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.