January 2011


Torn today, as I am many days when I haven’t got a lot I have to do, between internal and external pursuits. It’s been three weeks since my kids and I have spent a full weekend together, more since we’ve had one that didn’t include a holiday or birthday party. Home on our own we find our way between computer, tv, music, cooking, reading, cleaning, pretending, and being with each other. We’re people who need a lot of time on our own. It’s easy for us to be together in a house all weekend and for it to be very quiet.

That being said, some weekends, like the last four or five, we find ourselves in groups with lots of people, whether holiday, time in the country with friends, city brunch or dinner, nights on the town or in meetings, funeral service or family get together, we, or at least I crave that human interaction. I love the exchange of ideas, the reciprocity, the electric energy of being with other people, new, old, familiar, strange. I love being looked after and looking after friends and family, even strangers. Many kinds of love a friend called it once. Must be it. Love of ideas and thought and reflection and quiet pursuits and love of people, society, family, friends, common good, mutual support.

So, after a morning of both, time reading, writing, talking on the phone, visiting friends, attending to business, cooking, sharing a meal and conversation, cleaning, listening to music, dancing with my girl and by myself, it’s on to an evening of something else, who knows what, Sunday of something else, who knows what. Other than a few chores and brief commitments, the time is ours to spend as we wish. Reminds me of the Gilchrist Retreats, opened with a gift of time to listen to ourselves, to make choices respecting our inner voice, to be alone or come together according to our heart’s desire. When I think of it that way, an open weekend with the kids feels a little like a retreat. Hoping for some revelation and inspiration and restoration right here in Somerville, Garrison Avenue style.

 

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Today there’s more snow. Seems we are all being tested. I’m grateful this year’s snow didn’t come last year, my first winter on my own. Somehow this year, the challenge is good for me. Hard, but so far, no tears, at least not from me. My boys are fourteen and sixteen. My girl is ten. She’s not much for shoveling yet, though the first snow she cleared the porch, which was a substantial enough job on it’s own. My fourteen can help, but now the piles are high and both he and I struggle to lift the snow and toss it over the piles. My sixteen seems vastly taller when he arrives in the kitchen this morning in pajama bottoms and sneakers, ready for his shift. He can manage the new long and bent handled shovel which is too long for the rest of us. He’s tall and strong and can hoist snow with the best of them. He gets overwhelmed, though. He says, we can do it this time, but what if there’s more snow, and then he goes on to feel sorry for Boston, quoting a number I cannot verify, saying each inch of snow costs the city a million dollars in snow removal. A truck full of guys drive by each storm. They catch me this time in the late sunny morning feeling a bit bewildered, but smiling, and instead of the thirty dollars they offered and I refused two storms ago, this time they offer forty dollars as their asking price to shovel the whole thing while I drink a cup of tea, and the sales guy in the passenger side with his elbow out the window lifts his pinky to show me what I’m missing, but I thank him, wish him good luck, tell him I have two teenage boys, that they may need to have their attitudes adjusted a little, but they have muscles, and they’ll help me. As the guys drive away, my sixteen upstairs, my fourteen still at his dad’s near noon, my ten not likely to show up for shoveling duty this time, I wonder if I’ll have regrets.

Which reminds me I’m on a short break, came in to get my cell phone, which had been in the handy dandy but forgotten about cell phone pocket of my new orange parka with fur ruff. While searching for it, I remembered the cherry pie in the fridge left from Sunday dinner. Fine way to satiate a shoveler’s appetite. My boy is up and ready to go, heads out while I eat my pie with vanilla ice cream, smile on his face so far, and I think of the lyrics to a John Prine song, which doesn’t really fit, but the one line sure does, Everybody wants to be wanted..snow will do that for you..No choice but to get out there and deal with it, for women, men, teenage boys, and eventually, even young girls.

Back to the berm at the end of the drive. As my women friends have taught me, one of the secrets to shoveling snow is taking breaks. Cherry pie helps, too.

Today after outside time I changed loads of poopy diapers. Some would think this was the worst part of my job. In fact, it’s not. When I change a child’s diaper, we have one-on-one time. I’m helping the child with something utterly important. I’m able to teach a little, as I did today, encouraging my over three to consider using the toilet and wearing underpants, by telling him a story of my son, now his babysitter, and his experience long ago making the shift from diaper kid to underwear guy. This stuff works incrementally. The stories build, till soon my three has a narrative like he did today, where he says, after tantrums last week about the suggestion of using the toilet, Tomorrow I will use the toilet. Tomorrow I will wear underpants. When I ask about the underpants, will they be white or blue, he has a definitive, contradictory as usual answer, NO, they have cars. Just like Ben, I affirm. And Ben also had some with diggers and some with animals. NO animals, he argues.

My two is nearby, just having had his diaper changed as well. He handles my necklace as I kneel on the floor, at his eye level on the ground, and I ask if he likes it. Like it, he echoes. The three notices too, Why is the light on in there? he wants to know. I thought the same thing when I got it. My mom gave it to me, I reply. It’s not a light, it just looks like it. Why the light on in there? he insists. It’s not a light, I try to explain, the light just bounces back. What you mean? he asks, looking bewildered. It bounces light back like a mirror, I try again, knowing full well this is more nonsense than his question, which he repeats again, knowing I can’t out argue him with my bouncing light mirror theories. Why the light on in there? and I think about Glacial Pearl, about lights and mirrors, about threes and twos and family day care, and the utter hopelessness and joy of trying to teach little kids through these moments of certainty and wonder.

Earlier in the morning, I had gotten out some puzzles we hadn’t seen in awhile. Last time we had them out this three must have been too young. This time he is enraptured. I ask him to put one together when I find a pile of pieces of the rainbow house with chimney and heart and square and diamond windows, and he does. Then he wants to do it again, carrying it to his small group breakfast table. I love this puzzle, he tells me. I missed it. And then he does it several more times, along with others similar to it.

Growing up can be so much fun. Watching can be, too.

Yesterday my dad was back. I made beef stew for dinner, a delicious deep brown batch, first in my new la crueset pot, gift from the day care families in cassis, really purple, identical shade to my cabinets. In the stew, after the cubes of chuck had browned in olive oil a good long while, simmered two hours in broth, I put carrots and onion and parsnips, and then I added potatoes. Normally I have a bag in the cupboard, but lately, they’ve been sprouting. This week I made chicken stew on Monday, first batch of that in my purple pot, and I used up the last of the sprouting lot, as well as some from the small container we had grown and picked and washed with the day care kids this summer. It was the first time I had grown potatoes since I was a girl, last time I remember digging them since I dug them with my dad, probably at age five. So I wanted those potatoes to be appreciated. I took photos and pleasure as the kids and I dug our treasure. I took more as two young ones scrubbed off the dirt in dishes of water with small vegetable brushes from the Small Hands Montessori catalogue. We didn’t do that when I was a girl. Back then we mostly peeled our potatoes. I can remember still my mom at the kitchen sink in our first house, sink full of peelings, slicing me a piece of raw potato to eat while I waited for dinner. My son Jonah likes those, too, when I remember. In the early fall when we dug the potatoes, we ate half the batch in the day care with butter. The kids were pleased. I put the rest away for my family, and didn’t get them out again til now. First half went in the chicken stew on Monday, which I ate for dinner, my kids ate for snacks and lunch all week long. I saved back a few for my vegetarian guy, but last night, they met their suitable ending not in his mouth, but in the pot of beef stew.  I never have made a batch without potatoes, and so they needed to be there. I cut the small guys into cubes, feeling the skin split, the flesh give way, and the odd shaped, uneven sized guys were only home grown, were much like the guys in the ten gallon bucket we filled with my dad and ate from till they were gone, saving aside the babies for special attention. I saved the smallest babies this time, too, put them on my kitchen window sill in a porcelain tea tray holding a tiny tea pot, gifts from Macky to my girl, settled here for me to admire at dishwashing time.

The stew was delicious. The broth was tasty. The vegetables held their shape. I left out celery and had no regrets. The dumplings were plump and soaked up the gravy as they should.

After dinner we watched a movie, Sunshine Cleaning. I had thought it was going to be about cleaning. It was. It was also about two young girls, now grown into adults, who lost their mother young. Perhaps I’ll reveal too much, but the women become cleaners of crime scenes and as they take on this work, they find themselves entering the stories of the crimes, wondering if two lovers loved each other before one shot the other, wondering what happened to the daughter whose photos they find wrapped in ribbons, early childhood through adult stacked neatly one upon the other in a house so full of chaos and stench the women cleaners vomit before going to work to clean it. At one point, they enter the scene of a suicide and I saw their childhoods flooding back, girls running happily through a sprinkler, finding their mother, back in the sprinkler again.

Later they reminisce about the funeral of their mother, where the younger girl wore shoes too tight and the older sister remembers how that sister never took those off. I realized in that moment I hadn’t a single memory of my dad’s funeral, not a one, no idea what I wore or what he did, who was there or what was said. It is a blank, as are so many other things. Later in the movie, the women see their mom on tv, in a short clip they had referred to earlier, a one liner she says and they are told about but have never seen. Made me want to see my dad again. Then the older sister talks to her mom, as her son had talked to god, by speaking into the CB radio, where the dealer who sold them the van told him his voice would go into the ether. I remembered that, too, that talking to my dad in heaven, though not on a CB radio, but in church, or in a sort of prayer, and I wondered when that ended, noticed how the adult didn’t know about the heaven thing, but still kept on wishing her mom could hear her. They got it right.

Afterwards I watched the VCR tape my mom made me several years ago of home movies from my childhood. My dad and I were there, along with my sister, my mom, my friends from the old neighborhood, my grandma and aunts and uncles and cousins, many of them long gone. My grandma was in her sixties and strong as a horse. I had not remembered her that way. In her final years she was thinner and smaller each year until she faded away at nearly one hundred. My Uncle John was there and my Uncle Tom, all my cousins from the farm, now grown and far away. My dad and aunts and uncles were drinking beer from those short fat bottles I had forgotten about, too, and some smiled at the camera each time they took a sip, so young.

The photography was dark and shifted. My dad was in the corners of most anyplace he was, not the center, as I wished him to be, so I could get a good long look. We were the center, my sister and I. We were everywhere in our footed pajamas and school and party dresses, in our striped pants and pink pull on shorts. We were at the Zoo. We were at Marineland. We were at Story Town. We were riding a steam train. We looked for eggs and baskets and toys on Easter, opened our gifts, hugged our dolls, climbed into our doll bed on Christmas after Christmas. We blew out candles and opened our presents on our birthdays. We smiled and danced and waved at the camera, where my mom or dad captured every move we made, duck duck goose, swing set, swimming pool. And in the corner of the yard, there was a patch of big green leaves, which I assumed as I watched, were potatoes. They might also have been green beans, which we planted and picked and ate.

Then there was Easter, and my dad looking like death. The last picture of him is one I hadn’t remembered, wearing what looks like a red sports coat that hangs off his thin frame, walking delicately down the front step to the sidewalk where we were. It was hard to look. That Easter he sat in the chair and I think I could see pain quite distinctly, but only looking back. The little girls race around the house looking for baskets and eggs, bring them to him in utter joy. How could we not have known he was on his way out of this world?

The next frames after the red suit jacket are of what looks like a painting party in the addition I thought I remembered him enjoying, but he must have died before it was finished, then my sister’s fifth birthday party. He’s not there, but we smile and laugh and mug for the camera as though he might have been. How is that?

I’ve taken care of many children in my life, but never has it been harder than when a parent or close relative has suffered with cancer, or died. In Sunshine Cleaning the older sister goes to a shower where she hopes to impress her high school friends. When they ask what she does she tells them she cleans up when there has been a crisis and makes it better, or something like that. Family day care is like that for me. I’m not a doctor or a lawyer or a principal or a professor or a child psychologist or even a public school teacher. I take care of children. I teach them what I know. That’s what I do. Too much information in this piece perhaps. I felt like writing it and I did. Now I’m off to do my chores.

p.s. In the movie, one or two Christmas’s before my dad had died, there is a child’s snow shovel. I wrote here earlier that I had never shoveled snow with my dad. It was nice to see that shovel there, and wonder if maybe in fact I did. I’d like to think that some of the pleasure I take in shoveling my drive and working with my kids could be traced back to time I spent with him.

Today is a snow day, again. For the third time in as many weeks we have a big dump of snow to manage. Today I have a plan. I look forward to the time outside. I talk to my friend about her shoveling plans, make mine, carve time out of the day for the job, don’t let it or my worries take over. I feel good as I lift and toss the light powder over the mountain of my front yard, carving down to the ice and bare earth below, move the van back while I clear that part of the drive, feel the muscles in my arms and back and legs as I dip, level, pour, 4-H method of measuring flour applied to this forty something’s new learning, shoveling snow. Instead of making me anxious, today the challenge makes me happy.

Upstairs my son is playing bass all day long, brings it downstairs with his amp to the living room after awhile, getting my permission first as this Violent Femmes song has some explicit language, as he puts it, not knowing perhaps, how the dancing will come back to me in the kitchen hours later when he plays the music for me and I am transported to my college days at four am on the dance floor of some fraternity house, glorying in the beat with my friend Laura, dance partner extraordinaire, housemate extraordinaire then and now, wondering when we’ll dance together again. But back in Somerville in 2011 my son works all day on his personal challenge, the very tough bass line for the Violent Femmes, challenge presented by a Sudbury Valley Staff member, who has my boy playing three instruments and singing in another piece for the upcoming Coffee House, second show my boy will play in at his new school, and he’s practicing like he never did before, friends, music he loves, daily rehearsals, keep him wanting more and working hard. Makes me happy, too.

Meanwhile, my girl is learning to live two lives, one at dad’s, one at mom’s, and she’s working hard, too, taken up the challenge to figure this out and to make herself happy, too. She plays all day long today behind closed doors, with a new Playmobil School we have given over to the after school group so she can have another version at her dad’s, duplication another learning curve for mom, giving space for after school kids and my own, for dad’s house and mine, for my kids and me. Lots of learning in breaking apart and reconstructing family. Lots of learning indeed. What better way to sort out life challenges for a younger kid than through play. Good day for a snow day. We are all learning a lot.

Around 8:30 I take a break from making chicken stew to toss that load of laundry in the wash. It’s a horrible day outside. Rain is coming down still. After a morning of light and fluffy snow, a dump of over a foot about a week ago, we have an afternoon and evening of rain. So, I’m not surprised when I go to do my laundry and find the floor beside the washer flooded. What does surprise me is when I try to find the source of the puddle and look up to find water dripping on my head. The joists above the dryer, near the center of the house, and about six feet from center to exterior wall, are dripping water. First I think it’s the snow my boys and I failed to shovel along the side of the house, sidewalk piled with slushy melt leaking in. But that makes no sense, as the joists are a full basement window height above ground level. Then I think it’s the lousy gutter job I paid big bucks for during last April’s flood, one downspout dropped off already, one elbow fallen away, gutters blocked and making icicles and treachery on the sidewalk below where the water overflows the gutters, splashes down along a picnic bench below and the sidewalk, slicker than an ice rink after the zamboni’s been through, we’d need ice skates and a helmet to take out the compost, bins beside the leak, beneath the biggest icicle ever, forming at the top of the downspout where it meets the gutter, threatening to drop and punch a hole through one of our heads. As worked up as I get thinking of the lousiness of that job, it doesn’t add up either. That’s not the reason for the basement flood this time.

Then I poke my head outside the basement door to see what’s out there that might be letting water in. I see the cable running down the house, hole drilled into the side just about across from the leaky joists. I wonder if the cable guy who was here last week, walking through the day care in his work clothes to the pleasure of the kids, all workmen of deep and abiding interest to the preschool set, might have done something to create a leak. I run my finger along the cable into the hole, imagine plugging it with plasticene, but it seems unlikely to be the source, water dripping from the middle of the ceiling, not the edge. I call a friend who suggests I look upstairs in the room above. I think of the room, project room of the day care and wonder if the heat has fun amok, steam radiator perhaps leaking across the floor. He wonders if the water’s warm or cold and when I say cold, he says it must be from outside. Yes, I think, it must be, but the whole thing’s still a mystery. He suggests I go upstairs, see what I can see, and when I do, voila, I find a puddle in the project room coming from beneath the water table, last remnants of the table full of snow Liana put there for the kids melting slowly, leaking out the drain hole to the floor and joists and basement rug below..Aha! I put my hand beneath the drain and find the plug is missing and I wonder at that, at the fact we had no puddle in the morning ,when the kids gloried in the snow an hour or more, tasting, filling containers, squeezing it in their hands, admiring its deliciousness and cold and crunch and squash. Why no puddle then? And then I think of my young guy who loves the men in work suits, who once followed me around the house as I toured a plumber come to fix the leaky shower upstairs. On our way to the park, that boy wondered about the hole the plumber would make to access the shower, wondered if he was a carpenter to cut holes like that, and I think, perhaps at nap time, wide awake four that he is, he took apart the drain, went home with a round bit of brass in his pocket. I call the other teacher, then the sub, then I write the boy’s parents, more mystery to solve. For now, though, I’m grateful as can be that the leak can be traced to a day care kid’s curiosity, not to another defect in my large and aging house. Whew!

Which is a long way of telling you what I set out to write about this afternoon before traipsing around town in the rain to pick up kids, to drop my own at the orthodontist, to drop off the tuition deposits at the drive thru at the bank, where my kids said, I thought we went to the bank on Friday and the other said, I like Maria’s house and the third said, Maria’s house is the best after school because you get to go home after school. And that made my day, and then we waited at the window and when the teller took too long we talked about the tree house and how we have to count and double count the money so we don’t make mistakes, which is what the teller does, and then we went home and I brought in the trash barrels and recycling bins, shoveled the slushy steps, admired my teenage boys’ work shoveling the latest snow from the walk, threw some sand down on the slick coating of ice on the brick walk, and the kids went upstairs and made toast, in my kitchen, where I found them at my round table, bought before my kids were born, if I remember correctly, talking and eating and making themselves at home. What I had meant to write about was how this morning we brought nature in with stumps and snow, we brought my daughter’s cherry stumps from upstairs to the kitchen, where we wrapped shaped pipecleaners with yarn in an attempt to make a fox, a lamb, a squirrel, and then we brought snow in from outside, as inside was where we needed to be and snow was what happened today, and the children admired and touched and ate and packed and pretended with it, breathing so deeply it might have been meditation, and the snow fell in such large clumps outside the window, which would have been a dining room window, except it’s a family day care, so it’s the climber room, that we allowed the children to climb up on the radiator covers just to admire it falling down.

 

This morning when I wake up too early to the cleaners, here to clean the day care only perhaps this time round, not the second floor, as a cost cutting measure, I read my e-mails, tired having stayed up too late, having spent much of yesterday entering bank statements into Moneydance, the alternative to Quicken, and this morning for once I read the NYTimes that comes in my inbox each day. On Friday I gave up on the NYTimes, erased over a full year’s worth of morning messages requesting my attention for the news, to which I felt compelled to subscribe for my own good, for the good of the world, but rarely read. Today I read the leading article, all about state budgets, and the need for us all to face reality, or not, I think, now, wondering if I read because of my own immersion in finances this weekend, my own angst about the reality or unreality of my own budget here, my wish to get it all straight in my head, on paper, on the computer, to have a plan and a budget that will work out, not just this week or this month or this year, but long term. I owed quarterly taxes this week and I held off paying, till other things were in order, tuition deposited, bills paid, account balances verified, house cleaned, dishes done, son conversed with and fed. Even in a quiet house with only the two of us, all these things take time, and somehow, here I am on Monday of a long weekend, having stayed home to catch up, as buried as the newly elected governors in angst and worry, trying to get it done, to make and balance a budget, to get the reality and unreality to fit, to balance the want and need, the wishes and dreams and potential and ability to pull it all off.

The image one governor used to describe the state’s budgets in this time of fiscal crises struck home:

“an old house in need of an overhaul.

“There are too many rooms, and they aren’t the right size,” Mr. Kitzhaber said. “There’s no insulation, and the windows are drafty. And the cost of keeping this house is more than the family can afford. The roof needs to be replaced, and the siding is falling off.”

When I read it, all I could think was, I did lose that roof last year, and I managed to have it repaired. The back porch roof needs repairing next, but that can wait. The siding was falling off and we replaced that a few years back and it ought to last many more. There hadn’t been any insulation, and we had that blown in, too. The windows are drafty as hell, but last fall I had a bunch of them rebuilt. There are many more in need of that, or of replacing, and we need new storm windows, and the house is shifting and nothing lines up straight, and there are too many rooms and it’s not clear at all that the eight hundred and fifty dollar oil bill this month is something this family can afford, but for now, we’re doing it, we’re doing it and holding our own.

When I got my accounts entered, bank statements finished last night at 1:30 am, after a break to play Pentago with my son, who I beat twice, big deal for me, and who beat me so many times I didn’t count, said his head hurt from thinking too many moves ahead, and observed that I couldn’t see that particular move and I agreed, I couldn’t see it coming at all, no matter how many times he did it, and I extended the break to go to a party with a bunch of mom friends, to drink sparkling wine and eat chocolate and nuts and dried salami and olives on lavash bread, while the host’s kids slept, her husband was away on business, my kids were in Western MA with their dad, in the other house that must surely be more than this family can afford,  and home on the computer, endless gamer testing his mother’s ability to set limits, to know what’s right, and we talked about religion, and communism and fervor and anger and disinterest, and the simplicity of a country church or a reform synagogue, the glory of a cathedral, the vitality of a black church, the comfort of kripalu and a new home in a modern religion that feels right, that acknowledges we are all a part of something larger, or going churchless, synogogueless (?), about wreaths and Christmas, about schools of all stripes, public, private, charter, homeschool, and then I was back to the books, and when I woke this morning, my head and heart were in both places, friend coming for a visit, son asleep, cleaners downstairs, piles of work left to do, laundry to wash and dry and fold and put away, floors to sweep and vacuum, piles to sort and tidy and move along, receipts to write for families, tuition to deposit, friend to meet for Charter School work, contacts to make on that group’s behalf, groceries to list and buy and lug and put away, meals to prepare and eat and pack away for later, dishes to wash and shelve and wash again.

And just now in my mind  from the side of the grave on the cold and wintry day (just two short days ago) I hear Taps, Day is Done, and I think of our dear friend’s dad, gone from this world, gone from all these cares, gone, gone, gone also from the ones he loved and who loved him, from the ones he struggled with even, and who struggled with him, and I figure I’ll get through, as will the states and their budgets, moving along in our own versions, individual, shared, communal, of reality and unreality, all the way, as they say, to the other side, where ever that or they may be.

The dream of Salvation might be as much from the burdens of this world as from our sins.

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