The things we leave behind

Today I finally got the necklace back. It was sitting at the jewelry store in a drawer – fixed – but no one ever bothered to call and tell me.

I remember Mama had the necklace re-threaded once before at this store when she was staying with us – for the birth of one boy or the other or in between or after the two, who knows. Remembering how much she liked it, this was the necklace I wore the most the summer after she died. So often that eventually, as one of those two boys wishing to admire Oma’s jewels tugged a little too eagerly, the necklace once again revealed its Achilles heel (of sharp edges against thin thread).

Outside this morning I briefly opened its box: Ah, Mama’s necklace, re-threaded and whole again.
I have to -
No, I don’t have to. I do not have to give it back to her. I can keep it. It is mine now.
There’s the small thrill of the gift, mixed up, all in one, with the huge pain of the loss. No, I cannot ever give it back to her.
This necklace’s legitimate first owner, my mother, no longer exists. This necklace is as orphaned as I am, so we might as well be in it together.
It is mine now.
No matter how much I wish it were still hers.
I almost don’t want it now for having felt that small thrill of it being mine.

Our next-door neighbor summed up the matter of inheritance best: “I’d much rather have the love,” she said.

Me too damn it.

But so her necklace and her hat and her shoes will travel West with us tomorrow.

Waiting to be packed, they make for the saddest still life I’ve ever seen.

I – no, we – miss her.

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The drop-me-not stick

[Apologies to all who received a mistakenly published unfinished version of this post. Here's the completed thought:]

Micah’s first track meet was small and doused in big light.
He ran the 4 X 200 m relay that he dreaded and didn’t want to run. Micah was made anchor leg and had no idea what a relay really was and how it worked. All he knew was: “Whatever happens, don’t drop that stick!”

Only four teams competed and by the time that drop-me-not stick came to Micah, the field had spread out so far that he was running his half-lap on that huge track without anyone near. Mid-way through his 200 meters he looked around suspiciously, the thought inside that turning head so clear: Who am I racing here? Anyone? Anyone? Could I possibly be that fast?

Though Micah’s wondering slowed him down, they finished second.
But much more importantly he came in smiling, happy, full of himself in a good way.
He’d been so afraid of all this – running with the kids he’s been watching, competing with them, the long lonesome blue track, the physical effort, the possibility of being slow and coming in last – and he’d just conquered it.

All of those worries will come back when it gets harder, but now that he sees himself as part of the team, one more runner, they may not derail him so easily.

We’ve seen it in Lysle. How he’s grown through this practice. How he’s learning that he can tough it out sometimes, even though that does not come naturally or easily to him and hurts. I’m only learning some of that resilience, physical and psychological, now, in my mid-forties. I want my kids to have it sooner. That sense of being full of themselves, but in a good way. Maybe it’s better to call it filled with themselves, with trust in their own strength and ability, so filled there is no room or need for putting down others. So filled there is enough to go around and help others feel the same.

And, confirming once more that whatever you teach your kids will come to haunt you first, Micah, caught in the upsweep of pride, became quite full of himself in the usual negative sense of the word this morning.”You’re a loser,” he said to me, “because you never run races!”

I take it as a sign of my own growing resilience that I could let the word “loser” slide and let Artie do the reminding that it is unkind.

A little later I thought I’d tease Micah back about his earlier plans: “So you’re gonna quit the running?”
“At twenty,” he said matter-of-factly.
“At twenty?”
“Yeah, when I’m twenty. Because that’s when I’m gonna be a parent.”

I think Micah was telling me that he understands how, in the department of life challenges, parenting can come to replace running races (or writing books or other difficult endeavors). So that’s why you’re not winning more medals, mom, I get it.

Micah’s emotional learning pendulum is in full swing.
Two weeks ago, he was at the scared “I can’t do it, I’ll never win” end.
Now he’s at the triumphant “I did it, I won” end. And he sees others are in that tough spot he was in.
First he points a haughty little finger at them.
Then he tries to figure out why they’re still there.
He’ll be able to find that empathy in himself more and more often, if we keep at it and persist with him through the losing when it comes. When he does drop that stick and has to pick it back up.

Memory & Grief – Bonnie & Clyde

IMG_0281What Joan Didion has described as a vortex always feels like a mugging to me. Personal and assaultive and sudden, though you can’t say you didn’t see it coming somehow. It’s in the location. It’s in the light. And the mugger will come on the tails of a memory. Memory and grief are a killer couple.

Yesterday they mugged me on the C train.

Ten years ago, during the cold April of 2004, my mother rode that train every day from Jay Street to Fulton.
I was in a delivery room at New York Downtown hospital then, holding on to being home to my first son for as long as possible. The membrane around him had sprung a leak at 32 weeks but I didn’t go into labor. Instead I kept leaking and waiting and refilling, refilling and waiting and leaking for another 4 weeks.

In that time Mama helped Artie move into our (then new, now old) apartment and prepare it for three.
She came to visit me every day with books, flowers and tasty foods.
She went to Century 21 to buy the baby clothing for Lysle (unexpectedly tiny preemie things) that I’d been cheated out of buying by this leak I’d sprung.
She plied the nurses with goodies.
She reported the newest arrivals in the NICU.
She took care of all that needed taking care of and more.
She mothered and made me wonder if I would be able to mother with equal devotion.

All that, one big-boned busty Bonnie of memory, came at me on the C train yesterday. And then – whap – her sleek dark companion Clyde-the-grief got me good. I stood there – in the wildly shaking train going high-speed under the river – holding on for dear life – glassy-eyed to make them back off.

A mugging is defined as an assault upon a person with the intent to rob. There may be no intent, but valuables are taken, nonetheless: equanimity, equilibrium, peace of mind.

All these echoes of the initial blow, the loss of your very first home, the one of flesh, blood and bone.

Saturday from the tub…

…Micah proclaimed: “I have chicken pox!”
“No way, you got a shot against that,” Lysle set him straight.

Nonetheless, I stepped into the bathroom, a tad anxious since much has been rumored about the inefficacy of this particular vaccine.

One look at the boy and I was able to diagnose a full-blown case of goose bumps.

Wrong fowl, wrong pimple, thank goodness.

Micah on the track

Yesterday was a big day.
The running team moved outdoors to the open space of the Red Hook track and into the spring season.
It was cold. It smelled disturbingly of gasoline, as if there’d been a spill off a boat or truck on Red Hook’s industrial waterfront. And in all this uninvitingness, our boy stepped out of one of his “I’m-just-the-little-brother”-protected habitats: the sidelines.

Ever since Micah’s older brother Lysle joined the running team in the fall of 2012, Micah has been to every practice and every meet, near and far. He has been patient and grown comfortable in the role of supporter.
But this spring Artie and I agreed the sidelines were no longer a good place for a bouncy seven-year-old.
Micah disagreed. He disagreed for months in advance. He disagreed mightily – with arms crossed, teeth gritted,  brows lowered – every body part telling us: No, I’m not doing it. You can’t make me.

In the days leading up to this first day of the spring season, Micah turned either sullen or obnoxious whenever he received a reminder: “I’m just going to walk, real-ly slow-ly!”
Still we signed him up.
We took him for his yearly check-up so the doctor could fill out the required health form. “You’re joining the running team! Good for you!” she beamed, being a recent runner herself.
All Micah gave her in response was a grunt. She looked bewildered. “He’s ambivalent,” I interpreted for her.
We dug up his brother’s shoes from his first season.
All of it met with resistance. Except the shoes.

The shoes he put on right away and wore for the rest of the day.
The shoes were one of two signs that we weren’t totally off into tiger-parenting-land.
The other sign were the New Year’s resolutions Micah had written at school (safe from our eyes until they were sent home after the March parent teacher conferences):
“1. Be a gad soccr playr
2. Be frens
3. Be a bedr ranr”
As soon as I’d read his resolutions, he backpedaled: “I don’t like that anymore.” I chose to believe his list rather than his disclaimer.
By joining the team all three intentions will be served.

Big steps are taken in seconds.
Micah was doing his thing after we got out of the car at the track: grabbed a stick, hung back, clobbered trees, slowed all the way to a crawl, as promised – shoes schmoes!
Then the coach whistled. It’s a magic whistle. And coach is a distant relative of the pied piper. Children flock to him by the dozens once he’s pursed his lips and produced that whistle.
But before flocking to him, Lysle and his running buddy made sure Micah, too, had heard the irresistible call. They brought him onto the bleachers, sat to both sides of him and had him under their wings. Now he couldn’t get away. Nor did he want to anymore.

From here on out Micah was good about it all: coach’s hand on his head as he asked his name, being sent off to do 4 (outdoor, i.e. 400m!) laps for warm-up, managing to do 3 out of 4 with the kids who’ve been doing this for years. Doing jumping jacks and butt kicks and strides.

Running brings a very simple sense of power: I’m fast. I can get away.
It’s our earthbound equivalent to the birds’ flight.
I want Micah to know that feeling, and so intimately that he can rely on it at any time: I have power. (And he already asserted it with a vengeance today – but that’s another story … how the things you want your children to learn will, of course, come to haunt YOU because who else to try them out on but YOU.)

My small boy, in gray hoodie and blue sweats, rounding that wide field made me feel such love.

Love of Lysle for reeling his little brother in so gently at the critical moment.
Love of Micah for just going with it in the end. And for proving to himself that, yes, he can do this, too. He doesn’t have to make the sidelines his home.
Love of this team where they all took him in so readily.
Love of this family. We stuck with it – against all resistance – and shook it up. Sometimes the things we most wish to do make us most afraid. And the fear can hide our desire, making it almost unrecognizable. If Micah could no longer see it, Artie and I kept an eye on it for him. It’s what parents are for.

This was just the first hurdle. We’ll take the next ones as we hurtle toward them. (Shameless wordplay intended.)

Travels Without

Last night Artie and I started to lay out our spring break trip to the West Coast.
I get very dreamy and hopeful looking for places to stay. I know how new places, if well-chosen, can enchant.
I’m very susceptible to enchantment.
The boys are more susceptible to fun and opportunities to climb, clamber and roam.
And Artie longs for peace and quiet.
I think I’ve found a place of mountains and sea that will offer all of the above (will report back once I’ve been proven right or wrong).

Thanks to the internet for putting it all out there, at my fingertips, if I roam far enough digitally. How did we find just the right places pre-www? It’s a mystery.

So last night, full of anticipatory enchantment, I went to bed late and happy.

Then this morning I woke up from one of those hard dreams I’ve been having again. Dreams of Mama very sick, very hurt and dying.
She asked me not to forget her in my search, to also find her a place on the West Coast where she could die.

No, sweet Mama, you’re not dying anymore. You’ve done that. You’re done with that. You no longer need a place. You can roam furthest of us all.

And we’ll be sure to go see places that enchanted you – once upon a time.

Counting Mississippis – a serious aside

As I sat, one recent evening, counting Mississippis while running my hands over my boys’ smooth backs, I thought further. About things our boys don’t know yet.

A week ago Artie and I watched 12 Years a Slave.

I’ve never seen a back torn apart as it was in that movie. In its pivotal scene Patsey, a young slave woman played by Lupita Nyong’o who won an Oscar for her portrayal, is punished for procuring a small cake of soap to wash herself. The whipping she endures looks deadly. I couldn’t keep my eyes on it. Nor on her wounds as they were later tended.

All these frighteningly realistic special effects rendered a terrible part of the past frighteningly real. That’s the opposite of gratuitous violence. It’s violence to which to pay heed.

Rubbing my boys’ backs that night I felt so protective of their ignorance. Not even something exalted like innocence, but simple ignorance, not knowing. I don’t want them to acquire the knowledge that people were justified and endorsed by the law of their country, this country, to leave such scars on a man’s back.

It’s Sethe’s chokecherry tree from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

It’s similar to the numbers tattooed onto the arms of people held and murdered in Nazi concentration camps, the atrocity of my birth country’s past.

It’s human madness imprinted upon human flesh.

And what’s frightening in these imprints is not what they say about our physical fragility – how easily we can be hurt – but what they say about our moral fragility – how easily we can hurt. As soon as we lose sight of the other’s being as human as we are.

Eventually, my boys’ ignorance will have to pass. Part of growing up is taking in this knowledge and without letting it brutalize us. Letting it teach us neither by example nor deterrence, but by making us aware of that Achilles’ heel we all share – our ability to hurt.

I looked at that mad master played by Michael Fassbender and wanted to pass him off as a monster. But really he was a human being whose moral compass was broken, and the equally broken system of slavery offered him endless opportunities to flaunt his disrepair and hurt others.

Those lashes of the whip were counted.
Maybe my caresses shouldn’t be.

Farfetched?
I’m still going to give the intuitive uncounted minute another go.

Counting Mississippis

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The Eastern border is how I used to count a minute.
Now I count it like the Western border.

I’ve always felt bad – stingy and petty – for introducing the one-minute back-rub to our boys’ bedtime.

I used to just rub backs ad lib. But then – Micah must have been two and Lysle four – I started receiving complaints.
Multiple complaints. Nightly.
“More!” “Little longer!” “You rubbed Micah’s back more than mine! Unfair!” “Aw, don’t stop already.” “Not done, not done!” “More!”
They kept coming.

So to be fair – to both Lysle and Micah and my own tired self who still had dishes to do – I started saying: “One minute!”
I wouldn’t go so far as to actually time myself. I just counted to sixty. Sometimes at a leisurely, lollygagging pace. Sometimes in a rush. Those were very variable minutes, though I tried to keep it consistent from one back to the next.

The one-minute back-rub has stood the test of time. It’s been around for over five years.

But one evening last week Micah thought it was time for an amendment.
“How do you count?” he asked me when I kissed his hair to signal I was done.
“I count to sixty.”
“One, two, three – like this?”
“Yes,” I drawled suspiciously, “but not as fast as that.”
“You have to count one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi to sixty.”
“I do?”
“Or it’s not a minute!”

Since then I’ve been counting Mississippis and my minute has become much less variable. Not to say longer. I can’t rush through Mississippis. I can barely spell them, even get tongue-tied in my mind. Now I regularly lose count thanks to all those riverinely meandering syllables.

Introducing: The Micah-minute back-rub! New and improved! Two minutes for the price of one!

The kid has no clue who or what a Mississippi is, but he knows his business.