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. 

Pre-School Countdown

 

August 1  Realize July is over.  Mourn.

August 2  Emerge from email hibernation.  Notice huge number of messages, which require a response.  Close computer.  Play ping-pong with son.

August 3  Decide one more day of summer is not a bad idea.  Deliberately avoid thinking about school.

August 4  Pack all unread books into boxes to prepare to return home.

August 5  Notice one book looks compelling; begin reading it.  Read it to the exclusion of all other obligations including feeding pets, child or husband.

August 6  Plan Leadership Retreat; recall first years of headship when this felt like a major accomplishment. Listen to Just Mercy on the five-hour drive home.  Get lost slightly on purpose in order to listen longer.

August 7and August 8 Leadership Retreat; feel glad to be reunited with all these smart people.  No food in fridge; eat crackers for dinner topped by tiny bits of avocadoes. Pretend to unpack.  Pile unread books where fish tank will need to go next week. 

August 9 Head back to summer house for last hurrah.  Construction on Rte. 80.  Of course.

August 10 Get work accomplished on rainy grey day.  Daydream about when school started after Labor Day.

August 12 Husband needs 100 AAA batteries to light float for the float carnival that evening. Resist rolling my eyes.  Cheerfully acquire batteries.  Float, paddled by daughters, with son in leading role, does win a prize.

August 13 Attend first yoga class in too many years taught by my daughter.  Re-acquaint myself with muscles long forgotten.  Drive back to OH.

August 14  Reel from events in Charlottesville Attempt to welcome faculty and staff back to another year.  Worry about the world. Welcome sister in law and niece. 

August 15  More meetings. Sister in law and niece drive down to Kenyon College.

August 16 Husband and son return home with fish.  Relocate pile of books. NYC Friends spend the night on their way to drive son to college in Colorado.

August 17 Try not to bug son about summer reading.  Fail.  Forget wedding anniversary.  Another fail.

August 18Fall asleep at 9:00 p.m.

August 19  Sleep until 9:00 a.m.  After watching soccer game, do nothing productive.

August 20  Spread belongings around myself in family room; focus on the new school year.  Restrict constant Facebook checks.  Realize we have no eclipse glasses.  Avoid doing schoolwork by recollecting the last few weeks.

 Headmistress at work--sort of.   

Headmistress at work--sort of.

 

Because It Is My Name

 

There was never any question I would keep my name if I married.  I grew up in the 70’s, an ardent feminist from girlhood, clutching Ms. Magazine and affronted at the very idea of “taking” someone else’s name. The person I loved would never expect me to relinquish a crucial aspect of my identity. And he didn’t, of course.

It’s not that I love Klotz as a mellifluous name.  As a child, I tired of the inevitable “blood clots” teasing and having people call me “Klutz,” but this is part of childhood, part of people looking for our vulnerabilities and torturing us.  But even in the midst of middle school shenanigans, I understood that I’m a John Proctor kind of girl--at the very end of The Crucible, he cannot, even to save his own life, sign his name to a lie. He exclaims:

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!”

Proctor’s passionate declaration of integrity, his heroism in choosing what is right over what is easy is bound up in his identity.  He dies, of course, but he dies because he will not pretend or live a lie.  His name represents his self.

My father was the only son of an only son.  Our brother was my father’s only son.  Some months after my brother died in 1975, I found my father weeping.  It was a strange moment.  I didn’t want to comfort my dad; I was too too numb with grief myself, but in the conversation, my dad shared how sad he was that his name, his line, would die with him.  I said,  “You have me, Daddy.  I’m a Klotz, too, and I always will be.” 

He smiled, but I knew, even at fifteen, what I offered was insufficient; I was a girl; the name would not continue. 

And it didn’t.  Once married, my husband, Seth, and I flirted briefly with hyphenation, we feared combining Klotz, my surname, with my husband’s surname, Orbach, would result in our children having a name that sounded like Clorox. 

Though I remain committed to my own name, both personally and professionally, when we had children, I wanted them to have my husband’s last name.  I can trace my lineage on both sides back many generations.  In Seth’s family, pogroms and the Holocaust annihilated too many relatives. It seemed right to me that our kids carry his name forward—so many bearing his name, his mother’s family name, had been lost.

Here are the times I’ve regretted or questioned my choice.  In the hospital, when our first daughter was born, the nurse would not allow Seth to bring her to me because her wristband said Baby Klotz, not Baby Orbach.  We had to wait for a patient nurse to retrieve her as I woke, groggy, from anesthesia.  Even half out of it, I was angry—I understood the need for safety and security, but we had filled out millions of forms—couldn’t someone have figured out that Seth really was her father?  I felt indignant that my wristband was an obstacle right at the start of our parenting adventures. 

When we fly as a family, still in 2017, there are snarls because I have a different name. Even recently, I was questioned at the United counter—of course it was United.  The clerk was not so sure I could check in my son since our names were different.  I was wild—tense anyway about missing the flight and furious that my motherhood was insufficient to vouch for my twelve year old son, who does not need his own ID to fly with me.  To my son’s horror, I lost it, offering a feminist diatribe to the clerk who claimed only to be doing his job.  “And that is what I am doing, too,” I fumed, “doing my job, raising my son, keeping my own name, educating you that I have every right to take this child with me wherever I want to go…I want to see your supervisor right now!”  The thing, as we say, may not have been the thing.  In fact, I was spoiling for a fight. I was anxious about not missing the plane and I’ve waited too long for the world to get in line.  Fortunately, the supervisor, alerted by my raised voice, smiled calmly and informed the clerk, “The lady’s right—their names don’t need to match.  Have a nice flight, ma’am.”

As we walked towards the TSA line, I knew I had embarrassed my son; I had made a scene—and it was uncalled for, too dramatic. What exactly unhinged me?  Having my rights as a mother questioned?  Or having to defend my choice, once again, to keep my own name? Or the forces of the patriarchy?  Or a tense afternoon at work followed by air travel?  I did not behave well with the clerk, and I felt ashamed that I wasn’t patient, courteous, calm.  Later, Atticus, my boy, told his father, “Mom was crazy at the United counter, Dad. She really doesn't like when people mess with her about her name being different from ours.”  Busted.  It’s not just my own name; it’s that my name is different from the name that the rest of them carry.  Sometimes, a small angry part of me feels they are wearing matching t-shirts and mine is different.  The Sesame Street lyric:  “One of these things is not like the other.”  No, she isn’t and she doesn’t want to be—most of the time.

Long ago in an English classroom in a girls’ school in NYC, one of my tenth graders asked my why my husband and I had different names.

“Why should we?” I asked, buying time.

“Well, he must not love you very much if he didn’t make you change your name.  My mother has been married three times, and each of her husbands made her change her name.”

“Well—I—um…you know,” I faltered, aware of sixteen sets of eyes fixed on me.  “What’s great is that we can make choices.  I chose to keep my name and my husband never would have considered asking me to change it.  That’s how we love each other.  But some people want to have the whole family have the same name, so the mom—most often it’s the mom, but not always—changes her name.  Some women don’t want to carry their fathers’ names, so they choose a new name all together—like Judy Chicago.  She’s an amazing artist.  Some women prefer the sound of their husbands’ names, so they are happy to change their name—there are lots of possibilities, so be careful not to make assumptions.”

Sermon concluded, we went back to class.  I suspect most of the girls have forgotten my rant, my fierce desire to inspire in them the courage to do what they wanted to do.

I rail at being called Mrs. Orbach.  Our culture insists that women of a certain age accompanied by children be called Mrs. I have never been a Mrs., but once we had children with Orbach as their surname, people assumed I must be Mrs. Orbach. Correcting people sounds pedantic, even righteous, and wearies me. Sometimes, I go with the flow in order not to embarrass my own children and the person choosing convention over my preference, but when I am silent, I feel like an imposter, as if I am passing as something I reject.  I do not want to be Mrs. Orbach.  I want to be who I am with the title I have chosen: Ms. Klotz.

Last week, a former student of mine, newly married and thinking about babies, reached out to me on Facebook: 

Hey AVK, I'm having some serious internal battles with changing my name. My mom never did and she regretted not naming us with her last name. My husband doesn't mind if I change my name- he knows I'm struggling. The newest conversation is around when we have babies, whose name will they take? Mine or his-- assuming I don't change mine?

And suddenly, it all swam up again—that moment in the classroom with the tenth grade girl, the encounter with the airline clerk, my dad crying about his son, my identity as a feminist, my frustration that we have not come very far as a culture. 

Long ago, my mother explained that the polite thing to do is to ask someone what he or she wants to be called.  If an older person says, “Please call me by my first name,” you do it, even if it makes you uncomfortable.  If someone is a doctor, you use his or her title—hard work went into acquiring that degree. A person, in my mother’s worldview, gets to choose his or her article, his or her last name, and you, out of respect and courtesy, ask and then uphold that person’s choice.  When we follow Mom’s protocol, dignity, power and choice remain with person being named.  When we assume, we can make mistakes.

I wrote back to my student and said I needed a little time to think about her questions.  I have no wisdom, but I understand more about my dad’s sorrow.  It is lonesome to be the only one, infuriating not to have people respect my choice.   Culture shifts much more slowly than we hope.

Names matter.  “Call me Ishmael.”  Call me Ms. Klotz.  Call me Ann.  Let me decide. 

No Tornado Today

 

 

On Thursday, we have a tornado drill.  This is the one where the girls must crouch on their knees, arms overhead, in a space that does not have windows.  It’s generally one of the fastest drills we do, much less scary that the Lockdown drills which we practice fervently, hoping that familiarity would help us all if a shooter came into our school.

 

When the drill concludes, I find the Kindergarten heading back to class from the restroom where they sheltered.  One child’s eyes brim with tears.  Her teacher explains, “Octavia thought it was a real drill; she wanted her daddy.”

 

I nod, sympathetically.  “You go with the other girls,” I offer to the teacher. “Octavia and I will sit here for a minute.”

 

Octavia takes my hand.  Trusting, her lip trembling, tears spilling.  Maybe my sympathy has made it worse.

 

“Tell me,” I say gently. We sit.  I breathe, waiting, looking at her golden hair, remembering my three dark haired children—our Kindergarten daughter, on 9/11, clutching a young friend of ours like a limpet when we arrived home on that horrific day.  Fear is real. 

 

“I thought there was a tornado,” she begins, “and once I saw one on TV—“ She gasps a little, tears spilling.  “And it was really scary and I wanted my daddy to come and get me because I was scared, but it’s not real?”  She scrutinizes the sky behind us suspiciously.  It is grey, but without any twister. 

 

“It wasn’t real,” I say.  “It was practice.”

 

“So we would know just what to do?”

 

“Exactly.  So we would know just what to do.  Like fire drills.  Do you remember fire drills.”

 

She nods.  Her nose begins to run.

 

“When we have fire drills, we practice what we would do if there was a fire here at school.”  I slip my handkerchief from the wristband of my watch and wipe her tears and then her nose.  She is brave and she is tiny.

 

“It wasn’t real?” she quavers again.

 

“No, it wasn’t real.  But I understand why it was scary.  It’s a loud noise over the loud speaker and you didn’t know it was coming, and it is sort of silly that you have to sit in a little ball with your arms over your head.”

 

She smiles tremulously, but it’s a smile, so I keep talking.

 

“We all want you to be safe at school, Octavia.  Your teachers want that and your daddy and I want that.” 

 

“And that’s why we practice?”

 

“Yes.  Ready to go back to class?”

 

“I needed my daddy.”

 

“I know you did, but Daddy will be glad that you are safe.”

 

Taking my hand, she walked across the hall into her classroom and rejoined her class.  I whisper to her teacher, check to be sure she is okay, soothed by the comforting routines of her class and slip away. 

 

I tucked my soggy hankie back into my watchband and walked down the corridor towards my office.

 

I wish we did not have to have so many drills, so many reasons that make five year olds feel afraid, that make Headmistresses feel afraid, too.  When I became a teacher, I did not understand what it meant to hold a child’s fears.  When I became a Headmistress, I had no idea that part of the job would be holding fear for the whole community and finding a path forward despite our collective apprehension.

 

Thank you, Octavia, for our moments together on the radiator, for reminding me what it is to be a teacher—to take the time to listen, to comfort a child, to wipe her tears, to be fully present—a few authentic loving moments in a day filled with other kinds of obligations.  Your little face swims before me:  earnest, emotions flickering across your eyes, full of trust.  I wish I could take away your fear. 

Of Comorants and Whelk Husks

There are no otters on Otter Key, only birds: cormorants swoop too close to our kayaks.  My bird-phobic daughter shrieks.  The birds dive, emerge, skitter across the water, eyes beady and curious.  We name one Kevin.  Sleek, with a pattern that reminds me of scalloped leaded glass windows etched on his back, the comorant has an orange stripe around his beak.  I want to pat him, but though he flirts with close approach, happy to have our paddles stir up fish below for a snack, he is still wild--he and his bird brothers, diving hungrily in the midst of our bright plastic fleet.  Comorants can’t fly when their wings are wet, Ben, our guide, explains.  They must perch and spread their wings to dry in the sun. Without the oil ducks possess to fly wet, if comorants try to fly too soon, they drop back, graceless, into the water. Today, they feint and dodge in the Sarasota sun, playful, reappearing, intent on hide and seek.

 

Looking down from the perch in the front of the boat, the sand seems patterned like shapes revealed in a kaleidoscope--stained glass sans bright hues:  sand, olive, brown, tan, khaki, beige, taupe, tortoiseshell—a muted palate shimmering under lapping waves, grasses undulating, small fish swimming undistracted by our passage.

 

A boy, eleven, stands and rocks his kayak.  His mother scolds.  He scowls. 

 

We approach another group of kayakers and paddle boarders.  They confide in whispers that they have spotted manatees.  We pause.  Large dark spots shade the blue water.  The mama surfaces, her snout ancient against the blue; her baby tucked under a dock, safe from errant paddles.  Mama passes, majestic, towards her baby, shimmying under my daughter and husband’s kayak. They are stunned by her immensity; my son and I regret that our boat was not chosen.

 

We head into mangrove tunnels cut by the WPA but as primeval as any landscape I’ve imagined.  Originally dug as ditches to assist in controlling mosquitos, now they are arched and magical paths, shady and mysterious. It’s as if we’ve passed into a jungle; this gorgeous, womb-like passage is quiet but for the flip of oars.  A stalky crane crunches on a crab. The narrow path is hard to navigate. Roots feel suddenly malevolent, animated, determined to ensare us.  We gaze down at the water, miss the bend.  More roots emerge from brackish clarity.  Limbs meet overhead, the sky faraway beyond the dappled canopy.  Black crabs scuttle up branches. My daughter screams, thinking them spiders.  Sharp oysters cluster on branches, deadly if grabbed in haste.  Yellow sponges dot roots.  We glide over a starfish (sea stars, our guide, Ben, calls them), an enormous horseshoe crab scuttling; several whelk egg husks, curled like a snake’s discarded skin; jellyfish-- upside down like cauliflower with blue tentacles. Grasses and sand.  Sea anemones, too, but I don’t see any.  Frustration on my son’s part—too much side coaching, too much skill required. He, who is steering from the back, despairs, angry.  Finally, Ben, calm guide, tows us, his mellow cheer salving our shame.  We bend our heads low under the arched limbs, then squint to the sky, tilting our own heads like our comorant companions from the open water. 

 

We break free of the tunnels finally and paddle by ourselves again, in rhythm now, rested, restored.  We know we are almost back to the starting point. My cheeks burn. I taste salt on my lip.  It is hot in March. There’s an osprey, her nest perched high in a dead pine. I note how glad I am my son is mine; he does not try to stand up, does not try to paddle ahead or splash others like the other show-off boy ahead.  He notes the wonders that we pass, asking questions about predators, curious in spite of himself.  Smoothly, we land, disembark, stretch, satisfied with mild adventure, a small challenge met.

Dad: JRK, 1920-2010

 “Do you want that stone?” my sister asked on the telephone. 

“Which stone?”

“The carriage block that used to be at Midland Avenue. The one with KLOTZ engraved in it.” 

“Oh, yeah. Yes, I think I want it.”

“Okay, I’ll take it to Eagles Mere.”  She hung up, efficient.

My sister was selling her home in Delaware, so she would schlep the stone to the summer house we owned together.  

Why did my father’s family have a carriage stone engraved with our surname, anyway?  It seemed a little upscale, a vestige from an era when one needed a lift up into a carriage, but I remember it from our Christmas visits to my father’s home in Montclair, NJ, when we did not need it to ascend into our Volare station wagon.  It sat on the front corner of the driveway.  After Daddy’s parents died, the stone moved to our house in Haverford, set at the end of the stone path that led to a patio in our home on Orchard Lane.

 Here is what I remember about my dad and that stone:

 It was October, still warm enough to walk barefoot on the bricks terrace in front of the front door.  Those held the warmth in the way that the darker stones on the side patio did not; those were cold, damp, slippery with moss, but the bricks were warm.  I could smell dirt; no doubt, my mother had been doing something out front, pulling up pachysandra, planting bulbs, clipping.  An earthy, rooty smell clung to the smoky air—leaves burning in a wire basket at the end of the driveway. I’d come down looking for her, pushing out the open screen door, expecting to find her out front or in the garden at the side of the house, box bushes ready to be draped with burlap before winter.  No Mom.  I heard an odd noise, raspy, unfamiliar.  First, I thought it was the desperate caw of a lost crow.  But, around the side of the house, by the carriage stone, I saw my dad, sobbing. 

 “Daddy?” I asked, tentative. I had rarely seen him so unguarded.

 “Bugs,” he said, taking a handkerchief from his pocket and blowing his nose.

“Not Bugs,” I clarified. “Ann.”  Bugs was his love-name for my older sister.

“Ba’nan,” he corrected.  I stood a distance from him, my tall dad somehow shrunken. 

“You’re crying,” I announced without a lot of warmth or interest.  Crying was our default these days.  I cried plenty.  I knew perfectly well why he was crying, but there wasn’t any room in my own sorrow for his.  

“It’s hard, Ba’nan.  He was the last to carry my name.”

I bristled.  “I’m a Klotz, too, Dad.  I have your last name.”  My heart was as hard as the rock that held my father’s gaze.  I was angry, a good cover for broken.

“You are, Ba’nan.  But, you’re a girl.  When you marry, you’ll have another name.”

“No, I won’t,” I spat though, until this moment, I had looked forward to losing Blood Clots as a nickname.  “No, I won’t.  I’ll always be a Klotz.  I’m a feminist.” 

“You can count on me, Dad, I churned silently.  I won’t die.  I won’t change my name.  I’ll be here.” But not really.  I kept my name, but I hardened my heart.  I moved away.  There was room for my grief, for my mom’s, for my sister’s, even.  But no room for my dad’s.  I could not take care of him, too.  He would have to take care of himself.  Thankfully, my sister loved him hugely, cared for him with devotion until the end of his life, went to Phillies games with him, packed him up from one nursing home and found a bed in another, put up with his outrageousness and never faltered.  The good daughter.   

And a few years before she asked about the stone, she had phoned me in December.

“I think you’d better come,” she said gently.  “He’s pretty bad.   He isn’t waking up.  We think it will be soon.” 

So, full grown now, I flew from Cleveland to Philadelphia, renting a car, using one of those pre-Google map devices to get me to his final nursing home.  Kind nurses signed me in, showed me upstairs, quietly opened the door to his room.

He was in bed, so much smaller than I remembered him, eyes closed, hair mussed, which it never was in real life, unshaven.  My dapper dad enfeebled.

 “Bugs,” he said—my sister’s name again; I felt my irritation rise, suppressed it. 

 “No, Daddy, it’s Ann.”

“Ann?  You can’t be here.  You’re in Ohio.”  He struggled to sit up to see me.

“Well, Daddy, the reports on you weren’t so good in Ohio, so I came to see for myself.”

“I’m fine.  Better than your mother,” he exclaimed, competitive to the last.

 I laughed and pulled up a chair to his bed and we spent the morning telling stories. 

The nurse came in, amazed to see my dad so lively.

My dad, man of mystery.  It was the summer of 1977, and my mom and I had just bought a red plaid midi-kilt in a shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“You’ll have it forever,” Mom declared, and she was right.  I still have it.

We walked towards Harvard and Radcliffe, this college tour of the East Coast that I was trapped on with my parents.  Wellesley, Tufts, now Harvard.  Mostly I was thinking about how I wanted to get home so I didn’t miss Doug’s party before he left for Kenyon.  We were crossing Harvard Yard when my dad pointed, “That’s where I lived.”

 I dropped back to Mom, trailing a few steps behind.

 “I thought Daddy went to Penn,” I hissed, puzzled.

 “After he flunked out of Harvard.”

 Who knew?  How could this part have been left out?  What other secrets did he have?

 My father had been a supply sergeant during the war; afterwards, at Penn, rescued from his Harvard ignominy, he was a jock, playing lacrosse and rowing crew.  He loved his fraternity—St. A’s--and being part of a group.  He was the dapper, debonair older man who met my mother at her debutante party and wooed her.  They were married for 36 years and divorced for 25.  My dad struggled to hold a traditional job; he wanted to be a schoolteacher, but his father didn’t think that was high-status enough.  He worked briefly for a bank, flirted with law school, was self-employed as a manufacturer’s representative much of his professional life.  Mother said she always knew when he appeared down the lane in the middle of the day that he had been fired again.  A personality test he took in college suggested he would have been happiest as a forest ranger. 

 As a little girl, I was afraid of him when he shaved and lonesome when he took me to baseball games because he had to have his earphones in to hear the game, so he couldn’t answer my questions. But some of my happiest memories are of reading with him in the big chair in the living room—Our Island Story was the name of the volume.  I was thrilled by Bodaecia, by the little princes in the tower, by Henry the Eighth and his wives, by Mary, Queen of Scots—no professor in college held a candle to my father’s ability to tell the story of British History. 

 When I read Death of a Salesman at 17, I felt a frisson of recognition; my dad was liked, but he wasn’t well-liked.  I had seen a tightness in people’s greetings at the Club out for dinner—I knew people were polite, but not everybody really liked him.   He never quite found his place. 

 I spent much of my adolescence hating him because he humiliated my mother over and over again. A ladies’ man, he flirted and more—repeatedly—liaisons poorly disguised.  After he retired, he gave himself over entirely to sports—playing tennis and golf, teaching tennis to kids, traveling the world to attend tennis clinics or play golf on other courses…only as an adult did I realize what an odd path he took.  But it was through teaching that I found my way to him again—teaching helped us build the bridge to meet each other. 

 In 2004, he came to Cleveland to see me installed as the Head of Laurel.  A former Laurel headmaster had been daddy’s teacher at prep school—he loved that connection. I was happy to have him with me.  Because after I had been married for a long time, I began to understand that it takes two to make a marriage cool. Perhaps my father wasn’t entirely the villain I had made him out to be.  And I began to do the work of coming to know him all over again, of listening more closely to his story. 

Daddy was chronically late.  Every short cut he insisted on taking got us more lost. He kept Archway cookies under the front seat of his car.  He loved to fly fish and play golf and tennis.  He loved cross word puzzles and ceremonies.  Once, I moved away from home, Daddy cut out articles and sent them to me—Ann Landers columns, anything about Katherine Hepburn or Princess Diana, editorials about education, reviews of books or plays. He never gave up on me, even though I was so hard on him.

When our son, Atticus, was a tiny baby, Daddy visited and remarked that he never knew babies were born with eyebrows—I shook my head—he had had three children and seven grandchildren!  But infants were never on his radar.  He was delighted we had passed his middle name, MacPherson, down on to our baby son, but I almost fell off the rocking chair that summer afternoon when I learned that my dad was no more Scottish than anyone you might meet on the street.  In 1920, he had been named for his father, and his father for his own father, who had been named, curiously, for the Mayor of Newark. That mayor employed my father’s great-grandfather as an engineer to design a water reservoir system in Newark—a crazy scheme in the 1850’s, but the mayor was forward-thinking, and the reservoir system is still in use today.  In gratitude, my great-grandfather named his son for John MacPherson, the mayor, and the name has come down through the generations.  I shook my head and laughed—another secret spilling from my father’s lips.  Of course, I had never asked, had just assumed his Scottish heritage.

 On that wintry afternoon by Daddy’s bedside, we talked about school.  I thanked him for being my dad, for giving me my love of poetry and literature, for being proud of me.  Occasionally, he wandered into a past where I could not follow—he told me all about a date he had had with a pretty girl in the 1930’s.  My father loved pretty women.  Eventually, he fell asleep, and though I sat by his bed for several more hours, knitting and thinking about the stories of my childhood, he didn’t wake again.  A few weeks later, he slipped away, more dignified in death than the colorful escapades that characterized his life would have predicted. 

 So, yes, some years ago, I accepted my sister’s offer.   I set the stone at a jaunty angle in front of our house in Eagles Mere, near the snowball bushes.  I wish I had been kinder to my dad long ago; it takes a long time for adamantine rage to melt.  But I bear the name on that stone, my father’s name, now with more pride than anger.  That hard heart of mine has released its clutched fist, softened, found a way to forgive a man who was, alone, crying, for his lost son.

JRK

Lap of Luxury, London: November 2016

Soon after the election, we head to England. I am attending a conference in Oxford but first a weekend in London to meet the Headmistress of City of London School for girls, to visit with a Laurel alumna, to visit the Churchill War Rooms, to take my god-daughter to high tea, to visit my old friends at the National Portrait Gallery.  I travel with the woman who brought me to Laurel thirteen years ago.  We are excellent travel buddies.  She is intrepid and I am a good reader of signs.  At Kennedy, I buy a massaging neck pillow. Snuggled across my row of seats sporting my new eye mask, I feel like a small purring animal.  It is a pleasant journey. 

 

This visit feels apart from time, as if I am floating—shifting dreamily between the 19th c. and the present, taking in the tiny touches at the Goring that make one feel cared for, transported back to a Downton world, where servants figured out what you needed before you had a chance to even consider what might be required. 

Our beginning is not auspicious.  The taxi driver from Heathrow will not take my credit card; I do not have the requisite PIN.  Then, Dane, in his bowler, sweeps to our rescue, “We’ll just put it on the tab, Mrs. Juster.  Off you go.”  The staff calls both of us Mrs. Juster; I stop trying to correct them; it is lovely that they use any names.  And then we are tucked into club chairs in the lounge, drinking tea and eating toast as our room is readied.  Less than half an hour passes.  We are under-dressed for the lounge, but no one minds.  Before long, we are upstairs in our room, changing our clothes, cooing over the light switches that modulate the lighting—our favorite setting is “Ooh.”  We swoon over the heated bathroom tiles and running lights, the enormous sheep that doubles as an ottoman, every detaBeyond the window, the garden is an emerald square, little houses on the non-Goring side, full of narrow casement windows and slate roofs and tiny chimney tops.  “Where is Bert?” I wonder, in this behind the scenes Mary Poppins view.  A real orchid blooms, white, on the round table by the window.  Our room is shades of beige, soothing, like a cocoon. 

In the public spaces, flower arrangements bloom on every surface, carnations massed so tightly they appear to be a single bloom.  The windowpanes along the stairwell, dating from 1910, we are told by a footman, are textured, opaque and wavy, like wrinkled cloth.  The wallpaper is the same pattern, but on each floor, the large flowers float against a different background.  We know our floor because of the empty picture frames.  “Pink panther,” our porter explains knowingly.  Anne and I exchange a puzzled glance.  In the hallway, even the chairs are inviting, as if you could retreat to the corridor if the room were suddenly too small.  The Goring is populated by footmen and doormen and porters and ladies in long white coats, who seems to manage registration and smile and say “Brilliant,” to every mundane declaration.  There are more attendants than guests it seems. 

We head out to appointments, and then, duties accomplished, retreat back to the Goring for a respite.  Our flight is catching up with us.  At 4 o’clock, we hear a knock at the door. A tiny white china rectangle arrives sporting two stemmed Clementines on a gold dusted surface—we dip our fingers in the gold and spread it on our cheekbones before we head to the theatre.  On the West End, at Half a Sixpence, the illusion of loveliness continues—a nosegay of a musical, bright, lithe and unself-conscious—an Edwardian confection with no hint of war to come. Gold garlands adorn the theatre; gilt angel-muses, in relief, frame the proscenium, one holding a trumpet that reaches out over the audience, the other an olive branch or laurel crown—it is too dim to see up so high.  Four fat cherubim are wrapped in golden cloths, cavorting on the arch.  At the interval, our aisle mates eat ice cream.  We acquire tiny chocolate bars, named for Shakespearean heroines.  I am enchanted.  The leading man, a twenty-two year old phenom recalls the grace of Fred Astaire, leaping and twirling in effortless, elevated choreography. In the second act, he plays a banjo and the entire stuffy musicale crowd joins in, pressing cocktail shakers and end tables into service as instruments.  It is rollicking, ridiculous, joyful.  I eavesdrop on the audience members around us.  I do not hear Donald Trump’s name.  The absence of politics is restful. Afterwards, we are transported home in a taxi, the lights of the city sparkling, Christmasy, though we are not yet finished with November. Lord Nelson atop his arch, commands his lions to sit, stay.  In the lounge, we drink champagne and shamelessly people-watch, nibbling cheddar biscuits, olives, crisps.  Anne eats tiny crab cakes and I indulge in Welsh Rarebit, which appears like cheese toast.  In Room 97, the maid has been back to remake the beds, leaving lip balm on our pillow.  Balm, salve.  Healing.  Under the eiderdown, I sleep deeply, fully, resting, giving myself over to the experience.  In the morning, the bath is deep enough to float in, the light wintry but bright when we pull back the satin drapes.  I run a finger across the silk brocade wallpaper—silk brocade?  In the dining room, where elegant Savorski cherry branches light the space (to the dismay of more traditional guests, our server tells us), egg cups march next to porridge bowls. Breathe it in.  Grace, ease.  A respite. We set out, fortified with porridge, and notice a statue of a young Queen Victoria in a tiny, gated square behind the Goring.  Another hotel is putting up holiday decorations, garlands and greens and red fronds. Strolling down the Birdcage Walk, we admire a pink pelican, notice a heron atop the birdkeeper’s cottage, chuckle at other tourists making friends with a squirrel. Apparently squirrels are never seen in Australia, and these squirrels, demi-celebrities, are happy to cavort with those from down under.  We crunch through fallen leaves, skirting a protest.  Grey-coated guardsmen burst into the unlikely strains of Copa Cabana—the tune stays in my head all day, though Anything Goes, their next tune, vanishes into the autumn air. In Churchill’s War rooms, the destination I was determined to visit on this trip, I imagine London enduring the Blitz; I try to reconcile what I know of that great war with what I’ve known, the bits and pieces that I feel I’ve always known, about Churchill.  Grace and Will, my cousin’s children, are good sports, but eventually, they leave with their dad, the setting not conducive to conversation.  After two hours and a half of wandering, I think of Churchill’s Clementine, not particularly well-liked, I am sad to learn, and of Winston—revered, despised, revered again—what a statesman he was, how he understood the vicissitudes of politics. Where are those statesmen now?  The rooms, underground, are efficient, unexpectedly immediate, as if Churchill, himself, could be lurking around a corner in one of his one-piece velvet rompers.

A spontaneous stop at St. Martin’s in the field yields an orchestra in rehearsal for a Beethoven piece—listening feels a little illicit, like spying, but we stay.  I rest my sore feet in the wooden pew, look up at the intricate carvings, garlands and patterns floating on the ceiling, arches that end with the heads of three baby angels.  The window behind the altar is plain, no stained glass in the whole church, but the mullions look as if they have been bent to make a cross.  The lectern is in the middle of the congregation, not at the front.  I like that. The simplicity of the windows makes the elaborate plaster work all the more whimsical.  I like the combination—contemporary and ancient.  There has been a church on this site since 1222.  America feels like a gangling infant to me today.

We drink mint and pea soup and a ginger/apple concoction at the ubiquitous Prete, gazing out the window at a statue of Edith Cavell.  I remember Daddy telling me  about her heroism, a nurse, who smuggled soldiers into Holland and was executed by a German firing squad. So much atrocity in so short a time—those two great wars.  There are red poppy wreaths at the base of many statues—Remembrance Day in England feels more tangible than Veteran’s Day.  Here, in London, the two wars also feel more recent, as if I have only just missed them.

Next, the National Portrait gallery, where I greet my old friends, the Tudors and the Stuarts, lots of 18th c. actors—Sarah Siddon, Edmund Dean, Charles Kemble—no sign of Fanny but a likeness of Nell Gwynn I do not like as much as the one in my dressing room at home.  My feet give out, burning, aching—I am annoyed. Back to the hotel for a respite before tea at Fortnum and Mason—sumptuous, Tiffany-blue china and towers of tea sandwiches, scones, and sweets.  Bravely, I devour a garish pink rose éclair, even swallowing down the rose petal, because I may never have such an opportunity again.  Grace and I browse after, searching for a gift for her birthday, rejecting a 1000-pound hamper filled with Christmas crackers.  We settle on a kaleidoscope and some candy—big decisions.  And then, in the damp dark again, we find a taxi and make our way back to The Goring, full of London, ready for the jaunt to Oxford. 

I write, my feet resting on a giant ewe, an unlikely ottoman.  I savor being in this lovely spot.  And then, a few weeks after I've returned home to the States, I read that Queen Elizabeth has lunched at the Goring, and Dane, our favorite doorman, Anne and I are sure, had to evict a drunken intruder.  Drama at the Goring and we missed it.  Next time.

Breakfast at the Goring!

Not In Charge

This morning, Thursday, I creep downstairs, the heat’s smell familiar, the radiators clanking. Freezing rain pelts the roof.  The kitchen sink is full of dishes, which I wash.  I empty and re-load the dishwasher, make coffee, sponge off the countertops, throw away a withered bouquet that, earlier in the fall, I thought looked charming and now looks only musty.  I also toss a few spiky chestnuts, the ones that look like a prickly lion’s mane and hurt when you touch them; they had sat in a plastic bowl on the windowsill since a visit to my husband’s stepsister’s farm eighteen months ago.  One mother’s feeble efforts at de-cluttering.  I note the many open cookbooks on the island, ingredients for various dishes strewn on every surface.  The crew worked late last night, long after I, jet-lagged, had retired. My daughters have already informed me I am no longer permitted to grocery shop because I buy things we do not use in time that go soft and squishy.  The girls returned from the East Coast, purged the rotten produce, sanitized the fridge, and gave me my marching orders.  I am not in charge.  

How long have I made Thanksgiving?  Almost thirty years, I guess.  There was a Thanksgiving in college when I brought Seth home to my mother’s house.  He was the first vegetarian she knew—an exotic creature who would become my husband some years later. We made Thanksgiving with all the trimmings: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, string beans with almonds, several kinds of pie, stuffing, but quiche in place of turkey. 

My mother loved my vegetarian beau fiercely, even then, and fretted continuously that Seth might not have enough to eat, a refrain that irritated my sister and me for years. This small bird-like woman who, herself, subsisted on “air pudding and wind-sauce” would plaintively inquire, “What will Seth eat?  Will there be enough for Seth?” fussing over her son-in-law in a way she never fussed over either of us. I can’t recall Seth ever starving.  My mother, on the other hand, would have been happy with three Triscuit spread with Philadelphia cream cheese and a dot of Worcestershire Sauce. Often, Lee, my sister, and I would have to make a surreptitious run to the grocery store to lay in additional supplies.

That first Thanksgiving, right before dessert, Mom exclaimed, “We forgot the rolls!” There they were in the oven, tiny Pepperidge Farm dinner rolls hardened into weapons.  Forgetting the rolls became a family tradition.  Some years, our amnesia was so complete that we forgot to buy them or put them into the oven at all.  The girls have eliminated them from the menu this year, so we will not forget them.

We often spent Thanksgiving in Eagles Mere in Kuloff, our slightly heated summer home, insulated just enough to manage November as long as the woodstove kept burning and warm sweaters and thick socks were part of every wardrobe.  Because there is no supermarket close by, we would stuff the car with every ingredient we might need and drive from Manhattan, offering incantations to avoid traffic.  Some years, we would race to the big house, Self Help, which was unheated but had a working oven to accommodate one more pie. Once, a guest made sauerkraut, the scent lingering through the whole house all weekend.  It was during the Eagles Mere era that I took over preparations, Mom a better guest than chef.  Kerro would drive down from Syracuse to join us, always forced to carve, and Seth would manage all the bits no one else could cope with-- shimming a tilted table, finding a few more chairs, opening recalcitrant lids, lighting the room so that it was lovely.  I am a serviceable cook—imaginative, improvisational, rarely bound by recipes, but frequently inspired by them.  I like basting the turkey with ginger ale and cider and orange juice.  I like whipping cream for pies.  I like being together and pausing for a moment to be thankful, but I am no gourmet.  My repertoire is basic:  turkey, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, stuffing. New recipes for soups or sides get stuffed into a red folder, including a recipe EB gave me years ago for Pumpkin-Chocolate Chip bread, the Thanksgiving morning favorite.  Some years ago, the girls took over making that bread and all the pies with Kerro. Kerro, Seth’s and my friend from college and from ETC, is our children’s chosen guardian—though two of them no longer require a legal guardian—he is the secret ingredient—close enough to know us well, our foibles, neuroses and frailties—and provider of comic relief, calm, and gravy-making.  His presence doesn’t always ensure our good behavior, but it helps. 

Time passes. This is our thirteenth year in Shaker Heights. For the most part, we have made Thanksgiving at in our home, christened Lyman House, long ago in honor of the school’s formidable headmistress who lived out her days here in this home that was built for her.  Kerro is always the featured guest along with whomever else we can find willing to celebrate with our family. Seth mounted his annual campaign to eat Chinese food; he doesn’t see the point of all the fuss for one meal and too many leftovers.  He sees me chopping, my cheeks the color of pomegranate from the heat, my feet swelling, my temper fraying as the day unravels.  The girls and Atticus outvote him, declaring him curmudgeonly and misanthropic, when I suspect he was just trying to decrease the opportunity for drama. I have a trip for school to England, so I can’t shop or prep this year. 

“We’ll do it,” the girls declare, since I will return late on Wednesday night.  And they do.  They start a Google doc and make shopping lists.  They fight the holiday crush to get to Cleveland, breathless, one late on Tuesday night and the other, having missed her flight, on Wednesday morning.  They clean the fridge; they shop.  They are a force.

“Mom,” Miranda exclaims to me on the telephone from Whole Foods as I wait for our connecting flight at JFK yesterday, “This is so stressful.  I mean--it’s a lot of work to make Thanksgiving. You did it all those years. I didn’t realize.”  She is the age I was when I first began to make Thanksgiving. 

We order Chinese food and sit around the table in shifts last night: Miranda, Cordelia, Atticus, Seth and Kerro and Eva and Linne, maybe Katie, though I fall asleep before she appears. There is mess and there is bounty.  The two indoor cats have to be shut up in another room because they want to leap onto the table.  We eat fortune cookies and laugh.  I droop from the long trip. Our girls and Eva have a spreadsheet and a time-table. This morning, in a few hours, they will wake.  One will go to yoga; they will all go to the supermarket at least once more.  I may be pressed into service to make stuffing or to set the table—or not.  I am happy to bask in their competence, to play sous chef, to wash the dishes and praise and admire.  They are in charge.  

 The Kitchen Crew 

The Kitchen Crew