Saturday, September 28, 2013

Marco Island, 2007

Under the sway of a setting saffron sun
And equally a rising alabaster moon,
They blink awake, sea turtle hatchlings,
Lumber forth on graceless limbs thickly
Slow, constrained by ancient history.

In our sealed and sanitized hotel room
A telephone beeps loud, insistent, long.
The front desk (revolving door releasing
One by one these faceless men in suits):
We'd like your help. You see, the turtles.

We dim the lights and close the curtains.
Turtle babies seek the sea, and lights
At night, the modern way of life, creates
Confusion, misdirects, not just the turtles,
By the way (instinct easily derailed).

Heavy draperies deceive us. We wake late
And sluggish, think it's six am, only six,
When it's really half past nine. We are
Perplexed as newborns, brains that push
Southwest when currents pull northeast.

Like hapless tourists in England, who
Drive rental cars through fog and rain
On the wrong side of the road. Or is it
Now, and was it once, before time itself,
Intended as the right side of the road?

Before roads had sides.
Before there were roads.
Before the concept of 'before.'

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Edie Macklin, a thirty-something attired in yoga pants and accessorized by a Starbucks cup with a heat guard, yes, Edie Macklin, a frizzed and frazzled mom of three, two of whom are bleating and wriggling in an unsuccessful bid to escape their double-wide stroller, frowns as she spies the Subway wrapper on the sidewalk. "Boys!," she booms, rather louder than she'd intended, but the end result is satisfying, as it distracts both toddlers from their stroller gymnastics and causes them to gape at her. "Look ahead. Someone tossed a sandwich wrapper on the ground. That's called littering. Lit-ter-ing. And it is wrong, unfair to others who have to clean it up, and unfair to the planet we try to keep healthy." The boys blink. If they understand their mother, they make no sign of it, but Edie is grimly satisfied that she has imparted today's instruction. She stoops, and with an exaggerated motion she picks up the offending wrapper. Her children watch as with two fingers she carries it to the corner and drops it into a trash can. "There!," she cries, prim and didactic. She rubs her hands together. It is unclear whether she is wishing that she had brought along some hand sanitizer or whether she is congratulating herself on a job well done. She resumes pushing the stroller across the street and towards the park, where she had been headed before the opportunity to teach a lesson presented itself.

Several minutes later Roger Brown crosses the same street in the opposite direction. He's been feeding the birds in the park. He saves stale bread for just this purpose, has been doing so for years, even though lately people are frowning as he scatters bits of bread in an arc limited only by his reach and his position, seated as he is on a once-upon-a-time forest green, now peeling and grayed wooden park bench that occasionally rewards him with splinters in the backsides of both his legs. "You know," a lady accosted him just last week, "that's terrible for the birds. It teaches them to depend on humans for food, and then they can't fend for themselves, so they beg." As she finished her little speech she glared at him with contempt and indignation. If she'd written her argument, that outraged look of hers would have been the proper place for an exclamation point, Roger reflected. After a beat too long, he offered her a mild, "That so?," and, looking deflated, she stalked away. And so it went. Things don't bother him the way they used to, when he was young. He admired the woman's conviction, but only from a great distance, and only somewhat, and he would have preferred that she step back several feet and leave him to his work, which, it seemed to him, benefited both the birds and himself, and how could that be a bad thing?

Now, crossing the street, Roger is surprised by an uncharacteristic gastric growl. He is hungry. Well! He hasn't been hungry for days, possibly weeks. He sees a Subway wrapper in the trash can on the corner and decides on the spot that he will buy a sandwich from Subway, which establishment he has never before patronized. Once in the restaurant, he hesitates before approaching the teen behind the counter. "I'd like a turkey sandwich, please?," he half-asks, half-declares. The teen looks nonplussed and shoots back an indecipherable stream of questions about condiments, this or that, this or that, that or this. Isn't it the store's job to decide how to make the sandwich? Still, Roger enjoys his meal, and is delicately patting at his mouth with a napkin when the door to the restroom opens. Out runs a girl, about six years old, he guesses, and behind her a beleaguered-looking man, likely her father. Fleetingly Roger wonders whether it's strictly proper for a father and daughter to occupy the same bathroom. Times have changed, he decides, and stores this scene to share with his wife on Sunday at his weekly visit to the cemetery in Queens.

Roger has saved most of his sandwich and tucks it under his arm as he exits Subway. He is on his way home, which route takes him past the trash can holding the Subway wrapper that prompted his uncharacteristic decision to dine out. Behind him he hears the girl and her father, the ones from the restaurant's bathroom, arguing. "But you said we'd have time to go to the playground!," she is wailing. Her dad's response is inaudible but fails to sway the child, who shrieks, "Then I'm going without you!" She runs past Roger. With mounting horror he understands that she means to run right across the street, despite the rushing traffic. He is neither young enough nor strong enough to tackle her, but suddenly he remembers his sandwich. The boy at the Subway counter had tried to convince him to purchase a "foot-long, because it's the same price as the six-inch," but Roger had balked at the excess. Then he'd remembered the birds, and given in. They'd like this bread. So the sandwich he now carries is a good eight inches long with a full complement of condiments, and instinctively, attempting to quell the father's frantic yelling, he throws his sandwich with a practiced birdfeeder's arm, throws it hard, too, right at the back of the kid's head. She stops just short of an oncoming yellow taxi. Its brakes squeal long and loud, and its driver sticks his middle finger out of the window and shouts, "F*cking idiot kid!"

The girl puts her hand up to her head and wheels around, crying at the sudden, throbbing pain, the unexpected venom of the cab driver, and the shock of it all. Her father rushes up to console her, but not before mouthing a "Thank you" to Roger, who has dropped to his knees in an effort to salvage the bread from his sandwich, which is lying dismantled and forlorn near a gutter.

"Now I really have a story for Joan this Sunday!," he murmurs, and the thought of it makes him smile as he stands and dusts himself off.

But what of Edie, who has indisputably played a part today in preventing a six-year-old child from being hit by a cab? After all, the Subway wrapper she swept up off the ground and into the trash inspired Roger to eat his first (and last) meal at Subway, which then put him in just the right place at just the right time... Poor Edie. Edie will never learn of the day's events, and she will continue to spend her time teaching her children awkward, ill-timed, and contrived lessons, buoyed by righteousness and a fanatic's devotion to Dateline. Why just the other week she lectured an old man in the park about his nasty habit of feeding the birds. Everyone knows that you aren't supposed to feed the pigeons. Rats with wings, that's all they are. Rats with wings. 

Poor Edie, indeed.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Last Time I Saw Richard

It occurs to me that I haven't seen my father since my mother died. It goes like this: every few months he and I exchange a few emails. The emails start sweet and solicitous, but they never stay that way. If I had to describe my father to you, I'd call him the smartest fool there is. A man with a prodigious intellect, he cannot get along with people. In the parlance of my once-field, he has no emotional intelligence. My husband sees my dad and me somewhat differently. He suspects that my father and I simply don't like each other very much, as personalities, and that our trying to maintain (or, honestly, establish) a connection is motivated only by shoulds and oughts.

I disagree. I have keenly mourned the absence of a father figure in my life. After all, I grew up with a mentally ill mother. Parental pickings were slim - bruised, battered, not even vaguely appealing. I would have done anything to have a father who wanted to participate in my life. I would have forgiven most every character flaw in him. It just hasn't worked out.

The other morning I watched as one of the second graders in my classroom walked up to the front entrance to school. She was holding her father's hand and swinging it back and forth, the motion jaunty and relaxed. The pair stopped, there on the sidewalk, and the man stooped low to give his daughter a bear hug. She laughed. He grinned. They parted.

And I felt both genuinely happy for this child, who knows the love of a good father, and also gutted by longing. A forty-five-old woman envious of a seven-year-old. How did it come to this?

Like so: Yesterday my father sent me an email to thank me for a Christmas present I'd given him in 2012. I usually buy him books, because his is a life of the mind. I do not choose these books lightly. I have to have read and liked them, and I also require that they be award-winners of some kind. My father would never read a book on my word alone. He requires validation by authorities, experts, people who are not-me, not-daughter.

I nearly copied the email into this post, but I stopped myself. Suffice it to say that he found the trilogy (the genre: historical fiction) disappointing. This was not, he wrote, the writer's best, and he didn't think he'd be passing on the set to anyone he knew. He was surprised that I'd enjoyed it. He went on at great length, dissecting the books and their shortcomings in a professorial tone, one mastered over years of teaching at the university level.

Par for the course, that email.

I want to know what father, besides mine, writes his daughter to detail the many ways her Christmas present missed the mark? What father mails his daughter back an annual fund solicitation letter she wrote in support of her child's preschool with his unsolicited corrections marked in red pen on nearly every line (and no offer of financial support for the institution)? A letter most others found to be eloquent?

So yesterday I did something novel. I refused to engage. I deleted my father's email without responding to it, an action damn near unfathomable for a good girl like me.

Maybe I haven't seen my father since my mother died because with her went him, the two people who made me, even if they were separated, then divorced, only months after my birth. Maybe I'll never see him again. Who knows? Observing my student with her father revealed two truths to me: one, that I still ache for a father, that a person can be an adult and still ache for a father.

And two, that my father is not now and will never be the father for whom I ache.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Formative Days

“Darling, I don’t want to worry you,” she said. Could one inspire any more worry than by voicing a statement like that?
I watched my fingers drift over my belly, my cantaloupe belly, firm and round with my first son. I was seven months' pregnant.
The woman who’d be a new grandmother within weeks pressed on. “I had a biopsy. And it’s cancer, but there’s no need for you to lift a finger. Your brother has found me the best doctor, and this will be taken care of. So don’t worry about a thing. Your job is to grow that wonderful child.”
Suddenly unsteady, I sat down in the chair that had imprisoned me for months as I’d worked feverishly to finish my dissertation before the baby's birth. It wasn’t a comforting chair. There isn’t a chair comforting enough to tamp down the cold fear running through your veins when you understand, really understand, that the tables have turned, that you can no longer act the child with her, even if you were her child once.
And I wept.
By the time my son was born, my mother had undergone two surgeries and was well into a course of radiation therapy.
She survived her cancer. But barely. And life for her, for me, too? It would never be the same.
Seven months' pregnant with my second son, I was making coffee when the telephone rang. It was my mother, calling from Manhattan, calling from the very apartment in which I’d been raised.
“A plane flew into the World Trade Center a few minutes ago!” she exclaimed.
Mmm,” I replied absently. Yes, I minimized. But understand this: I didn’t have room in my head to imagine that a plane crashing into a building could be anything but an accident. I suppose that I was too busy gestating a baby, by definition the most optimistic of undertakings. Or maybe this was simply an unimaginable event for anyone — for everyone.
Ten minutes later my calm, controlled husband called me, and for once he was neither calm nor controlled. Instead he shrieked, “Turn on the TV, Sarah!” So I did. I sat on the edge of the bed in front of our small television. I held onto my incipient baby, who suddenly felt unmanageably heavy, and I traced the contours of my expansive belly, just as I had done with my first son, once.
How else can one protect fetuses from terrible news? I would have covered their eyes and ears if only I could have tunneled my way in.
I stayed seated, my eyes glued to the scene unfolding at the World Trade Center just as yours were, for minutes that slipped too easily into hours. That brilliant blue sky, I remember thinking, was it just too beautiful, too unearthly, for its own good?
And I wept.
To bring a child into the world without his grandmother, oh, that is sad — but had it come to pass, it would have been workable. To bring a baby into a world that contained September 11th? Felt at that moment like the worst kind of child abuse. It is a piteous child who’s down for the count while he’s still in utero.
If the seventh month of pregnancy was to be a test of my strength, I suppose I passed. My mother is alive,* the world persists, crueler by the day but no less vital for it.
Life will out.
I parent my boys well enough. I am both a mother and a daughter now; I can carry these two loads at once because of the hard lessons I learned in the seventh months of both my pregnancies, when I gained the wisdom that comes of knowing the worst that can happen, and persevering in spite of it.
But I won’t lie, there’s no being a mother and a daughter. Not really. The seesaw is never perfectly balanced. And today I need to be a daughter more than a mother.
No doubt tomorrow the winds will shift.
If I fall into believing that I cannot be the kind of adult I know I ought to be, I have only to return to two moments — hearing the news of my mother’s cancer and watching the twin towers implode — and as easily as that I shake off my fears.
Some speak of formative years. I speak of formative days, days when the contrast between life and death, health and illness, good and evil, construction and destruction, is as sharp as the shards of glass and metal, as glaring as the blindingly white financial confetti that on a September morning heralded the reconfiguration of a city’s skyline, and the reconfiguration of our preconceptions and conceptions both.
*My mother has since passed away.
I wrote this piece in 2008. I’ve posted it each year since, on September 11th, of course.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


I'm still here, reading others' words instead of writing my own, putting out the little fires that accompany the start of school for a seventh and tenth grader, adjusting to my own work after the summer hiatus, lying low, you'd say, felled by the cold that lurks around the cafeteria and playground every year during the opening weeks of school.

At night, the windows open, I'm not sleeping, not much, anyway. Instead I'm listening to the summer sounds, the cicadas and crickets, mostly, wondering whether I'll be able to discern the moment when their songs fall away into autumn. How else to know when to shut those windows?

From my perch, it all goes so fast, it's all so slippery and elusive. Can you blame me for wanting to fix a moment in time and space, for willing the operator to stop the Ferris wheel when I'm at the top, even as my stomach clutches and my hearts beats faster than it ought?

Yes, I'm lying low, and the only justification for it is that I'm not getting any younger.

Bear with me as I bear with you. And the world, the children of Syria. And my son in a fight with one of his best friends. And, you know, life, which explicably or not weights the clothesline, dropping it so close to the ground that the poor innocent clothes end up edged not in daisies but in dirt.