Departures and Arrivals

In January, 1993, we lived in Texas, and had done so for four years, long enough to know people. My friend Sue had heard from a friend that the Presidential helicopter landing at Ellington Airforce Base would be open to the public. President Bush had not wanted anyone to make a fuss, but members of his family wanted someone to be there.

“I’m going,” she said, “and so should you. This is history. And it’s right down the road.”

The President was someone I had found off-putting, though I prayed for him as I have for the rest of them before and since. But I had felt, at the time, that Barbara Bush and I lived in somewhat parallel universes. We both had attended women’s colleges, and we were both married to men who couldn’t tell us everything by virtue of their jobs. Her husband had headed the CIA before becoming President. Mine worked in aerospace with a security clearance before becoming a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church. We both were expected to be well dressed and diplomatic in our choice of words, and both of us struggled with it. Well, and I wanted my children to see a President, and this might be our only chance, and frankly, they would be just as excited by the chance to leave school early and see a helicopter.

We were not supposed to mention to the school where we were going, because political events were not excused absences, and this was considered political. I did not consider it so. I considered it humanitarian. The man had lost an election in front of God and everyone, and he was coming home changed. Attention must be paid. So I had sent in a note saying the older children had an “appointment,” and the secretary smiled, as she signed us out from Kindergarten and First Grade. “Lots of families signing out. Are you going where I think?” she asked. I smiled and raised my eyebrows. “Wave for me, too,” she said.

Secrets live about as long as ice cream, down in Texas.

You have to drive down Highway Three to get to the airport.  One side of the highway was railroad tracks. The other side were the sort of businesses I had never seen in Boston — bait and gun shops, pawn shops, and the sporadic bodega, which in Boston would have been called a “spa.” There was nothing along the road to indicate that anything special was happening, as befits a former head of a spy agency returning home on a day that is not his. But when we turned into the parking lot, there were people with signs, buttons, and flags. Our children were given some, which I kept for twenty or more years before losing them in a decluttering binge.

I was so homesick during those years. I had thought of Barbara Bush alone with her family in Midland, as I was far from our relatives in Michigan and Boston. I had seen the family photos of Kennebunkport, and thought, “Barbara Bush lived in Texas and did what she was supposed to and was able to move to New England,” and thought perhaps I might to do the same. But in the end, Texas had become home to them. I went to a meeting, years later, in the “hotel” they called home, and it reminded me of the older Wellesley dorms, with nicely appointed common rooms lined with books. “If you don’t have family when you move to Houston, you make family,” my brother-in-law had told me when we moved there in 1989.  He was right. My generous sister-in-law had shared their friends with me, I met mothers through Mothers Day Out and school, we had parishioners and neighbors. People were smart, kind, funny, generous, helpful, and welcoming. I was busy and had a life. I even wrote, and had sold an article to a magazine in California. But sometimes I sniffed the air for a salt breeze, and there was none. I missed lilacs and lily-of-the-valley, and I wanted more than anything to have tea with milk with my grandmother. And I wondered if Mrs. Bush had done the same.

I held my son on my shoulder and people moved so my daughter could see. The first people to emerge from the helicopter were the secret service officers, all impeccably dressed in crisp black suits with matching sun glasses. They had wires in their ears and were communicating to each other. The former President’s tall sons stepped out, looking young and dazed. More relatives emerged, then Mrs. Bush, then George Herbert Walker. Someone had set up a microphone, and President Bush was led to it.

“Well, now I know how little influence I have!” he said, “I said I didn’t want anyone to come, and now I see how well y’all listen!” But his smile was both warm and grateful, and I was glad the children had seen it. He was a wartime president, and my children had been folded into the war effort. My daughter had been sending care packages to the soldiers she’s met through the “any soldier” program, now defunct. She felt very much a part of the effort as she set aside artwork and chose bags of candy to send them. Both children had learned the words to “I’m Proud to Be an American” at school, and yellow ribbons and American flags had been a large part of the backdrop of their childhood. He had engaged the public, and had hired a speech writer, Peggy Noonan, whose style I had admired even before she coined the phrase “kinder, gentler.” I felt that even Clinton’s victory had been a result of the empowerment and involvement of the individual that had been part of the culture of that presidency.

I wanted, too, for my children to see how to lose gracefully, how to walk away from something knowing that you were walking to something else. The newspapers reported the President had bought a fishing license while he was home on election day. He had been away for twelve years. He looked relieved to have landed.

“I didn’t want anyone to come,” he continued, “but I am touched and grateful that you did. Thank you, and God bless America.”

There were cheers, and handshakes, politically connected people greeting each other and the rest of us starting to walk toward our cars.

It was a departure.

It was an arrival.

And so was today.

Rest in peace, Mister President.

Someone has been waiting for you.

 

Put That Thing Down

The new school year is starting, and parents have bought their children cell phones to bring to school because the world is scary and unpredictable. I get it. But as a substitute teacher, I spend so much time bringing my students back to the classroom from wherever it is they would rather be. Our district has a very clear policy, but kids are kids, and the allure of a little box that can reunite you with your boyfriend, let you play a game, or keep you from missing your favorite show is strong.

It’s not just students. I’ve seen clergy take out their cell phones to take pictures during a service or check a message while talking to someone, a busy doctor texts as he explains diagnoses, young babies are handed the shiny devices when their parents want a patch of quiet, and even in choirs when it’s not their time to sing singers who in another time would be chided for whispering text, instead.

The problem is this: when you are there, you are not here. If a student has half an eye on the cell phone (“Miss, I have to take this call, it’s my mother,” I’ve been told more than once), that much of his brain is not engaged in the lesson. If you’re shopping for a prom dress or great sneakers, you’re not learning the vocabulary words you’re supposed to be looking up. It’s a small thing but a big thing — it drags down your grade and limits your understanding of the material. But more than that, it’s a message to the people around you that the people on the other end of the little box are more important, more interesting, and your relationship with them will be longer lasting. And that’s a serious problem.

Boredom, you see, is a catalyst for change. As a mother, I learned this. We moved to Texas from my native Boston, where I was one of six children, forty grandchildren, a small parish, and had two close-knit academic communities from my high school and college. Suddenly I didn’t know much of anyone. Then my kids started school.

I hate Hundred Day. But when you sit with other mothers putting one hundred stickers on crowns and making 100 shaped eyeglass frames from oaktag folders, you talk and you bond. You get to know your fellow volunteers for Math and Reading Centers as you play bingo with the kids and help with the plant sale and play. You stand with the other parents and guardians in the predawn hours loading buses for band trips and waiting for the students to come home again, hungry. Both the high schools in our town have Post Prom, and at my kids’ school, I joke that it’s occupational therapy for the over-committed. The band moms and the drama mamas and the parents of athletes and the moms of the SPED kids (and some of these are all one person) all paint and glue things, decorate, and solve the town’s problems. Improvements are suggested, the administrators who hang out with us gain new insight, and we go home covered with glitter but knowing more people and feeling better connected to the town.

I think part of the allure of summer camp is the limited exposure to screens and the greater exposure to the outdoors and new friends. When everyone is far from home and in a strange place, there is an opportunity for growth and kindness. Little things like walking a friend to the latrine in the dark or cowering together in a storm become bonding moments that people talk about in wedding toasts fifteen years down the line.

Life is especially hard for students who transfer. I know my first year of college, all of us talked about what various of our high school friends would have said about each new thing we saw. And then, we tapered off. We started identifying with the people around us, and they became the friends that we thought of and quoted in our new lives and jobs.

But, if you always have the people you are comfortable with literally in the palm of your hand, how are you ever going to feel the need to open your life to someone new? Part of it is learning about other people. Part of it is discovering that you have something to offer — the answer to a question, a color for an art project, a spin on the book you are reading. You don’t always know what’s inside you until it has a chance to come out.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, in “Hamilton,” has various characters sing, “Look around! How great it is to be alive right now!” And this is true of high school. Not everything about it is wonderful, but the people who stand up for you during the bad times there are the ones you call later: when you meet the right person, when you are in labor, when your cat is sick, when your father dies. And when your friends go through these things, you will be the person whose voice they will want to hear. Yes, in some ways they become the new faces in the box in your hand. But your back bench of friends will be so much stronger and richer for spending time doing things you have to do graciously with people who are not like you.

I am not condemning cell phones. The world without cell phones could be dangerous, and keeping in touch was expensive. In an emergency, you’d have to find a pay phone, and you’d have to have money for it. To stay in touch with family when we moved to Texas, we were charged ten cents per minute to call out of State and twenty-five cents per minute to talk across Texas. Cell phones can be good, useful, bring people together. They allow me to see my granddaughter in Virginia, show the people at Home Depot the part that I need, and text the exact address of the place that I’m seeking. That said, please, don’t let the little box take you from the moment. Be where you are, with the people around you. You can’t know what it is you will learn from and offer them if you don’t make eye contact and talk.

 

The Part I Can Do

I am sorry to have been so silent for so long, both for the offense and for the cause. My sister-in-law, Janet, died on January 10, after a three year battle with cancer about which she was very, very private. And I tried writing about her, but it just plain hurt too much. Also, I want to respect her privacy. But I’ve been thinking.

I don’t recall breathing at all, for the first seven pages, when I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, at the urging of my second MFA mentor, Kim Dana Kupperman.  Gornick describes a eulogy given for one female doctor by a younger colleague that let all the mourners grasp who this doctor was, what she meant to her colleague, and what the world will now miss in the absence of this woman. I wanted to write something like that about my sister-in-law, but I cannot. First, the pain is too raw and too strong (the astute reader will notice that I have posted nothing yet this entire year). Secondly, she was an intensely private person, and I don’t know how far I can go before I step into the realm of what Aslan calls, in the Narnia Chronicles, “someone else’s story.” And thirdly, my brother-in-law Mark, a far more accomplished writer than I, has already written the definitive piece.  But here’s the thing that I can do: I can write about the place she sent me to shop. Think of it as an exercise in metonymy. Or think of it as all I can stand to do.

I can’t write about Jan on the whole, about Jan and her sense of humor, and all her common sense. I can’t write about her telling me about Florence Foster Jenkins and sharing our love of PDQ Bach. I cannot write about how she came to be with me in the hospital when I was in labor and my husband had to be in church, or about her ability to cook around anyone’s allergies, or her ability to fix and create, to mend and adapt, to welcome and assist. I can just barely write about one small recommendation that she made.  But I think, with God’s help, I can pull it together to write about Friendswood, Texas and “The Shepherd’s Nook.

When my husband and I moved to Texas in 1989 with our two toddlers and 39 boxes of books, Mark and Jan had already lived in Friendswood, a Houston suburb, a number of years. They were high school sweethearts in Ann Arbor, and moved down so Mark could work on NASA projects after college. I met my husband, who was already an astrophysicist, when he was in seminary and I was in high school. We waited till I graduated from Wellesley to get married, and were living in my native Boston when the Houston parish needed a priest. “I thought because Father has a brother down there, it would be easier for you,” said the bishop who asked me to move a thousand and a half miles from my five siblings, thirty-four cousins, my almae matres and home parish.

So, we went.

Jan oriented me. “Up North, if you have cockroaches, it means you’re a bad housekeeper. In Texas, if you have cockroaches, it means you live in Texas. But hire a bug service, so whatever drops from the ceiling vent is dead.” She showed me where to shop and what to wear, shared her friends through the quilt group and taught me how to make a strip quilt. She guided me toward the best Mother’s Day Out program for her son and my daughter, who are less than a month apart in age, and shared the driving, especially when I had morning sickness. And around the end of  January,  she warned me about February.

“In February, the rodeo comes to Houston,” she said, “and the excitement is everywhere. The events are on the news every night. The cashiers at Kroger dress up in cowboy clothes. And the schools have something they call ‘Go Texas Day.’ They eat franks and beans from tin pie plates at school, so you’ll need to start saving them now to send in. They learn about roping horses and riding. And you’ll get a note that says they can wear their cowboy clothes to school. Now I know, I know, you don’t have any cowboy clothes now. Believe me, you will by the time they are all in school. You don’t have to go out and buy anything new. Around this time of year, they start displaying them at thrift stores, like The Shepherd’s Nook.

“I will take you there. It’s wonderful. It’s an old house that someone donated to the church, and they think of it as a ministry twice, to sell things for not so much money to the poor and then to use the money to help people. And they have everything, divided into rooms. They’re only open three days a week, so you have to catch them when they’re ready for you.”

The next week we loaded all the children into cars and took them to The Nook. We pulled into an unpaved driveway covered with gravel and walked into…. a little blue house.

The front room had the nice things, which is only fitting, for the parlor. Baby things were off to the left. A room full of men’s clothing was at the front bedroom, after which was a bathroom and two bedrooms facing each other, one for boys and one for girls. In the back of the house was the pay dirt — women’s clothes, household items, books, games, and tools.

We came home with cowboy boots and hats for everyone, after which Lardas Boy Child Outdoor Outfit became a diaper, boots (to fend off fire ants), and a cowboy hat. At two, they had to wear underpants, and at three, I made them wear something over the underpants.

I had a whole house to furnish and equip. But I also had another way of life to learn. And so I often went to the Nook for cookbooks and dishes, linens and pillows. I saw things from America’s bicentennial and Texas’ sesquicentennial, both of which happened before my time there but still loomed large. The grocery stores still sold (and still sell) the Texas shaped pasta that were created for the latter event, and red white and blue were everywhere anyway, not so much from the bicentennial as because it was Texas.

We had more children, and all four of them grew. My husband was priest and engineer, and there were lean times in each field. But when someone ripped their pants or outgrew their sneakers, I knew I could find what they needed at the Nook. More than that, I found fabric and yarn, toys and utensils. I bought cookbooks from local church fundraisers, and learned to cook like the neighbors. And I bought all of us books.

All my children were avid readers, and the women who staffed the Nook appreciated that. Local retired engineers and teachers donated their libraries, so I found gifts for my husband and stacks of books for the children. I found things donated by kindred spirits, copies of books of poetry that I’d lost in the move or which the kids had ruined. I was part shopper and part archeologist, learning about this new place from its artifacts. The farm stand down the street a block sold similar things, along with local produce and gorgeous plants, and became my second stop on the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays when the Nook was open.

Sometimes Jan came with me, and helped me develop my taste. She explained why one thing would be uncomfortable to wear and another would have to be dry cleaned. We would raise our eyebrows but not giggle at some of the color combinations of afghans from the sixties and seventies that people donated from their grandmother’s estates, but, I also bought some of these and tucked my children in under them. We’d talk about recipes and kids, what to plant and how to cook it when harvested. Time spent in her kitchen or living room, with kids everywhere asking questions or seeking justice, with Jan telling me her stories from Michigan and me adding mine from Boston, was formative and healing. I was so homesick that I would listen to “Car Talk” on NPR for the accents as I drove down planned roads past cattle, palm trees, and oil rigs. But at Jan’s and at the Nook, I felt like I was in the home of family.

 

This past Ascension Thursday, my youngest son and I landed in Houston, his first visit since we moved when he was five. Now 23, and an environmental engineer, he made acute observations. “Mom, there’s no place for the water to go when it rains here! Why would anyone build a city on a swamp?” And, as we passed a retention ditch, “Mom, water is just never supposed to be that color.”

We were there for the wedding of the youngest daughter in a family of friends that we knew through Jan. She and my son spent many hours together, each the baby of a large family, and they stayed in touch through letters and Facebook. They shared a love of God, theology, bad puns, and our families and friends. The groom even looked like my son. We were there to celebrate. We were there for the wedding. And we were there to see Jan before the cancer took her all. John stayed with the groomsmen at the bride’s house (she and the bridesmaids were at her sister’s home) and I stayed with Mark and Jan, so I had a rental car.

Jan had lost weight from the cancer, and her luxurious  long black hair was replaced with a thick shock of greyer hair that still looked healthy and stylish. She did not have a lot of energy, but she insisted on doing the dishes herself, and cooked us a casserole and gave me the recipe as she gave me pointers on beating diabetes. She gave me tricks for living with my difficult medicines, and described how she overcame the need for it through diet.

We all understood that she was dying. She had surgery and chemo, radiation and immunotherapy, and each thing worked until it didn’t. I had been de-cluttering our house in preparation for downsizing, and our mutual friends had been helping her do the same, finding homes for her late mother’s doll-making things and for Jan’s fabrics and notions.

I think that part of being a good guest is to give the family chunks of time without you. Mark had to work, and Jan had to sleep. I was to drive a guest to the wedding, and I went out to learn the route to her place, the wedding site, and the reception site in advance, so I wouldn’t get lost on the big day.

I also took a side trip.

I drove past our old neighborhood in Webster, Texas; I drove to our old house (but didn’t leave the car), past the children’s school, and off to Friendswood. The stores had all changed names and places, the library was now in the old bank building, but the Shepherd’s Nook was still there. I pulled into the driveway with a familiar crunch, and opened the door to find the store was ever the same.

I walked through the rooms with nostalgia and appreciation, stopping to choose a gift for my friend’s granddaughter and a dress for my own. I chose some books for the flight home. I wandered past shoes and boots, hats and negligees, silver trays from someone’s 25th anniversary and balls of yarn, marveling at the continuing kindness of strangers. Before I came, after I left, and surely after I came home, these volunteers collected, sorted, and displayed donations, told which color looked best on you and set aside good books for someone’s kid, folded and re-hung the things people had tried on so the shop would be orderly and the customers would have dignity as they looked for what they needed, and what, thanks to these kind people, they could afford.

It was with heightened gratitude for what was and what is that I went to the wedding, to my brother-in-law’s book signing, to our old parish downtown for Saturday vigil and to my in-laws’ Greek church for Liturgy on Sunday. When I got to sit around Monday with Jan and a friend and talk about nothing important — jury duty and road tests, licenses and quilting — I valued each second. Happiness doesn’t have to be complicated.

My life in Connecticut has been very different from our life in Texas, because suddenly I was the mother of teenagers rather than toddlers. We live in a town rather like Friendswood, though, full of churches determined to help people. The Episcopalian church in town even had a house turned resale shop, “The Golden Rooster,” until three years ago. And I bought nice silk scarves, a stunning jacket, and some kicky earrings there.

But the days of toddlers who outgrew their clothes, elementary students in need of toys and books, middle school students who needed new khakis for their changing bodies, and a baby who was happy with anything he could chew on are over. I miss those days. I miss our friends. I miss the little blue house of a store that provided for them so well for so long. I miss the straight roads, and the cows, the sunlight and the sky that stretched over them all.

And I miss my sister-in-law.

 

 

 

 

Radishes

April is National Poetry Month.

When my children were younger, I went through a phase where I tried to get them to appreciate poetry by reading it to them at the dinner table. They were, at the time, the opposite of appreciative. It’s not that we didn’t read at the table — my husband had moved bedtime stories to dinnertime as their tastes went from Richard Scarry to “Lord of the Rings.” But they wanted stories, not poems. And especially not the poem that I tried to make them love.

I had chosen a Japanese poem, “The Man Pulling Radishes,” by Kobayashi Issa, who lived around the time America was founded. It’s a simple poem, not even a haiku (at least in English), but it encompasses so much. The translator, Robert Hass, is still alive, and I don’t know enough about copyright law to know if I can post his translation here, but it’s absolutely beautiful. Here’s a link.

I love the poem because in three short lines, Issa (and Hass) accomplish and teach so much:

– The man pulling radishes had nothing to use but the radish, but
– the man seeking his way didn’t know where he should go, but the man pulling radishes did, and yet
– the seeker will continue on his way, and the man with the radishes will keep pulling radishes.
– Sometimes all you have is a radish. God will make it enough.
– Even though all someone has to point the way is a radish, it’s enough to get you started.

Radishes are easy to plant, and are one of the first things to come up. And so this might set the time of the encounter for us — early Spring, and the seeker is out seeking, and the man who planted the radishes is harvesting them. Each of us has a task.

My children’s reaction, though, was horror at the idea of me reading poetry every night during great story time, followed by derision of the poem for its brevity and content. Radishes became a running joke. When they encountered a bad poem at school, they’d shake their heads and say something about it being worse than radishes. When my mother-in-law gifted me with a GPS, a glorious day for everyone I’ve ever driven anyplace, they joked that now I don’t have to ask men pulling radishes. Whenever I served radishes, they quoted the poem, and rolled their eyes. They brought me radishes on a plate when a poem I was working on was not going well. And when they learned that a place called “Radish Magazine” reprinted my Guy Soup recipe but that I had signed away the right to a reprint fee from the place it was first published, their laughter was complete. Mom and her radishes. The irony was that yes, I had been trying to point the way with the radish poem. Instead, I was afraid that I had ruined poetry — and radishes — for them forever.

But then something amazing happened. Their adolescence (April, 1999 – June 2014) ended, and they became lovely adults, some of whom appreciate poetry. And my adult daughter chose this very poem to post on her Facebook page for National Poetry Month. “Today’s poem is beautiful both in its simplicity and in all the years of solid joke material it’s brought us since its Lardas Family debut. This one’s for you, mom!”

Well.

Plant those seeds, whether radishes or love of poetry. When you harvest them, you can point somebody’s way.