Handle with care

regan-chesterfieldIt’s a certain kind of woman in her 90s who thinks a package being delivered to her house might be a bomb, and then opens it anyway.

And this is why I was sending her cookies and peppermint bark, because throughout my life she has been one of those important people I am fortunate to know.

The package was kind of battered by the time it arrived. The address was faint. She had been outspoken online and thought maybe this was retaliation.

But one is right to approach such a package with caution and to wonder at the sender’s state of mind. The holiday season is fraught with danger and irrationality.

It was I who prepared the sinister package, in a kind of divine bargaining. I could not muster the spirit to send out the usual holiday card, in which I cannot write the perfect note that tells you what I think you want to know about our family, or says exactly everything except what you want to know about our family, or even what is most important about or to our family, or provide that picture in which I may or may not have photoshopped someone’s head or present us as people without a care in the world, or scare you with our imperfection. Which is why the cards I send are a family photo and a note. Here we are. Another year has passed. We are thinking about you. We have stamps.

I just hit a point last November when I thought, re cards, pass. Can’t do it this year. People have their limits and they should know them. I hadn’t read this post by Brené Brown, which two friends just posted on Facebook, but I had a similar series of thoughts and revelations, and decided to let that particular ring of the circus go dark. I felt a little guilty. It was like cutting class. And I baked. Was that cheating? I don’t know my limits. And then our friend thought she was getting a bomb. No, it’s just me, undetonated, ticking things off a list.

Another part of the bargaining, if you let me not send cards, I will… reply to the cards we get so that people don’t think they have been “dropped,” but I suspect that I didn’t get to do as many of these as came in. So if we normally exchange cards and I didn’t respond even with an email, I am sorry.

We decided to do cards again this year. I had known I was only taking/being granted a year off. I ordered the stamps a while ago so I didn’t have to panic buy generic ones from Costoco. And then at Thanksgiving, when we were dressed for dinner, I asked a friend who was joining us to take the picture with my phone (I had warned him in advance.) And as soon as we got home I ordered the cards. So far so good.

Pulling the addresses together is always a bit of production because I have two computer printouts that I use, from different databases, from the 90s, then my Filofax, which I bought when I started my second real job, then my phone contacts, email and Facebook messages. It’s shocking how much a list can change when you skip a year. But the nice thing about doing the cards is how it brings all the people of your life back into focus. I sent several messages out to collect the addresses of people who have moved or might have moved, which led to a little catching up, which reenforced the value and purpose of what I was doing. I read over some of the cards from last year, the cards I was saving so that when the craziness of the holidays abated, I would sit down at a writing desk with light filtering through the window treatment of choice and pen words that would be worthy of the recipients. Or I would chuck the cards in the cupboard under the bar and blog about it a year later.

I make cookie dough and my daughter rolls it out. We listen to Serial until we are all caught up. I do the lights on the tree, she decorates it. We put Christmas music on her phone and run it through the bluetooth speakers (these would make a great for someone on your list). The technology is working. I address envelopes. There are still roughly two weeks until Christmas. Getting through the holidays tests your ability to pace yourself, to let the point unfold. But when it does you realize that each of these moments is a gift and this is instead a test of your ability not to endure but to be. The people will receive their cards, sent with love and realistic expectations of self and others. Be careful as you open cards and packages; the idea of perfection is the hazardous material within.

Keep calm and win Christmas: 10 last-minute gift ideas

keep calm and don't blinkOriginally published in 2012.

The best laid plans can go astray in the run-up to Christmas and you may find yourself having to buy a last-minute gift, as I did yesterday.

In the weeks leading up to holiday I have felt that I have been engaged in a kind of stress challenge, a triathlon for moms that measures thoughtfulness, organization and endurance.

Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” recently had guests Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It, and journalist Deborah Orr on to debate the extent to which an Asda supermarket commercial was celebrating reality or perpetuating gender stereotypes and whether or not Christmas is a mother’s realm, her undoing, or her finest hour.

It hits a nerve, right?

In an anthropological aside, an American ad would never end with giving the mom a glass of wine. Instead mom gets external validation, male approval or female envy, a sticky kiss from her son or Santa winking from the rooftop or the husband’s arm around her shoulders.

So, here, in an effort to help you in this final push before the big day, or as on online note to self as I train for next year, are some last-minute gift ideas, for men or women:

1) If you have a Doctor Who fan on your list, they might like a “Keep Calm and Don’t Blink” T-shirt. Books-A-Million carries them. Book stores in general are a good port of call. Having a good book is one of life’s joys and is up there with socks for me as a thing I am always happy to receive.

2) Speaking of a good book, my desert island pick would be Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a 12-novel cycle of life in England from 1914-1971. The television miniseries didn’t do it justice or you may never have heard of it. And before you groan and say 12 novels, that’s so long, don’t. I don’t understand why people react this way about a long book anyway. If it’s good, you want it to last. War and Peace is highly readable, to say the least, and if you haven’t read that you should. Lots of you read the Harry Potter books. Anyway, I have read Dance in print a few times but also listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Simon Vance, who does a brilliant job with the ranges of characters and accents, which you can get from Audible and listen to via iTunes or on a Kindle. You could give this gift wirelessly and instantly. Each of the four volumes is about $25.

3) Bake something. All week, I have been enjoying the cookies our neighbor gave us. There are three kinds (I’ll never take gold in Christmas, I know). My favorite that she makes are the very thin ones with oats and candied fruit. They are good with coffee in the morning.

4) A recipe book. Planning ahead for 2013 or preparing something to give someone in person in two days, you could print out or photocopy recipes on a relevant theme. Actually you could transmit this electronically as a PDF. Depending on your skills, you could include photos. Themes: 30-minute dinners, 10 ways to prepare a particular type of food, a seduction meal, decent meals to come out of a slowcooker, favorite family recipes, bake sale survival kit, etc. You could bump this up by including ingredients, especially ones that might be hard to come by, like dried morels, or things people don’t always have to hand, like white chocolate or peppermint extract. Use a binder that has a plastic sleeve on the cover and put the recipes in plastic sheet protectors. Have a child draw the cover, if you have a child. Or draw it yourself.

5) Did I mention the joys of socks already? You could give an array of socks, seven pairs, for each day of the week, or nice stripy ones from Paul Smith.

6) A selection of Badger Balms. (We like Sleep Balm.) Health food stores carry a great range of nice smelling things.

7) A mix tape/iTunes playlist. Again, can be themed like the recipes.

8) Maldon sea salt, olive oil. Go to Waitrose, Williams-Sonoma, Amazon.

9) A box of chocolate tiffin cake, no baking required, just melting. You can buy Lyle’s golden syrup at Publix or use light corn syrup.

10) If you know something about cars, are a fix-itty kind of person, and/or don’t have many shopping options/hate department stores, go to Wal-Mart or similar and assemble a car emergency kit. You could include a few bottles of water, a flashlight, maybe printout good instructions for changing a tire, include a blanket or sleeping bag, you can get a reflective emergency one or a fleece sleeping bag for about $5. Put in lidded box.

What would you put on this list?

Pumpkin wicked this way comes

monksmarketpumpkinsThe stem is amazing and sculptural, a thick twist of green and grey vine that suggests the violence of the harvest, where a living plant is wrested from the field. The other is a huge, hideous bumpy orange gourd. Another, cream colored and unblemished, tranquil and deathly pale. They are fantastic, unlike the usual run of orange bowling balls that conform to type.

When we ask for a price, the girl isn’t sure and calls her dad over. He hesitates and the pause is significant. The pause is the pause of gauging how much the market will bear, of reassessing the market and determining two things. One is that the cultural value of pumpkins is higher this year. The other is that the farmers are getting the idea that our town has changed from being a simple, unsophisticated, regular place, to one with its share of foolish city folks who will pay absurd prices for pumpkins because they don’t know any better or because they are pressed for time, lack their own fields and/or have been afflicted by the viral creep of Samhain that fills our newsfeeds with a bumper crop of photographs of babies in the pumpkin field. With a little effort every holiday can be that little bit more special. Pumpkins are this year’s seasonal photo op.

Screenshot 2014-10-26 08.18.34The Selection of the Pumpkin is like the selection of the Christmas tree, where you venture into to nature and find the perfect object and then you take it home and bestow upon it all of your family’s whimsy and skill with Pinterest-perfect crafts, to etch your clever idea with a laser or a drill, pinpricking the thick pumpkin shell with a million points of light to create a pointillist effect that will impress the parents who regularly accompany the trick or treaters. Throw in some political commentary with your professionally carved Obama pumpkin. Really think about it. It’s an important part of your family’s brand.

seasonal hoax

seasonal hoax

The farmer would know that people are now buying multiple pumpkins to create displays, that pumpkin spice lattes have had a toxmoplasmosic effect and we are compelled to mark the end of the harvest with more elaboration as we become less connected to it. That fall kicks off an extended season of decorative expectations, starting with scarecrows and the gradual introduction of candles. One pumpkin will not do. One needs hay bales, 4-8 pumpkins, mums, a scarecrow.

How much for the sculptural stem pumpkin? He looks at us, not as the weekly customers who buy his peppers and squash, but as big city pumpkin seekers, the kind of people who don matching sweaters for a trip out to the farm. “Twenty,” he says. What about the bumpy one? “Twenty/Twenty-five?”

There is a food truck parked outside. They have broken ground on the Whole Foods.

“No way,” my husband says. Not because he had a fixed price in his head that he’d be willing to pay for a pumpkin mind you, but it just seems high. This is a reasonable, affordable place where you can buy a house for under $200,000. Don’t be selling us your big city pumpkins.

2014-10-07 11.59.02

Pumpkin season in Indiana

“I was down in Birmingham,” the farmer says, “and that’s what they pay. A man tells me if I have any left next week, the day before Halloween, he’ll give me $40 a piece. I’ve got 200 pumpkins. He said he’d take them all.”

We buy something smaller and more regular for $5, but later my husband wishes we’d gone all out and bought the big one. They’re cool looking. A year from now, the $20 pumpkin will have gone the way of the egg cream. Remember when you used to just buy a pumpkin for $5 and stick a knife in it? Those were the days.

Images: Monks Market, screenshot of the Brooklyn and Bailey YouTube Channel, hoax condom from Snopes, one of a fleet of pumpkin-laden school buses in Indiana.


2014-10-18 11.59.31You guys! The new Wal-Mart is open. Months of feeling sad about how they were knocking down all the stuff that was in the way of it are over. We can forget about all those old 60ish places because they were sort of like what did they sell anyway? And fond thoughts about a place aren’t the same as patronizing it. You get that, right?

Everyday we would drive past the building site and one day there was a banner that said Opening Soon and then last week they changed it to Now Open. Happy day! We have been talking about it at our house. When can we go? Saturday!

The Old/Bad/Dirty Wal-Mart was one of the first places we shopped at when we moved here. They opened at 7 AM and carried all the crap we didn’t own which we were buying at a frantic pace. We had no appliances because we were coming from a place with different plugs and voltage, no outside things because we didn’t have outside space, no sports equipment because people don’t take little kid sports as seriously, no school supplies because they just went to school and all used the same paper and pens and  folders and it wasn’t such a fetish. Things we bought, toasters, radios, can openers, kept having to be replaced. The box store shopping was endless.

It smelled of plastic shoes and didn’t have groceries. People said it was dangerous. And in the strip mall next to it: used CDs, guns, sex shop, pizza, title pawn. Things would be so different if they could move across the street, right?

The old store now stands forlornly at the corner of a major intersection, letters prised off so that only the ghost letters remain. There are still a few cars in the lot but perhaps fewer pigeons. There is still merchandise in the garden center. This seems like a much better location than of the new one, a corner served by turn lanes versus mid-block, but those battles were fought and retail wisdom said it was better to move. You, corporate says to the old lot, are not a Wal-Mart anymore. Oh, it says, yes I am. The ghost letters will fade, they’ll smash the hideous blue concrete, but for years hence we will refer to this spot as where the Bad Wal-Mart used to be. But forget about that. Let’s go to the new store!

First off, new sign. With a yellow sun that tells you your program is loading and everything is awesome. Outside, they are grilling the USDA-inspected steaks and handing out sample strawberries in little plastic cups like doses of medicine. We didn’t take a cart or a basket because we were just coming to look and all we needed were a few things. So there’s what we got. It’s all pretty self-explanatory, right? But it’s a genre these days, people writing about and filming and photographing the haul. Because these things define my existence in the moment. And you get bonus points for embarrassing your kids when you take the picture, so there’s that.

Quaker Real Medleys cereal. Selected by the older daughter who makes her own bowl of cereal in the morning. Okay so the medley is real how? Because dried fruit, oats and nuts are not the same thing so it’s a real medley, not just a bunch of oats trying to differentiate themselves and pretending to be a medley? We just need the word real on the box, people. Don’t over think it.

Cutex nail polish remover. I think it has aloe and that seems like a good thing. It all smells. It’s all bad for your nails, but the green is a nice change. Oh, and also Target doesn’t sell this, only own-brand, so score.

Burt’s Bees pink grapefruit make-up remover/cleansing wipes. The younger daughter, who may write about this product in her own way, got these, which are in some way necessitated by doing sports. She keeps asking me to get them for her when I go to CVS and I don’t want to because I’ll just be annoyed at her if she says I got the wrong kind and I disapprove of the product on principle. That said, shiny new Wal-Mart has an ample and well-stocked selection of this brand and I like some of their other products, but unlike other haul bloggers I am not a paid sponsor so I’ll just leave it at that.

Small, plastic toys. Just can’t get enough of these!!! Birthday money to spend. New store has nicer selection.

General Electric aux cable for car. Add aux cable to the list of crap that breaks. Cord in car now frayed and music cuts out. Have suffered enough. Last trip to RIP Wal-Mart was made to buy one, forgetting that the imminent closure meant thin stock. About three people in the store, even more depressing shopping experience than usual, but look! Here we all are, a broader-than-usual social spectrum, families, not the harried mom pajama hour; everyone’s back!

Pomegranate. Something to make people like me feel like we could just start doing our grocery shopping here after all.

Lemons. They are very small. Get two.

Essie dark blue purplish color nail polish. New color! Essie! At Wal-Mart! Same price as everywhere else, but you’re here. Somehow the younger daughter gets me to buy this without reminding her that it should come out of her allowance.

What did you buy at Wal-Mart?

What remains

2014-08-09 15.19.51Is there a peak period of being your essential self? Is this time universal or does it vary from person to person? Is your essential self something you become as an adult or are adults the remains of what we once were?

Do you return to yourself with the regressions of old age, when the murky, complicated middle aged bits slip away like the contents of files from work, those notes from a meeting that happened four years ago. Is your essential self like the idea for an initiative that later turned into a committee that became a task force and now you, the tradition of you now well established is, at say 50, hardly able to imagine that you were ever not thus?

I wake to Rachel Johnson reading aloud from her teen diary on Radio 4, the premise being that the teen self is perhaps the rough and uncensored real you that is refined as we age, but is the core. Why has she, callous leaver behind of unwell hiking partners, wanted to expose this seam of pure, unadulterated selfishness? To atone or continue to be remorseless? To forewarn future acts because it’s just who she is?

And at what point do we peak? And who would know? No one you can ask will have the entire arc of you. If you are there as a child and if it’s still you at 37, 45, 60 at what point did you ever change?

I flip through journals looking for a summer in the early 90s. I find myself staying out late, going to Wigstock, attending our friends’ band’s last show. That night someone says, “This is the end of our 20s,” even though we were still well in them, but I knew what he meant. The drummer had gotten a gig at the New Yorker. The bassist was engaged with a day job that was starting to be a career. Neither, at this point, were going to start a band, they were only going to stop being in them. Did this mean they would stop being those selves or that those selves needed to progress in other ways?

Was I more myself then or now? Certainly I was a better writer of journals then, funnier, more observant. I wrote notes on the televisation of Desert Storm, the weird wrongness of branding a war with TV graphics and ominous little musical clips to suggest the raining down of Scud missiles; the stories they showed us: journalists on hotel balconies; a group of terribly beaten soldiers, bowed heads, for me a viewer first, which I found deeply disturbing. Another first: movie violence that left me feeling physically ill for several days, a character assassinating his childhood friend. Are we grown up now? We see that human lives are fragile. Think of all that has happened since.

Does life distract us from ourselves? Or is it the immersion into the flow of living among others that gives our lives meaning and definition? Is our natural state one of yearning to be in a different state, ahead or behind of where and whoever we are at the moment? Or are you nothing without others?

I started this post a month ago, a reflection on meeting with a family friend, and maybe on that idea that when you look back at a period of your life you think, “I was a different person then,” but not so. And if you are composed of thoughts how many iterations of oneself must there be that we can forget things mid-sentence and still consider ourselves to be the same person?

Since starting this post in August, I lost a good friend to a sudden and unexpected death. His memorial has been happening on Facebook, among other places. Videos (talking smack in the persona of a tiger shark before a water polo match, making a documentary of his summer softball team and then of the actual memorial service, where his wife, daughter, parents and brothers all speak), photos and stories all point to a consistency of who he was: his humor and his acuity; his love of people for who they were, as they came, not as he thought they should be; his enjoyment of life. In a letter from travels in his 20s he writes to his brother about the experiences he was having with friends, “I have NO clean clothes. I stink like a dog. This is amazing.”

All the stories and the documentary evidence contain certain essential qualities of him that, over time, are a fluid and forceful unfolding of personality and enjoyment of each moment. As people write their remembrances of him, we define him and he defines us.

I watch the video of these childhood friends and feel that his life was lived so much more fully in his connections with others; his gift, not mine. And this, too, is the tragedy of dying mid-life, that we do see the arc of the person and he is mourned by the greatest number of people, across three generations, in the most profound ways.

Certainly eulogies seek common themes and traits to create coherence, but he was someone whose essential self shone brightly, clearly and consistently. My own story is one of revision and doubling back, reflecting and catching the flashes of light, turning the thing over and over, dark side, light side, told by a shadowy figure wrapped in a trench coat, a cigarette still smouldering on the pavement, a voice on the radio, an incomplete novel under my desk. Consider the palm reader, tracing the lifeline. Your story stops here.

There are no words

IMG_5191The members meet weekly in a church hall. They practice giving speeches and speaking extemporaneously because at some point they realized this was a skill they lacked or a streak of potential that had gone unfulfilled for too long.

I imagine they go because they are tired of the palpitations, the queasy current of nervous electricity that shoots up the back of their legs when having to take the podium, or there hangs over them like a cartoon storm cloud the deeper fear of actually not having anything worth saying, their thoughts unformed or shapeshifting. They are failing to convey their points or they wish to exorcise their embolalia. Yes, of course, I am projecting.

I am sitting in a small row of chairs with a folder in my hands, an agenda written out to the minute, with all the members given formal titles for the roles they will assume, like the Introducer of the Welcoming Speaker. It is like a play about a play about a meeting and the ritual of the symbolism of the meeting. It is what makes city council meetings on television fascinating in their excruciating verbal obfuscation, the saying of that which is meant to convey politeness and procedural correctness when what you are feeling is rage or fear.

They are so welcoming. It’s even my title in the ritual symbolism of their meeting etiquette, where I am Welcomed Guest Wertis. I want to take that leap into the mosh pit of their hospitality, but at the same time something is holding me back, the fear perhaps that I would be under obligation to practice speeches I didn’t want to give or find myself stating, in week after week of Table Topics that, “I have no words.”

Good ideas are not at my beck and call in that way. Maybe it would be good training for the words, to roust them out and make them march in straight lines, not meander aimlessly, but this could be achieved by journaling exercises rather than by devoting the time to come to meetings and having this precise verbal choreography with people.

In spite of the time limitations, the Key Speaker runs over. The warning card is flashed more and more emphatically by the Keeper of Time in the front row.

Some of the Toastmasters have been in this together for a decade. I find this both touching and disconcerting. I had thought it was more like a course you took, where you solved your public speaking issues and moved on, but it is more a club where they take comfort in the rituals, a sort of fan group for an ideal state of a very certain kind of polite eloquence. They draw closer together through succinct personal revelations but maintaining a correct distance. Feedback is given not by name but by role. I thought the Master of Table Topics did a commendable job keeping time.  There are leadership tracks you can join, a progression of speaking accomplishments to achieve, wider audiences to be addressed regionally, internationally. Is this my show? Are these my people?

What if, during the meeting, an emergency happened and we were forced to stay in the church hall until the all-clear sounded, how long would it take for the formality to erode? Would the topic be correctly adjourned in lieu of determining the severity of the situation? What if someone is an unreformed circuitous talker? Would the group turn on him or her? I imagine pairs being elected to venture into the church basement in search of nuclear era snacks. If the situation were worse than we had at first imagined, how long would it be until the longest-serving members of the club revealed their true feelings about each other? Perhaps one person would throw down her knitting and cry out, “I’m tired of being so darned nice all of the time!” and made a run for it into a thick cloud of waiting poison.

The folder sits on my desk at work all summer, an unanswered invitation, offering the promise to be a different person, one who speaks with a firm but measured conviction on a variety of topics, who can turn a phrase like an unexpected flash of silver in the otherwise muddy creek of human communication where the cliches and the long winded preambles sway like aquatic weeds, the point falling like a lost lure into the silt. Weeks pass and I know that I should say something, thank you for having me to the meeting, anything, but the words just won’t come.


Le_Petit_Prince_St_ExuperyI started this post in headphones one morning because the older daughter was having a bout of perseverative vocalization, and it gets into your head, all the phrases she has collected, the classmates’ Dr. Who voices from eight years ago, bird sounds, the sounds from wherever, it’s there like all of the conversations of Earth that travel through  space.

Also, my desk is in the hall and her father’s baseball podcasts can be hard to tune out. I normally use headphones if I am doing work with sound files that would disturb others, but people are not creating noise to communicate with me right now, they are in their own worlds, and I am in mine.

The cat jumps into my lap, reeking of Justin Bieber perfume, a Christmas gift the year that the older daughter liked the pop star. She realized at some point that he would never come here, that their love was only her love, lopsided, unrequited and doomed, yet she has rediscovered the perfume and emerged from her room in clouds of it. It’s what girls like to do, she informs me. How has the cat come to smell so strongly of the cheap, feminine scent of Someday? Just hugs? Are you sure?

I have taken notes about my daughter for years, notes to record the milestones of infancy, notes for teachers and therapists, family journal, notes for the book about one mother’s fierce journey, but then she has never asked me to tell her story and also it’s her story. Which is a question for anyone who sets out to write about anyone, even their own experiences in the context of living in the world with people, in the house with people: where does their story end and yours begin?

When the internet was young and we were just venturing out into the world of our daughter’s diagnosis we would stumble upon what my husband termed “angry autism dad” websites. These were before blogs as we know them today. They were an html-y collection of posts with links to government reports about concerns over thimerasol or links to university studies that hinted at possible causes that might, someday, lead to possible cures. Sometimes they were personal and recounted the small slights and injustices one encountered slogging through days filled with perplexing behavior from our children or insensitivity from adults from whom one would have expected more compassion. Fix this now, they demanded. Or, fund this study, stop the conspiracy. We were hoovering up information then. These men were the heroes of our strange planet. Vitamins, weighted vest, hair test, casein intolerance, leaky gut, PECS, environmental hazards, legal rights, insurance will cover six sessions in the course of a lifetime disability, read this, try that, ask about, a wonderful woman. Hope, hope, hope. Trust, trust, trust. Fight, fight, fight.

Diagnosis is, at first sight, a lonely planet. Some people and experiences are shooting away from you at the speed of light, but as some people pass from your life, others step in. I joined a listserv with more voices, more stories, less anger than the lone dad furiously accumulating research. Time passed.

Fast forward to the here and now. Our nieces are visiting for the week. We have put together a week of Cousin Camp activities. Last night we attended a kids yoga class at the place where the older daughter takes dance. There are many things you don’t envision for yourself as a parent, being a dance mom was one of them. The other girls at yoga are all friends from dance. Together, we represent a range of abilities, talents, chromosome counts, social skills, challenges and flexibility. I am the only adult participant, but this is a place of acceptance and my neck has been really stiff.

After doing tree pose, the instructor calls us all over. Picture a forest, she says. The trees are different sizes. They don’t stand perfectly still, they sway, some trees lean against other trees. She has us stand in a circle, one leg bent against the straight leg, arms outstretched to touch the fingertips of the people next to us. Being connected, she explains, gives each of us the strength we need to balance. And it works. We hold the pose together, in a circle, which gets us off our individual mats and, thinking or not thinking about the symbolism,  experiencing it anyway.

I didn’t ask the girls later what they made of this, if they even thought about it at all. Did they assume they were a source of strength to the others or did it surprise them that it was easier to balance in the group? An experience like that is a gift they will unwrap someday, in their own time. If I were to follow the conventions of the fierce mother narrative, I might end this post with a quote of universal wisdom from Le Petit Prince, or conjure up a vision of the older daughter standing tall in the forest of life, but I think it is enough to leave you in a yoga studio contemplating your own pose.

Who are these people?

LR Grove StBefore I was born and before my parents had moved into the building where I grew up, they lived in a few other apartments in our neighborhood. They described these apartments and their idiosyncrasies with fondness, but also to shock a person with what people might put up with in order to “make it” in New York City: an oven door that when opened blocked the front door, a plywood partition that was all that separated them from their neighbors in the landlord’s eagerness to increase the number of units on the floor. The neighbors on the other side were a lesbian couple who argued and had affairs, providing more detail into the intimate lives of others than my mother had been party to in her North Carolina sorority house. I picture the apartments as being like the minimal set of The Fantasticks, which I was taken to one birthday, in a nearby lower-ground space, with air shaft windows which would have been covered over so you could not hear the sounds upstairs of dishes being washed in the sink, which was the way we did things back then.

My father liked to tell the story of how my mother had installed kitchen shelving and on the shelves placed jars of dried beans and lentils. He was impressed—how had she mounted the brackets?—and then alarmed by the answer: strong, double-faced tape.

They had a dog and cat with ESP, who would rush to the door when one of my parents reached the end of the block. In looking through the photos, I recognize the wicker lantern, but what happened to their fabulous white leather chair? A few photos and a lifetime of hearing the same handful of anecdotes do not provide much clarity into the murky past of your parents’ lives before you. The modern apartment in my father’s photos looks nothing like the one where I grew up, where the style of furniture was dark and Victorian and their possessions multiplied and grew to fill the space and a child took over their lives and turned them from young modern people into parents.

Am I the only mom who worries about burdening her children after death with journals and notebooks detailing my past? They do and don’t want to know these things and much of it will be of little interest because it will not succinctly answer the questions about the person I was who influenced who they became. It will not spell out that which they had only felt in their bones. At what point do I give these things a last look through and pitch them to protect myself from embarrassment and them from the banality and trivia of my own youth? What explanations of yourself do you owe your children? They may surprise you now and then, but at their core, you know who they are. Possibly none.

Our parents are always a mystery, their lives before you a kind of incomplete mythology. Even now, when my mother and I cover familiar ground in her past, there are missing details, entire storylines to be guessed at. On Mother’s (and Father’s) Day it is now a tradition to post a photo of the parent whose day it is on social media. An international day of paging through family scrapbooks and thinking back. The family resemblances of the two- and three- generation photos are striking. The day has been a stream of time travel, Kodachromes and black and whites, of mothers and babies, of our mothers as children or as young women before motherhood, in which, by our absence, we bestow upon them the gift of being themselves in their own right, yet still define and claim them in context: That woman, whoever she may be, is my mother. Even if they sat you down and said, I want to explain it all to you, you would still be looking for dissonance, your own truth. We were happy. There was always something. It’s my story.

Life swap

IMG_4878First of all, know that these sounds are normal: birds very close to the house, the way our cat belts out torch songs of boredom in the middle of the night.

The car horns and sanitation workers you have in New York will be replaced by a throbbing chorus of cicadas. You may call a friend and hold the phone in the air. Just try to imagine, you will say, what I am going through.

When you tell your parents of your plan to take up residence in Alabama for three weeks, as our dogsitter, they fear for your safety in this place where anyone and everyone could be carrying a gun. Manhattan, the devil you know, has its dangers to be sure, but out there, in wild America, you can’t be sure of anything, only that you are an outsider.

Your mother reminds you that you are Jewish, that you might have car trouble, and that this is a place with storms and snakes. Or maybe they don’t know about the snakes. My daughter mentioned the other day that she sees them pop out of holes in the ground on her way to school. I don’t think I will tell you about the snakes.

My husband, who understands what people from New York City can be like, because he is married to one, emphasizes that people in the South are friendly. It is customary to nod or wave as you drive down our street or even speak to people in the supermarket. You ask me about this later and I confirm that it is true. You don’t need an exit strategy.

Even as I tell you that we live on a suburban street, I know that you are picturing a swamp, the only means of escape a rusted out truck with manual ignition. As you pull repeatedly on the clutch the cicadas drown out all other sounds.

As I write the instructions for how to look after the dog and where to find things, you ask questions I hadn’t anticipated. I am trying to tell you how to navigate my life while you are busy inventing your own.

In one email you ask if I own a mandolin and where to go to an open mic night to sing. I know where to find a cigar box banjo, but I am not even sure these are real questions. Since when are you a musician?

You clarify that the mandolin is for slicing cucumbers from the farmers market and that you have a fantasy where you will unleash your inner cabaret persona. You imagine a nearly empty nightclub—I am picturing a raucous table of missile defense engineers drinking Monkeynaut, a local brew, cheering you on. This is not a place where we celebrate loneliness.

You ask what to bring. How can I tell you? A bathing suit. A sweater for the supermarket. But maybe also a cape and a tricornered hat.

What time does the dog go to bed? You ask. Does he like to chase balls? The questions keep coming: ziplining, manicures, health food. I am researching a new life rather than instructing in my own. You are free from the burden of being me. All I ask in return is that you let me know how it goes.

This piece was written last spring in answer to a writing prompt of Operating Instructions. My friend did come here and became good enough friends with some of our friends that she returned. She could have been the only person in all of NYC to visit for New Year’s. She found the experience broadening in some ways and the experience of having to drive everywhere oppressive, which I think very few Americans get. People think cars are freedom, but if you have grown up being able to walk out the door and get anywhere on foot or public transportation a car is a big, needy beast with its own agenda. You have to negotiate with it to get anywhere. You have to pay attention to it and to “the road” first thing in the morning. She has drafted her own version of the experience, which I will share here as a companion piece.

The Mandarin Counting Song or How to Be a Better Parent

2014-04-06 10.02.42Write it down

“You can go out with a guy without having to break into a zoo,” Loquatia tells Capricia at dinner the other night.

Was Capricia proposing some kind of monkey or large cat abduction to secure the heart of a classmate? Family mealtimes are full of these kinds of pronouncements, which at the time make perfect sense only you are laughing so hard you forget what they said, or you write it down and forget what they meant. Luckily Loquatia thought to scribble this one down the other night:

Me: “You can’t wear a turban to dinner.”
C: “But it’s to amp up my style for the Crusades.”

Don’t define them.

Capricia is being told off for something and her retort is “You never should have brought us here!”

“Where?” We are in the small family town that drew us to Alabama in the first place. We are lying on the lawn, still prickly and beige in early spring. We have arrived in the late afternoon to weather that is one planting zone warmer than home, the air almost tropical. We have laid ourselves out on the dead grass to enjoy the only sun we are likely to have over the entire weekend.

“America!” she responds, “Why did we come here?”

“You’re American,” my husband replies.

In a rare moment of simultaneity the girls both exclaim, “I’m not!”

“London is too expensive,” my husband counters.

“Well,” she says, “What about Glasgow?”

“Why,” we ask cautiously, “Glasgow?”

Be a good listener

“They have a good tube system.” And when she says stuff like this, unlike when she defines something as “a chimpanzee from outer space that you see only in your dreams,” she has credibility. If Capricia tells you that she has seen all of the videos of the London Underground, then you can bet she started a search for UK trains and found Glasgow and she knows about their transport.

After going over reasons why we won’t be moving anytime soon and reminding her of all the lovely people she has met and experiences she has had in America, it is Loquatia’s turn to talk.

She started writing down her grievances as letters to President Obama in the third grade, after writing once as part of a class project. He became a sympathetic listener when she did not like to go to Kumon math, and then when we made her move, and then, there were other things, but she can’t remember/won’t say/never mailed them.

Share an interest

Loquatia asks if I would like to write a post together on her style and beauty blog, but she rescinds the offer when she finds me outside photographing the magic soil mix I have bought. “It’s about beauty,” she says in italics.

“But you said it was about getting ready for spring.”

So I am on my own with my top soil and my blood meal. I scatter the ashes into the soil and feed our scraggly azaleas. What else is part of spring ? Gathering tax documents. Doing online medical forms for camp.

So I ask her to finish this post for me with what advice she would give to parents of teenagers to help us amp up our parenting style.

Be involved, but not too involved, at our athletic events.

Don’t be the mom with the whistle at the swim meet. Don’t smother us with offers of cover-ups and snacks, but also don’t be the parent who never comes to anything.

Don’t tell us what to wear.

Let us make bad choices in fashion so in a few years we can look back at photographs and see our mistakes for ourselves. Just don’t let us wear a full-length black velvet dress with brown stripes.

Don’t be afraid of us.

If we’re acting obnoxious, don’t let us get away with it because then we will act that way with our friends and none of us want to do your dirty work.

Don’t give us too much independence.

It’s nice being young and not having to worry about anything. We like to sit up front in the car and we look forward to getting our permits, but we miss the backseat and holding our parents’ hands when walking and not having to think.

Let us rant.

Sometimes we need to complain about our friends because if we say these things to our friends we will sound judgmental and mean. Sometimes we want advice, but sometimes we just need to sound off.

Be funny.

You’re funny. But don’t try to be funny around our friends unless they have similar parents because then it’s just sad.