Thursday, December 20, 2012

What Do We Do?

It was mourning weather - dreary, drizzly, gray - as Dave and I drove home from New Palz. We had not wanted to drive through Newtown. We’d planned to get off I-84 at Bethel, but the cars slowed as we neared that exit. The traffic was backed up well onto the highway. “I think there’s another exit before Newtown, right?” I said. Dave agreed so we continued on.

The exit sign came into view, white letters on a green background. “Newtown.” Silence. Dave reached for my hand, signaled right and turned the wheel.

We had stolen a quick trip to the Mohonk Mountain House, just one night at the reduced pre-holiday mid-week rate. We’d not gone last year due to my father’s illness, but Dave and I view this trip to the Victorian hotel in the mountains as our Christmas tradition, our present to each other.

So, early Sunday, we left the house. We’d avoided watching the news, reading the papers, or listening to the radio. Shields up. As is our custom, we stopped for lunch at the Main Street Bistro in New Palz. The place bustled with kids in dreadlocks, woolen caps, and bulky knitted ponchos, and the menu featured homemade soups, five veggie burger options, frittatas, and several tofu selections. We both ordered veggie burgers – the Hendrix for me, the Peacemaker for Dave.

Seated at the counter, we chatted with a young bearded guy - originally from a farm in Nebraska, now at college in DC - who was in New Palz for some vacation hiking in the Shawangunk mountains. He was intrigued by Dave’s burger, so Dave offered him a bite. He accepted…and finished off my pureed pepper soup as well. It was easy and companionable and I liked thinking of him returning to his parents on the farm with warm impressions of this encounter with the couple from Connecticut, who lived in the town next to Newtown. Most people are good. They are.

After lunch, Dave and I visited a few of the quirky shops on Main Street and picked up some stocking gifts – Christmas rings, hacky sacks, funky finger-less mittens. And then I caught myself…feeling normal, cheery even. How could I?

So I shifted gears, sobered up, and thought about Tucker and Casey at six. About Christmas presents waiting in closets. About how, if it were me, I would delve into the laundry hamper to find and hold and rock the pajamas worn the night before Friday….Thursday night. Just a regular night.

And I tried to send out loving white light to those lost and their loved ones. (Does it reach them somehow? How could this happen? Why would someone kill little kids?)

We’d left Mohonk after breakfast and wound up in Newtown center around 11:00. Rain fell on black-clad mourners waiting outside the funeral home. A man walked with a small boy, one hand firmly on the child’s shoulder. Couples stood on the sidewalk embracing or hand-in-hand. Across the street, a battalion of photographers strained for a shot, jostling and adjusting prodigious lenses for a solid zoom. Network vans lined the road in front of the general store.

But we also passed shrines of bouquets, stuffed animals, and luminaries lovingly arranged. And signs. Many hand-painted signs. Perhaps from people, like me, like any of us, whose wounded hearts yearn to give comfort even when comfort is beyond giving. So what do we do? Send white light. Pray. Write on a sheet draped between two posts our wish to enfold these grieving souls, “Newtown – we are all one family.”


Monday, December 3, 2012

A Story of Power

“Tell me a story,” I said to Dave as we huddled as close to the fire as was safe; it was the seventh day after Hurricane Sandy, and still we had no power.

When our children were tiny, it was a bedtime ritual to pick three animals - sometimes as disparate as unicorns, rats and jellyfish - for Dave to weave into some crazy tale. This night, my choices were simple: a chipmunk, weasel and panda. As has often been Dave’s method, he was quiet, and I was not sure if he’d dozed off, refused the request, or was pondering a plot.

“’Mine is bigger,’ said the chipmunk,” said Dave.

Grinning at the prospect of a story, Dave’s compliance, and the double entendre, I climbed into my husband’s lap, although I was not an easy fit. Candles flickered in watery pools of light casting shadows of leftover Halloween witches lurking in corners and on shelves. The fire was glowing its warmth, and I felt snoozy and safe as a little kid as Dave’s voice rumbled soft and low against my cheek. “The weasel was exasperated because he did not care about the chipmunk’s pile of nuts. What he did care about were the black patches on the face of the panda he had seen at the zoo. Were the patches eyes? Huge eyes open wide with delight or, as the chipmunk believed, sunken wells of sadness?”

As the weasel and chipmunk devised a plan to visit the zoo and question the panda, outside our house teams of utility workers labored to restore power and clear roads along the coast, in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Matted pine boughs, snapped stalks of once towering trees, sinuous cable snakes, looped and snarled, some live, some not, spilled into streets, impeding repairs.

Earlier in the evening, we’d brought soup and coffee warmed on a propane burner to the crew working our road. While I did this self-consciously, hoping to make karmic points and maybe earn power sooner, Dave’s motives were pure: he just wanted to cheer those guys.

In the dark, we dished out Progresso lentil soup to burly men in work boots, vests, and helmets. They’d driven up from Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri before the storm – leaving families and safe, well-lighted, homes - to ride it out and be here, ready for the aftermath. One guy pulled out his phone and, compliments of Google Earth, showed us his house, a single story ranch far away in the woods of Alabama.

Having heard tales of frustrated, power-less customers egging workers, I asked how people had treated them. These men were southerners, mind you, gentlemen for all the scruffy beards and rough hands, and they assured me that everyone had been very nice, thank you.

I hope so.

Days ago, before Sandy’s arrival, I had placed my hands on the big o’er-hanging silver maple in our yard and praised her endurance, urging her to stand strong in the winds. Still, we had moved wall-hangings, photographs, and precious mementoes from the rooms within her reach, just in case. During the storm, as winds lashed and buffeted the trees, Dave and I hunkered down near the fireplace at the center of our house. I was exhilarated by the storm – too many thrilled viewings of The Wizard of Oz and not enough healthy fear perhaps – but I worried about the trees and woodland creatures: where would the deer and chickadees hide?

It was not until after the storm, in driving roads still dangerous with dangling limbs and lines, that I reflected on the courage of those who’d rushed out to help when the wind was roaring and snapping those trees, while we cowered inside.

Every morning when Dave heads out for his commute, I say, “Be careful, Hon.” I imagine Russ Neary’s wife said much the same thing when he ventured out into the winds and thrashing trees in response to a call. Russ, a twelve-year veteran of the Easton Volunteer Fire Department, was killed when one of those flailing trees fell and crushed his truck. Over a thousand of his fellow firefighters and hundreds of members of his community attended the funeral. Most did not know him, as he had not known them. Yet for them, he had braved the storm.

“Do you have power?” initiates most conversations. Power on, power off: the reminder of our powerless-ness when Nature’s indignation ramps to full steam. But actually, the storm has also unleashed loving kindness, the greatest power humans hold.

Outside Town Hall, youthful volunteers have distributed stacked cases of water. Robo-calls have alerted citizens to locations offering food, warmth, beds and showers. Churches, synagogues and bars –centers of fellowship all– have hosted free meals. Two weeks after the storm, when three women organized a beach-clean up in Fairfield, spreading the word through fliers, Facebook, and those churches and synagogues (maybe the bars too…), love answered a thousand-fold, with rakes, shovels, work gloves, and heart.

Last fall during Hurricane Irene, Dave and I never lost power when so many did. In our blithe life-as-usual world, we didn’t think to offer showers or meals to the power-less. I cringe to confess it, and oh, have I learned my lesson, for we have been warmed, fed, showered and illuminated by friends and family. We’ve had cozy evenings of conversation and laughter at my in-laws, and our tiny grand-niece, after three nights of singing many rounds of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the “Eensy Weensy Spider” has lost her shyness with us. I’ve been grateful for a reprieve from screens and email and relished their replacements: time together, eye contact, songs, and stories.

Stories in memories… and stories of three creatures, for Dave’s tale unfolded as the hurricane wailed on. Once the weasel and chipmunk wormed their way past tourists and guards to reach the cage of the panda, they saw that the patches were not eyes, but black fur. Still, the weasel told the bear about his theory and asked about the message in those eyes. “Sometimes they are wells of sadness,” said the panda. “But often they are wide with love…for that is life.”





Monday, November 26, 2012

Soul Impression

With her arms crossed firmly across her chest, the plastic shower cap back in place over her hair, and her face turned away, the witch is clearly pissed off. As she sits at the foot of the attic stairs, awaiting return to her winter quarters, she refuses to make eye contact. I can’t help but smile at her indignation. She has ruled the house from her hearthside seat well into November, but my two-year-old grand-niece, Ava, is afraid of her, so it is time for her to go.

Dave and I hosted Thanksgiving and it was no place for a surly witch, but I’d so loved her new look in her fresh velvet cape and spooky gray shawl, that, while I put away all the other Halloween decorations, the witch stayed among us. Not the right choice as far as Ava was concerned.

In the week following Hurricane Sandy, Dave and I were powerless. Eight days without heat, light, or water, yet we were fortunate as we’ve heard of houses flooded or crushed by trees. And we were blessed by power-rich friends and family who offered showers, warmth, and the giddy companionship born of gathering together when storms blow.

My in-laws, Dave’s brother Steve and his wife, Debby, took us in for three evenings of potpourri dinners. Before leaving our cold, dark house, we would stand in front of the fridge. I’d hold a flashlight while trying to visualize the contents of the freezer. “Okay, I think there’s a bag of shrimp in the bottom section on the left side,” I’d say. “Quickly now!” And I opened the door while Dave made a blind grab, his hand emerging, victorious, shrimp package in hand.

It was strange to leave our dead house, travel roads littered with leftover limbs and leaves, the curbsides piled high with sawn trunks, and arrive at Steve and Deb’s bright, cozy haven.

We weren’t the only ones seeking refuge. Ava was there with her mother, Lisa, and my nephew, Trevor, as they, too, were without power. So, we made shrimp, chicken and salad and played cards with what was on hand - a pile of identical coasters. “Which card has the color green on it? Which card has an ‘X’?’’ Of course, Ava won by a landslide, identifying colors and letters and shapes like a champ, earning hoots and applause as well as a hefty pile of cards.

Eventually, the boys fetched their guitars – it is not a Sylvestro gathering without music – but we passed on the Rolling Stones and Jonathan Edwards’, our usual fare, to sing boisterous rounds of the Eensy Weensy Spider and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. And after all the singing and cards and applause, Ava, who had always been shy with Dave and me, gave us kisses before going home to bed. Joy.

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, however, I had many weepy moments. At this time last year, my father suffered his most terrible days, and the anniversary of his death draws near. Oh, I miss him so. I am remembering holidays past, memories gauzy with candlelight and the scent of pine, dinners at my grandmother’s, and the car rides to her house, snug in the back seat with my two sisters while Mom and Dad sat up front. Or, more recently, bundling little Tucker and Casey into blankets and car seats to make the trip to my parents’ for Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s a magic time, the holidays, if one is as lucky as I have been, in having a family to kindle that aura of security and anticipation, a sense that lodges soul-deep, for a lifetime of annual re-awakening.

As Dave and I prepared for Thanksgiving, I was excited to see our house transformed, alive with all the hospitality of her 230 years emanating from burnished chestnut floorboards, glowing fireplaces, and sturdy beams. I made the mistake of inviting Witchy, of course, but still, we set out my grandmother’s silver, re-arranged the tables and chairs crafted by our dear friend Labs, brought out porcelain turkeys from Mom, and for Ava, pulled up an antique high chair from my parents’ old house in Vermont. And I realized that this is the next phase unfolding, when Dave and I are the grandparent generation, hopefully creating for Ava and what grandchildren may come, a soul impression of the holidays that will re-awaken for a lifetime.



Monday, October 15, 2012

The Witch in the Attic


The witch in our attic wears a clear plastic shower cap. It is neither her choice, nor her best look, but in the past, squirrels seeking refuge during hard winters have sampled her straggly yarn hair, so the cap is a cautionary measure.

Two and a half decades ago, Witchy was an afternoon project, a composite of clothing filched from family members. Her hooked nose, lined face and sunken mouth were coaxed from a pair of stockings stuffed with cotton. My kids, Casey and Tucker, packed a faded black shirt and gypsy skirt with wads of newspaper to form her hunch-backed body. Casey’s cast-off gray tights became twisted legs, and since Count Tucker no longer required his cape from the previous Halloween, the witch made off with that as well.

Witchy’s annual descent from the attic would initiate our Halloween preparations. The unbecoming shower cap would be whisked away and replaced with a tall peaked hat. The butter churn by the fireplace was moved to make room for her chair, and her belongings – a skull-topped staff, bat-candelabra, and pewter teapot– were fetched from storage and set within easy reach.

In those days, October was crammed with joyful child-oriented activities - scratchy hayrides, haunted houses and pumpkin-picking expeditions. While the slimy chore of carving jack-o’lanterns was never quite as fun as it was supposed to be, the kids’ enthusiasm spiked briefly when Toys R Us offered stencil kits complete with safe miniature knives. All by themselves, Tucker and Casey sculpted a black cat silhouetted against a harvest moon and an eerie haunted mansion.

Every crisp day of vibrant leaves, somber skies and acorns crunching underfoot held ghoulish games and creepy craft projects, and when I’d surprise the kids with cupcakes topped with black cats or pumpkins of orange frosting, I wasn’t worried about sugar. I felt solid in my world, secure in the sense I was doing exactly what I should be doing.

For good and for ill, the past three autumns have passed without much Halloween spirit at our house. In 2009, chemotherapy drained me of the energy for decorating, as did more recently, my father’s illness and death. Yet, last year held an astonishing trip to Thailand to meet up with our traveling daughter, and this summer, Tucker got married. So, what I’ve learned about life, what I love about life, is that generally, after dark times, life is on the other side, waiting with arms wide.

October has cycled around again, and last weekend’s crisp air, vibrant leaves, somber skies and acorns crunching underfoot triggered a sensory tune-up. My childhood antennae unfurled at the scent of woodsmoke, earthy crushed leaves and the golden rod’s whiff of honey. The whine of a saw, the buzz of yellow jackets. Oak leaves reddening, orange pumpkins in farm fields: I was my little girl self in a corduroy jacket; I was the mother who read her kids Halloween stories and helped them…make Witchy.

Inspired, I scurried up the attic stairs and clambered over bins holding the kids’ drawings, stuffed animals, Cabbage Patch Kids, Jurassic Park figures, and vintage Transformers to meet the steely gaze of the witch’s close-set eyes. In her shower cap, she was unimpressive, but that was soon to change.

Together, we made our way back down the stairs, her legs dangling and misshapen, her newspaper innards lumpy, her clothing filthy. I know it’s crazy, but I felt like apologizing.

First thing, I untied the tattered cape and threw it away, then took off the shower cap, and combed her hair into place. Casey, now 29, recently purged her closet and set aside bags of clothes for Goodwill, so I pawed through camisoles, tee-shirts, and dresses in search of anything black. Success. After gingerly removing Witchy’s almost-ancient garments, I helped her into a fresh long –sleeved shirt and gauzy skirt and lent her my black shawl. Beside her, on a small table, I set a wooden box of apothecary bottles and herbs, as well as her skull-topped staff, bat-candelabra, and pewter teapot. In her own way, she looked beautiful sitting by the fireplace.

We both felt better.

With his wife, Tucker, now 32, plans to hold his annual pumpkin-carving party. I doubt he likes scooping the yucky goo any better than he did as a child, but he loves the freshly toasted seeds. On a recent trip to a Halloween store with Casey, she pointed out the sexy little costumes she’d worn during her years in college and New York – Red Riding Hood, a firefighter, a pirate. Hmmm. We shrieked and giggled at the animatronic ghouls and she talked me out of buying the “cheap-looking” ripped black fabric I wanted to drape on the mantle and convinced me to go with tattered mesh netting. And later, when she stopped by the house to visit our Halloween queen by the fireplace, my daughter’s expression was wistful. “I love Witchy,” she said. And I love the memories Witchy conjures.





Tuesday, September 18, 2012

All by Design

Must have been a big night at the beach for the gulls, for those around me are sleeping it off. Soft feather rounds of white and cloud-gray, gracefully they curl their necks to tuck beaks beneath wings. Gentle ripples of lace-edged blue water brush the sand while further out, glints of sunshine dance on the Sound’s dips and peaks.

Over the past few days, I have found myself humming as I sponge counters, fold laundry, drive, or walk in the woods. Today as I stroll the beach, the soft rumble of a song vibrates in my throat, with no conscious direction on my part. I assume it’s a good sign to be moved to music, an indication that the drone of must-dos has been superseded by quiet joy. So what has my heart punched in on my inner juke box? I don’t immediately know, have to let the rumble play on a bit while I process the rhythm. John Lennon. Recognition of the artist comes first, then the tune, “Love, love, love…” Pleased by my selection and the frame of mind reflected, I continue on, noting the scatter of shells at the water’s-edge and the wedge-shaped prints of my seagull companions.

Milky jingle shells of peach, lemon, and cream, fragile in their flavorful colors, mingle with eggplant-purple mussels and brown and white speckled rock-a-bye baby shells. I cup one hand to hold the start of a collection.

A flash of green stops me: beach glass, rare in this age of recycling. As a child, during summers in Weekapaug, hours passed with sisters and friends scouring the sands for remnants of soft drink bottles and those of our fathers’ favorite beers. We’d call out the colors as we found them, “White!” “Brown!” “Aqua!” All of those bottles of Schlitz, Miller and Coke, broken, tumbled, and rounded by rolling waves and sand. Occasionally, we’d happen upon gems of red, blue or purple from Milk of Magnesia and old apothecary jars.

Laddered white lifeguard stands facing the sea seem still to keep watch despite empty seats. Ferries to and from Bridgeport and Port Jeff cut through the water. A clutch of gulls, adolescents, I think, gaze toward the horizon, contemplative as any beach-goer. In their brown and white speckled feathers, Nature, with her keen sense of flow and design, has painted them the same pattern as the rock-a-bye babies.

The sun shimmers silken strands of light as I bend, still humming my song of human harmony, to pick up a snow-white clamshell. Step, step, splash, step, reach for a shell, step, splash, hum. “Love, love, love…” And suddenly, I am suffused with wonder, for someone before me – a child pausing from turning cartwheels? A smitten teen? An adult, like me, moved by an inner song? - has spelled a word with shells in the sand: “LOVE.” Yes, love! I can almost hear the heavenly horn section blaring its brassy accompaniment as the Universe smiles, and beaming, I walk on.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Mad Pruner

We called Dad the “Mad Pruner” for his interest in yard work lay in weeding, trimming, and lopping. His library on gardening was extensive through years of birthday and Christmas gifts as his daughters, friends and wife sought to steer him toward planting and nourishing, but beyond flipping pages, the idea never took root. Removal was his passion.

In Weekapaug, when he was not reading in his faded, overstuffed chair in the living room, taking a lie-down upstairs, or poking around in the fridge for a snack, he would be barely visible, sweaty and white-shirted, somewhere in the hedge or roses, clippers in hand. Dead twigs, hydrangea canes, an over-zealous autumn olive, a pebble driveway gone to weeds – these suffused him with a mix of dismay and glee. They were offensive intruders, but they were the means to his beloved task.

He brought little knowledge to his work, and often a promising plant fell beneath his blades: the healthy, thriving, though not yet budding daisies I’d planted last August; a riot of vibrant magenta thistles deemed odious despite their beauty because “They are weeds.” Snip. Tug. Gone.

Still, the work was taxing, and scratched, bruised and bleeding, Dad would lumber into the house, waving aside offers of Neosporin and Bandaids – the returning warrior with no time for fluttering women. Over the past few years, once he was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, the bruises did not go away. “Your mother won’t let me out of the house without a long-sleeved shirt,” he’d grumble. But there was almost pride in the way he’d roll up a sleeve to show off the purple blood pooled just beneath his skin. Battle wounds.

Last summer, as if knowing it was time to store images, I took pictures of Dad: sitting on his fold-up garden bench, his back to me, arms deep in the rose bushes. Unheeding of prickers, joyously jerking out jewel weeds which grew tall and plentiful, but gave way with the slightest tug. Kneeling on green foam pads at the edge of the lawn scratching up weeds with a three-pronged tool, his hands encased in leather garden gloves.

Two weeks ago, Dave and I went to Weekapaug for the first time since Dad passed away. What would it be like, I’d wondered, to be there without him?

We’d spent the previous night in Boston with my son Tucker and his fiancé, Lisa. We’d watched my in-laws’ nephew, Alex Cobb, pitch for Tampa Bay against the Red Sox on Friday night and, on Saturday, tasted cakes for Tuck and Lisa’s wedding. So our mood was buoyant when we pulled up to the gray-shingled house Saturday evening.

It usually takes me several tries to unlock the door; too many of my keys have the same triangular head and heaven forbid I should label them to make things easy. Anyway, this time, the first try worked. Right away, I went out to check the screened porch.

During the winter, perhaps in January, the month Dad died, our house-sitter, Jan, heard a flapping noise when she came to check on the house. It was not the rhythmic sound of a windblown curtain or shutter, but that of something alive. Unnerved, she peered into the basement and glanced hesitantly into the dark rooms. Ultimately, she discovered a large white owl trapped on the porch. An owl

The weekend of Dad's death, numerous incidents occurred that appeared to be signs: lights blowing out, orbs in photographs, a needed address written in Dad’s hand appearing at the right moment. Mediums say spirits often appear in the form of birds. Might Dad have chosen an owl? I’d love to think so.

When later I spoke with Jan about the incident, she described her fruitless calls to the police and animal control, where she got the “Sorry, Lady. We can’t help you,” line. Eventually she and a neighbor were able to slip onto the porch, open a door, and retreat to the lawn where they kept watch until the owl flew free.

After noting the jagged tears the bird had ripped in the screens, I wanted to see if I could sense my father in the house, so I took my suitcase upstairs and went right to my parents' room. I imagined him lying on his bed on the white and blue striped coverlet, looking over as I entered, saying, “dearest child.” It was so easy to call him up before me. Oh Dad.

After the afternoon’s cake-tasting sugar load, we’d planned on a light salad for supper. Once we’d unpacked, we tossed lettuce, avocado, trail mix, tomatoes, mozzarella, lemon juice and olive oil. I lit candles as Dave turned off the lights and poured a glass of red wine for me and a tumbler of Goslings gold rum over ice for himself. Dad would have approved. It seemed we both needed to spend the evening with Dad, so we raised our glasses in a toast and reminisced. We recalled Dad’s full-out, body-shaking, eyes-squeezed-shut laugh: it had been a while since life dished Dad a morsel to trigger that.

After dinner, we curled up together in Dad’s chair in the living room. The navy blue slipcover is faded, the springs broken from the many times Dad flumped into its arms. It was tight for the two of us, but it was where we wanted to be. When shredded wads of tissue proved no match for our tears, we passed Dave’s damp red bandana back and forth.

Sunday’s weather was uncertain until late afternoon, so Dave and I spent the day doing yard work. The koosa dogwood was a cloud of blossoms, the hydrangeas heavy with buds. Dad would have shaken his head with disgust at the weeds flourishing between the flagstones on the patio. He would have threatened a good dose of “Round-Up,” and my sisters and I, concerned about herbicides near the wetlands, would have shot down the idea. He would have sighed dramatically, pulled on his leather work gloves, fetched his green sponge knee pads, and lowered himself laboriously to the ground to poke at those unwanted plants with a forked tool.

But he wasn’t there to do it.

So Dave and I rummaged among Dad’s tools in the garage, selected the necessary supplies, and set off to our chosen projects. With electric trimmers, Dave tackled the overgrown hedge of holly, while I pruned and weeded around the row of hydrangeas lining the house. Wearing my father’s work gloves, I felt the grit in the gloves’ fingertips as he must have, and enjoyed the quiet in the bushes as I pulled grasses and jewel weeds, then shook loosened dirt free of the roots. As Dad would have, I breathed in the whiff of roses, the soft breeze there in the shade. I relished the birdsong and muffled roll of distant waves.

I imagine Dad liked the peace as much as the work, the respite from worrying women telling him what to do, telling him to be careful, telling him what to weed, what not to weed, what to clip, what not to clip, and how long to do it. As I snipped hydrangea limbs that bore buds, I felt a twinge of guilt. How many times had my sisters and I insisted to Dad - firmly, sternly – that budded boughs be spared? But I wanted to open things up a bit, separate the overgrown bushes, and grant the daisies breathing space. I talked to Dad as I trimmed, grinning at my daring in pruning as I wished, picturing him amused, maybe even proud, of my boldness.

Dave worked on the holly for hours, his face flushed and dripping. The two of us laughed as we stood back to admire the tamed hedge, knowing that if Dad were with us, he would have commented on the few stray twigs that escaped the trimmer, saying, “Dave…you missed a little something.”

Gardening is about soil, weeds, plants, and twigs. Should that limb stay or go? Is that blossom worth blocking the view of that boulder? It is an astonishingly successful route to staying in the moment. I hope, despite his shortness of breath and bruised skin, it had done so for Dad.





Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On the Way to the Wedding - Part III

Sunday, July 8

We, the wedding party, mill about in the Dawes Room at the Millenium. Having vast experience in a life of corralling Sylvestros, I understand the wisdom of this pre-ceremony gathering of essential personnel. Christopher, dear soul, pulled in earlier to rehearse “The Wedding Song” with Dave, Steve and Trevor. Scott, the best man, is on the hunt for the officiant, as Jeff has not appeared.

Tucker and Lisa are with us, having spent the past two hours in bridal gown and Brooks Brothers suit out and about Boston with the photographer in search of optimal photo settings. According to the schedule, the “First Look” - each of them at the other in their wedding finery - took place at 2:15…and oh, they must have loved what they saw. My son is handsome in his navy suit and a smile so broad his face can barely contain it. And the bride? As stunning a princess as she’s always wanted to be, Lisa’s blond hair is swept back in a loose twist, her white skin shining porcelain against the cream of a strapless dress graceful with trailing pearl vines and flowers. “Magnificent,” Mom comments later.

Jeff has been located and goes to take his position while we line up. We snake down a back hall through the rear of the ballroom where we wait behind a black velvet curtain. Briefly, I scan the tables set around me – white tablecloths with sparkling tulle toppers; orchids afloat in tall, clear, vases; a tiny chocolate bunny at each place, its wrapper tied with blue ribbon monogrammed with Tucker and Lisa’s names. On chrome wands, vintage postcards of Boston indicate table numbers. Every detail I see evolved from a fun idea to a checklist, to an internet search, an email, or phone call, to an errand, an agreement, and a purchase…and finally to this moment, this table, this wedding.

Then, we are walking down the aisle, Tucker arm and arm between Dave and me, to the front of the ballroom where Casey, Scott, Jeff, Sheryl, and Laura wait. Mom and Ma are already seated in the first row, having been ushered in, each by their two strong, grandsons. Dave and I hug Tucker and sit; I lock glistening eyes with my mother, and she smiles and nods.

Something is missing. What is it? Cameras! Dave and I are always squinting through a lens to capture an expression, and here we are in prime seats, our boy before us, his face alight, and we have only our eyes and hearts to freeze the moment. Maybe this is better, I think. Nothing between us. Hold on to this.

I lean across my husband to better see Tucker’s face as Lisa leaves her parents’ arms to take her place before my son. I think of the words to the “Wedding Song” that the Sylvestro men will sing at the end of the service, “A man shall leave his mother, a woman leave her home. They shall travel on to where the two shall be as one.” This is such a symbolic leap: Tucker left home long ago, as did Lisa, and yet, I feel the difference this day will make. They belong to each other now.

In his words, Jeff, as officiant, weaves images of the past, present, and future as he asks those gathered to represent Tucker and Lisa’s support system throughout their marriage. “I say ‘represent’ because there will be others, not yet known, who will support them in the future. And I say ‘represent’ because there are pillars in Lisa and Tucker’s support system that – having made important contributions – have already passed from this world.”

I love Jeff’s message as he reminds Tucker and Lisa that their youth and beauty on this day will be “something your children marvel at in photographs from long ago.” This draws a knowing laugh from every parent in the crowd. I wore my mother’s timeless long-sleeved satin wedding gown on a sweltering day in June, but my bridesmaids were swathed in colonial gingham - blue and white Gunnie Sax dresses; totally seventies, costumes as far as Casey and Tucker are concerned. In a decade or two, will the chic strapless ocean-blue dresses worn by the bridesmaids today seem dated to their children?

Jeff also muses that the day will come “when your buoyant good nature doesn’t always shine through, when the challenges you face are not easily surmounted, when your current optimism may seem like reckless disregard for the slings and arrows you will face, when you may not be graceful, or kind, or at your best, with each other… But, let me assure you - from my 30+ years of experience – that those times of difficulty will matter just as much as the blissful moment…we are now witnessing. It will be those difficulties that will temper your marriage and strengthen you as a couple.”

In reading a poem by Stephen Merritt, Laura, Lisa’s little sister, enunciates with attitude and a cock of her head, giving the surprising words and loving message exactly the sassy punch the author must have intended:

“The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing.
It’s full of charts and figures
And instructions for dancing,
But she, she loves it when he reads to her
And he, he can read her anything…”

Casey thought she’d make it without tears through her reading from the Buddhist Association for Peace, Culture and Education. After all, it sounds so intellectual. But she slowed at the lines, “Love is not two people gazing at each other, but two people looking ahead in the same direction…If you genuinely love someone, then through your relationship with him or her, you can develop into a person whose love extends to all humanity.”

Jeff is not a minister, but a friend who loves Tucker and Lisa. Who better to make a benediction on their wedding day? He says, “I think I speak for all of us who have gathered here, that we wish unto you:
the unfettered optimism of your youth;
the soaring heights of passion you will know;
the successes you will celebrate and want to shout from the rooftops;
the intimate moments when you will make each other laugh so hard you will cry;
the heart-skipping moment of excitement you will feel when hearing the other’s key in the door;
the moments when each of you will marvel at your luck at having found the other – and gotten them to marry you.”

Jeff then asks Lisa and Tucker to pronounce their vows, and I wonder what I would have said to Dave in 1975 if I’d not simply repeated, as many brides did, the traditional lines from the Bible. Would I have been as honest, funny and endearing as these two?

In stating her vows, Lisa grins at Tucker as she tells of her childhood wish to be a princess, and her search for a prince. “After kissing a few frogs, I met you. You weren’t what I thought I wanted - you were too tall and a vegetarian. But you were so much better in ways I could scarcely imagine… I adore you. I look forward to throwing my arms around you each and every day when you get home.”

I love hearing this, and the image of my son coming home to such a greeting.

She speaks of accommodations both have made, “You’ve gotten into snow sports, taken dance lessons and given up the only thing you could bake - amazing bread. I’ve learned to cook vegetarian food, and beta-tested your work projects. I promise to nourish our love with gluten-free vegetarian food and enthusiasm for your work.

I love hearing this, her efforts and adjustments, and her appreciation of his.

“In marrying you, I’m taking the sage advice from my grandmother to “Marry an engineer, they make good husbands,” and Nora Ephron, “The secret to life, marry an Italian.”

I love hearing this, having done so myself…well, the “marry an Italian” part.

She speaks with love, admiration and humor. Tucker is beaming and the rest of us are laughing at all the right places…and there are at least two mothers brushing tears from their eyes.

In his vows, Tucker, too, comments that Lisa was not what he thought he wanted. “You’re an unrepentant carnivore, far too sweet, and much smarter than me. But you are perfect. You always find ways to surprise me, and I love learning about all your contradictions. You have a PhD and are a belly dancer. You are a huge nerd who was a dating machine in college. A classically trained soprano who sings in a rock band…and every day I can’t wait to see what else.”

I love hearing this – my son’s infatuation with Lisa’s qualities, contradictions, and talents. Belly dancing!? Who knew?

“When first we moved in together, Sheryl gave me a warning, saying, ‘I love Lisa, but she’s hard to live with!’ It took me a while to get used to finding surprises like bottles of laundry detergent in the middle of the living room floor, coat hangers in the kitchen cupboard, and a coffee table perpetually covered in research papers. But now it wouldn’t be home without them.”

I love hearing this. Dave makes me crazy with his disregard of time, his trails of keys, wallets, phones, and glasses. I make Dave crazy with my anal punctuality, and my annoyance over his trails of keys, wallets, phones, and glasses. But without those trails and my pleas that he put them away, it wouldn’t be home.

“You and I make a great team. Granted, a team that overcomplicates everything we do, but the end result always makes it worth it. When you told me about your idea to make our own wedding rings, I thought there was no way I could be marrying someone that cool. Today, I am looking forward to a lifetime of surprises and other mischief with you.

“I want to pick you up and spin you around every day when you get home, and have the most beautiful bride in the world by my side in 50 years… just like today.”

I love hearing this, the love my son and Lisa feel for each other.

As Jeff had earlier, both acknowledged life’s hard times, saying, “During times of loss, you’ve been there to comfort me. I promise to support you for the sad times and celebrate with you the joyous ones. I adore you and promise to love you forever.”

* * *

The final items on Lisa’s “make-a-wedding” list are now largely in the hands of the bustling staff soon to serve salads. With my toast done, I am released, free to revel. For Tucker, he is married, and beaming to be so, but he is also a man steeling himself, for he has a dance to do.

Drum roll!

As soon as the guests are seated in the ballroom, the new husband and wife are introduced. Barely have they crossed the threshold, but Tucker unbuttons his jacket, flings it to Sheryl, and extends a hand to his bride. From the speakers, James Taylor croons, “Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself, because I love you….” And we spectators have to smile as well at the choice of this jaunty love song. Immediately we see this is no fox trot, but choreographed maneuvers! The dancers step and turn, hands clasped, arms raised; Lisa sways smoothly, grinning and gorgeous; Tucker’s eyes are bright: the boy is concentrating.

We whistle and whoop. Whoo-Hoo!

Lisa loves to dance, and having just learned of her belly dancing ability during the wedding ceremony, her grace and sense of timing are no surprise. But Tucker? We, his family, watch him, amazed and proud. “He must really love her to do this, Mom,” Casey whispers beside me.

To our whistles and applause, Tucker swings Lisa off the floor, into his arms, and twirls her. “I want to pick you up and spin you around every day when you get home,” he had said in his vows, and by God, we see this was no idle promise; he can do it! As they wrap up the dance, Lisa’s expression is joyful exhilaration; Tucker’s shines his elation…and relief.

Hand in hand, they retreat to the head table to sit before a wall of windows overlooking the brick buildings and slate roofs of old Boston. Scott and Sheryl, the best man and maid of honor, take their places beside the bride and groom to pay tandem tribute…or whatever they have planned. “Roast” and “toast” rhyme, after all, separated by one letter only, and traditionally, a microphone in the hand of a college buddy can be a tricky combination…

The two friends take turns; it’s a conversation, really, a rolling, revolving, dialogue of revelations. I know about the week of photography in Death Valley when Tucker and Scott slept in a jeep, but Lisa’s training with M16s in ROTC? This is news. Belly dancing and M16s; she’s a woman of surprises indeed. We wedding witnesses wince when Sheryl refers to Lisa’s splits from a string of nice guys as “clubbing baby seals,” but in universal agreement, we raise our glasses because Tucker did not fall to that fate.

Doug, Lisa’s father, is introduced next. He holds up a tiny envelope the color of tea. When he was in the army, such diminutive missives from his daughter, alias Princes Precious Heart, brought closer “that magical place called home.” Out in the field, with little more than “stinky boots and a wet green sleeping bag” he learned that home isn’t a place and it isn’t stuff.

A glimpse of “the soft warm glow” from a house passed one evening crystallized his sense of home as “a symphony of the senses…the touch of a wife’s skin, the taste of a special meal, the subtle aroma of a lover, the sparkle of love and happiness in her eyes. It is the cacophony of home: the soft sound of breathing next to you at night, the voices, the laughter, the cries, and maybe, the patter of little feet.”

Everyone in the room is silent, listening. No one is sipping a drink or lifting a fork. Many dab tear-filled eyes in picturing Doug, years ago, receiving that tiny envelope from his little girl. Others may think of soldiers missing their families right now.

“So, my grown up daughter,” he continues, “beginning this special day, you and your dashing husband, your true Prince Charming, are starting a home…Now that you are married, it is not about either of ‘you’ anymore. It is about a brand new wonderful home called ‘us.’”

In unison, we lift our glasses.

Here in the heart of the Red Sox nation, it is apt that Dave, upon standing for his toast, weaves baseball into his words. He first remarks on the joy of melding with the Meckley clan, then addresses the diversity of Tucker and Lisa’s strengths and interests as demonstrated by a sampling from their bookshelf: Intuitive Biostatistics, Spain and Portugal, Gore Vidal’s Burr, and the ever-entertaining Principles of Population Genetics. “Just as a combination of good pitching and good hitting makes for winning teams,” Dave says, “you’ll rely on each other’s extraordinary prowess and love during tight games…To a long and happy marriage!”

Yes!

And now, we dance! Tucker and I turn and dip to Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock;” Doug and Lisa circle to “Unforgettable.” Like a tribal wave, everyone surges onto the floor for “We are Family,” and so easily I picture Dad in our midst, eyes closed, elbows bent, doing his rhythmic rumba. Cousins, sisters, brothers, nephews, parents, aunts, and uncles; friends from as far away as California, Texas, Germany, and Indonesia; we’re belting out songs, snapping, and stomping. Even eighteen-year-old Jared, generally impassive as his age demands, grins gleefully at our admiring astonishment when he breaks out major moves.

Out in the foyer, it is a carnival, as well-dressed guests don sombreros, fake mustaches, and jesters’ caps to mug and grimace in the photo booth. Matt’s Groucho Marx cavorts with Campbell’s Batman, while Granpa solemnly selects a white spangled cowboy hat and owlish red glasses. Millie favors a feather boa and the Statue of Liberty’s spiked crown. Little Ava is all but hidden in the Cat in The Hat’s striped top hat. Bunny ears, pig snouts, stolen kisses and surreptitious boob grabs are snapped with a flash and printed on filmstrips.

What an odd omission, through the anxious lead-up of lists, worries, and decisions; I’d never imagined the happiness this day would hold. During the service, Jeff had spoken of times to come “when the challenges you face are not easily surmounted,” and around me, the answer to tackling them unfolds. I inhale deeply, striving to draw the day into my soul. Tucker and Lisa’s joy in each other, the hugs and hoots, toasts, and dancing…and yes, merry celebrants in funny hats and fake mustaches; memories to sustain, as surely as breath.

For Brendan Stewart's professional "Symbol Photography" photos, click here.










Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On the Way to the Wedding - Part II

Saturday, July 7

I am trying to stay in the moment and drink in the presence of my loved ones and the flow of this time together in Boston, but still I am anxious about my toast and the rehearsal dinner. Dave is delivering welcome bags with maps, water bottles and oat bars for guests staying at hotels other than the Millenium. He has checked in with me a few times- teeth clenched, voice tense - to report that his GPS failed while in a tunnel and as a result, he has gone to Logan Airport twice by mistake. Twice! He is not happy.

According to the “Ladies’ Schedule,” the bride and her attendants are currently seated in padded vinyl chairs with their hands out, fingers splayed, feet soaking, awaiting manicures and pedicures. Casey’s boyfriend, P.J., arrived shortly after she departed for the salon, and has already made a hit with the Ingersolls. Tucker is at the apartment, packing for his two-night stay at the Millenium. Scott, Tucker’s dear friend and best man, is cutting and pasting Lisa’s vows on index cards, adding a sprinkle of red glitter to amuse the bride.

The “Gentlemen’s Schedule” allows the rest of the men freedom until the rehearsal.

When Casey was active in theater, dress rehearsals were often discouraging. She liked to think the false starts, forgotten lines, mis-cues, and bumbled blocking were good omens, a rite of passage that assured a successful opening night. For weddings, the rehearsal is a one-shot deal, so it’s bound to be confusing. In a church, the routes and positions are well-established: groom and best man to the right of the altar, bridesmaids promenade down the aisle and proceed left, bride makes her entrance on her father’s arm. None of these is assumed in the ballroom of the Millenium once we are gathered at 5:00.

Where should everyone stand? Should Tucker and Lisa be centered for optimal guest views, or should they angle left and center under the curving gray struts that span the ceiling? My nephew Trevor, from the Sylvestro side, leans forward to whisper, “Better for photos if they stand to the left.” He shows me a picture he has already taken with his phone during all the various trial runs onstage, um, I mean, at the front of the room. Trevor’s correct. The struts arch with cathedral-like grace above the couple if they stand to the left.

So Casey and Scott squeeze closer to the wall. Sheryl, the maid of honor, and Lisa’s sister, Laura, inch left as well. As if trying a dance-step, Tucker’s friend Jeff, the officiant, agreeably steps left and right and left again.

Behind Casey and Scott, black leather guitar cases lean against the wall. They are in the way, which sparks some… discussion. Toward the end of the ceremony tomorrow, Dave, his brother Steve, and Steve’s sons Trevor and Christopher, will play Paul Stookey’s “Wedding Song,” a Sylvestro wedding tradition since the seventies.

Christopher, a professional musician, is playing with John Mayall tonight and so, can’t make this rehearsal. I am not allowing myself to think about whether he will arrive on time tomorrow. Worry has peeked like a naughty child under my mind-curtain and I have snatched it back in place. No. Not even going consider it. He will be here.

For the past fifteen minutes, I’ve kept an eye on the time during the “You stand here while we say this. No wait. This would be better. When should we do this?” I’d like to stay until all is resolved, but Dave and I have to go to Legal Seafood to prepare for the welcome dinner.

We zip to our room to collect cameras, centerpieces, easels and the two 2’ X 3’ collages swathed in cardboard and a black garbage bag. We look like refugee artists as we grapple with our ungainly supplies and wrestle them into the cab.

The heavy-lidded, swarthy driver does not look at us as we tell him our destination. He has ear-pods in his ears and is speaking a foreign language. He leans heavily on his elbow against the car door and I almost worry that he is drifting off, but for his continued stream of conversation. I am pretty sure he is not talking to the cab dispatcher, and since I am already nervous, I wonder if we are going to the right place.

We are not, as it turns out. Yes, he has brought us to a Legal Seafood Restaurant in Copley Square, but it is not the one in the mall. We had not specified the mall; I knew there was more than one Legal Seafood in Boston, but more than one in Copley Square? This, I did not know.

We have plenty of time, but now I worry how many guests might make an unwanted tour of the Legal Seafoods of Boston. I must let this go and have faith in the unfolding, although, as I’ve said, I am not good at this. Our cab pulls up at a curb beneath an elevated glass tunnel between two buildings. The cab driver exits the car and points at an entrance across the road and then at the tunnel. Whoa. Complicated. And here we are with our easels and collages.

Dave strides off and I scurry behind him in my wearing-high-heels tip-toe trot. “What if this is the wrong place?” I ask as we ride an escalator, cross the glass tunnel, navigate a busy mall, and scan for signs. Brookstone. Gap. American Eagle. And then, I see it! “There! Legal Seafood!” I point, relieved and triumphant. I imagine Dave’s mother and my own making this trek. Not easy. It would have been far too daunting for Dad.

A smiling hostess greets us at the restaurant and leads us past crowded tables of couples and families digging into shrimp cocktail, stuffed lobster, and mussels in garlic and wine sauce. They look relaxed and happy. I envy them their simple evening. I bet none of them has to make a toast tonight. My friend Gail has cautioned me not to judge my interiors by others’ exteriors, so I throw in some self-scolding, just for spice. “You are richly blessed this weekend, surrounded by loved ones with the joy of a wedding ahead! Who knows what these people may have to deal with. Honestly! Enough about the nerves!” I make myself crazy.

I have also been concerned about adequate seating. Tucker and Lisa want this to be a night of mingling, a chance for the soon-to-be joined families to get to know each other. I fully understand their intention, but I am a sitter myself. Don’t like standing. So I worry that guests will be uncomfortable. Seventy-two people responded to the invitation to say they were coming; we have seating for forty-four.

The hostess leads us to a quiet room, bright with natural light from a wall of high windows. A padded bench skirts one side. (I wonder if the bench was included in the seating estimate? I’m guessing it could hold twenty-five people. Good.) Tables cloaked in white linens with black napkins are arranged to leave space for movement. Three smiling women in black shirts and trousers step forward to meet us: our staff for the night – Brynn, Annalice, and Jackie. “Anything you need, let us know,” says Annalice.

“Would it be possible to add a few more tables and chairs?” I ask.

“Sure. Not a problem.” And off they go, returning with supplies to seat an additional ten people.

“Do you want a drink? Something to eat?” Jackie says. So kind! I rattle on about our cab ride, my anxiety over guests getting lost, seating, and my toast (endlessly fascinating topics) and she clucks sympathetically. So tolerant!

Brynn and I set out the centerpieces – ocean-blue bags stuffed with tissue and starry foil garlands – and Dave assembles the easels and collages.

Weeks ago, Lisa’s father, Doug, had scanned a collection of three decades of photos of Lisa and her family, and her mother, Jan, sent me the thumb-drive. Of course Lisa was not solely the thirty-year-old woman Dave and I met in 2009, and as I’d clicked through the pictures, my sense of this girl my son so loves expanded as each shot filled the computer screen: a chubby baby in her mother’s arms, a cocky five year old in a black leotard, a ballerina beneath a parasol, a graduate surrounded by proud grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and her sister, Laura. My feelings for her deepened in seeing her different stages and the loved ones who nurtured her as she grew into the woman Tucker has chosen.

I spent some sniffly, sentimental hours flipping through piles of our photo albums selecting pictures of Tucker: a skinny baby with spiky Sid Vicious hair, a round-faced toddler with kissable cheeks, a determined young man in a white uniform breaking three boards with his hand in Tae Kwon Do. Dave and I had a date-night at CVS to print out copies, and then I spent the next few days in happy absorption assembling the collages, photographic puzzles of the people and life’s pieces from which Tucker and Lisa have evolved.

Brynn and Jackie help us move tables and chairs to show the collages off to best advantage. Shrimp, lobsters, and clams on crushed ice, grilled vegetables and swordfish on skewers, beef sliders, a chowder station, and green salad have been set out on the buffet. Everything is ready - it is going to be fine.

And it is so much better than fine! Loving friends and family filter in, only a few having checked out the other Legal Seafoods in the area. With warm smiles, hugs, and wonderful words about my boy, Lisa’s aunt Joyce and Uncle Bob introduce themselves. Lisa is like a daughter to them, and Joyce will be arranging the flowers for the wedding tomorrow. Granpa Meckley and Millie, Lisa’s grandfather and step-grandmother, enter with a woman no one knows. Not surprisingly as they are in their eighties, Granpa and Millie had been disoriented in the mall and this kind person helped them find their way, made sure they were in the right place, then disappeared.

Tables fill, glasses fill, hearts fill. Tucker and Lisa, the night’s celebrities, enter to applause, whistles, and whoops. In keeping with the marine setting, Lisa wears a gauzy dress of swirling blue, green and white, “my mermaid princess dress!” she says with a grin.

Many are enjoying the food. My nephew Campbell, a boy who, but years ago, would eat only chicken tenders, is happily sampling the seafood. It looks delicious, but I can’t eat. Too nervous. Just do the toast, I mentally hiss. Okay! I snap back at my inner harpie. I tap my glass with a spoon (so loud!) and everyone turns expectantly.

While rummaging through Tucker’s baby book and my underwear drawer for a theme on which to build my toast (doesn’t everyone keep mementos in their underwear drawer?), I had found an essay Tucker wrote when he was eleven. Called “The Me Nobody Knows,” the piece charted young Tucker’s career plans from working part-time at a private airline, to owning one, to – obviously - working for NASA and building a HUGE starship cruiser.

I speak about my son’s dreams, my admiration for his and Lisa’s resilience through this stressful year of work, wedding plans, Lisa’s celiac diagnosis, and my father’s death. In closing, I read my 11-year-old’s observation, “most of this will happen in the future, so I can’t be sure of any of it…” and raise my glass to this dear couple’s having found someone to be sure of in each other: “someone who loves you dearly, who shares your creativity, ambitions, heart, and sense of adventure…and someone you know will be steadfast and resilient when you need them.”

My father would not have let this evening pass without a toast, and my sisters and I are his daughters indeed. Rita stands next with a memory of musing why the sky was blue, only to have Tucker provide the precise scientific explanation…when he was four years old. She observes that Lisa, a doctor in pharmaceutical sciences, might have known the answer when she was even younger. Francie, too, relates an anecdote recalling a wintry Vermont afternoon in 1982 when my father was left to babysit for Tucker while the women of the family went shopping. We returned just in time to grab two-year-old Tucker as he toddled toward the fireplace. Dad was unrepentant. “He would have figured it out when he got hot enough,” Dad said. We raise our glasses with Francie as she wishes Tucker and Lisa happiness and observes, “You and Lisa will be figuring out many things – together – in the years ahead.”

The party is effervescent as bubbles in a glass of champagne. Faces flushed red with heat and hilarity, Rita and Francie laugh with Lisa’s cousin Jayne. P.J. and Casey, neither of them short in stature, chat with Rita’s 6’7” son Jared, their heads tilted wayyyy back. Mom is engrossed in conversation with Scott and his wife, Abby (who later tell us they want to adopt her). Dave’s mother, Ma, is watching as her great-grandchild Ava snuggles with my sister-in-law, Debby. Lisa’s mother, Jan, and I find each other in front of the collages and with shining eyes point out pictures and reminisce.

Ultimately, the festivities wind down, and Dave and I, Jan, Doug, Tucker, and Lisa – the parents and tomorrow’s bride and groom – are the last to leave. The corridors of the mall outside Legal Seafood are bright, but empty and quiet. We are brimming with joy at the fun of the evening and the warmth between the two families.

Tucker and Lisa walk slightly ahead, holding hands. They slow until I am in step with them. Lisa says, “You know the picture on the collage where I’m wearing a tiara and holding a trophy? I’d just sung ‘Part of Their World'
from ‘The Little Mermaid’ in a contest, and I won!”

Naturally, I clamor for a glimpse of that performance. Like water in a tide pool, Lisa’s mermaid dress eddies and flows about her feet. Tucker beams at his beautiful girl. Softly and sweetly, in a clear soprano, Lisa sings as we walk past shops shuttered for the night.













Monday, July 30, 2012

On the Way to the Wedding - Part I

June 27, 2012

Tucker’s face was drawn and grim when he pulled into the driveway in Weekapaug, supposedly for a leisurely dinner and night with us in this final full week before his wedding. He and his fiancé, Lisa, had been out straight with work and wedding plans since…well, pretty much since he commissioned a snow sculpture carving for his proposal last July. We hoped this overnight would be a respite.

“I can’t stay. It’s blowing up,” he said when my sister, Rita, greeted him by his car. Blowing up? “Lisa’s dress isn’t ready and the pianist can’t locate a piano to play at the hotel during the service. I have to go back.”

Given the options in what “blowing up” might mean, this was stressful, but not disastrous. Lisa might argue me on this, but the two of them were united in their distress, and that union, be it in joy or despair, was what all these plans were about. Still, Lisa purchased the dress back in the fall; how could it not be ready?

Over the past few months, Tucker’s voice on the phone had been cheery, for the most part, but selecting invitations, pondering colors and ribbons and fonts, tromping from venue to venue in search of THE place, assembling welcome bags, and monitoring RSVP’s, well, these had not emerged as my son’s favorite activities. When Dave and I got married in the seventies, my mother took care of details. I chimed in on guests and flowers, but I was still in college, a kid really, and Dave had zero interest in weighing in. “Do you ever wish you’d used a wedding planner, Tucker?” I asked once. “Every day,” he replied.

With each call to our son, I kept hoping our question, “Are you feeling less stressed?” would elicit an affirmative, but a sense of relief had remained elusive.

While my only responsibility was arranging the welcome dinner the night before the wedding, I was anxious about that. My to-do list was short and definitive - select a restaurant, plan a menu, decide on decorations and make photo collages of Lisa and Tucker. I could imagine the restrained panic the kids lived with. They were so excited about being married, so excited about their honeymoon – about being away, being together, about leaving this monolith of mind-spinning details behind them – and I wished there could be some fun in the anticipation of the wedding itself. But I get it: for me, the delicious sense of anticipation I used to experience as a child is often overshadowed by jaw-clenching, knots-in-shoulders, sleep-squelching, stewing. “Have faith in the unfolding” has become my oh-so-wise mantra, but I'm not very good at it.

Standing in the driveway in Weekapaug, we tried to convince Tucker there was little he could do that night about dresses and pianos. Jan, Lisa’s mother, texted him that Lisa was calmer and he should stay. “I’m concerned for your safety,” she said. But he wanted to be with Lisa in her worry, so he shoveled down his dinner of shrimp and salad; we swaddled him in hugs, soothing words, and admonishments to drive carefully; and he hit the road.

* * *

Friday, July 6. Boston.

Dave, Casey and I have settled in at the Millenium Hotel. Casey will be sleeping on a cot with us tonight and then moving into a room with her boyfriend, P.J. once he arrives tomorrow. My mother, sisters Rita and Francie, nephews, and brother-in-law, know P.J. by word-of–mouth, photos and Facebook, but this will be their first meeting, so Casey’s abuzz about that as well as her brother’s wedding.

Rita calls on her cell to say their van from the airport has pulled into the hotel driveway, so Casey, Dave and I zip down the hall to the elevator to meet them. At this stage of my life, with Tucker in Boston, my family in Pennsylvania, and friends scattered, visits by phone are the norm. What joy this will be to have my Ingersolls and Sylvestros, friends, and children all in one place.

We approach the front desk, spot Mom, Rita and Francie, my tall, lanky nephews Jared and Campbell, and my brother-in-law, Matt. “Hell-ooooo,” I call, waving like an idiot and grinning widely… but immediately I perceive pinched faces. Oh dear. One room’s not ready, there’s confusion over bed-types (kings where twins were desired), and a question of whose fault this might be. Sigh. It’s almost 2:30, lunch is a few hours past, and food and a seat at a shady restaurant might be just the thing. McCormick and Shmick’s is right across the street: Casey gets a glazed look on her face and her lips curve in a baby sloth smile as she murmurs, “lemon drop martinis.” Everyone perks up.

After depositing luggage in the room that is ready, we troop to the restaurant and nab a table outside. Our wrought iron chairs scrape on the bricked patio as we sit under a wide-spreading tree, enjoying the bustle around Faneuil Hall and the view of our hotel but a crosswalk away.

I am close to content, but my stomach will not let me forget my responsibilities – my toast and the welcome dinner tomorrow. I have practiced my little talk in the shower, in bed (why sleep?), and during the drive to Boston. Why does the thought of speaking, even before a loving audience, trigger such agitation? Beyond that, my antennae are swiveling: is everyone happy? Is Mom feeling more relaxed? She was concerned that a snack so close to our 6:00 dinner reservation at Top-of-the Hub was a poor idea, but she seems to be enjoying her gazpacho. Casey, Francie and Rita are blissfully sipping their lemon drops while I’ve chosen iced coffee. For now, I need the caffeine.

Dave has been in cell-contact with Tucker who is joining us, the Ingersoll clan, for dinner while Lisa’s family gathers for a barbecue elsewhere. As we rise, snacks and drinks consumed, Dave spots our son striding briskly toward us, his eyes scanning the crowd.

My boy - soon to be married! Of course I know this, but it’s hard to truly grasp that this tall, slender, handsome man is the little guy with the bowl cut, the toddler who loved Frog on His Own, the same kid who made the bi-plane of toothpicks, and collected He-Man action figures. It stuns me when we are recalling decades-old stories and Tucker chimes in with his memories of that time, proof that this grown-up holds within him the three-year-old, the five-year old, and the ten year-old Dave and I raised. My son is getting married… and I wrap him in my arms and hold him close.

“Sweetie! Hi! Is the dress ready? Are you feeling less stressed?” I repeat the refrain of this wedding’s soundtrack so far, and blessedly, he nods and smiles. “The dress is set as of this morning (this morning!) and my vows are close to ready, so that’s a relief. I sent them to Dad for a look. Now I just have to get through the dance.”

The dance? I know he and Lisa have been taking dance lessons as many young couples do nowadays. Despite many family living room dance sessions in the eighties, with the kids bobbing on a parental hip or racing around like crazy-heads while Ry Cooder or Jackson Browne rocked on the stereo, my son was never an enthusiastic dancer. It makes sense that he and Lisa would seek to tighten up Tucker’s fox trot for their First Dance.

After a brief meander around Faneuil Hall, we return to the hotel, pick up keys to the additional rooms, freshen up, and hail cabs for the trip to the Top-of-the-Hub at the Prudential Center. Upon arrival, we spin through a revolving door, ride the escalator, and walk across the mall to the elevator. I reflect that it would have been a difficult stretch for Dad had he lived to join us. It is a long march for Mom too, but she doesn’t say a word until Dave pushes the button for the 52nd floor.

“Which floor? The 52nd?” Mom queries. She inhales and clamps her arms more firmly over her pocketbook “Well. I suppose I’ll be okay if I sit near an inside wall. I’m not wild about heights.”

Oh my God. How did I not know this? This special treat atop a skyscraper with 360 degree views might not be Mom’s favorite.

But she is a trooper and once she is snug in her seat several tables away from the windows, she is fine. Eventually, she even strolls the perimeter with the rest of us, from window to window, to admire views of the famed Citgo sign, Fenway Park with its spotlights blazing, the islands in Boston Harbor, and a cluster of sailboats, circling like white butterflies,
on the Charles River below.

Once we settle in, we ponder the menu for a time. A long time. It’s expensive and I keep reading it over, hoping with each pass that I’d missed an item more moderately priced. No. The server describes the seafood cioppino and its ingredients artfully, and, with just the right Italian and French accents, explains the difference between that and a bouillabaisse. With or without tomatoes, with a touch of cream or not, they remain costly. Mom selects a scallop appetizer for her main course, I choose vegetarian lasagna, Dave opts for the cioppino, and the others order steak, salmon, and halibut. Choices made, stunned absorption of the prices accomplished, Tucker raises his glass for a toast. A toast to Dad.

“Here we are, the family together to enjoy good food and drink… yet somebody’s missing. It’s strange to gather without Grandy who would have loved this so much. In picturing what my wedding day would be like, I never imagined he wouldn’t be here. To Grandy.”

With tears in our eyes, we repeat, “To Grandy.” It’s a big table, so Rita, Casey and Jared have to stand to lean across the table and I rise to meet their glasses. Francie, Mom, Campbell, Matt, Dave, and Tucker - we all make sure every glass connects for Dad.

And later, during another Boston-beyond-the-windows viewing, Francie spots “NOSE” written in large white letters on a stretch of roof a block away. Mom nods in confirmation. “He’s here. I know he is.” “The Nose” had been my father’s nickname since his teens.











Friday, June 15, 2012

Piece of Cake - Part of Their Story

Cake tastings. Something new. When Dave and I were married, the cake was yellow with white frosting and plenty of flowers. Fulfilling two wedding cake requirements, it tasted good and made only a moderate mess when stuffed into each other’s mouths. Now, young couples research cakes. They attend showcases to collect brochures and perhaps nibble a few samples before making appointments for a more complete presentation. And when Tucker and his fiancé Lisa invited us to Boston to accompany them on this excursion, Dave and I jumped at the chance.

Times have changed since the seventies when my mother took care of the arrangements while I remained at college, desperately partying in the final weeks of school. At age thirty-two, Tucker and Lisa have experienced venues, DJ’s, flowers, favors, and food at any number of family and friends’ celebrations, so they have taken on the details for their wedding; they know what they want.

They wish the wedding and its preparations to be distinctive, to hold a story. Tucker’s wedding proposal to Lisa was carved in 800 pounds of snow trucked into the Esplanade on the Charles River on a hot July day. In April, they went into New York to learn how to craft, file and finish their own wedding bands. Their engagement pictures were taken in settings around Boston that had played a role in the early chapters of their life together. Memories sculpted and forged as much as the snow and the gold.

After a thrilling night Friday at Fenway Park, Dave, Tucker, Lisa and I rallied early for our first appointment at “Icing on the Cake,” the “Best of Boston” wedding cake service, according to Lisa. Paula, the owner, met us at the door and ushered us to a small room lined with models of cakes garbed in sumptuous fondant folds, cascades of marzipan flowers, and glittering silver sugar beads. The kids were leaning toward a cupcake tree or dessert buffet rather than the traditional tiered cake, so our mission was to eat our way to a decision.

With short, wavy, brown hair, dark flashing eyes and a ready smile, Paula had clearly done some sampling in the process of developing her award-winning recipes. She grinned and said, “Never trust a skinny chef.” She was friendly and chatty, professional and organized. She filled out paperwork with names, dates, guest numbers, and the wedding location. She provided binders replete with pictures to spark decorating ideas. She cautioned Lisa away from geometric designs because cutting and placement of the shapes was costly, but was flexible about the possibility of combining silver beads and frosting vines. She was firm in her policy on cupcake tree stand rentals, ($50, and the bride and groom are responsible for returning the stand within seven days of the wedding) but mentioned that many of her brides buy them on Ebay. So many details to consider in cake decisions alone!

After the preliminaries, Paula served plates of multi-layered cake strips: lemon with raspberry or Grand Marnier filling, chocolate mousse, yellow with strawberry filling, and red velvet with white frosting. We took our time, savored each bite, and made note of pros and cons. Well, not many cons; the cakes were moist and delicious. When the plates were empty, we shook hands, gave our thanks, borrowed the bathroom, and promised to get back to her.

We had several hours to recover before Tucker’s suit fitting and our next tasting at 4:00, so we walked down historic Boyleston Street. The 19th century buildings with their graceful mansard roofs, rounded brick facades, and black and gold storefronts were a fascinating contrast to our fellow strollers. Tuck and Lisa were unfazed by the passersby, but Dave and I whispered and nudged each other like kids in a classroom. “How does she keep her balance on heels that high?” “What might be the significance of that tattoo?” “I think that attractive woman was a man…”

You just don’t see that in Easton.

Next, a first for hippie-throwbacks Lea and Dave, a trip to Brooks Brothers for Tucker’s fitting. Past madras slacks in astonishing bands of red, yellow, navy and green; past polo shirts embroidered with tiny whales; past ties awash in lobsters, sailboats and Scottie dogs; past vintage photographs of early Brooks Brothers’ work rooms; past photographs of the original Brooks Brothers themselves, then up the staircase with its polished cherry railing to the fourth floor.

A man in a tailored suit (naturally) greeted my son by name, handed him a dark navy suit, and showed him to a dressing room. Moments later, Tucker emerged, handsome, tall, straight, and pleased at his reflection in the mirror and the pride in our eyes.

Unable to escape nostalgia, I invited toddler Tucker into the room, and remembered that same look of restrained pride – eyes alight, small smile (big smile fighting to break through, but held back) - on his little face while building a bi-plane from toothpicks or nailing a plank of wood onto a fort. My boy. Soon to be married...

With deft movements, the tailor made a series of chalk dashes on Tucker’s sleeves and marked the locations of the buttons down the front. Lisa rose from her seat and tugged at the back of the jacket a bit, ran her hand down Tuck’s arm, then stood back for the full effect. The two exchanged happy smiles.

Anything else? The question flashed in a glance from the tailor to Tucker, Tucker to Lisa, Tucker to us. Nods of satisfaction all round. Perfect.

After lunch at Sel de la Terre, we marched (running late! We lingered too long over lunch!) back to the garage to grab the car and drive to Conditor Meister, “master baker” in German, for our second tasting.

A different ambience entirely from the calm at Icing on the Cake, this shop sold pastries from expansive display cases and was feverish with activity. Held in their parents’ arms, children licked frosting off cupcakes, or whined and pointed with that goal in mind. Customers studied wads of dark chocolate, smoothly iced mocha topped with espresso beans, cream puffs, and chocolate dipped strawberries. Which one to choose? Perhaps a selection? To eat now or take home? The air was warm and heavy with yearning and the scent of baked goods.

We had business to attend to. Lisa checked in with Kimmy, a woman of twenty-two or so, olive-skinned, with long shining black hair pulled into a ponytail. We followed her to a room in the back, again, lined with cake models and binders of possibilities. She sat with us, noted the necessary information on her clipboard, then left briefly and returned with a tray of pastries. Full size pastries from the display cases out front. Cupcakes gussied up with multi-colored sparkles, roulades, a swan-shaped raspberry cream puff, chocolate mousse, fruit tartlets, key lime pie, and mini-cheesecakes.

Did I mention that Lisa is forced to follow a gluten-free diet and Dave is lactose intolerant, so Tuck and I were the sole tasters for this sugar-rich array?

We dug in. The roulades, cake rolls with fillings of lemon and Oreo creme, were divine – a surprise as they looked dry and mundane. Lisa reminded us, however, that wedding guests would make their choices based on “curb appeal” and those rolls might not even touch lips. The fruit tart was pretty, vaguely healthy, not my favorite, but a colorful addition to the assortment. The cheese cake? I’m not a fan, but many are. Actually, Tucker and I are of the “if it’s not chocolate, it’s not dessert” camp, so we tried to consider others’ tastes and stretch beyond our instinctive grab for the mousse.

Not wishing to waste, Tuck and I were thorough, and left little but crumbs and frosting smears in the ruffled paper pastry cups.

And then Kimmy appeared with another tray.

What? Yes. “And there’s more to come.” We would have paced ourselves if we’d known! Taken a tidbit only of each! But no. Resigned, we took new plastic forks and gingerly tried the almond crusted marzipan mounds, raspberry filled chocolate candy cups, and crumbly cannolis. We had a job to do.

Wistfully, Lisa asked if any of the desserts were gluten-free and was rewarded with a hunk of fudgy…um, fudge. Even Dave took a taste. Heavenly.

“Want some coffee?” Dave asked. God, yes. Something to cut through the sugar bloat.

“There’s more,” Kimmy said.

“Impossible,” Tucker and I gasped. I would have thought open season in a pastry shop a blissful dream, but could not imagine prying my mouth open for another forkful.

“Then I’ll pack them up along with your favorites,” said Kimmy brightly.

Groan.

Tucker and I parried about who would take the two boxes of complimentary pastries. “Really Mom, you take them.” “No Lovin’, I want you to have them.” Reeling as we were from all that frosting and filling, rarely have we been so gracious about desserts. I won the debate and left the boxes behind with my son, in hindsight, a hasty move. Coffee with one of those almond crusted marzipan mounds sounded pretty good Sunday morning.

When Dave and I left Boston, dessert discussions were still underway. After that selfless day of gluttony on behalf of friends and family, would a stand of Paula’s cupcakes entice the wedding guests, or a delectable array of cream puff swans, fudge cake and lemon roulades?




Monday, May 14, 2012

Up the Water Spout

I am re-reading Robert Fulghum’s book All I really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten. Every cheery, soulful essay resonates and makes my nose prickle with near-tears. Be fair, be kind, clean up your own mess, and when you go out into the world, hold hands and stick together. Fulghum muses about how different the world would be if more people and governments lived by the lessons of childhood.

Another chapter humorously reports a neighbor’s encounter with a spider web and the resulting horror, shrieks and fright. Fulghum imagines the equally terrified spider and recalls that kindergarten favorite, “The Eensy Weensy Spider.” What a plucky lass, that undaunted arachnid, to dry off and try again every time the rain washes her down the water spout.

These upbeat essays have been part of my morning self-cheerleading regimen during a difficult stretch: I miss my Dad, my mother-in-law was hospitalized with pneumonia, and Dave totaled his car on I-95.

After Dad died in January, I wasn’t just sad, I was also fragile. A friend observed that when her father died, she came to see an added value to the old tradition of wearing black: not only was it a sign of respect for the dead, but it also showed others that one was grieving and might need greater gentleness. I get that. People who know about Dad have been so dear, dear in a way that I have not been for others. Until my father died, I did not realize, exactly, what it means to lose a parent, this person who is woven into so many memories, into the very person one has turned out to be.

Then, while sitting in the doctor’s office with my mother-in-law before taking her to the hospital, this fragile Lea received Dave’s call about his accident. Surreptitiously, I took deep breaths and thought, “What would a grown-up do?” I am a daughter who has lost her father, and fifty-nine or not, my grown-up self remains an elusive person who has not reliably established herself as a solid pillar. Once, along with my mother, Dad was that pillar. Dave stepped in a while back to help fill the role.

Every day as he heads out the door for his commute, my husband promises me he will drive carefully. He is a cautious driver, owns a Volvo, and I like to think the Universe watches over him and honors what should be his unbreachable encircling wall of good karma. Following Dad’s death, though, I’ve been poignantly aware of mortality, and this accident shook me. Dave was not hurt, but he could have been, and I have worked hard to eliminate that possibility from my mind.

In fact, I was bearing up well in the wake of these setbacks, sustained by others’ kindness and reassured by my unexpected ability to deal with hard times. Stronger than I thought, I’d reflected. Wishful thinking.

Early on Friday, the day after Dave’s accident and his mother’s admittance to Bridgeport Hospital, I got a call about a cell tower proposal. A company in Danbury thought a strip of land about 400 feet from our 1782 house-in-the-woods was the perfect site for a monopole. Across the swamp and up the rise, just over the old stone wall, it would be plainly visible from our backyard. What would the deer, turkeys, songbirds, and frogs make of this? Would they leave, the woods becoming silent and still but for the hum of the tower’s machinery?

My home was under attack, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to find the energy to do this – go to town hall to review cell tower regulations, rally neighbors, attend meetings, and protect my house.

Casey, my twenty-nine year-old daughter, was on her way to the gym, but decided to stay when she saw my stricken expression. Upon hearing of the tower, she was enraged, as much by the effect on her mother as the tower itself. “It won’t happen, Mom. I will stand before them, tell them about your cancer, and that will sway them…I tell you, it won’t happen. You’ll see.” She stood straight, tall, young, imposing, my warrior princess. She folded me in her arms…and I sobbed. When she left for work, I went to bed, curled up under a quilt, and wept.

Over that weekend, we received calls from friends who had read about the tower in the newspaper. Just as my daughter had, they offered help, hands to hold out in the world. Dave came home from work in his bright red rental, a snappy FIAT Cinque-Cento. We had lentil soup, cheese bread, and wine for dinner, and watched funny movies. It is amazing what a difference fuel makes; fuel for the body, fuel for the spirit.

On Friday afternoon, I’d been a pathetic lump on my bed in the dark. By Monday, I was the spider, dried off, buoyed, and on my way to town hall.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Shifting Gears

[This entry actually precedes all the Thai essays, as it was written last summer before Casey departed for her trip...]

10 rolls of paired socks
15 pairs of undies
a fistful of thongs
3 LuluLemon tank tops
2 pairs LuluLemon cropped pants
3 pairs of shorts
4 blousy tee shirts
3 bikinis (reduced from 6)
raincoat
bandanas
personal care products:
4 toothbrushes
toothpaste
bug spray – lots of it
a Ziploc bag of OB tampons
soap
make-up
travel toilet paper
assorted medications for an array of potential afflictions, including malaria
roll-up bag with plastic compartments for personal care products
2 dresses – 1 rainbow spaghetti strap, 1 little black dress
Luna health bars
water purification tablets and devices
2 long sleeved shirts

A moss green backpack lies open, gaping, at the foot of the guest room bed. My daughter Casey marches back and forth between her own room and the guest room, packing for a four-month trip to Asia. I follow her, hoping to seem good company as opposed to a pathetic mother who wants to drink in every last moment with her before she leaves.

“Do I need this many undies? Would I wear this white top? How do I feel about all the warnings on this DEET insect repellent?” I realize she is not asking me, merely musing aloud, but I know how I feel about the warnings: “Don’t put it on your face. And be sure to wash your hands carefully after application.” It is all I can do not to spew a stream of reminders and cautions. “Yes! Bring the white top – to wear over the LuluLemon tanks! No! You don’t need all those thongs. Do you have any long pants? Have you researched which country doesn’t allow chewing gum? Where you shouldn’t look a man in the eye? Where you need to cover your shoulders? Have you…? Remember…! Don’t…!”

I know Casey doesn’t want to be caned or kidnapped any more than I want her to be, but I eye those short dresses and cute little tank tops and I want to add a voluminous shawl or at least a few more additions to the long-sleeved shirt pile.

She’s had inoculations, perused travel books, and done a lot of Googling. We have copies of her documents, a list of the few contacts she has overseas, a loose itinerary, and a new Skype account. Her father, Dave, has written a packet of sixteen poems for her, of the “Roses are Red” variety, one to be read every Monday she’s away.

I have made sure the saints are on duty by purchasing a St. Christopher’s medal – a must for any traveler. I have silently called on deceased relatives who love my girl to ask that they keep watch. Dave bought SOS insurance so we can helicopter her out in case of an emergency. We considered buying a personal tracking device, but Casey did not want the extra weight. Besides, “I’m not trekking into any deepest, darkest jungles, Mom...”

Well, not exactly…She is going to Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia. For a child of the seventies like myself, names that conjure images of dark, green, tangled danger; bloody soldiers; fear. Friends who have made this trip rave about the beauty of these countries and the kindness of the people. But still…

What more can we do to protect our child on this distant journey? At what point is our wish to protect an intrusion? How much of this is about our own fears? My own fears? A lot. I know.

Like an idiot, I’ve flipped through photo albums from the eighties when Casey and her brother were content to hold my hand, sit in my lap, or ride on my hip, close and safe. But Casey is twenty-eight and has lived in New York for the past four years. She knows how to handle herself. She’s resourceful, resilient and brave.

Still, anxiety has been a gnawing discomfort – for her as well as me. One afternoon, I peeked into her room and thought she was napping …then I noticed her shoulders shaking under her coverlet. “Sweetie? What’s wrong?”

“What am I doing, going on this trip?” she said, sobbing. “I’m so overwhelmed.”

I found myself in the unlikely role of trip champion. We discussed the reasons for this journey beyond the obvious call of adventure: broadening horizons, forging connections and immersion in different cultures. She is searching – for self-insight, for direction, for what might be her next step. We’ve talked about the clarity - the potential for sorting out her life - that four months away offers. We both know the truth of these points. And suddenly I had an image of myself, Eeyore-like: my worry as draining to my daughter as the malaria she hoped to avoid…and something within me shifted.

In the days that followed, as Casey’s to-do list bore a cheering column of check marks, excitement displaced her worry as well. While she pawed through her drawers and closet deciding what to bring, I sat on the floor in her room and read travel books. I marveled at pictures of pagodas, pandas and elephant orphanages. Of men poling low-slung boats on the Mekong River. Of narrow streets strung with scarlet paper lanterns. Of the towers and gateways of Angkor Wat twined with tree-like vines. And I could feel it – the flame, the lure, of things so foreign.

When an event is anticipated for so long, it becomes unreal. Once the backpack was zipped, passport and documents checked and counted four or five times, and her room swept visually for any errant articles, it was…time to go. Dave, Casey and I stood by the door, almost surprised. It was actually happening.

I am the mother so I had to say, as a matter of routine, “You’re sure your plane departs from JFK, right?”

“Yeah… (Pause). Yeah. But you make me nervous by asking.” She fumbled through her bag for her itinerary. Couldn’t find it. Started to boot up the computer. Took too long. Called Karis, her partner-in-travel, who was already on her way to Newark.

Newark?

“Right. Okay. (Embarrassed laugh). Newark,” said Casey.

I resisted the urge to say “Aren’t you glad I asked?” more than three times during the ride to New Jersey.

Now she’s in China. She has written blogs about a jelly-kneed cable car ride to see a giant Buddha, about markets selling shark fin, turtles, bags of live frogs, jade and silk. About a scary arrival in Beijing to a haze-filled night, a half-naked man who blocked their path and vomited, dark alleys, no English in evidence, and no idea where to go. And she wrote about the kind woman who saw they were lost and stopped to help, who hailed a taxi for them, then pulled out her cell phone to call their hostel for directions to guide the cab driver. About a beautiful, ancient man playing a stringed instrument in the street. About other travelers who helped her feel she was safe.

She is fine. She is safe.

We’ve seen her on Skype once – her face blurry and pixilated, her speech delayed. We email and we’ve spoken on the phone a few times and it sounds like she’s in the other room. But she’s not; she’s thousands and thousands of miles away. And the fullness of life far beyond anything she has known is unfolding before her.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Smile No Matter What

When our cab pulled up to Shanghai Mansion with four somber passengers, one gauze-swaddled and gimpy, the cluster of tuk tuk drivers outside the hotel crowded close to help Karis dismount. The doorman gently boosted her over the sandbag barricade at the entrance and turned to Dave with questioning eyes. The tale of the theft and our trip to the hospital rippled from doorman to drivers, and set heads to shaking with mutters of concern and disgust.

We stopped at the front desk to fetch our keys from the clerk, and I babbled our story again. Karis smiled weakly, and held up her white-padded finger. With no change in expression, no indication she’d heard my monologue or noticed Karis’s bandages, the clerk said, “Which rooms?” then slid the keys across the desk.

Maybe bandages in Bangkok are too common to warrant comment?

As we shuffled down the hall, the girls supplied the missing exchange in fierce whispers, Casey fawning, “Miss, are you okay? Can I do anything to make you comfortable?”

“No,” sighed Karis stoically. “I’ll be fine. Just a bit of internal bleeding, but I’ll survive.”

We chuckled morosely, but really, lady. Not even a hint of curiosity or kindness?

Still, we were giddy with relief to be back at the hotel. Dave and I left the girls to settle in, and returned to the refuge of our purple walls, red-lacquered woodwork, and welcoming bed.

But sleep? No. I was too wired, and a tumble of questions vied for frontrunner: How would Karis feel after a night’s rest? Would she be able to lift her pack? What would her father say once that difficult call was made? Would the girls continue south to the islands as planned? And beyond all that, would the luxury of decisions wash away in rising waters?

Like flood debris snagged on a submerged limb, my churning thoughts came to rest on the callous clerk. We weren’t the only guests to be treated so: we’d almost passed on Shanghai Mansion because of negative TripAdvisor reviews about staff. Most of the morrow’s issues were beyond my control, but in this small area, I might be of service. I didn’t want to get the woman in trouble, but surely when faced with an injured guest, a response of some kind - surprise, if not sympathy - was warranted. I resolved to speak to the manager in the morning.

The next day, Karis was sore and her finger throbbed, but she’d removed the bandages on her face and shoulder, taken a shower and washed her hair. I had grown to love this dear girl with her wide blue eyes and easy laughter, and I was weepy with gratitude to see her moving about her room, tucking clothes into a bag, and smiling at me as I stood in the door. It so easily could have been otherwise, but for the grace of … I wasn’t sure who or what to thank… God? Cathy? Buddha? The monk’s bracelet? In my heart, I thanked them all.

As it turned out, the girls informed me, the medications had worked spectacularly well, and Karis felt so good after returning from the hospital that she and Casey had opted to re-pack their bags before bed. What? The woman had almost been killed mere hours before, but she’d had an urge to sort her stuff? Again, I was weepy and giggly with gratitude at Karis’s mobility and her insane impulse to sort even as I told her she was out of her mind. “Believe me,” said Karis, “Nothing could have made me as happy as getting this done,” for they’d unloaded half of each backpack into an MBK duffle for Dave and me to take home. With their packs lightened, island breezes beckoned and they were eager to flee Bangkok. Karis still had to call Gary and was dialing the phone as I headed downstairs to talk to the manager.

The clerk with the pinched-kitten face was on duty as well as a woman I’d not seen before. She had powder-white skin, kohl-lined almond eyes and a delicate frame. Her nametag said, “Pattyana.” When I asked to see the manager, both women looked alarmed. “She’s in a meeting. What’s wrong?” they said in unison. “I am the assistant manager,” Pattyana said. “Can I help you?” When I indicated I wished to speak in private, the two exchanged glances of greater concern than any shown when Karis hobbled in the night before.

Pattyana and I sat in two overstuffed chairs in the lobby, out of earshot of the front desk. A graceful purple orchid arced from a large glass bowl on a small table between us.

When asked, Pattyana indicated her familiarity with TripAdvisor, and I told her about the negative staff reviews and our own experiences. “It may sound foolish,” I said, “but for people far from home, their hotel is their home. Something as simple as a friendly smile means a lot.” Immediately, Pattyana’s lips curved to comply, and remained so, except for moments when a furrowed brow was more appropriate. She was listening; she was trying… and she stroked my arm kindly when I described the theft and Karis’s wounds.

When we wrapped up the conversation, I reiterated my hope that I’d not jeopardized anyone’s job. Pattyana said, “We can move people around…make sure the right person is in the right position.” She said she’d pass along my comments to the manager, gave me coupons for complimentary drinks, and smiled and smiled and smiled. Mission accomplished and everyone was happy. At least, that’s what I thought.

Meanwhile, Karis had reached her father. From half a world away, he heard about his daughter dragged down a dirty city street by a thieving cyclist on a gold motorbike. She told us later that he worried because the mishaps were escalating, each one worse than the one before. And he was right. He wanted her home, but she wasn’t willing, yet, to concede. Gary was reassured, to whatever extent was possible after such news, that no other big cities were on the itinerary, and the islands would be a safe place to heal.

For Dave and me, it was our last day in Thailand. Originally, we’d planned on more sightseeing, but decided a leisurely day was in order after the trauma and late bed-time of the night before. As we left the mansion to wander Chinatown, the doorman and tuk tuk drivers grinned to see Karis, walking, smiling, whole. I couldn’t look at her myself without a lump in my throat.

We meandered narrow alleys to peruse the market stalls in Chinatown, eyeing tables laden with dried fish, herbs, pork rinds, and squid. Karis scrutinized street vendors’ displays of jewelry, key chains, and cell phones spread on squares of fabric on the sidewalk to see if any resembled the contents of her stolen bag. Twice, she approached women wearing their purse straps looped around their necks to warn them to be careful. She angled her neck so they could see the angry red welt rubbed in her skin by the chain strap before it broke. “If I can save someone else, then some good has come of it.”

We gazed in store windows and entered a shop specializing in porcelain. Throughout her travels, Casey had purchased an abundance of clothes and bracelets, but I encouraged her to buy a special piece, one that would be a lasting memento of her journey. After scanning shelves of figurines, bowls and platters, she decided on a tea set with a pale crackle finish and blue floral motif. I imagined her, long after I’m gone, holding up the rounded pot to show her children and grandchildren, while reminiscing about her long-ago trip to Bangkok.

Upon returning to our room, flowers, a bountiful bowl of exotic fruits, and a note of apology from the management greeted us. Dave and I darted across the hall and the girls flung open their door, beaming, as they had received the same, plus a colorful get-well card for Karis. “I will keep it forever,” she said.

Casey, Karis and I went to find Pattyana and encountered her in the hall with two other employees. We gave her hugs and lavish thanks, oohed and ahhed over the fruit and flowers, and praised the design of the card. Shyly, she admitted she’d made it herself. She also said she’d conveyed our conversation to the manager who said she’d use my input in future staff training sessions. It seemed my comments had been heard and would be put to good use in serving the hotel.

But later, when we came in from dinner, the woman on duty was she who had supplied keys but no sympathy the night before, and she was as impassive as ever. Well. Perhaps the smile-message had not reached everyone.

As we turned to head to our rooms, she said in a small voice, “Wait. I am sorry about last night.” Her eyes filled with tears as she reached across the desk to take our hands in hers…and she was trembling. Trembling! My mind raced at her distress. What had been said to her? What was the penalty in Bangkok for upsetting a guest? We tried to reassure her, patting her arm, cooing and clucking as our faces sagged in sorrow to reflect hers. She smiled gamely; I guess she had been instructed to smile, smile, smile, after all.

* * *

I write from my seat on the Cathay Pacific flight to JFK. Lunch was a sumptuous repast of curried rice with cashews, chickpeas and corn dumplings, with a side of dragon fruit, papaya and pineapple. For dessert, a tasty corn and coconut milk pudding. Oh Delta, American, and United, take heed!

Our 6:00 a.m. farewells with the girls at Shanghai Mansion were uneventful, if surreal. No water splashed at the sandbag barricades, no nasty clerks snubbed us as we shouldered our packs. But after dipping so briefly into Casey and Karis’s fantasy journey, Dave and I had no wish to leave.

At home, our lives are dictated by the school schedule and our calendar, and the decision to take this two-week adventure, for us, was an unaccustomed display of daring. Given our ignorance of the world beyond Europe, we had approached Asia with high anxiety. Where the cocoon of routine and internal chatter so often shutters my senses, Thailand was an awakening. Stripped of blinders and control, we encountered wonders by taking risks.

As enthusiastic as they’d been about our company, Casey and Karis were ready to be on their own again. I knew Casey felt responsible for us, for every setback, for every walk that went too long, for every meal Dave disliked. After the worry and stress of Bangkok, the islands promised breezy beauty, simplicity, independence, and freedom.

Years ago, I saw Jewel, the singer, accept an award on television. She said her parents taught her to live bravely, and she had embraced that mantra. I was gripped by her words, and yearned for Tucker and Casey to have that spirit, but while Dave is a courageous soul, my creed is caution. I wished I'd heard Jewel's speech a bit sooner.

After graduating from college, my daughter moved to New York hoping for a career in theater, a difficult goal. She was disappointed, at least temporarily, but she rebounded, sought a new direction, and trained to teach pilates. She had a solid clientele, but felt restless. When Asia called, she seized the opportunity to travel, write, photograph, and learn more about herself. During this trip, I have seen her chase a thief, hug a tiger, and navigate the streets, subways and sky trains of Bangkok, undaunted and ready for more. I have mused that my son, Tucker, too, has taken risks and faced challenges in launching businesses in Nashville, Cambridge and Providence. My kids do live bravely…and they’ve done it on their own.

As I flip through the movie selections on my in-flight screen, tears well in recalling our arrival in Chiang Mai only two weeks ago. Dave and I had drooped into our room at Sirilanna to a vision of pink dragon fruit, fresh bananas, aromatic jasmine leis, and a baggie of crickets. And just when I peeked into the hall, Casey stuck her head out her door. My girl and Karis! They’d hiked, sailed, flown, and ridden tuk tuks and trains across China, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos to reach us. There they were: two brave travelers in blousy fisherman pants, wrists wreathed in leather bracelets and beads, their skin shining with sweat, hair wispy in the humidity, faces glowing. They emanated confidence. Armed with their well-earned citizen-of–the-world credentials, passports brilliant with visas and stamps, they had proved to themselves they could find their way... and conquer anything.