Sep 3 2011

The Lost Sandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 24 2010

Let Them Eat Cake in a Bag

Summer is when routines get interrupted. The daily grind of getting little girls to school is suspended. The constant rigor of a weekly schedule is relaxed. Bedtime is fudged, partly because in France the sun sets so impossibly late during the months before and after the summer solstice that the kids won’t believe that it’s time to go to sleep. Mornings, for the most part, are easy going: we wake up when we wake up. De-facto and I have very little work. Only our uncivilized American clients schedule projects in July or August and we do our best to minimize our participation in such gainful activity when it’s summertime.

Yet within our routine-less summer we quickly develop routines. I go to Pamplona every July. Then I join De-facto and the girls at the country house for the rest of the month. We return home to catch up with our on-line lives, take advantage of the Plage and the quiet of Paris in August. The real truth: we come home so we don’t miss out (too much) on what has become a big routine in our building: the infamous courtyard lunches.

Most of the owners and tenants go away for most of the summer, and those who stay are congenial or at least cooperative and don’t mind that nearly every other weekend, it seems, Ricky and Lucy host a courtyard lunch. Their apartment opens directly on to the courtyard, and their adjustable table is easily moved outside and strategically positioned near the stone wall of a raised flower bed, making for extra seats to compensate for their lack of chairs. Ricky is the most expressive cook among us and happily carries the burden of providing eats. He can do things with tomatoes and olive oil that would drive any foodie to brink of ecstasy.

There’s nothing as pleasant as those very first moments, when people arrive: Ricky sweats over hot burners in his kitchen, stepping out to the courtyard and greeting guests with a dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. A glass of something, usually bubbly, is thrust into your hand and then one by one, plates appear on the table with delicate combinations of Mediterranean ingredients. There’s always a little surprise: mint replaces the basil on a tomato bruschetta, a spoon of virgin olive oil teases the essence out of the canteloupe. These intriguing flavor blends generate no shortage of oohs and ahhhs around the courtyard table.

The champagne – though this past weekend the aperitif was a watermelon cocktail with a vodka kick, and then we had champagne – is eventually replaced by wine, often rosé in color, and this flows steadily. Just when we think Ricky has fed us already too well, he’ll produce a risotto or something with seasoning and ballast that nobody has room for but nobody dares to miss. It’ll be too good.

Neighbors who pass through the courtyard on their way in are spontaneously invited to join us. Those on their way out are inspired to return, and often do after stopping at a local wine seller to contribute to the table. In this fashion, the lunch that starts at 1:30 or 2:00 often bleeds into the evening; sometime around 8:30 or 9:00 Ricky disappears again into his magic kitchenette and produces some kind of pasta concoction, a bit of sustenance – or absorption if you like – to carry on.

It’s rare that a courtyard lunch finishes before midnight.

While all this is going on, our children are not totally forgotten. When she’s not dancing around the courtyard, Short-pants plays waitress and has been known to carry around a sign that says “Please give me some work to do.” Buddy-roo hides out in the bedroom loft, watching consecutive Barbie movies that she’s only allowed to watch one-at-a-time, once-a-day under normal circumstances. Sometimes that big doll makes an appearance and everybody groans but she keeps the girls occupied and this is only one of many reasons that I have not yet found a way to make her disappear from our lives.

There is a moment, however, that marks the true spirit of the courtyard lunch. It’s around 5:00 in the afternoon when the oven begins to emit the most remarkable aroma, a sweeter-than-anything-your-grandmother-ever-baked perfume that makes everyone stop their bantering and storytelling. Hush Sweet Jesus the toaster oven is on bake. We all turn to Lucy. She nods her head affirmatively – smugly in fact – and the courtyard erupts into cheers, “Cake in a Bag!”

Of course Ricky’s culinary prowess is admired and appreciated – even lauded. His effort is the cornerstone of courtyard lunches. But Cake in a Bag, it’s too divine to describe. Lucy makes it all seem so…effortless. After all, it is: open the bag, pour in the pan (okay, and add her secret ingredients) and bake.

Ricky sighs, shakes his head, throws the dirty linen tea towel over his shoulder and shuffles into the kitchen to brood. But his theatrics last only for a moment before he returns to the fold of his friends and he is once again in the routine of the charming host, offering us more wine or a strong shot of espresso. He always comes back, and sometimes he’ll even eat a piece of cake.

If there’s any left.

Jun 4 2010

And the Winner is…

She’d written the short story, titled Danger in the Permarquette River, and re-copied it, twice, to hand it in for her school assignment. Then her teacher sent home a note about the Paris English Young Author’s Fiction Festival, encouraging students to submit their stories to the city-wide competition.
I typed it in to the computer, resisting any urge to change a word here or there, to improve the syntax. I made a few suggestions for edits, most of which she rejected – and I honored this because it was, after all, her story.
I followed carefully the explicit submission directions: Short-pants’ name shouldn’t appear on any page of the story; certain information had to be in the body of the email message to which the story was attached, the subject line of the email had to be titled in a specific way so the entry would be received and noted. All the details confirmed, I hit send, checked off that box and moved on to the next thing.

This is how I live, checking off a box and moving on to the next one. That particular week, just like this last one, was jammed with too many apparently important and urgent tasks. That was the same week as the Spelling Bee, competition that Short-pants was also keen to enter. (Incidentally, she graciously accepted the news when we learned that she did not advance to the final round.) I also remember that I was getting ready to go somewhere, which always adds an extra layer of stress. Preparing to go away, but also preparing to be gone; organizing things at home so they operate as they should in my absence. Then there’s the delicate management of personal appointments. De-facto always rolls his eyes when I have one of my “how am I going to get it all done?” meltdowns, pointing out to me I might be less pressed if I wasn’t also fitting in a haircut, a facial, wax and pedicure. He’ll never understand how, at my age, these things are not luxurious indulgences but rather critical acts of maintenance; an investment in my our future.

Though this week only the most essential grooming made the schedule; a haircut put me in good stead to go on yet another trip. I know I’m lucky to travel as I do, but sometimes I’m too overloaded to appreciate it. Saturday we go to India for a work assignment, after which De-facto and I will stay on for just a few days for some much needed R&R alone, as a couple.

When the email landed in my box informing me that Short-pants was a finalist in the young author’s writing competition, my inner peacock preened for her. The message said that she was among the finalists in her grade level, without indicating exactly which award. Did she win? Second place? One of who-knows-how-many honorable mentions? I don’t know. I just know she won something. I know that this awards program is a 2-hour engagement on a Friday evening, at rush hour, on the opposite side of the city, on the eve of a trip that I am barely ready to take and we leave at the crack of dawn the next day. Of course then Short-pants’ theater teacher sent home a note about how her rehearsal will run later on this very Friday, to prepare for their end-of-year spectacle. (Oh, June, the month of something every night: a performance, a recital, parent-teacher meeting, end-of-school-party.) Not to mention that Ricky and Lucy, who I haven’t seen in more than three weeks, invited us for a potluck dinner in our courtyard, all of this happening on the same Friday night. Tonight.

I suppose this isn’t the right spirit. I know you all don’t want another rant about how busy I am and what a pain in the ass it is to juggle everything. You all juggle a lot too. We all do.

But that’s the point. We’re all jugging a lot: our work, our families, our friends. We’re overloaded with information to ingest, there are more activities to engage with than ever before and who can fault any of us for trying to take advantage of all of them? In this day in age, especially with most mother and fathers multi-tasking, we’re all up to our ears. It makes the surprise element of this event seem more insulting than intriguing.

So the question is: do I arrange for Short-pants to get out of her rehearsal early, dash away with her, squeeze into the metro to get to the 16th arrondissement in time to watch a probably more than 2-hour ceremony honoring a bunch of children I’ve never met in my life, so that she can receive her award in person and have the experience of having a small crowd give her grand applause her as she approaches the podium? What if we schlep through all that only to hear them call out her name, in a string of others, as an honorable mention?

I remember when I was in school, receiving a letter to attend an awards ceremony like this, not knowing exactly what prize would be mine, arriving with a few anticipatory butterflies. What I found out later that night is that my parents knew all along what prize I was winning. They’d received a different letter, so they’d be sure to attend. I wish I could get that letter now. I fished for it, writing back to the organizers and explaining how we might not be able to attend. No hints were given to inspire our attendance. Perhaps that is a sign.

Every other parent who’s organizing their nutty schedule this Friday night is probably going through the same machinations. If we all knew the outcome, well, then only the win, place and show winners would probably turn up. So much for that grand applause.

So what do I do? Buck up and make the trek to the far western side of Paris so that Short-pants can accept her award, whatever it is, and cheerfully celebrate the success of other children while supporting the art of writing at the primary school level? Or do I blow it off, give myself a break and take it easy the night before we leave, calmly packing my valise, hanging out in the courtyard with my family and my neighbors, savoring this summer’s first bottle of rosé?

What would you do?

Jan 31 2010

Missing Everybody

In case you didn’t catch it, our little Buddy-roo’s name is derived from JD Salinger’s famous high school reading list title, Catcher in the Rye. Salinger happens to be De-facto’s favorite author, inspiring the nickname and prompting his email to me this weekend reminding me of its source.

I wonder how many people in the world, when they heard that Salinger died, walked to their bookcases and reached up to pull this dusty book off the shelf and skim through its pages. That’s the first thing I thought to do when I heard the news. How propitious to be at my mother’s house, I thought, where I lived during my high school years. Immediately, I pictured the thin paperback, the design of its cover and its exact placement – third shelf up, to the right – on our bookcase.

Except it’s no longer there. My mother didn’t even save it for the damn yard sale. I think she donated it to the AAUW book sale last year, or maybe the year before. The shelf where it used to rest is now barren.

I picked up the phone. Dialed a number I know by heart, still, all these years later. The man who answered was one of five boys who lived across the road, our earliest childhood friends. Now he has children of his own who are growing up in that very same house, a house filled with stories and mischief and crocheted blankets. A house that gave me my first sense of other – their books, their objects d’art, their print of the Peaceable Kingdom – where I got my first notion of the world outside my own family’s universe. It was other, and yet it was as familiar and comforting as anything I knew from our side of the road.

Twenty minutes later he rang the doorbell. He is as handsome as ever, an older version of his original self. He handed me his high school copy of Catcher in the Rye. “It’s red,” he said, laughing, “when you called, all I could think of was it had a red cover.” He also knew right where to go to retrieve it.

I loved that his memory of the book, like mine, was so visual and spatial. Maybe this ranks with questions like, Where you were when JFK was shot? or What you were doing on 9/11?
This major milestone of modern literature merits the questions that probably most of us can answer: What color was your copy of Catcher in the Rye, and on which shelf was it kept?

I handled the old red paperback with care, its pages more than yellowed, but still legible. Then, on page 28, halfway down there it was:

Be a buddy. Be a buddyroo, okay?

The satisfaction of finding this slightly obscure reference in the book was too soon replaced with a bittersweet longing for my own Buddy-roo and her sister Short-pants. De-facto is a most capable solo pilot, so I do not worry (much) about how things are going at home in Paris. But that does not keep me from missing them.

I think of all the stories I’ve told about being frustrated or fed up, about missing my freedom, or about how good it is to have time alone and time away from my children. All those tales are true, just as true as this: I miss them so fiercely right now. I wish they could be here, so I could get that little hit that comes when their faces light up to see me after being gone, even for just an hour. I wish they could be here, to comfort me in that unconscious way that they do, just by being who they are. I wish they could be here, just one more time, to see their Grammy, to crawl in bed with her, like they so love to do.

And so it is, then, just as Holden Caulfield says in that famous last line of Catcher and the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

Dec 16 2009

That Big Doll

Like a bad penny, she just keeps turning up.

It all started as a parting gift, but now she is a fixture in our home. And I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified by her.

Last summer the girls were invited to a birthday celebration. A late July party is not easy to populate; most Parisians are away on vacation. The birthday-boy’s mother was thrilled to learn that we were in town that weekend and that the both Short-pants and Buddy-roo could attend. I dropped them at the appointed hour and they tumbled through the door and made themselves at home, taking over the apartment as though it was their own. How kids fall into play so quickly.

Since we’re a take-turns kind of family, De-facto was charged with retrieving our children after the party. He returned home with two girls and one life-sized plastic doll. The boy’s mother had insisted, De-facto said, and the girls had pleaded to let her come home to their community of dolls. What could he say? (“No, thank you,” comes to mind, but in what was probably a slightly awkward moment, this didn’t occur to him.)

There’s something terribly discomforting about the doll. That she is nearly the same height as Buddy-roo wouldn’t be so bad except she has the anatomical features of someone much more mature. She has breasts – perky, pointed ones – and her waist is inhumanely narrow compared to them. She came wearing one outfit: low-rider jeans and a Daisy-Mae midriff top. When you attempt to arrange her legs so that she might be seated, they spread apart. She is a tart.

I call her that big doll, as in “please take that big doll upstairs to your room.”
Last summer, Ricky and Lucy hosted more than a few lovely, lingering, Sunday brunches in our courtyard. And of course, that big doll found her way to the table. I tried to ditch her by sliding her between the sheets of Ricky and Lucy’s bed. It got a good laugh and a few compromising photographs, but no ransom was required for her return.

When the tornado twins stayed in our home while we were gone, I’m told that big doll was a huge hit and afforded many opportunities for curious kinds of play. This might explain, too, why the birthday-boy’s mother was rather eager to find the doll a new home.

That big doll usually stands in the corner of Buddy-roo’s bedroom, and yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly jumped out of my skin, startled by her life-size presence beside the basket of stuffed animals. Weeks pass where the girls ignore her, preferring their other dolls, yet any suggestion that she might find a new place to live is met with tears and pleas for mercy.
Our next-door neighbor asked the girls if they wanted to select a few toys that they don’t play with anymore to donate to a Christmas toy-drive for needy children. Both Short-pants and Buddy-roo demonstrated great philanthropic spirit. After an exhaustive inventory, they prepared a generous bag of toys and dolls that had fallen out of favor but were still in good condition. I didn’t even ask if that big doll could join the out-basket. I simply placed her on top of the bag with the other toys, in front of our neighbor’s door.

I just returned from a week-long trip to find that the bag of give-away toys had been taken, but my nemesis had stayed behind; that big doll was standing outside our door, glaring at me. It’s like a Stephen King novel; she will not disappear and she seems more evil each time I try to dispose of her. I’m not sure if our neighbor left the doll because Buddy-roo had persuaded her to, or if she just didn’t want to be seen carrying that big doll to the office.
With a style that puts the Silahis to shame, that big doll crashed our Thanksgiving dinner, turning up topless at the table after the cheese course. She managed to break one of my crystal champagne glasses while reaching for a cigar. She was the one who polished off the last of the cognac.

And I know what’s coming. We’re cooking a Christmas Goose with Ricky and Lucy this weekend; the double entendres will be too tempting. She’s so very clever, she must know I can’t possibly throw her out during the holiday season. I guess I just have to learn to live with that big doll.