Jun 20 2012

The Hand-Off

They hoisted their heavy cartables up on to their back, the lift and twist on to one arm and then reaching the other back, blindly, to find the strap and slip beneath it. It’s a motion they enact several times a day without thinking. Each time I see it, I wince. Their school bags are so heavy. The number of books and notebooks the girls are required to cart back and forth, daily, is pretty serious. Some days it feels like Short-pants‘ bag weighs more than the pack I carried on the Camino.

They trampled down the four flights of worn, wooden steps and out the door to the street. The morning was fresh, a downpour during the night had cleared the air and cleansed the streets. Short-pants grabbed one of my hands and Buddy-roo seized the other, sandwiching me between them.

We talked through the order of events for the day: how I’d come back to school to help out with the line rehearsal for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the year-end production of their theater atelier in which I was also implicated, having volunteered to create and manage the changing of sets via Powerpoint presentation; how our “sitter” would come to get Short-pants and sweep her off to an orchestra rehearsal; how Buddy-roo would go home with a friend because I had an appointment, how the sitter would pick her up later and get them dinner; how the rest of the week’s homework had to get done early because of the school play. Every day has been like this, a full schedule of meetings and hand-offs, the three of us shuffling around to all the final rehearsals for theater, orchestra and tap-dance performances that culminate during these final weeks of June.

It was perhaps not the best planning that De-facto would leave Paris the day after I returned from Spain. I’d hoped to be on the Camino few days longer, but the reality of my responsibilities stepped into the spotlight and delivered a long monologue about how I’d been away already a luxurious amount of time and I had no right to even think of sulking a moment about returning home a few days earlier than my original plan. And by the time I got to León, I missed my family something fierce. I started to dream about the girls throwing their thin, pale arms around me, the sweet smell of their breath, and their soft, smooth, hands in mine.

Apparently they missed me, too. The day before I returned home I got a message on my voicemail from Buddy-roo, describing what had been the “worst day of her life” and how she wished I’d come home. Once I was in the door, after two days of train travel to get there, De-facto appeared with a small tub of a water and a sponge, in homage to my experience at the Ermita de San Nicolas, and washed my weary pilgrim feet. The next day, however, he put his own feet on an airplane and left me in charge in Paris.

After weeks of walking slowly through life, I was immediately asked to sprint. The multi-tasking, order-barking, for the third time please brush your teeth, up-in-the-morning-out-the-door routine a stark contrast to the contemplative preparation of my backpack each day before setting off to walk on my own. The fetching and feeding of children, the hither and yonder to get them to this and that rehearsal, catching up with the details of our household, resuming my professional duties, let alone catching up with any friends put many things on the plate that I had so thoroughly emptied during my walking sabbatical.

This is probably just what St. James had ordered for me. I’d been gone for nearly a month and I’d forgotten how to be a parent. Had De-facto been around, I’d have let him keep the lead role. In his immediate and complete absence, I was forced to remember how and when to cook for the kids, how to help them stay on top of their homework, how to motivate them to do the chores that earn their allowance, how to read with them a bedtime and sing them soothing songs to coax them to sleep.

I did, however, forget to suggest a bath, and the girls went for a good long stretch without one. The day after my return, I’d washed and dried every towel we own. Nearly a week later I noticed they were still perfectly folded on the towel rack, untouched.

Maybe there were a few other things I forgot about mothering: like how to bury my nose in my computer, or how to send texts on my phone on the walk home from school, how to snap at them sharply when I’m distracted or frustrated. I’m hoping these might remain absent from my fashion of parenting.

Especially the electronic part. I see so many people on the street, walking and tapping their thumbs on their smartphones, oblivious to the friends beside them and the world around them. If this is the only thing I learn from the camino – when you walk, just walk – it’d be enough. How good it feels to stop the constant multi-tasking and just be with the sights and sounds of even an urban stroll, to be fully present with my daughters, but also with myself. My feet are now in street shoes rather than hiking boots, stepping on pavement rather than a dirt track or a hiking trail, but why should that make a difference?

Last night, a friend helped us out, fetching Buddy-roo at the cabinet médical after a routine eye exam to take her to a tap-dance rehearsal. Short-pants and I, after our own eye check-ups, went back to school to attend a presentation about the class project, an imaginary overland voyage through Europe to Russia. The kids learned a number of songs during their pretend travels, and they lined up in the front of the room to sing them to us enthusiastically.

I scanned the group of long tall bodies, remembering when Short-pants and her classmates were squat and miniature, marveling at how they’ve all grown up. It dawned on me that this was the end of their time together in the primary school. Next year they’ll move up to the collège, with the more independent and demanding schedule of middle school, and probably a heavier book bag.

But last night they were still kids, an innocent, exuberant chorus, trusting each other, their teachers, and all the parents in the room. I hadn’t expected the rush of nostalgia prompted by the sight of these now-bigger little people collected together, about to walk into the next stage of their life. I looked around and saw that I was not the only mother with her hand on her chest and a tear on her cheek, that others were equally moved by this moment.

We’ve walked our children to this point, held their hands, juggled schedules to get them to all the places they needed to go to be able to be right here, now, with everything to look forward to. They’re almost out of our grasp, which is why it’s so important to cherish those precious moments when they still offer up a small, soft hand on the way to school, and why I’m so glad I came back home to do just that.


Jun 13 2011

Behind the Curtain

“The tricky part is right here, after the storm in Kansas,” De-facto said, pointing to the creased sheet of paper that had been folded and stuffed in his back pocket, removed and unfolded, again and again. These were the set change instructions and they looked relatively simple, which was what worried me. He was in charge of the sets for the performance; he’d crafted and painted many of them, built the stage extension and choreographed the scene changes with the director. His crib notes made sense, to him.

I’d been in the audience the night before, the opening night of the school’s English section performance of The Wizard of Oz. I know it’s easy for proud parents to crescendo their praise to a distorted level, but I think I am not exaggerating when I report that the production was a first class piece of children’s theater.

A truly dedicated group of parents, affectionately named the Yellow Brick Road Crew, started the engine on this production way back in March. The director of the play, a multi-dexterous woman with talent and tact motored it forward with a professionalism that far exceeded her volunteer status. The rehearsals started as a Saturday morning activity. Then Sundays were added, then Wednesday afternoons, too, as the dates of the performance drew near. Lines were memorized by small, elastic brains, songs transposed and rehearsed until they could be sung by heart. Dance steps were choreographed, even practiced by adults in the café, trying to figure out how four kids might skip together arm-in-arm on a narrow stage. A week earlier, the dress rehearsal for their classmates was chaotic and choppy – as a first full run-through in costume with sets usually is – and even then, the teachers and peers were seriously impressed. But the real test was opening night, in front of a (paying) audience of adults, teachers and family members. The debut was a glowing success, acclaimed by all the spectators who were present, many I suspect, who had come with modest expectations. It was, after all, just a primary school play.

Except it was so much more. Yes, the sets were low budget, sheets of calico painted by harried (but artistic) parents and a few exceptionally obedient children. The lights (operated by a father in oven-mitts) and mikes were borrowed and jerry-rigged. The costumes were puzzled together on a shoestring budget (though brilliantly executed). But it was the actors who really brought the stage to life: twenty-some kids under the age of eleven, who’d learned not only their lines, songs and dances, but also memorized their cues for entering and exiting – no small feat because in order to give more children parts in the play, there were multiple actors for many of the roles: five Dorothys, three Scarecrows, three Tin-men, two Wizards. One actor would exit stage left, her replacement would appear through the center of the curtain at the start of the next act. Short-pants was Glinda in act two, after the house lands in Oz, and then the Scarecrow in act three. This called for a high-speed costume change during the song “We’re off to see the Wizard,” as Dorothy (played at that point by Buddy-roo) and the munchkins (played by a gaggle of kindergartners and first graders) danced on the yellow brick road.

Short-pants has a natural temperament to be the Good Witch of the North and there was a sweet and special chemistry on stage with her sister (who was truly lovely as Dorothy), but it was in the role of Scarecrow that she really found her stride. It was like she able to access the part of her that really is the Scarecrow, that slightly clumsy, brainy, loyal, lovable friend. During her solo number, as she side-stepped across the stage singing “I could think of things I never thunk before,” my throat got all lumpy and choked up and my eyes got a little teary.

The casting had been handled marvelously, every child had a chance to try every role (although we learned only recently that Buddy-roo refused to read for any part other than Dorothy). Then the kids were seriously coached. They weren’t just reciting their lines, the director had drawn each actor into his character. She’d guided, suggested and cajoled to help them breathe life into their parts. But she also got out of the way to let each child interpret the characters on their own, and let their creativity come out. The children were clearly having a great time. This was observable and palatable; you could feel how much fun they were having on stage.

I think most of us in the audience were in awe: of the actors, of the director and the transformation she’d alchemized, of the world-class musical parents, who did more than accompany the performance; their music was like a soft blanket underneath, supporting the kids without ever upstaging them. We were in awe of the people behind the scenes, committed parents who were sorting costumes and props, working lights and projectors. (De-facto even donned a green wardrobe to blend in with the cast while hanging scenery.) This was a real show.

With a good performance under their belt, a bit of feedback (speak louder, project to the back of the room), the kids seemed confident and excited to have another go for the final show. My role, on night two, was to sit with the littler actors and help to keep them quiet between their munchkin scene and at the point when they’d all wrap themselves in green satiny capes to become the citizens of the Emerald city. But the guy who’d partnered with De-facto on the sets the night before expressed a desire to see his child in the performance, so I volunteered to switch duties with him. He briefed me and it seemed clear enough. Besides, I was working with De-facto. We work together all the time.

“After shaking the curtains for the storm,” De-facto said, “put out the props and then you have to run to blow the bubbles for Glinda.” My eyes were glazing over as I was reading through his set instructions, trying to make sense of the timing. Much of what we had to do happened between acts: changing the background scenery, placing or turning a painted cardboard tree on the stage, putting the witches legs out under the house; but it had to happen quickly and at the right time. In some cases, the only cue to help me was the previous line in the script, so I knew what I had to do, I just wasn’t always sure exactly how long before I had to do it.

The curtain shaking (“shake them hard,” he’d said, “but not so hard that you knock over the sets,”) went well and before I knew it we were blowing bubbles, a pointless act, really, as my little bubbles hardly flew far enough on to the stage to be seen and the giant-bubble releaser he was blowing through only seemed to work when he was practicing with it backstage. It was a minute later that our friend, the guy who’d worked with De-facto the night before, snuck backstage and said, “where are the legs?”

The legs! I ran for them, slipping and falling, toppling Dorothy’s suitcase under the prop table. We managed to push the legs out under the set of the fallen house, fortunately in time for the moment when the wicked witch turns to them and tries to pull the ruby slippers off and they recoil back under the house.

At least I’d messed up on the scene with my own kids. But I didn’t want to mess it up for any others. My confidence shattered, I pestered De-facto for the rest of the show, “Now? Do I do it now?” It was comical, how the two of us were running around changing sets and props. At one point we were holding the curtain back to create a great-and-powerful shadow effect for the wizard and I noticed the heavy (and possibly dangerous) canister of helium at the edge of the prop table, on the verge of falling onto the floor where it very easily could have rolled out on to the stage. I couldn’t reach to move it, the shadow of my arm would have been visible to the audience. I pointed to the table and mouthed to him, “the helium” but he couldn’t make out what I was saying. “What?” he mouthed back, fumbling over the table, touching every item on it but the helium can. Mouthing unintelligible words back and forth, our faces wrinkled in masks of confusion and frustration. If we could have spoken, we’d surely have been screaming at each other. “What?” “Grab the helium can for Christ’s sake!”

A frenzy of activity between each act, and then the lull before the next set or prop change, during which we’d stand around laughing hysterically at ourselves. I mean, we’ve produced some complicated events for our clients, but here we were scrambling to keep up. It was the Wizard of Oz, after all, a story we both knew by heart. How hard could it be? Then all of a sudden, the act would finish and we’d be scrambling again. At one point a costume crisis – key elements of the wizard’s garb went missing – had us running around like chickens with our heads cut off in search of a turban hat and the sequined cape, a panic which made De-facto late for one of his cues.

Having been in the audience the night before, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world that I’d missed the cue on the legs. If you weren’t seated in one of the front rows, you couldn’t even see them. At least they appeared in time for the moment they were most needed. I think our crazy panic during most of the show was contained back stage. Though we couldn’t see it, we knew what was happening on stage was another fantastic performance. The kids were awesome, each one of them giving something of themselves to the audience, in a poignant song, a creative gesture, a comical dance or an ear-piercing scream. What a gift they gave us, our little thespians.

What a gift, from the Yellow Brick Road Crew, all the time and attention given to our children so they could have a real theater experience, filled with all the hard work and risk and exhilaration that come with acting.

What a gift, to the parents. Despite occasional complaints about lost weekends and schlepping to all the rehearsals – even for those of us who were involved only on the periphery, it felt like it took a lot of time – this production brought us closer together. We bonded. I got to know people I didn’t know before, and the ones I knew, now I know them more. I have developed a deeper respect and affection for the other parents at the school; all it took was a make-believe storm in Kansas to help me see that all these amazing people have been there all along, right in my own back yard.


Mar 25 2009

The Lonely Lunch

She was sobbing on the stairs this morning. Short-pants – who does homework without being asked and is usually happy to hoist that enormous book-bag on her back and head off to school – wouldn’t budge. “I don’t want to go to school.”

She’d been following De-facto out the door, but then opted out, in protest, and planted herself on the steps. She watched her own sour facial expressions in the mirror, happy at least to have her own company while she pouted. I went and sat beside her, this put my own pre-ablution image in the mirror, too, which I did my best not to look at.

“It’s Wednesday,” she spit out between sobs. “It’s my lonely lunch.”

Most elementary schools in France don’t hold classes on Wednesday. Many of these same schools do have classes on Saturday, posing obvious problems for working parents struggling with childcare mid-week or wishing to steal out of town with the family for the weekend. Short-pants attends a school that, thankfully, gives us our Saturdays, however it requires her presence on Wednesdays – though only in the morning. At noon, most of the children rush out to meet their parents, who take them home for lunch and then on to the activities on their rosters: gymnastics, judo, music, fencing, chess. But
school_courtyardwe’re rarely among that cluster of waiting parents. Short-pants stays and eats at the cantine.

We’ve enrolled her in a theater class on Wednesday afternoons. It made perfect sense, to us: school in the morning, stay for lunch, go to theater and finish at 3:00. She really likes the class. Last year – even as the youngest student – she had an important role in the end-of-year play. But none of her classmates are signed up. She says she feels a bit lost at lunch, with nobody to sit with, and then there’s a long stretch of time alone in the courtyard before the theater class starts at 1:30.

I’ve remedied this by coming to get her at noon on random Wednesdays, making a big deal out of lunch out at a café with mom, and returning her to the school in time for theater class. These are memorable lunches. Her little voice ordering from the menu, her proud smile across the table from me – she’s thrilled to be having such sophisticated one-on-one time with mom.

But we haven’t done it in a while.

I knew what she was going to say before she said it. “I want mama to come take me to lunch.” Then she started to cry. Actually, she started to wail. She’s not the tantrum type. But this was close.

I leaned my head against hers. Oh I wanted to say it, I wanted to say it so bad: okay I’ll come get you and we’ll go to lunch, just you and me. I mean it wasn’t impossible. I had a long ‘to-do’ list, like every day. But I could re-arrange that and give up 90 minutes to go hang with her.

But I didn’t.

It was the near-tantrum state the stopped me. I didn’t want to respond affirmatively, didn’t want the out-of-control crying to be rewarded. If this is how she gets her way today, I thought, then she’ll use it tomorrow. Yes, it’s just one lunch, one day. But this is how we start down the slippery slope. So I didn’t say a word. I didn’t dare. To be caught in a web of promises? I’m out of town next week, and it’s too hard to look further ahead.

“Come on,” De-facto finally said, “We’re going to be late.”

She stood up and followed him out, shrieking. I felt like shit.

Later I told him that it took everything in me not to tell her I’d come get her and take her to lunch. “Me, too,” he said, “but I knew we couldn’t, not like that.” I guess this is telepathic parenting.

At least he didn’t hang her out to dry. On the way to school, they found a few newspapers (I don’t want to tell you this, but apparently they rummaged through a trash bin) and cut out the Sudoku puzzles (she’s a pro) so she’d have something to do in the courtyard after lunch. Leave it to De-facto to find a creative (and cheap) solution.

This evening I met a friend for drinks. Her kids are older – young teenagers. She shocked me with a story about serious, heavy drug use in their school and the fine line she and her husband are walking to stay connected to their 14-year old daughter.

It’s odd, isn’t it, how my girls are constantly vying for my attention and craving time with me, and sometimes I find it all so fatiguing. Yet in a few years, their little fingers will slide out of my grip. How important it is to listen and connect while the door is still so wide open. Soon enough, that door will close – but then at least a foundation will be laid.

I’m not saying I didn’t make the right decision not to pander to a tantrum this morning. But maybe now I’ll be more proactive about scheduling our Wednesday lunches.