Sep 7 2014

Up in the Morning

It starts to happen, as our children get older, that the cherished memories we have of their childhood lose their clarity, and the boundary between sun_shineswhat we remember and what really happened begins to bend and blur. I want to tell you that when Short-pants was a baby, not quite a toddler, we’d hear first stirrings as she’d stretch and come to life slowly in her crib, taking in the new day. Then we’d hear her little voice call out enthusiastic, “Up in the morning!”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. It might have started that early, but maybe not until later. I do know that when she could finally escape on her own, over the railing of her crib, she’d toddle into our room and crawl up into our bed to make this morning declaration. She would pronounce each word with delight, as though lyrics of a song, all this while wearing a supremely self-satisfied smile.

A dozen years later, it’s still the first thing she says to us when we bump into each other in the kitchen, or if she slips in to our room while we’re still in bed: “Up in the morning!”

Getting the girls up in the morning and ready for school has long been my task. This involves assuring their state of dress and putting breakfast in their bellies, commanding the final assembly of book-bags the brushing of teeth until De-facto, a few minutes prior to the must-be-out-the-door moment, lifts himself from bed, throws on whatever clothes might be handy and walks them to school. Occasionally I’d be the one to escort them, but most days this has been our routine, in Paris as well as in Barcelona.

When Short-pants entered collège (middle school) two years ago and started walking to school on her own, she developed, instantly, an admirable sense of self-responsibility. She sets her own alarm, dresses and prepares her backpack, eats whatever you put in front of her or makes breakfast for herself, monitors the time closely and steps out the door in plenty of time to make it to school without having to rush. She likes the morning walk, and though accepting of our company on days we join her, has admitted to us that she prefers to walk to school alone.

So far this year, though, she’s been accompanied by her sister, who’s just started at collège. Buddy-roo is a professional sleeper and not such a happy-in-the-morning person. She is rallying, though, as part of the get-a-dog campaign. A campaign she’s won, by the way, as last spring not only did she demonstrate the capacity to wake herself earlier and more self-sufficiently, no_walking_with_parentsshe also achieved fine grades at school. Grades were not the objective; being conscientious about about her work was the goal. But by doing that she surprised us all – and mostly herself – with a recommendation from her teacher. (The dog, incidentally, an impending acquisition. Watch this space.) Part of the rite of passage to this higher class level involves making the trek to school without a parent, whether by walking or public transport. Since the girls start school at the same time now, they walk together.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on the night before the first day of school, we sat around the table after dinner, a family meeting to review the girls’ household chores. Since we’d been gone most of the summer, everyone was a little out of practice. I wanted to give the girls an opportunity to switch up their tasks and also to add new and different ones; as they get older and taller, there’s more they can do to help around the house. They are good natured, mostly, about the jobs we ask them to take on. Except one: Despite years of making it a required activity, I still can’t get them to replace an empty toilet paper roll or move the finished cardboard tube in to the trash, let alone to the recycling bin. Not sure why these tasks are so challenging to accomplish, but the three people with whom I live with seem unable to complete either of them. Though everyone has pledged, once again, to do their best.

For some reason, my annual clock rotates on a scholastic calendar, and I always think of this time of year as a time to change habits or get started on new projects. Or return to old projects, which is an objective of mine this year. I have a languishing manuscript. It needs a bit of re-work and a few chapters to end it. I’ve been working on it for a decade, and its time to finish and publish.

One way of changing a habit is asking for help from the people around you; this insight came to me during a session at Mindcamp, which resulted in the idea of setting aside just an hour a day to work on my manuscript. But not just any hour. The first hour of the day, before my fresh-from-the-dream-state imagination is spoiled by reading the news or email or by all the don’t-forget-your-maths-book kind of conversations that are part of shooing children out the door to school. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of this, but I’m just not enough of a morning person to get up before the girls, and askeven when I manage to rise before them, as soon as they’re up, they’re in my hair.

I decided to ask my family for help. After all, when they ask for something, I’m happy to do what I can to support them. Wouldn’t they show me the same courtesy? De-facto made what I perceived to be a slightly patronizing remark and Short-pants corrected my grammar, so I had to pound the table a moment to make them understand that this was actually something about which I was feeling very tender and even slightly vulnerable. A moment of discomfort around the table was followed by a how-might-we discussion about the people setting their own alarms and getting their own breakfasts. Everyone agreed we could try.

“Think of it as an experiment,” I said, “to help me get back in the habit of working on my book. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Up in the morning,” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

It is a mild surprise that they’ve adapted quickly to the new morning plan. Not that it’s been flawless: they forget and walk into my office to ask for something and I have to remind them that this is the kind of thing they have to ask me about the night before, so I can focus on writing in the morning. I get a knowing-nod and tip-toes out of the room.

Whether Short-pants and Buddy-roo leave for school together or separately, they leave early. At eight o’clock, or shortly after, I hear the door slam and their steps in the stairwell. By the time they’re out the door, I’m typing at full-speed. I don’t know if what I’m typing is any good, but I’m typing, and that’s as good a start as any. By the time I move on to the other tasks on my to-do list, professional and personal, I’ve logged at least an hour on my pet project, and that feels huge.

De-facto and I have gained hours that we didn’t have before, hours once taken up with walking Buddy-roo to school or picking her up at the end of the day and bringing her back home. Plus her day is longer than it was in the primary school. Add to that my extra writing time in the morning, and this year could be a whole new world for me. More time, the thing I’m always lacking.

Only a few days in to our new reality, I was at my desk, partly working and partly wondering if it wasn’t time for the girls to get home. De-facto walked behind me, through my office to the little balcony that looks out on the street. I kept waiting for him to pass back through my office, but he didn’t return. I stuck my head out the door to find him leaning against the rail, looking down the street.
“Waiting for the girls?” I said.

“I miss them,” he said.

I thought about how I’d hardly seen them in the morning and how they’d been gone all day. I wasn’t just missing them, I was aching for them. Maybe just because we’ve been so together all summer, it’s just an adjustment that takes getting used to. I wondered if this up-in-the-morning-writing-routine was going to work. I’m happy to have the creative space, but there’s definitely a price to pay.

“Me, too,” I said. “It’s a long day.”

De-facto wrapped his arm around me and we stood on the balcony together, our eyes fixed on the street below, waiting for their two heads to come into view so we could wave frantically and welcome them home.

Feb 19 2012

Lost and Found

A travel day can be a lost day, or a found one. When the job ends too late to make it to the airport, I am occasionally afforded an extra overnight in the hotel, and a quiet morning to myself without anything pressing to do. The meeting organizers and participants – who will sleep in their own homes that night – offer me sympathy, which I receive graciously. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to zap myself home and curl up next to De-facto and wake up to giggling girls in the morning, but the alternative isn’t a severe punishment. It is rare, once you have a family, to sleep alone and to wake alone, and there’s something delicious about the chance to do so.

Oh but I had plans. Several writing projects that have been on the back burner, a bit of research I’ve been meaning to do for another assignment. Big things I’d do with those extra hours. I’d gotten up early for an hour-long Skype call with my trainer, but otherwise I let the lazy morning stretch toward noon. I lounged around my hotel room doing a whole lot of nothing in particular: browsing, surfing, cleaning out my email inbox, catching up on non-urgent correspondence. It was supremely satisfying, handling all those little rocks.

I don’t remember where I heard the theory of big rocks and little rocks, but it’s a metaphor that’s stayed with me. The large rocks represent the important purpose-giving activities that one hopes to accomplish in any given day or week or period of time. The little rocks are the administrative and logistical tasks of life, those to-do lists I often rant about, all the minor tasks that take up time. Not that these little rocks are necessarily unimportant. Paying bills might be one of those pebbles, but if it doesn’t happen on time, the havoc created can further delay attention to the big rocks, and leads to additional smaller rocks just to get things back in order.

The theory goes that if you have a large glass vase and you fill it up with all the little rocks first, there won’t be enough room for the big rocks to fit in on top. But if you place the large rocks in first, and let the little rocks slip into the crevasses between them, then every rock will fit in the container.

Do the meaningful agenda items first, then the minutia.

This makes mountains of sense to me, but it doesn’t mean I can execute it consistently. It’s partially related to my medium-level of discipline, but also a natural by-product, I think, of the distractions – all those little tasks – that our children create for us. Then, of course, there’s the thrill of the Internet: the latest link to breaking news, three new emails announce themselves with a cheerful red dot in the dock of my desktop. (This isn’t so modern: as a child I used to wait and watch for the mailman to drive by every day, hoping for a letter from some summer-camp friend.) These incoming attacks of data and information all call for my attention, even if I’ve shut down the pipeline, which I often do.

Yet those lovely and surprising distractions take me on such serendipitous excursions each day. An article that provokes new thinking, a data point that’s amusing or interesting that could be used in my work. A soulful blog post that makes me laugh or even produces a gentle tear or two. It would be a shame to cut those little side-turns out of my experience entirely.

After my lazy morning, but before I left the hotel for the airport, I took a walk to stretch my legs. I’d been penned up in a windowless hotel meeting room for nearly three days, and the fresh air and sunshine were a relief. I did a full circuit around four long city blocks, walking briskly, breathing apace with my strides. It was just a 20-minute stroll, but it felt like a big rock, like something I needed to do, to keep my sanity.

I left my phone in the room – I wasn’t expecting a call and I didn’t intend to make one – yet almost every person I passed on the street wasn’t really on the street with me. They were on their portable phones, talking at full volume, waving their arms to make their point. Nobody was just walking and thinking. Nobody was just looking around. Even the people walking in pairs. They appeared to be conducting their own business, side-by-side but on their own devices, with other people in other places. Nobody was simply present.

At the airport, I felt like a fish swimming upstream, walking against the tide of people talking with their earphones on, or with noses buried in their smart phones, thumbs tapping away. The night before, in a restaurant, the diners seated on both sides of me felt it necessary to keep their phones on their tables, right next to their plates. I purposely put mine away. Partly because while I’m in the U.S. my roaming charges are onerous. Partly in defiance to the plugged-in, linked-in connected world that is eating us all up.

I love my gadgets and my connectivity. I really do. But I have to ask myself, just to stay honest: Which rocks does technology put in my hands? The big ones, or the little ones?

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the big rocks in my life. The manuscript that languishes on my hard-drive. That relocation project that I’ve been dreaming about for too long, and I’ve done little to prepare myself to make it happen. The children. They are my biggest rocks, though sometimes I forget this. I get so caught up in the little rocks – many of which have to do with them and their logistics – that I forget the biggest rock thing I can do is simply pay attention and engage with their lives. Find things to do together. Cultivate a rapport with them that they will cherish when I am gone. Appreciate them. Learn from them. (Until the eventual moment – and it’s not far off – when all they’ll want to do is talk on the phone and use their computers. But we’re not there yet.)

I suppose it takes a few days away, and maybe a long walk in the sun, to remember. Or else it’s just a string of hours to myself, to get lost in the thoughts of an uninterrupted morning to get my rocks in order, so I can find my way back to the precious stones that they are.

(Courtyard photo by Betsy Riley)

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?

Jun 2 2011


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

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

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


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

“No,” I said, into my pillow.

“Not one name?”


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

“André Agassi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Oh, but if he did.

Apr 3 2011

It rains, it pours.

I woke up to the sound of rain. Pouring rain. Teeming, relentless rain.

We live immediately beneath the roof, and on days when there is nowhere in particular to go, the rain’s melodic timpani is soothing and cozying-in. This was, however, not one of those mornings. An early morning meeting meant I had to be up before dawn. Not just a meeting I had to attend and add my occasional two-cents, this was a meeting I had to set up, and lead. A meeting with output that I had the responsibility to produce.

To complicate matters, De-facto was out of town and I’d been solo-piloting the household all week. I’d made an arrangement with neighbors to drop Short-pants and Buddy-roo at their place at 7:30 and they’d finish the delivery at school an hour or so later. But in order for all this to happen, it mean rousing the girls at 6:45, which meant getting up and getting myself ready first.

I’m not really a six-in-the-morning type of mom. I’m more of a who-wants-to-make-me-coffee-while-I-lay-in-bed kind of mom. But I heeded the alarm; I had no choice. I did all the personal bits to put myself in presentable order and then started poking my sleeping beauties. Grumpy, groggy heads rose off the pillows with thick resistance. The aroma of pancakes (batter mixed the night before) in a hot fry pan finally got their attention and stirred them from the warmth of their beds.

The rain was heavy and steady. I’d be better off in a cab than walking to and from the metro at both ends of this trip, so I found my cell phone and dialed T-A-X-I. The automated greeting prompted me to punch in 0735, the time in four digits that I wanted to be picked up. A robotic voice confirmed a taxi at 7:35 at an address on rue du Bourg Tibourg. Not my street, that was where some visiting friends had stayed a few months ago and I’d organized their ride to the airport – evidently the last time I called for a taxi. I pressed “2” for the menu option to change the address. The automated system wouldn’t accept it and repeatedly asked me to confirm the same incorrect address. I tried everything: saying no, saying my address, pressing a number of other keys on the telephone keypad before hanging up exasperated, in the meantime nearly burning a pancake while attempting to sort out my transportation to this meeting.

I used the landline to call another taxi service. The good news: an actual person answered. The bad news: it was impossible to order a taxi for 25-minutes-from-now, I had to call when I was ready for the cab to arrive. Except when it’s raining in Paris, and you call for a taxi immediate, you’re guaranteed the standard answer: sorry, no cars available.

In other news, the clothes I’d laid out for Buddy-roo were all wrong. I’d fastened the clasps on Short-pants’ backpack without zipping it first, as she prefers. And apparently, there was too much syrup on the pancakes.

“Please just eat the pancake,” I said.
“But I can’t,” said Short-pants.
“Just eat the pancake.”
“It’s too syrupy.”
Then came the I’m-seriously-about-to-get-angry voice, the really stern one.
“Eat. The. Pancake.”

The eruption of tears shouldn’t have surprised me, Short-pants is über-sensitive. When Buddy-roo joined in, upset by my tone or her sister’s tears (or both) and I had two wailing girls on my hands. My eyes darted to the microwave clock – it was 7:12 and they needed to be fed and dressed and brushed in fifteen minutes and I’d managed to throw a wrench in the plan I’d worked out to prepare the kids cheerfully but swiftly, get them out the door and get myself (and a suitcase full of workshop supplies) to this damn meeting on time.

A crescendo of rain pounded on the kitchen skylight, the sound nearly drowning out their tandem crying.

In moments like this, a time-out is the best option. I removed myself to the still-curtained dark of my bedroom, permitted a few curses to escape, words I’m sure I’ll hear parroted at a future and inopportune moment. This was followed by the contemplation – in a split second – of all the choices I’d made in my life to bring me to this moment. A few synapses-signals later, my string of misery: I hated my work, I hated my children, I hated De-facto (this was all his fault anyway), I hated Paris. I hated the rain. I hated taxis. I hated all the other would-be passengers waiting ahead of me in the long line at a taxi queue that would empty of any cabs. I hated the room full of people waiting for me, everybody tapping their foot while I’d be hurrying to set the room, like one of those nightmares you wake up from in a sweat or like a painfully clumsy scene from Mr. Bean, where I’d be fumbling around to hang flip-chart paper on the wall and dropping pads of post-it notes all over the floor.

Big breath. A shift in thinking, to consider this: Not an earthquake. Not a tsunami. Not a nuclear disaster. No guerilla combatants within range. “Not my wife, not my life,” somebody wise once told me. Just a long week alone with the girls (hats off to every single parent in the world), and a temporary wave of stress about a job I wanted to do well. I lifted my head from my hands, gathered myself up off the bed and returned to the kitchen where the girls had remained frozen in their chairs, crying, not eating.

“How about I make another pancake and put it on the plate with that one, to soak up the syrup?”

The crying calmed to sniffles and a solemn nodding of heads. Breakfast resumed and completed. Teeth were brushed. Shoes and coats and donned, book-bags hoisted over little shoulders. Children hustled down the stairs and handed off successfully. The rain had let up. A miracle of plenty at the taxi queue. I even had time for a quick coffee at the café beside the office where my meeting was to be held. It’s true when it rains, it pours – but never forget, then it stops.

Oct 20 2010

Looking Away

“Tell me again about the day Grammy died.” Buddy-roo had crawled into bed and was curled against me like a spoon. I was just falling back to sleep. Her words startled me out of that barely-there-light-doze.

What was it that prompted her, in that instant, to think about my mother? The picture I’ve been meaning to hang on the wall by my bed, the one of mom with a suitcase in hand on her way toward airport security – an iconic pose for her – is still tucked away on the jewelry shelf in my closet, waiting for the perfect frame to be procured. There’s nothing near my bed that would have conjured up her question. I wondered, but opted not to ask. Buddy-roo has the right to think of my mother whenever she pleases.

I repeated the story of that Sunday morning. How my mother was in a bed in her study, barely conscious for days; how her breathing had been irregular but then calmed; how I don’t remember saying this but my siblings tell me I told her the plan for the day is to let go (she was an organized woman who liked a good plan) and how we three sat with her, watching her, holding her hands, comforting her. And how during that one 45-second interval, for whatever reason – to use the bathroom, to fetch a sweater upstairs, to get some more coffee – we’d all left her unattended and she chose that blink-of-an-eye moment to stop breathing. My sister returned, discovered her and called to us.

(I think we are guilt-free about the fact that we weren’t right there at her side when she took her very last breath. We’d been there with her all weekend, in the way we were so often together as a family, in proximity but doing our own thing. None of us were surprised that she stole away while we’d been simultaneously distracted. I’d wager she was waiting for us to leave her alone so she could die in private.)

“But when did they come to get her?” Buddy-roo asked.
“Well, then we called the funeral director and he drove his big station wagon right up on the front lawn and came in to take her body away.”
“But when did they come to get her?”
“It was about an hour after she died.”
“No. When did she go?”
“Well, when she stopped breathing. I suppose that’s when she left.”

Buddy-roo deftly changed the subject, apparently satisfied enough with what she’d gleaned from my explanation. Then, as she does, she moved casually on to the next topic – a movie she wanted to watch, a breakfast request, a story from school. Conversation over.

Today my feet up in the air, against the wall, the cool-down position after a pilates session, breathing in and out as my trainer ran through a relaxation sequence. After whale-kicks with ankle-weights, ab-crunching contortions and dozens of humiliating lunge-squats, it doesn’t take much to enter a light meditation. The scene that came to me, in that state, is one that I see often in dreams about my mother. She is standing on the back porch in her summer robe as I walk from the driveway toward the house. Her body tilts slightly to one side, just like her mother’s did – just like mine will someday – and she is smiling, unconditionally happy to see me.

Then the tears came. They were good and I let them flow and my trainer understood. Later at home I told De-facto who held me while I sobbed against his chest, and he understood. Now in the quiet of my writing studio, I understand what I knew but pretended not to, how impossibly hard it is to grieve when you are busy. The recent respite from travel and work brings relief and rest, but panic as well; grief no longer compartmentalized into 10-minute cubbyholes grows heavy and damp around me.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to frame that photograph of my mother with her suitcase, the one I intend to hang by my bed. It is so her, she is on the move. I guess I learned this from her.

In my studio, on a low table just beside my desk, there is a collection of silver-framed photographs of my family: a portrait of my brother and his wife and children; my sister, sitting in front of the temple of Angkor Wat; my aunt dressed in a stunning red suit. They all smiled for the camera, which means that now they are smiling at me.

Two more photographs that stand on that table. In one, my father is barefoot at the beach. He’d been to a conference on the west coast, his first visit to the Pacific, evidently its call so enticing that he removed his socks and shoes and rolled up his suit-pants to feel the other ocean on his toes.

The other photograph is of my mother, with me. We are walking down the street with our arms around each other. It was taken during the first summer I lived in Paris, fifteen years ago when unbelievably I actually wore short baby-doll dresses with black paratrooper boots. I remember that evening, walking beside her, headed toward a favored restaurant, mother and daughter together. I was sharing my Paris with her.

Why, I wonder, have I chosen to keep and display pictures of my parents in which they are turned away from me? In both photographs, I noticed just today, they are facing the other direction, the back of their heads and their bodies the only reminder I have of them in this room otherwise filled with photographs of De-facto and my children and my family and friends – everyone else gazing straight at me.

Is it easier for me to look at them if they’re looking away?

My father, who’s been gone for over two decades, still appears in my dreams. I wake up happy, delighted for even a brief chance to visit with him in the dreamtime. My mother figures prominently in dreams these days, too, but I wake up sad, wanting more, feeling her absence. I am no stranger to grieving, I know that with time – our old friend time – the heaviness of losing her will dissipate and I’ll think of her without such a sorry weight. Someday I’ll wake up happy just to have seen her in a dream. But how long will that take?

Maybe that’s what Buddy-roo means. Maybe they haven’t come to get her yet – whoever they are, the ubiquitous they, the ones who work in tandem with time and help you let go of the people you love and hold near. When did she go, Buddy-roo? She hasn’t yet. Not until I let her go.

Sep 1 2010

Morning Questions

Now that they are older, they wake up at a reasonable hour, something later than eight o’clock and occasionally after nine in the morning. (Well, until school starts tomorrow.) They totter down the stairs with that first-steps-in-the-day stiffness; their thumping like a gentle alarm clock alerting me that they are awake and they are coming my way. Then appears one of them – it could be either of the girls, though Short-pants is prone to rising earlier – pushing open the door to our bedroom, which sticks and sometimes requires serious muscle. A little sprite appears, donning just a pair of pink Cinderella underwear, lifts up the white comforter cover and crawls in between the sheets for the morning cuddle. It might be moments later – or as long as an hour – when the other one arrives and squeezes into the bed on the other side of me.

These cuddles are mostly wordless, except for the three questions:
Did you sleep well?
Did you have any good dreams?
Did you wake up feeling loved?
Short-pants adores the ritual of this Q&A, and answers each one with a deliberate “Yesssss,” letting the s stretch out for emphasis. I rarely ask Buddy-roo; before I even finish the first question she interrupts, “I don’t want you to ask me those questions.” I’ve asked her why not, dozens of times. The best I can get out of her is that she just doesn’t like them. So we cuddle in silence.

I’m struck by how the character of the morning cuddle has transformed over the years. When they were babies, this was the moment when they took my breast for the first meal of the day while I savored those last minutes of precious sleep. Then they were toddlers and we were constantly at war, fighting to keep them out of our bed until the sun had risen (our line in the sand), when the morning cuddle revealed the true pyrrhic nature of all those little battles we’d won the night before. This morphed into another stage in which their arguing, despite our admonishments, would crescendo into tearful screaming matches about who got to be on what side of the bed next to which parent – a prize that was hard to predict because De-facto and I never knew which of us was the coveted parent and we could fall out of favor at the drop of a hat.

Until now, a new phase, when they seem very content to wake up slowly, rising softly and silently and joining us in bed with little expectation of conversation, just the warmth and comfort of their parents and another twenty minutes of dream-time and morning slumber. (This is a great phase.)

I came across a photograph of my mother that I took a little over a year ago. Aware of her impending departure, I tried to capture little vignettes of her – things I wanted to remember – like the expression on her face while she washed the dishes (I snapped this without her noticing, from outside the window above her kitchen sink), or seeing her seated in her designated place at the head of the dining room table or curled on the couch watching television with her eyes closed. One morning I even photographed her sleeping in her bed, with her back toward me. I realized I didn’t have a strong memory of her sleeping alone in her bed; when I lived at home my father was usually beside her. Then there’s this: she was always up earlier than me. I never saw her sleeping in. Until that morning.

I took note of the details: the color of her tousled hair, the lace trim of the familiar nightgown against the skin on the back of her neck, her hand raised next to her pillow, clutching a piece of Kleenex. After I took the photo, I lifted the covers and slipped into bed beside her and put my arm around her. I wished somebody else was there to take a picture of the two of us in our morning cuddle so I could show Short-pants and Buddy-roo.

Instead I told them about it, which I suppose is even better because they had to conjure up their own image of the occasion in their minds. This prompted an inquisition: When you cuddled with Grammy, did she ask you the morning questions? No. Why not? I made them up for you. You made them up for us? Yes. Why? I don’t know. But why? I guess maybe to ease gently into using words after a long sleep. Gently? Why gently? (You see where this is going.)

This morning, they arrived within minutes of each other, their long, lithe bodies quickly snapping up the covers and diving into bed with us. We dozed in and out of the velvet pocket of morning sleep. When it felt like enough time had passed for words, I ran through the three questions with Short-pants. She answered with an emphatic and serpent-like “Yesssss,” pulling her arms tighter around me with each response.

I know Buddy-roo hates the questions but I keep thinking maybe someday she’ll change her mind and share this little ritual with us, and remember it later in her life as a good moment in her childhood. So occasionally I try them out on her anyway. This morning I braced myself for her usual scorn, but instead – surprisingly – she answered me.

Did you have a good sleep? It was okay, except it was too hot in my bed. Do you have any good dreams? I don’t remember if I dreamt or not. Did you wake up feeling loved? Maybe, if there are pancakes for breakfast.

Not so gentle, but not a bad way to start.

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.

Aug 12 2009

Window of Time

The bedroom we sleep in at our country house has no windows except for a skylight in the ceiling. When we bought the house it was barely a room, its rafters exposed and the underside of the terracotta-tiled roof in full view. The first summer we were here, we put in a proper ceiling and cut in the skylight to add some natural light. There was talk of cutting a window in the 18”-thick stone wall so that we could see the cornfield behind the house. But like many of the dreams we have about this rundown, part-barn, second home of ours, that was added to the list of things we’ll get to, eventually. This renovation is a long-term project.

There’s something to be said, however, for living in a house before you renovate it. The assumptions that you make when you first stand in a room are tested over time. Though the country kitchen of my dreams is still years away from being realized, the placement of its appliances will be different – having used the room and divined its natural circulation – than if we’d put a brand new kitchen in straight away.
And after sleeping in the windowless, womblike back bedroom for four years, I’m not sure we’ll ever put a window in that wall. I have the best sleeps in this room, thick and heavy with velvety dreams. It’s like being in a tank, oblivious to the outside world, protected from noise and light, impervious to everything, except a small child who decides it’s time for you to get up.

This morning I was curled around Buddy-roo in the center of our big bed, having both fallen back to sleep during the ritual morning cuddle. Short-pants had slipped out from under the covers earlier; I remember hearing her uneven steps around the foot of the bed. De-facto was exceptionally industrious, rising early to lay a belt of cement beside the house to add security to the foundation (don’t ask), preferring to work in the cooler morning hours.

“Mama.” I felt a skinny finger tapping my shoulder. Since Buddy-roo was motionless beside me, it had to be Short-pants.
“Mama, I’m hungry.”
I groaned. I was in the middle of such a delicious sleep.
“Mama, I want something to eat.”
“Ask Papa.” I mumbled.
“He said he’s too busy.”

It didn’t really make sense that De-facto would say he was too busy to make breakfast for one of his daughters. And Short-pants knows how to pour a bowl of cereal for herself. But when you’re half-asleep things don’t necessarily make sense. Maybe, I thought, if I don’t respond, she’ll leave me alone. I could still fall back to that dreamy slumber, if I just didn’t move.

I could hear her breathing behind me.
“Mama,” her voice sweeter than ever, “I’m really hungry.”

Later, after stirring honey into a bowl of yogurt – and explicitly explaining to her how to do it – I sat beside her on the rickety bench by our table. She silently spooned yogurt into her mouth while I cupped my hand around a bowl-like mug of café-au-lait. We sat together like that, wordless, and watched the sun pour through the window across the dusty floor. I can sweep that floor three times a day, but here in the country, it’s always dusty.

“Did Papa really say he was too busy to make you breakfast?” I said.
She shook her head no. “I didn’t ask him.”
“Why did you have to wake me up? I was having such a nice sleep-in.”
I was about to launch into the little lecture I’ve given before, about how impolite it is to wake us up early when it’s a weekend or vacation morning.
“I just wanted to have some time alone with you,” she said.

I wanted to be angry. But how can you be mad at someone who simply wants a little bit of undivided attention? It’s true that I’m always in the middle of something. I spend too much time doing and not enough time being. I live my life feeling barely caught up, always running someplace and I’m already late, taking care of something I forgot to do, perpetually spewing the busy mom’s mantra, “just let me finish this….”
When the girls were babies and I was up to my ears in their 24/7 care, people told me “it will go by so fast, enjoy it while you can.” At the time – given that some days I couldn’t even find a moment to brush my teeth – I resented this clichéd comment. But now I’m finding out how it might be true for me. While I wouldn’t go back to those diapered, toddler years again, I do sense that right now is a unique window of time, a window when they are (relatively) independent and yet still interested in having anything to do with me. I know it won’t last forever, this window. I want to take advantage of it while it’s here and now. Spending time with them is not something to be added to the list of things I’ll get to, eventually. They are my most important long-term project.

And I will get to them. I will, as soon as I finish this post.

Jun 26 2009

How It Adds Up

This morning, when I went to wake up Short-pants from her heavy slumber, I found her curled up on the floor beside her bed. She’d removed herself and her covers from the mattress and appeared to have slept on the floor. Every light in her room had been left on overnight. Her bed was covered with little one-inch squares of paper, each one with a math problem, column addition or subtraction. Each one with a solution. There were at least a hundred of these little squares peppered over the bed, like confetti after a victory parade. What midnight madness seized her?

The thing is, I do kvetch about my kids, and they do tire me out. But when I come upon a scene like I discovered this morning – the fascinating evidence of a little mind at work, overcoming her insomnia, entertaining herself with math problems in the middle of the night – well, then it’s clear that the positives outweigh the negatives on this whole mothering thing. In the end, it all adds up to something pretty good.