Jan 28 2012

Newly at Home

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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


Jan 6 2012

Easy On Me

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

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

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

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

Tell me about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Compassion?” she said.

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


Oct 3 2011

Empty Rooms

The movers from the Second Hand Shop descended upon my mother’s house, infiltrating each room with boxes and newspapers and packing plastic. The women quickly set to picking up the little pieces of my mother’s past: the small bowls and ashtrays and decorative items that had been once carefully placed on end tables, coffee tables and the shelves of her secretary, the bookends and clocks and other decorative items stripped from the shelves of those tall rooms. My siblings and I took the things that had sentimental value to us, but we left even more behind; none of us have the room nor do our homes have the same décor to receive the bounty of my mother’s good taste.

I watched them wrap each piece in paper, all the little dishes and coasters, her translucent Belleek vases, the small ceramic plate from their trip to Greece, the leather-covered decanter we always imagined had a genie living inside it. I knew and appreciated the stories of all these objects, yet none were compelling enough to inspire putting them in my shipment to Paris. Still, I was sad to see the lovely things all taken away.

They wrapped the odd sets of china that none of us could fit on our own cabinets, and then the silver serving dishes. I had to turn away when one of the women wrapped the dome-topped silver casserole, the one that usually housed the green beans at Thanksgiving. How many holiday meals it was a fixture on her table among the other platters and bowls dedicated to the meat or the mashed potatoes or the long silver tray with its linen liner that folded up and wrapped the just-out-of-the-oven parker house rolls. I don’t set such a formal table – few people do these days – I would use this serving dish only once a year, if at all. Plus I have no place to store it. So it goes away, hopefully to add elegance to someone else’s holiday table.

In the meantime, the men grunted down the long central staircase carrying beds and bureaus and long heavy mirrors. We’d each taken a few favorite pieces of furniture, but so much was left, all that had been acquired over the years to fill the thirteen rooms. Some of it ended up in friendly homes: the dining room set is already in the house of one of my mother’s colleagues, a photograph sent to us to show its placement. That other people are gathered around that table gives me immense pleasure, though now I wish we’d thrown in the casserole server; it was so at home on that table.

The wrapping and packing and hauling was intense for several hours. In the midst of it, my movers came to collect my boxes from the basement. Nineteen years ago when I left the states to adventure in Europe, my mother supported this dream of mine by building shelves and laying cement on what had been a dirt floor in the cellar, so I could store my possessions for the few years I expected to live abroad. Though I culled those boxes down about five years ago, there were still a dozen left and some furniture I’d loved too much to sell. There were also a few things from my mother and both grandmothers that I chose to send across the ocean. And the Fisher-Price toys: for months after my mother died, Buddy-roo harangued me, “what are you going to do with all those toys?” I’ve decided what the hell, I’m shipping them. They’re on their way to France.

~ ~ ~

I embraced my brother goodbye a second time (he made it halfway to the car before turning back for another hug) and after he drove off, I stood on the porch and thought about how my mother must have felt each time we left her standing there. Did she feel as empty as I did now? Or was she happy to see us go? (Maybe a bit of both.)

Inside I toured each room of the now empty house. The echoes of everything that ever happened there filled the vacant rooms. I could picture each room in all its iterations over the years. This one once painted pale blue, with a white piano and a picture of our house, painted by my grandmother, hanging on the wall. The Christmas tree went in the corner. Later the room was painted light green and carpeted in the same color. The day that they laid that carpet, the room was empty just as it was now, and I rolled back and forth from one end of the room to the other until I was too dizzy to stand up. My mother scolded my brother and sister for writing their names, with their fingers, in the fresh pile of the carpet. My father came home and showed them a better way to do this, with a yardstick, and he, too was admonished.

There, on the floor by the front screen door, as it rained a gentle summer shower outside, I remember listening to the newly released Sgt. Pepper’s album and reading the liner notes. Or taking over the two front rooms and setting up all the Fisher Price toys and playing with them all day (and decades later, watching my children do the same thing). The card table was placed under a lamp in which my father would hide a puzzle piece before offering a prize to the person who put in the last piece. In that corner over there, the newfangled 8-track player had been placed on its custom-made stand, with Billy Joel’s The Stranger playing on it while mom and I trimmed the Christmas tree. She’d coach me to hang the bigger balls on the bottom and the smaller ornaments on top. She couldn’t help but correct my improper placement and I suffer this compulsion, too, with my own daughters.

In each room a hundred stories could be told, and in this empty condition they all screamed at me at once, or in succession: mom and dad’s cocktail parties, the Christmas mornings, the “talks” after I’d misbehaved at school, the impromptu parties when my parents were out of town, the family celebrations, the quiet Sunday afternoons. All of it: the happiest moments of my life, and probably some of the saddest, too, dancing and circling around me in the empty rooms of my childhood home.

~ ~ ~

I walked through the airport like a zombie, shell-shocked from the emotions dispensed these last days. On that last morning, a final tour through the empty house with an out-loud thank you, heartfelt, to each room for the stories it yielded and for the protection given to me and my family for so many years. I paid special attention to my hand on the doorknob, closing the back door for the last time, locking myself out, the key inside in a box in a drawer, left for the next owners. I slid my hand down to the bottom of the door, pressing my fingers into the grooves carved there by our old woodchuck hound. For all his fourteen years, he scratched his paws against the door to let us know he wanted to come in or go out. Long after he’d died, my parents renovated the house but opted not to repair or replace the doors, leaving his nail-marks embedded there, keeping his memory in the house. I scratched at the door, just where he used to, not really wanting to go back in, but not wanting to stay out, either.


Sep 27 2011

Pulling Apart

We pulled in the driveway. Rather, the driveway pulled us in, the way we have been pulled into the embrace of this old house for half a century. Driving toward it on the country road, there comes a point where the cupola is visible and then the wedding-cake layers of the house below are revealed, and a whole world of familiarity and fond memories beckon. The car slows and dips into the long curved driveway. Do we stop halfway, where dad always used to park? Or pull in all the way to the garage, at the foot of the back stairs, to mom’s place? They are both gone, but their parking spaces – and other routines of living in the house – remain our habits, too.

All the many times I have pulled into this driveway: Like a bat out of hell when that quick errand for my mother lasted three times as long as it should have. Or stealthily with the engine and lights off when I was coming home too late after my curfew. Triumphantly, returning after a first semester at college. Somberly, after the long, sad, drive with the news that my father had died. Or gingerly, the way we pulled in the driveway this time, my sister and I, honoring that this might be the last time we come home to this house.

“It looks small,” I said. She agreed. I’d not been to the house for a year and all these months that I’ve been bracing myself for its sale, I’ve been mentally walking through its rooms and committing to memory any and all things that happened in each corner and corridor. So many of these little anecdotal visual memories hail from the time in my life when I was small, giving the house much larger proportions in my memory.

We stood outside and looked up the stairs, my sister, no doubt, remembering the same thing I was: how Mama would come out the porch when she saw (or possibly heard) the car pull in the driveway, she’d push open the screen door and watch you walk up the stairs, her full anticipation of the visit entirely given away by the broad, boundless smile.

“You’re here,” she’d say.

Inside we walked through the house, wordless, side-by-side surveying each room. Last year we emptied it of her personal clutter, but the furniture, paintings, objects d’art and a few books remained, left in place so the house would show well. It was a bit like walking around a museum of our past – and we are the docents – taking a last tour to store our knowledge away before it closes. Soon the house will be emptied of the last of our family’s artifacts and filled with the belongings of another’s. As it should be; it’s a house that needs a family running around in it. It’s a house that has ample room for laughter and love and its walls have already been conditioned for both. It’s a house that we are obliged to say goodbye to; the most valuable thing inside it is already gone. Without her standing on the porch waiting to welcome us, it is a different house. Little by little, it ceases to be ours.

~ ~ ~

I don’t want her to be gone. I want her to be upstairs in that big bed, sleeping. I want to hear her slow steps down the stairs and the footfall of her path in the dining room and across the creaky floor in the kitchen. I want her to peek into this study and say hi sweety. I want her to offer to make breakfast and I want to taste her scrambled eggs and perfectly browned and buttered toast. I know which fork she would use to scramble those eggs, and I want to see it left on the counter as we carry the plates into the dining room and sit with the sun streaming in the window from the back porch, that window that used to be a door and then she could tell me the story I loved to hear, about how she and Daddy argued over whether to leave it a door or make it a window and in the end he’d told her – and he meant it – that she’d been right.

~ ~ ~

I’m finding myself pulled apart, teary at every turn, probably too sentimental for my own good. But how do you say goodbye to a house that was the one you came home to from the hospital after you were born, and then came home to from school every day, from college, from every other place I lived as an adult, where I surely felt at home, still, this house was still the original “home” to me. It’s not so much the things that are here – although the decisions about their distribution and disposal are fatiguing – it’s the end of that feeling of safety of what it meant to be here, even as a grown woman. So I am grieving again my mother’s departure, but also my father’s, and I suppose also the end of my childhood, and the swells of emotion that are part of this grief are giant waves to ride. After each crest, I wipe those tears away, pull yourself together I say under my breath and clear my throat and try to take comfort in the fact that these memories are all good ones and I get to keep them forever. But saying goodbye to the touchstone of those memories, that’s what’s in front of me now, and it’s daunting.

At least I am here with my siblings. In the mornings, we sit on the steps of the back porch, sipping coffee, looking out over the orchard beside our property, telling stories, making a plan for what’s to happen during the day. We have done this for years, when we lived here and when we visited; this porch is the place where you perch to slowly shake off the cobwebs of a heavy sleep and to ramp gently into the tasks of the day. Later, at wine-o’clock (or scotch-thirty) we gather around the kitchen counter, and despite the sadness that brings us together, we find a way to laugh and march forward, united as the orphans we’ve become, good friends always – but perhaps appreciating each other more than ever through this process. If my mother could see us, if my parents could see us, they’d be delighted. Perhaps the memory of your parents is best honored by acts of kindness toward your siblings.

Last night our cocktail hour held on the porch – though the wicker furniture is no longer set up so we were obliged to sit on the floor – we gathered around a box containing the last items that needed to be distributed among the three of us. One by one, my brother pulled out the small bundles of tissue paper, some of the paper so fragile, having been folded and wrapped so many times that it was softened like cotton. Inside each little package a Christmas ornament, some of them clever and charming, the little hand-knit mitten or a santa made of empty thread-spools. Others kitsch and retro: faded, striped balls with bent wire hangers, not necessarily that pretty but steeped in sentimental beauty. The obligatory ones, hand-made by us when our hands were little, faded and worn, but kept for decades and treated as treasures. One by one we admired each ornament, remembered where and how they used to hang on the tree and which ones were her, and our, favorites.

We have driven so many decisions this last year: who gets those chairs, who wants that painting, who’s taking the china, the silver, the demitasse collection. All of this achieved without a battle. This box was no different, though its contents evoked sighs and giggles and tears as each ornament was examined and claimed, each negotiation handled generously until all the little bundles were distributed. The separation of these sentimental items that lived for so many years in the same worn-out cardboard box just as poignant as the dismantling of this entire house: pulled apart piece by piece to be put in a new place, but in our memories they will stay here in this house, all together, the backdrop of a thousand stories we have the rest of our lives to remember.


Aug 19 2011

Sand Wishes

If she were alive, my mother would have celebrated her 80th birthday today. Short-pants left her a message in the sand, made with love.


Jul 25 2011

Missing Terribly

They removed themselves from the dinner table while De-facto and I lingered with our wine. One washed the dishes, by hand, in the low sink that breaks my back but perfectly suits their half-sized bodies. The other dried the plates and glasses and put them away. They chatted and sang, laughed together in the way of intimate friends. Once the dishes were finished, they retired to the other end of the long main room of our country house.

Short-pants sat on the couch and opened one of the 17 books she received for her birthday. Hunched over, she fell into the pages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If I’d wanted her attention I’m sure I’d have to call her three or four times to pull her out of the story. Buddy-roo elected to sit in one of the child-sized plastic chairs and then she, too, opened a book and began to read. She is not an avid reader like her older sister, but when she reads its with full concentration, carefully enunciating each word out loud. I know she prefers the medium of cinema and video so I’m careful not to nag her to read. But when she gravitates to a book on her own like this, I feel supremely satisfied.

I made a mental note of the scene: the two of them with their heads bowed as if in prayer, plunged into the world of words and stories, the rough stone wall of the country house behind them, the backdrop of a perfectly serene moment.

This is when it feels good to be a mom. When you know they’ve been running around in nature all day, galloping through forests and fields, hunting for blackberries and running down the road to visit the lambs, spending more than half the day outside in the fresh air, using only their imaginations to play, and to top it off their after-dinner the activity of choice is to sit with an open book and read. This is when mothering feels satisfying, when for a slight moment I think I might even be a little good at it.

This is also when I think if only my mother could see them. There are too many mental snapshots of the girls that I would paste in an album dedicated to her. The last lucid sentences from my mother, before she stopped talking and later stopped breathing was a lament that she wouldn’t get to see the girls grow up. “I’m so curious about who they’ll become,” she said.

Already they’ve grown so much, I know she would be tickled to watch them, to see their distinct personalities emerging, to witness their passage from little girls to big girls and, soon enough, to young women. It just doesn’t seem right. She should be seeing this. She should see them now, and later. She should see them grow up.

Some days, surprisingly, it doesn’t cross my mind that she’s gone. She was never the kind of mother that demanded front and center attention. She never railed at us for not calling or coming to see her. She was busy enough herself and appreciated – even applauded – that we had busy lives, too. She never required our daily concern, not until the very end, and even then she was probably the most independent patient in the history of hospice care. That I might pass a day without thinking of her isn’t so surprising. It’s that when I do think of her, nearly every day, it smarts. I’m still startled that she’s gone.

My thoughts of her are often funny, like a silly memory of a family joke and I can see her sitting at the head of the table laughing or rolling her eyes in pretend-perturbation when the joke was on her. Sometimes they’re maddening, those reflective moments when I realize I’m more like her than I ever expected I could be. Sometimes poignant, when I’m touched by something I know would touch her, like the vision of her two granddaughters happily reading to themselves. Sometimes it’s just wishing I could see a unread email message from her, bold and bright in my in-box, with news of her travels or a question about the girls. That was our day-to-day banter, and I miss it.

I wish she were still here. I wish she could see them, know them, watch them, love them as they grow up. Maybe wherever she is, she’s doing all that now. I don’t know. All I know is that it’s terrible that she’s missing all this, and that I miss her, terribly.


Jul 19 2011

Under the Rim

I should know better than to call them with that Auntie-Em voice, the one that telegraphs something menacing like you’re in trouble or there’s a job for you ahead. If I could just get-a-hold of myself before hollering, “Girls!” and strategize for a moment, pretend I’m offering them a surprise candy, turn my voice to an entirely different timbre. But I’m too often in a hurry, or impatient; my beckoning call gives away it’s I’ve-got-something-for-you-to-do reason.

They come nonetheless, two blond heads bobbing into the kitchen. Short-pants and Buddy-roo are well behaved and though sometimes they’ll dilly-dally and stretch things to the breaking point, they do know when to tow the line.

“Snack-time?” says Short-pants.

“In a moment,” I say, “but first, the toilets.”

I brace myself for their protests, which come at me like a squall. I do not relent. At home in Paris, we are lucky to have a house cleaner who comes weekly and scrubs our toilets, dusts (sort of), vacuums and changes the sheets on the beds. He is unappreciated by the girls; they only understand that his coming means they have to pick up their belongings. This is counter-intuitive to them, they do not yet distinguish between picking up and cleaning. I do understand their sentiment. When I was their age it was beyond me why we had to neaten up before the cleaning woman came. This is a classic passing-of-the-baton moment: you know you’ve become your mother when you hear yourself saying exactly the same things she said to you.

But I respect our cleaner for doing the work I’d prefer not to do, and I do not want to aggravate him by leaving 2-dozen pieces of plastic strewn about Buddy-roo’s floor for him to organize prior to running the vacuum. He comes for only three hours a week; it could take a good chunk of that time just to pick up the books Short-pants has left piled on her floor – I need him to be cleaning, not tidying.

This is my mother channeling herself through me. She had precise ideas about how to treat the people who helped keep our house in order. She was also the queen of cleaning-with-the-cleaning-woman. I have vivid memories of her, in her bathrobe, lifting and turning mattresses in tandem with Georgia, a woman of robust enthusiasm and loyalty, our house-cleaner for many years. Then there’d be that May Saturday when she’d invite Georgia for an extra day of work, and direct all of us to help her wash all the windows of our house. I can still picture my brother, in his long, angry, early-70’s haircut, cursing under his breath as he pulled the storm windows off for the summer season and carried them to the basement while my sister and I, following Georgia’s orders, faced each other with the window between us, squeaking away at each pane with an old strip of white cotton bedsheet.

One summer when I was in high school, my sister’s boyfriend hired me to be his house-cleaner. He lived with two other college-aged guys, the three of them had college-aged-guy living habits. Every week I found myself confronted with their mess of worn clothes, dirty underwear, shoes, books and open magazines, record albums and empty bottles and overflowing ash-trays. It took me a good hour-and-a-half to get their house uncluttered enough to start the real cleaning. Then I knew what my mother meant.

My friend the Fiesta Nazi rents out her studio apartment each year while she winters in a warmer climate, and her consistent complaint upon returning to her Paris home each spring is the condition of her toilet. Her renters are usually students or young adventurers, in their early twenties, and it seems that none of them have learned how to properly clean a bathroom. This made me realize that because we have a weekly cleaner at home, my girls could grow up to be just like her clueless, irresponsible renters. So I set out to make Short-pants and Buddy-roo learn how to scrub the bowl. They may not have to do it at home. But here at the country house, it’s their job.

I accompany one daughter, then the other, and remind them what to do. Lift up the seat first. Make sure the toilet’s been flushed. Pour in the cleanser. Pick up the brush. Buddy-roo slides the brush tentatively along the side of the bowl, barely stirring up any bubbles from the soap we’ve added. I take her hand, like a golf pro correcting the student’s grip, and guide her to use a little more pressure and to move it all around the bowl and then under the rim.

“Use a little elbow grease,” I tell her.

She looks at her elbow, and then up at me, quizzically.

“It means work harder at it,” I say.

She scrubs harder.

“And close your mouth!” My reminder comes just in time, seconds before her vigorous scrubbing splashes a bit of the soapy water up and it lands on her chin.

The country house is a perfect place for this activity; as the primary sweeper, vacuumer and cleaner, I’m happy for the extra hands. But the main thing is I don’t want them to grow up being total princess slackers. I think our generation of parents makes the mistake of doing too much for our kids, or letting too much be done for them. Our indulgence leads to their indolence. I’m counting on the fact that it will come in handy, even in their very privileged lives, to be able to roll up their sleeves, put the brush in the bowl and – with a little bit of elbow grease – clean under the rim.


May 9 2011

Wicked Mother’s Day

After sprinting down the stairs and turning the corner, Short-pants stubbed her toe on the step into the living room and exploded into screeching tears. I was careful not to run to her too swiftly – I hate to fuel the crisis with more panic – but still, a young girl’s throbbing toe deserves a little sympathy. I kissed her dirty toenail (only a mother would do this) and offered the standard, reassuring words before turning back to finish unpacking the suitcase from our weekend trip.

“No, there’s something else.” Tears were dripping down her cheeks like open faucets. “It’s Mother’s Day. I just saw it on my calendar. And we didn’t do anything for you!”

Of course this was not news to me. I’d deleted scores of Mother’s Day promotional emails that fell into my inbox because of the various mom-blog newsletters I read. But since we don’t consume a lot of media in our home, let alone American media, the over-marketed Mother’s Day messaging somehow didn’t reach anyone else in my family. I am perfectly capable of hinting at it, “You know what I’d like to do for Mother’s Day is…” and in the past I have. But sometimes it just feels akward to be pointing it out.

I’d pretty much put it aside. Who wants to be held emotional hostage by a Hallmark holiday? Though if anybody deserves an extra day of appreciation – even if it is the commercial idea of a greedy greeting card company – it surely is your mother, often the most taken-for-granted person in the family.

My brother did call to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, inquiring if I’d been celebrated sufficiently. “Look at it this way,” he said, “you didn’t have to pretend to enjoy that burnt-toast breakfast and wax enthusiastically about the handmade cards.” He had a point.

~ ~ ~

De-facto had reason to be in the UK last week, and another project scheduled there again early this week, so instead of him doing a back-and-forth, we decided I’d bring the Short-pants and Buddy-roo across the channel and we’d play London tourists for a weekend. We have some new colleagues-turned-friends who generously offered us accommodation, tackling the hardest part of being a tourist in London: the cost of hotels. With a little bit of juggling schedules, training in and out of the city and making use of the left-luggage service at the station, we choreographed a busy weekend: the London Eye, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, and a matinee show of Wicked, the story of the Wizard of Oz before and after Dorothy lands in Munchkinland. Both De-Facto and I had seen it on a kid-free London theatre weekend a few years ago, so we labored a bit over the decision. Both of us wanted to see something that we’d not been to before, but in the end I pressed for Wicked knowing the girls would love it. Besides, they’re both stars in the Wizard of Oz school play, so this was relevant backstory. (Shouldn’t “parenting travel” be tax-deductable?)

One of the cool parts about being a mom (or a parent, for that matter) is introducing your children to culture. It’s not the first time we’ve taken them to the theatre, they’ve seen stage performances of On the Town, Les Misérables and The Sound of Music in Paris at the Chatelet Theatre, which is pretty special. But nobody does theatre like the West End. And we had brilliant seats that were just-the-right-amount close to the stage. I spent as much time admiring my children’s open-jawed, concentrated-awe as I did watching the actors performing their story.
My favorite moment: at a climatic point in which Elphaba, who was good-hearted and thoughtful before becoming the Wicked Witch of the West, stood on stage with Glinda, who’d been vain and self-centered before growing into the more gentle-hearted Witch of the North, and they sang to each other about the important exchange their friendship had yielded. In one song, an ambiguous complexity of life expressed: how circumstances can turn someone good into someone wicked, and inspire someone wicked to do something good. Short-pants moved her hand on top of mine, and I turned to see a tear sliding slowly down her cheek.

“It’s sad,” she said, “but it’s also happy.”

Much like the sappy scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts’ character goes to the opera and gets it, not only did Short-pants love the staging and the magic of the performance, she also understood the poignancy of this moment in the play. To witness how this moved her, well, I suppose that’s right up there with the coolest Mother’s Day presents you can get.

~ ~ ~

She sobbed in my arms. I’m sorry maman, we should have done something for you today. I didn’t even make you a card.”

Here’s what you’re supposed to read next: “and in that moment, I realized this was the joy of motherhood, and the only acknowledgment I needed.” But I’d be lying if I reported to you that in an instant I relinquished any residual, though mild, disappointment I’d been harboring.

I’m a little more wicked than that. It took me a few more breaths, a couple of my own tears at being forgotten (except of course I know I’m not) and a short visit to the memory bank. I’d spent a fair amount of time, on this Mother’s Day, thinking about (and missing) my own mother, whom I took entirely for granted as a child, and whom I treated with the typical disdain of a teenager. I grew to admire her, and then (especially) to appreciate her after becoming a mother myself, when I began to understand what kind of a sacrifice is required to be a mom, and how she’d done it so elegantly. I never knew if it had been hard for her or not.

Then, okay, I could get there, to see the message in this beautiful expression, this whole-bodied apology – how my little girl’s heart was breaking because she was afraid she’d broken mine. So when I said that “this hug is the best gift you could give me for Mother’s Day,” I really meant it.

We embraced for a long time. Buddy-roo even came over and put her arms around the two of us and joined the love-in.

“But wait,” Short-pants said, lifting her head, “we still have French Mother’s Day to celebrate.” Her eyes lit up with an idea. “I’ll make you breakfast in bed!”


Feb 7 2011

Not Deleted

I could attribute the start of this blog to a bad idea: it wasn’t too smart to help De-facto rip up that old carpet, especially just after running a 10K race. When my back went out, the doctor ordered bed rest and I was horizontal with my laptop for three weeks. To relieve the nerve-wracking stress of the Obama vs. McCain race, I scoured the internet in search of political perspectives and predictions and in doing so I learned the protocol of the blogosphere. I forged further, beyond political content, and encountered a whole variety of blogs: some charming, some ridiculous, some hilarious, some rife with typos, some even murderous (death-by-adverbs). Others poignant and personal, wordsmithed with beauty and vulnerability that moved me to tears, making made me wonder, could this be a place to play, in the genre of the literary blog?

There was much to learn about hosted and self-hosted sites, themes and widgets, plug-ins and API and php and CSS style sheets. I remember staying up until three in the morning while De-facto and the girls snored in their beds. I’d be typing away or adjusting the sidebar or figuring out how to configure the RSS feed. I experienced the pleasure that comes with feeling your brain grow – learning to do something new, something modern, even. The first post was daunting. Few people read it, and surely nobody discovered it on their own. But now I was out there. I was self-publishing.

My mother visited us in Paris just a few weeks later. She sat at the dining room table and read through the five or six posts I had already published. It’s not easy to watch someone read your work, but she smiled and laughed at all the right places. (You can count on your mother for that.) I had just added the subscription option, so she was one of the first to sign up. Each time I’d post, she’d get the notice and click through, right away. She did so religiously, and though she never contributed to the comments section, she never failed to write me a message after reading a post.

During that same visit, my mother was out of breath, a lot. When I put her in the taxi to the airport, I made her promise to call a doctor as soon as she got home. She did, and that’s how she discovered that she had leukemia.

She lived much longer than the doctors predicted, and with a heightened awareness of each day. This made her appreciate every little thing, including each installment of my blog. I realized, from the messages she sent after every post, that she was coming to know me in a different way. She had never been one to ask questions that would provoke too emotional a response and she was sometimes inclined to change the subject if what I volunteered was too deep. But the blog changed that, or maybe her perspective shifted when she knew she was dying – whatever – it all came together to create a bond between us that lived in the lines of every post, a long story about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and my life in Paris, told bit by bit. It was not what I had intended, but the blog had become a vehicle for a final narrative from me to her. And she read it. She read every word.

Months went by and I did not mention her illness. It felt too private, and it was hers, not mine. But I knew it would help me to write about it, so I sent a draft of a post to my mother to ask her permission, which she gave readily. Later, during those icy winter days of her hospice, I wrote about her dying and about her death. I wrote about my grief. I wrote about cleaning out the rooms of the house she inhabited for over 50 years, and gradually emptying the memories of my childhood. I wrote about it all, right here, on this blog.

Last summer, a thoughtful friend posed the question: Did I have someone in particular in mind when I sat down to write a post, or was I thinking about a group of readers? He blogs about rebuilding a vespa, and when he’s writing a post, he said, he has his dad in mind. I told him about how I’d come to realize that I was writing to my mother, but that now that she was gone, I really didn’t know to whom I was writing anymore.

“What makes you think you couldn’t you still be writing it to her?” he said.

~ ~ ~

After she died, I directed all the email from her server into my computer so I could unsubscribe her from the e-newsletters and mailing lists, and catch any stray correspondence that needed closure. For months I monitored her mail, fascinated by what came in to her inbox, an eclectic mix of investment briefs, political news, digests from the various on-line groups she’d joined. Sometime last fall we cancelled her email service, but I couldn’t bring myself to delete her account. It’s grayed-out and receives no messages. But I’ve left it there.

Her email address remains on my subscriber list, too. Each time I publish, a notification is unsuccessfully sent to her no-longer-in-service account, disappearing somewhere in the ether. Whenever I’m doing housekeeping tasks in the dashboard of my blog, I tell myself I need to remove her from that list. But I’ve not yet found a way to put a check in the box before her name and press delete.

Losing friends and family has stages of heartache. Who knew that deleting an email address and a phone number and those last electronic points of contact would be so hard to do? I know there are legacy services that save all your on-line profile data and passwords, so those surviving you can easily shut down your active participation in the world wide web. But that doesn’t help friends and family who still have that data stored in address books and friend-lists. Maybe there needs to be an electronic cemetery, where we can drag and drop those details with some ceremony. Then we could send flowers and e-cards. Think of it: a whole new industry of condolence e-commerce.

~ ~ ~

It was a year ago today that my mother died.

I thought about her a lot last weekend, marking the entire series of “lasts” that preceded her final breath. Those slow, quiet, waiting days are forever fixed in my memory. It so happens that my sister was in Paris, so we raised a glass together. My brother and I spoke on the phone. He said it seems like it all happened just yesterday, and at the same time, wasn’t it forever ago? Friends of my mother sent gentle emails; I’m stunned that they remember the date as precisely as we do. I wonder, have they deleted her email from their address books yet?

This blog, it turns out, has been a little bit of medicine. It set me to writing, on a regular basis. It refreshed the parched pages of my journal. It buoyed my dampened, unpublished spirits. In a way I never expected, it drew my mother closer to me during the last months of her life, and it keeps her near now, because I can still write to her, and I do. She’s gone, but not deleted.


Jan 7 2011

Porch Stories

That back porch could tell you some stories. It’s a porch that was good for licking melting ice-cream cones and sipping gin & tonics from tall glasses. It’s a porch where, as a young girl, I spent hours reading every book I could get my hands on, escaping into the thick forests of Narnia or sitting in a crowded courtroom with Scout Finch. It’s the place where I sulked and stewed, indignant that my parents would not let me go to town with my friends, forcing upon me an unjust incarceration in my own home. It’s a porch where sheets have been hung out to dry, in any and every season. I’ve swept its long, thin boards and shoveled snow from them more times than I can count. This porch I have shared with my family all of my life, an extension off the back of our home like a giant cradle where good things could and did happen, its balustrade like teeth in the smile of a happy childhood.

I remember a Saturday, last May, sitting alone on this back porch, steeped in an after-everything feeling. My mother was gone. She’d been buried for months, but now that her memorial service was behind us, it felt real in a way it hadn’t before. The house had been ordered and cleaned, the refrigerator emptied of everything but ketchup, pickles and a few jars of jam. The doors were locked, the alarm was set, and my ride had just called to say he was approximately thirty miles away, in a town with a name he mispronounced marvelously. I did not mind that traffic had delayed him; this gave me a little pocket of contemplative time.

I pulled out my journal and seated myself in one of the wicker rocking chairs on the porch, facing out over the grove of trees along the border of the property. It used to be you could see the lake beyond the thick of trees. Now the hedge is taller, fuller – as is every living thing that’s grown behind it – and the view, though still lovely, no longer includes the lake.

Just as I put the pen to paper, I had a flash, a sense of something different, something distinct from the sadness and grief that I’d known for the last many months. For a brief set of seconds, not even ten, I felt free. The feeling wrapped itself around me, singing a light song to lure me in and then, as quickly as it came, it slipped away.

It made me a little bit giddy, jumpy, kind of electric. Giddy like I felt that first day on campus, wandering around the cobblestone streets near my university. The sun was setting but I was rising, my whole life ahead, and this great collegiate opportunity about to launch me into it.

Or standing on the Metro North platform, after leaving the keys to my apartment on a table inside before closing the door behind me. I’d sold my car to a woman, a stranger, who then drove me to the station to go to New York for a quick overnight before flying to Europe – to live. I had with me only three suitcases and a red wide-brimmed hat. I giggled out loud as the train rushed into the station, the wind from its passage fierce against me as I held the hat firm on my head.

Or giddy like the first night in my first Parisian apartment, listening to Miles Davis with a bottle of Burgundy, or the Indian summer weekend I moved into my second Paris apartment, unpacking boxes and listening to a mixed tape given to me by a younger De-facto, wondering if the next time I moved house it might be with him beside me.

The thread in all these giddy moments: I had just let go, but I had not yet grabbed on to what would be next. That next was still unknown or unclear, and yet – and there was trust involved – ripe with promise. The prevailing thought: What can happen now? Anything.

~ ~ ~

When I was in college I slipped away one long weekend to take part in a seminar that was an offshoot of the Werner Erhardt personal growth movement. The reasons I was compelled to go are better left for another post, or it suffices to say that I’d taken my sophomore slump a little too seriously. The workshop did me a lot of good. A few of my friends remained involved in the program, but I was done after attending two levels. I couldn’t afford it on a student’s stipend and the pressure to proselytize, though not overbearing, was implicit enough to put up red flags warning me to keep my distance.

I remember going home to tell my father about the workshop. I wanted to express to him how it had changed me, how I felt so much more alive and in touch with myself. He interrupted me, reminding me of the occasion when I had eaten, in its entirety, my first Big Mac.

It was on the way to summer camp Yaiewano, circa 1972. The challenge must have been issued when I had pronounced it impossible. Not that my father was so interested in my consumption of a special-sauced hamburger, but I imagine he was trying to teach me something about setting and preparing for a goal, or turning an idea once considered implausible into something entirely feasible.

“Your Big Mac story,” he said to me, in that voice of his that could be comforting and frightening at the same time, “is one of many stories that you will have in your life, as is the story of this seminar. I hope you make the most of every single one.”

He was expert at having the last word.

But he was right. It’s easy to tell yourself a story and then begin to believe it’s your only one. Sometimes when it feels like Short-pants’ hospital story comes up too frequently I tell her just what my father told me. It is an important story, one that changed her life irrevocably, but it’s not her only story. I want her to know that. I want her to own that.

~ ~ ~

A thoughtful reader sent me an email, this week, with an excerpt from The Love Queen of Malabar, a memoir about the friendship between its author, Canadian Merrily Weisbord and the Indian poet Kamala Das. The timing – that this fell in front of me while I was musing on the subject of stories and freedom – was uncanny. This passage especially:

A writer moves away from family, old relationships, very far with the speed of a falling star,” she says. “Otherwise the writer is destroyed, and only the member of the family remains: the mother, sister, daughter, wife. The writer at some point must ask, do I want to be a well-loved member of the family? Or do I want to be a good writer? You can’t be both at the same time.”

I often wonder about this. Except it was the shock and awe of having children that (finally) propelled me to get serious about writing. My earlier story ideas languished, but the manuscript about the paradox of motherhood is the one that is (nearly) done. The number of posts I’ve written about my mother is growing out of control, but her departure from this earth provoked a stream of words from me like nothing before in my life. These roles of mother and daughter have not inhibited my word count.

But have I told the truth, the real truth, my truth? Not entirely, and I probably won’t, as long as my partner and children and siblings are alive and can read what I’ve written. That’s not out of fear, it’s out of respect.

Still, there is a shift now that my mother has joined my father in the land of gone. Sad as I am, I am also free. I was never deliberately constrained by her, but as long as she was alive, her influence was present. It wasn’t a conscious, I couldn’t write that, what would she think? kind of influence – if anything, I carved out a good portion of my identity by doing exactly what my parents thought I should not do. But therein lies the kernel. Some part of me has always been his child, her daughter. Now that they are gone, I am free to do as I please without worrying them, free to be who I am, without pleasing or displeasing them, free to write the story that is mine, unencumbered. Not that there is something so terrible to tell, or that I couldn’t have written already for them to see. But now, free of their reaction or judgment – negative or positive – the core stories within me are mine to tell.

This is what comes to me, then, after reading every post I’ve written during the Reverb10 challenge to reflect on the last year of my life. It’s as if I am once again alone on that back porch, staring out at the trees, wondering how it is they grew so tall. Let go. Grab on. What can happen now? Anything.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Molly O’Neill: Prompt: Core story. What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.)