Tuesday, August 27, 2013


I keep my gym locker lock in my bright pink gym bag.  I love my bright pink gym bag for lots of reasons, one of those reasons being that some people don’t think I would love something bright and pink.  Those people would be wrong though because I love it a whole lot.  Things just felt wrong when I took the lock out of its little zippered pouch on the side, like something had shifted.  It always takes a tiny leap of faith to lock a lock then depend on memory alone to make it open again.  I always test it first in my hands before I put it on the locker that holds my clothes and my phone and my car keys.  I don’t trust myself not to end up in my bathing suit dripping on the carpet while I stare at it and can’t get it open.  Which is good because this time I couldn’t get it open. 

I’ve had this particular lock for years and sometimes use it several times a week.  As I clicked it home to lock it I was instantly aware I had no recollection of the numbers it would take to open it again.  I have opened this lock hundreds of times but in that moment it could have been any lock pulled from a random bucket of locks, every number seeming as likely to begin with as any other number.  I stared at it and nothing came to me, like it was some other person’s lock in my hand.  I started turning it hoping that muscle memory would take over but it didn’t.  I sat down so my brain could focus entirely on that and not have to worry about keeping my body in a standing position.  All hands on deck, like turning down the car radio when you’re searching for the right house number. 

I did this over and over disturbed by how numbers can just stop existing for you.  (Did I have a stroke in my sleep?  Does 38 mean I’m that kind of old?  What else could I have forgotten?  Did I leave a kid in the car?  A dog tied up in the yard?  Is the car still running in the parking lot?)  I looked up and there was an old woman staring at me.  She was small and all white, her hair and her skin and the buttoned up blouse under her sweat suit.  I hadn’t been swearing or mumbling so she must have just noticed I’d been sitting there staring at a lock past the point where things are still normal.  

“Dear are you having some troubles or a problem?”  she asked.  I was unreasonably touched by her question.  I guess my incompetence and frustration had made me vulnerable.  “Yes.”  I said.  “I can’t get my lock to open.  I’ve had it for years and today I just can’t remember the combination.  Isn’t it crazy you can forget something like that?”  I said this realizing this probably happens to her a lot.  She looked very old.  “Oh no, no, no.  I forget things all the time.  I’m 80, you know and it just happens.”  She walked closer.  “You know what you need to do is just be still about it.  Just let your mind wander and do something else and be quiet and still and then it will come to you again.”  I nodded my head to show her I understood.    

She went on “Do you pray?”  I looked up at her and just smiled very small and to myself and answered “No.  I don’t pray.”  I shrugged my shoulders in surrender.  “Maybe I should start though.”  She continued, head down, conviction behind her words.  “Whenever I need help like that I pray and it always works.  I’m just still and quiet, and that’s really what prayer is, and Christ will answer you eventually.  Sometimes it takes awhile.  Not all miracles happen right away.  Sometimes the miracle takes a little bit to happen.” 

I thanked her for the advice and thought about the prospect.  I like the stillness and quiet part.  I believe in no god so I had no intention of praying, and besides, if there was a god I’d feel like a jerk to bother him/her about my gym locker combination.  That just seems like another kind of selfish.  But her comments were kind and she wasn’t pushy and you can’t really argue with the idea of letting your mind be quiet and still as a way to solve your problems.  What do I care if a person calls that prayer?  I told her I was going to go swim some laps.  That maybe my mind would be quiet then and I’d remember .  She agreed that was a good idea and disappeared back into the locker room with all of the other old ladies who go to the Y at 9am on Tuesdays.

The pool was cold and I lingered way too long climbing down the ladder.  My foot hurt because I had recently bashed it, which is the whole reason I was swimming instead of running like I preferred.  I grabbed a kickboard and started kicking, slowly testing out my foot to see if it hurt as much to swim as it did to walk.  I went back and forth and back and forth, never fast, thinking about my foot and about how it still hurt and how I should go to the doctor for an x-ray even though they wouldn’t do anything about something like a broken toe.  I wasn’t after a solution for it anyway, as I knew none existed.  I most wanted independent verification of my injury.  A reason written down on paper for why my foot was purple and for why I wasn’t logging any miles and for why I kept complaining.  A permission slip. 

I stared down the lane at the reflection of the block against the water.   It made a black line that wiggled in the wakes of the swimmers in the other lanes, all of whom were going much faster and smoother than me.  I kept my head down and kicked and ran numbers through my head.  Three numbers, all of which were either in the 20s or 30s.  That much I was convinced of.  A still and quiet mind.  “Prayer.” 

My ancient dog had to be carried down the steps to the basement this morning because she pooped all over the house last night.  She’d seemed okay when I left her, asleep on her bed, but I knew she didn’t like being down there.  I needed to buy more carpet cleaner and something for dinner on the way home.  The vet is coming tomorrow for the puppy anyway.  If she’s still messed up we’ll have her take a look at the old dog too. Though, like a broken toe, there’s nothing that can be done. 

I know the number ends in 36 because I have a tiny sticker on the back of my Y ID card that has the combination on it.  I put it there years ago.  It’s mostly worn off though and I can only make out that one 36.  Still, that narrows things down.  Something in the 20s should be in the first or second slot.  Maybe both. 

Summer break was really long and the kids finally just went back to school.  I was unreasonably stressed because I find I am not good at managing the hours between the things I have to do and the things I want to do and the things I need to do to keep me sane.  I made a list of things I would work at to keep me happier and more grounded and less stressed and have had moderate results sticking to it.  I went over the list as I made my way back and forth in the water.

- go outside more
- drink more alcohol
- listen to music in the car instead of riding in silence and brooding (my default)
- stop reading the comments section on news articles
- step away from the computer
- watch tv with the kids
- say “no” to grownups as freely as I say it to my children
- don’t put into unpaid work any more than unpaid work puts into me
- don’t let the chumps get me down
- be prouder of the runs I run than I am disappointed in the runs I don’t run
- write more

My legs tired and my foot officially achy I got a leg float and worked on my freestyle pulls.   I’m faster anyway when I don’t kick and I just let my arms drag my body back and forth across the pool.  I’m not very good at swimming. 

Because the last number is 36 I am increasingly convinced that the first two are both in the 20s.  In the past week I have helped my oldest kid with three different combination locks.  Two of them I put in my phone’s notepad for her so if she got stuck at school she could text me and I could help her.  I assume those sets of numbers pushed my own number off my mental bookshelf and onto the floor.  Maybe there’s just a limited amount of room for that sort of thing and I’ve finally reached it. 

Back and forth, back and forth, my arms tiring from the effort.  I’m too cynical now for my own good.  I can’t enjoy things I used to enjoy.  Baseball and television and articles in my favorite magazines.  Even books seem predictable; their back cover synopses a parody of back cover synopses:  “A woman goes on a remarkable journey and unexpected things happen and it’s an exploration of life through the ages and the interconnectedness of human experience and the discovery that a life lived small is sometimes the grandest life of all.”   Boring.  I already know how all of them end. 

800 meters is all I can manage.  Most of those I did with one leg or were just arm pulls.  Still, I know it’s better than nothing, better than not moving my body at all.  You get tired of saying that though.  Tired of never getting faster or better at any of it.  At this point it’s maintenance only but I do enjoy when I finish a workout.  That much is still true.  I took my bag back to the locker room and sat on the bench with a towel around me.  I pulled out the lock and tried a few more turns, always ending with 36 because I know that’s the one correct number.  It never opened. 

This afternoon I’ll watch tv with the kids and I’ll throw the ball to the puppy in the yard.  I like to watch her run really fast in a figure eight around the boxwoods.  Hopefully the old dog is over whatever was bothering her and we won’t even have to mention it to the vet in the morning.  I think I’ll make soup for dinner because they like that and George can wear his apron and put in the vegetables.  Maybe after all that and a beer my mind will be still enough and quiet enough that I’ll remember what comes before 36.  And if not I’ll just buy another lock and this time write the combination in the notepad on my phone and not bother with leaving things up to memory or God. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Your Mother's Mother

Note:  This is quite literally the very first "story" I ever wrote.  I wrote it years before I ever actually sat down to intentionally write anything and I did it because during the entire time that the events in this story were unfolding I knew something terribly special was taking place and I knew I had to find a way to make sure it was always remembered.  As a writer it is often difficult to go back and look at something that was created in the very beginning, before you'd figured out how to make things work the right way and figured out how to pace and do dialogue and all the other things writers take so seriously.  It's hard not to go in and just wholesale rip the thing to pieces and start from scratch.  That impulse is forever there.  Looking over this with fresh eyes for the first time in a long time I worked hard to resist that urge because sometimes a story stands on its own two legs and, really, it doesn't take a whole lot of "craft" to make it sing.  So here you go.  An imperfect rendering of a perfect story.  But, much like children, something that is loved and treasured no matter the scrapes and bruises and not-so-right bits.  Cheers.  JP


We had been planning this trip for a couple of months.  Me and my mom going to New York to visit our cousin Gregg.  New York with its smell of garbage and cooking meat and the exhaust from passing busses.  I love leaning out over the curb to look uptown at the endless concrete tunnels formed from all those towers standing shoulder to shoulder.  All that horizontal made from all that vertical.  Mom and I try to make it to New York at least once a year, twice if we have the money.  We had planned this as a typical trip to the city to eat and drink and walk the streets.  We never imagined that it would also encompass a trip to an unmarked grave at a cemetery on Long Island. 

My mother’s mother was from New York and had lived in Brooklyn until she met a sailor at a U.S.O. dance during the war, got married and moved south to Virginia.  She had three brothers and one sister.  The sister, Dottie, was our Cousin Gregg’s mother.  Dottie had similarly left New York as a young woman in the forties and had moved first to New Jersey and then to Florida to raise her family.  Their brothers had made escapes earlier, during the war.  New York City on its own is an electric place to visit but even more so for us.  When we walk the streets, especially with Gregg who knows more family history than the rest of us, we are walking the streets that our people walked. We are time-travelers.  Gregg easily points to the brownstones where our aunts and uncles lived, the high rise where my grandmother took dance lessons, the church where the wife of our New York State Supreme Court Justice uncle made a spectacle of herself in a bawdy red dress during the 1920s while he was giving a speech to the congregation because she suspected him of philandering.  Another uncle who was a singer with the Metropolitan Opera died suddenly on that great stage.  My great great great grandfather was the first Metropolitan Chief of Police for New York City.  For people who have never actually lived in Manhattan ourselves, we claim great ownership to its streets and its stories. 

By anyone’s measure my great-grandmother’s story is one of the saddest that city of sad stories has ever witnessed.  Filmed as a grand spectacle and adapted for both stage and screen the greatest stars of the era would have fought for the roles.  Careers would be made for the writers and directors and producers of such a drama.  How can one life’s story be so compelling? Variety would ask its readers as ballots would be sent to members of the Academy.  On Oscar night when the cast and crew would bound their way to the stage in jubilant embrace the world would finally understand what had happened those many years ago.  The world would bare witness to the manifest suffering of one so pious:  my great-grandmother.  Of course, none of that would ever really happen.  Because like most of the grand suffering that exists in the world my great-grandmother’s story would go untold for years and years and years.  Only her children would know and then one day her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Such is the nature of suffering.  It is often a quiet and lonely place. 

The word “great-grandmother” typically connotes a grand remove but in our family where we refer to the dead as much as we do the living it is really a much closer relationship than the word would imply.  It is my mother’s grandmother.  The same relation that my daughter has to my mother.  For my mother, it is her mother’s mother.  Put in those terms you get a better idea of the tightness of the ties that bind us together.  In our family, mother’s rule, and the idea of your mother’s mother is sacrosanct. 

My great-grandmother, Ethel Walling, came from a very moneyed, very Catholic family in New York.  She was in her early thirties and was training to be a nun.  Quiet.  Simple.  Loving.  She had not yet taken her final vows and was working as a nursing sister at St. Luke’s hospital in the late 1910s when she met John Maxwell Richardson.  Considerably older than her, he had already lost a wife and children to the influenza epidemic.  He was from South Carolina and was a scoundrel by anyone’s definition.  He swept her off her feet.  It was a whirlwind courtship.  She left the convent and they started a family.  Displeased with her decision to marry this man her people disowned her.  Without her family’s money and resources she was wholly dependent on him for her existence.  They had five children, three boys and two girls.  And then it all went to hell. 

The children never called John Maxwell Richardson “father” or “daddy.”  They called him Major.  He had been a major in the military and the one picture I have ever seen of him hangs on my mother’s wall.  It is a picture of him in full military uniform around the turn of the 20th century.  He stands with his legs slightly apart and points a pistol into the air.  He is small and compact.  He wears glasses.  He is handsome.  He has a satisfied look on his face.  If all you knew of the man were this picture, it would not be hard to guess that he was an asshole.

In pretty short order, after their children were born, Major abandoned them all.  He would occasionally send money for food or rent but as this was the height of the depression Ethel was forced to return to work as a nurse to try to make whatever money she could to feed and clothe her children.  Left alone for long stretches while she was at work social services was often called.  At the time there was little sympathy for a working woman. Still.  Ethel worked and Ethel fought and Ethel kept her children together.  It was a poor life and a hard life but it was a life filled with brothers and sisters and love.  Absent Major, of course.  The stories of his parental failures are multitude.  An example: once he sent David, the oldest child on an errand.  He was to deliver money to a woman in Harlem.  When David got there he realized the woman was Major’s “wife” and that they had several children of their own.  David had never known this.  One can only guess at what possible reason Major would have to send a child on such an errand.  To have to deliver money to your father’s mistress when your own family was in desperate need of it.  Easy proof that some people are simply mean.    

The winter of 1942 Ethel’s five children were scattered like this:  the oldest boys off in the war, the youngest boy in Georgia with Major and the two girls in Brooklyn with their mother.  The oldest girl, Margie, was my grandmother.  She was fourteen.  The youngest girl, Dottie, was twelve.  My grandmother had been attending St. Anne’s, a Catholic boarding school out of the city.  Dottie had also been attending St. Anne’s.  A perpetual momma’s girl who couldn’t bear to be separated from her devoted mother, Dottie repeatedly ran away and back to Brooklyn.  She was subsequently asked not to return to school.  It was in their Brooklyn apartment during the Christmas holiday of 1942 that Ethel became sick.  She lay in bed, coughing and in obvious pain.  Home for Christmas break, Margie and Dottie nursed their mother for three days until they finally became frightened and called a family friend who was a physician.  Hearing her symptoms he ordered them to call an ambulance right away.  Ethel was taken to the hospital.  The girls stayed alone in the apartment for several days.  On Christmas Eve, 1942, Ethel Walling died of pneumonia.  She was fifty years old. 

Ethel’s brother Franklin remained close with his sister though the rest of the family had long ago disowned her.  He took the children with him.  He didn’t, however, take the family dog, which was left in the apartment for days and subsequently destroyed most everything in it.  Home for what was supposed to be Christmas with their mother, Dottie and Margie instead attended their mother’s funeral.  She was buried on December 28, 1942.  For Dottie and Margie, who were children, the event was a blur of sadness and confusion.  They were taken back to the apartment which had been destroyed by their poor little dog and allowed to gather just a few things as they would now be living with their Uncle Franklin and his wife Catherine.  One of Dottie’s best-loved possessions was a little stuffed dog that her mother had given her as a small child.  She was not allowed to bring it with her.  It was thrown out, cruel Aunt Catherine having stated that proper young ladies don’t play with such things. 

Such was the state of the life they were now to lead.  One of harsh realities and little compassion.  One of isolation from each other and the difficulties of being an outsider in another person’s home.  Hard lessons at any age, doubly hard in the wake of the death of your mother.  Two little girls cast to the wind with nothing left to bind them but their memories of their mother and each other.  In all of the distress and confusion of their mother’s death and its aftermath it was never noted by any of her children where their mother was buried.  All that was known was that it was a bitterly cold day and they had to drive far to get there. 


My grandmother Margie died in 1976 at the age of 47.  She died at an age where her children weren’t quite old enough to grasp what exactly their mother had been through as a young girl.  She never talked about it.  It was a private pain.  All they knew was that every Christmas Eve Margie was sad and would call her sister Dottie on the phone.  The Christmas tree was usually tossed out Christmas day.  My aunt Dottie passed away in 2005 at the age of 74.  Throughout her life it was a firmly expressed wish that she find her mother’s resting place.  Unlike my grandmother, she had lived long enough to share these stories with her children and nieces.  It was Dottie who began the search.

For years she had tried to access the proper records which would point to where Ethel was buried.  They had had no luck with obtaining a death certificate.  Similarly, they were thwarted from learning where her Brooklyn diocese typically buried its parishioners.  A week before our regularly scheduled trip to New York to visit Gregg I got an email from my Mom.  It was a forwarded message from her sister, my Aunt Mary.  This is what it said:

I will send you a copy of Ethel's death certificate that I just got today. She had chronic myocarditis and bronchopneumonia and died in Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. She was buried in St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, NY on Dec. 28, 1942. I don't know how close to NYC or Brooklyn that is. Most of the rest of the information is basic. Just thought you'd like to know. Talk to you later.

And that was it.  That was everything.  Less than a week before we were supposed to go to New York we had the answer to the world.  My aunt Mary had gotten a free two week trial to ancestry.com and that was it.  After 65 years of being lost, Ethel was now found.  I called my mother from the pasta aisle in the Food Lion where I had been picking up supper for my own family and asked if she’d seen the message.  Similarly amazed we realized we now had something else to do on our trip to New York.    

I had never really ridden in a car on my trips to New York, other than taxis, which have their own death-defying/life-affirming charm.  It was something different entirely when Mom and I met Gregg at the parking garage on west 42nd street.  The place was enormous and how people actually maneuvered their cars into the spaces was a mystery to me.  My mom got into the front seat, next to Gregg, and I squished into the back.  I knew that for the cost of a parking space like this in mid-town Manhattan you could get a really nice three bedroom house with a fenced in backyard at home.  New York City.  The size and ridiculousness of all of it never stops taking my breath away.  All of us inside after multiple yoga-like contortions and inhalations of breath we buckled up and Gregg plugged in his iPod.  A fantastic mix of Billie Holiday, Maroon5 and Tears for Fears.  Our destination: a cemetery in Long Island.  We made our way out of the parking garage and onto 42nd street.  The traffic was hideous.  Cars and trucks and vans scraped by perilously close and at race track speeds.  Horns honked, brakes were slammed, tires squealed.  I was terrified.  My knuckles white as they gripped the little handle that hangs over the door.  Gregg had fantastic command of the situation and before long we were on the Long Island Expressway and on our way to Farmingdale New York. 

Farmingdale’s name was easy to understand as St. Charles Cemetery was a vast expanse of flatness that had very obviously been farmland once.  Acres and acres of flat.  I have never been in a cemetery that rivals it in space and scope.  Even being from Virginia where we have our share of epic cemeteries, whole cities named for Civil War battles and the dead that they left behind, all are dwarfed by the scale of St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale New York.  This is the cemetery where members of the three Catholic diocese of Brooklyn New York are buried.  It was obvious there are a lot of Catholics in Brooklyn.  We stopped at the welcome center in the cemetery where Gregg asked a woman about finding a grave.  The woman recognized Gregg and our task from his previous phone call which surprised us.  This was the busiest cemetery any of us had ever been to, a hive of activity and people performing multiple tasks.  They came and went from all directions, at least three funerals we could see taking place at that very moment.  She went to the back room and returned with a little blue index card with some words typed on it.  The corners were tattered and bent.  It appeared very old.  It was the grave registration card for Ethel Walling.  It stated that the owner of the grave was Franklin Walling, her brother.  It had been him who had purchased her plot all those years ago.    She pulled out a little map and circled section 9.  She stated that Ethel was buried in section 9, row L, plot 263.  She wrote down the name of the person buried next to her as a means of finding our way because Ethel’s plot was unmarked.  With little hope in her voice and a sympathetic smile, she wished us luck.

As we left the small Welcome House we braced ourselves for a long afternoon.  As far as the eye could see were tall granite grave markers, shoulder to shoulder, no room between them.  Some were literally touching each other they were so tightly packed in.  I tried taking pictures of the scene so I could convey the scale to people at home and it was impossible.  No picture I took could capture the immensity of it.  The endlessness.  The forever.  Eventually I gave up.  There were at least two-hundred different sections in this cemetery.  We were looking for section 9.  In section 9 there were no stand-up tombstones just flat granite markers.  The one we were looking for didn’t even have that.  No marker.  So we were looking for the flat granite marker next to an empty space.  The empty space being our goal.  Section 9 started with row “A” and continued into the triple letters.  We were looking for row “L.”  Gregg maneuvered the car a little ways into the cemetery.  The roads snaked all around and very quickly I had lost track of where the woman had told us to go.  I was happy I wasn’t the one driving as I really had no clue.  Gregg made a couple of turns without any apparent trouble, and there were were:  Section 9.  He drove along the edge of this section and as a group decided that we should just go ahead and get out and see what we could come up with.  Everything was flatness and cold.  There were a handful of outstanding oak trees scattered about.  No upright stones.  Here all the markers lay on top of the ground.  As Gregg pulled to a stop I got out of the car first.  Mom and Gregg were still adjusting their coats and closing the doors when I walked down the row next to where we had just parked.  I passed a few markers and doing the math in my head realized that I was on row L.  “Huh,” I thought.  I walked down a few more and understood I was in the 260s.  “You’re kidding me…”  I was now speaking to myself, but out loud.  I stopped,  looked at the ground in front of me and looked at the marker beside it.  “I found it.”  I never looked up as I called out to Mom and Gregg who had never advanced past the car.  They stood motionless, still in the act of buttoning up their coats just looking at me.  We had steeled ourselves for a lengthy search. This was to be an all day thing.  They were still putting on their scarves and maneuvering them into the fashionable knots of the proper New Yorker.  But it was true.  We had found it.  We were there.  I had walked right to it, actually, having been pushed, maybe pulled.  Gregg put the car where it needed to be, I got out, walked down one row and only one row, and I stopped right where I needed to stop.  I was in section 9, on row L, at plot 263.  I was standing at the grave of my great-grandmother.  A grave that was unmarked and had not been visited for 65 years.  A grave that had been searched for for decades.  This was the place where 65 years before two young girls stood in devastation wearing their best dresses and wool coats and watched as their mother was lowered into the ground.  This, when they should have been fawning over new Christmas things. 

It was not hard to imagine what it looked like then.  March is still winter on Long Island and everything was brown and dry.  The handful of trees was old enough that they would have been there when that sad funeral had taken place.  It was windswept.  It was lonely.  It was gray.  It was a picture of pain and loneliness that typically can only exist in your head but on that day, in that place, it became a living and breathing thing.  There are few times in life where you can stand in a place and know for absolutely certain that others that you have known have stood there in similar circumstances.  This was one of those times.  I did not know Ethel.  But I knew Dottie.  I knew her and I loved her.  And though I was younger than my own youngest child when my grandmother died, I certainly know her.  I know her through my mother and her sisters and through the looks on their faces when they talk about her.  That love for a mother that only gets larger with time.  My Mom and I and Gregg were all at a funeral.  And we knew it. 

We are an industrious people.  So we got to work.  Around the corner from the cemetery was a Home Depot.  As we drove out of that large and lonely place I sat in the back seat and thought of my grandmother.  I imagined her in the back of a big old car with her little sister Dottie sitting next to her.  What were they thinking?  Were they holdings hands?  How stunned they must have been.  Did they know what was coming next?  Of course, I knew what was coming next and a lot of it was not pleasant. I felt guilty that those little girls drove out of that place not knowing their fate while from the safety of the future I did.  I knew the ending.  It was their story, not mine. 

We drove out of the cemetery to the Home Depot next door.  We set out on the task of making Ethel’s place look beautiful.  When in mourning, even for someone you never really knew, it is always helpful to have a task and our task was flowers and grass seed.  We bought three sets of hyacinth bulbs, a pink, a white and a purple, and a blue hydrangea, my grandmother’s favorite, the official flower of the women of our family.  We bought a small bag of grass seed and a trowel and a small rake.  Back at the cemetery we took turns keeping watch for the cemetery landscaping crew because we felt certain that what we were doing was against a lot of rules.  On our hands and knees we planted the hyacinths in a circle around the hydrangea.  We roughed up the dirt all around and liberally scattered the grass seed.  At the last minute we remembered the real reason we had come.  Gregg went back to his car.  He returned with a sealed 8x10 plastic sheet inside of which were pictures.  They were the pictures of David and George and Danny and Margie and Dottie.  All in black and white and all when they were young and beautiful and alive.  We poked a whole through the corner of the plastic and staked the pictures into the ground.  We returned the children to their mother.  That saintly, long-mourned woman who had rested in anonymity for 65 years.  We had found her, we had planted flowers, we had celebrated her and now we will get a marker with her name on it so we will always know where she is.    

Monday, April 16, 2012

Steal Magnolias

I’d just started my run when I saw them standing at the end of the street.  Two stout women wearing Capri pants and flip flops smiling stupidly at a sweating man bent over and struggling with a shovel.  I registered them, but only slightly, as I was more concerned with the enormous uprooted boxwood that blocked the walk in front of their house.  Unable to easily pass I glared at them for cluttering up the sidewalk like that, a public sidewalk, and forcing me to cross the street.  For the next mile I only dimly registered what I had seen:  man with shovel hacking at the roots of the shrubs in a neighbor’s front yard, two women who for some reason looked to be in it for the long haul, and that yard filled with a lovely variety of old shrubbery, boxwoods, azaleas and spruce, that were as old as the house itself.  I cursed them generically for inconveniencing me without the benefit of knowing anything about their project and didn’t allow myself to wonder more about what they were doing.  As more distance got between us I eventually forgot what I had seen.

Until that evening when I remembered.  Getting ready for a walk with my mother around our neighborhood I suddenly recalled the man with the shovel and his murder of the boxwood and I told her about it.  “You know the house across from the stone church?”  I asked her.  “Some guy was out there taking up bushes earlier today.  The big boxwoods out front.  I wonder what they were doing?”  My mother immediately raised her eyebrows in a combination of outrage and alarm, a look that I both knew and shared.  The neighborhood I live in is the neighborhood I grew up in.  Over the past decade we’d seen our older neighbors, many of whom had lived in their houses since they were first built, die or move into nursing homes, and younger people come in and take over.  In a certain sense that’s just the way things go, the old people disappear, the young people fill the void; my husband and I had done that too.  But as much as I hated the loss of the white haired men with those odd beige overalls that men of a certain age are fond of and the old German lady who always praised the stoutness of my children I came to miss the loss of the yards nearly as much.    Because without fail whenever somebody young moved into one of our neighbor’s houses the first thing they did was dig up the yard. 

The first time I witnessed this sort of destruction was at the house directly across the street from mine.  Reading on my back porch one day I saw the young woman who had just moved in and an older lady push a wheelbarrow through the yard and spread out a variety of gardening tools.  “Well, that’s nice.”  I thought to myself, momentarily relieved that they were the type of neighbors that seemed to take an interest in their yard, would properly mow the grass and trim the hedges and keep things tidy, neighborly traits I appreciate.  My relief lasted as long as it took for them to get down on their knees and one by one begin to rip out by the roots the tulips and lilies and daffodils that had only the week before stopped blooming.  From there they moved onto the phlox that draped over the brick edgers and took a chainsaw to the boxwoods and azaleas that had stood sentry under the front windows since the house was first built.  I sat all that day and the next watching them move from one part of the yard to the next undoing in moments what it had taken nature decades to assemble.  While walking the dog one evening that week my mother approached the young woman who had done this terrible thing and very casually and very gently and using different words asked “Why in the world did you do this terrible thing?” to which the young woman replied that her husband had once owned his own landscaping business and so was really excited to have his own yard to work on.  His masterwork was a handful of annual bedding plants that were apparently meant as a replacement to the grand old flowering shrubs.  They lived there two years and then moved away. 

Another neighbor on a different corner did much the same thing and I’ll always remember the old gentleman who shared a property line with them mourning the loss of a particular camellia bush that was as large as a VW hatchback.  “Who does such a thing?”  He’d asked of no one in particular when he’d taken a break from his walk one evening to say hello.  His wife had been my elementary school principal, she had passed just a year before and he would join her not long afterwards.  As crummy as I felt watching the dismantling of our neighborhood I knew he had to have felt worse;  he’d been here longer than any of us and knew even better how easy it was for things to slip away. 

And so I found myself that night on my nightly walk around the neighborhood with my mother gaping in horror at the house I had run past earlier in the day.  Where I had seen only a single boxwood before the sidewalk was now filled across the entire front stretch of the house.  Joining the boxwoods were azaleas, most of which still had blooms on them and for some unknowable reason a whole spruce tree hacked up at the roots.  The yard was completely clear of any type of bush or tree or shrub and you could see the stray sticks and pieces of root that had refused to let go of the ground and had obviously given the man with the shovel some grief.  I had a flashback to the wrinkled old gray haired lady who had lived in that house when I was a child.  She was not pleasant and she would stand next to her boxwoods and yell with futility at the children who played in the church yard across from her.  I never understood why it bothered her that children would play in an empty field, but it did. 

The more recent old man that had lived there had taken exceptional pride in the bushes.  He’d manicured the boxwoods to be completely flat on the top and with crisp edges on the sides so that they looked like strange green tables placed at random around the yard.  They were bizarre looking but I appreciated their whimsy.  Eventually, as he got more infirmed he hired people to maintain them and they returned to the more traditional roundish boxwood shape.  For a long time though he’d wheel himself out in his wheelchair and would trim them with clippers by hand smoking one of the cigarettes that would eventually kill him.  Now, my mother and I walking the sidewalk in front of his house, the whole place had a disjointed feel, like a face that was missing a nose.  There were no boxwoods left at all, neither table shaped nor round, their corpses lined the avenue.

We fumed, and not silently.  The people who had most recently moved into the house were not home but if they had been we would not have been quieter.  My mother and I were outraged and loud about it, the most common idea being “Why?”  Why would anyone want to destroy such beautiful things that had been growing for so long?  Why do people move into an old neighborhood like ours and make one of their first chores getting rid of something that has been there longer than they will ever be?  What sort of human arrogance so casually annihilates every growing thing in a yard all at once?  Cutting down a problem tree is one thing.  Or a random bush you think is ugly.  And technically when you own a house you can do with it whatever the hell you want to do with it, but how unfortunate that a person would ever so easily discard decades and decades of history and nature.  How does someone neglect the reality that we share our visual spaces with our neighbors and that because you signed a mortgage paper on the dotted line does not absolve you of your responsibility to those shared spaces?  It’s something I just don’t get and my mother just doesn’t get either and so we cursed more than we should have and we wondered aloud at why some people even bother moving to old neighborhoods when it’s clear they would be much happier in a new subdivision out in Forest where there are no trees or shrubs to get in the way.  We went on like this for awhile until I looked down and saw the pretty red azalea with the fully intact root ball.

“I’m taking this one home.  It still has blooms on it for god’s sake.  Those animals.  How could they have murdered them all like this?  This is my bush now.  Hold my phone for me.”  Still in my running clothes I had no pockets and so I handed my mother my phone.  At the end of the line I had spotted a forlorn red azalea still at the peak of its spring bloom that had been spared the complete destruction of its root system.  I stood there for a moment looking at the thing and puzzling through how exactly I would get my hands around the branches in a way that would make it possible to carry it the block and a half back to my house.  Three foot tall azalea bushes with intact root systems are both heavy and unwieldy and I did my best to carry it in a way that didn’t mess it up more or slice my hands and arms to pieces.  We started our walk back home, stopping every couple of houses so I could readjust by grip, my mother still spewing forth indignities at the jackasses who had ruined that grand old yard but also now laughing at me struggling under the weight of my shrub, because really, this is something we do.

Years before my mother dragged home a nandina from a pile that had been unceremoniously hacked to pieces from what was previously one of the most beautifully landscaped yards on the street.  She nursed it back to life and it still looks good unlike the rose bush that she recovered that same night from the same pile.  The rose bush didn’t make it.  Notoriously, my Aunt Dot, my grandmother’s sister, after spotting an especially lovely batch of lavender which edged a neighbors front sidewalk mentioned to my mother one evening while visiting that she would love to have a piece of that and did my mother think it would be a big deal to take a bit of it back home with her?  My mother felt certain it would be fine, there were two rows of the stuff, growing a little bit wild along the walkway and she felt confident a little wouldn’t be missed.  It was only when Aunt Dot waited until well after dark and threw on a robe over her pajamas grabbing my father’s spade and a bucket that my mother grew concerned.  Aunt Dot got piles and piles of the stuff in the dark of night to take back home with her to plant in her own yard and somehow she left no trace of the theft.  The next day the walkway looked the same as it ever had.  A couple of years later a young couple bought that house and within 48 hours of moving in they took a shovel to the entire line and never filled it back in with anything.  Now weeds and straw grass grow where the lavender once did.  The young couple has two children.   I’ve never once seen any of them outside.  My mother and I on the other hand walk by that spot every night and I’m confident that each of us in our own way gives that lavender, and our dear Aunt Dot, a silent moment of remembrance each time we pass.

My mother’s stepmother, Louise, a woman who before her passing had forgotten more about flowers and plants and things that bloom than most people will ever know called my mother once for a favor.  “Honey, can you come dig a little hole for me?  I’ve got something to put in it and I can’t quite work the shovel as good as I used to.”  Well into her 80s at that point and knowing that if someone didn’t dig the hole for her she would do it herself we went to help.  I say “we” though I knew full well the only reason I was going at all was to dig the hole for them.  When we got there Louise led us to a spot behind her house, only a little bit shaky at that point and still fully in command of her ability to command she pointed us to an enormous pink azalea.  The root ball was at least three feet across.  A little hole, indeed.  She stood there, arms crossed, stage directing me the entire time I worked at the shovel.  When, finally, the hole was deep enough I dragged and then hoisted the enormous bush over into it and filled it back in with dirt.  She seemed pleased with my effort, though I’m certain she thought she could have done better herself were she younger and more able.  She was terribly happy that she’d been able to save that bush that someone else had thrown out and her efforts were worth it as the bush lived a long time after that.  Driving back by her house after she died my mother noticed that one of Louise’s daughters had dug it up for herself and taken it away.  I hope wherever it is it continues to bloom simply because so many people wanted it to. 

I dug the hole for my new azalea the way I dig every hole:  round with super straight sides like the archaeologist I used to be would dig them.  I feel comfortable with a spade in my hand, punching into the ground and then slicing off pieces section by section until it is as deep and wide as I need it.  Once it was the right size for my rescued azalea, whose leaves and flowers were only just beginning to droop (it had weathered its night out of the ground pretty well all things considered) I plopped it inside and filled up the hole with the dirt my husband had tilled and mixed with compost the day before.  I had picked a spot in the yard next to a set of three bushes he had transplanted three different times while he was putting an addition on the house.  It would have been simpler to have just dragged those three bushes to the curb for the city to pick up rather than dig three separate giant holes two different times for bushes that might not even make it.  But he did it because he couldn’t stomach the idea of throwing out so casually something alive just because they were unlucky enough to be in an inconvenient place.  They seemed to reward his trouble by being fuller and greener than they’d ever been before.

When my daughter saw the azalea sitting in the driveway the morning after I dragged it home I explained to her where it had come from and she looked horrified.  She pointed to the row of ancient boxwoods and shrubs in front of our own house and said “You mean it’s like if somebody came in and cut down all of those bushes?  Ones that have been there forever?”  In her mind “forever” being what her ten year old brain can physically understand, the permanence of the world around her being simplified to people and things she can see and touch and remember.  I was pleased at both the indignity of the question and the look on her face when I told her “Yes.”   “That’s terrible.”  She said simply.  And I agreed. 

I hope my bush lives but I know it might not.  It’s enough though that I tried to save it.  I live, for better or worse, with one foot in the past and one in the now which makes my life more melancholy that it sometimes needs to be but I can’t help it.  I despise the egotism that allows a person to feel it’s okay to toss out something both older and more beautiful than they are when we are the temporary ones, our lives by necessity the flicker of a flame.  And I take comfort in the thought that the women before me have also had that soft spot for the relative permanence of things that grow.  I hope my children live their lives that way too.  Because I’m fairly confident that one day I’ll call one and ask that they come dig me a little hole or else I’ll visit them where they live with their own families and children and I’ll ask if I can borrow a spade and when I put on my robe over my pajamas and head out into the dark of the night I hope they know better than to stop me.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Wreath

I was several months pregnant with my second child the first Christmas we lived in this house.  My older daughter squirreled away all day at preschool, I spent the bulk of my time that holiday season lying on the big brown sofa next to the fireplace reading, staring at the Christmas tree and moving peacefully in and out of consciousness.  I should have felt guilty lazing away like that but I refused to.  I knew all too soon the demands of an infant would deny me proper sleep and as this second pregnancy had left me in tatters (I’d been sick too much, my back had ached too much) I didn’t allow myself any guilt whatsoever.  So I read and re-read Angela’s Ashes and thought of poor little Frankie McCourt refused the pleasure of his Christmas ham for yet another year and I slept and read and slept and read and wallowed in the decadent freedom of my pregnant solitude. 

It was during one of these late afternoon periods of intense dream-sleep that I heard a heavy knock at the door.  My brain was fuzzy in a way that only a pregnant woman can understand; a hormone induced coma that impacts mind, body, appendages.  All encompassing and disorienting I struggled mightily up through the layers of fog for several moments until I recognized the sound for what it was, got up, and stumbled to the door. 

I opened it and took in the sight of a white van at the curb and an old man on my stoop, the old man struggling under the weight of an enormous and fragrant holiday wreath.  He looked fantastically annoyed at having knocked for so long and had been about to turn and walk away when I had finally opened the door.  Still confused from my hurried waking I stared at him for a moment trying to make sense of this sudden stranger until common sense kicked in.  Delivery Man.  Somebody must have sent me a wreath.  This pleased me. 

“Is this the Johnson residence?”  He asked me and quickly I said “Yes.” Which wasn’t a lie, not exactly, because until a couple of months before it had indeed been the Johnson residence.  But the Johnsons had moved away and technically now it was the Matthews’ residence.  Or the Poore residence if you were one of the few that noticed my name is different from the other people who live in my house.  In general I don’t quibble over things like that, though I do always take note.  I’ll answer to Mrs. Matthews if I don’t know you and am being polite.  But if you’re one of the handful that pays attention and knows that Matthews is not my name and who acts accordingly when addressing an envelope or calling my home then in my brain you are awarded bonus points, the proper acknowledgement of my true identity always worthy of extra recognition. 

But the old guy with the giant wreath couldn’t be bothered with such post-modern feminist distinctions of my married name versus my maiden name; in fact he had not even asked that question.  He had asked specifically “Is this the Johnson residence?” and I had said “Yes.” I had also then prepared to launch into a lengthy explanation that while it was the Johnson residence (past tense) and sometimes things are still delivered under that name technically it is no longer the Johnson residence, indeed it is the Matthews residence (or Poore residence if you are so inclined).  The words ordered themselves in my brain and on my tongue sluggishly, my synapses just as lethargic as my body and still unrecovered from their fugue until I realized just a beat too late that 1. I would look like a crazy person if I suddenly changed the name of my residence (especially when combined with my general naptime dishevelment) and 2. It didn’t matter because he was already gone, having walked down the sidewalk, climbed back in his van, and driven away to leave me standing cold on my doorstep holding an enormous and fantastically fragrant wreath. 

I closed the door behind me and stared at the thing.  It was a good thirty six inches across and fresh as a newly cut pine.  A note was attached and I slid it out of its envelope dreading the thought of having to call the delivery place to tell them there had been a mistake when in the man’s eyes there had been no mistake at all.  He had done his due diligence.  He had asked me my name.  And for some confused reason I had lied and he had given me the wreath.  It was enormous and beautiful and obviously very expensive.  I opened the little card labeled “To the Johnsons” with dread, prepared to see it sent “With Love” from some distant grandmother or beloved aunt, a gift from afar to let them know they were missed and thought of, a probable tradition that I had usurped in a moment of confused sleepiness.  The card instead said “Happy Holidays from Signa Pharmaceuticals!” and I breathed a sigh of relief. 

A crummy, thieving pharmaceutical company had sent it which made sense because the man who had lived here before us had been a physician.  The company had probably sent this same wreath to every doctor in town.  This very expensive wreath.  And to pay for it they had jacked up the rates of insulin and dementia drugs.  Old people were pinching pennies this holiday season to pay for this ostentatious wreath to decorate the home of some wealthy doctor who could certainly afford to buy his own wreath.  Outrage! Furor!  By stealing this wreath I did a good thing, nee, a noble thing.  No brownie points for Signa Pharmaceuticals this holiday season.  Dr. Johnson wouldn’t be pushing anybody your way in the New Year because his papal ring had not been kissed.  Take that big healthcare!  Every now and then the little guy does win one!  And on and on.  These were the things I told myself to feel better about stealing the wreath. 

Knowing that the people who had lived here before us often drove past while visiting friends I was nervous about hanging it on our front door.  If this was indeed something that they received every year they would see it and know we had stolen it and used it ourselves instead of telling the delivery people that the Johnsons had moved.  It was too pretty to waste though and I enjoyed looking at it and the way it made the house smell.  So instead of hanging it outside the front door I hung it inside the front door where I could enjoy it from the safety of the living room sofa.  In this way I spent the entire holiday season, pregnantly drowsing away in front the Christmas tree, reading and re-reading Angela’s Ashes and smelling the purloined Christmas wreath that hung on the inside of my house. 

For an entire year I tucked away the memory of the stolen wreath.  Then one afternoon as I prepared to get my baby boy up from his afternoon nap I heard a knock at the front door.  Walking past the Christmas tree in the living room I grabbed the door handle and opened it to discover a delivery man standing on my stoop holding an enormous and fragrant wreath.  “Johnson residence?” He asked.  I looked into his aging face, the very same aging face that I had stared at in confusion 365 days earlier and, fully aware of what I was doing this time, afraid he would remember me from before, answered confidently and without hesitation “Yes.” 

Again I hung the wreath on the inside of the house, still afraid that the Johnsons would drive by while visiting friends, notice our beautiful wreath and remember that once, when they had lived in that house they too had hung a very similar wreath on their door and I would finally be exposed as the cold-blooded thief that I am. 

Prolonged exposure to crime really does make you immune and by year three I was over my worry of being caught.  When the delivery man again brought the wreath I again answered a very bold “Yes!” to his question “Is this the Johnson residence?” This time I hung the damned thing on my front door for the whole world to see.  By nature I am a pitifully honest person.  My conscience eats away at me by the littlest fudging of the truth or misconstrued notion.  Outright thievery is something my psyche simply cannot handle.  But for some reason I had reconciled that reality of my personality where the wreath was concerned.  I’m sure it was because it was being sent by some nameless corporation who couldn’t bother to vet their mailing list.  If it had been an actual person sending it I’m sure I would have corrected it the very first year.  But I hadn’t and so now I had to live with the disappointing knowledge that in such a short time I had spiraled so very far down into my own version of a life of crime.

Year four I stood in the dining room going over homework with my then eight year old daughter, the large picture window overlooking the already darkening street.  The Christmas tree blinked sporadically from the next room.  From the corner of my eye I noticed a white van creep up along the curb, slowing as if to read house numbers.  I recognized the van immediately, knew it for what it was, knew exactly what its timing meant.  I knew also that my daughter had noticed the van, that she would crowd beside me at the door in excitement at a holiday delivery, and that she would hear the man ask “Is this the Johnson residence?”

She would also hear my answer. 

Never in my adult life had I been faced with a more instantaneous moral dilemma that required a more instantaneous solution.  I was right that she’d noticed the van as soon as I had and her childhood antennae had perceived that something exciting was about to happen.  As the old man climbed from the front of his van and ambled around to the back to open up the cargo door to retrieve what I knew for certain was an enormous holiday wreath I turned to my beautiful daughter, the most scrupulous human being I know and confessed. 

“Hey, so, you know that wreath we always get every year?  Well, the first year they accidentally delivered it to the wrong house.  I knew it was the wrong house but I was confused at the time because I was sleepy and, it was just weird.  Anyway, I accidentally said it was the right house and he drove off before I could tell him it was the wrong house and I wouldn’t have kept it if it had been from a grandma or somebody special but it was just from an evil company and they’ll never care that they sent it to the wrong place and anyway, it’ll just go to waste if they send it back because it’s not like we even know where it’s supposed to go at this point, so why waste a perfectly good wreath, right?  So I need to know, when this guy asks if this is the Johnson residence, should I say yes so we can get the pretty wreath that we always get every year or should I tell him no because it’s not ours even though if they take it back it’ll just go to waste and that would be a shame.  So, what should I tell him?”  I finished my defense summation in a rush, envisioning the moment of truth which would arrive as soon as the old man mounted the stoop.  With expectation I looked down at my daughter.

She was staring at me with all of the horror and disappointment that an eight year old girl wearing a powder blue izod and khaki school jumper could muster.  It was with great restraint and with an eye on what the thirty year old her would look like that she peered through her wire rim glasses and said to her mother, “You mean all these years you have been stealing that wreath?”  The way she said it, with withering judgment and ice shrunk me to the size of a pea.  I had worked hard to shape her into a person with a powerful moral compass.  I just never expected her to so rapidly zero its sights in on me.  “Um, yes.  I guess you could call it stealing though I do think that’s an ugly word.  It was really just a misunderstanding.”  I feebly tried to explain myself, knowing the battle was lost.  “Yeah Mommy, but after that first time you knew it wasn’t ours but you did it anyway.  I don’t want some stolen thing in my house for Christmas.  It’s not ours.  You can’t keep it.”  At this point there was a knock at the door.  I glanced at my daughter who was staring at me like I was the biggest fool in all the world, her grandest disappointment being that I had somehow thought she would be on my side.  I opened the door to the same old man from years one, two and three and this time when he asked, perfunctorily at this point “Johnson residence?” I looked back at him and with shame and contrition answered very simply “No.”  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blessed Are the Children

I’m telling this story though it’s not mine to tell.  It’s my daughter’s and I know (because she is better than me at writing/at life) that she will one day put words to it for herself.  When she does it will begin like this (except better/stronger/more cleverly crafted and worded and heavy with her own curious brand of pathos and beauty):  Once when I was ten I came home from school, I got off the bus and I cried.

That is what happened but that’s too easy.  Here’s the part that is mine:  a woman I don’t know left a voicemail inviting my daughter to her daughter’s birthday sleepover.  I know the girl; she is sweet and funny, a bit of an oddball.  She mentioned two other girls who would be there as well, I know them too; I know their mothers.  It was kind of last minute and I mentioned it to my daughter before she got on the bus.  She had known about it and was pleased it had been made official, mother to mother, a proper invitation.  Plans finalized and decided (she’d come home from school, we’d run get a gift, don’t forget to pay your lunch money, do you have your library book?) the bus pulled up at the curb, children slumped with their heads against cold windows their breath making smoke on the glass.  A handful always smile at me and wave.  The ones that do are shy about it and quietly pleased with themselves; no one can see them but me, the tall seats in front and behind them creating a private space for their eyes and their smiles.  I wink at them and wave back.

Eight hours later, the measure of a day’s worth of lessons and lunchtimes and playground I was outside in the driveway.  Book in one hand, cup of coffee in the other my son played with a dump truck in the barrel that had held flowers when my daughter was little but that now holds backhoes, rocks and bricks.  The baby climbed up the blue and orange plastic slide fell off of it, grumbled, then picked herself up only to do it all again.  She is the third child of three and so unaccustomed to a world of great sympathy.

The bus huffed and sighed to a stop and disgorged my eldest who walked up the driveway pink backpack slung over one shoulder; almost immediately I could see she was wounded.  She leaned up against the car that I was already leaned up against waiting for her and watching the others.  She hung her head and exhaled deeply to make sure she had my attention.  “What’s wrong with you?” I asked, actually meaning it.  My children are emotional people prone to fits of passion disproportionate to whatever actually ails them.  As a mother I am stolid to the point of aloofness because it is my only response in the face of such wildly shifting agony and rage and ferocious good humor.  I assume people who witness our interactions would assume me to be a horrid mother.  In reality I am simply very good at taking their external temperature.  I know them and know when they are for real.  She was wounded for real.

“I just don’t know what to do.”  She started, then it all came out in a tumble.  Brown eyes watery behind her glasses her lip trembled in an attempt to keep it all together.  “I really want to go to the party but then somebody said that their mom wouldn’t let them go because the neighborhood was so dangerous and there are drug dealers there and another girl can’t go because her glasses broke and she has to get them fixed and tonight is the only night she can get them fixed and they say her house is scary and her parents smoke but I don’t want to not go to her party because she’d be so sad if nobody came and I want her to have a good party but I’m scared and I don’t know what to do.”  It was a lot to process and she was sobbing now, at once heavy with the fear of drug dealers and parents that smoke while simultaneously ashamed and heartbroken at the thought of an innocent girl, a friend, whose birthday would be ruined.  A birthday is a holy event for a ten year old girl.  The thought of an imperfect one too much to bare.  It was all on her, I could tell, and I searched for a solution that would make this all right.  I zeroed in on the pertinent parts.

“Okay, well first, let me explain something.  When I was a kid my parents were the only parents who didn’t smoke.  Everybody else in the whole world smoked and so when I would visit friends their houses smelled like smoke and their stuff smelled like smoke and there would be smoke while you ate your food and while you watched TV and it was no big deal.  I lived through a childhood filled with smoke and I am just fine.  One night near cigarette smoke will not kill you.  That is simply a fact.  Now, as far as the other stuff goes, what in God’s name are you talking about?  Where does she live that it’s so dangerous that drug dealers are wandering the streets?  And also, more importantly, who told you this?”        

For me the “who” was the critical bit.  My daughter is in a program that deals exclusively with Exceptionally Bright Kids.  Programs for Exceptionally Bright Kids being what they are there is a disproportionate number of rich kids and white kids in this program.  That this is the case is not necessarily reflective of the existence of non-rich, non-white Exceptionally Bright Kids in society at large.  Rather, it is a reflection specifically on the concept of programs for Exceptionally Bright Kids.  It is not something I am proud of.  It is something I spend a great deal of my spare time working to change.  Regardless, at this current date, it is simply how we do business. 

In any case there are a lot of rich, white parents who send their rich, white Exceptionally Bright Kids to the same school my daughter attends.  These children are my daughter’s friends.  In most cases these children’s parents are my friends.  There are also a handful of non-rich, non-white children at this school and we know a lot of them too.  We are not rich though we are white. There are people who would consider us rich by comparison though, and honestly in many instances, being considered rich is not a whole lot different from being the actual thing. 

In any case the “who” was what I wanted to know.  But then also because I am a parent before I sent her off I needed to know if any of this was actually true.  I knew the child she was supposed to go stay with and had met her mother a handful of times.  I liked them both and I knew that there were instances when the child’s status as not-rich was made glaringly obvious at school:  once during preparations for a school play when a spare pair of shoes was required and she explained that she didn’t have a spare and a handful of children hooted and laughed and called her a liar because nobody only has one pair of shoes, right?  That’s the stupidest thing any of them had ever heard.  Another time when a field trip was announced and she collapsed into sobs because it would cost thirty dollars and she didn’t think she’d be able to go because she didn’t have thirty dollars and her girlfriends gathered around her to comfort her and told her they’d get advances on their allowances to ensure she could make it. Promising they wouldn’t leave her behind this village of tiny women lifting her up and ensuring her they would figure it all out and in the end, they went home and they told their parents and it was all figured out, a probable misunderstanding, but one attended to in the loveliest way by the sweetest of creatures: a handful of really good girls.  Another time when her mother mistook the recommendations during a school wide lice outbreak and shaved the child’s head only to have cruel boys make a sport of knocking her wig to the ground and laughing.  Some of these children, boys and girls, decided that the girl lived where drug dealers and robbers and murderers lived.  A world apart from their own it was a place to be feared.  It was not a place where birthday parties happened.  It was a place to be warned against.  My child heard this and was torn.  Terrified of that world herself and devastated at the thought of her friend’s ruined party. 

I did what mothers do then, I promised her I would fix it, promised her I would find out the real deal.  Promised her I would not send her to a den of murderers and thieves while promising at the same time, maybe impossibly, that her friend’s birthday would still be super special and wonderful and we’d get her a great present and she could somehow go and not go at the same time but don’t worry, everything will be cool.  I’ll handle it.  I’ll figure it all out.  In an hour and a half I can totally stop this ship from sinking.  Stop crying, really, just stop crying and grab your baby sister before she runs out in the street, I have to figure out who to call to make this all be okay. 

I called a woman I know and trust.  Her child is the best friend of the birthday girl and as far as I knew now the only other child going to the party.  Lovely and compassionate, she’d get where I was coming from, would probably assume where I’d heard what I’d heard, would not hate me for the asking.  “Hey there.  Listen, I know this is going to sound insane and I want to apologize in advance for what I am about to ask, but I really do need to ask it, so please forgive me.  Ellie came home freaking out because of something she heard at school today and I was kind of surprised since I know this family and I need you to reassure me that my knowledge was not off base and that everything is as fine as I think it is.” 

This endlessly decent woman and mother told me what I already knew:  the girl’s family is hard working and their home modest.  It is in a part of town unfamiliar to many of my child’s peers.  It is a part of town where many of those children’s parents probably make snide remarks and lock the doors to be funny if they ever happen to drive through.  But in reality it was a normal house in a normal neighborhood and she had never thought of it as anything but.  She was completely comfortable every time her child had visited.  She was surprised while at the same time not surprised by what I had heard and how I had heard it.  She desperately wanted this girl’s birthday to be special, her own daughter’s very best friend, and she knew that because of who the child was and how the child is treated by some that this wish was unreasonably more difficult than it ever should have been. 

Reassured in my knowledge I did my best to undo the damage done to Ellie at school.  I had known the neighborhood all along and was comfortable with the concept but now had to relearn my child to the idea.  “So it’s fine?  What about the drug dealers and robbers?”  She asked skeptically when I said that everything was fine.  I told her that the good mom who knows things said it was all okay.  That she was going to have a really fun time and that if she didn’t she knew my number and could always call me to come get her.  “Ellie.  It’s just a house in a neighborhood.  There are lots of different types of houses and lots of different types of neighborhoods.  Lots of them are nicer than ours and lots of them aren’t.  But I would never send you anywhere unsafe or that I felt weird about and it’s messed up that people would try to scare you like they did at school.”  Knowing that one of the cruelest comments had come from the mother of one her classmates I told her the truth.  “Ellie sometimes people are assholes.  Sometimes people are afraid of people who are different than them and because of that fear they hurt people for no good reason.  People like that sometimes teach their kids to be like that.  It’s sad but it’s true and we’re not going to let them mess up your fun night.”  She believed me because she always believes me and she packed her bags and we picked up a present and had it wrapped in pink cellophane on our way there. 

The street itself reassured her because it was a normal street.  The house reassured her too because it was a normal house.  Red brick with a big yard and two happy dogs jumping up to greet us.  Two lean and willowy girls exploded through the front door to grab up her sleeping bag and pillow and welcome her in; a pumpkin on the porch, thanksgiving decorations in the window, leaves raked and blown in a pile along the curb.  The house smelled of pizza and cake and I shook the mother’s hand and thanked her for the invitation, she smiled in relief that my child was actually there, that she had come after all.  Three girls bounced and chattered and grabbed each other and jumped in a circle and I could barely extricate my own long enough to give her a kiss and a hug and wish her a fun night.  It was loud because girls together are always loud, talking over each other and laughing and discussing which games they would play first, which movies they would watch.  I walked out the door and back to my car, my brain a thing at ease.

I know lots of mothers and fathers.  I know wonderful ones that make me try harder in order to match their patience and enthusiasm and quiet comfort.  I am not as good as them but I desperately want to be.  I also know terrible ones.  Ones that I see at swim meets and who shake my hand at science night.  Ones that are small and make their children small.  Children they are proud of and brag about who when safely surrounded by their allies at school take delight in making fun of the girl with only one pair of shoes, who knock the wig off the girl with no hair, who openly mock the sensitive boy who they know will never raise a fist against them.  When I see these smiling parents who are disproportionately proud of their own little creations I want to tell them I know the truth.  I don’t though.  Instead I revel in the knowledge of ten year old girls laughing and squealing in sparkly wonder and the thought that one day my own daughter who is much better at writing as well as at life will end a story like this:  Once when I was ten I came home from school, I got off the bus and I cried because people can be fools and people can be cruel.  But then I went to my friend’s birthday party and she was excited because she’d always wanted a sleepover and she finally got it and that changed me a little.  And in the middle of the night when we sneaked into the kitchen for more cake trying to be soundless and being all the louder for it we were just three little girls and we had long forgotten that there was anything in this night but this.