Thursday, September 30, 2010

Belles of the Ball

The gracious Willow has kindly invited yours truly to her Third Annual Willow Manor Ball. I am a newbie to this cyber event, but how could I miss such an elegant gathering or decline such a generous and extravagantly gifted host? But what shall I wear? Perhaps I'll pull out that tulle and satin number that's been languishing in the back of my closet, for lack of a suitable occasion.

My escort for the evening is my incomparable husband, who does not yet know that he will soon be whirling me around the dance floor, the two of us as light on our feet as whispers. Speaking of whispers, I will murmur to him of how very much I love him after all these years, almost a quarter century, and though we like to joke that the proverbial bloom is long off the rose, life with him truly sparkles, like his eyes when a wry bit of humor lies in their depths, waiting to spring from his lips and lighten the mood. Oh yes, he knows how to lighten my mood.

That's my favorite photo of him from the year we got married. He still doesn't quite grasp how swoon-worthy he is, but I don't mind. And doesn't he look all dapper in his dark suit and the cufflinks my father gave him, as we walk into Willow's sumptuously decorated manor. There are yellow roses everywhere and candlelight dancing on the walls and oh, the desserts! Oh Willow, you've outdone yourself!

As we enter, we notice Barack and Michelle on the other side of the room sharing a swoon-worthy moment of their own. We always wonder, my husband and I, what the President might be whispering to his wife when the mischief is in his eyes. We think it may well be something quite witty and quite naughty, and it delights us to think that the leader of the free world has a rather delightfully loving and witty and naughty marriage, because well, he needs those moments of escape and affirmation, what with everything coming at him all the time. 

And look! Over there. It's Gerald Butler, looking much as he did when he played the lead in Phantom of the Opera and that lovely gem of a movie, Dear Frankie. Now my husband is teasing me, because he knows that I have a schoolgirl crush on Gerard Butler. I noticed him long before he crossed over into blockbusterdom with the testosterone-infused Spartan epic 300. He's looking so debonair this evening, his black tie already undone, those Scottish eyes both laughing and smoldering. Ah yes, I feel about 16 years old as I feast my eyes.

But where are my manners! Willow, we brought you some flowers to help make the place festive, though we can see you took care of that brilliantly. Still, here they are, our small offering. Perhaps you'll put them in an artful vase in some far off corner of the house where you can enjoy them tomorrow after we've all danced till the wee hours, and our good cheer is settling into the morning-after air, evoking pleasant memories of yet another smashingly successful Willow Manor Ball.

You are so imaginative and expansive of spirit, dear Willow. As we take our leave, please know that we've had a most delightful evening in your company and we hope to see you here again next year!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Magnolia Dreams

Last night, my daughter and I escaped all our obligations and went to the movies. We saw Easy A, one of those high-school-is-a-wretched-society movies, a sort of Mean Girls meets Saved, but not quite as dark as the latter, which I loved. Loosely referencing The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Easy A tells the story of Olive Prendergast, a girl who pretends to lose her virginity and becomes the talk of the school. Her newfound notoriety is entertaining at first, not so much later. The plot gets all twisty when Olive agrees to pretend-sleep with a boy who is being bullied daily for being gay. He thinks the rumor that he did it with the school slut will earn him the stud card and allow him some peace.

Soon all manner of outcast boys are trying to get in on the pretend action with Olive. But even as she plays the scandal princess with relish, going so far as to pin cut-out As on her bustiers, Olive is still a virgin with a crush on the boy who inspired the pretend-you-did-it idea back in grade school during a game of spin the bottle. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play Olive's wildly inappropriate and quirkily supportive parents, wringing out a few good laughs. They're fine actors caught in a formulaic high school rom com but they commit totally. My daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie for what it was.

Afterward, my girl wanted visit Magnolia Bakery, so we walked two blocks to Columbus Avenue at 69th Street to buy the famous cupcakes. As usual, there was a long line inside the store, but thankfully, at that hour, 10:30 pm, it didn't spill out onto the street and around the corner, as it usually does. As we stood in line, my daughter looked around happily, taking in the shabby chic soda shop decor, the worn painted-wood floor, the lace curtains, the scuffed white wood counters and antique cake displays.

She nudged me excitedly when she caught sight of someone in the back icing a new batch of cupcakes and sculpting in the signature swirl.

I swear there was light coming off her, she was so thrilled to be in that place. The boy behind the counter noticed it too, because with that long line of patrons he paused to pay particular attention to my girl, who of course did the ordering. After we had paid and were walking out the store, my daughter reflected how cool it would be to work there, and before you knew it, she had turned back to ask the manager how old one needed to be to work there. "Sixteen," he said, and with that, my daughter literally skipped out the store, a plan taking shape in her mind.

"You really love this, don't you?" I said.

"It's the only thing I stay passionate about," she answered. "I've wanted to be a dancer, then a clarinetist, then an art director, then a photographer, and all that faded, but my passion for food stays. I don't necessarily want to be a chef, and I definitely don't want to be a nutritionist, but I think I might want to do something with food."

To be clear, she loves the fun and artistry and performance and escape of food, especially the pastry arts, which is why she was so firm on not majoring in nutrition in college. "I'd sooner do the anthropology of food, or else maybe I would study film or something," she said on the way home. "I've been trying to figure out what to major in at college."

It is so fascinating, watching your child figure out who they want to be, how they want to use this life they have been given. It is a delicate, sacred thing and can't be rushed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pretty Things

My cousin Helen, who is a life coach and healer, petitioned me this morning with the idea that I can choose to allow others their life experiences without choosing to make their experiences mine. She was talking about our 92-year-old Aunt Winnie, for whom I am a primary caregiver, and her daughter, the 46-year-old drug addict. Helen was referring to the fact that despite what amounts to years of being abused, my aunt has strenuously objected to having her daughter removed from the house. 

Not that said removal can be accomplished simply. It would take police statements and court orders and judgements, a process unfolding over weeks and months. And as my aunt's power of attorney, I am the one who would have to climb that mountain. My mother and her other sisters are pleading with me to do so. My husband thinks I should have taken decisive action long ago, against Aunt Winnie's wishes. Helen's is the only voice suggesting that my aunt has chosen the situation. 

"Leave me to my children!" my aunt cried out the last time we mounted a concerted effort to get her daughter out the house. Her face crumpled and tears sprung from her eyes and we all relented. As we always do.

My cousin Helen said, "When are you going to give yourself permission to choose differently?"

Today, maybe. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Did I disappoint you?

Mother, did I disappoint you? 

In the film Benjamin Button, when the character of Daisy is on her deathbed, her grown daughter asks her this question, a quiver in her voice, as if she fears the truth.

I am pierced by the question. 

It is impossible, I think, if your elder escapes cancer or heart or other sudden system failure and instead declines year by year into frail old age and eventual death, to not disappoint that elder. There is no way to make the world for them as it was when they were able to march out and embrace it on their own. There will always be the request they swallowed rather than ask us for one more thing, the moment they wanted our attention and we were caught up in our own lives, the shop, the film, the friend they would like to have visited but couldn't get there on their own. 

I live with the aching knowledge that I disappoint my mother, 88, and my aunt, 92, all the time. The true grace, the thing that brings me to tears, is that they forgive me, again and again.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Saint Eleta

In my thirties I was in therapy with a woman my husband gratefully referred to as Saint Eleta. Back then, she described passive aggression this way: "There are only two people in the room and suddenly one of you is bleeding but no one has a knife."

I knew she was saying how much better it was to just speak plainly, but I recall looking across the desk at the petite copper-skinned woman with the perched orange wig and precipitously high heels and thinking 1) how much I adored her and 2) that the way she framed it, passive aggression sounded pretty fucking magical.

What Saint Eleta didn't mention is that the one who inflicts the stealth wound also bleeds, because you can't hand out pain without sharing in it yourself. I think she thought I was smart enough to grasp that. But I wasn't really. Not then.

Saint Eleta was close to 65 at the time, and soon enough she retired and moved south to be with her grandchildren. I still miss her. Now she was magical. God, how.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What Stays

My husband avoided the news today. He didn't want to hear the pundits, left and right, use the anniversary of that terrible day, September 11, 2001, as so much propaganda for their agendas. "This is a day that stands out in my life," he said. "I was here. I lived it. I remember clearly walking across Central Park to get my daughter from school, and I remember us walking back across the park to Broadway, and looking up into the clear blue of the sky and seeing the ash. I remember the quiet that came over the city, and I remember the terror I felt, two days later when that false alarm came and we thought it was happening all over again. This is not a day to be used for politics. What happened on this day was real for me."

Here is what I remember of that day nine years ago:

I remember my friend Michelle called and told me to turn on the television, a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was alone at home, my husband at work, my children at school, and I had been sitting at my computer composing a letter to Maya Angelou, trying to find the words that would convince her to write the foreword for a book I was editing. 

I remember the morning was the most brilliant blue, that there was a clean, crystalline feel to the air. 

I remember watching the TV screen as a second plane streaked into the frame, the loud, whining sound of the engine as it exploded in a sudden fireball against the second tower. 

I remember the moments of confusion before realizing that this was not an accident, that the plane was a commercial jetliner, and please God let there have been no passengers on that plane.

I remember the reports started coming in that other planes had been hijacked, that the Pentagon had been hit, the Capitol had been hit, no, no, not the Capitol, that report was a mistake, but there were more planes, headed to the White House, headed who knew where and the rising panic in the voices coming through the TV, and the not knowing. 

I remember sitting in my living room on the phone with my mother, who was watching in St. Lucia as the first tower swooped down in a graceful heap, almost like a ballet, and I peered into the screen, into the billows of smoke, unable to believe there was only sky where a moment before steel and concrete had been. "Blue sky!" I screamed into the phone as the tears rolled incoherently down my cheeks. "Mom, it's only blue sky!" 

I remember talking to my husband by phone, and us agreeing to go get the kids, then 9 and 7 years old, we wanted them with us, and me running up Broadway to get our son from school. My husband meanwhile was on his way to get our daughter. I remember the relief I felt when the teacher brought my son to me, and I grasped his hand, and I knew that I would do anything that was necessary to keep him safe, just as I knew my husband would protect our daughter.

I remember stopping at the bank to take out as much money as possible, in case this was the beginning of an apocalypse. In case more of the city was going to disappear in flames and smoke.

I remember my friend Robert calling me to say that 400 firefighters had gone into the buildings, and turning at that moment to see the second tower kneel to the ground, the concrete and steel and flying paper fanning out around its slow-motion descent like swirling skirt. 

I remember the pieces of paper shooting violently up into the air, where they fluttered and floated all afternoon, so many once-important files and documents taking flight like sightless doves.

I remember the people covered with blood and ash, and the empty looks in their eyes, the disbelief, the sense that the world they knew had been knocked off course, and nothing would ever be the same.

I remember my husband and daughter finally arriving home, and my girl going straight to the terrace where her toys were, and quietly setting up pretend games with her dolls. About an hour later,  she ventured into the living where the adults sat transfixed by the image of the towers falling, over and over again. I remember her climbing into my lap and whispering, "Mommy, are we going to die?"

I remember at twilight our son went downstairs to the courtyard in front of our apartment building, where he and his friends played soccer in the semi-darkness as fighter jets buzzed overhead and the parents huddled on the benches and talked about what had happened in hushed tones.

I remember my son leaving the game and walking over to me at one point, standing in front of me and saying solemnly, "A lot of heroes died today." For a long time after, until this year really, he wanted to be a firefighter. I think he wanted to understand the kind of bravery it took to run into burning buildings to save people you do not know.

I remember the silence that day and the way everyone wordlessly met each other's eyes, really seeing one another and asking to be seen in return. 

I remember the people holding up photographs, crying, searching for their loved ones against a backdrop of twisted steel.

I remember the long night and waking up the next morning and thinking as I opened my eyes that it had all been a bad dream. But it wasn't a dream. 

It really happened. We remember.

Holding you close, college boy

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cooler in Here

I see all sorts of signs that my girl's love of the culinary arts is not just an idle hobby for her. She interacts with it quite seriously, in ways I might never consider. Last night, for example, she made Mexican hot chocolate spice cupcakes with cinnamon buttercream icing. They were as amazing as they sound! Afterward, she carefully arranged the cupcakes on a plate under the cake cover, and then put singles in each of three right-sized containers, either because they were extras that couldn't fit under the cake cover or because she plans to take them to share with friends today.

It was hot last night, and the air conditioner in our living and kitchen area is broken. The bedroom units work just fine, however, so while we were sweltering in the living room, our sleeping areas were nice and cool. Perfect for sleeping late this morning, when my girl is off from school for Rosh Hashana, and I am home from work on a scheduled vacation day.

Wait, I'm getting to the sign. But allow me one small detour.

This morning, I stood at the kitchen counter sorting through yesterday's mail, which I had deposited there without checking last night. In the mail, I found a letter from the president of Brown University inviting my child to apply! Okay, I know these letters routinely go out to millions of 11th graders across the country, and I know that an invitation to apply is not admission. But Brown is one of my child's top choices for college, along with Cornell's School of Hotel and Hospitality Management, which has a joint  degree program with the Culinary Institute of America—she would graduate with both Cornell and CIA degrees. Of course she will have to do well this year to get into either school, and she will have to do passably well on the SATs, which can be a crap shoot for my offspring (as it was for me). But all that will reveal itself in time. This morning, I was holding pure possibility in the form of a letter in my hands.

Excited, I danced down the hall and pushed open my daughter's bedroom door, crowing, "Good morning, Berry! You got a letter from Brown inviting you to apply! Brown!" She looked up sleepily and smiled and reached for the letter. She looked at it obligingly, smiled again and handed it back to me. Then she burrowed back under the covers to continue her sleep.

As I turned to leave her room, I almost tripped over the plate of cupcakes under the cake cover and the singles in their containers. They were stacked in a neat little tower in the center of her bedroom floor. Confused, I queried my girl as to why the cupcakes were in her bedroom.

"Kitchen was hot last night," she mumbled into her pillow. "Cooler in here."

She was an artist protecting her creation. And that was my sign.

Monday, September 6, 2010

92 Years Old

My Aunt Winnie will be 92 on Tuesday. Yesterday, close to 50 family members gathered at her home to celebrate her. She was confused by all the commotion, but bore it with bewildered grace. For the first time, she did not recognize some people. The photo above is of the six sisters, who came from Jamaica, Toronto, Orlando, Nassau, Bahamas and New Jersey to spend the week with her. The Golden Girls, as we call them, are from left ages 80, 81, 84, 85, 88, with the birthday girl seated in the center, two days shy of 92. That's my mom in the blue patterned dress on the far right.

Another aunt, a cousin who grew up with my mom and my aunts like a sister, also has a birthday this week. She will be 91. Aunt Winnie and Aunt Marie cut the cake together, with a little help from grandsons and great grands.

Later, my Aunt Grace tenderly fed her big sister a plate of food. These six sisters have been passionately devoted to one another for more than nine decades now. When they laugh and tell stories you can imagine them as girls. When they hold each other and cry, you are moved by the degree to which they have been there for each other through every possible event that might leave its mark on the life of a family. They inspire the next generation. They have made us promise to follow the example of stubborn, unconditional love they have set for us. Amid challenges, we try. We get better as the years go by and we realize that this legacy of familial devotion is our richest inheritance.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Beautiful Chefs

My daughter gets her love of cooking from her dad. When my kids were young, they thought the traditional gender role for who makes the family meals was the dad, because that's who cooked dinner in our house. Since their mother was so indifferent and uninspired in the kitchen, my son and my daughter both learned to roll up their sleeves and fend for themselves when their dad wasn't home. They're both pretty darn good cooks because of it, and my daughter particularly finds the mixing and mastering to be a lovely meditation. On a night when she is swamped with homework and generally stressed, she will pull out her colorful bowls and start to blend and stir, her trusty laptop open to whatever recipe she has decided on. To me, it looks like piling stress on top of stress, but once the confection is in the oven, my girl is at peace and ready to tackle whatever hell has been dreamed up by her teachers. She is entering 11th grade this week and will have to start thinking about college this year. I wonder what she will choose to pursue? The photos below were taken before her braces came off. Can you tell she has this big dear papa bear of a man wrapped around her little finger?

And this was our daughter yesterday, making tiramisu. We have company coming this weekend!