Saturday, January 31, 2015

Story People

The Beautiful School

I flew back from Jamaica a week ago, fighting the flu, fighting waves of emotion, both of which laid me down for daytime naps in the midst of my great push to finish the book I am working on. I never take naps. I work from home and think of the daytime hours when everyone else is out of the house as sacred creative time. But there were moments this week when the words on the screen would get blurry and I'd want to lay my head down on the keyboard, and so I would get up from the desk and climb into bed, grateful I had the freedom to do so. There was a blizzard of the century that wasn't quite, and children yelling and sledding on the eight inches of snow that did fall, all of it happening outside my window, making me happy to be inside looking out. I felt a little nostalgic, remembering when I would have been out there with my own kids sliding down the slope on their brightly colored plastic discs, while I caught up with the other parents.

I did finish my book, or rather his book, as I am merely the ghostwriter. I have a complete first draft, everything but the introduction, which I am going to let come to me organically next week while I am in San Francisco beginning work in earnest on a new project. I fly out tomorrow at the crack of dawn. My sweet man is coming with me. He will be on his own while I interview my subject until the early afternoon each day, and then we will wander and explore into the evening. And there's another wine country trip with my cousin and her wife on our dance card. My husband and I always have such a great time in their company. We end up always in deep, side-splitting laughter that washes away everything dark or brooding in the soul.

Speaking of souls, the man whose story I have been writing is such a good one. I have looked forward to our weekly phone sessions and to the freedom to explore any question that comes up as we talk about his journey. It is, in every sense, a hero's journey; then again, he would say we are all on such a journey, whatever the particulars of our story. He left everything behind and went to live and study with monks in Thailand, and he has a particular perspective on the nature of reality and our collective experience here in this beautiful school we call earth. There is so much more, but of course I can't really share it here. I have enjoyed working on this book, though. I felt a strange peace after our conversations, and I know it was his gentle energy elevating the mood. I hope I am doing his story justice.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Something happy

My daughter, age five or six, on the terrace of Aunt Winnie's apartment, helping her grandmother grease the cake pans to receive the batter for Christmas pudding. Perhaps this is where her love of baking began.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Several of us gathered in her room for holy communion on her 93rd birthday last Saturday, as she wished. I am so very sad, but I feel as if I have no place to put this sorrow, because the world goes on and no one wallows, and what I want to do is wallow and beat my chest and weep and admit that I am terrified to be without my mother, but how can I truly ask her to stay here with me, with all of us when she is in such agony all the time, or at least that is how it looks to me and it shreds my heart to see her suffer like this. I imagine it is awful to have never had the mother you might have wished for but when you have had the kind of mother I have had, a wondrous mother and grandmother, there is this reckoning, and we are there. Everything inside me feels broken and how selfish I am, thinking of my pain. What I wish more than anything is to take away hers.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Mom on the day before she turns 93

Aging is so often brutal, but I swear were it not for my mother's arthritic pain and inability to move under her own steam due to the Parkinson's, it might be a much gentler thing. She speaks to her sisters and brothers on the other side, and her mind floats freely between past and present, and parallel universes too, I suspect. She said that her sister Winnie came to visit her, and they had such a lovely talk. My brother's wife raised an eyebrow and said, "Are you sure about that?" which made my mother pause. She looked at her calculatingly and said, "Winnie is one of the dead ones?"

They are all alive to her, moving at will between this world and the next, and my mother is always glad when they visit. In fact, her sisters who are still with us on this side, the two who are as frail as she is and unable to travel, seem more gone to her than the ones who have already passed, perhaps because she is unable to commune with them as she has been used to communing with her sisters for going on ten decades.

Last night she hardly slept. The woman who sleeps in the room with her told me she was calling for me all night, from midnight until about four, wanting to tell me it was time for us to get dressed so that we could cut her birthday cake. I was in the basement where my husband and I are ensconced; but I did not sleep either. I tossed and turned all night, maybe hearing my mother calling me in some dimension I could not quite reach.

She says, again and again, "We have been so blessed." She has been saying this all along. It is the one constant, the words that come out clearer than any others. She told me once that she used to pray that she wouldn't lose her mind as she aged but that she forgot to pray for her body. I wonder sometimes which is the greater grace, an agile mind or a strong, pain-free body. It seems to me now that a mind capable of skipping between worlds and collapsing linear time might be no price at all to pay to avoid the extreme of physical infirmity. It is not my mother's so-called mental confusion that distresses me; it is her discomfort in her skeletally thin and twisted body, her unremitting pain.

We are having cake and ice cream for her birthday this afternoon, even though her actual birthday is tomorrow. One of my cousins, the niece who has been a stalwart for her, has to travel out of town tomorrow and so we moved the date. My mother lately thinks every day is her birthday so it's a small thing to celebrate today so that my cousin can be part of the festivities. We'll celebrate again tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


For the record, I thought our president's State of the Union address last night was rousing and wonderful. I loved his passion, his confidence, his inclusiveness, his moral high ground, and yes, his cheekiness in response to the snark shown by the GOP-controlled congress. "I have no more campaigns to run," he said at one point, and when the Repubs started to snicker derisively, he looked at them for a beat and shot back, "Yes, I know, because I won both of them," which I interpreted to mean I know your ass is happy not to be going up against me again because you'd lose again. On twitter this morning some people are saying this was arrogant, but why not call out the Republican floor for the disrespect that invited that response? I loved it. In fact, I kind of fell back in love with Obama last night, and even though some partisan pundits are grumbling and picking his speech apart this morning, the fact is, the man is brilliant and with a sense of service and civic duty that is rare in a politician. Thank God he's also a tough or this hateful Congress would have incinerated him. And thank God his idealism (and ours) is in tatters so that he can do what's necessary without the need to pay homage to the lie of bipartisanship, which let's face it, ain't gonna happen as long as his skin is sweet honey brown and his party affiliation is Democrat.

In other news, the man and I are flying to Jamaica today to see my mom and celebrate her 93rd birthday with her. Laundry and packing are happening even as I sit here and our cab to the airport will be downstairs waiting for us very soon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Notes from the weekend

After a chock-full weekend of activities and events, yesterday it was just the man and me, home alone all day, our girl gone back to school, our son at work, and the two of us here, companionable. We were mostly in different rooms, passing through to make this comment or that to each other, but really just knowing with a quiet sense of comfort that the other was there. I did some work, pushing to get my book project done, while my husband mostly read and watched TV, enjoying his day off from work. We didn't march in any MLK day marches. We just stayed in. As Mary, the minister of our church said from the pulpit one Sunday, "Sometimes self care is a revolutionary act."

Speaking of our new minister, she was invested on Saturday, an occasion of great pomp and ceremony, presided over by the Bishop of New York in gold and red regalia, his mitre atop his head, and a procession of other bishops and cannons and priests in ceremonial robes that streamed up the aisle forever. I was there mostly for my husband, who as senior warden of the church had a major part in making all this happen, from the renovation of the landmark rectory building over the past two years, to the hiring of this new activist minister, to the church decorations and floral arrangements, to the feast in the undercroft afterward.

The church was packed, standing room only, as many of Mary's flock from her old church in Greenwich Village were there, not to mention what looked like every high church dignitary in the city. And Mary's family was there, her wife and two sons, her mother and brother, other family members. I was so proud of my husband for getting it done, and so proud of Mary, this tiny woman in white robes who was taking over this quirky little parish in Harlem, known in New York City as the "We are not afraid" church. The applause and cheering and hooting when the Bishop presented her to the congregation was sustained, everyone on their feet. I imagined how her mother's heart must have been bursting in the front pew, and how gratified my husband must have been feeling, and my eyes welled up with tears. My husband's did, too.

And then after more weekend events that included a birthday party Saturday night for one of our friends, Henri's leave-taking on Sunday morning, family dinner out on Sunday night, and my daughter packing and blowing out the door Monday morning with suitcase in tow, there was the peace of a house empty but for my husband and me. I could hear him in the living room, laughing a some of the antics on the show Brain Games, which was having a marathon. It tickles me no end when I hear him, alone in a room, laughing with such abandon.

At some point in the late afternoon, my brain was tired of stringing sentences together, and I climbed into bed with my Kindle. I read for a while and then drifted into sleep, and woke a little while later, my husband still in front of the TV, now cheering on the Knicks, who actually won a basketball game last night. Knowing his cell was on the bench next to him, I picked up my phone and texted him from the bedroom, I love you. Being here with you is nice. You and me. No stress. Peaceful. I added lots of emoticons because my husband is a teenage girl when it comes to emojis; never met a one he didn't want to use. He texted back: Been a nice day indeed. Much needed. You are still a nut. With lots of emojis of his own. I turned over and went back to sleep.

The man of the hour (and me)

Delicious birthday lasagna made by James

Breakfast smoothie before work

My girl took this one of her family

Monday, January 19, 2015

The other side of the world

I woke up sad. I had this heavy feeling in my chest area and the sense that life was spinning away from me again. My daughter heads back to school this morning, and my son told us over dinner last night (at a nice restaurant, just the four of us) that he plans to move to Australia at the end of this year. He told us the date. My daughter asked if he had already bought his ticket and he said no; evidently they have talked about it some. I was stunned. He insisted he had told me, but I would have remembered something like that. What I do recall is several months ago when a coworker who was originally from Australia moved back home, he said in passing that he might go and visit. She had been a regional manager at the sports club where he works, and she liked his work ethic. She said she could easily get him a job if he came to Australia. Maybe he said he would work there for a year. I don't recall. Maybe I simply didn't take it in. In any case, since then it has become more real in his mind, and all I can think is Australia is on the other side of the world, and if he ever needed me, how would I get to him? Do parents ever stop thinking like this?

He is frustrated that the FDNY recruitment isn't moving along; his EMT application has been in for five months now and when he called to check two weeks ago, they told him that they wouldn't be scoring the candidates and putting out the list for another six months. He then asked when the next hiring exam was for the FDNY, thinking he'd try and get on as a firefighter instead of as an EMT/paramedic. They told him they wouldn't be offering the exam again until 2017 (the last one was in 2012). He came home that night and told us all this, looking discouraged. He said, "Why am I waiting around?" He mentioned enlisting in the army and becoming an army medic, and I shuddered, but he said nothing about moving to the other side of the world.

It must be so hard to be 23 and waiting for your life to start. And to be working so hard while you wait. He works seven days a week at two jobs; one is a full time staff job at the sports club, and the other is as a track and field coach at a high school in the city, which not incidentally won the league championship last year, his first year coaching them. All his friends are working equally as hard, and maybe he feels like he's on the wheel, going, going, going but not really loving his life. And he wants to see the world.

I am trying to wrap my mind around the idea of Australia. The thought that came right after he told me was, Okay, we're going to have some airfares. Better plan for that. The next thought was, What if he settles there and marries and my grandchildren are so far away? And the one after that, I always did want to visit New Zealand. 

My husband took that photo of us a few nights ago. We had just come back from the gym and had all flopped on the bed. It occurs to me now that it's sort of ridiculous to allow something so far off in the future and not yet real to completely hijack one's mood.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

These two

These two are in my kitchen, singing in two-part harmony and breaking into laughter at regular intervals. It is the loveliest sound. And last night while we watched the magical foodie movie The Hundred Foot Journey, they baked a cake.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


I'm distracted. The man and I are getting ready to travel to Jamaica for my mom's 93rd birthday (she's actually stopped insisting that she's turning 100). Upcoming travel always discombobulates me, no matter how agreeable the reason. Plus I'm trying to get to the end of a book project that just keeps spooling out before me, like a ribbon that gets longer the more you look.

My daughter is also home and she has friends here every day, which is lovely, but I'd rather chat with them as they cook up interesting things or sit around the kitchen counter with their laptops open, discussing what classes to take for the coming semester or their plans for the summer and beyond. They are such interesting people and I adore hearing their perspectives on, well, everything.

But my work is suffering. I'm in real danger of not meeting the deadline I set for myself to complete this project, which means it's very shortly going to back into a new project that I am starting come the first of February. I cannot serve two masters. I can only explore one story in my head at a time, so I need to finish the one I'm in.

If I'm scarce for a little while, you'll know why—though in all likelihood, I will be right here, posting and procrastinating, as I am doing now. That evocative photo is by April Valencia. That staircase leading who knows where is a good metaphor for where I find myself this morning. I also just love the colors. I take that to mean the journey may feel uncertain and a bit arduous right now, but it is not unpleasant.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


My daughter's friend Henri, the young woman in black, is back on the American continent after a summer internship and then a semester in France, after which she traveled to Portugal, Spain and Ireland to see long lost family. Henri is from Hawaii and Botswana, and she is a true citizen of the world, a brainy intrepid traveler brimming with curiosity and light. She has been abroad for the past six months, and she's had adventures; we have followed along on Instagram. But now she is happy to come back home; she says she missed her friends more than she ever thought possible. I told her what she must already know, that her friends missed her just as much. She arrived from Ireland this afternoon, and when she came though the door the three girls fell into each other's arms and wrapped themselves around each other in squealing, excited hugs, and I refrained from taking a picture even though it was a moment to behold. 

Henri will stay with us till she and my daughter go back the school next week. Their other friend, the one in the red jacket, will be heading off to Prague for her semester abroad. My daughter has no desire to do a semester abroad. She says college is happening so lightening fast she wants to be there on campus and just experience it. She is, however, considering a creative writing program in Rome this summer. She's already applied and things look promising. Oh, to be young and footloose! 

Travel of this sort does require some resilience, though. Henri confessed that she was often lonely, and at each new stage of her program she had to get used to a new set of people and start all over again to make friends. She says that now she is home she can really begin to enjoy all that she has done and seen, because while she was in the midst of it there had been no time to process, just schedules and schoolwork and itineraries and figuring things out and nothing left over to take in the magic of who and what and where. But now she says she can look back at her experiences of the past six months and marvel that she actually did all that. She is herself a marvel. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Purple Umbrella

I live in a small house but on rainy days like today, when the sky is flinty and glowering, the light inside my home glows warmly, and I could not be happier to have made the transition to working from home. It would be nice to live in an expansive HGTV space but the truth is, we have everything we need here, with lots of big windows that look out at trees and let the light in even on gray days like today.

My son made it home well after midnight last night, safe and sound driving with his friends from the icy north, and my daughter is on the train home as I write. My husband is in good spirits, his humor lively and eyes dancing, and life is mostly good. My only concerns are my mother, whose dementia is deepening, and my brother, who wrenched his back and is still struggling with that. I worry for him. I know what it is like to calculate how you move in space so as not to provoke a spike of pain. I rather enjoyed watching him skip up and down the stairs in his home with no thought whatsoever as to how to place his body. I loved that one of us could do that. Hopefully he will be back to himself soon enough. I know he won't ignore this injury for a year, as I did with my gimpy left leg, allowing pain to become chronic. He is fit and eats healthily and plays squash so he's also starting out ahead of where I was in the healing.

Our exchange on Whats App last night:

How was Mom today and how is your back now?

Confused and still giving trouble.

Mom is confused and your back is still giving trouble?

Yes and yes.

We are getting old!

We are old.

Speak for yourself buddy.

On a different note, is that umbrella not the perfect shade of purple for a rainy day?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Or maybe just life

My kids are off doing their thing this weekend, my son at an alumni track meet with all his old track buddies, competing against the current crop of trackies, and my daughter visiting friends upstate. My cousin from Maryland is here; she traveled to the city yesterday to attend a funeral, the mother of one of her closest friends. Then we spent the evening together, cozied up inside and warm, watching football playoff games (or rather keeping my husband company as he watched) and talking and laughing the way we have done our entire lives, through summers together on our grandparents farm or on sleepovers at each other's homes, and now at Thanksgiving every year. At about eight my cousin and I ventured into the single-digit wind chill to get dinner options as the pantry was quite bare. We dined on rotisserie chicken and rosemary and olive oil bread, accompanied by a good Malbec that my husband chose. I basked in the comfort of being with these two, with whom I felt completely myself. Then again, who can I ever be but myself? I suppose what I really mean is with them I was an expression of myself that was easy and unselfconscious, not anxious or melancholy, not lacking anything. I was myself, whole.

Those are two views of the city in graffiti snapped by friends. They kind of sum up the New York experience, or maybe just my New York experience. Or maybe just life.

1. JBlanco828
2. The Black Snapper

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The weather outside

My daughter is nothing if not prepared. She says the deep freeze in the city this week is more bone-chilling than anything she encounters in the frigid north. I have not been outside all week. My family's complaints on returning home have convinced me to pull my sleeves over my hands and relish the great indoors. I am not a recluse exactly. My family is here and friends come by. Into the room they come and go, talking of Michelangelo. (No, not really. But I am wearing the bottoms of my trousers rolled.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In the sweet midwinter

The first snow of the year came down like a whisper yesterday morning and I was so grateful to be inside my house looking out. It was bitterly cold outside, and grey enough that I put on the Christmas tree lights and happily worked on my manuscript in their festive glow. Our tree this year has barely shed even a needle. It's still the holiday season over here, with gifts still not put away and no hint of a move to dismantle the decorations and take down the tree.

While I worked yesterday, my daughter went to meet up with friends, among them two boys from Durban, South Africa, one Black, one White, both of them tall, lean and handsome and of the same age as my daughter and her friends. The boys are visiting America for the first time and are happy to have fallen in with this crew of girls, who have been taking them around the city and showing them the authentic New York experience. One of my daughter's friends has also just returned from a semester in South Africa, so there is a strong connection there. Yesterday, the gang went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My daughter, who has been there many times on school trips and otherwise, marveled at the way the boys scrutinized every painting and took their time. "I guess they can't visit it anytime they want so they made it count," she said, realizing how much she takes for granted. My Christmas gift from her this year actually came from the Met, a beautiful pair of yellow gold hoops with colored stones. She had been with me as I fawned over them in the airport museum store on our way to San Francisco, and so she went to the Museum itself after we returned and got them for me!

Later, two other friends of my daughter came over. They all went through the same scholar program in middle and high school, the one that made my seventh-grade girl throw herself across the bed and declare through tears that I was ruining her life, but which she later thanked me for making her do. "The program changed my life," she told me on her first visit home from college. "I understand now why you insisted." It was a moment.

One of the girls who was here with us last night went to the same middle school as my daughter. She lived with us during the summers after seventh and eighth grade so they could take the subway to the summer immersion program together and do homework late into the night together. They had a lot of work that summer. The program was rigorous and meant to set them up well for competitive high schools. The girls were often bleary eyed come morning. Yet my husband and I would often hear uproarious laughter from my daughter's room at well past midnight, and the sounds of the girls choreographing various dances to popular songs instead of writing papers. As you can see from the photo here, the same spirit still prevails.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Love Story

These beautiful people are my mother's second youngest sister and her husband, who live in Nassau. They are the parents of my cousin A whose husband died two months ago. A and her two sisters all traveled to Nassau right after Christmas to be together with their parents for the new year. A, who is the oldest daughter, took this photo of my aunt and uncle when they were at the airport waiting for the arrival of their youngest. I am so moved by the way they sit there together, his arm protectively around her, his other hand firmly securing her handbag, her fingers resting on the quad cane, sunglasses dangling in her other hand. My uncle is a doctor and my aunt has run his office for their entire lives together, and now she cannot. Her memory is going, sometimes it is already gone, but he refuses to acknowledge the true diagnosis. Instead, he has placed himself squarely between his true love and oblivion, determined to keep her safe. They need lots of help these days, and their daughters are trying to put the right care in place. Their father is stubborn about accepting new people into their home, which makes his grown children's task difficult. But as frustrated as my uncle's refusal of the help they need can render those of us who love them, there is still something sublime about his devotion to my aunt. She has been the center of his world always, the brilliant light in which he has always basked. And now he will not allow all that light to grow dim or her memories to flame out. Their great love story radiates from that photograph, my aunt's expression guileless and newly innocent, my uncle encircling her as fully as he can. Her trust, his determination, the anticipation of their youngest child's arrival, the mingled joy and love as they gaze at their firstborn who is holding the camera, all of it breaks my heart a little bit but fills me with wonder, too.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Something fierce

When I look back at 2014, I see a string of deaths, my Uncle Roy, my Aunt Winnie, my sweet father in law, my cousin's husband. When I look ahead, I see that it will be a miracle of my mother makes it out of 2015. Of course, we thought the year just past might be her last one and here she is with us still, but I confess I had no idea at the start of the year how much worse her condition would actually get. She is mostly in bed these days, and every time I call, she is sleeping. My brother says she looks like a skeleton and it pains him to see her that way. My cousin, who has been her rock, says my mother seldom converses now, just stares into space and then drifts off. My aunt says she sees their brothers and sisters who have already passed on sitting beside her. When I told my cousin that we were flying to Jamaica to be with my mom for her birthday, my cousin sighed and said, "I hope she makes it till then, but at the same time it would be a grace if she just slept off." There is a grey pall over the changing of the year for me. I go about my life, doing, laughing, being, enjoying having my daughter home, and my son and my heart son, too, enjoying the sound of the young people in the living room come evening, chatting and laughing. I join them sometimes. Other nights I lie in bed next to my husband, both of us reading, content that they are nearby. But quietly weaving underneath it all is the knowledge that my mother's time is short now. Oh, it aches.

The photo was taken in St. Lucia in June 2011. My daughter and I spent a week with my mom at her house in Rodney Bay. She was thinner that I had ever seen her and so tentative when she walked. I had no idea that we were still in the good days.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A happy and prosperous 2015

My brother sent that image to me last night. "Recognize anyone?" he messaged. He and I are the two children in the lower left forefront of the photo. He was five and I was three. I wasn't in school yet but was visiting his class for the day. I have to say, I do look kind of ready. I wasn't one of those children who entered kindergarten crying. My mother tells my that I was the one who went up to the crying children and patted their arm, telling them it would be okay.

My brother has been mostly bedridden for the past week. He wrenched his back "doing nothing at all" he told me. This meant he was home on New Year's eve with our mother. He texted me at midnight. "She was sleeping but I kissed her anyway." She is not doing so well. Her body is painful and arthritic and uncomfortable to be in now. It does not do her bidding. Swallowing is difficult. Her reality is fluid. This is the hardest stage.

While our children went to various festivities in the city with friends, my husband and I brought in the new year with six dear souls. We sat around a table and dined on delicious adobe chicken and other dishes contributed by our group. The talk was easy and ranged everywhere, as it does, and ten minutes before midnight we decamped to the living room to watch the ball drop in Times Square. I had none of the angst that usually accompanies this night (though I did worry about what the year might bring for my mom). Could it be that I have finally released my expectations around New Year's Eve? Then again, it may be that I was with such a congenial crew, sipping Prosecco and dissecting the problems of the world yet managing to find much to laugh about. I love these people and was happy to usher in 2015 in their company.

Tonight, we'll see them again. We're getting together for a now-traditional New Year's day intergenerational dinner with our children and several others. "We gave our children each other," my friend Isabella and I decided last night. "And they gave us each other, too."