Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Timer


A month ago I bought a kitchen timer styled to look "vintage." I have had my eye on it for a while and after reading an article about timers and organization I decided I had an excuse. We moved to this apartment when our child was not quite five months old. It was freshly painted and empty. A small but inviting space. Images of the future rushed into the space the moment we walked in, while my daughter slept against my chest and my husband ran his hand along the mantle of the little working fireplace.

I immediately fell in love with the kitchen and decided it was my favorite room. It's a tiny kitchen. The small counter is at an angle and there is a big white wooden window over the sink. It doesn't look over much of a view, but that doesn't matter, it is actual daylight in a New York City kitchen. There are white shuttered doors that can be closed during all those imaginary cocktail parties of the future so that my husband can blend ice and gin while revelers relax in the living room.

I had many plans for this kitchen when my baby was five months old. I was going to find just the right plant to hang in the window and some old black and white photos of Europe for the tiny bit of wall space to the right of the counter and hang tea towels just so on white hooks above the sink. I entertained images of little iron hooks on which to hang white bistro style coffee cups and rows of herbs on that ledge from which to pluck seasonings for stews. I bought a French cookbook and a little wooden stand on which to place it. We don't own this apartment, but one never knows in life, if we were here for one year or for ten I wanted to enjoy calling it "home" while we could.

The stove is quite small and the refrigerator is half-sized, so hilarity and disaster has ensued in this tiny space as I have blended soups and my husband has baked cookies. It is always in need of being cleaned but there is never time. We get the dishes done each night and wipe down the counters and maybe once a week I give the stove and the fridge a good wipe-down. But of course, I had a baby and now I have a toddler. Tea towels and black and white photos will have to wait. Crumbs and stains have marred the clean breast of newness that floated through this apartment nearly two years ago like fresh spring wind.

Someday we will have an area rug and there will be framed photos on the wall. Someday my child will put her own crayons and pens in her desk drawer while her father makes dinner in that kitchen. Someday we'll find that hanging plant and drape it along the window. Someday I'll play WBGO radio while I make dinner without a two-year-old complaining that it is not The Wiggles. Maybe she'll even fall in love with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Strayhorn. Someday. We might even put cushions in the window seats that overlook the street. Someday. When she is a real little girl who will sit for an hour and read a book in that window ledge.

In the meantime there are cars both wooden and metal and stuffed dogs forever on the kitchen floor. There are phone messages piling up in our answering machine and books piled on the floor by the bed that I never seem to get to because I always fall asleep when my daughter does (at 11 or later.) The floor desperately needs a washing but someday, that perfect someday, there will be time to scrub and polish and give it a thorough clean.

We have lived in and loved this home already. We have not waited for "perfection'" in order to enjoy its charms: its beautiful trees outside the living room windows, its tiny but real fireplace, its diagonal kitchen with the white shuttered doors, the back alley we face from our bedroom which looks onto a brick wall and a dark alley onto which I can project fantasies of ancient European buildings and watch the pigeons on the opposite ledge hatch their squabs each May. We have lined up our books on shelves above our couch and really that is what makes an apartment a home. My daughter calls her bookshelf her "bookshop" and each night we go to her bookshop to choose stories for bed. We are most definitely home.

Still, I wait. I live a little bit in the future -- I believe in this forward-looking as part of enjoying the moments in the present. We all need something to envision. I believe it is what drives us to create and to strive in life and it adds seasoning to the tranquil joy of the present.

 I keep the timer pristine in its box and I wait, ironically, for it to be "the right time" for the timer. The right time will be when the kitchen is perfectly clean and there is some order in the house and we fulfill the right of this apartment to be the perfect place it longs to be: a place of order and seasonal celebrations and a variety of music singing from the radio on the window ledge.

Will it be when my child is three? When she is four? Will we have moved by then and the lovely little timer will never sit on that white window ledge in a spotless kitchen with a hanging plant? I would rather live with this uncertainty than take the timer out of the box. I like having it there, knowing that there will be a moment when the house feels clean and there is a bit more order to our days. When the kitchen is finished and just needs a touch of design to spruce it up.

I am not in a hurry, precisely because I know that this timer is in the box. It's a promise from the future. Someday we will fulfill the vision of this apartment, or some other apartment, if need be. In the meantime, we exist with candle wax ground into our carpet and dried macaroni under the baby's chair and plenty of dust and far too many garish child's watercolors taped to the wall because there is no way to clean and cook and care for a toddler and work long hours and make your home a hobbit hole of clean cozy perfection all at the same time. You have to find the coziness in the mess for the early years.

But the timer promises me that this perfection exists. Someday a bell will go off in my head. Maybe when I see my child putting away her own toys and sharpening her own pencils and sitting quietly to draw a picture by herself for half an hour I'll draw a breath and take the timer out.  Maybe it won't be until she goes to school. I am not in a hurry. I am happy in the present of scuffed floors and stuffed dogs wet with oatmeal and answering machines  filled to the brim with messages I forgot to check or couldn't hear because my daughter was singing or shouting.

Time has a way of expanding and contracting while you watch your child grow. When we lie in the dark after her nap, after she summons me for that afternoon cuddle, time expands and I exhale in the darkness. I feel the soft, worn sheets and the peace of a bedroom that is minimalist because there's been no time or money to decorate. I see the drapes moving in the breeze and I feel her chest expand against mine as she plays with my hair. Then when I see her dance down the hallway of the ballet studio, time contracts and my mind flashes back to the tiny pile of newborn mush curled into my arms only a minute ago --except it's been a year and a half.

Soon it will be our third Spring in this apartment. We've had two jack o-lanterns here, one Christmas tree, one menorah, lots of bubble baths and countless viewings of The Sound of Music. There may yet be a Spring here with cushions in the window seats and a little blue timer in a tiny clean kitchen. Or I may wait so long for the right time that it will have to move with us, still in its original box, to a new apartment.

The timer will go off in the future and it will remind me of all the lovely childhood messes of the early years through which it waited. It will be shiny and fresh, while my memories of my child's earliest years will be dewy and diffuse. The timer will ring from within the box and tell me when one era of constant mess and confusion has yielded to an era of more order and design.

You can be both perfectly content in the present and excited about the future. We don't need framed photos and paintings or hanging plants or fashionable timers on our window ledge right now. But I do need a dream, as symbolized by my little timer, as much as I need to stop everything and enjoy those lingering post-nap cuddles. The present need not obliterate the future. In fact, I think it is quite dependent on it.

At any rate, I won't wait forever. The timer is a part of my daughter's childhood memories. She just doesn't know it yet.


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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Nanny Recovers from PTSD

Don't make a quick judgment, I told myself as we rode the elevator to my daughter's dance class this morning. We were sharing the ride with another mother and her little girl. She had lots of bows and a pink chiffon sweater to match her pink chiffon hair bows and her perfect pigtails. A pink chiffon skirt trailed from underneath her jacket.

You know that you have no control nor desire to control your daughter's preferences, I told myself. Why assume this woman has any say in what her daughter wears? You are a mother now, you know better. You have known since you were a nanny that children like to dress themselves. Don't make assumptions. 

The mother wasn't warm. My daughter and I are so chatty that I am quick to dislike someone who isn't immediately effusive or generous with conversation or clearly desirous of forming some sort of we're-in-it-together bridge with a stranger. Perhaps I try too hard. Perhaps others don't try hard enough. Perhaps both. I know I'll ponder that for days despite knowing there's no objective answer to that question.

The mother was blond and her hair was blown-out and her jeans were tight and her boots were untouched by months of brutal weather. I felt small next to her, partly because I am small and she was tall but also because silence feels like a reproach when one is eager to converse.

A child is in my daughter's class who happens to be a television star's offspring. The star came the first day, with her nanny, and tried to hide behind her ski hat and glasses. She just wanted to be able to attend the class with her baby like all the other parents. I wish for that problem on some days, but that day I felt her pain and the compromises of stardom.

After class that first day, the blond, tight-jeaned mother, while clutching her chiffon princess's hand, went up to the television star. A frisson ran through me and I hadn't even heard the gambit yet. But I knew. I knew. 

Our children seemed to hit it off, I should have my nanny call your nanny to set up a play date.The television star was polite. Sure, was all she said. I didn't see much of the interaction, because I was consciously trying not to look and because I was so dreadfully embarrassed to witness it.

Oh, how this blond mommy wanted to mingle with the stars! In a world of status and ambition, catching a celebrity's child in your golden net is the ultimate coup! Don't judge, I told myself, maybe the kids did play well. Except none of the kids interacted at all. It was a bald-faced lie, a bald-faced attempt to ingratiate and get in in in with the television star. Status. Status. Status. How many rungs are on that ladder, anyway, and what is the destination?

I heard the blond mother talking to her chiffon daughter before class today. "Maybe __ will be in class today and we can have her nanny bring her over for a play date, wouldn't that be nice?" The little girl with chiffon bows stared into space.  I saw her mother's projected and vague fantasies float through the air and land on her daughter's head. At some point when she's older, they'll penetrate and enter her brain. And the cycle will continue.

The "famous" child wasn't in class today, as it turned out. But I shivered several times as I replayed the moments in which the status-seeker sidled up to the television star or her nanny over the last few weeks, because those moments  embarrassed me profoundly. I seem to absorb the shame of someone else's ridiculous act instead of being able to observe it from a peaceful distance.

I realized today it was more than embarrassment. It was post-traumatic-stress-disorder. After class, some of the mothers were chatting. I heard phrases like feeder school and waiting list and then I heard the name Episcopal and my blood ran ice-cold through my veins.

How many children had I picked up at The Episcopal School on East 69th street when I was a nanny? I don't remember. I do remember the parents, though. I remember the Hermes scarves and the Chanel ballet flats and the Gucci quilted tote bags and the Burberry headbands. I remember being ignored violently and I remember trying to bury my nose deeply in the scent of a Victorian novel to block out the feelings of confusion and dissonance that standing in a crowd of wealthy lost souls chatting about vacations and summer houses can evoke.
Episcopal School on East 69th Street. 
My daughter loves to play after class. While she romped in the sunny empty space of the dance studio, I tried to collect myself from what felt like a gut-punch. I heard my daughter singing and asking me questions, but fuzzy panic was filling my ears like cotton balls and flashbacks were making me dizzy and tense.

I was back on the East Side, in the land of monogrammed Pottery Barn chairs for one-year-olds and tennis lessons for four-year-olds and private schools for two-year-olds and thousand dollar cashmere throws on four thousand dollar sofas and lectures about giving a child a banana from a fruit stand because it wasn't organic.

Status, status, status... Like a vulture, the concept preys on the wealthy mothers of the Upper East Side and they crawl and climb toward anything that dangles the dream. To try to have a meaningful conversation with one of these mothers is to tilt at windmills. You can't fight the dragon. Maybe in the few hours you spend with their children you can make some small difference by discussing some things that matter, but the beast of status is more powerful. It feeds on long lists of toys at Christmas, birthday parties at the Plaza and visits to Dylan's Candy Shop on Third Avenue.

The mothers have their butterfly nets ever poised to catch what truly matters-- play dates with yet wealthier parents whose older kids are at the "right" schools, a spot in an art or violin class starting at two years of age so that admission to a "top" nursery school is assured, and invitations to elite dinner parties and children's birthday parties.

It preys on us all, to some extent. Who hasn't wanted at one time to be a famous actress who needs to hide behind sunglasses? Who hasn't wanted to be admired from afar, to possess Gisele Bundchen's golden tresses and have her army of beauty specialists attending to her as she nurses her infant? To be a social creature is to be aware of hierarchy and it is part of being human.

But it's the bad part. Especially in places like Manhattan. Status, status, status... You hear the whisper like Gollum's whisper of "my precious" in the cave when he can't bear to lose the magic ring to Bilbo.

As the stroller brigade headed to the elevator, my daughter and I stuck around for a while to play in the empty space. I had to get my head back on straight. I was, drowning in memories of East Side castles. (It isn't only the East Side. I've worked in the Hotel des Artistes and enormous brownstones off Central Park West and towering penthouses overlooking the Museum of Natural History and five-star luxury hotels and houses in Gramercy. Actual houses in Manhattan. I've seen every form of renovated kitchen that springs from a limitless budget and a very limited imagination.)

My daughter ran down the hall to watch the African dance class. I heard the steady beat of the drums and I followed her. I turned the corner and her tiny face was pressed to the glass while she bent her legs in time with the dancers on the other side of the door. They were sweaty and pumping to the music and I wanted to fling open the door and jump in with my daughter and lose myself in the beat of the drums and shut out the images...the frilly comforters and the silk sheets and the professional photo shoot pictures mounted on those endless East Side hallways and my desperate ten year search for humanity in those photos, a search for some expression of  genuine joy or whimsy in those cookie-cutter portrait shots in Restoration Hardware gallery frames.

I should have my nanny call your nanny. I am trying to block out the memory. I wish I hadn't heard that desperate blond mother scratching and pulling her way up the ladder because she thinks one exists.

Don't judge, I tell myself. Maybe she's a theoretical chemist. Maybe she's a poet. Maybe she's a good person who just happens to be friendly only with people who have status.

My daughter is a child now. We are starting our interactions with the world. When I was a child and stymied by a value system alien to me, my mother would repeat one of my grandfather's favorite expressions: You can be with them, but not of them. And you don't have to be with them most of the time. There are lots of other people in the city. You only need find them in the dense metropolis. You just have to be able to manage it, like finding specific grains of sand on a beach.

Let go, I told myself. You are ships in the night, our daughters share space in a sunny dance studio for forty five minutes a week. She has no power over you. You don't need to report to her what you and her child did all day.You don't need to deliver or show up at her house tidy but not glamorous, articulate but not chatty, obedient but not self-consciously submissive. She's just another mother now and she can't hurt you.

So I let Episcopal and the Burberry headbands go. We listened to the drums and watched the dancers sweat and then we trailed home through the snow. I contented myself with the thought that I will never be picking up another child at Episcopal School again.

Now I just need to get my husband to agree to pull up stakes and move to that imaginary cottage in Devon I keep dreaming about. The one where there isn't a Pottery Barn or a Madison Avenue for miles and miles and miles.

Related: A Nanny Says "Goodbye."
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