Moving to Kithnarra

Kithnarra

It began with an email. My father wrote to say he was growing weary living alone; this seemed the time to make some big changes. He’d had a number of medical issues, and felt unsure how much longer he could manage without assistance. He wanted to know if any of his three kids wanted his permanent company, perchance?

It was an odd request. My father and I had not lived together since my senior year of high school. He was an adoring Grandpa, but not hugely interested in long-term visits or overnights with us or the nine grandkids. I nervously wondered how ill he might actually be, to suddenly ask for assistance like this. It seemed against his stoic, solitary nature.

“We have to do it!” Damon declared with nary a second’s pause. “Of course he can live with us. But realistically, we’ll need a bigger house.”

Thinking the idea perhaps necessary yet far-fetched, we journeyed with my sister and all our kids to view a house for sale with a guest suite. Turns out this meant the downstairs was available as one big room, with a built-in kitchen along one wall. We wandered through the empty rooms while various kids skipped then flipped themselves about, and the sheer thud and noise of them skittering here, there, and everywhere made me realize, “This will never work!”

What we needed, if this were to be at all feasible, was a guest cottage. A separate residence, far enough from the main house that noise would not be a minute-by-minute concern. We returned home where I googled ‘homes for sale with separate guest cottage’. Four houses in the entirety of Western Washington State fit that description. The closest one to Seattle was in Snohomish County. From the looks of the tiny pictures on Zillow, the home had been on the market well over a year and seemed rather dated.

No matter. I asked Damon to call a realtor so that we could walk through it. I still had my doubts that any type of set-up would genuinely offer my father enough privacy and seclusion that he would actually want to live with us long-term. Miraculously, the realtor answered the phone right away, and after just a few minutes of research told us the property we were inquiring about was to have a new roof put on the following day, and therefore would be unavailable to walk through for a while. Could we come out right now, to tour the property?

Damon peered at me flabbergast over the dining table then shrugged. It was a Tuesday morning, about 10am. All the kids were in school. “Why not?” he said. “I’ll take an early lunch break and work late when we return.”

Willy-nilly we jumped in the car and headed north. Once off the freeway I was not overly impressed. The roads were hilly and rambling while the houses seemed placed helter-skelter, in every style and size known to man. We drove on and on for what seemed like ages. Finally we turned onto a residential street. A baby Christmas tree farm sprouted up to one side of the road, while turkeys and goats roamed the front yard of the house on the other side.

At the correct address we turned off the street towards the actual house we had come to see….but no house was visible. Instead a driveway plunged us straight into a thicket of trees and azalea plants. Immediately Damon and I felt immersed within some hidden Eden, too pretty not to ooh and aah.

The gravel drive wound its way through trees until we emerged out into the sunshine, not far from the cottage – a wooden, two-bedroom little house with its own patio and circular drive. We crept past in the car, amazed now to see a tiny Troldhaugen cabin perched among the trees even farther down the drive.IMG_1281

“Wow!” Damon gushed. “I could practice my horn in there!”

We rolled down a gentle hill, until suddenly we were at the barn. With double doors and a built-in chicken coop and even a horse-laden weathervane perched on the tippy top, it seemed too fairytale-ish to be true.FullSizeRender (10) FullSizeRender (11) FullSizeRender[2] (7)

At last we approached the main house. Long triangular windows and double garage doors peered at us warily from the trees, looking an awful lot like a 1960’s-built, Lutheran camp retreat. We parked, unsure where the front door could possibly be, and walked around the side of the house like Hansel and Gretel at the Witch’s house. Locating the front doors off to one side, buried within a meadow of wildflowers, we entered the house breathlessly. Homemade, wooden bookshelves lined every wall and hung high overhead in the entry. How you would ever reach the books residing there remained a mystery. Out every window grew endless forests of trees.FullSizeRender[1] FullSizeRender

We wandered the house in awe, not because it was so lovely, or turn-key, or even to our taste, exactly.  Rather because it was so…odd. The living room had a two-leveled floor so that one might literally plunge off the carpet down four feet as you merely ambled along. A massive stone wall reinforced the camp retreat feel. Brazen, black spotlights perched at all angles of every room, and the bookshelves, well….whichever way you looked, there they were.

Yet however strange the house was, it had an undeniably cozy charm that Damon and I both loved right away. And those views!

The realtor led us outside and there it hit me that this truly seemed an amazing gem of a house, tucked away in the trees like this. Because just outside the plunge-floored-rock-walled-bookcase-heavy living room, lay a beautiful deck with a Jacuzzi perched right at the edge of the trees. Then, a fern-covered hill that tumbled down to a babbling creek! Yowza, this place had its very own creek!FullSizeRender[1] (11) FullSizeRender[1] (3) FullSizeRender (7) FullSizeRender[1] (5) FullSizeRender (5)

Damon and I went back to the car and just sat there. It seemed entirely too good to be true. I tried to think what to say to my cautious, methodical father. Was he really ready to move? Did he truly want to relocate to Snohomish to live with grumpy old me and all these grandkids way out here in the middle of the forest?

When I called him on the way home my preplanned dialogue went right out the window. “It’s great!” I gushed. “A hidden gem! Really ideal the way it’s set up. There’s a creek, a barn, a horn studio for Damon, it’s five acres total…”

“OK – let’s put in an offer then!” my dad said. Pretty much just like that. Easy as pie. Sweet as tea. Simple as syrup.

When my sister came to have a look the following week and discovered the house next door was for sale as well, my father did not hesitate for a moment. “Put an offer on that one, too!” he announced during the next phone call. “You kids can all help take care of me!”

And so it is that three months later, we have moved to Kithnarra!FullSizeRender[1] (7) I named it this because ideally this land is a place for Kith and Kin –friends and family – to come together. Plus it’s geographically located in the way far North – Narra – yet is also where we’ll tell our stories – and hopefully together narrate many new ones.

There’s really no gracious way to say ‘Thank You’ to someone who has, sight unseen, bought you a house (and a barn, and a creek, and a whole new way of life)! I hope these pictures do a bit of justice to the place. And to Grandpa George – we really can’t wait for you to get up here and join us so we can say thank you over dinner and S’mores in person.

And to our friends and family – PLEASE come and visit us here at Kithnarra! The front door is located on the side of the house and is hard to find, but it’s always open! Soak in the Jacuzzi, splash in the creek, stay for a story or two (or three!) around the rock wall…because from this day forward, this is where Little Red shall be walking!FullSizeRender[2] (9) FullSizeRender[2] (8) FullSizeRender[2] FullSizeRender[2] (6) FullSizeRender[2] (5) FullSizeRender[2] (4) FullSizeRender[2] (3) FullSizeRender[1] (10) FullSizeRender[1] (8) FullSizeRender[1] (6) FullSizeRender[1] (2) FullSizeRender[1] (4) FullSizeRender (6) FullSizeRender (2) FullSizeRender (3) FullSizeRender (4) FullSizeRender (9) FullSizeRender[1] (9) FullSizeRender[2] (2)

Magical (Ordinary)

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This past winter, one of my sons sat nearly every night at the dining room table, hunched over the computer keyboard filling out college applications, lobbing random trivia questions my way ad nauseum. “Mom! What’s that place you were born called?”

“Wilhelmshaven.”

“Huh?”

“W-I-L-H-E-L-M-S-H-A-V-E-N.”

From deep within the feathered belly of my bed, buried there with my book, I hollered out answers to him. (In this house the ‘master’ bedroom is directly adjacent to the dining room). “Now write that down so you have it for next time.”

“What’s dad’s social security number?”

Wearily I blurted out numbers yet again. “Ugh…write this stuff down!”

“What date did you graduate from college?”

“1992….Ilya Iskander! Please write this all down! Make one master sheet so you can refer to it!” (I called him by his Russian name now, to more vividly connote Great Displeasure. *Parenting tip 101 – give your children names that translate well to Russian for those times you need to yell WITH FORCE!)

“What’s your middle initial?”

“Are you serious?” My voice echoed round the snowy wilderness of my duvet, while I pictured the vast, white Russian tundra where this child’s ‘life knowledge treasure chest’ lay endlessly buried. “It’s L!”

On this night there was no response from the other side of the wall, No ‘Got it, Mom!’, no “Ok, I wrote that down,’ no ‘Aw, you’re the best, Mama Bear, for helping me with every single answer for the fifteenth time in a row!’, no nothing.

“Do you know what the L stands for?” I bellowed, writhing myself from my lair. This man-cub of mine probably did not know my middle name, though he’d lived with me for eighteen years and had already filled out five previous applications where this exact answer was required.

A lengthy pause followed before my bedroom door slowly squeaked ajar. The man-cub appeared, tipped backwards on two legs of the dining chair so that his ginger-maned profile tilted angelically heavenwards. “Do you know what the L stands for?” I repeated.

Slowly he turned his face towards me, revealing a mischievous smirk, before guessing:

“Lethargia?”

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As of this day Damon and I have been married for twenty three years. Huzzah! Twenty three! For such a happy occasion, it feels a bit sad to realize that we have no extra money to celebrate wildly this year; Damon has no time off from work; we are in the midst of moving yet again;  unbelievably, after twenty-three years, nothing much has improved or changed or settled regarding our life situation, except now we have five kids we’ve unwittingly dragged along to our never-ending gypsy bash.

Twenty three years ago we romantically left college hand-in-hand, to march forth into the universe with no plan, no careers, no car, no house, no savings, no idea what we were doing or where we were headed.

On our first year anniversary, after moving twice and still having no money, no careers, no plan, nor even a car, I felt little about our lives was ‘as it should be’, but obviously there was still time. Loads of time. No need to panic, things will click, whatevs!

In reality the two of us, at twenty-three years old, celebrated our first year of married life by walking out the door of our apartment to ride the Riverside public bus to the local library, where we each checked out two books. Then we rode home and ate macaroni and cheese from a box before remembering the top tier of our wedding cake buried in the back of the freezer. When Damon went to unearth it he discovered a frozen brown blob completely encased in icicles fused to the back of the freezer, like a relic from some ice-covered, cave-man wedding. With a pick axe he hacked our treasured delicacy from its tomb, whereupon we stared at it mournfully for a bit before dumping it in the trash.

I have no idea if we gave each other gifts on that first magical (ordinary) anniversary. If so, I sadly don’t remember what they were. But there was still plenty of time for nice gifts, fancy trips, romantic anniversaries. There’d be all of that and more somewhere in the future, certainly.

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Twenty-three years later, it seems like time has maybe gotten away from us. We’re not doing much this year that’s more exciting than heading to the library. Still, at this point in our relationship I should offer the man who puts up with me day in and day out (!!!) a meaningful, memorable gift.

Weeks ago, like a weary Mama Bear, I retreated to my bed-cave to ‘have myself a little think’ (as Pooh Bear would say) and decide what to get my true love.

Whole days and weeks passed, yet no answer appeared. How was it that after two decades, I couldn’t think of anything this guy would enjoy, more than time away from me to practice his lip trills? (That’s a French horn thing, truly.)

The computer was no help. Google declared this our “silver plated” anniversary, but Damon didn’t care a whit about silver. Eventually, my thoughts morphed from, “Whatever would this man like?” to “Hmm….what would I like?”

Here, obviously, I found lots of answers.

Unfortunately every single item I deemed ‘wanted’ was rather expensive. Or terribly impractical for a family on the move. So instead I declared it, ‘Time for a little something!’, opened a new bottle of wine, had an even deeper think, and consolidated my options:

  1. ‘What gift costs little to no money? 
  2. Improves my marriage?
  3. Makes living with Damon more fun for the next year?’

Once simplified, an answer appeared right away: scratch Damon from the final sentence!

Yes, Damon! Because D-A-M-O-N is problematic. Shorten it, and you’re calling out ‘Dame’, the English (and German) word for ‘important matronly lady draped in pearls’. If you lengthen it, you’re shouting for Damien or Demion, which, eww…creepy.

What does that leave? Dee? Damey? Dumdum? DaMOAN? DaMONK? Damn? Damon has to go!

Could I change it around, spice it up, alter the whole thing into something I enjoyed saying more?

Well, Hello Dolly! I think I could! And how ideal…to gift Damon with A New Name! Happy Anniversary Honey! Damon! ________!

The idea seemed perfect – free, easy, a novel yet fun way to spice up our marriage. Yet if I nixed Damon, what to choose instead?

Almost immediately my heart leapt towards Winston. Winston! Say it aloud and you just feel your net worth increasing! The name sounds posh yet approachable, light and charming with an undertone of gravitas. If I were suddenly married to a man named Winston, my bank account would contain commas instead of question marks. We’d live in a home with ‘wings’. He’d speak with that scathingly intelligent British wit, wherein even off-color remarks would hang in the room like fine art (worth a closer inspection now and again). I could call my guy Win (positive), or Winnie (cute) or Wit (clever). Together we’d vacation ‘in the country’ and everywhere we traveled important people would ‘seek him out’. He’d be renowned for his verbal prowess in no less than five languages, yet still not take himself so seriously he couldn’t break into song in public places now and again. Swoon!

This was suddenly not just the perfect gift to give my husband, but also the perfect gift for me, too – Hello, Winston!

Over a glass of magical (ordinary) wine I told Damon Winston flat out that I didn’t want anything at all this year besides to call him ‘Winston’, in public, in private, everywhere in between! Also, could he speak with a British accent all the time, starting right now? Oh, please, please, please! It’d be the best anniversary gift ever.

And my guy, my Damon, my Winston, well…he tried. A valiant effort was made, on several occasions. Unfortunately his Winston sounded vaguely Australian but mostly inebriated and hard of hearing. (As a true Renaissance man in almost all areas, it never occurred to me that adopting a new persona, accent, attire, was not something my true love could do…sigh).

Now the day has arrived, our anniversary is here, and sadly I am not getting what I wanted. Winston, the dream, has died. Damon is certainly not getting what he wanted, either. (I have no idea what name he’d gift me with if he could…(Kate Upton)) Instead, he’s found himself hitched to ‘Lethargia’, eternally entombed in her cave-bed.

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Last night, out of curiosity, I asked the kids what they thought Damon’s middle initial M stood for. Their answers were telling:

One quite certain Mikel

One overly confused Mordechai

One clever Most Happy

One bold Miraculous

and one astute Meriwether

We all laughed and made up new initial names for everyone in the family while we drank magical (ordinary) wine and toasted our health and ate Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon, and all in all felt pretty content. Turns out you don’t really need Winston or commas or even a fancy gift to simply be happy now and again.

geese

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After our family dinner I retreated back to the fluffy confines of my cave-bed where I read Thomas Jefferson’s reasoning regarding his choice of the famous Meriwether Lewis : “Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction,…honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him…”

Who knew a name could be more fitting than even Winston? My Meriwether really is an intrepid explorer, leading this motley crew through the wilds. He is honest to a fault, liberal, disinterested, and genuinely Merry no matter the weather. He seems not bothered at all that his name(s) veer to the extremely feminine. He indeed possesses a firmness and perseverance of purpose which means that almost every day of our married lives I have listened to him practice lip trills ad infinitum. I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him….

If life is a journey, I am glad he is my guide.

And if life is nothing more than miseries to bear, I’m thankful he’s by my side.

Twenty three years is a long time to forge pathless through the wilderness. Yet here we are, Lethargia and Meriwether, still holding hands, seeking new lands.

Still together, one magical (ordinary) day at a time.

bathroom color

Backwards, Forwards, and Beyond

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Another year has come and gone, and in lieu of a classic Christmas letter detailing the whereabouts of my family (none of whom I keep tabs on anymore, or have any idea of what they’re up to), I offer this: a year in review from my point of view, presented as randomly and illogically as if you were actually talking to me.

First of all, just this morning Damon appeared in the bedroom door after his morning shower and proclaimed: “It’s happened, Kristine. After twenty-five years, I’ve done it. I’ve come up with exactly the right saying to put on your tombstone when you die. Are you ready for it?”

Of course I was ready. As if he had to ask! My favorite saying of all time was Liz Lemon’s exasperated, “When will death come?” Damon knew I’d thought over my last utterance at great length, and long-favored “I Told You I Wasn’t Feeling Well!” Whatever he’d come up with would have to top that, obviously. I doubted him, but nonetheless sat up from under the mound of bedcovers and clutched my coffee eagerly. “Let’s hear it!” I said.

“Bed….Bath…and Beyond!” The words echoed round the room majestically, while Damon, clad only in a towel, stood with his chin pointed in the air and his bare arm raised grandly like a famed magician earning his keep.

Well…what could be said except Bravo! I flopped back against the pillows in ecstasy. It was perfect. Simple, apt, catchy too. I set my coffee cup down on the nightstand and clapped. “I can die now, can’t I?” I gushed happily. Damon nodded, tears frosting his eyes. We both smiled, delighting in the moment. Then he went to brush his teeth. And I sank back to my coffee.

So it seems fair to say that my marriage is chugging right along. As for me, personally…well, all five kids are able to dress themselves and read and write and figure some here and there, and each and every day they eagerly embrace their independence until its Need Money or Feeding time, when they mysteriously pop up near my bedside, cute as a clutch of prairie dogs poking their heads above a sand swept rise, so in this department all seems right on track, as well.

Of course, there have been a fair amount of ‘must put on clothes and go out into the world’ challenges throughout the past year: crashing our friends’ car, serving on a life-sentence jury for a person my own child’s age, navigating the college scene not once, not twice, but three times, adopting a dog named Saga, unraveling the mystery of why one child keeps keeling over every now and again, managing another child’s sudden surgeries and septicemia, keeping up with Damon’s two full-time jobs, moving house, attempting to pay for all of the above, and of course dabbling in failed careers here, there, and everywhere… But mostly, truly, I am lucky enough to putter back and forth between bed and bath, all while contemplating the great, unknowable beyond. And this seems to suit my ‘energy’ and ‘excitement’ levels just fine. “See, this is where I do my best thinking!” I yell lamely to one or another of the busy bodies going in and out the front door, even as they ignore me.

We actually did move to a new house this past year, and wonder of wonders I did not suffer a nervous breakdown in the moving. As a bonus we now reside on all three floors, which is vastly preferable to living in a segmented portion of the house. So this place – Villa Villa Koona – feels like an upgrade, and looks like one, too. Kirk House 4.0

When we moved here I stood in the vast living room marveling at all the extra space, but also at my personal growth (Ho ho ho – I didn’t accost anyone this time around!). Still, I couldn’t help but wrinkle my nose at the smell coming off the walls. They were all painted a color I thought of as “Fresh Baby Poo”. I promptly splashed a pale, Swedish Midsummer Night lavender mist across most of the walls. It’s my first purple house, out of all four houses in my grown up life, and I like it! That poem ‘When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple’ seems especially prophetic now, because before we moved here I did not consider myself an old lady, and now I do. And because of a childhood scarring, I never, ever wore purple. But now it’s on me and all around me and I don’t care a bit if it clashes with my hair. Over in Sweden purple is apparently written as purpur but pronounced something like PuhPuh (to rhyme with shh…shh!). So I’ve come full circle, color-wise, which seems happy, and sappy, and not at all blue.

The best bit about the new house besides the three floors and PuhPuh walls is the enormous sunken tub in the upstairs bathroom just under the eaves. In Bathroom World, this tub is firmly entrenched in the 1%. One must navigate a whole new social strata when visiting. Surprisingly, though, there is a downside to even exorbitant luxury. Because the tub is so tall, you must climb up three full steps to get in it. And then at the top of these porcelain steps you find there are no steps down into the tub, so you must drape your leg over the edge and plop it way, way down, all the way to the bottom of the tub while your other foot stays nicely balanced on the raised stairs. Which, if you must visualize, means you’re arcing, naked, over the tub at maximum height with your derriere high in the air, while your groin region totters precariously over an ’eminently dangerous situation’. And since I am undertaking this as a bona fide Old Woman now, I’m all veiny and purpurly, too, and the window is right there with all those koona (Native American, squirrel) peering in at me with their startled, shiny eyes…. and ack! Stop visualizing! Quickly!

Exiting the tub is even worse, because of course now you are soaking wet and the tiles, too, are a slippery mess, and unfortunate disaster LOOMS. Which is why every single time I undertake to enter or exit the tub I first caution myself in the firmest of tones, “DO NOT DIE IN THE TUB, Kristine!” But now that Damon’s come up with such a spiffy epitaph just for me, I’ve decided to throw caution to the wind and just jump on in there.

Indeed, 2015 seems destined to a rollicking start, my friends!

(And yes, I’ve just written an entire ‘Christmas letter’ about puhpuh and taking a tub. If that’s not a ‘Happy Holidays’ from me to you, then I don’t know what is!)

May Peace and Happiness keep you Cozy and Warm all the Year Through! 

Love,

– Kristine…

(and all those other Kirks, too)

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Avocado

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Once upon a time there lived a teacher. Her age was twenty-eight but with smooth skin and chubby cheeks she seemed much younger. Daily she showed up to the door of her classroom nervous as a schoolgirl herself. Mostly she wore patterned skorts with flat, slippered shoes, so she, too, could run down and jump hopscotch on the playground. Penny-colored hair fringed her face, and each day after lunch she reapplied a pretty sheen of Cover Girl Lipslick Demure Lipgloss so that she felt more grown up, like a real, professional teacher.

The students called her Ms. Lady. She taught fourth grade. All the Plexiglas windows of her room remained sealed shut, smudged with the ghostly prints of children long swept away by time. Daily she and the thirty-two students in her care circled inside the overheated room like fish in a small, plastic tank, imprisoned beneath the arid air and thick smog of a California valley.

On day one, within hours of the first bell ringing, Ms. Lady’s head hurt from the ceaseless chaos of so many bodies, voices, movements in such an enclosed space. She felt her breath bursting from her in bubbles as she spoke, her arms and legs moving in murky, sluggish resistance. All day long the black minute hand on the wall clock mocked her over the student’s heads, shivering backwards and forwards eight hours a day, there in the desert heat. She intensely disliked the feel of chalk on her skin as she worked, ceaselessly creating small groupings of carefully arranged letters and numbers across the black board like bites of wisdom, tempting enough for her students to digest.

Ms. Lady often stood at the front of the room like an actress, posed forever as ‘teacher’, her character symbolically cloaked in the chalky remains of once snow-white words now faded into dust before the audience’s very eyes.

At night, tucked in bed, Ms. Lady ate miniature Reece’s Peanut Butter cups straight out of the big bag and worried she’d chosen the wrong career.

Even so, as school days evaporated into misty memory beneath the broiling sun, Ms. Lady felt a growing kindness towards her students, eager to know them all better.

One boy – dark-haired, scrawny, quiet – had the unusual name Osvaldo. Or perhaps Oswaldo. No one seemed to know which it was, really. His paperwork was a jumble of both spellings. Ms. Lady sought out his former teacher, appearing in front of the mysterious woman who’d passed Oswaldo/Osvaldo on to the fourth grade even though he could not read or function in any subject at even a kindergarten level. This obese, elderly teacher – Ms. Dung – shrugged when asked how the child’s name was to be spelled, not too interested either way. Mostly she said in loud, clearly enunciated words that the child, this boy, was a ‘second-language’ learner. Ms. Lady left Ms. Dung’s room in a hurry, her skin afire with prickled irritation. Yes, obviously the boy was a second language learner. So what? How did this answer the question of his name or how he came to be in the fourth grade? Ms. Lady persisted in tugging on the tangled threads that ensnared the boy. She asked in the office, in the teacher’s lounge. She was told a translator had spoken with the boy’s mother several times, mostly about discipline issues, and that the mother spoke little-to-no English. She did admit that she, too, was in the dark on an ‘official’ spelling of her child’s name. Ms. Lady felt a wave of sympathy for the boy. She turned to Osvaldo’s many brothers running amok around the school yard, but none of them seemed to care what people called him either.

Whole weeks withered away within those school walls. Until Ms. Lady herself had to accept the fruitlessness of the Osvaldo/Oswaldo dilemma…it surely didn’t matter now. None of the students called Osvaldo by his given name anyway. They simply called him Avocado.

The nickname settled over the dark-skinned, tight-lipped boy with a finality his legal name never had. The whole school could remember him, now. In class he remained quiet and non-participatory. But once out the door to recess he was a trouble-maker. Picking fights, swearing, rough-housing whenever he could. All Ms. Lady heard upon returning to her classroom were bundles of students shouting, “Avocado cut in line. Avocado threw rocks! Avocado hit me! Avocado said a swear word again.”

Osvaldo, (for Ms. Lady never referred to him in her classroom as anything but this) would hang his head, beeline towards his desk, meekly sit almost immobile the rest of the day. He could not read at all, nor perform any basic addition or subtraction. Ms. Lady felt panicked, clueless what to do. She had no idea how to immerse this boy within his peer learning groups, nor even how to help him catch up. He was so very, very far behind.

At home, while devouring chocolate, Ms. Lady worried about her Avocado (the nickname permeated her mind). She was just a second year teacher after all, still struggling to ink lesson plans down on paper, tease butterflies from her belly, wipe chalk clean off her hands. She felt confidence in only one thing – she’d definitely chosen the wrong profession.

She continued to play teacher. Each afternoon, as the kids barged in from lunch – hot, sweaty, amped with energy – she’d pair them off into lines along the front of the room. Here they could cool down while they played a math facts challenge game. The game went like this: the front two students, at the sight of the math flash card Ms. Lady held up, tried to yell out the right answer.  Whoever answered first with the correct number earned a point for their line. Ms. Lady kept score with tally marks on the overhead projector.

Each day her fourth grade class played this game. And it was fun until Avocado appeared at the front of the line. He awaited his turn as if at the guillotine. He scuffed his feet, hung his head, thrust his hands into fists within his pockets. He was unable to guess an answer. He never scored a point. His failure was assured.

Ms. Lady couldn’t bear this depressing scene, time upon time. She didn’t want to give up the game – her other students liked it, and it helped reinforce their math facts. So one day, willy-nilly, she beckoned Osvaldo to come front and center, next to her. She handed him the dry erase marker, then announced that Osvaldo was now the official tally-keeper. Students all down the line audibly groaned or slapped their forehead in a pained expression of disbelief. Osvaldo looked at his shoes. He had no idea how to tally.

They began at the beginning, as you must. When a student would call out the correct answer Ms. Lady would tell Osvaldo to draw a straight line on the transparencies she now favored over chalk. On the fifth line, she showed him how to draw his tally mark diagonally, like a thumb stretching across his palm if he matched the lines to the fingers on his hand.

Each day during their game time, one or two kids would outright complain. “Why does Avocado always get to be the tally keeper? It’s not fair! We want a turn, too!” Ms. Lady would merely shrug them away, turning importantly to hand the marker to Avocado. “Life certainly is not fair,” she uttered privately. Publically she said, loudly and clearly, “Osvaldo is the tally keeper. He’s the best tally keeper in all the land!”

At most other times during the school day, there seemed to be an ever-widening chasm marooning Osvaldo. When she brought up Disneyland, asking the kids nonchalantly who had been to the theme park, every child waved their hand proudly over their heads except him. He merely slunk lower down into his chair. Another day a fellow classmate came running to Ms. Lady to tell her that Avocado had stolen his lizard. Ms. Lady questioned him. Immediately Osvaldo burst into tears before pulling a little two-inch lizard he’d caught down on the playground out of his jeans pocket, cupping the tiny reptile as if it were his best friend in all the world. Then he held out his hand, stoically offering it back to this classmate whose entire bedroom was outfitted with expensive reptiles bought at Pet Smart.

Repeatedly Ms. Lady noticed Avocado slunk down in his chair again and again…every time the other kids read a report, showed off a project, or answered a question correctly. This child did not belong in the fourth grade and everyone knew it, including him.

Yet Ms. Lady was not solely sympathetic. She was frequently angered by Osvaldo, often after witnessing his bullish behavior outside the classroom. Despite her lip-gloss and Maryjane’s, she wasn’t novice enough to think this overlooked child was going home and feverishly trying to catch up to his peers with reading and writing, adding and subtracting. Nor did she assume his parents would ever have the luxury of time or skill to help him, either. She guessed most of his non-school hours were spent with his brothers, and that a band of boys such as themselves, left to brave the world on their own with little-to-no luck and even less knowledge, were bound for trouble.

Towards the end of the school year, Ms. Lady went to another teacher for advice on how to qualify this child for some special education so that he would not move on to the fifth grade. The teacher told Ms. Lady because Osvaldo was a second-language learner she would have to fail him in every subject to have him held back.

Ms. Lady could not fathom failing this child. It went against everything the word Teacher stood for in her beating heart. She believed that a teacher lost all claim to use that title if a student failed under their leadership. “If he fails, so do I,” she thought achingly, repeatedly. She pictured her little Avocado, forced to see a bold-faced F in every single box clear down his report card. And his unknowable name scrawled across the top. She shuddered. Osvaldo knew enough to know what the world thought of him, to feel the weight of being labeled a complete and utter failure in every category, on every line.

It seemed so, so cruel. Ms. Lady cried big, wet tears as she filled in one letter F after the next, down the entire report card with Osvaldo’s name with a ‘v’ written along the top. Then she wrote a hand-written two page addendum which she stapled over the front, explaining how amazingly well this boy had learned to tally and count by 5’s, the few passages he had learned to read, the time he had willingly given up his most prized possession in all the world. She explained in intricate detail how on one of the last days of the school year, when she had asked if anyone wanted to share before they all went home, Avocado –  little, stone quiet Avocado – raised his hand and with his head held straight and tall walked to the front of her class. How, in the face of everyone’s amazed silence, he burst into a rousing rendition of the Bad Boys theme song from Cops, sung in its entirety in perfect English, until a wild whoop of applause thundered round the room from all thirty-one of his classmates. Ms. Lady detailed the small steps forward Osvaldo had taken that year, and made the case that although he had not met any of the state or grade-level standards, he was indeed the best tally keeper in all the land.

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Once upon a time there lived a teacher, and she was impossibly young and naïve and she was me. It was in my class that a small boy sat, known to one and all as Avocado. And she and I, we tended that child lovingly, as a Teacher does, wanting only the best for him, watching and wishing for him to grow and thrive under our care.

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Osvaldo is a grown man now, and I know very little about him. I don’t know if he ever made it to Disneyland. I don’t know if he learned how to read. I don’t know if anyone calls him Avocado anymore, but I think not.

I do know that he taught me more than I ever taught him. I know that he didn’t deserve to fail. Most importantly I know that a tree cannot bear fruit if it does not have plenty of sunshine, enough rain, well-drained soil, nutrient-rich fertilizer, helpful pollinators, a nearby friend….only then will it bear fruit.

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At night, in bed, I google his name. I learn Osvaldo was a witness to the murder of his friend when he was fourteen years old. That he was kicked out of high school for several years. That he seems to be married now, and covered in tattoos, and sadly, predictably, a member of a notorious and dangerous Southern California gang.

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Once upon a time there was a teacher, but that story seems a fairytale now….in a far-off land, amongst desert skies and chalkboard walls, in a place where once bright words scattered into infinitesimal particles raining down on sunken heads, floated wisps of muted letters swirling through the very air they breathed, burning tally marks across their souls.

1998

 

 

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Second Son

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I have not written for a long, long while, because I was tired of myself. I felt like I was trying to write about me, which therefore meant hammering on mostly about motherhood. Yet all mothers, unless they are experiencing some unimaginable tragedy of some sort, face the same sorts of frustrations and elations as I did and do, and no matter how creatively I spin it, yada yada yada, we get it – I’m still just one mom among many, dissecting the daily minutia.

But soon it will be my second son’s eighteenth birthday. And last year, on his birthday, we were all suffering from a vicious, vomity flu, and so the birthday boy spent his birth day and night staggering from the couch out to the front yard to projectile vomit in front of the neighbors. And he graciously, unbiddingly did this because the inside two bathrooms were being used by vomity girls and grown ups too sick to wish him a happy birthday or even contemplate the word ‘cake’.

And so I am inspired to wish him a Happy Birthday this year, publicly and profusely. And to direct your attention to the first sentence of the second paragraph, in which I utilize a key identifying phrase. Eli has always been my second child, my second boy, my second wind, my second chance. His birth happened in Massachusetts, far away from any other family, and when he was born after a long, stressful day and night in the hospital they rolled the two of us down the hall and put us in a shared room with another couple who’d just had their first baby. And that baby screamed non-stop. NON STOP. So that even during those first hours, when I was lying there gazing down at my quiet, blue-eyed, new little boy, some other boy was already overshadowing him, literally.

I had a very hard time picking a name for this second son of mine. I wanted to name him Jonathan, but Damon and I argued for months over the spelling (he wanted JOHNathan, I insisted on JONathan). That one H did us in. The name was scrapped and nothing else fell into place. For months and months I stewed, feeling bad that of course I had wanted a girl, since we already had one boy, but now the baby was a HE and I couldn’t picture him, or name him, or even figure out where to put him in our tiny little military house.

So it was that we placed a crib at the end of our very long, very white, very boring bedroom, and in that crib we had some blue snowball and candy cane material that we made into bedding and bumpers. That was all we had for décor. This baby had nothing else new or exciting or interesting at all. All the baby clothes and paraphernalia I already had from Jacob. I needed nothing except perhaps a warm bunting of some sort, because this second son of mine was expected in December, and we were in Massachusetts, and Jacob was born in California. So I did buy some blankets and warm little outerwear for this vague ‘Snow Baby’ of mine soon to arrive. And then I waited. Each day during Jacob’s nap time I’d load a tray with Oreos and milk (oreos around the rim like a clock, milk in the middle), then waddle up to my bed, where I lay with the tray balancing on my bulbous tummy, eating and reading and crying as I stared over at that little forlorn crib waiting at the end of the room for a baby I couldn’t fathom.

Then one day I saw a greeting card in a Hallmark store that had a grinning little elf on it, with a flurry of snow flakes and candy cane trim, and I felt that this baby needed something cheerful, so I bought this little card and framed it and hung it over the crib. It read: E is for Elf

Each afternoon henceforth during nap time I still stuffed myself with Oreos and quiet weeping (Must Not Wake Jacob!), even as I stared down at the little crib area and the one little photo, thinking silently, ‘well, E is for Eli’. Then I would reprimand myself because I’d read it wrong. “No, it says ELF.”

Then ding, ding, ding, at last the lights went on. Hot Mercy! His name is right there! Over the crib! E is for Eli!!!

So he was named and subsequently born and I brought him home from the hospital during the first snowfall in Boston that year, and I sat in the car next to his car seat and looked down at him bundled up in the little green, quilted bunting I had bought for him, and he reminded me of Maggie from the Simpsons – pale, golden hair. Puffy, heart-shaped lips. My little winter star baby. And I loved him immensely and wondrously and was suddenly glad to have him.Star Boy

And now eighteen years have merrily rolled along. And all that time he has been my second son, but also my happy little elf and a sweet shining star within our family. Instinctively, he is merry and bright. And perhaps more remarkably, unusually patient and undemanding. Throughout his entire childhood, while events were planned and carried out virtually non-stop for Jacob, Eli never complained when he had to wait his turn. And if things turned out disastrously with Jacob and we were no longer wanting to try them again with Eli, (soccer, baseball, boy scouts, the IB program, French, just to name a few), then we didn’t, and not once did Eli whine or fuss or say, “But what about ME!???”

When three more girls arrived in the years after him, and I was sick and overwhelmed and then eventually somewhat back to normal but now glorying in the girlness of THEM, he loved on them, too, and rarely demanded my time or attention apart from daily necessities.

And now he is eighteen! Emancipated! And I, the no longer legally necessary parent, ruminate over how much I miss his little boy smile and how he could jump straight up onto the couch’s arm from a both-feet-side-by-side standing position and then literally crawl up the door frames and hang upside down, smiling at us. I miss him wandering around the kitchen every school day morning (after asking him to get some lettuce for his bearded dragon) yelling bewilderedly, “What’s a bin?” “Huh?” “Where’s the bin?” I miss him drawing endless circles in his Blues Clues notebook, and spelling out “I WANT TO GO HOME” with his French fries on restaurant tables, and how the one time (the ONLY TIME) I took him out on a ‘date’ all on his own to Claim Jumper when he was about eight, we both ordered hot fudge sundaes and by the time they arrived he had slumped over in the booth, sound asleep.

I miss that little Star Boy, who good-naturedly followed his older brother on every adventure and whim, but who lit up our whole family with light and sweetness and early morning happiness.

From the moment I realized his name and brought him home in his star bunting in the snow, Eli felt like my very own little Christmas Elf, born both merry and bright, brimming over with enthusiastic energy and love.

Meanwhile I, the mother, am rarely merry and almost never brim over with anything but indigestion. Which was exactly the scenario the other night as I lay in bed, grumpy and malaised, contemplating abandoning my country once and for all Von-Trapp style, when Eli burst into the house after riding his bike home from high school choir practice.

“Mama!” he cried, rushing into my room. “Come and see the stars! They’re so beautiful!” His cheeks were bright red from being out in the crisp night air and his blue eyes – how they twinkled (that doesn’t seem technically true, but it paints a picture, doesn’t it?)

He came to my bedside while I hemmed and hawed and coughed and chortled and stood there practically boucing upright with excitement. “Come on, Mama, you need to see this, it’s incredible!”

So I followed him outside in my nightgown, trailing this suddenly tall, grown, man-boy, and we stood under the stars, and he laughed with delight and happiness at how bright they were, how many you could see, look up, look up, isn’t that so incredible, Mama?

And it was! The quiet hush of night wrapped around us. The cool, wintery air brought us closer together. His golden-reddish hair glistened against the shimmering stars overhead. The moment seemed immense and wondrous and I was suddenly so very glad to have him, there by my side.

Eighteen is a big milestone. It is like turning the page on a whole new chapter of your life. Yet I have no party planned as of now, no presents purchased. All I have is a birthday wish for my second son on his eighteenth year: that he knows this. All of this, that I’ve just written down. That somehow this Mama, without even wishing on an actual evening star, got him. Him! My star boy, my second son.

Isn’t that so incredible?

 

 

 

 

 

Better or Worse?

“I’m not sure she’s as loveable as you think she is.”

My mother said this to my husband, within earshot of me, not too long ago. He laughed. She was just joking, of course. Well… half-joking.

Because truly…on a day-to-day basis, I’m not that lovable. I veer to cranky, pessimistic, and fatigued in short order. I have no technical skills – ever; too little money -often; and way too many children – always. I don’t like to drive, don’t watch reality tv, and my religious views upset everybody. I have not an adventurous bone in my body. I suffer from chronic indigestion, red hair, and a permanent double chin. Basically I’m less preferable than a cranky, fat, worn out cat who vomits daily and then claws you for no reason at all, even when you are just trying to sit down close to pet her.

In short, I’m not that lovable.

Which is a big challenge for my husband. He vowed to love me, for better or worse, twenty-two years ago today. He took those vows the day after we graduated from college…for better or for worse. And mostly, honestly, he has seen ‘worse’. Even my mother thinks so.

Back when we were first married I would not have made this sort of self-pitying claim. Back then I was naively, innately optimistic about life. The morning after we were married we flew to Hawaii on a mostly empty plane, clouds and blue seas paving the way, and I felt blissfully happy. I had graduated college, married my nice, smiley, musical guy, and here we were…off to paradise.

Gazing back fondly on this scene, our first day of married life, seems so symbolic now. For as we hurtled skyward into our future, Damon dozed wearily on my lap. I sat, mindlessly waiting, staring out the window into nothingness. After a while of this, a smartly dressed air steward came waltzing down the aisle bearing tall, swirly, reddish-orange drinks on a tray. As he came closer, he bent directly in front of me.  “For the newlyweds…” the steward proclaimed, as if I were the Queen of England sitting there in third class. “Are you Mrs. Kirk?”

I gasped. I was Mrs. Kirk! Eagerly I eyed those sweet, alcoholic pools with their floating fruit kebabs. This seemed too wonderful. Here I was, off to Hawaii, no pesky seat mates in our vicinity on the plane, my new husband asleep on my lap, and now this handsome lad lavishing me with tropical drinks! For Mrs. Kirk….me! This was the first time hearing my new name aloud.

Carefully, carefully I undid the fold-down tray so that it rested right over top of Damon’s head. Without a word the steward set both drinks down and disappeared, and for the next few hours I peered out the window while careening through that wild, blue abyss, sipping both of those Mai Tai’s without even once attempting to wake the new Mr. Kirk. Nor did I try to share this first bit of unexpected good fortune with him.

Twenty-two years later this scene seems a bit far-fetched, even to me. First off, why would the plane be so empty traveling to Hawaii? And do stewards even make Mai Tai’s anymore? Certainly they don’t bring them to you without a credit card involved! The most astounding part of the whole scenario as I recreate it in my mind, sitting now in my messy kitchen with dishes piled in the sink, staring out the window at the gray clouds swirling by, is that it completely sums up our marriage in its entirety. Damon  – constantly weary and trying to catch a nap. Me – forever gazing skyward, wondering aimlessly what to do with myself, meekly clutching an alcoholic beverage like a life jacket. In case of emergency…drink quickly!

Twenty two years have passed since that plane ride. We have had five children, oodles of pets, several homes in several states. Through all of this, Damon has laughed at the sand on the bathroom floor; held my hand as we’ve rushed through yet another hospital door; spoken for me to judges and juries; worked two jobs to cover the bills; then stroked my head even as I vomited and clawed at him. He has talked me through computer glitches and financial ruin, basement floods and abruptio placentae, hyperemesis and ptyalism, kidney stones and career changes, cross-country moves and mental breakdowns. He has been steadfast through lice epidemics, temper tantrums, tirades, even lawsuits. He has watched me gain forty pounds and four hundred gray hairs and then has merely laughed when I put infant formula in the coffee pot instead of beans. He has rushed out of the house at midnight to parallel park my car for me; strung up Christmas lights all over the house in October; driven all night; painted all day; and wordlessly grabbed a shovel when I willy-nilly decided to dig a pool, by hand, in the backyard.

My smiley, nice, musical guy has loved me for worse for twenty two years. And nothing in this whole wide, swirly blue world could be any better.Number 22

 

 

 

A Person of Color

I am a person of color. Not for me, this black and white.

I crave a world of green, with staircases fit for a Queen.IMG_9879

A vista of blue with a sparkling view…IMG_7707

Puffs of gold, flashes of pink, swirls of scarlet down near my feet.IMG_9338 IMG_9035 IMG_7731

Amidst so many colors, these past few weeks have felt summery sweet. Yet the headlines ticking along the top of my consciousness seem shrouded in fog, buried in dark. All black or white. Just or unjust. But then – a familiar flash of steel-gray appears, wherein one freezes, runs, closes their eyes, weeps, eventually turns the other cheek. Because what can you do? I know. You know. We all know which color reigns supreme. Steel metal wins, every time, all around. It is the one color so many rely on, in the end.

We are a country held prisoner by our love-hate relationship with cold, shiny metal.  We are a nation yielding to antiquated black and white thinking on issues every shade of gray. We shuffle along, our leaden metallic weapons hidden down our pants or under our coats, believing that the right to protect ourselves trumps the rights of our children, our nation, our moral consciousness. We all bear the scars of accepted brutality and senseless waste of life, and we all should carry the shame of how cavalierly we label this violence ‘self-defense’ and not the cowardice that it truly is. Weapons are indeed the problem. We’ve arrived at the point in our evolution where man no longer needs to use his brains or savvy to control anger or solve issues. BOOM! With one flick of the finger the conflict’s over. It’s that fast. No thought necessary.

I am a pacifist. I do not believe that violence ends violence. That weapons solve problems. I believe that we are highly evolved creatures capable of navigating the world successfully without weapons. And that those who do so are the ones who, historically, we admire and revere as the utmost example of enlightened human possibility.

Truly now this country, my country, feels color blind. A sea of red, oozing down the street, bleeding down our sidewalks, pooling at our feet doesn’t change a thing. Black and white are still the colors of fear and domination, and metallic gray is the answer.

What if every gun were replaced with a paintbrush? What would the world look like then? What would the world feel like if every person could spend the day dipped in another’s skin color now and again?

One day, quite soon, white people will not hold the majority on ‘best’ skin type. More and more we are becoming a world of browns – of taupes and mochas, cinnamons and caramels. Before our very eyes the world warms, and we white people swirl around in our own superior juice like bits of brisket in the melting pot of life – even as we brown, bit by bit.

As I gaze at the swirling skies, I wonder…will white folks resort more and more to the color of metal and steel as our skin power fades away? Can humans put down their weapons and visualize a world beyond black and white?IMG_7715

I don’t have any answers. I only have myself and my paintbrush, tucked now in my coat pocket, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice. It’s my weapon of choice for such a black and white world. The one accoutrement that makes me feel secure as I wander along, searching for rainbows. For I want to live as a person of color.IMG_6540IMG_7648

At- TEN- HUT!

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I am supposed to be baking cookies right now. Chocolate chip cookies, for my girls to pass out to their classmates, in honor of their tenth birthdays arriving this weekend. Except I don’t want to bake cookies. Especially not…let’s see here…27 kids per class, two classes, each kid needs two cookies, plus teachers, plus aides…is that 112 cookies?IMG_1779

Have you seen that movie Office Space, where the guy goes to work every day and then one day he just doesn’t? He just stops going to work, or rather, he shows up but doesn’t actually do any work, or even pretend to work? Well, that’s me. My parental expiration stamp – ‘Good until 6/13/13′ – has come to pass. I can no longer muster up the mojo to be excited about any kind of kid stuff – teacher appreciation week; birthdays; pajama day; music recitals; animal plays; memory books; field trips; graduations; yearbooks; swim team try outs; slumber parties; class registrations; sports banquets; award ceremonies…(I really could go on and on). I feel like I’ve bought it all, done it all, sat through it all, and I just can’t bake any damn cookies anymore!

It doesn’t help that my kitchen is a mess. That I should technically unload and then reload the dishwasher before I begin. Nor does it help that when I did get up the gumption to bake two days ago – gathered all the ingredients, pre-warmed the oven, found the mixing bowls, retrieved enough salt from the salt shakers – the butter was cold. I had to set it all aside and wait for ‘the softening’ to occur, and of course now it’s been aside, it’s still aside, and the butter is very soft indeed, but instead of making cookies I dribble puddles of lard onto sourdough bread, then bury it under jelly, pour some more coffee, all while carefully averting my eyes from the oven’s general direction.

Just last week I wrote a disgruntled post on Facebook about having to attend interminable music concerts, and one of our friends, a very gifted and devoted music teacher (ALL of our friends are music teachers, so I picked a good topic!) wrote back “pfft…why bother going?” Which I’ll admit is a fair and pertinent question. I guess my honest answer would be ‘duty’, ‘obligation’, ‘a few seconds of pride and delight and happiness while watching my child perform, which is then quickly overtaken by prickly hot flashes; crying babies; fleeting stomach cramps; intermittent prayers that the dropped instruments rolling underneath the chairs are not the ones I am currently paying for; a weird, persistent, blinking light on the camera (is it even working?); the sudden overwhelming desire to be outside, in fresh air, with a cocktail or two.’DSC00581

Obviously, the concerts are not designed to please me, specifically. Yet the music teachers must know that I’ve heard these songs before. I’ve seen my kids, your kids, these exact kids perform these exact songs ad infinitum (Often all at the same time, in my living room or front yard). I’ve been to lots and lots of recitals and shows and performances, and when they last more than an hour, while you sit there with your sweaty, whiny kids (or your seat-mates’ sweaty, whiny kids), and your child appears on stage in the back row and you can see half of her left ear while she’s performing, and you have another kid performing at the exact same time across the neighborhood at another school, and that kid is of course heartbroken that you’re not attending her concert, and you’ve already had to drop off one kid here, then drive back to drop off another kid over there, then gather up more kids at home to attend said concert here, while another segment of the family’s set to walk there, and you’re assuming you can all meet up afterwards over there (except that the concerts are two hours long and counting), and your kid tells you in the car on the way over that their ‘Japanese story book’ that they can’t find and haven’t actually started is due in the morning, and none of you have eaten dinner or had any wine at all…um, let’s just say the novelty has worn off.

Clearly, I acknowledge that this is a cop-out answer and does not qualify me for any parenting awards. But mostly I think – my poor twins! This sour attitude was not one I carted around as a new mother, when Jacob had a Mother’s Day Tea and I went out and bought a skirt to wear and had my nails done and was standing at the door ready to go two hours early, just counting down the minutes till I could drive up to the kindergarten! I am no longer the same mother who, upon being told that Eli was doing poorly in third grade because he refused to capitalize any letters or put periods at the end of his sentences went marching in to his classroom, plopped my booty down into a tiny blue molded chair, then spent the day looking for each and every string of words that made any sort of sense, whispering kindly and patiently in Eli’s ear, “What did you forget here, honey?” Yes, that’s right. A capital. See, when you start a sentence you are proclaiming something to the world. You must make your letters stand up very straight and tall so the world will listen. “Look over here and be quiet while I tell you something important!” the capital exclaims. Just like that. Oh dear…now you’ve forgotten again. A capital, remember? See, your pencil is like the soldier standing at attention. And the capital is his way of yelling at his troops – ‘Atten-HUT! There, you’ve got it! And what do we put at the end, when you’re all done? A period! See, like this…because your soldier has finished his thought, and at long last he can rest. Doesn’t that little dot look nice there…ah! It looks so restful, like a little pillow for your soldier to lay his head upon. See, the pencil and your sentences are like a great, big, important play on a stage – First comes the soldier who shouts ‘Listen up, world!’ Then he spells out his noble thoughts and actions until finally…at long, long last he proclaims, ‘Ta Da! My heart has been heard, my duty is done…this sentence is at peace.’ (Here he bows, lies his head upon the pillow, and adds, ‘You may clap for me now, if you’d like.’)

My two girls have had quite a different mother from that mother altogether. They have had an impatient, cranky, ‘Are you kidding me? You can’t be bothered to put a period in there? It’s one tiny, stupid dot! Ugh! Well, go ahead and fail the third grade then, missy…It’s all job security to me!” kind of mom.

With my first few children I never yelled. I willingly made cookies. I was fairly excited to attend their beginning recitals and plays and performances. Overall I was young and optimistic and downright indulgent, to the point that one day I begged Damon to play hooky from work and instead have a ‘lego’ day with me and the boys. I quite clearly remember handing him a credit card and telling him to, “race to Toys R Us’, buy a ton of legos, while I stay here and bake cookies! We’ll set up a whole lego town and put the boys’ trains around it…how cool will that be?”

Damon hand-made our first three kids incredible loft beds and train tables and toy shelves, while every single thing the twins have ever owned has been bought at Ikea or Target, but mainly Goodwill. We’ve had no money for them to ‘try’ baseball or preschool or girl scouts or any other jet-setting activity middle-class, fairly privileged kids normally get to have a go at.  The mediocrity of “living within our means” has supplanted mortgaging the house for legos. These little girls have just been carted around like two extra suitcases shoved helter-skelter into the car, dragged here and there to all the other kids’ events, and now, finally, it is time for their events, and I can’t find the inner willpower to slap a smile on my face and just bake the darn cookies.

Yesterday, out of desperation, I went to the store. I was ready to break down and just buy the cookies. But I couldn’t…literally.  I mean, how crazy expensive are cookies now? With twelve to a box, I would need four boxes per girl, no, five? And they’re how much? Obviously whatever I buy can’t contain nuts or corn syrup, which wipes out every single cheaper alternative, and oh, for pity sake…I better just bake the cookies, right?

But I can’t. And that’s the point of this post, I guess. I feel like I’ve rambled on and on for years, mostly just about me, and mothering, moan, moan, moan…and now this dribbling, dragging sentence is at long, long last, yearning for a period…aching for peace. 100_0718 100_0256 IMG_6563

My twins turn ten tomorrow. Ten! Where have I been, that my youngest are ten? Technically they’re not even ‘young’ anymore! My job feels like suddenly it should be outsourced, to someone younger, fresher, cheaper. Someone bilingual, willing to work night shifts, capable of baking 112 cookies. Someone who knows better than to serve young charges alcoholic beverages, then pose for picture proof while they’re still clinking glasses together.DSC05888I hope one day, some day, my girls can look past the cantankerous me and know that my love for them out shadows my enthusiasm by a gazillion. That if I could, I would enroll them in a billion summer camps and take them to a million fun places. And that the reason I will continue to sit through thousands of hours of recitals and plays and concerts and assemblies is because of them. It’s their cute little left ear I’m staring at up there, under the bright lights, shining, shining, that little person I helped mold morphing into their own, truer self right before my eyes…100_0928email DSC08843 DSC00445 IMG_7242 IMG_6874 IMG_5456

My heart has been heard, my duty is done…at long, long last this sentence – this wondrous, adventurous, doubly-delightful sentence – is at peace.DSC00580

(You may clap for them now, if you’d like…)IMG_1278 IMG_9330IMG_5693

Feeling Particulier….(Paris, Day Two)

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Within twenty-four hours of landing in Paris, Damon managed to receive a personal invitation to an art gallery opening featuring the French artist herself. And yes, wine was included. Ooh-la-la!

This happened because wherever we went, Damon kept popping his head into open doorways with the enchanted smile of a six-year-old. He’d wave excitedly at anyone who looked his way then cry out, “Bon Jour!” heartily, loudly, and voila! Sometimes he (and often we) were invited in!

This is exactly what happened as Damon and I wandered through the fabled, gabled streets of Montmarte, on our first full day awake and alert in Paris. We had spent the morning walking up and down the Seine; sipping enormous café cremes at Deux Maggots where Hemingway used to eat;

This was our exact view as we dined outside!

This was our exact view as we sat outside at Deux Maggots!

marveling at the intense swirl of colors in Monet’s ‘The Nympheas’, displayed in stark, all-white rooms at the L’Orangerie museum;

This is what it's like inside the museum...picture by time.com(they do not allow visitors to take any photos inside, sadly).

This is what it’s like inside the museum…picture by time.com(they do not allow visitors to take any photos inside, sadly).

…and of course stopping and shopping at cheese stores, bread stores, patisseries, even pharmacies (which are all lit up with neon crosses, which is just brilliant and so helpful!)…IMG_2270 IMG_2274 IMG_2275 IMG_2476 IMG_2478At some point we plopped ourselves down in two of the aqua-green metal chairs scattered throughout the Luxembourg Gardens, nibbling our goodies while sipping Perriere and Sangria, conveniently sold from gypsy-like crepe-carts tucked between the trees. Contentedly we basked in the sunshine. Children pushed sailboats across the pond with long, wooden sticks while we took photos and ate and snickered at our newfound love of the delicacy known as Paris Brest!DSC_0151IMG_2513IMG_2517So we were already quite tired and wonder-weary when we disembarked from the subway mid-afternoon to begin the steep ascent to Montmartre and the infamous Sacre Coeur. Still, the renowned hilltop enclave managed to take our breath away. We began at the  international ‘Love Wall’ and wound our way higher and higher, up steep (nearly vertical) staircases clear to the clouds. Here we became one with the masses of humans swarming everywhere – in cafe’ doors, on elevated bar stools, roaming the patches of grass and roads blanketing the immense Sacre Coeur, while the brazen and bizarre among us tried to sell their handmade wares.IMG_2412

DSC_0075 DSC_0077IMG_2421We stood and gaped and tried to mesh our ‘Amelie’ version of Sacre Coeur with the real-life version of Sacre Coeur – how the grass seemed much narrower in person, more crowded, the carousel not nearly so prominent. Yet the cathedral – oh my! DSC_0100 DSC_0099 IMG_2443IMG_2427 IMG_2471

And the view! DSC_0079The scope and size of everything in Paris was simply overwhelming. Coming from California and Washington State, Damon and I had never seen anything like it. We had never casually walked past, or through, or around buildings this big, this old, this grand, this ornamental. I peered upwards, inwards, down the street…

Pardon et moi...who lives here, in this adorableness, right across the street in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur?

Pardon et moi…who lives here, in this adorableness, right across the street in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur?

searching in vain for the Eiffel tower, which could not be seen from the cathedral grounds. This felt disappointing, which was a weird feeling to have given where we were. Yet all the walking and being ‘on the go’ was beginning to sap my enthusiasm. And unfortunately, I was too tired to even contemplate a cart-wheel, especially on such steep grass…one of the main goals on my ‘If I ever go  to France I will do a cart-wheel with the Eiffel Tower in the background’ agenda. Alas!

Oh...there it is! You have to walk down the street a ways from the grass and then you can spot the Eiffel tower. And you can even take a picture if you are willing to climb a wall!

Oh…there it is! You have to walk down the street a ways from the grass and then you can spot the Eiffel tower. And you can even take a picture if you are willing to climb a wall!

Standing there I felt cranky and worn out and ready for dinner. But it was only 7pm. What was I thinking? In Paris everyone dines fashionably late. Meaning very late – way past my bedtime. So on we went, passing the time traversing crooked little alleyways, trying to retrace all of the ‘Amelie’ attractions. Halfway down Rue Des Tres Freres, Damon paused to relocate ourselves on our map. I kept walking to the end of the block and only paused at the triangular green grocers on the corner to turn back and wonder where on earth Damon was. I was truly so tired and out of sorts and feeling peculiar that I barely noticed I was standing right in front of the green grocers – the Amelie grocers! I didn’t even take a picture of it, ack! (Mon dieu!)

No, I didn't take even one photo...this is from Wikipedia!

No, I didn’t take even one photo…this is from Wikipedia!

Mostly I was looking for Damon, who had his head stuck in an open doorway halfway down the street. He was gesticulating wildly to someone, and I couldn’t image what he could possibly be saying in French when he gave a wave and with a literal bounce in his step came galloping towards me.

“We’ve just been invited in to that artist’s gallery opening back there!” he gushed. “They’re serving wine and offered me some but I couldn’t find you, and we really should head to the Hotel Particulier…” here he trailed away, while I stared at him, agape. “I told them we had dinner reservations and probably couldn’t attend, unfortunately…”

You managed to say all that in French?” I gasped, truly astounded.

“Well, French and hand signals…a mixture, really. My French is not bad, you know!”

After that stunning turn of events, we wandered down even more impressive walkways…past windmills and ivy-clad alleys where rich Parisians lived within iron fences and secret gardens…all in the hopes of finding the Hotel Particulier, a dining spot I had read about online, which offered outdoor dining in one of those aforementioned ‘secret’ gardens.IMG_2470 IMG_2468 DSC_0092

Yet this place was so secret that Damon and I could not find it at all. Not on the map. Not after asking in a bar for help. Finally we stopped in front of where the hotel should be given the address. Yet there was no building, only a gate and buzzer, which we rang to no effect. Just then a man pulled up in a car, motioned us in with a wave of the hand. Next a woman leaned out a window high overhead and told us to walk till we found the ‘witch’s rock’. Seriously! We felt like Alice tumbling down the Rabbit Hole. We had entered a place most peculiar indeed! Obediently we followed the gravel path, up a small incline, past tall, white houses or hotels, who knew…and finally there it was – a great, big, bumpy rock, and next to it another gate with another buzzer, and my word! Look at that: DSC_0109

This was where we were having dinner! In Paris! In Montmartre! In a secret garden next to a witches rock! Mon Dieu!

Nervously we rang the buzzer. A man in a black suit ushered us through the graveled garden into the Hotel Particulier, where we were seated in a private dining room! Incredulous, we sat down. Within moments Soutine the cat jumped into my lap. Wine appeared, bread was procured, then what appeared to be the fanciest fish-n-chips of all time was set down in front of us from off of a silver tray as if we were royalty, and all we could do was laugh hysterically and pet the cat and stare over our shoulder at Mr. Deer and drink more wine.DSC_0114 DSC_0111 DSC_0124

Throughout the evening Damon and I fidgeted and giggled like nervous children, feeling entirely out-of-place within this particular Hotel, but enchanted beyond words. As the sun set a man who looked like Johnny Depp came and sat outside in the courtyard, trailing cigarette smoke into the air, wrapped in a sky-blue scarf, and soon other beautiful young French people joined him, and we were smitten, biting into our candied pears there amongst the red-velvet walls.

After twenty-four hours on the ground, Paris seemed a most particular place, indeed, and we felt pretty pleased to be a part of it.

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And on our walk back to the hotel we saw this…

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and this! (the restaurant where Amelie worked in the film)

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and this….sigh!

Tourte Magique (Paris, Day 1)

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We flew to Paris above the clouds, sipping wine, stunned by the never-fading starlight swirling outside the window, the sudden turn of events in our lives.

A trip across the pond was first mentioned in February, when Damon returned from work in downtown Seattle and hastily muttered, “I have to go to Europe in a few weeks. For work. Paris. Amsterdam. London. Please don’t leave me.”

As usual, I summoned all my grace in stating that he better figure out how to cart me along as ‘baggage’, or there would be no guarantee of my presence upon his return (see Sea Turtles).

Weeks and weeks passed in which a tense little cloud settled stubbornly over our home. It was quite uncertain whether logistics would align for me to go along; if we could really afford it, financially (thank you Grandpa Nathan, Grandpa George, and Grandma Mary!); just who would bravely watch all these children (thank you Grandpa Nathan, Uncle Mark, and Aunt Lorraine!)…and then, not even two weeks before his departure date, Damon went online, willy-nilly, clicked a few buttons and voila – I had a ticket. To Paris. A land where, as Edith Wharton explains in ‘French Ways and Their Meanings’, “When one steps from one’s apartment and out onto the sidewalk, the responsibility begins: The costume must be appropriate. The beauty of the city of Paris itself is overwhelming, and those who enter that setting pay homage to it with their appearance.”IMG_2259

Oh my! The pressure of trying to prepare for such a trip in such a short time was enormous. I suffered from low expectations of Paris, high expectations of myself. “How beautiful and sacred can one place be, after all?” I thought skeptically. The bigger question was – how would I – a frumpy, middle-aged, American mom of five  – become a world-traveler worthy of being out and about in the world?

Frantically I booked an appointment at an upscale hair salon. I asked them to schedule extra time for me, place me within the hands of their most gifted hair sculptress. Please! The day of the appointment, I practically jumped into the leather swivel chair. I stared nervously at my pale, puffy-cheeked, wrinkled twin in the mirror; tugged at the floral, button-up, large-lady shirt that suddenly seemed garish even to me; and said with a distinct wobble in my voice – “I’m going to Paris in two days time. Can you help?”

The hair stylist – a young, impossibly hip man with shiny ringlets and a nose ring – paused mightily, then said with an air of candor that I greatly appreciated, “Frankly, dear, your hair is wonderful as is, and will fit nicely in Paris if you keep it brushed and pulled back from your face like this…French women show off their faces, you know! Or perhaps you’d want to swoop it up like this, eh?  So let’s move on. Donc, donc…what is the plan for your wardrobe and accessories? I think that is where our greater focus should lie.”

Like a chastised four-year old my eyes welled with tears. Obviously my shirt was in poor taste. “Yes, yes, of course…” I muttered, already feeling I had brought shame to Paris, pre-visit.  My hairdresser swiveled me around to face him and his shiny, silver nose ring that sprouted like a tiny mushroom from atop his left nostril. I found it impossible not to stare. “For you, my dear, I’m going to suggest – in the strongest and simplest of terms –  all-black. Stick to that, and you will be fine, I think!” With his fingertips he dabbed bits of pomade from a lime green jar straight across my hair-line. The blotting away of years of complacency had begun, it seemed. “Add a bit of color in your scarf, of course, and with your lipstick.”  Here he twirled me back towards the mirror dramatically. “You need lipstick, definitely. You do wear lipstick, right?” He bent to stare at me encouragingly, as you would a child, his ringlets bouncing up and down in bodily agreement. “Have you been to the make-up counter at Macy’s? That would be a good beginning. They’re very helpful there, you know.”

And so I left the hairdressers without getting my hair cut or crafted, only shined, and took to the skies, wearing all black, and with a different colored lipstick tucked into every possible crevasse on my person. And wouldn’t you know…I felt like a much more sophisticated me, swooshing through the clouds. I didn’t have to yell at anyone, only myself! I didn’t have to worry about anyone’s bathroom needs but my own! Tres magique!

When they passed out ‘complimentary’ wine at 30,000 feet, I knew I had entered enchanted airspace indeed. A land of fairy tales. Castles, crepes, cathedrals…entire meals served in custom cocottes! Svelte people in long, black coats began to whoosh past me on mopeds, wrapped always in scarves of classic colors, their aquiline noses pointed high in the air, their words hushed, rapid, lyrical. It felt like I’d entered a James Bond movie. It looked like I’d entered a James Bond movie! Everywhere I turned there were cobblestone streets; black-iron street lanterns; the smell of cigarettes and baguettes and cream heavy in the air; unattainable luxury and intrigue draped behind spiraled stairs and iron doors; row after row of terraced windows.DSC_0021IMG_2258

Damon and I wandered along the Seine like Hansel and Gretel, lost yet enlivened by this strange, candied path we suddenly trod. We couldn’t understand what was said, or where we were headed, but we didn’t care, we were ‘window lickers’ here, content to paw at the beauty aligned along every alley way – secret, hidden gardens tucked behind calligraphied walls; pastries so fluffy and light they crumpled in your hands; massive, magnificent buildings that stretched blocks at a time, where every corner, every soffit, every eave under which one gaped appeared fluted, flourished, festooned in finery of the most fairytalish sort.IMG_2644 IMG_2643

In the darkness, under the stars, on the ceiling of our hotel orange and crimson papillons danced, while I, curled under their golden wings, seemed at long last privy to the party known as ‘Paris’, yet utterly removed from it, too, exhausted and enchanted by turns.IMG_2264

Walking around Paris that first night in a wine-induced, jet-lagged stupor, I realized this was a place I’d heard of my whole life, but didn’t really believe existed. The Paris of legend, of lore, had never intrigued me that much. But in person it felt magical – almost too grand, too classically beautiful, too unsullied by time or advertising or even convenience to believe. “Why would anyone live anywhere else?” I thought almost immediately, wrapping my long, black jacket around me haughtily, my nose suddenly pointed in the air. Damon leaned on a Citroen 2CV parked in the street and paused with an audible ‘Tut, tut’ and he felt it, too, I could tell. Even the cars looked better here!IMG_2263

Back home in America, while growing up, I had been a supremely picky eater (which is odd, in that my family ate very mild, unoriginal food). Yet my brother, sister, and I determined to consume nothing but white bread and pancakes for most of our formative years. Which worked well enough in our household, unless it was a holiday, when guests gathered, proffering the typical American fare – turkey or ham, mashed potatoes, cooked carrots, perhaps some deviled eggs, and of course pies. Lots and lots of pies.

Well, I didn’t like pie. I don’t know why. I just remember being a very small girl and wrinkling my nose at it vehemently. No, I didn’t like it! No I didn’t want even a bite! Honestly I don’t think I knew what pie tasted like…I had never tried any that I could recall, yet still I protested. Then, when I was a teenager I flew to Australia to visit a friend, and her neighbors baked an American Apple Pie which they proudly trotted out soon after my arrival, especially for me (wasn’t that sweet?) and I sat at their dinner table and said nonchalantly, “Oh, I don’t like pie. Thanks, but no thanks.” I ignored their quiet stares of disbelief over my head and didn’t even feel bad until later (much later).

And then one fine day, (who knows where now, or how old I was…I must have been at least eighteen) I ate some pie. Just tried it, like a normal human being. And oh, man! I was disgraced at myself. Shamed beyond words. Because it turns out, pie is delicious! Downright sublime! Good pie is warm and gooey and melty and fruity and crusty and sugary all at once, and are you kidding me…..I’ve lived my whole darn life refusing to eat this deliciousness?

Well, Paris looked and smelled, felt like a whole new kind of pie. Magic Pie. Tourte Magique! And now, after landing in Paris and sleeping beneath papillons, I cannot believe I’ve lived my whole life over here, wearing patterned shirts and going to 7-11 and shopping at Wal-Mart and carting five kids around in a mini-van, etc..while they’ve all lived over there eating millefeuille and macarons and criss-crossing the Pont Alexandre bridge in classically colored scarves and strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens on ponies, mon dieu!IMG_2397DSC_0545

I always knew I was a window-licker at heart. In Paris they have an actual word for it – lèche-vitrine. Which sounds magnifiique when said from behind a newly-purchased scarf and in between bites of Crème Brulee. Trust me…

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