Across the Aisle

On Sunday, my husband, teenage daughter and I took the El downtown to the ballet. When we got on a friend I don’t see often was unexpectedly on board and I was excited to chat with her.

A few stops later a family came on. Three gorgeous kids, between the ages of 2-5 and their father, between the ages of 20-25. The sister, a middle child, sat in the farthest right seat and immediately turned around and looked out the window. She did not turn around again until it was time to get off the train and when she did she was smiling from ear to ear. The older brother grabbed the middle seat and his younger brother cried. He had wanted the middle seat. The father sat across the aisle and told the young boy to stop crying. In a move that will surprise no parent ever, the boy kept crying.

A few minutes later, the father offered the younger brother his headphones. The boy, still devastated by the injustice of not getting the middle seat, rejected the offer. The older brother accepted them, causing his little brother to realize that he did in fact want the headphones and now he had been denied the middle seat and the headphones. There were more tears, sniffles and huge, tragic tears running down his beautiful face. The boys both had small top knots and the little boy’s bounced rhythmically with his crying.

The father did his best to ignore the crying, occasionally looking up and saying such helpful things as “I didn’t ask you to stop crying, I told you to stop crying.” Eventually, he stretched his hand across the aisle and the little boy grabbed it and climbed into his father’s lap. With his head on his father’s shoulder, he let out a few short hiccups and relaxed.

I think most of us would like to be the sister, keeping her own counsel, enjoying the view, unbothered by the drama around her. Occasionally, we may be the older brother, winning at everything. But usually we are the younger brother. An initial disappointment upsets us. We are offered a way out of the upset, but it’s too early or not exactly what we want and we can’t accept it. From there, the downward spiral seems unending, until finally, if we are lucky, a hand we can accept is offered. Sometimes we are the father, overwhelmed by the number of things that can possibly go wrong in such an easy transaction, desperately trying to hold back the grief and the chaos, finally offering  a hand across the chasm and having that hand accepted.

If we are lucky, we learn to reach out our hands. If we are lucky, we learn to accept the hands we are offered.

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Time Travel

To help with a recent surgery I have been taking a water aerobics class. I go on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I am the youngest, by a lot. Most of the people in the class know each other. Some go to a “senior stretch” class directly after. Some go to water aerobics Monday, Wednesday, and Friday as well. There is a different group who only go on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I like the class more than I thought I would. The water feels good. I like listening to the stories the ladies tell. I like seeing the way they tease each other. I like that no one ever talks about how busy or rushed they are. No one asks me why I’m there or what I do for a living. After class, Rose and I hang out in the sauna together.

Today, Zelda, who is normally a Monday, Wednesday, Friday person came to our class. Part way through the class Rich, the lone man in the class, asked her why she wasn’t singing like she does in the other class.

“This is a much quieter class,” Zelda said. “You know in school when you can’t go on the field trip and so they put you in another class for the day and it’s almost the same, but you aren’t quite sure what to do? That’s what this is like. I’m in another class today.” It struck me that this woman with a lifetime of experiences, drew on a memory from 70 years ago to explain how she felt.

They have been repaving our street this week. Sitting at my desk, with the windows open, I can smell the tar. I don’t even have to close my eyes to imagine that it is May and I am instead at a small wooden desk at Hawthorne Elementary where they tarred the roof every year just before school got out.

Summer is my favorite time of year. I like the heat. I like the endless days. I like the feeling that something new is just around the bend. Fall is melancholy for me. It’s a time of endings, a restriction, a settling in to new schedules. Most of the deaths I’ve experienced have happened in the Fall. I resist it wearing my flip flops as long as I can. But today I don’t feel so resistant. I am starting to believe that time travel is real. That we are all only one smell, one emotion away from our past and that our future is so close we can touch it.

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The Labyrinth

There’s a house I’ve walked by for years. It’s a comfortable house, a little ramshackle, it could use a fresh coat of paint. I’ve been inside and the same is true there, too.

Years ago when I pushed a double-wide stroller for hours on end, I would get annoyed at the owner’s lack of yard work. In the spring and fall weeds from the yard spilled over into the sidewalk, making it hard to pass. In later winters, when the dog and I walked the kids to school I would get annoyed at the owners’ half-hearted, or sometimes no-hearted, attempts at shoveling. The puddles and icy patches were dangerous to small legs scurrying to school.

There were days when I wrote nasty notes in my head, but I know the owners a little, and I know the type a lot. I know they mean well. I know that trimming the weeds or shoveling the walk is always just there on the to-do list, just below the current all consuming project they’re working on. A nasty note might be satisfying in the moment, might even make them feel bad enough to get out a shovel in the moment, but ultimately would do nothing.

For years the backyard was over-taken by not just an old playset, but old toys. A toddler’s shopping cart, a small chair. Everything left right where it was, most likely on the day the child decided she was too old to play grocery store. The “child” who once owned the cart is in her 20s, she probably left the cart in the back corner of the yard around the same time we moved here. It sat there, waiting for her, for years. Sometimes I would see a small, white dog, half-blind limping through the relics.

My own parents’ house still has a set of climbing bars in the yard. First used for play, then for smoking. Sometimes when we visit my own kids use them for a complicated basketball/bouncy ball type game, but at 13 and 15, that’s fairly rare. There are currently two scooters and a skateboard, as well as several sizes of baseball bats, taking up room in my living room. I understand.

A couple of years ago, the old white dog died. Then, about a year ago the neighbors took down the playset and removed the old toys. Then, much to my surprise the husband began carefully laying a labyrinth in the yard. Grass was removed, stones and bricks were laid. I watched the daily progress as I walked my own dog. I imagine this is something the owner has always thought about. Creating a calm, centering space he could walk in or view from his porch. I imagine he said “Well, when we don’t need the yard for the dog …”

At the beginning of this summer I noticed there were weeds popping up between the stones. Today, between droppings from the trees and weeds the labyrinth is almost completely covered. In the same way the playset once looked like a forgotten relic, frozen in time, now it’s the labyrinth covered in neglect.

There are people who start projects and finish projects and clean those projects up before moving on to the next project. There are people who redecorate their house for the season. There are people who have not had the same curtains they hate hanging in their living room for 15 years. There are people who mow the lawn and paint the shutters and weed the labyrinth.

Then there are the rest of us, who despite our best intentions find ourselves slowly, inevitably descending into chaos.

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A Month of Endings

In our house March 2019 was a month of endings. I quit my job. My son quit hockey, deciding not to move up to the next level, and after nine years, my daughter quit Irish dancing.

None of these things were my dream. Not the job, not spending hours driving to sit in the cold and watch my son risk his gorgeous face, not walking behind a float carrying her coat while my daughter kicked and danced and smiled in a parade. I thought I’d be glad when we were done with these activities, and in some ways I am. The first Sunday that no one had a rehearsal, a performance, a game, or some unfinished work to do we had three meals together as a family. But in some ways, I’m sad. I feel the same wistfulness at hearing that the local bread store is closing. When the kids were little stopping by the bread store for a piece of cinnamon bread was a treat. When my daughter was in preschool, my son and I would go there and wait, he would have a slice of bread and watch the trains from the kid-size chair. I would sit on a high stool nearby and drink my coffee and read the paper, relishing the ability to be with him but also be alone. On sunny days sometimes the three of us would go to the library, then go and eat our gooey treat and then go the nearby park. Once, when she was in third or fourth grade we sat on the benches outside eating and my daughter stretched her arms up to the newly warm spring sky and knowingly exclaimed, “This is the life.”

Oh, it was. Of course, this is what makes me sad, not the loss of the over-priced bread, not the loss of the hockey odor permeating my house, not the loss of spending most of February and March with a jig beating in my head. It is the loss of “the life.” The loss of yet another stage of childhood. The loss of days spent running in the park, watching trains and eating sweet, gooey bread.  The loss of days spent watching my son skate, watching my daughter dance.

We all know the stereotype. The stage mom, the sports dad, the parent desperate to relive their glory days, or their never-were days, through a child. They yell from the sidelines, forcing their child to practice, urging their child to keep going, ignoring their child’s wishes. They never let their child quit. None of us think we are them. But then they say they want to quit and for just a minute we try to talk them out of it and we wonder whose life we are living.

Parents live two lives at once, our own and our children’s. Despite our wishes, despite our intentions, we measure our lives in strange ways: the game we almost won, the goal we finally scored, the step we practiced, when we got to wear the dress, when we got a team jacket, a wig. “What are you doing this weekend?” “Oh, we have a game.” “Do you want to …” “No, I can’t I have to take someone to a practice somewhere.” Before you know it, there you are a hockey mom, a dance mom, a baseball mom and then you’re not. Then you are what you’ve always been, a person looking for her own next thing, her next step, maybe even her next dream. As we move past each stage the time to figure it all out seems shorter.

My daughter has made her next dream clear. She wants to be an actor. In the past month she has finished up one show, auditioned for three more, and started rehearsals for the one she was cast in. This dream has the potential to break both our hearts over and over again. But we’ll keep going. My son’s next step is unclear. Since he started t-ball in kindergarten he’s been on at least one team a year, every year and now suddenly, he is, like me, looking for something new.

Maybe next week or next month one of us will find something new to do. Or maybe, we’ll just find a new place to sit and watch the trains. The next stage is coming and all we can do is wait and see what it brings.

 

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The When Wes

Today, driving through Chicago and past places I used to work and now barely recognize, I started thinking about the “When Wes.” The year I turned 16 I lived in Malawi. I went to an international boarding school. Most of the students were the sons and daughters of businessmen. A few, like me, were the children of professors. A few were the children of missionaries or diplomats. Most students were European, although there were some Africans, primarily Ugandans, South Africans, and a few Malawians.

The teachers, all of whom were called “Miss” and “Sir,” were a mix of young British teachers looking for something interesting to do before having children of their own, older Europeans who were there for various reasons, and white Rhodesians who had left during the war and upheaval when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. The former Rhodesians were not poor, but they were homeless. There was a lost look in their eyes and they spoke with a perpetual sigh.

“Oh him?” I was told late one night in the dorm when I complained about a history teacher, “he’s the worst of the whenwes.” “The what?” I asked. “Rhodesians are called when wes,” my new friends explained, “because they start every sentence with ‘Well of course, WHEN WE were in Rhodeeeesia'” We laughed and smoked our smuggled cigarettes and I tried to mimic “When We Were in Rhodesia” in my American accent, which only made everyone laugh harder and eventually we went to bed, some in our own beds, some in each others. There were those in the dorm who would have cared where we all slept, who would have cared about the cigarettes, but the Head Girl was with us, and the sister of the Head Boy and everyone except me was a prefect, so no one said a word.

We were young and beautiful, and at least in that country, wealthy. It made us merciless about all adults, but especially the when wes. One weekend night three of us went to a restaurant by ourselves. We had martinis and steak stuffed with prawns, and espresso and tiny cigars and no one batted an eye at the sight of three teenage girls eating like middle age men. We were just like adults, only better. We were not sad and we were fairly sure that we never would be.

Many of the girls had already lived in multiple countries and gone to multiple schools and the idea of mourning anything as silly, and as easy to replace, as a home or a country made no sense to us. Later that year, the former boyfriend of one of us was killed in a motorcycle accident. A few months later the term was over and I went back to the States. Almost everything about that year, the parties, the sun, the weirdness of it all, faded into a dream. It was before Facebook, or even email, and I had no other ties to Malawi, so I lost touch with everyone.

About a year ago I  found a man named Smitty who lives in Malawi and puts out a monthly email newsletter. It has some current news of the school, but mainly it is full of memories and history and death notices. Most of it is meaningless to me. The school has been around since 1958 and I was there for one year in the 1980s. But I glance through it, hoping to find something that I recognize, hoping to find a little bit of the time I lost.

Of course, it seems cruel now. Teenage girls emulating grown ups while mocking their loss. But we didn’t know. We did not know how easy it was to become a when we, no matter where you live.

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Yelling in the Agora

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last night I slept with the windows open and this morning around 7:30 I was woken up by a man yelling on the sidewalk. He eventually moved into the middle of the busy street next to where I live and began yelling at the cars. Then he moved on to a different side street and I started my day.

A little later when I was walking the dog a girl across the street yelled out the window of her screened in porch, “It’s my birthday!” “Today?” I asked. “Yes, and I am five years old.”  “Happy birthday,” I said. “Thank you,” she politely answered, still at top volume from across the street. A few seconds later she saw the ten year old from a few doors down who had come to pet my dog. “Audrey, it’s my birthday today,” she yelled. “Happy birthday,” Audrey said.

I took the el downtown to meet out-of-town friends for lunch. Two young men were in the middle of an impassioned conversation that transitioned from bicycle culture to the future of Artificial Intelligence. An older man across the aisle began to get frustrated with them. “The thing is,” he said loudly, “The thing is that we’re going to get a new mayor and we need a new mayor and that’s what’s going to make a difference, not all this computer stuff. We need someone to do something around here, and you need to vote.” “I can’t vote,” said one of the men with a slight accent, “I’m not a citizen.” “Well, all I know,” the older man answered, “All I know is it can’t be that Bill Daley, we’ve had enough of that, we don’t need a third. Maybe Toni Preckwinkle, she might be ok, maybe vote for her.” “I can’t vote,” the man repeated, “I’m not a citizen.” The older man continued debating the various candidates.

After lunch I walked through “Agora,” a public art installation of 106 headless, armless torsos standing and walking.

The agora, the marketplace, the center of town, it’s one of the concepts I remember from high school humanities class. Sometimes we are in the agora by ourselves and sometimes we are with others. Sometimes we have something we want to say and others hear us. Sometimes, we are just yelling at cars on a Sunday morning.

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My Horror Movie

My husband’s family has a cabin deep in the woods of Northern Michigan. So deep in the woods that the first time he took me and turned from a dirt road into a random, unmarked clump of trees and up a hill I thought, “Well, here it is. Here’s how my life becomes a Lifetime Movie of the Week with an understated subtext of ‘this is what happens when you wait until you’re 30s to get married, that nice-seeming professor is actually a serial killer.'” I was hoping they would solve the case quickly enough that Martha Plimpton could play me. When we were teenagers I auditioned for a movie role that went to her (River Rat), and so I’ve always thought that she would be the perfect actor to play me in a movie. Next time you see Beautiful Girls or Goonies, you’ll see, we look alike. Not so much by the time she was in Parenthood, or today, but definitely when we were teenagers.

Eventually, the cabin came into view, and I have never again wondered if my husband might actually be a serial killer, although I have had related thoughts about the cabin. There was the time I was husking corn on the front porch (because that’s one of the things you do in a cabin in the woods) and a man on a white horse came riding up to the steps. No one has ever found this cabin accidentally, frequently you can’t find it when you’re trying, but there he was, somewhere between the ages of 50-150, weathered, pony tail riding a white horse with no saddle. I went inside and eavesdropped while he told my husband about living off the grid and roadkill stew.

Once, my then 12-year-old daughter went for a walk in the woods, and 45 minutes later I realized she was probably lost and my husband and I set off in different directions to find her and I thought “What the hell will I do if I find her, call my husband and say, she’s here, but the 253rd pine tree, you know, the one that’s 1/2 foot shorter than the others?”

I don’t sleep well at the cabin, not just because I’m overly concerned about serial killers, but also because the entire house is dusty and musty and while at first sleeping on sheets with cartoon versions of Laurel and Hardy was quirky and charming, now it’s just itchy and threadbare. I also think it’s possible that the 10 years worth of Isaac Asimov Sci Fi Magazines and equal number of Archie Comics may be giving off a toxic mold (although I hate to think that because really, the Archie Comics are one of the highlights of the place, especially now that my daughter and I watch Riverdale). But the other night, on our third night at the cabin I was sleeping. I was having a dream that took place in a train station bank and over an intercom came a metallic voice “FIVE” “FIVE” “FIVE.” I was trying to figure out if it was about money or a train when I realized that it was not in fact part of the dream, it was outside the cabin. Maybe. Hopefully.

My husband also heard it and thought it was me breathing. He did not hear the voice saying five, he heard breathing, or maybe barking and I thought, “THIS is it. This is the moment when it all starts to unravel.” I could not NOT hear the noise, and I could not NOT hear it saying “FIVE in a sharply metallic voice.” I lay awake and tried to figure out which movie I was in. Was this Stranger Things, a government experiment deep in the woods?  Had aliens landed? Nuclear war?

Or was it a deep-think horror movie about the existential crisis of motherhood? Because for a few minutes I considered holding the pillow over my husband’s face until I could figure out if in fact it was him breathing. Once I did that, I would of course have to go into each of the kid’s rooms and do the same and then the audience would never know if I had been driven crazy by a combination of a lack of sleep and toxic Archie Comics mold, or if the cabin was haunted or if I was evil and the whole thing was a set up so I could run away with my much-younger lover. I think that maybe over the credits you would see a non-specific shadow that you could interpret according to how you feel about mothers today. I still hope Martha Plimpton plays me.

The next morning neither kid reported hearing the sound and my husband still swore it was a dog, or maybe a coyote. The noise did not reappear the next day and so once again, I have narrowly avoided a grisly end in the woods of Michigan, and Martha Plimpton has once again missed out on a great role.

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