Years from now, I hope that one of my kids will set out to pen a tribute to the other. And if that happens, one challenge they most certainly will not encounter is finding a photograph capturing one of the thousands of fleeting moments of their childhood. But we were kids of the 1970’s, when the Instamatic may or may not have had a working flashbulb bar stuck on top of it at the precise moment that you or David or I were hamming it up, or laughing, or sitting on a beach. Luckily, we have our memories. Continue reading “Christine.”
Most days, I drive to work. It’s just a three mile distance, but Connecticut Avenue at rush hour provides countless outlets for spasms of misanthropy. Within the metal confines of my car, I have bellowed all manner of expletives at my fellow travelers. The last minute, left-turn signal engager who makes me miss the light. The beer delivery guy commandeering an entire lane of 19th Street to unload his truck. The Metro bus driver who can’t be bothered to look left before cutting back out into the stream of traffic. Some days I’ve leaned on the horn. Other days I’ve idled in the standstill, knocking my forehead lightly against the steering wheel. It is rare that I keep front of mind that we are all just trying to get where we need to go, to work our day and get back home again.
From time to time, my husband needs the car, and I commute via bus and Metro. This of course means closer contact with whatever portion of humanity happens to board these transports at the precise moment that I do. There’s plenty here to irk one into a foul temper, too. The woman reading her paper who won’t move to the center of the train so more passengers can board. The guy who pretends no one else might want the seat occupied by his bag. Most of the time, we don’t bother speaking up about it. We avoid eye contact and position for a modest amount of personal space.
But on occasion, the train stops short without warning, lurches, and bodies are thrown against one another. And in the moment in time that follows that jolt, we apologize to the person behind us who just took a backpack to the face. We ask the woman who fell because she hadn’t held on to the metal pole if she’s all right. We vent to other nodding heads about how Metro needs to get its damn act together.
When the train begins to move again, by any objective measure we are the same miniscule subset of the species that began the trip. But not quite the same. Amidst the shared experience of a force that stood to harm us all, we are not exactly the same.
I rode one of the last Metro trains that ran on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the morning of the day that an entire nation was stopped short. I had been scheduled to attend a conference at a Capitol Hill hotel, but when I entered the lobby it was packed with heads craning up at television screens. I don’t remember who told me I should probably leave, but I took the advice and – without even thinking about it – descended back into the Metro station. The ride was smooth, while high above bodies hurled on bodies, a mighty skyline was laid low, a landmark synonymous with our might was battered, and for that day and many days to follow we all forged a new relationship with fear.
But in spite of – perhaps because of – that fear, millions of us lived and gave and received and retold countless acts of love and selflessness. Blood banks had to turn away donors who arrived by the thousands. In New York, strangers pulled each other through smoke and ash, or took in the shellshocked who had no way to get back home. Here in Washington, as people emptied out of office buildings and walked shoulder to shoulder, unsure even where we should go, I knew I would never leave this city.
But lest we forget, it was not just Americans who took care of our own that day.
When the FAA shuttered American air space, there were dozens of aircraft already making their way toward our shores. Many of them were rerouted to Gander, Newfoundland, to an airport that began operating in 1938, and in its heyday had been the primary staging point for the deployment of Allied aircraft to Europe during World War II. But Gander International Airport had quieted over the succeeding decades. The jet age made it unnecessary to stop to refuel, so the major carriers bypassed Gander altogether.
Not so on this day, when 38 aircraft holding 7,000 bewildered souls touched down, one after the other.
Gander’s entire population was 10,000.
What happened next has gained some modest renown, inspiring a book called The Day the World Came To Town and even an offbeat musical, Come From Away, the term that Newfoundlanders apparently use to refer to, well, everyone from everywhere else.
Gander had no hotels to speak of, and so churches, schools, and community centers were repurposed into hostels for unexpected refugees who quite literally had descended upon the native citizenry. They became known as the “plane people.” Many were American, but in a telling snapshot of who is bound for this country on any given weekday in September, the plane people hailed from 100 different nations.
The stories from Gander have been playing over and over in my mind these last few days. When my kids are tucked in to sleep, I’ve watched the You Tube videos, some made in real time in 2001, and others capturing the reunion of the “plane people” with their hosts a decade later.
An American couple who had been bound for their honeymoon in Las Vegas recalled how an older couple from Gander insisted that sleeping in a church pew would simply not do for two newlyweds. They opened their home and gave them their bed.
Another American recalled the women of this tiny hamlet arriving with fresh linens, and collecting laundry to wash, and how in that moment the comfort of a clean towel meant more than she could have imagined.
Another couple would learn that their son, a firefighter, perished that day.
Imagine being in a foreign land and in the hands of strangers when you are living the unimaginable. What would it mean to be comforted? What would it mean to be the one giving comfort?
Sixteen years later, it is hard to grasp how in those first hours and days we had no notion of when life might return to normal, now that normal would always be a little worse. But I do remember feeling sorrow for Americans who couldn’t get home, even if just to absorb the reality, mourn, and cling tightly to family and friends.
Some of those people had become Gander’s Come From Away’s.
By all accounts, the people of Gander didn’t consider what they did to be in any way extraordinary. Not a one would accept a dollar for the food, shelter, clothing, blankets they gave freely to 7,000 strangers.
I can’t stop wondering, what really happened here?
Did centuries of peaceful friendship on a shared continent make it more compelling to answer the call for help?
Was the sheer excitement of an overnight flashmob immigration wave enough to spur everyone to leave their homes and take all of it in?
Do they simply make better people in Newfoundland?
Maybe. But I’m guessing that even the Ganderites fume and curse and resent and cower from time to time, just like I do from inside my car. But for that span of days, because these living and breathing bodies were cast upon them, some light we each carry within us compelled the people of Gander to make sure they were all right.
In her book Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton reflects on the word “crisis,” and how the Greek root of the word is “to sift.” She offers: “That’s what crises do. They shake things up until we are forced to hold on to only what matters most. The rest falls away.”
To compare the relatively short displacement of those 7,000 people to the refugee tragedy playing out on a global scale would take reductionism to a grotesque extreme. Last year, our spinning planet reached a grim milestone, as the UN High Commission on Refugees announced that there were more forcibly displaced people around the world than at any time since World War II: enough mothers and fathers, grandparents, teenagers and toddlers, infants and newborns to comprise the entire population of the United Kingdom. The scale of the suffering and need is so daunting that it risks crushing the spirit. The desire to look away is almost irrepressible.
For two centuries, though no one would say we’ve done it perfectly, we have not looked away.
It is a fluke of our geography that our nation borders only two countries, but it was the animating spirit of what formed us into a people that drew millions of fellow riders on the storm, from virtually every corner of the globe, here. Many made the decision freely, though leaving family and all that was known to them is no less displacing. Many have the choice forced on them, that simplest of analyses – life or death – hurtling them toward the hope of what we so proudly call America.
Last Saturday, a Syrian family who had survived against all odds, passed every screening, and had a new chapter within their sights instead found themselves detained at Dulles Airport. They were headed to Ohio. Somewhere in the heartland, a community stood ready to be Gander, choosing to share the ride on the train and stop shouting from the car.
And yet, consider that Gander welcomed 7,000 – no screening, no background checks – and a country of nearly 320 million has given refuge to just 15,000 Syrians trying to escape nearly certain devastation or slaughter.
Beneath that number, and in the bewilderment of this moment, lies not just the shame of failing to save as many souls as we can. Far worse is an extension of the Good Samaritan story, where the high priest asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The Good Samaritan famously flipped the question, and asked “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
This moment confronts us with the third question, perhaps the defining one: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
Who will we be when it all falls away, when the sifting is done?
In answering that question, we would do well to think about a small place that would never be the same, even after its Come From Away Americans made their way home.
For Mom and Dad.
I had my palm read, once, just for the fun of it. Certain I was merely indulging some carnival chicanery, I lay my palm flat in the reader’s open hands. Within seconds, she looked up at me and said, “You had a perfect childhood. You absolutely skated through it.” She was so right it caught me short of breath.
The architects of that childhood mark fifty years of marriage this week.
I write this as the earth seems intent to to careen off its axis. Friends circulate Yeats’ The Second Coming not as dire warning, but sober assessment. The oft-quoted, famously haunting line is: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
I tell my parents’ story.
As with many great loves, it was by sheer chance that they met at all. Charlie Judge was supposed to be set up with a different girl on a double date with his buddy Bob Hayes and Patricia Cross. But Judy Chadwick had to cover a candy striping shift at the hospital, so in a last minute scramble my aunt Pat substituted her younger sister, Susan. A demure, studious and pretty undergraduate at Regis College, Sue Cross was about the last young woman who would enjoy a screening of Hitchcock’s The Birds. But a lanky, freckle-faced fourth child of an Irish working class family had bought tickets to the horror movie, playing in downtown Boston. Sue noticed that her date seemed to have little idea how to get to the theater. It was the first of thousands of car rides to follow in which Charlie was content to home in on a destination by making a series of concentric circles.
Each time I’ve asked her what she made of their first date, my mother sums it thusly: He made me laugh.
Laughter and levity had not been the marks of my mother’s childhood. The middle daughter of Fred and Eleanor Cross had been uprooted endlessly as my grandfather went from one region to another in the employ of Getty Oil. His job was to set up gas stations throughout southern New England, an endeavor that put food on the table but would place him into frequent conflict with local politicians looking for a payoff. My grandfather loathed greed and dishonesty like no one I’ve ever met. He instilled that ethic in a very young Susan, who one day had disobeyed the family rule not to play in the local creek. When she came home with soaking shoes, claiming that she had stepped in rain puddles, my grandfather took her on a car ride so she could point out the offending puddles. Unfortunately, it hadn’t rained in weeks. After they’d circled several blocks, my mother confessed. Her only punishment was the inglorious moment of causing shame to herself, and to a father who she knew had worked a very long day.
You’ll have to believe a loving daughter, and every human since who has known Susan (Cross) Judge. It was the last lie she ever told.
Sue Cross was the “new kid” almost every school year until high school. She endured the lonely winters by venturing off alone with her ice skates, in a time when New England lakes and reservoirs froze reliably by mid-December and didn’t thaw until March. When I was old enough to watch my mom do a perfect figure eight, she told me about her childhood.
Meanwhile, in Waltham, Massachusetts, another loner in a busy and taxed family was growing up marching to his own drum. Charlie was the youngest of George and Alice Judge, who toiled to provide for their four children but had little spare energy to rein in this spirited boy. He spent most days finding whatever solo adventure was to be had on Prospect Hill in Waltham. My favorite story of Dad’s childhood is the day he set off at 9 or 10 in the morning, and wound up on a stranger’s boat heading down the Charles River, not to return til after nightfall. An urban Tom Sawyer, Dad thought nothing about what might befall him and resents not a whit that his parents did not worry about where he was.
Like his future father-in-law, Charlie Judge had a tough time choking down injustice cloaked in authority. This often meant that his dutiful sisters were called upon to defend him. There was the time he threw chalk at the abusive Sister Anna Aloysius, who was yanking his ear as he struggled with long division at the blackboard. My aunt Mary Alice crafted an early version of the insanity defense, saving Charlie from expulsion by explaining that he’d been hit in the head with a rock that very morning by the marauding Bentley brothers.
Mary Alice and Martha not only saved their little brother from countless pickles, they selflessly nurtured him, often made his meals, shaped his character, and in a vestige of the time, postponed their own ambitions so the boys of the family could be assured a college education. Their sacrifices in many respects gave me the father I would come to know. Charlie completed his degree at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, his gateway to a trade that would secure for our family a middle class life.
That star-crossed Hitchcock meeting led to courtship, and then to Charlie giving Sue his fraternity pin, and then to engagement. On August 13, 1966, Charles William Judge and Susan Eleanor Cross said their vows at St. Mary’s Church in Waltham, a reception to follow at the Holiday Inn. The bride, in a gown borrowed from her cousin, was in this writer’s view the quintessence of beauty. The groom, groomsmen, and father of the bride wore morning coats and tails. My mother donned a summer tweed suit and corsage for their farewell photos, as they set off for a honeymoon in Bermuda.
And so it began.
It’s a daunting task to try to sum up the fifty years that followed.
By the end of the first four, they were raising a son and two daughters. As best I can tell, my parents had no fixed expectations of us, but defined ones for themselves. Our family was built on their unity of purpose: to raise good people in a loving home, who would never question the emotional ground beneath their feet. The examples confound any effort at distillation, but they flood every channel of my memory.
There was the job offer that would have put Dad at management level in the store chain that ultimately became Costco. But it meant moving our family to New Jersey, and he had promised Mom that the three of us would not endure the displacement she did as a child. We were happy in the Westborough schools, and that was that. Dad recommended a younger, single colleague for the job, who went on to great financial success. Dad never looked back.
There was the year I asked Santa (OK, one benevolent lie) for a “giant Woodstock,” i.e., Snoopy’s sidekick. No such thing existed in 1979, so after commuting home from work my mother tucked herself away, night after night, drawing a pattern, and sewing yellow felt and yarn into an astoundingly awesome trademark violation.
There were the annual trips to Wellfleet, even in years when it was a budget-stressing extravagance. We would end the week with a ritual my parents dubbed the “Blanket Ceremony,” in which the five of us would sit cross-legged under a pitched blanket at Newcomb Hollow at sunset, promising that no matter what, we would return as a family the following summer.
At this juncture I feel compelled to say: I am not even making this up.
The moments of extreme gold medal parenting didn’t stop when we “grew up,” either. I was a first year student in law school, living in San Francisco, when Dad dropped everything to fly across the country to help me face the end of a long-term relationship. Years later in Boston, Mom hauled half the contents of a Stop & Shop to my crappy apartment and saw me through another heartbreak, sleeping right next to me as sirens and strangers’ prattle shook the walls.
How could the Judge kids doubt that the world held love for us? We were raised in a fortress of it.
Though these stories could fill volumes, David, Christine and I would be only some of the contributing authors. Any celebration of Sue and Charlie Judge would by rights encompass all the other young people they helped to raise. A “village” before there was a name for it, the door at 43 Old Colony Drive swung open at all hours of the day. Their children’s friends had a home, be it a physical or emotional or spiritual one.
The fortress expanded to include two sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. In 2003, Charlie Judge met Amit Mehta on a Cape Cod beach, where they tossed a football and talked AL East standings. Dad later smiled at me and rendered his verdict: “That kid has a hell of an arm.”
A few years later, my Irish Catholic parents sat in Indian formal wear for a new family portrait. They beamed ear to ear.
And yet, it is a child’s hubris that tells this story through the lens of their parenting. The majority of their half century has been a place shared by just two, making their way through life’s challenges with an equanimity unique to who they are and to what they believe truly matters. As a friend remarked when I told her I was writing this post, “I can’t imagine one without the other.”
That interdependence made them each other’s strength when the other was vulnerable. It is how they rode the tides of health scares, financial stress, an emptied nest, the realities of aging. Though neither of my parents relish conflict, I remember my father raging as my mother endured a sexist and bullying boss. I remember Mom doing whatever needed to be done when Dad was hospitalized after a car accident. They fought for each other, without fail and without fear. While they championed and trusted and celebrated us, as they now do their five cherished grandchildren, they mark fifty years because they did just the same for the person they married.
It is only now that I can marvel at how they made it look easy, when it wasn’t, and isn’t. Not long into my own marriage, I learned that while we celebrate the luck of finding one another, the daily work of choosing one another over and over again gets downplayed. No marriage lasts because of the stuff that ends up in the highlight reels. It’s the thousands of scenes that were out of focus, the moments we just put our heads down and get through, the film that covers the cutting room floor. Only two people know what is in that room. They have a chance to go the distance if, like my parents did, they keep doing better even when it feels like it would cost less to do worse.
Mom and Dad will balk at the word “perfect,” because, like all human creations, a marriage brings mistakes and pain and anguish. It is a charged word, connoting the unachievable state of flawlessness.
But I found the definition that my palm reader must have had in mind, and it fits:
Per-fect (adjective) ˈpərfikt/: having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.
Through most of my life, I would have said that I became who I am because of how my parents loved me. Now, as a wife and a mother, I see it a little differently. I know who and what I want to be because of how they loved each other.
Things didn’t fall apart. The center held.
In a union as good as it is possible to be.
Last night, at a gathering of women of my certain age, a friend introduced me to Mobile Check Deposit. I stared incredulously as she took a photograph of the front and back of her check, hit a button, and then, somewhere – well outside of normal banking hours – her bank acknowledged these photos as tantamount to legal tender. As I scurried to the App Store to join this revolution, my friend exclaimed, “You’ll never have to go to the bank again!”
This got us talking.
Remember going to the bank? Not stopping at an ATM, but spending time – quite a bit of time – in an actual bank.
As it happens, this same group of my parenting peers who are trying our damnedest not to raise entitled sociopaths spent a meaningful portion of our childhood at The Bank. And The Post Office. The Grocery Store. The Dry Cleaner.
Our kids do not.
I’m convinced that the death of the Saturday errand has made a difference. That difference is as small as the new little icon on my phone, and as big as what our kids understand about the world and their place in it.
Saturday morning, May 1980. Before my feet have touched the shag carpet, my father is up and mowing the lawn. Eventually the sun peeks through my rainbow curtains, and the hum of the lawnmower stirs me into consciousness. A few Scooby Doo’s and a bowl of Fruit Loops later, I get dressed, manage a few curls with my Gillette Clicker, and join the Judge family Saturday as it kicks into its predictable gear. My brother and sister and I take our place on the pleather bench seat of the station wagon. And we’re off.
People’s Bank was on the other side of town, and we typically started there and worked our way, stop by stop, back toward home. Our neighbor, Dolly Widener, was a bank teller, and we would always line up at her window. Not only was she a lovely person, but we kids knew we’d score bonus lollipops.
Thinking back, I have no earthly idea what took so long for the grownups on each side of that plastic window to accomplish these transactions. I remember the tellers getting up from their seats repeatedly, then landing a giant metal stamper with a “ka-CHUNK,” and hand writing some elaborate set of codes and words on each check. They seemed to constantly have to confer with managers. Finally, a drawer would open, and Mrs. Widener would count the cash on which our family would rely that week, slipping it into a small envelope with the bank’s logo on it.
Certainly, going to The Bank was not a whole lot of fun. But I remember these images because my head was up, my senses trained on this crushingly dull adult ritual. My body was slumping, eyes rolling, elbows occasionally finding my sister’s ribs. But there was nothing to do but watch and wait. So we did.
On a good week, for reasons I can’t explain, our family’s banking required only the use of the drive-thru vacuum canister. Physics never put a pneumatic tube to cooler use.
From the Bank, it was on to the Dry Cleaner. We took in the sweet toxic smell, while my mother produced the glossy pink slip, and the clerk triggered the carousel of plastic-covered suits and dresses and trench coats. I’m convinced my father’s work shirts were always at the 359th degree of that circle, every time. It was boring, but there was nothing to do but watch and wait. So we did.
The Grocery Store offered payoffs. My mother wasn’t terribly restrictive when it came to junk food, and the right trip to the store stocked our house with every iteration of Hostess snack cake. Mom worked full time. These products made us happy, and her life a little easier as she packed our school lunches. No one knew back then that it took 386 years for a Twinkie to decompose. [And yet, if you ever ate them, that modern day revelation wasn’t all that surprising.]
Occasionally, when a mattress or sofa had given out, the Saturday stops included the Levitz Furniture Show Room on Route 9. Upon entering the warehouse, the three of us would disappear into the sprawling acreage of displays, flopping our bodies on each sectional, picking the swankiest living room pieces for our imaginary grownup houses, and eventually making our way to pay dirt: the waterbeds. My parents didn’t seem concerned that someone would kidnap us, nor did they likely appreciate that we were wreaking havoc a few hundred yards away. They took whatever time they felt was required, talked at length with the salesperson. When a purchase was made, we all waited for it to be retrieved from the stock room.
Before the march of human advancement obviated the need to do these tasks in person, this was Saturday.
The simplest segue to May 2016 is to state the obvious: that technology has spared us, and our kids, nearly all of those stops to transact, retrieve, and collect what is needed to subsist in the week to come.
Amit and I split the few true “errands” – grocery store, dry cleaner – but almost never do we have our kids in tow. After all, they’d be bored.
Even if we do occasionally bring one of them along, the weekend time spent on tasks that meet our collective needs pales in comparison to the hours devoted to events in which our children take center stage.
Ask most parents in my cohort what they’re doing for the weekend. Count how many times their answer begins with the name of one of their kids. You’ll lose count quickly.
Kate has two soccer games, then a birthday party.
Jacob has play rehearsal, both days, so [partner] is taking William to his travel baseball.
I guarantee you will not hear the following:
Well, the vacuum cleaner died on me – again – so it’s back to the Sears appliance repair in Framingham, where the kids and I will wait for three or four hours, likely missing the matinee of Benji that I told them we could see, maybe, if there was time.
If the Saturday errand is an artifact of a very different time, I think it merits some reflection. Perhaps even a requiem.
It may be that lavishing on our children all those reclaimed hours that technology “freed up” suggests a generosity, a desire to let them try new things and to witness it when they do.
And yet, as in every trade-off, something is lost.
Each time I slid into that back seat, on some level I was learning and accepting my place – in my family and in the world. And that place was appropriately sized to scale, which is to say: it was small. Not unimportant, not trivial, but small.
In the swirl of late 70’s and early 80’s suburban weekend commerce, I was a kid standing in line with her brother and sister, captive to what the adults around me were making happen so our family could function. All that activity had nothing – and yet everything – to do with me. While my wants were subjugated, my needs were being met in full.
Today, not only do we rarely force our kids to bear witness to the essential mundane, we become a staffing agency to ensure seamless coverage for their sports and social engagements.
To be sure, I love seeing them run, and dance, and play. But in this inversion of familial primacy, they have to be learning something very different about their station. It’s little wonder that when I “occasionally” tell Devan “it’s not all about you,” it has negligible impact. My actions- our family’s actions – drown out those words.
As a parent, I somehow failed to internalize, much less pass on, what my upbringing taught me: that there is a difference between focused, individualized attention, and love.
We’ve also lost the animating power of boredom. In all those errand-ing hours, boredom was a reality for me and my siblings, and also a challenge. Certainly, we nudged and sparred and farted on each other. We fought for the front seat and wrestled for control of the radio dial. We foraged through our mother’s black hole of a purse. We counted ceiling tiles and found animal shapes in their water stains. We tried to slip amusing items like Preparation H into the shopping cart to see if Mom would notice. My sister and I made up imaginary adult identities. One time she won a supermarket drawing under her pseudonym, “Sue Krutchlem,” requiring my mother to plead with the manager so Christine could get her prize.
We were undeniably present. If you’d asked my mother at the time, she might have said we were a little too present.
Fast forward, and my kids treat boredom like a stinging insect that has just landed on their bare arm. Get it off! Get it off!!
And I am ashamed to say that Amit and I most often capitulate, ostensibly in the name of just getting through what needs to be gotten through.
The devices come out.
But ultimately, just absence.
My kids wait, but they don’t watch. Years from now, they won’t recall much detail about the few times and places where they had to just sit. After all, whether you’re at Target, or the waiting room at Jiffy Lube, or your brother’s dentist appointment, Minecraft always looks the same.
All those Saturday errands of my memory cleared the way for a very different Sunday. This usually involved going to see relatives, most of whom lived within an hour’s drive. A tough draw was a day we were due to visit my paternal grandparents, who had religious figurines on most surfaces and a paucity of good snacks. My siblings and I had to content ourselves playing in their bomb shelter.
But more often, we went to see our aunts and uncles and cousins in Burlington, or Wayland, or Woburn. The kids would disappear into rec rooms to play air hockey or, I am sure, sneak as much “screen time” as the UHF era allowed. We didn’t see the adults again until dinner.
My family would head home after nightfall, and the car was quiet. I remember looking up at the moon as we drove along the highway and being convinced it was moving alongside our car. I believed this far longer than a child with access to great public education should have believed it.
But occasionally, I was equally sure the moon was following the car just behind or in front of us. Maybe the moon had gotten confused. Or maybe someone in that other car needed the moon more than we did that night.
That’s the thing about boredom. In its vast expanse a young mind takes in her world, and even a bit of the universe.
We can’t let our kids lose this vessel. It should be theirs to fill, be it with mischief, or humor, or fear, or wonder.
We also need to resize their positions, at least a little. Center stage is heady, and bright, but life is rarely a solo act.
My weekends didn’t belong just to me, but they taught me about where and to whom and how much I belonged. And that this was my time to be small, and being small meant you sometimes had to wait.
Even for the moon.
Staring into the grainy image on the computer screen, the X-ray confirmed what we’d guessed for some time. The roughly half of Devan’s adult teeth that had arrived were finding it hard to jockey for sufficient space, and those still lurking in the shadows would have the same challenge. She would be fitted for and – for some unknown number of months – wear a “spacer,” along with braces on a subset of her top teeth.
This was no medical crisis. Indeed, aside from the discomfort I wished I could spare her, and the bill I wished I could spare us, it was hardly a moment worth fretting any further.
Yet there it was, the peculiar form of vertigo that is unique to parenthood.
A gracious technician began laying out the series of appointments to follow. But I had stopped listening. My gaze drifted to the tweens and teens milling about us.
How the hell can I possibly be sitting in an orthodontist’s office?
Having quickly processed the developments, Devan rested her chin in her hands, braced her elbows on the desk, and began rattling off a reasonable but lengthy set of questions.
How long. How much would it hurt. How much school could she miss coming to these appointments. What about popcorn. Jolly Ranchers. Pretzels. Gummy bears. Would Kian meet this same fate. Would her other adult teeth come in straight when this was all over.
I don’t know.
I hope not a lot.
Not as much as you’d like.
I don’t know.
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know….
It seems like that phrase falls off my tongue these days when it comes to my daughter. That is a humbling place to be when – as of tomorrow – I will have been at this parenting business for nine years.
When Devan was a baby, we shared a nanny with our dear friends Maribeth and Efrem. Our daughters were born exactly one week apart, and were essentially raised as sisters for their first few years of life. This arrangement, conceived as a practical response to the staggering cost of full-time child care, yielded infinitely more than we could have imagined.
Our nanny was an old-school, 60 year old woman named Fredericka Curry. To the many Washington families she guided into and through raising children, she was Miss Freddie.
The four of us – individually, and collectively – knew exactly nothing, except that our lives had just changed profoundly.
Miss Freddie knew babies.
Though she came highly recommended from a series of families we knew, it took a while for us all to get used to each other. Certainly, some of her methods could be off-putting. We eventually adjusted to her habit of grading our infants at the end of every day. Neither of them bested a C-minus for the first several months. She never minced words, and while she loved our girls, she let her work and dedication stand as the reflection of that love. She cuddled, but never coddled.
Miss Freddie got a kick out of our haplessness. While she fed, changed, bathed, and strolled two babies for five days a week without breaking much of a sweat, we staggered through our nights and weekends, two (and often more) adults, puzzling and fretting and spilling and tripping through the bewildering hours, all in the name of caring for one human roughly the size of an olive loaf.
In the early days, we lived week to week and didn’t think too much about what was to come. We didn’t really need to. As Devan and Leah grew, Miss Freddie would simply announce as fact the next milestone on the horizon.
Time to introduce cereal. Oatmeal before rice.
They’re ready for baby food.
She’s about to get a tooth.
These soft little baby shoes have to go. This girl wants to walk.
Gotta get Leah out of that Miracle Blanket.
Time to lower the crib again. Girlie is about ready to scale the side.
Let’s buy the little potties and see what happens.
Each edict caught us off guard. Incredulous, uninitiated, and clinging to any crutch that had ever worked, we resisted the changes Miss Freddie knew were already upon us. She was always right. We were sheepish and grateful. We did well when we learned to let go.
We let go of Miss Freddie when the girls were about three. The world’s most deserving retiree, she left us when we were hitting our stride as parents. We had mastered the basics, and then some. We knew what a certain cry signaled, and when a missed nap would rain hellfire down upon us. We knew Dreft was a joke, but Orajel was not, and that – like the Windex in the Greek Wedding movie – almost every ill could be addressed, at least in some fashion, with Aquaphor.
And yet, parenting is like repeatedly getting a masters’ degree in what abruptly becomes a dead language. You think the months and years of careful study and practice will produce larger dividends, but not much is transferable from one phase to the next. This is probably why parents with older children cannot resist doling out all manner of tips and wisdom to new mothers and fathers. We invested so much in accumulating a body of knowledge that no longer has any practical application in our own lives. If we don’t share it, it’s as good as having the combination to your junior high locker permanently committed to memory.
We’re also wistful, at least a little, for the Orajel days. The older your child gets, the less predictable and more individualized those milestones become. For nine years, I have learned as I went along. But as the stakes grow higher, quick fixes are harder to come by. There is a tried and true cure for diaper rash. I’ve yet to find an effective balm for when she’s excluded at recess, or when first blood is drawn by the mean girl in class.
And I don’t have Miss Freddie to nudge me into each new reality. I often wonder what she would make of her former charge, had cancer not stolen her rightfully earned years of putting her feet up, at last. But since she spoke only truth and never pulled punches, I can hear her saying the following, not necessarily in this order.
She’s halfway to leaving you for good.
By the way, we’re running low on milk.
And I’m guessing Girlie needs some braces.
Once again, though I wouldn’t want to hear it, Miss Freddie would be right.
Today, a school holiday in the District, my mom and I took Devan and Leah to the American Girl store in the Tyson’s Corner mall. The girls had their own saved money to spend, and they weighed the relative merits of the wares. I tried to give them a little space, though I lurked behind the displays watching them like a hawk. They would drift in separate directions for a time, then look for each other, and for me. Without being self-conscious about it, or even conscious of it, they occasionally held hands.
I still have her, I thought, at least a little while longer. And right now -today – I know she thinks that a day shopping for miniature outfits and getting milkshakes with her Grammy, and Leah, and me, is about as good as it gets.
So maybe I know more than I want to admit. I know she is closer to driving than to diapers. I know that very soon she will need me in wholly new ways and recoil at me in many others. I know that the first dominoes to fall will be days like today. I know I have to enjoy the now, not cling to it.
There’s a lot more vertigo to come.
The braces are still a few weeks away. In the meantime, the orthodontist is creating the spacer from a mold they just took of Devan’s 8 year old mouth. From what I understand, I will be given a “key” that I insert into this medieval torture device, which I will turn at the instructed intervals to force her mouth to expand, so her teeth can line up alongside each other. The way grown-up teeth are supposed to.
Whoever developed this approach had to have a healthy appreciation for irony: if you weren’t already cursing the fact that life is coming to crash your happy nine year-long party, you – the mother – get to wield the crank to create the space that’s necessary, and inflict a fair amount of pain on your child in the process. And I’ll do it, because that is what needs to be done.
So here, on the verge of the halfway mark, I’m relishing the last days of my daughter’s childhood smile. Not the baby one, the gooey gums that gave way to little Tic Tac teeth dropping neatly (though painfully, see supra, re Orajel) into place. But the smile that came together over the last four years, jumbled and imperfect, crowded but carefree. It’s the one that still declares “Family Cuddle!!” in the morning. It’s the one that beams with pride as she masters another Taylor song on her guitar. It’s the smile that tries to tell me, if I’d only listen, that I don’t need to know more than I do right now, or how to parent any girl other than my own. And that girl – wondrously, crushingly, impossibly – is nine.
I will figure out the rest.
That’s what the next half is for.
Let’s begin with a few disclaimers.
First, I have been told that – on occasion – I over-analyze things.
Second, we here in Washington have been digging out from an epic blizzard, which among other things has afforded me a lot of time with my children, most of which is set to the constant soundtrack of pop music playing through Spotify.
Third, I latch onto song lyrics. After about two listens, wittingly or unwittingly I have committed every lyric to memory. My husband marvels at this, but it’s as much curse as blessing. It’s also a pretty inefficient use of finite cognitive resources.
With that prologue as context, the other day my 8 year old daughter asked me what my favorite line is from Adele’s “Hello.” It’s amazing how quickly this song became so ubiquitous a cultural reference. Even Devan has paid grudging respect to the stratospheric commercial success of Adele’s new album, which instantly displaced her beloved T-Swift’s “1989” in sales (but never in our hearts).
My answer was immediate:
“None of them. I really don’t like that song.”
She was silent for a moment, then pressed me to justify this alien-like antipathy.
“Do you really want to know?” I asked.
At this point you could hear my husband sigh loudly from the other room. “Oh, boy. Here we go…”
Devan, I will tell you why.
“Hello” is like an instructional manual for how to inflict maximum emotional harm at the end of a relationship. It’s Breaking Up For Dummies, a lyrical tour through misdirected self-pity, fruitless and ultimately harassing attempts at continued contact, and guilt transmogrified into victimhood.
Let’s break this down here.
Hello, it’s me. I’ve been wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet.
Years. Not weeks, not months, years. Considering that Adele is all of 25, for all we know this heartrending ballad echoing across every corner of the globe is about the failed love of two kids who met in AP History, or while making Blizzards at their summer job at the DQ. Regardless, Devan, Adele has been hanging on to this overwrought romantic implosion for way too long.
And why does she want to meet?
To go over everything.
At this point in the song, my focus shifts to the mythical, apparently scorned and stung ex-lover, who is trying the best he can to get on with his life. Why the hell would he want to go over everything? He clearly has no interest in going over everything, or anything, with Adele. Which is why he has dodged her relentless calls.
Hello from the other side. I must have called a thousand times. To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart, but it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore.
Imagine this scenario, Devan. Your best friend made the choice to break up with her boyfriend some years ago. And while these things are always more complicated than this, let’s just keep it simple and say that it was your friend who initiated the split. She was done.
Done-zo. Gave him the heave-ho.
Over coffee one day, this friend tells you she’s been calling that very ex, whose face you can barely summon to mind given the long passage of time.
You: “Um, so, how many times have you called him?”
Friend: “About a thousand.”
Trust your mother on this one, Devan, what your friend has just admitted to is straight up stalking, likely to meet the elements of a felony in most states. And somewhere over on the “other side,” his friends are listening to a subset of those thousand messages and – at best – reminding him of how unhealthy the relationship was. More likely, they are calling Adele a nut job, urging him to change his number, and assuring him for the umpteenth time that he dodged a serious bullet. They’re reminding him how cool his current girlfriend is. She beats them all at fooz-ball and is utterly tone deaf.
There is no cause to call someone a thousand times, about anything. This is why insurance companies get away with ripping off their customers. No remotely sane person can endure that many calls, either initiated or received.
And by the way, don’t assume your friend Adele wouldn’t turn that penchant for speed-dial on you one day, just because she felt the need to rehash a decade-old grievance.
[While we’re on the subject, where were Adele’s friends when she was peppering her old flame like this? I for one don’t let them off the hook. Sometimes you have to step in and save your friend from herself. When Jennifer Aniston fell in with John Mayer, some part of me blamed Courteney Cox.]
I could go on, and dissect her thinly veiled self-congratulation and swipes at his purported lack of ambition (Did you ever make it out of that town where nothing ever happens?)
But suffice it to say that as your mother, I would like to shoo you away from “Hello,” perhaps even more than from songs with far cruder or explicit words. I wouldn’t say I’m ready to have our family dance out the rest of this storm to “Big Pimpin’,” but no daughter of mine is going to let “Hello” be more than car Muzak
Relationships end. New ones form. Leaving someone you cared about is never easy. The moment that it “clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore” is actually a glorious watershed, and the last moment in the world that you need some person who realized they screwed it up to start lighting up your phone.
I like Adele, you like Adele. But somewhere, there’s a guy contemplating a restraining order, and many years ago he dated an extraordinarily gifted singer who needs both a new lyricist, and a better therapist.
As for us, let’s go sledding.
Our kitchen counter is littered with the average detritus of a family raising young kids: fake tattoos from the latest goodie bag; pencils with tips broken off; bright folders spilling math tests, spelling homework, macaroni art. This river of trash and treasure defies our daily efforts at dredging it. And from time to time, tucked among the flotsam and jetsam is a sheet of paper recognizable to any parent: the field trip permission slip.
At the bottom of most permission slips is a box to check if you, Parent, would be willing to serve as a chaperone. Time and again, in the forty seconds in which the slip is signed and the $8 check written (who ever has eight dollars in cash?), I make a mental note to check the date and time against my work calendar. Maybe this will be the one that works out, and if so, I’ll email the teacher. So I tell myself.
I almost never do it.
Actually, I never do it.
I settle for the stories shared over dinner, the email summaries from dedicated teachers, and in Kian’s case, the weekly photo post of his Montessori adventures.
Amit, on the other hand, managed to chaperone one of Devan’s field trips last year. He came home somewhat shell-shocked, having forgotten in the intervening 36 years what a bus full of seven year olds sounds like. And wouldn’t you know, that field trip was featured so prominently in the school’s yearbook that you’d think my husband had joined the full-time staff.
In a thought bubble I’m not proud of, I seethed.
My gosh, how DOES Amit balance his intense and successful career and STILL manage to be at EVERY school event?! What a guy!
Guilt catches up with me at odd and wildly inopportune moments. One morning in early December, with a long, out of town trial bearing down on me, nary a Christmas gift bought, and precious few groceries in the fridge, I spotted the permission slip for Kian’s upcoming field trip to see “Seasons of Light” at the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater.
It just happened that on that very morning, I’d struggled to squeeze my son’s belly into his Size 5 pants. The zipper broke, and so did I, in one of those pathetic displays of Wrung Out Mommy to which I occasionally subject my children. This one combined the helpful themes of “He’s Growing Up, and You’re Missing It All;” “Some Mothers Buy Clothes That Actually Fit Their Child;” and “I Know Daddy Never Loses It Like This, But It’s Different.”
By the time I pulled myself together, our au pair had quietly helped Kian into a perfectly fine pair of pants with an elastic waist. I doled out hugs and apologies, and sheepishly gathered my purse and keys. My eyes returned to the slip. I checked the box.
And so it was that I reported for duty at 8:30 a.m. on a chilly Thursday. Kian brimmed with pride and excitement as we walked into his classroom. I greeted his teacher, and turned to take in my fellow parent chaperones, grateful to recognize at least one, and introducing myself to the others with my customary, “I’m sure we’ve met before, but my name is Caroline…”
Sensing there would be some down time before we departed for the show, I instinctively pulled out my IPhone and checked the morning’s emails. If I could blow through these, I reasoned, my afternoon return to the office might not be so brutal. I arranged my body on a 12 inch high toddler chair and set to work, my thumb swiping left to delete each message returned or not requiring response. Noticing I was down to 22% power, I scanned the room until I spotted an outlet underneath some sort of terrarium.
At that moment, Kian’s teacher called us to the morning circle. She introduced each of us to the 25 assembled four and five year olds, and then she handed us an information sheet with the names of our three charges and detailed instructions for each phase of the trip. Aside from Kian, I had his good pal Raj and a little girl named Winnie. Their sweet faces looked up at me from their criss-crossed seats in the circle.
As the kids put on their coats, the teacher summoned the chaperones.
“I need you to commit to not being on your phones. You need to be present and alert to where each member of your group is, and that means no distractions.”
Right. Absolutely. What kind of jackass would be so work-obsessed or self-involved to be on the phone at a preschool field trip?
We tied a bright yellow scarf onto each child’s neck; it bore the name and number of the school should we fail all tests of adulthood by losing one of them. And then we were off. We poured onto Connecticut Avenue in a happy parade, rows of one Big and three Littles across. Commuters and work crews smiled at the sight of us. Kian pirouetted under my arm.
It should be a great benefit of living in a city that your children experience public transportation at an early age. We would take Metro, two different lines, to the Smithsonian stop. But the time was roughly 9:10 a.m., which meant we would be joined on platforms and in train cars by a good portion of the greater Metropolitan area.
My first hiccup was trying to usher my three kids through the automatic sliding gate at Van Ness. The technology was unforgiving, with just 2 seconds to push the kids through once my Metro pass hit the reader. Before I knew it, my yellow scarves were through the gate, and I was stuck on the other side. The school director saw this play out and ushered my group to safety before they were trampled by the crush of harried commuters, while I quickly pled my case to the Metro guard. Reunited with my three, I clasped their hands in a death grip as we descended the escalator and made it to the platform.
By this point, Winnie had decided she would much rather be a part of a different quartet with two of her little girl pals. Thus began my increasingly agitated reminders:
Winnie, sweetheart, you need to stay with us.
Winnie…. Winnie, you’re part of our group. Hold Kian’s hand.
Winnie, you can see your friends when we all get there.
Work with me, Winnie, I’m in a full-blown panic attack that one of you will end up making friends with the deep-fried rats down on the third rail.
On board the train, a few commuters obligingly gave up their seats. I ushered my trio to some available space along a pole and told them to hang on tight, then placed my legs into a wide stance to form a human fortress around them. If there was one skill I brought to the table, it was how to maneuver on this overcrowded subway.
Across the car, people put down their newspapers and beamed approvingly. I made eye contact with a man roughly my age; he was dressed in a suit and – based on his evident delight at our spectacle – had likely just left a child of his own for another day at work. I smiled, resisting the urge to clarify that this really wasn’t a typical day for me.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m supposed to be where you are.
I am you.
Just not today.
As I would learn on our arrival, “Seasons of Light” features the history and customs of as many cultures as six incredibly earnest and happy former Up With People performers can pack into 90 minutes. It celebrates Diwali, Chanukah, Las Posadas, Ramadan, Sankta Lucia Day, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and a First Nations celebration of Winter Solstice.
Our sea of yellow scarves regrouped in the hallway outside the theater, along with large groups from at least two or three other D.C. schools. When the kids were lined up along the wall, a museum staffer bellowed that the children would go in first, sit with their group on the floor, and then the grown-ups could take seats along the sides or in the back. My heart sank a little, as I’d envisioned spending the show with Kian – holding hands, singing, answering his insightful questions about another culture.
I found a seat along the side. Through the dimmed light I could spot his bright orange coat. I waved, and he waved back.
In the few minutes before the show began, I took in my son. These were his friends, his society. A few kids bounced with wild energy. Others clung to the teacher with visible anxiety. Kian was still. Content, but not giddy, he sat on his knees and waited. I could hear other kids shout his name to get his attention. He was quick with a smile but didn’t join the maelstrom of nudges and giggles surrounding him.
Then the theater went dark.
The show lived up to its jam-packed billing. The actors bounded through age-appropriate monologues so imbued with forced merriment that even the stranded Maccabees seemed utterly confident of the miracle yet to play out. The kids held up imaginary prayer sticks to offer their Hopi chief. A young woman attempting an unfortunate Indian accent shouted her Excitement! that Diwali! was Here! and lit diyas to honor the goddess Lakshmi. The finale was a Christmas singalong so gosh-darn jolly that the late Merv Griffin might have produced it from beyond the grave.
The kids loved it. I imagined the awesomely muddled and amalgamated descriptions of winter celebrations that would be brought home that day. But I sort of loved it too.
As we boarded the train to make our way back, I relaxed a little. With permission from the teacher, I traded Winnie to the group she yearned for, and took the boy from that group into mine. The Metro was far less crowded, and there were plenty of seats for the weary and yellow-scarved.
Just two stops into the ride, the teacher whispered my name, smiled, and pointed to the seat ahead of me. Kian was dead asleep.
I moved to his seat and heaved his 50 pound body onto my lap. He was sweaty in his thick orange coat, so I unzipped it a little. His head nestled against me, and I rested my chin in his thick hair.
I thought back to the morning I’d lost my composure over a pair of pants. I wondered how many of those mornings I had made part of his memory by now. How many exasperated attempts to insert protein into their breakfast. How many skirmishes with Devan over her increasingly outlandish third grade wardrobe. How many hurry-up’s, sighs, eye rolls. How many moments that called for calm but ended in raised voices, my eye on the clock but so far off the ball.
Maybe I’d never know. Or maybe I’d hear all about it someday, disproving once and for all the chorus of voices that told me I was doing a great job, or – its cursed alternative – the Best I Could. The thing about parenthood is you have no way of knowing what, big or small, will make a difference.
I’d like to hope their childhoods will play back a little like that December day, maybe even like that frenetic show. Moments of darkness, but pierced with color, and raucous noise, and fabric, and laughter, and community. And, yes, light. I hope that the moment I walk through the door at night is as transcendent for them as they make it for me. That the weeknight suppers they’ve spent with our au pair, or with just Amit, or with just me, will blend together in memory so we are one coterie, united in our devotion and best intentions, even if some things got lost in execution.
I hope that if Kian doesn’t remember this field trip, he will recall a day when he was still little, and he fell asleep on the Metro, and his mom was there.
If I could plant my prayer stick, it would be that when he sifts through the moments that gave shape to his childhood, he might do a better job than I’ve done at sorting through the muck.
I hope he lets the rubble and silt and gravel fall back into the water, and that he pans for gold.