Category Archives: Loss

Rising From the Depths in the name of Bipartisanship

Seaside Heights, NJ Halloween 2012

Reporting from Montclair, New Jersey (which did not get hit as hard as Seaside Heights, shown above):

On my run this morning, the cold sushine revealed huge trees, uprooted, having ripped out yards and yards of pavement.  Yellow police tape draped over dangling power lines, neighbors and dogwalkers, grateful to see one another, embracing, bonding over the no-power experience, laughing with the relief of having survived to see the sunrise.  We’re all managing to stay in touch somehow, finding friends in corners of town with power, who invite us to a “charging-up” get together:  bring your devices, a load of laundry: enjoy a cup of hot coffee, a few hours of heat.  Last night we stayed with friends–which is how I’m able to post this.  On my run, I went to our street to see if PSE&G had turned anything on.  No.  Only the loud hum of someone’s back up generator.

Rumor has it that school won’t be in session until Monday at the earliest.  Though Tuesday is election day–hence no school–and Thursday and Friday are the NJEA teachers conferences, AKA no school.

The kids have been great.  Up at their usual hour, playing with legos, building forts out of the living room furniture, gathering with the kids on the block to scooter around the cul de sac.  They’re all cautioned to STAY OUT OF THE BACK YARDS, many of which are full of downed powerlines.  They listen.  The smallest ones don’t go out without adult supervision anyway.

My friend and I have been ignoring the guidelines about dairy products in non-working refrigerators and using our milk anyway.  It’s still cold–how would it get warm when our homes are cold?–and it smells fine, so we drink and serve it.  Ditto the yogurt.  (Not so the eggs, of course.)

There is a spirit of good will all around, the way disaster often brings people together.  We may be on opposite sides of a contentious election season, but I have extra batteries to share and you’ve just helped move those branches off my driveway and we’ll both write checks for hurricane relief as soon as the postal service resumes.  What we are is human and in this together.  Our hearts break when we hear the stories of people who have lost everything in the floods or fires, the young couple out walking their dog, crushed and killed by a fallen tree.  We do not care whether they were Democrats or Republicans.  We don’t care whether they supported Romney or Obama.

Disaster teaches us to value what we have, to treasure what matters most and to appreciate one another.    The only way to survive, and rebuild in the aftermath is for us all to come together and put aside our differences.

The fact that New Jersey Governer Chris Christie and President Obama have done just this, sets an example for the rest of the country and makes me proud to be an American.  The press is billing this the Jersey “Bromance.”   To me, they’re a little like the Odd Couple: Obama, neat, reserved, fit, if a little too lean these days: Christie: with his shoot-from-the-hip bluster, a bigger-than-life persona and voice to match.  Call the relationship what you will, it is so gratifying after all the partisan us-versus-them mentality of the campaigns, to see these two together, on the same team.  All over the internet are photographs of the Governor and the President shaking hands, sharing a laugh, deep in conversation (where it appears they’re listening to one another), joining in group hugs with citizens whose lives and livlihoods have been compromised by the storm.

Chris Christie, President Obama and FEMA Administrator, W. Craig Fugate (far left) greeting some of my fellow New Jerseyans.

As they tour the state, investigating Sandy’s damage, they have put aside their differences and praised one another, forging a positive working relationship that has some scratching their heads, others breathing a sigh of relief.

Since Obama’s election in 2008, there have been plenty of Republican politicians and pundits whose first priority has been to make him a “One Term President.”  We have just a few days left to see whether or not they have succeeded in making Obama look bad at the expense of the country.  One thing is clear: Chris Christie–despite having been a harsh critic of the president’s in the recent past–is not playing their game, or any other frankly.  He is trying to save his state and the hardworking people in it–as well he should–and to do so, is welcoming the participation of the federal government.  A big faux pas for a Republican possibly seeking higher office come 2016?  Maybe, but I suspect Christie doesn’t care.  I also suspect, and hope, that the average American respects the common-sense joining of forces for the greater good more than petty party loyalty.

There is no doubt that Hurricane Sandy has wreaked havoc on our area, leaving untold tragedy in her wake.  But let there be a sliver of a silver lining to the pain.  As the tristate area cleans up, re-starts and revives, let’s all take a moment to asknowledge the American values of cooperation and partnership.

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Someone Else’s Nanny

My children’s babysitter, Monique (whose name I’m changing here), came
to me with just one reference, and no background check. All I had to go on was
a good feeling about her in my gut coupled with a sense of total desperation about finding a sitter.

When we lived in Brooklyn, until Zoe was a year old, I had enough family around to watch her when I worked. When we first moved to Montclair–I was working three days a week then–I was fortunate enough to find a sitter—a cousin of a friend’s sitter—who came once a week. My mother came out another day and my husband was home when I worked Saturdays. Then that sitter left me to become a crossing guard, explaining she needed five full days of work.

I needed help quickly. Someone who could work two long days a week but didn’t need five, who could manage a newborn and a highly opinionated preschooler, who could read with inflection (that was a must for me, since I had strict TV limits), who played games and could run around after Zoe with ease.

I found someone quickly, though it would turn out to be a dead end.  Candy was the daughter of a friend’s babysitter, twenty years old, with a one year old son–but assured me she had plenty of childcare for him.  I had misgivings about her age, but my daughter loved her and the girl seemed to have a lot of family support around town.  I hired her on a trial basis, and everything worked out well for about a week.

Then, five days before I was supposed to start working, Candy informed me that she couldn’t come anymore because her own childcare had fallen through.

Trough an agency, I hastily interviewed about ten different women, all of whom seemed far more interested in newborn Theo than talking, walking Zoe.  Then, on Candy’s second last day, she brought home a woman she’d met in the playground.   (A stranger, which shed light on Candy’s judgment, frankly.)

“This is Monique.” Candy said. “She’s a baby sitter.”

I barely looked at Monique, because I’d been up all night and had interviewed three  sitters already that day.  I was also nursing every two hours and coping with a jealous two-year-old who thought it was high time we sent the baby back to the hospital where it came from.

I said to Monique,  “Look, why don’t you come back Monday?”  Meaning–but not communicating well enough to convey–that I’d interview her Monday. Instead, Monique thought I’d hired her.   She arrived Monday ready to work.

I said we’d try it for a day, since I’d be home. But I stressed that I needed, above all things, for her to win over Zoe. Well, Monique did it. She was bright and energetic and attentive. In no time she had my daughter giggling, asking for another story. (Yes, Monique read with inflection.)  She was also wonderful with baby Theo, with whom she fell in love immediately.

It was a happy story. Monique wound up caring for my children, two days a week (the other three, she cared for the children of a friend) from eight until eight, for six years. She stopped only when I went on my hiatus to write. Monique still sits for my kids sometimes, still does my daughter’s hair if ever I need it braided (like we did for sleep-away camp). I consider her a big part of my childrens’ early years, a wonderful influence, someone we care for, who cares for our children. I was lucky, so lucky to have met her, and so were my kids.

We were all lucky.
The most important thing you do as a working mom–responsible for finding responsible childcare–once you have chosen that special person who will make your complicated life at all possible–is take a huge leap of faith . Every day that you leave your children, you must make a choice to trust this person whom you’d never have met if you hadn’t been looking for childcare.

This is a truth between nannies* and moms: if not for the children, if not for the mutual need for work—their lives would likely have never intersected.  Nannies and moms tend to differ in childcare style, culture, class, education level, and also frequently race. With all those differences, not to mention the odd check-and-balance of power (Mom has the money; Nanny has the kids), there is much room for tension and even conflict.

In such a complicated relationship, trust is paramount. And I mean Trust as a two way street. Mom trusts that her children will be safe and cared for and (best case scenario) truly loved by the nanny. Nanny trusts that she will be compensated for hours worked, warned if those hours are going to be drastically increased or cut, respected, treated like a valued human being and not taken advantage of.

Trust, respect, balance. Only when all that’s  in place can a mother breathe easily and finally begin to relax into the rhythm of her life.

And then …

A news story breaks, horrifying and gruesome.  About a nanny on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who was found, her own throat slit, apparently by her own hand (which still held the blade) and the two small children left in her care, both fatally stabbed. About their mother, returning home with their  sibling in tow, who found the above scene.

I can only imagine what must have gone through that mother’s mind, the disbelief, the anguish, rage and profound despair. As a mother myself it is impossible to think of this mother’s feelings without tearing up. The father, too, who was away on business, and who—hearing about the tragedy—could not immediately put his arms around his grieving wife or bewildered, surviving child.  (Of course, the therapist in me cannot help thinking of that surviving child herself, wondering how her life will be, how they’ll wind up parenting her—the whole family reeling with grief, guilt, fear and other residue from the trauma.)

I wonder too about the nanny in question, the suspected murderer, who was loved by the family, who loved the children. The family had visited the nanny’s home in the Dominican Republic and had met her extended family—an experience cheerfully blogged about by the mother. I can only imagine the brutality of learning that someone you thought you knew–someone you trusted with your heart and soul–is the ultimate monster.

But something else gives me a great sense of foreboding about the case: the implications for every other nanny in the tri-state area. Going forward, what will life be like for these women?

As noted in Saturday’s New York Times, nannies will hereafter be under intense scrutiny.  I can only imagine the mistrust, the questions forming that no parent wants to ask, but has to for the safety of their children. This was a family who thought such a thing could never happen to them.  Yet it did, which makes it seem like it could happen to anyone.

How then, does a good nanny prove she is who she says she is? How can she convince them: that will never be me, I will never lose my mind, I will never put your children at risk.  How can she make them believe?

For now she can’t. Good women will be doubted. Mothers will hesitate before hiring. When they do hire, they will still be wary, thinking: It was someone else’s Nanny, but it could have been you. Could still be you. Suspician and resentment, and finally guilt–because no one wants to feel these things–will pervade the playgrounds of New York, where both nannies and moms can be found. The aftertaste of this unspeakable tragedy will haunt them for months, years, to come.
*Where I live, in Montclair, NJ, I have never heard a mother refer to her kids’ baby-sitter as a nanny.  I use the word here because it is the word used in the New York Times describing the case.  Monique always prefered “babysitter.” Nanny, to her–to us–felt too formal and old school.

What are you Waiting For? Limbo vs. the Meantime.

“I’m waiting to hear.”

“I’m waiting to find out.”

“We were hoping to close before the end of the month but the buyers are stalling.”

“The doctor thinks it’s benign but we won’t have the results for another day or two.”

“My son applied to sixteen colleges.  We won’t hear until February.”

What are you waiting for?  In my case, there’s the writing-related waiting: for my teenage beta readers to finish with my YA novel so I can fix it and submit it; to hear from the couple of agents I’ve sent query letters to.  Then, there’s the family waiting:  to learn what my husband’s next job will be, to find out my daughter’s schedule, my son’s teacher—so I can get on with the back to school shopping already.  And of course, as it is for so many free-lance moms, though we’re loathe to admit it (sometimes), I’m waiting for school to start so I can get something done.  (Of course, back in June, I was waiting for summer to start so we could all relax a little!)

For review: I can’t shop until I know their schedules.  I can’t revise until I’ve gotten feedback.  Hear that message?   I can’t do X until another person does Y.   I’m in Limbo.  You’ve probably saidthat to someone recently.  If not, I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Webster’s defines Limbo (the secular definition) as “… an intermediate or transitional place or state of uncertainty.”

Limbo is a hard place to be.  Your life has been hijacked; everything is on hold, your eyes fixed on the uncertain future.  You’re a prisoner to the whims of others.  Checking your voicemail, the mailbox, the email, again, and again.  It can be a recipe for anxiety, irritability, and depression.  But guess what?  Limbo doesn’t own you.  You can choose to be free.

I know a woman who has survived cancer, bravely enduring the diagnosis and the painful, sickening rigors of treatment.  Then more treatment to make sure the first treatment really worked.    Then more tests and continued monitoring.  The waiting is never over for her, but somehow she refuses to see it that way.   “I can’t live my life in fear of the future.”  She has children who need her now; she has a husband, and a job, now.   She takes pleasure in her family and her garden, in beautiful weather and in rain, in cooking and in reading.  She gets scared sometimes, sad sometimes, and frustrated with people who try to make her dwell on illness when she’s focused on health.  But mostly she lives now, surrounded by people who love her, who appreciate her joie de vivre and who join her in the seizing of each day.  She’s grown strong on the love of life, exchanging hats for headbands, losing the headbands as hair grows back in.   Maybe one day it will be gone again, but now is what matters, her children and husband and friends.  The little things, like a phone call or an email that hasn’t come yet, some editor’s elusive approval—these wouldn’t faze her.  She may yet have all the time in the world, but she won’t waste a minute of it in Limbo.

I try my best to learn from this and I’m getting better.   When I start to get anxious and hyper-focused on the future—on the parts I have no control over (whether an agent will fall in love with my protagonist, whether I can make a feuding couple hear one another, whether my daughter will make friends in middle school)—I do a few things:

  • I sing.  In the shower, in the car, with my kids:   show tunes, the Beatles, Queen, Journey, Katie Perry, Taylor Swift, The Little Mermaid … anything.  Just sing.  It feels good, and I actually read a      study once that found singing enhances your mood.
  • I treat myself as if I were my own client.  I nurture myself, reality check, point out my own strengths or the strengths of my kids if it’s their uncertain futures I’m worrying about.
  • I breathe—like a yogi.  Full disclosure: I don’t do yoga, (the only reason being the time; if I have it to spare I’ll dance, which I never get to do enough).  However, a yogi friend of my husband’s taught him a series of deep breathing exercises, which he taught me.       And though this is third hand stuff, the deep breathing really does      help get me out of future-panic mode and back into the moment, the      present.
  • I read.
  • I connect with people I love and miss.  You know—the ones you’re too busy and angst-ridden to see?  Hearing about their lives takes you out of your own.   Cheer them on, console them if they need it, share yourself, laugh together.  Be in the moment together.
  • I think  about my mom, how she worries about me and my family just because we’re her children—how silly I think she is for doing it.  Everything is going to be fine, Mom, it really is.  And saying it to      her, I believe it.
  • I play with my kids.  Because they are the moment.
  • I hang out with my husband (oh yeah—him!)

These things are the opposite of Limbo:  they are how I make the most of the meantime.

When my father was dying, when my mother and I knew it would be soon, we were in a very trying kind of limbo.

“It’ll be any day now,” said the visiting nurse.  Any day now seemed like a pretty big margin of error.   In any case, we were in a holding pattern, as my mother described it.  We didn’t want to go too far or commit to anything.  We were determined to be with Dad when he passed.  The waiting went on for two whole weeks.

Then, the night before he died, my mother and I watched a movie together on the small TV set in the living room.  Though it wasn’t a comedy, the relief of doing something besides wait got the better of us and soon, we were both in stitches, enjoying each other, enjoying this small piece of life, though my father was leaving us gradually in the other room.*

We hadn’t abandoned him; he was in the care of a nurse who’d get us as soon as we were needed.  But during those two hours, we were free from Limbo, making the most of something beautiful in the meantime … life.

What about you?  When you find yourself in a holding pattern, what do you do to celebrate “the meantime?”

Taking Time to Relish the Moment

A proud moment; Zoe’s 5th Grade Graduation

Sometimes the best moments in parenting come when you’re not actively parenting at all.  I was sitting by the pool, reading Wild,the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, occasionally glancing up from my book to watch the antics of my eleven year-old daughter and her two friends.  I was at the beginning of the book, where Strayed is losing her mother to cancer, living in two time periods at once.  First: the past, where her mother was healthy and vivacious, telling Strayed and her siblings stories, singing them songs, teaching them about nature and using all her creativity to make them feel loved and grounded no matter how shaky their circumstances.  Second, the present, where illness was ravaging Strayed’s mother’s body, taking her far more quickly than doctors had initially predicted.  As I’m reading this frank, raw description of losing a beloved mother, of being consumed with the need to hold onto her, my own mother was thousands of miles away visiting Russia, the land of her father’s birth.Now I always worry a little when my mother travels.  I’m not specifically thinking that she’ll fall and break a limb on all these walking tours she takes, or that she’ll get sick and need medical attention in a country where she doesn’t speak the language.  I’m not imagining her plane will go down, or that her boat will hit an iceberg and sink.  Of course, all these fears go through my mind, as I’m sure something like them goes through hers when I take a trip.  But I always see my mother as resilient, able to handle more than most women half her age.  I see her as solid.  I see her as permanent, which—as I know too well from having lost my father—is a fallacy.  In any case, reading about Strayed’s pain, about her wish to have her mother longer, just to have a chance to hear her voice again, I wished my mother were around so I could hug her, have her tell mea story.

Of course, I’m closer to the age of Strayed’s mother when she died, than I am to the age of the daughter losing her.  And unlike Cheryl Strayed when she lost her mother, I am a mother.  So, as I sat there, reading by the pool watching my long-legged girl doing flips off the diving board, I found myself identifying more with Strayed’s mother,  than with Strayed herself.  Not in an entirely morose way.   Naturally, it went through my mind how devastating it would be to have to say good-bye to your daughter prematurely.  But that wasn’t where my mind dwelled.  Instead, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the brevity of life in a seize-the-day good way.  I felt urgent about the need to appreciate each moment that I am here with my children, to make the most of them, of myself, of our lives together however long that is.  I don’t think that way enough.

Between writing, household chores, arranging for home-repairs, dealing with the car, getting people ready for their Next Big Thing, be it camp, school or a family trip, re-starting my therapy practice after nearly three years, preparing talks—I am so caught up with the minutiae of my life that I am often at risk of missing all the good stuff.  The moments that matter most, those where I get to enjoy the people I love.

My kids during a great poolside moment last summer.

So I closed my book and just watched my daughter in the simple act of being her smart, silly, inventive self.  The girls had stopped their game of Marco Polo by now, because a younger girl, hoping to get ingratiate herself to the big girls—had lent them her enormous, inflatable seal.  Zoe and her two friends took turns trying get on its slippery back for a ride, more often than not, causing the seal to slip out from under them, pop up into the air, knocking them back into the water to the tune of their own hysterical giggles.  Finally, when each of them had mastered it and taken a turn riding around the section of the pool where inflatable toys are allowed, a new challenge arose.   From where I sat, I couldn’t tell what they were up to at first.  One of Zoe’s friends took hold of the seal’s head, the other its tail, trying to hold it steady as Zoe climbed aboard.   Now she crouched with her feet planted shakily on its back.  Her goal, it seemed, was to stand.  A few attempts ended with Zoe sliding off one side or another, but finally she got her balance—albeit in a bit of a squat—let go and, arms outstretched, shrieked that she was surfing!  Her friends cheered as Zoe toppled off the seal once again, creating a surprisingly big splash for a sixty-five pounder.

It was just a split second of victory, but the delight on her face brought tears to my eyes.  It is a snapshot of Zoe’s childhood that I’ll remember always, a moment I was around to appreciate, silently cheering her on.

Wishing for (Medical) Weed in Retrospect

One thing I like about blogging is that topics tend to spill into one another, leading you places you might not have intended to explore, but that you’re glad you did.  This blog is about identity and body image, two broad enough topics, which allow me to travel from the darkest corners of Anorexia Nervosa to the funniest, sweetest moments of parenting.  Writing about my parents interracial marriage led me to post about same sex marriage, a topic about which I feel passionate, even if it is not specifically “my” issue (though I would argue that equality is everyone’s issue).  All my life I’ve known couples—loving, committed couples who’d been together for decades, bought homes together, raised children, cared for one another in time of illness.  It always seemed absurd and cruel to me that these couples weren’t legally permitted to marry.  (Meanwhile, those with the power to allow those couples to legally wed were having affairs and racking up divorces right and left.)   This brings me to another topic that is not my issue (not yet, anyway): the legalizing of Medical Marijuana.

I have a confession to make: I don’t smoke pot.  I tried it in college, yes I inhaled, I’ve sampled it a few times since, but for me, it never quite took.  (Partly what I didn’t like was that it made me talk even more and even faster than I already do–hence not fun for those around me.)  In any case, I didn’t like it; my friends were never into it so it was never around me very much.  When I was in college, alcohol played a bigger role, though when you weigh less than one hundred pounds as I did then, it doesn’t take much to put you over the edge.  Also, as I’ll probably get to in another identity related post, plain old cigarettes were just fine thank you.   In fact more than fine.  In fact heavenly.  But more on my old ex, Benson and Hedges, another time.  (Yes, I quit about twenty years ago.)

So, the legalizing of pot, medical or otherwise was never my issue, though I always thought it made sense.  If something is legal, it can be regulated, and—in theory—be kept out of the hands of kids … or something.  But personally I had no passion about this.

Until last week. I happened to be reading the op-ed page of the New York Times last Thursday and came across this piece: A Judge’s Plea for Pot  

By Gustin L. Reichbach, a Justice of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn.  Reichbach has pancreatic cancer.  He lives with and suffers from, not only the illness itself but its monstrous treatment.   Though he has already lived far beyond his physician’s initial prediction, between his chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatment, then some drugs that combat the side effects of other drugs, he lives with constant pain and nausea which make it near impossible for him to eat or sleep.

The only thing that seems to make Reichbach’s his life at all tolerable is pot, surreptitiously acquired for him by brave and resourceful friends.   As he explains:

“Inhaled marijuana is the only medicine that gives me some relief from nausea, stimulates my appetite, and makes it easier to fall asleep. The oral synthetic substitute, Marinol, prescribed by my doctors, was useless. Rather than watch the agony of my suffering, friends have chosen, at some personal risk, to provide the substance. I find a few puffs of marijuana before dinner gives me ammunition in the battle to eat. A few more puffs at bedtime permits desperately needed sleep.”   

Reichbach’s article is essentially a plea to Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature—now debating a bill to recognize marijuana as an effective and legitimate medicinal substance and establish a lawful framework for its use.   (Sixteen other states have done this.)  Two things stand out about this article: one being Reichbach’s status as a judge—with a public legal voice, unlike many of his fellow cancer sufferers—and two, his amazing candor in describing his personal plight.  The latter touched me on a deeply personal level because of what I saw my father go through seventeen years ago. [1]

I somehow had not associated cancer with pain.  I don’t know why.  I think I’d listened to the old (incorrect) advice that if you found a lump in your breast and it hurt, that was a good sign.  If it didn’t hurt—then you were in trouble.  It was an old wive’s tale, but maybe that was why my father’s physical pain came as such a shock.  For the first three and a half years after his diagnosis—metastatic prostate cancer—he was comfortable and relatively symptom free.  Then the back pain began.  For the last year and a half, he was mostly in bed, almost exclusively for the last six months.  There was chemo (an oral cocktail taken at home, nowhere near as invasive—or, I’ll wager, as effective— as Reichbach’s treatment) and radiation.  There was the loss of appetite, to the point where the most my father could stomach was a few ounces of apple cider into which his morphine was dissolved.  There was insomnia, due to the impossibility of finding a comfortable position now that his body had diminished to almost nothing but bone.  But overall, the dominant feature was pain.  Day and night he would cry out:  Oh, God, no! or  Please!  No one deserves this! almost as if he were pleading with God.  There was more, but I won’t print it to preserve his dignity.  All I could do was sit there and hold his hand.  Cancer was eating him by then; I could see it.  And I understood: cancer, when it is determined to win, is pain.

After Dad died, it took some time to collect old memories and gradually replace the image of the sick, bedridden man with the strong, laughing, vivacious man he was before his illness.  Not that his struggle with cancer wasn’t part of his and, on some level, part of my own identity.  But the healthy, funny, brilliant and sociable Dad is how he would want to be remembered.  Nevertheless, his cries of pain will never leave me.

I believe regrets are pointless and emotionally destructive.  I hate looking back and saying, if only.  But in this case I can’t help it.  I wish it had occurred to me that something could have made him more comfortable than morphine when the medication had done all it could possibly do.  Maybe if I’d been more of a recreational user of weed I might have thought of it.  But if medical marijuana had been legal, I wouldn’t have to have come up with it because his doctors would have prescribed it in a heartbeat.  And, as Reichbach eloquently points out:

doctors cannot be expected to do what the law prohibits, even when they know it is in the best interests of their patients.”

If only, Dad.  If only.


[1] My article, Soul Food Shiva, is the story of losing my father to cancer.

“Yard Sale” or “A Piece Of My Heart For Two Bucks Or Best Offer”

When we lived in Brooklyn—before we had kids—we were addicted to them.  While they didn’t wholly furnish our apartment, they helped us add what we considered some “great pieces” to what we had.  They provided the details: a set of pretty, antique glasses, some interesting ceramic bowls and vases, picture frames and loads and loads of books (which, in retrospect, we probably didn’t need to add to our already bulging collection).

In Brooklyn, they were called stoop-sales.  All over our section of the borough (Cobble Hill) and the neighboring sections (Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and Park Slope), people would spread their once loved wares over the steps of brownstones which lined most of the side streets.  Some customers were devoted scavengers, determined stoop-salers.  Others were simply out on casual weekend strolls—to Court Street and Montague Street where lazy weekend brunches would be shared.  Finding someone else’s discarded treasures—perhaps no longer treasured but valued enough for a price-tag rather than the trash bin—was enormously satisfying, voyeuristically as well as economically.

Some items were store shelf new, the re-gifted gifts someone finally had the good sense to put out.  Other things came with stories, like the lamp with the Tiffany shade—cracked but not too badly.  This was the seller’s first purchase for the apartment to which she’d moved following a bitter divorce.   “A true emblem of my liberation,” she smiled ruefully.  It was no longer needed after fifteen years.   A  beautiful carved chess set, missing half the pawns.   Formerly belonging to a beloved grandfather, kept for sentimental reasons only.  They were giving it up because none of the current family members played, and photographs of Grandpa took up less room.

Outgrown children’s clothes came with histories too.  I overheard one seller, taking a last whiff of a stretchy with sailboats, sharing a baby story as a few coins changed hands.  Outgrown adult clothing might inspire nostalgia too: a cocktail dress worn in younger days—only those stories were private.  Sometimes you bought an object you just liked a lot, even if you couldn’t say why.  Jon and I bought a candle holder one day: ceramic with a lid on top and little holes in the sides for the light to shine through.  To this day it sits on my desk, though it goes with nothing.  It’s part of our life together.  We never asked where it had come from.  Sometimes you don’t care; your own meaning is enough.

In the suburbs, stoop sales are called Yard Sales or Garage Sales, depending on the weather.  Today we were lucky; it was sunny and seventy-five degrees, unquestionably a Yard Sale Day.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I live on a cul de sac with eight houses including my own.  All told there are eighteen children on our block who range in age from three to sixteen.  But the feel of community is not only due to the fact that our children play together constantly.  I have wonderful neighbors but one in particular is the glue that unites us.  She is a mother, like many of us, though her only son is older, a grown up himself, who lives on his own in another state.  She works, she cares for her dogs, takes walks with her husband.   But for me, her claim to fame is mobilizing our little corner of the town.  We should have a block party, she’ll say.  And make it happen.  We should have cul-de-sac-wide yard sale, she said about a month ago.  The rest of us wholeheartedly agreed, and she organized it, chose a date that worked for everyone, got the permit from the town, placed the ad in our local paper.  And today the shining sun along with the ad brought the crowds.

Jon and I have been gathering things to sell for the last few weeks, clothing, shoes toys, unopened duplicate art kits.  We staged things into the garage first, in boxes, on hangers, piece by piece.  As STUFF accumulated in the garage, we expected the living part of our house to begin feeling emptier, but somehow that wasn’t the case.  We’re natural STUFF gatherers, as are our children. We can’t resist used books; they can’t resist interesting rocks and other small treasures.  It adds up.  There was also clothing—left from my blazer phase, his vest phase, my maternity and nursing clothing: really STUFF we’ll never use again.

Jon started putting things out yesterday, while I was at rehearsal. Today, while I made coffee and breakfast, he started with the heavy lifting: big pieces of furniture—a cabinet, a table, an entertainment center cast off by relatives who’d upgraded—books, an old, boxy who-remembers-when-we-last-used-that television set.  When I got outside, the driveway was covered with our life—at least with our eight years since the last sale.  Sure, I’ve kept records, made baby books, boxed up and saved the most special baby mementos.  But looking over the stacking toys, the sweet little shoes with the Velcro closures, I felt so sentimental.  All I could think was there we wereThat was our family: board books and sippy-cups, pants with snaps up the legs.  How we’ve changed.

Though as I watched Jon collect a dollar seventy-five for the old bottle sterilizing machine, I knew it was okay.  I was ready.  Only once did I find myself reluctant to let go.  It was a musical flying saucer that had first belonged to my daughter, though it was my son who had loved it most.  It was red, blue and yellow—regulation Little Tikes; when you pressed the big white button in the center, it played either a Bach minuet, a Beethoven allegro or a Mozart scherzo.

As a growing baby, Theo would sit with it in his lap, eyebrows knit with intensity and punch the white button until he got the scherzo.  Then, little fists clenched, he’d perform what can only be described as a furious, eight month old rendition of the twist.  The music would stop; he’d start it again, pound the white button once, twice, three times until the scherzo came on so he could “dance” again.  I was charmed like only a mother could be: my son was not only adorable; he was brilliant too.  (He could play Mozart!)  Holding this toy in my hand today—though the batteries were dead; we weren’t sure if it worked at all (in the end it wound up in the “free stuff” bin), I wasn’t just holding a piece of Theo’s childhood, I was holding a piece of me.  A true emblem of the young (thirty-something) mother I had been; with an infant and a preschooler at home, working two days a week in the city, carrying my Medela breast pump everywhere I went, transitioning my therapy practice to a counseling center here in town.  I worked but I didn’t write much.  (I’d put the book I’d been writing since a little before my wedding on hiatus until my youngest was about two).  I was busy with paperwork, engaged with my clients during sessions, thinking about their stories in between.  But when I was home, I was all about my children.

Exhaustion aside, it was fun to be so immersed in the world of Little.  I loved marching around town with my double stroller, loved that the contents of my purse always included a few green and purple teething toys.  I’ve got little kids: I wore it like a badge. I wanted to be doing just what I was doing: changing diapers, nursing, reading The Little Engine that Could and The Big Red Barn nine hundred times a day (twice in a row at bedtime).

Recently, Theo was looking at pictures of himself and Zoe from several years back.

“Mommy?”  he said, “Do you miss us when we were little?”

I had a flashback: the two of them at six months and three, sitting in the tub together, Zoe and I singing to distract Theo from his wild splashing.  I reached in and hugged both their wet bodies.  I did say it–though he was too little to understand and she was singing too happily to hear:

“I’m going to miss you guys when you get big!”

But I don’t.  Which is what I told Theo when he asked.  “I loved you then,” I said, “but I love you more every year.”

The truth is that I am grateful for the fact that my kids can be independent; I’m proud of the strong, interesting individuals that they are.  Now I can do my at-home workout when my kids are awake; they can help me with groceries and laundry and other chores (not that they always do). We have real conversations where I am often amazed at their insights and not just their cuteness.  Though I know they sometimes resent that my book takes me away from them, it’s their independence that gives me the mental space to write.  I couldn’t have done it when they were little, nor did I need to.  I was a different version of me back then.  At home I wore striped nursing tops (these didn’t sell today so I am donating them).  To work, I wore the blazers which went today for three dollars a pop.

The Hunger Games, Corduroy and Me

Though I read The Hunger Games Trilogy, I have yet to see the movie—just because I haven’t found time.  I’m thrilled that the reviews are so good, that all this anticipation won’t be for naught.  I am also desperately relieved—unlike some on the Twittersphere—that a black child (the impossibly cute Amandla Stenberg, who is actually biracial) was cast in the role of Rue.  Reading the books, I cried when Rue died in the first book, bawled in the second book, when Katniss visits Rue’s district and has contact with the child’s family.  I imagined Rue black, not because I am black, but because Suzanne Collins told me she was.  (Or implied it and later acknowledged that this was her intent.)  In fact, because Thresh, who is not related to Rue, is also described as having dark skin, I was under the impression that most of District 11 was black.  When I learned that there was a film in the works, one of my first thoughts was: will the casting reflect this description?

I had reason to wonder.  A little factoid not everyone knows about me is that I am Lisa, the little girl from the beloved Don Freeman children’s classic book Corduroy.   Well sort of.  Here’s the true story.  My father and Don Freeman were friends through publishing.  Mr. Freeman had been to the house, met me, met my stuffed bear in overalls and got his concept.  Of course, I was just two and my bear had no name, but together we inspired him, or so I’ve been told.  His Lisa is black, the way he imagined I would look when I was eight or nine.  When I was five, Mr. Freeman gave me an original drawing of Lisa and Corduroy—only in this version, he gave her two pigtails like mine, instead of the long ponytail in the book.  He also gave her extra chubby cheeks like I had at that age.  (I am looking at the drawing as I write this: it hangs on my wall.)

Though I didn’t write the book, I’ve often been invited to do readings of it which has been fun.  (I’m told that I really do look like a grown up version of the girl in the book!)  I’ve also read the book to my kids so many times and always thought they knew the words and pictures by heart.  But one day, when I read the book at my children’s school, my daughter, Zoe who was sitting in front, raised her hand and asked:

“If it’s supposed to be you, Mommy, why does the mother in the story have brown skin too?”   Meaning, why wasn’t Lisa’s mother white, like Grandma?  I responded that it was 1968, and back then, it was easier for people to accept children being the same color as their parents. I didn’t hold the publishing industry of the 1960s to such a high standard.  But when I hear people of all races talk about Corduroy the thing they say most is: That was my favorite book as a child!  Or That’s my children’s favorite book!  Everyone loved Corduroy and the little girl who took him home—regardless of the fact that she was not white.  What Corduroy proves is that audiences connect with characters who look different from them, as long as the story is genuine and the feelings are familiar.

I believe the same is true for The Hunger Games.  Rue would be compelling in any color, though the author envisioned her brown.  I wonder if viewers of the film expected Rue to look like Prim, since Rue reminds Katniss of Prim (and Prim is described in the book as fairer than Katniss).  But it is Rue’s youth, sweetness and innocence that touches Katniss’s heart–the fact that she is dark does not dilute these qualities.

And speaking of Katniss, what about the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence, a blue-eyed blond, playing the role of a girl the book described as having olive skin, dark hair and eyes?   (More like Naya Rivera, who plays Santana on Glee  .  Granted, for the role, Lawrence dyed her hair a little darker.)   Was there a moment when the film was being cast, when people said, okay, what race should Katniss be?  What went into the decision to make her white?  Or was it was always assumed that she would be white because this was going to be such a huge film, and having a white star seemed like the most marketable choice?  Actually, Katniss’s race wasn’t a big deal for me; many white people have olive skin and dark hair anyway.   What would have been a big deal—what would have smacked of deep cowardice—would have been casting a white actress for the role of Rue.  That would have sent the message that: no matter what the writer’s vision was, Hollywood could not expect an audience to weep for a black kid.

It is growing more common in films and on television to cast people of diverse racial backgrounds in mainstream roles without anyone making a big deal out of it.  For example, in Bridesmaids, the protagonist’s best friend Lillian–who was the bride herself—was clearly biracial.  She was played by Maya Rudolph, a biracial actress and comedienne, and in the film, she had a clearly black father and clearly white mother.  I loved that no one mentioned race in the film.  It was just there, and no big deal.  Is that reality–race being no big deal?  No, but what a wonderful wish.  If Hollywood perpetuated that fantasy more—rather than ramming stereotypes down our throats, I wonder: would those stereotypes begin to dissolve?

I do see hope for this though (including the casting choices of The Hunger Games).  In a television show called Flashforward,   which—like most shows I really love (see Rubicon  and Farscape)—got cancelled, the young, hot, engaged couple was interracial: an Asian American FBI guy, and a lovely brown-skinned African American woman.  Though they were leads in the show, there was no mention that their relationship was mixed.  It was no big deal, which I loved.  I also love when a TV show has a character with a same sex partner and that’s no big deal; I love when someone has to leave work a little early to celebrate Shabbos and that’s no big deal.  (Disclosure: I’ve never seen those last two, though it’s possible that just missed them, since I don’t watch a whole lot of TV.)

We’ve come so far since The Jeffersons,  a sit-com about a rich, black couple, where the whole joke was that they were a rich black couple.  For this we can thank the Huxtables, of The Cosby Show, a rich black family, where the show was about being a family. (What I want to see next is a crime drama where the main detective is a lesbian, married to her partner, and that’s no big deal.)

But I was talking about Hunger Games and the furor that’s rocked Twitter this week: fans of the book who saw the movie and were appalled that Rue was shown as black.  Some of the thoughts expressed were that Rue’s being black made her death “less sad.”  Others said it ruined the film, while some criticized the film for not sticking to the book (in which all characters who mattered were white?  Not true, not true!)

When I first read about these reactions, I clicked the red X, closed the page, closed my ears and eyes because I did not want to be reminded that anyone in America felt this way.  That anyone in America would feel less sad if my daughter died than if a white child died.  (The Trayvon Martin case is staring us all in the face as I write this.)  I know that I live with a certain amount of healthy denial; possibly I am giving Americans too much credit.  But if I am, then so was Suzanne Collins when she made Rue a dark skinned child and then dared us to care; so were Gary Ross and Debra Zane (the film’s director and casting director respectively) when they cast Stenberg as Rue and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh.  (And I love that Lenny Kravitz, a biracial, black, Jewish guy, was cast as Cinna, whose race is not mentioned in the book!)  It should be no big deal.  Does someone have to be like us for us to care about them?  I really hope not.