Saturday, December 28, 2013

Excuse Me While I Have An Alice-in-Wonderland Moment

A year's worth of blog posts. Eighty posts. A respectable number, but nowhere near the number I published in my first years of blogging. 

Splitting Infinitives was a bit of a lark. I wanted to see whether I still had it in me to write online. Tonight I read through this collection of posts and was strangely unmoved. I know that I wrote them, but at the same time I don't know the 'I' who wrote them.

I can't tell you what that means. If this is an end, it's a petering out. It's the water that refuses to be dislodged from the watering can, that last stubborn teaspoon's worth.

I guess that I don't much feel like naming whatever this is, or defining whether it's an end or not. I imagine that you'll figure it out before I do. You're smart that way.

Even if this is an end, it is not The End. Because every end requires a beginning, but most ends front onto one beginning and back onto another.

So this end, the one I have in mind, has another beginning yet to be written, yet to be lived.

Hope is the thing with feathers. Emily said so. I concur.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Foreign Service

I would have stuck out my tongue, as I always did when concentrating. And used my best Caran D'Ache colored pencils, the ones that taught me about the subtlest shades of color. Each time I returned those pencils to their narrow plastic beds, I felt the satisfaction of recreating my very own rainbow. 

I suppose that I would have circled, not dotted, my i's, and written heartfelt words that couldn't help but turn into heartfelt sentences. As befitted my generation, I probably wrote "S. W. A. K." on the envelope and scrawled another heart or two beside it, for good measure.

I was not writing to my boyfriend. Or maybe I was. I'll leave it for you to decide. To my missing father I sent letters that one day, with a hint of derisive amusement in his voice, he would characterize as "extravagantly feminine" and "sweet."

I was six, seven, eight, and it wasn't a boyfriend I wanted. I was wooing my father. My aim, clear only now in hindsight, was to right whatever wrong I had perpetrated to cast him an ocean away from us. He was in the foreign service, my mother said (with a touch of bitterness and spit), and yet the address to which I mailed my love letters was an A.P.O. Box in New York City, just where I was.

It was confusing on so many levels. To whom was he in service? Why not us? If he was in Italy, why did I not need to use excess postage when I mailed my missives?

Foreign was the only word that sounded familiar. Yes, he was foreign, and so I could imagine him to be anybody at all. I would envision my friends' fathers, choose the best of the lot (although do not imagine for a second that I was picky), and embellish the man until he became impossibly beautiful, a doll I could manipulate as carelessly and authoritatively as I did my Barbies, with their idealized figures and articulated limbs. 

++++++++++++++

Even now, forty years later, I ache to retrieve those florid letters, letters that exposed both my naïveté and my humiliating, outsized need. Once I'd met and gotten to know my real father, I cursed that child who'd lavished her favorite purple and pink colored pencils on a fantasy, who'd romanticized the place where her father lived (sensibly enough), the work that he did (sensibly enough), and the man himself, fatherhood exactly as foreign to him as the countries to which he was assigned during the term of his foreign service, a term lasting the length of one girl's childhood.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Place at the Christmas Table

My teen son emailed his father a wish list for Christmas gifts, because it's 2013, and paper is for Luddites. On it were three items. The first two were not particularly extravagant requests. The third item inflated my middle-aged heart as if it were a child's balloon sent up beyond the clouds on a wish and a dare: donation to the Red Cross.

It isn't so much that he included this on his list, although the list did contain only three items, so proportionally the request carried heft. It's that his idea to do so was wholly unprompted. So now I feel like I can cross something off of my own list, the mental list I've kept since I was a little girl with the values I hoped to instill in my own children, among them the moral imperative to help others. 

He'll be on his own soon, my eldest, and I like knowing that he will make good choices: smart ones, and kind ones.

++++++++++++++++++++

This is a hard time of year for me, as it is for so many others. The people lost to me through death seem as present as if they'd never left. But they are mute. They watch me as I go about my holiday preparations. They nod their approval, or incline their heads quizzically should I misstep. They are with me, so much so that I am tempted to set places for them at my Christmas table. 

Still, I am busy making Christmas memories for my own children, and doing so pleases me enormously. The well-chosen gift unwrapped to a delighted smile is inspiration enough, and there is joy to be found here at my house. There are guests to welcome and make feel at home. There is holiday food to enjoy, food that is rich, decadent, velvety, sumptuous.

So, like many of you, I am sure, tomorrow I will carry joy in one hand and sadness in the other, and the two will balance each other out in a nearly satisfying way.

I will toast my children's futures as I toast my loved ones' pasts, descendants and ancestors intermingling in and about me, all holding pride of place at my Christmas table.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

All the Feelings

By the time you're in your forties, you've accumulated so many pesky feelings. And you've realized that some of the feelings contradict others. But you're sophisticated enough at last to understand that contradictions can and do exist perfectly peacably together, that paradoxically contradiction is not contradictory.

Of course the season that contains the feelings is winter, and its most representative day is Christmas. 

Last week my brother commented on a post I'd written about no one really knowing you the way your family of origin once knew you, because your family of origin knew you before you were even a you to know. Your parents, your siblings saw you before your self had solidified into something consistent and true. They watched as chrysalis became butterfly. No, they helped turn chrysalis into butterfly, its distinctive colors and patterns determined in part by their influence.

In the post I lamented that there was no one left to help me remember Christmas 1971 or Thanksgiving 1982. But obviously I was wrong, because my brother was there.

"Here's what happened on both those holidays, Sarah," he reminded me. "Mom drank too much champagne, turned red, and left the room in the middle of the meal, announcing as she did that she needed to take a shower."

I laughed, because he was so right, and because families are nothing if not inexplicable.

+++++++++++++++++++++

Today is the first anniversary of the shootings in Newtown, CT executed by a boy who took a classroom's worth of shining first- and second-graders from us. Children who were still chrysalises. (Feelings.) On Wednesday my younger child will be twelve years old. Not, in fact, a child, nor even chrysalis. (Feelings.) This will be my fifth Christmas without my mother. (Feelings, these ones comfortably contradictory.) One of my last Christmases with my older son still at home with us. (Feelings.) 

Sometimes I wonder how it is that we manage to walk about without all our feelings spilling out onto the ground for the world to see.

But then I consider Adam Lanza, and I realize that some of us live and die not knowing how to feel all the feelings, and then here I am, floored by more feelings. 

I dream of a world in which we might scatter our feelings like bread for the birds and have them taken up by those like Lanza, who realize only after gobbling them up, greedy and furtive, that they'd been unwittingly starving for just this: the chance to feel, and embrace, everything messy, real, and uniquely human.

And I hope that somewhere, somehow, twenty children are learning how to become themselves, guided by six capable teachers old and wise enough to feel all the feelings.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Hunger

I wake up with a dry mouth and stomach ache. Yesterday I battled stomach flu and lost. But today's stomach ache is not as angry. Insistent, yes, but gentler. This, I realize, is hunger. Just hunger, a sensation I don't experience often enough, a sensation most of us don't experience often enough.

And there she is before me, as she appears every morning. My mother. My gaunt mother.

Will she know if I spill her longest secret? And do I care?

Come here, a little closer. Let me whisper it in your ear:

My mother was anorexic. And bulimic. What they now call bulimarexic. 

In her later years we were gladdened to see her weigh eighty pounds. Eighty pounds was a victory. In what kind of world is eighty pounds a victory?

She denied her diagnosis vigorously. She died before owning her condition. She'd wave her hand, a clear enough dismissal of our inquiries. Breezily, she'd offer, "Oh, you know, the cancer left me with radiation damage in my throat. It's hard for me to eat anything but the softest foods."

And then we'd watch, incredulous, as she lit into a steak, her studied obliviousness enough to take our breath away.

+++++++++++++++++++++

I won't talk about being a girl growing up with a mother obsessed with her weight. You can guess at what it was like. Only this:  

I am out for dinner with my family on the night of my graduation from high school. I am wearing a sleeveless white dress, and I am as thin as I will ever be. Not too thin, but just right. My mother is sniping at me about how ill-fitting the dress is. She is disgruntled because it was my grandmother whom I chose to accompany me to the store to select a dress. In the taxi on the way home from dinner I am sitting with my aunt and uncle. My uncle, generally a genial fellow, takes my arm with unprecedented force and hisses, "Don't let my sister tell you otherwise. You looked beautiful tonight. Perfect." I am stunned. These words are more (louder, clearer, straighter) than I've heard from my potbellied uncle in years.

I do not forget them.

+++++++++++++++++++++

My mother's every waking hour was spent thinking about food. She had scarcely finished one meal before she was planning for the next. When she came to visit me and the boys, her requests for food arrived on the hour and required thrice-daily trips to the gourmet supermarket (the "only" supermarket, as far as she was concerned).

I am pulling in to the diner where we are to eat brunch, even though the boys and I ate breakfast at home and aren't even faintly hungry. It is pouring. My mother lets herself out of the car and races into the restaurant ahead of us. She takes the only umbrella. I am left trying to manage the boys, their jackets, and a few toys. In the rain. I am dumbfounded. By the time the boys and I slide into the booth my mother has chosen, she is already sipping her coffee -- and has already ordered her meal.

+++++++++++++++++++++

This weekend my sister-in-law asked my children if they'd like to eat grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. They nodded. She pulled out the ingredients and left them on the counter for me. She grabbed a frying pan and put it on the burner. And then she turned to face me. I must have looked recalcitrant, or mystified, or some combination. She laughed and called out to my brother, "Your sister is the only person I know who makes me look like a gourmet cook." And then she took over at the stove.

It is, I think, my mother's peculiar legacy. I am so frightened of turning into her that I don't like thinking about food. I don't like preparing food. I spend the least amount of time I can in feeding my kids, while also ensuring that they don't eat crap. It's a fine line, but we manage. It isn't ideal. Luckily my husband likes to cook.

I am not anorexic. Or bulimic. Nor have I ever been so. But I know, first-hand, what it is to be obsessed with food. What that obsession looks like, smells like, tastes like.  

It is quite possibly what I know best of all.


written in 2009