Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Street Preacher

My daughter took this picture of a man on Broadway handing out literature of holy reckoning, preaching repentance, warning that the end of the world was nigh. I don't know about the end of the world, but the end of the decade is certainly at hand. By my lights, endings are gateways to new beginnings, as my daughter's friend, laughing and undaunted by dire leaflet predictions in the foreground, seems to suggest. Then there's the lady in the background clearly engaged in her life, and the man himself, whose expression seems not judgmental, but rather gently bemused and kind. I like this picture as a metaphor.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Movie Buff

On Sunday afternoon, my 91-year-old aunt's home care attendant took her to see the movie Invictus, which is about Nelson Mandela enlisting the captain of South Africa's national rugby team to help unite his apartheid-torn nation. My aunt, who usually wants to do nothing more than sit in her chair and follow the thoughts wheeling in her head, had asked to see it. Thrilled by the idea of engaging her in something outside her home and doctor visits, I bought the tickets and escorted her and her home attendant to the bus, which is wheelchair accessible and stops right in front of the theater.

Later, I asked my aunt how she liked the movie. "I left early," she said. "I had already seen that same story years ago on the news." Talking with her more, I got the sense that she had been confused by the movie, thinking the characters were real and that the events were unfolding in real time. It was as if the years had looped back on themselves, and at a certain point she decided she knew how the story would turn out, and she was ready to be back home in her chair. "It was longer than I thought it would be," she complained. She paused and added, "For the next picture, make it a good love story."

I'm thinking, It's Complicated.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Christmas

Christmas morning my husband woke us all early, a big kid wanting to get to the present-opening festivities, but not to see what he had netted. No, he wanted to see the faces of his family as we opened the gifts he had gotten for us. He is that kind of man. On his birthday every year, he buys us all gifts. This year, he came home with five tissue-wrapped packages for his wife, daughter, niece, niece, and mother-in-law, all of whom happened to be in his home on the weekend of his birthday. He gave us lovely pashmina shawls, each of us a different, perfect color. He is that kind of man.

Back to Christmas. Our son's best friend E., who is like my other son, slept over and woke up with us on Christmas morning. He and my son have been brothers in spirit since before they could say their names. They don't know this world without one another. I think they may have been twins in a past life, or maybe they are soulmates. Their friendship is effortless and generous and full of humor. They've both grown into striking young men, my son's friend, who used to be the small scrawny one, even taller than my son at 6' 4". Both boys are handsome enough so that when my daughter's friends come over, they huddle in the back bedroom and squeal, then walk out serenely, as if no one heard them, full of 15-year-old composure.

E. is Muslim. And Jewish. His mother, Jewish by virtue of her mother being Jewish, was raised a Christian, then became a Buddhist, then chose to raise her sons in the Muslim faith. So Christmas isn't really observed in his home, but we fold him into the season anyway when he's in our home. We all had fun Christmas eve, wrapping gifts and sipping egg nog and swapping stories about any and everything. Wonderful stream of consciousness.

We all pulled in a nifty haul, given the economics of the time. My husband and I both gave each other Kindle e-readers. We'd each confided in our kids, who were highly amused by our unwitting synchronicity, and insisted we open our gifts to one another at the same time. We got our daughter her own Nikon SLR film camera, a 1984 model and she was thrilled. Our son wanted the iHome speakers, which I have to say, produce amazing sound. E. got one of those white intentionally rumpled college boy button down shirts that he wanted (he's a high school senior applying to college so he's trying out the look), and there were other smaller gifts to and from and among. And there was great comfort and banter. I paused at one point to be quietly mindful that the moment we were living was perfect.

My niece, the one who just moved into her own apartment in November after living with us since summer, and her boyfriend came over to have Christmas dinner with us. So did one of my aunts (the family friend kind of aunt) and her daughter (with whom I shared a room for several school years growing up--another story for another day). We all visited with my 91-year-old aunt for part of the afternoon since she wasn't feeling up to leaving home and coming over. In general, it was all very low stress, even though I managed to get overly stressed that the food wasn't ready on time. Why do I do that? No one cared. We sat around and watched movies (the new Harry Potter and Up), and when we did finally eat, everything was delicious. My son, who isn't home that much since he arrived for the holidays, stayed in all evening with his family, and everything was cheerful and laughter flowed easily, and it was so good to have all my ducklings home and happy. In all, it was a very good day.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Roots of the Tree

In honor of Christmas, here are some photos from our family tree that have meaning for me.

This image is of my maternal grandparents and eight of their nine children, taken on April 6, 1931. The youngest sibling is in the picture too, in a way: My grandmother is 9 months pregnant. My mom is the sober faced little girl in the front row, second from left. My 91-year-old aunt, who occasionally makes an appearance in this blog, is the first girl on the left, back row. My aunt who is currently recovering from surgery is the baby on my grandfather's lap. Every one of these children is now more than 80 years old!

I love so many things about this photo. I love how serious everyone but my grandfather looks. I love how the cardboard scene behind the family doesn't quite fill the frame, so you see the wooden walls of the room and the curtains behind and the terrazzo tile floor. I love the muffin heads of the girls, whose straight-haired mother never quite managed to tame their kinky hair. My aunt who is farthest on the right was only 5 years old in this picture, but she told me later that she looked at it and said to herself, "Oh Grace, you're going to have to learn to do your own hair." And indeed, she was the aunt who, when I was growing up, could make us nieces feel resplendent when she did our hair. She had a gift. Her nickname to this day is Miss Fixit.

There's so much more in this picture for those who know the stories. But I'll stop here.

This photograph was taken at the wedding of my husband's parents on May 7, 1958. This image is particularly cherished by him because it includes not only his parents but also his four grandparents and a special uncle and aunt.

Going to help my husband cook dinner, now. We're having just a couple of people over, very low-key. Not quite the day my daughter had envisioned (she imagined not getting out of PJs all day, and not even cracking the front door). But close enough.

I hope you're having exactly the kind of day you want today. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Personal History

I just read a lovely post over at Life in Progress about a trip the author took with her parents to Paris and London in August 1973. Oh, it brought back memories. My family took almost the same trip when I was 14, we visited almost all the same places, and it was lifechanging. I particularly recall the rush of belonging I felt as we walked around Montmartre in Paris, with its sidewalk artists and crafty vendor stalls. At the time, I thought I wanted to become an artist, and my romantic image of that came to life on the streets of Montmartre. I don't have time at this moment to go into it, I'm rushing off to work, but the post made me want to travel back into my own memories, and visit certain ones anew. So now I have a vague plan to do that here, as soon as I have a moment to breathe, think, meander down the lanes of my personal history.

What memory comes up for you when you think back to 13 or 14? It's such an impressionable age, isn't it?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jehovah Jireh

Just heard another editor is leaving. She took a job at another magazine. The losses pile up.
Also, one of my aunts is very sick. She just had surgery to remove a blockage of her carotid artery, and she is so very frail. Her three daughters, my cousins, are scared. They are all traveling to be with her at Christmas. I adore this aunt. She's a little OCD, like me. She worries obsessively about her daughters, all of them married women, every one of them the kind of daughter that would make any mother proud. She and my uncle raised them to be caring, funny, strong-hearted, opinionated women. The youngest shook things up mightily when she came out to her parents right after college. Her father was devastated, and left the room, but her mother, my aunt, followed him out and led him back by the elbow, saying fiercely, "This is your daughter! This is your father! Now we're going to sit here and talk! I am not going to let this break up my family!" At the time, my aunt and uncle were deeply homophobic. Now, fifteen years later, my aunt speaks warmly about how much her youngest allowed her to grow, how grateful she is, and how, when my cousin married her partner is San Francisco last summer, she gained another daughter.
This aunt is also the one who used to press crisp twenty, fifty, hundred dollar bills into our hands when we were small. When you're not yet of age and haven't figured out how to get money on your own, you remember such things. She was too generous by far.
I didn't realize until I spoke with my mom today (I had called to complain that more work was about to fall onto my already overflowing desk) just how weak and close to the edge my aunt is after her surgery last week. Now, I'm scared too. As my mom and her sisters all say, Jehovah Jireh, which means, God will provide just what we need at the time we need it. And so I pray for her healing.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The more things change...

I'm starting to realize my daughter has been taking pictures for a while, that a camera of some sort has been constantly in her hands for several years now. I took the top picture at a cousin's wedding three years ago. My girl was using a digital shooter then. Since last summer, she's taken over the Nikkormat FTN that one of my uncles gave me when I was 11. I enjoyed a decades-long entrancement with that camera. I love how its photographs can reveal what the eye fails to notice. I cannot explain the profound awe I feel to know that my daughter, too, connects with this faithful old camera. The thing is built like a truck, it's heavy in your hands, and it's optics are true. It's a beautiful piece of technology. I am so grateful to share it with my daughter all these years later. Life is sometimes more perfect than we can dream.


Snowstorm! Eleven blizzardy inches fell last night. Through it all, life kept happening. My son and my niece are home from college, and one of my son's friends from high school is also here, and my daughter has a couple of friends staying over. She and her two friends went to a party last night, with my husband and me driving them there and picking them up after, just as our parents used to do for us when we were teenagers. Except we were growing up in Jamaica and Antigua, where driving distances were short and the nights were always balmy.

The cold last night was the least of it. The snow was harrowing to drive in, and as we made our way from Harlem to Soho to pick up our girl from the holiday party for her scholars program, I glimpsed for the first time how terrifying it must be to navigate a blizzard in rural parts, with no visible landmarks. We inched our way down the highway, picking our way through more traffic than you would imagine in such a snowstorm. When we got there almost an hour later, our daughter and her two friends skipped out to the car and chattered happily the whole way home, totally unaware of all the concentration it was taking for me to psychically keep cars away from us on the treacherous road.

Even though it was midnight by the time we got home, the girls, all of them 15 years old, changed out of their party clothes and bundled up to go play in the snow as they did when they were 7, making snow angels, rolling down slopes, catching snowflakes on their tongues. My son had the good sense to wrap himself in a blanket on the couch and watch movies with his friend and exchange man banter with his dad.

My niece had left earlier to meet friends way out in Brooklyn, and almost got marooned there in the 12 inches of snow that fell on us last night. She eventually slept at a friend's house, and left early this morning to come home in daylight. She is catching a flight home to Kingston, Jamaica at 2 p.m., so her mom and dad were on the phone first thing this morning, checking to see whether the airports were open in spite of the snow. They are.

The snow has stopped falling now. The sun is high in the sky, doing nothing for the chilly temperatures. The little kids were out early, sledding on the hill in front of our building while my husband cooked scrambled eggs and spicy sausages for the household. With some amusement, I watched my niece getting ready to go to the airport, groggily stuffing things in her suitcase, her face bare and dry, the desire to just curl up and sleep overwhelming her. She reminded me so much of myself when I was in college, partying all night, rolling out to the curb from the dorm with my suitcase at 6 a.m. to climb into my Uncle Charlie's car for the trip to the airport.

We've just dropped her off at the airport and arrived back home to find our son still on the couch, the blanket now on the floor beside him. He's meeting the day slowly. Our daughter had another engagement today. She and some school friends are baking cookies to hand out to firefighters. It's a tradition started by her friend Julia's family after 9/11. My girl, new to her school last year, is thrilled to be included in this annual event with all the longtimers. Then tonight she has another party, and she and four other girls plan on sleeping over at another friend's house. Meanwhile, our son is heading out later to show off the city to one of his college friends whose flight to Atlanta has been grounded until tomorrow. But first, he wants to go see the movie Avatar with his parents.

All around us, life is happening. My husband and I putter at the center of it all, contented.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tipping Point

Holiday party! In the conference room, of course. And fruit punch with a kick. Thanks to the alcohol, it's more festive around here than it's been in ages. But with tongues loosened by the punch, people are saying whatever the heck they want to say, making it more apparent than ever that we've reached a tipping point. There simply aren't enough hands on deck to sail this ship through choppy seas. The tone is one of bitter irony, delivered as biting humor. Folks are burned out. And yet, throughout the halls of the office at this moment, there are bursts of laughter. Release.

My son comes home tonight, having successfully completed his first semester of college. Perspective is everything. Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Friday Night Live

On towards eight last evening, my former editorial assistant, call her Cathy (not her real name), swung by the magazine. I was still there, swamped with work, trying to get two stories out my computer and into final pages, so she just sat in my office, hiding out while she waited for her friend, who is the only assistant editor left on staff. All the other editorial assistants and assistant editors have now been laid off; they were let go, I suspect, to balance the picking off of older workers nearing retirement age (that's a pretty incendiary statement, I know it). We have interns and temps to do the assisting now, but mostly we do our own admin work, chasing down invoices when they get lost in accounting for the umpteenth time, and crafting careful emails to incensed writers whose work has long been completed and whose rent or phone or credit card bills are coming due.

Cathy was let go in the last round of layoffs a year ago. She had been on staff two short years, and she truly was the best. Great work ethic, a quick study, good-hearted, full of initiative, organized, wry and witty. It was easy and enjoyable working with her. Yesterday, as she sat across from me, both of us not talking much as I tapped on my computer keyboard, but the two of us exchanging comfortable chatter in intermittent bursts, I had the strange sense that she was family, like a niece or a cousin, a young person I would go out of my way to help in whatever way she might need. She's doing well, actually. She found a good job with a publishing house just a couple of months after being laid off, and they seem to appreciate her there.

It was good to see her. It was good to remember that there is life after being laid off. Just in case I'm one of the next ones to be picked off.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Mother and Daughter

The top photo is of me in the coffee shop at the Fort Wayne, Indiana airport, circa 1983. It was taken by photographer Michael O'Brien, with whom I was working on a story at the time (miss you, Michael! And your wonderful family). The second photo is one I snapped of my daughter in our kitchen in New York City, circa 2008. Love how the window light slants through both photos, 25 years apart. Love the girl even more.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Lesson in Transcending

My daughter has a 10th grade English project on transcendentalism. She posed her cousin and friends in various settings in nature, huddled in stairwells with an X of tape over their mouths, against stark brick buildings, awash in sunlight, lying in the grass, and so on. She had chosen to illustrate ten quotes from Thoreau. The above photo of my niece was used to illustrate this quote:

“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence with nature itself."

As part of the project, she had to interpret and explain how each photo applied. This was what she wrote for this one:

"In this photo, my cousin is surrounded by the tree branches. She is connecting back to nature, and simplifying that moment in her life to only the earth and life on it. The trees in nature are such a significant idea in transcendentalism because the goal is to simplify life and be an individual amid a sea of conformity. The trees show this because they have grown from the earth and flourished through many seasons, despite the outside influences. This is a model for the transcendentalist, to be free and grow as a person and defy all the judgments and routines of normal life. Also the branches are bare, showing that there are harsh outside influences that sometimes can change our path in life, however a transcendentalist can still retain individuality because these influences are a natural part of life, and it is our job to be able to stand up to them and grow from them."

I particularly love the sentiment of that last sentence.

I should mention that she took the photos with a 42-year-old Nikkormat SLR film camera and developed and printed the images in the darkroom at her school. The camera is mine, a second-hand beauty given to me by one of my uncles when I was 11 years old. My daughter took it down from a high shelf in the back of my closet. I wasn't even sure it still worked. But it does. I would love to show more of the her transcendentalist series but I'm not clear on whether some of her other subjects would mind their photos being posted, so I'll refrain.

My girl was up till past midnight, meditatively trimming and mounting her photos, and pasting the quotes on the front and the explanations on the back. She'd been going all day, starting with yoga at seven a.m., and back-to-back dance rehersals after school. She didn't get home till seven-thirty tonight, and got right to work on the writing for her project, which took a few hours. Why, I asked, did she wait till the night before it was due? "I couldn't start writing till I knew what photos I wanted to use," she explained, "and I only printed the photos today." Truth be told, she didn't get to any of her other homework tonight, but planned to read history on the 50-minute subway ride to school and do math and Spanish in her free period today. It's one o'clock now, and she just went to bed.

Can I just say, my daughter so impresses me.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

South for Winter

My mom left. She flew to Jamaica from New York on the chilly Saturday after Thanksgiving, leaving me both at delicious loose ends and bereft from missing her. She will spend Christmas and New Years in Jamaica with my brother and his family before flying home to St. Lucia in late January. Her beloved sister Grace, who lives in Toronto, will also be in Jamaica, so they will no doubt host tea parties and bridge lunches and giggle like schoolgirls and maybe even take another dip in my cousin's pool.

On Saturday, I went to my mom's apartment after we got back from the airport to wash up the cups in the sink, empty the garbage, put the towels in the laundry and generally set the place up for what will no doubt be several months of absence. My mom leaves the city when it gets cold, when the winter begins to announce itself in her bones. And though I had begun to buckle somewhat under the effort to be around her enough so that she wouldn't get lonely, while still trying to be in all the other places where I am required to be on any given day, even though I had begun to chafe under all that, I miss her absolutely and long for her return.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Just got home from a long tedious day in the ghost town that is my office. I opened my front door and found three big ole men in my living room, my son and two of his friends. They are 6' 9", 6' 4" and my son at 6' 2" is the short one. Two of the young men are in college and the third is a high school senior, my son's best friend who's been a regular in our home since before both boys could say their names. They are watching Kung Fu Panda. I can hear them laughing and laughing out there.

For some reason, I find this comforting.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Two of my daughter's gang of six at a dear friend's 50th birthday party, Saturday, November 21, 2009.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


My son is home from college for Thanksgiving week. He arrived this morning around 8, looking happy and hale, with a tattoo in the center of his back, between his shoulder blades.

After an hour or so of chit-chatting, he whipped off his shirt, then sat with a quizzical smile on his face, waiting for us to notice. I saw something, a shadow on his back, and asked him to turn around. He did readily, his expression proud and nervous. I guessed he was proud of his art but was nervous about what we would say, because he still cares.

His tat was his birthday present to himself, which he actually had done on his dad's birthday. It is a black and white piece, a stone cross surrounded by angel wings. It is not too big, not too small, nicely centered left to right, not too high, perfectly placed. And the art is lovely, not at all cartoonish, done by a steady, professional hand.

"It's beautiful," I said, and he melted.

"Ahh, that's the word I was hoping for!" he said, and then he hugged me.

"What does it mean to you?" I asked him.

"It's a symbol of faith," he said, "of the way you raised me. A reminder that God has my back."

I thought of my dad, and my husband's mom, my uncles, all the loved ones on the other side, watching over him. I believe he thinks of them, too.

I spoiled it a little by asking him not to get any tats on his neck or forearms, nowhere visible in job interview clothes. I even noted I could be just fine with this one tat on his perfect body that I birthed. My husband, at that point, told me (nicely) to back off, cool it. My son just smiled. His mom is his mom, and that was okay with him at that moment.

I was touched, really, that it mattered to him that we liked it, even though I know, if we had given him grief, he would have shrugged and pretended he didn't care.

I'm glad he cares.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Three Little Birds

You can tell this picture was snapped by someone trusted and loved by the people in the photo. My son is 12 here, my daughter 10. Their dad took the picture.

And now, on top of everything...


Today is parent visiting day at my daughter's school, which means parents are invited to stand in the backs of classrooms and see where their tuition dollars are going. Our daughter asked us to come. She wanted to show me her photography porfolio (she got a solid A in photography, by the way). I wanted, so wanted, to be there, but today is also the day that two major stories are due in, and I have to edit and move them to my editor in chief by the end of the day. One is likely the be in good shape, the other is from a writer I have never worked with before, so I have no idea what to expect in terms of the work needed to get it to a place where I can send it to the editor in chief for her sign off. She is very invested in both stories, and both are potential legal nightmares, so both require careful and hyper attentive handling.

Today is also the last day in the office for the people who got laid off, and I and a couple of the other editors are supposed to be taking the woman I worked so closely with for 11 years to lunch. A goodbye lunch. I could miss it, I guess, but it would look callous and fickle. I want this woman to know how much I have appreciated her as a colleague and as a friend. Today, with her spirit still reeling from the "why me?" questions, I really need to be there to show her this.

I can't find the words to convey this to my daughter. The sentences that come to mind just sound as if I'm putting everything else ahead of her. I know this is what it means to be an adult, that one is always faced with these hard choices. But I wish I could be standing in the back of her classrooms today, watching the light dancing in her face because she is happy that her mama is there.

I wish I could be as pragmatic as my husband. When our daughter stood in the dark at the foot of our bed at 6 a.m. and asked her sleeping parents in a plaintive, guilt-inducing voice, "Are neither of you coming to my school today?" he had no problem saying no. Even though she looked crestfallen, he didn't follow her around as she got dressed trying to make sure she understood the reasons why neither of us would be there. When I asked him, "Don't you wish you could go?" he answered, "Of course not. This is high school. Who wants their parents hanging around?"

And yet, my girl wants us.

Guilt. It feels like self-recrimination and sadness. Useless and maybe misguided. But there.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the Weeds

Everything is ramping up at the magazine since we lost so many good people. Another person quit yesterday, in protest over the 18 people who were let go. You can do that in your twenties, quit your job in protest, because you don't yet have too many bills and no dependents other than yourself who count on your paycheck.

Anyway, the point of all that is that between long hours at work and being there for my mom and my aunt, 87 and 91, I feel like I barely have time to formulate a thought, much less a whole post. And then there is my 15-year-old daughter, who is not so happy about the way school is going right now. Which of course makes me worry (my default) and sends me into a tailspin wherein I try to figure out all the worst case scenarios so I can get busy preventing them. It's exhausting!

So please forgive the quoting of whole exchanges from my life. It's all I can do to record them. I have no mental space or emotional energy left over for the sort of analysis that helps me gain perspective. But thank God for good friends with similar overactive imaginations, who can contribute some analysis when you're lacking the ability to provide your own.

What follows is an email exchange from this morning between me and one of my friends, the brilliant mother of an academically gifted and charismatic 7-year old girl.

Me (responding to a question my friend posed that had absolutely nothing to do with my daughter's schooling): Jeannine, why am I so stressed at this moment waiting for my daughter's first quarter grades? I know she's not happy with them because she usually texts me them as soon as she gets out of the advisor conference. Why does this matter so much? Life is a long distance race and I keep getting caught in the weeds by the side of the road. So what if she didn't do that great? What am I making this mean? Sorry for going off on a tangent. I feel consumed with worry about how this might be the beginning of a downward spiral. A vivid imagination is not always a good friend.

Jeannine: What grade is she in again?

Me: Tenth.

Jeannine: If she's having a hard time then you can address it with a tutor or whatever. It's not the beginning of the end. The (potential) beginning of the end is if she's doing drugs, or pregnant, or suffering from depression. If she got bad grades one semester it's fixable. Even if she flunks out it's fixable. There is almost nothing that happens grade-wise in one year of high school that can't be addressed. I failed almost all my classes for three years of high school and ended up on the dean's list in university.

Maybe she senses your stress and it's stressing her out. I remember not showing my father my grades just because I thought he was too invested. I refused to show him my grades for my first two years of university (and I was doing well). Just something to consider.

But, I do understand. My kid's teacher wrote on her report card that she reads at "grade level," which is totally inaccurate and I am obsessed with how to show him the truth. I almost suggested she take The New York Times to school to pull out during quiet time.

I laughed so hard over that New York Times bit. I could totally picture her 7-year-old pulling the paper out and settling down to read. And then I took my friend's advice. I'm backing off with the worry. My daughter has such a well-honed sense of responsibility already, and she wants to do well so much she put herself on a Facebook diet for a week. It's true that Facebook is back interrupting homework again, but I think I will trust her to figure it out and just be there if she comes to me for help. The other part, of course, is that she is testing her chops socially right now, and as my friend pointed out when we talked on the phone later, it can be really hard to do the straight-A thing while trying to discover who you want to be socially.

I suspect my friend and I are members of a generation of nervous, overinvested parents. I think that we have bought into the baby boomer myth of scarce opportunities. And as parents of children of color we worry that the chances they get may be even more limited, and so they have to be super prepared. But the pathways to success are as creative and serendepitious and limitless and divine as individual definitions of success, and I don't know why I keep forgetting that.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Social Wise

Last Wednesday, at about four in the afternoon, my daughter sent this text message to me at work. "Oh mom school today was just horrible. Social wise was fine. Can I go out friday night?"

Me: "Why was it horrible?"

My girl: "Because school just sucks. It requires you to tolerate never sleeping and then working and I cannot tolerate that."

She has been sorely sleep deprived. The tenth graders have just been slammed with work this year. Their teachers weren't kidding last year when they said it would get hard. But what makes me worry is that my daughter might be starting not to like school, which until now has been a source of fun and mastery for her. I don't want her to let go of her "good and responsible student" self-image, one that she has held comfortably from kindergarten until now. That was why the phrase "school just sucks" was worrisome.

Then I looked at the first message again. "Social wise was fine."

She's not lost to high school yet.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Scorched Earth 2

So last week Wednesday, 18 people at my job were given "The Talk" and an innocuous envelope that held their severance package. As it turns out, I am not among them. But I am devastated by some of the people who were, including the woman I work most closely with, my "work spouse" of sorts. I don't really understand them letting her go. She brings talents to the table that no one else has, a head for coverlines, a way of packaging stories, and an editing style that often irritates writers for its pickiness, but that inevitably makes you think of dimensions you'd overlooked, questions you'd neglected to nail down, and always makes the piece stronger.

I counted on her as a human being, too, her calm equanimity, her quick but never cruel wit, her refusal to give in to the free-floating fear and paranoia that is a constant in my workplace. I am still in shock and denial that she's leaving. We shared the same job title and backed each other up seamlessly. Which makes me also ponder the fact that they must have put us side by side and said, Okay, which one? I wonder if they chose her because I waived my medical insurance coverage with the company, going with my husband's instead. I wonder if it came down to the fact that I cost the company less.

I feel like we're all on a conveyor belt, except none of us knows how close we are at any given point to toppling off the end of it. We can't see what's ahead, we only know that conveyor belt just keeps on rolling, and we could get to the end at any time. There are so few of us left now, and so much work to get done. I'm not afraid of working hard and I love the nature of the work I do. But the losses we've sustained could break your heart.

Sweet Dreams

I've been looking through old pictures recently, browsing through boxes and reacquainting myself with images stored on multiple CDs. The emotions these photos kick up for me are the subject of another post, another day. But I wanted to share a photo I found last night, just because it made me stop and stare at it for a long, long time.

I snapped this photo in the fall of 2000, before we moved from our old apartment. Our son had fallen asleep in our bed, and my husband was lifting him up to take him to his own bed. I saw this expression of pure and reverent love on my husband's face, and wanted to preserve it so our son, then 8 years old, could share the moment, even though he was asleep when it happened.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Here we are again

The word is that there will be layoffs at my job this week. Which means everyone is walking about with breath sucked in, uneasy questions in the silences between their words. Am I valued here? If I am let go, how will I make do? What about the people who depend on me?

A year ago, when we were last at this pass, my son used to tell me goodbye in the mornings with a line from the reality TV show Survivor (our family has watched since season one). He'd say, "Don't get voted off today, Mom." We'd laugh about it, and somehow it would make me less anxious.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Big One

Happy birthday to the love of my life on the big five-oh. For the past 26 years, ever since making his acquaintance in this life, I have loved this man with my whole heart. Truly, I think I loved him before this life; meeting him was like a warm rush of recognition. I wish him everything good on this day and all days. He is worthy of that and more. That's us the year we met, on our way to the beach in Antigua. Oh yes, he can be sublimely silly, too. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Where She Goes From Here

I'm beginning to think that most of the people I know are born in October. I find myself saying Happy Birthday to someone all month long. Today is my cousin's birthday, the one who lives in the prison of her addictions, and lately, the deepening fear of what her life will be like when her 91-year-old mother dies and she no longer has a place to live rent- and responsibility-free. I see the panic in her eyes these days. Most of the time, I ache for her, when she isn't causing an ugly commotion in the house, that is. So my prayer for her, on this her 46th birthday, is that this will be the year she climbs out of the suffocating pit of her addiction. This will be the year she decides to give rehab another try. This will be the year she leaves behind the toxic man who has affixed himself to her life so that she can provide him with money and random store bought things, and food and most of all addictive substances, all paid for by her mother. This will be the year she wakes up to her own beauty and worth. This will be the year. I pray.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Beautiful Family

The official Obama family portrait by Annie Liebovitz.

Sometimes, I feel again the way I felt on November 5, 2008, that moment of exhilaration and wonder when I woke up and realized that it was not a dream, Barack Obama had indeed been voted the 44th President of the United States. Looking at this photograph, released by the White House today, I am remembering that feeling, and it makes me smile anew.

Click on the photograph. It's definitely worth viewing large.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Daddy and Me

With my dad at Blue Waters, Antigua, after Christmas morning service, 1983. I find, in this age of digital exactness, I am falling in love with the grainy, imperfect images taken back in the day. This was made with a Kodak instant camera, before the company discontinued it. I remember this day well. It was the morning I introduced my parents to my not-yet-husband's mother after church. None of us knew that we would one day be related through marriage and call one another family.

Counting Breaths

This day would have been my dad's 86th birthday. The photo here was taken six months before he died at age 72. The cancer had already spread to his bones; he could no longer walk, but was not yet bedridden. We all knew his time was near, so we gathered to take pictures. I wanted my children, then ages three and one, to have something to remember him by. Turns out they didn't need the pictures. My dad's impish humor and his adoration of his grandchildren remain vivid for them.

I called my mom this morning and wished Daddy happy birthday to her. How blessed we were, we said, to have shared our lives with this great and wonderful man. They had been married for 46 years when he died. In my dad's last days, I wanted to capture the breathtaking love between them. So I wrote the piece that follows. This story was published in a magazine and anthologized a book, and is copyrighted. But I can't plagiarize myself, right?


It is a slow, inexorable dance. The conclusion is sure, only the interval is still in question. My father is dying. My mother refuses to lose him. Daddy has fought the internal mutiny of cells for more than a decade, and he is tired now, tired of restraining the invisible march, tired of holding his breath as the doctor shares the newest results of tissue scans, tired of yielding, again and again, to the surgeon's well-meaning knife. And he's exhausted by the way his heart aches at the lines in my mother's face, the tender grooves beside her mouth that belie the determined smile she marshals each time a visitor enters the room.

The cancer is throughout my father's body. It has penetrated the bone, infiltrated skull, ribs, pelvis, toes, and robbed his legs of their ability to propel him forward. Daddy sits in a wheelchair, gaunt, sallow, his preternaturally black hair finally going to gray. His memory skips and falters, and sometimes, in the moment that he awakens, he even thinks he can rise from his bed and walk unaided to the bathroom to perform his morning rituals. But then he tries to move his legs, lying cramped and cold under the sheets, and they betray him. Tears sting his eyes. He averts his face so that my mother won't see. For several moments, he says nothing for fear that his helplessness will cause a ripple in his voice.

I stroke his hair. "To be struck down like this..." he whispers. I just keep stroking his hair.

I worry about my mother. She's talking, walking, moving fast, obsessively focused on caring for my father from morning till night. But sometimes, her stomach knits so severely she is forced to lie still. It is the only pause she permits herself. My father watches her flurry of motion with an intimate grasp of its meaning. He is holding on, I think, waiting for her to accept that he must move on. But my mother will not give in to what she sees as defeat. God, she points out, is in their corner: Daddy will walk again. He will rebuild the muscles in his wasted legs. He will allow God's healing Spirit to storm his body and repair his wounds. He will get, if not well, then better. He cannot give up. She cannot give up.

But lately, there has been so much pain. Flaring, unendurable pain in the joints of his limbs. My mother fumbles with the medicine bottle, her twisted, arthritic fingers fighting the childproof cap. She manages to extract a huge yellow pill. She lifts my father's head, places the painkiller on his tongue and holds the water to his lips. Then she sits at his bedside, counting his breaths, praying silently for the hour it takes for the medication to take effect, for her face to grow fuzzy in his sight as merciful sleep takes hold.

Much later, when he wakes, my mother is in the kitchen preparing a meal. It is her supreme purpose to coax food into my father. She scolds and cajoles him to take feasts as large as my six-foot-two, 240-pound husband regularly consumes. My father's small frame, bird-like appetite, and nausea from the chemotherapy drugs make my mother's task difficult. He complains that he is not hungry. He rebels by pushing the food around his plate, never lifting the fork to his lips. "I am not a child!" he objects finally. "You'd think I was torturing you!" she protests. Once, watching them, I begged them not to argue. They both turned to look at me. A playful light came into my father's eyes, and my mother laughed outright. "Why do you want to begrudge us our fun?" she said. I saw Daddy's hand reach under the table to caress Mommy's knee.

Daddy's only desire, in these months of failing health, is that my mother stay near. In the mornings, when my mother tries to push out of bed to get his 6 a.m. medication and a cup of hot chocolate, he holds on to her. It is far better therapy, he insists with a flash of his old mischief, for them to lie in bed and cuddle. He chuckles as he says it, but he means it fiercely. If my mother goes out, to the grocery store or to get her hair done, my father asks me several times each hour: "Where is Mommy? Isn't she back yet?"

They have been married 46 years. Although they do not say it, they realize that the cherished 50 year mark may not be achieved. My mother will not allow melancholy. She observes that she and Daddy courted for four years before they were married. "This is our 50th year together," she tells him on the morning of their anniversary. My father's mind cavorts in the rooms of memory. His breaths grow full, his chest lifts higher. Robust recollections fill his fragile frame. His groping hand finds my mother's arthritic one and, clasping it, he brings her fingers to his lips and closes his eyes. My father sighs deeply. My mother measures his breath.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Nothing moving but the rain

I miss my son. He doesn't call, text or email. Poof. He's just gone. I know he's busy with his life, which is rich and full and lively with new people and ideas and experiences. I have to remember that I never called my parents either when I was in college. I traveled out of state, even out of country and never bothered to mention it to them. I spent weekends in the homes of people they never knew. I went to performances and parties and street fairs and art shows, exploring new neighborhoods, crashing sometimes wherever I happened to be, nights I'm sure they thought I was safe in my dorm room bed. I was completely in and of the moment. Not reckless. But meeting life with arms wide open, heart laughing, face to the sky.

This self-absorption and immediacy of experience is natural and desired when one is in college. I know this, but I can't help it. I still miss my boy.

Nothing moving but the rain. I saw this phrase in a New York Times magazine story about anxious brains. It struck me as summing up everything. It captures the sadness I feel when nothing major is actually wrong, and yet there is a hole at center of me that isn't quite caused by anything, just anxious imaginings, as ephemeral as rain. Maybe missing my son is just the best reason I can come up with for the sadness I feel today. And this too will pass. Like rain.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Happy Birthday, Nana

Today would have been my mother-in-law's 75th birthday. Here she is in one of my favorite images. This photograph captures the love and protection and 53-year-long romance between her and my father-in-law. She was a strong, prayerful, vigorous and determined soul to the end; she never quit, never let life's punches sit her down, never stopped fighting for those she drew under the umbrella of her care. But I am most taken by the gentleness in her eyes in this picture and the steadiness and contentment in his. You can still see the girl and the boy who fell deeply in love.

My husband and his siblings have been blessed to call this generous and loving woman mother and my children to call her Nana. I miss her so much.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

October Boys

We recently found these photos of my son and my husband, taken by a photographer friend who may not want to be named given how poorly these negatives were stored. (Sorry O!) Our boy was about eight months old when he and his dad participated in a shoot for a father's day photo essay in a local paper. Even though the color is faded and speckled, you can still see the loving interaction in these frames. I call the pictures "October boys" because both my men (and my dad, actually; and come to think of it, our photographer friend, too) were born in October.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I Hate Laundry

I hate laundry out of all proportion to the fact of it. All it is, is sorting dirty clothes, putting them in the washer, then the dryer, taking them out, folding them, putting them away. And since this is New York City and we live in an apartment building, it also means several trips up and down in the elevator to and from the laundry room. Simple enough. And yet, I feel a mountain of pent-up resentment when I'm doing laundry. Actually, what I'm really feeling is pent-up anxiety, which I interpret as resentment at the task, because, really, why should one feel anxious about doing laundry? It's not logical. I think it is actually dangerous to my family relationships. I used to hire someone to do it, but recently stopped that to save money. But you know, this might be money that is in the same category as seeing a shrink when you're seriously unbalanced. Laundry seriously unbalances me. As I said, it's not logical. It's not that my family doesn't help. They just don't do it on my schedule. They don't fold and put it away right away. It sits out on chairs and beds for awhile, challenging my sense or order, my sanity, even when neatly folded. On the other hand, if I hire someone to do it, they come in, wash, fold, iron and put away all within a few hours, and I don't have to follow up for days after to make sure everything is completed. I think my usually managed OCD is busting out of the closet on this one.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Eighteen years ago today at 7.01 p.m. my son was born and our lives were deepened by loving him.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Afasari, Gone

Afasari lived two buildings away from ours. He used to play in the courtyard with my son and the other children in our complex. He was older than my son by 3 years, but my son was tall and Afasari was a scrawny kid, so it never really dawned that they were different ages. He was a wild child, the one always careening around the courtyard on a borrowed bike or scooter, doing wheelies and other stunts, never wearing a helmet. He was East Indian, with burnished amber skin and an unruly thatch of shiny black hair. He had two sisters who never seemed to come outside. But Afasari was always in the courtyard, sitting alone on the benches or bouncing his basketball on the asphalt. He drew the other kids out of their homes because there was always someone out there with whom to get the party started.

My most vivid memory of Afasari is not one that makes me happy to recall. My son's friend Eugene was visiting us on a playdate. He and my son were 9. Afasari was 12. The three of them were downstairs in the courtyard playing, and Afasari was being very mean to Eugene, denying him the ball, calling him names, trying to exclude him. I think he resented him as an outsider. Finally, my son had had enough of it and suggested he and Eugene go upstairs to our apartment. When they came in, I looked at the boys crestfallen expressions and asked what was wrong. They told me Afasari had been making fun of Eugene. I marched the two boys back downstairs to the courtyard, where Afasari was still bouncing the basketball. He was alone now. I went over to Afasari and told him he needed to apologize to Eugene. Stunned and chastened, he did. He was really all bravado and fake toughness and not at all beyond deferring to a mother figure. The three boys decided to resume their game.

Then, the summer he was 13, Afasari announced that he was going away. His said his mom was sending him to live with his aunt in New Jersey. His mom was a single mother who worked long hours, and she didn't like that he was alone so much. He wasn't happy about moving, but what could he do, he shrugged. That was the last I heard of him. Until this weekend.

In fact, Afasari had moved back home in his late teens. I never ran into him in the neighborhood, so I didn't know. Maybe I wouldn't have recognized him. He had grown extremely tall and was very thin, with a mustache. I probably would not have realized it was him.

Sadly, on Sunday afternoon at about 3:30 pm, right as my mom and I were getting money from the bank ATM around the corner, just after we put our son on the bus back to college, Afasari climbed to the roof of one of the 21-storey buildings in our complex and jumped.

Many people saw. My friend who lives in the building he jumped from, was in the laundry room and heard a loud thud. Loud enough to make her run outside. There she found one of her neighbors, a tiny, elderly woman, shaking and screaming, "He just jumped! He just jumped!" My friend ran to her neighbor and put her arms around her, but was careful not to look where she was pointing. Already the security guards were running to Afasari, but it was too late.

Later, I heard that he had been battling depression for years. I felt so sad that I had never known that, and that I had never seen behind the scrappy wild child to the boy who must already have been hurting inside. I wondered if that day when he was being mean to Eugene he was really wrestling with his own bad feelings, and my towering over him and insisting he apologize was just one more moment when he felt dominated, buffeted by life. I wonder if there was another way I could have handled it, or if I should even have inserted myself at all.

I don't know that anything I did could have changed anything, but I'm so sorry that I never even knew to try.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Playing with Sevita

The president and his niece Sevita during the family's Martha's Vineyard vacation last summer. Babies and children love this man. Look at the trust and delight in little Sevita's pose. (Photographed by Pete Souza on August 25, 2009)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"In the city. Be home soon."

My son arrived at around eleven o'clock on Friday night to spend the weekend with us. He took the bus down from his college in upstate New York, along with two friends both of whom live in Brooklyn.

He and I had an argument of sorts before he arrived. Earlier, I'd called to find out what time his bus was getting in. My husband and I had a dinner engagement and I was trying to figure out how long I could stay as I wanted to be there when my son got home (you get all the best stories when your kid has just walked in the door). He sounded extremely harried the first time I called. "Mom, I can't talk now! Later." Click.

I took several deep breaths and waited till he was supposed to be on the bus and called again. He sounded just as tightly wound. "Mom, stop asking when we'll get there! We just got on the bus. We missed the first one. Go to dinner. I have a key!"

"Are you okay?"


"What's wrong?"

"I'll tell you when I get there."

Anyone who knows me knows my mind immediately raced to a million worst case scenarios, which of course meant I had to know what was wrong right then so I could start fixing it.

"Tell me what's wrong," I insisted. "You're on a bus, you're a captive audience, tell me now."

"Mom, stop. When I get there." Click.

I knew he wanted me to think the bus had entered some tunnel and we got cut off. But I also knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had hung up on me. For the second time. I was furious. I tapped out an text message with all the speed my fury imparted.

"That is the second time you hung up on me. That is just rude. Don't you flipping hang up on me again."

A moment later, my phone dinged. His message: "Not in the mood. Need to stop pushing to find out wats wrg. Don't relli feel like coming home anymore."

I was crushed.

And I felt manipulated, angry, rejected. We often seem to rub each other wrong, my son and I. We are so temperamentally similar yet so far apart sometimes. He is impatient with me, and maybe he feels that I am ... too smothering? too anxious? too insistent? ... with him. In that painful moment, when all I knew was that my son no longer wanted to come home, I was keenly aware of how very patient with me my other child is, how kind she manages to be to her mother. And how difficult it must be.

Tears stinging my eyes, I tried to compose a text that would not escalate the situation.

"I'll stop pushing. I was mad and hurt. We're all looking forward to seeing you. Sorry that you seem to be upset about something. Your family is here for you even if you don't feel like talking. See you later. Love."

I made myself not fill the hours of silence that followed with another text (the bus ride from his college takes five hours). I showed our exchange of text messages to my husband when he got home and he just shook his head ruefully, veteran that he is of many past dust-ups between his wife and son.

My husband and I made ourselves pretty and went out to dinner as planned. We had a lovely time. We were on the rooftop of one of our friends' apartments, dining by candlelight, the towns of New Jersey sparkling across the Hudson River and a clear night sky overhead. One friend's college freshman son had come home for Rosh HaShanah the weekend before, and she expressed how wonderful it was to see him, how well he was doing, how reassured she was, and I was truly thrilled for her but also quietly sad about the less than auspicious beginning of our own first visit home from our college freshman son.

The chilly night eventually drove us indoors, and we soon took our leave. Walking to Broadway with my husband to catch a cab home, I heard my phone beep, indicating messages were waiting. In the taxi, I checked them and there was this from my son:

"About 2 hours away. Sry about earlier. Just a bad day and wanted to sleep. Looking forward to coming home."

And later, this: "In the city. Be home soon."

I started not to reply, but then texted, "Can't wait, son."

By the time he walked through the door, we had both forgiven each other. I knew because he greeted me first, enveloping me in a long-armed hug and holding on for long enough to communicate his apology. I held him back, communicating mine.

Then he greeted his dad, who clasped his head and shoulders in a loving man hug. After that he hugged and twirled his sister in the air and hugged his cousin, the recent college grad who's been living with us for a month now. Then he noticed the new couches. "I like 'em," he said, "but how do they sleep?" At which point he dived onto the loveseat and curled up in his usual position, head on the chair's rolled arm, knees sharply bent, and pronounced, "Really comfortable!"

He regaled us all with stories as we all gazed at him with our various expressions of adoration. My daughter sat cross-legged on the kitchen counter and just looked at him. My husband joked that he was happy to have a little company in the testosterone department, he'd been living in a "chicktopia." I reminded him how close that word was to "utopia" and we all laughed. I noted that my boy had, in six short weeks, turned into a man. A little thicker and more defined in the arms, broader in the shoulders, about an inch taller, almost level with his dad at six-foot-two. His jaw seemed more chiseled, the hair on his chin no longer just a scraggly shadow but a real clipped, neat little beard. And he seemed happy, confident and in charge of himself. A man.

As for the reason he'd been so cranky on the bus: He and his friends had missed their ride (he was racing to catch it when he hung up on me the first time) and had to walk to the bus terminal, and as a result missed the first bus and had to take the later one, then he'd been caged in behind a woman who insisted on reclining her seat practically into his lap, and she kept pushing it back, refusing to accept that his knees weren't going anywhere. He had been rushed and frustrated and fighting to keep his cool, and then I called and started pressing him. Nothing more than that. Certainly not the dire scenarios that had immediately leaped into my head, which I won't go into here, so ridiculous they were.

After we all visited for a while, some of us trooped across the courtyard to my mom's apartment building so my son could say goodnight to his grandma, who'd been waiting up for him. Then at midnight, he went out to meet up with two friends, and I went to sleep. I slept through the night, too. I didn't wake once to wonder if my boy was safe out there in the city, which stunned my husband. (I'm growing up.) And in the morning, I padded out to the kitchen to make my coffee, and there he was curled on the couch, a blanket over him, asleep in the spot he has been for so many nights over the past few years, in that very same pose.

I rubbed his head and kissed his forehead and felt so much love for him fill my chest. But I didn't wake him. I let him sleep, content just to know he was home.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


My son is coming home for a visit from college this weekend. I'm so excited to see him I could practically levitate. But of course, I will contain myself. I will act merely casually happy so as not to suffocate him. A bunch of his friends at different colleges are coming into the city this weekend, too, so I'm sure this trip home is about them, not us. Nevertheless, we will find a moment to sing him happy birthday over cake and candles, as he will be 18 one week from this Sunday.

You know, when your kid goes off to college, you go into a kind of mourning. It almost like the phantom ache from a missing limb. You just hope and pray he makes smart choices, is kind to his friends, is purposeful about his studies and enjoys his life. But other than sending money, there's hardly anything more you can do.

My husband and I are also having dinner under the stars (as in, on the rooftop of our friends' apartment building) on Friday night with a bunch of friends. Our progeny are all in high school or college, pursuing their own lives with increasing degrees of independence, and we are feeling a loss of community. You can tell because when any one of us issues an invitation to get together, the rest of us happily accept.

I think we're all in transition, glimpsing the empty nest looming in our future and the need to reinvent our calendars. And we understand what this moment feels like for one another better than anyone.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leaps, Cartwheels and Dreams

Today, our new living room furniture was delivered, a sofabed, a loveseat and an armchair to replace the broken down, torn, cracked and faded leather furniture that had lived in our house for going on ten years. I confess the battered pieces embarassed me when my children and my nieces brought friends home, even though it was those same said children who had brought the furniture to its sad condition.

Picture my son leaping onto the sofa from one side, one foot landing on the arm for an even better launch and landing. Now multiply that by hundreds of leaps in the course of a boy growing to young manhood, add somersaults and cartwheels from my daughter, always finding a sure landing on that furniture.

And of course, there's the loveseat that has been my son's preferred place to sleep throughout his high school years.

Yesterday, three men from our church came and took the old furniture away. Before they arrived, I was awash in sudden sentimentality, despite my plotting to replace those pieces for years now. A Labor Day sale finally did the trick, that and the thought of my son or my niece possibly bringing new friends home from college for Thanksgiving. Not that my children have ever cared about that broken furniture. I feel so shallow sometimes that it bothered me so much. But now, the leather loveseat which holds the invisible imprint of my son's dreams is gone, and in its place is an expresso-colored microfibre number that I hope he'll find as comfortable.

So, nothing is ever simple for me. I love the shapes of these three new pieces, but now I am wondering if I should have got the olive color instead of the expresso. I was thinking, of course, that the expresso would not show dirt, but perhaps I am in denial about the fact that my children are no longer in a phase of life when that matters. They are practically grown. Should I have gone with my first instinct in color? Then again, that would have made my living room furniture the exact same color as my mother's. Nah, expresso it is.

Top photo: My daughter when she was 9, executing one of her perfect cartwheels onto the leather couch in better days.

Second photo: My daughter, two days ago. Old habits die hard!

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Child Looks Back at 9/11

My daughter had just started second grade on September 11, 2001. She was 7 years old. Five years later, in seventh grade, when she was 12, as part of a class autobiography project, she wrote a remarkable piece about her recollection of that day. To mark the eighth anniversary of the tragedy, I am copying that chapter here.

Remembering 9/11

My friends and I had the feeling that we were on top of the world. Partly because we thought we were so mature and partly because the weather was so perfect. It was our second day in the second grade. Perfect temperature, perfect sky: bright blue and not a cloud in sight. Everything was in a happy state. It stayed that way till the warm afternoon or maybe just before lunch, but either way, outside the window you could see the sun high in the sky, proud of all the light and warmth it was producing. We were reading a book during story time and either the lower school director or the student teacher at the time called Jay, our second grade teacher, to the doorway and whispered some piece of information with a look of dismay on her face. We were completely oblivious to the conversing teachers; we just saw it as a time to chat with one another until the class resumed.

Then Jay came back, with a thoughtful look on his face, only, this was a thoughtful expression that held some dread. One by one the class seemed to settle down, sensing something, worried about what had just happened. Jay spoke in slow motion, word by word: “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” A panicked look spread across some of the faces, those who knew what the World Trade Center was. I asked my friend Akene what had happened. He explained that the World Trade Center was the two Twin Towers. I felt destroyed. I had seen the Twin Towers in the distance my whole life. I had drawn pictures of them from the roof of Akene’s apartment two years before when Toni-Leigh, our kindergarten teacher, took us to visit the farmer’s market and we had lunch at his house nearby. It was practically impossible, those two secure structures had to remain in the sky forever, they were glued to the sky. Without them, the sky would be lonesome, even with hundreds of other skyscrapers. And besides all that, my dream had vanished. All I wanted was to be able to visit the towers, see what was actually inside, and experience the whole thing. Now they were up in smoke with a metal plane sticking out the side of it.

Jay had his hand on the top of his head pushing back his little spikes of hair and he seemed to be exploring the thoughts inside his head with alarm. He told us that parents would be picking us up or we would get home somehow, maybe by a teacher. Kids started disappearing as parents appeared. And then my dad came. I felt protected at that moment, like maybe we weren’t all going to die.

People scurried outside while hints of the beautiful day still slightly remained. I heard a deep silence in New York City. Rare, I think to this day, that all the noise, pollution of cars and people would disappear for a period of time. I would remember it though, all the way home, all the people walking in silence through the park, walking to Broadway, and making our way home. I had to keep reassuring myself that we weren’t all going to die; that a plane wasn’t going to attack all of New York. I remembered how before we left school, Jay had announced there was a second plane that hit the second tower, and that he felt our parents should explain everything to us. I didn’t want to break the tense silence between me and my dad on the way home. I couldn’t comprehend anything going on. I just knew it must have been serious if we had to leave school.

That night, I tucked under my mom’s arm with my knees pulled into my chest, making myself a ball while she watched the news and the horrible clip of my two dreams falling apart, dying. Finally, I asked what had been on my mind the whole day, “Mommy, are we going to die too?” My mom looked somewhat horrified. But she replied in a calm voice, “No, they have no interest in us. They were trying to get back at our government. They think our government did something wrong to them."

“Oh,” I replied, but what was really on my mind was, did the people in the towers do anything wrong to them? Did the people on the planes that crashed do anything wrong to them? I was afraid to go to sleep, and I heard planes overhead all night in the dark sky, which always made me jump. I wanted to cry for the people who died. But I didn’t because I thought I needed to be strong.

A few years later, my mom showed me some of my old work she had found in a drawer in my room. It was from the pre-K or maybe it was from kindergarten. It was a story I had dictated about a picture I had drawn. I remembered it vaguely. It was about something bad that made the Twin Towers start to fall over, but the big wind came and blew it back into place. I had drawn this picture and told this story before anyone had any idea that the Twin Towers might be in danger.

Now that more years have passed, people often share their stories and experience of that day. We all remember that perfect blue morning, turned to disaster.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Seven Million Wonders

"There are no seven wonders in the eyes of a child. There are seven million." --Walt Streightiff

My daughter takes portaits of herself, as if she's trying to fathom who she is, how she appears to the world. "Your daughter is strange," she noted on seeing this picture. Strange and wonderful.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Subway Day, Coney Island Night

Sometimes, all it takes to get in the flow of your life is to say yes to an invitation.

On Friday, we closed early at work for the Labor Day weekend. It was the last weekend of freedom for my daughter and her friends, all of whom start school next Wednesday. She wanted to go to the beach. She and two friends and their mothers are creating a tradition of going to the beach on the last weekend of summer. I say creating because last year was the first time they did it, but they had so much fun they promised one another to do it every year. I love these kids, who have been my daughter's friends since they were all 5 years old, and I love their mothers, who have become dear friends of mine over the years. But I wasn't able to go on their beach outing last year; work intervened. So when my daughter begged me to join them this year, I decided nothing would stop me.

Problem was, I had to finish editing a story with a writer who is particularly painstaking and this was our last round before the story shipped. This woman is actually my favorite writer to work with. I love her work ethic and microscopic attention to content, her insistence on testing and testing and testing the voice and development and internal integrity of a piece. It matches my own preferred way of working as an editor, which is really old school in the current fast paced environment of publishing, but this writer and I have preserved a corner in which we can still work in this way. And you know what? Our stories always win awards. Every single year, we collect an small armful of plaques for the stories we worked on together.

Since we both believe this story we're working on will be another award winner, I didn't want to give it short shrift. Plus it's a heartwrenching subject (can't say what here; it would be tanatamount to giving away state secrets). Suffice it to say, I was experiencing one of those moments when you're determined to do everything fully, and maybe there aren't enough minutes in the hours to make it work. But I managed to finish up and dart out at 4:30 to meet the crew on the R-train platform. We were headed to Coney Island.

I hadn't even told my husband I was going. I texted him from the subway: "On the train to Coney Island with ______." He texted back: "You're on the train??? How did that happen?!" My dislike of the subway is famous. I am known for traveling the city in yellow cabs instead. For me it's moments of meditation (inside a taxi all my own) versus moments of claustrophia and hectic-ness (inside a crowded subway car). I wrote: "My daughter asked and the company is great." He sent back: "Our daughter is really working this only child angle!"--a reference to our son being away at college and our girl having us all to herself. He added: "Have fun."

The others were laden with bathing suits and blankets and towels and snacks. All I had was my two empty hands. It didn't matter. I bought everyone bottled water on the boardwalk, and we set up on the sand near the water. Lounging on blankets, the three 15-year-olds, two girls and a boy, munched on corn on the cob and peanut butter sandwiches and fruit and boiled eggs, while their mothers settled back to catch up on our week. The conversation was easy and meandering. While the teenagers were in the water, we shared stories of crazy things we'd done in our youth, changing the subject when our children arrived back and flopped down next to us, picking it up again when they left to stroll the boardwalk.

At one point, another text came in on my phone. It was from the writer I'd worked with earlier. She wrote: "That was a great edit today." Somehow, that added to the moment I was having. It was just beautiful on the sand as the dusk came down. The air was cool and salty. In the near distance, the lights from the huge Coney Island ferris wheel were a glittering circle, and the neon from the other rides dotted the night. The moon rose full over the water, and on beach and boardwalk and pier, every type of humanity was illuminated by it.

On towards eight-thirty, the kids came back from their adventure on the boardwalk, brimming with stories of odd characters and sponteous events that had transpired there. The fell against us, each child leaning againt his or her mother, comfortable and dozing in and out of the chatter. We mothers smiled at one another as we stroked their heads, each of us aware that this breezy evening under the moon, the waves breaking hypnotically against the sand, the carnival music and lights in the distance, was special.

We tried to wait for the fireworks, which happen every Friday night in summer. By nine, the beach was crowded with locals and tourists encamped for the display. But it was delayed because of the minor league baseball game at the stadium way down the beach. Finally, near ten, we gathered up our blankets and towels and bags and headed back to the subway. Waiting on the elevated platform for the train back to the city, we suddenly saw the sky explode with blooms of color and light. The fireworks had begun, and from where we stood on the N-train platform, we had a thrilling wide-angle view. It seemed even better watching from the subway platform with other straphangers; it was more authentically New York somehow.

Afterwards, we took the train back to Manhattan, arriving home near midnight. My daughter and I jumped onto the bed, waking my husband, who had been asleep. We regaled him with stories and he teased me again about actually getting on the subway. Soon, my girl went off to check her Facebook and I drifted off to sleep. It was, all in all, a really good day.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I can't sort out what I'm feeling these days, but here's what's salient. 1) My son is a freshman in college. He doesn't call. I guess that means he's adjusting fine. 2) My niece, the recent college graduate, moved in with us till she can find an apartment. She got a great job at a great salary and is thrilled to finally be living in New York. 3) My mom is here, in her treehouse apartment across the way (I call it that because the tree tops brush her window in a lush display). I try to see her every day, as she's emotionally steadier when I do. But sometimes, that means turning the hours inside out to create the time. 4) My daughter is spending a lot of time with her different circles of friends. Lots of different influences there. I need to stay connected. 5) Money is more tight than it has ever been, and I am not appropriately stressed about this. 6) My being in the office 5 days a week has me losing touch with friends, and with the necessary errands of my life. I mourn for the years when I worked two days from home. How do people do their lives working till eight or nine or even later every evening? Not possible. 7) Mostly, I miss my son. And I'm brooding on the fact that I will never again have a full view of his life. Just as my parents didn't know the half, or even the quarter, of what my life was like after I left home for college. 8) Lots of feelings, all of them streaming together. Confused.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Story of Us

No time to write much today, work and my inner life are particularly intense, but I wanted to note that my husband and I celebrated 23 years of marriage on Sunday last. We watched our grainy wedding video and marveled at how cute we both used to be, and didn't even know it. Oh my, he was handsome and swoon-worthy. And I still see that guy when I look at him now. Curiously, watching that video has fueled a deeper intimacy between us this week. I think it reminded us, in the midst of all the stress and wall to wall demands of children and elders and work, of what it felt like to be chosen. As self-indulgent and corny as that sounds, going off into the daydream of us falling in love has been the bright spot of my crazy, anxious, too-many-things-to-get-done-all-at-once week.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Beauties in the Pool

My mom (blue suit with white straps and red stripe, hair pulled back) and my aunt went swimming in my cousin's pool on a hot day in Jamaica. My brother e-mailed these snapshots to me this afternoon. My mom, by the way, is 87 years old and her baby sister, the one sporting those fly shades, is 84. These lovely ladies know how to seize the day!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Mom, did you cry?"

Just got back from driving our son five hours upstate to college this weekend. As we walked through the door, my daughter asked, "Mom, did you cry?" No I didn't cry. But my husband had to put his hands on my shoulders and sternly push me out of there. It was hard to leave. Now I have to just let my boy be. No whiny, needy text messages. No unsolicited advice. Let him call us. Whenever that might be.

Maybe I'll write more about the big college move-in later. I'm still processing it all. For now, I'll just say, when my son was little, he had a book called The Giving Tree. His best friend's mother, a gentle Japanese woman, gave it to him as a fifth birthday gift. Back then, I used to silently resist the story when I read it to my son. It was about a boy who took and took from the tree, wood and branches and bark throughout his life--for pretend play when he was a boy, for a boat as an adventurous young man, to build a house when he started a family, and finally when the boy was very old and frail, and he had taken all he could from the tree, the tree offered him a stump to sit on and rest his aching bones. And always the tree gave of itself selflessly, grateful simply to be able to offer something to the boy. Even though I got the painful beauty of the story, I used to think, How selfish this boy is. Why is he taking so much from the tree? Why isn't he giving anything in return?

This weekend, I finally understood that story as the perfect metaphor for parenthood. It is not about the boy at all. It is about loving someone so deeply that there is nothing of yourself you would not give to see them thrive, to see them happy, to see them comforted.

Now, belatedly, I am crying.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hearts Open as the Sky

My girl (that's the top of her head, second from right, with her fingers in a V) hiked the Appalachian Trail with some of her fellow campers during the first week of August, then went white water rafting at the end of it. She was stoked! "I want to do that all the time when I grow up!" she told me, her words rushing against each other in that punctuated teenage way.

In short, her hike trip was magical, despite freezing nighttime temperatures and drenching rain. But even the elements couldn't douse the excitement of spending day after day with her friends under the open sky, collecting new experiences around each corner, bonding afresh on arrival at each mossy rock, thickly wooded path or pine covered hill. And she and a boy she liked talked their hearts out until way into the nights, huddled in their sleeping bags under a wide blue tarp. Does it get any better when you're 15?

On a high mountain in Maine, six of my daughter's hiking crew made this photographic homage to the week. Their hands spell out "PV Love." The initials stand for Pioneer Village, the name of their camp's home base by a lake in the woods. The love, of course, needs no explanation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What It Feels Like to be Her

I am trying to understand my cousin Pearl (not her real name). I am trying to have compassion for what it feels like to be her, which is hard when she gets drunk and causes volcanic disruptions with her 90-year-old mother's home attendants and calls everyone horrible names. I am trying to make myself remember that Pearl isn't well: For the first 15 years of her life, doctors had her on a regimen of Phenobarbitol to treat her epilespy. Then they took her off it abruptly, after studies showed that it should never ever have been given to children. Pearl's drug and alcohol use began the very same year.

I remember when Pearl was just a small girl. She used to arrive with her parents from New York to visit the family in Jamaica. I can still see my aunt with her frizzy orange afro and lime-green eyes, pulling small Pearl into her side, and my uncle, upright and stylish in his tweed jacket and hat set at a slightly rakish angle, which belied the generous but often bewildered soul he was. Pearl was the American cousin, a few years younger than I was. She and her parents would fly in each summer for a month or more, staying a week at a time in different relatives’ homes.

The way I recall it, Pearl was a disagreeable child, her face screwed into a perpetual frown, lips always pouting, her shoulders folded forward, her posture unwelcoming, closed. And yet Pearl was strikingly beautiful. Her eyes, like shiny black seeds, darted about; her full lips, through tremulous, were poetically shaped; her polished, coffee-brown limbs seemed to flail and jerk when she tried to run, and to push themselves forward with super-conscious effort when she merely wanted to walk. The effect was both unsettling and mesmerizing. Watching Pearl, I often found that I stared too intently, unable to pull my eyes away at the polite moment.

A short, neatly-cropped afro accentuated Pearl’s perfectly-shaped head. Her tightly-curled hair never seemed to need grooming or shaping. I was in awe of Pearl’s hair, envying its gleaming sunup-to-sundown perfection. My own fledgling afro was the most ordinary of browns, and it was a wayward mess, kinky on the top, fuzzy on the sides, curly at the nape, so that I was forced to fluff it several times each hour, tucking in this lock, pulling out that one, struggling for uniformity.

Of course, Pearl never would have imagined that anyone could have admired anything about her. She never could see her own beauty, because when she paused before mirrors, a sort of funhouse reflection jumped back at her, rippling with ill-contained energy so that her very image in the mirror seemed to quiver, leaving Pearl unable to recognize anything but her jitteriness.

In truth, that quavering feeling lay at the core of her, surfacing in the impatient, bossy manner in which she interacted with other children, and in her abrupt way of speaking that left many of her elders to dismiss her as simply rude. To make matters worse, Pearl had a stutter, which might have accounted for her rough tone. Only her mother seemed to understand that Pearl could do no more than force the sounds out before they stuck like peanut butter to her tongue, caught in a endless repetition of syllables.

Pearl always wore small earrings in both lobes, and until she was ten and her body started to bud, she wore mainly dresses so that no one would mistake her for a boy. Nothing shamed her more than being mistaken for a boy. As painful as she found being the chocolate brown, kinky-headed child in a family of many light-skinned, curly-haired cousins (she confessed this to me years later), being mistaken for a boy was much worse. Though she couldn’t have articulated it then, being seen as a boy meant that who she felt herself to be inside, the delicate, aching, girl-child reaching through the haze that seemed always to surround her, had no chance at all of being seen.

I think it must always have been so hard to be Pearl. I am trying to remember.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Nature Girls

Two weekends ago, we spent the day in the woods with our son and daughter during their camp's visiting day. Soon after we arrived, I was in my daughter's tent (see photo above), watching her to sort her rather mud-caked laundry so that she could run it down a rocky wooded hillside to the unit director before we left the camp to resupply at Walmart and have lunch in the nearest town.

Outside, I heard one of the girls in her unit sing out, "Hey, a snake!" She was standing a few feet from my daughter's tent, next to a stand of trees roughly equidistant from several other girls' tents. In the next moment, five or six girls, including my daughter jumped from the raised wooden platforms of their tents and raced over to see the snake, which was burrowing into a hole that had previously been disguised by fallen leaves. They oohed and ahhhed and one of them even picked up the poor thing, so that it curled around her fist and forearm as the others yelled at her to let it go, and not a single one of them was afraid.

They didn't seem the slightest bit worried about a snake mere feet away from where they rested their heads at night. It was all just another day in the woods for them.

My husband explained to me that the snakes in this region are not poisonous, so the girls had nothing to fear. They obviously knew that already. Still, I was thoroughly impressed by them.