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Rolling With It

Yesterday morning I got up at 6:00AM to get cleaned up, pack two cars full of donated food, and drive to a local community center to help with their annual Thanksgiving meal.  I wanted to help because the Center has been a  beacon of light for as long as I can remember. It housed the free clinic where I sent indigent clients when I practiced law, and it was a place  my mother and her fellow teachers turned to when students had no warm clothes, no food in the house, or no house.

Notwithstanding my genuine concern for the Center and its mission, I did not help because I am the reincarnation of Mother Theresa. I helped because I could not face Thanksgiving dinner with my father, my husband, my son, and an empty chair where my mother should have been. I needed a diversion, a project, something to help make my first motherless Thanksgiving a bearable, if not a good day. As I begged for donations and hauled hams and turkeys around I was keenly aware that the rush was itself a numbing drug, healthier than Jameson’s or Xanax, but still an artificial removal from the inevitable and persistent pain of loss.

When I arrived at the Center, I had a bad moment. I had imagined that I would sweep in as a heroine, a white knight. They would throw flowers at my feet. I would take a brief bow, roll up my sleeves and begin the process of bending the kitchen volunteers to my will. I cook professionally. I had a $100.00 digital food thermometer in my apron pocket. I would lead the people to freedom from the oppression of being almost, but not quite as noble as I am.

Instead, it was suggested that I might just start making some stuffing. The kitchen had one counter, and every space was taken by a motley crew of men and women of all ages. In my kitchens, at home and at work, I am the boss. I use my own, very good knives. I have systems, rules, and mise en place. The Center’s kitchen represented to me an epic and disastrous brand of anarchy. Even if I had been the reincarnation of Mother Theresa coming in, my church, the church of Let Me Help You, I Know Best was in the process of imploding.

“I don’t think I can work this way” I said to Michael, the man running the whole thing. Fortunately, he didn’t hear me. I went outside to the parking lot and told my husband that I didn’t think I could do it. “I’ve really done more than I needed to,” I rationalized, “they have lots of people in there cooking already. They don’t need me.” He listened. “Okay – I’ll give it twenty minutes. If I still hate it, I’ll leave.”

Two hours later, I was sweating, chopping onions, and directing my husband as he cooked stuffing ingredients on the other side of the counter. Next to me were my new friend “Poppa,” and his grandson Toby, who were both chopping celery. Further down the line was a beautiful young woman who I had just tried to fix up with a man who turned out to be her husband. The knives were dull, the floor was wet, but it was all coming together. We made stuffing, I picked turkeys and monitored ovens. I discovered that Michael was a truly amazing volunteer wrangler who saw my strengths and let me run with them.

Half an hour before service, I stood outside talking to Michael. My work was done, and the air felt wonderful after hours in the kitchen. Two women approached us from the parking lot, and he embraced them and introduced them as his mother and his sister. There was something familiar about his mother’s name. “Do I know you from somewhere?” I asked her.

“You probably read her name in the paper all the time,” Michael said, “she’s always ranting about something or other.” That wasn’t it.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“I worked for the State Department of Ed,” she said, “before that I was a teacher.”

“Did you know Leah Graham?” I asked. It was a reasonable question – at one time my mother knew everyone who had so much as walked past an educational facility in the state of Michigan.

The woman’s hand went to her heart, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Oh, Leah,” she said, “did you know she died?”

“I did” I said. “She was my mother.”

“You’re Annie!” she said, stepping forward to hug me, in that real way that makes you feel like there’s been a transfer of humanity. “I was her student teacher in 1972. Your mother was so brilliant – I got my job because, there were 175 candidates, but your mother wrote me such a good letter…and she was so proud of you and your brother. She used to talk about how you played the cello. Do you still play the cello?”

And she was with me. My mother was with me on that weird, hard day when I had done the right thing for the wrong reasons, and nearly missed doing that because of my ego. It was like a Hallmark movie that of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I picked the one where I would end up sitting down with Michael’s mother to eat a piece of her sublime pumpkin pie and talk about my mom.

Later, I took a long nap and dreamed about my mother for the first time since she died. I would love to tell you that they were dreams of love and light, but they were actually kind of awful dreams about needing to cry over her death and not being able to find a place to be alone. I woke up sad and shaken, and then, in the course of playing the voicemails left while I was sleeping, I accidentally played a message from my mother.

“Annie, this is your mother. I thought last night went really well, and your father was so pleased with everything. You were super yourself. I’m looking forward to brunch tomorrow morning.”

I had a place to cry, and I did. And she was still, again, with me. And I was still so very, very sad that I could not call her and tell her that I met her old student teacher, and that I hadn’t known that she had started a program to teach English to inmates at the County Jail, or that she had the power to get someone a job from a field of 100+ candidates. I never realized what she was, out in the world, outside our house.

Today I’m glad I got over myself and helped people with problems I can’t even fathom. In equal measure, I’m feeling lost and fragile because there is no holding back the inevitable grief that cannot be dammed permanently with the rush of doing good works. Life is good, and life is terrible, and the person to whom I would tell this story, who knew me forever and loved me no matter what, is not available to hear it, or to reassure me that I did well in spite of myself.

That is my job, now. To be “super myself,” and own it, and grieve and laugh and roll with it all. To be my own mother. To be proud of myself.

St. Sebastian

As a child, long before I turned my attention to tragic heroines and their male counterparts, I was drawn to mortal injury and related suffering. There is no explanation for the deep and satisfying emotions I got from the pictures I hunted in my father’s Professorial Library; I suspect it is the same dark, human impulse that draws people to jars of embalmed fetuses and preserved tattoos skinned from intriguingly inked corpses.

I had, at my disposal, hundreds of beautiful images in the art books that lived in our house. Sixteenth century Flemish Madonnas offering apple-like breasts to blonde baby Jesuses (Jesi?), pages and pages of Botticelli seraphim, Watteau confections,  DaVinci drawings, Magritte and Dali oddities and Picasso in all his various incarnations. Because my father taught about art, and because we often saw art “in situ,” I was unfazed by the parade of breasts, fleshy pink thighs and penises of varying sizes. I was only vaguely interested in the evolution of vanishing point perspective, abstract vs. representational, or the finer points of bas relief, fresco or chiaroscuro. What I liked was the intense, the dramatic, and the emotional. Anyone could whip out a random body part, but getting shot full of arrows was an altogether superior thrill.


Which brings me to my childhood favorite, St. Sebastian.  In a lovely Hyperion volume of 14th and 15th Century Italian paintings,  I found Mantegna’s painting of Sebastian smack in the middle of his martyrdom. Ordered by Diocletian to be shot to death, Sebastian managed to survive, was killed again more efficiently, and eventually canonized. I loved everything about the painting. I loved it that he looked so sad, that his skin was so very pale, and that (even at seven or eight) I knew that there would really be a lot more blood if someone had been shot with eight arrows. It spoke to me of something dark and supernatural, magical even. I had no religious training, no concept of saints or martyrs, and my responses to iconography were both honest and macabre.

“Daddy,” I said one night before bed, “why did they do this? Was he bad?”

“No,” my father answered, doing that sucking thing he did with a pipe to make it light. “He was a martyr.” I kind of knew the word; it was what my mother called my father when he was driving to her parents’ house in Ohio even though it was snowing. “Catholics believe that certain people who die because of their religious beliefs can become saints.” I knew some things about saints; his mother was Catholic, and had given me a book about St. Francis. She also carried a St. Christopher medal, although I believe St. Christopher was subsequently de-mobbed. I knew about St. Patrick’s Day, and that Santa was really “Saint Nick,” and lots of places were called Saint Something-or-other.

“But why did they want to kill him in the first place? What did he do?”

“He was a Christian at a time when lots of people didn’t like Christians, and he made a powerful person very angry, so he was given a choice of saying he wasn’t really Christian, or being killed. He chose to be killed.”

“But that’s stupid!” He drew, meditatively on his pipe.

“I’m inclined to agree with you about that, but there are millions of people who think otherwise. They think that dying for your religious beliefs means you really believe them and trust that you will be taken care of in heaven.”

“Do you think that?”

“No, but your Grammie does. Some people do, and some people don’t. I think there are causes worth standing up for, and maybe dying for, but for me that isn’t one of them.”

“Is it for Momma?” I asked, tracing a small finger over Sebastian’s right leg, pierced with an arrow in the same way I had been taught to draw an arrow piercing a Valentine heart. That was another one – Saint Valentine. “Is it for me?”

“It isn’t for your mother, because Jewish people don’t have any saints. They tend to be hurt and killed because of what they believe, but a lot of times it isn’t because they choose to take a stand, it’s because people are prejudiced against them. You know about Hitler, right?” I nodded, somber. We had discussed Hitler at great length because of an episode of “Star Trek.” I also understood, in some impressionistic way that a lot of my mother’s ancestors had come to America from Russia and Hungary because Very Bad Things were happening to them just because they were Jewish.

“As for you, I don’t know. Momma and I won’t tell you to do anything like that because it isn’t what we believe, but some day when you’re grown up you might find that you believe in something you find for yourself.” This seemed reasonable, safe, and sufficiently distant that I didn’t need to worry about it. “Isn’t it time you went to bed?” It was. Carefully, I flipped the tissue-thin protective page back over St. Sebastian’s lovely, tragic face and replaced the book on the shelf. I was not always so careful, but my father, he of the “handle the slide by the edges,” “handle the record by the edges,” was sitting right there watching me. I knew he loved me even when I threw the records on top of each other so that they got scratched, but why take unnecessary chances?

Soon I would discover other soul-piercing images to savor; the American Heritage volume with the picture of Lincoln dying in his bed, Titian’s “Entombment,” El Greco’s “Lamentation” and Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” I knew little about Lincoln’s assassination, and less about the crucifixion of Christ, but the frozen moments of pain, longing, loss and unimaginable grief spoke volumes.





When my father retired, he gave away a lot of books. Although the Hyperion volume was not really from his office, and was therefore not properly part of the bounty, he placed it on top of the pile of books I had chosen. “I seem to remember,” he said, pausing as if drawing on the pipe he had given up forty years ago “that this was a particular favorite of yours.”

Sometimes, when I feel as lost and misunderstood as poor, pale, Sebastian tied to a column, I open the book and visit him. I try not to cry on him. It’s an expensive book.

Every now and then, turning carefully the pages that long ago parted ways with the binding, I swear that I smell pipe tobacco.


Photo Credits:

St. Sebastian: h



El Greco:


The Road More Travelled

I am driving in the dark, through pouring rain.  There is a tornado watch in effect until 3:00 AM, and every flash of lightening illuminates a sky potentially filled with funnels and chaos. I’m following my brother, my eyes fixated on his tail lights, my hands gripping the wheel and my neck extended like a hen frozen in mid-peck, focusing on nothing but the solid line on the right, the dotted line on the left, terrified that if I blink, sneeze or wipe my sweaty forehead I will swerve into the rain-obscured guardrail and kill myself and my mother. I keep having those wierd thoughts, those “what if I can’t stop myself and I just step off the edge of this cliff?” thoughts.

We are driving home from Ann Arbor, a drive I have made thousands of times in my life as a passenger or a driver. We have just left my father in the recovery room of the University hospital there, where he has had a malignant tumor removed from his neck. He has a big, “Y” shaped incision that looks rather like the work of Dr. Frankenstein, but he’s okay, all things considered. I should, by all rights, be feeling sorry for myself – my family has long believed that if self-pity were an Olympic event or a talent usable by Miss America contestants, I could have been a contender. The funny thing is that I’m not feeling sorry for myself at all; through some strange alchemy involving exhaustion, relief, and caffeine, I am really just fine. I have a job to do, one last job in a long day, and I am doing it. That is all.

I am also thinking, of course, thinking absurd things. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” fills my head in time with the wipers. “I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee…”. Then I’m thinking about the road, and how many times I’ve traveled this way, or the opposite way. It’s the beginning (or the end) of the drive to Ohio, a trip we made often to see my maternal grandparents, and, later, to take me to and from college deep in the cornfields of Lorain County. The summer between my first and second years as a conservatory student I took a cello lesson once a week from a professor at The University of Michigan. He didn’t think much of my playing, I always knew that, and I drove weekly to Ann Arbor in a stew of anxiety and despair, returning deflated and diminished.

I remember the summer I clerked for a distant relative’s law firm in Warren, Ohio, driving home every weekend in an ancient Honda with no air conditioning. I was in the middle of a tragic, long-distance romance and I played loud music, sang, cried, and chain smoked out the open window for the four and a half hour trip. When I hit Ann Arbor it was my signal to stop smoking, dry my eyes and Febreze myself before seeing my parents in a scant hour.

I remember taking my brother to start college at The University of Michigan, marveling at the dorm that would have housed nearly all the students attending my own college. Same road, same exit, even, as the hospital. I remember a trip to rescue my brother, stranded on his way home for the weekend; I was housesitting, mourning another round of Bad Romance with the same guy,and  grumpy at losing sleep on a work night. My brother was embarrassed at having to be rescued by his older sister in front of a cool college friend, and he was rude to me. The incident is long forgiven, and I couldn’t ask for a better brother, but as the wipers beat, and the car eats the miles in the dark night, I remember it all.

My mother is silent as I drive. She has been married for fifty years to a man who likes silence in the car when the driving is difficult. We’ve fought a little, the past day or two, but as I drive I am conscious of her as an ally, and an essential part of every story this road evokes. They are all, really, the story of my life from swaddled baby en route to my grandparents’ house in Ashtabula, Ohio to fifty-year-old daughter driving through the night after making sure her father was comfortable in the recovery room.  If I felt like talking, I might mention my thoughts to her, reminisce a little and reveal my cliché but sincere “Life is a Highway” epiphany. I don’t feel like talking, though, and we remain silent except for her occasional remark about how it’s “almost over,” and we’re “almost there.”

My brother is still ahead of me, his tail lights always visible through the sheets of rain, my mother is beside me, and we have left my father safe. Soon, we will be home. 

A Thanksgiving Gift

Right around the time I was married, my mother was taken to the hospital because she felt terribly, strangely ill. My mother, who was always the one who didn’t get the cold that was going around, who rarely took so much as an aspirin, was suddenly the pale, waxy thing in ICU with tubes running out of her body and machines whirring near where her head lay on a plastic pillow encased in a thin, cheap case. My mother, an eminence at work, a strong-willed, fierce, energetic and optimistic person who gave the best parties and saw the best in everything and everyone was gone. Not dead, just transformed into an invalid with congestive heart failure and a kidney that was “blown” from the years she had refused to take prescribed medication for her hypertension.  She was stabilized, she would eventually need dialysis, and we all scrambled to adjust to the changes.

Those changes included holidays, because it was too hard for her to continue to plan and execute the triumphant festivities she had orchestrated for decades. She had always loved the planning of a great party, keeping a special book in which she wrote the details of ordinary, Friday or Saturday night dinner parties as well as the more opulent holiday meals. She needed to remember that she had tried the peanut soup as a started in 1974 and that no one liked it, and that one of the guests had a shellfish allergy and would be unable to eat oyster stuffing.  There were at least three events during every holiday season: Thanksgiving dinner, the Tree Trimming Party, and Christmas dinner and not one of them was a come-as-you-are/paper plates & plastic forks/Brown ‘N Serve Roll kind of affair.

The house had to be cleaned before the dinners, the “good” china removed from its zipped, padded storage boxes, the crystal glasses hand washed, the silver polished, and the linens retrieved from the drawers where they were rested, clean, starched, pressed, rolled and tied with ribbons after the last epic feast. Centerpieces were ordered after consultation with her “flower lady,” who knew the rules: no baby’s breath, no carnations, nothing that was not tasteful, creative, and stunning. My brother and I rolled our eyes as we slogged through the cleaning and the polishing every year, but even we had to admit that there was a kind of magic in sitting down to a table with a magnificent arrangement of fragrant greens in the center, candle light reflecting off the silver and glasses as we sat down and put our starched napkins on our appropriately dressed laps. She made magic.

It all changed, of course. I got married, and learned to cook; I could make parts of a holiday meal, my sister-in-law made other parts, and we had a new paradigm, a less formal gathering enlivened by the presence of babies and children as our families grew. My mother was sick, though; she had to go twice a week to the cavernous room where she sat to have a machine do the job her kidney could no longer perform. My father had a heart attack and bypass surgery, he was exhausted, she was still gray and easily tired, and making magic became very heavy lifting. We tried having Thanksgiving catered one year, and it was just strange; we sat in my parent’s house like guests, receiving food prepared by a fleet of invisible strangers that was good, and very fancy, but not quite right. We tried to throw the tree trimming party once, and saw the effort and the hours of revelry left my parents hollow-eyed and so tired that they went to bed while we were still filling trash bags with plates and cups. It turned out that my mother had only ever had one working kidney, and she needed a donor kidney or she was going to die. She was, for the first time in her life, depressed, and no longer able to be the warm sun around which our family orbited. She hated the dialysis, and the painful shunt in one arm; most of all, she hated losing control of her life.

The Thanksgiving that my son was three, we accepted an invitation to attend a dinner at the house of friends. They had a huge, annual spread to which they invited strays, those people who were alone, far from their people, or without people. It seemed strange to give up on our family tradition, but my brother’s family was going to be out of town, and my parents agreed that they would join us, or that if they were too tired we would make plates for them and make sure that they had some turkey, some sweet potatoes, and some of our Southern hostesses legendary cornbread dressing. It would be okay, I told myself, it would just be different.

 Two days before Thanksgiving, the beeper went off – the one given to my mother by the transplant team. There was a donor kidney, which meant that my mother was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Grand Rapids, an hour away. My father and I followed, not talking in the car as we sped through the cold, dark Michigan night. We knew that the kidney came from someone who had died, and although we were not supposed to know the identity of the donor, we had accidentally pieced together a news story about a young man killed on a motorcycle. My thoughts were complicated as I sat in the passenger seat; I thought about my own little boy, and about the fact that someone else had lost their own boy days before the holidays. I thought about the tight, painful nexus of life and death that made their terrible loss a chance for my mother to regain her life.

My father and I spent the night in hard, orange plastic chairs, although I spent long minutes in the chapel. I was not particularly religious, certainly not Christian, but there was something about the waiting, and the uncertainty that made it comforting to believe that there was some higher power looking benevolently down from the ozone. The surgeons came in early in the morning, bleary-eyed in their scrubs, to tell us that it had gone well. The kidney was in place, it should work, but there was always a chance that she would reject it. There would be more days in the hospital, many more medications, and tremendous caution. We entered the treacherous emotional land of wait-and-see, but when we were allowed to see her she was pink again after years of being gray, and even her voice was stronger. My father stayed with her and I went home to have Thanksgiving with my husband and son.

She continued to improve, and by the time I found myself at our friend’s house, surrounded by card tables and strangers, I was allowing myself to feel hope, even as I mourned for that other family, the one that was waking up not to a day of football and overeating, but to another day of enveloping shock and grief. Before we all sat down to eat, our host asked us all to take part in one of their traditions in which a kernel of dried corn was passed to everyone assembled; when the kernel came to you it was your turn to express gratitude. I would, at any other time in my life have dismissed this activity as sentimental pandering of the worst kind, but on that day, in that place, it was as natural to me as praying had been two nights before. The kernel passed to my son, who said he was “grateful that Grandma got a kidney.” There were, of course, tears, and a smattering of applause; it was a Hallmark moment. When he reached up to put the tiny thing into my own hand, I silently thanked the other family, the one that had shown such compassion to a cruelly unjust universe, and given us back a mother, a wife, the center of our own cosmos.

“Me too, Sam.” I said out loud, “me too.”


A Cardinal on a Pinecone

My father famously remarks every year that “Christmas is at our throats again.” He is not, categorically, a Little Ray of Sunshine, and for my whole life I have rolled my eyes when he says this, appeased him with fruitcake, and gone on about the business of making holiday magic.

This year, his genetic contribution is manifesting in me. It has been dark and rainy here, my mother is very ill, and there’s been a death in my extended family. My parents are not well enough to “make Christmas” any more, and for the first time, they have no tree, no decorations, and no Christmas village with its mirror lake hosting a tiny skating party. For the past few years I have “done” Christmas at their house and gone back in January to put it all away; this year they gently suggested that it was just too much for everybody, and that we should just not bother. My son, almost 15, is too old for the reading of Olive, The Other Reindeer, and actually forgot about the Advent box I have filled for him every year with tiny treats of money, candy and toys. I have, sometimes, a feeling that everything that Christmas should be is evading me, and I resent it.

I realized, yesterday, that Christmas is only nine days away and we still have no tree, I have baked no cookies, and I have not seen a single “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” “White Christmas” or (my personal favorite) “Love, Actually.” The long window box that hangs from our porch is not, as it usually is by now, filled with an assortment of pine boughs, holly and mistletoe. I have bought gifts, but they aren’t wrapped, and I can’t seem to get myself excited about the usual ritual of putting on a Christmas CD, making myself a cup of hot chocolate with a candy cane in it, and blazing through piles of gifts, ribbon and paper with bits of Scotch tape stuck to the back of my hand. We have lights up because my husband is a better person than I am, and he somehow understood that it would be too unbearably sad not to have the tiny white lights wound around our porch columns to brighten the long, winter nights.

Desperate to find some holiday spirit, I noticed several mostly-empty jars of peanut butter in the pantry, and thought about my father making pine cone feeders for the birds. He is 85 now, and it’s too hard for him to maintain his traditional routine of putting out seed, suet cakes and other delights for the birds, but he trained me well. The peanut butter triggered a memory of sitting at the kitchen table in childhood, spreading peanut butter onto pine cones, rolling them in seed and hanging them like small Christmas gifts for the Cardinals, Bluejays, Grosbeaks and Tufted Titmice. We knew that the squirrels would find a way to get their fat, fluffy bodies onto the slenderest of filaments in order to steal a snack, and nobody much minded – squirrels have to eat, too.

And so, although I had a list of things that really needed doing, I went to hunt for pine cones in the woods near my parents’ house. While I was there, I clipped some holly for the window box. Later, we bought a Christmas tree and carried the boxes of ornaments and stockings down from the attic. After the groceries were bought and stored, the laundry was humming, and my husband and son had started the annual business of adjusting the tree in its stand so that it pointed towards the ceiling rather than the North wall, I assembled my pine cones, the peanut butter jars, a knife and a bag of tiny seeds. Channeling my childhood self, I began to spread the nubbly shapes with peanut butter and roll them in seed, imagining the delight of some tiny feathered creature as he discovered one last beak-full of food tucked between the little shingles. Humming something, which turned out to be “Silent Night,” I found some yarn in my craft stash, and went into the cold, dark night to hang them from trees near our ground floor windows.

As I sat writing at my desk this morning, a flash of brightest red caught my eye. I looked up, and outside my window was a Cardinal, regal in his red cap with its jaunty feather even as he tried to hold on to the pine cone and eat his fill of nut butter and seeds. That lovely, red bird against the stark background of bare trees and gray sky was, for me, a miracle. In that moment, before he flew off to his family, I felt the warmth of connection to my father the bird lover, myself as a child, and the possibility of tiny, startling and beautiful occurrences that give us hope.

This Christmas is different, my family is changing, and nothing can stay the same forever. There is always beauty in the world, though, and it doesn’t come from the mall or from frantic human merry-making. It is always available, given graciously and freely by the natural world around us in the graceful arc of birch branches under snow, or the great silver coin of a full moon suspended in the winter sky. The natural world is always in flux; even as I admire a crystalline icicle there are miniscule seeds growing beneath the cold, damp earth. I have been trying desperately to hang on to seasons past, but the truth is that everything changes.

Sometimes, if we hustle, budget, strive, and calculate we can create a holiday that looks like it should, from the perfect tree in the front window to the ancestral bowl of figgy pudding after the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. If we are blessed with material wealth, we might even be able to give our loved ones everything they want in boxes with bright ribbons. Sometimes, though, if we stop trying to make things happen as they should, we are given the gift of a Cardinal on a pine cone.

Control, Anxiety and Pork Fried Rice

I am a control freak of the highest order. Since birth, I have vibrated to some internal frequency that requires that questions are answered, clutter is removed, and lists are prepared against any wild card fancies of the universe. I don’t require that things go my way, necessarily – there is nothing I enjoy more than corralling and tranquilizing an irrational situation into submission. Or, more accurately, believing that I have done so. Since control is generally illusory, all of my lists, sub-lists, plans, recommendations, admonitions and resolutions are no more solid than a bridge of damp Kleenex across a pit of starving alligators.

Prevention is good, planning is beneficial, but in the end there simply things that can’t be controlled. In my life, those things include the health of my parents, the moods of my teenage son, changes at work, the national economy, and the changes in my body that come with age. I try to control what I can, but that’s a mixed bag; no one is terribly bothered if I resolve to take my daily pills, do some yoga, and try to get more sleep. On the other hand, my parents and son are notoriously unwilling to live under the glass cloche of my loving supervision. They will accept my help, all of them, but none of them sees it as a quid pro quo arrangement in which my support triggers a reciprocal obligation on their end to do what I say, when I say it. With the kid, there is the option of Consequences, but to date I have not been successful at sending my parents to their rooms, taking away their computers and cell phones or grounding them.

At the root of all of my planning, spinning, and attempts to weave the irrational into a tidy pattern is anxiety. I am a person who is often complimented on how “calm” I am, and how serene and accommodating is my demeanor. I am actually a tooth-grinding, tight-shouldered migraineur with a recurring tic and a tendency to break out in hives when the heat is turned up high enough. I know that the holistic solution to all of this is to give up the illusion of control and just be with whatever is going on. Sometimes I can get there. Other times, though, I slog through the mess closest to me and promise myself that if I can get everything under control, there is a valley of Peace and Completion just ahead. If I make the calls, make the lists, read the fine print, clear up the misunderstanding with the bank and turn my receipts in at work, I can…relax. I can sink deeply into some robin’s egg blue pouf of anxiety-free heaven with the faint scent of lavender in the air, a book in my hand and all phones disabled. It is the ultimate illusion: the end of my to-do list throws a vast, disparate universe into complete immobility until such time as I finish reading a really good novel and take a nap.

Lest you should think me a rigid martinet, there are times when I am singularly and spectacularly out of control. I lose control, and the ship begins to sink. I remain bravely at the wheel for as long as I can stand it, and then I flee. By the time the bow goes under the cresting waves, I am lost. I am eating all the waffles in the freezer, I am on my way to Walgreens to buy the 102d tube of undetectable beige lipstick, or posting some ridiculous status on Facebook to get confirmation that I am Fun and Interesting.

All of which leads me to pork fried rice.  Last week, as part of my compulsive one-woman ordering of the universe, I braised a pork loin in Hoisin sauce and served it with rice. The plan was to make pork fried rice later in the week. When Pork Fried Rice came up on my calendar, I balked. I didn’t feel like cooking that, or anything else. I was getting a cold. I was grumpy. The Menu List was clear and assertive, but I balked. I looked at my husband who is, most of the time, far saner than I can ever hope to be. “How would you like to learn to make pork fried rice?” I asked him, testing the waters.

“That would be great” he said. And so I outlined for him the mixing of the cold rice and leftover pork with a bit of egg for binding, the necessary additions of scallions, onions, peas, sesame oil and soy sauce, and the making of a flat egg pancake to cut into thin strips. I retreated to the bedroom to read my book, and felt as cosseted as a beloved child as I relaxed, smelling delicious smells, knowing that someone else was doing the doing. Cooking is my thing, at work and at home, and I have always been the planner, the cooker, and the supervisory hoverer when food was prepared. I let it go, and was rewarded with a hot bowl of perfect pork fried rice. The kitchen was not as clean as I would have left it, and the dish was spicier than mine, but everybody was happy.

As I maneuvered a last pea between my chopsticks, I had the kind of inspiration that comes only from a free and unclenched psyche. My son was sledding with two friends, and I texted him to ask if they might like to come over and share the remaining mountain of rice. “Delivery?” he texted back. I considered. I was un-showered and in my pajamas, and it was a frigid night with icy roads.

“Sure.” I replied. “10 mins.” I packed up three containers of rice, three forks and three napkins, shoved my feet into boots, threw my coat on and drove to the parking lot near the sledding hill. Three cold-pinked faces appeared outside my window; I rolled it down and handed out the bag. “Daddy made it” I told my son. “Be sure to tell him it’s awesome.” I invited them to sit in the warm car to eat, but they liked the idea of sitting at the top of the frigid sledding hill clutching hot food and sharing some Iron John bonding thing.

I would get no credit for the food. I would never see my Tupperware or my forks again. If my car spun off the icy road I would end up at the hospital unwashed and in unmatched pajamas and Ugg boots. I was off book, out of control, letting life unfold as it would.

It felt wonderful.


It is August. I am lying on my Marimekko bedspread in my room at home and the house is filled with the smell of ratatouille. My mother makes a huge batch every year at this time, and my parents eat it with everything and serve it at dinner parties until the well runs dry and the last scrap of eggplant has been devoured with a forkful of rice. She makes it on a Saturday, listening to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcast while my father sits in his office finishing the syllabus for Humanities 105 amid a pile of books about Renaissance art. I passionately hate the opera, which is why my door is closed and I have headphones clamped over my ears. She will store the stuff in a huge pottery bowl, a bumpy, nubbly thing in ombre creams and browns. I find it a little déclassé, that bowl, just as I am occasionally troubled by the fact that we do not live in a house with both a living room and a family room. It is, I understand in some vague way, part and parcel of having parents who spend money on trips to Europe and Maine and drive used Ford station wagons, who listen to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and take me to McGovern rallies.

I will not eat the ratatouille, having taken my requisite “no thank you bite” some time in kindergarten. I think it is gross, slimy, dark and clumpy. I do not eat eggplant except when my mother makes her famous Eggplant Soufflé which converts many eggplant haters over the years. She is good at that, cooking things people usually hate and making them into something disarming and sublime.  I will gladly eat the eggplant soufflé, and the garlicky grilled lamb in pita bread, but I can’t bring myself to eat her ratatouille.

The smell, though, the slowly cooking zucchini, tomato, eggplant, onion and garlic, is a fragrant index finger pointing me towards fall, school, cooler air, bags of apples, and new clothes in hunter green and deep burgundy.  Lying on my bed I am surrounded by the Back-to-School issues of “Seventeen,” “Glamour” and “Mademoiselle.” They came out in July, while we were still in Maine, living in a cottage on Boyden Lake. I bought them at the Rexall when we went into Eastport to do laundry, buy groceries and get books out of The Peavey Memorial Library where I checked out and read all of the Nancy Drew mysteries every single summer until I started college. I had sat at the dilapidated table in the cottage paging earnestly through the extra-thick, glossy grails of fashion over and over again, asking my mother to look at the bell bottoms I liked, or the sweater with the little belt at the waist.

We could not shop until we went home again, but I could plan, bend back corners, change my mind, and imagine myself strolling magnificently into orchestra or algebra in my Levi’s cords, Famolare shoes and cute sweater. I am not particularly cute, but I feel my annual surge of hope as I look at ads for Love’s Fresh Lemon, Twice As Nice shampoo, and Clearasil. I have been swimming in the lake all summer, and walking the mile to get fresh water from the Artesian well at the main house, my hair is lighter from the sun and my skin looks better with a light tan. Lying on my back, pushing aside the spine of a magazine, I check my stomach – it feels flat. It’s a good start, and with the right stuff I will make my curly hair into golden Farrah feathers, my spotted skin into the rosy, glowing face I see in the Bonne Bell ads and my hearty peasant body into something long, lithe and covetable in a leather jacket and a little dab of musk.

We will have shopping trips, my mother and I; we will go to the Jacobson’s Miss J Shop for sweaters, upstairs to buy shoes, and then to the Levi store for bell-bottomed cords in colors reminiscent of the hated ratatouille. I will get my hair cut at Staci’s Swinging Coiffures, where Sally will purse her glossy pink lips and remind me that “curly haired gals” need to be sure to blow dry all the moisture out if we want our hair to stop frizzing by lunchtime. Despite her earthy, lefty habits, my mother is the daughter of a Hungarian Princess, and she understands the transformative power of having shiny hair, beautiful clothes and a dresser covered with perfume bottles.

I will call my cello teacher and set up my lesson time for the school year, and I will start practicing again in earnest, after months of sitting on the deck at the cottage and playing Bach suites because I like the way the notes seem to float out across the woods and over the lake, reaching the loons, and unseen people rowing out to see if they can catch some fish for dinner. I will begin calling my friends, riding my bike to their houses to make sure that the delicate filaments of adolescent fellowship are still strong enough to bear the weight of a new school year of crushes, algebra tests and the lunchroom jungle. I will buy new notebooks and write my schedule on the back of one with dashes for each unexplained absence I am permitted. I need to be able to mark them off as I go, and to use my entire allotment of absences in math, science and social studies; I will never miss a day of orchestra or English.

I do not know then, cannot imagine this life where I am the mother, the cook, and the arbiter of school shopping. I have become a lover of opera, of eggplants, of Bohemian living far from the showy, unused “living rooms” of the suburbia I once envied. I am planning to make ratatouille this weekend, using my mother’s recipe. I feel that change in the air, the pulse of summer lassitude quickening to autumn’s insistent rhythm. My own child will not eat ratatouille, and he will flee to his room when I plug in my iPhone and blast “Tosca” through the kitchen speakers. He will not be looking at magazines, though – he is not a reader, not a musician, not tormented by dark doubts about his looks or his place in the world. He will be playing Xbox Live and texting, and scheming to buy new bearings for his longboard. It is different, and it is the same, the years of my life bound together by the smell of roasting vegetables, the silky ascent of a soprano voice, and the change in seasons.

I wonder if she still has that bowl.

Hair (Not) The Musical

The men in my family have a barber. His name is Bill, a laconic, bald gentleman able to discuss basketball, cars, and even politics with encyclopedic knowledge, gratifying interest, and no trace of offensive opinion. He has cut my father’s hair for 47 years, and my brother’s for 44; my brother has only once, in desperation, allowed The Scissors Of Another to touch his loyal head. My husband joined the fold when we were married, and Bill cuts the hair of my son and both of my brother’s sons. All six of these men and boys, those closest to me by blood or marriage, make the pilgrimage to Arkie’s Barber Shop for the ministrations of Bill when they can’t see their eyes, feel annoying contact between hair and collar, or need to be particularly spiffy for the beginning of school, a family wedding, or an important meeting. It’s a tradition.

I remember Sam’s first haircut in Bill’s chair as if it happened last week rather than twelve years ago. My beautiful boy draped in a vomitously patterned plastic cape was fascinated by the hydraulic chair and the big mirror, lulled into calm after watching Daddy get his hair cut, first. There were no tears but mine as those sandy curls fell onto the floor; he was always a good boy, an easy boy, interested in everything around him and possessed of an inherently mellow vibe. We took pictures, Bill kindly bent down and selected a perfect curl from the floor for me (still kept in a silver box in my top drawer), and Sam made an easy transition from Baby to Boy with his short, straight, summer-cool hair.

As a young man, Sam continues to be mellow, easy, and interested in the world around him. He is a skateboarder, and an aficionado of dub step music. He is loving with his baby niece, still kisses his aging beagle, treats girls kindly, and jumps to open doors for his grandmother. He is also an incredibly filthy slob who can wreck a clean kitchen as if he had the eight hands of an Indian deity, capable of sleeping all day in the summer, uninterested in reading, and a master in the art of wheedling us into schemes involving sleepovers, online purchases and the drilling of various holes in the walls of our geriatric home to facilitate the placement of  speakers, projectors, and Xboxes. He would like a tattoo. He trades on Craigslist with canny facility and a steady stream of strangers appearing at our door to pick up bikes, drop off game systems and, if my mother is correct, murder all of us in some spectacular and newsworthy manner. He seems to me to be a fairly normal boy of his age, with the “Intuitive” dial turned up higher than most, and the “Book Learning” dial on a lowish setting.

Recently, Sam looked at me from beneath swathes of heavy, sandy hair and requested that a haircut be scheduled soon. He looks good with long hair, but it really was too long, particularly for an impending work trip to an Indian reservation in the brutal heat of South Dakota. Given the weight of his hair, it would have been equivalent to performing manual labor in 90+ degree heat with a coiled beaver atop his head. In the meantime, we learned that Bill-the-Barber had taken the first step towards retirement, and was no longer working on Saturdays. This was a huge complication for my male kinfolk; my retired father could get his hair cut any time, but my brother and husband could only get their own hair cut, or take the boys in on the weekend. We dithered, we discussed whether another of Arkie’s finest could cut Sam’s hair, and his hair grew until it touched the tip of his nose and covered his ears.

Sam reminded me that last summer, on a whim, he had gotten his hair cut by a woman at a hip unisex hair establishment in a neighboring city. It had been a stylish cut, and he had actually looked pretty great. He vouchsafed to me, in strict mother-son confidence, that he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with the straight-edged, traditional barbershop cuts. He is no metrosexual, this boy with dirty fingernails and the odd trove of cheese sticks and Funyuns under his bed, but he has a growing sense of individual taste and style. Yesterday, I woke him from his slightly sweaty summer day stupor, and drove him to the salon where I get my hair cut on those rare occasions when I get my hair cut. There were no signed pictures of football coaches on the walls, no piles of “Sports Illustrated” magazines, and no 60s wood paneling on the walls. Sam was immediately handed off to the kindly Jill, who thought he was adorable. He did not want me to go back with him, so I settled on a deep couch to play Angry Birds, sniff spray fumes and listen for the occasional sound of my son’s gruff, baritone laughter.

He came back to me looking handsome, and smiling goofily. There was a lot of “product” in his hair, and Jill had blown in some kind of poufy bump at the crown that I knew would never be duplicated at home. I paid for the cut (double the usual tariff at Arkie’s), bought a tub of some kind of “piecing wax,” and nodded solemnly at the instructions to come back for a trim in six weeks. On the way to the car, Sam said he liked the cut, but allowed as how “that lady was really OCD, mom, like she kept stopping and sticking her fingers in my hair and moving it around and pulling pieces up and then putting it all back.” I told him that was not so much a sign of mental illness as the hallmark of a stylist, a different world from the wet-comb-cut technique of a barber. He was handsome, happy, and comfortable in his own skin. He is embarking on a new life, this boy who is my heart, a life in which he creates his own traditions.

When Bad Parenting Ruins Good Restaurants

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Last night we went out to dinner at a low-key sports bar/restaurant. As we ordered, a family appeared: an extraordinarily pregnant mother, a father, grandparents and what appeared to be twins about three years old. One was wailing on the way in, and later there was whining, running around, jumping on the banquette seats, and a loud war over the crayons provided by the waitress. Their seating arrangement seemed odd to me, in terms of small-child wrangling; mom, dad and grandpa sat at one table leaving grandma and the kids in a booth. Mom’s back was to her progeny, and dad seemed to be surrounded by some manner of invisible barrier that prevented him from seeing, hearing, or jumping up to give grandma a much needed assist.

I love children. My niece and nephews believe that I am a child because I am not very grown up, and I count several people under the age of ten among my dearest friends. I have also been the mother of a young child, as the result of which I feel deep compassion for anyone whose infant decompensates in the middle of grocery shopping or whose toddler kicks and wails while boarding a plane. I have been that mother. Babies and toddlers are not yet responsible for their actions, and if a parent has made sure that no one is wet, hungry, or missing a nap they have done the best that they can. I do not cherish the idea of a peaceful, sanitized landscape in which children are banned because they bother people.

However, and this is a big however, children need to be taught manners, including restaurant manners, and three is old enough. (Actually, two is old enough to start). Sure, you can get takeout when you just need dinner in a hurry, but if you never take your child into a real, non-fast-food restaurant and talk about what’s expected, they tend to scream, cry and jump on seats if they are already so inclined. It is your job, as a parent, to teach them, even if it cuts into your dining pleasure.

I remember being expected to sit at restaurant tables for seemingly endless periods while the grownups drank coffee and talked; we learned early on to sit quietly, amuse ourselves and be civilized. Both my brother and I were, at least once, removed by a parent and taken to sit in the car because we were loud, hysterical or otherwise massively annoying. Note, here, that my parents realized the necessity of taking one for the team so that a restaurant full of innocent people could be saved.

I also remember teaching my son about restaurant dining.  First, we made sure that he was well-rested, and that we had an ample supply of diapers, snacks and small diversions. If we knew he was teething, hadn’t napped or was otherwise incapable of being charming we stayed home. When he was good to go, we started lessons about staying in ones’ seat, not throwing things, and the necessity of going immediately outside if there was audible whining or complaining. As he got older we taught him to ask the waitperson politely for what he wanted to eat, and that if he made a mess of straw papers and crumbs that some nice person had to clean up after him. We also spoke often about the fact that whining, crying, screaming and other kinds of carrying on were very unkind to all of the other people who wanted to talk quietly and eat their food. The hardest times, actually, involved the lure of other children who were behaving badly. On those occasions we had to hold the line and explain that those weren’t “bad” kids, but that what they were doing was not what we chose to do, and that it was very sad that they were bothering people.

You know what? It worked. It was tough. My husband and I each missed out on some things, we picked up a lot of crumbs and wrappers, and we had to forego our own conversational whims in order to focus on the task of teaching good restaurant behavior, but it worked. By the time he was four or five Sam was regularly receiving compliments for ordering in an adult way and being polite to (sadly) astonished waitpersons. He was still a little boy, and there was no mistaking him for Lord Fauntleroy, but he was civilized and we were proud of him. I would add that I know many other children who are more than capable of behaving nicely in a restaurant, and in every case it is because someone made the effort to teach them that there are other people in the world and that it is necessary and kind to think of their welfare and happiness.

So in closing, I exhort the young parents of the world as follows: please bring your children out to restaurants so that we may all admire and be energized by their beauty and vitality. Also, please use the experience of dining in public as an opportunity to teach first lessons about self-control, consideration of others, and the swift reality of consequences for uncivilized behavior. If you bring your kids out when they are exhausted, cranky, or undisciplined, and you allow them to ruin dinner for thirty other people so that you can relax and have a burger while they scream and run wild, it is not your children who deserve the glares, whispers and head shakes. It’s you, and you can totally do better.

A Map of New Orleans

Having vowed (in writing, which makes it serious) to have a more open, less fraught relationship with my mother, I am making time at least once a week to take her to lunch and have a good talk. By that I mean that I drive, and she pays for lunch. If my mother lets me pay for lunch, and we are not sharing a meal to celebrate my new job, bonus, lottery winnings or inheritance, it’s time to begin steering her gently towards a neuropsych evaluation.

So yesterday we ended up at a lovely little sushi place where I could eat sushi, and she could have something else. She had already asked me to take her to Talbot’s, for me the retail equivalent of the Bataan Death March, and I had agreed; the whole point of our time together was that I would not look at my watch, think about what else I could be doing, or patronize her with my opinions of her taste in preppy shifts and cardigans. She is my mother, and it is not only unkind but backwards to assume that age and illness have rendered her a child requiring my guidance. As I dabbed a little wasabi on my spicy tuna, she made a second request: since my brother and his wife were going to New Orleans soon, could we stop by the book store so that she could buy them a map?

Before I could stop myself, before I could re-direct my automatic inner know-it-all, I said “no one uses maps, mom. I mean, I’ll take you if you want to go, but they both have smart phones, and he has GPS on his phone, and I just can’t see them hauling out a map.” She put down her chopsticks, and narrowed her eyes.

“Sometimes,” she said, ” no matter what kind of bells and whistles you have, it’s good to have a map to spread out to see what’s near what. I’m not talking about looking up how to get to a specific place; I’m talking about planning a day, or an evening by figuring out what’s in a certain area and within walking distance. I’ve been planning trips since before you were born.” She was right, she was right, she was right, right, right. She had, however, triggered my competitive inner monster, the one which could, if allowed to emerge, cause me to say the sky was puce if she claimed it was blue.

“They can do that on a computer. There are all kinds of programs for trip planning, they have maps, you can do it on Google. We do it all the time. If they really want to,” I added, taking it the inevitable step too far, ” you can even print it out and carry it around.” She was not eating at all any more.

“There’s really no need to speak to me in that tone of voice.” The Tone of Voice. I was immediately tumbled back to my Marimekko high school bedroom, complaining about some injustice or other, claiming that I was being perfectly rational. She would tell me not to use the Tone of Voice because she could tell that beneath my alleged innocence and righteousness,  I was angry, mutinous and sullen. Were I, unaccountably, to fetch up on an abandoned street in Istanbul and whisper something in that tone, perhaps between the posts of the gates to a shuttered mosque at midnight, she would know. She would hear it, she would call me on it, she would be right, and I would feel the tic forming beneath my left eye.

“Okay,” I said, willing my voice to pass the radar, “we’ll go get a map. It would be a nice thing for them to have.”

“Don’t patronize me; I’ll ask your father to take me to the book store. It’s really fine, let’s talk about something else.” I had failed.

“No, really,” I begged, willing her to hear that I was sincere, apologetic, getting back on track. “I think it’s a great idea. We’ll go after we go to Talbot’s.” The tide had turned, as it had every time since approximately 1966. She picked up her chopsticks, contemplating a golden plank of Tonkatsu pork.

“No,” she said as she toyed with the meat, “you’re probably right.” I examined her words for meaning. Did she mean I was right? Did she mean I had been unconscionably cruel and she was wishing she had given birth to someone nicer, like Ted Bundy? Were we past it?

“Really? Because it’s really okay with me,” I focused, and breathed. “I’m so sorry I was snotty about the map. It was a nice idea and I’m sure they’ll use it.” She looked up at me; I knew it was okay. Really okay.

“Thank you. I’m already tired, and I think I’m really only good for one stop after lunch anyway.”

“I can take you another day – maybe after lunch next week?”

“That would be great.” She meant it. She ate her pork and rice, I ate my sashimi, and we were easy again, both eavesdropping on the tables around us, raising our respective eyebrows when the group of women at the corner table burst into raucous laughter. We were okay, and if I needed to take her to buy a map of New Orleans next week, that was fine. If my brother left it behind on his kitchen table, that was life. For two strong-willed women leaving the terra firma of my 47 years and moving gingerly into a delicate boat on uncharted waters, we were doing better than might be expected. If one of us fell overboard, the other would be there (possibly in a tasteful Talbot’s nautical ensemble) to pull her out. There are no maps for where we’re going.

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