Friday, July 31, 2009

College Prep

So my son won't be home from his camp counselor job till just one week before leaving for college, so we're doing the back-and-forth email thing, where I send him suggestions for dorm-room bedding and he sends us suggestions for his new laptop. It's working out just fine, except the bedding he's chosen is black and gray. All I can think is, won't it depress him when the skies turn cloudy outside, and the relentless snow that his college town is known for, comes whispering down?

I want him to choose some brightly colored comfortor, like Caribbean blue, and sheets that contrast cheerfully, like lime green. When I suggest this my husband shakes his head woefully and my son, over the phone, says, "Mom, you're trying to ruin my college social life before it's even begun."

Fortunately for my son, the black-and-gray pinstrip comforter set at Bed, Bath & Beyond is too good a deal to pass up. In addition to the comforter, it includes a blanket throw, fitted and flat sheets, pillowcase, sham, a pillow, a laundry hamper, and two towels. No washcloths, but there's also a dry erase board and markers.

I went ahead and ordered it. I let myself be sold by the way the dry erase board seems so comfortably tucked against the pillow in the photograph. Maybe I'll find a bright cushion or accent to put on the bed, something that won't be viewed as insufficiently masculine. Honestly, I don't really get why the male of the species feels bound to limit himself to such dour colors.

I also found the perfect floor mat to go beside the bed. If I recall correctly, the dorm room floors are cool vinyl tiles. I'd want something warm to put my feet on in the morning. The mat matches the gray and black of the bedding ensemble, but it has two thin stripes of red, which I thought lifted the whole look somewhat. When I mentioned this to my husband just now, he gave a laugh that was halfway between a dubious snort and a guffaw.

"Why the laugh?" I protested. "You think a matching floor mat will be embarrassing?"

"Not if the other boys' mothers send them similarly decked out," he quipped.

Then I remembered that when my husband arrived at college for his freshman year, all he brought for his bed was a single fitted sheet with a Star Wars motif, which he dug out of his closet at home. And this is who I'm relying on as dorm decor consultant! Oh well, I might as well enjoy the little touches now, before my son comes home and nixes them.

This is actually a lot of fun.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Tape of the World

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” —W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

"I do not know a single Black man in this country, from any walk of life, who does not think that the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates in his home by a White police officer was not about race."Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist for The Washington Post


Two weeks ago Black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his home by White police officer Jim Crowley (the irony of that name is almost too much to contemplate). The professor was arrested after showing identification proving that he was indeed in his own home and was not a burgler. Gates had returned from a trip to find his front door jammed. He asked his cab driver to help him force it open. A woman passing by called the cops to say, she wasn't sure, but there might be a burglary in progress. The woman never mentioned race.

Officer Crowley showed up to find Professor Gates already in his home. He asked for identification, which the professor produced, proving he was indeed the occupant of that house. Crowley then proceeded to treat Gates as a suspect: Hand on holster, he asked the professor to step outside. Gates, a veteran like the rest of us of too many tales of Black men wrongly shot by cops, refused. Some reports say the professor grew irate, but in fact, the tape of the incident released by police reveals no such thing. He merely protested being accosted and bossed in his own home. But at that moment, despite all his accomplishments, he became just an uppity Negro who offended a White cop by not showing proper deference. Out came the handcuffs.

If you are Black in America, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Gates's arrest was about nothing more than affronted racial egos. On both sides.

The charges were ultimately dropped, and the Cambridge police apologized to the professor, evidence of their assessment that Gates was wrongly detained. Then President Obama, in a rare instance of less-than-careful (albeit truthful) speech, called the arrest "stupid." And the media frenzy began. On Fox News, Glen Beck declared that the President was racist. On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough reflected that what happened to Gates would never have happened to a White professor proven to be in his own home. Cops in Cambridge groused that the President was hostile to law enforcement. And on and on.

Today the President, the professor and the police officer will sit down for beers in the White House garden to try to work out a peace. I have no doubt they will achieve some sort of resolution, that they will each leave there with a better understanding of how this happened, and of one another. As for the rest of America, I'm not so sure.

The whole unfortunate saga brings three things to mind for me.

1) When my son was younger, I taught him that if he ever got lost, he should not seek out a male cop. Instead, he should find an older woman who seemed like a sympathetic aunt or grandmother and ask for her help. My reasoning was an older woman would be more likely to stay with him until he was well and truly safe. A male cop, on the other hand, was a crapshoot. He might be a good sort, or he might be subject to conscious or unconscious stereotypes and see nothing in my son but a present or future criminal.

2) My son runs track. He is a hurdler and a 200-meter and 400-meter sprinter. I have always encouraged him to train on the fields at his school rather than in the public park near us, because I secretly worry that when cops see any Black male running, all they see is a suspect.

3) Many people asked Michelle Obama in the weeks leading up to her husband's declaring himself a candidate for president, whether she wasn't terrified that he would be shot. Indeed, the night Obama won the Iowa Caucus, my own mother was anything but happy. "They're going to shoot him," she said worriedly. "I don't want him to run. I don't want him to win." "Mom, that's just fear talking," I told her. "We can't sit still and let our fears run rampant. We'll never take a step forward." (Bold words coming from noisy-brained me!) Michelle Obama apparently agreed. Her answer to those unsettling questions? "As a Black man, Barack could be shot just going to the store," she said. "So no, we don't give in to those fears."

Post-racial America? Not yet.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Girls Hanging Out

My daughter (left) with two of her closest friends since they were four. I love how this slice of girlworld captures both their quirkiness and their comfort. Both are on rich display on any given day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dreaming of Home

I am at work on a Tuesday night, waiting for final page proofs to come through so I can sign off on them. I am in denial about how long this will take, so I am forgoing a trip downstairs with the rest of the crew to buy dinner. I am holding fast to the idea that I will soon be home with my husband, who may or may not be cooking a delicious meal, but who is certainly waiting with big warm arms and a chest I can lay my head on.

I am also really missing my kids right now. They will be at camp for two weeks more, so here is a picture of them from their goofy period (which has not yet ended).

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Love Story

I think one of the ways in which my husband is grieving his mother is by scanning and preserving all the old photographs he can find of her and his dad. I love these pictures.

His mom is so elegant and yet so innocent-looking. 

His dad is so handsome and dashing.

Their love is so evident.

This last picture is of my husband as a toddler. He loved when his dad held him upside down over the side of their gallery. This is one of his all-time favorite pictures. Turn it upside down, he says, and you see the big happy smile on his face. He sees this photo as the image of pure, unadulterated trust, a metaphor for his childhood.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Into the Woods

My children have been at sleepaway camp for the past three weeks, my daughter as a camper, my son as a counselor. This is the same camp my son has attended for the past six years, and worked at as a counselor assistant last summer. But it is my daughter's first time there, and she is having to overcome the stamp of being somebody's little sister. Or maybe it's an advantage, I don't know. They seem to love my son at that camp. Most of the counselors and the kids all know him from his years there, and he seems to have conducted himself well enough. 

When we drove our girl up to camp, he came along for the ride to see to his old friends. Once there, the camp deputy director and counselors actually cajoled/teased/pleaded with him to come back and work this year. They were understaffed for the first session, and since my son hadn't yet found a summer job in the city, he said yes. (So much for his plans to party in the city his last summer before college.)

They day we drove up, all the girls came running out to meet my daughter (she was late to camp because of her Nana's funeral), or more likely (we suspected) to greet her brother. I had told my son that he needed to be nice to his sister, because all the little 14 and 15 years old girls would queue off how he treated her. I think he got what I was saying. He's seen enough girl wars to understand.

The campers sleep in platform tents in the woods, beside a beautiful lake in which they swim, canoe, kayak, raft, and dive from big blue and yellow water trampolines. They also jump off rock cliffs into the water (that's the lake pictured above). The teen campers, who are together on one side of the lake, cook their own meals over open firepits in the woods. This week, my daughter and several other campers and counselors are on a 6-day bike ride through five northeastern states, cycling all day and sleeping in churches at night. My son did this same trip at my daughter's age, and now, as then, I wake up every morning with a prayer in my throat, asking God to keep those children safe. I am thrilled that my children's teen years can include such an expedition, but my heart seizes all the same. The trick is to keep my fears to myself and let them out into the world to enjoy their lives.

My daughter comes home from camp in two-and-a-half more weeks, after spending six weeks there. My son will be also there until the end of the first session. Since they made him a counselor instead of a counselor assistant, he is getting paid rather well, which will come in handy in the fall. He will come back home for one single week before we have to drive him upstate to college. He is so out in the world now. I hope he is well and truly raised, because our shift is just about over. It's on him to make his life work now. From here on, we're mainly consultants, ready and willing if he turns to us, but no longer directing the show.

God, it was fast.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

$3.49 Part Two

Earlier this year my 90-year-old aunt (above with my niece and my daughter) received a notice saying that she was making $3.49 a year too much to qualify for home care services. This excess, by the way, was the result of a cost of living increase to her social security, which is mandated by law.

For upwards of $1,000, we engaged a lawyer to defend her case at a fair hearing with the state, at which it was decided that the state would just bill my aunt for the $3.49 and she could maintain services (which she desperately cannot do without). Now the state is asking for another hearing in her home, which is apparently the law when a person is homebound and the decision in the case is not "fully favorable" (as in, they're going to make her pay the $3.49 a year).

The eldercare lawyer advises me to write a letter saying that she will simply pay as directed, rather than have him prepare for another hearing on her behalf, at $400 an hour. He says he suspects the home care agency will not even bother to bill her. I did not say, because I was too tired right then to entertain it, that this is going to come up again next spring, when the next social security increase kicks in.

I find I am dragging my feet in writing the letter. I realize I am so incensed at the lunacy of the state, at the lack of common sense, that I'm having a passive aggressive response. I wish the lawyer would just write the letter for me but that would be another $400. The state sure keeps eldercare attorneys doing a thriving business!

In related news, my son seems to be moving towards a future in some area of health care. He went to his college orientation last week and selected his classes. He's carrying a fairly heavy load for his first semester, which makes me worry since he has to maintain a B+ average. But he says he's totally stoked about his courses, two in particular: Anatomy and Physiology and Emergency Care for the Health Professional. The latter teaches hands on, in-the-field emergency techniques like splinting, etc. My husband said, when he heard his program, "Does he realize he's heading more and more in the direction of medicine?" Shhhh.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Beautiful Boy

"The King of Pop is dead at 50." That was the text message that came through from my niece the night Michael Jackson died. My husband and I were on the airport road in Antigua, shuttling relatives from overseas who had flown in for my mother-in-law's funeral the next morning.

Michael Jackson died on a day when we were already grieving, so shocked as we were, we didn't really take it all the way in. But watching as his memorial service was broadcast today, I was reminded of when Michael was just a beautiful boy singing innocent songs that made us jump up and dance and sing happily along.

I was reminded of his astonishing performance at the Motown 25th anniversary concert, which I watched alone in a hotel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and found tears of my cheeks when he glided across the stage in that otherworldly moonwalk.

I was reminded that no matter his troubles, this lonely manchild, so tortured within, was somebody's son, brother, father, friend. I was reminded of his musical greatness and of the Michael we first knew who was so much easier to love. That Michael gave me a soundtrack for every new turn of my life. But his genius came at such a steep price. 

Rest in peace, brother Michael. Now you are free.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Saying Goodbye

We are just back from Antigua, where we buried my husband's Mom on Friday, June 26, 2009. My husband did the flowers for the church, drawing on what he had learned from his mom, whom he accompanied to flower arranging classes back when he was a teenager. He only went because he was interested in a girl in the class. He ended up learning a lot about flowers, and the night before his mother's funeral, in honor of her, he created two large anthurium pedestal arrangements for the front of the church. They were majestic.

Dad, aka Grandpa Shadow, was present for the entire proceeding, several hours from the viewing to the service to the burial, despite his having suffered a debilitating stroke two decades ago. He is paralyzed on on side, one hand curled against his body, and he walks with a cane, dragging the lame leg along. And yet he climbed all the stairs to the Cathedral, and then walked with the rest of us down a long winding, gravelly path to the gravesite, and stood stoically as Mom was lowered to her final rest. He sobbed only once, earlier in the church when he opened the program and saw staring back at him a photograph of himself and Mom, their heads resting against one another after their 50th anniversary celebration last year.

For the service, the Cathedral was filled with mourners. Even the Prime Minister of Antigua was there. My son, daughter and I walked in with Dad and took our seats early. My son, named after his father and his grandfather, was at his namesake's side the whole time, making sure his grandfather didn't fall, catching him when he stumbled. I was so proud of him and his sister, their gentleness with their Grandpa, the constancy of their attention.

My husband and his brother and sister, and all Mom's sisters and brothers, walked in behind the flower-draped coffin. My husband introduced the tributes, his eyes swimming with tears but his voice never breaking. But when he went up to read the lesson, in that moment he couldn't see the words on the page. As he turned the gilt-edged Bible pages, searching for the Book of Lamentations, his brother went up to help him. And yet his voice as he read the lesson remained steady.

My eldest niece, a recent college grad, read a letter to her grandmother, whom she called her "Queen in Shining Armor." She cried as she read, her mother at her side, and it was beautiful. My husband's brother read a tribute called "Our Mother's Greatest Gift to Us," which he said was her faith. It was a lovely piece of writing, but the most wrenching moment was at the end, when he revealed the great gift after considering all her other gifts, and his voice caught, and the tears overflowed. 

Sunday morning was the reading of the will, everyone gathered in the living room, the breeze blowing in off the gallery, soothing us. Everyone mentioned in the will was present, including Mom's five grandchildren. My husband, as executor, read the single typed page, then we all left him and his two sibling to discuss how her wishes would be carried out and how their father would be cared for. My sister-in-law said later that their mother "didn't put a single word wrong," that everything she wrote in her will was "right and perfect."

The rest of the day, we all pitched in to help my sister-in-law and her three girls move from one house to another. The first was the house my nieces mostly grew up in, so this was an ending of another sort. The second house is smaller and in a more remote part of the island, a brand new construction with a pool set into a wooden deck at the front.

The new house had quirks. The central air wouldn't get cool. The electrical wiring was counter intuitive. You couldn't, for example, turn on the lights in two of the bedrooms unless the nearest bathroom light was on. There were no mosquito screens on the windows. And yet, the setting was peaceful and lovely. 

There was a pond across the way, and the twilight sank into it with an array of golds and pinks. We stood out on the deck talking until the night turned black and a million tiny stars studded the sky. All of us, adults and teenagers (no children anymore), were just happy to be with one another, even to mark such a loss. Mom gathered her loved ones together this week. And she strengthened us.

The Hardest Thing

Almost the hardest moment after hearing Mom had died was calling our children to tell them. Our son and daughter were in St. Lucia, visiting with their other grandmother. My daughter answered the phone and my husband told her the news. She whispered in disbelief, "Nana died?" then handed the phone to her brother. My son made an awful strangled sound, and sank to the floor, crying. My mom reached down and held him, weeping herself. We heard all this through the phone. 

After awhile, I asked my mom where my daughter was as I couldn't pick out any sound from her. "She went out of the room," she answered. "Mom, you need to find her," I said. I knew my girl would be curled up somewhere alone, that she wouldn't reach out to anyone. Sure enough, my mom found her locked in the bathroom, on the floor, the tears washing down her face. 

After we hung up the phone, my husband and I sat silently for a long time, both of us aching from not being able to put our arms around our children and comfort them as we all absorbed the fact that we wouldn't be seeing Nana anymore. It didn't seem possible that she could be gone. We thought we'd have so much more time.