Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bill Gets the Last Word. Eighteen Years Ago.

This blog has been a kind of love-letter to one remarkable year of my life. As we unpack and settle back into our home here, the adventure slips away, even as its effects are etched into our new/old life. But every good letter has its p.s., and today Bill unearthed ours. It was a message in a bottle, in a way, and I'm opening it now, safe on the opposite shore.

Bill and I do a lot of things differently. This includes unpacking, which we have both been doing pretty much nonstop since the moving truck disgorged all of our stuff onto our newly-polished floors just a few weeks ago. I unpack fast, maniacally focused on what I imagine to be the big picture, while he moves slowly, looking carefully at all the letters and photographs he finds along the way. Sometimes this makes me impatient. But other times, he unearths rare gems that I would have missed, or ever-so-efficiently chucked in the trash. As he was unpacking one of his very last boxes last night, he came across this rather magical little talisman:

It was a postcard he sent me in the spring of 1992. He was then in the midst of his epic European tour with Alain, and I was in my first year as a teacher. Nearly every day during the ten weeks he was away, a beautiful postcard with his chickenscratch affection on the back would float into my mailbox at The Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. E-mail hadn't really taken hold way back then, and there were no such things as internet cafés, texting, cheap cellphones, or godforbid, the magic of Skype. So I had only these slips of paper to remind me of his existence.

Nearly every one of the postcards featured paintings or sculptures of beautiful women from the museums of Western Europe. On the back of each one, he would tell me the ways in which that woman reminded him of me before describing his day's wild adventures. The particular one he just found was Toulouse-Lautrec, "La Blanchisseuse," (the laundress.) At that point I had not yet started to do anybody's laundry but my own, so I imagine that it was the set of her jaw and the intensity of her gaze that drew him in. The way she looks out the window, towards something that we can not see and she can not stop seeing.

When I saw that card yesterday, I totally swooned. But Bill quickly reminded me that at the time, I found his postcards sort of irritating. He said that I told him that I wanted him to stop looking at art, and look instead at me. That I wanted him to stop tormenting me with news of his wild times seven thousand miles away. One of the postcards featured the broad marble female back of a Rodin sculpture, and Bill wrote to me about how much he missed my shoulders. When we managed to talk to each other on the phone, I lit into him. "If you love my shoulders so much," I told him, in distress, "then why did you break up with me, and then leave for the whole spring and summer? You're not doing anything over there; why don't you just get on a plane, and come back!"

It's strange, really, that while he broke up with me before he left, his postcards described all the ways in which he did seem to be pining away for me. And as it turned out, I took better advantage of the breakup he initiated than he did. You know what they say: "if you can't be with the one you love..." I suppose on some level I was glad for him that he was having all these wild adventures. And I wasn't precisely unhappy about the wildness of my own. But mostly it felt complicated, and messy, and pointless. I just wanted him to come home.

In retrospect, I realize that this series of cards constitute one of the most romantic gestures that has ever passed between us. They were written at a rare moment of high drama, at least in part out of guilt. They were received less than graciously, and may have exaggerated the similarities between me and the subjects of the great paintings of Europe. But now it seems fairly astonishing that he took the time, nearly every day, to write to me.

We were young then, and break-up or no break-up, we were seriously in love. Each card landing in my mailbox was a telegram from forever. Back then I read his letters with profoundly mixed feelings. But now, whenever I come across one of them, and I read the rawness of his feeling on the page, the words and the images never fail to melt me.

Enough messy backstory: I should return to the card he found yesterday, and why it gives him the last word. The actual painting hangs in Paris, but this card he sent from the Piazza San Spirito in Florence, a beautiful square surrounding a spare, gorgeous church. In contrast to the wild rococco of the rest of the city, the church there looks downright modern, even New-Mexico pueblo plain, in its clean lines and lack of crenellated detail. It is on a much smaller scale than the Duomo, but still it leaves you breathless. It was the first place Bill dragged the three of us when we visited Firenze, and reading his postcard, I could see why: it had been there, in that square, that he had seen and predicted our future. The past and the present telescoped together as I read his familiar scrawl:

"I love this painting. Please let me have this card back. She's smart, hard-working, yet very sensual and enigmatic, a lot like you. I am sitting in Piazza San Spirtio in Florence, having finally broken away from what seemed like a ubiquitous throng of other tourists. You would like San Spirito. It's simple and graceful. I took some photos for you. I also photographed a meat market because it was packed in so beautifully. The counter-people thought I was a major loon but were also flattered, I think. 22 days left. This trip has been too short. We are going to live in a foreign country for at least 6 months. I'm sliding away from allowing CAREER to run my life. I've even thought about bagging my summer job so we could live with Alain in Paris.

Maybe next summer…."

Here on this card was the outline of our entire magical year, predicted like a tarot card from eighteen years in the past. He would see the best in me, and love me unceasingly, even when I least deserved it. While the romantic postcards would stop when he returned, the prosaic, daily act of creation that is our marriage would begin. (I would also start, à La Blanchisseuse, doing a whole lot more laundry than I ever had before, but that's a different story…)

We would travel, always seeking ways to break away from the throngs of other tourists, and he would find us great places to visit. We would become obsessed with the way that European markets arrange the food in ways both beautiful and appetizing; and yes, the people we met on our travels would find our ardent admiration of their foodstuffs both loony and flattering.

But I most love the flat-out statement he makes here: "We are going to live in a foreign country for at least 6 months." He put it out there, so long ago, as clear fact. And as it turns out, he also predicted the reason why we would leave. As it turned out, we waited until we both felt we needed to slide away, at least for a little while, from allowing some bully all-caps CAREER to run our lives.

His wistful "Maybe next summer…" turned into a wait of nearly two decades, but no matter. We got there. We were there in the Piazza San Spirito, drinking rosé while the girls sipped Orangina. The past became the future he had predicted. And, like a lot of Bill's crazy ideas turn out to be, it was good. Really good.

And now I realize that that future has once again become the past. The post-script of this entire love letter we have written to one another and to our children was written nearly two decades ago, packed away in a box with the rest of our memories, and has emerged in the here and now, when everything again feels new and open.

Sometimes my life feels random and pointless, a series of false starts and doubling-back. But this card from the past draws a through-line from the past through every moment that Bill and I have spent together, right up until now, unpacking our new/old house.

I like to imagine that I am the big picture gal of this family -- getting us to places on time, and making sure things get organized and accomplished. We pretend, sometimes, that Bill's role is to make it all interesting and fun, adding the icing on the cake of my rule-bound approach to things.

But this postcard reveals the bigger picture. This postcard proves that it is -- and always has been -- Bill who is truly steering this ship. Wait long enough, and the truth wills out. In the glacial pace of decades in a relationship, Bill's powerful desires often trump my momentary insistences. "We will live overseas for at least 6 months," he writes, from the fog of the past. And then, so many years later, we do. We escape the throngs. We walk away from that all-caps imperative. We stare into the eyes of our children for long stretches of time. We take pictures of the churches, the snails, the sunsets, our friends, and the beautiful stacks of meat. Just for a moment, we put down the laundry; we stare, intent on the beauty glowing right in front of our eyes.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fait Accompli

Today is the last of fifteen moves in fifteen months. Our major house renovation is complete enough (on time, no less) for the strongmen from Big Apple Movers to bring all our furniture back from wherever they have been keeping it. This morning I'll putter around, swiffering the corners a few more times, and then be drowned in heavy packed boxes at noon. By evening, I will be exhausted and dusty. I'll make sure the coffee maker is where I can find it in the morning. I'll put some sheets on the beds. I'll settle the girls down to sleep, then close my eyes in my very own bed.

Back home, where we once again belong.

Last night we barbequed and drank French wine at Bud and Toni's house, just a few blocks away. The kids ran around screaming like ninnies, like little children rather than the suddenly-big girls and boys they have become. We sat for a solid hour at the table and laughed, soaking in the luxury of friendship after a long day of work for Bud and Toni and Sean, and of a massive backyard weed-clean-out for Bill and me. Toni put fresh cucumbers in the water, and we ate corn and tomatoes, savoring the summer food of this part of the world.

We talked about school starting next week, and I didn't even think of the French panic over la rentrée. We talked about whether or not we actually would end up joining the Food Co-op, and I didn't suddenly lose myself in a reverie about the cheese counter at Intermarché. I've been even more in love with our brownstone than I was with La Bastide, and more fascinated by the city streets than gripped with memories of the rosemary bushes and juniper berries on Chemin des Devansaux.

Really, truly, home. Here to stay. Adventure over. The Word-a-day website sent me, via email this morning: "fait accompli: noun. A thing accomplished. A done deal."

At the end of dinner, Bud pulled out Toni's computer to show us their slideshow of photos from their trip to Paris and then to see us in Aups. There were the boys clowning around in front of the Louvre. There were the grey stones of Paris apartment buildings. There was a grainy video Sam took of the whole family walking down a street in the Marais, past a little navy Citroën Deux Chevaux. "I love Paris, I love Paris, I love Paris" Zeke singsonged, as he grinned and danced around, happy as a little American could be.

And there we all were, dying eggs in the kitchen of the Bastide. And there we were, at the egg festival in Tourtour. The kids were playing with Jessica and Gerard's puppy Frieda, and riding on the donkeys, and popping up and down on the trampoline in the bright sunshine on that high plain. It was five months ago, but it felt like a lifetime. It felt as though we were looking at photos we somehow captured from a particularly detailed and lovely dream. I know it was real, that it was the time of our lives. But it feels so far away I'm not quite sure how to live in that part of my brain and this one, too.

The past is past. Can't be there and here at the same time. As we unpack our house, we'll pack away our adventure. You might think I would be sad, but really I am way more than ready to stop moving and settle in deeply. It doesn't feel like loss to let what was go, and to lean forward into what is.

I like beginnings. I love the infinite promise of September. I like settling in, rolling up my sleeves, and laying the groundwork for something new. I don't dwell a lot on what was; when I see an ending on the horizon, I usually like to rush through it as fast as I can, looking for the next fertile field to plant and dream over. My magic words are all about what's next: evolve, build, ask, think, develop, grow.

And then, there is the most magic word of them all: home. I build a nest anywhere I find myself. This year, I became expert at making home out of a few pieces of luggage, a toothbrush, and a sofabed, trusting in the dinnertime bounty of whomever had taken us in. But this is our real home. As we settle in back here, we're going to take it slow, and get it right. We're going to put those little felt circles on the bottoms of our chairs to keep from scratching the floor. We're going to set the rugs in the right places, with just the right pads underneath. We might eat off of paper plates until the dishwasher is hooked up, but I'm going to line up the coffee mugs and cereal bowls just so on their shelves.

The last moving day. Fait accompli. Onward and forward to whatever awaits.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How I know it's time to go back to school

The image quality on my iphone is not great indoors, but here is Abigail, standing on her head while reading A Wind in the Door.

Clearly, it is time for me to send her off to third grade.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nomads of New England

A year ago today we were settling our heads down on the deep pillows of a bed and breakfast in Dublin, too excited to sleep before our big trip to Nice. We had cut our ties to before, and were heading off to who knows what. We faced that future with our old eyes. Bill was not just glass- half-full about things, but glass overflowing, certain he would find adventure at every turn. I was on the lookout for danger, steeped in regret and caution and fear. Grace was pretty sure she would find treasure and beauty, while Abigail hoped for nothing more than a steady diet of candy and TV.

A year later, we're back in America, and still wandering, deeply changed by what we found. Now I have started to roll with the punches, and itch for new experiences almost as I crave the nest. Bill, having pitched all four of us up a big steep hill, is now slowly rolling back down towards the familiar. Our world has widened, but also contracted. We know that everything that really matters is here in the bonds among the four of us, in the family we create. This won't be true forever, certainly, but it's our new center of gravity. For now, who we are comes from right here, wherever we may be.

Grace did, in fact, find treasure and beauty, but along a windier path than any of us had expected. Abigail still loves her candy and TV, but also became the most patriotic child in America, with a serious Varoise accent and a hankering for the smell of thyme, the taste of duck, and massive squirts of Verviene eau de cologne.

And now, for the next three weeks or so, we are still on the road. We travel by Toyota rather than by Camel, finding new places to lay our grateful, weary heads every week or so. We're home-rich, rather than homeless, although none of these homes is ours. So far we have hit all of New England aside from Maine (I have an extremely rare allergy to our nation's 23rd state.)

We'll be back to some sort of routine in Brooklyn no later than the first of September. Until then, here are snapshots of some of our campgrounds (literal and figurative) and our fellow-travelers.

Friends since birth at Zealand Falls Hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I forget the name for this rather adorable sort of relation: the children of first cousins. Second cousins, perhaps? At any rate, here are my cousin's kids, with one of mine, Little Lake Sunapee

Sisters at Little Lake Sunapee. (See, I really am taller. As long as I stand on a big rock.)

The whole gang, Zealand Falls Hut. This backpack and matching hiker-headband combination makes me cooler than I otherwise am.

City Cousin BFF's, Spring Lake. I love these children nearly as much as I love my own.

All in the family, at Rhoda's Pond. I have a second photo, where Finn's tongue is pointing the other way. Just as cute.

Finny-Foo, during a Menemsha sunset. He and Abigail were playing a pretty rough and tumble game of tag, but nobody fell in the bay.

Look very closely to see the sliver of a half of a moon, above the clouds.

I didn't realize, until I posted all these portraits of happiness, that every single one was taken on a gloriously sunny day, within spitting distance of still, or flowing, or deep salty water. Now that's some kind of summer.

So much for all the danger I worried so hard about. I still have plenty of cranky moods, but I'm not sure anymore why. For, as it turns out, there has been an oasis nearly everywhere we have needed one, each brimming with plenty of cool, clear water.

So were these safe harbors always here, waiting for us to find them?

How is it that we have only just learned how to look?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Memory, Menemsha

We're here all together for a week's beach vacation, celebrating my in-laws' fiftieth wedding anniversary -- Gus and Linda, with their kids and grandkids, in a rented house on the Vineyard. We've cooked big meals and eaten on the wide wooden deck overlooking Rhoda's Pond. We have canoed around the brackish lake, bought sunflowers and eggrolls at the farmer's market, and all gone swimming at various beaches. Today was the only rainy day of the week, for all of two hours maybe, so we headed into town to go window-shopping and buy bags of gumdrops and licorice. I watched Abigail ride the Carousel in Oak Bluffs. She looked so focused, studiously grabbed at the rings each time she passed; clearly, she's just as susceptible as I am to the habit of turning life into a project rather than a game. "I got one every time," she told me, proudly. "It was easy. I got a whole big stack."

Tonight we drove to Menemsha, a little fishing town that faces each night's sunset. We ate lobster and steamers and fish tacos together on the porch of a restaurant, surrounded by other big (presumably happy?) families on vacation in their Wellfleet t-shirts and summer tans. It wasn't simply hot, but so stickily warm that we were nearly sweating as we sat still, so the grownups drank Var rosé on ice and the kids downed cups of fresh lemonade.

I write this all down, with every detail fresh in my memory: the taste of the sweet clams in the butter, the rosy shade of the setting sun on our faces, the graying shingles of the houses, the weatherbeaten American flag down at the end of the pier. I write it all down, knowing that this too will pass. It's midsummer now, but on days like this I can't help but remember that it is so much later than I think.

My memory feels to me like it has been fraying a bit at its far edges, for reasons I can only pretend to understand. Whereas once I felt like I never lost anything -- a name, a place, an idea and its origins -- now I sometimes feel like the past is a soap bubble, popping just as I reach for it. I tell myself that the details are dissolving for some reason or another: like the dislocation of all this travel. Like the impossible fullness of a life's experience. Like I'm suddenly here at forty, my brain is old, and there is just too much to recall. Like the new warm swelling of my heart is somehow overcoming the old, cold sharpness of my mind.

We walked down to the end of the pier and looked over the fishing boats, across an uninhabited green spit of sand, and towards the setting sun. This little place was almost impossibly perfect -- not a Disney fake version of a fishing village, but the thing itself. It was messy in places and worn in others, yet still so beautiful it might have been composed by an artist. You could look through one window of a blue-grey shack, entirely hung with fishing lures, through to the window on the other side, and onwards toward the water beyond. At the end of the pier, some awful destroyed hunk of an old building was slowly rusting into the salt water. We ate soft ice-cream-cones by some big grey rocks, but they dripped faster than the kids could keep up. The hot wind blew their hair around and spattered drops of melting ice cream on their shirts and onto the dusty ground.

As I am writing all this, I want to burn it into my memory. It is three hours of one day among the hundreds we have shared together, the thousands over the years, the tens of thousands we can only hope to have if we're as steadfastly lucky and wise as Linda and Gus. Today we have each other in a way that feels perfect. It feels like forever, but as I have started to learn, the best of our days fly away against our will. The sun keeps setting. The kids grow up. We ourselves grow older, and the warm wash of our summer memories together will slosh and dilute and slowly fade away.

And that's only if things go well. Fifty years worth of sunsets is almost too much for anyone to hope for.

I have set up my computer so that every five minutes a new photograph shows up as the screensaver behind whatever I'm doing. There, behind my word processing or pointless internet search emerges one random shot from the over seven thousand images stored away on it. A blue sky and soft blonde grass from a hillside in France. Hayden and Zeke, eating hotdogs on Katie's porch four years ago. A sea of a hundred freezing people at Obama's inaguration. My Dad's seventieth birthday. Mom and Dad's anniversary. Field Day. Full Moon. Christmas morning. Each time a new shot appears, unbidden, I'm back in some other happy memory, some other place elsewhere. Each one is an instant memory, but arrives with the shock of the unfamiliar: How could I ever have forgotten that?

On our drive home, we wound slowly around the twisting North Road through Tisbury, back towards Lambert's Cove. We put on music that made us all happy, bouncing around to Hawaii 5-O and Vida la Viva and eventually Abigail's other favorite, the Black Eyed Peas. As we pulled into the driveway, last summer's inescapable hit was playing. We turned it way up and got out of the car to dance on the lawn under a crabapple tree. When Gus and Linda, Laura and Finn drove up, they danced with us, too, just for a few minutes. The loud song echoed out into the quiet woods. I got a feelin…that tonight's gonna be a good, good night…

That song has played in a whole lot of places, on a whole lot of nights, almost certainly too many, on the whole. But for tonight it was just ours, as we jumped around on the fallen fruit, all three generations dancing together.

We all went inside, and the kids got cleaned up and ready for bed. Abigail read Finn a story, while Grace sat on the sofa with us and giggled. She's been a shaky and tentative these past few days, in the way she sometimes can be, but tonight she was fully herself. Maybe it was the ice cream. Maybe it was the dancing. But we were glad to have her back in full form. We sat together and made plans for our next day, and then all drifted off to our corners of the house to read, or watch a movie, or fall asleep. I haven't been sleeping all that well these past few nights, but the storms and the wind had finally started to cool the house, and as the cold air came in from below and the warm air drifted out the window of our sleeping loft, I fell in. Deep.

Maybe it was an hour. Or two. Or only fifteen minutes, but suddenly I saw Grace standing there, right next to the bed. She was smiling at me, just on the edge of speech. I started to sit up, started to ask her what she needed, and just as the words started to form between us, she dissolved into thin air. A ghost. A trick of sleep. I knew then she was down in her little twin bed, not there in the loft next to mine, but her presence had felt so real. She was there, and just as quickly she was gone.

Like all those memories I never write down. Like all those summer nights. Like all the photographs I never thought to take. Like all of these moments and days and years.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Since coming back to the U.S. after so much time away, I've managed to finagle overnight invitations from nearly all of my close friends and most of my family, sleeping on their aerobeds or sofas or commandeering their children's rooms for a night or two or five. Since my own house is still in dusty chaos, and I have no permanent home myself, I've borrowed each of theirs in turn. In the months of June and July, I've slept in no fewer than a dozen different beds, none of them my own. Perhaps this is hospitality karma: after trying to learn how to be a more gracious host, during our time away in France, I've suddenly become a nearly full-time guest.

While I was gone, I missed each one of my friendships so very, very much. I had the interweb, of course, and even that magic free phone line from the Bastide, and we slowly got to know our lovely multinational gaggle of new friends. "Make new friends, but keep the old," we all sang back in Girl Scouts. "One is silver and the other's gold." But the further I tipped towards feeling connected there, the harder it felt for me to cross the ocean of absence and feel close to my golden girls. My everyday stories felt too flip, the good stuff was already in the blog, and the bigger, harder topics sometimes felt too hard to broach. It wasn't just the fact that Skype kept freezing that made it hard to connect. It was also that I was changing, and so were they, and the old patterns needed to be revised.

As I discovered on my five-state tour of sleepovers these last few weeks, there is nothing like 24-hour contact to bring you back in sync with somebody you have seriously missed. Spending an hour or so over morning coffee, with my face all smushy and hair unwashed, seems way more intimate than getting together for dinner. I've borrowed my friends' showers, their towels, their shampoo, drunk their beer and luxuriated in their A/C on sweltering nights. I've been invited into their inner sanctums, the places where they are most themselves, and where they have let me do the same. I've seen their housekeeping way up close, checking out their choices in tile and carpet and sheets. I swear, I'm not just being nosy. Renovation is always on my mind these days, and I sort of can't think about anything else.

(That Sleepover Hussy, I'm sure you're thinking, bragging about how many invites she has scored herself. So when is she gonna just show up at my house and use my good shampoo without asking?)

The sleepover level of intense intimacy in friendships among adults can feel the tiniest bit complicated. As much as I love each one of these women -- truly, madly, deeply, differently -- it's a little weird to just insert myself so fully into their domestic spaces. Sometimes I worry (as I am wont to do) that I'm overstepping, oversharing, or being boring by repeating random details from the New York Times or retelling some France story I've already beat to death. I want to talk about what is most important without stepping on any of the sore points that might sting. I don't want to wake up too early or sleep too late or make noise at bad times. I want to read for at least an hour every day (I go nuts if I don't) but not be too anti-social. I want to play with their kids or their pets or their stuff without throwing off the routine. I want to give my friends their space and still greedily gobble up their presence. I don't want to stay too long. I don't want to leave.

Presumably there is a reason that grownups with their own homes don't generally go on quite as many sleepovers as I have these past few weeks. We need our private spaces, even in the context of our closest friendships, and the best and most lasting friendships of our adult lives have at least a few good fences we respect by keeping in good repair.

But mostly all these days and nights with my friends have been reminding me, yet again, that I am seriously, seriously blessed in the friendship department. I've spent all this time away, and they welcome me back. I've spent all those years being overworked and under-attentive, yet these people I love still love me back. Enough to make me strong coffee with milk in the morning before I have brushed my teeth. Enough to give me a set of spare keys and tell me I can come back whenever I want. Enough to let me see how beautiful the simplest things of life can be when you really look closely, far too late in the evening, and in the brightest early morning light.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stranger in a Familiar Land

Now that Bill is back to himself, all is right in our house. He's back to playing bass riffs on his bass guitar, and creating elaborate plans for New Hampshire adventures, and finding pleasure in runs and swimming and the taste of food. But for awhile there, things weren't so simple. Bill was in crisis, in mourning, in a sort of eddy of culture shock that took him weeks to escape.

At the time, it was too raw to write about. It's not exactly the kind of thing you want to write to the world: my formerly dear husband is miserable and behaving like a Eurobrat. I pretty much clammed up myself back in January when the miserable one was me. When it comes to writing, the past tense makes it easier -- "he was in a phase," rather than "he is in a state." He was in a state -- New Hampshire, the one he loves more than any other -- but it wasn't helping. He missed those other hills and valleys of home.

When somebody's in a bad mood, they're always casting around for reasons why. If that somebody is me, I tend to try to pin the mood on just about anything other than the actual cause of my distress. For example, maybe the weather is making me miserable, and I blame it on the Bush administration. Most days I choose the things and people closest to hand to blame, just one of the lovely qualities that make me such a wonderful wife and mother. Only rarely, and in retrospect, can I figure out what was causing all that chafing.

After we got back, Bill kept trying to find the pebble in his shoe. For awhile it was me, and then it was the impending threat of returning to employment after all the months of happy sloth. But soon enough, we hit on the real culprit: Var Withdrawl. He couldn't really be happy here in this world while he was missing that other one.

Var Withdrawl looked at first like plain old snobbery: France was Great. America was Gross. Like the night we went to get soft ice cream cones. You would think that a trip to the Dairy Twirl would remind one of everything wonderful about America. This one has adorable high-school girls scooping ice-cream, including a flavor called Moose Tracks, and two different colors of sprinkles for the cones. We've always loved this place, so familiar and wholesome.

We parked, then ordered up "smalls," smug in the way we have downsized our appetites over the course of the year. Still, the cones were three times the size of any of the cones we were served Over There.

The cones were mushy-delicious, soft-serve, but all of the sudden it felt all wrong. First, we were eating standing up, in an enormous lake of asphalt parking lot. Second, the people around us seemed very strange. One couple was eating while standing right next to their enormous Sport Utility Vehicle. The car was on, with the radio booming. They were wearing something like pajamas or athletic clothing, although from the bulgy girth of their bodies it was clear they did not actually own these togs for the purpose of anything like exercise.

But what really got Bill's goat about this pair? Well, they appeared to be sharing their enormous buckets of ice cream (no "small" sizes for this couple) with their dog, a Great Dane. They would take a huge bite, then hold it up to the back window so that Marmaduke could stick his head out of the A/C and take a lick of his own.

I just sort of chuckled at the scene of gross over-consumption, but I thought Bill was going to melt down into a puddle of chocolate goo.

This was not an isolated incident. The next day, he walked into town and came back raving. "It was three in the afternoon, yet the town was full of all these people walking around sucking on things. Coolattas, donuts, bagels, hotdogs. Every single person there looked like a giant hungry baby, their maws full of nipple-topped bottles. Why can't Americans grow up and eat like normal people? French people? At a table. At mealtimes. Without their dogs???"

For a few weeks, all his pro-Var, anti-American screeds were getting on my nerves. Or, more accurately, his nerves were getting on my nerves. Everything was bad, and therefore we were somehow bad, for being happy here. I might have felt lost in the supermarket. He was lost just about everywhere, a stranger in his own home.

But like I said, up above, things are better now. The world has righted itself, and Bill is back to his multi-national affection for this big old goofy weird world. In honor of his return to "normal," I thought I would interview him and ask him to tell us all about what he misses most.

Launa: So, you miss the food.

Bill: Yes. No. It's more than that. I really mostly miss sitting down at meals for more than twenty minutes. It's very difficult to get this to happen. I've tried this on several occasions, by cooking big delicious meals for people, and it seems that inevitably they have already had a hefty snack on their way over. Or they want to lay on the sofa while they eat. Or sit in a car. Even at restaurants: they're already setting the table for the next people while you're still digesting what you ordered.

At my family's famous Family fourth of July, all I wanted to do was have everybody sit down at a long table and have a nice long eating and drinking session. Instead, I was American Bill, and led multiple games of capture the flag, softball, croquet, tag, swimming. I love both places, but I didn't like being torn. I also just wanted the kids to go off on their own, like they do in France.

Launa: Well, not all Americans "get" to spend as much time with their kids as we have with ours. When you're back to work, you won't necessarily want them to go away.

Bill: I know. That will change. Probably. But remember those French parents, who only got involved if a child was bleeding? That seemed so sane.

I also really really miss all of the personal interactions when buying things: I particularly miss my Lady at the Vineyard. That long, cool, lovely earthy woman who would sell me that incredible red wine. I don't remember her name, but her whole persona is entangled with the taste of Domaine de St. Jean de Villecroze Reserve 2007. I miss Chateau Beatrice, too -- that range of red wine that is cheap, but good. Not fancy.

The farmer's market was a huge bummer here. My mother was being really nice, and took me to the Farmer's Market in town so we could pretend to be at the Marché, but the Farmer's Market there seemed to be missing food. There was lots of little jars of canned stuff, but I missed the Artisan Rotisserie. And the dinde, (turkey.) Remember the lunch we would have? Dinde, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits. Goat cheese. Beaufort? Herbs?

Launa: Yes, sweetheart. I remember. I just had it a few weeks ago. With some rosé.

Bill: Speaking of rosé, what happened to drinking in the middle of the day? I miss that too.

Launa: I know. You hate it that Americans dress like babies and suck on bottles, but you really want your nap.

Bill: Here, in America, there seem to be no naps for anybody over the age of 2. This makes people crankier than they should be, and pretty much kills the concept of a carafe of wine at lunch. We used to have a nice two-hour lunch in the middle of the day, have a few glasses of wine, and then go to sleep.

Everybody in the world feels tired then, but only the French people do the logical thing and just lie down. Even when we are by ourselves out here all day, and still unemployed, we can't seem to do that. We don't eat the long lunch and go to sleep.

And that's because we have to be Americans here.

Launa: I know, sweetie. It's true. We're Americans. It says so in our passports.

Bill: I even really miss the hiking there. It's just different. I miss the fit between the manmade stuff and the nature: there is a different fit between people and the environment there. Not necessarily better, but a Tetris like connection. Like, when there should be a tower on a hill in the Var, somebody has had the sense to build one. The Tower is exactly where it should be put. And the things are made of the materials from the place. All the colors are very similar.

I miss looking at Moissac, because it fits perfectly into the hillside that it is on.

I miss all the fresh water everywhere. Drinking fountains. Lavoirs. The Var is blessed with an abundance of delicious fresh water, free in the center of every town.

Launa: But do you miss the open sewers? Even in fancy towns, like Arles? That was so gross.

Bill: (pausing, longer than you might imagine, to think.) No, strangely. I do miss the other smells. It doesn't smell here, unless they are cutting the grass.

I even miss the town planning. When I go to a town, I'd like there to be a parking lot and a nice bathroom and cold spring water right there. Put the car away, go to the bathroom, get a drink. And you can do this on both ends of the town.

Why do we have fountains here you can't actually drink from?

I sort of in an odd way miss the spooky stuff from the Var, too. I got into the habit of sneaking up on the stray cats and trying to scare them on my way home. I miss the guy with the accordion with the cat leashed to his neck.

There were definitely more bizarre characters there. The Puppet Lady. The jolly vegetable man and his wife. The beautiful earthy lady who ran the agricultural coop, her husband David, and their daughter Alice.

People had that great habit of stooping down, pulling up, and eating things right out of the ground - asparagus, raspberries, rocket, dandelion greens, chestnuts, wild onions, wild garlic, rosemary, thyme. Or Gerard's truffles.

At this point in the interview, I was called away by some child or another, probably to fetch yet another snack, which was definitely not made of truffles. I thought perhaps we would resume the interview later, but Bill grabbed the computer and started typing his own memories, in the form of a free-associative list. And here I do apologize. If you haven't been there, this isn't going to make a whole lot of sense. If you have, just take a nice deep draw of this bong-hit of Bill-style Provençal memories:

I miss: (Bill wrote)

The Music. Our trips to L'Endroit. Dancing with Cyril, the only Rastafarian for miles. My funk-a-delic bass teacher Janique. My rock/folk band with the Communist Town Mayor on lead guitar.

Paris. And just about everything associated with it.

The Animals. Hundreds of stray cats. The white Pyrenee Alpha-sheepherding dog. Also the smart little black and white sheepherding dogs. Come to think of it, I even miss the French-dog-naughty-I-am-escaping-fast-trot they do when they know they have been bad.

French tempests in a teapot: Should we cancel bisous to fight H1N1? Should we outlaw smoking entirely? What is the proper way to make pastis? Where should we go in Morocco? What's the best way to cook duck?

The Towns. The Offices de Tourisme. The old guys with the blue high-visibility Capri pants who sit in front of the church. All the medieval stone buildings. The plane trees that look like old women's hands reaching out of the grave. The recurring fete with different names: tastings of specialities of the regions, traditional dancing, wine, endless hanging out, important elders milling about.

All those Places. Lac St. Croix. Grand Bessillon and Petit Bessillon. The historical monuments dotted all around the Var, mostly to the dead teenagers in 1919, or the Maquisard Resistance fighters of WWII. Caves and troglodyte dwellings. Scary religious shrines tucked away everywhere. Variations in geography - the Mountains, the Med, the Camargue, the Luberon, the Massif Centrale, Les Gorges du Verdon all within reach of Aups. Les Cretes. The small windy Var roads with death ditches on either side. Why are our roads so fat and straight with giant shoulders? Are we stupid? Can't we drive? Do we think we are going to live forever anyway?

The ruined fort/chapel up the hill from Bastide de la Loge. The Bastide and everything in it and about it. I loved living inside all that Collins family history and the incredible collection and taste of Liz and Jessica.

The Food. Again, and of course. Fresh eggs, rabbit, goose from Gerard and Jessica. The consistently delicious mid-level brasserie meal to be found everywhere. Salade de Berger. CHEESE. The crazy hippie farm with the dead animal sculptures. Or Aperitifs, like kir, super strong homemade fruit and berry liqueurs - we don't seem to have these.

Our friends. Weekend days at Jess and Gerard or Laurent and Mathilde. Those endless hours laughing and talking with Anna-Maria and Dermot and Lajla and Paula at the Marché. All the children.

And, almost with every breath, I miss the incredible air.

And, with that, Bill put down the computer, somehow cleansed. Since writing that list, about a week ago, he's been even more himself. He's still a little testy now and then when people won't sit down to a real meal, but he's started to love this home just as well as his memories of the old one.

Perhaps it just took awhile to get it out of his system, and writing it all down felt a little like detox. For Bill, there was definitely an addictive edge to all those long draws of Provençal memories: smelling the rosemary, the thyme, the air. Eating olives, going out and looking at the sunset. Drinking a beer or three with Dermot. Hanging out at Jess and Gerard's house eating goat face. And flirting with the lady selling peaches.

I'm missing France, too, but mostly I'm glad to have my husband back all to myself. Perhaps world travelers get used to this feeling -- of being comfortable everywhere, and yet a stranger at the same time. Bill's theory is that our brains, deep down, just aren't able to adapt to the pace of modern travel. The lizard brain buried deep inside all that cortex takes days, or weeks, or months to fully absorb the subtle changes in light and heat and landscape. Until that happens, until the deepest structures of ourselves catch up with the pace of change, we remain strangers. Even to ourselves.

So now that we've got that out of the way, who's up for a visit to Dairy Twirl?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Playdate" is a stupid word

As we drove to Brooklyn on Tuesday, I illegally sent a text from my phone to Abigail's best school friend's mom. We were coming into town for a few days, and could Abigail and Viveca spend the day together?

Viveca's mom is pretty much the portrait of mommy cool, so I didn't worry too much about the last minute notice. And Viveca is pretty much the coolest friend an eight year old could imagine, so I hoped she would be free. If only for my sake, because it was time for a long-overdue day of little girl fun.

Abigail hadn't seen Viveca in over six months. Most eight year old kids don't have email, so it's not like they would be able to manage to keep in touch awfully well through mere words. Kids need presence to connect, and Skype doesn't really do it. Abigail had been asking for this, in more or less patient language, for an awfully long time.

I've wracked my brain on this, but I am pretty sure that I have never spent an entire day just enjoying being with Abigail and another kid, with nothing at all else to do. Shocking, I know, and perhaps horrifying for those parents who find ways to make themselves more available to their children. So it was long overdue in this sense as well -- nearly nine years overdue.

Viveca was in fact free, and so were Abigail and I, and so the three of us set off. We went shoe shopping, bought Gatorades, run through the sprinklers in the park, found and re-purposed an abandoned scooter, ate at the local cool pizza place, saw a funky movie, and ultimately finished the day with a swim in the local school pool. They traded silly bandz and opinions on Justin Bieber. We went to the paint store and I let them take as many paint swatches as they wanted while I sought out exactly the perfect shade of peachy yellow for the living room (Benjamin Moore Lighthouse 2018-60, if you're wondering.) They begged me like crazy to let them ride the mechanized horse outside of the candy store and the mechanized alligator outside of the pizza place. And I let them.

In exchange, they laughed at all my jokes and good-naturedly berated me for my bad parenting manners. They made me the happiest mother in America, just for this normal nothing of a day.

Our day together had all the hallmarks of the best parenting moments: it was everything, and it was nothing, all wrapped up into one. The kids knew it was special ("This is the best playdate we've ever had!" VIveca very nicely gushed at one point) but it wasn't so out of the ordinary that they couldn't just be their goofy selves.

I think I'm going to like this next phase of my life. I know there will be awful moments of child rudeness, and crushingly boring moments of not-enough-to-do. I'll have to negotiate the unfamiliar social landscapes of the Parents' Association, the food co-op, the subtle ways in which people greet and ignore one another at pick-up time at school.

But if my day with two excellent nearly-third graders is any sign, being a stay at home mom back in the city that I love is really going to be great. A little like the languor of my year off and away, but with more happening. Better movies. Stores with terrific shoes. More English. It's been a long wait, Abigail -- but you and me, we're almost home.

Just Sayin'

Check out this New York Times article on French women.

Just another reason why I will never be French. Or be noticed
by French men. That, and the whole language thing.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lost in the Supermarket

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All / I take a box / And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens...

--Randall Jarrell, "Next Day"

"I'm all lost in the supermarket. I can not longer shop happily."

-- The Clash

I should have known that this day would come. Like the Clash and the nameless speaker of "Next Day," one of my all-time favorite poems about middle-age, I have lost my claim to mindless happy shopping -- the birthright of all Americans. What's worse, I have given it away in exchange for a hunk of cheese, and thus have nobody but myself to blame.

Flash back twelve months. July 2009, Bill and I had recently extracted our family from Brooklyn, where the only grocery options are Bleak, Bleaker, and the Byzantine systems of the Park Slope Food Coop. There are terrific greenmarkets, certainly, and the Fairway over in Red Hook, but those both demand a major commitment of time and planning. For the greenmarket, you can only buy what you can carry on the subway, and they don't sell Cheer, or Joy, or All. And for Fairway, you have to drive, park, negotiate the chaos of other crazed shoppers, shuttle your grocery bags up multiple flights of stairs, and then re-park the damn car somewhere in the neighborhood. Hardly something you can do every day when you just need a few pork chops and some peaches.

So when we got to New Hampshire's Upper Valley, home of the Hanover Food Coop, we thought we had died and gone to homemaker heaven. They had everything you can buy in America, and lots of it. They had little specialty sections, and a bulk food aisle, fancy artisanal dairy products and real beef. Unlike the Key Food on 7th Avenue, the store didn't smell like a long-abandoned port-a-san. And unlike the Park Slope Co-op, you didn't have to sign your life away to join.

And so we spent last summer in happy shopping bliss, grazing the snow peas, the clover honey, the organic soda spritzers, and the freeze-dried edamame pods and the polenta chips that taste like Bugles with a Ph.D.

And then came France. I stumbled there as a shopper, hard. Nothing in the supermarket looked familiar, and nothing came in an extra-large. All the words for things were different, so that it took me forever to find horseradish (raifort) and sour cream (crème fraiche, but only sort of) and toilet bowl cleaner (bleach is, I think, javel, although I left without ever being sure.) Do you miss those early days of this blog as much as I do? Yes? Well then, click here and take a stroll down Aisle Six of memory lane.

As the year unfolded, I learned a whole new way of living, which of course included a whole new way of shopping. Which of course required forgetting my old life and its ways, at least in part. Which leads me back to the disconnect I felt today.

I thought I had readjusted to the U.S. unscathed, but as it turns out, I was only pretending. You see, last weekend I went back to France. I know, it sounds ridiculous, just to jet off to France for four nights (one of them spent crammed into seat 42C on a British Airways 747) but it was terrific. I'm still working on writing about all of the nuances of this little tidbit of France, but the upshot was that I went there for Jessica and Gerard's wedding -- perhaps one of the most joyful celebrations I've ever attended, (aside from your wedding, of course, which was every bit as nice, except without a gypsy band, a circus tent, raspberries in the champagne, and a cheese course.)

I went back to Aups by myself, leaving Bill and the girls back home, and in between the parties and catching up with friends, I spent a lot of time just wandering my old haunts. The road up from the Bastide, where I would pick thyme and rosemary to put in the dinner. The marché, where I would get fresh apricots and asparagus and beets and carrots and dinde: food all the way through the vegetable alphabet. The boulangerie, the spice store, the place that sold only olive oil and wine.

And the Intermarché, which I eventually memorized. I nearly burst into tears when I saw all that rosé and chocolate and cheese. I waved my carte du fidelite and picked up a little wine and candy to take home in my luggage, plus a mushy round of Banon cheese, all runny and wrapped in oak leaves, and then ate the whole thing with a baguette in the courtyard of my hotel.

I had never realized it then, but I think I spent nearly every moment outside of the house that year procuring some particularly delicious sort of food from some specific place. I thought I was going to France, when really I was going grocery shopping.

But then I had to come back. It's nice to be here, and while we're still not back in Brooklyn, it feels a lot more settled to be here with no other major trips planned for the foreseeable future. In fact, it's not just nice. It's deeply, deeply good in a settled and happy way I had hoped it might be. Perhaps this is just because the kids are in camp, and I have some time -- and Bill -- all to myself, but I think this sense of bien-etre, wellbeing, has to do with the sense of being at home.

(Even so, Abigail keeps checking with us on this: "We're going to stay here, right Mommy?" She will even try to guilt us into letting her watch T.V. rather than go swimming, in the middle of a heatwave. "But I don't want to go to the Pond and swim! This family moves around way too much." We took her to France as a sweet little pixie of a seven-year old, and we brought back a master manipulator.)

So we're home, but there remains the business of adjusting back to shopping reality. The Hanover Food Co-op is just as wonderful as it ever was. It's me who has changed.

All the vegetables were stacked up in their usual, hopeful way, but for some reason they all just seemed cold and uninviting, as though none of them had ever seen a real farm. Fruit that could sit in my fridge for a week and move straight from unripe to pointless without ever aquiring flavor. Industrial-strength cucumbers. There was a bounty of choice, (plenty of it in plastic bags) but no straw panniers to put it in. I started to get a little disoriented.

I left, looking for sanctuary in the wine section. I said to Bill, "I'll just go over here to the wines and pick up a rosé."

He warned me in a gentle, coaxing voice, having already tried this, "There won't be any, sweetheart."

"OF COURSE there is rosé, I said," as though saying would make it so, and then set off to find it.

I kept pacing back and forth in front of the ports and shirazes and merlots, certain that if I scanned hard enough, that nice bottle of rosé would float off the shelf and into my waiting arms. It's only about 92 degrees here today, (not a life-threatening 103, like in New York) but is there anything else that anybody else wants to drink when it feels like this?

(Those of you who knew me when must be wondering: what happened to Launa, the Queen of Beer Drinkers? Dear old Launa, whose last name rhymes with Budweiser? Can't she just pull a Stella out of the fridge for old time's sake and just can it with this snobby rosé stuff? Short answer: no. At least not yet.)

I finally saw something pink, but then looked at the label and saw it was just some awful old Zinfandel. I had a nasty run-in with that stuff in the early 1990's, and it will never again cross my lips. I recoiled from the bottle as though from a semi-poisonous snake.

In the wine section I came up short, but in just about any other aisle I could hardly breathe. There were simply way too many options among packaged foods. I know that Americans are known to thrive on super sizing and rampant variety. I used to be that person. And now, when I look at all those different things, it makes my head hurt. All that Cheer. All that Joy. All that All.

All I wanted? A little clarity. A little less process. As Jarrell's poem goes on to say, quoting William James, "Wisdom is learning what to overlook." I would like the edicts of a thousand years of French culture to swoop in and organize the foodstuffs in a particular and specific way, and help me to wisely overlook.

I want fewer options.

I'm all lost.

It's a phase, I tell myself with one soothing, reassuring voice. Corn syrup and I had a vibrant, thriving relationship before, and we can rebuild that again. Jarred salsa is my friend. Olives are not the only fruit.

I'm all lost.

"FOOOOOOD SNOOOOOB!!!" some other awful voice shouts at me from within my own head. "You're full of pommes de terre and foolishness juice! Snap out of it, and pick up some of this nice guacamole for dinner!! Get yourself down to the store and buy some of America's favorite tropical fruit: Guar." (This voice is very bossy.)

I'm all lost.

The sanest, quietest voice tells me this: Get a grip, and make a little spaghetti with red sauce. There is no ill on this earth that can not be addressed with a nice plate of pasta.

I'm back. It's just my tummy that still hasn't quite returned.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

We Like Good News

In case you were staying up nights wondering, Grace's Lyme Test = Negative.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Death takes a holiday. Then gets back to work.

So it turns out that Grace's little tick bite healed for a full week, then got all bumpy and weird and started to itch. There was no classic bullseye rash. But since Lyme Disease is bad enough that you treat it even when you're not sure, Grace's Brooklyn pediatrician told us to get her checked out.

To add to the medical fun I've been so enjoying this summer, this entailed yet another visit to the E.R. at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

You would suppose that in a civilized town like Hanover, New Hampshire, there might be a walk-in clinic for minor medical events like this one. If you had lived in any other developed nation for any length of time, you would confidently expect there to be something like the cabinet medicales in France, and expect to be able to pay twenty-two euros for the privilege of visiting it and getting a simple blood test.

You would be wrong. Instead, Grace and I were to take up space in an All-American E.R. for an hour and a half, and likely will pay several hundred dollars. This country is completely nuts, making its Emergency Room doctors take up all its slack.

We showed up just before dinner time on a Monday night, only to find the waiting room packed with distressed-looking people sitting under blankets in wheelchairs. Apparently Monday night, after work, is when all the injuries and illnesses of the weekend come in for attention. Nobody was actually bleeding from a gunshot wound in the waiting room (as we once discovered in the Jamaica, Queens E.R.) but a whole lot of people's grandparents looked pretty darn ill. The very nice lady at the intake counter suggested that we might have better luck early Tuesday morning, when sick people tended to be sleeping rather than showing up in droves to the hospital.

So the next morning, I dragged the girls out of bed as early as we could and showed up a little after 6:30 AM. Grace got her hospital bracelet, and went right into one of the little rooms to read and wait. Grace was pretty nervous, and started asking me a series of questions that revealed her vague and dire sense of what might be happening to her.

"What kind of parasites are inhabiting my body right now, Mommy?"

“What are all those tubes and dials on the wall for?”

"Is Lyme Disease like cancer?"

"How do you keep from getting cancer your whole life?"

“How does cancer kill you?”

Having been Grace's mother now for so long, I've gotten pretty good at offering reassuring, yet accurate answers to enormous questions about life and death. I keep it simple and boring, and point gently to the bright side of things, without lying to her about what's actually going to happen. I told her that a lot of people live for a long time, even when they do get cancer, and even gave her some examples of people she knows who have done so.

And today’s visit was a pretty simple matter, I told her. I said, I know that the ER is scary, and even a little bit scarier to you in particular, but all those tubes on the wall don’t mean that they will need those for you. They will use a small needle to take a little bit of blood out of your arm. They will either give you some antibiotic pills, or not. Since we were lucky enough to have noticed the tick, and since we were lucky enough to have good doctors to take care of us, you are going to be just fine. You do not have parasites. Or cancer.

(Which was all to say, without saying it in so many words: don't worry honey, even though we’re sitting in the ER for a simple blood test, you're not going to die. At least not today.)

She smiled a little half-smile, and we both quieted down to read our books and wait.

After a few minutes, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation going on in another room across the hall. We were screened by curtains, but the voices came right through.

First I heard a nurse talking on the telephone, friendly but matter-of-fact. Yes, she said, we need you to come right away. No, not later this week, that wouldn't be a good idea. Sir, I'm telling you as a daughter and as a nurse, it's important that you come here right now so that you can spend some quality time with your father. We've given him some medicine to slow the rise in his potassium levels, but they’re going to go back up very quickly. He wants to see you now. Before it is too late.

I'm no doctor, but I remember how my grandmother June died. She had lymphoma for a long time, but at the end, the tumor took her away on a sea of potassium. She was with us, lucid and clear and herself, and then she was gone. First in a coma, and then gone forever.

While I didn’t tell this to Grace, this is in fact how you die from cancer.

And this was in fact the phone call when somebody told this man's son he was about to lose his Dad.

"Would you like to talk to your father?" the nurse finally asked. "We've just explained what's happening to him, and he understands it all.”

I realized that I had been hoping that nurse had been talking out of earshot of the dying man with the reluctant son. No such luck.

But the father's voice sounded young and strong. He didn't weep, and he didn't curse his fate. He sounded resigned, and philosophical, and like he was talking about the weather. "It's all just happening faster than we thought, James. I'd really like to see you before I go." Eventually it seemed that James got the picture, as his father talked for just a few minutes before signing off. "So long," he said. I couldn’t help but start to weep.

After he and the nurse had lit that awful fire under poor James, they sat and talked for awhile. The nurse had clearly been there before, and she had no trouble letting him know what he was in for. She used his first name a great deal as she spoke, every chance she got. She was speaking straight into the window that had opened to his soul, no pity and no bullshit.

"You know, they say you do fifty percent of your lifetime of psychological learning right before you die. You're going to grow a lot today. Keep growing."

The man replied. “It’s really just so fast. And I had hoped to drag it out a little more, but it’s not to be. I was always a believer in destiny, and I guess this is just a part of it. “

They talked about some of the things he had done in his life. He had fought in Europe during the Second World War. He had sold insurance just outside of New York City for fifty years. After he retired, he and his wife had moved here for the quiet pace of life. She asked him if he’d like to go outside. Or if she could get him something to eat. She didn’t say it, but we all heard it: these were in fact his last chances to do either one.

The dying man was not weeping, but I still was. As silently as I could, and with my head sort of turned to the side so Grace wouldn't see. But she's a smart kid, and has super-hearing for any detail that alludes to illness or death.

She spoke as quietly as she could. "Why are you crying, Mom? Is it because that man is going to die today?" I could only nod.

After some time, at his request, the nurse dialed the phone so that the man could leave a message for his wife. The wife had just left, probably to get a little sleep or walk the dog or something, and she was going to arrive home to the voice mail message that this was his last day. The nurse left the room while he talked, but I still could overhear.

"We need you to come back right away, I guess." He talked for a little while longer, and I tried hard not to listen. After that, he was quiet, except for some little noises in his throat for what felt like a long time. When I poked my head out to go check on Abigail in the waiting room, he called out to me.

Our curtain had been shut, but his was half open. He was holding the phone in one hand. I realized that those little noises were his way of trying to get somebody's attention without his being too demanding. He was a lot older than his voice had sounded.

"Miss," he said, calling to me. "Miss, could you please hang up this telephone for me?"

Mostly these days people have started calling me "Ma'am." I loved that “Miss.” And I loved this sweet, dying man, so polite that he wasn't willing to call out for help, even on his last day, even for this last phone call, ever. I would have hung up a million telephones for him, every phone of his whole life.

I so badly wanted to tell him it was OK for him to tell James "I love you," instead of "So long." But instead, and thank god, I said "You take care," which I hope he knew meant the same thing.

Last night, as I was putting the girls to bed, I stopped to really look into their little faces. Abigail suddenly looked to me a full year older, after just two days away at summer camp. We hadn’t had the best evening together, as they had been tired and cranky, but I wanted to tell her how much I loved her. “You’re getting so big, Abigail. I’m so proud of the way you’re growing up.”

“I know.” She said. “But I don’t like growing up.” And then, although I couldn’t believe my ears, she said exactly the words Grace and I had heard from the dying man. “All of the sudden it feels like it’s just going so fast. I want it to last longer.”

I thought of the man, moving so quickly through that last half of what he had yet to learn. “Maybe growing makes time go faster,” I said. And then, “I love you so.”

Today the girls are at camp. Bill and I are at home. The sun is shining, and I can go outside anytime I want. I can pick up the phone and hang it up. I can have any meal I wish, and be pretty sure it’s not by any means my last. Grace could need some more antibiotics, or maybe she won’t. But today we’re safe. Today we’re whole. Today we are still building up towards that first fifty percent of whatever it is we’re here to learn.

James and his mom and dad are elsewhere. They are in that place from which you never return. I hope somebody eventually convinced them to go outside. I hope he threw off his politeness enough to ask for whatever it was he most loved to eat. I hope James heard him say I love you, even if the words never came out that way.

Thanks to Kristen, whose entries these last few days at set my thoughts off in the direction of the metaphysical. And thanks to the talented staff of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock ER, who treat little girls and dying old men with remarkable professionalism and skill.