Friday, May 29, 2015

Sitting in an auditorium on a beautiful May day

You probably spent the month of May attending picnics and frolics and lilac-picking excursions. I spent it in an auditorium, sitting in a folding chair for two hours at a stretch. I waited through hours-long programs for the two minutes I could clap for whatever beloved child was the most special that particular day. May is the month of extreme Special Specialness, so I thought it might be a good time to re-post my musings on the topic, curmudgeonly and gender-bashing as they are. And hey, if you're going to a graduation party this weekend, tell the harried mom in charge that she's never looked better, and then clean up your own damn paper plate and punch cup. She's got enough to do, trust me. 

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2012

Special Specialness

There are seven billion people on the planet, and sometimes I feel as if I’m responsible for baking a birthday cake for every damn one of them.

My name is Julie, and I have a problem with special specialness. If last year’s “fill the house with balloons until Mom passes out” party was a hit, what about a color-coded scavenger hunt this time? Original sonnets for every party guest? Goody bags that rival an Oscar nominee’s swag bag? Sure, just let me slip on my comfortable shoes and I’ll get to work.

If I can't control my crazed event-related behavior, at least I realize I’m a victim of my gender. Garrison Keillor (a man) once said that Christmas, in its current over-the-top incarnation, would not exist if women weren’t around to perpetrate it. The same, I feel, goes for birthdays, book clubs and every grade school production ever mounted since Jesus was in First Grade.

Only women are willing to turn themselves inside out to please others, or at least to attempt to impress them. Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: High Heels. 

Exhibit B: The special specialness that turns up every February at my house, when my daughters celebrate their birthdays. The fact that one of them was studying in Beijing this year didn’t stop me. I drove myself crazy trying to come up with thoughtful gifts that could lie flat in a first-class envelope – a newly minted DVD of videotaped birthdays past, a hand-made accordion-fold card with recently scrounged and reprinted photos of her blowing out the candles on the specially special cakes I’ve baked her over the past 16 years. Just reading this makes me want to smack myself and go mix up a pitcher of martinis.

If something can be done with that magic combination of sickening thoughtfulness and insane exertion of effort, women will find a way. There's no point in blaming Martha Stewart, either, because I've done it to myself -- no one pulled that trigger on the glue gun for me.

I’ve been in a number of book clubs in my time, and every single one has started with a “wine and chips” motif that quickly escalates in one-up-woman-ship into a multi-course, sit-down dinner, served by a sweaty and stiffly smiling hostess, with every morsel themed to a chapter of the book in question. (Don’t even ask what my latest group did when we read “The Help”).

I know a woman who is an absolute marvel – the sort who hosts a meeting of the planning committee, gathers silent auction donations and bakes one hundred dozen cupcakes for the school Bake Sale, all before noon. I serve on a board with her, and, on a recent day, we arrived and walked in to a meeting together. I noticed that she was carrying a giant armful of agendas and reports she’d prepared for this deserving nonprofit. With grace and good cheer, she mentioned that she’d been at her child's school since early that morning, toiling at an event.  As we reached the door of our conference room, she stopped. “I just need to run back to my car and bring in the crock pot of jambalaya. I thought we all could use a snack, and today is Mardi Gras!” she said, brightly, as she trotted off.

I used to be a feminist. I subscribed to Ms. Magazine (remember that one?) I believed that some day I would be living and working in a world with total gender equality in pay, recognition and social status. And now I’m blowing up balloons, and she’s toting crock pots through icy parking lots.

I wonder if Gloria Steinem wakes up every morning and smacks her head against the wall. Possibly, but then she runs to the kitchen to whip up a batch of jambalaya for that board meeting tonight.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart

Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers, 1935

I don’t know how she got the name Putszy, but, what with her being Catholic and all, it wasn’t pronounced the way you might think, more like “POOT-zie.” Something tells me it was a “y” on the end, not an “ie,” and I’m pretty sure about that “sz” combo, but I’m not sure I ever asked anyone. And I have no idea how she ever got such an odd moniker. She was just one of the gang of girlfriends my mother palled around with, women with names like Eileen and Mary Margaret and Thelma and Marcella. When they all got together and had a few highballs, they loved to sing. Like, campfire singing, but in living rooms, with cigarettes.

I try to imagine myself with my friends, sitting in my living room and singing songs, and it’s not something I can imagine I would ever want to do. But for my mother and her friends, learning how to amuse oneself cheaply had always been a part of life: dancing, cards, Monopoly games. Singlaongs were part of that Depression-era ethos, and that willingness to make one’s own fun instead of to demand entertainment.

I haven’t thought about those singalongs in a long time, but yesterday I was in a core class, of all places, and the ghost of Putszy Wyland came right up and touched me on the shoulder. The teacher, whose taste in music is wonderfully eccentric, had passed over her usual mix of merengue, bluegrass, African drumming and 80s hair bands. Instead she’d picked an all-country set. And there the song was, spinning into my ears as I struggled to remain upright on a fitball: “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” the one song Putzy could reliably be called upon to sing at any gathering. (Here's a link, so you can hear experience its grandeur for yourself.)

I thought about Putszy, and my mom, and I tried to remember some of the other songs they sang together, but I drew a blank. As I listened to Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers, I wondered in anyone in that group of friends could yodel. After enough highballs, I suppose everyone can yodel. Once again, I found myself wishing I’d paid attention back then, but my mind was always on other more interesting topics, like myself.

Then, that afternoon, I received a beautiful reprieve from the singalong gods. I was in my office, clicking away, when a bit of song came floating up to my window.

You're a grand old flag, You're a high flying flag, 
and forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of the land I love, 
the home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true 'neath the Red, White and Blue, 
where there's never a boast or brag.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
keep your eye on the grand old flag

For a moment, I could hear my mom, gathered with her daffy girlfriends and their agreeable husbands, raising their highballs for this rouser. Here it was, a number one hit on the singalong hit parade, and people were boisterously singing it, right in my neighborhood. Either that, or I was having a major hallucination. I shook my head for a moment, then realized the voices I was hearing were not the Costellos and the Rothers and the Kelleys. It was the kids next door, hanging from their jungle gym and belting out a George M. Cohan tune, for reasons mysteriously unknown. I wondered if they had highballs and little candy cigarettes in their hands. Determined find out what was going on, I hit “send” on an email and headed outside, just as they were launching into “America.”  

“Kids!” I said, trying hard not to be the crazy old neighbor lady, but suspecting that’s exactly how I sounded. They looked up, startled into silence. I steamrolled on: “I LOVE your songs! You are great singers! WHERE did you learn them?” I was secretly hoping there was an old highball-sipping granny tucked away upstairs, someone I could bond with and maybe bum cigarettes from, while she patted my hand and called me “hon.” But it was not to be; as the mom-in-charge reported: “They have a new music teacher at school, and they’re doing a unit on patriotic songs.” Hmmm, I thought, I’ll bet that music teacher is the one with the granny.

I briefly flirted with the idea of teaching the kids “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” but didn’t want to freak them out completely. So I wrapped things up with another compliment on their fabulous pipes, and headed back home. As I pulled on my gardening gloves and started weeding, I reached for my earbuds and my nightly NPR fix, then stopped.

Encouraged by the knowledge that they had an actual fan, the kids had kicked it into overdrive, and were belting out “Grand Old Flag” to the top of their tiny lungs, relishing their reception by an appreciative audience. I kept the earbuds in my pocket and let their voices be the soundtrack of my evening, laid over that cracking vinyl sidetrack in my head of the way my mother’s voice sounded, especially when she sang with her friends.

Putszy is riding out through the plains and desert now, as her favorite song says, out west of the great divide. There are so many things I don’t know about her, or about my own mother for that matter, but sometimes, I realized, it’s just not important to remember every detail. We hold on to what we can, even if it’s nothing more than a scrap of song on a summer night.

I want to be a cowboy's sweetheart, 
I want to learn to rope and ride
I want to ride through the plains and the desert, 
out west of the Great Divide
I want to hear the coyotes singing as the sun sets in the west
I want to be a cowboy's sweetheart, 
that's the life I love the best

I want to ride Old Paint moving at a run, 
I want to feel the wind in my face
A thousand miles away from all, movin' at a cowhand's pace
I want to pillow my head beneath the open sky 
as the sun sets in the west

I want to strum my guitar and yodel-le-hee-hee, 
that's the life I love the best

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Micro-climate

The city of Minneapolis only charged $15, so I was skeptical, but the cherry tree in the front yard is proving to be a real treasure. One of its long and lovely branches has extended over the sidewalk, creating the perfect spot for lilies of the valley to thrive. Last year was the first I had enough to justify putting them in a vase, and I wrote this blog about it, which I'm re-posting.

TUESDAY, MAY 27, 2014

Rose and the Lilies


When I was in my 20s, I had an awful boyfriend who had only two things in his favor:  he taught me how to parallel park, and his mother was wonderful. Other than that, well, thank God I didn’t marry him, because I would be writing this from the loony bin, and you know how bad the Internet service is there.

He taught me to parallel park because he lived in a cramped part of the city, it was the only parking available, I could not do it successfully, and he liked to shout instructions at me in a disdainful manner, so it all worked out. And now, while I can drive only passably, I can park anywhere. But enough about him and my skill acquired through scorn. On to his mother.

Golly, Rosemary was a great lady. She was spunky and sassy and opinionated, but in a way that was always motherly and kind, at least to me, not that I always deserved it. Her kids were all variations of her husband (mean drips like my boyfriend, or just general all-around drips, like the dad), but she was a rose among thorns. I don’t know if any of them ever appreciated her, but I did.

I would have married that guy, just because of her, but she died before we got around to it. I was at her deathbed. We played a Cardinals baseball game on a transistor radio that we held up to her ear, and then, eventually, the game was over, and she was over, too. It was just a few months after my father had died, and all of that seemed to make a good enough reason not to get shouted at by the mean drip any more. Besides, I had learned to parallel park by that time, and without her around, there just didn't seem to be much point to any of it.

I thought of Rose yesterday, and I haven’t done that in a long, long time. The reason was that, after years of trying to get lilies of the valley to grow in my front yard, they finally did, this year. When I walked outside and saw all of them, going crazy against the edge of the sidewalk and looking like they had plans to grow right through the front door, I thought of Rose. She had loved lilies of the valley, and they had bloomed profusely for her, those couple magic weeks a year. I can remember walking up her front sidewalk and seeing them, there on my left and for as far as I could see, it seemed.  I can’t remember why I just walked into my own kitchen fifteen minutes ago, or what I was looking for when I got there, but I can remember those flowers, clear as an Instagram, which hadn't been invented yet.

My lilies are only blooming, I realized yesterday, because our $15 tree from the City of Minneapolis has grown enough, these past two years, to give them the required amount of shade. I put this together in my best scientific method by realizing that the flowers on the other side of the front path, the ones without shade, were not growing, but were looking as miserable as the whole bunch of them had looked, all these years, until yesterday.

As soon as I made the connection between the lilies of my memory and that dear departed woman who was almost my mother-in-law, God help me, I sat down, fast, on my own front walk. I thought of all those old-timey gravestones in cemeteries that say “Say a Hail Mary for Me,” and I said one for her. And then I remembered one time when I took some significant umbrage with something she had said on that very topic. She had mentioned something about going out to cemeteries for an afternoon and tending the graves of relatives. I shot off a hasty remark, in my mid-twenties-I-know-everything way: “What a waste of time,” I snorted. I was nothing if not productive in those days. “They’re dead, what do they care?”

Because she was a very kind lady, she settled for giving me the fish eye instead of a smack on the back of my head, which I richly deserved. And now the cherry tree has shaded the ground, and I wish I knew where her grave was, because I would take these newly blooming flowers straight to her, and offer up a few more Hail Marys while I was at it. Yesterday, I had to settle for just the prayer, and a long-overdue apology, sent out, vaguely, to wherever she might be. I cut a few of the flowers and put them in a tiny vase on the kitchen counter. 

Every time I've walked in the room the past couple days, wondering why I’m there or what I’m looking for, I’ve seen the flowers. I've offered them to her - these delicate little marvels of complicated architecture and saintly smell. I wish I could see her again. I wish I could listen to a baseball game with her, one called by Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. But still, with all of that, I'm really, really glad that I didn’t marry her son. And she probably is, too.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

In honor of the NYC blizzard: Some Other Time revisited

It is snowing again in New York today, but for every general aggravation, there is an upside for someone. Case in point: my pal Virginia snagged a $32 seat to "On the Town" tonight as a "snowstorm special." I sent her all my best theater wishes and then remembered seeing that great show live for the first time a few years ago, and being surprised at how different it was from the movie version. My favorite new (to me) song was "Some Other Time," and I wrote a blog about it. I asked Virginia to think of me fondly when they played it, and I'm reprising my blog post on it here.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2013

Some other time


I had a conversation with a friend the other day and, in one instant, I made the poor guy feel fifteen years older than he’d felt when he picked up the phone. And all I did was tell him a hard truth about the passing years.

We’d been chatting about business and kids and some desultory topics, and then he raised the question of half-birthday parties, one of those “any excuse” events which I persist in cooking up and celebrating. He’d been thinking about such a party himself, and he had a question for me. “You gave your husband a 49-and-a-half birthday party a couple years back,” my friend said, “and I was just wondering how you went about that.”

I experienced that rare thing for me, a moment of speechlessness. “It was a THIRTY-nine-and-a-half party,” I said, giving him the cold slap of reality as gently as I could. “That party was fifteen years ago. You were there,” I added, perhaps unhelpfully.

He started through the seven stages of grief right on the other end of the line, beginning with denial and transitioning quickly into bargaining. “I can’t believe it!” he said. Then switching tones, he said, “Okay, let’s say it was three years ago, tops.”

“Mary Katherine was four months old when I gave that party,” I said, wondering for the first time what sort of idiot (me) would give a surprise half-birthday party when she had two kids under age three, but there you go. Any excuse. “She’s a sophomore in high school now, so that means that the party was fifteen years ago.”

He sighed, heavily, and I could tell he’d reached the acceptance stage. Nothing forces the realization of passing time like other people’s kids, a sad fact that seems to be getting worse for me the older I get. My niece Blake sent a lovely birth announcement this spring for her new daughter, and I keep it up on the bulletin board because I love to see the child’s darling face. I’m sure it will be just a matter of months before I’m pinning the girl's high school graduation picture on top of it, wondering how it all moved so fast.

When I was young, I used to hear grownups talking about how rapidly the years had flown by, and, like most things the grownups I knew said, it was stupid. I was living out a life sentence right there in St. Ann, Missouri, and the clock ticked at 108 Constance Court more slowly than anywhere else on earth. For a girl who is itching to get out and start a fresh new life, one that never repeats the mistakes her mother made, time practically stood still.

These days, I’ve become my mother in so many ways, recreating so many of the dumb mistakes she made, and understanding her much more than I ever did. Yet here I am, running into a woman of passing acquaintance at the grocery store, asking what grade her little boy is in this year, and she tells me the kid is a sophomore in college. I want to examine her handbag for signs of prescription med abuse, because I know that’s not possibly true. Just hand over the bottle of Xanax, sweetheart, tell me that he’s in fourth grade, and we can get through this without anyone getting hurt.

Mary Katherine took me to see “On the Town” for Mother’s Day, and there was a wistful song, sung on the subway late at night, when the couples are about to part. I’m sure I’ve heard it before – let’s face it, the Great American Songbook and I have been around the block together a time or two  – but somehow, that day, it seemed so incredibly new and poignant. I blew loudly into my handkerchief, that crazy lady on the aisle, as the couples sang:
Where has the time all gone to?  
Haven't done half the things we want to.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.
This day was just a token; too many words are still unspoken.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

Just when the fun is starting, comes the time for parting,
But let's be glad for what we've had, and what's to come.
There's so much more embracing 

still to be done, but time is racing.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

I never really heard the song before, I suppose, because I didn’t fully appreciate the irony until that day.  The heartbreak of the song, of course, is that there won’t ever be another time, ever. I will never be standing at the top of a staircase in Wuhan, China, waiting for someone to put Emma in my arms for the first time. I will never be corralled onto the couch for one of Mary Katherine’s countless “shows,” and she and I will never walk down to the stand of pines trees where her imaginary friend, Lulu, lived, so she could slip in and talk things over with the invisible.

In another fifteen years, I’ll have run out of the steam to throw parties for no reason, or I won’t be here at all. And all these kids can pick up where I left off, wondering how other people's children are growing so fast, and  looking for pill bottles in crazy friend's handbags at the grocery store, steadfastly refusing to understand how the years have managed to slip away. 

Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

You can come out Denny, it's gone now

When I recently read that Coca-Cola was disconnecting voice mail at its Atlanta headquarters, the first person I thought of was Denny O. Back when I was just a rising young marketing geek with hot-rollered hair and too-big earrings, he had been a Big Deal at the agency where I worked, and he hated voice mail with a pure and holy passion, mostly because he  preferred screaming at people face-to-face, and not via sissified recordings. Poor, Denny: he's long gone now and not here to see the demise of his nemesis. I dug up this nostalgic look back at the floppy-tie and flow-charts era in his honor.

TUESDAY, APRIL 26, 2011


Breaking Loose (All Hell Variety)


It isn't often that reading the Wall Street Journal makes me anything other than annoyed, but yesterday's article on employers' nervousness over employees' high-tech gadgets left me feeling positively nostalgic.

On the one hand, I do have some sympathy for management. It must be hard to be a boss in the modern age.  All Mr. E. Scrooge had to do was to tell Bob Cratchit when to show up, then watch him constantly until he went home. I’m old enough to remember an era when showing up on Saturday in golf togs, or staying late and making sure everyone knew about it, was a mark of dedication and ambition. Now we’re working during kids’ soccer games and surfing for eBay deals during conference calls, so it’s harder for the Mr. Dithers sorts to torment the Bumsteads quite so easily. These days, you can only measure people on how effective they are, not how many countless hours they’re logging at their desks, and everyone who's ever known anyone in management understands that achieving results is not half as much fun as making someone suffer.

As a tail-end Baby Boomer, I’ve had the experience of being present at some pivotal moments in the business world when management lost control. It was always fun to watch. The first time happened at the sunset of  what I will refer to as the While You Were Out Age. Back then, I worked in a big company, doing something that resembled marketing, if you didn’t pay attention too closely. My missed phone calls were answered by my secretary, who wrote down the messages on pink “While You Were Out” slips. I would come back from vacation, a business trip or a long lunch, and close the door to my office, reading the slips and returning my phone calls. And if that sounds as antiquated as telling you that I retired to the drawing room to sort out my correspondence with a quill pen, I only just now realized it myself, so be gentle with someone of my advanced years, please.

Then voice mail was invented, and people recorded their messages directly – long, rambling, often incoherent messages, but still. I can remember feeling mighty important on business trips, sidling up to the bank of pay phones at the airport and entering the 800 number so I could check my messages along with all the other high-tech smarties.

While voice mail was instantly adopted by everyone from peons to middle managers, it was reviled by the executives at my company. In a scenario I would see played out again in just a decade or so, the executives hated hated hated voice mail. Now, at this same time, I was part of a Quality Committee at the company. We would gather periodically to talk about Deming and Kaizen, and how we could someday beat the Japanese by being focused on quality processes. Tom Peters was our rock star. We aspired to win a Baldrige Award. Don’t laugh; all the cool kids were doing it back then.

Once voice mail was installed at the company, our little Quality Circle meetings began to be crashed by the Vietnam Vet (and possible PTSD sufferer, I now suspect) who was our Head of Sales & Marketing. He would propel himself into our conference room, where we had plastered flow charts all over the walls, using that new invention, Post-It notes. “Do you want to improve quality?” he would ask (rhetorically; none of us ever tried to answer). “Then kill that God Damned Voice Mail! I call people and I get a recorded message. Then I try to transfer and I get another message. I can’t even find a secretary!” By this point, he’d be red-faced and bellowing, we’d be cowering, and he’d storm out, off to change his shirt (rumor was he changed his shirts several times a day, a fact that fascinated me. I imagined armored trucks pulling up outside the executive tower every week, unloading bales of button-downs).

Even then, hampered as my cognitive powers were by my floppy tie, painfully large earrings and tightly hot-rollered head of giant, anchorwoman hair, I understood the man’s problem. He had lost control. Back in his glory days, he’d been able to call anyone, anywhere and Get a Person. He could shout at a secretary and say, “Find him!,” then put his feet back on the desk and imagine some frightened woman scurrying through the corridors, knocking on the men’s room door to tell some poor broom (our term for any lower-level employee) that HE was looking for him, now. It must have been a great life, but it was over. Now all he had was his supply of fresh shirts, and his temper.

My career spun on, or down, or perhaps in a bumblebee-ish spiral. I ended up at the rival firm to the first place, a company that prided itself on a Sensible Midwestern Work Ethic and a Flattened Hierarchy. Here’s what that meant:  no secretaries. Also, no offices and no doors. On the plus side, everything seemed a little calmer. No one was allowed to burst into meetings to scream at the quality geeks. And since everyone dressed in business casual, there was no need for a constant stream of dress shirts to be delivered to the executives.

It was fine, that life in the cubes, although when I called to talk to my friends at the old place, they accused me of working at QVC, because it was so noisy. Then we got computers, and then we got email. And once again, it was time for the bosses to lose it. They hated email because they were afraid we were using it for Personal Reasons. Someone at the company hired someone else whose job it was to read every single email (I’m assuming that at this point there were hundreds a day) and determine if it were of a business or personal nature. The juiciest personal ones were printed out, and the chief executive took to reading them aloud at weekly meetings.

I tried to think like the executive and understand the difference between emailing “Meet you at the bar at 6” to a friend and calling a friend (on your official company phone) for the same purpose. I suppose, in the boss’ view, he could always walk by and eavesdrop on your non-official communication. But, unless he kept that person reading all the emails his employees sent out, he had lost control.

And now all hell has broken loose again, and, according to my pals at WSJ, salespeople have Facebook pages just for their client base, managers are responding to complaints via Twitter and employees are answering company emails from their personal iPhones. IT Departments are having meetings and setting protocols and trying to stick their fingers in the dykes. Inevitably, people are crossing lines and being reprimanded for actions that, five years from now, will seem silly and outdated.

With a career that has taken me from an office, to a cube, to a spare bedroom with a laptop perched on a card table, and with a business wardrobe that has devolved from power suits to ratty pajamas, I can only shake my head and laugh. And, I suppose, feel just a little bit sorry for those beleaguered bosses.

Monday, February 9, 2015

On your feet all day


There was a clear hierarchy of jobs in my mother’s view of the world, and it started at the bottom: If you were stupid and lazy, you would be relegated to a life of “digging ditches,” or, more peculiarly, you’d be “nothing but a hod carrier.” I was always a little hazy on the nature of hods, but clear on the contempt with which she held their transporters.

Just a rung above those jobs, in my mother’s mind, was any occupation in which “you were on your feet all day.” That view is certainly ironic these days, given the health horrors now associated with a life spent sitting down. (“Enjoying your comfy couch? You’re about to DROP DEAD!”) But Katherine Kendrick was a woman of firm opinions, and she never wavered in her belief that an eight-hour shift spent on one’s feet was a miserable fate.

I have never before considered why those circumstances would be such an object of dread for her. That’s because, I now realize, I’ve never thought about the particulars of my mother’s feet before. This, however, seems to be the year in which I begin to reflect on her life, and mine, from the ground up. Genetics have caught up with me, and the poor quality of my flat and misshapen Irish feet has suddenly become a top-of-mind — or is that bottom-of-foot? — issue in my life. This is the year I’ve developed a close relationship with my podiatrist, have learned how to swallow handfuls of aspirin  without water, and have begun to place significant value on the joy to be found in owning several pairs of comfortable shoes.

An ad for the Chase, circa 1968. Check out those room rates.

 In the 1960s, my mother asked her girlfriends to teach her how to drive, and then she took a job as what was called a “hat check girl” at the one posh hotel in St. Louis — the Chase-Park Plaza. The job opened up her life in many ways — she made friends with staff who were, in the parlance of the time, colored, and she became chummy with actual foreigners. She was great chums with several  Greek waiters, all of whom who slept eight to a room and rotated spots on the three or four cots they had in their sparse apartments near the hotel. She made friends with gay men, who gave her great advice on how she dressed and carried herself. She checked coats for Frank Sinatra (“he looked scared”), Danny Thomas (“biggest cigar I’ve ever seen”), and for all the players in the St. Louis Cardinals (Red Schoendist was her favorite because he was a big tipper). Her friend Libby got to meet Gregory Peck, long considered the biggest “get” among the group of middle-aged “girls.”

The job may have been great for expanding her world view, but it played hell on her feet. Every night, she wore a nice dress, a girdle, and a pair of incredibly pointy-toed high heels. The floor in the hat check room was concrete. She was in her mid-forties. Why did I never put these facts together and think about how much her feet hurt? One summer, our family was even more strapped for cash than usual, and she took a second job, working during the day as a hostess at a tony restaurant. I remember her talking about the restaurant's terrazzo floors as if they were land mines. Now I understand why.

When she and I traveled together, or when she came to visit me, I remember seeing lots of foot-related doo-dads — corn plasters and foot tape and bunion pads. Toward the end of her life, she had a hammer toe so severe that the toe had to be amputated. I was concerned for her, but still unaware of how it might feel for her to take a step, and seemingly unable to imagine it. I am sorry to report that I can remember telling her to hurry up, or to walk faster. “Stop being such an old lady,” I would tell her. She would laugh, and try to speed up. Oh mom.

Yesterday, in the shoe department of the Land’s End inlet store, it all came crashing in on me. I was browsing through the winter shoes, looking for some safe choices among all the things that hadn’t sold, and when I sat down to try a pair, I hesitated. I didn’t want to take my current shoes off, because that would hurt. I didn’t want to put the new pair on, which I was already eyeing with the suspicion that they’d inflict a new level of discomfort in some sore place I didn't know about yet. And then I remembered shopping for shoes with my mom, how sometimes just looking at a pair of shoes would make her wince.

Of course, I thought, sitting there immobile in the brightly lit store, staring across at a rack of potentially uncomfortable footwear. Now I have my mother’s feet. Now I understand what it felt like for her to stand up, and work, and walk. And now it’s too late for me to tell her. I miss her for many reasons, and I’m sure that sharing stories of foot pain would not the first thing I’d want to do if I ever get the chance. Mostly, I’m just thinking about my understanding, and how dim it was before, and how clear it is now. I hope, I really hope, that she’s finally had a chance to put her feet up somewhere comfortable.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

From the peak of Mt. Parenthood


I remember pregnancy and childbirth with all the warmth and fondness of that “127 Hours” guy who had to chop his own arm off, only I had nine months of it, and my parka wasn’t as fluffy. But, it turns out, I think other people’s “pregnancy experience” is adorbs, so go figure. The next-door neighbors had their first child a few months ago, and I had a front-row seat from my office window, which is conveniently perched just inches from their driveway (city living, an exercise in pretending you can’t see or hear what is directly in front of you). I saw the darling mom-to-be grow from adorable bump to clearly pregnant to “I think she’s going to explode,” all from the comfort of my swivel chair.

I was avoiding work and looking out the window the day she and her husband left for the hospital. I was avoiding yet more work and still looking out the window the day they came home, baby in tow. Frankly gawking, I noticed the dad taking a picture of mother and son, together in front of their house for the first of what I realized would be a lifetime of photos. It was very Normal Rockwell, but with an iPhone. I dashed down the steps and asked them to allow me to take their family portrait, and I didn’t even drop the dad’s phone. It was all so lovely, really it was, but of course I knew, even as I smiled at them, that they were about to be hit with the Parent Stick, the poor dumb things. At that moment, the thing I knew and they didn’t was that babies are like catchy pop songs. They’re utterly charming for the first few minutes, but then suddenly it’s the hundreth chorus of “I’m Henry VIII, I am,” and their welcome wears thin.

My baby gift to the new parents was the delivery of weekly Sunday suppers for the first few weeks, which might sound like a pointless present unless you’ve had a baby, and then you know that it’s the Best Gift Ever. As I knocked at the door each Sunday, I got a freeze-frame update on how parenthood was treating these two fine young people. Which is to say, I watched them slowly lose control of themselves and the world around them, as they melted toward the floor in a state of utter exhaustion. I saw it in their eyes, and I saw it in the circles under those eyes. Babies will do that to people. Of course the lack of sleep is a big factor, but complete lack of control and heart-stopping fear can wear a person down, too. I remember reading a bagful of baby books on the long flight to China, on the journey to adopt our daughter. It was pretty much a cram course in parenting, and here’s what I figured out after all that studying up: all babies want to do is choke or suffocate, and it’s a miracle any of them survive, ever. Thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong with a newborn is the ultimate mellow harsher, no matter how cute the nursery has been decorated or how nice the onesies are. After a while, it takes a toll on even the most optimistic, high-energy sorts.

I completed my promised number of dinners, but found myself missing those quick updates on how the new family was doing. On a recent bearably warm Saturday, I ran into them in the driveway, just back from breakfast at a restaurant. As I cooed over the baby, the mom proudly told me their son was eight weeks old that very day. “We ran into someone at breakfast whose baby was only three weeks old,” she confided, “and I told him, don’t worry, it gets better.”

I snapped up to attention and saw her happy face. Clearly, she was so proud she had made it all the way to the two-month milestone, when there probably had been several moments in the past few weeks she wasn’t sure she would live until morning. Standing there in the crisp winter air, I had a crazy old lady moment of flashing forward through this kid’s life … toddlerhood tantrums and school-age hijinks and teen-agery in all its awfulness. She was feeling so proud she had climbed up this tiny little hill, and she had all of Mt. Parenthood yet to scale. 

Contradicting the commonly held belief that I operate without any verbal filters, I did not say, “Right, the first eight weeks, those are the hard ones. The next 18 years should be a piece of cake.” Instead, I remembered all the times when I had done the very same thing, and I recalled challenging times with my kids that, once gotten through, had given me that complacent, “Well, my work here is done” feeling. From sleeping through the night, to curing an incorrigible biting habit, to navigating the mean girls at school, to finally finishing the thank-you notes from the high school graduation party, parenting is just one damn thing after another. And maybe it’s best we don’t realize that, because if we saw, really saw, all that’s ahead, then I’m not sure that many of us would make it. I imagine myself sitting in an aisle seat on a Northwest Airlines flight to Beijing, poring over those baby books as everyone around me slept. If any of those books had even hinted at what was ahead, I might have hijacked the plane and demanded it return me to Minneapolis, asking for  just a few more weeks of sleeping through the night before I committed to Momhood.

Three years later, when I got myself in trouble and was freaking out at the idea of pregnancy and labor, I was gabbling my worries to my friend Lorraine, who calmed my fears and told me I’d have no troubles at all with labor. A few months later, stuck at home with a newborn and an angry, angry three year old, I called Lorraine and shrieked, “Why didn’t you tell me THIS was the hard part?” She chuckled wisely and said, “A lot of times, it’s better not to know things in advance.”

Is ignorance truly bliss when it comes to what lies ahead? Probably. I’ve been thinking of that as I observe the recent Facebook adventures of another new family, two over-the-moon adoptive dads who post a stream of loving photos of their infant girl all with the hashtag #sheisperfect. Well, yes, she is, at least for now. But don’t hold too tightly to that idea, fellas, because she’s got more than “perfect” in her. She’s also got “human,” and that can get messy and exhausting and painful in some monumental ways. But that’s what you signed up for – the artfully posed family portraits are one part of the parenting trek, but so is the projectile vomiting at 2 a.m. So is the scorn, the defiance and the disapproval you might someday see from this same little person who rates her own hashtag right now, just because you love her that much.

I used to think that parenthood had an end-date, that there would be some moment when I had completed the assignment and could move on to my next all-consuming life obsession. Ha. I realize now that it’s a Job for Life in the ultimate sense. And if there’s a chance to be a guilty and worried mother in the afterlife, I wonder how many women snatch at the opportunity, even if it means sitting in the Uncomfortable Anteroom while everyone else frolics on fluffy clouds just outside the grimy, dust-streaked window.

I imagine my own mom, the dearly departed Katherine Clifford Kendrick, sitting on the afterlife equivalent of a DMV plastic chair with one broken leg, looking for a glimpse of me whenever she gets a chance, and nudging me to speak up or shut up or say thank you when she thinks I might be willing to listen. I wonder if I’ll get a chance to join her there, thumbing through old magazines, and trying to help my girls with what they need at the moment -- a great idea for which they give themselves credit, a quick heads up when they need a warning, or an open heart in a time when a little softness is what's required.

Job for Life. As if.