On Becoming a Butterfly

*this piece was first published on Medium

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A Monarch butterfly eclosing out of its chrysalis ~ Photo Amélie Sanchez

No, the caterpillar didn’t think that the world was over, but she did become a beautiful butterfly.

Caterpillars are driven by reflexes, instincts, and their physiology. If it’s cold, they don’t move. The Monarch caterpillar eats as much as it can and, five times in its life, it stops everything, hides in a corner and molts. It then turns around to eat its old and too small exoskeleton, and resumes chomping away. Can you imagine if humans did that? Eventually its enzymes levels maybe, hormonal codes of aging also, send a signal that it is time for the final molt. Instead of a bigger caterpillar, it becomes a chrysalis. Its insides, save for a few organs, dissolve and rearrange themselves for the future butterfly. As you can see, no time there to think about whether to be sad about the end of caterpillar life or the excitement — even angst? — of becoming a butterfly. (We can leave the beauty out of it for now; the aim of this whole process is to grow a sexually mature adult that will ensure the continuity of its species.)

But what if it were endowed with human thoughts? What if it were, say, a fourth grade teacher who put her career on hold for two years to go on an adventure with her family? What if the adventure became longer, and instead of two, it lasted four and a half years? What if the planned-out life in Germany became an improvised moving stunt to the Netherlands, a hesitating step toward London, a few stumbles in Belgium? And what if, in the midst of it all, her mother died?

Surely, her insides — save for a few vital organs — would dissolve and rearrange themselves. Like the caterpillar, she would need to stay perfectly still, holding on tight to the ceiling of a screened-in enclosure until the time was right. She would need to let her mind roll in every direction it must, good and bad, dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears. She would have to trust the enzymes, hormones, all of her cells. And then, like the caterpillar gets into pre-pupa by hanging upside down from its own silk to the surface it’s been clinging to, she would have to let go, that woman, she would have to trust that where her feet are anchored is solid enough to hold her while she hangs out there, upside down, waiting for yet more changes to take place.

Does the caterpillar, turning into a chrysalis, squirming and flexing to get rid of its stripy skin one last time, brace herself? Does she, just before flicking off the crumpled up skin like an old sock, stop and tell herself that it’s going to suck but it’s all worth it?

And what about that woman then, the teacher who returns with dissolved insides? From within the thin shell of the chrysalis — now transparent — does she plan for the drop, when she finally pushes the walls that are hugging her body enough to show the details of her antennae and her wings; does she think about stretching her wings to dry?

Will it occur to her then to think that she is a beautiful butterfly? Butterflies are not beautiful when they eclose! Their abdomen is obscenely swollen, their wings are tiny and wrinkled, their proboscis rolls and unrolls as if it were just too long and too cumbersome an appendage.

Also, butterflies taste with their feet, did you know that? When it emerges from the chrysalis, the Monarch butterfly holds on to the now empty shell to dry for a few hours. Does it taste its old life while it waits? Does it think back, melancholy, to the days before pupation, when all it had to do was munch on milkweed and molt? Was its larval time the good old days? Ah! Caterpillar life! Such good times!

And was being a fourth grade teacher, wife of one and mother of two young children the good old days?

As she apprehends what is to come — I mean, butterfly? Wings? How do you even fly with those? (again, no need for beauty there) — she is not going back to school, not this year, but she is going to learn to trust that she can stretch those wings, and flap them.

And soar.

The Corny Gift for my Mother

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It is what she says to me over twenty years later that lodges a lump in my throat. By then, I’ve forgotten about the hens, the resented kitchen appliances, the ashtrays and trivets and jewelry made of cloth pins and dry pasta. Thinking of an adequate gift for your mother when you are an adult yourself is much easier. You have perspective, experience, the ability to identify someone’s preferences, and especially to understand what a nonsensical phenomenon Mother’s Day is.

I first see it in a flimsy flyer for a discount store located about half a mile from my grandmother’s house. I have never been to that store but the flyer looks promising: most of the already low prices are crossed out, replaced with even smaller numbers. The delicately “hand-painted” tea cup with its saucer looks super elegant, light blue on its special wooden shelf. It is clearly the kind of cups that no one actually uses to drink tea, which is okay: my mother already has plenty of such cups. This one is perfect because it has beautiful colors, the words of love we never use out loud in a beautifully looped cursive, and it is within my twelve-year-old budget. Frankly, I am lucky to have found such treasure just in time. I have counted out my money and planned to walk to Kass’Prix after school on the Wednesday before Mother’s Day. I do not share my plan this year, I already know that everyone else will find my gift corny. But pressure is on: I have found out recently that my mother does not like to receive the sort of gifts that tell her to cook for us, shred carrots for us, or make sherbet. The sort of gifts we have been buying her with our combined allowance money, once we are to old for gluing cloth pins and painting empty toilet paper rolls. We have to up our game.

It takes me a while to find my mother’s future prized possession in the store: it is much (much) smaller than I thought. The wooden shelf turns out to be an ugly brown plastic stand; the cup and saucer, only big enough to hold between two fingers, are clearly not hand-painted. I tell myself the good news though, that this display will not gather as much dust as the size I had in mind. Surely, it counts for something. Anxious to get back to my grandmother’s house before my mother’s arrival to pick us up and take us home, I complete my purchase and walk back along the busy street.

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She never said what she wished for, my mother. She was of this vein of people who find it rude to ask for specific presents. And if you told her what *you* wanted for your own birthday or Christmas, she made a point of getting you something else.

So naturally, when pressed for answers she’d simply ask for a surprise. One year, she used a pretty idiom to claim her desire for a surprise:

“Je voudrais la lune et les étoiles,” she said, stretching a smile across her entire face.

The moon and the stars. She was requesting the impossible. She took pride in being difficult this way, I think. That year though, my siblings and I had a surge of creativity and got her two hens. We named one “La Lune” and the other “Les Etoiles”. We were very proud of our stunt, and the surprise was complete. She absolutely loved having fresh eggs every day for a while. We learned that hens can perch in trees and destroy a square of lawn quickly and effectively. As fantastic a gift as I remember it was, I am missing many details: How did we get the idea? Where did we get the hens? Did we wrap them in a box? Did we plan the enclosure in her garden as well? What ultimately happened to the birds? My brother and sister do not remember either.

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In a corner of my bedroom, by my side of the bed, sits a box. It is taped up and contains the diaries and journals I have kept since my adolescence. Many of them are beautiful notebooks, covered in fabric or with a ribbon to mark your place. I cannot get rid of them, yet I know they are mostly filled with anger and frustration. I already know I do not like the way I thought of my mother then, and I am pretty sure I will not like to see it today. The details of the hens episode are probably jotted down though, and I think of how fun it would be to dig them out.

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My mother keeps the ridiculously corny tea cup display on her chimney mantle forever. When she moves to her own house, the tea cup and saucer, still on their plastic stand and covered in a sticky film of old nicotine and dust, find their spot on the new chimney mantle. She scoffs at my suggestion to throw it away. When she looks at it, she says, what she sees is my planning of the purchase, walking alone to the store, keeping the secret, carrying on with my plans. She might also have liked that it said “Maman, je t’aime” on both the cup and the saucer, although she’d never say it. We do not utter words of love to each other. So when she tells me why she wants to keep the damn thing, I feel foolish and loved. In a very strange way. And when she dies, I throw it away.

 

Status Quo In Limbo

Status Quo In Limbo sounds like the title of song, and maybe it should be. I have left this blog unattended for too long. I wish it were like a garden square choked by weeds tightly wound around all of its edges. I’d get busy pulling at the vines, prickling my skin to the thorns and poisonous parts, scratching my legs (it’s too warm to wear pants) against sturdier branches. I’d clear the soil and extract the leftover roots, make a pile of green refuse to bring to a compost pile somewhere, prepare the place for new seedlings and hopes.

Instead, I find a blank page, very much like the one I found last time I was here, in a much darker place. The ability to clear an area and make space for new beginnings doesn’t smell the same on a blog. I miss that. We have moved quite often in the past four years, and each time we arrived somewhere new, one of my first activities was to plant something. Be it in a planter, a square of earth in the garden or the plastic container of cherry tomatoes, I’ve always had something green growing somewhere. Seeds are probably the best way to think of how, no matter where you go, there you are, the name of this blog and favorite dad quote of my dear friend Lisa.

In Munich, I’d organized multiple planters with herbs, flowers and experiments. The narrow balcony was my domain and I spent many evenings sipping wine while observing the new growths of green, listening to a particular black bird ensuring everything was okay, from each high perch of the neighborhood, and thinking about what would come next in this life.

In Eindhoven, we were lucky to find a house with a small garden, and I spent many evenings outside, waiting for the bats to come out, pulling weeds from between the basil, the mint and the parsley, sometimes even cutting the grass with a pair of scissors. I planted seeds, seedlings, and plants. I knew we didn’t have much time in that place, but I still had a strong need to tend to greenery. I often wonder if the landlords have noticed that nasturtiums have become part of their world.

Speaking of nasturtiums, I found some seeds I had saved from Munich in boxes that have now arrived in Waterloo, near Brussels. I planted the three I found, and two sprouted right away, as if finally able to take a big gulp of air after a couple of years under water. I remembered the planter filled with those, and the stems covered in aphids. My mother had told me that this phenomenon was extremely common, and the only way to get rid of the aphids was, simply, to squish them between my fingers. I hated the idea. As I watch the old seeds sprout on my new balcony today, I realize that my mother had met the parents of these new lives. I love the idea.

Growing old seeds on a balcony, I’ve been brewing about writing. There’s always a good excuse for not writing: not enough time, too many ideas, not enough inspiration, or topics that are too dark or not interesting enough. Be it because of depression, my moving around so much, or my mother’s death, my writing as taken the tinge of self-pity and I want to shed that.

I might write about it first, though. We will see.

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A red bean on the left, nasturtiums and melon on the right.

Depression is Hell

20170928_163225Depression is hell.

You keep wondering if your case is bad enough that you can talk about it with others without being told that you “listen to yourself too much”, you “think too much”. Often, you’re the first one making those comments to yourself. You may seem to worry only about you, which is wrong and selfish.  So you’re quiet and you’re alone.

Depression is hell.

You take medicine every day, and live with the threat of what will happen the day you forget your dose (you know what will happen, you’ve gone through that enough times). You wonder if your case really justifies medication and you’re worried that maybe it doesn’t. You believe you may be a fraud. You are afraid to hear from others that medication is not the solution (what if it isn’t?), you’re afraid to hear it from yourself. You think that maybe you do not take enough of it, and will try to remember to bring it up next time you see your doctor. You’re afraid to be with it and to be without it. You feel a little ridiculous worrying about this so you keep it to yourself. You are quiet and alone.

Depression is hell.

Each time you make a decision, you immediately regret it. Then you regret that you regretted it and the infernal cycle starts all over again. You second guess your choices, you suspect you are unable to make healthy choices, you stop making choices. You feel quite ridiculous about this, yet the struggle is intense and, at times, unbearable. You belittle your behavior in front of others, laugh at how indecisive you are sometimes, ha ha. You regret saying that to them too, and to yourself. You keep it to yourself more. You get quiet, and you are alone.

Depression is hell.

You feel like you are never enough. Not enough of a wife, not enough of a mother, not enough of a daughter or a sister. Not enough of a human being. You feel numb. You sit on the couch and in bed and on a bench in a park. Thinking about what to make for dinner feels like a catering plan for a presidential party. At the end of the day, you rush to accomplish a few visible tasks: clean a window or a mirror, put groceries in the fridge and rake the leaves. When you see that, and your family sees that, it shows that you have been productive today. That’s ridiculous. You decide you will handle it differently tomorrow. You draw lists, you announce your plans (you hope you are more effective when witnesses are involved. You know you are not.). Yes, tomorrow will be more organized, you will have more energy.

Then you are overwhelmed, all the things you have to do to be a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter and sister! How could you have let things become so pitiful? How will you ever catch up? You feel like you are not enough. You don’t talk about it with others, you worry that you may seem to be fishing for compliments. It’s probably not a big deal anyway. So you are quiet. And you are alone.

 

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Depression is hell.

It is unpredictably rocky. Some days you are fine, others you are not. You have a difficult time sharing your feelings, for fear of hearing “but you were so happy yesterday”, or “you were smiling just five minutes ago”. You know, that is what you think. “What is wrong with me? I was laughing with my children this morning and this afternoon, I can’t get out of my spiraling thoughts.” You find comfort in the knowledge that it will go away. It always does. It may take a couple of hours, or a couple of days, but it always goes away. Plus, they are right: you have everything you need to be happy, just cheer up. So you don’t talk about it, there’s no need. It will go away. You will simply be quiet while you wait. You wait alone.

Depression is hell.

You drag a ton of guilt attached to every part of your body, everywhere you go. Your ankles, your wrists, your neck, your back, your lungs, your belly, your face. You sigh often, with a lot of air in your cheeks each time. You feel guilty for the way you feel, the way you speak, the mistakes you make. You feel guilty for killing the fun for others, for taking yourself too seriously, for being depressed. You feel guilty for talking about it and for not talking about it. You feel guilty for feeling guilty. You can’t imagine how anyone would want to spend any time with you. You understand, you wouldn’t want to spend time with you either. You isolate yourself. You are alone.

Depression is hell.

You watch yourself from outside, as if floating above yourself. You notice that you are getting grumpy, your mood is changing (again), you ridiculously try to control your surroundings, you make demands  and of course, they are met with anger and frustration. You can’t communicate clearly, you don’t know what you want, the simplest things become overwhelmingly confusing. You loathe yourself. You forget that this is not you. From above, you nudge your self gently and together, you go sit away to limit the damage.

Depression is hell.

It is truly hell when you start doubting that it will pass, and the ways out for you narrow down to erasing yourself from yourself. Your feelings overwhelm you, they grow around and inside you like ivy on a garden fence. Their tendrils reach every part of your being, find the smallest cracks and slide inside your soul. Pulling them off is hard, it hurts. They keep growing back. You think about death a lot. You realize you are making mental notes of the places that are high, the objects that are sharp, the times when no one is watching. You know you have to talk to someone who will walk you through this again (your spouse, as always), remind you that it passes, that it gets better, that it usually goes away. You are afraid of yourself and you feel alone.

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Depression is hell.

You think you are a fraud. You plan your facial expressions, your words, your gait. You try to “fake it ‘til you make it”, but you usually just fake it.

The line between self-care and selfishness gets blurry. You take naps and baths and walks, you carefully choose to read books that will not trigger your spinning thoughts, you exercise. You make it from one end of the day to the other, you’re on repeat mode. Most of the time, you trust that you will come through, just a few obstacles more, just a few hurdles.

 

 

And sometimes,

You wake up with a surge of energy, you see the sun outside and smile without thinking about the fact that smiling right now would be the right thing to do. You realize that today is a good day, ha! You knew it was coming! Today you will not be quiet, nor will you be alone. Today may last a few hours or a few weeks, and you will make the most of it. Like a mountain climber, you wipe your brow and take a break. You turn around and look behind you, below you. You are amazed at the distance you have covered, the treacherous paths you have tamed. You feel strong and you know you can climb further and higher. And you do.
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If you feel suicidal or you’re in a crisis situation and need immediate assistance, people at these hotlines are here to help you:

http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html

 

A First Anniversary, the Longest Day Yet.

Today is not over yet, and it already feels like it’s been going on for hours and hours and hours. Granted, we are still very close to June 21, and the days are quite long at this time of the year. But as  you know, that is not what I am saying.

The morning began with an overcast sky, the chill temperatures of a shy Spring day, maybe, definitely the idea to wear socks and a rain coat. I went jogging for thirty minutes, thinking that instead of moping around on the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I would do constructive things like taking care of my health, of the recycling, and of getting groceries. I even vacuumed the house, as a bonus, which felt nice. It was a productive day until noon. Then I stepped out to hop on my bike and fetch L from school (Wednesdays are half days for primary school children in the Netherlands). I didn’t have time to reach my bike before the down pour started. It didn’t make a difference really, that’s my only vehicle. It would have been nice to turn around and wait the rain out, or to hop in a dry car instead. But it was time to go and there was no car to hop on. I zipped my rain coat all the way to the tip of my nose and pedaled away.

The rain fell slented like in cartoons, or when you can spot rain in the distance, like pencil lines tracing parallel strikes at an angle, from one large gray cloud to a horizon of fields or to an ocean. Needless to say, I was drenched before I reached the first stop light, which is around the block we live on. I felt a strange giddiness wash over me along with my leggings sticking to my thighs and my summer dress weighing heavier and heavier around my waist. L joined in on the way back from school, we giggled and declared today to be “Clean Your Bike Day”.

Getting wet in reasonably warm temperatures reminded me of the part of my childhood in Tahiti, where fierce rain on hot days was common. We were too young to consider the mosquitoes and mini mudslides that would ensue, so such rainy days were lots of fun. I remember especially, albeit in somewhat blurry dashes, a particular day when school let out early because of a cyclone. I’d seen a tornado cross the schoolyard and take away a corner of the cafeteria’s rooftop. I was 5 years old, and we had brought pareos (sarongs) to school to learn about Tahitian traditions. Mine was spinach green and black. My dad picked me up, I remember waiting by the parking lot. My sister had gone to lunch with the other kids. To this day, it’s a mystery: how did I manage to not follow the rest of the pupils to the canteen? Anyway, it felt special that day because I had lunch with Mom and Dad at home, while my sister went off to play (TV programs didn’t start until late in the afternoon) and my baby brother was napping. I am amazed that I kept fond memories of such a time. My mother handled the stress of the situation like a pro, to this day I love to watch the winds and rain give nature a good shake. That cyclone turned out to be quite destructive and there was a moment when we all huddled in one bedroom with a suitcase at the ready. Little downpour in the Netherlands, tsunami of memories in my mind!

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The cyclone decimated the bougainvillea on this photo, leaving a large empty scar in the middle of the garden

Back home, L and I peeled our wet clothes off, making exaggerated sloshing noises, and trotted around the house in our underwear. I wished it were colder, I was longing for a hot chocolate and fuzzy slippers. Instead, I cuddled with a book (Jim Harrison) on the couch after a quick lunch with L, who proceeded to watch shows on Netflix. I dozed off.

When I woke up, I felt jet-lagged. The sadness swelling in my brain was dragging me down heavily just like the exhaustion of having travelled across five or six –or ten– time zones. This feeling, again, took me back to memories of my childhood. After crossing the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles, then the US and the Atlantic Ocean to France, our body clocks were upside down. My mother would be up at three in the morning with my brother, and they would wait at the kitchen window for the rabbits to crowd my grandmother’s garden. When we would return to Tahiti after spending the summer time off school in France, my mom would make sure we didn’t fall asleep before the evening. At least she would try. She would offer to play games, read books, go for walks. We felt out of place, the climate was not what we remembered, the sleep was not restful, even the sounds seemed foreign. We were out of source and she would help as best as she could.

 

I was feeling out of source in a similar way this afternoon, longing for night time to come so that I could finally put the children to bed and turn off all the lights. The rain subsided, T came home, and I went for a short walk in the park of our neighborhood. Dozens of snails and slugs were out and about, I was careful to step around them as I remembered with a shiver my mom showing us what happens to slugs when you put salt on them. She was interested in their elimination because she was trying to grow flowers and vegetables in the tropical garden of my childhood. Recently, I’d told her that I didn’t agree with such a cruel treatment, and she’d told me I was too sensitive. Still, walking around the snails and the slugs, taking close up pictures and thinking about her then brought me to a state of peace, somehow.

As the sun melted through the clouds, I thought of how very different I am from my mother, and of how it is, in fact, okay. I can raise my children differently, inhabitate the world differently, and live my life differently, without betraying her. I wish I could tell her, show her, share with her. I guess I will feel jet-lagged for a while longer.

 

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The Twingo

I am not a car person. I don’t mind if it is brightly colored and has gadgets to make your drive more comfortable or enjoyable,sure,  but it’s okay if it’s just a box on wheels with an engine and a few seats that can take you places mostly safely.

My mother was quite proud of the deal she made when she acquired her Twingo Kiss Cool in 2004. It was a tiny car, with only three doors, but had a good engine and, as they claimed in the commercials, storage like the big cars (“Elle a tout d’une grande!”). Ultimately, she was pragmatic as well and sought in her car the affordable tool to going places. It was the “display” model, the one people could test-drive, so at a discount, she got a new vehicle with a few kilometers on it. She’d never bought a new car. She did not know, when she purchased this tiny one in 2004, that it was the last vehicle she would ever own.

 

When my mother died at the end of June 2016, the little green car was parked as usual in front of her house. Although there were a few signs that her health was declining again, death was certainly a surprise. Her car, like the rest of us, was not ready. When I arrived there, it still held gloves (yes, in June), coins and car wash tokens in the cup holder (which is funny, my mother never washed her car), and a few mints. In the door compartment, two ice-scrapers, an old melted stick of lip balm and a packet of tissues, a few maps of various regions of France. The stickshift was engaged in second gear, as always, and the hand brake pulled up just enough. You’d expect my mother to open the door any minute to go run some errand, except of course, she didn’t.

 

At first there were fragile moments of connection, nested in the hope that each discovery was a sign of love, of peaceful rest. My relationship with my mother was difficult and shortly before her death, I’d been working on some daughtering skills, wishing to communicate better and to get closer. Now I am left, like so many before me, with no other chances and dozens of unanswered questions, wounds open to dry in the sun or rot in the rain. Or both.

 

Still I pressed on.

 

Objects do funny things to humans. We collect them, we use them, we replace them. We give them away, we lose them or forget them. After my mother died, her belongings became the precious treasures we cannot part with. Like the pieces of a very large puzzle, we sort them while trying to recompose the whole picture: there are the pieces for the daily life part, the pieces for the happiness part (we hold on to those very dearly), the pieces for parts we would prefer not to remember. We also find tons of pieces that do not fit the picture at all, but we don’t want to toss them aside, just in case they make sense later. We look carefully at the colors, the shape of each piece, we try to match as many as we can together. Piecing the puzzle of her life while sorting through her home was a huge step into grieving. My sister, my brother and I are still working on it. I bet we will be for a while, too.

 

When I first took over the little green car, I did not realize which role it would play in my own trek through grief. I drove it from my mother’s empty house to our home in Munich, it was the first time the Twingo was traveling there without her.

The first step was to clean the car. I wanted to enjoy being inside it, and the grime and old smoke smell were in the way (emphasized by the gagging sounds the children made each time they boarded our new ship). I scrubbed the dashboard and the stirring wheel. There was a sense of relief, along with the idea that I was sneaking: when my mother was alive, she wouldn’t let me clean the inside of her car. There have been so many times when I took care of her things while she wasn’t looking. Removing layers of dirt from her car, it was as if I was removing layers of bitterness and guilt from myself. I wanted to focus on the positive, a clean slate would help. I vacuumed the floors, wiped the windows, emptied the door pockets to clean them thoroughly. That’s where her photo was, in black and white. A photo taken for her passport, I think, she couldn’t look more serious and accusing. A mugshot. It startled me. “What are you doing with my car?”, she seemed to say. I threw away a lot of receipts and very old papers, but I left the photo in the car, a reminder that it was not my car. I made sure the photo faced outward though.

 

The next step was to tackle the ominous noise the back wheel made. She’d told me how she’d driven over a sidewalk somehow and had damaged her wheel. My brother had gone with her to fix it the following day, I never quite understood what had happened. The noise, a rumble following from the right, held the promise of problems. Before driving back to France for a family function, I decided to have the car checked. Ensued the cascading adventure of finding mechanics. There was Philipo, an Italian man who spoke German and some French but no English, who’d set up shop at a gas station in my neighborhood, recommended by a friend of a friend. Philipo checked the oil levels, tire pressure, and brakes. “Pas de problèmes,” he said in a level of French that did not include technical vocabulary. He then managed to communicate, stitching together words from the languages he knew, that the situation with the back wheel was bad. He couldn’t fix it, but recommended a friend who owned a shop just a couple of kilometers down the road, with the proper equipment to replace the broken wheel bearing. Cenk was a Turkish man who also spoke German, no French but some English. From his “office” to the workshop, he drove the Twingo like those capped kids who drive around with loud music: far away from the wheel and slumped over. I imagined the Twingo with a few spoilers and shiny hubcaps for a moment, this made me smile. We ran into Philipo then, and the two had a conversation in German in the middle of the street.

“You must help my friend,” Philipo said.

The ordeal reminded me of the few times my mother had problems with her car, with us three kids in tow. A flat tire at the Canadian Memorial in Vimy (a kind man had come and offered to fix it after she’d been loudly looking for the owner’s manual to figure out how to replace the flat with the spare), a broken pipe in the mountains with a day long wait for towing and fixing in a tiny village where everything was closed due to summer vacations. The loose piece of metal that bounced off a bridge and pierced a hole in the gas tank, on the way home from a visit to an uncle’s house. It took days for the new part to come in.  As I navigated the hurdles of finding the mechanics, communicating with them (Cenk turned out to be out of my reach by phone for three days, leading me to imagine having fallen in the claws of an elaborate ring of evil mechanics who preyed on clueless people to steal their cars and disseminate the parts throughout Europe, in a Machiavellian scheme), understanding what the problem was and paying the repair bill, I gained a new respect for my mother. With her car in my care, I was led to think of her in ways I hadn’t before. I forgot all about her stern stare on the black and white photo and started looking for signs that she was, after all, looking over me.

 

Later, I managed a phone call to another mechanics (my research showed that he didn’t have much of a wait list to switch summer tires to winter ones, a law to heed in Germany, and I could show up without the set of winter tires I needed, a bonus when you drive an old French car outside of France, albeit not too far). I did not panic upon realizing the man didn’t speak English, and I got an appointment, all in German, for the following morning. Was my mother breathing confidence and luck through me?

 

The very next day, one of the brand new snow tires deflated completely on the school parking lot as I was picking up the kids. The gym teacher showed up by chance, just as I pulled out the manual to figure out which way to put the jack together. The kids already fretted around, bickering about who would be the one to lift the car. The teacher installed the spare tire in just a few minutes. Clearly another sign, yes? When I brought the tire back to the shop the following day, they fixed it immediately, giving me the feeling that I was to be given special and delicate treatment. Yeah, definitely a sign.

I was on a roll, the car had never purred so smoothly, I was ready for snowfalls and the long drive to France for Christmas. I even drove to Eindhoven with the kids, a scouting trip for us, and a symbolic way for me to “show my mom where we would live next”. In a strange way, driving her car and taking care of it brought me closer to her, and I somewhat grew frustrated that it hadn’t been as simple when she was alive.

As if to test that I could still react to a hurdle, we found the battery dead one morning, and scrambled to catch the subway to school. We made it on time. Philipo later came to give me a jump start, and he replaced the battery. I passed the “test” with flying colors, I was ready to move to the Netherlands. I’d proven that I could be responsible for my mother’s car.

 

Pieces of her home, pieces of my home, luggage and the children, we all stacked ourselves in the car and tackled the 8 hour long drive. Bill had already flown to Eindhoven with four large suitcases (yes, they all fit in the Twingo when I dropped him off at the airport). I was moving closer yet to my family, settling less than three hours away from them. When I was finally going to be able to visit often, possibly on just weekends, even, my mother was not there to enjoy it. It was a painful throb in my chest, this forever inability to finally talk to each other about our real selves. I decided I would visit in France as often as I could, reading another sign that I was meant to do just that. Visit often. If not bonding with my mother, then with the rest of the family. We started off in a hotel in Eindhoven, the kids loved their new school right away, and the car (except for a mysterious flat tire that the kids and I replaced in a jiffy) held on.

It was thus full of renewed hope and confidence and happiness that I placed on the passenger seat a basket full of Dutch cheese and cookies for sixteen people on March 16th, for the nonstop drive to Lille where we would celebrate my grandmother’s 89th birthday. For the first time, I lived close enough that I could participate. It was a week night, the kids were all set with Bill, I was on my own.

At first there was a giddiness of sorts, filling me in waves as I thought of how often I’d be able to visit, how I was going to deepen my relationship with my siblings, my grandmother, maybe even my father. I crossed the Belgian border after fifteen minutes on the ride. It was a straight line from me to them: Eindhoven, Antwerpen, Ghent, Lille. Three neat thirds to cover.

The first warning light came on just before I reached Ghent, followed by the second, blinking, a minute or two later. The owner’s manual, once I managed to pull over at a small rest area where the car covered its last five meters stalling, pointed at an electronic problem, something to do with the reading of the gas going from the tank to the engine.

“It’s happened to Mom before,” my brother said on the phone, “just wait ten minutes and start the car again, you’ll be fine.”

The truck stop I’d rolled in was tiny, packed to the brim with truck drivers who spoke no English, nor French. They were gulping down their plates of sausages and fries with their coffees before heading back out. They looked tired. With hand motions and a mix of French, German, and English, I got the address of the place (it was written on the greasy laminated menu, which also informed me that it was poetically called Lotus Truck Stop) and went back to the car. It looked so tiny next to all the eighteen wheelers. It still felt like an epic adventure and I told myself that if I kept my cool and avoided panic, everything would work out fine. In fact, I told myself further, I’d pretend the problem didn’t exist, and I’d turn the key in the ignition “forgetting” the car had broken down, just to trick it into igniting. That did not work, of course, I prepared to call the insurance company to get the car towed. When fumbling around to dig out the policy number and the 24/7 phone number from amidst the maps in the side of my door, the black and white photo fell into my lap. It was the same as before, that stern stare drilling into my eyes. My mother’s expression had not changed, but this time she seemed to be saying, “\What did I tell you?” I called the insurance company, they organized for a tow truck to pick me up within the next hour or so, and I cried.

 

There were more hurdles of course. I had to decide where the tow truck would drop off the car. It was too far from France to be covered by the insurance, so the car had to stay in Belgium. Getting the single French-speaking person in the garage to give me an estimate for the reparation took another couple of weeks. He sent me a heartfelt email stating that he understood the emotional value of the car to me, but that merely opening the engine to check that it was, indeed, a cylinder that had broken down would cost about 800 euros, and the repair (if it was the cylinder), would bring the global cost to 1500 euros, which was the approximate value of the car.

As I crumbled down ever so slowly, my siblings rented a truck to pick up the car and bring it to a mechanics in France. That mechanics confirmed the diagnosis, for free, and offered to buy the car from us, for 300 euros.

 

Upon my next visit to France, this time in a spacious and highly gadgeted rental car, my sister gave me in two crates the things I had left in the Twingo when it was towed: the collection of maps, the two square cushions, the blankets that we used to keep in there, the CDs, and the tiny notebooks we used to play Hangman and take notes on the way. The black and white photo was not there, and I didn’t ask for it.

 

I’m not a car person, and the green Twingo was not a fancy car at all, but I do miss that little vehicle. It’s only after I could not drive it anymore, and a whole new loss tore my heart, that I realized how much it had been helping me in my grieving journey.

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My brother secured the Twingo to the rental truck (photo taken by my sister)

I Marched on January 21.

warning: this seemingly political post lacks the astute perspective of a political science specialist. That’s because I never majored in political science.  

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I toured the concentration camp of Dachau in March 2015. I learned that the director of the (now) museum is a historian who wrote books about concentration camps, specifically Dachau. He had been one of its detainees, you see, so his perspective is both that of a scholar and that of a survivor. My mother, sister, sister-in-law, and I walked around those very uncomfortable grounds on a gray day. Mostly, I watched my mother. Her health had been extremely poor and she was weak. She stood for three hours, reading the captions for every photo and the descriptions for every room. My mother was a history freak. At first, I spent my time worrying that she was tiring and too proud to ask to stop. Then I realized that she was paying her respect to all the prisoners who had gone through Dachau by reading all about them. The place is, to say the least, humbling and sobering.

In one movie room, we could sit and rest (physically) while watching some footage from World War II. The short documentary quickly recounted the history of the camp: when it was built, and what it was used for. Even though Dachau did not use gas chambers (YET; they were getting ready for it, and did build gas chambers, luckily the war ended before they had a chance to use them), thousands of people died there. Toward the end of the documentary, you can see footage showing how the residents of the village (before being a concentration camp, Dachau was a village –today it is a quaint little town) were  forced to see the piles of emaciated corpses. The villagers were shocked. And so are we: “How could they not know?“, we ask.

***

When Mr. Trump announced his candidacy to the presidency, and started a campaign based on sexism, racism, and LGTBism, I grew quite uncomfortable.

Shortly after Mr. Trump won the primaries, people around the United States began to unleash their hatred. I grew very uncomfortable. The disbelief was numbing. Surely, this was all a joke. One day, he’d slap his thigh during an interview on the news and laugh.

Once he was the President-Elect, more and more incidents were reported. I was extremely uncomfortable. People were yelled at in public places, called “dirty Jews” and “faggots”, advised to “go home”. I was horrified.

On January 20, 2016, he was inaugurated, the 45th President of the United States of America.

***

I didn’t advertise that I’d attend the Women’s March in Munich. I didn’t tell anyone, on Facebook or in real life, that I was interested, until the week before. I didn’t know why I wanted to attend. And some parts of me didn’t want to attend.

The truth is, I’m not a fervent feminist, in the old fashion perception of the word (insert stereotypical fierce-women-demonizing-men here). The bigger truth is, I could be described as quite a placid person when it comes to politics. I don’t understand a lot of it, and I’m ashamed of that.
I had been reading (in other places than Facebook!) and thinking. I hate conflict and I hate being uncomfortable. Talking about politics is not my field at all. Disagreeing with others (other than my children) is a nightmare. But there was such a blatant problem!

My nudge came from fingers pointed to silence as a way to approve of the current events. The lines of villagers waiting to see the piles of corpses at the concentration camp in Dachau plagued me. I couldn’t look the other way. Not when visiting Dachau (I looked at every single photo and walked around the crematorium), nor when article after article reported Mr. Trump’s human-less actions and plans.

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I don’t want to be an accomplice.

 

I didn’t advertise that I’d march, even though I did think it’d be nice to be with friends, because I am somewhat prude. I don’t feel fierce about being female. I don’t use the word “pussy”. I actually don’t think that my womanhood is defined by my uterus, my ovaries, or my vagina (I’ve been reading a lot about gender identity).

I also don’t like that some slogans and signs ridicule body parts of the president. I think you can protest opinions and positions without attacking things that are not relevant. Not being a good dancer, having a strange hair style or smaller hands than average don’t a person make. There has been enough evidence of the danger that hovers, anyway. For that, I didn’t want to be put in the box of the nasty women.

Most of all, I didn’t advertise that I’d march because I didn’t feel I could explain the need I had to be there, to not be silent, to not be an accomplice to the dismantling of democracy. I had to do something, and the march was a good place to start.
I’d walk along, on the edge, I decided.

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I ended up making a sign, a friend had brought extra blank ones (yes, I ended up telling others that I’d attend). I ended up marching and chanting along, “This is what democracy looks like!” It was elating and liberating, as you can see from some glimpses on this https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FBR24%2Fvideos%2Fvb.208046455335%2F10154763190900336%2F%3Ftype%3D3&show_text=0&width=560” target=”_blank”>video from the BR24 TV channel.
We reached Odeonsplatz, the very stage of Hitler’s rallies (the Feldherrnhalle). With the amount of people marching and the fact that Saturdays are big shopping days in Bavaria (shops are closed on Sunday!), nearing the center of the old town meant slowing down. I had a chance to catch a glimpse of the line of golden cobblestones on the street behind the Feldherrnhall, which honors the men and women who tried to avoid compliance to the dictator’s demands. 16112910_10208234806043469_4461211330028302645_o

 

I also took the chance to take more photos of the march. In the end, we were about 1000 people marching, men, women, children and at least one dog. It was beautifully sunny, yet a stunning -13 degrees Celsius (Google tells me that’s 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit). All these people were marching for different reasons (Google “why I march” and read at least the first ten links that come up, that will give you a pretty good sample of why people did -or did not- march on January 21st), and they were all together, uniting their voices and their footsteps, thinking about the other millions of people who did and would march that day.

In the end, I found that there was no single reason to march, and that there is no right way to respond to the distress many (many, many) of us feel at this time. We marched as puzzle pieces, ready to be the many parts of how we will  face the future.

And for sure, not being alone was key.img-20170121-wa0001

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Tiny Victory

Today’s post begins a couple of weeks ago, with a season change, and the first snow fall. The skies turn gray, sunshine fades into a memory, daylight shrivels between morning and late afternoon; Autumn claims the city, most of its trees, and some people’s mood.

I am the designated Keeper of my mother’s car (not because I have a special calling; it’s just that my siblings have their vehicles already). With this temporary title comes great responsibility. I must keep the car fueled, oiled, devoid of crumbs and wrappers, and most importantly under German law: I must switch its (new) tires to winter ones.

There was a time when I thought I would leave it in the parking garage until the day I drove it back to France to give it away, so I didn’t have to worry about changing the tires. That was denial.

There was also a time when I thought I would research whether it was really a law (it’s not, the law stipulates that you must have appropriate tires, which means you can get away with your summer tires in December if the roads are not wet, for example, but that’s relying on the forecast masters being accurate). Or if there was anything that would grant me an exception, such as not driving often, having an old car (!), or being French (!!). That was laziness.

Then there was the time when one of my children agreed to participate to an orchestra to prepare a holiday concert, and the rehearsals would be conveniently out of public transportation’s reach. That’s when I had to stand up to procrastination. This all led us to two days before the first rehearsal.

Of course, I’d been reluctant to proceed with the change because I am okay with not driving in the snow, I don’t need the car in Munich most of the time, and it’s annoying that I have to switch when the current tires are brand new. My main hurdle, though, was more subtle: the change entails making an appointment at a garage. Simple enough, right?

When the kids need appointments with the dentist or the doctor, I usually walk to the practice and make the appointment in person. Call me crazy, but I much prefer being able to point to a date on a calendar and use the universal language of facial expression and nods than to stutter in broken German over the phone. The dentist and the doctor’s offices are in our neighborhood, so those are easy enough to tackle.

Finding a garage to change from summer tires to winter tires is a different game. It is amazing the amount of technical vocabulary one needs for such a simple thing. You see, I was still recovering from my adventure with the Italian mechanics (he spoke a little bit of French) who sent me to a Turkish mechanics (he spoke a little bit of English), neither of whom I could clearly communicate with (I only speak a little bit of German). But then again, I’m not sure I’d have been more comfortable discussing wheel bearings and drive shaft or rods or something (see?) in English or in French. I’d felt very accomplished getting the car fixed, it had been an ordeal.

So this morning, I mustered my courage (and coffee, and a piece of chocolate for moral support) and sat at the computer. I registered with Spotify to have a stream of music on which to focus and float.It took me a little while to find something I liked. I placed the phone next to me. I pulled out the notebook in which I’d jotted down the recommendations from people on a Munich Facebook forum, opened a few Google tabs in which I plugged in the recommended addresses. Many websites offer to make an appointment online, but I had read that getting an appointment at this time of the year, when everyone else is getting their tires changed, is easier in person. I lined up a few essential words, Reifen for tires, Werkstatt for workshop, wechseln for change (I already know how to say “I don’t speak a lot of German” and “Please speak slowly”). I fetched more coffee, pulled out the car’s registration papers and looked up the model online.I opened a calendar page and reviewed how to say the days of the week in German, on my way to more coffee.

I remembered I had to send an email to Toby’s music teacher about the concert rehearsal, so I took care of it immediately (I didn’t want to forget!).

Then it was time for lunch, I had to prepare myself something. Followed by a nice cup of coffee. Somewhere in there, I ended up reading a few news articles about the aftermaths of a shaking election in the US, and that is important, albeit time consuming.

Eventually, I ran out of excuses, and soon, I’d have to dash out of the house to pick up the children from school (and answer “why are you late” with “I had to make one phone call”). So I lowered the volume on Spotify, picked up the phone, dialed the number, and with a pen safely tucked between my teeth for chewing reassurance, I waited.

 

Male voice: “Hello?”

Me: “Hello. Um… I have a car and I need an appointment.”

Him: “…”

Me: “I’m sorry, I only speak a little bit of German…”

Him: “…”

Me: “I have to put winter tires on the car. I need an appointment for tires.”

Him: “Tomorrow.”

Me: “Tomorrow, Friday tomorrow??? I come?”

Him: “Yes, bring the car tomorrow at around 11:30.” (there were more words, these are the ones I understood)

Me: “Ah! OK. But I don’t have tires” (You’d be amazed at how many cars drive around Munich with a set of 4 tires, people are prepared around here)

Him: “Ah. Then, come at 9.”

I hung up in disbelief: I’d done it! I turned up the music (it was Madredeus, you should try it, it’s heavenly). For a few minutes there, I felt like I could conquer the world, one garage at a time! Then I looked at all my open tabs, the notebook, the calendar, the words. All the preparation I had deemed essential for a successful two-minute phone call took me a large part of the day. That was a bit ridiculous.

I shrugged, and headed out to get the kids from school. Small victories are just that, small. But some days, especially when Autumn chills you to the bones with its days of rain and gray, small victories are important.

 

 

Room for Laughter

 

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I put down my cup of coffee next to the coffee pot for a refill in five minutes, start chopping the celery I washed before into sticks for the kids’ lunch and call out to child number 2 to start getting dressed. I open the fridge to take out the jar of hummus and various fillings for sandwiches, close the fridge, drop everything on the kitchen counter and pour coffee into my cup. I’ll take a sip next time I pass by it. For now, I gather the rest of breakfast supplies from the table to put away, and call out to child number 2 again, who shouts back that some teeth are being brushed first. Good. I take two yogurt cups out of the fridge and drink some coffee, then slide some bread in the toaster.

Things are going well today, maybe it will stay this way awhile. I have not been the best mom lately, stuck in a sort of stupor in which I watch myself float through the musts of the day. Get breakfast, make lunch, take garbage out, do laundry, take kids to school, bring kids from school, get groceries. I pour hummus into small containers, divide the celery sticks into two stacks, and lay out slices of ham and cheese on the toasted bread; I call out again to child number 2, who still needs to get dressed.  My children have developed, like many around the planet, an avid thirst for Pokemon knowledge. They explain the many characters to me, describe the skills needed to catch one and evolve another. My mind wanders, I do not pay attention. But then I scold them hard when they do not comply to my demands, which can be quite meaningless: you have to wear this sweater, you must stop singing this repetitive song right now, etc. My threshold for silliness and noise has shrunk, the poor kids have no room to breathe. I am aware of it and sometimes, I slide slowly from under this new shell that has fallen on my back and I relax a little, and let them be. I may even ask questions about Pokemon and make the effort to listen to the answers. But most of the time “these days”, I am unfair, distracted, and irritable.

“I can’t find my sports bag,” announces child number 1, in a rush to finish packing for school in order to have five precious minutes on the computer. We list the places where said bag may have landed. I joke that, because my bedroom is littered with all sorts of bags filled at my mother’s house last month, everyone feels they can dump their stuff there. Yet the sports bag is, in fact, on the floor in my bedroom. The joke has opened something subtle inside my head, at exactly the same place I watch myself question why I refuse things to my kids while refusing them. I start chasing child number 1, first slowly, then fast. We are running around the apartment and I am careful not to catch him. He is laughing, clearly enjoying this fleeting moment of fun. I stop for a sip of coffee, pretending to be super distracted. He gets away and resumes getting ready. When he approaches the closet to gather his sports attire, I sneak up on him.

That’s when I witness the gears turning in his mind, as he shifts his attention from his clothes to the bathroom door. He is preparing to scare his sibling, about to open the bathroom door! The anticipated delight in his body posture is delicious. He is smiling wide, so proud that it is going to work well. I am proud of allowing myself to watch him instead of stopping him. The small child will shriek, for sure. He gets slightly closer to the door, disappearing from my sight around the corner of the corridor. He does not know that I am moving exactly like him, a shadow to each of his moves. I tiptoe toward him, silently and swiftly, feeling in advance the torrent of surprise that is going to wash over him.

One step, two steps. I can smell his hair, I’m so close.

“Aaaaaaaahhh!!!!”

He truly jumps, as child number 2 opens the door and asks what is going on. It is easy to figure out, though, and we are all laughing so hard, we could just fall on the floor. I almost feel each molecule of dopamine swirling in my brain, touching my neurons and bringing them back to life. It is such a relief to find that I can still let my restraints go, shed the stiff cloak grief has stitched around me for a minute, and share a true moment of joy with my children.

Soon, and without a single argument, everyone is ready to go. We leave the apartment, the children ahead of me, quizzing each other on what each Pokemon evolves into. I watch them knit their relationship under the drizzling morning sky, breathe deep, and hurry my pace to catch up with them. Everything will be okay.

 

 

A Neighborly Visit

 

 

I could have blamed the distraction of the Coxsackie-virus in our home for three days. Or I could have blamed the fact that I had visitors for a week and it threw me off my routines. I could even possibly have blamed the atmospheric pressure at the time and how the Foehn* (the wind reverberated by the Alps, inducing headaches, nausea, and inability to get up in the morning, especially on Mondays) tangled up my neurons. But really when my neighbor entered my home one Friday in June, there was not a single excuse for what she saw.

There is, however, a story.

 

You see, I’ve always related to people in somewhat awkward ways. The first few impressions are generally good and promising, but then I recoil, ever so slightly. I keep the meetings outside of people’s homes, I delay visits, etc. It’s a thing. It’s been with me forever I think. I do make true friends (don’t worry!) and with those, things are just simply natural. But beginnings of friendships for me are always delicately balanced. Some people call it “choosing your friends carefully”, I suppose.

 

Of course, being neighborly falls into that category of being socially comfortable, so you will not be surprised when I tell you that I have never exactly been the social neighbor. I used to talk to our neighbors across the street in the U.S. two or three times a year, and there was nothing wrong with them. My thinking is not that people are not trustworthy or anything. They just do their thing and I do mine. Simple as that.

 

Living in an apartment building shuffles things a bit. I know a few of our neighbors (I’ll introduce them one day, I promise). I see a few of them hang out in the courtyard together every so often. They invited me to a cook-out to celebrate the end of the school year, but we were visiting in Connecticut at the time, which was just too bad. I must have sent a vibe because when everyone got together to light up some fireworks and clink a few cups of champagne for the New Year, we were not invited. (but then I think, we keep to ourselves, why would we be? ~or maybe I’m just paranoid.)

The few weeks leading to that day in June, the apartment had been in great shape: Up to date on laundry, including ironing and putting away (a visit from my in-laws highly motivated me, which is a good thing!), cooking most meals from scratch and cleaning up the kitchen right away, keeping the kids things out of the way mostly, etc. It was fabulous! Like living in a magazine, almost (although let’s not get carried away, shall we?). Just before D-day though,  I’d been slacking off. I’ll put things away later, I thought to myself. And I will. I know I will. The only unknown is when. I was also in the middle of reading a book that I simply couldn’t put down. I decided that I could focus all of my energy into finishing my book so that I could return to my domestic life peacefully. The night before the infamous day I’m just about to recount (just a few more lines of patience, please), not only did I not cook from scratch, I also left everything out. I finished my book late and stumbled into bed with that delicious feeling of satisfaction laced with the bitterness of loss.

Alas, the following morning wasn’t so blissful. One child needed a large enough bag to carry his large shoebox turned into an oceanic habitat. Another needed, just as it was time to leave, to find a music sheet that was very important for a rehearsal during class. Picture the West Wing team walking quickly down the halls of the White House, hair flying and heels clicking along the shiny corridors, while solving a hundred very urgent problems: that was me pacing up and down the hallway, looking for said paper while one child was arguing with me and the other didn’t want to miss any part of the exchange. Donna! Josh! C.J.!

We left home that morning quickly and in flying colors, after an argument about why Number 1 would expect to find a paper he “filed” on the floor of number 2’s bedroom just there, and a rather loud discussion on other things that are my fault or his fault or their fault or your fault. There was, of course, the awkward moment of Number 1 continuing to accuse me as I opened the door to head out to school, only to find the entire family of our neighbors getting ready themselves and quietly putting on their shoes. The five pairs of eyes silenced me immediately. Therese, four years old, was sitting on the first step and adjusting the velcros of her sneakers. Her brother, five, was opening the strap of his bike helmet to slide it on while the baby, sitting next to her sister, was watching her dad putting on her shoes on her little feet. Or *had been* watching, really, because presently, all eyes were on me. I smiled and, meeting Dad’s compassionate gaze, I exclaimed joyfully, “this is going to be a great day!!” They laughed nervously as I turned my heels and headed downstairs, Number 2 following me right behind. (Number 1 eventually caught up).

 

I exercised at the park with a group of mothers that morning, a good mean to melt away any remaining frustration that had not already evaporated in the crowded subway. We talk a lot at the beginning, then huff and puff until it is over. The exercise plan, poetically called ‘boot camp’, included jogging to a bench and finding ways to tap it with our feet, dropping down to achieve fifteen bungees “at your own pace” (I proudly completed three), and other colorful contortions that had me sweaty and red, all the way home and for practically the rest of the day.

When I arrived home, ready for a shower and feeling accomplished, I spotted the bowl of leftover cereal swollen in brownish milk still on the kitchen table, a hair brush resting next to it, and the corpses of my wrestle with dinner preparation from the previous night, naggingly spread out along the kitchen counter. I decided very reasonably to take a break, some time for myself and a shower, before tackling this mess. I prepared a healthy snack of cheese and chips, much deserved, and left the cheese out (I’ll get another slice later). Some plastic bags were slipping out of the top cupboard, after the frantic search for a bag big enough to carry a whole habitat to school (I’ll pick them up later, for sure!).

Now, I want you to reread the above paragraph and really really make a picture in your mind. Add a few smells (cold coffee and yesterday’s pizza, for example) and a couple of fruit flies if that helps.

With a happy pep in my step, I took my chips and cheese to the office and efficiently started browsing books on GoodReads. (Remember, I had just finished a book the night before, withdrawal can be severe with words.) This was going to be a great day after all. I sighed and smiled all at the same time.

That’s when the doorbell rang.

Not the intercom chime outside on the street, mind you, the actual doorbell to the actual door of our actual apartment.

And since my day was now splendid, I opened the door to find Suzanne, the very neighbor who had witnessed my dismay that very morning. Suzanne was in the middle of baking and realized she needed the powdered sugar that was not in her cabinet. Did I have any?

“Of course I have some. I never use it, you can even keep it,” I said with my most inviting smile. I motioned for her to follow me to the kitchen and on the short way there, the state of the apartment finally sank in.

And right then, with Suzanne right behind me, the horror of the scene nearly strangled me. I decided to pretend it was not there, I didn’t even apologize. Because I had been sure I’d make a lot of gingerbread houses and Christmas cookies in December, I had two boxes of the needed sugar, and they were both opened. At least that detail matched the current state of the apartment! She explained her baking project, while I couldn’t help noticing how well put together she was for someone who was working, raising three children under the age of five, and preparing a cake for a visit with friends that afternoon. I pushed that thought away and gave her the fuller box.

 

After she left, I helped myself to more cheese (I told you I would), then consciously put the rest back in the fridge on the shelf-with-the-other-dairy-products. I picked up the thrown-about bags, all too small for an entire habitat, folded them neatly along the creases, and put them in the cupboard, which I closed quietly.

 

It’d been almost two years, and today had to be the day when she would enter the apartment. I was flabbergasted. I was fuming. I was depressed.

I dragged my feet to the office, where I turned off the computer. I started a load of laundry, put away another one, washed the dishes and wiped down the counter. This felt very much like when I had been caught playing with all of my toys instead of cleaning up my room. Had my mother been reading on the couch, going “tsk, tsk, tsk” with a sympathetic smile, I would not have been surprised. After I finally took a shower (and smelled good and was less red), the doorbell rang again: still very well put together, Suzanne gave me two of the cookies she’d made. She thought of everything!

 

I am not in a parenting or housekeeping competition, however, so I made brownies to ornate her plate before I returned it, the following day, and delivered them in yoga pants and stretched tee-shirt. You can’t just send people mixed messages, after all, some things have to stay the same.

 

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foehn_wind