Year’s End, A Noticing

Another year is about to turn. The sky has been thick with mist and clouds, so beautifully moody. As I drove down the country road where we’re staying in upstate New York, I noticed a tree full of noisy blue jays, looking busy and important in their fancy blue suits.

I wanted to stop and take a picture, post it on Instagram, for my fellow noticers, but I knew there was no way to get close enough, no way to capture the moment as it was happening, so I put down my phone and marveled at the beauty, just me. No documentation, no outward approval, just an impression left on my heart.

Everything on my drive to the grocery store struck me as magnificent – notice me, notice me! – the world seemed to shout and I did. I noticed the beauty of the small red barn against the gray knit sky, and the crescent of bare trees arching in the distance. I noticed with delight the snow flakes that fell and stopped in the span of a minute, the bright happy sound of water splashing beneath my tires, the bubbling rush of the stream when I paused on my drive, pulling over and capturing the conflicted sky, this time with my camera. I couldn’t resist.

left of river right of river

There are entire days, weeks, I’m sure, when I don’t notice. When my head is down and I miss dozens, hundreds, of these small magical moments. Right now, in the mid-afternoon sky, a sea of white and gray clouds skim across the top of the mountain peaks outside my window. The sun moving along with it, as if being carried by an invisible current.

How seldom I stop, how seldom I stand still enough to notice the movement of the world around me, not the frantic movement of people, including myself, not the movement across a small lit up screen that sucks me in like a vortex, but the movement in the sky, in a tree full of birds, the softness of my son’s hair pressed against my face, tickling my cheek. My daughter’s eyes, such a vivid blue, the way the cleft in her chin appears more pronounced when she is sleeping, reminding me of her infant face.

Oh, there is so much to notice. There is so much to miss.

On the drive I thought about my mother, another new year without her. This June will be nine years since her death. Then I wondered, maybe I’m wrong? Could it be eight? I actually have to stop and do the math. I used to keep track by weeks, then months, like you do with a baby. Now I am making guesses, second-guessing. It will be nine.

My mom used to joke with me about her MS, saying that at least it would give me good material. I’m sure in the moment I told her to stop, but turns out she was right. I’m still writing about her. I’m still writing her. To find her, understand her, be close to her. As I drove, amid all the beauty of the world, all the noticing, these words came out of my mouth as if she were beside me.

I’d return it in a second to have you back, mom, you jerk.

And then I laughed because calling your dead mom a jerk is kind of funny, but also not funny because in that moment I wanted to call her more names, I wanted to curse and rail at her for being dead, in that moment I was furious with her for leaving me. But in seconds the fury melted to sadness, and then gratitude, for having her as long as I did, and still do, in my heart.

This post wasn’t supposed to go here, but sometimes you have to follow the sparks, the glimmers on the road, and see where it leads you.

I intended to write about my new word of the year, and maybe a little bit about how I slacked on last year’s word, focus. But I don’t think I need to. I’m going to look forward, not back, and this year I’m going to soar.

Happy New Year, and thank you, every one of you dear readers, those I know in real life and those I hope to meet. Knowing you’re out there – in my town, across the country or an ocean – whether you’re reading my words or offering your own, or both, lifts my spirits and keeps me aloft.

Hope to see you, and maybe read you, in 2016.

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Skating with My Daughter

We’re flying. That’s what it feels like, though neither of us is going all that fast. She’s cautious, like me, but we’re both taking chances as the hours go by. I’m lifting my feet, one at a time, feeling the balance of my body coming and going, savoring the smooth glide. I watch her arms flap, her feet moving in little chops as she picks up speed. Her polka dot helmet shines under the disco ball lights.

It’s our date. My husband and son are at a birthday party and we’re in Frenchtown, NJ at a roller skating rink on top of a hill in the middle of an enormous field. Inside it’s like traveling back in time to my childhood. Pure 80s. Retro pink and green zigzag designs on the walls.

A worn and faded Skate at Your Own Risk sign hangs above the rink, read and ignored by multitudes, though my daughter does ask what “risk” means. Taking chances, I say as we lace up.

skate at your own risk

The skating floor looks new in some ways, polished and sleek, but if you look closely the pale wood is marred with nicks beneath layers of filler and varnish.

My rental skates remind me of the ones I used as a kid and probably just as old. Khaki tan in color with scuffed orange wheels and thin dark laces. They are worn and soft, good for my ankles with my unfortunate extra bone. I lace them up tightly. Got to protect my middle-age ankles. The fact that I’m forty years old still makes me pause. It surprises, pools my stomach with dread, and yet sometimes, delights.

The shampoo girl at the hair salon, literally half my age, gaped at me in surprise when I revealed my digits. Flattery? Perhaps. While my skin has lost some elasticity – gone is my dewy youth – and laugh lines are visible around my eyes, I’m not yet deeply marred. I balance on the cusp of my life, hopeful for more wrinkles, more time.

We skate in circles to pop songs. Boy bands, fierce girls, and grown ups close to my age belt and croon and rap around us.

When a favorite comes on, “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors, my daughter turns around and her face lights up. We skate faster.

I feel light on the bulky skates, and every now and then I am conscious of being seen, something that has evaporated since having children. Being looked at. Watched. Ogled. Not a bad thing. I hated the catcalls and running commentary when I lived in the city, but there is a kind of loss in feeling invisible.

We glide past other children, other dads and moms. I watch my daughter with a smile on my face. Despite this mask of contentment, I am vigilant. Ready. My arms are by my side, keeping me aloft, but they are poised to catch, to scoop, to rescue. That’s who I am. Call me whatever name you want. I’m a helicopter if that means feeling a ferocious desire to take care of my young.

My girl is seven, barreling toward eight. The vise of time tightens around her, threatening to squeeze us apart. I wonder, how many more years will she hold my hand, how much longer do we have to skate together, just the two of us?

There is a mother and son ahead of us. I watch and recognize their wobbly pattern. He is new at skating and his mom encourages him. I see her hand reaching out, darting away, reaching out, pulling back. He does not reach for her and remains aloft, just barely. I recognize myself in her. When we pass them, the mother and I share a smile.

At some point, my daughter falls. It’s inevitable. No longer new on skates, she’s playing at speed, taking more chances. It’s a good thing for my girl, prone to anxiety, so often fearful. Her face scrunches up in tears and I help her up.

Falling is failing to her, so I must redefine the term, the act, for us both.

It’s okay, I tell her, assuming a confidence I don’t always feel. Everyone falls. You just get up and keep going. She nods and we push off the wall.

We continue making circles and the tears dry, her face curves into a smile.

My job is a balancing act. Compassion and propulsion. I watch her, my beautiful fragile child, my strong growing girl, as she skates ahead. She wobbles, rights herself. I watch, holding my breath, and let her go.

roller skating girl

Edible Memories: Laughter

Sometimes I leap first.

When my online writing friend Stacey asked me to consider signing up for a 14-day writing group via the Inky Path, my first instinct was to say no. I barely have enough time to work on my novel, not to mention the grief course I’m creating, let alone the safety skills class I’m organizing – oh, and then there’s that whole mother/wife gig, plus my nemesis, the bottomless laundry basket.

But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. A tell-tale sign. As I kept tabs on the rising enrollment, I felt an itch, a twinge, but couldn’t tell if it was a competitive-fear-of-missing-out or the I-need-to-do-this kind of feeling. Looking back, it was probably a little of both.

One week into the Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories, and I’m fully immersed. It’s pretty impossible to keep up with the group’s Facebook posts (over 100 people registered, though not all post daily) but I’m trying to hold fast to my own commitment, one writing prompt each day. This isn’t easy – my kids are young and life is full, but I’m delighted to say that – so far at least – I’m making it happen. I’ve always felt like my memory is kind of bad, but each prompt seems to unlock one, two, more scenes in my mind, and I’m taking notes like mad, for both the prompts and the possibility of memoir.

I’d like to share with you my most recent prompt. The theme was Laughter (with an emphasis always on food) yet somehow I managed to turn it around to sadness (just like the character on Inside Out!). But that’s how I’ve always been. Drawn to the bittersweet, both in food and life.

Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories

Laughter

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. As a kid we took turns having it at our house, but after my mother’s MS diagnosis, we always hosted. My uncle, king of turkey and CEO of stuffing, would come to our house in the morning with bags of supplies, plus a bonus bag filled with appetizers from Zabar’s: salami, cheeses, crackers, olives, lox spread, and bagels.

He’d pop the prepared turkey in the oven and it would cook all day while we snacked and cracked jokes. When it came time to eat, my father would hoist my mother into her scooter and drive her into the dining room after she could no longer do so herself. We’d eat and laugh, and when all us kids were of legal age, or close enough, drink some wine.

My memories of Thanksgiving were almost always punctuated by laughter. Especially in the earlier years, before my mother’s pain became unbearable.

This was from Passover, but same crew, without the matzoh.

This was from Passover, but the same characters.

The house was always filled with warmth and smelled of roasting turkey and marshmallow topped yams. My uncle would always cook the main meal. My cousin Pia would always bring dessert. My mom always insisted on making, or instructing me how to make, her favorite side dish, green bean casserole. And I always had to have a slice (or two, three) of pumpkin pie topped with Cool Whip.

Maybe that’s what I loved most about Thanksgiving – the “always’s,” the traditions we had curated and nurtured over the years. We were Jewish and didn’t have the show stopper of Christmas to look forward to, so I banked all my love and hope on Thanksgiving.

Things weren’t always so rosy, of course. There were fights and tantrums, angry words and slammed doors, more so as the years edged on to darker times, but mostly I remember the laughter.

The time when my cousin Ari and I stumbled upon a very strange AOL chat room in the late 90s. Don’t ask me why or how this happened, but let’s just say we were beside ourselves with hilarity when we ended up in a conversation about fruit fetishes, among other things.

Then there was the time my grandmother got drunk. Alcohol was pretty minimal at our house, even on the holidays, but somehow she had gotten her glass refilled one time too many and ended up divulging a bizarre genetic glitch afflicting several relatives. I’m almost positive somebody spit out their mashed potatoes, or at least choked on their soda.

Laughter filled the rooms and rang through the kitchen and seeped into the walls, so that when it ended, I could feel its echo.

My mother’s last Thanksgiving was hard. There was little laughter. The mood was dour, tense. My husband and I thought it might be helpful to order dinner from Fresh Direct and bring it from Brooklyn, rather than have my uncle cook in the house since my mom was feeling worse. The king of turkey did not take kindly to what felt like a personal affront. He sulked in the kitchen eating his “take-out” meal while the rest of us sat in the family room with my mother, who was too uncomfortable to transfer from her reclining chair.

I remember feeling desperate for some levity, anything to lighten the mood, to coax my uncle out of the kitchen, to ease the tension with my brother, to make my mother laugh. But nothing worked. We sat on the couch for what felt like an uncomfortable amount of time, and I rolled my eyes at my cousin Pia when our brothers began talking of sports, not with any vigor or enthusiasm, but dully, as if they had nothing else to say. Perhaps because they didn’t.

When everyone finally left, I felt a heavy weight settle around my shoulders as I dumped the leftovers in the trash. Looking back, I wonder if my sadness was actually a sign, a warning. It left me uncomfortable. A sense of foreboding prickled up my spine.

I thought, next year will be better. Next year has to be better.

But it wasn’t, because my mother was dead.

 

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Thank you to Maddy over at Writing Bubble for hosting her What I’m Writing link-up. Check it out for more wonderful words.

Own Your Story

I never thought I’d consider writing a memoir.

Fiction is my genre. It always has been, ever since I was a little girl crafting “books” out of construction paper and crayons. When I declared myself a writer at some point in elementary school, I wanted to write stories. I wanted to make stuff up.

There’s a safety in fiction that doesn’t exist for memoir.

Maybe that’s why I kept myself firmly planted there for so long. I never had to be held accountable. I could always say, it’s just a story, if anyone bothered me about autobiographical details.

Of course every writer, no matter the genre, weaves in elements of themselves, their lives, in their work. If not things that happened to them directly, then things they observed, sensed, or felt. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But fiction writers can hide behind a cloak of invisibility – or at least, pretend to do so – while memoirists are stark naked.

Over the last couple years, I’ve been taking some different kinds of chances. I wrote about witnessing my mother’s death and the birth of my first child, about postpartum depression and my daughter’s celiac diagnosis. Stories that belong to me, but also, in a way, to my family.

The part of me that values privacy – and secrets – wanted to muffle this new tendency. But something shifted inside me, a curiosity began to unfold.

Recently, a writer friend left a comment on my blog post that flung the door open wide open (thank you Julie Gardner).

“You have a memoir in there.”

Her words stopped me in my tracks. They sunk in and took root, even when I tried to brush them away.

They were part of what inspired my recent guest post on The Gift of Writing.

Own Your Story: Overcoming Fear About Writing Memoir is about my journey, which is still in progress, but also contains universal truths that I discovered in my research about common themes that hold people back from telling their stories.

Please take a look if you’re interested in the topic. Thank you as always for reading my words, here and beyond.