No Pink Roses Please

pink+roses.jpg

Last year we were all together celebrating both matriarchs over wiener schnitzel and soft pretzels at a German Restaurant on a stretch of Coney Island Avenue with zero ambience. I was enjoying the eye candy: my sons in blazers and button down shirts. This year, my parents weren’t up for the drive down to the city. My brother, divorced like me, had a date. So it was just a low-key party of three: my two boys and me.

Every year, like Ebenezer Scrooge, I am visited by the ghosts of Mother’s Days past... two-parent family dinners at the same Jersey Shore restaurant with she-crab bisque and a carnation for every mom.  Every year, I grope for the exit sign in that dark theater of my mind, where these home movies loop... Spirit! Remove me from this place! I cry, which is silly, because no recollections are all bad that include toddlers sucking up oversized plates of spaghetti with butter.  This year, I wanted it to be low-key and hassle free, just us three, mostly present for one another, on that second Sunday in May—no hauntings from diaper days, and no dread of Mother’s Days Yet to Come...

No pink roses please, I told my sons, in the week leading up. And no stuffed bears, kittens or monkeys. (I never turn down chocolate). Then I presented my own Mother’s Day card: The only thing I want this Mother’s Day is your FULL cooperation. We do what I want to do, without complaint. That’s the best thing you can give me.

Sunday morning was a soaker, and I didn’t have the family car. My ex and I still share the KIA. We didn’t see the point of parking two cars on city streets when we were together, and we still don’t, apart. The arrangement works. Except that day. C’mon, we’re going to church, I said, hunting for three working umbrellas. It’s Mother’s Day, let’s go! I was on duty for coffee hour set-up, for which I’d baked blackberry scones that looked better than they tasted. I’d also promised to loan my righteous lemon juicer to the Sunday School teacher for the annual lemonade stand to raise money for some good cause, I couldn’t remember which. 

May is the month of Mary in the Episcopal calendar. We process, sing Marian hymns, and reflect on the humility and sacrifice of the mother of Jesus, who, after her son’s death, became— by symbolic extension—mom to us all, there to intercede for us in troubles great and small, if only we remember to ask. I get that this is not for everyone. The incense, the liturgy, the kneeling to a marble madonna with a pleasingly ovoid face.

Even for me, now that I’m past the six inch mark on life’s twelve-inch ruler, there’s more to this than praying the Angelus at the Shrine to our Lady. --d has evolved into a nebulous, loving prankster, always in my business, conspiring for my good. Still, I enjoy putting a feminine face on it during this fifth month of the year, when the cherry blossoms are showing off, and the sycamore are leafing out in shocks of spring green.

I also like this  verb: to intercede. It feels strong and female—like when I yank my teen off his kid brother, pinned to the LEGO board on the bedroom floor. My mom job is to intercede, to foster the dialogue that allows for reconciliation and restores harmony.  And I intercede to prevent another tooth from getting knocked out under my watch.

My job is not to incite turmoil, but that’s where we were headed Mother’s Day morning, as William moved from dining table to window sill, and gazed out upon April showers offering yet another encore performance. Mush mush, I prodded my sleepy sled dog. He complained of leg stiffness, following our 5K the day before, benefitting Brooklyn public schools. The elder was still abed at 9:30. It didn’t look good. I’d already let the church thing slide since William had graduated from Sunday School and Theodore had started digging in his dress shoes against serving on the communion altar. I’d pretty much freed up their Sunday mornings to go back to bed and snuggle into their new identities as Christmas/Easter Christians. And forget about confirmation. Theo had exercised his right to reject this rite of passage.  So aside from these two biggies, Xmas and Easter, and oh yes St. Francis Day, when we present our lizard for blessing, I was prepared to forego the church house indefinitely. 

Bottom line: I didn’t want to ruin this for them. This spiritual thing. This feeling in the dark and grabbing onto the hem of G-d.  This is the fun part, the game of hide and seek with faith. I didn’t want to make it about Sunday morning struggle. Besides, I figured, Theodore wouldn’t be the first Anglican teen to swear off church, only to return to witness holy water dripped over his own newborn’s startled neck. And actually, what first drew me to St. Paul’s, was that they weren’t a pushy parish. Just red doors thrown open on Saturday afternoons, beckoning believers and nonbelievers alike, to light a sooty candle and sit in a butt-numbing pew. No one approached me; no brochures to lure lost sheep. I was in my turbulent twenties, and this soft sell was just right.

It was a little weird sitting alone in the third pew this Mother’s Day. But my church family was discreet. No one asked after the errant altar boy or his little brother, who usually sat beside me,  building skyscrapers from kneelers. Two sets of jubilant parents presented two girl candidates for baptism. One dad wore a pink blazer (Amen). Wet heads and wet eyes, I teared up as we, adult congregants, renewed our own baptismal covenants. Past, present and future came together in this christening: my own babies, these babies here, and my sons’ babies (if the spirit so moves Theo and Will to someday return to the old fold).

Homeward bound after mass, I texted Theodore from the train to wrangle his brother and meet me at the new Indian restaurant, also on that same, not-scenic stretch of Coney Island Avenue with auto body shops and drive-through KFC. The place was empty. I got us the table next to the tropical fish tank. The boys showed up drenched, with one umbrella between them. The waiter served up a space heater, along with mango lassis, and we dried out while enjoying startlingly delicious mixed tandori. How a star-rated Michelin chef came to be in the kitchen, behind the fish tank, in an Indian restaurant, on a treeless strip of Coney Island Avenue in Midwood, Brooklyn, is a blessed mystery...

It continued to rain like the tears of a mother all the way home, and well into the evening. For my pleasure, but also because the June recital was imminent, the boys briefly visited the piano keys. We struck some sweet chords when Theo worked through a few bars of Satie’s warm washcloth of a masterpiece, Gymnopedie. Then we lost him to CSGo gaming and his brotherhood of the headset, who’d also, apparently, ditched their own moms by then.

I packed lunch for Monday from leftover chicken tikka, while William watched yet another Pokémon (episode #627). Brushing my teeth, William remembered the card in his backpack and burst into the bathroom. Theodore had forgotten to sign it, but he did fund and oversee the card’s purchase, at Leo’s Discount, across the street from Jalsa Grill & Gravy Indian Cuisine.

My gift to my sons this Mother’s Day was an acknowledgement of their growing autonomy,  increasing along with their appetites and shoe sizes. I gave them time to spend by themselves, on a day that dictates they be with me.  A mother’s sacrifice indeed! I gave them licence to blow off a faith community that had followed them since they were held high over Father Cullen’s head, and welcomed into the collective heart of  G-d.

On this Sunday, like most others, I streamed WKCR, Columbia University Radio. George Jones, as it turns out, had the last word on that soggy, superb Mother’s Day:  Going Life’s Way 

We're Lost

waze.jpg

$7.50. Not a lot. Not even the price of a pound of Bustelo. But I choose to be cheap and skip the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel with its tollgate, and head for the bridge instead. I easily add an hour to our travel time right there. The rain doesn’t help. What should be a two hour trip to Nana’s takes us three and a half.

I got my license late. I didn’t need it. Not in this city with the most subway stops and longest track (this per Theodore’s pal Joaquin, a kid obsessed with mass transport). I was 25 at my road test in Red Hook. I remember I checked my mirrors before I pulled away from the curb. But I forgot to look over my shoulder. I failed. I got it right the second time. Dad was with me both times. I can still see him punching the air when the instructor said I’d passed.

For years my license served strictly as photo ID. I didn’t own a car until the birth of Theodore, when I was 38. Despite my late start, I’ve grown to love driving. Lip syncing to the “Queen of Funk,” Chaka Khan, I “tear up” the streets of Midwood, swerving around cyclists, honking at sleeping pedestrians and dodging potholes (most of them). I’ve become a nimble parallel parker. Highway driving however, with it’s confusing signage, is still a challenge.

Upon a friend’s suggestion, I download the navigation application Waze to my Iphone. It’s a good little app. It maps out my road trips, alerts me to traffic tangles and offers alternative routes. It would be a great app if I paid attention to what it tells me.

But I go the way I go.

As it turns out, that rainy Saturday morning of Columbus Day weekend, the Brooklyn Bridge on-ramp is closed. Waze is trying to tell me this by redirecting me back to the tunnel, “In 500 feet, turn right onto Court Street”. It keeps telling me this. All the way to the bridge. I throw the phone next to the poodle, on the passenger seat beside me.

We end up crawling over the Manhattan Bridge to Canal Street. Nightmare. It’s bumper to bumper. I’m staring at the back of a panel truck with Chinese symbols. The panel is cracked open 6 inches. I peep cabbages rolling around and wonder: Why can’t I just take direction? I’d be sailing past these snarls if I’d just listened to Waze. At the foot of Canal, I ignore the cartoon car chattering into the naugahyde. Instead, I follow the frantic white glove of a traffic guard. Waze starts recalculating. Humbled, I open my ears to the asexual voice rising from my Iphone and allow myself to be led crosstown along unfamiliar side streets, Elizabeth, Barrow, then up 10th Avenue to the Lincoln Tunnel.

The rain has stopped. I can make out filtered light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a tricky series of turns that start in Weehawken. I know the basic route: 3 to 46 West to 23 North to County Road 515, but I decide to play it safe and follow the way of Waze. I pass my phone back over my right shoulder: “Here,” I tell Theodore, “you navigate.” He takes the job seriously. “Turn right onto route 23 North towards Butler.” I swerve left. Turn right Mommy.” I’m trying to read the signs. “Turn right. NO RIGHT!!!” Too late, we’re headed in the wrong direction. I take the first exit and look for signs to get back on the highway heading north. “You’re the worst driver in the world Mommy!” Superlatives shouted through the neck rest do nothing to help the situation. Still, I keep my cool and keep my eyes on the horizon. Instinctively I know when it’s safe to lose it, and when losing it can result in the unthinkable. I haven’t yet lost it in the driver’s seat. I’ve lost it at the kitchen table, bringing everyone to tears, and once, on the street, I found that key the unlocks the cage of mommy frustration, releasing furious tigers with the strength to heave a six-year-old upside down, clawing and gnawing, 3 long blocks to the elevated F train.

We’ve righted the KIA Rondo. We’re heading northwest, but because we took so long getting to, through, and off the island of Manhattan, Mommy needs a potty break well before Wayne. We stop at the 7-Eleven. It’s magic. Kids and mom forget their troubled past. I self-serve “seasonal” pumpkin spice coffee, size suburban sprawl, and topped off with 6 thimbles of half and half. Theodore gets a Slim Jim, as long as his arm, and William, Reeses’ Peanut Butter cups, the 4-pack. Billy downs 3 and a half (I get the last half). We hit the road, restored.

With blood sugar levels hovering happily in the zone conducive to nonviolence and maximum patience with mommy, it’s happy trails the rest of the way. The Waze pipes up occasionally, at critical turns, her words repeated by my back-seat driver, but otherwise she naps, alongside the senior poodle.

As we pull up Nana’s gravel driveway about 3 o’clock, we send white-tailed deer “high tailing it” westward, towards the wetlands at the bottom of the fourth field, and their cover of cattails along the Pochuck river. We were lost today, but we find ourselves, with the help of a little humility, a little app, a little convenience store refreshment, and a determination to get to Nana’s apple pie.

We arrive just in time for pork roast, chunky applesauce, swiss chard from the neighbor’s garden, and apple pie, still warm from the oven.

RIP Fluffy

Fluffy.jpg

Force-feeding kids is a big NO NO. Pediatricians, child psychologists, even Nanas—who live to watch their grans eat farmhand breakfasts of slab bacon, eggs, and flapjacks—all agree upon this: Let a child eat only as much as he likes. Let him dine, at his pace, undisturbed. His body will tell him when he’s full. To foster a healthy attitude towards food, just put the plate down and walk away…

But how about lizards? Does the same rule apply to finicky class pets you take home for the summer? The school science lab was divesting of its living teaching tools for summer break and my son begged for the bearded dragon. At the end of June, I wheeled the travel tank home atop my shopping cart. But where to put him? I was cautioned against setting the tank down in direct sun or draft. The habitat had to be central. My only option: the dining room buffet. I pushed aside crystal vase and covered cake plate to make room for canned worms and crispy crickets. The tank stretched the length of the silverware drawer; its wood chip litter undulating with all stages of the beetle life cycle. Dinner time next to the lizard tank was not for the squeamish.

He came to us without a name. “That’s sad,” I observed. “We should give him a name.” Everything with a heartbeat that you take into your home should have a name. Hmm…scaly with sharp talons, this beardie had a cute way of cocking his head to greet you when you stepped into the room. Fluffy. It fit him. I promptly fell in love.

It was my own fault that he came to hate his tank. In the day his domain was my garden, a paradise of overgrown hosta and neglected roses. He would scamper from corner to corner, flailing his little legs awkwardly. I don’t know how I expected a lizard to move, but it wasn’t like that. I fell a little harder. “Fluffy would like sand,” said my six-year-old in the surf at Coney. So we scooped a Nathan’s cupful and watched Fluffy frolic on that bit of beach in the backyard. Returning him to his glass cell at nightfall, he would nap, then wake around 10 and watch me on my laptop at the dining room table, blogging well into the night. He’d paw the glass and press his snout into the corner closest me until I relented. I exchanged my lap dog for a lap lizard. Fluffy gave off no heat, but it was pleasing to run my index finger down the ridged furrow of his spine. I moved him to my chest, over my heart. I wondered if he felt my heartbeat? I liked him there, my little reptilian blogger muse.

In early August I had an interview in the Science & Nature Program at the Museum of Natural History. I didn’t get the job, but I did get a bag of live crickets. Until then, I had no reference for bearded lizards. The museum beardies were plump and rosy. I was shocked and scared.  Fluffy was half the size and sallow. I’d never actually seen him go after the teeming life in his tank, and his food bowl was untouched. I’d chalked up his lack of appetite to moulting. Sitting around a low interview table (kid-friendly but adult-hostile), I mentioned that Fluffy had the weird habit of flipping himself over onto his back and getting stuck. He couldn’t flip back. “That’s not a good sign,” said the director, not destined to be my boss. Fluffy needed intervention. She encouraged me to force-feed.

I started with a medicine dropper and applesauce. Once I got over the fear of losing a finger, it was easy, and intensely satisfying to pry open his jaw and watch that skinny lizard wake up to the pleasure of chomping down on mangoes and Jersey peaches. Better still, a live cricket: “There, there Fluffy…” stroking his gullet to help it go down. Dammit, the school lizard was not dying on my watch.

But he did.

Theodore was destroyed. “I’m never taking home another school animal. If we’d just taken him to the vet, he’d be all right. This is your fault mommy.”

I agreed. I’m better with plants than animals. I haven’t met a fish I couldn’t kill with overuse of aquarium chemicals I don’t understand.

Little brother William piped in: “We should have taken the turtle.”

Flashback to first-grade: Last day of school. I take home the class mouse. One week later I have seven mice. The metal wheel spins non-stop: mama mouse runs frantically to escape her offspring, unable to keep pace, spinning round and round behind her, upside-down for hours... And they stank.

I nestled Fluffy in an Italian cookie box, along with William’s half-eaten biscotti. Granddad buried him in the woodlot of the family farm. The woodlot: final resting place for all family pets. My brother’s pit bull, beloved Susie, was wrapped in a wool blanket and buried in a shallow grave in the woodlot. Too shallow. Something dug her up and scattered her remains. The kids still don’t know.

My father-in-law turned 91 in June. Bless him. Unfortunately, in September, he started to fail. He lost his appetite. Like Fluffy. His daughter arranged for him to say goodbye to each of his eight grandchildren. My two, the youngest, spoke to him last. Poppi was unintelligible. It’s not clear what they made of that phone call. My ten-year-old went to the funeral, and held the hand of his thirteen-year-old cousin through the whole service. He returned home, older.

Walking my senior poodle one dank late-summer night I notice his right hind leg isn’t bending. Instead it swings out to the side as he steps. And he pants, almost from the moment he leaves the gate. He’s sixteen, or thereabouts. Shelter dogs don’t come with birth certificates.

My old pooch wakes from naps to walk or eat. Otherwise he sleeps. Sensing his fragility, my sons cuddle him, wrap him in their hoodies, and whisper close to his ear. “Gigot! Best dog in the world! I love Gigot…” He can’t hear them. He’s deaf as the microwave oven. Nana’s a little deaf too. The boys know this.

I’d prefer to forget my own Nana’s wake, but I can’t. The open casket was bad, the wailing, worse. This stiff imposter in the satin-lined casket could not be my Nana, a hummingbird in a housecoat, in constant motion, shampooing my hair and towel-drying it in the sunshine... and serving me little star pasta, pastina, with big pats of butter. It was awful experiencing Nana like that, no longer smelling of Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, but of the stench of funeral home Easter lilies.  

I still don’t get open caskets, but I understand wailing now. In that funeral parlor in Tarrytown, my mom, at her own mother’s wake, cried the Hudson River at its widest point. She was unhinged, and I saw that. She cried for months after too, and then it was over. Maybe she still sniffled at night, into her pillow, with the starched and pressed pillowcase, but in the day she was back to normal. At Christmas, the stockings were stuffed with new socks and chocolate oranges, and there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on the dinner table.

What will I look like to my sons when the dog dies, possibly as soon as November? Unhinged. I will recall driving home from the shelter in East New York, ll shivering pounds on my lap, matted and reeking of dried feces. I will comfort myself with the thought that he’d had a good life of gnawing soup bones and chasing balls on the beach. I will remember that he was a pound puppy living on borrowed time anyway. I will mourn the loss of a companion, always trailing me from room to room. I will cry the East River, the lower harbor at it’s widest point. I will wrap him in my old cardigan and bury him, with his favorite ball, beside Fluffy, in the woodlot. I will bury him deep. Then I will stop crying, blow my nose and help Nana roast the turkey and serve it on a bed of fresh sage. I will watch my sons’ eyes widen to the bounty, as they and their cousins hold their forks, improperly, around the Thanksgiving table.

Rest In Peace Fluffy.

sleepingFluffy.jpg

Deserve It?

White-Privilege-Flying-First-Class.jpg

Recently I asked a friend who’d just read “Pick It” to tell me about her favorite childhood activity. It turns out, for her too, it was berry picking.

But here’s what that meant to her:

Berry picking for Trang meant picking berries (and green beans and cucumbers) for pay every summer, between the ages of 12 and 17, seven days per week, with her four brothers and four sisters in rural Auburn, Washington. Her family would rise at 4, reach the fields by 6, and pick until dusk.

I was appalled. “Did you ever have a day off?” I asked. “Only when it rained,” she replied, “we were so happy when it rained.” All things considered, Trang remembers these summers fondly. Her mother would pack a delicious lunch: “Pork and rice with watermelon. Those lunches were sooo good.” At the end of each day the siblings would pool their earnings and cheerfully fork the purse over to the most industrious matriarch of the Pacific Northwest. These kids were proud of their collective contribution to the family cookie jar.

Where was I off track in “Pick It?” In assuming that all kids have limitless leisure time to dawdle their summers away, as I did, berry picking or watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus from my Texas Memaw’s shag rug.

Here’s another example where my limited thinking didn’t match reality:

One night I’d loaded the dishwasher and realized I was out of detergent. I didn’t want to lose my parking space by driving to the Shop Rite for soap so I hit all the 99 cents stores within a ten block radius of the Newkirk Plaza, searching for automatic dishwasher detergent. Guess what? 99 cents stores don’t sell Cascade. Why not? A woman, standing on the checkout line of Junior’s 99 cents overheard my request and explained proudly, but with some bitterness too: “I’ve never had a dishwasher. My dishwasher is me. Always has been. And I’m 58.”

That was meant for me, that slap in the face:

Wake up Maria! Roused, I realized that I bob along in a state of unconscious entitlement. Always have. I assume the gifts given me are givens for everyone else…

  • like a college education without student loan debt

  • like regular pediatric dental care followed up with orthodonture to correct buck teeth

  • like small class sizes and clean school bathrooms

  • like expert orthroscopic knee surgery that has left me nearly symptom-free for 30 years

  • like trips on planes and trips out of town

  • like ballet lessons and exchange programs to Paris

  • like orange juice, butter and roast beef instead of Sunny-D, margarine and bologna

  • like ham at Easter, turkey at Thanksgiving, & standing rib roast at Christmas

  • like gifts stacked so high under the tree that it takes the better part of Christmas morning to open them

Yes, all this time I have assumed that every kid has languorous summers and every grown-up deserves a dishwasher.

And here’s the danger of my pervasive presumptions and sense of entitlement: I remain oblivious to my privilege until someone, less fortunate, points it out to me.

Like the 99 cents store lady, or like my friend Trang, sitting at my kitchen table, enjoying my chicken soup.

Lessons learned: I try harder to dodge assumptions about how others live, and I try harder to wake up to the fact that I’ve got it better than most. I try to give back, in small ways, whenever opportunities present themselves...

To level the berry fields...

...and I insist that my 10 year-old shuck six ears of corn before supper and carry his plate to the sink after it. After all, it feels good to contribute to the family cookie jar.

23

This one came to me scraping raisins off the kitchen floor after breakfast…

ah to be
23
what would I take of me
at 23?

my boobs for sure
but not much more

not my brain
kinda insane

not my dating
left waiting...

not my bad back
that was whack
my bad back

not my job
oh good god
not that job

so I’ll take
48
with too much texting
and not much resting

with warm family relations
and working towards
peace among nations

with robust health
and right perspective

and 2 boys
who don’t take directive

these 2 boys
with all their toys

spread on the floor
there’s not much more

really it’s great
this 48

Pick It

How was your Independence Day? Mine was a terrific toggle between pooltime and mealtime, a game of Marco Polo with the cousins in the shallow end, followed by London broil and Nana’s strawberry-rhubarb cobbler on the patio, with the sun dipping below the orchard atop the Pochuck mountain.

But what’s a Newsom holiday without a few family fireworks between independent minds? It’s a big, barn-style house, but nowhere is big enough when we go at it. I take off on runs this long weekend. Despite that bully, my trick knee, ever threatening to pull a fast one, a crippling lock down, reducing my right leg’s range of motion from 90 degrees to 9, I’ve started running. I hate running. It’s pointless and boring. But I’m in the country this July 4th, separated from my sweat videos and the bully is well-behaved, biding his time…

7-04-14: Rewind to dawn - I let the poodle out to pee at 6:30 am. If green has a smell, this is it. Oaks, maples, black walnuts, cypress, silver birch, all in verdant gowns, edging the fields of the family farm. A soft summer breeze swells, a sigh from the south, but it doesn’t loosen these ladies’ leaves. By the end of the month, a gentle gust will start these same trees trembling, and the first leaves will fall, but for now, the dames are fully dressed.

I skip the stretch and I’ve got the wrong sneakers. No New Balance for me, I’m making do with Zumba dance shoes. They are, at least, a step-up from my Keds, with $2.99 cushion insoles from Duane Reade. I start out slowly, a lite jog uphill and down, running with traffic — except there’s no traffic this holiday morning. Not one car passes.

Instead, I share the road with wild turkey, Canada geese, squirrels, chipmunks, a juvenile buck. I’m Snow White with all my forest friends. Heel toe, heel toe, over small rises and around curves, past the “dirty farm” (my name for the not-so-bucolic barn overrun with crusty-eyed cats and cows flicking flies with muddy tails). I pant up to a bank of wild black raspberries, or “black caps.” Of the trio of berries that ripen in Orange County every summer, the black caps come first. The red raspberries, more abundant, follow in late July, and the blackberries in August. Each fruit has its window, and if you miss it, you’re shut out 'til next year. I know this. I abandon exercise and start fisting berries. Tart and crunchy with seeds, black caps have a bona fide berry flavor. The red raspberries are downright sour and the blackberries, bitter. None resemble their GMO cousins, those plump, sweet cheats in clamshells in the produce section.

Pic 4.JPG

Berry picking is synonymous with summer, and for me, it means I’m sunny in my solitude. Can you pull up a beloved activity from your pre-pubescent past, 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 years ago?  (Yes, dear, appreciated subscribers, you span these decades.)

Think back. What’s gathering berries for you? Pick It.

That solitary childhood experience where you weren’t lonely or bored; you were alone, sure, but lost in the woods of your pleasure. Maybe you let a sibling or parent in on your rapture now and then. I’m not asking for competitive sport stories, with winners and losers. (You’re more likely to remember losses anyway.) Over this holiday weekend, my 10-year-old played chess online, match after match, all going against him. He wouldn’t quit til he won. We’ve all had those experiences. I’m not talking about those.

Was it skateboarding in a cul de sac? Was it building a plywood and brick ramp, tying a bath towel around your neck and becoming the caped Knieval on your Schwinn with the angel handlebars and banana seat? Or maybe it was scouring the beach for shells after a nor’easter? Or the hypnotic motion of making dribble castles? Dipping your hand in the pail, scooping sand soup, and building a fortress where warrior mermaids guard pirate treasure...

I wonder what it will be for my sons, years from now? For William, age six, it may be compulsive money counting. Future chairman of the Federal Reserve, Nana predicts. Billy can count change for hours, maintaining Ziplocs of nickels, dimes, and quarters, baggies building steadily from lemonade stands and panhandling. Eventually, there’s enough to roll and bank. I watch him this 4th, stretched on his back on Nana’s Persian carpet, waving a five-dollar bill overhead. (Five easy bucks for accepting his cousin’s dare to down a cookie doused in hot sauce.) Yes, rolling pennies with Nana definitely might be what William picks.

Sated, I’ve switched from consuming to collecting, lucky to find a baggie, tucked in my waistband pocket.

There’s dimension to the avian symphony this morning. True, the song of the common sparrow dominates, but below that, the mew of the catbird, the warble of the warbler, the chirrup of the cardinal.  At bottom, percussive crickets, or is it the year of the cicadas?

The easy pickins are in the bag, I now go for the hard-to-get berries. I reach through sticky spiderweb to pluck a berry already claimed by a stinkbug.

pic8.jpg

To get the tender fruit I’ve got to brave hardship. I’ve got to roll down my sleeves and snake through a thicket of fine thorns that lodge in my fingertips and require tweezers and magnification to pry loose. I’ve got to pull away vines: wild grape, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, all intertwined with my luscious bramble of berries. A machete would help right about now. I don’t forget to look under leaves. That’s where I find a hidden cache of the best. They’re always there, if I remember to look for them. I find them. I fist them.

Have you thought of yours yet? For me, it started with those unsupervised afternoons spent picking raspberries around the Tarrytown reservoir when I was nearly nine. My brother and I were living with our grandparents in Westchester that summer of ‘74, having just moved north from New Orleans. We were between homes, waiting for the fall closing on our Brooklyn brownstone.

My brother might pick fishing for sunnies in that town reservoir that summer. Dunno. He was a kick-ass skateboarder too. That was the best summer. Formless days spent picking berries and wandering downtown to the public library, followed by evenings of clearing plates and playing crazy eights and jacks with Nana and Grandpa on the dining room table. Two Julys later our Nana would be gone, taken from us at 58 by late-detected colon cancer.

I’m getting hungry, I haven’t had breakfast yet, or coffee. The sun is getting hot. My baggie is full. Birdsong has given way to crickets. I notice a cluster of the biggest, blackest berries. These look so GMO.

Pic 12.jpg

But my bag is full and I almost spill what I’ve got reaching for them. It’s killing me. And then I notice another cluster, and another.

That’s when it hits me like a ray of Disney sunshine reaching me, Snow White, curled on the forest floor.

You have to leave some unpicked.

Those are the ones, I console myself, best left for the spiders and the stinkbugs, for the birds and the does and the elusive black bear. Those berries that I leave behind reseed, go back into the earth, and bear new fruit next July. I tell myself this. Then I walk away. I climb the gravel driveway to the homestead. I see moving forms through the front window. The family is up. Good. I can make out my brother fussing with the coffee pot. My baggie is bursting. I’ve got more than enough for everyone’s Wheaties.

pic14.jpg

What's Biting You?

Today’s weather does not match my menacing mood, like it always does in those bad British horrors from the ‘60s that I adore…

There are no studio-generated bolts of lightning, followed by thunderclaps of falling stock pots. No buckets of water splashed by a bored film grip against the French doors of Dracula’s virgin victim, asleep in her four poster bed, neck voluptuously exposed. Instead, it’s a cheery June afternoon that leaks into my gloom, the kind of day when brides raise veils to their grooms and graduates toss caps to the clouds…

It’s all wrong, this creepy scene on a breathtaking day. I am walking alongside Washington Cemetery on Bay Parkway, the skeletal tracks of the McDonald Avenue El in the distance. There is no one upright for blocks around, except me. Spooked by my surroundings, I stride quickly in my orange, stacked espadrilles, but there’s no escape…

pic1.jpg

Awareness of my mortality bites me, like fake fangs to the jugular. I’ve been sensing the shadow of Christopher Lee for some months now, visualizing his widow’s peak approaching my nape:  I turn 50 in a week.

pic2.jpg

My breath catches under my collarbone. I swoon, my falling form very filmic, sheathed as it is in billowy Dacron polyester. I recover, and peer over the graveyard fence. Tombstones crowded, any which way, like afterthoughts, like Williamsburg architecture. Then, in the way that a phony Hammer Studio storm stops abruptly at dawn, my fear evaporates in the sunshine of my defiance. Arms raised to shield his bloodshot eyes from the rising sun of my resolve, the prince of darkness cowers before the garlic garlanding my rising ire.

“Back up you bloodsucker!” I cry.

But I’m overacting. It’s not so much my mortality that’s bugging me on this spooky stroll. The prospect of death is a familiar, annoying awareness which comes and goes, like a wedgie in my Levis. It’s not death, it’s aging, and specifically, the resentment I have with this term: aging gracefully, that lurks in the catacombs under my hot-rolled heroine’s hairdo.

What exactly is graceful about aging? Diminishing eyesight and incontinence? Trick knees and night sweats? The slow and deliberate break down of collagen?  Granted, cradling my future grandbaby, swaddled in quilted cotton is a graceful vision for sure, as is the image of knitting needles dancing from my fingertips. I don’t knit btw. Not yet. Learning to knit a pancho would be cool, especially in the context of a groovy knitting circle with a barista foaming milk in the background.

But to most things I associate with aging I hold up crossed arms of resistance:  I hate chains on reading glasses, and comfortable shoes that defy all rules of aesthetics. I do find tea culture somewhat cozy, hand-mixed herbal teas in charming, mismatched china cups. But I’d much prefer to continue downing coffee heedlessly, if not for my already fitful sleep, due dwindling melatonin levels and those night time toilet runs...

I staunch the flow at the jugular, compose myself, and seek answers about aging from the family of obelisks I can just make out over the wall:

“Hey Rubins!” I call out. “Any suggestions on living well now, after 50, before I join you in eternity?”

No answer, which I take to mean that I should come up with my own damn bucket list.

So here it is, before I cross my hands over my punctured decolletteand pull the lid shut at dawn:

First and foremost the lofty list:

  1. reduce my carbon, espadrilled footprint.

  2. plant trees in barren neighborhoods

  3. repair ball hoops in playgrounds around the city

  4. plant tomatoes in illegal driveways

  5. repurpose clamshell containers in meaningful ways

  6. Love more deeply

  7. cultivate roses to recapture the real rose fragrance I remember from childhood

  8. close a freezer door so it stays shut

Those are my splashy drops in the pail...

The next three on my bucket list are unoriginal and wholly self-serving:

     9. return to Paris in springtime (and also in August, when the Parisians are    gone)

     10. eat pineapple pork, sway my hips, and swim with the dolphins on Waikiki Beach

     11. drag race on the autobahn

     12. surf in a storm at sea

And finally, number 13, because we have to end on thirteen. After all, this is a Hammer Studio production:

     13. I want to firmly, tenderly, hold the hand of a child, not my own, as she lurches tentatively on ice skates, all around the perimeter of a rink for the very first time.

If I can lose myself in a selfless act of patient love like that one, then I can close my false lashes and lock the lid for good.

Passing graveyards or not, each day presents an opportunity to ask yourself this question: What’s biting you?

 

Written by Maria Newsom On June 29, 2014

Revised Friday the 13th, 2017           

 

 

Daddy's A Player

I don’t play.

I cook. I sort darks from whites. I wash, dry and fold. I sign class trip forms. I lead the boys to the dental hygienist for bi-annual cleanings with chocolate toothpaste.

But I don’t play.

I don’t sit down for those strategy board games: Risk, Stratego, Axis & Allies, Africa Quest. I don’t build snowmen, play Wii or design treasure maps that lead to chests buried on the beach at dawn.  

pic1.jpg

Daddy does those things.

Oh, maybe I played in the beginning, a little. I hopped gingerbread men over the molasses swamp in Candyland and pushed the pawns of Chutes and Ladders. Maddening Milton Bradley classics, you taste victory, but inevitably lose these games which stretch out 'til dinnertime and end in tears. Mine.

For a while I tried to engage the boys in crafts: shamrock stamps carved from potatoes at St. Patty’s, hand turkeys at Thanksgiving, sugar cookie decorating at Christmas.

The sugar cookies were most popular due to, well, the sugar, but overall, the boys’ lukewarm response to crafting did not embolden me to crack craft books with 3-D diagrams and hard-to-find supplies.

pic2.jpg

Then it was cooking: dipping slippery chicken breasts in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs. I was inspired. The boys weren’t. Breading cutlets left them cold.

I even pitched chores as play. Today the little one is competent at filling muffin pans with cupcake liners, watering African violets and dusting the piano with “lemonade spray” (Pledge). But he isn’t fooled. These are chores and little man gets paid for his time.

Then I just gave up.

That’s not quite right. It’s not that I went cold turkey on the hand turkeys.

I still sled. And the little one follows along to my old school Tae-Bo tapes, kicking at the TV and punching the air.

I still lead raspberry picking expeditions, but I was plucking black caps and red raspberries long before the kiddos came along. And I’ll carry on without them when they realize they can stay home and just wait for me to return from the thickets, sweaty, scratched up and eaten alive, swinging milk pails brimming with nature’s candy.

Notice a pattern?

Last weekend we were back at Lefrak Lakeside in Prospect Park with friends. The ice was thawed, the Zambonis sent to long-term parking. 50 bucks for a backache, I bent over for an eternity to lace 3 sets of roller skates. Then I failed to fasten wrist and knee pads securely and readjusted these for another eternity. Finally we hit the rink. The boys clung to me like invasive vines.

I felt a resentment coming on.

No one helped me learn to skate. I fell on my arse plenty until I was looping figure eights on the asphalt in front of my house. Learning to skate is just ugly, there’s no way around this. And no one can do it for you. Despite this obvious fact, the mom who got us here in the first place, hosted my parasites. Her trunk became the great oak around which my ten-year-old twined himself until I said ENUF! I wouldn’t let them attach themselves to the rink walls either. By day’s end the brothers had loosened their stranglehold on stable supports. Virginia creepers no more, they’d stepped up to roller derby robots with jerky limbs. Ugly. But they were on their way…

pic4.jpg

The pattern? The kids follow my lead now. They do what I want to do.

Here’s the question: How guilty do I feel that I don’t do stuff just for my kids anymore?

Here’s my answer: not very.

I must get this from Nana. Nana doesn’t play either. She picks the “family movie.” It’s never animated and never G. It’s usually PG-13, occasionally R. She likes those formulaic sports films. The ones  where — against all odds — the crappy team rallies to win the little league pennant (Bad News Bears) or state championship (Hoosiers) or exhibition game (Mighty Ducks) or almost wins an olympic medal (Cool Runnings) or where the hero becomes the first-round pick in the NFL (The Blind Side). Every year, usually around the All-Star Break, we watch the Bad News Bears. I cuddle up with my boys, a bowl of popcorn and (swoon) Walter Matthau. Ah, the foul slurs slipping from the side of his Schlitz-slinging mouth. Obscene, inappropriate and hilarious.

At bedtime, Nana reads to the boys from a unabridged, unillustrated volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She extrapolates the moral and glosses over gruesome scenes of twisted sexuality and mutilated toes. On these nights I sit with the boys, rubbing their feet till they’re unconscious.

Daddy—by contrast— is a player.

  • Down in the sand

  • Up in the tree

  • On the toboggan

  • On the exercise mat

  • On the mini-golf course

  • Standing over board games

  • Running alongside bicycles

Daddy does like the tedious strategy games that take over the dining room table for weeks. But as for the rest of it, he’s doing it for them, not himself.  

He doesn’t get his kicks from running alongside the unstable two-wheeler of a hysterical 6-year-old. He hates being ambushed when he walks in the door. Still, he submits to 10-minute rounds of Attack Daddy by two sons whose combined weight approaches 100 pounds.  BRRRRRRING!! When the egg timer goes off he limps upstairs to change out of his work clothes.

The boyz love Daddy.

Daddy also reads to them. Every night. Chapter books that don’t give nightmares. Adventures, histories, mysteries. Where he gets them I’m not sure. Online? Tag sales? Used bookstores?  His mother’s attic? No matter. The boys love winding down with Daddy.

A few days ago, after supper and before Daddy got home, my big son asked: “Mom, can you play with me like you used to?”

I was floored. Playing is Daddy’s domain.

My son’s expression was hopeful. I inhaled deeply and stared straight into my son’s soul on the exhale. This was the spring we gave up little league baseball.

“Would you like to go out front and toss the ball around?” His face lit up. I hit a tree, a parked car and lost the ball in the bushes. He found it. I paused to chat up neighbors returning home from work. He didn’t seem to mind any of this.

We’ve been tossing the baseball pretty steadily ever since. The next rainy evening I’ll suggest a 3-minute word game. I can manage that: “qnyone up for a game of Boggle?”

This post is dedicated to all you Devoted Dads...

Who assemble impossible toys...

Who read aloud at bedtime, apply sunscreen, and delouse...

Who bring home the bacon and fry it up on Saturday morning...

Who eat the broken, slightly-burned cookies and

Leave the best ones for your kids!

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!!

pic7.jpg