Dec 10 2011

The Recovery

At dinner that night I glanced down at my watch to see that it was nearly half-eight. That’s 8:30 in the morning home in Paris. I’d meant to call the girls during their breakfast, to catch up in general but especially to wish Short-pants well for her viola recital that evening. I leapt up from the dinner table and rushed to the meeting room, where I’d left my computer. I punched the phone number into Skype, counting each hollow ring, one after the other, until our message machine picked up. I tried the babysitter’s number, too, her phone providing the same lonely sound with no answer either. She was probably already walking them to school.

So many times had I said out loud to my colleagues I must call the girls tonight so I reach them at breakfast. How hard can it be to remember one simple promise to myself? Pretty hard, apparently, as the dinner conversation with colleagues and clients – accompanied by a glass of wine – distracted me enough to miss the thin window of opportunity to talk with them. Another example in my list of failed parenting moments.

Except it was about to be Thursday for me, Wednesday for them, the day they get out of school at noon. So I figured I had still had a chance to wish Short-pants luck before her recital if I could just stay up until half-past midnight to call and reach them at lunchtime in Paris. But my eyes were drooping shut by eleven o’clock, I surrendered to sleep fast and heavy – as one does within the wake of jet-lag – but at least I’d set my alarm, which went off shortly before 1 am.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo’s enthusiasm at hearing my voice, instant reassurance that they hadn’t forgotten me.

“Hey,” I said, yawning and groggy. “How are you sweetie?”

“Mama, when are the Fisher Price toys going to get here?”

These old toys of mine were sent with the other things from my mother’s house, a shipment that left the states in October and has not yet cleared European customs. I assured her that I’d filled out all the paperwork and I was just waiting to be given a delivery date.

Her enthusiasm disappeared for the rest of the conversation: How are you doing? Fine. How was school? Good. Did you have fun at the birthday party last weekend? Yes. I opted not to ask about homework, as much of a chore this year as last. We dog her enough about it, that there’s nothing I can do from so far away to move things along. Best not to touch upon a sore subject.

“Can I talk to your sister?”

I heard the phone clunk down on the counter and the footsteps the followed as she ran off to get her sister. I desperately wanted to speak to Short-pants before her concert to let her know I was thinking about her, so that she’d tune her viola knowing that, even from far away, I was rooting for her. Mostly that she’d know she wasn’t forgotten. It’s hard enough, I think, to have an event like this that your parents cannot attend. Worse if it goes by without a crystal clear message that being absent doesn’t mean uninterested.

Short-pants came on the phone.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mama,” she said, “I’ve practiced every night. I know it by heart.”

This conversation an echo of so many exchanges from my childhood. Within it I heard my father’s carefully chosen words to acknowledge preparedness over perfection. And her response, like mine probably was, couched with the intent to please. Add this moment to all the rest – good and bad – where you catch yourself parenting as you were parented.

As a young violist, just about Shortpants’ age, I remember my father once complimented me after an orchestra concert and I told him, with some embarrassment, that I’d actually lost my place during one of the pieces.

“What did you do?” he’d asked.

I told him how I’d faked it until I could find my place in the music and rejoin the rest of the orchestra. I remember his long fingers, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose to adjust them as he summoned his thoughtful response.

“It’s not the fall,” he said, nodding, “it’s the recovery.”

This advice I’ve passed on to others, but I seem to forget to apply to myself.

Despite all the self-talk about how the kids are fine, they’re better adjusted because we’re not hovering over them all the time, how seeing us go away and return is good for their self-esteem, how they’ll be more independent as a result, the truth is I feel like shit about missing this recital. It was her first one ever, and I wasn’t there. I wish I could have beamed myself home, and that it wasn’t the babysitter and her family who’d be there clapping in the audience, but me and De-facto amongst the other proud parents.

I could hear Buddy-roo crying in the background, asking to have the phone back. I reminded Short-pants how much I love her and told her to break a leg, an odd turn of phrase to use, given that her broken leg at age four had its own complications. But she knew what I meant.

“Why do you have to be gone so long?” Buddy-roo asked, through tears. I told her it was because I had to go so far away. It was hard to console her, knowing I had still another full week before I could even say I’ll be home soon.

“When you get back home,” she said, “then will the Fisher Price toys come?”

I assured her they would.

“Okay,” she said, composing herself. I may have fallen from her good graces for being gone so long, but I think I know just how to make a full recovery.


Nov 11 2011

In the Cloud

I want to be in the cloud. Not the up-there-in-the-ether-all-safe-and-stored-and-accessible-from-any-device cloud, I mean the creative cloud, the cloud of that fuzzy, I-don’t-know-but-something-might-be-emerging cloud, both thrilling and unnerving at once, the cloud of my imagination. I want to go there and stay there and live there, mindfully navigating life in a writerly way, a painterly way – even thought I don’t paint – or a musical way, any way that might be an artistic way.

Once upon a time I had my fingers in glue stick and construction paper, cutting out magazines and making and pasting creative little things. I wrote daily in my journal, I did multiple free-writes on the same prompt. I remember feeling perfectly capable of taking time, without the gnawing sense that I might be wasting it, time being that precious commodity that we all have exactly the same amount of but some people seem to use more industriously than others. Not that industry is the truest measure of contentment. I would like to do less.

I would like to tether myself to this cloud and move deliberately, through the potentially artistic moments of my day. Spooning a mountain of frothy milk into the coffee in my favorite mug with just the right swirl and then doing nothing but sitting and drinking it; handwriting funky postcards to far flung but not forgotten friends before opening email and RSS feeds to respond to the “urgent” news of the day. Drawing a flower on the steamed-up mirror after a unhurried hot shower – better yet a drawn-out bath – and taking the time to add detail to each of its pedals; sitting pensively on the barstool, imagining the life of the Asian woman with gray squared-off bangs sitting across from me at the café; stopping off at a bookstore on the way home to browse the stacks randomly, pulling titles off the shelves and reading paragraphs, just short snacks in a feast of enticing literature.

I want to mount those family pictures on the bathroom wall in that funky frame I found, produce that little film of my mother walking through the rooms of our old house, finish that scrapbook of Buddy-roo’s blessing before she realizes her sister’s is completed but hers – though its pieces are ready to go – has never been assembled. I want to read without being interrupted or without collapsing the book on my chest in utter exhaustion. I want to, when I’m feeling haunted by a passage in Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, sit down in that moment to listen to it with the Bose headphones I bought (an indulgence) to block out noise on long-haul flights when the real reason to own them is that they make everything seem alive and present and close around you.

I just want to live in a more artistic way.

I’ve decided to stop talking about being too busy. It’s a boring line of conversation, and frankly, everybody’s busy. It can’t be denied that I juggle a fair amount between work and children and De-facto and friends and the administration of our household. The latter being the most tedious, but I have not yet achieved the zensibility of regarding piles of paper-needing-attention and unwashed laundry and children’s toys and books strewn as anything but an aesthetic assault. I think back to when I lived alone – I’ve never been an everything-at-right-angles person, but it was easy to sustain some amount of sloppy kind of order in my surroundings, which permitted me to vault into the messy cloud of my own creativity without stopping at the toll booth to get there.

There is nobody standing over me insisting that I attend so diligently to the administrative details of my life (and my family’s). I had a dream that I simply stopped caring: No need to remember to stuff the little morning snack packs in their school cartables, no hounding them to straighten their rooms or finish their homework, no longer picking up the random empty glasses left on the floor behind by the couch. I let them leave all the drawers pulled out and cupboards wide open, the wet laundry festered in the machine because I couldn’t be troubled to hang it out or run it in the dryer, the furniture was no longer visible as every surface had been covered with blankets, princess costumes, doll clothes, train tracks, little bits of paper and plastic, and books left open face down to mark the page. In the dream I regarded it all with amusement, and simply joined them, unbothered by shoulds and oughts, basking single-mindedly in my unfettered imagination, up there, in the cloud.


Oct 18 2011

Busy Bodies

“It’s my busy day,” she said, “I have too many things to do.” Short-pants was referring to Thursdays, a long day for her. She gets out of school earlier than usual, but after a short break for a snack and homework, she has to run off to the conservatory for her viola lesson at 6:00 pm, followed by a music theory class from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. It’s not ideal, being schooled in the evening. But it’s the only class that fits with the rest of her schedule, unless we want to succumb to a Saturday obligation. And if she wants to continue with her viola at the conservatory, the theory class is obligatory.

Is this the curse of our time? To be always busy? To feel the burden of constant busy-ness, even at the tender age of ten? When I was her age I had only a little homework and all my extra-curricular activities were somehow incorporated into the school day, a factor of being enrolled in an American primary school during the ’70s. I don’t think I felt fatigued by my schedule. I remember having ample time to play, to read for pleasure, to watch television with my family in the evenings. Sure I had outside commitments; I took private piano lessons from a very young age. But even in high school, when I added several after-school activities, I wasn’t busy.

Does she get it from me? Is her awareness of the weight of her schedule a reflection of her own experience, or is she parroting what she hears me mumbling about to De-facto when my day gets hijacked by little errands and tasks that pop up and scream at me for immediate attention, thrusting me into the urgent but not important quadrant of time management. Some of this is my doing: trips to the beauty nurse are an interruption that I could eliminate, but for the consequences. But too often I feel utterly out of control of my daily itinerary, racing to do things I didn’t arrange for myself. I left the more structured, corporate job scene to get off the hamster wheel, but now I’m on another one, of my own making. Call it the hamster wheel of motherhood.

It seems to be my story, the busy one. And it’s dull. Yes, my days are packed with busy little things. Short-pants is out of cartridges for her stylo plume, or I have to organize her second attestation d’assurance. The girls’ ID cards must be procured at the prefecture, an ill-timed administrative errand that interrupts time I’d set aside to work, but was urgent enough – an upcoming voyage where they are required – to displace my schedule and requiring two trips to the prefecture. Buddy-roo needs a present for an upcoming birthday party, or there’s a note in her cahier that she needs something new for school, by tomorrow. There are a dozen tiny things like this on the list, none of them on their own particularly time consuming, but their accumulation and interruptive quality stun me. That long chunk of hours I’d set aside to work or write squeezes in on me like the narrowing walls of a horror movie, and then, just as I get in the groove of concentration, it’s time to go wait outside the school and bring the girls home.

I’m so tired of being busy. I’m tired of squeezing too much into too few hours. I’m tired of rushing through my life and feeling too busy to stop and linger or else feeling guilty when I do, for instance, linger after school drop-off for coffee with the other parents, or when I go to meet a friend for a drink instead of using those last child-free hours to finish my work, which is never finished.

I need to change something, because what I’m doing isn’t working. But what? What to remove (or possibly add) that will put me back in a more productive, efficient mode? Or in a stress-free mode? Or else this: what might inspire me to care less about the fact that it’s never all done, I’ll never be caught up, this unfinished head-just-above-water, life-in-constant-progress feeling will accompany me, probably, until my life is finished. One could even hope for that.

Buddy-roo’s angst about homework is somewhat diminished from last year. As she matures, her capacity to address the hefty assignment list improves. She’s even starting to understand the concept of working ahead on the weekend, so her after-school workload isn’t quite as crushing. But still, there’s always homework for her to do. The girls also have their chores around the house, the seeds of community service which we acknowledge with a modest allowance. But when we have to remind Buddy-roo to empty the silverware tray from dishwasher or to pull the empty toilet paper rolls from the bathroom and put them in the recycling, or to move her toys upstairs, she sighs with exasperation, “Everybody keeps telling me all these things I have to do, like homework and chores. I never have enough time to play.”

I know where this comes from. It’s her experience, and she’s repeating what she hears too often from me. I’m turning them – or letting them be turned – into human doings instead of human beings. We’re all running on our own little hamster-wheels, and I’m wondering – a lot – about how can we get off and just have some time to play.


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.


Jul 31 2011

Shelving Matters

“But why did we need to redo our bathroom?” said Buddy-roo. She waved her hand like a game-show host’s assistant, pointing out all the clutter in our living room. Boxes of tiles, equipment yet to be installed – sinks, toilets, mirrors, a new towel heater – all sprawled across the floor. Our hallway is covered with dust from two different kinds of saws, each one set up on wide, sturdy sawhorses in the middle of our entry foyer. Pieces of particleboard, soon to be cupboards, are stacked against the wall making it nearly impassable.

I ran through the litany of complaints about our old bathrooms: the aging toilets, lack of counter space, lack of shelf space and inefficient storage – let alone the aesthetic problem of a sickening color of green tile not quite olive but not quite forest, the kind of green that neither soothes nor pleases the eye. Constructed in the early 1970s – and I doubt there was any renovation bestowed upon them before I started living here in the mid-90s – those bathrooms are owed a re-look.

There isn’t a renovation project that’s easy to live through, but perhaps kitchens and bathrooms – the two most plumbing intensive rooms in a home – are the most difficult to endure, which is why we scheduled the work to be done in July while we were out of town. But an appointment in Paris required our presence and we also felt the need for a few consecutive days of full-time internet connection to keep up with our on-line lives, so we trekked back to the city for a mid-summer’s pause in our what is usually a nearly-full-summer vacation.

Not that it hurt to be home to peek at the work in progress and surely there were a few decisions better made after seeing things first hand. There is the clear promise of a 4-star hotel bathroom in the making, but still much work ahead before anyone can luxuriate in that bathtub.

Maybe one of you readers could kindly enlighten me as to why De-facto would distract our contractor by asking for his attention on another project, at a little studio we rent out, in the middle of our double bathroom renovation? That “little” job turned out to be much more complicated than the few days originally forecast. Since our contractor is meticulous – and for this I hired him – that small-job-gone-awry put him at least a week behind on our bathrooms. You might imagine that his keen attention to detail might anyway contribute to what was already his propensity to run behind schedule. De-facto’s quick little job-on-the-side didn’t help.

Luckily our next-door neighbors were gone last week, so we borrowed their bathroom. But after 6 days of sawing and pounding and tile-dust, and knowing that there’s at least another week (or more) of it ahead, we’d had enough of cohabiting with the renovation. Our summer-in-the-city days were numbered. It’d be much easier to get out of town, though we picked one of the most heavily trafficked weekends in France to be on the road again.

Buddy-roo motioned for me to follow her into the bathroom. The contractor had been building customized shelves, fitting them around an old beam that cuts diagonally from the ceiling to the floor along one of the walls.

“Look at all the shelves,” she said.

“Yes,” I marveled with her. The shelves glistened like jewels, each cubbyhole waiting to harbor my creams and powders.

“Do I get a shelf of my own?”

I had considered, in the design, that the girls might grow into teenagers in this bathroom, requiring a designated place to store their own toiletries. I nodded my head.

“Which one?” she asked, with the same enthusiasm she exhibits on Christmas morning.

“We have to see, when it’s all done, what makes sense.”

“What about Papa?” she asked, “Does he get a shelf?”

I eyed the cardboard, plastic pieces and old plaster piled in the bathtub, the electrical wires jutting out of the wall, the open pipes waiting for fixtures to be attached.

“Over there,” I pointed to the small triangular shelf in the corner, at the furthest point from where the sink will be, just behind the door.

“That little one?” she said.

I nodded. I waved my hand around the room, like Vanna White, showcasing all the work that was taking longer than expected.

“Yes,” she said, conspiratorially, “That’ll be just right.”


Dec 20 2010

A Girl and Her Toys

For years, I have avoided giving away my favorite childhood toys. I allowed them to gather dust in my mothers backroom, stowed away and yet accessible for her friends who visited with children, or for her grandchildren, when they visited. It is true that these toys were put to good use whenever young persons belonging to me or to others were guests in our house. But this is not the reason they remain in our possession.

As long as my mother lived in that big old house where it was really no bother to store them, I could avoid the inevitable: the task that all my peers must have executed years ago, the disbursement of their personal childhood belongings, including their favorite toys. Letting go of these toys is letting go of my childhood.

I collected Fisher Price toys. Even in junior high school. I owned the house, the school, the airport, the A-frame, the houseboat, the camper, the playground set, the village and the castle. The boys across the street owned the barn and the garage, and the village, which coupled with mine, made for a metropolis on those occasions when we held what we called a Fisher Price reunion, when we set up every toy we owned in my living room, creating a veritable city of Fisher Price life.

For years after I knew there was no Santa Claus, I pretended to believe so that each year I could request the latest Fisher Price model. I amassed the larger and more complex toys during those years, playing with them in private, without informing my school friends. I wasn’t playing. I was collecting. Fuzzy line, that.

These toys came in handy. My brother’s children enjoyed them, and my own girls certainly put them to good use. We’d barely arrive at my mother’s house before the girls would beg me to bring out the Fisher Price toys. Buddy-roo especially could recall the details of each one, and would speak about them long after we’d returned from our visit. She still asks for them. She misses Grammy; she says so carefully, knowing that my grief is still close the surface. It doesn’t inhibit her from asking: What’s happening to all those toys? They were yours weren’t they? Why don’t you bring them here?

I know I ought to donate them to a children’s toy-drive or to a daycare center or a needy family. Or give them to the recycling: they are toys that no longer pass the safety test, though aesthetically and functionally they are far superior to what Fisher Price is compelled to manufacture today with all the safety constraints. I should do something, I should let them go.

Except giving them away feels too harsh. I have lost enough this year. Losing your mother is surprising – you think okay I can handle this, I’m prepared, but you cannot because you had no idea how integrated she was into everything in your life; you had no idea how it would floor you and how lost you would be without that person to tether you, even if by now, in your forties, it was a quiet, grown-up kind of tethering.

Here’s what I am avoiding: the inevitable distribution, donation or destruction of my most treasured childhood toys. I’m avoiding everything that this stands for. You fill in the blanks. Or, consider this: maybe I’m avoiding the voice of the rational adult who wants me to let them go. Sell them on eBay, she says, without sympathy. They are originals, antiques, worth some real cash. Or give them away, to someone who needs them. Let go of them.

I don’t want to give them away. They sit in my mother’s basement – I removed them from the backroom – gathering moisture and dust while I wait for the house to sell. Once it does, I’ll have to make a decision. Sell them? Move them to storage? Box them up and ship them?

Buddy-roo wants me to ship them to France. We don’t have room for the whole lot here in Paris, but I contacted a few shipping companies, anyway, just out of curiosity, to determine the cost. It’s not unreasonable.

Give me my bonus points, if not for wisdom or courage, at least for honesty: I’m not ready to give away these toys. But do I dare to keep them, as unreasonable as that might be?

Maybe I should, maybe I will ship them. And when they get here, I’ll get on my hands and knees and set them up, just like the old days. Short-pants and Buddy-roo and I, we’ll will make a whole world of Fisher Price, moving the little wooden people around in their little plastic cars, playing out all their imagined stories. We’ll have a ball with all my old toys. Tell me, why would I avoid that?

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Jake Nickell: Prompt: Beyond avoidance. What should you have done this year but didn’t because you were too scared, worried, unsure, busy or otherwise deterred from doing? (Bonus: Will you do it?)


Aug 14 2010

Her Closet

Once I got over the childhood fear of what might lurk in the back of my mother’s closet, it became my preferred place of refuge. When it was bath time (on her schedule but not mine) I’d go there and hide for a moment to prepare myself for the inevitable. When the Edge of Night’s twisted plot was too intense to bear, I’d crawl behind her clothes and pull myself together. If I needed to hide or think or calm myself, or suck my thumb without anyone catching me, her closet offered me comfort and privacy.

I’d leave the door ajar; a band of light across the linoleum floor shed enough light for me to see and meant I was not submerged in total darkness. I’d split the row of hanging dresses apart like thick foliage in a jungle and crawl to the back of her closet. Some of the garments were stored in dry cleaning bags, I was careful to steer clear – the fear of suffocation had been impressed upon me when it came to plastic bags – though I liked the feel of the plastic on my shoulders and sensed that the garments within those casings were her most prized, saved for the elegant occasions when other boxes from the top shelf were brought down and set out on the table, boxes with long gloves, beaded bags and silk shoes.

In the back of that closet I could be alone, but still with my mother. I could slide through that curtain of her clothing and squat in the corner and wait. I was waiting for courage, waiting for affection or just waiting until boredom took over – but while I was there waiting, the scent of my mother surrounded me. I was at home among her lightly perfumed clothes and the mildly stale but not unpleasant smell of her shoes. All the things in this closet were hers: the things I saw her wearing and carrying were stored in this private place, it was her domain but it was mine too, for different reasons. It was where I could return to a silent and simple union with her. I could be embraced by her here, by all her things, even if she was somewhere else.

Last winter I was at home to help my mother for about a week before my siblings joined me to say our goodbyes to her. Each day, the rapid decline of her physical capacity required more from me. I could barely find a moment to dress and brush my teeth between the tasks required to assist her; a nearly constant observation became necessary at the end. One day I felt close to some edge – the edge of exhaustion from caretaking a dying woman; the edge of grief, preparing to lose someone I loved too much; the edge of longing, being too far and too long away from De-facto and the girls. So when my mother drifted into an afternoon nap, I found myself drawn to her closet. I ran my hands across the shoulders of her hanging dresses and blouses. I burrowed through and behind her clothes to the corner of the closet, just like I used to, and with my back against the wall, slid down to sit on the floor, letting the plastic dry cleaning bags brush against me (no longer afraid of suffocation) and permitted myself a short regression to everything that this closet meant to me, to a time when everyone around me was older and larger and their major preoccupation – at least in my view – was to take care of me.

I sat there in the back of that closet for only a few moments, my long limbs fit in that corner less comfortably than they did 40-some years ago. But it was long enough to remember what it was like to feel safe and protected, long enough to let tears spill and let go the mounting pressure, long enough to long for the security that something as simple as a mother’s closet could provide.

* * *

My sister and I just spent a week together at my mother’s house to continue the process of emptying it of her personal effects. We have purposely not rushed this process, knowing that grief takes its time and we should too. Yet we know better than to lose momentum, so each month my brother, sister or I (or some combination) travel to the house and endeavor to empty a few more boxes, to give away and throw away a few more things, to prepare the house to be shown to prospective buyers and ultimately to be sold.

The focus of last week’s trip was rather specific: the closets. I had partly to clear out the paraphernalia of my own past. I’d left in her care shoe-boxes filled with letters to friends from summer camp, high school and college folders, and several stuffed animals about to lose their stuffing. But the real task was to address my mother’s wardrobe. For six months we had left her things hanging, but now was the time. My sister and I stood side-by-side in my mother’s closet, touching each and every article of clothing, recalling the occasion when she wore this suit or that sweater-set, remembering how she’d had this skirt made from silk she bought on that trip with the two of us. Once in a while we were even a little surprised at what we found (wow, she owned a leather jacket?) but mostly we were reminded of her good taste and how careful she was to take care of her beautiful garments.

“What are your tears like these days?” said the woman who we’d been told to call to come and take away my mother’s clothing. How naturally she broached the subject, knowing that tears can vary in nature and degree over time. She did not insult us by tiptoeing around our grief. This made it easy to trust her. She gently directed us to attend to other tasks in other rooms while she set about quietly emptying the contents of all my mother’s closets. We did not have to watch her pulling out the hangers and folding our mother’s clothes into black plastic bags. We did not have to help her remove these items that we treasured too much, that held in their fabric too many precious memories. Her discretion was a delicate gift. She was like an angel sweeping in to do the hardest job, and somehow finding a way to take tender care of us while doing it.

After she left, I stood at the door of the closet, emptied of its contents. The shelves were bare. Only a few stray hangers remained. The row of hanging garments that once buffered me from the rest of the world had been dismantled. I stepped in and closed the door behind me, leaving it ajar to let in the familiar strip of light. I swear I could still smell my mother in that closet: the faint hint of Shalimar, the familiar scent of her worn shoes. Was that for real, or just in my memory? Does it matter? As we give away the things that were hers, we commit them to our memory. And our memory of her is something that we’ll always get to keep.


May 21 2010

The Backroom

My hands are dry, parched from the handling of paper and the folding of cardboard box covers. My mind reels at the level of organization hidden within the disorganized mess of boxes and files stowed away, every box like another chapter of her life, the files of all her correspondence, drafts of her speeches, even all her travel receipts. My heart breaks, reading love letters my parents wrote to each other in college, his familiar scribble, eighteen times in a row writing out “I love you.” Or finding a letter my mother’s father left for my grandmother in an envelope that read: “to be opened only in the event of my death.” In it, his humble words of reflection on their life together and the tasks she would have ahead of her to continue without him.

There is a physical, mental and emotional labor involved in cleaning out my mother’s house, but especially so as we addressed the backroom, the room that waited behind a closed door, the room where our family’s stories have been stored for so many years. It is not a small room; it probably measures 15 X 20 feet. It was packed to the gills with files and crates of papers and memorabilia, magazines, empty boxes that were re-used every Christmas and board games we no longer played, old carpet remnants, photo albums, family scrapbooks. It must be said that you couldn’t really walk into the room except for the thin path to the blue recycling bins, kept just next to the 50-year-old standing freezer which contains jars of something that might have put there more than thirty years ago. We have yet to defrost it; that thaw is for another trip, I think.

She saved everything. A long box with our baby books, faded with time and love, and underneath them, all the tiny, corny, welcoming cards sent to her when each one of us was born. Every grade school portrait and class photo. Every single report card. The piece of paper that was pinned on my brother’s shirt so he would be shuffled off the school bus to the correct first-grade class (the pin still attached). All our schoolwork – I think she saved every piece of paper that came home, all of it stowed in reddish brown legal brief envelopes tied up tight and stacked in a cupboard in the backroom.

My sister and I would call out to each other, “Oh my god, come see this.” A carton with her budget records from the 1970s and envelopes filled with tax receipts from the same decade; a notebook in which she kept a record of every dinner party she hosted in 1967-1968, who was invited, what she served, how they were seated at the tables (and shifted for dessert), and all the thank you notes she received after each occasion; the diaries she kept in college, filled with the practical details of her day (“up at 7…”) but also an occasional reference to someone she had a crush on who smiled at her in a special way; scrapbooks from her youth in Havana, with theater programs and letters from her school and small calling cards bearing her maiden name; a large box, and then another, with all the condolence notes she received when my father died, and the record of how she acknowledged of each and every card.

One of the sagging cardboard cartons contained every letter I ever sent home from college. In the same box, a notebook with the letters written during my semester abroad in Denmark. I remember where I was sitting when I wrote most of them, at a square wooden table at the Café Peder Hvitfeldts in the center of Copenhagen, a Carlsberg Porter to my left to fortify me. It was stunning to see all these letters again, collected together. I drew my finger down the lines of little words, my fine, tiny writing filling every blank space of the page and it all rushed back to me: being a 20-year old stretching my legs to another continent. How strange and exotic it all felt, compared to life in my rural hometown, or even the small city that hosted my university. I was tasting Europe for the first time and it was thrilling. I remember writing home with all the details – some of it more than my parents ever needed to know – because I felt compelled to convey to them how I was getting it all, doing it all, growing into the woman that I imagined they hoped I would become.

The letters are painful to re-read, quite honestly, as now with some years under my belt I can see in them the naïveté and the obnoxious optimism I possessed. They are trying too hard to express something that I realize now I never needed to write because my parents knew it all along: mom, dad, I’m doing you proud, which somehow seemed so important then, and well, still is now.

Standing over this pile of letters, I realized it’s not just about grieving her death. Or my father’s. Or even preparing for the grieving of the loss of this old house – which when we sell it will be like saying goodbye to another family member, a friend that has hugged our family close for 53 years. Each time I open one of those crumbling boxes filled with the dust and dead cluster flies and the memorabilia of my earlier days, I am grieving a part of me, too, some part that was young and impressionable and looking to my mother for help and advice and approval and that just as my mother is gone,
so is that little girl. I wouldn’t mind to still be her, and just let someone collect my report cards while I run out to the orchard to play. But I have my own collecting to do, while my little girls run about and skip away.

Maybe nobody likes to admit to this, but I will: We mourn our grandparents and our parents and we miss them and their goodness and their guidance but we are also mourning ourselves and our own inevitable passage to the stage of life they were in before they died, which signals our own departure, too.

As my mother dies, so do the impish girl and the rebellious teenager and the emerging young woman that I used to be. As long as she was here, these parts of me lived in relation to her. Now that she is gone, I feel as though I’m on the threshold of another place in my life: it is papered with wisdom and prudence, furnished with a bit of grace, a shrug of humility. It is a place that she inhabited so effortlessly and left it in such lovely condition for me to step into – probably because she had that back room to store everything else.


Oct 21 2009

The Ledger

“Come with me,” she said, a command that once upon a time would elicit a groan. She led me into the room that is part-laundry room, part-office. I watched her open the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet. She pulled out two ledgers.

“This one has all my medical expenses.” She opened the pages to show me the rows of entries, evenly notated in handwriting I recognized from grocery lists and birthday cards and notes she wrote to school excusing my absence. That’s something you never forget: the protective lines and loops of your mother’s handwriting.

She pointed to the pages in the front. “These are things I paid for, every day things like prescriptions and lab tests.” She flipped to the pages at the back of the notebook. “These are the big medical costs – covered by insurance.” Her familiar index finger tracked down the first column, running over all the words. Oncologist. Chemotherapy. Blood transfusion. Everything detailed. Everything organized.

She opened up the second ledger. Like the first, its columns were neatly labeled and ordered; each page separated by a pile of loose receipts retained for her records. “This book has all my expenses for the year, for my taxes.”

That’s my mother, always organized, preparing to die the same pragmatic and efficient way she’s always lived.

She desperately needed help going through the upstairs backroom, she said, so we obliged, her three grown children following her up the stairs with an eagerness un-witnessed during our childhood. Backroom, in our family, is a euphemism for junk room. The downstairs backroom is a history project, filled with our parents’ past; their love letters, college papers, every issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, neatly boxed, saved since 1958 or thereabouts.
upstairsThe upstairs backroom, once my brother’s room (with football-patterned wall paper) and then mine (painted white but with bright yellow and neon green shag carpet), now a third guest bedroom rarely used not only because it is the less grand of all the bedrooms, but because the bed was completely covered with bags and baubles brought home from meetings and conventions, or those awkward gifts received from well-meaning friends with taste so strikingly different that their generosity, though appreciated, is never fully utilized. At the foot of the bed, a row of boxes of belongings earmarked for a future yard sale. All the framed awards she received during her admirable career – too numerous to fit on the walls – piled on the shelves and on the floor, stacked against the wall. In the dresser drawers, things too precious to part with, ivory kid gloves from a governor’s ball, a silk purse her mother bought in Hong Kong, old black and white photographs, our baby teeth hidden in tiny envelopes, dated in my father’s handwriting.

It’s always the hardest room to clean, the one packed with things of only sentimental value.

The doctors never thought she’d live this long. Last winter, when the diagnosis of pre-leukemic myelodysplasia first pounded its gavel, they ordered a palliative treatment, a mild chemo easily administered five consecutive days in a monthly cycle, a treatment as inconvenient as having your period. In addition, frequent blood transfusions to introduce new cells to replace her tired, incompetent ones. Lots of doctor’s visits and the requisite poking and probing, but all of it relatively close to home and all of her loyal friends have rallied to help, taking turns driving her to all her appointments, checking in on her between medical visits. Though she is still more than capable to drive herself, good company is never a bad idea.

She has a quality of life that is absolutely acceptable. Of course she has slowed her crazy itinerary of activities and travel. But she still does a lot: a dizzying dance-card of lunches and dinner dates with friends, an occasional board meeting, her own shopping and errands. She lives more wisely now, doing only what she wants and using her lack of white blood cells as a good excuse to cut out anything extraneous. After each monthly transfusion, she gets a boost of energy and feels good. But her marrow won’t manufacture the good blood cells she needs, so she’s vulnerable to infection. She avoids crowds and coughing strangers. She won’t die of leukemia; she’ll die because of what the leukemia won’t let her fight.

There is, in fact, a growth in her lung. Is it a tumor? An infection? A fungal growth? The doctors aren’t sure. But the risk of an invasive procedure to determine its nature is deemed too dangerous. Even if they knew what it was, they wouldn’t treat it. A surgery brings too much risk for infection. A stronger chemotherapy also exists, but the doctor opts not to administer it because it requires a portacath, which can too easily become infected. The thought of such medical paraphernalia gives me flashbacks to when Short-pants was in the hospital and her stay was lengthened because the permanent drip became infected, leading to a sepsis that set her recovery back at least a month – and who knows how close she came to not recovering as a result of that secondary infection, an infection my mother would not be able to overcome.
autumn_trees
But she looks so beautiful, my mother. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She smiles. She laughs. She doesn’t look or act sick. She is living in a state of grace, I think.

Her doctor’s priority is not to cure her – since that is impossible – but to slow the disease so that she might have a quality of life while preparing for its end. For over a month now she’s been off the chemo treatment, and she’s no worse when she was on it. The doctors are baffled to see her doing so well. My mother’s constitution, in the end, is remarkable.

I asked her if she was scared. “No,” she said, “Dying is a part of life. Nobody can live forever.” This is indisputable; it can happen to any of us, any day – a fluke car crash or the diagnosis we dread – just like that. But once the sentence is offered, the disease is certain and incurable, I can only imagine what it’s like to stand on the threshold of the uncertain mystery ahead.

She shakes her head, not with resignation but with gratitude, and lists her fond memories: a happy childhood in Havana, enjoying college, all the good years with my father before he died. My siblings and I have managed not to disappoint her. She had a serious career when many women couldn’t, and even in retirement, continues to make an impact in her field. She’s traveled all over the globe. She adores her grandchildren, and this is reciprocated.

There’s no place on her ledger for remorse. She’s just counting up all the good things, year-by-year. Except that now she notices them day-to-day. You can’t imagine how much I am in awe of her, my mother, still modeling for me how to live – right up to the end.