Goodbye, Dear Friend

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Last weekend, I went to Brooklyn to celebrate the life of my friend and mentor, Jane.  An inevitable fact of aging is those I love, who are older than I, sometimes die.  Jane died too soon, and I was glad her service was a few months after her death to give me some time to compose myself. 

 

On the July morning that Maggie called me to tell me Jane had died, torrential rains beat on the roof. I was numb, rattling around our big house in Eagles Mere like a ball bearing without destination.  Our son had an orthodontist appointment down the mountain.  Determined not to let the lozenge of my grief keep me from my routine, I got into the car with him , but as I navigated each familiar curve of our descent, tears began to leak from my eyes.  I swiped at them with the back of one hand, worried I would scare my son.  I felt the urge to howl, primal, at the injustice of losing Jane.  The orthodontist swiftly fixed the broken wire, and Atticus and I drove into Williamsport to Otto’s, my favorite independent bookstore.

 

Atticus treated me gently, as if I were a glass ornament. At the counter, I smiled damply at the woman and forged ahead.

 

“My friend died,” I announced, “and she always recommended books to me.  I need the titles she would recommend.”

 

The lady looked at me as if I had escaped from an asylum.  She smiled warily.

 

“I need your best first-run fiction,” I blundered on, tears spilling again.  “I need the best recent titles you have.”

 

Jane, you see, had always recommended titles. We both devoured books for pleasure, writing back and forth to each other. Every month or so, her email was full of suggestions, “Ansy, you simply must read Pachinko….” And I did. What would I do without her?

My friend, Alisa, a salesperson I’ve come to know over the years, came into the front of the store. Her kind eyes made my tears flow faster.  I blurted out my sad news again, and she glided to the shelves, plucking one hardback after the other.  No questions, just the meeting of my urgent need.  I stood next to her, holding the books, as if, in their weight, I could weight Jane, herself, to the earth.  We left with a shopping bag full of books:  Harry’s Trees, Asymetry, which I had sent to Jane a few days before; the new Charles Frazer, Southernmost, and Mrs. Osmond, Homegoing, both of which Jane had recommended in the spring.  I held the heavy bag, amulet against loss. 

 

So it was a good thing to have a few months between that day and the Saturday celebration about ten days ago.  I went to Jane and Thor’s house in August to say goodbye to the place where I imagine them together, to walk in their small garden, a garden full of flowers and herbs and rocket arugla that Jane smuggled into the country from Sicily.  For years, she gave me cuttings from her garden to root in Eagles Mere; some years they flourished; other years, they perished.  I saw, that summer afternoon in the garden, the Chapin English department, my dear colleagues of twenty years.  We often traveled to 12 Second Place for parties in the early summer, Jane and Thor entertaining us with sumptuous food and sparkling conversation.  I was paying homage, standing in that garden, to all of us, to the decades that we had spent together.

 

In the chapel at Packer-Collegiate School, I was overwhelmed by the Tiffany glass windows, by the presence of former students and colleagues, feelings coursing through me so fast, I could neither name or track them

 

But at the end, after all the tributes and the hugs and the exquisite cheese and crackers, I left lighter, as if Jane, in her death, had wrapped me in a web of love—all those people from my own past, from Jane’s life, gathered to remember her, to remind us of her care. And, when I arrived home, my stack of new books from Otto’s were waiting in the dining room where I had piled them in August.  I am ready to read them now. 

 

Train Friend: All I Want You to Know

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I take the train from Union Station in DC to Penn Station--the Acela, much sleeker than the clunky trains in which I once chugged up and down the Northeast Corridor, back and forth to college.  Seth and I took an overnight train home from DC after Passover one year, pulling into Penn Station and brushing our teeth in our tiny berth sink and heading straight to school for me, to work from him.  I like trains, like the past they evoke.  I find them more relaxing than planes.  In the station, I photograph the pigeons, who do not belong in a train station, but there they are. I muse about my family’s history—Great-grandfather changed the course of locomotive history with the compression engine feature he designed.  But that was long ago. I think of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, its art deco feel, cavernous ceilings, a building designed to show that men were mightier than nature.  Ha.  I think of Witness and Harrison Ford, and how I never used a bathroom at 30th Street after that film.  There was a pretzel/hot dog stand in the corner by the exit Mom and I used, and often, we would buy a hotdog—limp, delicious, covered in onions and ketchup or a soft pretzel slathered in brown mustard.  She was always waiting for me at the top of the stairs when I got home from college, her small frame enveloped in her gray-green Loden coat, a woolen fedora jaunty on her dark hair. I think of meeting people at Grand Central by the clock.  I love the coming and going of a train station, making up stories about the people I observe. 

 

This summer day, I heave my suitcase and my tote bag onto the train, tuck myself into a foursome, a table in between the seats.  It seems I have chosen wrong since I’m facing backwards, but I don’t mind.  I have my journal and a book and plenty of dreaming to occupy me as I gaze out the window.  The seats next to me and across from me stay empty until you arrive. 

 

You sit caddy-corner from me, across the table.  I estimate you are in your late twenties or early thirties. You are beautiful. I marvel at how elegant and put together you appear—hair tidy, nails manicured.  Never have I felt so effortlessly elegant, but then I stop myself.  Why should I assume your appearance is effortless? We both pull out our laptops and begin to work.  After some time, you bend deftly underneath our shared table and plug in a charging cable.  I feel relieved that you have found the outlet; I had forgotten that I would need to charge things.  I bend, too, and plug in.

 

How did our conversation begin? We smiled at one another, made a few remarks; it’s the casual easy banter of train strangers, born of shared circumstance, knowing we have no obligations to the future. I learned you have a little girl; she is twenty months.  You will meet your girlfriends in NYC for a girl weekend.  It turns out you are thirty-two.

 

Somehow, we meandered into a conversation about parenting, about marriage and our in- laws. You shared the pressure you feel of balancing work and school—you are getting an MBA in addition to working a big job and raising your daughter.  I feel protective of you—you sag a bit beneath the burden of the many cultural and gender expectations in your life.  Your husband and your in-laws have many thoughts about the woman you are supposed to be. Those expectations get set early in our marriages; they can make it hard to breathe. We talked about how strange it feels to be the “other” in our spouse’s family.  We absorb dynamics we may not fully understand. I told you that I run a girls’ school, that my two daughters are grown up.  Looking at you, with everything in front of you, my heart squeezes.  There are so many things I want you, a total stranger, to know. Here is my list—for you and for so many young women in my life:

 

  • ·You are enough—your efforts are enough. 

 

  • ·Make women friends who are older that you, who don’t know your spouse or your in-laws—but who will affirm you, your choices, your hopes.

 

  • ·Control, in excess, isn’t good for our daughters. That said, neither is juice.

 

  • With food, avoid the forbidden fruit approach—don’t make too big a deal out of any food—it doesn’t end well.

 

  • You know your child better than anyone else—I learned that from our first pediatrician. 

 

  • Trust your instincts.

 

  • We are plagued by FB posts from other moms whose tidy vegan children eat only kumquats while our progeny snarf down Mac and cheese—Annie’s not Kraft, of course.  This makes us feel like “less than” mothers.  But remember, those FB moms are carefully curating the version of their children that we see—those posts are designed to make us feel inadequate.  And their children still have tantrums and whine in public and melt down at 5:00 p.m. 

 

  • Avoid judg-y moms. They are a vexation to the spirit

 

  • Keep being brave in conversations with your spouse. Pretending things will change when take avoidance to a high art is folly. 

 

  • The work of raising children and caring for a home works best when shared.  If you’re keeping score, your partner isn’t doing enough.

 

  • Make times for friends who nourish you. Thank them. 

 

  • Self-care matters.  And you don't need to feel guilty for making time for yourself—it’s essential.

 

  • In-laws can be tricky on both sides. There are old habits that claim us.  Our spouse may regress to his or her adolescent self; so might we. 

 

 

  • A hotel room is always worth it when visiting family for longer than a weekend. It offers a respite, clean towels and a nicely made bed.

 

  • Keep asking questions and seeking role models who live the way you want to.

 

  • Be brave.  Courage is how we fight fear. Too often, I have not said what I needed to say for fear—but fear is a trap; fight it. 

 

The train jolts unexpectedly; suddenly we lurch along, captive on an amusement park ride we did not sign up for—like marriage.  We expected a smooth journey, a gorgeous wedding, happy times; we never anticipate the bumps.  We pass through the backsides of towns, seeing laundry lines and rubbish, detritus and neglected buildings, paint peeling, windows broken—it’s not a pretty view, but the grittiness is interesting, real, alive. 

 

I see the Art Museum on my left as we jostle through Philadelphia, my old hometown.  We discover we have a colleague in common!  We are not strangers anymore. 

 

Our conversation turns to screen time, another topic where absolutes do not help us.  We marvel at toddlers who can swipe their mothers’ I-phone screens.   We swim, temporarily, in guilt, considering, all we can do wrong to wreck our kids.  Yet, magically, we don’t.  They are more resilient than we fear. 

 

It is hard to raise children without having our own families near by.  It is hard to manage aging parents and the compromises that marriage requires. It is hard to manage expectations—our own and those that others have for us.

 

Eventually, we pull into Penn Station, lug our baggage out of the train and through the corridors to the huge, much less lovely, street level.  It’s time to part. 

 

“You’ve inspired me,” I tell my new friend.  I’m going to write a blog about our talk.  A few days later, we become Facebook friends.  A few months later, I recall our conversation.  In a quiet Wisconsin dawn, far away from the East Coast, I think of you and hope, on this autumn morning, that you are well, that you are managing, taking care of yourself and your little girl, that you remember you, flawed and glorious like all of us, are enough. 

 

A Tree Leaves the Circle

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A few Saturdays ago, I drove around the circle late in the afternoon and realized, with horror, that our apple tree had been cut down. I had noticed the tree company’s trucks around the school’s campus that Saturday.  They come each year to trim limbs and to check on the health of every tree, but it had never occurred to me that the apple tree would be there in the morning and be gone by afternoon..

 

In its place was a bare clearing, the stump raw.  I parked the car and chastised myself for my quick tears.  I loved that tree, loved how it marked the seasons—tulle pink blossoms the spring, rosy apples in late summer, etched bare branches stretching out against the winter sky.  It had a sense of dignity in its clearing on our circle, an agelessness.

 

Just two weeks ago, a whole herd of deer stood under it in lavender evening—three does and two late-drop fawns, still spotted, all munching apples and gazing, unafraid, as I passed with our three dogs. When they were little, Atticus, our son, and our neighbor, Shea, would gather up the apples—entirely unfertilized—and make apple bread.  As soon as he saw the tree was gone, Atticus texted Shea to share the terrible news. 

 

“Absolutely dead,” my facilities director reported when I asked on Monday.  “Sounded like a bass drum when they tapped on it; it had to come down.”  Of course it did. Safety is the most important thing in a school.  But, a small rebellious voice inside my head wondered—it was set back far from the street; it couldn’t have fallen on anyone.

 

“Did they do an environmental impact study?” my son demanded.  He, too, was bereft at the tree’s sudden disappearance.  “What about all the squirrels and the deer who relied on that tree—and the rabbits?”  His indignation was a thin disguise for grief.

 

“We could plant a new apple tree,” my facilities director suggests.  I nod.  It will be decades before a sapling can grow large enough to fill the empty space, sturdy enough for a child to climb.

 

I remember how much I loathe Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree—that spoiled boy and the selfless martyr mother of a tree, handing herself over bit by bit until she is dead.  Maybe it’s better to have our tree gone all at once, instead of witnessing her slow decline.  But the vacant landscape feels jarring.  I used to tease my son about how much he hated change; we got a new refrigerator and he mourned the old one; he did not want to paint his room or switch his comforter.  He liked things the way they were, predictable. When it comes to disappeared trees, I’m not as adaptable or as willing to embrace change as I pretend I am.

 

That same week, our school celebrated its ninetieth birthday on Lyman Circle.  The original property had been an apple orchard.  I wondered, as I passed the strange new bare spot, if this tree had been one of those original apple orchard’s trees.  In 1926, Sarah Lyman had brought members of her faculty out from Euclid Avenue to see the land.  It was a muddy day.  The teachers saw a sodden orchard, but Sarah Lyman saw a school.  We see what we want to see.  We can’t always see everything. 

 

To my eyes, the tree was healthy, bright green leaves shooting from dignified limbs, apples freely given.  But we cannot always know what’s inside.  As an English teacher, I have taught girls for decades to trace the imagery of appearance versus reality through plays and novels.  Truth isn’t always easy to perceive.  And truth, as an absolute, is elusive.  The tree company assessed the tree’s health and determined it had to go.  I regarded the tree as an old friend, vestige of an earlier era, part of our family’s story here, aging, certainly, but not ready to be chopped down.  Change is hard and takes time to get used to.  I’ll miss the gracious lady and her apples. I think I’m glad I never knew that she was dying. 

 

Tomorrow, Atticus and his dad are going apple picking.  I’m going to be with other heads of school.  We’ll talk about the state of girls’ schools, the opportunities and obligations, the responsibility we feel to nurture girls, to offer sustenance and shade and beauty and all the lessons of the natural and human world.  Tomorrow night, perhaps I’ll make an apple pie—in honor of our lost tree, in honor of what she offered, in honor of all the work yet to be done and the trees yet to plant.

 

Finding Our We: A Fourth of July Talk in Eagles Mere

 

For a number of years, I have spoken at our July 4th ceremony, following our parade. I “retired” from this gig last year, but share my remarks here. 

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Happy 4th of July, Eagles Mere.  When the invitation came to speak today, at first, I wanted to decline.  I waited a few days before saying yes.  I am worried about our country and I couldn’t think what I might say. And now a thunderstorm threatens to eclipse me, anyway.

My heart feels heavy these days about how we are doing as a country.

My son, however, reminded me that, in my work as the Head of a girls’ school, I talk all day long about concepts like civic responsibility and giving back and duty—I was busted by a thirteen year old.  So, here I am on this anniversary of our country’s declaration of independence from another country, whose system of government and the behavior of a tyrannical King felt intolerable.

Because I am an English teacher, I went back to the words of the Declaration of Independence to inspire me, particularly this phrase, the very end of the declaration:  “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

What might that mean today?  What does mutual mean?

Right—both of us.

Pledge means promise.

“Pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes—“

Do you think they meant only money?  Or could fortune mean something else?

I think it could also mean destiny, what happens next—because there were no guarantees about what might happen, how hard the struggle for independence might be—and, in fact, was.

“And our sacred honor”—You know that sacred means holy—but honor is a word we don’t talk about enough any more. To behave honorably means to do the right thing, even when no one is watching, to do what’s right instead of what’s easy, to hold oneself to the highest standards of integrity and justice and morality and faith, if you are a person of faith—it’s like having a tiny version of Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder all the time.

Those are the words with which those flawed, oh-so-human, white Protestant men ended our Declaration of Independence.  They didn’t know much about inclusion—they didn’t see women or people of color or immigrants as equals—even though they were, actually, all immigrants.  They were operating from a fundamental platform of privilege—and yet, they were doing the best they could to establish a democracy, to seek change for a common good—and they understood there was risk involved.  They did not know how things would turn out.

I often wonder if they were frightened, those men who disagreed and fought and fussed in Philadelphia—they actually wrote another document the year before they wrote the dec—we don’t read that one very much, but remembering that it existed reminded me of two things I wanted to share with you today

1)  Writing anything in a group is a terrible idea—it’s really hard to get people to agree—John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson, in particular, had a hard time compromising…Jefferson won.

2)  The group of signers believed in their ideals, in their hope for a future that was different from what they knew.  They were willing to put their lives on the line for those beliefs—with no guarantee that things would work out—because there are no guarantees when we try to do something new and hard; the point of risk-taking is that it implies risk.  When we play it safe, we do not change or grow or stretch or even learn.  Sacrifice is hard.

We talk a lot in our country about how it is a privilege to disagree—and it is.  Sometimes we forget the back end of privilege—that is obligation and responsibility.

These days, we’ve seen some nasty habits develop, which worries me for the children in our audience. Some politicians and regular people and even some people in this very crowd have fallen into a pattern of demonizing anyone with whom they disagree—of hating the person along with what that person thinks.  That feels dangerous to me.  And cowardly. 

We have fallen far from pledging our lives, our honor and our sacred trust—we have forgotten that, at our best, we are all on the same side, this country’s side—and that our own personal gain must come way after the good of the country, but we have different ideas about what is best for our country—very different ideas, and we are out of practice about how to disagree respectfully. 

The internet doesn’t help—it’s too fast, too easy to write things that we can’t take back—and we also get, from social media, a false sense of the speed with which the work of government generally happens—there ought to be process and checks and balances and due process and time for legislators to take the pulse of their constituents..  Real government is the opposite of Twitter.

In my school, civil discourse is a term we often reference—but don’t always know how to do.  It’s a concept the founding fathers understood—and wrestled with.  They debated fiercely among themselves—Dickinson and Jefferson had spirited disagreements about how hard to push the British king, what tone to take.  They kept coming back to the conversation in order to get to a place where their egos stopped getting in the way, and they found what they thought was the approach that would best serve the whole new country, the common good.  Of course, Hamilton and Burr debated all through their adulthood—that one didn't end so well.

I’m thinking our country needs a big dose of the kind of civility that has nothing to do with behaving properly at tea parties or kissing relatives you don’t particularly care for—and, by they way, no child should ever be forced to kiss anybody—the civility that centers on engaging passionately in debate with people you respect, but with whom you may not agree.  Wikipedia reminds us that civility is “the action of working together productively to reach a common goal—robust, even passionate engagement framed in respect for differing views”—civility doesn’t mean being polite or sweeping disagreement under the rug—it’s about listening and using reason and structuring persuasive arguments and pursuing a common goal.  It’s not impulsive or driven by ego.  It might even require you to be vulnerable enough to change your mind.

These days, it is tempting to live in an echo chamber of our own devising.  It requires enormous discipline to really listen without planning a rebuttal, which we have already decided is obviously the more correct response! 

There are consequences for our nation when divisiveness reigns—moments when some feel ashamed to be American and some feel jubilant and paint the name of the President across the side of their barns.  While historians consider the long arc of history, much of the tension in our nation remains unresolved—tensions linger from the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, Viet Nam—conflict rarely gets wrapped up tidily in a bow. But passive and mad and judge-y don’t effect change—it takes a long time to work our way to shared understandings, but we can neither despair, give up, retreat, take refuge under the lemonade table over there or brag or declare victory or act superior and emboldened. 

We are not tumbleweeds—We have agency and the opportunity to work towards a better, shared vision of our nation.

Some moments in history last longer than we want them, too, but over a long period of time, their impact may seem less than what some of us fear.  That sustained effort will be required to forge a path forward is hard for us to understand in the quicksilver pace of our world—enduring truths run counter to all we know and experience today.

Those guys who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were privileged.  Like them, all of us on this mountaintop are privileged, regardless of the amount of money in our bank accounts.  We are privileged to be near an exquisite lake in a small town so pristine it can feel almost Utopian, privileged to be able hold ourselves apart from the news and the world for a time.  It is good to rest, to celebrate, to come together for a parade that features dachshunds and kazoos and fire trucks, to wear red, white and blue and smirk a little, but also to love dressing up a little and coming together year after year. 

And then, it is good to keep working to make the world better, to protest or publish extraordinary magazine covers or call our senators and congressmen, or register people to vote, or vote ourselves—which we must—because that is both a privilege and a responsibility that should never be squandered.

It’s also an option to talk, to really talk through tough topics with the goal of seeking understanding as we listen and learn, not with the goal of convincing another person that our point of view is the better one. 

It’s a privilege not to take a stand, not to get involved—don’t give into that type of entitlement— it’s beneath us as Eagles Merians.  I encourage each of us to be a citizen.  You might offend someone and someone might offend you.  That’s okay, even likely.  But stay in the game.  Keep working to be worthy of those lofty 17th c. ideals.  For me, action is the antidote to apathy.  Hope is essential; it has always been elemental.  Despair is a luxury we can ill afford.

Don’t ask a child what she wants to be when she grows up; ask her what she wants to do—then, model the doing of what you believe in for her and with her—what we say matters, what we do matters even more.  We can all do things that matter.  Let’s get on with it.

In a moment, there are Lemonade and cookies for the children.

Let us thank those involved with putting the parade together for us. And honor Johnnie Voorhees, who started this parade during the darkest days of WWII, a tradition that has continued ever since.

Finally, I want to tell you about a new Poet-tree sponsored by Endless Arts, who seek to infuse our Eagles Mere summer with poetry. We hope every organization in town will find a way to embrace poetry — parents could read poems to their children, all of us could write poetry and read it and join in some of the activities Endless Art offers.

A great place to start is the poetry tree across the street in front of The Common Good, and you’ll find waterproof paper and decorative pens. Then hang your poem from the tree. Maybe it is a poem you’ve written or maybe one you love. Look for poems in other places, such as the Laurel Path and at the beach...

The poem I’ll share in advance of the story is by gay journalist, abolitionist, civil war nurse, Walt Whitman—I am glad to have his voice with us on this Fourth of July!

 

I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics,

each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work,

or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat,

the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench,

the hatter singing

as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song,

the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning,

or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother,

or of the young wife at work,

or of the girl sewing or washing,

 Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—

at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

 

I hope you will raise your voices with Whitman--Sing loud this 4th of July! 

 

 

 

 

The King and I

 

 

My father followed pro sports as if it were his job.  In fact, he often didn't have a job, but income not with standing, he had season tickets to the Phillies, Sixers, Flyers, Eagles. He was a fanatic. My childhood memories of time with my dad include watching him shave—I was afraid of how the shaving cream transformed him--doing errands with him on Saturday mornings—he kept Archway cookies underneath the seat of his car—raisin, which I detested--and driving into Philadelphia, holding Daddy’s hand as we made our way to our seats. I’d try to understand whichever game I was watching, while Dad, listening to his transistor radio, juggled food and his stats sheets and pretty much ignored me.  They were odd evenings.  I remember being cold at football, overwhelmed by noise in arenas, tired at baseball.  By high school, I had stopped going.  I never went to a football game in college and never felt I'd missed out. 

 

The man I married, a mid-westerner raised in Ann Arbor, follows both college and pro basketball and watches football if Michigan is playing. His interest in basketball meant I could sit near him on our fold-out futon in our NYC apartment; I liked how fast moving the sport was, how watching it on TV made it easier to see the plays.  In the 1990’s, we’d watch the Bulls.  I liked Scottie Pippen’s face, was interested in what outrageous thing Dennis Rodman might do next and what color his hair would be.

 

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Now, our son, thirteen, is a Clevelander and one obsessed with basketball.  For the past several years, he has hung out with the older girls on the basketball at the school I lead. He played briefly on his own school’s intramural team, but preferred practicing with the high school girls at my school.  This past year, he was promoted to Manager.  In spending several hours a day with our team—from November to March—he learned the game.  He and his dad watch basketball on TV. The two of them go to games, enjoying a male camaraderie unusual in our female-dominated family on the campus of an all girls’ school. He acquired Cavs jerseys; he gave Cavs jerseys to his sisters one Christmas.  He made a Cavs shrine in his bedroom with photos of LeBron and Kyrie.  These days, dressed in Cavs pajama bottoms, he plays a basketball game continuously on his Switch called NBA2K18.  He watches a funny web series called Game of Zones on his phone.  He quotes stats and trivia about the players, about other players and other teams.  A few weeks ago, we bought a hoop, and my husband put it up outside in the school parking lot, so our son could shoot baskets in the evenings and on weekends.  He is not yet as tall as he wants to be, but he is determined.  I wish he had really known my dad, who died when Atticus was only five.  I think about the pleasure my dad might have taken in a grandson who loved sports. 

 

As I write, it’s Game One of the NBA finals.  The game’s end will be a heartbreaker, but I don’t know that yet.  LeBron James, the King, forward of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is on the floor, bonked into by Draymond Green.  My son, transfixed, is muttering, “I knew it,” in private conversation with the commentators as they ponder the foul against LeBron.  Basketball thrums, the background to my life as the mother of this son.  He is knowledgeable.  He is loyal.  He is interested.  Because it matters to him, my own interest has perked up.   I know the players’ names now; I ask questions, which my boy answers. How old are they?  Where did they grow up?  I feel a surge of pride when the Cavs take the lead, a clench of misery when we give up the ball or when Steph Curry shoots and scores a three at the end of the first quarter. Basketball is part of the rhythm of my daily life—at least post-season. 

 

Two years ago, when we won the championship against our nemesis, the Golden State Warriors, I was in California at a meeting.  In enemy territory, I felt both jubilant and lonely.  No one else was happy that the former steel town we call home had enticed the King to return to his roots to win an NBA championship for us.  Victory is sweet—and it doesn’t happen all that often in our city. We cling to hope.  This year, there are rumors that LeBron will leave again if the Cavs don’t clinch another championship.  The team got rebuilt mid-season, and there has been a lot of grumbling. People don’t seem to like the coach.  Everyone’s a critic.  Billboards on the highway proclaim that the Sixers want LeBron. “Don’t leave us again,” I whimper to myself.  “We need you.  Our whole region needs you. My son needs you.”  I love the huge black and white photo of LeBron that is painted on a building down town, arms spread, clapping up the dust, so his hands don’t lose the ball, 23 blazing.  I like that he is a symbol of hope and possibility and dreams that come true.

 

But what if we can’t beat the Warriors in this series?  What will happen to us? And when did I begin to include myself in the collective WE of the Cleveland Cavaliers?  I worry, sometimes, that LeBron plays alone too much, that he comes alive in the third quarter, that he should pass more, but he also awes me.  He’s remarkable. His wingspan dazzles.  I watch his face, try to read his expressions when the camera zooms in. When one of my students spent weeks in a local hospital rehabilitation center last fall, we hung out in the Cavs lounge—sometimes I wondered if they might show up.  I was sad when Kyrie left the team.  I marvel at J.R.’s tattoos—and now I’m fretting that the team won’t forgive him because of what happened in the last seconds of that first game. I’m glad Kevin Love has completed his concussion protocol.  I like Larry Nance, Jr. because I listened to his sister coach a team my girls played against, and she was kind and tough and tall and had a beautiful speaking voice.  LeBron’s kids go to a nearby private school.  I hear he is a great dad.  I find myself hoping his son will go to my son’s school for high school—if so, maybe I could meet the King. 

 

I struggle with the fact that Steph Curry, point guard for the Warriors, is a great ballplayer.  My husband reminds me of this fact fairly often, but it feels disloyal to acknowledge his prowess. Because he was born in Akron, I want him to be on our side.  Imagine if he and LeBron both played for the Cavs.  My husband explains it doesn’t work that way.  I hate how Steph’s mouth guard hangs from his lip, hate that he sinks every shot he takes, hate that he is as good for his team as LeBron is for ours, hate that he must be pretty smart because he went to Davidson, hate that I can’t just hate him purely…Then I shake my head at myself.  LeBron and Steph are celebrity athletes, demi-gods.  I have relationship with either one of them, no reason to spend so much time thinking about them.  I know almost nothing about basketball.  But I love watching my son watch the games, love the times I have seen him, dancing crazily, on the Jumbo Tron at the Q, thrilled to be part of something larger than himself.  Is that what hooked my dad?  Referred glory?  Maybe. 

 

To my astonishment, somewhere along the line, I have become a fan.  I hope my dad is watching.  Maybe not, though.  In my mind, cheering for our home team is required.  The Sixers are yesterday’s team, Dad.  Whatever it takes, we Cavs fans are all in. 

 

Re-Union

 

Spring is in her glory, trees bedecked in heavy pink blossoms; lilacs bursting, purple-flowered, into bloom.  The dogwoods are spectacular, delicate white and pink flowers arced across branches.  Gracious field stone houses, their proportions of another era, signal wealth in their elegant stability on large emerald lawns. Azaleas flame pink and orchid across lawns, flagrant, proud.  I even see a rhododendron beginning to bloom. In pots, in window boxes, in planters and in beds, pansies lift their elfin faces to the sun—yellow, blue, purple, white, orange—riotous and hardy.

 

“See,” the lush landscape mocks, “There is nowhere lovelier.”  

 

I am home.  No, that’s not right.  This is no longer home.  Home is Cleveland where I live with Seth and Atticus and all the animals.  I am on the Main Line, drawn by the magnet of my 40th reunion at Agnes Irwin.  Forty years?  Inconceivable. Driving roads I thought I had forgotten, I marvel at how the past swims back, unbidden.  I round a bend and think, “Oh, that’s the turn off for Patsy’s house." On Lancaster Avenue, I drive slowly, noting how storefronts have shifted, even since Mom died.  The needlepoint store Louise’s mother ran has moved across the street into The Country Cousin, where Mother took me to buy my trousseau the spring before Seth and I got married.  There is no big white horse in front of the hardware store; the building is there, but now it's a clothing store.  Mr. Fish’s clock store remains, tucked in between other unfamiliar shops.  Even the library is new, much more imposing and grander than the structure I recall from childhood.  It's a kind of archeology; reconciling past with present.  I see what exists, but translate instantly to what it used to be, seeking the contours of the familiar.

 

The Acme has been renovated, wholly unfamiliar, but still across from Our Lady of the Railroad Tracks. I leave, intending to turn right, but the car turns left, and in a moment, I have slipped between the two stone pillars that mark the Church of the Redeemer driveway.  I park, feeling guilty that I am skipping church; instead, I walk among the gravestones, finding the flat white stones of our Vauclain family plot.  I sweep some branches off of Uncle Jimmy’s gave, cluck at the discoloration of the stones, fuss that I have not thought to care for these graves since before our mother died.  I find Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother, a little farther away than Grannie and PopPop and their boys.  I find the little baby Jacques, his stone a smaller version of the others. What am I doing here in a cemetery on a Sunday morning?  I don’t quite know.  I don’t feel teary, just a little somber.  

 

I know I will head to Orchard Lane, the house we grew up in. I creep around the bend, look up at the house, our house, now painted beige.  There are no azaleas on Cooie’s Corner, no daffodils parading along the Beachboards’ iron fence.  The side yard is no longer fenced for our small dogs.  There’s a garden, but not where Mom’s garden was.  The Japanese Maple on the corner is gone, and my eyes fill with tears.  Why should that be the trigger?  It’s just a tree.   I’m about ten again, out in the yard, with Mom and Dad and Rod.  Mom is pruning or planting.  Dad is raking.  It’s a spring or autumn afternoon, the air rich with soil and the smell of cut pachysandra or burning leaves or roses climbing the lattice against the garage.  The voices of my family call across the lawn as we work together, companionable.  I blink and am fifty-seven again, stopped too long in front of a house that no longer belongs to me, worried the family that lives there now will think I am a stalker. The dome above the front door seems different, lovelier than I remember.  I see a figure move upstairs and inch forward, shaking off my reverie. 

 

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I did not come home with any sort of quest in mind, except on Friday afternoon.  When I arrived, I’d gone directly to the Bryn Mawr College archives to look up information about my grandmother, Myra, Class of ’08.  The collection closed at 4:30.  I left, knowing I will need to come back, knowing there is more to discover, crossing the campus and trying to reconcile the image of a corseted girl of twenty in petticoats and a stiff cloth skirt and shirtwaist with today’s Bryn Mawr girls lounging on the lawns in tank tops on this sultry May afternoon. 

 

Throughout the two days of my reunion, I travel backwards in time, skating over the loss of my mom and dad, focusing, instead, on earlier chapters.  Patsy and Brooke and Hoppy--really, Mary, but we never call her that or think of her in that formal way--and I—Florida, Connecticut, Philadelphia and Cleveland—never didn't know each other—our lives were braided at AIS, at the Redeemer, at the Cricket Club.  These grown women grew up  knowing my family—my mom and dad and brother and sister.  And I, theirs.  

 

Over breakfast with Brooke and Patsy, I am feverish and ill.  I am so excited to see them, but I can hardly keep up my end of the conversation. Afterwards, I return to my bed at my cousin’s house. I miss the actual reunion, knowing I am too sick to manage and furious at my body for letting me down—I had looked forward to the whole weekend for weeks. Lying on my young cousin's bed--she is bunking with her sister while I stay with them--both girls are at Agnes Irwin, themselves, now in ninth and fourth grade.  I let my mind wander back in time:  our first boy-girl parties, learning to drive, going with Brooke--who got her license before I did--to summer chemistry class, being in Brooke’s wedding.  Patsy could not be at our wedding; she’d been in an accident.  Hoppy moved away in 6th grade but returned for our Senior year. Patsy was the most organized person I knew. We'd all talk on the phone for hours, to our parents’ despair.  How could we have so much to say after spending all day together?

 

I rally to go to Chris’ house for dinner.  On the terrace, Hoppy greets me across the room, "Annie K. Lotz,” she calls, her dad’s nickname for me.  We discuss her little sister’s desire to shed her nickname.  I do not want to shed my own nickname. I like being called Annie by this crowd.  Patsy tells me she has found journals from when she was thirteen in which  she referred to me as ‘Klotz’.  We talk about our dogs—Taffy was her Cocker Spaniel; Tina and Siggy were my miniature dachshunds.  We are touching our childhoods. The presence of these women in my life at this reunion that I am too ill to enjoy feels like a gift. Hoppy tells me that at my dad’s funeral, two people asked her to get involved with a project at our Church that gave her life new purpose.  I think how delighted Dad would be that he was making connections among people, even after he was gone.  It touches me that she shares this story with me.  

 

I’m deeply moved to be in the presence of about fifteen women who have known me since I was a girl. I’ve missed the ceremony in the afternoon when we honored too many of our classmates who have died, but Mrs. Kinkaid joins us at the beginning of the evening, and it is good to speak Cindy’s name, good to point to Cathy’s gorgeous face smiling up at us from the yearbook, to see Stephanie in her white blazer, Ginny standing tall, the tallest in our class for many years.  Too much loss too soon. 

 

In Chris’ cozy living room, I eat asparagus and steak next to Louise and Sarah.  We are girls again, this time smart enough to know how much long friendships matter.  Hoppy and I try to explain to Wendy, our headmistress and my friend, how wondrous CORE was.  It is a revelation to learn that our classmates, Ann and Mary, were Miss Jenkins’ nieces; if we knew that ever, we had forgotten it.  Isy and I steal a moment near the buffet.  She is remarkable in her resilience.  I ask about her mom.  “Ninety-three is not for the faint of heart,” she answers.  I am jealous of my classmates who still have their mothers, but I know, too, that their mothers are not, all of them, the versions of moms that I remember.   I want to stay forever, talking with Lynne and Leslie and Ann and Chrisy and all the others, but I am fading, feverish again.  The Episcopal boys arrive, and I recognize none of them, except the one who married Susan.  They are not boys, of course; they are-- like us--approaching sixty, but I am mystified that I missed this chapter.  The boys I hung with were theatre boys from the other boys’ school.  My classmates are pleased to welcome the guys, intoxicated again by memory, crushes, possibility, who knows what.  I, feeling headachy, leave too early, fall asleep melancholy, wake to the froth of cherry blossoms foaming on the tree beyond my window, feeling too full of feelings.

 

Schools expand to hold generations. Each era has its own specific memories, memories that are distinct to a particular time—1978, for me. Our music, our teachers, our boys, our parties, our escapes.  1908 for Grannie at Bryn Mawr and before that, Agnes Irwin, the school we shared.  2018 for my cousin’s two daughters, Our school belong to all of us.  Time compresses, expands, shimmers.  Spring at home is exquisite, fleeting. I revel in memory.

 

 

In the Company of Women:  Leap and the Net Will Appear

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I spent the weekend in the company of forty-six formidable women.  They came to our school for a Women’s Leadership Seminar sponsored by The Heads Network.  All week I felt slightly giddy, as if I were planning a party.  Arriving on Friday afternoon, they hailed from California and Tennessee, from New York City and Winnipeg. They came because someone had suggested they attend, because they may want to be Heads, because they were curious.  Over two days, we covered many topics: school finance, governance, fundraising, navigating the search process, balancing multiple constituencies, interviewing basics, making a transition with one’s family, the statistics on women in headship—advantages and obstacles and percentages.  We immersed ourselves in possibility, listening to one another’s stories, taking each other seriously but also laughing, interspersing poetry with practicality.  There’s a peculiar intimacy that comes from being strangers—perhaps aware of how finite our time together was, we risked more?  Perhaps there’s a freedom born of being in a group who will not be there to judge you Monday morning. 

 

As the hostess, it was my job and privilege to set the tone.  I loved welcoming people to our school, seeing the beautiful 90-year old building through other people’s more forgiving eyes.  I see forlorn bulletin boards and all the projects on my wish lift.  Our California guests perceive a school rich in tradition. What we do in it every day to educate girls is more cutting-edge than our space suggests.  But over the weekend, I looked around with new pride, surveying our gracious elegance with satisfaction.  This is a school that has been educating girls for almost a century and a quarter; I’m proud of our legacy.

 

Perhaps that’s why the weekend moved me.  We are in the business of offering opportunity—to the girls and young women at Laurel School.  And, in my service to The Heads Network, our leadership seminar seeks to do the same for aspiring women leaders; our time together allows us to lift up out of our every day lives and carve a small amount of space and time to dream into the future.  With children, it’s easy to imagine all they will become.  Adults feel more anchored by location and circumstance; it’s hard to imagine leaving places where we’ve put down roots, where we are valued, where we know the drill. To contemplate leaving aging parents or asking our spouses or partners to consider a move can weigh us down, keep us tethered to what we know.

 

All weekend I thought of a quotation by Apollinaire that I used in the speech I gave on the occasion of my installation as tenth head of Laurel School:

 

“Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, We will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”

We are all of us afraid, I think.  Especially of that which we cannot know.  Over the weekend, those of us serving on the faculty encouraged our mentees women to take flight.  They are not scrawny baby birds, tentative and clumsy, demanding worms.  They are glorious accomplished women, ready to glide, soar, climb, seek—but we all need encouragement. . 

 

At the last session, I gave each participant many small cards suspended on a ring.  On each card is a word or phrase I associate with leadership along with some blank cards for women to use to write down their own words—terms or ideas that I might have missed. I’ve learned that leadership is deeply personal, distinct.  What works for me may not work for a colleague.  We learn from one another, refine our practice, grow from mistakes, incorporate feedback from colleagues, seek mentors.  Our leadership evolves. 

 

Years ago, my husband helped me make these talismans, souvenirs of the seminar.  I had the idea, but, as has happened so many times in my life, my husband helped me translate a grand vision, to make my vision real.  He is a problem solver, a question asker, an interpreter.  I am better for his ability to complement, enhance, sometimes poke holes in my thinking; he helps me get clearer. Often, I start in the middle describing some dilemma I face at school.  Mostly patient, he walks me back to the starting point, so he can understand what I am saying in order to help.  I often assume he is in my head with me, particularly when I am tired. But I’m a better leader because he is beside me. 

 

I shared with the women sitting on the floor of our living room my story of becoming a headmistress.  I cited several mentors who saw something in me, who prompted me towards the next step.  I didn’t think about revealing my marriage as my greatest source of strength until after everyone had gone back out into the rainy night, headed to the hotel.

 

The seminar ended in the gymnasium.  We offered a brief comment about our time together, tossing a ball of ribbon across the circle to make a web, a metaphor for the connections we’d established.  We admired the ribbon’s shimmering colors, lifting it high and then releasing it, allowing it to flutter to the ground.  So much about leadership has to do with trust. 

 

Off the women went, headed back into their lives, buoyed, we, the teachers, hoped, by inspiration, by our faith in them.  But after they had left, I sat on the floor of the gym rolling up the tangled mass of ribbon.  It was a frustrating task; we’d find an end, but it was easily lost.  Knots felt insoluble. A few times, in our frustration, we had to cut an end loose and start again.  Metaphors abounded.  There was Julia, a headmistress friend I’ve known since she, herself, was a girl and a student in the summer theatre that Seth and I started together decades ago.  And there was my son, too, who has never known a mother who was not a Head of School.  Across a chilly parking lot in our lovely cluttered home waited my husband—my partner, mentor, best friend. 

 

The personal and professional work of leadership cannot be easily disentangled.  “Surround yourself with support,” we urged the women.  After they left, I reveled in the support I too often take for granted: my husband, son, daughters, friends, colleagues. The architecture of my own web of support seemed suddenly visible, like a spider web whose form is revealed by the drops of dew affixed to it—surprisingly sturdy, intricate, exquisite.

 

Despite this enduring winter, I note the forsythia buds on the hedge in the parking lot starting to swell, glimpses of bright yellow barely visible, the buds still furled.  Spring’s arrival is inexorable, which gives me hope.  The women we met this weekend will surge forward, too, each, at her own pace. Their growth can no more be halted than we can stop the hedges from bursting into bloom.  The sunny blaze will dazzle, take center stage, then subside until next spring. That thought fills me with optimism despite the chill in the air.  These women, too, will have their season, their glory, one day soon.

Birds of a Feather: For My Headmistress Flock

I have been spending time with a gaggle of headmistresses in Savannah.  We come, bedraggled, like birds whose wings are weighted with the gunk of February.  Despite our pastel shades, we are falsely cheery, greeting each other with shrill chirps, though we are besieged by personnel dramas and enrollment predictions and facilities that demand continuous care. We fall upon one another, hungry birds around the feeder, craving camaraderie, war stories, some confirmation of reality.  These are our people, our flock—these other wise heads whose good ideas are manna when we share, with quiet urgency, the dilemmas we face in our own schools.  We could talk and talk and do until we retire by 8:45, drawn by our unread email, our own families left untended for a few days, drawn by the idea of a made bed in a sterile room where we do not have to be in charge of anything.

 

Today, on a large screen, photos bloomed of heads I loved, now gone:  Stephanie, of course, and Joanne; Bob Klarsch, an old Eagles Mere friend; Clayton, who I knew first as Linda’s friend, always so kind, and then Dick Unsworth, my first head at NMH, social justice warrior, elder statesman.  Dick’s face stayed on the screen as Bessie and her eloquent preacher husband, Tom, murmured blessings.  Lives well-lived.  People who led schools with grace and courage and dignity.  And I knew all but one of them.  When Stephanie’s face lit the screen, I was unprepared  for the shock of seeing her, so full of life and love, so beautiful in her Harpeth Hall headshot that looked as if it could have been taken yesterday.  Except it wasn’t.  It was probably taken a few months ago, maybe even more than a year ago, but it is less than a month ago that she died.

 

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Then several of us hug and dab our eyes and shake away the gloom and go out to explore Savannah.  Except after our tour of SCAD, Kathryn and I never find the ferry stop, so our explorations end with quesadillas in a bar followed by a long talk with Penny and a nap.  Then dinner.  The second night we drop our guards even further.  I share some things I’m worrying about, and Wendy and Joan and Nanci advise me, and I feel better.  We weave through conversations, pulling threads, buoying one another’s spirits.  Nesting—in a way.  We know how to care-take, we school heads.  We take care of one another, of the children in our schools, of their families, of our faculty and staff, of buildings that require deferred maintenances, of our boards and cranky neighbors and our own families and pets.  We find worms and feed demanding gaping mouths one day after the next after the nest; we teach the young to fly.  We fix nests destroyed by storms.  We are in constant motion, we bird-like busy heads.  In this space designed for restoration, we, briefly, rest on a branch, allow others to perceive the weight of all we  carry in our tired beaks:  worms, floss, twigs, mud.

 

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“Set down, set down,” commands Lady Anne in her famous monologue in Richard III, but heads of school too rarely feel we have permission to set burdens down for long.  Except when we’re with our flock, with that V of geese that know, intuitively, how to form, re-form, rest, and fly again.  One drops from our formation; we take a new shape.  We stutter, rest, rise, fly up, head North towards home, towards spring. 

Fighting the Gray

Dear Faculty and Staff,

All week I have felt afflicted by a malaise—part dread, part fatigue—that transcends the characteristic February blues.  It's safe to say, despite way too much time on the Internet, I have not “processed” the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  In all my scrolling, I cannot tell you what I seek.  I did not think I could feel worse after Newtown, but I do because it no longer feels like a freak occurrence to have children killed in school, to have teachers give up their lives to try to protect children

I have spoken several times to the Upper School, urging them if they see something to say something.  It feels hollow.  I have no real reassurance to offer.  We have practiced an evacuation drill and learned, that morning, of places in the building that did not hear the alert. We put the broken speakers on a list to repair as soon as possible.  The drill, itself, frightened adults and children. As we walked down Lyman Blvd. towards Fairmount on that curiously balmy day , an older man walking a dog murmured, “I’m so sorry you have to do this.”  Me, too.  We did not come to work in schools because we ever considered whether or not we would need to stand between a shooter’s bullets and the children in our care.  We did not, very long ago, consider how we would evacuate children or lock down or shelter in place if there were to be an active shooter in our schools. And now we do.  I am heartened by the sparks of activism we see young people expressing in Florida and across the country.  I am proud of their eloquence and passion and worried that their efforts will not be powerful enough to effect change.  I told the Upper School faculty on Thursday that we will, as a school, support our girls in joining national protests.  We must.  We want them to live the mission and values of this school; that means raising them up to use their voices and to seek change.  We will, of course, not compel any student to take part in those protests.  I'd like to believe all parties could join together in agreeing it makes sense to restrict the purchase of the kind of weapons that are designed to kill as many people as possible, but I recognize in this polarized climate that my wish may be naïve.  Perhaps students, idealistic, brave, hopeful, will  prevail.  History shows us how many movements—lunch counter sit-ins, the courageous youth who resisted during WWII, Kent State—began in the hands of young people.

Contributing to my sorrow is the fact that last week, a colleague of mine, the Head of Harpeth Hall School, died very quickly.  Stephanie’s breast cancer, vanquished fourteen years ago, returned.  By the time they figured out why she was feeling poorly, it was too late.  She leaves a daughter who is a sophomore in her school and a whole school who loved her.  The swiftness of her death feels like whiplash; just this morning, I realized we were supposed to present together at a conference in June about how we’ve undertaken facilities master plans. 

Yesterday, I spoke on a panel in the Key Bank tower about how to make our schools more inclusive, more welcoming of many kinds of teachers, children and families.  I looked out at this bright-eyed group of mostly young people, who want to teach.  Never have I wavered in my own passion for teaching, for making a difference.  It is a privilege to spend time in the presence of children, in the presence of our smart, resilient, creative, funny, brave colleagues.  But this month has been heavy.  It’s important to make space for all of our feelings, for joy and possibility and for feel and the overwhelming sense of responsibility we all feel.  Take time this weekend to check in with how you are feeling.  Do something for yourself—you do so much for other people every day at school.  Give yourself permission to take a nap, go for a run, linger over a cup of coffee, order pizza instead of doing the laundry or prepping another lesson.  Take care of yourself.  Reach out to an old friend.  It’s my best friend, Meg, with whom I started my teaching career at Northfield Mount Hermon in 1982, who I called this week.  Being connected helps us feel less lonely.  Don’t wait.  Maxine, a minister who preaches in our little summer church in Eagles Mere, closes many services with these words from Henri Frédéric Amiel:

“Life is short. We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”

I want us to focus on what is essential in school—learning, empowering girls to change the world, to claim their voices and to be kind.

In the midst of all this gray, I feel fortunate to be among you, to have the Early Learners agog in my office on Friday, to spend time with the girls in African-American Roots and in 8th grade English.  Thank you for the privilege of working with you.  Thank you for the million ways in which you buoy me.   

avk

 

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Be Mine

We are in the basement, my mother and I, at her workbench.  It’s after supper.  I am sitting on a high stool.  Mom is standing.  I smell sawdust and WD40.  The cluttered surface, lit by a low hanging bulb, is a bright island in the shadowy cellar. Mom shakes the small can of paint and pries the lid off with a screwdriver.The paint, lustrous, reminds me of a bowl of cream for a kitten.

 

“This way,” Mom instructs, dipping a narrow paint brush a third of the way into the paint.  “You always paint with the grain of the wood; that makes the finish smoother.  Now, you try.”

 

I tuck my teeth over my bottom lip, clasping the brush.  I feel nervous, trusted.  Mom had made a Valentine’s Day box for me, and in a few days, I would take it into my classroom and it would hold all the first grade Valentines.  Other moms made fancy cookies or ruffled homemade Valentines with doilies and glitter.  My mom made the box! And the box was perfect.  Square, with a rounded slot cut in the top and two brass hinges that allowed the top to open once all the Valentines had been deposited.  We would use it every year until we were too old to exchange Valentines.  Girls would say, “Ann, will you bring in your box again?” And I would nod, thinking, “My mom’s box—that she made.”  

 

“That's the girl.Smooth strokes.  Good job.”  Mom’s praise is sweet as a conversational heart—the orange ones are my favorites.  Be Mine.At six, I could read and knew already that being a good reader was my superpower.  

 

Once two coats of white paint had dried, Mom would help me stencil a red Cupid on the top.  We had heart stencils, too.  I didn’t trust myself to keep the lines steady, but Mom explained that we could trace the outline with a bright red magic marker.The red lines reminded me of red hots—spicy, warm, sweet.

 

My fingertips still recall the feel of the satin finish on that wooden box, how triumphant I felt as I carried it into Mrs. Beesinger’s classroom.

 

“Did you make that?” Patsy asked, awed.

 

“My mom did,” I answered, bursting.  My mom was a carpenter. She showed her love with sandpaper and wood glue and drills and jigsaws.  

 

Is it any surprise my husband loves to make things, too?  That he is happiest with a project involving clamps and sawdust?  That the smell of hardware stores reminds me of my mother and my husband and fills me with love in the middle of February?

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In the Chill of Winter, We Remember Them

 

I am sitting in Suburban Temple Kol Ami, the sanctuary where our two daughters stood on the bima, read their Torah portions and became bat mitzvahs. Me, Episcopalian mother of Jewish daughters.

 

“Does it bother you, Mom, to say prayers that aren’t your prayers?” one of the girls asked long ago on a Friday night Shabbat service. 

 

“No, I don’t think God minds where I am.  I’m in a sacred space; it doesn’t matter which one.  I’m here because you’re here.”

 

I liked that our girls wanted to explore their faith; I liked watching them move through their preparation and study and face the congregation as young women.

 

Today, another wintry day—as it was nine and eleven years ago for their special ceremonies, it is snowing lightly, the skies gray, the landscape muted. 

 

Inside the temple, I sit, alone, hearing the hum of voices rise as more people greet one another.  Today, I am here to represent our whole family.  The girls are far away in New York City, Seth far away in Manhattan, Kansas.  I am here for them, for Sara, who is saying goodbye to her father, the incomparable David.

 

In the moments before the service begins, I think about my own father, gone just eight years this week.  I think about being both mother and daughter, being in the middle of my life.  I was lucky to have my parents until they were 89 and 82, but their deaths still felt too soon—for them to go, for me to be left.  If I live to be 89, that’s only thirty-two more years…Atticus will only be 45 and it’s a big if…better not to tempt fate. 

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I shake my morbid thoughts away, gazing at the beautiful copper curtain that forms the Ark for the Torah.  It shimmers, intricate, as if it has been knit on a clever giant’s needles, full of different stiches, the oxidized green color of the walls complementing the burnished stitches. A pinecone, glowing russet, is suspended in front of and slightly above the Ark.  Pine cones, I research later, are a symbol for enlightenment.  For me, they are a symbol of the natural world, too, of the cycle of life and death.  Birth is a beginning and death is a destination.

 

The family processes into their seats.  I ache for Sara. She is the eldest, stepping into the role of guide for my girls when they elected to “become” Jewish.  They are devoted to her, and she to them.  It has been a privilege to watch her care for them, their devotion to her and to Mark.  To have someone who is not a family member love one’s children unstintingly is a great gift.

 

Rabbi Vann begins the service. Through the tenderness of memory, we will remember David, she explains.  I feel comforted by her calm; she is sad, clearly, but she is doing what she knows how to do, shepherding us through this ritual with compassion, with love.  The cantor sings the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew, and then we say it together in English.  Here, I am on steady ground.  There is more music and the Jewish equivalent of what I know as a homily.  David, Sara’s father, was a Renaissance man, expert in his craft, committed to his community, urbane, wise, elegant, irreverent.  He began his schooling at the Park School, an institution shaped by Dewey’s progressive philosophy that puts the child’s curiosity at the center.  I know this because I sat beside David in Sara and Mark’s elegant home the night after Thanksgiving.  While my son and Kerro and the girls chatted with Mark and Sara, I sat with David, talking about school.  I had the sense that I was in the presence of greatness, gentle greatness who didn’t suffer fools gladly.  I was jealous, that night, of Sara’s dad, of the fact that she still had him, of his grace and style.  I knew his health was fragile.  Mark walked him home before we left, and that tenderness made me think of my husband’s solicitous care for my mom.  We are never too old to be without our parents.

 

Rabbi Vann reminds us of stars—though they are far away, we can perceive their brightness.  I think about how often I look up at night, looking towards what I grew up understanding as heaven, imagining my parents, my brother, others…this piece of being a grown up, of having to say goodbye and to keep going is relentless. 

 

How do we want to be remembered?  I want St. John’s in the Wilderness in summer.  I want the hymns I loved as a child.  I want poetry.  But those hymns and prayers mean nothing to my Jewish husband, to my Jewish daughters, to my son. I do not know what Seth wants.  Nothing, I suspect.  But neither of us will be around to direct or instruct.  I wince, thinking of the flat stone, underneath which my father rests-- though we all knew he wanted an upright stone. 

 

Across the aisle, I notice a pulse beating in a gentleman’s head; it’s a beautiful, unusual sight. I feel like a voyeur.  The space between a discernable pulse and a stopped heart is no time at all.  I watched the breath leave my mother’s body. A flutter--then nothing.  The space of an instant.

 

A student of mine and I have spent some time together this year talking about grief.  She, too, lost a brother.  I feel helpless, of very little use as I listen and murmur.  Reminding her that the ache of loss will never disappear but will be able to be endured feels essential to me.  I want her to know that she will remember—always.  She worries that she has forgotten details.  I have, too.  Yet there are moments that float back, unbidden—my father reciting Longellow; my mother laughing on the porch; my brother on a sailboat, leaning back to balance his Sunfish. 

 

Rabbi closes the service with a blessing I find many versions of on the Internet, this one attributed to Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer

                                                                                                               

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
we will remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
we remember them.
In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring,
we remember them.
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer,
we remember them.
In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
we remember them.
In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength,
we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share,
we remember them.


So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us,
as we remember them.

 

In the entryway, I hug Sara and Mark.  My daughters call Sara their Jewish mother; they have exquisite taste.  She is rich in love, generous, funny, wise—like father, like daughter.

Christmas Past

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In A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas tells us “One Christmas was so much like another…” but I am not sure I agree.  Rituals shift, evolve.  Time passes.  Children grow.  We carry with us our own Christmases populated with younger versions of ourselves as children, teenagers, young adults, and our current selves.  It’s a telescoping time of memory and expectation, adorned with pristine wrapping paper crumpled in an instant, a roll of scotch tape, whose careful tab has disappeared again, thank you notes yet unwritten, reproaching me as the year ends.  In our family, December carries in my mind the smell of latkes and narcissus and coffee.  It is the season of my birthday and of having the house full again. Recently, I stood facing our kitchen window washing up one more meal, watching the snow cascade, and I wondered what Christmas will be like when/if our children have children.  I’m in the middle—a mom, still, of course, but I can see, even now, the day will come when even Atticus is out in the world, and I imagine I will long for the holidays.

 

I did not set up our crèche this year.  It was our parents’ crèche, and I love it.  The ritual of unpacking it from its original box—circa 1949—pleases me, each figure carefully wrapped in newspaper:  the regulars of course—Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, animals and Three Wiseman, plus a wooden manger and turquoise faux straw that I suspect once lined an Easter basket and now serves as baby Jesus’s bedding.  Packed with the crèche are two lithe ceramic gymnasts, one with a hoop and the other with a ball.  When we first moved to Ohio, our daughters studied rhythmic gymnastics, and we found these ornaments on Green Road in a shop devoted to Christmas, the kind of store so crammed with ornaments that shopping there with anyone under the age of twelve fills an adult with dread. This year, the crèche and the gymnasts all stayed in the attic because I do not trust our cats, who delight in knocking ornaments off the tree, and I could not figure out where to put the crèche to keep it safe from marauding cats.  “Uh oh,” I fretted several days ago.  “Is this what happens as children age?  We skip over the traditions, ignore the details?”  Down the rabbit hole of memory I descended—all the Christmases past.

 

Because my older sister once apocryphally tore open every present, our parents locked the French doors to the living room each Christmas Eve once Santa “delivered” our gifts.  We waited, my brother, sister and I, at the top of the stairs for Mom and Dad to wake up and escort us downstairs.  Stockings first, then church, then breakfast, opening presents, lunch at Grannie’s with my mother’s side of the family, then home to pack to drive to Montclair to Grammie and Big Dada’s and Daddy’s side of the family—smaller, less formal.  There was the famous year my brother flung out of the living room, an angry adolescent declaring in a surly snarl: “I didn’t get anything I wanted.”  His spoiled anger curdled that Christmas for all of us.  Now, the only other person who might recall that moment is my sister.  I should ask her if she remembers it as I do—my mother’s disappointed eyes, my father’s shrug, my wondering how we would go on from that tsunami.  Of course we did, and from the worse one later when we lost him all together.

 

I remember Seth’s first Christmases with us.  My Jewish boyfriend locked in WASPY celebrations, replete with Bremmer Wafers and caviar, Triscuit, cheese lace, and too little real food.  What a good gift-giver he proved to be, wrapping packages meticulously as if he was born to inhabit wrapping counter in an elegant pre-war department store.  The first year we were in love, he made Lamston, a gorgeous brown teddy bear with eyes painted Seth’s own blue-green shade, for me.  He sewed feverishly, closeted upstairs in my brother’s old bedroom, the bear ultimately wrapped in a box within a box within a box, a glorious surprise, a labor of love.  There was another Christmas that my Honda died in Brooklyn, loaded with gifts. We ate Mexican Food in the brownstone in Seth’s pre-fashionable Park Slope neighborhood, and the next morning, Seth’s cousin, Steve, instructed us to dry to spark plugs with a hair dryer.  Voila, the suggestion worked and off we drove to Philadelphia.  We stopped at the King of Prussia Mall, turning off the car without remembering we weren’t supposed to.  What relief when it started.  The first Christmas that we were married we took our tiny kitten, Pandora, with us to Mom’s house.  She skittered under the radiator in the living room, beyond reach and spent most of the holiday there.

 

When the children came, Seth bought a mantle and created a make-believe fireplace in our second Manhattan apartment because I wanted to be able to hang their stockings from it.  Those years are a blur of bright eyes, trying to anticipate our daughters’ wishes and forging our own traditions.  There was the terrible moment when I tucked Cordelia, perhaps age four, into bed on Christmas Eve, bent close to kiss her, and heard her murmur how happy she would be when Santa left a Rosita doll under the tree. Amazon did not yet exist, and even if it had, it was too late.  I held my breath waiting for the disappointment, but it didn’t come; whatever was there was enough.  Rosita arrived for her birthday in February.  We put up real trees and strung ornaments from twinkle lights stretched around the perimeter of our living room.  We celebrated Christmas mornings with Bill and ate Chinese food at night with neighbors.  I was determined my children would not feel as rushed as I had felt.  The next day, we would make the trek to Philadelphia to see my mom and celebrate again with more presents and more family. I’d squash the rush of selfishness I felt as we clambered back into the car to drive back to the city, leaving Mom alone.

 

In Ohio, we gave into our holiday fantasies, draping garland up the bannister, arranging plush animals, who played holiday tunes down the stairs—every one of Santa’s reindeer, Santa on a motorcycle, a piano playing snowman.  We hung ornaments from the dining room chandelier, each one labeled with a child’s initials.  We welcomed a young son, so as the magic faded for our tweens, it was rekindled because there was still a believer in the house. 

 

Once the girls left for college, their Christmas return felt celebratory, occasionally coinciding with Hanukkah, sometimes not.  But the years march along.  There was a very sad Christmas some years ago, our hearts with a golden-haired girl whose sledding accident took her life.  And this year, in the midst of preparations—inflatables on the lawn, lights hung from the eaves, Seth broke his rib.  The sophomores, invited for a pizza dinner, helped me trim the tree, but I realized a funny thing.  Seth is the engine that drives the holidays.  He is the maker of joy, the one who inspires me to plant the paper white bulbs, wrap gifts with more than paper and initials scrawled with a Sharpie.  His injury, not life-threatening but incapacitating, deflated my own holiday spirit.  Snow fell.  The girls came home; we had Christmas eve with friends; we ordered Chinese food and watched the Cavs.  It was a calm and mostly happy day, but a corner of me yearned for surprises and possibilities, the wonder little children bring to holidays.

 

And tonight, one evening into the New Year, I had a crazy idea that I might set up the crèche and move the Wise Men across the living room a few feet each day until they arrived at the manger on January 6, Twelfth Night.  There’s still time, you know?

Advent:  Waiting, Listening, Looking Forward, and Sensing My Mom

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For the most part, I am a summer Episcopalian, a faithful attendee at 8:00 a.m. communion—no hymns—at St. John’s in the Wilderness in Eagles Mere, tucked into a pew next to my sister, the green glass rectangles in the window to our left—olive, mint, leaf—a reminder of our community’s roots as a glass factory.  We always sit house right—the right hand side of god—about a third of the way back from the altar.  I love that church, love that service, know it almost by heart.  I read the lessons in July, think about our mom, in between us for many years, gone now since 2010.  She was a December baby like me, so she has been much on my mind of late.  I imagine celebrating what would have been her 90th birthday.  I’ve been a little weepy, missing her.

 

On Sunday, I went to St. Paul’s in Cleveland Heights, the church I would attend regularly if I did attend church regularly during the school year.  It is Anne and Joe’s church, and I love that they invited me to the Advent Lesson and Carols Service, one in which I have participated several times as a guest reader.  We were early enough to listen to the hand bells, their silvery notes floating through the sanctuary.  I removed my hat and coat, knelt and bowed my head, thinking about my mother, wondering if she prayed as I do, listening mostly and breathing in the familiarity of church.  I settled back into the pew, checked my phone to be sure it was turned off, breathed and admired the Advent Wreath.  Advent is about anticipation, a pregnant woman awaiting a birth, a count down.

 

The candles on the altar flickered in the air currents.  The nave was dark.  Suddenly, I have just turned fifteen again; it is Christmas Eve, and I am the first dark-haired angel in the Christmas Pageant at the Church of the Redeemer. A pity angel, I think.  I stand on a plinth in the front of the church, swathed in a costume made from a white sheet, tinsel garland crossing my chest to support my wings.  I hold my arms up and they feel leaden.  My brother has been dead since early August.  I know the congregation is murmuring:  “The angel on the right—that’s Cooie’s daughter.  So nice they chose her after all that sadness—though she is a brunette.  That’s a break with tradition.  But you know—her brother and that car accident.”  That’s what I imagine, watching the shepherds—my friend, Whit, is one--straggle down the aisle, and then the Wise Men processing with a nobility golf-playing dads don’t often conjure in blue blazers and khakis.  One of the three kings has frankincense and, as he swings a ball, the pungent fragrance wafts throughout the church—the smell of Christmas. As long as I was a pity choice, I wish I had been Mary, but I’m only in tenth grade, and Mary is usually a Senior.  She gets to hold a real baby.  My mother grimaces at me from a pew.  “Smile,” she mouths.  I feel faint.  I worry I might throw up or pass out.  While I love theatre, this feels like work.  And I can’t even see the star.  The best part of Advent at the Redeemer is the star, glowing way up high in the nave above the altar, right beneath the eaves.  It was a long time before my father explained there was a light bulb up there illuminating the star.  I thought it was magic.

 

Back to the present, the handbells finish and the choir at St. Paul’s in Cleveland Heights processes.  My eyes travel up, seeking the star.  It is not there, but my mother, gone now seven years, seems to be--not in some creepy, ghost-y way, just as if she felt like dropping in for the service and happened to land next to me.  I can almost smell her Chanel #5, the Cryst-o-Mint lifesavers she favored at church. I hear her voice in my ear--strong, melodious, buoying me up.  Our mother loved to sing and loved Christmas. In the swell of the rousing O Come, O Come, Emanuel and The Angel Gabriel—I hear her: “most highly favored la—dy.”  In the thrum of the Lord’s Prayer, I note her inflections as if I am tucked in again, a child, next to the chilly silk of her mink coat, against which I used to lean my cheek.

 

“Take heart,” she urges me in the words of the hymns she knows by heart.  “We are waiting together.”  And, at the end of a long week, I am comforted.  The congregation seems to lean forward, singing with gusto, carried along by the expectations of the season, by hope and joy.  I’m not alone. I blink at the tears that betray my family gene for weeping at the weirdest times. 

 

Mary was so young.  I’m not sure I would have been thrilled if the Angel Gabriel had appeared in my kitchen to tell me I was going to have a baby even though Joseph and I weren’t yet married. I’m pretty sure I would have freaked out—even though the news of my cousin Elizabeth’s miracle pregnancy would have been exciting.  I smile; in fact, with my history of infertility, not to mention Atticus’ arrival in my forties, I identify more with Elizabeth than with Mary. 

 

I am a Christmas baby, born on the 23rd, the worst present he ever got, according to my brother, Rod.  In those days, moms stayed in the hospital forever, so on Christmas Day, Daddy brought Lee and Rod to see me, not into the hospital, but to be held up to the window, so they could glimpse me from the parking lot.  Allegedly, I had a lot of hair. This is my season. I wrap the familiarity of the Episcopal liturgy, a cloak of my mother’s devising, around me briefly. Babies and evergreens and lights and crèches and trees and wreaths and presents and memories and snow. And hope. And the unexpected echo of our mother in church, with me. 

My Augusts

It is years before Seth points out to me that I am a bitch in early August.  Tense, snappish, critical, distracted.  August is a complicated season in Eagles Mere.  The people who rent houses in August seem aggressive during Sports Week, too intent on winning. The weather starts to change.  Nights get colder. There are often brief thunderstorms in the late afternoon, bigger storms at night when we lose power and light candles counterpointed by evenings so clear that the meteor showers feel within reach as we lie out on blankets on the tennis court watching the sky, Kerro and Seth helping us make out the constellations.  August is tomatoes and blueberries and white corn, a profusion of produce.  The summer program ends.  Our students and faculty go home.  It’s just us.  There is some protracted post-ETC melt down.  Things wind down earlier now because of pre-season obligations and the college students who run the summer programming for younger kids need to go back to college by the middle of the month.  We have the Fireman’s Carnival—a cake wheel and bingo and darts and French fries and pierogis and Mom’s favorite apple dumplings and a wheel where children hope to win un-cuddly animals, stuffed with sawdust.  On a good year, I remember to bake for it.  On a better year, we win something more delicious than I baked.  The float carnival happens—some years, Seth and Atticus build a float. This year, that project enraged the girls, Seth single-mindedly intent on following through on a promise he had made to Atticus.  When I was a little girl, August meant a trip to the mall on a rainy day to buy school shoes.  In August, I often feel unmoored, in between the memory of the busy days of ETC and the beginning of another school year.  I fuss at our children to finish or start their summer reading.  I look wistfully at the books I thought I would get read and mourn the writing I did not do.  I start a home-improvement project that I will not have time to finish.  I watch the birds outside of the glass doors in Mom’s suite.  I fill the hummingbird feeders with red juice one more time.  I miss my brother and my mother. 

Rod died on August 4th leaving this house headed to Philadelphia.  I was 14—it was a long time ago.  He is frozen at 18 for me, for all of us.  Reckless, stupid, young, foolish, impulsive, cocky, a smart ass, who was demi-royalty here in Eagles Mere, at the center of a group of pot-smoking, beer-drinking kids who loved him, just like generations before him and generations that followed.  Given time, he would have grown up, taken up golf or continued sailing, married a wife who wore Pappagallo flats and Lily Pulitzer shifts.  He would have figured out how to mollify my dad; he would have danced attendance on our mom, who doted on him despite his bad case of adolescence.  He would not have divided my life into before and after.  In those days, WASPs didn’t go in much for therapy; that had to wait until I was out of college, really until I lost the first baby—on Memorial Day in Eagles Mere—somehow fitting since that loss helped me finally unpack the loss of my brother with wise, smart Joyce, who helped me heal. 

Mom died more recently, but one loss begets another, so it seems.  August is melancholy, regret on my tongue, betwixt and between summer and school, one version of my family and another. 

In the middle of the month is our anniversary.  We could only marry in August and having joy punctuate the month has helped me, settled me.  Our anniversary is often hastily observed, too often missed almost all together, but it mitigates against loss.

Sometimes, when my husband doesn’t remind me, I forget that August does a number on me, the lake mirroring my moods--pewter, stormy, calm, glassy--quicksilver feelings moving through me like the storms that move across the lake.  They pass.  The air clears. 

If we eat dinner in time, we can make it to High Knob to watch the sunset.   Sunsets in August are particularly fine.

 

Sunday Spools Away

Sunday stretches before me, glorious, unplanned.  We are on the heels of summer, a sunny but not too hot late August day.  I sleep later than I plan.  Searching for yoga clothes, I purge one drawer of items I have not worn for years, will never wear, but only one drawer and there are many others.  Next, I tidy the kitchen, unloading and reloading the dishwasher.  I get the ice blanket from the freezer for my son to ice is sore knee.  My husband, his dad, is away this weekend visiting his mom, so it is just the two of us.  Happily, my son has fed the dogs and fish; I dispense cat food and preheat the oven. Into the oven, I pop the chocolate croissants from Trader Joe’s that rose, elegantly, underneath a dishtowel overnight.  I fasten leashes to the dogs and head out for a walk, hoping to be back before the timer rings. Then, I walk our three dogs, yanking more than is kind in order to arrive back home with one minute to spare on the timer for the croissants!  My son and I eat in the garden, me with the Sunday New York Times spread before me; he with a TV series murmuring.  I suggest we can talk to each other, so the phone is silenced and I push the paper to the side.  Before long, it is time for yoga, a journey about forgiveness of my old, less limber body, a return to a practice abandoned for a bum shoulder and cartilage-free knee.  Here I am back on the mat, breathing, practicing self-care, picking up lunch afterwards for my son and myself.  He struggles with math problems, with the uncomfortable reality that he has school tomorrow, confirmation that summer has waned before we are ready.  And now, the luxurious swath of unscheduled day has given way to afternoon, and I am just writing now, and wishing I could read a novel, but know that what I really need to do is grade the pieces still unread from the on-line writing class I taught this summer. Then, there’s a talk to write for Convocation on Tuesday and another talk to write for the upper school girls on Sunday plus my class to plan and dinner and and and.  Sunday spools away, spent.