a sponge, in homage to my experience at the Ermita de San Nicolas, and washed my weary pilgrim feet. The next day, however, he put his own feet on an airplane and left me in charge in Paris.

After weeks of walking slowly through life, I was immediately asked to sprint. The multi-tasking, order-barking, for the third time please brush your teeth, up-in-the-morning-out-the-door routine a stark contrast to the contemplative preparation of my backpack each day before setting off to walk on my own. The fetching and feeding of children, the hither and yonder to get them to this and that rehearsal, catching up with the details of our household, resuming my professional duties, let alone catching up with any friends put many things on the plate that I had so thoroughly emptied during my walking sabbatical.

This is probably just what St. James had ordered for me. I’d been gone for nearly a month and I’d forgotten how to be a parent. Had De-facto been around, I’d have let him keep the lead role. In his immediate and complete absence, I was forced to remember how and when to cook for the kids, how to help them stay on top of their homework, how to motivate them to do the chores that earn their allowance, how to read with them a bedtime and sing them soothing songs to coax them to sleep.

I did, however, forget to suggest a bath, and the girls went for a good long stretch without one. The day after my return, I’d washed and dried every towel we own. Nearly a week later I noticed they were still perfectly folded on the towel rack, untouched.

Maybe there were a few other things I forgot about mothering: like how to bury my nose in my computer, or how to send texts on my phone on the walk home from school, how to snap at them sharply when I’m distracted or frustrated. I’m hoping these might remain absent from my fashion of parenting.

Especially the electronic part. I see so many people on the street, walking and tapping their thumbs on their smartphones, oblivious to the friends beside them and the world around them. If this is the only thing I learn from the camino – when you walk, just walk – it’d be enough. How good it feels to stop the constant multi-tasking and just be with the sights and sounds of even an urban stroll, to be fully present with my daughters, but also with myself. My feet are now in street shoes rather than hiking boots, stepping on pavement rather than a dirt track or a hiking trail, but why should that make a difference?

Last night, a friend helped us out, fetching Buddy-roo at the cabinet médical after a routine eye exam to take her to a tap-dance rehearsal. Short-pants and I, after our own eye check-ups, went back to school to attend a presentation about the class project, an imaginary overland voyage through Europe to Russia. The kids learned a number of songs during their pretend travels, and they lined up in the front of the room to sing them to us enthusiastically.

I scanned the group of long tall bodies, remembering when Short-pants and her classmates were squat and miniature, marveling at how they’ve all grown up. It dawned on me that this was the end of their time together in the primary school. Next year they’ll move up to the collège, with the more independent and demanding schedule of middle school, and probably a heavier book bag.

But last night they were still kids, an innocent, exuberant chorus, trusting each other, their teachers, and all the parents in the room. I hadn’t expected the rush of nostalgia prompted by the sight of these now-bigger little people collected together, about to walk into the next stage of their life. I looked around and saw that I was not the only mother with her hand on her chest and a tear on her cheek, that others were equally moved by this moment.

We’ve walked our children to this point, held their hands, juggled schedules to get them to all the places they needed to go to be able to be right here, now, with everything to look forward to. They’re almost out of our grasp, which is why it’s so important to cherish those precious moments when they still offer up a small, soft hand on the way to school, and why I’m so glad I came back home to do just that.


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.


Jul 31 2011

Shelving Matters

“But why did we need to redo our bathroom?” said Buddy-roo. She waved her hand like a game-show host’s assistant, pointing out all the clutter in our living room. Boxes of tiles, equipment yet to be installed – sinks, toilets, mirrors, a new towel heater – all sprawled across the floor. Our hallway is covered with dust from two different kinds of saws, each one set up on wide, sturdy sawhorses in the middle of our entry foyer. Pieces of particleboard, soon to be cupboards, are stacked against the wall making it nearly impassable.

I ran through the litany of complaints about our old bathrooms: the aging toilets, lack of counter space, lack of shelf space and inefficient storage – let alone the aesthetic problem of a sickening color of green tile not quite olive but not quite forest, the kind of green that neither soothes nor pleases the eye. Constructed in the early 1970s – and I doubt there was any renovation bestowed upon them before I started living here in the mid-90s – those bathrooms are owed a re-look.

There isn’t a renovation project that’s easy to live through, but perhaps kitchens and bathrooms – the two most plumbing intensive rooms in a home – are the most difficult to endure, which is why we scheduled the work to be done in July while we were out of town. But an appointment in Paris required our presence and we also felt the need for a few consecutive days of full-time internet connection to keep up with our on-line lives, so we trekked back to the city for a mid-summer’s pause in our what is usually a nearly-full-summer vacation.

Not that it hurt to be home to peek at the work in progress and surely there were a few decisions better made after seeing things first hand. There is the clear promise of a 4-star hotel bathroom in the making, but still much work ahead before anyone can luxuriate in that bathtub.

Maybe one of you readers could kindly enlighten me as to why De-facto would distract our contractor by asking for his attention on another project, at a little studio we rent out, in the middle of our double bathroom renovation? That “little” job turned out to be much more complicated than the few days originally forecast. Since our contractor is meticulous – and for this I hired him – that small-job-gone-awry put him at least a week behind on our bathrooms. You might imagine that his keen attention to detail might anyway contribute to what was already his propensity to run behind schedule. De-facto’s quick little job-on-the-side didn’t help.

Luckily our next-door neighbors were gone last week, so we borrowed their bathroom. But after 6 days of sawing and pounding and tile-dust, and knowing that there’s at least another week (or more) of it ahead, we’d had enough of cohabiting with the renovation. Our summer-in-the-city days were numbered. It’d be much easier to get out of town, though we picked one of the most heavily trafficked weekends in France to be on the road again.

Buddy-roo motioned for me to follow her into the bathroom. The contractor had been building customized shelves, fitting them around an old beam that cuts diagonally from the ceiling to the floor along one of the walls.

“Look at all the shelves,” she said.

“Yes,” I marveled with her. The shelves glistened like jewels, each cubbyhole waiting to harbor my creams and powders.

“Do I get a shelf of my own?”

I had considered, in the design, that the girls might grow into teenagers in this bathroom, requiring a designated place to store their own toiletries. I nodded my head.

“Which one?” she asked, with the same enthusiasm she exhibits on Christmas morning.

“We have to see, when it’s all done, what makes sense.”

“What about Papa?” she asked, “Does he get a shelf?”

I eyed the cardboard, plastic pieces and old plaster piled in the bathtub, the electrical wires jutting out of the wall, the open pipes waiting for fixtures to be attached.

“Over there,” I pointed to the small triangular shelf in the corner, at the furthest point from where the sink will be, just behind the door.

“That little one?” she said.

I nodded. I waved my hand around the room, like Vanna White, showcasing all the work that was taking longer than expected.

“Yes,” she said, conspiratorially, “That’ll be just right.”


Dec 10 2009

Two Wrongs

“I can’t figure out why you were at Fifth Avenue,” my mother said. This would explain her rather lukewarm response to my post about finding her childhood home. “Your aunt didn’t think that was the house, either. We lived two houses in from Third Avenue.”

What?

Hmm. I’m pretty sure I read her email correctly. I remember going back to it again and again and again to check, before plotting out on the map where to go to trace her housing history. And what about that woman I met, at the
cuba_mailboxbrownish house? She’d recognized the names of my mother and her sisters and pointed to a house, down the road. Was she just being polite? Had she really known the maid who’d told her stories about a family with three daughters who lived down the street – only it wasn’t two doors away, but one full block down the street?

There I was penning flowery connecting-with-my-mother’s-roots posts about my trip like as though I was writing for some (ahem) Condé Nast travel blog, all the while standing in front of the wrong damn house. Let us just remember, for the record, what this blog is about. This is exactly what happens when the act of having children has extracted all your brain capacity. Before giving birth I used to be mentally sharp, but now my mind is sieve-like and feeble. And oh my, isn’t this a quintessential example?

Just as quickly as I realized that I might have misread the address, my mother acknowledged that she’s gotten a few details wrong in the last months so maybe it was her error. In the end, we agreed not to dig into our email archives to check the message. There’s nothing to win for being right.
street_marker
It’s not like it’s a catastrophe. I was close enough, crossing back and forth over Third Avenue when I wandered the streets of her old neighborhood. I probably walked right by the house. I went to a restaurant just a few streets away, twice. If I ever go back, um, at least I’ll know where to go.

This morning over coffee, my mother and I looked at photographs. Clicking through my digital albums on iPhoto, I told her the story, day-by-day, of my trip to Havana. She fetched her vintage photo albums from the back of the cupboard in the living room. Square black and white photos with borders,
photo_albummounted on pages of heavy black paper, told a long-ago story of her early years in Cuba. A picture of her friends sitting on the railing of the balcony of her old school matched a shot I’d taken of it when I was there. Her graduating class, a chaperon seated behind each girl, posed on a set of stairs where I, too, stood for a picture in the interior of the schoolyard.

“That’s on First Avenue, by the ocean,” she said, tapping her finger on a picture of a three story building, “the house that’s no longer there.”

Except it was there. I’d seen it.

She’d been so certain that this house had been torn down; when she was in Havana eight years ago, the driver of her tour bus had (allegedly) taken her to it only to show her an empty lot. She assumed that any house on this corner would be a new one – and so did I.

I rushed to open my computer, and called up several photographs. We put the before and after shots side-by-side, comparing them, window by window, detail by detail – everything matched:
old_photo_havana_housenew_photo_havana_house
The current version is slightly altered by an addition on the back, and it has a more elaborate wall around the outside of the property than it used to. But it’s undeniably the same house.

So in the end, the house that I thought I saw, I didn’t see. The house that I thought I couldn’t see, I did see. Between the two of us, my mother and I read it wrong, wrote it wrong, or remembered it wrong. But somehow, the two wrongs make a right. I’m thrilled to have seen this house first-hand. Now I have a picture – in my mind as well as my camera – of at least one of her childhood homes.


Oct 21 2009

The Ledger

“Come with me,” she said, a command that once upon a time would elicit a groan. She led me into the room that is part-laundry room, part-office. I watched her open the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet. She pulled out two ledgers.

“This one has all my medical expenses.” She opened the pages to show me the rows of entries, evenly notated in handwriting I recognized from grocery lists and birthday cards and notes she wrote to school excusing my absence. That’s something you never forget: the protective lines and loops of your mother’s handwriting.

She pointed to the pages in the front. “These are things I paid for, every day things like prescriptions and lab tests.” She flipped to the pages at the back of the notebook. “These are the big medical costs – covered by insurance.” Her familiar index finger tracked down the first column, running over all the words. Oncologist. Chemotherapy. Blood transfusion. Everything detailed. Everything organized.

She opened up the second ledger. Like the first, its columns were neatly labeled and ordered; each page separated by a pile of loose receipts retained for her records. “This book has all my expenses for the year, for my taxes.”

That’s my mother, always organized, preparing to die the same pragmatic and efficient way she’s always lived.

She desperately needed help going through the upstairs backroom, she said, so we obliged, her three grown children following her up the stairs with an eagerness un-witnessed during our childhood. Backroom, in our family, is a euphemism for junk room. The downstairs backroom is a history project, filled with our parents’ past; their love letters, college papers, every issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, neatly boxed, saved since 1958 or thereabouts.
upstairsThe upstairs backroom, once my brother’s room (with football-patterned wall paper) and then mine (painted white but with bright yellow and neon green shag carpet), now a third guest bedroom rarely used not only because it is the less grand of all the bedrooms, but because the bed was completely covered with bags and baubles brought home from meetings and conventions, or those awkward gifts received from well-meaning friends with taste so strikingly different that their generosity, though appreciated, is never fully utilized. At the foot of the bed, a row of boxes of belongings earmarked for a future yard sale. All the framed awards she received during her admirable career – too numerous to fit on the walls – piled on the shelves and on the floor, stacked against the wall. In the dresser drawers, things too precious to part with, ivory kid gloves from a governor’s ball, a silk purse her mother bought in Hong Kong, old black and white photographs, our baby teeth hidden in tiny envelopes, dated in my father’s handwriting.

It’s always the hardest room to clean, the one packed with things of only sentimental value.

The doctors never thought she’d live this long. Last winter, when the diagnosis of pre-leukemic myelodysplasia first pounded its gavel, they ordered a palliative treatment, a mild chemo easily administered five consecutive days in a monthly cycle, a treatment as inconvenient as having your period. In addition, frequent blood transfusions to introduce new cells to replace her tired, incompetent ones. Lots of doctor’s visits and the requisite poking and probing, but all of it relatively close to home and all of her loyal friends have rallied to help, taking turns driving her to all her appointments, checking in on her between medical visits. Though she is still more than capable to drive herself, good company is never a bad idea.

She has a quality of life that is absolutely acceptable. Of course she has slowed her crazy itinerary of activities and travel. But she still does a lot: a dizzying dance-card of lunches and dinner dates with friends, an occasional board meeting, her own shopping and errands. She lives more wisely now, doing only what she wants and using her lack of white blood cells as a good excuse to cut out anything extraneous. After each monthly transfusion, she gets a boost of energy and feels good. But her marrow won’t manufacture the good blood cells she needs, so she’s vulnerable to infection. She avoids crowds and coughing strangers. She won’t die of leukemia; she’ll die because of what the leukemia won’t let her fight.

There is, in fact, a growth in her lung. Is it a tumor? An infection? A fungal growth? The doctors aren’t sure. But the risk of an invasive procedure to determine its nature is deemed too dangerous. Even if they knew what it was, they wouldn’t treat it. A surgery brings too much risk for infection. A stronger chemotherapy also exists, but the doctor opts not to administer it because it requires a portacath, which can too easily become infected. The thought of such medical paraphernalia gives me flashbacks to when Short-pants was in the hospital and her stay was lengthened because the permanent drip became infected, leading to a sepsis that set her recovery back at least a month – and who knows how close she came to not recovering as a result of that secondary infection, an infection my mother would not be able to overcome.
autumn_trees
But she looks so beautiful, my mother. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She smiles. She laughs. She doesn’t look or act sick. She is living in a state of grace, I think.

Her doctor’s priority is not to cure her – since that is impossible – but to slow the disease so that she might have a quality of life while preparing for its end. For over a month now she’s been off the chemo treatment, and she’s no worse when she was on it. The doctors are baffled to see her doing so well. My mother’s constitution, in the end, is remarkable.

I asked her if she was scared. “No,” she said, “Dying is a part of life. Nobody can live forever.” This is indisputable; it can happen to any of us, any day – a fluke car crash or the diagnosis we dread – just like that. But once the sentence is offered, the disease is certain and incurable, I can only imagine what it’s like to stand on the threshold of the uncertain mystery ahead.

She shakes her head, not with resignation but with gratitude, and lists her fond memories: a happy childhood in Havana, enjoying college, all the good years with my father before he died. My siblings and I have managed not to disappoint her. She had a serious career when many women couldn’t, and even in retirement, continues to make an impact in her field. She’s traveled all over the globe. She adores her grandchildren, and this is reciprocated.

There’s no place on her ledger for remorse. She’s just counting up all the good things, year-by-year. Except that now she notices them day-to-day. You can’t imagine how much I am in awe of her, my mother, still modeling for me how to live – right up to the end.