Sunday, December 14, 2014

Upon observation of my daughter studying for a Neuroscience final

A couple things happened this week. One was that I wrote an email to a woman named Alexandra that began, "Dear Angela ..." She wrote back, harrumphing and claiming confusion as to whether I knew to whom I was talking. Well, vaguely, I wanted to say, and that's about as good as it gets around here. I put your name in one of my 26 available baskets, you really can't expect the Julie Kendrick Brain Filing System to do any better. Besides, maybe you really look more like an Angela, anyway. I could be doing you a favor.

The second thing that happened was that my daughter Emma has been hanging around the kitchen counter, studying for finals in her classes in Gender Studies, Film Appreciation and Creative Writing. Oh, sorry, I meant to say her classes in Accounting, Statistics, Neuroscience and Economics. Watching her in action has been awe-inspiring, so I decided to rerun this blog as a celebration of her brainpower and an honest assessment of my own.


26 Baskets

One recent afternoon, Emma and I found ourselves in the kitchen, each concentrating on what we do best. Across the cluttered and sticky countertop, she was finishing her economics homework. I was rolling out dough for that night’s dinner, that gourmet standby of pigs in a blanket.

Hands busy, mind free, I asked her to tell me more about what she was doing. From across the counter, there came a long sigh and a satisfied smile: “I love derivatives,” she crooned.

“Explain, please,” I asked, reaching for another piece of dough to roll out onto my flour-covered board. My dough has never once required the use of derivatives in its preparation, and it rarely fails, but I was keeping an open mind, at least at that point.

So she explained – or, at least, I think she did. “Can you give me an example?” I finally asked, grasping at the straw of a story that would explain everything, the way people have been doing for thousands of years when they’re faced with religion and mathematics and other great unknowables.

But Emma had no parables that would lead me to pure enlightenment. Instead, she launched into a story about a fat lady, a middle-sized lady and a skinny lady, and how each of them had lost a factor and had thus, somehow, moved into a smaller dress size. Derivatives, I understand, were the reason for the weight loss. “But why?” I asked. “Do these ladies reveal some special math secret when they’re skinny, or when they’re fat?”

“I’ll make it easy for you,” she said, and I’ve spent enough time around math-y types to know that this was usually the last thing they said before I started wanting to cry. I patiently rolled yet another pig into another blanket, pulling the dough into a perfect crescent and listening to the scratch of her pencil in the economics textbook.

Finished, sure this would do the trick, she turned the page around to show me what she’d done,  revealing a long string of formulas, with parentheses and x’s and y’s and other extremely knotty stuff. “See?” she said, as if this, finally, was an explanation so clear and simple that even I could grasp it.

I covered my eyes with my flour-caked fingers. “But what are they USED for?” I finally asked. Her answer was, basically, the answer I’ve been getting since I decided to give up on math in the fourth grade – you use this math thing to help you do more math things.

“Which is why I am AWOL from the army of math,” I said. I decided to make a plea for my side of the world. “See, you don’t just use words to make other words. You use words to write a letter of complaint to the City Water Commission, or to write a knock-knock joke or to craft a sonnet that will make people cry. You use words ..”


I stopped. I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, talking with my hands and flinging flour everywhere. She clearly suspected that a few choice lines from Shakespeare were next on my agenda, and she didn’t have time for that sort of monkey business, not that she’d ever use a term as silly as “monkey business.”

“I have to finish my homework.”

So we settled back, me woolgathering in the vast, pleasant meadow of my words, a Ferdinand the Bull of South Minneapolis, and her, bestriding the globe like a colossus with her multi-sized derivatives that allowed for the completion of even more math problems, and what more did you need to know about them than that wonderful thing?

Dough rising, I turned to the dishes, and that’s when I started imagining what the inside of Emma’s brain looks like. I pictured a long, long white hallway, perfectly cooled to 75 degrees, with hundreds of doors on either side, to allow for complete compartmentalization. Emotions?  Put them behind that big door over there, and I’ll pull them out when I’m bored, or it’s Sunday night, or my mom seems a little too calm. Feminine wiles to turn any man to jello? Third door on the right, and make sure that the biometric scanner has been updated. Complete understanding of the use and meaning of derivatives? In a little file drawer over there; it doesn’t take up very much space around here.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew there was massive control room somewhere in this brain, something that made the Starship Enterprise look like the S. S. Minnow. And right in the middle of that room, there is a console with a big red “Overdrive” button. This is a girl who not only has a brain with an “Overdrive” button, but who knows how to use it – for a college essay, a Chinese oral exam or a life challenge. Bring it. She just presses the button and watches everything else fall away.

She assumes, of course, that everyone else’s brain works just like hers, and that people who aren’t living up to her standards are simply refusing to properly access their Overdrive buttons. (Example Number One: Me.)

I finished one sinkful of dough-covered dishes and started on the next one, being careful not to fall so deep into reverie that I sliced my fingers with the carving knife (it’s happened). Then I started to imagine what the inside of my own brain would look like. Well, different than the Starship Emma, that’s for sure. It is, I imagined, like a combination between the nonexistent 13 1/2 floor of ABC Carpet in Chelsea, and a long-abandoned, but at one time much-loved, off-Broadway theater, right down to the moth-eaten curtains and the discarded bits of set pieces lying around. The floors are wooden, warped and worn. There are inconveniently placed iron pillars, each holding a lifetime’s worth of flaking paint choices. Of course, there’s a constant soundtrack, alternating between snippets of the Great American Songbook and Code Red Worry Alert notices. Stagehands are moving set pieces into and out of the spotlight while actors drift across the stage, forgetting their lines with regularity. The ghost light is always on, because really, is anybody ever really at home?

To bring a derivative into a brain like this is rather like bringing a kitten into Emma’s immaculate hallway. There’s just not a need for it, and it won’t be very happy there, anyway.

I can remember, before I went AWOL, sitting attentively in math class, reading the story problems, but then the stories would enter my brain, and the nature of my attention would shift unproductively. Why did Nancy have four apples and Susan only have two? Couldn’t she just give the girl an apple and put an end to all this busywork? Why was Peter heading on a train to Buffalo that was going to make three stops? Was he running after his girlfriend, who had stormed out after finding him in a rehearsal hall in Greenwich Village with a woman she clearly took to be a stripper, but who was, in fact, just trying out for Peter’s new show? Was Peter going to revive “Gypsy?” Oh, that would be great. Those are the best opening notes in history, although, no maybe it’s “South Pacific…”

Back to work, Julie, I would tell myself, and try to settle down. “There’s Peter, on the train to Buffalo, and I wonder if he even knows that ecdysiast is the synonym for stripper, or that the girl who was auditioning is actually a Vassar grad who refuses to accept anything from her parents because she knows she’s going to make it in the big city…”

“Hand in your papers, children.”

Story of my life.  Sitting in a shabby, darkened theater, watching the sets pushing by, and never getting past the second math problem.

The only other thing I know for sure about my brain is that, in addition to all the clutter, it has 26 baskets, clearly marked, one for each letter of the alphabet. It is a filing system, just a rather embarrassing one, but I seem to be stuck with it. Let’s say, for example, that I happened to run into Peter on that train to Buffalo, and a couple weeks later I bump into him at the corner of Sullivan and Thompson Streets, arm-in-arm with his reconciled girlfriend and flush with his new production deal for that “Gypsy” revival.  “Patrick!” I will call across the street, confused as to why he doesn’t answer. “Paul!” “Poindexter!”

Sigh. I filed his name away, of course, but all I’ve got is the 26 baskets, and they get a little overfull sometimes. There goes Peter down the steps of the Christopher Street Station, and there goes my big chance to find out what happens next.

If only, I often think, I could just get an Overdrive button.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Long-cut cooking

You know the face. It’s the one I plaster across my mug whenever anyone asks me for a recipe. It seems as though it should be a simple and civilized exchange, but it usually goes like this:
You: “This food tastes great!” Can I have the recipe?”
Me: “Um.” Pause. “Um.”

Oh, I get the picture, you’re thinking. She thinks she’s such a great cook that she can’t possibly be bothered to share anything with humble ol’ me. Or, even worse, she keeps all her recipes locked in the top-secret vault she dug under the compost bin because she thinks they’re all so brilliant.

Oh honey, it’s a lot less interesting than that, I have to admit. It’s just that I have taken the slow food movement to such an extreme that I have to confess that most of my recipes begin with, “Six days before you actually want to sit down and eat this damn food, you need to …” And then it’s off and running. Start the sourdough sponge. Gather up all the chicken bones before the sun rises if you want stock next week. Let everything marinate overnight. And then overnight again. And then so many nights that your dish might as well be standing in line to get the iPhone XIII, it’s been waiting for long.

I didn’t set out to be this kind of cook. My mother was a boil-in-bag, Miracle Whip, bundt-cake-with pudding-mix kind of gal, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be following in her in-a-jiff footsteps. Or I could emulate all those people I see eating in restaurants – on schoolnights! – as I walk by on yet another trip to the grocery store.

So what’s my problem? That’s a long list, of course, so we probably don’t want to go down that road. But my main problem -- with cooking, anyway -- is that I’m a supreme cheapskate, and the thing about slow food is that it’s much, much cheaper then selecting ten ingredients at Trader Joe’s for a mere $75 (but lots of yuks while checking out, and plenty of Jimmy Buffet songs being piped into the parking lots!), then assembling them and calling it “cooking.” I have turned into the opposite of the semi-homemade, five-ingredients-or-less cook. I’m more the overly homemade, ingredient-list-that-eerily-mirrors-the-entire-contents-of-my-refrigerator sort of cook. It's not the shortcut, it's the long, long long cut that I find myself following. And I know, deep in my heart, that it’s just not right.

I’m  also keenly aware that what I do isn’t much like fine chef-ish cooking. I’m not preparing complicated sauces or elaborate terrines. Mostly I’m gathering some stuff that most people would consider marginal in the first place (a few grains of yeast, orange rinds, bones, stems), slopping it all together, and then forgetting about it. Then poking around for a bit, and repeating.

I once had a friend tell me she wanted to come over to my house and watch me make spring rolls, and I couldn’t imagine what to do but tell her to bring a sleeping bag, because it takes quite a while.

In my goofball kitchen, nothing is a recipe, and everything is a process. My freezer may be full of a ragtag assortment of mystery contents-to-be that will eventually become something that some poor soul wants the recipe to, but it’s woefully missing in all that swell stuff I could find in the freezer aisle of Trader Joe’s. I’ll be honest – I think it’s just as weird as you do, but, at this point, I can’t seem to help myself. And I don’t think I’ll ever learn to like Jimmy Buffett music in the parking lot, anyway. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What to Wear to the Funeral

Three years is a long time in the life of a girl.  A friend of Mary Katherine's recently lost his dad, and, as we prepared for the visitation, I remembered this day from 2011, and this blog post I composed shortly afterward. Mary Katherine was still concerned, as she was then, about breaking the Secret Funeral Wardrobe Rules, but she was more concerned for her friend and for his loss. And then, when we arrived at what I still think of as "the funeral parlor" (because I am just that old), she saw a girl her age who came wearing shorts, and she remembered, as I'd been telling her along, that it's the showing up that really counts.  Here's that blog post from long ago.


Always Go to the Funeral (with Bonus Fashion Tips)

Olivia thought that her purple nail polish might be too cheerful, and wondered if she had time to switch to a more mournful shade. Mary Katherine emerged from her bedroom in a black wrap dress and pumps she’d gotten at the secondhand store, accessorized with a black-veiled headband that gave her the air of a billionaire's widow at the reading of the will. “How do we look?” they wanted to know. “Like good friends,” I said, picking up my car keys and getting our show on the road.

Mary Katherine’s school pal, Meg,  had lost her grandfather over spring break. When Meg had called to cancel a sleepover and mall date they’d planned, and Mary told me the reason, I let her know that we’d be visiting the funeral home soon. When she wanted to know why, I intoned one of the cardinal rules of my usually rule-lenient existence: Always go to the funeral.  

Deirdre Sullivan’s essay for the This I Believe project, which I first heard on NPR in 2005, had a lasting impact on the way I try to live my life. In that essay, Sullivan said, “Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that. ‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”

Sullivan’s rhetoric gave me some needed backbone, and I urged the girls forward as if it would be impossible for us not to go. So, on a Thursday afternoon during spring break, we were rustling around in the back of our closets, looking for our best black clothes. The girls were worried about the dress code, as if there would be a Funeral Bouncer who would inspect them for non-black items and toss them out onto 50th street. I felt myself treading carefully around this topic, aiming to instill an understanding of Dressing Appropriately while not being one of those people who believe that a proper wardrobe is the one sure sign of moral superiority. I have, in my life, observed incredible kindness by people who got all their fashion advice from Jaclyn Smith at Wal-Mart, and unrelenting, lockjawed cruelty from the twinset-and-pearls crowd. But still, this was a funeral, and I owed them some advice.

I tried this:  “Here’s the thing -- I recently observed someone at Olivia’s grandmother’s visitation wearing shorts and garden clogs, so don’t get too worried about this. I guess my advice is – if you have something nice and dark to wear, that’s great, but we shouldn’t let our clothes keep us from going to see our friend, and we really shouldn’t judge what other people are wearing. Some of the nastiest people I’ve ever known have the most correct wardrobes, and that garden clog guy probably really loved O’s grandma. You never know.”

That seemed to mollify them, and we headed out. Once in the car, their fashion decisions now irrevocable, the girls began to worry about the next part of this adventure in grief and consolation. Always looking for her lines, Mary asked, “What do we say?” Always seeking to maintain some semblance of control, Olivia asked, “What exactly will happen and when?” I threw suggestions over my shoulder and into the backseat, the way I had been doing for years. Keeping my eyes on the road meant that I never saw the eyerolls or sad shrugs that accompanied my words, which was probably best. “Keep it simple,” I said. "Try something like -- 'I’m sorry about your grandpa; how are you doing?'"

Once there, we wandered past the curated Life Show that has now become the modern funeral – easel-ed collages of photos, memorabilia laid out on a table, big-screen tv with continuous loop PowerPoint of family snapshots. The girls found Meg and said the right words, which were graciously received. Meg suggested that she introduce them to all her cousins, and they headed off. I talked to Meg’s parents until the girls showed up. Meg's dad, who, it should be noted, had just lost his father after a long illness, received huge bonus points from Mary Katherine when he praised her veiled headband. “Perfect for a funeral,” he told her appreciatively. “I know, right?” she squealed with tweeny abandon, forgetting about the reason for the getup and just savoring the accessory perfection.

I had promised “20 minutes max,” so we made our way to the door. Mary, whose vision has recently been sharpened by a surge of estrogen, had only one thought when we left the funeral home:  “That place was full of cute boys!” she squealed. She seems to see them everywhere these days, like Ray Milland and the bats in Lost Weekend. Meg’s cousins, it turns out, had included a hefty percentage of cute boys, cleaned up for the occasion. In Mary’s mind, funerals now ranked with the mall for CBAs (Cute Boy Alerts).

We headed into Uptown, the girls rearranging their ensembles with other accessories they’d brought along. Mary Katherine’s Grieving Heiress turned into Desperately Seeking Susan around Lake Calhoun, and Olivia’s Somber Friend became Urban Hipster in the Calhoun Square parking lot.

Later that night, I bought them grilled cheese and burgers at the Uptown Cafeteria, and they split a malt. Their tiny bit of duty now completed, they giggled over their cotton candy and compared notes on the cousins. I thought about all the meals I’d shared with these two, and all the laughs we’d had together.  I remembered all the years of being kicked by their twitchy feet when I sat across a booth from them. I hoped they’d have a friendship that would last for years. Perhaps someday they’d be together at my funeral. With any luck, they’d tell stories and share laughs at my champagne-soaked wake afterward, attended, I can only hope, by the 20-year-old pool boy with whom my body had scandalously been found.

“Let’s toast,” I said, before we left, raising my mug of coffee to their chocolate malt glasses. “To good friends.”

Here’s Deirdre Sullivan's 2005 essay: Always Go to the Funeral

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Yes, and I'd Probably Eat it Again

I've been checking in with my fellow moms these past few mid-August days, and I have one conclusion:  no matter whether we work full time or stay at home, no matter whether our kids are in diapers or are heading off to college, here's the deal:  We Are Losing Our Minds. It happens every August, but, somehow, it always surprises me. I remembered this blog post from a few years back, and decided it deserved a reposting. Hang tough, ladies. School has to start sometime.


Why I Ate That Spider

Just so there’s no confusion, I’m admitting it right up front. I ate a spider. I plucked it off the summer flower on which it was crawling, sandwiched it between two snowy white petals, popped it in my mouth and swallowed.

In my defense, I have only this to say: it’s August.

By this I mean: my children have been out of school for sixty days now; no, make that sixty-two. I have spent a significant portion of each day picking up things that don’t belong to me, putting them back, and then noticing their reappearance a few hours later. I’ve also devoted considerable hours to driving back and forth, and sometimes in multi-stop circles, to places I don’t want to be.

In the days leading up to the Spider Incident, I had been experiencing a bit more stress than usual. Daughter Number Two was gone 12 hours each day at a musical theater workshop, followed by rehearsals for her Fringe Festival play. For Daughter Number One, this compounded the misery of one friend off at camp and another at a two-week family reunion. She was left with me, and only me, for each long, hot and boring day.

Granted, she used her time wisely.  Any little character flaws that my father had missed or my mother-in-law had not yet gotten around to, she noted, in detail. My insistence, for example, that we keep our commitment to the Crisis Nursery for a 7:30 a.m. shift on Wednesday was cause for a Spanish Inquisition of verbal assault that began on Tuesday afternoon. Nursery duties done (“Volunteer work!” was her chipper Facebook posting), she was so bored with my company, she reported, that she took a nap one evening, probably the fifth or sixth such event in her entire life.

So, when Friday morning dawned, I was a little, well, worn down. I did my usual rosarydogsmoredogsyogaerrandsbackagain drill. Because it was the birthday of the mother of Emma’s closest friends, and because Emma prefers this woman’s company over all other grownups on the planet, I wanted to make sure, before the next round of Places I Have to Drive people, that I created a bouquet of summer flowers to leave on her doorstep. She is a peach, and Emma loves her. I had mentioned this plan the night before, thinking it might all be done before I got home. Yes, I do still believe in the tooth fairy, funny you should mention that. When I got home, Emma was still in bed, so I picked the flowers, found a vase, tied on a ribbon and wrote a card. I estimated when we’d need to leave to give us enough time to drop the flowers off and still make it to Emma’s chiropractor appointment. (Volleyball season; wrist pain) and began a shouted countdown up the stairs.

As we got to the car and I handed her the vase, I swear I had a premonition. I knew this would not end well. “Is the water going to spill on you? Is holding the vase going to hurt your wrist?” I asked, trying to predict the disaster, never suspecting that Birnam Wood was, in fact, going to move right down my gullet. Withering glance duly noted, I started the car and drove off. Within moments, I heard a gasp that signified terror of the highest order. Assuming I’d see spurts of blood, or perhaps a villain in the back seat with a machete, I turned to my darling daughter while still trying to stay in my lane (if you’ve ever driven with me, that part just made you cringe). She was holding the vase out stiffly, under my nose. “A spiiiiiiiiiiider,” she whispered, as if the spider would hear her and commence to shooting deadly rays of Flower Spider Poison.

I tried to think fast, not my strong suit. If I picked it up and squished it, she’d scream. If I tried to throw it out the window, she’d insist that it had crawled back in the car. So I did the only thing I could think of that would get rid of the spider forever and make her think about something else.

I made a spider sandwich with some petals, and I ate it.

I was right; the focus was way off the spider and back on Mom What Were You Thinking, just as it had been all week.

I'm sorry, little spider.  And, on the plus side, school starts in 22 days.

Monday, July 21, 2014

There is always, always time to buy lemonade

I've been going to a lot of garage sales this year (top prize so far: a Whirly-Pop popcorn popper for $2), so that means I've been drinking a lot of watery, overpriced lemonade made under highly questionable sanitation conditions. No wonder it seems like such a great summer. My most recent paper cupful, purchased and poured out surreptitiously after one tepid sip, made me think of this post from last year.

FRIDAY, JUNE 7, 2013

My Rules

A friend of mine, who clearly prides herself on running a tight ship at home, once told me that it was no wonder her son always had fun when he was hanging out with my kids. “Of course he has fun, since there are no rules at your house.” I was a bit taken aback by this declaration, but when I looked at the situation through her “sit-down-every-night-for-two-veg-and-meat-dinner” filter, I suppose I could see her point. I have rules, they’re just odd ones.

This past week, I’ve been noticing myself abiding strictly to a couple of my more eccentric guidelines for my own behavior, and I had to laugh at how precise I am about matters that most people ignore. The rules, I’ve noticed, are all about basic human kindnesses, the kind I suppose I crave most deeply. We get what we give, so I give these things, and I hope that they matter, somehow.

Find the One Kid. At every amateur performance or recital I attend (and I attend a lot), I try to pick out one kid who does a really good job … the kid who steals the show in the bit part, the class valedictorian who clearly spent several late nights trying to find just the right words to say, or the dancer in the back row who really kicked it, even if she hadn’t gotten the lead. After the show is over, when everyone in my family is standing around with crossed arms and jingling car keys, I’m still focusing my attention on the crowd, refusing to leave until I find the one kid. Then I race over and offer my hand. “I’m just a regular old mom who happened to be in the crowd,” I say, “but your performance really blew me away. You were just terrific.” Even the most unapproachable-looking kids just melt at this. Praise is one thing from your mom, but when an ordinary-looking stranger takes the time to tell you how great you were, it really packs a punch. Sometimes, the kid starts to cry. Usually, the mom does. It’s even better when they have lots of family around, and I speak Very Loudly so that that crabby-looking granny (the one who clearly thinks theater is a waste of time) can hear me loud and clear. The origins of this rule, as with many good things, start with my daughter Mary Katherine, the budding actress. I remember her giddy excitement after performing in her first real show. “A stranger came up and told me I was good!” she gushed. If that’s all it takes to make a kid happy, I thought, count me in, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Stop at the Lemonade Stand. This rule came from my mother. She and I used to love to do what she called “bumming around” together, running errands or visiting garage sales with no particular agenda. She always insisted that we stop at every lemonade stand we passed, and that we each buy one tiny paper cupful of tepid, watery lemonade, chatting up the kids as we did. She even carried a little stash of quarters with her, and would grandly tell me, “my treat,” as she handed over the cash to the beaming six-year-old in charge. My Mom died many years ago, but I still stick to her edict. Sometime I am racing home, feeling the pressure of a deadline, and I want to pretend I don’t see that stand on the corner, but I do, and I stop, and I ask the kids about business, and their special recipe, and usually find out some thrilling fact in the course of our conversation, like that they’re leaving to go visit grandma next week, or that this tooth, the one right here, might come loose soon with enough pulling. Who needs to worry about deadlines when you can hear about how much the Tooth Fairy brings at a kid's house?

Talk to the Unemployed. There’s an unspoken rule among working Americans that the unemployed have cooties, and that if you talk to them, you will become infected, too. The minute the guys with the brown boxes come around and start escorting a colleague to the door, it’s as if all those late nights and softball games and happy hours never happened, and the shunning begins. I do not believe in these cooties. Instead, I try to make phone calls or send emails to unemployed friends on Monday mornings, which I know is an emotionally charged time of day and week, checking in and letting them know that they haven’t become invisible, at least not to me. Yesterday, I was having a pretty rotten day, one in a string of many. I was just at the point of realizing I couldn’t do enough damage by jumping out of my second-floor office window when I got a LinkedIn message from a guy I worked with ten years ago, asking if I’d talk to a friend of his, who is unemployed and applying at a place where I freelance. I wrote back without hesitating: Yes, I will talk to her. I sent emails to a couple friends at the company, seeking some information that might be helpful to this complete stranger. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know her. It matters that she needs help. And that, at the bottom of everything that's piled up in my fearful, cluttered heart, is the only sort of rule I need.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Gone girl

My daughter, the self-proclaimed “citizen of the world,” is currently in London for a two-month internship.  She tried to contact me today and I opened up my Skype account for the first time in quite a while. I sent Emma a quick text to let her know I was waiting for her call, and then started scrolling up through all the instant messages I’d sent her from Skype the last time she was away, during a nine-month trip to China. 

It was incredible to me, seeing those chipper messages, and knowing the backstory of what she was telling me during daily Skype calls. She struggled often, especially in those early days – living in a hyper-fast, incredibly polluted city, trying to learn a language she hadn’t heard since she was four months old, coping with privileged classmates and utter freedom. As I read the messages I wrote, I can see how hard I was trying, searching for anything to cheer her up. I don’t think I succeeded very often. She got herself into it, and she got herself out of it, just like she always does, with no help from me.

She arrived in Beijing in September. There was not an ice cube to be had in the entire country, and it was unseasonably hot. There was no chocolate, and she was seeking some comfort. She had to maneuver her bike back and forth to school in truly frightening traffic. Then the bicycle broke. She developed a rule when walking, to always be the third person to cross the street, in case the first two were hit by cars. It was not an easy place to be, at least not in September.

Here is my birthday message from her:
happy birthday mom
i am in china. duh
jk im in alaska
and gonna swim across the used to be beringia thing.  to become a commie. alright, comrad kendrick?

[9/13/2011 7:58:41 PM] Julie Kendrick: Heading into school on this lovely Wednesday?  Hope you get to learn something today!  Remember, THIRD to cross the street, right?

[9/14/2011 7:12:08 AM] Julie Kendrick: Have you had any dreams about home?  I dreamed last night that you gave me a going-away present of a takeout salad that was lettuce, cheerios, hard candies and squishy candied orange slices.  I was happy with it, so thanks.
[9/14/2011 7:12:20 AM] Julie Kendrick: Also, to me you are always SIX FEET tall.

[9/20/2011 12:47:18 PM] Julie Kendrick: Emma, it's a fresh day and maybe a better one. You're right, you don't belong in China, but maybe not in the U.S. either -- you tell me you are a citizen of the world, so that's a good thing.  Ice and chocolate -- who needs 'em?  You are doing something so important and growing your brain muscles.  I am proud of the hard work I know you are doing.  This is the chance of a lifetime and I know you're going to make the most of it.  I will see you in 90 days, along with Mary, Olivia and Dad.

[9/20/2011 6:35:38 PM] Julie Kendrick: Hi Emma, are you getting ready for school?  Be sure to find out about the bicycle.  That is something that needs to be handled TODAY.  I want my precious blossom to be safe!  Love, Mom

[9/21/2011 7:04:46 PM] Julie Kendrick: Emma, I hope that you have a day with sunshine and fresh air, just the simple things.  Also, maybe a little bit of chocolate or an ice cube, but I know that's asking at lot.  What do you think Chinese kids miss when they come here? I love you, Mom.

[9/24/2011 7:27:07 PM] Julie Kendrick: Emma did you go to the great wall yesterday?  Should we go when we come visit?

[9/27/2011 7:47:37 AM] Julie Kendrick: Emma, write to M. She's at college now. She struggled with Chinese a long time ... I think she was failing it in high school. Then, all of a sudden, it just clicked. Ask her how she survived. Also, what Mary was trying to tell you is that she is dressed again as a mean cheerleader for "Mean," and she's carrying your Hollister green bag as her backpack because she thinks it has all your coolness cooties all over it. So, your accessory is a star! Or, at least a member of the ensemble.

[9/27/2011 7:20:09 PM] Julie Kendrick: Hi Honey, you are in school now ... hope it's going okay.  I believe in you and I know you will prevail!

 [9/29/2011 7:02:02 AM] Julie Kendrick: Are you around?  Done with your shower?  Did you get your money situation fixed?
[9/29/2011 7:12:54 AM] Julie Kendrick: How was your Thursday?  Any better?
[9/29/2011 7:13:42 AM] Emma Fiala: im practice testing now. so im not gonna respond until i finish SAT practice

She decided to start a blog, and she demanded that I mail her chocolate and exfoliant. Her sister was in a show about bullying, “MEAN.”
[9/29/2011 7:14:23 AM] Julie Kendrick: No worries. Study hard and know that I love you.  I am going to Target today to buy stuff for your care package so let me know if there's something more you want.
[9/29/2011 12:23:27 PM] Julie Kendrick: Just got back from Target ... I've got a shoebox full of emergency beauty stuff and chocolate, just what a girl needs. Just read your latest blog -- what deep things you are thinking.  Remember, you don't have to like it, you just need to learn from it. Also, don't ever underestimate a country's ability to change. Look at the automatons of the 1950s and how it all got cracked wide apart in the 1960s. It could happen there... you can put daisies in the rifles in Tienanmen Square!  Let the sun shine in.

[9/30/2011 7:15:18 AM] Julie Kendrick: It IS a super long time, but as of Saturday you have one month done and 8 to go. And as you remember from Angie [our Italian exchange student from the previous year], the last 3 months fly by. So it's really only 5 months, and we'll be with you almost half a month, so 4 1/2 months, really.  Like my math?
[9/30/2011 7:17:01 AM] Julie Kendrick: We're up if you want to talk ...
[9/30/2011 7:29:07 AM] Julie Kendrick: Mary and MEAN were on WCCO this morning!  She wore the cheerleader costume and looked SUPER MEAN.

[10/1/2011 11:45:01 AM] Emma Fiala: look at my blog tell dad too

I nagged her about not sleeping; she asked me to edit a paper she wrote.
 [10/5/2011 7:15:22 AM] Julie Kendrick: Emma!  Go to bed!  An online study just released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says, “70 percent of high school students are not getting the recommended hours of sleep on school nights”.
[10/5/2011 8:01:52 AM] Emma Fiala: i don't think that proves anything.  one can sleep but not have quality sleep.  I have had nights where i slept 12 hours and felt tired. other nights i have slept 4 and was completely ok. 
 [10/5/2011 8:01:57 AM] Emma Fiala: and paper?
[10/5/2011 8:02:27 AM] Julie Kendrick: sent it via email last night.  GOOD WORK, girlie
[10/5/2011 8:09:58 AM] Emma Fiala: thanks
[10/5/2011 8:10:06 AM] Emma Fiala: so imma take a shower can in call u later?

I kept reading as much about China as I could, trying to understand the life she was living.
 [10/8/2011 6:23:40 AM] Julie Kendrick: Have you heard of this book:  Big in China: my unlikely adventures raising a family, playing the blues, and becoming a star in Beijing (Alan Paul). I'm reading it now and it's pretty good. In his introduction, he said that every single Chinese person makes the "vee" sign for photos, and I thought of you. Are you doing that yet?

Emma discovered alcohol (no age limit in China)
[10/8/2011 8:19:09 AM] Emma Fiala: yesterday night i drank 1 shot of tequila and a cocktail that was blue and tasted like a lemon pineapple
[10/8/2011 8:19:57 AM] Emma Fiala: and i tasted other peoples stuff
[10/8/2011 8:21:21 AM] Emma Fiala: tonight i drank 3 shots 2 kamakazi and 1 called sex on the beach (peach and orange) and i had half a pina colada

And she kept up with her blog posts
[10/11/2011 7:09:41 AM] Julie Kendrick: How was school?  How are you doing?
[10/11/2011 7:39:29 AM] Emma Fiala: thanks, I got to do homework and sleep. i like could not keep eyes open in first 2 classes. about 10 i wake up fully
[10/11/2011 8:30:47 AM] Julie Kendrick: Go to sleep, little baby.  Have a good rest.
[10/11/2011 8:44:12 AM] Emma Fiala: thanks. good night
[10/11/2011 9:20:44 AM] Emma Fiala: I BLOGGED
[10/11/2011 9:20:46 AM] Emma Fiala: read it please!
[10/11/2011 9:20:56 AM] Emma Fiala: im excited to know what u think about it!

I loved what she wrote, but her lack of sleep (among other things) was deeply concerning.
[10/12/2011 7:16:39 AM] Julie Kendrick: WOW ... that was deep and wonderful. Are you up; let's talk about it!
[10/12/2011 7:37:19 AM] Emma Fiala: i am getting dressed
[10/12/2011 7:38:34 AM] Julie Kendrick: good  i have to pick up nathalie, then tess, then take all to the howie [theater], then the grocery store.  have a good nite.  good blog!
[10/12/2011 7:40:28 AM] Emma Fiala: when u be on?
[10/12/2011 10:23:04 AM] Julie Kendrick: I'm on now but I hope you are sleeping!
[10/12/2011 10:24:42 AM] Emma Fiala: haha nope
[10/12/2011 10:25:05 AM] Julie Kendrick: Go To Bed Emma!
[10/12/2011 10:34:50 AM] Emma Fiala: hw
[10/12/2011 11:21:30 AM] Julie Kendrick: What does hw mean?  Is it "yes momma" in Chinese?
[10/12/2011 11:22:20 AM] Emma Fiala: homework
[10/12/2011 11:22:35 AM] Julie Kendrick: ARRRGH you re still up!
[10/12/2011 11:27:37 AM] Emma Fiala: yep : i dont sleep well and i have a literal book ton of hw

More editing jobs for me.
[10/13/2011 8:46:15 AM] Emma Fiala: please read this and send me back.  Have enough description? problem is when I put THIS MUCH FREAKING UN-NEEDED DESCRIPTION, it seems to flow really oddly.  Also people lose the point.
[10/13/2011 8:46:28 AM] Emma Fiala: the point it that the people in rain ponchos looked like ducks and it was really funny
[10/13/2011 8:46:54 AM] Emma Fiala: but since miss stick up her butt has no humor, i dont think she will get the point
[10/13/2011 10:53:34 AM] *** Call from Emma Fiala, duration 03:08. ***
[10/13/2011 12:39:33 PM] Julie Kendrick: Well, I like the metaphor of people as ducks.

Our house, as usual, was falling apart, and she was struggling with bowel issues and chapped lips.
[10/17/2011 12:00:50 PM] Julie Kendrick: Honey, the cable guy shut off the cable. The oven man still isn't here. Do you want me to send you the odorless tasteless magic poop powder that Debbie gave me?  I could send it when I send the vanilla and raspberry lip balm. Is there anything else you need?

I took on another job, as Emma’s personal and school assistant.
[10/19/2011 12:39:12 PM] Julie Kendrick: I was at SW HS yesterday, helping students with college essays. Helped a girl who is applying to Yale to study Latin and Classics. Saw Dunden. Talked to Sherwood about re-registering you and PSEO and then called the PSEO offices at the U today and found out more. Saw a great poster, covered with leaves, that said, "Falling for someone?  Ask them to Sadie's." One word to describe that school: Whimsical.  Two Words: Whimsical and Chaotic.

She still felt rotten. School was very difficult.
 [10/20/2011 6:57:13 AM] Julie Kendrick: I said prayers for you all night and sent you good vibes. I love you so much and I'm concerned for you.
[10/20/2011 7:09:23 AM] Julie Kendrick: How was the math test?
[10/20/2011 7:20:26 AM] Julie Kendrick: Is your stomach feeling better? I really liked your "98% whipped" blog, and I left you a comment.

We made plans to visit at Christmas; I worried more about her health.
Julie Kendrick: I saw the school’s letter -- be sure to get the flu shot when they offer it.  Mary and O and Dad are getting all their shots today -- we are so looking forward to seeing you in two months!

There were lots of long Skype calls, followed texts from me, checking on her.
[10/20/2011 8:58:29 AM] Julie Kendrick: Are you feeling okay?  We're worried about you.
[10/20/2011 8:59:06 AM] Emma Fiala: im ok. played soccer, got a 35% on math (he drops lowest score so I have an my favorite 89%. then went and did really well in erhu [A Chinese instructument] class teacher thinks im really good. and then belly danced
[10/20/2011 9:08:31 AM] Julie Kendrick: Oh, god, I am relieved.  I was honestly worried about you, baby girl.
[10/20/2011 9:10:53 AM] Emma Fiala: no im ok now!
[10/20/2011 9:11:26 AM] Julie Kendrick: Good, I will have a better day knowing you are okay, Precious Blossom

She rediscovered the nightclubs.
[10/28/2011 11:37:51 AM] Emma Fiala: got kissed by NOT a gay guy! a kazahkstani. or russian. but  think kazakh
[10/28/2011 12:35:02 PM] Julie Kendrick: KISSED! By a foreigner?  Do tell more!

She did not tell more.

[11/2/2011 6:57:13 AM] Julie Kendrick: Hello hotdish!  How are you 2nite?
[11/2/2011 7:02:38 AM] Emma Fiala: got a lot of work ugh
[11/2/2011 7:22:00 AM] Julie Kendrick: stay with it smarty pants ... you can do it!  Dad mailed your granola bars yesterday.

She had to make a big speech in front of the whole school. Her host mom rode her bike 20 minutes to the school to see Emma, then praised her.  She was such a kind woman, and she was so good to Emma, in ways I will probably never know. I still think of her with such a grateful heart.
[11/30/2011 8:51:24 AM] Julie Kendrick: Computer shut down!  Sorry!  Love you, go to bed!
[11/30/2011 8:51:27 AM] *** Call from Emma Fiala, duration 10:49. ***
[11/30/2011 10:39:01 AM] Julie Kendrick: GO TO BED!!!!
[11/30/2011 10:40:48 AM] Emma Fiala: who is there?
[11/30/2011 10:43:32 AM] Emma Fiala: mom
[11/30/2011 1:34:42 PM] Julie Kendrick: Mom is always there, toots!  good luck with the speech!
[12/1/2011 8:06:25 AM] Julie Kendrick: How did it go?
[12/1/2011 8:20:26 AM] Emma Fiala: great i think! i didn't forget anything i said in my head the first line went up there and spoke, i didn't make any mistakes says my host mom who went to see me. everything I said was fluid except once or twice i slowly and a bit awks said a word but other than that it was like speaking english i knew it so well
[12/1/2011 8:24:41 AM] Julie Kendrick: I am so proud of you!
[12/1/2011 8:24:54 AM] Emma Fiala: thanks!
[12/1/2011 8:25:18 AM] Julie Kendrick: i am around for three hours, so if you want to talk, I'm here.
[12/1/2011 8:25:28 AM] Emma Fiala: ok cool

December was awful for her. But then we came to visit, and by January, I think she could see the end in sight. She decided she did not need to talk to me anymore, she told me.
[1/23/2012 10:48:08 AM] Emma Fiala: hey im fine. trip soon which is good.  busy but you dont need to worry im adjusted and i dont need to talk to home much, im kinda living on my own and im good about that. see you in 4 months. Bye

Unless, as I’m gathering from this message a few weeks later, she needed at some point to update me on some troubles, just so I could continue to worry.
[2/15/2012 3:36:09 PM] Julie Kendrick: Emma, I hope you are feeling better.  I am sending opening, relaxing thoughts your way.  Love, mom

She started Skyping again. This was the day of her sister’s birthday party (a very late sleepover)
[2/19/2012 9:52:53 AM] Emma Fiala: hey mom, i sent you an email and because you always tell me to go to sleep, for once I just might. write me soon. have a good day. i hope mary had a good time and is not too tired this morning ;)

[2/19/2012 7:36:08 PM] Julie Kendrick: sweetie ... i read your email ... you really must save that, maybe as an unpublished blog.  you have learned so much and come so far.  Mary is TRASHED as i am. i was up til 1:30, then yoga at 8:15. Cooked cinnamon rolls and choc chip waffles ... lots of cleanup.  i've just tried to tackle a copywriting gig that's due tomorrow and  i may just have to get up early to do it because i am not making sense. anyway, love you very much, VERY WILLING to hear whatever you want to share.  I will always be your mom and will always love you, no matter what.
[2/19/2012 7:36:58 PM] Julie Kendrick: HOPE YOU FEEL BETTER !

Her dad came in April and took her to her home village and the orphanage where we met her. She was confident in her Chinese and much more comfortable in the country. In May, love bloomed. Repeatedly.

[5/3/2012 8:59:56 AM] Emma Fiala: i have a date with a chinese 19 year old guy, i met him at the club and now he asked me on a real date. i have no idea what to expect
[5/3/2012 9:00:20 AM] Julie Kendrick: wow!  this is news.  what's his name?
[5/3/2012 9:00:31 AM] Emma Fiala: uh. i think its sun qi
 [5/3/2012 9:03:09 AM] Emma Fiala: i told him i had to be home before curfew
[5/3/2012 9:03:25 AM] Emma Fiala: unlike when i met him, (dad was my guardian so no curfew)
 [5/3/2012 9:04:55 AM] Julie Kendrick: was that the night you saved olivia from the menacing man?
[5/3/2012 9:07:18 AM] Emma Fiala: no, different night. that night was fun too
 [5/3/2012 9:07:52 AM] Julie Kendrick: are the best nights the ones that have a hint of danger, like when the russians chased you?
[5/3/2012 9:09:44 AM] Emma Fiala: yeah
[5/3/2012 9:10:22 AM] Emma Fiala: hint of danger make me on my toes, gives me another reminder of dont get drunk. also i love the night, its my forte, i feel strong not weak, predator not prey
[5/3/2012 9:10:27 AM] Emma Fiala: powerful
[5/3/2012 9:50:14 AM] Julie Kendrick: so... tell me more about the mystery date...what are you wearing? what movie are you seeing?

I never got a response.

[5/9/2012 9:14:51 AM] Julie Kendrick: So, how was your Wednesday and are you okay?
[5/10/2012 7:29:14 AM] Emma Fiala: yeah im really busy with essay
[5/10/2012 7:29:45 AM] Julie Kendrick: Good luck!  I will send some glittering prepositions and sparkling adjectives your way, in thought.

She called me on Mother’s Day.
[5/14/2012 9:33:48 AM] Julie Kendrick: Thanks for all your kind words and wishes. I am also glad that we have been in this grand adventure together.  My life is richer, better, more exciting and infinitely more interesting for having known you!
[5/14/2012 9:35:03 AM] Emma Fiala: thanks mom!

The last Skype message between us was on May 18, 2012, and then she came home. And then she left. And then she left again. And now, a bit more. That’s my girl. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Revisiting the Hill

Outside my door this spring, I've already heard plenty "whees" and "we-can-climb-it!" encouragements. Last night was the first bike accident of the season, and happily it was relatively minor ... a ten-year-old boy who wiped out on the sidewalk. He was just about to cry at my proffered ice bag and comforting words, but then his buddy showed up and he decided he was just fine. Men. Still, he let me gently rub his back while he sat on the ice, and genially allowed me to deliver a stern lecture (sure to be ignored) on why he should wear a helmet. Then he took off with his pal into the perfect spring evening. The whole thing made me think of Theo, my favorite accident victim yet, so I dug up this post from last summer.

SUNDAY, JULY 14, 2013

Living at the Bottom of the Hill

I live at the bottom of a hill. More specifically, my front yard faces the base of one of the steepest slopes in what’s called “The Grand Rounds” of our municipal bike path. On uphill cycling journeys, the sight of this hill generates gritted teeth, groans, and, often, the decision to hop off and push the bike up on foot. On the downhill side, the swift ride to the bottom seems to demand an exclamation from even the most taciturn Scandinavians -- “whee” being the standard utterance for someone who is letting go and letting gravity take over on West Minnehaha Parkway.

One of the happiest harbingers of spring is on that first Saturday afternoon when it’s warm enough for the windows to finally be open all afternoon, not just for a brisk morning airing. With the open-windowed house facing the path across the street, I’m once again connected to the community that’s passing by my door – the wisp of a baby’s wail, being shuttled past by an exhausted parent, the jingling of a heavily tagged dog trotting by, launching my dogs into an agony of “no trespassers!” warning barks.

But when I hear the first exultant “whee” from a cyclist flying down that hill, then I know in my heart that spring has finally made its way to Minneapolis. People cycle on  these paths year-round, but it’s only in spring that the “whees” return.

With every joy there is a sorrow, and, mixed in with all those happy-faced, delighted encounters with terminal velocity, there are also a goodly number of brutal examples of the essential vulnerability of our mortal selves as we combine machines, speed and gravity, fancy bike helmets notwithstanding. When you live at the bottom of a steep cycling hill, you not only hear a lot of “whees” – you see a lot of accidents, too.

I always have big band-aids on hand, and gauze, and ice packs that I can hand off -- for the woman who broke her ankle when a teenaged boy, racing his friends, decided to take a shortcut on the pedestrian path and plowed right into her last August, or for the boy who tipped over his handlebars, cut his lips badly with his own braces, and lost his eyeglasses in the underbrush a few years ago. Ambulances have been called. Seriously bad things have happened, right outside my door.

By those standards, what happened on Tuesday night, even if it resulted in twelve stitches administered to a tiny, but valiant, chin, was pretty mild. I had just stepped outside when I heard a boy’s cry, then looked across and saw the telltale signs – a bike lying flat, a Mom kneeling down over a small figure, an older sister standing by. “Do you need ice, a towel or a band-aid?” I called out, my usual First Aid Menu, here at the Accident Cafe. The mother’s face that appeared, her head snapping up at the offer of help, was wide-eyed, beautiful and worried. “A towel,” she called back, “and thank you.”

By the time I’d raced into my own house and come back out with a dampened towel, the trio had made their way into my front yard, as the injured often do. Bikes were tossed in the grass, the boy sat on the curb, and the mom began to dab at spots on his arms and legs. “Do you think he’ll need stitches?” she asked, tipping his chin up and revealing a very deep and ragged gash. I was conscious that both of them were looking right at me, so my first reaction -- "For the love of Jesus!  Don’t show me that! Now I have to go upstairs and lie down; goodbye!” didn’t seem like such a good idea. I tried to keep my face neutral, because I could tell the boy was watching it closely. “Tell you what,” I said, “Let’s put a few band-aids on it and see what happens.”

The older sister began to assert herself. You can’t be five years old, the ordained boss of a younger brother, and not begin to let everyone present become aware of your opinions on the matter. “This would be his fifth set of stitches,” she archly confided, in a tone that indicated that she was hoping for some tsk-tsking on my part. I just nodded, noncomittally. This is a man, I thought, who leads with his chin.

Once the sting from that first hard slap of reality had begun to wear off, the practicality of dealing with the aftermath of an accident began to emerge. The question is always the same -- what happens next?

“Do you think you can ride your bike home, Theo, or walk it?” the mom asked, in a jolly of-course-you-can manner that fooled no one. Let’s just say here that “Theo firmly declined this offer,” and draw a veil over the actual words that transpired.

“We can drive you home,” I suggested, “and put your bikes in the back of our car.” She thought this over for a moment, then looked up at me with her big, lovely eyes. I could tell I was talking with a woman who had read every single brochure in the pediatrician’s office, twice. “But you don’t have car seats in your car,” she said. Right.

Finally, it was decided that she would run the four blocks back to her house, get the car (with the car seats, thank God), and drive the kids home, then figure out how to have that chin stitched up. As she started to go, she realized that the one hitch in this plan was that she was forced to leave her children with a complete stranger, and she looked back to me for mother-to-mother comfort. “We will not leave this spot,” I promised, patting the very safe-looking grass of the front yard. She hesitated, then turned and ran off.

And that’s how I got to spend some time with Flora, age five, and Theo, age three, who, while a bit battered by recent events, were really the nicest part of my Tuesday afternoon. “The first order of business,” I declared, “is Fruit Roll-Ups and some glasses of water.” Flora’s eyes got very big. “I’ve never had a Fruit Roll-Up before,” she confessed. As I handed over the shiny little packets, their eyes gleamed with the zeal of kids who have seen a lot of baby carrots in their day. I almost said, “Let’s not mention this to mom,” but quickly realized the folly that lay down that particular rabbit hole. Instead I cheerily declared, “First time for everything,” and watched the two of them ravenously gobble down the little packets.

“I think Theo’s teeth are bleeding, too,” she said, peering in at him, but closer inspection revealed a gummy chunk of roll-up between a crevice. She was used to looking at him very closely, I realized, probably out of the corner of her eye, when she didn’t think anyone else noticed.

For his part, the injured party was having a pretty good time. I had an ice pack on his knee, and I kept applying fresh band-aids to a chin wound that can only be described as “gushing.” In the meantime, he busied himself patting the small dog and looking at the big one.

“I think that big one looks like Scooby Doo,” I told Flora. “We’ve never watched that, but I’ve heard about it,” she told me. Oh, you darling children, you've been raised on PBS and baby carrots, and now here you are at the witch's gingerbread house, I worried. Well, they'd have a lot to talk about at dinner tonight.

Theo, I noticed, was wearing a bead bracelet, which spelled out, it was revealed, “Worm.” Asked why, he declared matter-of-factly, “Cause I wuv em.” Flora’s bracelet, appropriately, said “Love,” and she hadn’t forgotten the silent “e” when she’d spelled it, either.

We talked about school, about what books they liked to read. Theo told me he loved a series about pirates who wore “dirt perfume made out of dirt,” and Flora was compelled to tell me, “that’s not a real book.” “But it could be,” I said, “and maybe he’ll write it.” She thought about that for a while.

I wondered what it was that seemed so remarkable about these children, and then I realized:  they were relaxed. Even though something bad had happened, their mom had told them she was going to fix it, and they were going to be okay. They were spending time with strangers, but, based on current experience, strangers turned out to pretty nice, with sugary snacks and dogs to pet. No matter what had happened so far in their short lives, it was clear to me that they have always had a place they can lean into for a bit of rest and comfort. So far at least, there has always been a set of loving hands to hold them up and give them peace.

I thought about the children I encounter at the Crisis Nursery, and the contrast is so marked. It’s as if Flora and Theo are allowed to face life’s dangers from the safety of a big, comfy recliner, always supported by the wise and loving adults who care for them. My nursery kids have usually been dealt the life equivalent of a hard metal chair, the sort with one wonky leg and a spring that snaps shut on little fingers. “Relaxed” is the last word I’d ever use to describe those kids with whom I've spent so much time, so it was strange to have two relatively calm children right there in front of me, even if one of them was bleeding bucketsful onto one of my kitchen towels.

“Mom should be here soon,” Flora said, and lo, there was mom, hustling up the sidewalk. You have a need, and the answer appears. What a good way to start out a life.

I hugged the kids goodbye and told them to wave the next time they rode by, but carefully, please. As they walked away, I could hear Flora telling her mother, “I have something to tell you. She gave us Fruit Roll-Ups.”  I hustled inside, quickly, to put away all the band-aid papers, wash off some spattered blood, and say a small prayer for Theo’s battered chin. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Rose and the Lilies

When I was in my 20s, I had an awful boyfriend who had only two things in his favor:  he taught me how to parallel park, and his mother was wonderful. Other than that, well, thank God I didn’t marry him, because I would be writing this from the loony bin, and you know how bad the Internet service is there.

He taught me to parallel park because he lived in a cramped part of the city, it was the only parking available, I could not do it successfully, and he liked to shout instructions at me in a disdainful manner, so it all worked out. And now, while I can drive only passably, I can park anywhere. But enough about him and my skill acquired through scorn. On to his mother.

Golly, Rosemary was a great lady. She was spunky and sassy and opinionated, but in a way that was always motherly and kind, at least to me, not that I always deserved it. Her kids were all variations of her husband (mean drips like my boyfriend, or just general all-around drips, like the dad), but she was a rose among thorns. I don’t know if any of them ever appreciated her, but I did.

I would have married that guy, just because of her, but she died before we got around to it. I was at her deathbed. We played a Cardinals baseball game on a transistor radio that we held up to her ear, and then, eventually, the game was over, and she was over, too. It was just a few months after my father had died, and all of that seemed to make a good enough reason not to get shouted at by the mean drip any more. Besides, I had learned to parallel park by that time, and without her around, there just didn't seem to be much point to any of it.

I thought of Rose yesterday, and I haven’t done that in a long, long time. The reason was that, after years of trying to get lilies of the valley to grow in my front yard, they finally did, this year. When I walked outside and saw all of them, going crazy against the edge of the sidewalk and looking like they had plans to grow right through the front door, I thought of Rose. She had loved lilies of the valley, and they had bloomed profusely for her, those couple magic weeks a year. I can remember walking up her front sidewalk and seeing them, there on my left and for as far as I could see, it seemed.  I can’t remember why I just walked into my own kitchen fifteen minutes ago, or what I was looking for when I got there, but I can remember those flowers, clear as an Instagram, which hadn't been invented yet.

My lilies are only blooming, I realized yesterday, because our $15 tree from the City of Minneapolis has grown enough, these past two years, to give them the required amount of shade. I put this together in my best scientific method by realizing that the flowers on the other side of the front path, the ones without shade, were not growing, but were looking as miserable as the whole bunch of them had looked, all these years, until yesterday.

As soon as I made the connection between the lilies of my memory and that dear departed woman who was almost my mother-in-law, God help me, I sat down, fast, on my own front walk. I thought of all those old-timey gravestones in cemeteries that say “Say a Hail Mary for Me,” and I said one for her. And then I remembered one time when I took some significant umbrage with something she had said on that very topic. She had mentioned something about going out to cemeteries for an afternoon and tending the graves of relatives. I shot off a hasty remark, in my mid-twenties-I-know-everything way: “What a waste of time,” I snorted. I was nothing if not productive in those days. “They’re dead, what do they care?”

Because she was a very kind lady, she settled for giving me the fish eye instead of a smack on the back of my head, which I richly deserved. And now the cherry tree has shaded the ground, and I wish I knew where her grave was, because I would take these newly blooming flowers straight to her, and offer up a few more Hail Marys while I was at it. Yesterday, I had to settle for just the prayer, and a long-overdue apology, sent out, vaguely, to wherever she might be. I cut a few of the flowers and put them in a tiny vase on the kitchen counter. 

Every time I've walked in the room the past couple days, wondering why I’m there or what I’m looking for, I’ve seen the flowers. I've offered them to her - these delicate little marvels of complicated architecture and saintly smell. I wish I could see her again. I wish I could listen to a baseball game with her, one called by Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. But still, with all of that, I'm really, really glad that I didn’t marry her son. And she probably is, too.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Miranda Rights of Second Helpings, and other Food Rules I Have Known

I served a hot meal in a theater lobby to 30 hungry teenaged actors last night, an activity that involved planning a menu to include vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options. Since I was paying for this repast from my own threadbare pocket, all provisions were secured at my new favorite sub-bargain haunt, Aldi. I’m proud that I’ve overcome my anxiety over the hostage-release situation they’ve got going on with the shopping carts (hint: never leave home without a quarter) and have embraced the joys of browsing endless stacks of about-to-expire jars of sauerkraut, shipped directly from the headquarters in Mülheim an der Ruhr.

After all the planning, cooking and endless schlepping, I had, last night, finally arrived at the moment when everyone was tucking in and filling their pie holes, so I began to mingle. “Mom, they’re confused,” my daughter told when I walked by. “They don’t know if they’re allowed to go back for seconds.” I was struck dumb. Did these adolescents not understand the very nature of a Julie Kendrick Meal Production, in which seconds are strongly encouraged, as are fourths and twelfths, not to mention doggie bags to take along for a little nibble on the drive home?

I turned to one of my daughter’s friends, a girl who has eaten many a temporary-price-reduction toss-of-the-dice meal at my home. “Tess,” I enjoined, “You know that I never serve anything without first declaring there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s like the Miranda Rights of eating at my house.” Tess, who is no mere “yes” woman, not even to a crazypants like Mary Katherine’s mom, pondered this assertion. “That’s true,” she said, head tilted to one side. “Unless you tell me it’s the last Clementine and I have to eat it right now so you can put the bowl in the dishwasher.”

She had me there, did little Tess. My highest hostess accolades go the guest who Finishes it Up, thus saving me the battle to find a matching Tupperware lid and elbow out some real estate in the refrigerator.

As I dragged all the dirty dishes up the back porch later that night, I thought more about our discussion of Food Rules. Everyone has them, especially the truly batshit people who claim they don’t have any. I am a 20-year child care volunteer at the Crisis Nursery, and if you want to see some truly rigid Food Rules, ones that make a rabbi at Passover look like a Unitarian ordering a bacon cheeseburger,  then spend some time eating meals with preschoolers. No touching. No mixing. Nothing funny looking. Ever. Preferred color of food? Tan. Preferred method of serving: Plain. And more plain. And even plainer than that.

We have such lovely volunteers at the nursery, and many of them gather with co-workers, church groups or friends to serve meals to the kids. They work so hard to make things special, but they often forget that for the six-and-under set, “special” is simple. We had a volunteer this past Sunday who brought in a giant bowl of strawberries and a box of graham crackers. Alice Waters has never received such accolades for her swanky fare; our kids could not get enough of this lady’s snack.

Volunteers who forget the “simplicity” standard do so at their peril. A few months ago, the nursery had an enthusiastic volunteer cooking group from a local food company. They had clearly scoured their test kitchen recipe library for Fun Foods for Kids. They arrived with “pizza muffins,” a concoction in which pepperoni and cheese had been placed in the hollow of a biscuit, then baked in a muffin tin. In case you aren’t grasping the full horror here, it was All Mixed Together. The children reacted as if they were being served pig cheeks, with the pig head still attached. The volunteers were crestfallen. But kids don’t change their rules for anyone, not even the company that invented Lucky Charms.

In addition to my child care work at the Nursery, I get together with a group of friends four times a year to make Saturday night supper for the kids. Our menu, which has been honed to perfection over the years, never varies: turkey meat on Hawaiian rolls. Carrot sticks and dip. Veggie straws. Clementine sections. And then, just to show that simple doesn’t have to mean dull, we roll in our big finish – chocolate pudding cups with – oh yes – squirts of whipped cream delivered straight from the Reddi-wip canister.

Sometimes on Saturday nights, as I watch the kids’ delight as whipped cream is squirted to their exact specifications, I think about the many people all over the world who are enjoying fine meals at that very moment. They’re sniffing corks, asking for a few more shavings of truffle, or setting up their camera for an Instagram shot of course number three-out-of-thirty. But, watching those kids smear their entire faces with our simple-but-worth-it dessert, I doubt that anyone is enjoying their food more than they are, and that’s the only Food Rule that really matters, at least to me. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Baby blankets I have known

This is my daughter Emma, somewhere above the Pacific Ocean in July, 1995, in one of the few moments she slept during her long journey to the United States from China. (It’s off topic, but I just have to say: notice her hand. You can only see one, but she always slept with both of them up, as if someone had just said “stick ‘em up.” What a kid.) 

More importantly, and more to the point of this post, notice the blankets, above her and below her. She is in a blanket sandwich of love.

The pink blanket, on top of Emma, was crocheted by my best friend in all the world, Debra Gail Buxton, who was running an afterschool kids’ program in Hell’s Kitchen at the time, and probably had one or two other things on her mind, but who managed to finish it, even though we left for China about three months before even the most optimistic estimates had said we would. The blanket is, these days, the absolute favorite snuggle spot of Betty, the kind and orphaned cat who hides in the basement because the monster dog is trying to kill her. I like to think that the blanket comforts Betty. I also like to think that, someday, if I need to cover a grandchild with the blanket, I’ll be able to wash off all the cat hair. I might be overly optimistic on that last point. It has a lot of hair on it right now.

Back to the picture. Beneath Emma is a little peep of blue blanket. It is covered, though you can’t really tell in the picture, with images of big-headed, big-eyed cocker spaniels. I believe they were wearing blue bows around their necks. This was the blanket that my Aunt Helen, one of my mother’s three sisters, made for me before I went to kindergarten. I hated kindergarten. The only part I ever liked was the part the normal children hated, rest time. They squirmed and fidgeted and talked to each other, and I cried on my blanket and felt sorry for myself. God, I really hated kindergarten.

When we got ready to adopt Emma, my mother began a Great Search for baby things. I was the third child, a late-in-life accident, and there wasn’t much in the way of celebratory baby items, but she dug up this blanket somewhere, and I loved taking it along and having it be one of Emma’s first comforts.

That blanket was destined for a lifetime as a target for self pity, I guess, because as soon as Emma could talk, she did two things:  she named it “puppy blanket,” and she began to chew it when she was angry at me. Emma was often, often, angry at me.

Her favorite activity during her naptime, instead of napping, was to stand on tiptoe in her crib, where she could see the mirror in the wardrobe across the room. There, she would get a big eyeful of herself as she wailed at the injustice of enforced sleep. And she gave herself a big bellyful of blanket along the way. Emma chewed, gnawed and otherwise ingested the entire blanket, leaving only snot-covered strings that were once the binding.

She still has the strings. At college.

It’s quite a story. We love our blankets. We tell them our sorrows. And, sometimes, we eat them.

My beloved cousin Erin is due to have a baby quite soon, far away in New York City, and I wanted to do something to commemorate the big occasion. When I found out she was expecting, I was in the process of making a quilt to donate to the silent auction for Youth Performance Company, made out of squares of old show t-shirts. I started setting aside the wilder tie-dies and the bolder colors, and, as I did, I began to see how a quilt for Erin and Roger’s baby just might come to life.

I am a terrible seamstress – sloppy, easily panicked and utterly flustered around the mechanics of the sewing machine. But I managed to grind through the blocks I’d cut by hand (I also lack a rotary cutter, cutting mat and any other niceties of modern sewing). And then, miracle of miracles, I found the perfect backing -- a piece of the softest yellow fleece -- at the Saver’s Thrift Store MLK Day Half-Off Extravaganza (because Dr. King had a dream that someday we’d be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the contents of our shopping carts full of fabulous bargain-snagging).

What resulted was a baby blanket that’s perhaps a little more on the hemp-and-granola side of life than I had been anticipating, but it’s very soft, and well, very colorful. I hope Erin doesn’t look too closely at my crookedy seams, because she truly is a good seamstress. She inherited that from her grandmother, my Aunt Dorothy, who inherited it from her mother, my grandmother Katie Dalton Clifford, who was, it is said, a seamstress for the Anheuser Busch family. From my mother, I inherited no sewing skills, because Katie Dalton Clifford died when my mother was only seven years old, before anyone had a chance to teach her. Instead, I inherited from my mother a tendency to run on at the mouth, and a great capacity for self pity (hence the kindergarten moping).

I have to confess, and I realize I have a little ego and attachment going on here, that I hope that this dumb blanket of leftovers and half-off bargains becomes that baby’s favorite blanket, more beloved than all the trendy blankets, if there are such a thing as trendy blankets, that Erin has gotten from her arty New York friends.

I realize that this means that I am dooming this blanket to become loved to death – to be cried upon, eaten, thrown up on and generally wrestled to the ground and have the stuffing knocked out of it. That’s okay. Puppy lives on, just a corner of him, in this photo, and probably somewhere in Emma’s intestinal tract. (Plus, there are those snotty strings still at college.) I’m willing to offer up my goofy blanket for the same terrible and wonderful fate.

Good luck with that baby, Erin and Roger. You will be, and I know this already to be utterly true as I write it, wonderful, wonderful parents. Plus, your kid has got one -- um, unique -- blanket.