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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Do you want that stone?” my sister asked on the telephone.
“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.
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.
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.
Our black cat, Cesario, does not care that Mr. Trump has been elected President. He wants only to go outside, to get out of the house. He has always been an outdoor cat. He wants his old life back. But we learned yesterday that he has a heart condition that requires medicine three times a day; if we let him out, we will not be able to give him the medicine. His old life is over. This morning, in the quiet dark, he prowls the house, puzzled, angry. I stroke his glossy head. He glares at me. We both know he wants to go outside. Why am I not letting him? It’s been a strange twenty-four hours—the nation, our cat, heart conditions. We have a little kitten, too, Phebe. She is also an indoor cat—too young and small to take on the world--careless, we fear. So we are keeping her in until spring. She is delighted by Cesario’s captivity, wants only to be his friend. She leaps and feints and pounces, trying to engage him. He hisses, baleful. He is so much bigger than she, yet his is afraid of her—uninterested in her joy, her innocence.
Standing in front of my girls on the stage yesterday, I read from my carefully prepared script that congratulated the winners and offered strategies to those whose hearts lay elsewhere in the election. I watched girls all day embracing, weeping, averting their eyes. I felt tired, pretending an optimism I know I must model, but one that felt strained, as if I were acting the role of Head, rather than inhabiting it.
“What’s wrong with me?” I wondered, feeling muted, drained, teary. Our college daughter phoned, shares that her Feminist Theory professor has told her students that she has spent 35 years telling classes that women matter. “Ahh,” I sighed in recognition. “Me, too.” I am not a feminist theory professor. I am the head of a girls’ school; I have spent my life in girls’ schools, been shaped by them, by the fierce and formidable women that populated them, by good and generous men who joined those women in building essay by essay, problem set by problem set, a structure that convinced me I belonged, I was good enough, I had a place at the table, and a job to do in advocating for those more vulnerable than I. I learned to lead with optimism, with my whole heart, with authenticity. I chose a life as an educator in independent schools, and, long ago, when I was a young teacher, I fretted to my department chair, Judy, that I had chosen too easy a path, that I should have stuck to my guns and returned to the New Haven public schools, where I had cut my baby teeth as a student teacher.
“Annie,” she said, looking at me directly. “There are many paths. Here, you teach the girls that will have the access and the opportunity to make change. If you are not teaching them, if you are not sharing your ideals and your insistence that they make a difference, then who will?” That was a balm. I have liked my life, felt purposeful, certain, in fact, that we, as a nation, were moving forward. Part of me knows I need time to breathe. I need some more rest—the World Series plus the election drama has wreaked havoc with my sleep. I need to figure out how to offer to my girls and faculty offer the type of hope Judy offered me long ago—when I wore Laura Ashley dresses and white tights.
Cesario crouches, ready to spring. He is bewildered, cross. And I cannot explain this change in fortunes to him in a way he can understand. He is still who he was yesterday, but not. Me, too. Sometimes, change is thrust upon us, like it or not.
Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret Mead’s daughter, talks about composing a life. I like the idea that we get to choose, that it is not all just random; rather, we have agency. That is what I have taught the girls, always.
“You are not a tumbleweed,” I exhort to a child in my office, who has made a mistake. “You always have a choice. It’s not the mistake that matters; it’s how you move forward from it that counts.”
I have a choice about how to move forward. I had hoped for a different outcome, one that more clearly demonstrated to my girls, my brown and black girls, my gay girls, my Muslim and Jewish girls, my immigrant girls that this country was committed to them, that they would be okay. They will be okay, I hope. They are strong and capable, feisty and resilient, amazing. It is a privilege to spend my life among them. But many of them are reeling, angry, let down.
My college daughter is not sleeping because of the election. She is worried. We are all worrying, which feels passive, hopeless. This morning, walking in the crisp November air, finally chilly enough to be familiar unlike the earlier part of the week, whose balmy temperatures made me deeply suspicious, I am thinking about the week that has passed—the longest week of teaching ever for teachers in Northeastern Ohio—and the week that is to come, the high-stakes race for President.
First there was Halloween on Monday—giddy girls in our school already sated from parties over the weekend, counting the hours until the Halloween parade and their release from school and hours of trick or treating. Ghouls and witches at our door, decorously selecting two candies from my haunted, creepy candy box. Tuesday brought the post-sugar crash and Game Six of the Series, which, with my husband and son, I attended. Wednesday brought fatigue but possibility all through the ten innings, a game that lasted so long that I, schoolteacher-headmistress, kept my son home from school on Thursday because he had had the great privilege of going to Game Seven with my sister, imported from Pennsylvania for this historic moment. They left half-way through the tenth inning, threading through the crowds and SWAT teams, reaching Shaker Heights after 2:00 a.m., while I, in Manhattan for a memorial service, crouched in my oldest daughter’s too warm apartment, watching the game on mute so as not to wake my husband. When he did wake and learn that we had tied, that there had been a rain delay, that we had lost by one run in the tenth inning, he was incredulous, a little furious that I had not woken him (I tried when we tied, but he didn’t budge). Next came Thursday with post-series let down as we all tried to keep our heads high—if we had to lose, better to lose to our Midwestern neighbors, the Cubs, another feisty, scrappy, long-deserving rival, instead of some fancy, arrogant team from one of the coasts. Then Friday, the faculty in my school boarded buses at 6:00 a.m. and headed to Columbus in the dark for a full day conference with ISACS, sessions on many topics: race, assessment, creativity, purpose. We are sated, too, like the children with their Halloween candy. A bad accident delayed our return. Wrapped in darkness once again on the trip home, we are giddy, like seventh graders, too-long cooped up in the same cramped space. And finally, the weekend, a time for recovery from this long, long week.
This morning, the sun sparkles in the autumn leaves, vibrant, like living stained glass against a blue field. I breathe in the cool air, breathe out disappointment, rusty on my tongue, privileged to live in this pugnacious town, in this Swing State, where I know my vote matters. I don’t know how Tuesday will go. As a Headmistress, I cannot put my politics on my lawn or on my Facebook feed, though all who know me will presume my loyalties—I am the Head of a girls’ school; I want my girls to know girls can do anything, be anything, including President. The Indians loss was tough to swallow, but if we need to lose the Series to have the right team win on Tuesday, it will be enough.
The first day, we go, three strangers with me, up a hill, down a hill, up another slope and there it is, the young red maple aflame in the middle of a circle of stones. We find the entrance. I follow Erin, trusting her feet when I do not trust my own. On the way back out, I fumble—a stone has been moved; the path isn’t clear. She smiles, points the right direction. And, just as I am sure I have made a mistake, I emerge.
We are silent walking, our sneakers on cedar chips—red chips lining the outside circle, grey and black ones within the paths winding, guiding, circling. Today, alone, I stoop to see if the black ones are burned, testing the black against another rock gingerly to see if it can be used like a stick of charcoal, but it does not have that property. Who built this labyrinth? A grieving family, an artist? This property is full of bird-houses painted in bright colors, a destination for a mother bird’s child, seeking a home. The families making birdhouses have all lost children—their grief so palpable it feels like metal in my mouth. Would we have come to such a place had it existed when Roddy died? No. This is a different time, a different part of the country. We know more now about how to process. How to trust the labyrinth to carry us forward deep into ourselves, how to spool us back out from the center, like an Elizabethan circle dance winding into a snail whorl, then releasing.
Yesterday, Erin and I go again, silent once we are inside, lost in thought, surrendering. After, we both whisper Namaste and walk home a winding way, around the pond and over Sophia’s bridge, painted rocks winking like Easter Eggs, placed lovingly in roots and nestled into stumps. We heard last night what one grieving mother needed to do, an instruction manual of sorts for how to do grief. Here, I think of my own mother and her mother—how was it they managed to move forward, inch forward. I think of Lori and Don mourning Jess.
Today, I venture out by myself, quiet from all the stories I have heard. Arriving, I see Kate and Erin walking. It is warmer this morning. I think of the Stage Manager in Our Town, explaining at the top of Act III in the Grover’s Corners Cemetery that “an awful lot of sorrow has quieted down up here,” and I hope that that is true for those who come to Faith’s Lodge, not on a writing retreat—or on a writing retreat, that our collective sorrows can quiet down. I tilt my face to the sun, pause until the two who are walking have passed where I will enter, not wanting to interrupt their pace, but then, unexpectedly, I turn in on myself a few seconds later and there is Erin, coming in the opposite direction. She throws her arms wide and we hug, this stranger-friend I acquired Thursday. Kate and I hug next; then they leave, their voices soft, murmuring with the breeze. Reaching the center of the labyrinth, I close my eyes. Shimmer. Circles. Red. I feel as if I am teaseracting in A Wrinkle in Time. Pulsing red. Anger? Grief? I breathe. “Set down, set down”. Richard III’s Lady Anne’s words thrum in my ear. Fragments of text float up to me. “What would you do if you were not afraid?” “Nature’s first green is gold.” Mantras swirl in this place of meditation. Lady Anne again: “Set down, set down.” Set down anger, grief, sorrow, burdens, helplessness? Set down feeling silenced, helpless, caught. Set down as in record, write. Set down as in I don't need to carry such burdens, so much weight any longer. I wind, burrow, coil, curl into myself in the labyrinth, in the lodge, witnessing others' stories, griefs, losses. Listening. I listen right now. One tapping bird. A chirp behind me. Breezes rustle leaves; I listen more. There are several layers of wind, several types of rustle: grass, small trees, larger noises of wind in branches. What is louder than a rustle? Sun, so warm. I watched you rise over the steam a few hours ago, a golden band pushing up over the lake, pushing back the darkness. That's where grief lives, underground, I think. A caldera, rising when it finds an aperture, reaching up. Cheep, cheep. One bird. Another answers. Rush. Whoosh. The flutter of wings. How unlikely to be writing on my phone when a river of words has flowed from my pen during this retreat. Re. Treat. A treat offered more than once. Accept what you are offered, a birthday treat. Trick or treat. Retreat from the field. Retreat into anger, loneliness. Retreat into silence. Words loud in my head. Breathe. In. Out. Set down. Set down. Spiral out. Trust. Accept the gift, the peace, the possibility that this moment can inspire me next week, next month, next year.
Today, I visit my daughter’s third grade class. We leave the Upper West Side in a dark, damp dawn, fueled by iced coffee, happy (finally) to find a cab and we head across town, and in through the polished wooden doors of 100 East End.
It is only the second full week of school, but the little girls clearly know what’s expected, how to come into the room, greet Ms. Orbach, deposit their “communication” folders in the blue basket in the center of the rug and read the morning message. They are switching seats today, so each girl moves her own chair to a new table. One child asks if, her tasks accomplished, she could read. Miranda gives permission, and the child she bends, bangs over her eyes, close to The Lighting Thief.
I am not in charge. In fact, I am largely invisible, which offers its own kind of pleasure. Miranda’s head teacher, Malini, is in charge, her affection for her girls and her high standards evident. I sit quietly at Miranda’s desk and enjoy watching my own daughter with twenty little girls, who have already found their way to her heart. All weekend, she shared her observations about each child, her impressions and hopes for each girl, connections she had made, worries, stories. She has fallen hard for this teaching business. In morning meeting, I am introduced, the girls’ eyes wide that Ms. Orbach has a mother. It occurs to me that her third grade and my third graders at Laurel could be penpals. “Have any of you ever been to Ohio?” I ask. Heads shake no. We have a tiny geography lesson about the Midwest. Then, Malini explains the upcoming fire drill, and I realize I should scoot out before that event, so as not to be late for a meeting down town. I leave reluctantly, trying to remember names and faces, so when Miranda calls to talk about her girls, I can bring each child to mind.
It is time-warp-ish to me to have her teaching where I taught for two decades. I went to The Chapin School when I was twenty-three one hundred years ago. I arrived on a rainy spring afternoon, mud splattering my white stockings—it was the 80’s—we wore white tights and lots of Laura Ashley dresses. Chapin gave me mentors and friends, opportunities to grow and try new things. In many ways, I came of age there before heading to Ohio to lead Laurel, a girls’ school I’ve come to love with as much devotion as I had for Chapin.
On her first day of teacher meetings, Miranda was overwhelmed to begin with—a new job in a new profession in a setting she remembered from childhood but didn’t really know. Once she arrived, she was overwhelmed at being known by so many people she could not remember—twelve years is a long time when you leave at 11—and it was not her school; it was my school, where she came often, to be sure, but still…the faces swam up, delighted to claim her, welcome her, tell her they knew her when she was a little girl, but now she is grown and her own person, not mine by association, though, of course, she is mine by association, in this school where I taught for a long time, a long time when I longed for her arrival, a long time afterwards. A long, longing time.
She has her own tidy desk in the classroom, a sure sign that her Head teacher will value her, will respect what she can bring to the third grade. She will want to be of use, will want to feel like a partner, rather than a handmaiden. She is taking in the culture, breathing it in—opening meeting in the Gordon Room—in my day, we met in the Assembly Room, but that is under construction, I understand. Once, I tell her, in 1986, we did not have lunch for a year—I think they were building the Gordon Room that year, and we had lunch in Room 26 in brown paper bags—maybe that was when they built the gym. Memory blurs. But we ate our lunches and all was well. In my school the Upper School is upside down; we are building, too, but not on such a grand scale and going both up and down in Manhattan. The cost makes me shudder, but it is different in New York. Lots is different in NY.
In these first weeks, she is tired. It is like drinking from a fire hose, I tell her, wondering how those new to my school are feeling this Monday night, their third week with the girls. Are they tired, too? I am. Every year, at the beginning, I am keyed up, happy to see the girls, weary when things are bumpy, but no longer startled—things are often bumpy at the beginning, in the middle, at the end, along the way—bumps are to be expected. I try to welcome the bumps, not fight them or pretend they’re not there. We have a girl who cannot manage her last period class—yet. I am ever optimistic. We make a plan. She needs a little more TLC just now. And we can do that; it’s within our power to do that, to accommodate, to consider what each child needs. Even Seniors are still girls, who need our help—girl-women. I think of them as young women; yet I most often call them girls. What is that? Forty-plus years in girls’ schools? Probably. Of course, some of them don’t feel like girls or women—some of them are on different journeys, hard ones—in all our schools—and they need more than a work around for math last period. I don’t always feel we have enough to offer girls whose identities feel fragile, who learn too much about families that are shattering around them, who have sick moms or dads who have lost their jobs or siblings who have other huge needs…it takes a village, really, for each one of them. Sometimes we can know what she might need; often, we can only guess.
After her first faculty meeting, Miranda wrote me. She liked what the diversity director has said. What if we were to bathe our classrooms in empathy? I Google the expression—“bathe in empathy.” I get lots of hits about empathy, but nothing with that exact phrasing. I think about the talk I gave to the Upper School ten days ago on Wednesday—about school culture in trying times with a tricky election and polarized views. I had an old talk I wrote ten years ago about my fabulous professor who had a single theme, “man’s inhumanity to man,” the opposite of empathy, I think.
This morning, watching her, I felt giddy that one of my daughters is a teacher, envious that it is all ahead of her, happy that I know the contours of the landscape she now inhabits, if not the details of her world that was once my own.
This month, I start my thirty-fifth year of teaching school, my thirteenth as Head at Laurel. Over the years, I have taught English and drama, mostly, with a fair number of College Guidance classes sprinkled in. I think back over Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Ethan Frome, Tess, The Scarlet Letter, Huck, Great Expectations, Beloved, Woman Warrior, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, a lot of Shakespeare, tons of poetry, more plays and the occasional short story and essay. My new Juniors and my Sophomores at Northfield Mount Hermon in my earliest years as a teacher were indulgent, kind. A few years later at Chapin, in drama, we began always in a circle spending time getting to know each other before jumping into acting exercises. Teaching is the place I know myself best; it is like oxygen. I love leading a school, but teaching is actually where I find myself on steadiest ground, understand my purpose and my role. For me, teaching has always been a sort of second-skin.
Until last year. Last year, I taught 9th grade English as I have for the past twelve years at Laurel—and my class met last period—every day. The girls were marvelous—full of curiosity and kind with one another—mostly. They were also fried after a long day. And their teacher was not so marvelous. Too often, I was cranky and fatigued, stressed after a day of managing the day-to-day life of the school. I fell behind in my correcting too often and felt inadequate. I loved being with them, but I didn’t feel like my best English-teacher self. Turns out, I’m not at my best at 2:30 and I found myself more curt, a little less elastic in my dealings with my girls. I discovered that I would benefit from a schedule that tumbled as much as the girls would. In the fall, when we were tackling Oedipus Rex, I had the fleeting thought that I might gouge out my own eyes if I had to teach this particular tragedy again—though I love it. And, in the midst of The Odyssey, I had to resist my strong impulse to yell at Odysseus, saying, “Get a compass and get the heck home to your wife and stop sleeping with everyone in a skirt on the way.” I don’t think it’s a great sign to want to berate the Epic Hero. I have loved teaching texts I know well, but there comes a point when one needs a change.
So, I decided to step back, take a year away from the English classroom. I’ll still teach drama in the spring when the little girls and I make a play together. And, a stint of maternity-subbing has come my way, so I’ll get to teach Lifeskills to some 9th graders in the winter. But, I am already feeling sorry for myself in an unbecoming way. No one exiled me. I exiled myself, so I wouldn’t be sour and cross. This year, I’ll be able to watch more classes around the building, be able to travel a bit more to raise money for this school I love so much, be able to write at night instead of making up assessments or grading essays. But as the first day came and went and I did not meet a new crop of girls—expectant, maybe a little nervous about having the Head as their English teacher until they realized how delighted I was to be on their journey with them. I’m hoping my self-imposed sabbatical will be good for me and for the school, but I can already tell you, I think I may have blown it. Perhaps I could have taught a different tragedy, found a different epic, taught at another hour of the day. But, perhaps I’ll feel all the more joyous next year when I’m setting up my grade book and meeting a new group of girls. What a privilege it is to teach.
· Made a pie in June so I didn’t run out of time to make a pie. Did not make another one.
· Took an on-line writing class on Scene and Summary.
· Taught an online class (Intro to Girls Schools) with a number of colleagues in the class as well as my oldest daughter, who will start her teaching career next week.
· Tried not to get stressed out about Atticus’ summer reading. Still not finished.
· Bit my tongue when a new kitten came to join our family.
· Walked almost every day.
· Wrote more than I read.
· Said goodbye to a much-loved colleague.
· Worked on my school’s Strategic Roadmap on huge post-its on our porch.
· Bought new linens and re-arranged furniture in three bedrooms in Eagles Mere.
· Backed into a boulder.
· Saw Cordelia in a ten-minute play at Williamstown—with a combined 8 hours of travel each way. Completely worthwhile.
· Listened to a great book on tape (The Gilded Hour) for hours and hours and hours back and forth on Route 80.
· Watched the light changing on the lake.
· Went canoeing exactly once.
· Went night-swimming more than once.
· Saw a falling star outside the window in the middle of the night, but forgot to lie out on the tennis court and look for meteor showers.
· Washed a great deal of china and glassware from cabinets that I suspect have not been emptied for 50 years.
· Got a new website constructed by one of my daughters!
The crisp is less crisp two nights later; we have the last of the season’s rhubarb, brought by Kerro from his garden from Michigan, and we are ready to make Strawberry Rhubarb crisp on Sunday night until we discover one container of strawberries is moldy and the other has about eight berries in it. Improvising, which is what theatre friends do, Kerro goes out to our back steps and fills a measuring cup with blueberries, round and fat and purple, from the bushes Mom planted about ten years ago. I find some raspberries; we discover, in the back ofhe fridge, half a carton of blueberries I had bought last week—wrinkled, but in a crisp, who will care? I mix the oats and flour and brown sugar and cinnamon. We borrow vanilla extract from our neighbors, stir in melted butter. Kerro preps the berries and we bake the crisp. Before dinner, I put the metal bowl and the bottom of our immersion blender into the freezer, so after we finish the meal, I can make homemade whipped cream. It’s then that my sister announces that she loathes rhubarb and declines our offer of dessert. Her vehemence does not dim our enjoyment of our creation. As we clean up, we find a tin foil cover for the baking dish and tuck it in to the pantry fridge.
Yesterday we do jigsaw puzzles; I write a lot. In a desultory way, I begin to collect my belongings because I head back home and back to work on Wednesday. Today, my last real day of summer, Kerro leaves us for Michigan. I nurse a migraine, grumpy about my son’s undone summer reading, cross at my own grumpiness, unproductive, restless. But we walk the dogs all together—my son, husband and I. It is lovely by the lake, clear and warm, the sun golden. My mood improves. I light the citronella candles, one of my favorite rituals this summer. We eat dinner on the porch. After supper, Atticus and I settle into our cavernous porch swing; he reads The Sign of the Beaver and I read my novel, Modern Lovers. Seth jumpstarts his mini van with my car and we talk about how my battery doesn’t lose any power by helping his recharge—like candlelight, like love. It is cooler, even this early in August, so we move inside to finish up the crisp. I do the dishes and Seth warms up the crisp in cut glass bowls from my grandmother’s era. Atticus chooses mint-chip ice cream over fruit, claiming, “I’m with Aunt Lee on this one; the rhubarb is sort of overpowering,” but as I savor the mingled flavor of fruit and lemon zest and vanilla ice cream, I know I am tasting summer.