Jan 6 2012

Easy On Me

She’d closed the lid on the toilet seat and was standing on it, looking at herself in the mirror. In her hands, she held up a plastic hairbrush with a green flowery pattern on the back.

“Was it you,” said Buddy-roo, “who put my brush away in the wrong tray?”

I can’t keep it straight, which brush – green or yellow – belongs to Short-pants and which to Buddy-roo. They always leave them in my way, so I toss any hairbrush I come across on the counter into either one of the plastic trays that are stuffed with girlie hair elastics and bubble-gum smelling sprays on their designated shelf.

“I don’t like it when you put my brush away in her tray,” she said.

Tell me about it.

A system for stowing prized items ideally means you spend less time hunting for them and more time using them. It gives us a semblance of order, at least about the placement of basic tools we require day-to-day, aiding the creative process – something usually considered messy – by providing an underlying structure. If you’re cooking up a masterpiece in the kitchen, you don’t want to spend fifteen minutes rifling through your drawers to find a whisk, right?

This was a pet peeve of my mother. I’d hear her opening and closing drawers and cupboards in succession, mumbling to herself, unable locate an essential utensil or serving dish because a visitor, usually her mother-in-law, had put it away, not only in the wrong place but in an illogical one, so that she couldn’t find it even with an educated guess.

“At least she was trying to help,” I’d say of my grandmother, picturing her bending over into a cupboard, her hand reversed on her hip, a gesture she and my father had in common. “She’s getting old. Give her a break.”

My mother’s compulsion is something I didn’t understand until now that I share it. When the rest of your world is a mess and you’re trying to run a household, it helps to have some ability to order something. The kitchen drawers might be the last bastion of control. A new babysitter and a new cleaning woman have recently joined our household, and despite a dozen years in the same kitchen, De-facto and I still aren’t aligned on where things go. My mother, wherever she is now, is snickering at me.

As much as she was irked by various visitors who couldn’t put things where they belonged, my mother suffered, paradoxically, from the same maternal dementia, the feeble post-partum memory, that plagues me. I know well the chiding I’m in for, having doled it out plentifully. My mother used to ignore my exasperated rebukes, or she’d offer a half-hearted apology. Now I get it: when your mind is processing so many things, preparing for a meeting, sorting out a problem colleague, trying to get this and that done and still pick your daughter up from school on time to go to the orthodontist, the brain matter gets allocated to things other than the placement of a hairbrush or a preferred brand of toothpaste.

“I’ll try to be better,” I said, evoking the nuance of mother’s half-hearted voice. I reached up to give Buddy-roo a hug. Standing on the toilet, she towered over me. She jumped down to the floor so I could put my arms around her.

“Someday maybe you’ll have children,” I whispered into her hair, “and you might find that your brain doesn’t work as well it does now.” I considered her ironclad capacity to retain melodies and lyrics from favorite musicals after only one viewing. Spelling words and vocabulary: not so much. I almost pointed out this discrepancy, but then I thought better of it.

“When your kids get all out of joint about you doing something wrong, I want you to remember this moment, this precious one right now. Then you’ll begin to know the meaning of the word compassion.”

“Compassion?” she said.

“You’ll see,” I said, walking out of the bathroom. It may take a couple of decades for her to get it. I hope I’m around to snicker.


Sep 3 2011

The Lost Sandal

“Tell me a story from your childhood,” she pleads, “tell the one about the lost sandal.”

Buddy-roo is the captain of remorse, the herald of items-loved-and-lost. It is impossible to perform the seasonal clearing out of drawers with her present; shirts that no longer fit are still too precious to part with, she’s steeped in sentimental logic about why we should keep those pajamas, even though they are too tight to even fit over her shoulders. She still pines for her blue checked seersucker sundress, the one with chocolate stains down the front, which was already two sizes too small for her when I finally gave it to the good-will, at least three years ago.

The sandal: a white patent leather thong with a cherry-red flower stitched under the ball of the foot, visible only when the sandal was off, but when you were wearing it you knew you had a secret beneath your toes. The leather was thick and spongy, like walking on a mattress. I loved those sandals.

That summer, the farmhouse down the road was inhabited by a family with two children. It was my first experience with what is very common these days – a famille recomposée – but I’d never before met two siblings with different last names. The family was of very modest means, their clothes frayed and slightly soiled, their personal hygiene wanting, though I was admonished by my mother not to point it out and to treat them kindly and fairly despite how different they seemed. I was happy to play with a girl my own age – Linda was two years older – and I spent a fair amount of time down the road with her, though I was always slightly relieved when their brown rotary phone rang, summoning me to the cleaner familiarity of my own home which did not have the very-slight stench of urine that seemed to pervade theirs. I was always intrigued by their recklessness, how she disobeyed her mother without regret, how her brother Ray, two years younger than me and looking like a shoe-in for a casting of The Little Rascals, used to boast about riding his banana bike down the steep hill near our house at 80 miles-per-hour and pulling a 200-foot skid. To this day, my brother will repeat this claim, with the same I’m-a-little-tough-guy cadence, leaving my sister and me in stitches.

One evening after dinner I opted out of the activities with the boys across the street and ran down the road to play with Linda. The cows – belonging to the farmer who owned the property and rented to them – had been moved to another pasture so we were playing near a pond where they often grazed. We took turns running around the pond, timing how fast we could make a full lap. When I felt one of the sandals slip off my foot, I turned immediately to retrieve it, but I couldn’t see it anywhere.

The sandal had just come off – I’d taken maybe two more steps, because of my momentum, before I turned back – but it had already disappeared, sucked into the mud. Linda came around to help and the two of us, on our knees, pawed away at the dirty, muddy soil in search of what should have been a clearly visible bright, white shiny sandal. I heard the phone ringing in her house but ignored her mother’s shouting out that I had been beckoned home. I couldn’t leave. I had to find that sandal. Dusk was turning night; we could barely see what we were doing when my sister came down the road to fetch me.

She promised that we’d come back first thing the next day and search until we found it. It couldn’t go too far overnight, she reasoned. I could not believe that my favorite sandal had vanished into the mud and that I would have to leave without it. I hobbled home, one sandal on one foot, in tears.

The next morning, my cereal bowl half-finished, I ran down to hunt for the lost sandal. Hours of searching and digging and crying followed. It never surfaced.

This cursed event occurred forty years ago. All these years, every trip home to visit my mother or to look after the house, I pass that pond and think of my lost sandal. Linda and Ray are long gone, that rickety house has been cleaned and renovated, its lawn now mowed and manicured. But the pond remains, just as it was; often circled by cows that turn and stare at me, just like the cows before them, pretending they don’t know where my precious patent leather flowered sandal has gone.

I’ve told Buddy-roo dozens of stories about my childhood: of cherished Christmas rituals, of piles of fragrant autumn leaves, of lemonade in striped glasses sipped under the split-leaf elm, a chorus of summer crickets and fireworks viewed from our cupola. Yet this is the story she remembers most and wants to hear again and again; the one about my treasured sandal, lost forever.

“Do you still miss that sandal?” she says.

I picture the lonely sandal – I refused to discard it – gradually falling to the back of my closet, tumbled under each autumn’s new pair of Buster Brown school shoes, until years later my mother insisted, during a spring-cleaning rampage, that we throw it out. Perhaps this is why it took three years to give away that seersucker dress that was already too small for her, and why those beloved pajamas still reside in Buddy-roo’s drawer. The love of those lost, treasured items – or treasured items about to be lost – seems to run in the family.


Aug 14 2011

The Cloning

I hesitated to put Flat Stanley in her bag, he was supposed to accompany Buddy-roo so we could snap photos of him adventuring with us during our vacation. He’d been an end-of-school project for the English section, and the notice that came with him stated very clearly: DO NOT LOSE FLAT STANLEY, there will be a ‘part two’ to this project in the fall. Her summer assignment: to keep a journal of all that Flat Stanley does with us while on we’re on vacation.

In case you don’t know Flat Stanley, he’s the protagonist in the book that bears his name in which large bulletin board falls off his wall while he’s sleeping and flattens him. He manages to survive without any injury, except that he’s flat-as-a-pancake. But in this condition, he has all sorts of adventures: saving his mother’s prized ring after it falls down a grate, being flown like a kite, traveling via the postal service to visit a friend in California. It so happens that Flat Stanley and I go way back: Short-pants already had her own summer holiday adventures to orchestrate with him and we’ve been the recipient of a few of our friends’ Flat Stanleys who wanted to travel around the world. Paris is, of course, a place Stanley loves to visit.

I remember rushing around that morning, the mother-in-love was packing a lunch for their drive to the country house, while I put the girls’ pillows, blankets, colored pens, books and papers in little bags and backpacks, keeping with my father’s car-packing rule of nothing without a handle. I thought better of slipping Flat Stanley into one of those bags. My children are not so skilled at holding on to things. Shortpants’ eyeglasses go missing at least once a week, I’m constantly finding Buddy-roo’s most cherished possessions in places where if I didn’t know better, I’d throw them out and they’d be lost forever. (Sometimes, alas, this happens.) De-facto has many talents, but remembering where he has put something isn’t his strong suit. Not that I’m without my memory lapses, but when it comes to locating whatever-it-is-that’s-missing-around-here, I still manage to have the best radar.

I contemplated taking Flat Stanley to Pamplona with me. I’d keep him safe in my suitcase and we could start his journal mid-July when I rejoined the family at the country house. Or I could let him have a little fiesta fun, and snap a picture of him at the bullfight, or leaning over our balcony watching the encierro, or dancing with us at the Ham Bar. That’d spice up his summer adventures. But Flat Stanley is her project after all, and I knew he probably should go to the country house in her care. Since he’s used to traveling in envelopes, I found a big white one and wrote Flat Stanley on it and slid his wafer-thin laminated figure into it.

“You won’t want to lose Flat Stanley.”
I attempted my stern-but-tender voice. “Each time you’re done playing with him, you should put him back in this envelope and then back into your back-pack and then you’ll always know where to find him.”

Buddy-roo agreed readily but I knew the chances of that kind of organization were slimmer than Flat Stanley himself. I looked over at my mother-in-love and gave her a pleading you-know-what-I-mean look. She reciprocated with a sympathetic I-know-what-you-mean look and I knew Flat Stanley would be safe, at least for the duration of her visit, which unfortunately was only for a few more days.

~ ~ ~

“He’s not in the envelope?” Buddy-roo looked up at me tearful and confused, “But I always put him back!” I’d returned from Pamplona and inquired about Flat Stanley’s whereabouts. She’d cavalierly produced the envelope, and we’d left it on a shelf, agreeing to take a walk and snap some photos that afternoon. I peeked in it later, and discovered that the envelope was empty. Despite a full search of every corner of the country house, Stanley was M-I-A. Trying to get Buddy-roo to remember when she’d last seen or played with him was like an investigation at a congressional hearing. She had no clear recollection.

Days went by with fruitless searching, scrupulous cleaning of closets and shelves and yet there was no sign of our flat friend. Subsequent detective work revealed that after my mother-in-love left, Flat Stanley made a long drive to Germany to see De-facto’s brother and had been accidentally left behind. One would think, then, that he could simply be returned via his favorite mode of travel, the post. Except De-facto’s brother is moving his family, coincidentally, to California, and Flat Stanley somehow ended up in boxes that are, at this moment, in a container traversing the ocean. The chances of him being returned in time to do her summer assignment, once again: slim.

Buddy-roo’s tears had more to do with losing her paper-doll friend than getting behind on her assignment, but I wasn’t about to give her any excuse to slack off on her summer homework. I found a picture we’d snapped of Flat Stanley before his disappearance – he’s totally visible except for his left foot – and with a little Photoshop magic, his image was successfully cropped, enlarged, enhanced, sharpened, and printed, so it could be cut-out and laminated, looking just like his old self.

Flat Stanley has been cloned.

Just in time. We have but a few weeks of summer adventures left to document, and this time, Buddy-roo vows she won’t lose sight of her Flat Stanley. But just in case (and don’t tell her) I printed a few extra copies. This has me thinking about part two of the assignment, in the fall, when she’ll probably have to send him in the mail to visit a friend or relative far away. We just might find that Flat Stanley really gets around.