Friday, July 30

7 Women in a House by the Sea

There were 7 of us in the old white house on a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean last week. We’d gathered because this is the year we all turn forty. We’d traveled from California, all over New England, a small town in Georgia and New York City to be together. We're single, married and soon-to-be single again. Some of us have kids and some don't. One of us is extremely pregnant. Some of us have high-octane careers. Others of us work at home with our high-octane families, a few of us do both. The majority of us have been friends since our elementary school days. Three of us carpooled to nursery school squished together into the backseats of our mothers’station wagons. But we found each other as a group in the throes of junior high school angst and have held on to each other for dear life ever since.

We weren't the popular girls. We weren't the really cool girls. In junior high when other girls our age were out with boys, coming to school on Monday morning with stories about sneaking their parents’ beer over the weekend, we were still doing sleepover parties, singing along to the Grease soundtrack and not understanding all the words. (Pussy wagon?) All the way through high school our activities included ice skating parties, constructing gingerbread houses at Christmas, playing charades at birthdays and miniature golfing outings. We were young for our age that way. And we weren't in a real hurry to grow up. The few of the 7 of us who did start going out with boys and experimenting with drinking…we counted on the safety of game night and Grease sing-a-longs to come back to. 

Sure, there were other friendships for each one of us growing up, some very close. But the 7 of us stayed connected to the group as life got more complicated even if, at times, it was only through one person in it. We donned the requisite bridesmaid sateen to be in each other's weddings. We flew and road-tripped to see each other in far-away states. We went on adventures in foreign countries together. We visited each other in hospitals through scary times. We’ve cheered each other on: degrees earned, Emmys won, children adopted, traumas survived. We’ve soothed each other's hurts: men who've disappointed, dreams that haven't yet come true, a marriage that seemed to crumble overnight, a longed-for child lost.  And, this past week, listening to 7 voices talking about work, weight, love, family, money, hopes and worries it's clear that our friendship still is a safe place for us to rest from the world.

Still, I don’t think any of us were prepared for what happened after we’d cooked dinner one night in the house by the sea and were relaxing in the big, open living room.  Lucy, who has always acted as the unofficial group historian, unearthed from her suitcase a videocassette tape  of a Halloween costume party she’d hosted 25 years earlier in her parents’ basement.  In school, the 7 of us had worked feverishly on drama club plays and we'd already laughed our way through the painfully funny results at earlier get-togethers over the years. This was brand-new material. Where had Lucy been hiding this one?! This wasn’t some of us in costumes reciting scripted lines while the rest of us toiled unseen backstage. It was all 7 of us in our awkward, unscripted, pubescent glory… We had to press play.

The giant flat screen television in the corner of the beach house living room filled with fuzzy images of all 7 of us and about a dozen other costumed high school sophomores in Lucy’s finished basement. One by one, our fifteen-year-old selves circa 1985 come down the stairs dressed as a scarecrow, a nun, a princess, a masquerade-ball-attendee, a vampire, a flapper and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.  Seven 40-year olds howl and clutch at each other on the couches in the beach house living room.

"Look at you!"

"How cute are you?"

"Oh my god. Look at my hair! What was going on there?"

"What was I wearing?!!"

"How could you guys let me walk around like that?!"

We watch teen-aged versions of ourselves prance around the basement, never alighting anywhere. Laughing. Mostly moving en masse. There we are dancing to Julie Brown songs. “Will I Make It Through The Eighties?” was a favorite. It was a very good question. There were many days it felt completely unsure. We sing at each other in a grainy videotaped circle, dancing and bopping around with surprisingly little self-consciousness. The camera pans the room and takes in most of the rest of the kids slumped at the basement bar staring at us…..annoyed? We don't notice. We are too caught up in each other. There are cringe-worthy moments to be sure. Could our voices get any squeakier? But there’s also something amazing about seeing adolescent girls uninhibited together….each of us was shy in public at almost any other time. As the camera begins to fade to black, all 7 are mugging for the camera not wanting it to stop filming. Pay attention to us! we are saying as we hop up and down.

And the 40-year-old versions of those girls don't want it to end either. We don’t want these girls to go away. But they do. In the beach house the screen goes dark and we sit there, stunned. We turn to each other. Who were those girls? Where did they get that energy? Where did those bodies go? All arms and legs flailing around. We'd never stopped moving. Shining eyes on each other the whole time. We look at each other, wide-eyed across the damp living room, the warm, night ocean wind blowing into the open windows.  Conversation slowly begins again.

“Did we just see that?”

“We were babies!”

“I wonder what that guy’s doing now…”

“He’s on FaceBook…”

“I still have that costume.”

“I remember wishing….”

And then we jump. The visit from the past isn’t through with us yet. The giant flat screen lights up one final time.  It shows Lucy’s basement almost empty. Except for the 7 of us. We are in our pajamas in a clutch of sleeping bags huddled in a corner of the carpeted basement floor. The lights are dimmed. Glass sliders leading to Lucy's family pool are the only thing between us and the dark October 1985 night and the woods beyond. Lucy tells us to pretend we are sleeping. We obediently flop our heads down onto our pillows. Someone pretends to snore.

"See? We've been listening to you for 25 years," somebody in the beach house living room cracks.

“I remember those pjs…” another forty-year old says.

Then the fifteen-year old me in the video stands up. I have a pale blue nightshirt on with a red heart over my heart. I wear pink long underwear under it. I start talking in a baby-voice. Somebody interrupts me and laughs. 

"C'mon, Jane!" someone says.

"No!" I say and pout in a put-on little girl voice. "I'm not gonna say it. You laughed at me." I twist my nightgown and stamp around a little on the tape.

Oh my god. I can barely stand to watch. It makes me squirm in my seat. I am trying to have empathy for this girl. But why can't she just stand still, talk normal and spit it out?! 

"Okay! Okay, you guys!" Fifteen-year-old me says and I flip my hair and twist my fingers together. Oh god. Not the hair flip. Did I really used to do that?! "Like, you know how Lucy said we're gonna have a reunion in the year 2000? Why don't, we all, like, say where we're going to be in, like, the year 2000? And Lucy can, like, bring the tape and we can see whether we became the things we, like, thought we were gonna be?" My voice disappears into the upper register at the end and I do a little hop and plop down on my Raggedy Ann sleeping bag. 

7 forty-year olds in the house on the rock turn and gape at each other in disbelief. None of us have any memory of this part of the night. We turn and look back to the screen.

"We'll all be dead!" a fifteen-year old yells off-camera in complete seriousness.

"Noooo! We'll be THIRTY!" someone else yells from inside a sleeping bag with even more horror.

"I'm gonna be rrrrich!" Lucy says with confidence and a beautiful smile straight to the camera, arms spread wide.

Another voice calls, "I'm gonna be married to what's-his-name." The fifteen-year olds all laugh. 

And then it begins. One by one, around the circle, the camera focusing on each rounded face. Our voices rise into a babyish cadence, maybe the only voices we feel we can use trying on such grown-up plans. One of us will have a restaurant. Another will be on her second best-seller by then. Somebody else has multiple options to choose from: psychologist, physical therapist or maybe even radio and television. Some of us are going to live together in New York City. Others want to travel through Europe. Somebody even wants to be President. We laugh. We applaud. We hit each other with pillows. 

The 40-year-olds sit there with our mouths open. How did we even know to ask each other those things back then? And even many of the expectations we had as girls seem connected with what actually came to be. Those of us who mentioned marriage ended up married. Those who said they'd travel to Europe, did. The scarecrow who said she'd write has written professionally. The one who said she might become a psychologist, became one. The good witch who wanted to open a restaurant is a stellar cook. The flapper who talked about politics became an activist. The nun who said she wanted a "big house" just moved into one. Dorothy, who declared emphatically, for some reason none of us can remember, she wouldn't become a veterinarian, didn't. She became a doctor instead.  The connections go on.

Staring at these younger, hopeful and confident versions of ourselves, we are flabbergasted. So thankful to those girls for finding each other.  For having the wisdom to stick together and to support each other's dreams. I think we all just wanted to reach past the screen and through the years and hug those young girls…. tell them that, despite the dramas of adolescence, the ups and downs of our twenties and the hard work of our thirties, everything is going to turn out all right. Like, really. Someday they'll all end up as grown women sitting in a house by the ocean together, still friends, still rooting for each other and stronger than ever. 

But, no. In the end, maybe it’s really the opposite that happened. Those 15-year olds are the ones who reached across the years to us. They are the ones who have something important to say. In fact, they have so much to say they can barely stand still.  They can barely get it out. And maybe the 40 year olds are the ones who just really need to listen. In those little girl-voices from inside their sleeping bags, those girls find a way to say it loud and clear:  Dream big. Ask yourself the important questions. Say what you really want. Play. Sing along. You’re braver when you’re surrounded by good friends. Don't be too hard on yourself.  Hang onto your friends for life. And always watch the movie til the very end. 

Thanks, girls.....for everything.

Wednesday, April 28

Coming Out to Play

I'm going to my happy place in a few days to celebrate my 40th birthday with my mom and my sister. Yippee! Well, I have lots of happy places, actually. In Henry's arms. Where two rivers meet in Vermont. A certain chair in my livingroom when a fire is burning in the fireplace. Sunday mornings in bed. The library. The front seat of any car at the beginning of a road trip. Martha's Vineyard any time of year. That's just the beginning of a long list.

On the other hand, I am a worrier. A thinker. Angst is in my genes. I don't know if it's the Irish or the Scottish in me. We work our worries over and over until they're barely recognizable. What did they even start out as in the first place? Give me a person, a place....I'll find something to be concerned about. Give me a topic. I'll give you an angle to look into. I'm a digger. Surfaces have never satisfied me. If I don't know someone's story, I'll fill in the blanks...usually assuming the worst. I'll imagine the saddest, sorriest stories....whether it's a dog loping along the side of the road looking over its shoulder back at me or a young girl alone on a park bench. Before I know it, I'm involved.

But I can't imagine another way of life. And I don't want to. This is the stuff of  life. Right? This is how lives are made. What would life be if we minded our own business all the time? To connect is all! Who said that? E. M. Forster? Whoever it was...they were right. What else is life about...besides connecting with other human beings, other living creatures, with our living, breathing world? That's all there is. What else could we possibly be here for?

The flip side...ah, yes, there's always a flip side.....of connection is the need to disconnect. The need to disconnect in order to recharge. This is most definitely a part of my life as well. I retreat from the world it with books and movies, mostly. I love to read. Always have. And I can while away most of a day watching old movies. I'll watch them all...everything except the Westerns...John Wayne gives me fits, Clint Eastwood gives me hives. I love going out to the movies too. I'm a little more discerning about those though. But I really like going by myself, sitting in the dark with my popcorn and Milk Duds when the previews begin. But there are times when even these diversions are too much about the real world. There are times I need something even more divorced from reality in order to disconnect.

For those times, I always have my soaps. Yes, I can go from reading Dostoyevsky or watching The Visitor to zoning out in front of the Young and the Restless without a problem. And no, I don't suffer from any cranial whiplash. Sometimes, I just need to be in la-la land where people's problems are completely fake and men wake up in full makeup and women slip off their earrings to answer the phone. (Love that!) I come from a long and proud line of women with both high and low brow tastes.  My mother will just weep listening to Jessye Norman sing one night and then pee her pants watching Reno 911 the next. She'll attend a lecture on Palestine one afternoon and rock out in the front row of a Tire Biter concert that same night. I wish I was as cool as my mom. She teaches an ESOL class on Thursday mornings for Literacy Volunteers and then sometimes gets so depressed after giving a student in particularly dire straits a ride home that she goes directly shopping, does not pass Go because life is so damn sad and nothing cheers her up like some mindless retail therapy.

Well, I have a place that I go which is my own version of sticking my fingers in my ears and singing, "Lalalalalalalalalala!" at the top of my lungs. Are you ready? You have to promise to keep reading after I tell you what that place is. Okay. Deep breath.

The place I love to go, where I can just check my mind at the Disney World.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking! I can hear you...What a sap. What a sucker. And you're right, probably. Well, I don't care if I am the world's biggest. Just listen to my story.

I went there as a typical, cynical thirty-something with Henry and the kids oh, maybe four years ago. My mother sent us there for a vacation. (I know! So incredibly generous!) We were excited to go but thought the trip would mainly be about the kids. I was ready to be very judgemental about the outrageous materialism and the capitalist-machine that is Disney. Right? I walked in there with my analytical skills sharpened and at the ready.
By the second day, I was wearing the mouse ears.   

I lost my ever-loving mind. Completely. Gone. Gonzo. I loved it beyond words. More than the kids even. I started planning my retirement operating the Peter Pan ride. I'm serious. I am still kind of considering it.

And after I got home and framed the picture of all of us with Jiminy Cricket and hung it up on the wall and decided I didn't care who saw it... And after I looked at pictures of us about a million times on all the rides and with the Fairy Godmother and with the Princesses (who were actually kind of kick-ass, by the way...the princes are really an after-thought).... And after I'd decided I actually did not want to wear my Tinkerbell t-shirt out in public after all and folded it and pushed it into the back of my bureau drawer....I realized why I had gone completely berserk in Mouse-land. It was simple, really. It was just because I had gotten the chance to be a kid there. Really, totally, completely a kid. And I loved it!

You have to understand, I wasn't much of a kid as a kid. I was pretty serious from about the age of four years old on. You know, the kind of kid who stayed inside and read while the other kids were outside running around yelling like maniacs? I was that kid. I was more comfortable hanging around the edges of the grown-ups' conversations than I was talking to my peers. I used to climb through a hole in the stockade fence behind our apartment building when I was very small and walk a route I'd set for myself in the woods. I'd take notes inside a notebook I carried around with me. I don't know what the hell I wrote; I couldn't read or write at the time but I took it very was my job. I  also decided I didn't believe in god when my grandmother died when I was 9 years old. Fascinated with old cemeteries by then, I wrote long odes to them. I think I would have been Goth in 5th grade if that had been a thing then. Exceedingly shy in elementary school, I was more comfortable in the made-up country that my across-the-street-neighbor and I invented than I was in my actual neighborhood. We had a language, a national color (purple) and we were the queens. It was a two-person land.

By the time I hit junior high, I was seriously pre-occupied with nuclear war. We're talking nightmares. Lying awake in my purple room, night after night, I'd obsess about nuclear winter. (Remember The Day After? Never should've watched that. Ne-eh-eh-verrrrr.) I lost my innocence at a very young age. I hung around with some pretty serious friends too. We became deeply concerned about starving children in Guatemala after seeing a commercial on tv starring Sally Struthers. Remember those? (In case, you're wondering, guys, my parents took over sponsorship of Norma Yolanda after we flaked out...) Then, while other teens were hanging out drinking beer in high school, I was dating a guy in college and starting a high school peace group. When my classmates were at parties in the woods, my gay and moody (who could blame him?!) friend and I would go for long drives on the weekends, listening to angst-ridden protest and folk music, watching the small towns fly by in the dark and judging the people in them for what we perceived as their passivity. What was wrong with people?! God. Why weren't they out in the, everything?! My favorite hangout as a teenager was the feminist bookstore in our state capital. There'd be me and about a dozen 40 year olds in the joint...more than a few of them, I now realize, clinically depressed. I had an interesting adolescence.

And, while a lucky marriage and three sprites of my own have helped take me out of my own head more than a bit....(who has the energy to worry about nuclear winter every single night? I've been dealing with three pregnancies in four years, colic, breastfeeding, post-partum depression, jaundice, attachment parenting, sibling rivalry, career choices, speech difficulties, lack of sleep, cooperative preschools, boys who think farting is the funniest thing ever invented, moving our family three times in three states, lactose intolerance, equitable distribution of housework, homework, bullies, adolescence, how the HELL did the kids figure out how to unlock our bedroom door on Sunday mornings?!! teacher conferences, 5 human beings' diets, 4 dogs and 1 cat)......I'm still essentially me. My nature is to mull. To analyze. To parse.

But when I go to Disney World, I don't read the New York Times front page to back. I don't read any newspaper. I don't listen to NPR. I don't listen to anything besides soundtracks to movies that all have happy endings. I don't drive a car....I don't have to be that high-functioning. I adjust my conversation level to that of, possibly, a 10 year old. And my thoughts seem to follow. It's extreme, I know. That's what I have to do to disconnect completely.

Yeah, I know it's an illusion. I'm not stupid. I know all those people can't really be that happy to work there. I know there must be labor issues in Disney World just like most everywhere else.  (I read Walt Disney's biography. I know he wasn't pro-labor. Do you think Michael Eisner was?) I don't even want to begin to think about the environmental impact of a place that large. Lalalalalalalalalalalalalala! (And if you know anything about any of the above, I DON'T want to know about it.)

It's my happy place. Dammit. And when I get there, it all falls away. I'm not a mom anymore. I'm not a worrier. I'm not the kid inside with a book. Look at me! I'm outside with all the other kids! I stop looking for who's hurt, who's in trouble. I stop looking for the seams, the cracks. I'm just a kid who believes in magic. And I truly do. That's the flip side of me. It comes from seeing the sad and the rough stuff in life. That's forced me into becoming a person who believes just as fiercely in possibility, hope and, yes, even in magic.

So, when the fireworks burst over that castle, which I know no one really lives in and which only appears that large due to forced perspective.....and when the Fairy Godmother sings in her wobbly voice, "No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true..." I believe her. I cry a little bit and then I'm ready to go home. I'm ready to face the real world again and try to do my tiny little part to make it better.

So that's it. That's my happy place. Yes, Tinkerbell and all. And my mom and my sister are taking me there for my 4oth birthday. How lucky am I?

What's your happy place?

Wednesday, December 16

Christmas in a Minor Key

"Do you remember that first tree?" Henry asked me the other night with a smile. He was watching me try to hang a few more ornaments on our already-stuffed Christmas tree after the kids had gone to bed. Some trick of memory and light had made him think he'd spotted a gingerbread ornament from years ago. I was having trouble finding room for another single solitary ornament. Our tree tells the story of many Christmases. There are, of course, the requisite gilded macaroni wreaths with our kids' shining faces sticking out of their middles, some early 1900's glass balls I'd inherited from my grandmother, the growing collections I'd started for each of the kids, a few from my childhood, plus those I've picked up over 17 years of married life.

"Yes." Of course, I remembered that first tree. I'll never forget it. Our first married Christmas, Henry and I lived in a three-room apartment right outside of Boston which we thought was a palace. The apartment was on the first floor of an old 3-story Victorian which was painted peach, purple and green. No, those colors aren't a typo. We'd gotten a reduction in rent because Henry repainted the exterior the summer we moved in. It had an iron spiral staircase on the outside of the house crowned by a styrofoam head with a wig on it. We were in heaven.

We were 22 years old. We didn't have much money. We brought home a fat white pine that Christmas which took up one-third of our petite livingroom. I spent the next week rolling out and baking fragrant gingerbread people, trees, hearts and stars from a recipe in a red Good Housekeeping cookbook we'd gotten from a wedding shower at my grandmother's house. I still have that cookbook and still use that same recipe. I made holes in the tops with the eraser end of a pencil and strung them with twine I bought at Tony's Spa which sat kitty-corner to our apartment. ("Spa" is what corner stores around Boston used to be called and some still are. Tony's still was.) I cut out snowflakes from plain white paper making the cuts as tiny as I could get them. Those I fastened to the tree by slipping some of the long soft needles through the holes I'd made.

My cousin Jane had made us a few ornaments as a gift at that same wedding shower. I hadn't known how important they'd turn out to be. Some looked like funny little rainbow windsocks and some were red airplanes made out of clothes pins. I added those and one solitary string of lights. We couldn't afford any store-bought ornaments that year. That was it. We needed a tree-topper so I made an angel out of a scrap of material, a silk flower that I ripped to shreds and some moss. She was a little strange but after I tied her to the top of the tree with some purple curling ribbon....she looked ok. In fact, the whole thing did. It didn't look like any tree either of us had ever seen but it was ours. In fact, there's a picture of the two of us in front of that tree, holding the first of our shelter dogs, Sally, and looking so very young and hopeful. The tree doesn't look bad either.

A few years after that first tree, my grandparents decided they weren't going to get a Christmas tree that season. Too old. Too much work. They were in their early eighties by then. Still newly minted entrants in the marriage game, this seemed completely unacceptable to Henry and me. We borrowed a car, tied a tidy and reasonably-sized fir to the top and headed for the northwest hills of Connecticut and the small Colonial my great-grandfather had built for his son's family 50 years earlier.

Henry climbed up to my grandparents' cold, dark attic and brought down the boxes of painstakingly well-wrapped ornaments. Then he carefully carried down the lights with their brittle wiring which my grandfather had meticulously wrapped around rectangles of cardboard. He moved the rocker that usually stood in the tree's place of honor and followed my grandfather's every other direction with a smile. God, I loved this man. We had only the vaguest hint of understanding that they felt frustrated not being able to do everything they wanted to themselves.

I unwrapped the ornaments from their newspaper nests with Grammy, listening to her tell me the vintage of each one. Grammy was always full of magical baubles like these: trinkets with stories. Just like the charms on her bracelet...she could rub their surfaces with her bumpy, arthritic fingers and out would flow the tales for each one. When we were done, that tree was loaded with both sparkling and faded ornaments not only from my father's childhood but also from my great grandparents' homes. And, of course, my grandparents had married decades before the subtlety of white lights came into high fashion. The big brightly colored bulbs they owned clacked when you knocked them together and the wires connecting them were covered in stiff fabric. They generated quite a bit of heat so you took your life into your hands if you left them plugged in too long. My grandfather was an electrician and his handiwork could be seen all along their dark skeins. Back then, people didn't go out and buy a whole new string of lights if one broke. You fixed it. Or, at least, my grandfather did. I can still hear him, almost completely deaf, singing to himself, "Ho dee doe, doe, doe. Dee, doe," in his deep rumble as he approached a task like that with some glee.

When the tree was completely dressed, my grandparents were beaming. More pleased with our attention, I think, than with the actual tree. But I was happy because it felt like we had staved off the something that was looming over us for another year. They couldn't really be getting that old. Not really. Not if they still had a Christmas tree in the same corner of the livingroom same as every other Christmas. If nothing looked different, then life could continue as it always had on New Litchfield Street. That was my deepest wish.

In the car, just the other day, my youngest, Lucy, asked me if I knew why so many holiday songs were written in a minor key. What? I didn't even know she knew what a minor key was. I can't exactly define it's been more years than I'd like to admit since I sat in a music class....other than to say that I know those sadder, more serious sounding notes when I hear them. They must have been talking about it in her 3rd grade music class with her hip and knowledgeable music teacher with the spiky hair. "Yeah," Lucy elaborated, "like Blue Christmas...and Silent Night...and then there's The Little Drummer Boy...." Hmmmm. Yes. She was definitely onto something. Struck, I told her I didn't know why Christmas songs were often written in minor keys but asked her why she thought that was. Her answer was to launch into a loud rendition of a Kwanzaa song. In a minor key.

Well, I fibbed a little. I think I do know why so many Christmas songs have that melancholy sound. Don't you? But it's a lesson my daughter's much too young to have to know yet. At least, not too intimately. Inside every Christmas we celebrate is the kernel of a Christmas past. Or of every Christmas past maybe. And there's something sad about matter how happy some or most of those holidays may have been. And, like nesting dolls, those Christmases gone-by get unwittingly unwrapped along with all those boxes of decorations we lug down from the attic. They're the extra ingredients we mix into Christmas supper, some bitter, some sweet. And we're placing those old Christmases under the tree along with all the other gifts we're offering, whether we intend to or not. No wonder the holidays are so exhausting!
  They're that vacant spot in the corner of the livingroom, the empty place at the kitchen table. They're even the new faces we wish so badly someone had been able to know. Mixed in with all the joy of Christmas is always a little bit of sadness. For Christmases, that for whatever reason, just can't be the same. Life changes. I think that's the reason we sometimes go overboard this time of year. I know I do. We're trying to reach back for something that's gone with....things. But we can't reach back to those Christmases with stuff. It just doesn't work. The irony is that, often, all we need is something small and simple to acknowledge a loss. A word. A small ritual. A quiet thought. I miss... Do you remember? I wish...

Someday, Lucy, Sam and Finn will understand why there's always a little bit of tears mixed in with the smiles this time of year. Why I just have to make my mom's sour cream twists. No matter what. Why my mom gets pretty sad at Christmas missing her parents. Why we give Grandpa Harry extra hugs. Why their Papa wasn't that crazy about Christmas until they were born. For now, I'm so glad all that's a mystery to them. We'll teach them that lesson in time...that it's all right to mourn while we celebrate, to miss while we enjoy. That the two don't cancel each other out. We'll teach them that it's all right to make room for both at Christmas. That their Papa and I made a beautiful first Christmas out of practically nothing. That I miss my grandparents like an ache in my belly at the holidays. But my grandparents also gave me so many of my best Christmas memories that they're closer by at this time of year than at any other.

 One thing my kids already know for sure is that the three of them are my deepest wishes come true. And when I see Christmas through their eyes, music blasts from my heart in a major key.

Friday, November 13

Me and the D.C. Sniper

I don't remember too much about how that day started. But I can't seem to forget the hours that followed. I was on my way back from Dunkin Donuts when I learned my 2 year old daughter, Lucy and I were in the path of a shooting spree.

We had stood on the sidewalk beside the long, low brick elementary school watching with the other parents in a crowd of strollers and milling younger siblings while Finn and his classmates lined up behind his hawk-nosed and eyed kindergarten teacher, Ms. Blumenthal. Then, back in our trusty silver van, Lucy and I drove 4 year old Sam to his very first day that year at Cedar Lane Cooperative Nursery School. Sam's school was in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church which was tucked into a leafy glen across the road from Rock Creek Park, itself a sylvan sanctuary and unlikely partner to the clamorous Beltway it ran beside. Both were steps from our front yard. Waking up at 2 in the morning to nurse Lucy, I would pretend the low roar I heard was the sound of a rushing woodland river. The reality was just too unnerving and the power of my imagination is strong. There was no time of day or night that the thundering hiss would stop.

Sam had attended the same free-spirited nursery school the previous year and went off happily. Henry and I volunteered once a week but that day was not our day and I was immediately lightened by the feeling of going from three children to one for a few hours. I felt so good about where both my boys were. The elementary school was excellent. And we'd chosen this nursery school based on its child-centered, play-based rather than academic approach. Somewhat of a nervous nellie about my kids' safety in general, I felt relaxed about both these places. This did not come easily to me. It was a good day.

I looked at Lucy and gauged her sleepiness. Could I make it to the Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru and all the way home again without her falling asleep? As any stay-at-home parent knows, moments like these cannot be squandered. If a child falls asleep in a moving vehicle she may not be transferred to a crib and stay asleep. Could I take the chance? Lucy was bright-eyed. So we headed for a cup of coffee and the familiar friendly face at the drive-through window. I had Lucy nestled in her carseat right behind me while I chatted cheerily and loudly the whole way, keeping her talking and wide awake.

From his usual perch in the metal frame of the drive-thru window, the young guy I always chatted with had pointed urgently at the gas station catty corner from Dunkin' Donuts and said there had been a shooting. At least, I thought that was what he might have said.  His usually mellifluous Middle Eastern accent was so rapid that morning I couldn't grab all he was saying. I was troubled and made noises to that effect but I wasn't clear what had happened. And truthfully, I was more focused on getting Lucy home quickly before she fell asleep in the car and ruined my chances of a much-needed break from kids. I thanked him, told him I'd see him tomorrow and said goodbye. He looked at me like I had lost my mind. I sipped my medium decaf, light and sweet, while the van hummed out onto Connecticut Avenue and we headed for home.

And then, my cell phone rang. It was Henry.

"Where are you?" He sounded weird.

"I'm out. Near...Home Depot."

"Get off Connecticut Ave.! Now!!! Get away from there!"

My husband is not the dramatic sort. He's doesn't over-react. Well, to a few things he does. To certain lost major league baseball games. To empty cereal boxes left in the cupboard. To the use of your when you're is what's needed. But not about real life stuff. He was yelling.  My heart thumped.

He said four people had just been shot up and down Connecticut Avenue in the last few hours. It was all over the news. He said I needed to get Lucy and me off that road. Now. What? At first I couldn't take in what he was saying. Then he started to name places. The Michael's craft store in Aspen Hill. Well, that's where I am... A gas station near Michael's. Wait a minute....The guy at the drive-through said something about a shooting at the gas station! And Leisure World... Okay, that's the other direction. Not towards Bethesda. It's amazing how quickly your mind starts trying to normalize even the strangest situations. Ok. There may be danger nearby but it's moving away from me and the people I love. Henry kept talking and telling me the crazy things they were saying on the news. There wasn't much else to say to each other but we didn't want to hang up.

I stayed on Connecticut Avenue because it was the fastest way to get home. It's a huge six lane wide road that passes for an average thoroughfare in the exurbs of D.C. I didn't really know any other way. I didn't want to get lost in the maze of neighborhoods between Dunkin' Donuts and home. Plus I couldn't truly take in the possibility that Lucy and I could be in any danger. Then it hit me: The nursery school. Looking at the car clock, I suddenly saw eighteen small bodies tumbling out the door onto the woodchip-laden playground. Call the school, Henry! You have to call the school! Cedar Lane is two turns off Connecticut Avenue. We hang up. Minutes go by. I'm driving. Listening to the radio. Trying to find out what's going on. I don't know what I'm trying to find out. I keep looking back at Lucy. She's falling asleep. I let her. Henry calls me back. There's no answer at the pre-school. They must be outside. I'll keep trying. I tell him I love him and I hang up and drive. Henry calls me back again.



There's been another shooting.

Where?! Where?! I'm getting mildly hysterical now.

The gas station in front of Safeway. The Shell.

Our Safeway?!


I'm going to the school. Keep calling.

By the time I passed the Shell station moments later, it had actually been a full half hour after Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera, a mother of a 2 year old little girl, was shot to death while vacuuming out her mini-van. In front of the Safeway, where I'd go to buy the kids' Cheerios and milk. Where Henry got gas. Where I vacuumed out our van. Cars drove by the scene seemingly unaware. It was about a mile from Sam's preschool.

My heart was racing as I pulled into the shaded Unitarian Universalist church parking lot. I could see kids scrambling over the wooden climbing structure there and their beatific teacher, Miss Marion, watching over them with a gaggle of co-oping parents. What had been happening around the corner hadn't intruded yet. I approached them, trying to contain my panic but still the first words out of my mouth were, "We have to get inside!" The parents acted as though I could have been overreacting. But they hadn't heard the radio. They hadn't seen the police tape at the gas station. The guy at the drive-through window. I left Sam there with his classmates in the safety of the basement. He didn't know anything was wrong. I didn't want to panic him. I didn't want to be the crazy mother. But by the time I got home and watched half an hour of panic-inducing media coverage, I was frantic - wanting nothing but all 3 of my boys in our home with the doors bolted against the threat.

You have to understand, we had already lived through September 11th in D.C. Many of us drove past the wounded Pentagon on the Beltway every day. We were told to have a safe room in our homes to prepare for a chemical attack. Local authorities were so unrelenting that even the most lackadaisical among us had at least a few days supply of water in the house. The stores simply couldn't keep up with the demand for supplies with which to seal ourselves into a room for 24 hours. Many hardware stores updated their signs hourly: We have plastic sheeting NOW! More Duct Tape JUST IN! We had lived through the West Nile Virus epidemic when birds were randomly dropping dead out of the sky into our backyards and folks from the County would appear, bag the carcasses telling us not to worry but not to come out of our houses after 6 o'clock at night either. We had opened our mail with gloves on, standing in the open air on our porches away from our kids, holding our breath after anthrax had penetrated our mail system. It had been a rough couple of years on the D.C. area psyche.  

We became glued to our television sets. I loved and hated the sight of Charles Moose, our Chief of Police for Montgomery County. He seemed so calm. Competent. I can't remember the last time I wanted to believe in someone so much. But everytime he appeared my stomach dropped. Had there been another shooting? Where was it this time? Please let the person be alive. Or was this the time Chief Moose was going to announce they'd caught him? We dreaded the sight of him, then hung on his every word.

At first none of us had gotten it right. The first shot had been fired the night before my coffee run. At the Michaels across from my Dunkin' Donuts on Connecticut Avenue in Rockville. It hadn't hit anybody. Just gone straight through the huge floor to ceiling windows that front every Michaels craft store exactly like so many other big box stores. And then preventing any of us from entering another one without a palpable sensation of fear for 3 weeks. An hour later, a man had been shot and killed in the parking lot of Shopper's World in Glenmont, a nearby town. When Henry called me late the next morning, a man mowing the lawn of a car dealership on Connecticut Avenue had already been shot and killed at 7:41 am. About a half hour after that, the poor man filling his tank at the gas station across from Dunkin' Donuts had been shot and killed. Another half hour later, a young woman sitting on a bench reading a book outside a shopping center further up Connecticut Avenue was shot and killed. At almost 10 am, Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera was killed vacuuming out her mini-van. That night a man walking on a street in downtown D.C. was shot and killed.

The next day, we all thought we'd woken up ready to face a new day. But the nightmare had another plan for us. It continued. A woman was shot and wounded in a Michaels parking lot about 40 minutes outside D.C. near Fredericksburg, Virginia. What the hell was going on? It was the familiarity of the places where the shootings were happening that made them so utterly paralyzing. Michaels? That innocuous place of silk flowers, glue guns, pompoms and scrapbooking supplies? It's the mecca for every person who strives to fluff up the rough edges in life with a little glitter. To showcase the little moments in their family's life with some decoupage. And suddenly that was no longer safe? The gas station? The grocery store? These were everyday places. Some of them necessary for the every day living of life. Two days later, in what was probably the most awful of all the shootings for the parents in the area, a Montgomery County Middle School student was shot as he entered school. He survived. But the message that shooting sent to area parents was paralyzing. Not even our children were safe. Hawk-eyed Ms. Blumenthal didn't line her students up outside anymore. No one did. No one was that sharp-sighted. No one could be positive their kids wer safe anymore.There was no outside for anybody anymore.

We began to feel that we were living in a war zone. The person doing the shooting was a sniper. Shooting once. From a distance. After a shooting, the surrounding area would be shut down for hours of gridlock as police, FBI searched every car. I, like so many other moms, was shut in the house with three children five years old and under with the shades drawn all day long. We drove far out into the country to do our grocery shopping on the weekend. Breathing better the farther north or west we drove. I drove up to Connecticut with the kids to be with my mom to escape the constant anxiety. I hated leaving Henry behind but I wanted to put as much space between the killer and my kids as possible. I wanted to drive and drive and not stop until there was a whole country between us and this nightmare. Henry would promise he would stay indoors and I would drive north with a knot in my diaphragm.

We were told to serpentine to and from our cars when entering and exiting buildings by Chief Moose. He also told us to watch for tiny red lights being shone on us. That could mean someone was setting a sight on us. All outdoor events were cancelled. Every soccer game. Football game. Track meet. Walk-a-thon. Tag Sale. Field trip. You name it. It was cancelled. Every school in Montgomery County was in lock-down. The windows were covered with paper or the shades were closed. At Sam's pre-school, Miss Marion had the kids color huge swaths of white newsprint paper with fanciful drawings. They colored their hearts out then used the results to block out a murderer's view in. And also their view out. There was no recess. No walking to school. There were police officers at every school. Stores were covered up too. You'd be surprised how many stores have floor to ceiling windows. You don't notice until they're all covered with paper or sheets. Everything took on the flat quality of a bad horror movie. Where was it safe? Was there any place? We started to plan for indoor trick-or-treating.

Two days after the child was shot, a man was shot and killed at a gas station in Manassas, Virginia. A half hour from D.C. Two days later, another man was shot and killed while pumping gas near Fredericksburg. Gas stations hung tarps up to shield their customers from view. People would crouch down in the protective shadow between the gas pump and their car. Grown men in suits. Teenage girls. Grandmothers. We lived, like every other house, with our shades drawn all day long. No outdoor play despite the beautiful weather. Making a game with the kids out of running to the car from the house. Ridiculous, really. They wouldn't be on our street, right? But where were they? Anxiety-prone to begin with, this was not good for me. Henry would pump gas for me. Crouching down if I asked. He didn't want to give in to the fear. What were the chances? But I couldn't get the thought of Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera out of my head. Vacuuming her car out where I'd gone so many times to vacuum out ours. If it could happen to her, why not us? That's what everyone thought.

I remember one time coming home from being with my mother. It had been a whole other season up there in New England. The trees had already completely turned color there even though it still felt like summer in Maryland. My mother and I had taken the kids to a cider mill and held the kids as they'd ridden an elderly pony who lived with the kindly couple who ran the mill. I'd started to relax just a little. There hadn't been any shootings in a few days and we thought maybe it was safe to come home.  I needed to get the kids back in school. And I hated being apart from Henry. I purposely didn't listen to news on the radio driving home. It was starting to feel like a toxic agent in our lives. We listened to Kidz Bop instead and sang along loudly. Goofily. And then, as soon as we passed into Montgomery County, I saw them. Lying in wait. In the darkness near the end of every exit on-ramp. Police cars. State troopers. And I knew right away. There'd been another one. And I had no choice. The radio switched back on, I had to continue on home even though home wasn't a safe place anymore.

I began to feel capable of murder. For the first time in my life. We all say it, right? We throw those words around like they mean nothing. I'm going to kill you! I could kill whoever invented this game... But I started to really mean it. I began to fantasize about it. Especially when I was driving around in my car. When I had to drive the kids somewhere or go out to pick something up. I felt so vulnerable. My family was threatened. And it enraged me.I cannot overestimate the constant feeling that anyone could be shot anywhere at anytime doing anything.  I felt that if I somehow found the person who was causing this terror, who had done this evil...I would try to stop them. Physically. That's how desperate I began to feel. I've been a pacifist since I was a very young teen but I began to feel capable of real violence. If I spotted them - whoever they were - crouching in the woods with their gun I would steer the van off the road and run them over. Looking them right in the eye. I would run them over and hope they died. This was the only scenario I could conjure up. I've always felt empowered (maybe a little too?) behind the wheel of the car. People up north would talk about how unnerved they felt by the whole scenario. How freaked out they felt at the gas station. I felt like slapping them.

Three days after the Fredericksburg shooting, a woman was shot and killed in a Home Depot parking lot near Falls Church, Virginia. Everytime a few days would go by with no more violence, we'd think it might be over. But then Chief Moose would appear again and say the words we didn't want to hear. Five days later, a man was shot and survived outside a Ponderosa in Ashland, Virginia, about 90 miles south of D.C. This was the farthest away from us the shootings had been. Maybe, this insane person/people were leaving. Maybe it could be ending.

But then three days later, they were right back they had started. A bus driver, on the job one morning. was shot to death standing on the steps of his bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland right outside the Home Depot. Next door to the Dunkin' Donuts and the gas station and the Michaels. It had been three weeks and they were right back where Ruby and I had been the morning Henry had called to warn me to get out of their way. Three weeks later and not only was it not over, they were back where it had all started.

I was ready to pack up our entire house, have Henry quit his job and move to my parents' Cape Cod house and make a new life for ourselves.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the twilight zone that had become our lives, ended. Two nights after the bus driver was killed, a man pulled into a small rest area by the side of highway 70 out in Myersville, Maryland and noticed the car that, by that time, police had notified the public to be looking for. He blocked the exit of the rest area with his truck and called the police. John Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo, the men responsible for these weeks of murder and terror, were found sleeping in their car. Along with the illegally-bought weapon that was later ballistically linked to 11 of the 14 shootings. It was finally over.

I've been haunted by those weeks when Muhammed and his 17 year old accomplice, Lee Boy Malvo, killed 10 human beings, wounded 3 and held thousands of people, including me, my husband, and our 5, 4 and 2 year old children, hostage. We did eventually move back up to New England that following summer. There were a lot of reasons but the so-called D.C. sniper was definitely part of the straw that broke this camel's back. I've read everything I can about those two men since. I guess it's been part of my way of processing what happened to us those few weeks in October seven years ago. Trying to understand what would motivate someone to commit such heinous acts of violence and to want to terrorize an entire community.
Muhammed's ex-wife says he was never the same after he came back from the Gulf War. I do believe violence begets violence. In the excellent documentary, The D.C. Sniper's Wife, Mildred Muhammed also contends that Mohammed meant for these attacks to end with her death. There was a history of mental illness, domestic violence and threats that Mildred Muhammed felt she could not get the authorities to take seriously. This is an old and familiar story. One that desperately needs a new ending. Muhammed frequented his ex-wife's neighborhood during the attacks and some of them did take place nearby. There was also evidence presented at trial that both John Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo held belief in an Islamic Jihad against America and saw their attack as part of this war. Details about a plan by Muhammed to take money extorted from the government in exchange for stopping the sniper attacks and open a terrorist training camp for homeless youth in Canada came from Malvo.  I read all these things and more but could glean no real meaning from them. In the end, they've both said very little. There was no nice and neat Barbara Walters interview that came along with this story. These were sick, angry and deluded men. One, Malvo, was barely a man at the time. There really was no easy explanation for this madness.

John Muhammed was executed in the Commonwealth of Virginia this past Wednesday night at 9 pm by lethal injection. Lee Malvo will spend the rest of his life in prison unless the Supreme Court reverses its decision stating that a minor who commits a crime can no longer be put to death as an adult. In both cases, we are safe from harm from these men but in Muhammed's case, we have killed a human being as punishment for his incomprehensible crimes. To what end?

Did we do it as a deterrent? As a warning to other delusional, homicidal maniacs? Actually states without the death penalty have no higher rates of murder than states with it. Same with developed nations throughout the world. Did we do it because it was more cost-effective than keeping him alive in prison for the rest of his life? Actually, the average cost of imprisoning a person in the U.S. for life is far less than the cost of the appeals process associated with executing one.  Did we do it as an act of revenge for the amount of pain he cause, the terror he wielded? Is that what we think justice looks like?

Justice is not about revenge in our society. At least it shouldn't be. If we want a society where human life is valued, or even treasured, then we have to stop throwing away even the most damaged and disgusting parts. I felt like I could have killed those men to protect my family. I really did. And my experience was mere crumbs of suffering compared to what the families of John Muhammed's victims suffered. I can only begin to imagine it. I don't want to. But that's why victims cannot be jurors. Their pain is too great. We have to decide, as a society, when we are one step removed from being victimized, that we do not kill as punishment. This does not lessen the horror of the crime. It does not lessen the seriousness with which we see the crimes. But it does increase the value that we place on all of our lives and on all human life to come. It brings us one step closer to a world that doesn't produce men who become killers like John Muhammed. It separates us from the craven and the blood-thirsty.

I kept hoping there'd be some kind of miracle and Muhammed's execution wouldn't happen. Especially because, in my own fear, I had once wished him dead. I was not my best self in those weeks when I was hiding in my house with the shades drawn, crouching beside the gas pump, serpentining into the grocery store, leaving my husband behind in order to get the kids out of state. I was scared and fear had diminished me. We can't make our best decisions out of fear. Nor anger. It's not that I care about that shell of a human being. Or because I think he can be rehabilitated. But when we allow the State to throw out a human our names...we're endorsing the kind of base, meaningless world that sick men like Muhammed and Malvo crave. We're working against our best selves. That's the story I really dread telling my children. Not just how,one day, their childhood was interrupted for a few weeks because we had to hide from a killer...but that,one day, that killer was punished by being killed us. Because that's a crime too.

Saturday, October 31

Sexy Witch Costume From Hell

Lucy was tromping and harrumphing a stormy path through the aisles of the costume shop. She looked askance at one plastic-trapped costume after another. Her green eyes narrowed and her freckled brow furrowed into an angry stamp of rejection. Over and again.

We were on the hunt at the local temporary Halloween store that pops up every year. Like a mushroom. It just appears one day. I don’t know why I bring my daughter in there every year. It’s like I get holiday amnesia. The kids’ costumes are, of course, completely divided by gender. And the girls’ costumes…talk about scary. They are totally mislabeled. The tags should say: Child-Prostitute-Vampire, Child-Beauty-Pageant-Princess and the old standbys: Slutty-Witch, Sleazy-Witch and Sexy-Witch ….all beginning with size 4T.

At first, I was in shock. Even though we’ve seen it every other year I still get completely flabbergasted by the fact that there are people out there who want to make money off of sexualizing my daughter and other young girls. So I’m following Lucy around like an idiot mumbling soothing things to her about how she and I could sew things onto this costume here and glue gun stuff onto that costume there and totally transform them into whatever we want. Doesn’t that make her feel better? She's clomping up and down the aisles, ignoring me. Meanwhile, motorized headless zombies are popping out of cardboard coffins at us as we walk by and a grey rubber corpse keeps revealing its pink guts to the sound of agonized moans every time we round a certain corner. And I’m thinking…I am in hell. I don’t know why I didn’t just grab my kid and scram.

Luckily, Lucy, for one, was actually using her brain in the midst of this madness and just got plain pissed. She clucked her tongue a several times in disgust. Pushed at a couple of the hanging plastic bags impatiently, folded her arms across her chest and announced, “Mama, there’s nothing here I want to be.”

Silently, I scream: Yessssss! Thank god! Thank god! Thank god! Go back to the fires of hell you-sexy-witch-costume-that-fits-an-eight-year-old! Take that!

To Lucy, I very calmly and coolly say, “Oookay, sweet pea. What do you think you might want to be?”

“A goblin.”

In between scooping guts out of pumpkins and kicking up storms of leaves, we stare into the fire after supper in the weeks before Halloween and talk endlessly about what kind of costumes the kids should wear this year. I, of course, miss the days when the boys wriggled happily into spider and ladybug costumes, running around with pompom antennae flopping in their eyes. And when Ruby happily let me dress her in layers of tulle and silk leaves in my own rendition of an autumn fairy costume. Those days are long gone. Along with baby teeth and car seats. The kids have developed minds of their own. I seem to remember that was the general idea. This has lately become their time of year for playing at feeling powerful, for trying different identities on, seeing how they feel.

In this nonviolent household, where they’ve had to make their own guns if they wanted to play war, this is the one time of year our kids can get swords if they want to. This is a big deal. So we’ve had a lot of ninjas in recent years. One grim reaper with a scythe. A Darth Vader with a light saber. One year, Lucy wanted to be Lucy from The Chronicles of Narnia because for one thing, in the movie, the courageous, diminuitive character got to carry a dagger. I draw the line at blood and gore but otherwise the kids get to experiment with evil for just that one night. All these weapons are miraculously “lost” as soon as Halloween is over and life goes back to normal.

This year Finn has decided to be an ancient martial arts master. With swords. Why a martial arts master needs swords I couldn’t tell you. Sam has chosen to be some kind of horror movie killer. The one with a chain saw. I think he was attracted to the noise the chain saw made. This is the closest to gore we’ve ever come in this house at Halloween. I feel we’re walking a fine line. The boys were with their father when they picked out their costumes. I wouldn't have gone for the horror movie killer thing or the bloody knives that the martial arts master has. Finn keeps pointing out that the "blood" is contained inside the knives as if this somehow makes a difference. Henry is not as anti-gore as I am and, well, I pick my battles. I'm trusting that years of parenting will not be undone by one night of madness.

But, as for Lucy, that's a battle I won't lose. It turned out there was a woman who worked at the nefarious Halloween store who had tons of ideas for costumes beyond what they had hanging in those plastic bags. She pointed us towards some elven ears we could stick onto Lucy’s wee round ones, a tube of green goo for her face, some green clawed fingers to stick over her own and we were off! Lucy doesn’t want to be some cute and friendly little goblin either. Far into the sixth book of the Harry Potter series, Lucy wants to be a cranky, kind of mean goblin like those that inhabit the tunnels beneath Gringotts Bank. A little ugly, maybe a little smelly, definitely scary, she wants to creep around the edges of Halloween, freaking people out like a true Halloween spirit. Not prematurely sexing it up like the marketers of those costumes want her to.

There is really something evil out there that wants us to accept the sexualization of our children. Not just at Halloween. And it’s seeping into our culture to the point where some perfectly well-intentioned moms and dads are getting confused and thinking it’s okay to send our daughters out into the night in corsets that suggest cleavage in 6 and 7 year old girls. It must be okay if that’s 95 percent of what’s for sale at the costume shop, right? But those costume manufacturers don’t care about kids. They care about making a buck. And Halloween shouldn’t be about sexy for little kids. It shouldn’t be about off-the-shoulder pirate blouses, ripped mini-skirts, thigh-highs and high-heeled boots for elementary school girls. That’s a different kind of power that we’re leaving kids to play near when we're allowing them to dress up like that. Kids don't even know the rules of the game they're playing at that point. Or who else is playing (watching). They’re not the ones in charge of their play when they put on those outfits.

We want kids to be able to tell their own stories, feel their own power and make up their own endings. Girls and boys. Not be objects of someone else's fantasy. Kids need to be able to choose from a multitude of identities to try on and play around in; not a narrow, gender-rigid selection that is trying to foist a premature, adult sexuality onto kids. That's not only gross but just wildly unfair.  But kids aren't the ones pulling their wallets out at the cash register. And kids don’t know what is really being sold in those plastic packages hanging from the costume shop wall. We do. We know what it is. And it’s a nasty trick.

Sunday, October 25

Stirring Things Up For Halloween

Grammy and Papa drove over two rivers and through the woods to be at our house every Halloween that I can remember growing up. We would gather for a somewhat fancy family dinner, my sister and I keeping our eyes on the clock throughout the meal, not wanting to be a minute late for trick-or-treating. For one of those suppers, my mother took an adventurous culinary left turn, serving a meatloaf that featured a bright orange carrot mash rolled up into its center a la an autumnal buche de noel. My poor mother. We still talk about that meat loaf. Not kindly. Then my grandparents would see us off trick-or-treating with our friends, exclaim over neighborhood kids' costumes, help my parents pass out candy (it seemed like a big job) and, the night would end, every year, with my nearly deaf grandfather rumbling how, boy, he remembered how far our father used to go trick-or-treating when he was a kid. I thought that was what all families did on Halloween. Maybe that's what first planted this magical time as a major holiday in my mind. Lately, it's become my favorite.

There's so much to love. I love the quiet magic of the season the most. But I also like that there's not a lot of pressure involved with Halloween. There is no gift-giving to stress about. No major feast to prepare. (I didn't follow in my mother's footsteps there. I don't have family over on the big night. Just my mom. I'm too excited to entertain.) There is decorating to be done...which I love. But this time of year, most of the design work is done courtesy of Nature. The world is gloriously disheveled in fall. Talk about shabby chic! Piles of leaves in your yard? Fine. Kale wilting and tumbling out of your window boxes? Au courant. The crab apple tree that is so out of control as to look menacing? Perfect for tapping trick-or-treaters on the shoulder. Gourds fallen over by your front door? Abundance right on your stoop. My house, which looks just slightly worse for wear, never looks better. As though I planned it this way all along.  And best of all, no one's trying to dictate your emotions on Halloween. No one's trying to force you into a feeling of togetherness with your family, trying to make you grateful for anything, trying to get you to believe in Jesus if that's not your thing or invoking a prescribed version of patriotism. There's nothing worse than trying to call up feelings on someone else's time schedule. That's not on Halloween's agenda. Halloween is just for playfulness, magic and wonder. Anything goes.

Our family takes its cues for our Halloween countdown not from the poor sucker in the neon-colored ape suit waving the Halloween Sale sign on Rte. 6 but from the weather when it cooperates and from our own seasonal rituals. First to arrive are the pumpkins. I love the fatness of pumpkins. The plumpness that sums up the fecundity of this time of year. They come home from the farmers' market and the grocery store where they're cheapest. These orange orbs are chosen based on which are the weirdest-looking, longest-stemmed and which we feel the most sorry for. By the time Halloween arrives, we have enough to fill a small patch. When we're done with them, the remains rot in the garden and the deer eat them in the winter. The birds and field mice snatch up most of the seeds we haven't roasted in the spring.

As soon as the first cold wind blows, I brew up my first batch of Carrot Sweet Potato Soup on the stove in the biggest pot I have. Then I just wait for my brood to come in from the weather. Adapted from the Moosewood cookbook, this concoction is my family’s truest sign that fall has been let in the door.  This soup's as orange as the pumpkins piled up on the stoop. It tastes like no other soup you've ever made.  I add a sweet potato instead of a potato. I use at least half a cup slivered almonds, 1 cup milk, 4 cups vegetarian vegetable stock and no other seasoning or garnish. You must eat it with warmed-up, crusty wheat bread. Everyone loves this soup.

Next, when I have time, I set up my funny little Halloween village. A mixture of dried moss and gourds, curly willow branches and a generous helping of glitter, it’s a wee land that I made by hand for any fairy folk who wander into our home. The kids have loved it since they were little and ask when it’s going up every year but I think I love it more than anybody. It reminds me of when Captain Kangaroo had people who lived in the bookcase near his desk on his show. Remember them? Every few episodes, not nearly often enough for my taste, Captain Kangaroo would say, "Let's go check in on our little friends..." and pull the book aside. There they'd be..these tiny people...busy living their lives in the bookcase. That transfixed me as a child, the idea that there could be people living right inside my world that I couldn't see...that their whole world could fit inside a SHELF. I don't think I ever quite got over it. The other day when I left the back door open for the dog, a bird flew in. Straight inside the kitchen and made a beeline for the shelf that I've cleared this year for the gourd houses and curly willow branches. The bird started scuffling around in the moss among the Halloween houses and knocked down some of the little fencing I'd made. I don't know what she was looking for. She poked around the gourds and moss for a few good solid minutes, darting with intent. Then, satisfied, she flew back out the way she came. Just checking, I guess.

Lastly, down from the attic, dear Henry lugs the boxes full of cool weather clothes and Halloween treasures. Most sought after are the Halloween books. Some of them date back to my mother-in-law’s days as a teacher. Favorites include The Night the Scarecrow Walked and The Littlest Pumpkin. The Littlest Pumpkin is about a little, misshapen pumpkin who waits the entire day on the last day before Halloween to be taken home and made into a jack o’lantern. He dreams of being placed at the center of a happy party and danced around by children in costumes. But no one chooses him because he's too small. So the Littlest Pumpkin is left all alone on Halloween at the pumpkin stand, lonely and sad. But wait! He's not really alone! The mice are there! and they bedeck and bedazzle him and make him the center of their celebration! This oft-repeated story has forever convinced my children that pumpkins have feelings too. (Hence, the strange-looking pumpkins we end up with every year.) The pen and ink drawings of The Night the Scarecrow Walked show a to-be-pitied scarecrow stuck on his pole at the beginning of Halloween day. Later, he looks so much like a strange, raggedy man that the brother and younger sister see walking a country road that same night as they return home from trick-or-treating. It just couldn't be.... But when they pass the scarecrow's field on their way to school the next morning, the scarecrow's pole is empty!  Unsure they want to hear it, my kids insist on having this one read and reread anyway. It captures the duality of Halloween: excitement and creepiness- two sides of the same sweet candy treat. Somehow that feeling goes down this well only at this time of year.

Lucy was born the day after Halloween. There is a picture of me sitting at home that Halloween night, swathed in a long, tight brown stretch of a warm dress waiting for my two tiny trick-or-treaters to come home, two firefighters that year, my own belly a ripe pumpkin. The look in my eyes that the camera captured that night is one of expectation, impatience and more than a little discomfort. And yes, I’ll say it: it’s half-crazed. With power, hormones and a tetch of panic, the way we women are in the hours just before we push a fully formed human being from our pelvises. Somehow it didn’t register as discordant that it was on Halloween that I was preparing to push Lucy out into the world. In fact, it seemed just perfect. To me, it’s always been such a magical night. The one night a year so many of us seem to feel comfortable acknowledging the thin veil between this world and the next. When it’s okay to smile about spirits swooping around the night. Spirits entering and spirits leaving. It's the night to acknowledge that death can be frightening, yes, but that we can be friendly with it too.

On a different October evening, six years earlier, my Grammy had a fairly peaceful death on a hospital bed in the home of her daughter, Helen, and her daughter’s dear partner, Emma. They had cared gently for her for weeks in their small, wallpapered dining room where, years earlier, Emma's brother had also come to die. It was kind of becoming their specialty. I was walking through the gate into my small yard and climbing the stone steps towards my porch some 140 miles away in Somerville, Massachusetts when I felt her go. I knew before the phone rang.

On Halloween, a few weeks later, I asked some of my women friends to come to dinner. I stirred up a pot of my soup and left it slowly bubbling on the stove. I set out a plate of lemon squares on my porch. I ironed one of Grammy’s outfits. The iron must have been unnerved to find itself in my hands but I had to. Grammy was never wrinkled. I hung the clothes on a hanger on my trellis where it was sheltered a little from the autumn wind and where the lattice also held a creeping autumn rose. Grammy loved roses. The wind blew strong that night and a little warm for October.

I wanted Grammy to know she was invited too. That she was always invited. I set the table with care. I used her dishes: Briarwood Rose Spode. Her wedding china. A year or so before, when she was still in her own home and her spindle bed had first been moved to then dining room, we'd talked about her china in the hutches that were then surrounding her. These were her diamonds, her pearls. She wanted me to choose which ones I wanted. There were multitudes of dishes, china patterns and glassware that she registered for or bought on a schoolteacher’s and Southern New England Telephone electrician’s salary and on which she'd served recipes clipped out of Gourmet magazine. Each piece had a story. I'd sat and listened to so many. Now she wanted me to pick. I chose the sweet rose-covered pattern that she chose herself, as a not-too-young bride in the 1940‘s. She watched from the bed as I wrapped each piece in newspaper. Twice. That Halloween night I carefully placed the lemon squares I'd made for her on a Briarwood Rose dessert plate and put them on the porch under her fluttering clothes. I knew she'd be pleased.

 Throughout the season, as our family's Halloween preparations build, I love to step out into our back yard at night after dinner and breathe deep. I inhale the sweet decay of fall. I listen for the humming rumble of our furnace and the rhythm of my family's clothes flapping in the dryer behind the cellar wall. Time seems like such a long story back here behind the house at night where the stone wall, built by long-gone hands stretches down into the woods until I can't see it. But looking back inside the warm, litup house is like peering in on a movie and the story, it feels far too brief.

That's just a piece of the magic of the season. In the everyday. The regular.  In remembering. In birth. Death. Plates. Pots of soup. The extra ingredient is this: infusing them with whatever meaning you want to find there. In a bird. On a shelf. Leaves on the ground. Clothes blowing in the wind. A gate banging shut and your step on the path. The phone rings and you already know. We read the same stories together each year savoring the unchanging endings, their familiarity serving as both the mystery and the comfort we crave. Halloween holds them both like a fat, ripe pumpkin, like my belly held Lucy ten Halloweens ago this year. I still like to be at home on Halloween. These days, I'm greeting trick or treaters in my cobweb-strewn witch’s hat at our door, exclaiming over their disguises, handing out candy in my chocolate-infused hall, wondering how far my kids will go this year. Waiting at my post, I'm listening for the telltale sound of shuffling feet through the fragrant leaves across our yard. And for whatever else is out there.