Monday, May 27, 2013

Sarah and Sarah: The Beginning

We met altogether by chance. I had been languishing in graduate school. I'd made a mistake in pursuing psychology (and the smallest voice inside me kept nagging, Did you really commit to psychology only because that's what your boyfriend at the time studied?), but I was so close to finishing my PhD that it seemed wasteful of four years of the hardest work I'd yet done to up and quit. Instead I'd taken the noncommittal route and submitted my leave of absence from graduate school. I was also newly engaged and soon to be married. I filled the time between engagement and wedding not by planning for my wedding (there was no money for that) but by taking a dismally paying job as an assistant in a preschool classroom at a Montessori school. Passing by the toddler room at the end of my successful interview I remember marveling at the lanky, elegant woman, glossy brown hair cut in a bob, sitting on a rug and surrounded by six or seven toddlers clambering up and on her person. I thought, Audrey Hepburn. She was smiling, even then: always smiling. I was smitten. The director of the Montessori program opened up the door and greeted her as the younger babies crawled and the older ones lumbered, curious, over to us newcomers. "Sarah," said Annette, "This is Sarah, who will be working next door, in Laurie's room." "Hi, Sarah," laughed Sarah. "Another Sarah." "Sarah with an 'h,' of course," I grinned. "Only way," she replied, and I knew we'd be friends. As Annette closed the door, she sighed. "I don't know how Sarah does it. Hard - and smelly - work, with toddlers, and she prefers to do it alone." I'd remember that comment, because there were many times I myself would wonder how Sarah did it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


I was twenty-eight years old when Sarah and I met, and she was already forty-five. It's not lost on me that I am now forty-five. Perhaps that's why I'm finally ready to tell the whole story of Sarah and Sarah. Each morning when I arrived at the Montessori school, I'd duck my head into her classroom and call out, "Hi, Sarah!" She'd repeat, "Hi, Sarah!," and we'd both giggle. It was our own comedy routine, and damned if it wasn't funny (to us) each and every time we performed it.  

Two days before she died, I called her on the phone, and when she answered, I started, as always, with, "Hi, Sarah," and she offered a weak, "Hi, Sarah," but she didn't laugh. And I stood there in my basement, phon to my ear, baby Jack on my hip, stood there by the washing machine and dryer where I'd been folding baby laundry, and a shudder of fear and knowing ran the length of me, and must have coursed through the baby, too, for he who rarely cried began to hiccup and then, frightened by his own hiccuping, to wail.

Soon we took to eating lunch together in the cramped teachers' room, but we shared the belief that the teachers at this school were on the whole mean-spirited and burned out, not to mention cliquish, so as spring approached so did Sarah approach me and ask if I wanted to walk around the school's neighborhood during our lunch break, instead of eating. I did. While we walked we learned about each other. I confessed to her that I was at loose ends about what I wanted to be when I grew up. She laughed her musical laugh and confessed to me that she was at loose ends about what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her son was nearing the end of his elementary school years, and she was ready to go back to work full-time, but nothing beckoned, and motherhood had made her feel hopelessly outdated and ill-prepared for any other kind of work. Her mornings teaching toddlers left her afternoons free, and she had started to feel guilty that she was puttering about at home with nothing much to do.

Seventeen years apart we were, and yet facing oddly similar existential crises.

Sometime that April, Sarah asked me a favor. Her hunter green Jeep Cherokee (I coveted that car nearly as much as I coveted its owner) was in the shop, and her husband was going on a business trip the following morning, so could I pick her up on my drive to work in the morning and take her with me? Easily I could do that, I said, if she didn't mind my ratty little Honda Civic, and I wrote down her address. The next morning I pulled up in front of her house and gaped. It was the kind of house I dreamed of living in someday. On a leafy, quiet street in one of the north suburbs of Chicago, it was a gorgeous white stuccoed home (built in the twenties, I'd later learn) with a side porch and a lovely garden, kept up by Sarah, whose skill as a gardener matched only her skill as a chef, and her skill at understanding the needs and wants of very young children. I came to the side door and knocked, as Sarah had instructed. A lithe man, nattily dressed and greying at the temples, poked his head around the door. "You the cab?," he pressed, impatient. "Uhh, no," I replied, reddening with embarrassment. And then he looked me up and down, not a little pruriently, and roared with laughter. "No, you wouldn't be," he sputtered. "What are you, ten years old?" He turned and called to Sarah, "Sarah, your little friend Sarah is here! Or is she your sister Sarah?" "Ahh, so you're in on the joke, too," came my quick rejoinder, and he winked, as was his way.

This was Buddy, larger-than-life, jocular, funny Buddy, and in time I would grow nearly as fond of him as of my friend Sarah. As in time my fiancé would end up loving them, too. Sarah and Buddy were who we wanted to be when we were older. Sarah and Buddy were who we would be when we were older.

All four of us were certain of it.
continued here

Saturday, May 25, 2013


In my college town life is sleepy.  Many students - 40,000 of them in all - have departed.  Some have just graduated and will never return.  I drive by as they are stuffing their parents' cars, or their own, with the motley belongings that stamp them as students.  I study all the license plates  - Georgia, Colorado, Vermont - and feel a bit wistful.  I am not passing through.  I am not leaving.  Roots and shoots twine through and around me, root and shoots binding me to this place for the foreseeable future.

Ten months from now I will open the mailbox and find an invitation to my 25th college reunion.  It doesn't seem possible, and yet it does.  I have spent the majority of the years I've been alive as a college graduate, not an undergraduate, not a teen, not a child.  Doesn't seem possible, and yet it does, and is.

I will not attend my reunion.  This is not out of fear or shame.  No, I am not a cancer researcher, or a humanitarian, or even a published writer.  But I've lived honorably, and I like to believe that the children with whom I work benefit, if intangibly, from my presence.  I will not attend my reunion because I prefer to remember my university years as they were, untainted by time and age, growth and change.

I remember my first trip back to my childhood home after having spent a semester in college.  I walked into the foyer, dropped my bags, and stood stunned, blinking.  Everything looked smaller, drab and colorless - even my mother appeared frail and old, diminished by one autumn.  Had I drunk one of Alice's potions?  Worse, I couldn't tell what was real and what was not.  Was this the reality, then, and childhood had blinded me to it, or had three months spent at university corrupted my vision so thoroughly?

Attending a reunion would be no different from that moment in 1985 when I released my grip on my luggage and looked around, dazed and dismayed by a three-bedroom apartment that had somehow become my mother's, not mine, even if I still claimed one of those three bedrooms.  My memories of college remain bright, colorful, detailed, and time has not yet managed to dim them, precisely because I have not returned.  You can't go home again, wrote Thomas Wolfe, who wasn't wrong.

If I envy these newly minted college graduates driving away from my small town with nary a glance behind them, it is because for them May is a month of endings and beginnings, whereas for me it is just another month in the long season of my middle years.

Still, I am grateful for the shoots that grow up and out from me, as well as around me, and keep me grounded.  I feel privileged to observe them as they bloom, and to witness them celebrating their own commencements: the thrill and energy in all those beginnings, but especially in endings joyful mainly because they aren't really endings at all.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Car Seat Graveyard

On Thursday my husband looked up at me from his breakfast. "Oh," he said, "I meant to tell you. Look outside, by the curb. You're going to find this a little upsetting." His little upsetting often means my big upsetting, so obligingly I went outside. The garbage and recycling was sitting by the street. But what was this? At attention in the grass, two rows, six car seats, all types: for infants, toddlers, and older children. First I imagined Madeline (of picture book fame) and her schoolmates all in a line, neat and pretty. Then Hemingway's six-word story came to mind: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

There in the full May sun, a car seat graveyard fashioned by my husband. I was moved to photograph the scene. My neighbor, taking out his own garbage, looked puzzled to see me standing in the street holding my iPhone in front of my face. I explained. He laughed, mystified but perceptibly sympathetic. Yet this is not a tale of the car seat graveyard, although it might have been. There is history in each one of those seats, but it is my children's history, no longer mine to tell. No, this is a story about what came next.

I posted the photo on Facebook. You know I did. And to caption it I wrote something both breezy and dramatic, the way one does. I can't quite remember, but my words went something like this: Saddest thing I've ever seen? The question mark provided levity. And in came the comments. Some people understood what I'd meant: mourning for the childhoods both gone and oddly encapsulated in objects as prosaic (milk- and poop-stained) as car seats, which would soon enough be buried among other people's trash, everyone's debris mixed up into a noxious stew.

Others found the picture disturbing in a way I hadn't anticipated. The waste! The landfills! Yes. But I'd known that no one would take a used car seat. The instructions accompanying the seats long ago lost; most of them dinosaurs in the history of car seats; one or two damaged during passage in cars involved in accidents. In fact I'd read that it is downright irresponsible to offer a new parent a used car seat. We'd also been told that our recycling company would refuse the seats. Were they glaring, all six of them, to those worried about the precarious state of our environment? I hold on to my children's things too long. If we'd gotten rid of them in timelier fashion, one here, another there, the waste wouldn't have been as noticeable.

I fret about all the garbage, and I always have. But not, I suppose, when I'm busy lamenting the flash of time containing the entirety of my sons' childhoods. It goes to show this: words and pictures are only ever imprecise in conveying meaning and intent.

Still, everyone did agree that the image of our car seat graveyard was terribly, awfully sad, sad in the most straightforward, least complicated way, sad as if the word itself had been stamped (red, all caps) into the photograph.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

This Day of Reckoning

May 11th, 2013

Dear Mom,

As Mother's Day approaches, I can't help but think about you, and me, you and me.  You'd scoff at that, I know, remind me that this holiday was manufactured to create revenue for the greeting-card industry, and I'd shrug, lips pressed together, because there never was any point in arguing with you, and also because I've always been more conventional than you.  Mother's Day makes me thrill, oh yes it does, and I'll take my little thrills when and where I find them.

Once, when I was a poor graduate student, I sent you flowers from Chicago.  I was so proud of my detective work in finding a florist only two blocks from you and ordering direct, as opposed to using a middleman, FTD or the like.  What can I say?  I was twenty-four years old, still trying on adulthood and checking myself out from every angle in the three-way mirror of life's dressing room.

I called on that Mother's Day (1992, it must have been), and I asked you if you'd received the flowers.  You replied, "Oh, yes, I did; you shouldn't have, Sarah, because I don't at all care about this day, but just so you know, don't buy from that florist again, because the flowers were wilted and old."

You were always brutally honest like that.  I wonder now if you didn't have a mild form of Asperger's.  You did not - could not, would not? - traffic in social niceties.  I imagine my post-college sons sending me flowers, and I can think of no earthly reason why I would want to inform them that their flowers might be anything less than exquisite.  Nor would I be lying - the generosity inherent in the gesture of sending me flowers, remembering me on Mother's Day, would sanctify those flowers, whatever their physical form happened to be.

I write all of this, however sad it once made me, in a strangely detached way.  Time has done that, allowed me to become matter-of-fact and accepting.  Now I see you without distortion: I see you for precisely who you were.  I understand you, and understanding makes forgiveness easy.  Look at that!  I no longer have to try on adulthood.  I am, finally, an adult.

And so, even though in response you'd roll your eyes and say something gruff and possibly unkind, I wish you a Happy Mother's Day in my unironic, conventional way, and you know what?  I love you despite your imperfections.  I might even love you because of them.  They were a part of you, no different from your tiny child's nose, your broad shoulders, your upside-down smile.  To love people wholly is to accept them as they are, not as they might have been, if only.

And I do love you wholly, and I thank you, for loving me the best, and only, way you could.