Dec 23 2015

Time for Christmas

I’ve lost ten hours of my life to that bank. Ten hours I didn’t have to spare. Hours of fussing with the new on-line interface that won’t connect, or calling help-lines and being put on hold. Hours standing in line at a branch office, the only one that deals with my problem, a problem that can be addressed at only one desk, the one with six people waiting in front of it. I will lose at least three more hours opening a new account in a different bank, and trotting down to the previous one and attempting to withdraw all my funds. I suppose it will eventually get sorted and in the context of all the other horrible things that are happening in the world, this is a luxurious problem. But I’ll never get those hours back. clocks_times_three

It’s not a time when I can be generous with hours. An array of projects lie unfolded before me, marked by a mosaic of bright Post-it notes on the wall above my desk or Skype calls inked in my calendar. All of these need time and take time. Each one of them something important or at least fascinating to me, none I would be prepared to discard. Yet all of them, all at once, fill up the hours of the day, and quickly.

I have so many things I want to write. Website updates and posts about all those interesting projects. A book to finish editing (for work). A book to finish writing (for myself). So there’s no pleasure in the time spent on bank interfaces that won’t work, or calling our internet service provider about the strange undulation of our allegedly high speed, high quality fibre optic wifi, or hunting down viruses that have snuck into my computer, or scheduling doctor’s appointments I should have made weeks ago.

The girls, of course, need time from me, now more than ever. Short-pants is carrying the stress of her schoolwork. Always conscientious about homework, she manages it without assistance, but lately you can see the burden of the workload – it increases in intensity and volume every year — taking its toll on her. Each week, her introverted self gets depleted by Thursday. She explodes in anger or bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. Especially when it’s her sister who drops it.

Her sister, who is going through her own existential crisis, spiraling down into dark thoughts. Don’t laugh: I remember going through this myself when I was Buddy-roo’s age, conjuring up weird fantasies about what would happen if I was dead. Never enough to make it happen, but wondering about it, which leads to wondering about why are we here anyway, and for Buddy-roo, pondering what’s the point, especially if she doesn’t have a iPhone like all her friends?

The only antidote to their various bouts of teenage angst – both legitimate and dramatic – is time. Time spent sitting on the couch beside them, listening, chatting, or just being there and doing nothing at all. Time when I step away from the computer and give them my full attention. Time when they get to feel like they are the most important thing on my to-do list.
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And then there’s Christmas. The time of year for spirited joy and treasured family traditions. Time-honored traditions that take a lot of time. It’s a holiday that’s hardest on moms, even if dads play along. Or maybe it just hits me the hardest. Me and my mother, who used to get all wound up at Christmas and I never understood why until I was the one buying, wrapping, baking and planning. Though nobody’s holding a gun to my head to bake 4 dozen ginger-bread men and 8 dozen Christmas cut-outs (because that’s what the recipe makes) every year.

“Because it’s your tradition,” De-facto says, when, wincing at my sore shoulders, I ask myself out loud why I do this every year.

I do know why. The girls love it. They jump up and down at the mention of the seasonal baking. Now they’re old enough to really help – as opposed to when they were toddlers, when their “help” had a short attention span – and they do their share by mixing the ingredients to make the dough, rolling it flat and cutting out the angels and stars and fir trees and Santas. They know how to add the food coloring to the sugar, and how to sprinkle it on the cookies while the icing is still soft. That’s time well spent, and spent together, but it makes me long for a time when I was the one standing on the stool watching my mother read from her recipe card while she blended the ingredients with her foley fork, admonishing me, with affection, not to eat too much of the raw dough.

Because for me – and I know I say this every year – Christmas isn’t entirely joyful. It’s a time when I miss all those people who used to come together for the holidays, whose collective presence seated around my parents’ living room was the most comforting thing in the world. Christmas makes me want to regress to an earlier time, a time when I was the one marveling at the tree and its trimmings and shaking the decorated packages beneath it, when my only responsibility was playing the elf who distributed the gifts as we sat around and opened them one-by-one, and maybe setting the table or drying a few dishes after Christmas dinner. I long for those days when the hours between now and Christmas morning seemed an eternity, when time couldn’t move fast enough. If only we could put those restless, protracted hours in the bank when we’re young and impatient, and withdraw them later, when we’d appreciate them so much more. (Santa, can I open that account for Christmas?)

In the meantime, the speed of how we experience time is variable but (mostly) out of our control. There’s nothing to do but take in this moment now: Buddy-roo squatting before the Christmas tree, keep_outbemoaning how many days there are still before Christmas while I put a “keep out” sign on my office door and scramble to finish wrapping presents. This is what she will remember, and some day she will long for it. That’s the most enduring gift I can give those girls, a string of Christmases to remember fondly, even if the memory is always a little bit bittersweet.


May 10 2015

An Extra Day

I picked her up at her friend’s house – as usual she resisted the departure – and we walked toward the metro to make our way home, Buddy-roo swinging her bag of tiny plastic Pet-shop animals, describing the trades she’d made and the status of her expanding collection. She is eleven, dancing in the elastic world between child and adolescent, one moment knee-deep in blocks, dollhouses and little plastic pets, the next moment in front of her mirror, anguishing over an invisible pimple or the loss of a favorite hairband. blue_mother

“Do you know what tomorrow is?” she asked.

I knew where this was going, but I didn’t answer.

“It’s Mother’s Day!”

Again, I offered no response. It’s never been a holiday – if you can call it that – I am too attached to. Not that I mind the setting aside of a day to appreciate mothers of the world, but inevitably the day disappoints. There’s always a residue of “last minute” and the sentiment is short-lived. The home-made cards and big-morning-fuss are sweet and tender, but by mid-day everyone’s put it behind them and I’m the one folding laundry, replacing empty toilet paper rolls and nudging people to do the chores they’re supposed to do without me asking. Not to mention the kitchen sink is filled with all the dishes used to make me my special breakfast in bed.

“Did you know it was Mother’s Day?” she asked.

I didn’t want to answer this question, either.

“You knew,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I tried to explain how this is the sort of thing you don’t want to have to remind people about. You’re not supposed to make an announcement at dinner the week before, about how the coming Sunday is Mother’s Day so don’t forget to show me the love, folks. The idea is that I might be surprised and delighted by the gestures my family offers up without having to prompt them.

“But you should have told us so we could do something for you,” her voice revving up to a whine. “I haven’t done anything for you and it’s tomorrow!”

Part of me wanted to calm her down, to tell her she didn’t have to do anything because it’s a silly Hallmark holiday. Another part of me thought, really how could they not know? It’s in the window of ten storefronts on our street, it was advertised on web-sites all week and I received at least a half-dozen emails in the last few days promoting Mother’s Day specials. Mother’s Day always falls on a Sunday in May, so when May rolls around, how hard is it to pay attention? Why is it the mom that has to remember and organize everything?

“It just doesn’t feel right, to have to remind you,” I said.

~ ~ ~

We celebrated the Spanish Mother’s Day, which was on Sunday, a week ago. Short-pants delivered a cup of coffee with frothy milk to my bed. She does that every weekend morning, but this time it was presented with mom-appreciating aplomb. Buddy-roo paraded in with hand-made gifts she’d made the night before after bookmark_mamasearching the Internet for quick and crafty items. A bookmark she’d made smelled heavily of glue not yet dry, but charmed me with it’s design, and you have to give her credit for the quick recovery. De-facto left the bedroom and re-appeared with a bouquet of a dozen pink roses he’d hidden in her closet.

“She got mad that I’d put them in her closet without getting her permission,” he whispered, out loud. Buddy-roo glared at him and then turned to me and shrugged her shoulders.

The plan for the day was a family walk, up the mountain behind where we live to a small hillside restaurant for lunch. I’d asked for three uninterrupted hours to myself, first, to linger in bed with my laptop. The uninterrupted part of my request was not exactly achieved, but I was undisturbed enough to finish editing a chapter and feel like I’d made some progress on my manuscript, which is chugging along at a tortoise’s pace.

I don’t know what went wrong, exactly. Maybe the girls didn’t eat breakfast, or didn’t have enough to eat. Maybe De-facto’s repeated urging to finish homework before our walk annoyed Buddy-roo, who then kept asking her sister to help her, which put Short-pants in a bad mood. When it was time to put the dog on the leash and head out the door, both of my daughters were stomping and screeching at each other. Buddy-roo refused to go on the walk if Short-pants was going. Short-pants announced that she’d only go if Buddy-roo went, too.

After a few futile attempts to reason with them, reminding them how much I was looking forward to this Mother’s Day family walk, my annoyance was escalating, too. I was on the verge of screaming at them, “It’s my fucking day, put your damn shoes on!” As satisfying as that would have been, I’ve been a mother long enough to know that while such a command might achieve full compliance, it wouldn’t inspire the kind of we’re-happy-together experience that Mother’s Day memories are made of.

“Winston and I will be waiting outside,” I said, snapping the leash onto his collar and trying not to slam the door on our way out. I left it to De-facto to handle the girls. It was supposed to be my day off, wasn’t it?

~ ~ ~

At dinner that night we talked about what had happened. Buddy-roo apologized for missing the family walk. I told her I was disappointed, but I appreciated that she’d finished her homework in our absence and was in a good mood when we’d returned home. Short-pants, who’d rallied and joined us for the trek up the mountain and lunch at the café terrace, admitted that she’d enjoyed the walk even though her sister hadn’t accompanied us. one_day

“But it’s not fair,” said Short-pants, “that you get celebrated on your birthday, and you get Mother’s Day, too.”

“And Papa gets Father’s Day,” said Buddy-roo, “that’s not fair either.”

“Why isn’t there a Kid’s Day?” Short-pants said, with her mouth full of food.

“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I said, “and you do get Kid’s Day. It’s called Christmas.”

“You get Christmas, too.”

“Not like you do. And you also get Easter, and Halloween.” I was on a roll. “All those holidays are fun for kids, but they mean more work for moms. Is that fair?”

They shook their heads, in unison, quieted by my logic.

That’s why mothers get an extra day. And maybe even two extra days, since I snuck in a few special requests today, on American Mother’s Day, and everyone cheerfully complied.


Apr 28 2014

Write On

I still have to do it by hand. The keyboard is okay for emails or business proposals. But a post doesn’t come to me in perfunctory punches on plastic keys. There’s something about the pen in my hand, the side of my palm against the paper, connected to my wrist, my arm, my shoulder, to my body, where you’ll find my heart. If it’s going to have any guts to it, it has to start out as a hand written piece. My first drafts are always in my journal or on some scrap of paper beside my bed. The words come sometimes so fast that my hand can’t keep up and then I think I should be writing directly on the keyboard. But the instant I switch to my laptop – and I’ve tried this – the words dry up and I stare at the empty screen. Maybe it’s just habit, or maybe there’s something to the heart-to-pen circuit.
spilt_ink
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m participating in a “blog tour” about writing, and I’ve been given four questions to answer. A bit of backstory: five years ago when my manuscript was going nowhere, I took the advice of a few friends to try my hand at blogging. A few posts later I’d fallen in love with the medium. I loved that I could publish my writing without a gatekeeper. I loved that I could design my own look, choose my typeface and select my images. I also appreciated the community of bloggers who read each other’s posts, commented on and promoted each other’s blogs and in general supported anyone who wants to join the club.

I used to spend a fair amount of time nosing around in the blogosphere, but after a couple of years it got harder to keep up. Life got busier with more work and more travel and the bulk of time I’d permitted myself to read all my favorite blogs shrank considerably. But there are a few I manage to keep up with. One of them is Magpie Musing, a quirky, intelligent blog by a woman who shares my name, my love of books and a fascination with things in a state of desuetude. The other belongs to Amanda McGee, whose writing is good enough to eat. It’s Maggie at Magpie Musing who lured me into this assignment, but it was Amanda’s post that inspired me to accept.

~ ~ ~

How does your process work? It could be a topic I’m grappling with (again) that comes to the surface, or a comment by Short-pants or Buddy-roo that gives me an idea. Sometimes De-facto will hear me rant and respond with “that sounds like a blog post.” I’m a student of the Nathalie Goldberg school of freewriting, so I’ll write the nugget of that idea at the top of the page and let the pen go. Judgment is suspended and all words and phrases that come to mind get scribbled down, little gems both poignant and awkward, fodder to be fine-tuned and polished later. The more you get on the page, the more you have to work with, so I allow a full purge to create a first draft. If you read Annie Lamott‘s book Bird by Bird, she talks about the shitty first draft, and that’s exactly what I produce. It’s messy and wordy and occasionally embarrassing, but it’s a step beyond the daunting blank page, and for that alone it is a precious victory every time.
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When the computer gets involved, the editing starts. Words are arduously rearranged, lines chopped, paragraphs deleted. I’m still too wordy. I could use a good editor to catch typos and omit needless words. Sometimes the labor goes too long and I come to a point where I just have to ship it. But only after a good night’s sleep and a fresh read in the morning. Then I hit publish.

Why do you write what you write? The reasons have morphed since I started. At first I thought I was writing to get a wider audience. When my mother subscribed, I realized I could write to tell her things about my life that were hard to convey to her in person. When she passed away this blog saved me from heartbreak by giving me a place to express my grief. I still haven’t deleted her from the subscriber list. You might read between the lines and hear me whispering to her, with pride about how the girls are growing, or exasperation about how the girls are growing.

I write for my daughters, too. Just in case twenty or thirty years from now when/if they enter the mother’s club – if they are curious – there’ll be an archive about their childhood from my point-of-view. I can’t be sure they’ll care. All I know is how many times I wish I knew what my mother had been going through when she was mothering me. I used to ask, but her responses were not particularly revealing. If my daughters ever want that depth from me, well, it’s here for the taking.

If you really, truly, want to know more about why I write, read this.

How does your work differ from others in the genre? It’s hard for me to characterize how what I do is different. What I love about the world of blogging is the wide diversity that exists; blogs with ten readers and those girls_on_rockswith thousands, each with its own voice and purpose. In that way, different is normal. Somebody once told me this was a literary blog, which I took as a huge compliment. De-facto calls it a contrarian mom blog. I’m not sure this is so distinct, but it’s the crux of what I write. Every day I experience an acute ambivalence, the duality of amazement and angst about having these creatures in my life. I try to craft each post as a short narrative that makes a point about this paradox. I want to tell stories that make you love my kids, and at the same time, make you roll your eyes along with me.

What are you working on? This writing exercise reminds me that I’m not. There’s a manuscript that’s nearly finished, but stuck on a back burner. There’s another story waiting to be told, but its words haven’t made it to the blank page. I won’t even bother to go into the excuses. I’ll just say thanks to Maggie and for the nudge – here’s her blog tour post, by the way – and see if I can’t get back to that big writing project and finish it. Maybe I could publish chapters of my manuscript on this blog. Should I?

~ ~ ~

Like a tree, this story branches out. Each blogger invites two more to muse about their writing process, a digital chain letter that’s been going on for months. I have a long history of breaking chain letters without apology. This one I’m passing along, though I gave my invitees guiltless permission to bow out if the exercise wasn’t something for which they had time or interest. To my surprise, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to find two bloggers happy to play along.
tree_art_by_Blair
Lori, of Groovy Green Living, is someone I knew in real life before we linked on the internet. She’s a ferocious advocate for our planet, and for our health in an increasingly toxic world. Her blog not only inspires you to act, choose and shop in a responsibly green way, it tells you, in very practical terms, how.

Kristen at Birthing Beautiful Ideas describes herself as a feminist mother, philosophical doula and snarky storyteller. She has great post titles, too. One of my favs: The Pre-labor Cervix is not a Magic 8 Ball.

I encourage you to take a look at their blogs, especially next Monday to acknowledge them for carrying on the baton for this meme. And if you’re still curious about bloggers and how they write, then visit this Twitter hashtag: #mywritingprocess

Writing my blog has been a source of tremendous pleasure. It’s helped me grow as a writer, a mother and a woman. But it wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t any readers. So let me finish my writing about writing by thanking those of you who click through and read Maternal Dementia, whether it’s every post or just once in a while. There’s so much to read on the web. Your time is precious. I thank you for spending it here on my blog with Short-pants, Buddy-roo, De-facto and me.

(Photo credits: Spilt Ink is artwork by Dan Walker. The tree in the last image was painted by Blair Bradshaw.)


Jan 20 2014

How Fitting

The saleswoman directed us to the fitting room, a long row of closets where we could undress and try on our selections. Short-pants and I had toured the lingerie department thoroughly, in search of new bras. We used to find them easily in the girl’s section, the starter bras for budding young women. I’d noticed the week before that those easy-to-buy standards were not only a bit ragged, they were too tight. It was time to buy her a real bra.

I’d wager that most women remember the acquisition of their first bra, and not always happily. It’s a question – and I’ve asked different circles of girlfriends over the years – that’s always met with groans. How could such a simple step into womanhood have so many unpleasant stories? My experience is a classic example: My mother, noting that my nipples were popping through my favorite striped turtleneck sweater, drove me to McCurdy’s department store. It was “out of town,” meaning it was a 30-minute drive (that was a good distance in those days) so you didn’t go there for every-day things. It was a special trip. This was where we went to do Christmas shopping, or to buy back-to-school clothes. I remember coming home after those late August shopping trips and laying all the new outfits on my bed and feeling the discordant mix of excitement about going back to school along with a deep sadness about the waning of summer and its late sunsets long after dinner, stretching the hours of play to the maximum.

In the same shopping plaza as McCurdy’s, there was a lingerie store called The Ethel Abraham Shop. It was classy place. My underwear worldview, in house_of_underwearthose days, was fairly polarized. You bought underwear at a department store like McCurdy’s, or by mail-order from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which was reserved for people kinkier than my mother or her circle of friends. Lingerie was an evocative word. It spoke of the unspoken: sex. Or so I thought, until Ethel’s little boutique became part of my awareness. Its balance of quality silk and satin with just a very tiny hint of sensuality (at least what ended up in our home) opened my mind to the possibility that you could wear silky underthings without being one of the models in the Playboy magazines I’d found stacked in the bottom drawer of an old junky cupboard in the backroom of our house.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s turquoise Chevy Impala, I pictured us going to Ethel Abraham’s, imagining what it would be like to walk out of the store with one of her distinctive boxes. They were usually plain on the outside, but when opened a bright flowering print exploded from the interior of the box. A metaphor, I suppose, for the lingerie she sold: something beautiful but kept inside, hidden beneath a simple, unremarkable exterior. My father used to go to Ethel’s on the day before Christmas and pick up gifts for the women in his life: my mother, his sister and his mother. The shop carried a lovely array of nightgowns and robes, silky and lacy and soft to the touch. One year he gave my mother an elegant pink quilted robe that came in a long flat brown box. When she opened the lid, her face conveyed her delight. The robe was folded in the bottom of the box and I couldn’t see it until she held it up for us, but I knew right away it was from The Ethel Abraham Shop because of the flower print on the inside of the lid.

Forty years later, cleaning out my mother’s backroom, I found that box, or one just like it. My mother recycled boxes for years – she piled them on a table next to the cupboard with the hidden Playboys – and you could find any size you wanted for any occasion. This was especially handy for gift-wrapping at Christmas. The box from Ethel’s was used and re-used and re-used again, saved because of its beauty or perhaps because of its nostalgia. I had a hard time throwing it away and even included it in the shipment of things I sent to France. It was only there, out of the context of my family home and its thick web of childhood memories that I could see it for what it was: a dilapidated, overused 40-year old cardboard box. Even the pattern on the interior had faded. I finally put it in the recycling bin and watched the garbage truck pick it up and haul it away, but not without a deep sigh.

My mother parked the car in front of the entrance to McCurdy’s. I was mildly disappointed, and yet at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, I was old enough to reason that I wouldn’t be fitted for my first bra at Ethel’s. I was excited enough about the acquisition I was about to make to erase any disappointment. I was also a bit nervous. Like any adolescent girl, I was self-conscious about my body. I knew I’d have to strip and let my mother examine me. I was embarrassed just thinking of it.
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It played out pretty much like my worst nightmare: the racks of the bra department were thick with cupped, hanging devices that looked like a jungle to navigate. The saleswoman was right out of central casting: pointy-heeled shoes with skin-tight pants in a leopard print (when leopard was out of fashion), a thin sweater over her thick middle and cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. When she asked if she could help us it was more of a screech than a request. Her voice was incapable of any volume but public broadcast.

My mother answered, matching her volume. “Yes, we’re here to buy a bra for my daughter. It’s her first one.”

Every other shopper in the department turned to look at me, the newbie. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run out of the store – I really wanted a bra, all my friends were wearing one – and just dropped my head, cringing inside, praying that being “out of town” meant none of the people who could overhear this conversation might actually know me.

The saleswoman ran her eyes up and down my chest and torso, then reached out and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing them back and thrusting my very small breasts toward her.

“Stand up tall, sweety, let me have a look at you.”

A half-dozen white “trainer” bras were placed on the glass counter for my mother to inspect, which she did by holding them up so that everyone in the store could inspect them, too. When I could escape to the dressing room, I pulled the curtain closed, fussing with it to keep it fully shut in order to achieve the privacy I felt I deserved. My striped turtleneck came off and on the chair and before I had a chance to clasp one of the bras around my body, my mother had thrown the curtain open.

“Let me see, honey.”

She was helping me to adjust the straps when the bobcat-dressed lady barged in and asked for viewing rights. She pushed her way in, taking over for my mother, instructing me to bend over into the bra, and fill the cups – not that I had much to fill them – before standing upright. Her cold hands poked and prodded to make sure it fit correctly, adjusting the shoulder straps and then snapping the strap in the back – ouch! – to see how tight it was.

I was sure everyone in the lingerie department could not only see into my dressing room, but could hear my mother and this tacky woman discussing how to fit a bra to my barely-existent breasts. They kept handing me different models, and ripping the curtain open before I’d hooked them on. I felt like a mannequin being dressed and undressed in the window. I was cold, cranky and tortured. I just wanted to get a bra and get out of there.

Later, in the parking lot, a bag of new bras in my hand, I eyed the sign for The Ethel Abraham Shop. When I had real breasts, I told myself, I’d go there. It had to be more civilized.

~ ~ ~

While perusing the racks for the right style of bra for someone Short-pants’ age, I came upon several models that appealed to me as well. The straps on my best black bra were on the verge of disintegrating, I needed a new one to wear under my favorite black sleeveless sweater. So as we speak_the_truthwere bra hunting for her, I collected some for myself. We entered the dressing room – at the Corte Ingles, a much upscaled version of McCurdy’s – with our hands full. The saleswoman didn’t stay around to assist us, a slight disappointment as I’ve outgrown the need for privacy while bra shopping and it’s actually nice to have someone at your beck and call to fetch better sizes and make suggestions based on a full knowledge of the inventory. There were intercom phones in the dressing rooms, in case we needed to call for a size change, but our hands were full with multiple sizes of the same models.

“Do you mind if we use the same dressing room so I can help you?” I asked.

Short-pants wasn’t at all reluctant, she seemed delighted to be sharing the experience with me. We both stripped to the waist and took turns trying on what we’d brought in. I showed her how to bend over and fit herself into the bra, just as I’d been taught, but with a deliberately gentler explanation. She seemed genuinely eager to learn the nuances of putting on a bra. We hooked and unhooked each other, admiring the fabrics and the patterns – teenager’s bras are far more interesting today than in my day – laughing at the ones that were too tight, too big or just too quirky. We stood side-by-side under the fluorescent lighting, staring at each other in the mirror, mother by daughter, in different phases of our lives, but still two women standing together in their bras. Freeze this frame in your memory, I told myself. She won’t want to do this with you forever.

In the end, none of the bras I’d tried on fit. But Short-pants selected two pretty white ones and a deep burgundy satin number, something a little bit soft and ever-so-slightly sensual.

“The thing about nice lingerie,” I told her, while standing in line to pay, “is you wear it for yourself. It’s a gesture of self-respect, having something pretty on, but just for your eyes only.” I didn’t mention that sometimes I keep De-facto in mind when I select my bra and panties for the day. She’ll figure that out on her own.

“Like the purple one?” she asked.

I nodded. “Wear that one on the days when you feel a little down. It’ll give you something to smile about, every time you remember how you’re wearing something beautiful underneath, something just for you.”

~ ~ ~

I learned about the pleasure of lingerie when I moved to France. It’s said that French women spend 20% of their income on their undergarments. It’s certainly a habit I picked up while living there. But recently, in New York on a very quick transit stopover, I spent a Sunday afternoon with two college friends and the subject of lingerie came up. After a long lunch, including a bottle of wine, we walked back out on to the street debating what to do. pink_negligeTwenty years ago this same trio would have gone to a movie or hit a favorite jewelry shop. Last Sunday we went to Sugar Cookies, an exclusive lingerie shop. It was about to close, but stayed open for the three of us. We opened the curtain between the side-by-side fitting rooms and tried on nearly every bra in the store. I wished Short-pants could have been there to see us, each with dozens of silk and lace contraptions going on and coming off, modeling for each other, frank feedback flying back and forth, giggling, oohing and aahhing, viewing ourselves in the beautifully made undergarments. Unlike my experience at Corte Ingles, where nothing came close to fitting me, nearly everything I tried on seemed to work. An hour later, I laid a pile of lacy things on the counter. The saleswoman rang them up and wrapped them, and my friends and I walked out of the door swinging our bags, exhilarated by the items that only we – or perhaps a special somebody – would get to see.

I’ve overcome any collateral damage from my early bra-buying trauma, though it’s never been a task I’ve relished. At least that awkward first occasion produced the awareness to construct a different experience for my daughters. It occurred to me, giggling with my girlfriends in the dressing room, and reflecting on my shopping trip with Short-pants, too, that trying on bras can actually be something fun to do. How fitting to discover this hidden pleasure, just in time to pass it along.


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.
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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.


Jan 24 2013

A Little Bit Selfish

“Mama,” she said, “when you’re being selfish it’s really hard on me.”

This was Buddy-roo‘s pronouncement of the morning. You could say it’s the pot calling the kettle black, but I didn’t. She’d already launched into a long list of my faults over the last few days: forcing her to do a “forgotten” homework assignment at breakfast, not giving her permission to play video games on my iPhone, refusing to build a pretend oven for her school presentation (she’d asked me at 9:30 the night before it was due) or working on my computer instead of playing with her.

“Sounds like it’s been a rough couple of days for you.” I said.
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She nodded.

“So what do you think you might do about it?” I asked.

~ ~ ~

Like a knife in the gut, selfish. And then that taunting voice in the back of my head, snickering. It’s the old tape about not being a good enough mom, not living up to the pressure to be supermom: to be nurturing and nourishing, efficiently organizing their lives and getting them to rehearsals, classes and lessons while effortlessly juggling my own professional projects, looking sleek in a pilates-carved body, lighting the candle on a elegant table as the perfectly timed meal comes out of the oven. All this while penning the next great expatriate novel of our time. For the record I gave up trying to be supermom a long time ago, but some kernel of that illusion always remains, buried, despite regularly attempted exorcisms.

I recovered from the accusation quickly enough to throw the ball back in Buddy-roo’s court. We talked about how she might do a better job of looking ahead at her homework assignments so she could get “special pass” for access to my iPhone. We talked about how you can ask for help from other people, but you can’t always expect it to come on your own terms. We talked about if homework involved less fussing and thrashing about, there’s be more time to do fun things, together.

But it made me wonder. Do my daughters see me as selfish? Am I?

~ ~ ~

The English language is missing a word, a word that’s poised, in meaning, between selfish and selfless. Self-ful. A word that would convey the sense of how to take care of yourself so that you are better equipped to support others in the same pursuit. Self-ful wouldn’t be self-absorbed like selfish, nor would it carry the martyrdom or pliability of selfless. It’s the solid stance in between the two. It’s thoughtful self-reliance. It’s being concerned with the needs of others – family, friends, colleagues – but not at the expense of your own mental health or happiness. It might be epitomized by the classic flight attendant’s instruction: Secure your own oxygen mask first, before assisting anyone else. Maybe self-ful is being just a little bit selfish.
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As a young girl, I watched my mother organize her briefcase and dress for work. She also lent her professional skills to many causes, which meant she was often on the telephone in the evenings or going off to meetings after dinner. She was a busy woman, engaged in her work, involved in her community. She was also pretty good to me; she helped me, drove me, loved me. But she did all that while doing all those other interesting things. In this way, she was good model for me. And she forced me, inadvertently – or possibly deliberately – to be self-ful. I spent a good amount of time home alone after school, doing things on my own. I had to learn to be content with my own company. I had to learn to take care of myself.

I never got mad at my mom for being selfish, I got mad at her for not letting me do what I wanted to do. Which is really what Buddy-roo was mad about, and I know that. But this reminds me that I want to transmit to my daughters this notion of being self-ful. I suppose it starts by modeling it – not by being supermom, but just by doing my thing. And that might mean, from time to time, being a little bit selfish.


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.


May 22 2012

Still Walking

Any journey starts long before you walk out the door with your suitcase – or backpack – in hand. So it may be hard to pinpoint exactly when my Camino started. Was it the moment I decided to walk it for my birthday? The first time I heard of it? When I first read about it? I remember that De-facto and I took a vacation in Spain and Portugal some years ago. Passing through Santiago, we parked the car and visited the enormous, opulent cathedral. We saw pilgrims, apparently finishing their walk, and I think I might have wondered how could they possibly make that journey. I’d never felt compelled to walk 800 km just to get to a church.

On that same trip, interesting to note, we ended up in the Basque city of Vitoria, where I witnessed my first Basque fiesta. A man sporting a metal bull costume – and it was spewing sparks – chased the children around the town square as they squealed with terrified delight, and I thought, isn’t that an odd ritual. Not even a year later I would meet the Fiesta Nazi and she would start chewing my ear off about another feria, in Pamplona, and soon something else I never thought of doing became something I do.

Also worth noting about that trip to Spain: while driving around, De-facto and I decided that we should start trying to have a child, as I was getting up in years and who knew how hard it would be or how long it would take to get pregnant. Short-pants was conceived within a month’s time.

~ ~ ~

Lately I’ve been trying to meditate. This was a regular part of my life, along with Yoga and Aikido, when I was in my late twenties. Of course we go through different phases and fascinations over the course of our lives, and the discipline I surprised myself with during those years slipped away in my thirties, and the time required for parenting hasn’t made it easy for me to take back those practices with any regularity, despite the fact that now more than ever they would do me good.

It was a David Lynch video that inspired me to try it once again, and ever so gently – no grand proclamations here – I am trying to set aside 15 or 20 minutes here and there each day to still my mind. I’m not very good at it; my mind chatters away. But I figure sitting still and breathing deeply for a few moments now and then certainly can’t hurt and is likely to be restorative in some fashion. This is easier to do in hotel rooms and airplanes, harder to accomplish with the hundred household tasks whispering at me while sitting in my living room, but I’ve managed to at least start a habit over the last month. On the Camino it’s a walking meditation most of the day, but nonetheless I take the time to sit still and deliberately meditate, thanks to all the churches along the way.

And aren’t there some Churches? Many so grand and gilded, I stand awestruck at the altar, impressed by the opulent beauty, disgusted by the power and wealth embedded in the bejeweled reredos. I see just as much beauty in plain, little village chapels, homey and welcoming, peaceful because of their simplicity. Like the one pictured here, empty and unused but for the crude stone altar plastered with handwritten notes and pictures and stones and private pleas from passing pilgrims.

Whether you are pious or politically opposed, there is one thing you cannot deny: when you are in a church, large or small, magnificent or modest, there is a thickness in the air, an invisible weight hanging, magnified by the silence or by the distinct echoes of prayerful footsteps on stone floors. Within the thick walls of an edifice that for centuries has been the repository for the prayers of believers, you can feel the faith that’s suspended there, even if you don’t share it. Like a thick velvet blanket it drapes around you, lowering upon your shoulders and pressing your awareness down, calm, and within. In a church, I can meditate in an instant.

~ ~ ~

In 2004, Oliver Schroer walked the Camino de Santiago, carrying his violin, making a musical pilgrimage. He recorded himself playing in 25 churches along the way. This very short film tells the story of his walk, and the music that came out of it.

A good friend of mine, who also happened to know Oliver, introduced me to his recording, Camino, several years ago. I heard only the opening bars of one song, and went immediately to iTunes to download it. It’s become classic Sunday morning music in my household, but useful also in the workshops I lead, when I want to create a mood that makes people stop and reflect on their experience. Each morning, while readying my pack, I hear this song in my mind and I’ll hum along out loud. Once, in one of those cool, darkened churches, I took out my earbuds and plugged them into my phone and listened to him bowing fiercely on his violin. Looking up at vaulted ceiling, I wondered if this was one the churches that hosted his beautiful music.

Sadly, Oliver Schroer died of a form of leukemia in 2008, a year before my mother was diagnosed with the the same disease. Wherever they’ve both ended up, I hope the music is as beautiful as what he created while he was here. And I hope my mother can hear it.

~ ~ ~

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When I go into a church, any church, I always move to the left side and up the aisle, taking a seat in a pew about 2/3 of the way toward the altar. This is where my father preferred to sit, at this 9:30 position within the congregation. It’s comforting to be there, at what has always felt like our place in church. I think of long sermons on summer mornings, the patch of blue sky visible out the side door of that church, beckoning, and my father beside me, ready with his crisp, ironed handkerchief the moment I succumbed to a pollen-induced sneezing attack.

I’m not especially religious, growing up in a multi-faith household where neither parent was pious. But my father appreciated the quiet and the lack of interruptions afforded during the church service, and told me this many times, as if he was giving me permission not to be devout, but rather encouraging me to be contemplative.

Which is harder and harder to do these days, in this world that commands us to rush and run about and measure our satisfaction and self-worth by the number of things we get done in any day, rather than by the clarity and quality of our thoughts and actions. On the Camino, I have the luxury of little to do, except to walk, and a lot to ponder. I like this pace. I want to keep this pace, to walk through life rather than speed through it. Apropos of this, it’s worth reading the transcript of a commencement speech given by Nipun Mehta – this link, incidentally, sent to me by a close friend of my parents, both of whom seem especially present with me at this moment on the Camino – advising the 2012 graduating class of the University of Pennsylvania, as they “walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought…to remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness.”

When my Camino started, exactly, probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I’m on it now. That I started, that I left and returned, that I’m still at it. That every now and then I try to sit still and listen, for the quiet thoughts – or the lack of thoughts – and then, I lift my pack up on my back, look down the trail, content, under the heat of the sun or even in the pissing-down rain, to know this most basic of pleasures: I’m still walking.


Mar 4 2012

Just Us Girls

Feeling proud that I’d conducted the entire business of buying our train tickets in Spanish and not once reverting to French, I pointed the girls toward the train station café. Buddy-roo strutted ahead of me, pulling the miniature rollaway valise – my mother’s old weekend travel case – that I’d packed for all three of us for our overnight trip. I liked the idea of one of my daughters dragging that same little black case behind her, evidence of the good-at-traveling gene successfully passing from generation to generation.

It’s comforting to me, the sound of a suitcase rolling behind you. I like hearing muffled departure announcements in another language that you have to strain to understand, or can’t comprehend at all. I’m at home at a train station café with a perk-me-up-coffee or a celebratory beer, anticipating the voyage ahead. I love to travel, so did my mother, and her mother. I think I’ve succeeded at infecting my girls with the bug, too.

“Why isn’t Papa coming with us?”

“He has to work. But we get to play.” The timing of his job was perfect. The girls were on vacances scolaire, a two-week winter break. We’d headed south, making stops in France and northern Spain, before driving on to Madrid.

“I thought it’d be good to have a little excursion,” I said, “just us girls.”

I’d envisioned the three of us, mother and daughters, traveling light with only our curiosity and a change of underwear, winding our way through narrow and yet unexplored (by us) cobblestone streets. A friend suggested a day trip outside of Madrid. I figured De-facto could use a quiet night to himself – a projection of my own preference for solitude before a job starts, or so he protested, when I informed him of my desire to stay overnight with the girls in Toledo.

Except it wasn’t De-facto who needed the break, it was me. We’d survived, remarkably well, through several long car trips and the zipping and of unzipping suitcases in a different hotel every few days, but I was reaching my limit. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until we were at the station café, waiting for the call to board our train to leave Madrid. The girls battled fiercely about being next to or across from me, a good indicator that they, too, were over-saturated with our 24/7 companionship. My admonishments were met with pouty and insolent responses until eventually we sat at three separate tables. I questioned my sanity about being the sole adult chaperone at this ¾-mark in the vacation.

I looked at the barman and shrugged. “Una caña, por favor.” He nodded, knowingly, and poured me a cold glass of beer.

The train ride was just the ticket to distract them from their argument. The excitement of finding the right track, the correct coach and our designated seats obliterated the conflict that had caused such severe enmity. Thirty minutes later, our first view of the medieval walled city had them holding hands and jumping up and down. They were even good sports while we wandered in search of our hotel, a task made more challenging because of the maze-like pattern of Toledo’s narrow streets, and because we arrived at nearly the same hour as a public demonstration. We had to move fast or get stuck in (or run over by) the mass of marching protestors. I spotted a café-bar just ahead of the crowd; we sprinted to it and stepped inside, just in time to watch the long parade of chanting, banner-carrying protestors passing by.

“Who are all those people?” said Buddy-roo.

“They’re demonstrators. It’s like a manifestation in France, a political protest.”

“What’s a political protest?”

“They’re asking the government to change something that they don’t like.”

Redonculous,” said Short-pants. “Why don’t they just write a letter?”

I explained that many letters had probably been written, but in certain situations a collective demonstration is necessary to get the government’s attention.

“It sounds like a big temper tantrum to me,” she said.

“Sometimes that’s what it takes.” I reminded her of the picture of my mother at the ERA convention in the 1970s. That wasn’t a protest, rather an attempt to make a law that would protect the advances already made by the determined women who’d protested and demonstrated so that women could enjoy the same rights as men. “As women – at least in our culture – the two of you have rights that you’d never have if the women from two and three generations before you hadn’t demonstrated in the streets, just like these protestors.”

“You mean like all those women who couldn’t go to the stoning, unless they were dressed as men?” Buddy-roo said.

We’d stayed two nights at a small rural hotel in the north of Spain that had a curious collection of VHS and DVD movies. The Life of Brian, though perhaps not the most ideal family entertainment, was one of the few movies we could watch in English. There is a scene where the participants at the public stoning of a criminal are women (or Monty Python cast members pretending to be women) dressed up as men. We’d had to explain, several times, the significance.

“Yes,” I said. “But I hope you never find yourself at a stoning, dressed as a man or a woman.”

“That’s redonculous,” said Short-pants, “there are no stonings anymore.”

I didn’t tell her – not yet, I will when she’s a little older – that there are places in the world where stoning still occurs, without anything resembling a fair trial. Or how the rule of law – and its boundary with religion – grows blurrier in my own culture these days. I read with furrowed brow the news about proposed legislation to define the personhood of a just-conceived zygote, or attempts to restrict a women’s access to birth control and advice about reproductive health care. When the term slut is used unapologetically by a national media host to describe someone standing up for her rights to birth control, I wonder if something akin to public stonings – with women as the primary target – aren’t coming back into vogue.

Mostly, I worry that my daughters’ generation could end up with fewer rights than mine. It doesn’t impact them now, living in France. But what if they moved back to the United States? Would Short-pants and Buddy-roo would be willing go to the streets in protest to protect the rights achieved by generations of women before them?

We spent the evening wandering the streets of Toledo, sampling tapas at various bars. The girls had stayed up for the late Spanish dinner hour two nights in a row and no doubt this contributed to their ornery outbursts. My strategy was to get a feel for the city by strolling and snacking on enough tapas to feel like dinner. An early night would replenish the sleep in their banks and permit a better mood for tourist activities the following day. The girls are still just shy of the age to fully appreciate museums and churches, but I’d hoped to do at least a drive-by the cathedral and one of the synagogues and if possible peek into the El Greco museum. If I could squeeze in just that small taste of culture, I might be a bit less ornery too.

They resisted the idea, but once I dragged them inside, they marveled at the vaulted nave of the cathedral. While we’re not a church-going family, we respect the opportunity it provides for contemplation and prayer, so we found a pew, seated ourselves quietly and bowed our heads. After her prayer, Buddy-roo made the sign of the cross and looked up at the likeness of Jesus on the crucifix.

“Hey, that looks like Brian,” she said, recalling their (now favorite) movie. The two of them broke into a whispered chorus of the film’s closing song, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Too tired to protest, I hummed along halfheartedly, hoping – praying – that we always can.


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.