Nov 24 2013

The Plastic Question

The girls seem to have forgiven me for breaking the news about Santa Claus, but this means that their Christmas wish lists are now addressed specifically to me. At least the dialogue has changed. I always felt uneasy perpetuating the you’d better be good because Santa’s elves are watching myth. Our discourse now is a more rational one about how many toys you really need and the santa_on_a_springdifference between having things and doing things. Last year we took a trip over the holidays, so the gift booty was limited to just a few items before we left and one or two things to open on Christmas day. De-facto and I kept repeating how the biggest present was the adventure we were having together. Short-pants bought into this idea completely. Buddy-roo was happy to have the trip, but felt her Christmas had been a little thin.

It started, this season, with Short-pants’ initiative to create her Christmas list, delivered to me with a disclaimer that it was a long list so I’d have choices; she didn’t expect to get everything she’d asked for. She’d written down about a dozen specific book titles, plus a Spanish dictionary and an herb book (?). Short-pants is always the easiest to shop for; a few balls of yarn and a book and she’s delighted. But that’s her chemistry. She slept on a mattress on the floor, and kept her underwear and socks in shoe boxes for the first two months we lived here. When I finally got her a bed and a dresser she threw her arms around me in appreciation. About the bookshelves I bought for her, she said, “Mama, that was more than I ever imagined to have in my room.”

Once Buddy-roo saw her older sister’s note on my desk, she needed to write one, too. The objects of desire on her Christmas wish list are considerably different: a Barbie dream house (with an elevator), the Playmobile castle (at 197 euros: ouch!), an iPod Touch, an iPad Mini, and a dog. For her birthday, just last month, we gave her a the simplest iPod, the iPod Shuffle, pre-loaded with songs I knew she’d like (Best Song Ever) or that I thought she should like (Bohemian Rhapsody). My strategy is to inch her into the technological gadgets, stretching our budget, and her attention span, as long as possible. Last year for her birthday she begged for a manual typewriter, which was no simple task to procure. The reason she still uses it as that she doesn’t have so many other toys to distract her. But despite her love for this new little iPod – it’s great to see and hear her with her earbuds on, rocking out with herself – she always asks for more, bigger and better. It’s in her nature. She always wants what she doesn’t have.

We’ve tried using her hunger for things as an incentive for doing her school work, but it always backfires. The reward we promise isn’t based on grades or scores, it’s about being responsible about her homework, bringing home the right bright_ideabooks, getting started on her own each night without whining or dilly-dallying. She starts out all excited, inspired that simply by being conscientious she might get that dollhouse, or that gadget, or a dog. Three days later, fatigued by the effort, she gives in to her lazy impulses and proclaims that she’ll never get what she wants because the work is too hard and it’s not fair and we’re the cruelest parents in the world.

Which was fine with me in the past because I didn’t really want to give her any more gadgets or any more toys with little plastic pieces, and our apartment was too small for a dog. But now I actually would like to have a dog and here in Barcelona we live close to the mountain, which means a great, open, outdoor place where a doggie could run and frolic and do what dogs are supposed to do. But we can’t reward her current school behavior so at the moment we are pet-less.

~ ~ ~

Two new friends from Buddy-roo’s class have invited her to work with them on an exposé for extra-credit. The subject they’ve chosen to explore: the large toxic plastic island forming and floating in the Pacific ocean. Her research involved collecting images for their poster board – leave it to Buddy-roo to volunteer to do the easiest part – so I set her up at my computer and she clicked on Google images to search for pictures of the floating plastic. What she found was disturbing: a mass of plastic containers, bottles and bags, partly deteriorated by the salt and sun but never fully degradable, pressed together in the middle of nowhere by ocean currents, forming a continent of debris that is killing the wildlife around it and bleeding toxic chemicals into the sea water and into the fish that are eaten by the fish we eat.

We scrolled through the images, selecting the ones she wanted to print and show to her schoolmates. She was disgusted by the volume of plastic garbage that has accumulated. She kept scanning through the images, horrified by the photographs of animals choked by or wrapped in pieces of plastic. It was the turtle whose shell was malformed – it looked as though it had a Barbie doll waist because it had grown within the ring of a plastic six-pack carrier – that made her cry.
“Those poor animals,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks, “how can we let that happen?”

I didn’t have an answer.

It must have stayed with her all night, those images, that question. The next day, on the way to school, she brought it up.

“How come they keep making all that plastic? It’s killing the animals. Why don’t they just stop?”

“It’s all about money,” I told her.

It made me think of The Graduate, when Benjamin, who has no idea what to do with his future, is cornered by one of his parents’ friends offering unsolicited advice: “One word. Plastics.

“Money?” she said.

“I bet you the men who run those big plastic factories were outraged about the pollution on the planet when they were ten years old, just like you are. But then they grew up and got jobs and got married and had families they had to support. Little by little they forgot what they knew when they were ten, and they started taking jobs and making decisions based on how much money they could make, because they wanted buy their kids what they needed: food and clothes and toys…like big, expensive dollhouses, made out of plastic.”

We walked along quietly. I could tell she was thinking about it, weighing her anger at the mounds of plastic in the ocean and what it was doing to our environment with her ardent desire for that overpriced plastic dollhouse.

“If you buy me that that castle, or that dollhouse,” she said, “I’ll play with it for years, and I promise to recycle it.”

We’d arrived at the gate of the school courtyard. She reached up and kissed me before running in to find her friends. I watched her as she joined their circle, opening her school bag to show them the images we’d printed, field_of_princessestelling her friends, I gathered, about the research she’d done. You could see the anger and sadness on her face. She was animated, outraged. But is she outraged enough to stop asking for plastic toys?

Are any of us outraged enough to stop using plastic? Even if we are, can we slow or stop its production? Could we function in this plastic-wrapped society without ever touching plastic? The throw-away economy promised us convenience and delivered. But what do we do, now, with the environmental mess it’s created? That’s another question I can’t answer.

Jan 28 2012

Newly at Home

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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.

Feb 19 2011

For a Few Days

I’m tucked under the comforter of my bed, the space heater generating barely enough juice to keep my hands from freezing, the children tumble into a world of instantaneous imagination in the living room below me. They weave stories as they go, shouting out commands to each other – it’s always in the past tense, “and then you were calling for help” – turning the plot into a new direction. A wood-crafted puppet theater becomes the television, Buddy-roo pretends to change the channel, a box of chalk as her remote control, and Short-pants performs a feat of improv, acting out each program: a news report, a weather forecast, a show about dancing animals, a documentary about the first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell.

When the puppet theater accidentally falls over, the two of them shift seamlessly to a new scene. Buddy-roo calls a repairman on her pretend phone, Short-pants runs out the side door and comes around to knock on the front door for her next role. “What’s the problem ma’am?” She says in her deepest alto voice. Buddy-roo explains the catastrophe: her TV has fallen and broken and what will she do? The repairman inspects the damage. “I’ll have to take it to the shop, for a few days.” The damsel in distress cries out in despair and faints on the couch. (Art imitates life.)

There are so few toys at this country house, mostly remnants of broken ones, old board games and puzzles (with pieces missing) handed down from the neighbors down the road, a few old Barbies and a their torn dresses, a small plastic stove, some costume jewelry that the mother-in-love brought after a major paring-down-of-her-possessions. But it is enough to amuse them for hours. We have more toys and more books at home in Paris, but the “I’m bored” cry is heard there, and not here, in the country.

In the country we wake up naturally, without an alarm. There is no school. There is no rushing through breakfast. There is no out-the-door-you’ll-be-late. There is no internet (unless I walk down the road to borrow our neighbor’s wi-fi). There is nothing but the slower rhythm of time that is more natural, more civilized than what motors us in the apparently civilized city. I do not know if I could take this suspended pace all the time, but several times a year, as it coincides with the school holidays (it’s winter break now) it is just what the country doctor ordered. Fresh air. Deep sleeps. Long walks. Manual labor. Less media.

In the evenings after dinner as night lays down around us, we huddle around the wood stove. There is no checking of the email or watching a DVD or answering the phone or Skyping with a client in a far away time zone. We sit, the four of us, around our stove and talk. And laugh. We play Mille Bornes. We tell stories. We look at each other. We’re a family together, we four.

Did I say the four of us? I am mistaken, because we have an extra body here. As we were packing she caught my eye. I was startled by her as is often the case, there’s something so wrong about That Big Doll, something about her height coupled with her anatomical proportions and those oversized, alien-like eyes – if I catch sight of her out of the corner of my eye I jump a mile. “Should we bring That Big Doll?” I asked. The girls hopped up and down, cheering.

I had to get her out of the apartment. That Big Doll has become a liability. The boy guests at our house are a bit too fascinated that something their size could have such breasts, and the conversations she is provoking amongst my children, though hilarious and manageable, are conversations I’d rather have a few years from now. Removing the object of their origin may not thwart those discussions – Pandora’s box has already been unhinged – but I’m sure we’ll all live happily ever after if we don’t have to look at her every day.

That Big Doll made the car trip on her back (her preference, I suppose) on the panel under the rear window of our rented car, evoking interesting glances from cars on the auto-route. She was a bit out of sorts in the country at first; clearly she’s a girl used to the streets of the city. She quickly acclimated, however, and has shown herself to be quite the nature girl. Who knew?

Short-pants peeks into the bedroom where I’m working and hands me a piece of paper. Please come to the show ‘The Four Accidents’ at 3:30 pm. Signed, the Puppeteer. She watches while I read, waiting for my response.

“You’re going to do a show!” I know my enthusiasm is important to her.
She nods her head, her two front teeth like barn doors in the middle of her smile.

“Is it going to have a beginning, a middle and an end?” I ask.

She nods again. You may think me harsh on this count, but if you’ve sat through any of those homemade productions that go on forever with no clear plot line, you know the pain I’m trying to avoid.

“And tension,” she volunteers, “that gets resolved near the end.”

That’s my girl.

At 3:30 there’s murmuring in the living room, as the crowd of three plus That Big Doll assembles to view the advertised performance. The puppets dance on her fingers as the four accidents are revealed, one by one. There’s a wizard, a princess, a knight and a chef, all of whom suffer in their own way. When a dragon sets the castle on fire, a repairman arrives to rebuild the castle, with his invisible team of helpers. But between each accident, this narration: “And they live happily ever after for a few days.”

It seems our little playwright has a practical streak.

Tomorrow we return to Paris. I’d stay another week if we could; I’m thoroughly rested and relaxed from the fresh air and slower rhythm of life. But work calls and for that a more steady internet service is required. It’s true if we installed a connection here, we could stay on and work from the country house as easily as we do in Paris. But then we wouldn’t have the feeling of being truly unplugged. Our afternoons wouldn’t be surrendered to walks in the woods, visiting the lambs down the road, pruning in the yard, plastering in the new room. We wouldn’t linger around the wood stove every night with the same feeling of freedom and peace that comes from having no other option, really. I wouldn’t want to be here forever, without the Internet, but I can live happily ever after without it…for a few days.

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?)

Dec 25 2009

Loving Christmas

Yesterday morning, Short-pants was early out of bed – a rarity – and crawled in with De-facto and me for a ritual cuddle. Buddy-roo came down a bit later and heard us whispering. She lurked in the hall outside our door, sniffling.

I took the bait and asked her what was wrong. She said she’d wanted to be the first in our bed for the morning cuddle. No urging could get her to let go of her disappointment and join us under the warm covers. She alternated between crying and pouting.

For a few moments she disappeared, and returned to deliver a picture she had drawn, indicating her love for me and her papa and sister had been withdrawn. She dropped it on the bed and returned to her post outside our door.

“I don’t care if she doesn’t love me,” said Short-pants, “all that matters is how much I love her.”

I’m not making it up; she really said that. As if we needed any more evidence that she possesses that little extra dose of love, strength and wisdom, and understands how to employ it.

After a long period of silence, Buddy-roo offered a suggestion.

“Mama, you know that store over near the Pompidou, with all the toys stacked in the window?”


“You could go there and buy me something.”

“That’s one idea,” I said, in my best non-committal voice.

So this is Christmas, I thought, from one end of the range to the other.

In the spirit of both of my beautiful children, I’d like to wish all the readers of this blog – loyal and occasional – a Merry, Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Feliz Navidad, and don’t forget a belated Happy Chanukah. I send warm greetings to you for the whole season; may you find all the love, strength and wisdom – and toys – you need.

And thank you for reading Maternal Dementia this year, that’s the best gift I could ask for.

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.

Aug 17 2009

New World Order

We didn’t get in the car until nearly 10 pm. Because it had been such a beautiful day, because it was harder to concentrate on the chores that must be done to close up the country house and leave it in good order, because deep down we really didn’t want to leave – all these reasons why we didn’t manage to get the car packed as early as we’d hoped. That meant a night drive, good because it’d be cooler than a daytime highway trip. Good
fridge_magnets because the kids would sleep through most of the drive. Good because we’d miss the heavy traffic returning to Paris at the mid-August vacation switch. It was all good, once we were en route. A little U2, Counting Crows, and Springsteen for the drive home. Iced coffee in a thermos. A string of red tail lights driving ahead of us into the night. A route that was fluide all the way to Paris. De-facto and I hardly spoke; both of us looking forward through the windshield, thinking separate thoughts, together.

Rousing sleeping children is like waking the dead-drunk, but ours are now too big to be carried. When they were toddlers, we’d hoist them over our shoulders, their lifeless limbs dangling as we climbed the stairs and delicately placed them in beds for uninterrupted sleep. But now driving dreams get disrupted and big girls carry their own backpacks up four flights of stairs.

De-facto was parking the car. I commanded bathroom visits and promised bedside kisses to good girls who put on their pajamas. I made a quick run down to the courtyard to get the bags I’d left. When I returned, I heard the girls in their bedrooms, shrieking.

“But that doesn’t go there,” said Short-pants, between sobs.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo screamed, “Everything’s put away wrong!”

I hadn’t thought to warn them. We’ve rented and loaned our apartment to people with children before, while we’re out of town. Things get a little mixed up, that’s normal. Though I’d never seen anything like this. But then, we’d never had twin boys staying in our home before.

At first glance, the room appeared to be in order. The drawers were shut and the baskets and trays all tucked neatly in their cubbyholes. But a closer inspection revealed the complete disorder that was hidden. The girls’ toys had been put away, but in a totally random fashion. Not that it’s ever in perfect order, but – more or less – each toy has its general place and its associated little pieces are usually found not far away. There was nothing logical about how the toys had been stowed. Pieces of plastic food here, there and over there, too. A dollhouse separated from its furniture, puppets stuffed in the wooden block box, wooden blocks in the plastic food bin. The Pet Shop house, petless. I made the mistake of opening the large wicker toy box, which was filled to the brim with any loose toy that apparently couldn’t find its natural home.

I could only imagine what these rooms must have looked like at the height of play. Every single ball, stuffed animal, doll and toy must have been strewn about, and then, when it was time to leave, stuffed into the closest available container.

The girls looked panicked. They were both wailing. “But this is not how we like it.”

I did my best to reassure them, explaining that this was not a 2:00 am kind of problem; this was the sort of thing that could be more effectively addressed in the morning light after a good night’s sleep. Already they were handling the toys, trying to put them in their rightful positions. I had to square off their shoulders and point them toward their mattresses. They climbed under the covers reluctantly, the both of them still sniffing final tears.
This could be a good thing, I thought, shutting the light behind me after goodnight kisses. They’re starting to appreciate the value of a little organization, how it’s easier to find things if you put them back where they go, how your things stay in better condition when they are put away nicely rather than stuffed in a toy box. All that logic I’ve been trying to cram down their throats must be seeping in.

Or have I saddled them with the anxious ball-and-chain phobia of needing things always in order? Am I burdening their up-until-now unfettered imagination? Stealing the last creative impulses of their childhood? Have I created two more neurotic people for the world, checking and double-checking that their post-it notes are at right angles on their perfectly ordered desks?

Laying in bed I could hear Buddy-roo’s tears winding down into a whimper, soon replaced by the even breathing of her slumber.

My last, smiling thoughts before drifting off to sleep: Welcome to my world, little girls.