Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Home, sick.

We often rely on Abigail, the littlest one in the family, to be the sturdiest of us all. Of course, it's only in the context of the family that she's smallest, and at the rate she's growing, she won't be for long.

She's our gyroscope, spinning powerful energy inward rather than dispersing it out into the world, maintaining her balance despite constant dipping and weaving. This furious spinning keeps her upright and steady on in the face of all sorts of difficulties. This year, she spins mostly to duck and deflect the lightning bolts we keep hurling at her.

I've moaned plenty about how hard it was for me to give up houses, jobs, friends, music, home -- but the truth is that Bill, Grace and I gained at least as much in the leaving as we lost. For Abigail, it's so much harder, as she had the most to lose, and feels that she has gained almost nothing.

Grace has homeschool, which suits her to a tee. Bill and I have the freedom to become the parents we've always wanted to be, and all of France spread out at our doorstep. Abigail's the only one of the four of us who craves America nonstop. And she is also the only one who spends significant chunks of time each day interacting with people who speak only French. Despite her incredible accent, she's only at the start of comprehending much of anything at all. Rather than giving in and trying to speak, she seems to be holding on, spinning inward, white-knuckling it, just waiting for this all to be over.

Abigail had a few breakthroughs of late, but then the Monday of the last week before winter vacation, she came down with a rotten cold. It was the kind that makes your throat creaky, then steals all your energy before packing your head with green snot. It slowed down her spinning and she started to list and tumble and fall.

As the default small-g gods of our children's worlds, we don't just hand out umbrellas to keep their heads dry on their dark days; if we're to be honest with ourselves, we must remember that we make the weather. We build them a world, hoping that it gives them joy, but we also must take our places as the authors of their misery.

This is the case from their perspective, but it's also true in an absolute sense as well. We, Abigail's ostensibly loving parents, have ripped her away from everything she knew, and promised her she would understand the language a lot sooner than this. And we have been wrong.

When the cold knocked her feet out from under her, it no longer mattered that she had raised her hand in class and made a friend. Once la rhume took away all her little girl fighting energy, she felt beaten down by all those incomprehensible words at school. The kids who might be talking to her, might also be teasing her. The adults -- being French -- never ever seem to smile, and never so much as throw her a bone. She once again hated school, and despite the wine, cheese, bread, and terrific health care, France became the worst place on this big blue marble.

Raising kids is like that. One step forward, two steps back, until it seems they've lost every hard-won thing. They plunge into the depths of a rising current, and you -- realizing that the rain you sent their way is what has been flooding the streets -- you plunge in after them, swimming hard against the cold and the current to catch them before they slip into something even worse.

And then, all the sudden, they're out of the water, and sprinting out and away, faster than you could ever run. And you're the one feeling lost, and soaked to the bone. Proud, of course -- because whose kids are as tough as yours? -- but lost just the same.

Parenting gives you just the tiniest taste of what it might feel like to be God. I'll add to my life's tally of heretical statements by admitting that I'm embarrassed to say just how often of late I've started to feel really sorry for Him.

I should have known that Abigail wasn't feeling well when she started to be afraid of the dark. Nearly every night, she'd sneak into our room, and tell me, in her quiet night-mouse voice, "Mommy. I'm afraid again." She might spend her days independent and resourceful, but she needed me close at night to ward away the intolerable uncertainty that lurks in all of our darkened corners.

After a few nights of fighting the cold and the monsters in her bedroom, one morning she faded -- hard and fast. She got up quickly enough, but balked at every step of getting-ready-for-school. Suddenly we were back at square one from the fall, hardly able to get her to put one foot in front of the other. When she stared with dread and hatred at her breakfast cereal, burst into snot-dripping tears, and crawled into a ball on my lap, it was clear that she was in no shape for school.

She was sick enough to stay home, well enough to learn. With a few paracetamols in her system (French Tylenol) she could read Farmer Boy and add big numbers together. Poor kid -- when home is school, mom makes you learn even when you're sick. So she got double doses of chicken broth and multiplication.

Later that afternoon, we researched Switzerland and Austria, hoping to teach one another enough to make things recognizable when we took off for our ski trip. Abigail and I took on Switzerland, and found a video on the government website extolling the virtues of Swiss neutrality and tolerance. Bill and Grace had dibs on Austria, and showed us you tube footage of some extremely Tyrolean people yodeling and doing a strange sort of series of knee-slapping moves called "Schuplattler," the world's whitest step dance. Yet more evidence that Bill and Grace are more fun than Abby and I are.

And yet more evidence that this world is weird.

Despite her drippy nose, she seemed in decent shape. The next day, we took off for Marseilles, where she could run and play and eat shrimp without apparent difficulty. But all was still not well in the world of Abigail. For in the car on the way home, she really broke down, crying to Bill in a torrent of feeling, anger, and distress. She was hating France, hating school. She wanted to go home, she wanted to see her friends.

But mostly -- it came out after a time -- she wanted a burger. And a bagel. Even more than her friends and her grandparents, she told us she needed American food. Demanded it. Craved it, even angrily so. She missed ketchup for her fries. Bright orange macaroni and cheese, from a box.

But mostly, bagels. Of all the differences between the U.S. and rural France, it is the bagels she misses most loudly and frequently. She has pointed out on perhaps a thousand occasions that the French are exceptionally deprived in the bagels department.

Bill, left alone in the car with this dervish of sadness, went so far as to pull the car over to the side of the road and pretend to call his parents to ask them to mail her bagels and a few blue boxes. This seemed to calm the worst of her distress, but left us in an awkward place: having promised we would give her what she had asked for, how would we get her a decent burger? Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner? Or -- the least likely of all -- fresh bagels?

Well, invention -- yo mamma's a big fat necessity. So that is how this upstate New York recovering-non-cook waspy girl found herself in a Provence supermarket using pantomime and pidgin French to learn from the courtesy clerk the French word for "yeast." I first tried the Joy of Cooking recipe, and way overcooked the first batch, earning only Abigail's most grudging thanks for the effort. With the second batch -- not overcooked, but sadly unseasoned, she tried one, and while she said it was "OK," she really wanted her usual -- an Everything.

Let it not be said that Abigail sets her sights low. When it comes to my little girl, it is Everything, or Nothing. But here is where I wish I had access to a little divine wisdom to go along with my power over my children: what does God say when someone gets down on her knees and asks, pretty please, could she have Everything?

Lacking anything like omnipotence, I made recourse to my usual tactic: an internet search, followed by a trip to the Intermarché. First I went online to find a recipe for Montreal Bagels, which I would argue to the death are the best kind in the world. I ate these bagels on trips to visit the boyfriend I dated my sophomore year of college. We'd eat them in between hockey games and walks in that cold, dark city with all of its malls tucked underground. Luckily for both of us, he had the foresight to break up with me just a few weeks before I was destined to get together with Bill. But not before I developed a serious affection for the bagels from his hometown.

I went back to the store, and found grains de pavot (poppy seeds) and sesame (duh, sesame) as well as some powdered ail and oignon. I threw on a little celery salt as my own little addition to the mix, since this family would probably eat dirt if I put enough salt on it. Once the dough had been kneaded and left to rise, I shaped it, let it rise again, shaped the mush into eighteen little Saturn-rings, then boiled them in water and honey. I dried them off for a minute, dumped them in the pile of Everything, then put them on the metal sheet to bake.

I will spare you any false modesty and just tell you, straight up, I could do this for a living. My ecumenical bagels were just this side of our border with Amazing. Chalk up another one for Launa in the column of small culinary victories.

If you are lucky, as I am, you should be careful what you wish for, as often you will get it. Because then, just as I was pulling our Everythings out of the oven, what showed up in a care package from back home? A valentine, from Nona and Pops. With Baking Powder, so we could make pancakes, and New York State Maple Syrup to put on the top.

And FIVE boxes (two of them family-sized) of bright orange macaroni and cheese. This felt a whole lot like divine intervention, if not on a holy, then on a wholly human scale. Clearly, my parents have been practicing their parenting a lot longer than I have. They've got a collective seventy-six kid years to their credit, whereas I have only eighteen.

I can never remember whether it's "feed a fever, starve a cold," or the other way around. For homesickness, the only cure is familiar food -- starch -- and lots of it. So when the kids feel rotten, I just bend all the rules, and let them eat what they want.

So there we sat, at our big oak table, in a Provençal kitchen that would make Martha Stewart a lovely teal-blue-green with envy. Eating Everything Montreal bagels and day-glo orange mac and cheese.


  1. I admire your resourcefulness! But here are some other sources of bagels: the Monoprix in Aix centre sells plain bagels; Picard sells frozen bagels (plain and sesame, if I remember correctly); there is an Irish guy with a shop in Aix centre that sells bagel sandwiches (Bagel Story‎, 7 Rue Bueno Carriero, http://lacerisesurlegato.blogspot.com/2010/01/manger-des-bagels-aix-en-provence.html); and there is another place on the way to MRS from les Milles -- look for little sign mentioning bagels on the D9 just before one of the exits. None of these choices is fabulous, but when you're missing bagels, they'll put a smile on your face.

  2. Good work on the bagels!
    And my favorite image here is that we make the weather. Have been thinking about that a lot lately, and of course you put it exquisitely!

  3. I am so glad you are back, Launa, telling us your marvelous tales as only you can. I agree; the image of parents creating the weather is a great one. The thing is - by making bagels from scratch - you are adding to the myth of immortal and omnipotent parents. I will most definitely NOT let my children read this post, my friend. Not hardly!!!

    And the day-glo mac and cheese arriving just in time... I'm sorry, but I DO believe in divine intervention, especially on behalf of homesick kids who are at home sick. Yea for all of you!

    I hope your back gets better fast. And that your visit with your friends goes very well. I'm sure they will love the cake. It sounds like you and Bill are fabulous cooks. Your family and friends are very blessed to be able to eat the fruits of your creativity.