Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Family Rules

My friend Debbie, who is the wisest person I know, says that every family has rules, but that most people don't realize, or even acknowledge, what they are. There can be rules that look to the afterlife: “We are all the same religion; no doubting allowed,” or they can tend toward the mundane: “We never know where we put the damn car keys.” They can even combine immortality and domesticity: “People who put knives in the dishwasher are going to hell.”

I remember an Independence Day I spent several years ago with a family which seemed to have some very, very specific rules. After dinner, the grownups were out in the street, setting off fireworks. I noticed some of those snakes, the firework that really doesn’t do anything, and I was gleeful. I turned to the five-year-old in residence and told her, “I love these! When I was little, I was scared of every firework except these!” She picked out only one word from my chatter, like a CIA operative whose only understanding of Arabic is the word for “bomb.”

“You were scared?” she said, with what felt like an equal mixture of disdain and jealousy. (This crazy lady was allowed to be frightened when she was little. Wonder what planet she was raised on.) I imagined a family crest for these people, with BRAVE right in the middle, in 72-point type.

I happened to be spending some time with this particular family again just a few months ago, and discovered another of their rules. I was babbling about the challenges of driving Mary Katherine’s theater friends to rehearsal, given: a) the scanty passenger capacity of my Beetle and b) the varying sizes of the teens in question. “If the tall boy or the large girl are going, we have to put them in the front seat, and then everyone else has to sit on laps in the back,” I said offhandedly. Every one of these people started, as if I’d just blasphemed, and I quickly realized I had.

“She’s large?” they asked, almost in unison. “You mean, she’s [lowered voices] fat?” I couldn’t tell which part of this comment had gotten them so agitated – that I knew someone who was not below-average BMI, that I admitted it, or that it didn’t seem to bother me. I added a mental Post-It note to their family crest: THIN. The whole thing was even funnier when I thought back on it and realized they'd completely skipped over the existence of the freakishly tall kid. Height was okay, just not width. Whatever.

Once I began looking for other families’ rules, it became hard not to notice them. Just in my limited circle of acquaintances, I know families whose rules clearly include:
  • “If you don’t zip up your coat when you go outside, you will die"
  •  “If you don’t eat the kinds and amounts of foods that I, the parent, command, (see above)”
  •  “It’s okay.” (If you think that maybe you’re not a girl, but a boy; if you want to go live in Tanzania; if you just don’t think this college is right for you, whatever"
  •  “Play hurt"
  •  “Every one of you kids is going to be a major motion picture star, or else"
  •  “Aim low"
  • “Things are bad, things are always bad, and it’s not our fault"
  • "The people with whom you spend Thanksgiving and Christmas are the ones you love best"
  • “We’re just getting over that thing that’s going around. Or maybe we’re just about to get it. Here, let me give you a hug"
  • “Everyone else has it figured out but us,” and its opposite partner, “We are so much smarter than the general populace”
  • “Do whatever you want with your life, as long as it allows me to brag to my friends”
  • “No whining"
  • "Stay within a 15-mile radius"
  • “Matching dresses are a sign of family unity and impeccable good taste, and anyone who says otherwise is a Democrat”
  • "We have no idea how this happened" 
Debbie contends that no one really knows what their own dictums are, at least until someone trespasses, but I know what I’d like our rule to be: We have clean countertops. I even know why this rule is so important to me, although it has never been observed for a stretch of time longer than 30 minutes, unless at least one kid is away at camp. Here's the reason: I entertain the utterly false notion that if I can control the physical space around me (the heaps of schoolwork, sunglasses and dirty clothing that find a way to the countertops with surprising regularity, for example), then I will have control over my life. It may not be true – a clean countertop will not prevent me from having to drive three kids to three separate locations between 5:30 and 6:00 o’clock tonight, for example -- but that doesn’t keep me from wishing it so.

If I dug a little deeper, I would have to admit that my own personal motto probably is “There’s more where that came from.” I have never, ever served a plate of food to anyone and been able to stop myself from saying this. I feel like Rain Man when I do it, and it usually generates eyerolls from even the most well-bred of my children’s friends, but I can’t help myself. I’m a feeder.

And that leads to another phrase that, I hope, really is the family rule. It gets said whenever we’re having someone over for dinner, or thinking about having a party for no particular reason, or deciding if we really have the gumption to apply for another exchange student. It’s what I’ve been saying ever since my kids were little enough ask if a friend could come over to play. We say it often, and I hope we live the deeper meaning of it, too:  “The more the merrier.”

Sunday, September 16, 2012

It's a Boy

It took me quite some time to get over the shock of being pregnant (and yes, I know there are some who suspect I’ve never quite fully recovered, nigh on these 15 years). But once the initial tumult, hysteria and indignation had died down, I comforted myself with the fact that I knew the baby was a boy. It just seemed to make sense, since Emma, center of my known universe, wanted a brother.  When I was told that I was carrying a girl, I was, well, just a wee bit disappointed. (Translation: they could hear the wails from the sailboats at Lake Harriet.) I’d had it all worked out, and things hadn’t gone according to plan. Welcome to motherhood.

As the years passed, I began to see the lucky break I had gotten in giving birth to Mary Katherine, the world’s most female female (to quote Oscar Hammerstein II). I realized that I would have sucked as the mother of boys, at least sporty ones. (Arty ones who planned to go on to big careers in the American Musical Theater, well, that’s another story.) But as I bought heaps of dress up clothes, hosted nail polish parties and collected the stacks of fashion magazines from the incoming mail, I knew, in my heart, that I was never meant to be a mother of a son.

And then Emma had the brilliant idea that we should be the welcome family for an AFS exchange student this fall. “Fine,” I said, “but you pick the kid. You know my issues.” My issues, specifically, are that if you take me to an animal shelter, I am going to leave with the three-legged, blind, diabetic, pregnant and ugly dog, no doubt about it. And it’s not like I’m all self-righteous about my lack of discretion. I know I’m stupid, but I can’t help myself. 

Emma ran a few kids’ dossiers past me, and I was leaning toward Vipaporn, the girl from Thailand, because my first action upon meeting her would be to tell her that her new American name was Brittany. I thought I could save her. Emma, on the other hand, picked the kid who was in cuisine school in Paris, guess why. And also, he played American football, she told me. You’re the boss, I told her. Just make sure you make up a fresh bed for him.

Enter Hugo. In just about a month, this kid has challenged my memory of high school French, introduced me to the world of angry teachers who talk about failing grades, and, horribly, frightened me half to death with the ambulances that keep showing up at high school football games. He is a massive hunk of towering Gallic stamina. Hugging him is like sidling up to one of the flying buttresses of Notre Dame for a quick snuggle. He has already been the cause of more heartache and worry than our last exchange student, darling Angela, was in her entire nine months with us.

And yet.

He has twin brothers, both mentally handicapped, and just about the first thing he did when we met was to show me little booklets with photos of them. He has shown me pictures of his cat. He worries about his mother, Beatrice, worrying about him, and I think she worries about him worrying about her, and so it goes. What this budding chef can do with an onion is sheer poetry. And to watch him make a threadlike chiffonade of the humble basil leaves I tote in from the garden is, honestly, a thing of beauty. When I tell him that the girls at school are losing their minds over him, he honest-to-God blushes, and he tells me that he thinks he is “too timide” to ask anyone to the homecoming dance.

So, I started rethinking the whole boy thing.

On Friday afternoon, we went to his football game, goofily toting “HU” “GO” signs. It was all fine until the third quarter, when something not-so-good happened between his left arm and someone else’s helmet. Honestly, I thought, as we raced him out of the stadium, I am just not cut out for this. This giant boy was struggling so valiantly, and I found myself, on the ride to Twin Cities Orthopedics (which handily had a doctor right there at the game, handing out business cards!) cradling his head, wiping his tears, and holding his good hand as tightly as I could.

The news was as good as it could be, no break, and we got him home, cleaned him up, and fed him mac and cheese. I felt as if I’d been through a Roller Derby of epic proportions, but he was cheerful at the thought that his season was not finished. A friend told me, “You’re going to have to pace yourself,” and I began to think about how helpful a nice stiff Xanax prescription might be to get me through the rest of the season. Or the rest of the year.

He told me today, “you are my second maman,” and I knew it was true, and I also knew that, despite his handsome visage, I’ve got one heck of a three-legged, blind, diabetic dog on my hands. Still, I hope that I can learn to be the mother of a son in the months to come, because I believe in this boy – in his fierce courage, his unwillingness to back down, his lack of ego and pretense. I see what is noble in him, and in what he loves. Even if I never learn what a first down is, and even if I attend his upcoming games with a rosary in hand and a bottle of Vicodin in my purse, just in case, I know that our time together will be worth the effort.

Allez, Hugo, nombre quarante trois.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The cake plate, my last birthday cake and a few other things I forgot

“This cake plate came from your mother,” Debbie said, as she cut slices of her requested birthday variety – yellow with chocolate icing – for all of us who were there in her apartment on 94th Street. I stopped for a moment to consider what I’d just heard, feeling the way that our exchange student must feel several hundred times a day – I got the basic gist of her words, but I couldn’t understand their meaning. “You gave it to me when she died,” Debbie added, helpfully. Seeing my astonishment, she added, unhelpfully, “and also those candlesticks.”

Then she took a look at me, and in the way that only someone who has known you almost 40 years can do, she shut up.

Man, I thought, I really was really messed up back then, and I knew she was thinking the same thing.

Fourteen years ago my mother and I had left the house on a happy errand, to buy champagne for a party we were having that weekend. And while the best way to drop dead certainly must be while drinking champagne, it’s probably a close second to keel over while you’re on your way to buy it. “I don’t feel so good,” she had said, and she laid down in the driveway and died.

That’s her side of the story. On my half of the narrative, I had a three-year-old and a nine-month-old and a job I hated and a mother I kept trying to call every night after the kids were in bed, until about a year later when I stopped trying. It was, as they always say in retrospect, a tough time. So tough that I apparently found a lovely glass cake plate as I gathered up my mother’s things, and kindly thought of my best friend Debbie, whom my mother adored, and gave it to her, along with, at least according to her, some candlesticks. And then I forgot all about it until last week in Manhattan, when a little bit of my mother floated back to me on a breeze from the Hudson.

In the 14 years that have passed, I have baked a lot of birthday cakes, cupcakes, cake balls – whatever is required to mark the occasion of some else’s special-specialness. One year, Emma required a re-creation of Hogwart’s Castle, “with a moat,” she’d added. One year, Mary Katherine wanted a depiction of Junie B. Jones getting her head pecked into a nub by a plastic rooster. (Try finding a plastic rooster in February.) Last year, my extra-daughter Olivia, who said she’d always wanted to wake up to the smell of freshly baked cookies, arose to the aroma of a batch of my chocolate chips baking in her Dad’s oven. She saw my car in the driveway and knew that the Birthday Fairy had struck again.

The funny thing is, I really don’t care much for birthday cake myself. I remember very few of the cakes of my youth, mostly just those highly prized, Crisco-laden roses. One year, the candle holders were, wonderfully, little plastic ballerinas. I turned them into tub toys and mashed down their fingers with my back teeth, until they had duck bills at the end of their wrists, to complement their swan-like necks.

Maybe I didn’t care for cake because my own birthdays were never much fun. The day usually fell on the second week of the school year, and I swear that it must have been on a Tuesday for something like seven years running. It was just far enough into the year for me to realize that nothing would be different and most things would be worse. Getting a new lunch box, all wrapped up in Happy Birthday paper, didn’t help matters much.

And then there was my father’s desire to poop in the soup of any occasion where he could generate an audience and rev up some angst. I remember several beauts, but he topped himself the year I turned twelve and had just entered the stockyard-like junior high school up the street. That was the  birthday when he announced that he’d lost his job at age 52, had in fact been secretly out of work for two weeks and had been pretending to go to the office each day. He timed his announcement until the moment right after I blew out my candles, when he could get everyone's attention most easily.

So no, I never really had much desire to eat birthday cake.

The last cake I remember feeling happy about was the one I ate the year I turned 40. It was a carrot cake, and my mom had arranged to have it delivered from our local bakery. “Happy Birthday, Thelma and Louise,” it had said in an icing tribute to the road trip from which Debbie and I had just returned. Debbie had hatched the idea the year before, when I was 39, pregnant, and not in a very good mood. To “celebrate” my birthday, she’d suggested that she accompany me to try on maternity clothes.

Okay, I admit it, I did hit her. And yes, it was in the dressing room of the maternity shop. But it was only once I saw how truly awful this whole thing was going to be. In my defense, I suggest that YOU try on maternity clothes someday, even if you are not 39 and pregnant, and see how much you feel like hitting someone. After the fisticuffs, Debbie came up with a plan (probably after she called the airlines and realized she couldn’t get out of town early; at least that’s what I would have done). One year from today, she announced brightly, I would no longer be pregnant. And, for our day-apart birthdays, we would go on a Road Trip.

It sounds dumb now, but the merest promise that, next September, I could be drinking margaritas with her in some dive bar right over the Wisconsin border was pretty much what kept me going through huge chunks of the months that followed, and much of my labor. And lo, it came to pass, and we blew out of town for a few days, stopping in Ben Franklin stores, getting our nails done and eating in the finest Mexican restaurant in Delavan, Wisconsin. When we came home, the cake from Mom, with its sassy and celebratory icing inscription, was waiting. I ate a big piece.

A month later, my mother was dead. Then I started baking cakes for other people, making sure I carried matches for the candles and sneaking in for early-morning cookie baking. But whenever the cake, with its frisson of melted candle wax, was being plated and passed around, I always said, “I’ll have some in a minute,” and I never did.

That all changed on Monday, when I got back from New York. We had finished the traditional family post-trip meal of Chinese takeout, and then the girls and Hugo tripped in with a birthday cake, covered with chocolate frosting and many, many sprinkles. “We didn’t bake it,” they confessed. “It’s from Maren.”

Maren is one of my best friends, and I say that with a full understanding that our 48-year age difference might be too big a gap for others to bridge. But she’s my favorite theater-matinee buddy. It’s refreshing to talk at intermission with someone who wants to discuss the adventures of her stuffed monkey, instead of a long list of grievances. She is always ready to play Barbies. I wish I had more friends like that.

And here she’d gone and baked me a birthday cake. We lit candles and sang, and I found myself with a big slice in front of me.

The cake, it turns out, was great. Some people might not like that many sprinkles, but they would be wrong. I could imagine her little hands flinging those sprinkles all over her mother’s kitchen, wanting to make sure that my cake was really special. And it was.

As it turns out, there was one more thing I forgot. It’s not that I don’t like birthday cake. It just has to come from the right chef.