Thursday, October 30, 2014

Season of Mists

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Today I am packing up the summer box. It is a clear, plastic box that neatly slides into the top of our wardrobe. The wardrobe is as clean and tidy as the day my husband assembled it. We moved here only two years ago, in spring.  If spring is the season of not yet opened buds and just greening trees, autumn is its own new beginning: school and cooler winds bring people back from their sea-side jaunts to the city, to local pubs and restaurants, to their boxes filled with corduroys and sweatshirts and tweeds. 

 I am a Los Angeles transplant. To me, New York City will always be the cinematic Woody Allen universe of bright yellows and reds in fall and rainy days in front of old movie houses on side streets downtown. It will always be my freshman year at Columbia, and the first time I had to wear a cable knit sweater. It is football season and short days and candles and homesickness and the avenues of New York City lighting up one by one as the trees and lamp posts are trimmed with bright white bulbs. It is midterms and trains to friends' houses upstate and admiring rich kids' sleek leather boots and hearing a capella holiday concerts in the lobby of Furnald Hall.

But this autumn does not beckon in the way that it always has before. For many people, autumn’s chill and fading light, is a metaphor for death. Poets call upon the season to symbolize nameless specters lurking in their minds; it is a descending darkness that represents our fears, both named and impossible to name. 

 My mother is sick. I cannot live in denial anymore. 

She has been sick for a while now, if dementia constitutes an illness. She suffered a stroke at only 68 years of age: a bleed caused by a drug that ought never to have been prescribed.  It happened in November of 2009. Fall is my mother's favorite season too; that fall she lay in the I.C.U. while I ate turkey slabs with boxed gravy in the hospital cafeteria. 

My husband was with his family on Thanksgiving Day of 2009, but I could not leave my mother. She was awake, she was afraid; she was comforted by familiar poetry even though she couldn't remember my name. She knew, at times, that I was her daughter, the baby sister, and she knew the older one too, sitting next to me while we both held her hand.

I told my mother that when she got better I was going to take her to see the origami holiday tree at the Museum of Natural History, and the skating rink at Rockefeller Center where she had performed for thousands in her youth. I told her that autumn was waiting for her: the cold dark nights that she loved so much, the crunchy leaves that had never to her symbolized finality and death but instead thrill and possibility. My mother was the Morticia Addams of weather. If it was raining or sleeting or bitingly cold and dark, she grew electric with excitement.

It is now 2014, and my mother does not know that it is fall. She is in the hospital again, as she has been many times in the last year. She has recently begun to suffer from acute panic attacks. I begged the doctor to make her comfortable. I begged the doctor for a prescription for Xanax.  Today, at long last, it was granted. 

My daughter turns three years old this November. After two and a half years of harmony, I've had to face what every parent must face at various times throughout parenthood: disequilibrium, the experts call it. Children, they say, go through periods of equilibrium with their caretakers followed by periods of disequilibrium. I have witnessed, for the first time in my child’s career as a person much foot-stamping, whining and a characteristic certainly not exclusive to small children: an inability to appreciate her good fortune in life while stubbornly focusing on something she feels denied.

I love her so much. She has certain expressions and a movie-star glow that recall my mother's baby photos. I put my child down on the street and she dashes into the crowd with a speed I thought only possible in cartoons. My mother has told me she was the same way, and that my grandmother was forever pulling out her hair trying to keep track of her as a toddler.

That's why they gave my mother figure skates at the age of four. She did a lot with them, dazzling hundreds of onlookers at Rockefeller Plaza with her double jumps and cantilevers and sit spins. She introduced the song “Sleigh Ride” at a Christmas show one year and skated on live television when she was a teenager. She went on to dance on Broadway and act on television. She was all possibility and prodigy and talent; her bulb burned brighter than most. And then she was my mother. Her influence remains in the poems I read to my child, the clothing I am drawn to, the music I listen to and in my love affair with the performing arts. She haunts the periphery of my days with my own young daughter.

My mother senses that she is not who she once was and she asks me to help her find that person. I struggle to give her hope where there really isn't much to be had. Dementia loots the brain but leaves the soul behind to mourn its losses. Some nights while I am putting our child to sleep, my husband goes to her apartment to hold her hand, to give her something to calm her down, to chat with her until she falls asleep.

She won't ever put out my clothes for school again. She doesn't remember what I looked like when I wore them. She doesn't remember her granddaughter's name, but she hears her voice chirping in the background and clucks with delight at its charm. She tells me how much she wants to see her; I remind my mother that she saw her yesterday. And around we go. 

It's always winter for my mother now. There will be no more springs and no more falls, even if she lives through ten more.  I hold my daughter close and read her dozens of books long past bedtime. I don't care if she goes to bed late because she is making paper chains with her father. I don't mind if she wants to wear her nightgown and rain boots to the local bookstore. We only have so many seasons in life, and right now, life is good and warm and cozy with my young family.

I wish I could bring my mother into our world. I wish she could remember the days we spend together at the park. I wish she could remember the days of my youth. But she doesn't. I mustn't stubbornly focus on what I cannot have. Isn't that what I’m trying to teach my toddler?

I must not relinquish autumn to the dark winds that swirl this year. This was my mother’s favorite season. It's time to turn up the living room lights as high as they will go and dance to Benny Goodman with my husband and my daughter. My mother would appreciate that.

When my mother is no longer, whenever that may be, it will be more important than ever to claim autumn as a time of celebration. I will say this to my daughter: 

This was one of your grandmother's greatest joys, this season. There is promise in the air. We see store windows festooned with colorful leaves and black cats, lined notebook paper and pencil sharpeners at the drugstore, magazine covers depicting holiday parties, twinkling lights. We hear festive music pouring out of every radio, read picture books by the fire, jump in the swirling leaf storms, smell chestnuts on the street corner and make merry in the darkness of early evening.  This was your grandmother's.

She gave it to me.

And I give it to you.
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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Urban Anthropology

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“I have a respect for manners as such, they are a way of dealing with people you don’t agree with or like.” – Margaret Mead
Before I was a mother who daily pounded the concrete playground jungles of New York City, I was a nanny. The playground is an excellent place for urban anthropology. After a certain number of years logged people-watching, I fancy myself the Margaret Mead of playgrounds.
For tourists with children, I've compiled a handy pocket guide to the types you will encounter most frequently on the NYC playground because it is important to know whom to ask for a spare diaper or Kleenex with which to wipe something biologically produced off your tot’s red nose or bottom.
1. The East Side Mother. They’re spreading out. You can now find them wandering west of the mid-line of Central Park, a whole cab-ride distance from their penthouses on Fifth or Madison Avenue. Some even live on Central Park West or in Soho, but they are still East Side mothers. There are a few ways to spot one. First, this woman is amazingly dirt-repellent. Her suede Prada boots or Burberry flats have a Teflon quality. Her hair, similarly, is immune to the winds of January or the humidity of July. Her makeup is impeccable, and her black Chanel sunglasses  convey her existential boredom. Her child wears a quilted jacket to match hers, and if it is a girl, she will have a grosgrain ribbon in her silky blond hair. Grab a snapshot of this urban legend (but not myth) while you can, because within half an hour she will look up from her phone, wave distractedly at her child, who will be swinging with the aid of her nanny, and briskly vanish. She is going somewhere very important. She must attend private sessions with her trainer, lunches with fellow Episcopal School PTA members and appointments with a personal shopper at Bergdorf’s. She is also forever in charge of school fundraisers and charity events. Do not attempt conversation with her; she will cut you like a serrated knife. She won’t have a diaper in her Hermes tote, anyway. Feel free to ask her nanny for supplies if you are desperate.
2. The Hipster Father. Just as many birds have distinctive tail colors that make them easy to spot, the Hipster Father is instantly recognizable from his bright orange sneakers. I don’t know who started this orange thing, but it isn't going anywhere among fathers who play in Brooklyn-based bands and have penchants for vegan cuisine and home-brewed beer. The hipster father loves to give you a Kleenex. He wants to demonstrate that he is every bit as much a caregiver as a mother, and you know what? He is. I have no beef (so to speak) with the Hipster Father, except that this species tends to call male offspring “buddy.” This semantic tic reveals the Hipster Father’s refusal to acknowledge a difference between childhood and adulthood. Still, the Hipster Father will help you with the iron latch gate, he will ask you if it is okay to catch your falling daughter (because many parents think letting girls fall face-down on asphalt gives them a leg up in life and the Hipster Father wants to establish his feminist credentials) and he will offer your child Cheerios or whatever other form of snack he has in his grungy jeans. He is usually a very nice guy. Please note: he will not, under any circumstances, talk to you. It’s tricky for any father on the playground. How can he be nice without seeming like a single, or worse, married dad who might be hitting up the playground for dates? This problem is compounded by being a hipster: he usually looks like a college kid and, therefore, like someone perpetually seeking some action. Be kind to the Hipster Dad; he is shy and doing his best. Offer him a Kleenex if you can.
3. The Artist Part-Time Nanny. You can tell she is not a mother because she is too young to be one in Manhattan. Manhattan dwellers don’t start reproducing until their mid- to late-30s, and the Artist Part-Time Nanny is most definitely in her mid 20s. She is pretty, she uses a canvas backpack, she is on high alert when her charge is climbing any structure: one fall and it could be curtains for her. She rarely uses her cell phone except to talk to her boss. She is well spoken (having just graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts), and her eyes will widen with surprise when a mother chats with her as though she were a person. Her hair is very long or daringly short, she looks like the tomboy sister who blossoms into a  swan and steals the heart of the nerdy star of a mumblecore movie. She has her makeup bag and her script for her audition tucked at the bottom of her backpack, so if you unexpectedly need some blush or sheet music or a leotard while on the playground, she is your woman
4. The West Side Mother. She’s a tricky one. She might be in jeans and stylish boots, but she is usually in her Old Navy leggings and Easy Spirit sneakers. The West Side Mother is nicer than the East Side Mother, but she is usually involved in a conversation with other mothers she made previous arrangements to meet. Her son is named “Hudson” instead of the East Side Mother’s “Spencer” or “Brantley.” She might work part-time, or try to, and she might have a nanny and be heavily pregnant with a sibling for Hudson. She might be just as sparkling with diamonds as her East Side counterpart, but she usually attempts to be down to earth. She and her spouse are discussing leaving the city even as they renovate the kitchen in their co-op. If you need a diaper or directions to a bathroom, she is happy to help you. The Upper West Side Mother is neither friend nor foe. She will not be quick to exchange numbers for a play date, but if you find one who is happy, she might chat with you for a bit.
5. Grandparents. Oh boy. They came in for a few days to help out. They live about an hour or two away from NYC. They are obsessive about every step their grand-offspring make. If your child so much as steps in their grandson’s direction, they will mumble something about what is wrong with parenting today. No child need trespass another before a vague, often accented speech can be heard at the back of their throats. You will hear these phrases coming from Grandparents: “There is no such thing as the terrible twos, only terrible parenting.” “I didn't even know he knew what a menorah was, and suddenly, this little genius is reciting the Hebrew blessing,” and “How about some ice cream? Come on, aren't we tired of the sandbox?” Beware of engaging in conversations with Grandparents. You might take to them because their perfume reminds you of your own grandmother, but resist the urge. They are crazy, and they are not your family. They also have a tendency to make statements to which there are no appropriate responses, and you might get confused and lose track of your own child while trying to converse with a Grandparent. Before you know it, your daughter is dangling head first from a towering structure and Grandpa has wandered off for ice cream anyway.
6. The Full-Time Nanny. I've arrived at the third rail of Manhattan parenting topics. Here we have the most common type you’ll see on a NYC playground, but the least recognized or discussed. The Full-Time Nanny is easy to spot because she is the only grownup on the playground, grownups included.  She does not generally have patience for mothers. You might be typing creepy things into the website “I Saw Your Nanny.” (Some Manhattan mothers devote hours to stalking this site, expecting to find out that her nanny is the great-granddaughter of Jack the Ripper or worse, that she is giving her child non-organic bananas.) She may soften if you badger her with chit-chat. She is more confident in her choices than the Artist Part-Time Nanny: when she says it is time to leave the playground, her charge knows she means it. She is tired, commutes a long distance and works long hours so she will talk on her cell phone as much as she wants. She does not use baby talk; she has real conversations with children. They run into her welcoming arms when they need her because she does not hover. If you need a Kleenex, wipe, snack or diaper, she is your go-to source. She has every supply imaginable packed perfectly into the stroller, and she can find anything she needs in 2.5 seconds. She also knows the way to every playground and museum in the city.  She even knows what time story hour is at the nearest library branch. Go ahead, try to stump her.
And there you have it: the six types you see most frequently on a New York City playground. There are others, of course. You’ll see the chic Parisian Au Pair, the Parent-On-Her-Day-Off, the Wall Street Dad still dressed for work but pushing a swing on a Friday afternoon.  You will also see The Swedish Nanny. She’s the one who parks her bundled-up charge in a stroller by icy lakes in the dead of winter because that’s how they roll in Sweden; they think children sleep better frozen.
In fact, you’ll see it all here: a carnival of oddballs. The one thing you won’t spot is someone normal. Don’t let that trouble you. Most of us are happy to give you a diaper wipe or an apple slice. The other day I opened up a bag of peanuts and 20 toddlers clustered like pigeons at my ankles. Nothing breaks the ice like your toddler storming a stranger and demanding food. Every parent can relate to that.
New Yorkers are not exactly warm, but if you prod and push, they will give in and offer up some conversationat least about the weather. Welcome to the Big Apple, and happy playground people-watching!
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