Her eyes are the deep brown of the Ethiopian coffee that runs through her veins with all the strength and sustenance that coffee is for that country. Deep wells of love and pain, sass and longing and empathy, with the unconscious knowledge of centuries of custom and tradition. She is firmly tied to those villages, that country, that continent. And she lives here in a new white world with her adoptive parents, centuries younger than the muscle memory in her DNA that she hasn’t yet consciously tapped into. When she was a toddler, adjusting to new life in this country, there was Ethiopian music playing in the house. She began to dance in that Pennsylvania living room with a distinctive tilt and swivel of her head that was distinctly Ethiopian. How could she know, if the lesson wasn’t already woven into all of her muscles and embedded in the deepest recesses of her young brain? It lay dormant, waiting for the stimulus that sparks all Ethiopian children to dance, to sing, to laugh with the same inflections, the same muscular twitches and flows that all those people before them, receding into the shadows of time beyond recording have danced and sung. It was miraculous. A moment of stillness and significance and deep cultural truth for those who will see it.
How can you adopt a child, especially from another country or continent, and not want them to know their beginnings and their heritage? At the same time, you help them assimilate into their adoptive culture with all the nuance and strengths and shortcomings that are part of that complicated package. Sometimes they look different from those in their new world, sometimes they feel different. Often one has everything to do with the other.
People, meaning well, say “She’s so lucky.” But really, she isn’t. Her eyes sometimes betray her grief; a grief she can’t yet name. She has always, from the very first, not even a year old, felt loss deeply and it colors every day and night for her. It is helping her to frame the context for that loss that is the sacred charge of her adoptive parents. When she was a year old, Max, the gentle orange tiger cat, died. It was hard for everyone in this family that loves their pets like family. Weeks later, she sat alone on the couch, her beautiful soft fuzzy head, her giant black eyes brimming over with tears that traced two glittering silent paths down her warm brown cheeks. Her mother asked her to tell the reason for her sadness. “Max got sick….Max died.” Max was gone. Max left her. Like a mother. Like a father. Like grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins. Like the air spiced with eucalyptus, the rich red berbere spice cooked into the food that was in the breast milk that briefly nourished her, like smoke from the fire that cooked the food, like the coffee beans ground in the stone mortar and boiled over burning charcoal until it rendered up its velvety essence, drunk with a piece of cold butter floated in the top and barely processed gray sugar crystals dissolved in it.
It weighs on her young heart that she doesn’t know, and probably never will know her African mother. Or father. Or grandparents. She sharply corrects her Ethiopian sister, when she talks about her African parents and grandparents, a wishful family she has constructed in her mind to connect herself, a tool for belonging and to make sense of this transcontinental shift in being, “No! Momma and Daddy are your mother and father. Nana and Papa and Grandma and Grandpa are your grandparents.” There is no arguing with her. She talks of going to Ethiopia for a visit the day after school ends, so her Momma can ask some questions, to find her African mother. Testimony to the trust she has in her Momma to take care of things. She assures her, after they find her mother, “I will stay with her for a couple of days, but then I’ll be back,” so she doesn’t hurt her feelings. Her little heart so hugely loving and sensitive to the hurt her longing to know might cause at 7 years old.
We have a life of plenty. Even the poorest of us have more than most of the people that populate this planet. It is hard to quiet our minds and our lives to hear what is elemental inside us over the din of acquisition, consumerism, television. But there are things that we all carry within us. Fear. Grief. Love. Longing. Commonalities we share with all other human beings regardless of place or color or culture. We must quiet ourselves and our privileged thoughts and emotions to imagine, to empathize, to acknowledge that we don’t know or own it all, and a young girl longs for a lost life she doesn’t consciously remember, but she knows it is an inseparable part of her. My instinct would be to try to cover up the bruises of that life; to try to smooth over and to erase the pain.To try to make myself enough for this little one’s longings. Her mother invites her to talk about it. She tells her, “I think about your African mother too. All the time.” That is selfless parenting at its best.
We are the lucky ones, but at what cost? There are times when our love for her seems almost selfish because she brings so much joy to us. And we worry. Is this love we have for her enough? That is the big and hard question. Because love her we do. With heart and soul and mind. And as she grows up, a brown girl in a white family that loves her without question or reserve, will that sustain her? When she comes to know on a personal level the feelings of the racially ignorant, the suspicions of the narrow-minded, the thoughtless stubbornness of some of the family who revere the confederate flag and don’t understand what all the fuss is about, will she still feel the enormous well of love we feel for her and her little sister? Will it strengthen her sufficiently? Will it be enough? There is no easy resolution or clear answer. It just has to be. It has to be enough to be the steady anchor to sustain her seeking. To buoy her up when she feels the weight of her adopted world on top of her. It has to be enough. It is all we have.
….From where you are
To where I am now
Is its own galaxy
Be a star
And fall down somewhere next to me….
Pretty Things by Rufus Wainwright
You were afraid of us when we met you. I was newly off to college when my father was your professor. You were a student who played the piano with more power and technique and expression than any student of his I’d ever heard. That he’d ever heard. You yourself were nearly silent, and you held yourself in so closely, so controlled, so contained, away from the piano you barely moved. My father was always attuned to his students; to the whole student, not just the pianist in the student. He thought you needed a friend, and support, and he began to talk to you, and to invite you home with him for dinners. He was afraid you weren’t eating. He was afraid you were so desperately unhappy you might harm yourself. He began to talk to you, and my mother did too, even though you didn’t yet talk with them. Your trauma was deep, like a dog that’s been beaten over and over, and so comes to expect nothing more than more beatings. They spoke quietly to you and moved quietly around you. They offered you good hot food served in a comfortably untidy kitchen, lit by candles for evening supper. They listened to music and laughed with each other while they ate, and spoke to you, even though you did not yet feel brave enough to answer them. But over the weeks, as you realized there was no judgement of you coming from them, as you relaxed your shoulders and your back and you allowed your heart to open up just a little, they reached out their hands and drew you in and you began to laugh with them too. And your story began to come out. And you became, over time, part of our family. Because everyone needs family to love them.
In time, my father asked students who were having problems three questions: Are there problems at home? Are you afraid you drink too much or have a problem with drugs? And the third question, which was often the root to affirmative answers to the first two — Do you think you might be gay? What right does a teacher have to ask these questions of a student? This isn’t what their parents are paying him to do. Stick to piano lessons. But to the student who can’t form the words, even to themselves, it is a relief to have someone they respect and trust form the words for them and do so in a friendly way, with an offer of help with navigation of the new landscape. A relief to the student whose parents have sent them off to college and told them they can stay in school, that they’ll continue to pay for their education so they can have a livelihood, because they’re not cruel for Christ’s sake, but please don’t think you can come home ever again with that in your heart. You have a little brother or sister – who knows what you’d do to them, and what about your grandparents, what will they think? And the neighbors, and people at church, and where have we gone wrong and why why why are you doing this to us, never mind that you’ll spend eternity in hell. How can a child then show up for Christmas, begging to be let in?
Your parents were unequipped for life outside the narrow rural confines of their harsh and nasty Christianity. Your parents, from the tangled depths of their ignorance and confusion, their angry grief at the death of their lifelong assumptions, made it known you weren’t welcome in their house. Their God told them you were evil and needed to change. And not just change, but repent, and repent with fervor. But they were wrong. They were the evil that damaged you from the get go. Your life afterward was a constant conflict of running away fast and hard, while also trying to find a way, any way, to fit back in. My father, not your own, taught you to tie the necktie you borrowed from him before a recital. My mother, not your own, fed you and hugged you. My parents, not your own, made sure you had money for groceries and someone with whom to talk over the decisions that have to be made in a newly blooming life. You considered changing your last name to ours. And we would have welcomed it, we loved you so deeply.
And how you bloomed, with your courage and determination, and my family as your touchstone. You traveled and met people, and lived in cities all over the country. You repaid my parents a hundred times over with your love and a soaring ride in a glider over Long Island for their birthdays.You took them to the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve Gala with you; my father, in his tuxedo, and my mother, nervous she wouldn’t look right, in a black suit and black suede pumps. She wore diamonds in her ears and the pearl necklace she wore for her wedding. They saw Die Fledermaus sung on the most famous opera stage in the country, and at the elaborate dinner afterward, rubbed elbows with Tony Randall and Kitty Carlisle Hart. You brought us to your home in Santa Fe, and sent us off on a trip to the Grand Canyon, booking hotel rooms and steam locomotive tickets for the ride to the rim of the canyon because that’s what my children would enjoy. And we did too. But you couldn’t come with us because by then you were very sick, and had found out you were HIV positive.
And we were so afraid for you. It was that time before really effective treatment, but new diagnoses were coming thick and fast, and the stigma of a positive status was still damaging. Not quite the death sentence of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but one had to be so aggressively proactive to obtain good treatment. Under the New Mexico stars, we sat out in the soft night by the fire, talking, me holding your warm hand. Loving you. Telling you. Not wanting to leave you. We were your family, and we were glad to be with you. Together is what we do best. Your sisters, by then, had pushed the rantings of your parents to the background, and rallied to your side. I was so happy for you. When we had to leave, they were arriving to help you. To join hands and solder that circle of strength for the murky future. You and your three sisters.
Your second oldest sister is a veterinarian and made of tough rural stock, and once performed minor surgery on herself. She gets things done and has managed to build a loving family of her own despite her parents’ parenting. Not satisfied with the treatment you were getting in Santa Fe, your kidneys failing, she got you an appointment at Johns Hopkins. You and your three beloved dogs flew to Baltimore on your friend’s private plane. And it was there that your aggressive lymphoma was diagnosed and where we gradually came to terms with your almost certain death. We visited you. So did your father and his new meekly poisonous wife. He told you you were going to hell, and why, so you’d know and it wouldn’t be a surprise when you got there. While he talked to his son this way, his wife nodded and smiled her support of his cruelty. After they felt they’d scared you enough to reawaken the self-hatred you’d spent years trying to sweep from your life, they produced a handful of religious pamphlets for you to read that would save you. Ignoring his wife completely, you found the strength to tell your father to leave and not to come back. That was good for you. You went to live with your sister and her husband in her big sunny house with your dogs snuggled in around you, and we could visit you while you grappled with chemotherapy and radiation and the brutal effects of antiretrovirals begun too late. It was a gift for me and for my parents to have you close. To be together.
There were a few weeks over Christmas that year, your favorite holiday, where the doctors told you you were free of cancer. You gained weight and felt good and played with your dogs and we began to hope that this was permanent. You missed your piano and Santa Fe. You missed the house you were building there, and the fireplace carved into the adobe, painted pale green and dusted with chips of mica that reflected the light of the flames so the whole thing sparkled like an enchanted corner. You and the dogs flew home. But by early January, you were weak and confused. Your sisters all went to be with you as the cancer roared back, peppering your brain and your spine, your hip, and your lungs. It was over long before you finally gave up, with the three of them holding you close in your big bed, along with the dogs who refused to leave your side. Looking out at the snow topped mountains in the distance, they read aloud our many messages of love and caring to you as you slipped into days of twilight sleep and finally died. You were only 31 years old and it was far far too soon.
I cried every day for months. Missing you. Not daring to admit or wanting to know I would never see you or hug you again. I hoped with a bone deep fury I rarely feel that your mother and father would forever be tormented with grief and guilt for how they had treated you, and for making the brief life you had so largely miserable. My parents were gutted by your death, you fully their son, but bore it stoically. They spoke often of you and laughed at the many good memories they had. You were the godfather to my sweet middle boy, and my children’s vision of you was the fun uncle who brought them books about a family of slugs afraid of salt, and books about pooping, and who loved Edward Gorey. When your sister had a baby boy, she named him Matthew, after you.
A year and a half later, we all flew to San Francisco for your memorial service with your sisters and their families. Your parents “couldn’t make it,” and I was glad they weren’t there. They didn’t deserve this last chance to be with you and to see you off. I went with my parents, my sister and her husband, my three children, and my husband. We stayed in Stinson Beach, a cozy town tucked in on the coast north of the city. It was my first view of the Pacific Ocean, and my eyes filled with tears when I saw it. I knew you loved this place, and I wondered if you also stood here the first time, looking with tears in your eyes as you saw something so huge and so far away from where you grew up. From how you grew up. Did you ever believe then that you, a sensitive young gay pianist born in a rural wasteland that treasured nothing of what you were, would be in this place looking at this ocean with a family that loved you for exactly who you were? I wept to know that I would never stand there looking at it with you, holding your hand, we two country born Pennsylvania children, growing up so differently, but coming together into one life, in this place together.
We have no official permits. There are no funeral directors involved. You told your sisters to scatter your ashes on the westernmost point of land in Point Reyes National Seashore. All we have for this task is our love for you, some poems, some songs you liked, and you in your small wooden box, carved by your brother-in-law John, sanded and smoothed with love. We drove north from our houses on the foggy roads at sunrise to arrive at Chimney Rock before 7 am. What we are doing is illegal, and I know you’d have liked that. On the way there, we had to stop, as a herd of black and white dairy cattle crossed the rutted road. One stopped in front of our car and gazed at us with a deep black liquid look as her herd walked past her across the muddy road and disappeared into the fog lingering on the pasture. She looked at us for a long time. Still. Watching. Then she moved on. It was important and we were quiet in the car. You always liked cows, and liked the Point Reyes cattle as they wandered where they wanted, and people had to make way for them. We park our cars and walk a mile or so through the wind-beaten beach grass on a trail that leads out to the rocky point far above the ocean. The gray sky weighs on us, and I’m afraid, and dreading the deep wound of grief this morning is going to scrape open again. The wind blows off the ocean, cool and damp, but the fresh salt smell is exciting to me, so used to being landlocked. I think this is probably how you felt too when the smell of ocean filled your nose and blew your hair straight back, and it was clean and damp and scoured your heart of the stains left there from your struggles. I needed some scouring myself. I dared to hope that maybe I could find something in that wind from you to soothe that weeping wound in my core that doggedly refused to heal.
We sat all together on the grass. A sea bird circled up above us, gray and white against the soft rolling gray of the sky and the fog, occasionally calling, soaring, diving down, way down, to touch the water, then winging back up, high over us again. Staying there with us. Your brother-in-law Jim, who always loved you, speaks to us, and we remember some of the good times. Times when you made us laugh. When we did things together; picnics, swimming, camping, city visits, your love of nature, the wilder the better. We remember Matthew who was strong and healthy, and free of pain and confusion. Matthew, who loved to tease and could always make us laugh. Matthew, who played the piano with passion and tenderness, pulling magnificent volume and gorgeous soaring music from the instrument with just his two hands and his big heart. And then we listened to music, the Indigo Girls, and that was when I started crying, and felt your absence most keenly. I knew for certain then, that this was our goodbye, our release of you. We truly never would see you again and now we’d have to keep you inside us, each on our own, to remember you. Such a fragile tenuous tie to you. Memories can be lost so easily, and are weak comfort when loneliness for you weighs me down. And while I desperately want freedom from this sadness that seems to have set up permanent housekeeping in my heart, I also never want to forget you.
The wooden box holding your ashes sat on the ground in front of us. Your sister brought a rock from home for your resting place. Your name was etched onto it, and the dates of your birth and of your death. We were each invited to gather up a handful of you, and take it to a place on that great jutting point of land high above the Pacific. A place we each felt was beautiful enough to hold you forever. I hesitated to touch you. I never had seen human ashes before, and wasn’t sure what they felt like. Dry and grainy, the coarse gray white dust with some larger ivory colored shards lay leveled in the box. I will never forget how you felt in my hand when I gathered you up. As I held you, and walked to the rocky edge to choose the right place for you, I thought to touch my finger to my tongue, to put a few grains of you into my mouth so you would be with me and in me forever, but I didn’t. Now I wish I had. I walked the edge of the cliff alone, my husband helping my children handle the emotions of this day. My parents standing together as they always have in everything. I was traveling my own path. I looked down at the heavy surf and saw a single sea lion rolling and diving in the blue gray water that glittered and shifted dully like a piece of polished labradorite. She stayed there by the rocks, looking up at us, maybe curious. Maybe knowing. I knew this was the place for me to put you. We each did this, choosing a place for our own reasons, on our own impulse, and parts of you were sprinkled everywhere in that big beautiful wild place.
We stayed there with the quiet whooshing of the wind and the tide for a while, and then I knew it was time for me to leave and start down the path to the new life without you in it. I walked into the wind, salty, and eucalyptus scented, and it shushed past my ears with a quiet soothing sound. My footsteps were muffled by the cushioning grass. My tears dried and I took a shuddering breath. And then I heard my name. I turned, thinking my husband had caught up to me, but there was no one there. My heart began beating in my ears and all my senses were pinpointed on that sound, on my name in the wind. I looked around me. No one. I held my breath, knowing it happened, willing it to happen again. Above me, that gray gull was still circling, watching us leave this now sacred place, spread out, filing back to the car. All of us alone in our grief. I felt some comfort in my pain.
That day was now almost 15 years ago. And despite my fear, my memory of that moment hasn’t faded. I still miss you. I will miss you for the rest of my life. Every year, on August 13th, I send you a birthday thought, and every year, on January 29th, I remember the devastating pain the news of your death brought. I don’t think of you constantly anymore. Not even weekly. But there are times when something happens, something funny or ridiculous, or if I’m hiking, and the cedar-scented air is filling my nose, I think, “Matthew would have liked this.” When I’m with my family and we’re laughing, as we always are, we remember you and say to each other, “Matt would like this.” My middle son, your godson, is getting married in a couple of weeks, and I will surely think of you on that day, and wish you were there to celebrate with us. And sometimes when I’m running, my muscles loose and warm on a chilly misty day, when my mind is emptied out and relaxed and my music is turned down low, my breathing easy and rhythmic, I’ll feel you with me. And I’ll suddenly miss you with a sweeping wave of palpable awareness of you. And that moment is just for me, from you. You calling my name as the wind blows on my ears and a bird languidly circles in the sky over my head.
I had a front row seat when they began to dismember her. Chunk by chunk, they dissected her and spread her out and scrutinized her. They scooped and sawed and chipped at her until there was nothing left inside; until eventually the wire she was made to walk became so narrow, tight, and sharp, no one could have walked it without bloodying themselves in the inevitable fall. With no recourse left to her, she fled. Her paychecks, every single one vitally necessary, ceased, and for weeks she lived by her wits and her faith in God and in the loving arms of her friends. Her children watched, angry and confused, to see how their mother, loved by so many and loving so many herself, suffered. They struggled with adolescent embarrassment and childish fear for the parent who had always been their touchstone, which she continued to be despite her shattered world. Swirled into this thick soup of pain was their fierce loyalty for the mother who loved them equally fiercely. Ultimately, they stood beside her. On the side of the right. As she taught them. They inspired her with words she used to inspire them, and in the end, they comforted each other and held each other up above the mess. She, so hurt and damaged by people she respected, trying to keep the love that was the focus and the force of her life, the impetus for all she did and all she was, in the forefront of her new reality, gritted her teeth, screamed inside over and over, shed frustrated grieving tears, pacing through those long quiet nights, and when the sun came up, just slogged on through the mud, as she had many times before.I have never respected anyone as much as I respected her in those desperate days.
One day after she had moved and was gone, I received a call from our friend who was at her empty house. “There are some things here that I don’t know what to do with. Can you help?” And I, of course, can. And do. It was clear she had endured all she could before just shattering and disappearing into the abyss. Her home was no longer her refuge. The army had arrived, banging on the door with hard fists. They ransacked her tired defenses and left her life in ruins. Desperate, she gathered her children and fled. I’d have done the same, but much sooner. We sorted through possessions and loaded a truck with things to save for her, and put some things on the curb and some other things to donate and we, silent and sad, locked the door behind us, and felt so empty and drained on that starry fall night. We said quiet goodbyes to each other, friends who get together often, but it had the feeling of forever in it. The way we were was done, and we were as hollow and bereft as the house we’d just emptied.
I couldn’t go home to my own home that night. It felt too greedy and self-satisfied; that to take refuge there in that place where I always find my peace would be mocking the searing tragedy I’d just left. I walked a long way in the dark, trying to forget. And trying to remember so I wouldn’t ever forget. I looked in the windows of the houses as I walked, and wondered about homes and houses and what defines the difference.
I pass the “green” house of an ardently eco-conscious young family. The florescent ceiling lights give off a cold blue light, as if they’re living in the butcher shop my grandmother and I walked to in the dark on Saturday nights to pick up the Sunday roast. There are no curtains or blinds on the windows. They hold dust and tempt allergies to set up lodging in this pure house. This sterile house. I see the children working on a project at the table by the window. Brown cardboard. White glue. Cotton string. There are no markers, glitter, paint. There is no art on any of the white walls to inspire them. This is not a house where I’d want to live. The serious mother reads in a chair under yet another cold blue light. Her eyes will be saved. The photographs in her book will appear as intended in the correct lighting. Would she know what to do with warmth if it should appear and bathe her and her children in a golden glow? Are they missing it? Do they know they don’t have it? She’s saving the earth, but for what?
There’s a spectacular house on this street with candles in every window. It is filled with antique furniture and has big brick chimneys that puff out smoke from multiple fireplaces that spread delicious warmth on the cold nights of winter. It is beautifully landscaped. It is a showplace. It is perfect. It is all hollow show. Inside there are petty fights and slammed doors. There are tears and angry phone calls. There are ultimatums and threats and little deceptions and mistrust and long silences. It is a house that masquerades as a home.
I pass a house where inside I know a grandfather is dying. His children won’t make him take those last steps alone and they sit by his bed and hold his hands and he smiles as he comes and goes, and comes and goes. After it is done, they rest awhile with him and with each other, sharing memories, shedding tears, and yes, laughing, before making the call that sets that express train of EMTs, ambulances, and funeral directors in motion and he no longer belongs to them. They wash him. They pray. They tend to him for the last time as he did for his parents; as the love and duty in their family assumes. This is a home.
I stand in the dark on the sidewalk across the street from that sad loving home. The smoke from my cigar, cedar-scented and peppery on my tongue, like this beautiful woman now gone from my life, rises past my eyes and up into the black sky, and tears roll down my cheeks. And I’m grateful to have had the chance to finally really help her. And help myself.
Her house was a home. Always scrubbed clean, it was warm and fragrant with candles and cooking. Laughter filled it up and spilled out the door and down the steps. Her quiet patience permeated every corner. There was discipline for her children that framed their world and contained it; that gave them something to count on. When I got that call and saw her house, still filled with things, filled with her, I felt my heart gripped and twisted. I felt her desperation, her fear, her urgency. And even though her new job is good, her new home is nice, and her children are happy in their new town, I finally sensed what she never betrayed as she struggled to stay strong for those in her life who counted on her for everything. I finally understood the depth of her despair, and her terror as that misguided power forced its way into her home, held her prisoner, and wouldn’t leave no matter what she did until she was wounded and worn out with the struggle.
We three friends sorted and carried things to the curb. We recycled and boxed and bagged and saved and discarded and shed tears and sweat. An exorcism of anger and worry and finally, finally a physical manifestation of our love for her to wear us out and dispel some of our grief. Here finally was the help we’d been longing to give. Here finally was something we could do for her. The people who loved her boxed up the pain and the fear, swept the desperation into a dusty pile on the floor and threw it out once and for all. We tidied up the tattered debris of years of anger and confusion and betrayal for her, and finally cleaned that slate. We keep her things for her, tending them, until she comes back to reclaim them. Until she comes back to reclaim us. To see us, to laugh with us, to hold us in hugs that we never want to end.
I stub my cigar out in the grass at my feet. I wipe the tears off my face. I walk home.
I’ve been unfriended. Not in an offhand virtual click of a button way, the result of a web-based housecleaning that goes unnoticed for weeks, but in a bloody cut it out with a knife never speak to me again unfriending. Oh, I brought it on, I fully admit that, and I deserved his anger at the moment of that badly misdirected text. Maybe I deserved the Fuck You texted back to me with exclamation points attached, but I’m not convinced of that, even knowing and feeling every bit of my guilt. Those two words, the most concise and undeniable expression of utter rage and cutting dismissal, never came my way from anyone until they came from him. I shared a confidence with other friends, which I so regret, and I apologized, but the demanded and offered apology went unacknowledged. This was a friendship that lived in my heart for three years. Three years of laughter and confiding conversations, of taking his side and hugs, wicked fun and love yous. And in one nauseating evening it was all undone and forgiveness has never come my way and I never got to say goodbye. My friend didn’t see my tears, my remorse, my pain, my anger. And giving that knife a good hard twist, three days later the reason for his rage was moot. Casually nullified when the relationship with his partner, that was on the rocks, was repaired over a shared lunch of crêpes, and they were back together again. Apparently, there is no similar reconciliation for us. And now it has been months.
I love my friends, and I love my family. And my good friends become my family. My family is big and loud and loving and we’re in each other’s business, and we talk about problems and they go away, and sometimes we ignore problems, and they go away. And if they don’t go away, we learn to live with them. We have a sensible Lutheran approach to life and its complicated relationships. We eschew drama, and we move forward, always forward, with practicality, forgiveness, and laughter. And wine and coffee. And sometimes cake. And Jell-O with Cool Whip. And the natural extension of that love is that I tend to expect my friends to then behave like my family as well. Which probably isn’t fair. When they don’t, it feels like a betrayal of the trust that I’ve invested in them. Trust that we will just go on forever and even though, yes, things change, that “thing” that is our friendship, that nugget of pure truth at the heart of it, will not. And usually that’s right. Until it’s wrong.
I try to be a strong and caring friend. I’m a good listener, and I like to listen. I think I have an open heart. I try to be forgiving. I like people and I like to really know them, the deep inside them, and I like to laugh. Sometimes, when meeting someone, I feel a zing, a physical pull, a need to get to know that person. I trust that gut instinct, and it has served me well. One of my best, deepest, most honest friendships is the result of paying attention to that cosmic pinprick and reaching out, revealing pieces of myself unasked like an offering. The reward, when the reaching out is met halfway or less than halfway with a warm hand or a warmer hug, with a flow of easy or difficult but trusting confidences, laughter, flowing hours or even days of talk, and serendipitous connections noted and collected, ties strengthened – there’s nothing else like it. That’s a deep and precious bond that I protect and won’t easily or willingly discard. I don’t understand how others can throw that away, and do it with such finality.
I’m a pleaser by nature. A near-pathological avoidance of confrontation has been the hallmark of my life. I’ve swallowed my own wants and needs on a regular basis, overlooking conflict so there are no waves and it makes a smooth way for others. It has taken me 53 years to start to see that while easier in the short run, this isn’t necessarily the best way to navigate through life. I’ve begun to pay more attention to my own voice, and to speak up when I have to, but I don’t yet wear it comfortably or unconsciously, and it takes thought and effort for me to stand firm for myself. Often it’s accomplished with a heart thudding with anxiety. Conflict with a friend doesn’t come easy to me, nor is it easy for me to live with. I lost weeks of sleep over the unfriending. I deleted the texts from my phone so I wouldn’t see them, obsessively reread them, and make myself sick with those hard tight knots of sad regret. And I’m left to wonder if we were real friends after all, because I seem to have been easy to throw away. Was the friendship I treasured really just a casual way to spend some time, to have some laughs, to have someone to drink with? Was I wrong about the depth and timbre of what we shared? And in my new consciousness, this standing firm in myself and valuing my own voice, I have to conclude that yes, I think I was wrong about it. Rarely has that trusting connection been thrown back at me, and never so violently or decisively. I think it was a masquerade of friendship, and while happy to be there for the party of the good stuff – the laughs, the sympathetic shoulder – when the road got rocky, a mistake made, and angry words exchanged, he packed up his bags of fun and left, slamming the door after him. And that part – the slamming? – that’s easy. The hard part is then turning around, knocking on that door, coming back through, and navigating a new repaired path through the minefield of hurt and anger. I mull it over again and again and wonder what I should do, and worry my part in the drama like a dog with a greasy bone, obsessively chewing on my guilt.
I watch a nest of baby flickers tended tirelessly by their mother, doing what she knows she has to do. One day, she flies back and forth between the dead dry maple, and the hole in the tree next to it where her babies sleep and grow in the nest she built, waiting for her, demanding food. On this day, however, she doesn’t have anything for them. It’s time for them to come out of the nest, to fly and find their own food. How she knows that this is the day, the right day for this passage is miraculous and beautiful. One by one, the three little fledglings stick their heads out, mouths wide open, but instead of breakfast find fluttering calling encouragement. The boldest puts a foot on the edge of the nest, wobbles a little, retreats, and then suddenly struggles out and clumsily flaps and flies to the little tree beside our porch, a struggling mess of feathers and blinking black eyes. The nest gets quiet, and now two heads look out and continue to call while the mother repeats the dance. Half a day later, the second baby flutters out of the nest with the sudden gathered nerve of a child stepping off the high dive at the pool, pinching her nose tightly with her thumb and forefinger and plummeting into the water. There is one baby left. And she doesn’t leave. She stays in the nest, calling, calling, and calling. Mama flies back and forth, agitated and encouraging. Starlings, anxious to move in to investigate get chased away, but they are becoming persistent and raucous, perhaps sensing a weakness and looking to do harm. They squabble shrilly with each other as the day ends and the little one is still in the nest, calling. And the mother is gone. Tough love for a tough world.
The next morning, I take my coffee and my sleepy eyes to the porch to see how they’re doing. The baby is still there, head looking out, calling to mama. Nothing. The starlings become bolder, trying to get into the nest. I go through my day with the windows open, hearing this shrill persistent baby. At first frequently and loudly, then less and less, but not giving up. She is hoping she’ll be noticed in her distress, and that rescue will come with a nice fat bug, and she’ll be able to go on as before, and this push to grow up will just have been a momentary confusion. It’s so far down to the ground and to fail and fall would be devastating. I watch and send a thought to that dark little hole in the tree, “Leave your nest little one. Risk it. If you don’t, you die.” And finally, just before evening, she’s out of the nest and in our Japanese Maple, struggling to cling to the smooth bark, sliding and slipping, but doing it, and doing it on her own. Pushed out of the nest to a new life by a force she doesn’t understand, but she knows she must, and now she accepts it. Fly or die. Friendships die too, and one heart calling out over and over does not make a friendship. Watching this determined little bird, I finally make my peace with myself, in its own way miraculous and beautiful, and somehow I know that this is the day to fly, and leave the regret and the guilt behind me. I will fly away, however clumsily, because I must, and leave the dark empty nest to the quarreling starlings.
Traffic noise on the street is a constant refrain. Music and shouting, cans rolling on the pavement, angry cats fighting, neighbors clamoring for all the air and space they can grab and it never stops. The noise inside me that no one else can hear is just as deep and loud and even though it’s silent, and although I don’t invite it in, it crashes through the door and then won’t leave. I have dreams at night that won’t let me alone when daylight comes, and the next night I dream about the dream from the night before filled with worry and trouble and no control over anything that will happen and walking through mud on legs weakened and weighted and pulling breath into lungs that refuse to inflate. Tornadoes roar an approach and children won’t listen to me to run, and run now, and I can’t gather them in and the wind is screaming and I know with visceral conviction that a suffocating nimbus of death is coming. The noise of my dreams drowns me with their weight in the quiet of the night. My husband sleeps beside me with his hand resting steady and warm on my hip and I lay awake rooted and listening to the noise thrumming through my head, amplified and booming in the dark.
In the morning the coffee drips and I slowly let in the lighted world and my fuzzy-headed waking isn’t strong enough or discerning enough to sift all the information accumulated while I slept and movie stars are misbehaving, and drones are striking and cranky people are bitching about life and it’s snowing again and bad grammar and the things they cannot escape or will not, and I can’t stay away, I have to know it and read it and listen to it and watch the clips and connect and comment because I’m certain my small weak thoughts will power a change and I have to read about the wrongs and the troubles because it is my duty as a voting citizen with all of society and my family and my friends on my shoulders and rail against the injustice that is living, until I want to throw it down and walk away to the shower. I scrub and scrub with hot water and peppermint soap with the water pounding my face and the soap blocking my ears and I think this is what it sounds like deep under Niagara Falls below the foam of the falls breaking where it is tons of pressure in that sonic boom of power and I ponder aromatherapy and the search for peace through my nose and think that if I just knew more I’d be set and quiet at last, and then I’m towelling dry my hair and my ears clear and the noise starts again as the sound of the water drips away and my list of obligations begins to shout at me and I know I’m running out of time to get it all done before I have to leave for work and all I want is a day or two or a week of quiet that is quiet.
How do I explain to the people I love and who love me that I need to be away from them to hear myself? It hurts the ones I run to daily for refuge and help, for calming and care like my husband and my parents, sisters and brother and friends and their eyes and the set of their shoulders say isn’t this good enough and haven’t we been here to prop you up all those times when you sucked out our energy and our patience and we gave it and gave it freely and willingly until it was gone and now it isn’t enough after all? Well thanks a lot and go then, but they’re hurt by my desertion, and when I’m really looking for the quiet I have to run away or drive away or send others away and then I choose my company carefully. My notebook. My fountain pen. My hiking boots. My camera. My orange cat. My night under the moon. Just watching, alone, on my dark porch.
The moon at night is quiet, known and unknowable, a pearl out of reach, and the trail through the pine and oak forest is quiet, pulling hectic energy out of me and dissipating it in the cedar scented breeze, and I could ask you to come but would you hear the quiet and let it be or would you try to fill it to lay claim to it and name it?
They fell for it again, and mailed sixteen Monarch caterpillars to me, no bigger than a pencil’s eraser. They’re packed in a box and overnighted to my front door with a cold pack to keep them drugged with chilly sluggishness. They arrive in little plastic condiment cups, atop a grayish green gel of “feeding medium”. Me and my credit card trusted to raise these helpless fragile beings to glorious adulthood, to teach rambunctious preschoolers all about the miracle of metamorphosis. It sometimes is a different lesson. I have their aquarium habitat ready, and I’m in charge of feeding them. I unconsciously scan the roadside for milkweed all year long. I commit the locations to memory. Their survival depends on me, and that weighs me down. The butterfly people don’t know their efforts to conserve and preserve Danaus plexippus are no more than a crap shoot when they mail that package off to me.
All my life I’ve taken care. Of pets. Of homework. Of my books and record albums. Later, of my husband, my friends, my house, my children. My children like those little caterpillars, needing constant tending and feeding. Attached to me with their sticky silky threads of need and love and touch. The primal attachment born with each one of them, seconds old, placed on my soft welcoming stomach, crying, wet, and slippery. Their blue eyes first lookinginto my blue eyes. Instinctively grasping my finger to reconnect the severed umbilical cord. An infinitely elastic unbreakable band that binds us to each other for life. Nursed and soothed. Cleaned and wiped. Cajoled and scolded. Limits and largesse. I have three children, and I love them to the dark unplumbed desperate depths of my soul every moment of my life, even while sometimes hating what they did, as they also at times hated me. It was, and is, inexplicably complex and nuanced. The whole time they are growing in my house, even though I am fulfilled, occupied, and stretched to exhaustion, part of me is waiting. Asleep. And I don’t even know it.
My job – I’m a preschool teacher – is odd. It is part-time, but all-consuming. Technically, I work two and one-half hours per day in that classroom filled with miniature furniture and miniature people. Two hundred ten furiously paced minutes that drain me completely. Sixteen 4-year olds never let you rest. They ask, demand, laugh, ignore, challenge, and delight and want me involved in it all, all at the same time. Despite what most parents think, teaching them to write their names, recognize letters and numbers, teaching them to read, is all a distant second to teaching them compassion, consideration, independence and compromise. Teaching them to be caring friends. It is often an uphill battle, and sometimes feels futile. These little people are in my care, preparing for their next step into the world. I need to convince them, and their sometimes reluctant parents, that they can trust me to do that. Any emotional detachment I have for my preschoolers that might relieve some of the exhaustion is negated by their sheer number. There are just so many of them, and in the end, I come to care deeply about them anyway. It is my curse while also my blessing.
The little caterpillars eat and eat and eat. Miraculous machines with an irresistible drive to grow. And they don’t even know it. They just do it. They get bigger by the day and split their old skins and reveal vibrant new bodies; brilliant green, black, yellow, and white stripes. My routine during those weeks is simple. Leave for school early, and drive out into the country to cut sticky dripping stalks of the poisonous milkweed they need to eat. It takes 30 minutes to wash the stems, remove the old chewed stalks and push the new ones into the holes in the lid of the container that holds them upright. I examine both sides of each old leaf, making sure that I move every little caterpillar onto green juicy leaves before discarding the old ones. They settle in seamlessly, and get right to work. If you look closely, you can see their mouths mowing off row upon row of milkweed, like corn on the cob. They never stop. There are times when some have inexplicably disappeared, with no trace remaining. I suspect cannibalism. I try not to think about it.
My children were busy. Intricate imaginative games, craft projects, made-up dramatic play, and construction projects in the back yard that besides hammers, nails, and scraps of lumber, usually involved help from me. Forts. Tree houses. Tents. Bicycle repairs. Endless snacks and drinks. Occasionally small forbidden fires. They loved ferociously and they battled ferociously, sometimes to blood. In turn, I fought too many battles for them, to try to spare them pain and darkness, and intertwined myself with them until we were indivisible, our separate roots indistinguishable in the black loamy soil of our lives. The inevitable separation is exquisitely painful, and the surgeon is utterly unskilled. I bear the fresh scars, as do they, and I hope they fade to silvery white in time. I hope that I can forget, or at least absorb, and push to the background, the grinding pain.
One amazing day, the caterpillars are hanging upside down from the screen covering the aquarium. And then, again, all at once, there’s nothing to do but wait. In seconds, they turn from striped caterpillar to a brilliant green luminous chrysalis with a glittering thread of gold necklacing the top. As much time as I have spent peering into their world, I have never witnessed that secret moment of transformation. Little jewels with a wonder inside them waiting to be realized. I am in awe every time. Some years, if I’ve been diligent and careful, we have 12 or 14 chrysalises. There are so many variables. Have I let the milkweed get too dry? Have they gotten too warm in the sun? Has the milkweed been sprayed with a pesticide by determined road crews? Have I unwittingly poisoned them, the grim reaper in a blue plastic cup with a scythe swinging a wide murderous arc? Last year, and one other year, I fear I did. They all died before achieving their chrysalis stage. We spirit the aquarium to the supply closet, the last body lying on its side in the bottom on the clean paper towel. He hadn’t eaten in days. We talk about death and dying at Circle Time. Everyone knows a cat or a dog or a grandmother who has died. You can see the pain in their open little faces. Sometimes I have to dam up my own tears when face to face with their stark losses and their struggle to understand this permanent absence.
I tried to socialize my children, to keep them presentable and well-behaved, but I know I’ve been too cautious. Too conscious of what others will think of my children’s behavior, and thus, mostly, of myself. Why do I not realize this until it is too late for them? I fear I have smothered vital parts of their spirit, crushed their drive, limited them and hemmed them in, and incrementally, unintentionally dimmed their flame. Do they feel that way too? And when they morph into their adolescence, I fuss around on the periphery, begging for clues to how they are faring. I peer in countless times a day while they lead their own now secret lives in their darkening chrysalises, covered in clothing and friends of their own choosing. I am left to wonder just what they are doing, thinking, feeling. They share none of it. They talk with friends on cell phones, instead of with me at the bedtime kiss and snuggle. They seem to no longer want it, though perhaps they still need it. It feels sinister and shifty to me, and it is solely theirs, and dear God, did I do enough with this sacred trust? To have failed them doesn’t bear thinking. Suddenly cut loose, I slowly stop spinning and haltingly reflect on myself, creaky, painful, and unaccustomed. I am losing something huge and substantial, and in the bloody gap I see something vaporous forming. Indistinct. Eerie. Frightening. And it is irresistible.
Over time, the chrysalises darken to black, as if a bloody struggle is staining and obscuring the translucent walls of soft green. And then one day, the mud clears, the chrysalis is transparent, and I see the compacted orange and black wings of a Monarch butterfly. If I look closely, they pulse and vibrate with transformed life. The next day I arrive in the classroom and out of habit, glance at the aquarium. An empty chrysalis is a papery scrap attached to the ceiling of the aquarium with a sticky patch of silk. The damp and crumpled butterfly lies motionless in the bottom of the glassy hatchery, on a wet brown spot. The detritus of birth. It looks like it was painful. And as if the butterfly might want to go through this in private, without the shouting of 4-year olds and the boom of excited tapping fingers. Slowly the wet wings stretch out and slowly they dry, and the brilliant harlequin wings, orange and black and white, fan up and down, drying and strengthening and straightening and getting ready.
One by one the butterflies hatch out of their chrysalises and they are hungry. The menu changes from milkweed to nectar. I mix sugar and water and soak cotton balls in the solution. They flutter to their dinner, and with their impossibly delicate legs and long curling tongues, suck up the sweetness. I place the aquarium in the sun, and they fan their wings, warming and strengthening for flight. We all like the opportunity to examine these butterflies, forced to hold still and contained for our inspection. We talk about migration and find Mexico on a globe. We read story books about butterflies. We practice saying the hard words like “metamorphosis” and “chrysalis”. We sing songs about butterflies and caterpillars. They fascinate and absorb us. And day after day, until a nice day arrives for release, I mix sugar and water, and tend them in their hatchery. They are beautiful. And they are safe. Nothing can hurt them in there. After the children go home, I kneel and watch them in their gorgeous elemental silence.
When I packed my children up for college, it was with excitement, dread, laughter, and tears. Huge hope. Huge faith. The final release, realizing they would never be wholly mine again. With each successive child’s flight I gain another ounce of freedom, and an emptier house. The departure of my second child is less exciting, and more sad. I see now how their release is also my irrevocable loss. My own chrysalis darkens with the struggle. The departure of the third child, my daughter, my own heartbeat, guts me, and leaves me gasping. It takes me months to remind myself that this is good and right, and even while I enjoy uninterrupted time and freedom, there is also an emptiness that begs for filling. I feel the struggle of separation and transformation in my bones. I ache in every muscle. I have to learn to live calmly again. Again? Really for the first time. Someone asks me, ‘What are your dreams?’ I have no dreams of my own. I dreamt of a marriage that was deep and substantial.I dreamt of babies; children to love and raise. My dreams were those I harbored and nourished for them. I have not thought about what I am beyond mother, wife, and friend. It all is churning and I start to feel my own faint vibrating. I poke at it and I wonder at it; what form it will take when it comes out. It grows and beats and becomes stronger and soon I hear it all the time. It is no longer distant. It is myself, in myself, and it is calling me.
We look ahead to the weather, and a cool sunny day approaches. It’s time to let the butterflies go. We line up to file outside, me in the front of the line, with the aquarium full of butterflies. The Pied Piper of Lepidoptera. I have my class sit down on the sidewalk so they can all see, and so no little feet, milling around, step on a butterfly. We take the lid off the aquarium and the butterflies are stunned to stillness. Dismayed and frozen at their sudden freedom. I’m holding my breath. I reach in and coax one onto my finger. It is a singular gift to hold a butterfly in its weightless beauty, and pure fragile perfection. Its thread-like legs grasp my finger as I lift it up. Now they are all fluttering around and restless, and one by one, released from my finger up into the blue sky. My class watches them go with enormous excitement, calling goodbyes. I watch them fly away with tears clouding my eyes, saying my silent farewells, and I have to swallow hard to keep the lump of a sob down. How to explain to my 4-year olds the utter sadness of this departure for me. They all are sure they will fly on to Mexico to beget more Monarch butterflies like the story books promised. How to explain the harms that wait for them. How to know all that and still have faith that they will fulfill what they are meant to do. Safe in the hatchery, they remain protected, and beautiful to look at and I can keep them safe. Fluttering erratically away, seemingly directionless and buffeted by the wind, falling, then catching a draft and soaring upward, how will they manage? No one can know, but they have to go.
As they fly from our sight, climbing and spiraling smaller and smaller against that brilliant bluebird sky, rare quiet from my class of little people who stand and watch. Now free, they are more fleetingly beautiful than they ever could be in their glass house. And with a moment of stunning clarity, the darkness of my own chrysalis falls away in papery shreds and it’s like a dream I sometimes have where I am flying. The wind shushes by my ears and my heart seizes, pounds, and thrills to the fear and excitement and the sudden expansive seeing of everything. I soar up and, suddenly falling, dip and dive and soar again. I try out my wings and slowly sense the control that I have, but it’s not much. And I so like that, completely different from when my feet were so solid and so rooted to the ground. It’s terrifying and new and risky, but I want more and more. This new vision, my eye seeing the curve of the world in the distance, is rushing at me on the wind and I turn my face into it to feel it cold and cleansing. It’s not safe. It’s unknowable. I have to take it – whatever “it” is – as it comes, and it’s a celebration. I go on climbing, afraid of the unpredictable, and doubting my own strength. I go on climbing in the face of others’ judgements, still so rooted. My chrysalis is gone. And now, fulfilling its own exquisite timing, I rise, reaching, looking out onto the world with new eyes. My skin and my hair and my fingers and my heart testing the air, sensing the way, following the pulse that began in the chrysalis. Those butterflies know the beauty of it all, and now I will know it too.
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
He used to stand in front of the TV in denim overalls, hands tucked into the bib, riotous blonde curls on his head, to watch Sesame Street. Ready to dance, to sing along, to call me in to see at a moment’s notice. He handed out fierce hugs frequently, kissed his aunts’ hands when greeting them, and was my little shadow for years. Lap sitter. Hold me. Can I have another kiss goodnight? A re-appearer on the stairs after tuck-in to tell me just one more thing: Mommy, you’re so smart. You’re beautiful. I wanted to say thank you for my lunch box. He grew up so fast, as busy children – and parents – do. And while I may not remember every little word, gesture or moment of the growing up, I will remember the ache of complete and blindly obliterating love in my throat and my heart forever.
Reverence for food runs through our lives like a deep dark river, and has for generations. Food is sacrament and sustenance, celebration and consolation. Preparation is joyful meditation, and sharing is a fulfilling communion. Conversation grows like morning glory vines scrambling up a string to bloom. Love is passed along with the roast spring lamb embedded with garlic, crusted with sea salt, rosemary and lemon juice; along with the pasta with fresh ricotta and spring’s baby arugula; with the winter’s chicken and dumplings, rich and feathery. The garnet wine, the black espresso, all become the easing lubricant for a life that can be a creaky and cumbersome burden. And the laughter that leaves us breathless is the real dessert along with the cream and the dark chocolate.
This weekend, I saw my son in new light; the focused laser of a being who hears and heeds his calling. He volunteers to help a friend with the cooking for a benefit dinner that is stalled in the planning. Their welcome of his expertise and practical suggestions turns him into the executive chef, and I’ve offered to help. How did this sensitive little boy grow into this young man so in command of his kitchen? He exerts full control with calm and humor and an understanding of human nature beyond his years. He rescues the fraternity brother, a volunteer, from the dish pan to which he’s been relegated, and asks him “How are you with a knife?” The boy replies, “Uh…OK, I guess.” My son gives him a knife-proof glove, gives him quick clear instruction, reassures him he can do it, hands him his lethally sharp personal santoku knife, and the fraternity brother is suddenly making a good chiffonade of fresh mustard greens to go into the braised chicken. Clearly, he likes this a lot more than the dish pan. My son as mentor with a sense of humor.
There’s a skill to getting five courses of dinner flowing to the dining room. Even more skill is required when the dining room is half a mile away from the kitchen. He has a crew of volunteers and amateur cooks, a clipboard with pages and pages of notes, recipes, schedules, and lists of tasks to be completed, who’s to complete them, and in what order. This is the daredevil boy who rode his bike down the biggest hill he could find, as fast as he could go, ditching the bike helmet as soon as he left the house and my eyesight. This is the boy who set off a roman candle inside his car just to see what would happen. He runs his kitchen like an engineer runs a locomotive. It can’t be stopped or the whole thing derails. Timers tick away and ring their alarm. Pots are boiling, sauces simmering, oil heating, cold things kept cold, hot things kept hot. 60 plates heated in the oven until they are screaming hot. You can’t touch them without towels and even then you get burned. Bowls for sorbet and tiny spoons popped into the freezer to chill, then kept in a refrigerated truck until the sorbet is served before the entrée. One of the diners has an allergy. We prepare his appetizers and entrée separately, using dedicated knives, cutting boards, dishes, utensils, even gloves. He assembles his crew, checking items off the list as he doles out the duties. It all hinges on him and his organization, and he’s ready.
Instead of engaging in a showy tug of war for control, he quietly does things his way with no discussion and no fanfare, this boy who muscled his way through the terrible twos (and threes…and some of the fours…) with fearsome tantrums. My respect grows. There are two of us that he trusts completely, left in the kitchen to finish the cooking with him. I am honored to be one of them. After a lifetime of cooking for him, I’m now a bit intimidated by his knowledge and his skill. Do I measure up to the standard now set by my son? There are no do-overs here, and I don’t want to disappoint him. We fry 65 creamy polenta circles, we pull apart 10 braised chickens. I am told to thicken the braising liquid, redolent of white wine and chicken stock, and I am relieved when he pronounces it “perfect.”
The food is finished cooking, wrapped and covered, and stored in hot boxes for transporting to the tent at the site of the dinner. We plate the salads in an assembly line. He watches to be sure that the salad will stretch. There is enough left for two additional salads. Good planning feeds generously, while minimizing waste. The salads are cleared, and sorbet is served. A fresh mint leaf and a frozen spoon are settled into each little white cup, and trays are whisked away by servers. We set up to plate the entrées. He tells us all to get fresh gloves. We will plate the allergy sufferer’s entrée first. A circle of polenta goes down onto the plate. Next, a handful of hot chicken pieces. Hands are a much better, more satisfying way to judge how much you’re serving than an impersonal spoon. A ladle of the braising sauce is poured over the chicken. A warm salad of blanched, still crisp green beans combined with chopped peppers and a vinegar dressing is added to the plate. Passed along the line, a garnish of chopped mustard greens is sprinkled atop the chicken, a vivid orange nasturtium blossom is tucked in beside the beans. Each beautiful plate is passed to the “wiper” who makes sure each one is perfectly clean before it’s put on the waiter’s tray. My son keeps a close eye on each step, his final instruction telling the waiters to set the plate onto the table with the chicken covered polenta at 6 o’clock, and the nasturtium on the left. Uniformly beautiful and delicious.
The entrées are all served, and then we plate desserts. First, fresh gloves for everyone. Thick slices of carrot cake with buttery cream cheese frosting gets a rosette of whipped cream. Alternatively, there is a dense moist chocolate cake sweetened with puréed beets, covered with a glorious chocolate ganache. More whipped cream is piped out, and these dark plates get a mint leaf and a fat red raspberry as a little extra gilding. Entrées are cleared, and desserts are served. My son is called into the candlelit tent by the dinner’s organizers, and their chef is introduced to the assembled group who have paid $50 a plate for tonight’s meal. Their enthusiastic applause brings tears to my eyes. He waves a modest thank you. He is exhausted.
The last few diners linger over their coffee and dessert, and then leave, and finally we can begin clearing up. The job is enormous. Everything must be taken away in trucks; glasses, plates, bowls, cups, every spoon and fork and knife, transported to the dish washers waiting at the University. The refrigerator truck must be driven away. Tables must be taken down, linens bagged, chairs folded and returned, food wrapped and saved for donation or discarded as unsafe to eat again. I return to the prep kitchen, which also must be cleaned. I leave my son loading piles of chairs onto a pickup truck. An hour later, he returns to the prep kitchen where we are finishing up the wiping and washing. He grabs a broom and even though he looks ready to drop, he makes sure the floor is clean, he sorts out his knives and cleans and dries them, putting them away in their canvas roll. He packs up the bins of blenders and propane burners, stock pots, spoons, whisks, grill scouring pads, and all the paraphernalia essential to the success of an event like this, and carries them to his car. This boy, whose bedroom was a chaotic stockpile of clothing, video games, books, music, lacrosse pads, sneakers and computer parts for years, puts his broom away. He casts a final appraising eye over the kitchen. He’s left it cleaner and tidier than he found it. And at 11:15 PM his day is over. I invite him to the house. I give him a beer and we share a drink and a cigar in the quiet cool back yard. And we talk over the day and he makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts. I tell him how proud I am of who I saw tonight, how fortunate to be able to work with him in his chosen and hard-won profession. I am so fortunate to find deep respect for this child of mine. I feel that ache of love in my throat again, as strong and deep as when he was 3. I always will.
We have been flying for 17 hours. Cramped, dried out and restless, muscles aching and emotionally depleted, we are finally landing at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I’m hungry for the sight of this country to which I’m suddenly deeply connected. I look out of my window, just past the wing of the plane. The grass is lush and green at the end of the rainy season, and goats and a donkey are grazing inside the fences along the runway. The plane touches down and powerful brakes slow our progress. To my surprised dismay, I cannot control the tears that overflow onto my cheeks and I catch a sob in my hand. This was Maya’s home; the soil she was born to, and now I’m here for her new sister. I look at my sister, Maya’s mother. She is crying too. We are in Africa.
We don’t realize it, but we are arriving on Ethiopian New Year’s Eve. We stand in line in the nearly deserted airport, waiting for our luggage to appear. Amharic, the Ethiopian language, ripples and flows around us, a bubbling and shushing sound with a glottal hesitation, a quick intake of breath which seems to be the sound for “do you understand what I mean?”, a signal for those conversing to indicate shared understanding. Amharic’s 250 characters, in contrast to our paltry 26 letters, make it one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Any English we hear is so heavily accented it sounds like its own foreign language. Barefoot men on a pilgrimage, dressed in elaborately embroidered silk robes and white skull caps, lounge majestically on the floor against their bags while they wait for their flight. We pay for our tourist visa with an American $20 bill as carefully instructed beforehand, show our passports, and wait patiently while the women behind the table handwrite our visas. My passport with my Ethiopian visas written in blue ink is now one of my most treasured possessions. We change our money for an enormous handful of Ethiopian birr. Seventeen to the dollar. Another perfunctory scan – terrorism apparently is not a high probability in this impoverished nation – and we struggle out to the lobby. There is no one there to meet us. We are the only white people left in the airport.
We decide to wait, as African time is sometimes a fluid and casual thing, and the one pay phone we can find is a mystery to us. Its instructions are in Amharic, and it is not entirely clear how to dial a number. At any rate, we have no coins yet. After an hour, we decide we should try to contact someone, and looking around, totally out of our element, decide to go to the tourism booth to ask for assistance. The handsome young man is very polite. We explain our predicament and he offers to make some calls for us. We become his project on a day when I suspect business is slow in this deserted airport, and he has not much else to do. Shira digs through her enormous folder of adoption paperwork and gives him three phone numbers. The first two numbers are disconnected. We are a bit dismayed, but after nearly two years of waiting, we feel certain anything can be righted. We are here for Lidiya, and she is waiting for us. The third number, the number for the guest house where we are to stay, works. We aren’t expected until next week. Never mind, someone will come to pick us up, and the guest house will be ready.
While we wait, we are given tourism brochures to read. A chair is instantly moved out of the kiosk so there is room for the two of us to sit with all our luggage. Not safe to let it sit outside the kiosk. Our handsome young savior – all Ethiopian men are extraordinarily handsome, and the women beautiful – stands, asking us questions about where we are from, and we have a halting conversation, with him apologizing profusely for his very good English. He earns his pay as he advises us on the things we must see while we are in Addis. His cell phone rings. Someone has arrived for us. He insists on escorting us to the parking lot and takes all our luggage for us. We discover later he doesn’t trust the people who are meeting us and he wants to see them for himself, making sure we will be alright. It strikes us both that this kind of care for foreign strangers would be completely out of the ordinary in our “advanced” country.
Wagayehu, the proprietor of the guest house, welcomes us with open arms. We know him from our previous trip. He tells us we are in time to walk outside the steel hyena fence, the gate minded by a silent man dressed in Biblical robes, down the road to a restaurant to get our dinner. He then invites us to join him and Zmed, his housekeeper, for the New Year’s Eve bonfire after we return. In the driveway of the house, we gather after dark. He tells us he is so glad we are here to celebrate the Gregorian New Year with them, and this makes us feel at home. Our parents have always done the same for friends and acquaintances on holidays. Tonight karma returns Galen and Deanna’s hospitality to their two daughters a continent away. The bonfire is lit, to celebrate the end of the rainy season when roads, even in this enormous city, are awash in mud and potholes, and roads in the country are impassable. But the wood is damp, which is no surprise, so Zmed throws a tin full of gasoline on the pile, and the resulting blaze makes us all cheer and clap. Wagayehu and Zmed sing a traditional song, somewhat shyly, then we all listen. We can hear the enormous crowd celebrating in Meskele Square, the nexus of all the major roads in Addis Ababa. Maya’s Ethiopian name is Meskele, and her parents have kept it as her middle name. It is eerily appropriate to hear the chanting and singing of thousands of Ethiopians from her namesake square, which means “cross” in Amharic. I send my own prayer up into the dark: Maya Meskele, I love you so much, little brown girl of this country, this continent, and we are here now for your sister.
Our friend, Abey Abera, is once again our driver. Without him we would be lost. He is tour guide, translator, macchiato provider, and price negotiator. He tells us that before we arrived, Wagayehu slaughtered a sheep and two chickens in the driveway for the New Year’s Day feast. We are sorry to have missed that. Fresh sheep skins, minus the heads, with legs still attached, are spread out on the highway median for sale or barter. The head of the sheep, a New Year’s gift for the friendly family dog, lays in the front yard this morning, well-chewed. Nothing goes to waste in this country. We buy sweet grass to strew on the floor, to make the house fresh and welcoming for the New Year, and coffee, always coffee, and flowers whose petals decorate the floor as well. Zmed, her long hair, usually braided and coiled on her head, let loose and shiny down her back, provincial tattoos lining her jaw, is dressed in her festive clothing. Irridescent celery-colored silk with gold embroidery. She is transformed. And then Lidiya arrives. She begins to cry immediately and wants nothing to do with these two white women who she doesn’t know. We talk softly to her, Shira holds her new daughter, we stroke her fuzzy head with the little bit of hair she has done up in tiny ponytails. She quiets, and becomes wary and watchful. Lidiya, sweet girl, on this festival day we are here for you, and we already love you.
We eat our dinner, complex spicy flavors, the sour injera, the velvety dark red doro wot, big chunks of sheep and chicken put on our plates first as honored guests, and Ethiopian red wine. Wagayehu is concerned we will be put off by the serving of wine and the Ethiopian reverence for coffee, which is the blood of this country. He explains that another adoptive family stayed with them, and refused all wine and coffee. They explained to him that they couldn’t partake, wouldn’t partake, and then, triumphantly, “Because we are Christians.” He recounts how he told them, so was he, and he drank both coffee and wine. In the face of such generosity, their rudeness astonishes us. He, even now, can’t quite believe it. An enormous circular bread, flecked with black nigella seeds and baked in banana leaves, is cut and offered. The platter is passed to Lidiya. She solemnly takes a gigantic piece of bread, and carefully takes a bite, her enormous black eyes looking out at all of us over the golden crust. We all laugh, and Wagayehu’s daughter-in-law makes crooning sounds and speaks to her in Amharic. We see Lidiya relax and she enjoys her bread.
When everyone has gone, and the house is dark and quiet, it is just us and Lidiya. She is resigned that we are all she has right now. She falls asleep on Shira’s lap, covered with a blanket belonging to Maya that Shira brought from home. We are alone with our baby. Even in adoption there is that moment after “birth” when the primal mother inspects her baby, taking loving inventory, committing each swirl of hair and earfold to memory. Our eyes take her in, little hands and fingers, feet and toes, her mouth frowning as she sleeps, her black eyebrows and impossibly long and luxurious eyelashes. We don’t talk. We just look. And we pat her back, and touch her hands, and rub her foot. We tell her the only way we can that we are here for her; that we have already loved her for months.
The next morning, we open our eyes, and she is standing in her crib beside our bed. She absently plays with her fingers in a little gesture of worry. She gazes at us with eyes that don’t blink. Considering and wondering. The bravery of this little girl, barely a year old, is heartbreaking, and I feel grief for her and the painful wrench we bring, along with our love and our suitcases, that will take her from everything she is and everything she knows.
The rest of the week is taken up with embassy appointments, chasing a document that is suddenly missing from the adoption file, experiencing the food and the drink, and sightseeing that we may never be able to do again. Our intent is to return when the girls are older, but Ethiopian politics is always in flux, and it’s not a given that that will be possible. We take hundreds of photographs, and buy gifts to be given to the girls on birthdays in the coming years. We drink it in and learn as much as we can, because we will be the living link to Ethiopia for Maya and for Lidiya. We will be the source of their story, and their history, imperfect, but loving, and we have to do our best. We buy paintings by Ethiopian artists in which Maya now swears she can see the nannies that took care of her when she was in Ethiopia before Mommy and Daddy came to get her.
I think Abey trusts us and trusts that we love Addis Ababa. One night, just after dark, while waiting for a tiny silver bracelet to be engraved with an Ethiopian name, he takes us down a dark alley in the fading daylight. A sloping walkway crowded with people, no more than 3 feet across, lined on either side with kiosks right up against each other, filled with books, shoes, cooking utensils, clothing, food, and other household essentials. I think to myself, this feels real and pure. This is undiluted Africa. We are the only white faces. There is no English spoken. Merchants call out to customers, shouting prices and advertising sales. We walk down the rough cobbled walkway. We are an easy target and hopelessly conspicuous. For once, we are the minority, just as Maya and Lidiya will be in the life we are making for them. Countless dark eyes follow us down the path. I find out later from Shira, that Abey warned a young man away from grabbing my purse with a clipped Amharic word and a stern look. He melted away into the crowd.
At week’s end, we are ready to leave. Lidiya is legally ours, and has an Ethiopian passport all her own with a photo that is all huge watchful eyes. A lilliputian representative of her dynamic country. Abey arrives to drive us to the airport. While he loads our luggage, we say our goodbyes. We all know this is most likely the last time we will see each other. Lidiya knows that something is distressing us all. She is fussing and reaching toward Zmed, who has been her mother this week. She begins to cry in earnest as we hug and kiss Wagayehu and Zmed. We are indescribably sad at this permanent leave-taking. As Abey backs the car up, I look forward, and Wagayehu, this former military man, a decorated war hero, a 4-star general in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian army, who spent seven years imprisoned when the regime changed but won’t talk about it, stands in the roadway, waving farewell with both hands over his head. Lidiya is screaming, and reaching out to those brown faces she knows. Her heart is breaking, and her grief and fear and anger tear at us. Tears stream down my face and Shira’s too. Lidiya, Lidiya, we love you and we are here for you, but what are we doing to you in the process?
We go through the scanners at the airport. We negotiate a line in which we are moved farther and farther back as Ethiopians, seeing that we are two white women taking one of their own children from them, push into line ahead of us, and ignore our protests. White adoptive parents are not heroes in this country. I understand their anger. We finally board the plane, and our departure is delayed. The polish is now off this trip, and we are anxious about the next 27 hours of travel, unaware yet that it will stretch to 37 hours, with a little girl who doesn’t really like us and who has not once been really happy with us in the week we’ve had her. Shira holds her and bounces her and sings to her and offers her a blanket to cuddle. We feed her ginger cookies to keep her happy.
Finally we are taxiing down the runway. Lidiya is belted in on Shira’s lap. We are flying her away from the one home she knows, and taking her to another we have made for her. Another home where there is a little brown sister waiting with a Daddy, a Nana and a Papa, cousins, and aunts and uncles. Her sister is the only one who looks like her, but we, all of us, already love her with a fierce encompassing love. She doesn’t know any of this. All she knows is the two of us with our pale pink faces, and our ginger cookies that she accepts with a little smile. She takes a piece out of her mouth and offers it to me. Sharing with me. A milestone. I happily take it and eat that sweetest little piece of wet cookie, and my heart aches and instantly melts. I thank her and kiss her smooth warm cheek. This sweet strong brown baby girl, watchful, careful, and cautious, looks into our eyes, and decides for herself that this might be alright. She snuggles down into the arms of her new mother, and smiles at me over her arm. Lidiya, we have come so far for you, to make you ours. I think though, that you have made us yours. All of us are wholly yours. Yours and Maya’s. The plane gains speed, and lifts off up into the dark African sky.
I learned a lot at my mother’s table. Lessons about sharing, loving, acceptance. I learned frugality and common sense. At my mother’s table there was always room for another chair, and another plate, and the food always stretched in a loaves and fishes way. There was a hand on your shoulder. A hug. A home if you needed it. Our friends, students of my father’s, refugees, exchange students from foreign countries, cousins, and, when the time came, grandparents who could no longer manage on their own.
My mother grew up wearing dresses skillfully made from flour sacks, in the coal regions of Pennsylvania; the granddaughter of a gruff, taciturn little man, my Pop Pop, who supported his family at 13 years old as a coal picker. Raised by her grandparents, her father, and her aunt, she learned those same lessons from “Mom”, her grandmother Cora, for whom my sister is named. Cora’s dumplings are still the standard. Her soups, her jams and jellies reproduced for us, “just like Mom’s” – the ultimate stamp of approval. Her strawberry shortcake was mashed fresh strawberries with a couple teaspoons of sugar “to bring out the juice,” ladled over hot baking powder cakes, and eaten with milk poured over it all for dinner. That was a supper we always looked forward to, that spoke summer to us in an elemental language. Eating strawberry shortcake for dessert with whipped cream was a frivolous extravagance that strawberries, dark red and still warm from the sun, didn’t need to shine. A hot meal for hobos wandering through on the railroad was always provided. There, but for the grace of God might go any of us.
My mother wore the same clothes forever. I thought for a long time it was just because she loved them. She never said it was because all their income went to clothing us, giving us music lessons, buying us books to read, instruments to play, music to listen to, encouraging any interest we might have with trips to museums and cities, for riding lessons and any of the countless pets we wanted to adopt. At Easter we would go with my father to the florist. We’d buy her a corsage for her Easter dress; yellow rosebuds and baby’s breath with feathery ferns, and the wonderful green florist smell when the little plastic treasure chest, chilly from the refrigerator, opened just before church.
Their yard is overgrown by gardener’s standards. I suggested cutting some things down, to neaten it up. “We all have to share this earth.”, was her reply. She feeds the multitude of birds that come to her window – hummingbirds, wrens, finches, cardinals, bluebirds, chickadees, doves. They have bushes and trees for cover, houses, and pieces of string and dryer fluff for nesting, seed and oranges and nectar for their nourishment. Toads have a little house under the magnolia, and the trees she planted all through our childhood are now soaring green groves of cool shade. Little dishes of food are put out for the neighborhood cats, and they all have names.
When I drive somewhere in the evening, I look without thinking for deer at the edges of woods and fields, look for hawks, chipmunks, and weasels, keep an eye opened for foxes, bears, and butterflies. My father mows around the large spreads of violets that come up in the yard solely because they’re so pretty. I see and feel the wonderful beauty of nature and know the names of countless trees and flowers, and birds because of her. When I hike, her voice whispers in my ear, “Sshh…or you’ll never see anything.”
At my house, I like to cook for people. I like to cook with people. We like to laugh, and we feed birds and squirrels. We love our three cats and care for them well. I plant flowers and bushes to entice butterflies and birds to stop awhile, and celebrate the arrival of honeybees. Family, and friends who are so dear to us the line between “family” and “friend” blurs and disappears, gather together. I spread my mother’s hand sewn tablecloths on the tables, and place the family china around. I make the food whose recipes aren’t even written down. We sit, and eat, and talk, and tease, and laugh, and reaffirm our ties that don’t so much bind as they hold. As they embrace. We gather in and welcome back. We settle in and we look outward. And we go forward. And we carry with us the precious glowing lessons we learned at my mother’s table.
I gather them all in as often as I can, holding them in my hands, trying to capture every drop and drink so deeply I never come up for breath. Memory collects and fills and overflows my fingers. The bedtime songs “again…again…again…”, and me, so very tired that even when I knew I should be treasuring each moment, I was too anxious to tuck them in, kiss their fuzzy foreheads, whisper good nights, deep breaths when they needed one more drink, one more hug, one more kiss that pulled on me like spider webs. Now I mourn the time I squandered, mired in scolding and wiping, worry, whining and tantrums. Resisting, forcing, and butting heads for the good of their future selves, and sacrificing too much of the joy of the day.
And now, I live for the cool evening conversation under the moon, the laughing hug so hard it rocks me off my feet, the warm sweet hand that reaches out for mine as we go into the bar for the birthday drink of passage. Each shining jeweled moment tended and kept alight, warm and restorative. I did the best I could. And maybe it was good enough. I hope it was, as they scatter again.