Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Invisible Woman

School started last week and it's been the usual uphill push to get the ball rolling again. I signed up to room-parent both girls classrooms again (I finally relinquished one position yesterday - the overachiever needs to slow it down a bit) which makes the ramp-up to back-to-school-night slightly crazed. Meeting with teachers, both to give them my take on my children and to drill them for what they want for the year ahead room-parent-wise. Pestering fellow parents for party money and cell phone numbers for the emergency phone tree. Getting into the groove of making lunches and walking or riding the kids to and from school. Transition time. And, as we all know, transitions can be tough.

Last night, as I was headed out the door to back-to-school-night, laden with bags of salami, crackers, cheese and grapes, Lana and Mihiretu grasping my legs, begging me not to leave them (for two full hours, with their favorite babysitter, poor, poor, children) Mae handed me a carefully stapled, fastidiously colored, paper tennis shoe with strict instructions to put it in her classroom. It was an assignment she had brought home to finish but wanted on display for the big night.

I hobbled down our steep driveway in my three-inch wedge sandals (I'm going to wear them sometime, goddamn it). I shoved the bags of food into the panniers on my bike. I rode to school (quite a feat in three-inch wedges). I placed the food in artful arrays in both classrooms. I gave my room-parent speech to Lana's class. As I sat back down in the miniature seat, I realized, with a wave of nausea, that I didn't have Mae's shoe. Then, between signing up for classroom jobs, running to Mae's classroom to do the same, packing up uneaten food and making my way home with Ben in the dark, I forgot again.

This morning, as I was assembling lunches and urging children to eat their breakfasts, Mae asked about her shoe. I froze mid-jelly sandwich and admitted that it hadn't made it to school. She was immediately in tears, understandably so, saying that she would have to make another one and she had spent so much time on that one. I apologized, told her that if we couldn't find it, I'd tell her teacher what had happened and I'd help her construct another. That, of course, didn't appease her. Her eyes narrowed to slits, tears still on her cheeks, and she stared me down, drilling me with fury. This is a specialty of Mae's, one I'm not a big fan of.

I told her that as sorry as I felt and as much as I could understand her anger, sometimes, on my end, it seems like the only thing that's seen are the mistakes. I'm always in motion. The housework is one thing. Then there's the scheduling - after-school activities, play-dates, our babysitting co-op, dinners with other families, doctor's appointments, vacations. Then there's the stuff I do for school, tasks from which my children benefit but are really meant to keep this social fabric we depend on intact. On top of that, the weight of holding the emotional health of these children, doing my very best to insure that they make it through this childhood with as much self-esteem and joy as possible.

I do all these things. I do them happily. I love my job. I'm so grateful I have the opportunity to be at home with my kids. But sometimes it feels like it all goes unnoticed. Except for when I lose the paper sneaker. I don't need to be thanked all the time. If they were thanking me for everything I did, honestly, we wouldn't have time to talk about anything else. But when things do go wrong - and, to my credit, it's rare - I'd love a little more slack.

Sometimes I feel like I'm giving my family everything I have. I try to feed myself, too, but usually I feed them first. And, like mothers and wives for time immemorial, sometimes it feels like I've given everything away. Ben does his job, a job, I'm well aware, that pays our bills, but all the same, a job he loves. The kids will go on to pursue what calls them. And I wash the dishes. And make the phone trees. And get older.

I love these people so much. I can't even come near to putting it into words. If you've loved a child, you know what I'm talking about. I want to give them what I'm giving them. But sometimes I wonder where I am in all of this. Where's the actress, the intellectual, the flirt? Sometimes it feels like I'm the maid, the secretary, the nurse - all honorable jobs - but I do them most often invisibly. This is a selfless job. But when you look at that word, selfless, what does it mean? Without a self? I'm too vain, too egotistical, too flawed, to be selfless.

The job of a mother is to send children out into the world who are the best people they can be. Whole people who can go forth and maybe make a positive difference in the lives of others. I know that I am doing that. I'm doing it well. My work may be largely unseen, now and forever. Most of time that's okay with me. Today I could use a little pat on the back.

This morning, after my talk with Mae, I suggested she take a walk down the driveway and see if she couldn't find her shoe. Moments later she came back triumphant, the shoe intact and unspoiled in her hand. I hugged her and apologized again. She went to comb her hair before we left for school. And then I felt a small hand on my hip. Lana gave me a gentle and wordless embrace. She gave me a little pat on the back.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Our family vacation this summer, beyond the handful of two or three day camping trips in Scout (the trailer has now been christened), is a week at a family camp in Mendocino County. Emandal is a working farm and has seen families come and go for over a hundred summers. The majority of the food consumed by campers is grown right there outside the farmhouse. It is some of the most delicious cuisine I’ve ever had the pleasure of sampling; organic vegetables, homemade bread, granola, yogurt and farm-roasted coffee. In my normal neo-hippy existence, I eschue wheat, dairy, and sugar. Here I have a glass of milk and at least two baked goods with every meal. I plan to gain at least five pounds.

There is no cell service here and limited internet. I haven’t had any contact with the outside world for days and won’t for days more. Cars are unloaded at the 100-year-old cabins and then parked far from view, given a week’s rest. Wallets sleep next to I-phones on the shelf. There’s nothing to buy.

Activities include milking the cow, collecting eggs, picking berries for pies, helping harvest vegetables for dinner, loafing under the apple trees and swimming in the river that snakes through the property. The kids are running free, visiting the rescue kittens up for adoption (if we make it out of here without a kitten, I will be impressed by our parental resolve), catching lizards, visiting sheep and goats and llamas and ostriches, enjoying a bit of independence in this helicopter age. Unlike other family camps, there is no tie-dying, basket-weaving or lanyard construction. Children are left to roam, to create their own fun. They’re given the chance to be bored which is where the delight really begins.

We are here with our friends Elizabeth and Ben, which, as all the other times we’ve vacationed with them, makes for fun introductions. “My name is Liz and this is my friend, Elizabeth. That guy over there with the cowboy hat is her Ben. That one, with the brown boy on his shoulders, is my Ben.” Lana and their son, Hugo, friends from the womb, several times married, have been busy shucking corn and smashing basil for pesto. Hugo’s four-year-old brother, Axel, and Mihiretu are yin and yang, Axel wearing a crown of white curls, Mihiretu with his own riotous brown halo, Axel mellow and contemplative, Mihiretu fierce and ever-moving. Mihiretu, now dubbed “Mr. Yang”, has taken up competitive farming; “Azel, I got mo’ bewies than you,” as he plops raspberries in his cup or “Azel, you no have appoes. I got lots a appoes,” as he places apple after apple in his aproned t-shirt. Mae has (thank god) discovered another nine-year-old girl. Together they spend hours petting kitties (“I like Squeak best, I think. No, maybe Maryanne. No, no, Ginger.”) and “running the rapids” down at the river, which consists of boarding an inner-tube and traveling the ten feet of slightly faster running water. I am getting out for a daily early morning run in a meager effort to counteract the mass calorie consumption, kicking up dust on the long dirt road back to modern life. Ben is riding his bike. I’m actually reading a book while my children are present, a never-before-heard-of achievement.

The kids, ever enterprising, have started a business. It’s called “The Riverside Spa” and it’s located on the shore opposite the main beach at the swimming hole. Mae is the motor of the ferry, a blow-up yellow vinyl raft. She entices clients at the beach, generally adults, lures them into the boat and swims them across. Her new friend, Ariel, sits behind the clients and massages their shoulders as they travel. Once at the spa, Lana, Mihiretu, and Axel start the treatments. The first treatment is free, a “sampler” (these kids know their marketing). Options include exfoliation, which entails gravely sand scrubbed into any available skin. There is also temple massage, which could be dangerous, were the kids better at their anatomy. The temple, according to these small masseurs, is on the cheekbone or the jawbone or, if they’re really having an off day, the elbow. Mae administered a “hot rock treatment” by dropping a sun-warmed stone in Ariel’s dad’s shorts. He had hot rocks, indeed. Hugo, meanwhile, is the manager. He collects payment in shells and secrets them away in his safe, a small opening beneath a mound of boulders, a prime spot for a rattlesnake if you ask me (he hasn’t). He has fired and rehired Lana, his assistant manager. Lana, in turn, has fired and rehired Mae. Mae, the lowly ferry-boat captain, is watching her step.

Last night there was a sing-a-long at the campfire, Ben (Elizabeth’s, not mine) on the guitar. Songs ranged from “Dinah Blow Your Horn” (which my Ben quietly changed to “Dinah Blow My Horn”) to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and finally, delightedly, to “Blister in the Sun”. Lana, after days of practice, performed a solo, her own version of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” She long ago learned the words from a songbook and has composed her own melody, which Ben graciously accompanied. It was beautiful, really. I prefer her version to Rogers and Hammerstein.

Mr. Yang is, generally speaking, a pleasure in this environment. For the most part, we are outside, Mihiretu’s preferred habitat. There is little structure, few rules to follow. He happily shadows his sisters and friends from berry bush to cow. He has become, almost without me noticing, a fairly normal four-year-old. Yes, there’s some yelling, minor tantrums, but nothing that every other four-year-old present isn’t guilty of. No longer are we the unwilling center of attention, the eye of Hurricane Mihiretu. The only semi-stressful periods are mealtimes. He insists on sitting next to me – I love his attachment, it was hard earned, but I could use a little elbow-room. He eats with his hands unless strictly guided to his fork, he uses my dress as a napkin, he chucks half-chewed mouthfuls on my plate if he doesn’t care for something. He shouts “Done!” and grabs his plate and glass and heads for the “magic window”, the portal into the kitchen, utensils dropping noisily to the floor. But then, and here is the essence of the beauty of this place, he goes outside. The kids congregate in the apple orchard, speaking their age-old kid language. They run free and we adults sit at the table and “dine” as Ben’s dad terms it. We sip our coffee and pick at our plates. We talk.

Next week we start school, we dive back into routine. I’m happy for it. Summer is delicious in so many ways; hours of swimming, picnicking at the farmer’s market, free in cotton dresses and flip-flops. It’s also intense; limited childcare, no schedule to cling to, waking each morning to “What are we doing today?” We find out on Friday who the girls have for teachers, which friends are in their classes. It’s exciting. But it’s also so delectable to have this last long week of summer vacation, these slow-paced, food-centered, dual-parented days outside, so very conscious of how lucky we are to be here in this small Eden, snuggling kitties, tucking in to yet another giant farm meal, together, all day every day.

Life here is much as it must have been in 1908, the year the farm was founded by Em and Al. This farm has seen a lot of young families, those long-ago children now parents to other children roaming the rows of corn. It points out our relative youth. The kids are little but won’t always be. Ben and I are young and strong and as beautiful as we’ll ever be. It lends a sepia tone to our time here. Yes, we, too, will age. The kids will grow more and more independent until finally they are out in the world. They need us now, sometimes desperately, but that won’t always be the case. It makes me want to take a mental picture (I’m ridiculously negligent in taking actual ones), to freeze these images, the five of us floating down the river in inner-tubes in the hot afternoon stillness, leaping from boulders into the green deep, Lana shrieking in fear of the fish.

There’s a scene in the play “Our Town” in which Emily, now dead, revisits an ordinary morning of her girlhood. Her mother hustles around the farm kitchen, readying breakfast, shouting to her children to get ready for school while Emily grasps her mother’s arms, tries to still her, desperate to connect, knowing how fleeting this time is. “Oh, Mama,” she says, “Look at me one moment as if you really saw me. Let’s really look at one another!”

There’s something about this time of year, as summer shifts towards fall, that is melancholy. The prime of the season, the bounty of the harvest, is almost behind us. Ahead of us is the dying of the year. I love the shift, I love change, I suppose, but it is tender, it is sweetly painful. We are always changing. Always losing something. Always coming into something new.

Someone else is making lunch, so I’m free to gaze at my children; Lana on a blanket under a tree working Legos with Hugo, Mae lovingly carrying a turtle she found on the trail back through the farm to the river, Mihiretu high on Ben’s shoulders grasping for apples. I can see them, truly see them, in this changing late-summer, early-autumn light.

Friday, August 5, 2011


I went to Los Angeles for a few days, without children or husband. I stayed in a hotel on the Sunset Strip with a view of the smoldering city and a rooftop pool. I drove a rental car, which seemed impossibly adult and un-mommy-like. Ripping around in my Nissan Sentra, not a care in the world.

I came down, ostensibly, for a college reunion. Truly, the reunion was an excuse for me to have a little time to myself, the chance to see not only my college friends but some of the other people I grew to love in my twelve years in that city. I arrived a virginal eighteen and left to marry Ben when I was thirty. They were formative, those years. I fell in love for the first time (and the second time and the third and the fourth). I lost my father. I grew up.

As I drove down Sunset to Westwood Thursday night, memory layered over memory. There's the Hamburger Hamlet where Arty's dad, Big Art, told me, dishearteningly, that Arty would never get married (Big Art was in fact wrong, Arty did get married, just not to me). There's that building where that creepy manager had his office. There's that other building where that other creepy manager had his office. There's a restaurant from which I delivered food, and another one, and another one. There's the quiet Beverly Hills residential street where I'd park between deliveries and run lines for the next day's auditions. There's the turn for Benedict Canyon, where my friend, Serena, lived freshman year. We'd sit on her parent's couch and drink red wine and share cigarettes, skinny dip in the pool, throw dinner parties and invite only boys. And there, oh my god, there is UCLA, scene of so much drama (onstage and off) and delight. I turned off Sunset onto Hilgard and flashed to driving that same stretch of road, my bare arms twined around my twenty-year-old paramour, helmet-less on his motorcycle, the Santa Ana winds whipping our hair, the spring scent of jasmine, the perfume of love.

The reunion itself was informal, a bi-annual, theater department exclusive in the bar of a Mexican restaurant. Walking in the room was like stepping back in time. There were my old friends somehow all looking the same. We just picked up the conversation where we had left it twenty years ago. Yes, we talked about babies and marriages and gigs on TV shows and upcoming performances at the House of Blues but, essentially, it was the same; banter, laughter, frank intimacy. Those friendships, dormant for so long, got the cup of water they needed and promptly bloomed. The concerns I had going in - is so-and-so still mad at me, will blanky-blank even remember me, what the hell should I wear? - instantly dissolved. Jason was grinning at me fondly and saying, "Oh, Liz Lavoie", as he did almost every day of college. Brian was covertly teasing me about the men in the room I had kissed, somehow he had always been the repository for my secrets. Shanee was in the corner with Mitch, as she had been for years of parties, Colin with Cat, Ildy with Brian, Matt with Christina. It was all so lovely and familiar. I was the little sister again in this family. I was back with these people that knew me - or that young adult version of me - so well.

It's all layers of identity, right? Reunions are great for that. Here is a group of people that knew you in a precise time and place. In this case, a time when I was a student, an actor, a girl trying to figure out how to be a woman. It was so satisfying for me to see those people, to remember that self, to (could it be?) accept that naive and hopeful girl, to welcome her into the party where my kindergarten self plays, my high school self, my striving twenties self, my mommy self, me.

I spent the next three days bouncing from friend to friend, from beach to trail to restaurant, catching up, the friendships spanning the decade after college. And I spent three nights alone in my hotel room, sprawled across the king bed, reading, writing, drinking the free coffee from downstairs. I didn't turn on the TV. I don't want to waste a second of it. The longer I sat there in the delicious silence, the more free I felt and, perhaps ironically, the more grateful for those four people I have at home. We'd been talking on the phone, Mae weeping in panic over learning her lines for "The Tempest" while her acting coach (that'd be me) was out of town, Lana telling me plaintively how much she missed me but then cheerfully dropping the phone to welcome Nana at the door, Mihiretu still unclear on the concept of telephone conversation, saying "Hello? Hello? Mama?" until he either ran off shrieking or burst into tears. And a beautiful long conversation with Ben, who I hadn't seen for a week due to overlapping travel. Lying on this big white bed laughing with him, chitty-chatting, like I did so long ago on another white bed in this city, him in Northern California, when it all began. When I'm given a little space, I can choose them again. I have a bit of distance and I can see them. I feel myself, all parts of me present and accounted for, not just the current roles I play - wife, mother, suburban forty-one-year-old middle-class white lady.

This was the first trip away from the kids that I wasn't entirely ready to come home at the end of it. Usually I'm desperate to get back to them. It feels physical, like I've been underwater too long and need a deep gulp of air. But this time, along with that strong desire to see them, was a gnawing I could only identify as homesickness. I was sad to leave this place, the only other place but Marin that I've set down roots. I got in a time capsule, in this case a Southwest airplane, and visited my past, wholly informed by my generally happy, confident, present self. And now it was time to get back into that time machine and return to my beloved family, my incredible friends, the beauty that is the Bay Area. And in doing so, I was, once again, leaving my people, my L.A. people, my 1988-2000 people. But maybe, because of my time there, i was carrying a bit more of myself back with me. That girl, long hair swaying, searching, ever searching, for love, for connection, for satisfaction, twirling to "Blister in the Sun" in a crowded Westwood apartment.