See It Through THEIR Eyes

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For a long time in our family, this was the season when a new person would come to live with us. Every fall for six years running, we would nervously drive to the airport to meet the new young woman from Austria who would join our family and begin to taste the jazzy sauce of American life. How lost and uncertain must they have felt on arriving here on Foreign shores to live for a full year with virtual strangers?

But being a self-centered soul I always saw it from MY point of view: what if the young woman didn’t have enough English to get along comfortably here? What if she only THOUGHT she knew how to drive a car? What if God forbid, she was a disliker of children, a secret pincher, say?

All these old fears came to mind again during the fall when our youngest was a high school junior and we found ourselves again driving to the airport, this time to bring home an exchange student from Madrid.

His name was José and all we knew of him was that he had a ponytail. Within minutes of identifying him, we were walking that long mile to the car, during which my whole family seemed struck suddenly dumb. Desperate to keep thing going, I talked my head off, with great animation and very s-l-o-w-l-y.

“On drugs,” the kid must have thought. But things got easier once we were driving. A Bruce Springsteen tune came on the radio and he said “Ah, de Boss!” – and when “Stairway to Heaven” started, we knew we had not one, but two Led Zeppelin fans on our hands. The rest of the language barriers we got past with pantomime.

At supper that first night, I thought I might go for the historical angle. “So what was the deal with FRANCO?!” I yelled, pronouncing the name of that old Spanish dictator with what I hoped was a meaningful anti-fascist frown.

“Franco!” cried José, and executed a Nazi salute.

But lucky for us all, we were all soon talking more naturally.

My man David is often busy nights with meetings and dinners out, and in the fall of his killer Junior year our poor burdened youngest who was the unofficial ‘host’ of José was constantly plugging away at homework every night.

That left me.

And since by nightfall I have always been way too sleepy for any ‘thinking ‘ work, I spend evenings catching up on mindless tasks. And so José, who was neither busy nor sleepy, would keep me company, lounging on a nearby chair.

I learned the words for existentialism , which is existencialismo, the adjective for manic depressive, which is maniaco depresivo and the term for paranoid schizophrenic, which is esquizofrenico paranoide. (We were drawn to the darker themes, José and I.)

 He told me he thought all humans were basically out for themselves – egoista. I told him I felt sure he would soon encounter at least one person whose unselfishness had helped change lives. 

Prompted by his stay with us, I began thinking back over time to those Austrian girls and remembered that some of them really couldn’t speak much English – and then was that one who is spite of her very earnest nature kept locking the car with the engine still running. 

We loved them anyway; of course we did.

And now here was José who didn’t need to drive, and whose English, if slower than ours, was pretty damn good. Once he left, we missed him like crazy.

So in the end, there was nothing to dread and everything to look forward to on any one of those runs to the airport.

I’ll have to remember how often this is the case – and how we should all recall that if we think it’s hard to welcome strangers, how much harder is it to BE them? 

Now I don’t have a picture of José but here now are two of our former au pairs, Alex and Gabi, once strangers, now our forever friends. 🙂

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 And HERE is Sonja, the one who stayed stateside, went to school, married  and raised her own family, seen at my landmark birthday party a few years ago – WITH the child who was once the baby these young ladies came to help care for.

Sonja with former baby Michael

Time does fly does it not? I never thought he’d even shave!

mpm at five

To Go and Stay Here Both

daybreak in NovemberIt can still bring me near to tears, what Lincoln said to the people of Springfield when he left that place to take the oath of office. I love every part of that speech, but today especially I’m thinking of the part where he refers to God as being that one who can go with him, and remain with them, and be everywhere for the good. I think about that a lot when I‘m leaving a place and wish I could leave and stay at the same time.  Even checking out of a hotel room I stop at the door, suitcase and car keys in hand and thank the room for sheltering me.  I picture how it will feel to itself empty, before the next guest arrives. I wonder if a part of me remains there always. I had a moment of such wondering this past fall in a hotel room as I looked out my small window at this view, which I captured on my phone. I was packed and ready to go that morning, but I had some time to think. Thanks to the lifting of that fog of Obligation I feel so often, I was able to just sit a while.

I mention all this because today I’m picturing how my house will ‘feel’ with us gone from it these next eight days, but I do not worry for its safety, because a family member is staying here.
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He’s staying here not for the cats: the cats are safe in Heaven. He’s staying here not for the plants either: just last Monday I brought all the plants to ‘summer camp’ on the screened-in porch where the light and the moist May air will make them practically jump for joy. He’s not staying to bring in the mail, which you can stop and start up again in 30 seconds via the USPS website.

He is staying here because he’s a member of our family by now and I can confidently picture him here, since he stayed her for much of the summer before this one that’s about to begin.

 He will lower the blinds in the kitchen, a thing we never think to do. He’ll stock the shelves with his weir bright blue juices and his Ramen Noodles and his Pop Tarts. He’ll wash the dishes and wipe down the counters every day because that’s how he is, and then jump on his bike and ride off, enjoying this free week before his summer job starts. 

So this person will take care of my house. And maybe, 30 years from now when he comes back to help bury me, he will remember himself here, a young man with his life all before him, even as I remember myself waking up here for the first time on a spring day in 1979, a young woman nine months pregnant, with curly black hair, and my own life before me too.

me and baby carrie

 

 

 

 

 

 

Glad I Came

nan & grace in 78I flew to Florida Friday to go to the house of my sister Nan and be present at my niece Grace’s bridal shower. Here they are some few years ago when Grace was a little on the bald side.

When she first invited me she said she knew I couldn’t come. Fly 1200 miles to see a roomful of ladies cheering in the dismantling of gift wrap? No one expected that of me.

But the minute I heard about it I knew I wanted to be there. I didn’t say so but I knew. ‘Maybe, just maybe, I’ll surprise this godchild of mine.

Then, eight days ago Grace texted me to say a quick hi. “I so wish you were going to be there” is how she ended it.

I couldn’t help myself. “Oh Gracie I am going to be there! ” I texted back. “I booked my flight the second I heard about it and even got a good price! At $237 round trip Boston to Tampa how could I NOT come?”

So much for surprising her. “We’ll surprise Nan,” we decided, but really there was never any surprising Nan, somehow, who has been three steps ahead of me all my life.

But the point wasn’t for ME to be the event anyway. The shower was the event and I’m so glad I came for it. The guests on the bride’s side and the groom’s side seemed to instantly bond and share stories both funny and sad, the way women do when they’re alone together. I am so glad I was there.

And now it’s Sunday morning and I’m packing up for the airport. I stayed at the Tarpon Springs Hampton Inn, not to be in the way, and I rented the car that in 30 minutes will take me to the airport and then back to my own near-and-dears who I texted someplace in there yesterday, suggesting we all go swimming at the local pool one last time when my flight gets in. They went for it but we might all be crazy given the cool front that’s just blowing in up there.

Anyhow all that lies in the future. As for right now which is the only moment we ever really have, I am feeling happy and grateful and stunned by the glory of a brand new day.

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Summer’s End

IMG_8893In June it rained too much, and July was too hot, Then finally August blew in with weather so cool and forgiving it woke us all out of our grousing and reminded us that this season we wait for all year was almost over.

Crickets provided the soundtrack to our nights in August and the crows began gathering on our rooftops. The crickets will go silent, a few at first and finally all, but the crows will stay on, seeming always to scold and scold and scold us the way they do. This morning when I woke there they were again, out on maneuvers, swooping from branch to branch, causing two small yellow bird to dart and flutter like a pair of nervous hostesses.

I have accomplished very little on this long weekend: Didn’t read my book, didn’t work on my column, didn’t script all the emails and memos for the non-profit I give the best part of my waking hours to these days.

I didn’t even write in my diary.

What I mostly did was sleep: nine hours one night, ten another, a whopping 11 hours on the third. One morning I got up long enough to eat and make the bed, then ended up falling onto a different bed in another room where I slept for two more hours.

We drive north to a lake in New Hampshire most weekends and, for the last ten weekends, our kids have done that too. It was never the sun that woke me on those Saturday mornings; it was the sound of our bedroom doorknob turning and then the thudding of two little feet. I would open my eyes to see a small face not six inches from my own.

Later, the screen door would bang as someone set off for a run. The coffee maker would churn into life. A baby would emerge toddling about and saying “Hiiii!’ to the animate and the inanimate alike. It is very nearly her only word so she gives it a good workout.

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By night, a lot of meat got grilled and a few bonfire go lit. We burned the marshmallows. We melted the Hershey squares. By day, canoes and kayaks set out on the water, and everyone played a little whiffle ball.

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It’s hard to know what your harvest has been at summer’s end. You wish you could ask someone how to find and hold it in your hands..

We caught a fish once and let him go.

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Maybe he could have explained it to us before disappearing again with a flick of his tail.

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They all went home anyway and here we were this weekend, just David and I, with our friends the crows, and the goldenrod and a swim raft rocking in a quieter lake.

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The Balloon Lady

balloons for saleThe boys and I went into the city last week. They’re just done with Kindergarten and Third Grade, so the subway ride alone offered them food for thought. They feasted heir eyes on every passenger and sign in our car.

Then, having climbed up out of that dank subterranean space, they looked around even more:

At the sunning pigeons and the equestrian statues, and the Golden domed Massachusetts State House and the elderly woman who sat in her collapsible chair shaking a fistful of bells, a donation basket on the pavement next to her bare and swollen feet. We waded in the Frog Pond and rode on a carousel. We ate an Italian ice and watched horrified as a bicyclist tearing across the Boston Common braked so suddenly to avoid a darting child that the cyclist flew clean over his handlebars. All this we did see.

And then we met Sheila.

Sheila sells balloons twisted into shapes that are not the usual shapes, like Mickey Mouse head or Bugs Bunny heads, but shapes more whimsical and improvised. One balloon looked like somebody’s appendix, and one looked like a sweet potato. The balloon the Kindergartner was drawn to looked like DNA’s double-stranded helix, three feet long with a braiding of skinny balloons of red, white and blue.

We asked to buy that one.

“Howsabout a face at the top?” she offered, and, opening a bag of shrunken balloon ‘heads’, invited them to inspect it.

The boys chose the superhero Wolverine and Sheila talked as she pumped air into him.

“People ask ‘aren’t you afraid you’re gonna bust ‘em with all that pumping?’ and I want to say “If only you could SEE how many I bust!’ I learned to do this from the balloon men across the park. I got laid off last spring but I have a hawker’s license so balloons it is, for now anyway.”

At last she handed us the DNA one with a bulbous yellow Wolverine balloon tied to its top.

“We just saw the Governor go by!” said the big brother of my pair.

“Did you darlin’?”

“Yes and we were excited because we had just seen his picture in the paper holding his new grandbaby,” I said.

“He has a grandbaby, does he?”

“His oldest daughter’s baby who weighed only two and a half pounds when she was born.”

“Well, there’s nothing like family, whatever size or shape,” she said.

“Right!” I said. “These boys are my family. My grandsons, Edward and David here have two moms at home.”

“There you go!” she shot back. “And this is Malachi,” she said, indicating a boy about ten who we had not noticed before. “He and his brothers have two fathers! And I’m their grandma who takes care of them.”

Family is what family does. You know that I bet,” she added, addressing my two. “We look after each other and it is ALL GOOD in the Lord’s eyes!”

“I think so too,” I said.

We had to move off then, as another party was just approaching her little balloon stand under the trees.

“She was really nice!” Edward exclaimed as his little brother bumped his balloon along the old paving stones.

“Watch out!” I said, but even as I spoke, Wolverine’s head exploded with a bang and the strands of DNA, rapidly unbraiding, turned back into three latex worms.

So, we lost our balloon, but we weren’t sad really.  We had had our day with its delights and dramas. And we had met the wonderful Sheila who I am guessing we’ll remember for a long, long time.

We Were All Together

We were all together over the Fourth and the little kids took pictures.

always there is dressing and undressing
always there is dressing and undressing

These are some of them, showing how the babies schmoozed and the grownups talked and Bambi drank from a cup, smart little Bambi!

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We held all the babies

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and played all the fun games like Pictionary – ’til 2 in the morning some of us.

 Our son came back just for the weekend and that was so nice, seeing him and Marie too. It pierced all our hearts to have him leave again for the distant south.

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We ate Annie’s famous fried chicken AND her special tacos AND we made our own pizza with Annie’s homemade dough. We had her brownies too!

This child, our rising Fourth Grader, just chilled on the deck with a borrowed i-pad. Something about his pose kind of says it all. It’s really summer now!

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Fathers Day Revisited

Hap & me only picture ever

I hope everyone enjoyed the day yesterday. I know I did. I spent it as I spend all days, with the father of my children who I fell for at the tender age of 19 when I saw how his story matched my own, both of us fatherless, both accustomed to a life where we were special to no one in the great world, looked on with special favor by no one.

That part was OK. Most people are in this position.

David’s dad contracted stomach cancer when David was ten. Mine…well, mine had his own problems, which I have said a little about here. He came to see me only once on the occasion of my baptism and by a stroke of luck somebody took our picture. I’m the sleeping one in the arms of my Aunt Julia. He’s the sad-looking one in the hat, face turned away.

The picture was taken at my grandfather’s house where Mom went to live as after he left us. He stayed only an hour as she told me 20 years later. He didn’t speak to Mom and he didn’t so much as look at me. He had left us eight months before and felt ashamed I imagine.

He did his best in life, of that I am sure.

And this is David’s doomed young Dad beneath here, when he was in high school. His first-born son, David’s big brother Toby, looks quite a bit like him as you can see.

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toby in maine once

But lacking a dad doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy that third Sunday in June.

Nor does it mean you can’t be a great dad yourself, as my kids’ dad is and has been since our very first child first drew breath in this world.

This is the man, in summer once by a lake.

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Here’s to all fathering then, whatever form it may take!

Happy Birthday Fatty

This in honor of the recent birthday of my youngest, seen here in Fifth Grade, impersonating America’s tubbiest President, William Howard Taft.

mpm as fatsuited wm howard taftFor a while there, we were in danger of some real solemnity in this family; of growing downright grave what with practicing the quieter virtues. We had two children at first, both females, and I can tell you we all floated along on a great river of calm.

Even when a third child had come and was, of all things, a boy, we still moved with tranquility, and for a while the baby seemed to do so too – until the day at about 12 months old when he stood up in his crib and began hollering to his stuffed animals. A certain vividness surfaced for us all then; and quiet understatement went down for the third time.

This little boy’s grandmother had been a wise-guy and we all loved that about her. She died when this third child was only three so he doesn’t remember her.

But I found myself calling my sister not much more than a year after her death. “I know this sounds weird, but I think Mom’s back!” is what I told her. Because this third child was a happy little wise-guy himself, and brought to the once-peaceful supper table of family life a level of hilarity we never would have predicted.

He fancied toilet plungers as a First Grader, and when, at the hardware store, he saw a display of very small ones, he cried out with joy and began promptly applying them, with great sucking sounds, to his ears, mouth, and bare tummy. He asked for half a dozen for his birthday.

He told us in Fourth Grade that the teacher said they would need string for that night’s homework.

“What if we have no string?” he asked her. “Use dental floss,” she replied, setting herself up for it. “I can’t,” he answered with mock-sadness. “My family doesn’t believe in oral hygiene.”

We dreaded the next parent-teacher conference.

Around this same time, he got a new jacket imprinted, as these jackets often are, with our town’s name. The nice man helping us pointed out that with so many jackets alike, it was a good idea to have his name stitched on the sleeve.

“OK!” he agreed readily  “Only have it say ‘Fatty,’ he added, and three grownups could not talk him out of it.

At this point he was four foot eight inches tall and weighed 72 pounds. Every spring at his yearly checkup, the doctor would say, “Due for a growth spurt soon!’ And every year he would look ironically over at me.

But while we awaited this famous growth spurt, we had some dandy fun.

I recall the time he pulled some hair our of my hairbrush, glued it to his bare chest, sauntered into the living room and said in a theatrically deepened voice, “Dad, I’d like to use the car tonight.”

When he finally turned 11th, I remember we got him everything but more toilet plungers – and also a cake reading “Happy Birthday, Fatty.”

Of course he insisted on being the one to light its million candles; then rushed into the darkened next room and made us march in with it, singing.

“What did you wish?” one of his sisters asked after he blew out the candles.

He wouldn’t say – some things are serious, after all – but I knew what I wished: that night. I wished we could rewind the eleven years and run them clear through again.

And the 11 years that followed them too. Ah, those years too.

David & Michael Junior year

Life With Young Children

the calm before the boy child

The fact that today is the birthday of my third and youngest child  who was not yet in the world until his sisters were five and seven, has me remembering back to the fun we had in the years raising our kids, and the sense of peace I still feel when I am among them… For In a family, you are known. You don’t have to pretend or explain. They take you as they find you – even if they do take frequent joy in mocking you

On certain nights, around the supper table, one of our kids would suddenly say, “OK, let’s switch roles. You be Mom, you be Dad,” etc.  Then a fast improv would follow.

Once, I drew the then-13-year-old; swung my hair over one eye and said, “I need money, need a ride, I need money, I need a ride…”

This youngest, the then-five-year-old whose birthday it is today, once acted out his father for us in this game. He puffed out his  tummy, lay down on the floor and began snoring with a newspaper over his face.

Our then ten-year-old then ‘did’ me. “Come to dinner, people!“, she shrieked. “Come eat your dinner before I throw it in the yard!”

It’s instructive to watch yourself thus parodied.

And there’s never a dull moment, just generally in a family, because in a family, everyone comes home with tales of pain and triumph – and with funny stories too.

That then-kindergartner, being new to the world, had the most stories: The story about the little girl in his class who squeezed her eyes shut and clasped her hands as if in prayer every day when she recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Or the tale of the older boy who told him he had his pants on backwards. “I can’t understand it,” I remember our little guy saying. ” I put them on this morning and they were frontwards! Sometimes I put one pair of underpants and find out later I have  two pairs on. One day I put on a pair and looked later and they were gone!”

“You talk a lot,” one of his older sisters observed to him mildly, after ten straight minutes of this monologue.

“I can’t help it,” he said earnestly. “School is a strong thing.”

School sure is a strong thing. And work is a strong thing too. We all go out each day to face strong things.

I remember how the morning would come and one alarm after another would go off in this house. The sound of five showers would drum in the bathroom. Coffee would be gulped, cereal smeared and sprinkled around. Then there’d be a mad scramble to find shoes.

Now too there are those same scenarios in households the over world.  Folks go out into their day and return for supper, glad to be back home.

Back in the years I am thinking of now, when the children were asleep at last, we two tired parents would make the rounds and collecting stray socks. We would kiss their sleeping faces and they smelled so good; like apples, and geraniums, and fresh-baked dough.

We knew that one day these children would be gone from us, and dinner would be a  far quieter affair.

We were right there for sure.

But today, on the birthday of our youngest who is up in his 20s by now,  I’m reminded again of how much their dad and I have loved them all; and how much they have made us smile.

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Ah, the Play Place

Play Place

Some people might find spending 90 minutes at a McDonald’s Play Place akin to working for 20 years on the chain gang, like Jean Valjean does in Les Miserables.

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I’m not one of those people. To me going to that room of brightly-colored interconnecting tubes is just the thing when I have charge of my two young grandsons. I find it does them good: the climbing in and out of them, the hollering gaily to other children, the swinging themselves round and round the sturdy steel poles that hold the structures up.

It’s a metaphor for life the way they ascend up out of their grownups’ sight. We old people all sit down below, holding their coats.. We can’t get at them with our big old grownup bodies. All we can do is pray they’re OK .

Used to be when we came here the littler one of these guys would climb up inside and then just sort of slow down in there and start pondering things. Oh God  he takes after me! was all I could think, since I was always sitting down in the outfield WHILE THE KICKBALL GAME WAS GOING ON; just kind of easing down onto the ground to run my fingers through the grass and dream. Was that what he was doing, when he‘d park himself inside that final slide-tube and just secretly remain there, like an intestinal blockage, preventing all the other little ones from getting by unless they clambered over him?

Add to that the fact that he’d sometimes be crying.

But none of that happened yesterday. The bigger one continued his ministry of niceness, finding out other kids’ names and offering to give them a boost up. He has been like this since he looked like this at age five and kindly asked me, when we were in the bathroom of his house once, if I needed for him to reach me a tampon . (That shows what life with a houseful of women will do for a child!)

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And the little one, seen below here?

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This time at the Play Place, he neither wept nor created any blockages. He just sat right with me and his Yoda toy as we ate and only much later disappeared up into that place where adults cannot follow.

The two are in kindergarten and third grade now and I find myself wondering: How many more times will they want to come to the McDonald’s Play Place with old TT which is what they call me?

Who can say? There are things we cannot know as well as places we cannot go. I think on my tombstone it should say: “It was enough to have held their coats.” 🙂