Thursday, November 22, 2012

Special Edition

Call me smug and superior but I feel thankful every single day. Thanksgiving is just the year's best opportunity to quantify my thankfulness with off the charts caloric value. I get up early to start cooking and set the table.  We’re having a small gathering this year. The kids will linger around the kitchen, trying to snatch a taste of something when I’m not looking.  Much of the menu can't be prepared in advance and I’m in the steam of it all day.  I go upstairs to shower before the guest arrive. The explosive aroma doesn't really hit me until I return to the kitchen.  The kids grouse about peeling potatoes but it is pro forma.  The potato job signifies that the meal is imminent. Spuds (the tuber—not the boy) will be boiled, pushed through a ricer and then slathered with cream and butter, just like my mother taught me. Although, if he doesn't clean up his friggin' room it might be tuber AND boy.

 My mom was only interested in dessert. She started clearing plates when you were only a few bites in. At my house we take our time, don’t save room for dessert, but eat it anyway. Perhaps my mom behaved badly at every Thanksgiving she attended at my house because she missed getting well deserved accolades for food well prepared.  I do love it when every dish comes out perfectly and people eat happily.  I have retired after twelve years running concessions for Children’s Theater.  I am disappointed when my offer to help out for a night or two is rebuffed.  When I attend the play myself and notice that the concessions set up has a completely different face, I annoy Himself with a litany of criticisms.  I do not miss the work, which is tantamount to setting up a small business twice a year, but I do miss being appreciated.

The essay submitted with Spud's college applications described Luke, a boy at school who was considered troublesome.  Staff and students kept their distance.  Spuds discovered Luke’s extraordinarily sophisticated tastes in music.  Luke had a great ear and his observations were articulate. They burned CDs for each other and shared music magazines. Spuds wrote in his college admission essay that the “can’t judge a book by its cover” revelation about Luke was influential in his creation of believable teenage characters for a play he wrote under the aegis of a teen playwriting mentorship. 

The good news from Bard letter comes in thick red folder with gold embossed “Congratulations.”  Spud's play debuts the following night.  He is anxious, having missed a number of rehearsals due to his trip to New York. Opening night at the children’s theater is fraught anyway with the high anxiety of fifty teenagers and their parents.  Spuds is to perform in the one act he’s written and also star in another one act that's being presented.  Just before curtain Spuds gets a text message informing him that Luke is dead, a suicide. Spuds gets through his performance.  I am so devastated by his loss that when he gets home I am ineffectual and as broken up as he is.

Spuds attended the funerals of both of his grandfathers.  He was old enough to remember both of them. He was truly saddened by these deaths but neither was a surprise. Old men dying fits in with the universal order.  The loss of a 16 year old friend due to suicide is Spud's first real slap of how truly fucked up the world can be.  Spuds delivers a eulogy. He paints a warm portrait of the troubled boy.  He notes that his essay about Luke was probably instrumental in cinching his own admission to college.  He concludes that he will benefit from the positive force of his friendship with Luke for the rest of his life.   I cannot imagine anything better for the young man’s parents to hear but I don't imagine that they are able to drink it in.  The Unitarian minister, a Garrison Keiller sound-alike, tells me the Spud’s tribute to Luke was beautiful.  He sighs then and wipes his brow. “God, how I hate this.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and looks me hard in the eye.  “Keep him close,” he admonishes. 

Spuds might not be with us next Thanksgiving as most kids fly home from the East Coast for Christmas break. Two round trips will likely not be feasible. Number one son is bringing a college friend from Connecticut, a freshman, and probably away from his own family for the first time.  I want the kids to grow up and have their own lives. But even before the death of Spud's friend I never feel completely settled and at ease unless both of them are physically present. I don't expect to recover from my near constant fretting about the sprats. My mother in her final days forgot my name but even her rotting brain didn't lose the sense memory of her love for me. Her ramblings grew more and more inchoate but whenever I kissed her goodbye she said, “drive carefully,” loudly and clearly.

I interpreted my mother's constant fretting about my safety and well being as a lack of confidence in my ability to navigate the world. My kids become more and more effective navigators. They even demonstrate occasionally that they've actually absorbed stuff I taught them. The minister reminded me to keep them close. Inevitably my opportunities for physical proximity will diminish. I know from my own experience that the expression of my incessant worry will be construed as a lack of faith in their competence. I try to keep my trap shut. I text them a lot.

My brain refuses to shift into neutral and I can't fall asleep. There is rustling downstairs. It is past midnight. The kids and a bunch of friends are in the kitchen making quesadillas. One of the girls is a freshman and has been on campus since August. “It's so nice to be in a house,” she says. “It's great to have real food.” The kids are sweet. I love how easy they are with each other. Even Spuds, who has been so shaken, laughs with his brother and kids around. I can't bottle this but through force of will I'll turn off the “what if?” voice I've honed for fifty five years. I understand and the kids are starting to learn, the world's horrifying capacity for random fucked-upness. I was a few years older than Luke when I felt the weight of a world that had no love for me.  I took a couple fistfuls of pills but providentially a friend found me.  I woke up a week later in a hospital. Even then it took years to feel fortunate to have miraculously awakened.  I will think of Luke's family while I put the finishing touches on our meal.  The world is capricious. Folly.  Bad luck.  Tragedy. Love. Miracles.  Our thankfulness today is ratcheted up by pounds of butter, pints of cream, and a full house.
Wishing you happiness.

Friday, November 9, 2012

That Time of Month

Not writing weekly is maddeningly frustrating and thrillingly liberating. How can I appreciate my life if I don't spend every waking moment mining it for inspiration? How can I appreciate my life if I DO spend every waking moment mining it for inspiration? I worry that the rhythm of devoting most of Thursday and Friday writing is lost now that I've pared down from weekly to monthly postings. Any breach in my rigid self-imposed discipline, be it keeping the house tidy, eating sensibly, walking daily or writing 2000 words a week, suggests always that all is lost. My house will appear on Hoarders. I'll become one of those ladies so obese that they have to hoist her out of bed with a forklift. My brain will turn to such jelly that I won't even be able to compose a shopping list.

Today is my mother's 92nd birthday. She has been dead now for two years. I was on the Ventura Freeway on my way from a meeting. The owner of the board and care called and said that Mom was unresponsive. I didn't get that this was a euphemism. I thought Mom was just lethargic. I said that I was busy but would stop by tomorrow. After her condition was described more bluntly I went to the office. It took me about 15 minutes to make arrangements for cremation and the scattering of ashes at sea. I told the petite ladies at the board and care that they could keep Mom's clothes. My friend Richard stopped by and picked up a small box of photos and knickknacks. I brought flowers and cookies over to the board and care a couple of times. And that was it.

I've spent many thousands of words memorializing my complicated relationship with my mom. She was always proud of me but seldom for things that I was proud about myself. I wonder how she would feel about the manuscript I recently completed. This material is what I consider my inheritance. My mother would likely take exception to my characterization of her as being vain and bitter. But she would revel too to know how much delight I took in her mordant humor. She would be happy and perhaps surprised to learn how very indelibly she is etched on every facet of who I am.

Spuds has applied for an unusual “Immediate Decision” program at Bard College in New York's Hudson Valley. Applicants visit the campus, attend a seminar, are interviewed by an admission counselor and then are notified of their acceptance or rejection within 48 hours. We spring for a trip and arrive in Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York. We rent a car and travel to a bed and breakfast on a pond a couple miles from Bard. Spuds is aware that we are taking a big financial risk although we do try not to rub his nose in it. I explain to him too that it is much easier to be judged myself than to see my kid on the threshold of judgment. He is patient when we yammer on about his interview strategy and readings he was to complete for the seminar. I think back now on how insane we must have been and marvel at the boy's patience.

When Number One Son flew the coop I didn't take it well. He returned from his first year of college and spent an incredibly indolent summer during most of which I felt like throttling him. Nevertheless, when he packed up and took off for his sophomore year I wept when I returned home and the dinner table was set for only three. My eldest is only an hour away from home but Spuds is determined to move across the continent. We help him with his college essays and pay for tutoring to prep him for the ACT test. We travel to New York for the “Immediate Decision” program. I have given my all to help my kid get what he wants. I have never once forgotten though that I don't want him to go.

The school is spectacular. The faculty is renowned. The information session is fascinating. Himself completed his undergraduate work at Loyola, directly in the LAX flight path. Redlands, my own Alma Mater, is not without charm but one has to do far less ferreting there at Bard to drink in the beauty of the environs. If there were a time machine we'd both apply for admission at Bard ourselves, rather than tipping Kennedy off to skip Dallas or killing Hitler. If we are obnoxious before the interview, the things we whisper during and after border on despicable. “Most of the kids are white. There are way more girls. A lot of the kids from California canceled because of the storm. The East Indian girl looks sullen. I hope the admission counselor notices the mom who's wearing real fur.”

Spuds meets a friend from L.A. at the student center. Himself and I wander the campus. Trees still bear red and yellow leaves. The Performing Arts Building is a shimmering Frank Gehry design. The Economics Department is housed in a turn of the century manor. We kill some time in the art gallery. There is an exhibit of student work called “Anti-Establishment” and another of agitprop work by an apparently well known artist. Except for a poor work study student, who sits in one of the galleries reading aloud as part of an exhibit, the museum is pretty empty. This is good because Himself and I are reminded of SNL's “Sprockets” and are both unable to contain derisive laughter. This is the memory we agree to file away in the event that Spuds is rejected for admission.

Having sprung for fare to New York we spend a few days in a microscopic Lower Eastside Apartment. The close proximity to Russ and Daughters, the purveyors of smoked fish; Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery; and Economy Candy is practically my undoing (note forklift concerns above.) We revisit the nearby Tenement Museum. We were there in 1992 when it first opened and we are amazed by the ambitious expansion. Building codes changed in the 1930s and fireproofing was required. Tenement owners in many cases were able to generate sufficient income from street level storefronts and opted not to make these improvements. Residential tenants were evicted and apartments boarded up. The building at 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863 and through the years housed over 6000 different immigrants. Through census records and other research, the lives of several families have been reconstructed and their apartments recreated. My mother lived around the corner on Delancey Street in early childhood. We visit the apartment of a Jewish tailor named Levine. This was my grandmother's maiden name. I know this is a very common Jewish last name but still it makes me feel somehow very connected.

The Museum of the City of New York has a video presentation that traces the city from the infamous $24 in trinkets trade to the present. All compressed into 20 minutes. When I'm not watching Honey Boo Boo I try to imagine the scope of the universe and the beginning and end of time. I struggle with the notion of infinity but neither can I envision any limits to time and space. My forebears walked this same island of Manhattan. My youngest son yearns for these same streets. I have only a glimmer of what went before. I am overwhelmed by the thought of what will come later. Where do I fit when I cannot conceive of a beginning or an end?

Half a pound of Norwegian smoked salmon and a kasha knish distract me from my existential morass. We manage to catch a plane home minutes before a second storm hits and all flights are canceled. I am jet lagged and wake up at 3 in the morning, unable to get back to sleep. I return to the office and learn that the production company we rent half of the building to is moving out. An audiobook I've had on reserve from the library for over six months finally arrives. I eagerly stick in the first disc to discover that the CD player in my car has bit the dust. The trigger for my car alarm disintegrates in my hand.

Spuds meets me at the door. The mail has just arrived. He is accepted to Bard. I sob and wail while I lug in groceries. Himself whispers to Spuds, “Mom's freaking out. Just steer clear of her a while.” Spuds will most likely be heading east in about nine months. He will make visits to Manhattan and while he has yet to develop a taste for smoked fish or knishes, he will undoubtedly walk the same streets as his grandma and her parents and their parents, if not to visit the Tenement Museum, to stock up at Economy Candy.

I prepare him a special omelet the morning after the good news from Bard. I slice turkey bacon into long strips and spell out “BARD” on top. It doesn't come out like I wanted it to but he takes a picture of it. He looks at the crudely formed letters and then at me. “You're lucky I didn't get into Wesleyan.”