Monday, November 25, 2013

Finding The Holiday Tree

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"The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole...and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you...I mean you'd be different in some way- I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it.  - J.D. Salinger, from The Catcher in the Rye
Photo of a diorama in the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda. The deer drinking from that water hole.   
In 2009, my mother had a stroke. It was a pretty big one, a large bleed that covered two thirds of her brain. We were told by grim-faced neurologists that any meaningful communication was aberrant and would give us only false hope because it did not reflect  the damage that was certain and certainly permanent. In the hours following her stroke she remained aware of who she was and made lots of jokes despite a bad headache. The following day, as we hovered in the dark of a quietly beeping ICU, my sister and I watched her descend into one word repetitions and an inability to open her eyes or identify us by face or by name. I nearly socked the attending physician who seemed downright gleeful when informing me that this behavior and not the witty banter of the early hours was much more what he expected given  the amount of blood blanketing the surface of my mother's brain. As though he were happy to be right rather than hoping to be surprised by something he had not predicted. I think I said something biting  in front of his assembled group of students about the shameful pleasure he took in accurately predicting the course of events, but I don't honestly remember. It's possible I just said it in my head.

The days following were long and short at the same time. The hours were endless in their hospital sameness but daylight ended abruptly at 4:30. November was drawing to a close.  I sat by mother's bed and read Longfellow.
Let us then be up and doing, with a heart for any fate. Still achieving, still pursuing,learn to labor and to wait.
It was one of her favorite poems, but as for many people who have sat bedside in a dire situation, the reading was as much for me as for my mother. When there was a flicker of recognition a week out, and when my mother finished the poem's lines at the end of the second week, I decided Longfellow had triumphed over the attending physician with the outsize ego and shrunken heart.

Three weeks after the stroke, my mother and I stood in the Museum of Natural History, looking at this:

I had never seen the famous origami "holiday tree."  Allegedly, museum staff  start folding dinosaurs and crustaceans in July to prepare. Perhaps this is as true as the myth of Santa's elves hammering in his workshop all year, but I hope it's true. At any rate, the tree is glorious.

My mother once told me that lighting is more important than makeup.   "There is no such thing as reality, there is only lighting," she said. I remembered this bit of wisdom when I realized that the glossy paper ornaments are lit from beneath by carefully placed floodlights to create the illusion of icicles and snow floating in mid-air.

In December of 2012, I took my then one-year old daughter to see that tree.

And it wasn't there.

It was somewhere else.

Instead of taking center stage in the foyer outside the Hall of Biodiversity, it had been placed (shoved, to my eye) in a bright corner of the huge hall that houses the canoe. And it looked small and dingy.  It was an insult to the eye after having seen it lit perfectly  in the wood-paneled elegance of the foyer at 81st Street three years before.  I was outraged.

 I glumly took a photo anyway to commemorate the occasion of my child's first visit to this tree . She had only just learned to stand on her own:

Still, I complained to the staff. I was told that I was not the first to have expressed dismay at the tree's new home. So I assumed that this year it would be righted: surely the museum would have come to its senses or at least bowed to the the preference of its thousands of visitors.

I was determined to get to the bottom of this. Why would they make such a terrible change? Look at how dingy and flat the tree looks here!

In the course of writing about this small shift at the museum I have come upon the reason it matters so very much to me. I was with some friends today, also accompanying their toddlers on the journey through the dark, sensual and overpowering space that is one of the two largest treasures of museums in New York. I have no doubt I embarrassed them by expressing my outrage to the security guards blocking off the tree today.  The tree-lighting ceremony happened on this particular morning, adding weight to the blow: it was happening as I stood beyond its ropes, powerless! But what control do security guards or staffers at counters nearby have over it?  Why should they care and more importantly, why was it so desperately  important to me?
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.Nobody'd move. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you...I mean you'd be different in some way- I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it.
My mother was different when she and I visited the museum in December of 2009. She'd lost much of her short-term memory, her eyes didn't focus in quite the same way, she had trouble distinguishing between a lemon and an apple. We went into a place of her youth, (and mine, if only by way of J.D. Salinger) and witnessed a beautiful Christmas tree highlighting the wonder of the museum and New York in general but especially at Christmastime.

So the tree, like everything else in the museum, should always be there. Right there near the entrance on 81st. It should be lit from beneath in the wood-paneled foyer the way it was the first time I laid eyes on it. The museum is meant to be reliable, to smell always as if it's raining outside and you are in the only cozy warm place in the world. (Salinger.)

I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it.

The origami tree in its original location. 

 Visit to the Museum with Mom, December 2009.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Song of September

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"By all these lovely tokens September's days are here. With summer's best of weather, and Autumn's best of cheer." - Helen Hunt Jackson

Late September Sun shining on The Pool in Central Park.

Fall has been so spectacular this year - just as the early foliage reports promised (I start reading them in August)  that it has raced by. You can ramble in the piles of color for hours every day with your baby Labrador but the night descends earlier every day and you have to turn your back on the rocks and hills and leaves and water at some point earlier than you want to and go home and make dinner.

It was September only yesterday. September is thrilling because it is just at the start of all the best of the year.  It's luxurious because it is all about to begin. The weather is slowly turning: there are painfully hot days interwoven with sudden gusty cool ones. Pumpkins begin rolling off of trucks and onto grocery stores' outdoor tables, books about squirrels and the life cycle of acorns pile up at Bank Street Bookstore, many families walk to and from temple on two consecutive sunny but cool Saturdays to mark Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And apples are everywhere. Construction paper art projects decorate the windows of elementary schools and remind me of my own school days in Los Angeles when we had to pretend that it was fall. If we had a rainy day we could pretend we had fires that needed lighting and sweaters that needed donning, even though it was 70 degrees.

But in the east I have found it at last - the land of russet colors that had previously existed for me only in movies about eastern prep schools in the 1950s and in calendars sent in the mail from environmental groups raising money.

There is something sad, even anxious about the end of November. It's all happening too quickly! We played by the statue of Humboldt yesterday at The Naturalists' Gate and saw the bleachers set up for the Macy's Parade. The Christmas lights are up around every museum doorway and in the windows of elegant restaurants on Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue. Zipped into my Land's End parka and wrapped in a  shawl to fight the biting wind, my daughter begged to walk out of our way to see the Christmas wreaths and white lights at Isabella's. Heating lamps warm outdoor tables for diners brave enough to eat in 25 degree winds.  The Christmas tree stands will arrive next weekend.

Before they do, I want to look back lovingly not just at September in general, but this September. This one was glorious, and now that my child is complaining of the bitter cold and unpersuaded by the promise of sledding down Cedar Hill next week, I want to remember the cool but sunny days in which she happily romped with friends and, most importantly, by herself. I want to hold onto the days when it was beginning to look a lot like Autumn...but only just beginning.

Marching on the bridge. 

September song.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

The "Good Parts Version."

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When I was a nanny I had a few favorites. One was a little girl who loved the poem "The Doctor and the Dormouse." It's in a slim volume of poetry called "Now We are Six" (I am sure there is no need for introduction) and for many people this and its companion volume, "When We Were Very Young" summarize much that we romanticize about childhood. 

Christopher Milne himself, in his book "The Enchanted Places" discusses the complexities of being the inspiration for many of these poems but in the end he takes a mostly loving view of his father's view of his own youth. Art is always a manipulation, or a carving away of that which is not essential in order to get to the essence of the subject that interests the author.

 The real Christopher Robin's book is fascinating in its pulling back the veil to see a child (and adult) who was sometimes hurt and offended by his father's representations and, in a way, theft of his childhood experience. (Not to mention the public attention it invited --something a shy boy couldn't want  less. ) But even he acknowledges that A.A. Milne got some things right and that for those not so close to the material, his father created a world in which both parents and children find refuge and maybe a bit of that "celestial light" through which children view the world. (Wordsworth.)

Christopher Milne argues that his father got that wrong, that his father thinks Wordsworth meant that we see the child appareled in this light but  that what Wordsworth actually meant was that the child sees the world appareled thus. I am not sure there is much difference in the interpretations. Doesn't the former result in the latter?

I used to tote these two volumes to an apartment on 121st street where I watched two young children, a little girl and her baby brother. The little girl looked so much like the Ernest Shepard illustrations of Christopher, Alice and  Jane that it made it eerily fitting that she took to these poems with such intensity.  She was too little to understand the meaning or even the story of "The Doctor and The Dormouse," but she loved it all the same. She loved its rhythm and rhyme and she loved the fancy car in which the doctor road to and from the city and she loved the mouse with his paws hiding his eyes in a bed of chrysanthemums. 

I had a large library of children's books collected not only for my imaginary someday offspring but to put in my backpack at night for work. Children would often rush to see which books were hiding inside. A hidden  Hershey's Kiss made the discoveries all the sweeter. Armed with chocolate and the books that I loved I could face the long evenings of accompanying children through nights of awaiting their parents' return.

When I was pregnant I had hopes and anxiety. What if my child was not an Ernest Shepard illustration? How dare I expect her to be? And has she become one in my mind and through my camera's lens because that's what I want to see, just as A.A. Milne's agenda shaped the world's view of his own son? Do we rob our children with our projections or do we merely pass on our family culture? 

I borrow (once more) from William Goldman's introduction to "The Princess Bride." This is what I want to  to tell her about what I have tried to capture about her on camera and on paper. In so doing I hope I have not imprisoned her but drawn out her essence. Or at least how I saw it at the time:

"Anyway, here's the "good parts" version...My father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all." 

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

"When I was two, I was nearly new."

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It's autumn in New York again.

Not that spring wasn't lovely.

"Where am I going? I don't quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow --
Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow --
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know."--A.A. Milne

But there isn't anything like fall, at least not to a woman who grew up under the palm trees of West Hollywood watching Woody Allen movies as if they were a television yule log backdrop. And now my daughter thinks this is a normal childhood, which for her, it is.

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Hungry Little Animal

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 "I don't know much about you, just that you are this hungry little animal in my house."
These were among the first words my husband used to console our newborn girl as she cried and waited the  five minutes between feedings that I needed to take a shower. 

That was two years ago this month.

For all October I waited for autumn to arrive. But summer clung. October was hot and green where it wasn't parched and brown.

 In early November, my water broke. Finally. (Pregnancy was about 40 months by my calculations.) We arrived at the hospital long before sunrise on the Sunday of the NYC marathon. This was the view from our room.

Autumn had brought my daughter, or the other way round. Either way, the two things I was most desperate for had arrived.

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