Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cream Hill Lake, 1975

I was seven years old, and it was late August. Each summer my family spent July and August in northwest Connecticut, a place dense with foliage and riddled with mosquitoes. I had the bites to prove it. They'd taken over my arms and legs, these fresh swollen pink mounds interspersed with still-healing bites scabbed over, and new skin seeking just the tiniest bit of purchase against my furious scratching.

For weeks I'd watched the tawny, golden-haired older boys race around the clubhouse, their unconcerned footfalls shaking the floors of the rickety wooden building where we got dressed and undressed in narrow, dank stalls, and where above us the non-swimmers played rowdy and hotly contested games of ping-pong.

But I was a swimmer, even though the lake was so cold that it hurt down to the bone each day when I'd finally waded in enough to dunk my head in the water, even though the lake was choked with moss and alarmingly spongy underfoot. Even though. I was a little fish, had been swimming for at least a few years, but the rules at the club were that kids seven and under had to stay, roped in by buoys, in a shallow area shaped like a crescent and far too skinny in the middle. I hated it there. Every now and then my legs, when not brushing against slimy tendrils of lakeweed, would hit a warm patch. I'd sigh, and out of the corner of my eye I'd catch Mrs. Willoughby's youngest boy behind me in the act of peeing underwater, his face turned to the sun and made beatific by release.

As early July became late July, and finally August, I gazed with increasing hostility and envy at the impossibly long-limbed boys and girls who were allowed to swim to first raft, a glorious place sanctified by my fierce desire for it.  A robin's egg blue slide sat at the far end of the raft, and, it being a different era from today's safety-conscious one, there were no restrictions on how a kid might make his way down it. Head first, feet first, on belly or back, it was all fair game. The only rule, if it could be called a rule, was that the bigger the splash the slider made on hitting the water, the worthier the trip.

I don't think I've ever since felt so acutely the pain of being a younger sibling, as my brother was among the happy crowd of first-raft kids good-naturedly jockeying for position in line, so eager to take a ride down the slide kept brilliantly shiny by near constant contact with dripping wet swimsuits. I made a decision that was entirely out of character for me: I was going to swim to first raft, rules be damned. I was not yet an elegant swimmer (that would come later, reinforced by my gymnastics training), but I was strong, stronger than the adults guessed. They were always taken aback by how tiny I was. I'd been born premature, and I hadn't yet caught up to my peers in height or weight (that, too, would come later).

I looked around to make sure the teen lifeguard, his hair white blonde and so long it met his shoulders, wasn't watching. He never was watching. He was busy socializing with the long-haired girls in their halter-top string bikinis, and who could blame him? So I began to swim. Vigorously, steadily, intently. I'd made it three-quarters of the way before I was spotted by my mother. I hesitated, looked back at the shore, and found her hands waving about crazily in the air. Her mouth gaped open, frighteningly wide, but I couldn't hear her words. No matter. She looked mad, and mad. Both senses of mad fit her equally that afternoon. Understand this: My mother was not especially concerned for my well-being. Instead she was furious because my “indiscretion” had interrupted her ongoing flirtation with a genial, balding fellow named John, one of the only eligible men at the club that summer.

My mother’s indignant squawks served to rouse the lifeguard from his blissed-out stupor. In a flash this lanky, sun-kissed teen was in the water and at my side. He lifted me out of the lake and carted me like a football to shallower water. In his clutches I was rigid with fury -- and humiliation, too, as nearly every pair of eyes at the club was now focused on this scene. Never one for scenes, I kept thinking, If you had let me finish what I started, we'd all just be going about our business right now.

I would have made it to first raft. And had I slid gleefully off the slide and back into the familiar dark green stew we called a lake, I would have been able to preserve the truth of my own strength and confidence, a smooth stone in my pocket that I could have caressed at will as I encountered the unforgiving social terrain of the upcoming years.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

This January Afternoon

Walking past my fourteen-year-old's door, I freeze, surprised. He has just laughed while Skyping with a friend. That laugh sounds like no laugh I have ever heard from him. These children of mine, they become closer and closer to strangers. Loving strangers, to be sure, but strangers nonetheless.

As it should be.

I just finished reading a book*, a memoir written by a young neurosurgeon who died, far too young, of lung cancer. I've always been drawn to stories about death and dying, not because I am morbid, but because I imagine that life at its end gets stripped down pretty well to the bone, and when that happens, useful truths emerge.

From the memoir I learned that disaster means "bad star": a truth, a kind of lovely one suggesting that one's fate is determined by something as remote and unknowable as a star. There is comfort in that. Nothing is personal; no one is to blame. David Bowie is mortal, just like the rest of us. Well, why shouldn't he be?

The winter light tells all. I find beauty in how it exposes the fine lines on my face, or the places in the hardwood floor that have gone grey over time. Winter is the most honest season.

I want -- oh, no, not today, not on this January afternoon.

I want for nothing.

*Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

When your male children grow old enough, it becomes apparent that they do not understand you. The fact of their gender finally trumps the connection - intense, near reverent - forged in utero. Oh, but they are fond of you, and take care with you, as if you might break. (You might.) They show affection even as they cock their heads to one side, uncomprehending. What they do when they are alone, you imagine, is shrug and allow thin plumes of exasperation to rise up - but never in front of you. You are honored, and will continue to be so honored, simply by having substantiated them. They will not forget that you conveyed them here, even if they forget everything else.


At Christmas I carry my ghosts, my mother on one side, my grandmothers on the other. From my ordinary family life I am removed, preoccupied with the comfort and care of these people who are not able to be there. I do all that is expected of me, but if you were to take my photograph during the holidays you'd find me pale and blurry, not quite present. I do not think that my sons or husband notice my half-absence. That is for the best.


I seek out video footage of the city I lived in for the length of my childhood as if I might find myself in it. As if in a crowd of people walking up Madison Avenue I might spy my mother, Audrey Hepburn lookalike, walking with a little blonde slip of a thing fighting to keep the pace. (Children had to accommodate their parents then. Parents did not accommodate their children.) Perhaps my grandmother would have joined us, her red lipstick vivid, her hair done up in a chignon. Elegantly dressed but never dismayed by a child's grubby fingers tugging at her sleeve.

Sometimes I wonder how we go on. I mean this not in a trivial way - of course we go on, one foot in front of the other, all that. More how we lose these people so important that they might well be appendages and then still manage to be fine, better than fine, even, for more years than the years we spent with them.

I do it by imagining that I have lived not one but two lives. There was a life then, there is a life now, and there is only the faintest overlap between the two. The overlap is greatest at Christmas. 


With ferocity I love my children, even if they don't know half of me or the people who made me. Love is elastic and manages to cover over the gaps and crevices pretty well, I think. When my children look at me across the Christmas table this year, they will find neither my mother nor my grandmothers. But somehow I am certain that those three women will peek around me to see these grown/almost grown boys, and love not the descendants they imagined they'd have but the descendants slouching in their chairs, refusing most of this food -- love them and me as we are, all these years later.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

On Tangible and Intangible Rewards

There is a first grader in our classroom who is struggling a bit with learning how to read. The other day I noticed that when we played a board game during indoor recess, this child seemed motivated by collecting the chips that accompanied the game - red, yellow, blue, and green plastic counters. I wondered whether using those same chips would encourage more perseverance in sounding out words during reading times. And lo, it worked!

I came home from work happy at a small but real success, and relayed to my teen how chips had worked to encourage reading stamina.

"Wait," he said. "Potato chips? THAT IS AWESOME."

We all have our reinforcers.


I myself am struggling to lose weight. I've noticed that when I finish my work day my first instinct has been to go to Starbucks to treat myself. But because I am trying to move beyond food and drink as reward, I have been making a list of other, less tangible rewards I can offer myself - a phone conversation with an old friend, a walk, getting a few chores done. I don't have to tell you that this kind of reframing is not easy, but I think it may be especially challenging for a person who as a child was offered treat after treat after treat.

When your parent has an eating disorder, as mine did, she is likely thinking about food obsessively. She may deny herself the food but bestow it (often in excess) on her children. My favorite foods were always in the refrigerator. One might have found three or four varieties of cookies - all gourmet - and as many kinds of ice cream in my childhood home. Of course my friends loved it. I took it for granted and did not eat at all healthfully, which did not impact my health even slightly as I was tiny, a gymnast who practiced a good twelve hours per week.

No longer am I a gymnast. No longer am I skinny.

Old habits are the hardest to break, aren't they? Especially ones formed in childhood, I think. My mother did not offer love easily or often, but she did offer food, and food is a form of love, yes? Even if it is not homemade food, and even if the providing has more to do with mental illness than with mental health.


I remember particularly these Valentine's Day cookies that came from a Manhattan gourmet food shop called Word of Mouth. They were heart-shaped Linzer Tortes with raspberry filling and lemon curd icing, and yes, they were divine. Every February my mother ordered my brother and me our own boxes of twenty-four of these cookies. Twenty-four huge cookies for each of us!


I am not a child and have not been one for longer than the entirety of my childhood. Colorful counters are not rewarding to me, if they ever were. Word of Mouth closed many years ago. The reward I must seek, I think, is the anticipation of a long life in which I remain healthy and mentally sharp. Yet how hard is it to work toward something that is a good twenty to thirty years in my future, should all go well before then?

Starbucks and I, we've had to break up. Still, other people have worked through far greater struggles than mine. I believe that I can do this, and surely belief is an important prerequisite of success.

Onward. Food may be love, but love, it does not have to be food.

The learning, it never stops.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

How Do You Bridge the Distance When There's No Distance?

We talk a lot about what today's teens and young adults have: information, so easily acquired. Opportunities, so easily acquired. A global awareness and sensitivity made possible, I'd argue, by the ease of communicating with and learning from people whose bodies may be continents away but whose minds and hearts are as close at hand as one's computer.

What we spend less time discussing is the ways in which these incipient adults have been deprived of experiences we older people took for granted.


When I was the age my eldest son is now, I was busy falling in love. There's nothing terribly profound about the experience of falling in love, except of course in the minds of the lovers themselves. Attempts to make art out of what it is to fall in love do not translate very well to the larger community, nor should they. At the same time, to the person in love for the very first time, everything becomes charged. No act is ordinary, infused as it is with thoughts of the often-absent partner: Where is he or she? What is he doing now? When will I see her?

I fell in love during a windy, rainy fall in Providence, Rhode Island. The relationship was cemented one snowy December evening with a kiss on a street corner in New York City, a kiss witnessed by a waiting taxi driver who had the forbearance not to honk his horn and gesture to his running meter.

As newly minted couples do, we spent every moment together on our historic college campus until mid-May arrived, and with it the punishing surrender to the end of the semester and thereafter a summer spent in different towns, too far away from one another for even the promise of a visit.

I had not expected the physical pain one could feel in missing someone.

What he and I did -- how we managed, really -- was to write to one another. (We phoned each other, too, but phone calls were expensive, timed as they were by the minute.) Real letters, real envelopes, real stamps. Long waits between the arrival of one letter and the next. The knocking of my heart as I rifled through the day's mail. How it felt to see his handwriting. I still remember his typewriter 'a's' (an affectation, to be sure) all these many years later. I remember committing to memory the few events in my week that I deemed worthy of describing for his benefit. I remember planning how I would shape those events for his eyes. For his eyes, and for his eyes only.


Those days are long gone, as is the person who figured in them. The mail in my mailbox today consists largely of bills, credit card offers, and catalogues. Money in, money out. My own children do not write letters, except when requested by me to write a thank-you note for a gift received.

And the young lovers of today? They don't experience a break from their loved ones. They don't have to. They can Skype, IM, text, or tweet. Think about this:

They never have to experience a day, or a week, apart.

I wonder how their discourse is affected by its very frequency. Does it turn banal? Do they write like long-married couples? "Can you pick up milk while I take the cat to the vet?"

Is there time for layers of meaning to accumulate?

Do I remember my old relationships as well as I do because my brain had to imagine them and perhaps even sustain them during periods when a partner and I were forced apart?

I can't help but feel a sense of loss on behalf of these kids who seem to have everything. Their world is so wide, but how deep is it? How deep can it be?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

From There to Here, From Here to There, Tricky Thoughts Are Everywhere

It starts innocently enough. But everything starts innocently enough, doesn't it? What I want to say is this: thinking is slippery. It won't stay put. Think a thing, and before too long you are thinking something you don't want to be thinking about, and what else to do at that point but take to bed?

This boy walks into my house. One or two years older than my son. I almost laugh at the knowledge that he is here to inspect our heating system. But inspect it he does. Afterward, shy but earnest, he approaches me. "Ma'am?" he begins. For the second time in an hour I suppress laughter. I will never get used to being anyone's 'ma'am.' "A part in your heat pump has rusted through. Here: I took pictures." He starts to pass me his smartphone. I demur. "I trust you," I say. "No need to show me photos. Not sure I'd know what I was seeing even if I were to look at them." How can I not trust this child? Perhaps he'd like to play with the Legos in our basement? He looks disappointed in me. "Would you like to show me the pictures?" I ask, understanding too late. He nods. "OK," I agree. I pay attention to his explanation of the part he shows me, although I can't for the life of me see what is wrong with it. He is happy that I am listening, or seeming to.

I remember to ask about the cost. "How much?" I inquire. "$87.11," he tells me, "and a discount if you pay now, by cash or check."

I cannot pay now. It is the end of the month. Silly boy, he does not know about this yet, the end-of-the-month problem. "Can you bill me instead?" I ask.

Again he looks downcast. I am turning down a 2% discount, and life has not taught him the reason why. "I guess so," he offers, after a time. Perhaps he is hoping that I will change my mind. I won't. I cannot.


Next week I turn forty-eight years old. I had thought once, when I was the technician's age, that I would long since be out of debt by the age of forty-eight. Instead the debt has only increased, and I am not even starting to pay for anyone's college education until next year. The numbers terrify me.

Everything terrifies me these days, the fault of that damn thinking that I cannot manage to secure in place.


The cats keep throwing up. Because they are both black, and because the kitten is nearly grown, the two of them look alike, at least from a distance. And they like to throw up in private, being tidy creatures by nature, so I never know which of them is the culprit, or the victim, more charitably. Oscar announces that he is going to throw up with a frantic, tell-tale meow. Kind of him, to spare me the clean-up of the carpet and allow me to move him to a hard floor before he gets sick. Hairballs, or something more? I put it down to hairballs, because I am afraid to move to the list of what else it could be, which would require me to consider vet costs and pet mortality, neither of which I am up to considering right now.


I am trying to reassure my high school senior that the college he goes to is not so important in the long view, that he will be happy at any number of colleges, that the college toughest to get into is not necessarily the place where he will thrive. "Look at me!" I exclaim. "All the education in the world, at top universities no less, and I am working at an eleven-dollar-an-hour job. I like my work, but you just never know what your life's path will be." "That's true," he acknowledges, drawing out the second word, and then pauses. Maybe he is waiting for more from me. Is there more that I can say, something that won't take me down the rabbit hole?

I stay silent. I don't - I can't - continue. Here's something else I can't continue: to accompany my son on his college visits and wonder, as we tour campus after campus, "How would I have fared here? What could I have done differently in school, or after?" It is not about me, not now.

The list of things to think about is so much shorter than the list of things not to think about. Is this a problem peculiar to middle age?

Luckily there is no shortage of cat vomit to clean, no thinking required.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Fear of Flying

The boy was only four. His heart on display for everyone to see, for anyone to rend. He thought he could fly. Like Spiderman, or Superman. And when he visited his grandmother’s ninth floor apartment in New York City, and looked out the windows in his mother’s old bedroom, he found, to his astonishment, a stage custom made for a boy who wanted nothing more than to soar. Buildings as far as he could see, cars so tiny they could be his Matchbox cars. He pressed his face into the grimy windowpane and dreamed.

His mother found him there and knelt beside him. She wanted to see what he saw. And she did, she did, though she had to squint to make it so, to bring into focus what it was to have been a child in this room. Together they admired the vastness of the city before them. When she stood she issued a mild admonition. The windows stay locked, she said. That’s Grandma’s rule, and my rule, and it’s one of those rules for keeping you safe. The boy nodded. Yes?, his mother repeated. Yes, he murmured, before turning back to where he could fly, down 74th Street and north up 3rd Avenue. He had placed his superhero figures just so, on the windowsill.

When it was time for lunch, his grandmother called him into the kitchen. What have you been doing?, she asked, anxiety lifting her voice into an unfamiliar register, reedy and high. She’d wanted her grandson to visit up to and until the moment he arrived, when she realized that he was now old enough to get into things, to cause disarray. (It may be that she preferred to study photographs of the boy, which overwhelmed every available surface in her home, than to have him, nose persistently running, hair sticking up every which way, before her. It may well be.)

Flying, he answered. Simple and true, the reply.

A mocking noise escaped his grandmother then, out her nose and mouth along with the smoke from her cigarette. Her daughter understood that this was a warning and stopped slicing her son’s banana. Waited. And soon enough:

You DO know that you can’t fly, silly boy. That Superman and Spiderman are made-up characters in comic books? People can’t fly. If you, or Spiderman, were to jump out this window — here the grandmother gestured to the small frosted kitchen window closest to her — you’d end up on the sidewalk. Dead, or nearly so.

The boy stood stock still in front of his grandmother. He’d gone pale, and his mother considered whether he might faint. In her head she was running through the symptoms of shock when her child blurred past her as he fled the kitchen. She found him in the dining room. He was sitting on a hard-backed chair, a chair so formal, so forbiddingly tall that she feared it might swallow him whole at any moment. He was looking straight ahead, not moving. Turned to stone, she thought. She hugged his body to her, and in the safety of her embrace he started to shake and shudder and finally let loose great heaving sobs. I CAN fly, Mommy, he cried. I know you can, baby, she soothed, and stroked his still baby-fine hair.


Back in the kitchen her mother sat, arms crossed, a detestably smug smile on her face. How could you?, wailed the daughter, as she swiped ineffectually at her tear-dampened shirt. Oh, come now, replied her mother. You know as well as I do that he had to find out sometime. And I certainly don’t want to be responsible for the child trying to jump out of the window. Not in my house.

He is FOUR!, shouted the daughter, but she knew she’d lost. Lost so many years ago, in fact, when she was herself a child, and her mother couldn’t bear to be around a person, even a little person, with hopes and dreams and… joy. Yes, that was it. Joy. Her mother had never known joy, and damned if she was going to let anyone else know it. Not if she could help it.


The boy took the loss of his dream with uncharacteristic stoicism. But his mother noticed that not long after they returned from their visit to New York the boy put away his superheroes and moved on, to dinosaurs. Sighing as she lifted the bin of superheroes onto a high shelf in the boy’s closet, she supposed that dinosaurs were a safer bet. They had lived, they had died, they had left evidence of themselves. Their existence indisputable, even on cross-examination.

She thought that once her mother must have believed she could fly, too. Don’t we all? Wondered what crushing blow must have been administered sometime between then and now, a blow that would cause a woman to smother her own grandson’s wonder as carelessly as she extinguished the stub of a cigarette with her shoe.

It must have been an event like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs: sudden. Catastrophic. Shattering. Otherwise… Well. There could be no otherwise, could there?

The boy never again brought his superheroes down from where they lay high up in his closet —

At night did those superheroes dream of flying out of their box and around the house? When you are built to fly but find yourself unable to, what then? 

— which may have been just as well. Even a child would find it difficult to imagine a world where dinosaurs and superheroes might coexist.

written in 2009