A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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Tales From A Middle-Aged Marriage

I have a weak spot for sap and sloppy sentimentality, especially when it comes to music. I mean, truly. I get misty just thinking about Total Eclipse of the Heart.

So you can imagine how fraught with emotion my middle-aged self was last week when John Legend’s All of Me came up on my son’s Spotify playlist. It’s one of those songs you hear and think, Jesus, I want someone to write a song like that about me. One of those songs full of vocal yearning, embodying those feelings of early love when the sun rose and set with the person you were falling for. When you laid yourself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am and the other person said, I do.

All your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections. 

You know what you never hear songs about? People who have been married for seventeen years.

There are lots of songs and movies and stories about falling in love, about that first flush of passion. And then?

And then we sort of skip ahead to the sweet, almost platonic, romance of old age. We look on in wonder at elderly couples who have settled into some sort of understated love where you’ve almost fused together into one being, two turtles sharing a shell.

What you almost never hear about is the bridge between those two things. How you got from one to the other.

You never hear songs about the quiet ferocity of middle-aged love.

You never see movies about couples who have been together for a few decades, unless it’s about the problems they face or hurdles they’ve overcome.

I guess songs about sitting next to your spouse on the couch night after night on your respective laptops and separate vacations just aren’t catchy. Maybe it’s hard to find words to rhyme with mid-life crisis, menopausal, and middle-aged spread?

But there should be more songs and stories a movies about it, because the truth is, falling in love is easy.

Staying in love is hard.

We tend to completely gloss over couples who have been quietly and fiercely keeping the flames of love under their relationship burning. It’s not really sexy, is it, to think of the regular maintenance that goes into keeping a marriage going. Far easier to focus on the rush of fire you get when the kindling and newspaper goes whoosh-all smoke and bright flame. Or to feel the pang of emotion when the fire is slowly dying, nothing but embers in the grill.

No one wants to read about forty yeas of buying logs and wadding up newspapers and for Christ’s sake, I did it last time it’s your turn and oh, shit, it’s nearly gone out we need to do something fast.

But of course it’s more than that. I can’t tell you how  many times I look across the room and see my husband and catch my breath. Or when I listen to him tell a joke, or recount a story, and want to reach out and touch him. How safe I feel in my life, in my love, and even in my rage. I know that when I lose my way, he’s there. And I know that sometimes, when I need to find the way myself, he’s waiting at the end. Recently I’ve taken to calling him my thunder shirt, because  after 17 years of marriage I finally realized I sleep better when he is next to me. It’s like he keeps me weighted and tethered, even in my dreams.

Take that, young love.

After seventeen years of marriage, we still have things to talk about. Granted, sometimes we talk about how we can’t remember it was what we were just talking about, but still. And maybe I don’t dress up in lingerie, but hell, I shave my legs and sometimes, that’s enough.

The hard work of staying in love isn’t sexy. Not the stuff of songs. But I promise you, we are out here, us middle-aged couples, quietly and yet fiercely keeping the fires burning, more in love than ever.

I am full of curves and edges, and plenty of imperfections too. My husband is not writing love songs to me–not on paper. But he has written rock operas and librettos worth in his actions over the last seventeen years. I laid myself bare and took a risk, said love me for who I am. And he did. And seventeen years ago today we said, “I do.”

Dear Reader, I stayed married to him.

Happy anniversary, my darling.

The Absolutely True Story of Our Family Holiday Card

Some people are really good at gifts, a knack for finding that perfect something. Others love to bake…hundreds of melty snowmen cookies and cute little Santas made from tiny pieces of dried fruit which must be cut with nail scissors they’re so small. I have a good friend (you know who you are) who makes gorgeous, elaborate ginger bread structures. One year she microwaved Jolly Ranchers to make stained glass windows. Not even kidding.

Me? I get paper cuts from wrapping and, like the Christmas goose, I’m getting fat. There are certainly no hay pennies to toss in this old woman’s hat by the end of all the gift-buying. But I have my own little piece of the holidays where I go over the top, down into the valley, and up the other side.

Our family holiday card.

You see, I may not love Christmas and all the trimmings, but every year we do a family holiday photo card. It started out with a picture of our eldest son in cute little outfits. Then it extended to include all of us. Now it’s morphed into a full-blown production.

I just got this year’s out and I’m already starting to stress about what to do next year.

Not really.

(But yeah, sort of)

****

A friend said, when she got this year’s card (via email–postage in Denmark is ridiculous), “Oh, when I look at your card I think, I wish we were one of those families!”

I burst out laughing.

You see, the finished product is one thing. The process? That is something else entirely.

We are..most decidedly…not one of those families. And by those families I mean ones who actually measure up to the lives their holiday photo is portraying. Which is why we forgo the cutesy family pjs in lieu of something a bit less Rockwell and more…say…Parker family from A Christmas Story. More representative of us.

You know, the ones who are thinking of getting a crest with the family motto: Don’t be a dick.

****

I don’t tend toward anxiety, but when I do, it’s almost always about time. My kids are thirteen and almost ten and if it’s 7 pm and I know they haven’t had dinner I still get a knot of anxiety in my stomach. Getting to the airport is a nightmare, I can never get the timings right. This year, I knew the set up for the card was going to be time-consuming and time? Time, unlike my middle-aged spread, is in short supply this year. A traveling photographer, visitors, plans, more visitors, more traveling for the photographer.

Basically I had a 2 hour window to get it done.

Cue me, hurling clothes from the cupboard looking for a wig and the family Santa hats in an anxious fit which more accurately resembled semi-rage.

You see, this is what goes on behind the card. Not Happy Families. Snarky Ones.

****

Things I do not do when shooting our Christmas card:

Xmas Card 2015 From The Usual Suspects
Gather my children round and speak to them in soothing, dulcet tones

Regal them with warm and fuzzy stories of the holiday season

Snuggle up next to them with hot cocoa and sugar cookies

Things I DO do

Threat, beg, plead, bribe

Swear never to do it again

Say things like “It’s doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year, does it? For fuck’s sake, it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year! Show some gratitude for the wonder!”

Thank the universe profusely when it’s over.

Here’s what the scene of shooting our holiday card really resembles:

Hours of prep work on my part. Hours of my husband (the traveling photographer) taking too long to get the lighting just right, the camera sitting precariously perched on a pile of books on an upturned stool on a jerry-rigged tripod. The kids getting fidgety about thirty seconds after I announce we’re good to go, at least thirty shots where everyone looks good….except one person. In years past we’ve spent an hour taking photos only to end up using the first one we took. This year, we ended up using the last one so there was some karmic retribution there.

Last year’s shoot was probably the worst. The fake fur rugs we were wearing kept slipping off. Wrapping paper swords were denting. We couldn’t decide on fierce or funny. The lighting wasn’t right. My photographer was getting frustrated. There was yelling and I think there may have been hissing.xmas-2016-christmas-is-coming.jpg

All witnessed by my mother and sister.

Not our best.

The card looked good though.

This year was pretty mild in comparison. The camera fell from its perch once and there was a collective intake of breath. Would it crack? Would the photographer be in a foul mood? Would we finish within our two-hour window?

It didn’t. He wasn’t. We did.

****

All for what you may ask?

Well, part of it is definitely memories. And part of it is the fun of the finished product. But I’m not going to lie. I’m….good at holiday cards. It’s become an annual challenge to come up with something quirky or different. I like giving my friends and family something fun or funny to look at each year. And buried beneath all of that, we actually are making memories.

They just have more swearing and less sugar plums than you’d think.

My holiday gift? My husband and kids indulging me in a ridiculously over the top tradition. It may be a silly tradition. It may be an over-the-top one. But it’s ours. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

 

****

 

 

 

To My Son, Who is Turning Thirteen

Here we are, on the verge of big, bad teenagerdom.

I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. Not all the time, and not even about the big, bad things, but nevertheless, she persisted worrying. Have I done enough? Have I reminded you to please and thank you enough? Taught you how to tell a joke or to always deal cards to the left? Have I given you the confidence to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the easy thing?

Most of the time I worry because I feel like I’m running out of time.

There are days when it seems you’ve already got one foot out of the door. I have to remind myself you’ve always had one foot out of the door, from the moment you were born. You were never mine, not really. You’ve always been your own. The universe merely placed you in my care for this dance, to make sure when you’re ready, you step through with both feet, confident and secure.

But that door? It will always open to you.

When you were an infant, swaddled like a baby burrito, you’d look up at me and I felt a million things surge through my blood all at once, like wildfire raging through my veins. Thirteen years later your eyes are nearly level with my own, but my blood still sings that same fiery song.

Those times you think I’m staring at you, looking for something to criticize? I’m really looking to see if the angle of your jaw has sharpened between dinner and breakfast.

When you catch me standing outside your door, it’s not to simply to tell you to pick your clothes up off the floor, it’s also to hear if the timber of your voice has begun to deepen.

I’m terrified I’m going to miss something, afraid one day I’ll look at you and that tiny boy, the one we fought so hard to bring into the world, is going to be impossible to recognize in the face and body of the young man you’re becoming.

In case I don’t tell you enough, I am proud of you, the way you treat everyone with kindness, the ease with which you saunter through life, your even-temper. Do you remember the night we sat around the dinner table and asked, who is the least likely to lose their temper? Without hesitation, we all pointed to you.

Keep your even temper. It will be your greatest gift in life, the ability to take a situation and diffuse it, to find the funny, or the good, the silver lining.

You are so unbelievably fortunate. You have so much opportunity at times it’s almost embarrassing. Use it. Use it to speak out for those who have less. Don’t ever take it for granted or feel like the world owes you more than what you’ve already been bestowed, because those invisible gifts you’ve been born into–the color of your skin, your sex, the opportunities we’ve been able to give to you? Those things are not due to you. You do not deserve them more than someone else. So use them. Stand up for those who walk through life with less ease, with less opportunity, with less help. Be aware of your privileges and of how you can use them for good.

Find something you want to be great at. It doesn’t matter if you are great at it, but it’s important to have something to work at, to dream about. Don’t take the easy way out. Get better. Be better.

Take time to settle into your mold. You don’t have to know who you are or what you want to do with your life. You just need to live your best life. Not everyday, no one lives their best life everyday. If someone tells you that, ignore them. If you’re batting one for ten you’re doing ok. Some days life hurts. Some days it’s tough. Some days it sucks donkey balls. It will get better. Don’t think it won’t get better.

No matter how many eye-rolls or ‘whatever’s, how many door slams or a thousand other stereotypes I’m remembering from The Breakfast Club and my own teenage years, we will be here. Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t need us. That’s good. That means we’ve done our job. We’ll be here anyway.

You’re going to think we’re dumb and out of touch. You’re going to think you know better. You’re going to think every sneaky trick you come up with to fool us hasn’t been tried before. You’re wrong on all counts.

You won’t believe me. I know. I didn’t either.

We’re going to argue. I’m going to be wrong. You’re going to be wrong. If it’s truly important, stand up for yourself. But choose your hills wisely. Make sure it’s a hill you’re willing to die on before you dig in.

I’m going to embarrass you. Mostly accidentally but sometimes on purpose.

You’ll want to do things we don’t think you’re ready for. Sometimes we’ll screw it up. Sometimes we’ll make shitty decisions. But even when we do, try to remember it’s coming from a place of love. You won’t believe that either, but it’s true.

The world is out there waiting. There’s a lot of shit going down, a lot of bad stuff. But so much good stuff too. Don’t let the scary stuff stop you from experiencing the good. Don’t let the good stuff stop you from trying to change the bad.

Don’t let anyone else define you. If someone tells you that you have to be or do something? If they want to change you or set conditions on their love for you? Run the other way. Fast.

Life is going to hurt. Life is going to sing. It’s going to flutter and fly and sink and sometimes you’ll feel like you are drowning in your own breath. That is life. All of it put together is what makes it worth living.

Most of all I want you to know it will never be you vs. the world. We are tied together, you and me. For nine months your heartbeat tangled with mine until it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. Yours dances to a different tempo now, but mine? Mine will always skip a beat here and there, making sure there is a space for yours to return to when you need it.

Love,
Mom