Oct 7 2011

Little Vermin

The little vermin choose always the most inopportune time to visit, when things are busy and De-facto’s out of town. I’m speaking of lice. It’s inescapable. Every year, once the girls are back in school, one of them starts scratching repeatedly and absent-mindedly and I put my aging eyes to work to inspect a scalp for tiny parasites. Before long, the other one is scratching, too.

I remember being horrified the first time they got lice. Somehow, I escaped this childhood pestilence, so it seemed even more plague-like to encounter it with my own children. How was I supposed to get rid of it? How did they even get it? Was it a reflection on our hygiene at home? After some intense Googling, I learned that lice do not discriminate: they like all heads, dirty or clean. Maybe even the clean ones are more alluring, like being the first to move into a new cul-de-sac of McMansions.

“Bad news, mama,” Buddy-roo said to me, running into my arms outside the school, “I have les poux!”

This news made my heart sink. In a flash, I saw ahead of me an entirely new itinerary for the evening. It didn’t matter that I’d planned to do a little clothes-shopping together and guide them through their homework while preparing dinner before an out-of-town-guest arrived. The entire night was now hijacked. A panicked trip to the pharmacy to pick up the latest and least-toxic-as-possible de-lousing treatment, sheets and pillowcases stripped off the beds and thrown into the hottest-water wash, and hours of picking over the head and behind the ears, through every strand of hair with the metal-toothed comb. The quiche I intended to bake would become a call to Pink Flamingo Pizza. Homework would get pushed until after dinner and bedtime delayed. Wine consumption would, no doubt, increase. Those few little things I didn’t get to today, but I hoped to take care after the kids were in bed and the dinner guest was gone: they’d never get gotten to. Once the children were horizontal, that’s all I’d have stamina to achieve myself.

Buddy-roo deserves much credit, though. It is most unpleasant to have little bugs crawling in your hair and just as awful to sit still for the hours it takes to have an oily product combed through repetitively and the nits and bugs removed one-by-one, or as in her apparently advanced case, bunch-by-bunch. Somehow we hadn’t noticed the scratching, which had probably been going on for days because she was seriously infested. She remained unusually un-dramatic, a very good thing because there were so many lice in her hair that I was nauseous – and I usually handle bugs and spiders fearlessly. I was so overwhelmed by the volume of lice and nits that it took every ounce of control not to drop my head and sob in despair. How will I ever get it all out? is what I kept thinking to myself. “You’re doing great,” is what I said out loud to her, in my chirpiest voice, “we just gotta keep at it.”

Hours later, empty pizza boxes lay open on the counter, a second bottle of wine had been uncorked by my friend and Buddy-roo toiled away at the homework she couldn’t write while I’d been working on her head. It was late and she was tired, but she plodded through and finished it all. A double dessert was volunteered for her good spirit, and once (or twice) consumed, teeth were brushed and I went to tuck her into the guest-bed, with its yet-un-loused sheets that I could wash the following day, in case I hadn’t managed to get every single nit out of her hair.

I sat on the edge of the bed, caressing her bare arms as they stretched over the covers, complimenting her on how she’d been such a great sport through the whole ordeal. “But maybe,” I suggested, “it’s not such a good idea to come into my bed in the morning.” It usually takes a few comb-throughs to catch all the lice, I didn’t want to any stragglers to be deposited on my sheets until I’ve checked her a few more times.

“I don’t so much need the morning cuddle anymore, Mama,” she said, “I just do it sometimes because I know you like it.”


I knew this moment would come, didn’t I? But I didn’t expect it so soon. She’s only seven. And after I just spent two long hours in a back-breaking position with my fingers in her louse-ridden hair, risking my own contamination, putting on a happy it’s-all-gonna-be-fine face so as not to distress her, gently goading her on while she otherwise lollygagged through her homework so that her humorless and unsympathetic French teacher wouldn’t punish her. This is when she chooses to inform me that she doesn’t need the morning cuddle anymore? Like it’s all been some kind of favor when she crawls in bed with me and De-facto in the morning – much less frequently it occurs to me now that she’s mentioned it – she’s been merely gracing us with her cuddling presence?

“I suppose this is as good a time as any to change our routines,” I said, swallowing a lump I’d discovered in my throat. “But you know, you’re always welcome. For the morning cuddle. If you change your mind.”

Little vermin. Doesn’t she know I’m not ready to get her out of my hair?

Jan 24 2011

All that Magic

When I phoned to make my reservation, I braced myself. “It’s a magical morning here at the Disneyworld Yacht Club resort! Thanks for calling! How can I help you today?” It must have been a gag reflex that induced my coughing fit, the agent had to wait for me to recover before collecting information for my reservation. He chirped right along and I answered, wondering what he was like during off-hours. Did he get mad at his kids? Did he shout profanities at his wife? I shouldn’t complain: it was an effortless procedure to reserve my room, and any extra questions I had about my arrival in Orlando were answered in the most upbeat but efficient way. A final, effusive moment of customer service as he closed the call: “Ma’am, I do appreciate you making your reservation with us today, is there anything else I can do for you?’

“Well, yes, in fact,” I answered him, “You could be a little less cheerful.” He laughed. “Okay, ma’am, I’ll try.”

Perhaps I’ve been immersed in the French pessimism for too long – it’s not that I don’t wish I could get this kind of delighted-to-help you attention at home in Paris – but something about the happy-on-steroids tone of everything Disney provokes my sarcastic evil twin sister. Arriving at the Orlando airport, every wider-than-necessary smile and über-friendly remark as I made my way to the Magical Express transfer bus grated on me. On the magic bus, a TV commercial the length of the ride from the airport to the hotel offered up a numbing combination of deep, enthusiastic voices and flashing lights and colors. Then the exuberant welcome from every staff member as I entered the hotel lobby. I kind of wanted to scream. It was as if my heart couldn’t handle so much hospitality. Or hype.

The purpose of my trip was professional; that’s why I found myself in the world’s most famous family resort without my own. The participants of the training I was running hailed from many different organizations, but a handful were cast members, ergo the invitation to hold the workshop at Disney. We were hosted in a large meeting space at the far end of EPCOT, on the second floor of a pavilion that is no longer used. This meant each morning we strolled through the park to get to our meeting room, and the gate we were escorted through was just beside England and Canada. By the end of the week I knew by heart the music tracks that accompanied each country’s faux-setting. Further along in the park, near the iconic geodesic dome a sound track of futuristic schmaltz attempted (I think) to conjure up a feeling of the wonder of technological efficiency. Funny how the sterile technology we imagined years ago, when EPCOT was first designed, looks much different from the real technology we know today, which rather than simplifying and minimalizing seems to be sloppier, and more complicated and distracting.

Midweek one of the cast members participating in our program made a special announcement: everyone at the training was invited to a press event at the Magic Kingdom. This entailed V.I.P. passes to a private party in the evening when the park would otherwise be closed. My enthusiasm wasn’t entirely feigned; I appreciated the generous gesture. But did I want to immerse myself further into this cheerful, hand-waving, ever-smiling world? Later, when announcing the details about where and when the bus would collect us, I asked – as if it was to benefit the participants who might be worried – how we might leave the event mid-way if we didn’t want to stay. It wasn’t impossible, we were told, but it wasn’t easy to do. I wondered if I’d be better off staying in my hotel for a quiet night.

Opportunity is not something lost on me, however, and although I was reticent to commit to the event, I remembered some 20+ years ago when I worked in the media and I was flown to Disney to attend a promotional weekend. It was fun. We’d had easy access to every ride, attraction and Disney character roaming the park without ever waiting in line. It had, of course, ruined all subsequent visits to Disney where the snaking lines, though creatively managed, meant spending the same amount of time standing and waiting as playing and riding. It’s not every day you get invited to a V.I.P event, I reminded myself; probably a good idea to take advantage of it.

The coach circled around to the side of the park and we were driven through parts of the behind-the-scenes space that looks remarkably plain, ordinary. It was about as back-stage as you can get, but as soon as we walked through the hidden gate into Frontierland, a row of lively cast members lined the walkway with trays of drinks and snacks and high-spirited greetings. Throughout the park, rides were open and running, and line-less, so we stepped immediately into the elevator of the haunted mansion and without any delay into the carriages that meander through the caves of Pirates of the Caribbean. Our Disney colleagues who’d arranged our entry didn’t just dump us in the park and go off to do their own thing. They took us around, optimizing our time in the park and illuminating little details that we’d otherwise never notice. The restaurants that usually offer the typical fast-food fare of American families were instead set up with buffet tables holding a more sophisticated spread of food and drink. After we dined, we were prompted toward Main Street, USA where dessert and coffee accompanied the special light show and fireworks.

Of course I had a photo opp with the famous Mickey and Minnie, and though I couldn’t resist making an aside about the sexual advances I endured during Mickey’s embrace, it was my only snarky comment of the night. That’s because before I could stop myself I started to have a blast. As the night sped by, I let go of the suspicious energy I’d been carrying all week, and I immersed myself in the full Disney experience. I ran through the park, jumping on my tip-toes, laughing, shouting out “look, it’s Donald!” I could feel the smile permanently pasted on my face the entire time, and looking around at all the (mostly) adults there, I wasn’t the only one. At every turn another delight was proffered – a just-baked chocolate chip cookie, cheesecake served in a creative plastic dispenser (my editor was off, “It’s a cheesecake tampon!” I shouted, causing even the Disney server to laugh.) An amazing projection show that dressed the Magic Kingdom’s castle in forty different costumes and colors, sent stars and photographs tumbling out its windows, an animated performance that dropped everyone’s jaw to the ground. And if that wasn’t stunning enough, the finale of fireworks left everyone buzzing.

This is what Walt Disney had in mind, I suppose. Certainly his world was designed to delight children, but he must have known how it would be just as important – and a much harder a task – to delight their parents and any other adults who found themselves, sometimes begrudgingly, in his park. At Disney last week I relearned something I purported to know: how to play. Not just going through the motions and being a little bit playful, but giving into the magic and surrendering willingly to the child inside.

I hadn’t mentioned to Short-pants and Buddy-roo that I was going to Disney. It felt wrong to boast about such a treat to them, and you may recall I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going. But now I’m thinking a visit to Disneyland Paris is imminent. I’m even dreaming of a Disney cruise as a future vacation. (They christened a new boat this week, too.) Who knew I could come around to being so enthusiastic? Maybe that extra little hug from Mickey was all it took to be seduced by the Disney magic.

Apr 29 2010

Hold on

Our days are filled with affection. My children, being completely bilingual, are adept at American hugs and French calins, and dispense these joyously (mostly) throughout the day. But there is something especially poignant about the morning cuddle, the first and most delicious caress of the day.

It is as if the toxins of their tantrums, their princess demands, their bêtises and all their mis-targeted mischief – all the moments of yesterday that made me close my eyes and count to ten before asking (not out loud), “why did I have these children anyway?” – all of it washes away overnight, flaking off during their sleep and disappearing through the dream-catchers hanging above their beds.

They rise in the morning, semi-conscious and automatically innocent. The footfall of tiny feet down the stairs, uneven and still stiff from an overnight of motionless sleep, groggy in the sweetest kind of way, waking me enough to skooch over and make room for the small body that nudges its way under the covers and curls up like a spoon within my embrace. Even several days dirty from country house living, the skin smells sweet and the hair is scented with the sweat of swing-sets and forested play.

Almost immediately, breathing lengthens and loudens, and sleep reigns again as if the trip from the bed upstairs to our bed downstairs was a quick flight between REM stages; like they could wake up and have no memory of how they got in bed with us.

Short-pants is curled up beside me and her soft long limbs intertwine with mine. Buddy-roo will stumble down any minute. There is a bond that is renewed with each and every morning hug, a reminder that we all fit together, our DNA is shared, so then why not a few moments of pillows and sheets? We revert back to the moment when we were in constant embrace, those babies in my womb and De-facto‘s thoughtful arm over my big belly. Ages ago it seems, and yet reenacted every morning.

Last night, the last drive of our spring break trip, a tour that took us to Italy and slowly back through France, visiting friends along the way before a respite at our country house, driving sometimes in 10-hour chunks. The final leg took only 4 hours and 5 minutes; we managed without even a bathroom stop, allowing De-facto to beat the previous record by 2 minutes. This morning’s cuddle is particularly cherished, then, as it marks the end of our spirited (but tiring) voyage and the return to Parisian routine.

I lay half-awake, staring out the dormer windows, listening to the sound of our city street coming to life, caressing the soft skin of my child, breathing in tandem with her. Slowly I let the thoughts of my day ahead creep in, the things to do after being gone nearly 20 days may be daunting, but I am fortified by the sweetness of this moment, to be savored until, say, the two of them break into battle just about the time of my second cup of coffee.

Nov 8 2009

A Little Longing

There was a pre-toddler in my house all last week, a baby boy, blindingly blond with thoughtful round blue eyes. A drunken sailor staggering around our living room. He took instantly to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, who are closer to his size and less threatening. De-facto had spent time with him before, so they rediscovered their kinship rather swiftly. But I was a tall stranger. Even though I’m family – I’m his aunt – he’d never laid eyes on me
blond_hugbefore in his one-year long life. So I waited and watched from the side, actually almost lurking, because I wanted him to know that I was interested in his affection, if he ever cared to offer it. But I kept my distance from the little man, which is – for real – what my sister-in-love and her De-facto call their baby boy. Little man.

I remember when I was little, visiting my grandmother. She lived in a condominium complex with a long swimming pool and a shuffleboard court, which I thought was terribly exotic. She had a friend, an older, ugly man with bad breath who always wanted to hug me. I don’t believe he ever wanted to do more than that, but still, I didn’t want even the casual nice-to-see-you-oh-you’re-so-grown-up embrace from him. It was a real treat to visit Grammy – she cooked corn-fritters from scratch and made thick, icy, piña coladas – but I dreaded running into her creepy friend. A big oath by a small child can be a powerful thing: I promised myself that when I grew up I’d never force my hugs upon an unwilling little person.

Instead I crouched down across from the little man, day-by-day, hoping to become more familiar, to become someone he might trust. Each day, a little closer. A short conversation, from a distance. A smile, a song. Then it came, the moment, several days in, when, without any coaxing he actually stumbled into my arms and allowed me, without squirming, to pick him up and carry him around.

My failing memory had blocked it out – until he was in my arms and it all came back – what it is to hold a big baby who’s so compact, solid and muscled. He’s a little peanut but he’s dense, the robust force of his all-boy energy like cutting open a vacuum-sealed bag. His miniature feet clamped at my waist. His fat index finger tested my nose. He smelled like milk.
And I thought, how could it be that my daughters were once this size and I could hold and hug them close to my chest? How could it be that once, only a few years ago, these long straws in a tall soda glass that stand before me now could have been little and round and nestled in my arms just like this?


Yesterday, after the long-faced trek down four flights of stairs with suitcases and the stroller and the this and the that which are required for long distance travel with a one-year old, De-facto reluctantly handed the little man back to his sister so she could buckle him in his car seat. Hugs goodbye with tears and promises not to wait so long for the next trans-Atlantic visit. We stood in the street waving as they drove away, until the taxi disappeared from sight.

Upstairs, the chaos left in the wake of the little man’s staggering-around play was waiting for us. We did not clear it away. We sat on the floor with the girls, laying out Brio track, piece by piece, building a seamless route to move trains around our living room, wishing – futilely – that our children could stay just as they are – small and huggable – forever.

May 18 2009

The Hundredth Hug

In an effort to get the homebodies outside over the weekend (they would stay inside in their pajamas, all day, if we let them) a challenge was issued: Could you get a hundred hugs?
Two years ago, De-facto filmed Short-pants and Buddy-roo at a little park around the corner and created a copy-cat version of the “Free Hugs” video that was rushing around the internet at the time. The girls still remember it; occasionally they’re inspired to scratch out calins gratuit (French for “free hugs”) on a sheet of paper and troll around the house looking for extra love. That’s why my challenge was met with enthusiasm and succeeded in propelling them outside and into the fresh air of the real world.
“Don’t be too close,” was Buddy-Roo’s command as we walked out of the building. She and her sister ran ahead, their signs held high above their heads as they solicited affection from any and all passing strangers.

I know some mothers who would frown upon this: setting two adorable little girls free in a thick crowd of tourists, Sunday shoppers and falafel-eaters (our ‘hood, being a Jewish one, is the only quartier that’s open and vibrant on a Sunday). The girls were in view, more or less, as I trailed them from a distance while they made their way through the busy streets and around the block. I admit when I was first mothering I had my worrywart moments, but I’ve grown to appreciate the benefits of a longer leash – rest for me, confidence for them – and I subscribe fully to the idea of Free Range kids.

But in truth, helicopter-moms need not worry. I couldn’t get over the number of people who actually recoiled when presented with a small smiling child holding a sign offering a free hug. They’d nervously look the other way, or move deliberately to avoid the path of my love-hungry children. Hardly an invitation for abduction, it appeared that the signs actually succeeded in keeping strangers away.
The girls were discouraged. A grenadine at my local café-bar was in order. But as soon as they’d guzzled the red elixir, they were at it again, out on the street, signs in the air, expectant smiles at work. Though Buddy-roo tired of the effort, her older sister was relentless. A comment made by a friend at the bar: “Send her to the states in 2012, she’ll get Obama re-elected.”

Persistence pays off. The hugs started to roll in. Short-pants kept careful count, assigning each hug a number and yelling it out to me (inside) every time she received an embrace. Buddy-roo traveled back and forth to the street and hugged her sister again and again, pushing the count up toward the goal. When a hundred hugs was finally achieved (half of them between sisters), I was wondering if it might trigger some kind of cosmic tipping point and suddenly everybody in the café would start hugging each other. There was, however, no visible hundredth monkey shift.

Short-pants was supremely proud of her accomplishment. Buddy-roo was thrilled, too. I was just happy for a little break at the bar.

Then it was time to go home, eat some dinner, have a bath and get back into our pajamas. Along the way, the hugs kept coming, at least another hundred – maybe more.