Nov 23 2014

The Anniversary

Because De-facto and I have never tied the knot, officially, we’re always at a loss about celebrating an anniversary. We met at a week-long creativity workshop – the one person we knew in common there was his mother – that for many years started on the third Sunday in June and ran through the following Friday. Both De-facto and I had come in the day before, and it was on that Saturday night, the eve of the conference, when he first saw me dancing at the pub and I first saw him walking behind me on the breezeway, his grin all innocent and mischievous at once. We turned toward each other and stayed that way, chatting on the campus lawn and late into the night in a dormitory stairwell. We spent a good part of that week together, and on the night after the conference ended, we even went out to dinner at a nearbycouple_hugging restaurant. I suppose you could call that our first date. We could google the calendar for June of 1996 and figure out the exact dates: that Saturday before CPSI or the Friday on the other end. But we could also identify the date, two days after the workshop, when I flew to Boston to see him instead of flying home to Paris, or the date he flew to visit me in France, two months later.

If we were mawkish we might celebrate all those firsts, and even the firsts I haven’t mentioned here. But we don’t. We end up giving each other a subtle head nod every June. It’s approximate: it might be on the third weekend of the month, or thereabouts, one of us will remember and send a card or leave a Post-it on the bathroom mirror to remind the other that it was X years ago this whole party started.

Part of me misses having a distinct anniversary to celebrate – an etched-in-stone beginning of our committed relationship that merits romantic notes, flowers and gifts, dinners out. A pair of friends just celebrated a silver anniversary, and we know other couples creeping toward such a milestone celebration. We’re still taking it one year at a time.

There is a date, though, a day on the calendar that we rarely forget. I remember it mostly as the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Sometimes I also take a deep breath on November 21st, the date of that Sunday ten (really, already?) years ago, in 2004. It’s a day I celebrate now because we survived it, all of us.

Standing at the kitchen island of my girlfriend’s New York apartment, each phone call delivering news that was harder to hear than the last. Short-pants had passed out. Our nanny had called the ambulance. The EMT guessed it was something neurological. Our neighbors who’d crossed the street to help started using words like convulsion and coma. The party that had prompted us to leave the kids in Paris to come to New York, just for the weekend to celebrate his mother’s 75th birthday, now soured by the news that her granddaughter had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, a surgery that took place while we hurriedly packed our bags and sped to the airport to catch a flight home to Paris. Just before boarding, we got a phone heart_in_hospitalcall from the surgeon. Short-pants had made it through the operation but it was a long night ahead. Come straight to the hospital after you land, he said.

We did. When they let us in to see her she was a narrow bump in a big bed, with tubes and wires attached and a gauze skull cap. The next days a blur of doctors and nurses and beeping machines and hours spent at her bedside in the ICU. The cancer they’d feared in our first meeting turned out to be a brain abscess – not nearly as ferocious a predator but perhaps more mysterious. Six weeks in the ICU and countless tests, scans and procedures until finally a second brain surgery was necessary to remove it. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s passed, our days split between being at her side in the hospital and being at home with Buddy-roo, who was too young to have any clue of how important she was in this whole ordeal, standing with her sweet little arms up in the air every time we returned from a grueling day at the ICU, wiped out and beaten down. Her smile and kicky-legs a constant reminder to keep hoping, keep loving, keep trying to keep it together. She needed us too.

Just after New Years, Short-pants was sent home, the cause of her mystery illness never determined but the ugly thing removed from her head and a plan for rehabilitation underway. The next weeks, months and year presented their own challenges, but she survived. Her mental capacity intact, she learned to walk again, to master motor skills she’d lost, to be a healthy little girl. She survived, and then some.

Ten years cascade by and the mother-in-love just celebrated another milestone birthday. Short-pants does all the things a 13-year old adolescent is supposed to do. Her sister adores and resents her, they’re just like normal siblings. Thanksgiving approaches and conjures up the memory of those cool fall-turning-winter nights when I’d walk home from the metro after a daylong vigil at the hospital, desperate for some news to turn things around, each day disappointed until the very end, when by some miracle, her miracle, she recovered. And little by little – it took time – we all recovered from it, from the shock, the strain, the exhaustion of the whole ordeal.
Viva
It left its mark on all of us. Short-pants with her tiara-like scar across the top of her head, Buddy-roo who doesn’t always understand why her sister is different, even though what makes her different is something you can’t explain to the kids in the schoolyard who can’t comprehend the kind of wisdom that accompanies the experience of being resuscitated in an emergency room. De-facto and I, acutely aware of how precious life can be, still awed by the simultaneous fragility and absolute resilience of a 3-year old child who reminded us to live and love while we can.

The drama of those days is long behind us. There are no more follow-up appointments, no need for another MRI, no more fears that it will grow back. There is nothing that will inhibit Short-pants from leading a full, healthy and active life. What remains is the memory of how brave she was, how stoic and poised she remained over such an arduous hospital stay. What remains is the gratitude we felt, to our unwavering family and friends who supported us during those painful days. What remains is a day on a calendar page and the recollection of a brutal Sunday afternoon I would never want to repeat. It’s a story with a happy ending we get to witness every day: our healthy, hopeful Short-pants growing into a remarkable young woman. And still, every year – except for the one year I forgot – on this late November Sunday, we mark an awkward anniversary. Maybe not your typical anniversary, the most poignant one we’ve got.


Jun 7 2014

He Likes You

At that age, I remember, romance was awkward and bartered or brokered by your friends. That cute boy, one seat up and two rows over, put butterflies in your stomach. In the lunch line you mentioned it to a friend, or else she already noticed. With your permission, or sometimes against your wishes, she’d find him later in the hall and ask him if he liked you.
hearts_eye_on_many
Often nothing came of these declarations of like. Sometimes a short, non-romantic romance would result, with smiles across the classroom and if you were lucky a quick hand-holding on the school steps, phone calls at home. For two weeks you’d be “going steady” until he got tired of being teased by his friends, or somebody else expressed affection for you via proxy messenger. You never did the dirty work on your own. You sent a friend to break the bad news to your once coveted beau of one seat up and two rows over.

I got dumped this way as often as I did the dumping. That was middle school romance.

That was also the ’70s. I have to imagine, based on the influence of the increasingly vulgar advertising and sexually explicit media that it’s very different today. I’ve read accounts of experimentation at ages almost too young for me to imagine. I brace myself for the worst.

Then I look at Short-pants and I can’t fathom this kind of behavior from her. She hasn’t folded into the fast social cliques. Maybe we’ve accidentally found a school where this kind of pressure isn’t part of the landscape. Or else it is, and she just doesn’t see it given her charming naiveté. She doesn’t ask to go out with her friends. She’s not that keen on sleepovers. She’s friendly with a gang of kids at school, but she rarely asks to bring anyone home or go anywhere else. At her age I was begging my mother to let me hang out with friends after school, champing at the bit to go out to the “rec center” every weekend night, already eyeing boys in my class and older. Short-pants, though more social than before, is pretty much a homebody. She’d rather sit in her room and read.

This week, though, she’s come home from school nearly every day with an update about a potential suitor. Eduardo (not his real name) is quirky but not an outsider. Based on her description of him, I’d wager he’s fairly extraverted and possibly one of the class clowns. He makes up pet names for her – not mean ones, but silly ones, with a slightly affectionate tone – and he’s constantly tapping her on the opposite shoulder, stealing her bag and running away, finding ways to engage her which come right up to but never quite cross the boundary of annoying.
laugh_it_off
I explained to her, trying my hardest not to be patronizing, that this is how pre-adolescent boys display their affection. And it’s been confirmed. Every day this week a different classmate approached her with a comment, a variation on the theme: “Eduardo likes you. Do you like him?”

“How do you respond?” I asked her, yesterday.

“I don’t,” she said. “I just laugh it off.”

Phew.

I extended my arm to her and pulled her into my room. Some of our best conversations happen laying on the big bed staring at the ceiling. These heavier talks happen more easily, I think, if you don’t have to look your mother in the eye.

We talked about the possible scenarios at play: Eduardo really likes her and he’s sending scouts to find out if it’s reciprocated. Or he’s unable to express it any other way and everyone else is trying to help. Or because she’s the slightly offbeat girl, he’s targeted her for teasing and as soon as she likes him back he’ll point at her and laugh.

That last scenario seems a bit harsh, and I emphasized that it’s probably not the case. But in matters of teenage social interactions, one must be prepared for any eventuality. Her eyes teared up a little at this – I glanced sideways quickly, pretending not to notice – and I felt a bit shitty for having even suggested it. Except in the end I think it’s better to have considered it and discover it’s not the case rather than the other way around.

“Here’s the more important question,” I said. “Do you like Eduardo?”

She fell silent, considering my question.

“No,” she said, in a most grounded way. “I don’t like him.”

She thought about it some more and added, “except as a friend.”

I told her not to get caught up in all the noise from his friends and to start liking him simply because he likes her, or says he likes her. The reason to like a person – I kept it deliberately gender neutral, too, because, well, you never know – is because they are kind or funny or smart or you find them physically appealing. Or hopefully some combination of those qualities.

“You should never feel you have to like someone just because they like you.”

Saying this out loud thrust me into a time machine, back into those awkward middle and high school moments of (at the time) great social consequence. I wanted so desperately to have a boyfriend – all my friends did – that sometimes I just accepted the placeholder. It took me a decade of dating to love_in_a_dinerreally get that the first question wasn’t who liked me, but who I liked. And even with that knowledge, I still made a mistakes with some of my adult romances, falling hard for someone who pursued me so passionately that I was blinded to how bad he was for me.

“I’m not ready to have a boyfriend,” she said, “not yet.”

“That’s probably true,” I said, relieved.

Given her proclamation, though, it won’t be long before she is.


Feb 4 2013

Hierarchy

“I love Mama the most. Then my sister. Then Papa.”

I cringed to hear Buddy-roo‘s ranking, even though I came in first. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone in the family the same? Except I remember doing exactly the same measurement, when I was just about her age. My sister always got first billing, with my mother close behind. My father and brother alternated third and last place. It didn’t mean that I didn’t love them. But for some reason, I needed a hierarchy. Someone had to be on top.
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I looked at Short-pants to see her reaction to being in second place. She seemed unfazed.

“I love everyone the same,” she said, filling in my supposed to box, except I think she really meant it.

“Wait,” Buddy-roo corrected her earlier pronouncement, “I love my sister first, because she always gives me my favorite chair.”

One of Short-pants’ household jobs is to set the dinner table, and she’s deliberate about making sure Buddy-roo is seated in her preferred chair, the one in which the caning was recently replaced. It’s lighter and smoother, unblemished. Sometimes the chairs get moved around as they get used for other things during the day, but Short-pants always looks for it and puts her sister’s favorite glass there, too.

Funny how setting the table becomes and act of generosity, or revenge. Someday, perhaps, Short-pants will be annoyed at her sister that she will withdraw her attention to detail and put her at any old chair, with any old glass. Or worse, she’ll deliberately set her sister’s place at the chair with the broken leg, the one we only use when the company at our table requires every chair around it. On those occasions it’s Buddy-roo who sits in the broken chair; we wouldn’t offer it to a guest and she is the lightest among our family. She takes one for the team, willingly. But how would she feel if it was designated to her because she was on the outs with the table-setter?

I know about this because I was once a designated table-setter. And I used to wield my power.

My mother had a set of salad bowls, I think they were a wedding gift. One of the little bowls had been left overnight in a sink full of water, damaging its finish. It looked as though it had leprosy. My mother always scolded us if we left a wooden utensil or bowl soaking in water – now I admonish my family for this too – all because of how it had ruined that one salad bowl.
salad_bowls
Who knows how or why, but my sister and I started the practice of giving the “bad” bowl to whomever we were mad at. We shared the duty of setting the table, and relished this opportunity to express our displeasure at anyone in the family. If you got the bad salad bowl, you knew you were in the dog house. I’m not sure everyone else in the family fully understood the code, maybe my brother did. If we weren’t particularly angry with anyone, the bad bowl ended up on his placemat. He was the default recipient.

Years ago, at my grandmother’s memorial service, my cousin stood up before the congregated family and friends and talked about how she’d always felt that she was Grammy’s favorite. We all nodded when she added that she was certain that all the other grandchildren felt the same way. That woman had a very specific relationship with each of her nine grandchildren, and each one of us felt like the one she loved most.

“Which daughter do you love the most?” Buddy-roo asks this more frequently than Short-pants, but both of them have posed the question. My answer always a variation on the same theme of how they are different people so I love them in different ways, but that if you add it up, side-by-side it’s the same amount: infinity.

Or they’ll ask this: “Who do you love more, Papa or us?” Sometimes I’ll tease them, “I love Papa the most, on Tuesdays in months that have an R.” loveBut other times I tell the truth: “I had to love Papa first so that we could make you. I don’t love him more, but I’ve been loving him longer.”

I could spiral into worry about why they’re asking these questions, but I don’t. I think it’s a normal passage for their age. As they begin to see themselves as separate from their mother and father, there must be some assurances required along the way. And the proclamations, the hierarchy of who they love most, I think it’s natural, too. I hope they’ll outgrow it. But it makes me think about how important it is to help them feel the most loved, and yet loved the same as everyone else. I hope I can swing that one. I had good role models, which I think is what it takes.

And for the record, I love my brother the most, and just as much as I love everyone else.


Oct 13 2012

They’re Becoming

The two shadow-like figures hovered beside the bed, standing still, waiting in the dark for me to take notice. I’d been curled in a fetal position facing the center of the bed. Nobody talked or touched me, but their lurking presence was enough to stir me from my pre-dawn sleep. I turned and lifted my head, squinting in the dark, squinting without my glasses.

“We’re ready for school,” one of them said. It was too dark and too early for me to distinguish their voices.

“What time is it?” My head raised off the pillow, an alertness emerging as I realized I might have overslept. I reached for my phone on the bedside table – it doubles as my alarm – and pressed the center button. The small screen illuminated the room and showed me the time: 6:45 am.

“We’re all dressed,” said Short-pants.

I wanted to be pleased, but they didn’t have to leave for school for another 90 minutes.

“So can we watch a movie?” said Buddy-roo.

“I’ll make breakfast myself,” said Short-pants.

How did this happen, this spurt of maturity and self-reliance? Just yesterday I was spooning yogurt and bananas off of their chins and into their mouths, holding their hands as they took those first foal-like steps, celebrating the first diaper-less dry nights. Now they’re dressing themselves and negotiating video time by preparing their own breakfast. I groaned.

“Would you like me to make you coffee?” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

I wasn’t a particularly pleasant pregnant woman. I know some women love it; they glow, nest and rub their Buddha bellies. I wasn’t among that tribe and I did not pretend to be. Once the children moved out of my womb – the first of many times they would leave a mess behind them – I enjoyed them as butterballs with fine tiny fingers, but to a point. I struggled with the adjustment. And if someone made the mistake of assuming my fervor for motherhood, this happened a lot, with “Isn’t it wonderful, being a mom?” I would answer truthfully that despite my grand affection for the babies, I didn’t find the day-to-day of mothering so wonderful.

These conversations, filled with admonishment for my lack of enthusiasm, always ended with the clichéd “but it goes by so fast!” Eventually I learned to shake my ahead and agree, lest my protests would prolong an already tiresome conversation, or get me reported to child services.

But indeed, it has sped by and now those babies have grown into young girls, with a decade of stories to tell. They’ve survived broken bones and brain surgery and broken hearts and ex-best friends. Along the way, they’ve taught me how much I love having them close, just in time to turn around and start teaching me how to let go.

~ ~ ~

Now that my mother is gone, my memories of her seem precious. When she was alive they were just flashes of the past, vignettes of her standing on the back porch, seated at the head of the table, in the car beside me, driving home after my piano lesson. Now, there’s something much more deliberate about these memories. I’m calling upon my brain to use extra ink to embed these nostalgic images of her so I don’t lose them. I’m afraid I’ll forget the details about her, the things that for so long I took for granted.

Not just the images. Her words also have extra ballast, too.

“I never thought you’d be such a good mother,” she told me once. This could be construed as a backhanded compliment, but it wasn’t. I knew what she meant. Given the ambitions I expressed as a young woman, mothering wasn’t on the list of things she expected me to be good at. She wasn’t being mean-spirited; she was actually expressing her delight.

“My only regret,” she said to me, in those final cocooned days just before she slipped away from consciousness, “is that I won’t get to see who your children will become.”

This was one of last coherent things she ever said to me. Sitting at her bedside, my imagination rushed ahead to future graduations and weddings, milestone events she wouldn’t get to see. In this case, I supposed, it didn’t go by fast enough.

Well, mom, Short-pants has become long and lean and lovely. She’s supremely conscientious and creative; her homework is always completed, her room is always a mess. She cooks scrambled eggs and French toast all by herself and operates my coffee press like a barista. She’s sage beyond her years, yet there’s a poignant innocence about her wisdom. She reads books like a fiend, draws mandalas for fun and knits without dropping a stitch. De-facto is a going to get a beautiful scarf for Christmas.

Buddy-roo is becoming a force. She has the best day of her life and the worst day of her life in the span of an hour. She sings to herself in the shower. She purrs like a cat when you scratch her back, just like I did. She likes to straighten her room before she goes to bed at night. Despite the necessary nudging on her homework, she’s also rising to the task, surprising us occasionally with her initiative to do tomorrow’s assignments tonight. She has her own fashion style – leggings with everything – and she wants a typewriter for her birthday.

They’re becoming extraordinary, these granddaughters that you wondered about. They’re becoming real characters, good little people with big hearts. They’ve become everything you could have imagined – and as you might have imagined – they’re becoming even more than that. And for the record, it’s just not the same without you here to marvel at it.


Feb 14 2012

Waves of Love

I waited until Short-pants and Buddy-roo were dressed and downstairs, fully involved in their breakfast. Chances were good, once they’d reached that point in the morning, they wouldn’t return to their bedrooms until after school, when I’d be long gone. I tip-toed upstairs and slipped the Valentine stickers under their pillows, each with a little heart-shaped message. I straightened the bedding thinking maybe they wouldn’t see the little gifts until it was actually time to crawl under those covers, prolonging their surprise. I’d also addressed and stamped a couple of pink and red envelopes. They were in my bag, ready to be put in the postbox at the airport, hopefully to arrive in our mailbox at home, on Valentine’s Day.

We all walked out together, De-facto carrying my suitcase down the stairs. It’s rare that the four of us are out the door at the same time in the mornings, typically only one of us (usually De-facto) accompanies the girls to school. This time, they accompanied me to the taxi-stand and issued hugs and kisses and nearly-tearful goodbyes while the driver hoisted my suitcase into his trunk. They stood there, waving, while he waited for the light to change and allow us to plunge into the traffic.

This is the custom in our family – and don’t ask how it started, it’s just what we do – when you see someone off, it’s required to stand steady and continue waving until the car that’s whisking them away is no longer visible. I think it’s a lovely way of saying we don’t want you to go, but we do want you to go. You’ll be missed, but we’re excited for you and your adventures ahead.

The light took a long time to change. The traffic was heavy and slow and unwelcoming to a new vehicle. De-facto and the girls kept standing there, waving at me. I studied them, from a distance, as they were obliged to wait and wave from the other side of a green construction barrier that framed the repair work on the sidewalk between us. There they were, those people, their lives intricately interwoven into mine, everything mixed up together: our DNA, our dirty laundry, the pile of shoes by the door. That tall guy and those two bean-sprouting girls. That’s my family. And I love them.

Hope you’ve all got good people to love. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.


Feb 7 2012

Hundreds of Heavens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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


Jan 28 2012

Newly at Home

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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


Jan 21 2012

How to Flirt

“Antoine keeps dragging me.”

This is a turn of phrase I’m accustomed to hearing from my contemporaries, reporting about a wildish night out or even just what happened waiting for me to turn up at our favorite café for an afternoon beer. I didn’t expect to hear it from Buddy-roo.

Dragging is a classic example of Franglais. In this case a French word transformed into an English verb by adding -ing. My friends often do this with French words to be funny or sarcastic. Buddy-roo simply didn’t know the equivalent word in English: flirting.

This use of dragueur comes from the French cineaste Jean-Pierre Mocky and his 1959 film, Les Dragueurs, in which an unlikely pair of men, one a serial skirt-chaser, the other more reserved and eagerly seeking a wife, go out on the town in Paris, flirting with every woman they meet. It was called The Chasers when it was released to English-speaking audiences, and if you watch even a short excerpt of the film you’ll see that the title is apt.

The original verb draguer means to dredge or trawl. It’s also used to describe the task of minesweeping. But as a result of the film, the term is more commonly used to describe the act of hitting on someone. As a noun, a dragueur (or dragueuse) is the consummate flirt.

“What about Vincent?” I asked her. Last week he was Buddy-roo’s true love. “Or Ethan?” He was last year’s heartthrob, and it’s my understanding that kisses have even been exchanged between them.

“I still love them,” she shrugged, “but now I like Antoine, too.”

This all sounded too familiar to me, in that transparent, embarrassing way that your children mirror a part of yourself or your past. When I was going through the boxes I’d left in my mother’s basement, I found several diaries from when I was Buddy-roo’s age. I sat on the dusty chair under a single light bulb, reading the pages of dribble and cringing at the recounting of the romantic details of my life at age eight: how Kenny smiled at me in the lunch line, or how Billy said he loved me but I really loved Phil. Would Timmy hold my hand at the roller-skating party? Five pages later, the names were changed but the passion was just as fierce. How fickle, the flame of young love.

How do we learn about flirting? Is it something that just comes naturally? Is it observed or inherited? Short-pants can’t be bothered to think about the boys in her school as anything but classmates, while Buddy-roo intuitively creates a hierarchy of her romantic preferences. I’ve seen her in action. If those boys are dragging Buddy-roo, there’s a good chance they’re merely answering her coquettish call.

Should I talk to my daughters about flirting, its benefits and consequences? I know a bit about the subject. I was named biggest flirt in my high school senior poll and I’ve been told I’m not so bad at barstool banter. I’m a good wingman for my single friends; I’ll start a conversation and leave it for them to finish. One English summary of Les Draagueurs describes how the two bachelors think they’ve struck gold until “it becomes apparent that these two wily lasses only want someone to pay for their drinks.” That’s a motive I understand. It could be my epitaph: She only wanted him to buy her a beer.

My mother never gave me any advice about flirting. I don’t fault her for this. It wasn’t part of the logos of her generation. But I’m wondering if some kind of guidance isn’t appropriate. What would I say? How it’s fun but you have to be careful, how it can be hurtful to someone who takes you more seriously than you intend, or you can inadvertently hint at something you don’t mean to convey and get yourself in a sticky situation. How it’s a dance, but you have to be mindful how you step. Unless drawing attention to it only hastens the 50-yard dash Buddy-roo is already making toward the world of love and lust. Arming her with a bit of information could make her wiser – or just more wicked. Either way, I think we’re flirting with disaster.


Oct 29 2011

That Part

“Is this the marriage part?” Buddy-roo asked. We were congregated on the beach, greenish hills in front of us, the Pacific ocean at our backs. A few white folding chairs created a half moon, upon these chairs sat the elder family and friends while the rest of us stood behind them, making a tight circle in the sand before the couple. The vows were completely customized, except for an occasional dearly beloved and by the power vested in me, inserted for charm and humor rather than tradition. The barefoot bride, my sister-in-love, wore a dark pumpkin orange dress, her groom sported a similarly orange tie with a black suit, the trousers of which would later be folded up as he trampled around the surf with their two little boys, tow-headed like their uncles had been, tow-headed like my daughters once were, still young enough to have no clear idea about the meaning of the ceremony their parents had just constructed, more interested in the piles of sand than the people assembled.

The weekend was filled with wedding party and extended wedding party activities, dinners and picnic lunches, family football challenges on the beach, informal gatherings of cousins and friends of the bride and groom. Each occasion prompted the question from Buddy-roo, who was eager to witness the marriage part and didn’t quite understand all of the other moments of revelry leading up to it.

These are always a bit sticky, these wedding moments, as the nature of our non-wedded status becomes a topic of conversation that has its tender touch points. I brace myself for the inevitable and impertinent question, “so when will the two of you tie the knot?” It’s posed by loving and curious family or friends who aren’t privy to the quiet discussions that De-facto and I have had about the subject. We have morphed in and out of agreement and disagreement on our status, a negotiation which is moot given the inextricable intertwining that results naturally from having children while engaged in pre-marital coitus.

There’s an argument in favor of maintaining this unmarried position, railing against the conspiracy of marriage. Allegedly we are not lulled into the convenient malaise that comes with the “security” of a legal union. When there is no official agreement to rely upon to hold you together, there is no relaxing of the vigilance to the relationship. No lazy couples survive; we’re here facing each other every day, on purpose.

Still, some days I ache because we have not crossed a threshold of ritualizing our feelings for each other. It’s not the big wedding or the formal doo-dah, I know the headaches that accompany the planning and production of such an affair. It’s about stating deliberately to each other: I am here, on purpose, and I mean it, and doing so with a few family and friends not only to witness such proclamations, but to celebrate them, too.

Standing in the sand with the sun upon my back I recalled my failed marriage and the mild embarrassment I carry for having entered into such a public contract only to break it four years later. I take some pride in the amicability of that parting, not that there weren’t arguments and angry words launched between us during the height of its unraveling, but that ultimately, once the threads of our couple were untangled, my ex-husband and I were civil and caring toward each other. Elegant is how I’ve often described my divorce but I’m probably framing it with an aura of revisionist history. But okay, if that makes it easier, so be it: elegant.

There are a number of reasons De-facto and I aren’t married, most of them a defense against some fear that each of us harbors. Me, perhaps, that I will fail again and be twice divorced. Him, that such a traditional label of wife will push me away rather than draw me to him, that the formalization of our commitment would serve only to eat way at the commitment which has organically taken shape as our initial attraction and affection led to a couple in residence, which created one child and then another. Not by accident, the children part: we deliberately pulled the goalie for Short-pants and though Buddy-roo was a surprise, it was only the timing of her arrival and not the fact of it. We knew we wanted to parent together, although I can not for the life of me imagine why he would want me to mother his children as I surely exhibited no maternal finesse whatsoever while we were courting.

What cycles we have been through: one of us resisting, both of us inclined, then more resistance, or apathy. It should not be taken as a sign of rejection that we are not united in holy matrimony, but more an ambivalence about the institution itself and by whom we are given permission to be official. Having said that, the disappointment of having not chosen that path seems to rise out of its invisible resting place from time to time, usually when there is somebody else’s wedding to attend, and it falls upon me like an soft, worn blanket, that old throw that ought to be given away to the good will but for some reason it stays draped on the armchair. Why do we keep that old ratty thing around? Familiarity, perhaps. It wraps around me as I stand there in the sand, with all the others who celebrate the beautiful union of these two awesomely lovely, in-love-with-each-other people face to face before us, poignantly itemizing their life promises to each other. The tears that tip-toe down my cheeks are tears of joy for their happiness, and also tears of disappointment at my own, that I have everything they have – indeed – except the marriage part.

(The last image in this post is artwork by RubySpam.)


Sep 20 2011

Bidding Adieu

I’d pass the tailor’s shop every day, on my way to the bus or the metro, or to school to get the girls. He’d wave at me and step out of his shop into the street, looking a bit like Burt Lancaster as the old Doc in the Field of Dreams. His greeting was always accompanied by a sparkling-eye smile and polite cheek-to-cheek kisses, softened by his long, white beard. As warm as he was, he retained an old-world formality. He always used vous and insisted upon calling me Madame, no matter how many times I begged him to use my first name instead.

This man, Monsieur Atlan, touched me in rather intimate places. Being my tailor, he was obliged to pinch and tuck at the curves and bends of my body. He always did this with care and respect, bordering that sensual territory that is often present between a man and a woman, especially when his fingers are dancing around her waist checking for a proper fit. Yet there was never a hand misplaced, never an inappropriate gesture or remark. He’d pin everything perfectly and stand back and give me a genuine compliment, “Vous êtes vraiment belle,” and while it was an admiring comment, it had no charge. I was safe in his hands.

Comme ça?” he’d say, looking into the mirror at me, gauging the length of my pants has he folded and pinned them. Then he’d draw his fingers up the outside seam of my leg, to the waist. “Ici, ça va?” He’d pull the belt loop, revealing how much room gaped at the top, pinching it in and pinning it to show me how it would fit properly. He’d thoroughly inspect the entire garment, not satisfied to merely shorten the length to fit with my new shoes, but to be sure it fit perfectly at every seam, zipper, button or stitch.

Once I took him an old coat, a cream-colored leather-looking vinyl number, a hand-me-down from a friend who worked in the fashion industry. She’d clean out her wardrobe every season and pass some pretty fabulous things on to me. After years of loving wear, the silk lining had started to shred into strips. I wore it anyway, but not without occasional embarrassment. When I noticed a client eyeing the inside of my coat as I stretched my arms into its sleeves, I knew I had to take it to Monsieur Atlan.

He surveyed the coat carefully, taking his time to admire the workmanship of the stitching on the outside, nodding, approvingly. When he saw the inside he dropped his arms in despair at how I’d let the lining go. “Can you replace it?” I’d asked. “Mais oui,” he said, but the coat had to be cleaned first, and not just at any cleaner. “Most of them are thieves,” he said, picking up the phone and calling his preferred dry cleaner to say that I was coming and to please turn the coat around quickly and give me a fair price. Then we had a lengthy discussion about the lining, its color, pattern and the quality of material. As usual, what I’d hoped would be a 5-minute errand turned into a 25-minute in-depth discussion. But this was always the case with Monsieur Atlan. He wasn’t just a tailor, he was my tailor and he took seriously the job of taking care of my wardrobe. I think everyone who went to him felt this way.

His shop was a mess of material and thread and ancient sewing machines and an old-fashioned ironing stand. I’m sure it hadn’t been dusted or cleaned in years, you had to remember not to put your clothes over the bar that held the changing cabin’s curtain, the dust that had accumulated there would rub off on the very item you’d brought him to repair, or you’d walk out with a gray line across the front of your clothing. But as haphazard as his housekeeping may have been, his sewing was meticulous. And when you came to pick up whatever garment he’d repaired, you couldn’t just skip in quickly and grab it on the way home. He’d stop whatever he was doing to show you with pride the detail of what he’d done: the extra stitches he’d put in to reinforce it, or the care he’d taken to fix it from the inside. It was obligatory to admire his fine work. This wasn’t hard to do; he could fix even the most impossible garments and make them fit like a glove. Monsieur Atlan repaired more of my retail mistakes than I care to report.

Most of all, he loved my children. When I was pregnant, there was nobody in the neighborhood more thrilled to hear the news. He was certain of the gender, telling me each and every time I saw him that it would be a boy. When the second baby was apparent he made no further predictions, but doubled his enthusiasm. He marveled at Short-pants and Buddy-roo as they grew up walking down the street in front of his shop. He’d step out and beam at us as if we were his own family, repeating his mantra about how good health and the love of your family are what count the most. “La santé et l’amour de la famille, c’est principale.”

He was loved by everyone in the neighborhood. This must have sustained him when his health failed. Last winter he was diagnosed with cancer, what type was never revealed to me. He turned gray and hollow and though he worked as long as he could, soon he couldn’t and the occasions I would see him were only when he happened to be visiting the shop and by chance I would pass by.

“It’s a real battle,” he told me, “without your health.” He shook his head and his words trailed off. I finished the sentence for him, “but you have our love, c’est principale.”

His eyes still sparkled at that.

Last week a sign on the shop, which has been boarded up for most of the summer, announced a memorial service for him at the temple just across the street. I knew this was coming, it wasn’t a shock. Still I could not contain the tears as I stood on the street and read the words on the sign, again and again.

So much has changed in our neighborhood. Too many services and locally-run stores have moved away, forced out by high rents and the chain stores that have become, unfortunately, signature shopping in the Marais. Monsieur Atlan’s little old-fashioned shop and his thoughtful, attentive service remained steadfast as the neighborhood shifted from eclectic and ethnic to chic and trendy. His departure is another step away from the authenticity that was the hallmark of the quartier. I’m going to miss seeing him on the street. I’m going to miss his conscientious care of me and my wardrobe. I’m going to miss his warmth, his smile. But I won’t forget Monsieur Atlan, and I won’t forget his wise words: Your good health and the love of your family, c’est principale.