Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fine Linen

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A few weeks ago I was visiting a former client on the Upper East Side.

Her older daughter is in school, but her younger is about my child's age. My wild nymph ran past the little girl, who was so porcelain pristine in her silky cotton dress and cashmere cardigan that I was afraid the wind stirred by my child might knock her over.  My daughter was dying to see the toys in the nursery, which is a Neverland of wonders of huge quantity and variety. The nursery itself feels like its own country. That it manages to contain the toys and the play house and the play kitchen and two beds and has piles of the softest carpet and not one but two life-like rocking horses with saddles and stirrups makes it a fairyland.

When I entered the front hallway, its walls lined with pencil sketches of sailing boats and maps of Maine, and then proceeded to the living room with its Sotheby's air of old money collectibles and upper crust curtain patterns and of course, chintz wallpaper, I was reminded of a famous quote of F. Scott Fitzgerald's. It is apparently often misquoted as having been uttered in conversation with Hemingway, but it comes from a short story called "The Rich Boy." (I looked it up.)

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.
I'm going to take a deep breath and assert that I believe this is largely true. Try as I might, I can think of no exception to this rule whom I ever came across among the wealthy clients I served. Not one.

We had a chat, my old client and I. I was there, actually, to pick up some hand-me-downs which she had set aside for my daughter. We hadn't spoken in a long time, but she sent me an e-mail announcing that she had a bag of "gently used" clothing for a little girl. And to be honest, I was surprised. And to my relief, I was grateful rather than annoyed. (She has made no pretense of "friendship" so one might view the gesture as patronizing.)

Have you ever tried to capture air in a net? That's what having a conversation with her was like. I couldn't help but wonder if she reserved her deep reflections and intimate emotions, even entertaining anecdotes from her day, for people who weren't "the help." I couldn't help but create several alternate identities for her, so desperate was I to put any identity behind the mask of vague politeness that she wore.

I groped for a few topics I thought might work.  How was she enjoying the brief respite from the freezing winter this year? Were they going on any vacations soon? Did her older daughter still have the books I gave her when I left my post? The conversation trickled like blood in a corpse.

Affect is a funny thing. It can both mask and reflect character. In my earlier years I frequently confused the nonchalance and ease of the wealthy with intellect and confidence. They must know something I didn't, talk about important things when in the right company, have access to books before they were published. In fact, they were nonchalant simply because they had no worldly cares. And perhaps because of that, no interests, worldly or otherwise. And I am sure I never saw any of them reading a book.

How I envied whatever those embroidered, ironed pillowcases and lilac soaps seemed to endow their owners with. I didn't know what it was, only that it was out of reach, formidable and invisible. I wanted so much to understand what I must be missing. In truth, there was only the decoration. It was just like wandering the elaborate set of a play or film.  If you got too close, if you examined the linen and the monograms and maritime maps very closely, you would see that they were merely props and a facade of a hollow interior, like a street front in an old Hollywood film.

It was wonderful to lie on those soft quilts as I tucked children into bed. Every knickknack was a luxury, every toy looked like an illustration in an old book. But eventually the air grew stale and I wasn't sure I could get enough oxygen to breathe. And then the parents would finally come home and it was late and I was tired and we fumbled with money the way a prostitute and her client might, except I daresay a prostitute is never asked for change to make up for three dollars over-payment. And the father would rarely be allowed even to glance at me. He would make his (often) drunken way to the bedroom while the mother interrogated me about the children's baths and bedtimes, homework and meals.

I would exhale in the elevator down to the lobby and say "goodnight" to the doorman. When I arrived at the street I would turn the corner, brace against the midnight cold, pocket the extra money for cab fare and walk to the nearest subway home.

Why do humans measure their worth by comparison with others? Most of us do it at one time or another. Primates are social. It's got a dark side. When my daughter and I first walked into the apartment that day, she set down a book she had carried with her on the walk. It was a pretty book  -- lushly illustrated with an inviting cover. My client's daughter desperately wanted to hold the book and read it when she noticed it as we were leaving. But the mother was in a hurry to have us out the door, so she cried.

My child and I ran up the avenue. Later, when we got back to our apartment, my daughter breathlessly related the most interesting story of the day to her father. "The little girl wanted to read my book but her Mommy said, 'No, no, no!'" Even the youngest of primates enjoys being envied now and then, particularly when she has just spent an hour envying the very someone who now wants just one thing that she herself possesses.

A scene from Metropolitan, a low budget film that both spoofs and nostalgically idealizes the high budget world of the East Side. 


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Monday, March 17, 2014

The Poetry Thief

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The poem is undated. I would guess it's from the 1950s. It's in my mother's distinctive penmanship, the sight of which thrilled me when I was a lonely college student making daily afternoon trips to my little metal mailbox. I was quite homesick in my first semester at Columbia. My mother, trying to chase away my fears, would write little notes about comforting daily events: her trips to La Cienega Park with our dog Chloe and a legal pad for screenwriting, sightings of movie stars at the grocery store, dates with the man she was currently seeing and her assessment of his intellectual worth, and most importantly, what was happening on Another World, the soap opera we used to follow together before I left for school.

I framed the poem, jotted down with a ball point pen on onion skin paper. The frame sits on my baby daughter's bookshelf. It's an historical artifact and a good-luck charm, two things every library should have.  The poem also represents my mother as she was. My daughter will not have this experience of her grandmother in the flesh, but she may have a taste of it in my mother's clever rhymes and soulful short stories, in some old television show clips and glorious black and white photos of my mother spinning and jumping on the Rockefeller ice rink.

To Mother on Mother's Day:
Mother's Day is controversial.
Fathers think it's too commercial.
Sons essay in every way.
To recognize a Mother's Day.
Daughters shell out every dime
For they'll be mothers too, in time.
Mothers respond with lots of zeal,
For they're behind the whole darn deal!
This ditty captures something largely lost now -- a cleverness, sometimes biting -- and a refusal to say things that weren't true. It took me a few reads to notice that nowhere in the poem does my mother actually wish my grandmother a happy Mother's Day. Further, she practically points an accusing finger at mothers in general. In the case of her mother, she had good reason. Not that my grandmother was all bad, and as my mother's dementia has grown, her need to remember the good things has swelled as have her memories of the abuse she suffered shrunk.

Nonetheless, my mother is not a dishonest person. At my grandmother's funeral, my uncle, not known for his veracity but instead for his empty grandiose gestures, gave a long speech about his mother's many virtues and how much he would miss her. Certainly the latter was not true, and indeed he had spent the last few years of her life avoiding her.

My mother spoke second. She got up quietly and said "I'll say this for my mother. She worked very hard. She tried very hard. She always insisted on cleaning her own house and her determination in certain areas was admirable." Then my mother sat down. She spoke kindly and respectfully. She did not mention loving her mother nor did she speak of her mother's virtues as a caregiver, because she did not experience any.

A hemorrhagic stroke is often fatal, particularly in a person 70 years of age. Blood covered a full 3/4 of my mother's brain surface in 2009 and we were told to say our "goodbyes." I would love to think my unconscious mother found the whispering in the I.C.U. patronizing and so woke up three days later to make a fool of the doctor who assured me there was no hope.

Nonetheless, there is damage. Sometimes you see your parent quite clearly through the fog of confusion she is feeling: a glimmer of a really good pun, a moment of vanity, an old story she tells you. But much more is lost. You fight your way through the years to remember the scent of Bal A Versailles and the feel of her silk cocktail dress at dinner parties and you maybe sense it. But the whole world of your relationship has grown foggy even to you, who has not suffered a stroke. The current image you have of your parent, veiled in a cloak of mental disarray, replaces the many years of identity your parent built up prior to her sudden loss of faculties.

Sometimes I see flashes in my mind's eye: my mother teaching a combination in her theater dance class at Lichine Ballet Academy, explaining the importance the origins of  jazz and theater dance in Indian dancing. I see my mother applying makeup in her lighted mirror, I see her stack of paperbacks on her bedside table when she was hospitalized for a month in her forties. She read Bonfire of the Vanities in one day, despite her illness. I see her driving me to auditions and running lines with me in the fluorescent hallways outside casting offices. I remember her spreading paprika on roast chicken. I see the young boy who dropped me off after a date when I was fifteen, declaring to me that "my mother should open a kissing booth."

Now the predominant image is the exhausting nature of dementia. The cruel way in which it steals my mother's past and future. She can't remember the lovely days she's had with family and friends and she can't know that tomorrow she will be among loved ones again. She calls to ask when we will see her again. Many times a day.

The other day I took my little girl down to her apartment to pick her up. I tidied up the place and I found scraps. I often find these little scraps around my mother's room. Sheets torn from legal pads are on her bed, her dresser, on her little dining room table.

New York, 1944

She was five years old and small for her age. Her father tried to find skates in her size, but without success. So he bought her a pair of high white baby shoes, bought the smallest blades he could find and had them reduced to her size. "

That seems to be as far as my mother got. It was some sort of history of her beloved father, I guess.

He walks in beauty like the night.
His tennis coach has taught him right. 
He's smart and sweet and oh so strong.
He never does a thing that's wrong. 
His clothes are perfect, hair well-styled 
His speech is clear, he's never riled. 

That one is about a dear friend of hers who visits faithfully and loves my mother for all that she was and loves her for who she is today. He is a rare sort of soul, a gentleman and a gentle man. And this was my mother's attempt to give him a gift and to use her once formidable intellect to churn out a little ditty of appreciation. I knew the poem would be lost if I didn't rescue it, so I snatched it up and told her I was going to copy it and give it to her friend in case she misplaced it.

"Well, I suppose if you think it's any good..." She said. It might have been swept up with the garbage had the housekeeper arrived before I had. And my mother wouldn't have remembered writing it. Her day is a carousel of memories: past, present and future are blurred and I don't think one can ever know what it is like to live in the world with dementia. I wonder if it is like a proprio-ception problem.

Before I was fully recovered from my hip surgery, I couldn't "find" my foot or lower leg. I didn't know where it was in space. I understood I had a leg, but I couldn't be sure how to place it on the ground. Does my mother have difficulty "feeling" her brain? The signals are crossed and the roads converge in strange places and she is stranded in the wilderness? I think so. But then I see a little scrap with a bit of poetry on her bed. And while the poetry is far from profound and the rhymes are a bit forced, they contain a fighting spirit that I don't often see in her when we visit. She is more often than not melancholy, troubled, and anxious. Wouldn't you be if you didn't know what yesterday brought or tomorrow was going to bring?

Circumstance has dulled the blade of my mother's intellect. It has stolen her ability to write screenplays and song lyrics and clever stanzas of poetry. When she was a dancer in How to Succeed, none other than Frank Loesser read her poems and encouraged her to keep writing. That is a source of tremendous pride to me. And if you ask my mother, she might even remember the story. She still has lots of good ones.


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Saturday, March 8, 2014

"An Egg Cup Makes a Very Good Hat"

The poor Wagners* have taken a bit of a beating in my Nanny Notes of late. I have used them to illustrate some of the darker aspects of child-rearing among the very wealthy that I have witnessed repeatedly, mostly on the East Side.

But recently I remembered the egg cups.  I wanted to write about those too, as it is only fair to reveal the kindnesses as well as the slights. (I have plenty more of the latter to share as I have the time to recollect and write.)

My husband and I were married in the fall of 2008. It was a beautiful, early fall that year, as I have previously mentioned. I took the two Wagner girls to their tennis lessons in September and October and lay under a canopy of golden leaves while the rubbery bounce of balls on the tennis courts just beyond the gate induced a near meditative state.

For a glorious 45 minutes I was child-free but on the clock, and as long as there was no incident on the courts requiring my attention, I could ignore the chatter of Park Avenue mothers on surrounding blankets and dream about the wedding approaching at the end of October. I was nursing a labral tear (although I didn't yet know it) but aside from the pain I was floating on the thrill of our late autumn wedding.

I was scribbling vows into a spiral notebook when I took the bus to and from work and I was getting my $99 wedding dress altered to fit perfectly. I didn't want a veil or bridesmaids or flowers. Not that those things aren't beautiful and don't make for lovely forever photos, but they just didn't suit us. We were getting married in an old movie theater that had fallen into disrepair after its heyday in the 1920s. It had once seated a thousand people but the seats had long been torn out and all that remained were a few fading Art Deco touches on the walls, a marquee out front and a crumbling, cavernous space within. The place barely had running water and we had to clean the space, hang our decorations (some strings of white lights and a few balloons and candles) and put soap and toilet paper in the bathrooms in the week leading up to the big day.

A few days before we were to take the train to Philadelphia to begin our week of hands-on location preparation, I was at work, giving Ariana a bath. We were singing together and her mother and older sister were in the other room, working on homework. When I had gotten Ariana into her nightgown and combed her wet curls we emerged and she ran over to her mother and sister. On the table were two wrapped packages. I knew they were for me and they were for the wedding and I felt a tremendous shyness overtake me. I have never been good with presents -- I love pretty new things but I am embarrassed to be the recipient of any sort of token, however large or small.

 I don't know why, perhaps it's in my nature or perhaps some long-forgotten childhood experience turned me off of this particular social exchange. Anyway, in the face of this sudden goodwill from a client who was the source of such consternation to me, I felt an instant guilt for thinking ill of her and her social choices. Here she was, proudly presenting me with something special for my big day! Shame replaced embarrassment as I sat down at their dining room table.

The first box held a beautiful silver frame. I still have it -- I believe it actually holds the one wedding photo we have up in our apartment. Of late I have been writing of silver frames and their uniform ubiquity on the East Side, like soldiers lined up to do battle in a war of Martha Stewart blandness. And yet they are indeed quite beautiful. At least the one given to me by Adelina and her girls was beautiful to me.

The second box held a painting. Ariana's older sister Samantha had drawn a wedding cake and filled in the colors in a wash of beautiful paint. "Congradulashions on your wedding!" it read at the bottom. It's in my wedding book to this day. It matters not one bit how I ultimately felt about the Wagners almost two years later, when I finished working for them. That card and a few photos I have of the girls, not to mention the fancy frame, will always mean a great deal to me. People are complicated. They can be cheating the Whole Foods delivery man of any tip out of anger at the company for charging more money to come to the East Side with over $500 worth of groceries one minute and thanking their nanny lovingly for teaching their children about climate change the next. They can teach their children that status and money and connections are what matter in life on a regular basis and on a particular afternoon take some time to give a token of genuine affection to a virtual stranger in their employ only two months.

After the wedding, I returned to work. The Wagners were getting ready to move back into their renovated showplace off of Fifth Avenue. It was around Thanksgiving, and lush baskets of corn stalks and baby pumpkins overflowed in the lobby 17 floors below. Adelina couldn't wait to get out of the rental space on the slum of Third Avenue and into her newly gilded marble home on Fifth Avenue.

Almost everything was to be new. So what would become of the old wooden side table by the couch and the woven storage baskets and the odd chairs that were slightly worn? Even the set of mother-of pearl-cheese knives in a velvet box was evidently no longer welcome in the Wagner universe. I was selected to be their recipient. I can't remember how Adelina asked me if I wanted her cast-offs, but my husband and I were newlyweds without much money and we could certainly use nearly everything she offered. My husband had recently sold a screenplay and we had used most of that paycheck to finance our relatively modest wedding. Now that I think of it, the very monitor I am looking at as I type this belonged to Adelina.

One cold night in November, my husband came after work to help load the odds and ends into a taxi. We lived just across the park then, but that might as well have been another universe. To the west of Central Park, around 100th Street, there is a group of buildings called Park West Village and while they are perfectly nice, they are institutional, grim looking buildings that date back to a very unfortunate period for New York architecture. I believe our buildings were built as housing projects, and the amount a city cares for the beauty of a housing project is sadly in evidence when one looks at the buildings in our old neighborhood.

Since we lived there, Columbus has become a bit of a shopping mall, with a Sephora and a Whole Foods having moved in and towering modern high-rises overlooking the once down-trodden section of the avenue. Long gone is the dilapidated C-Town grocery store on the corner of 100th, with its sad displays of limp fruit and dusty boxes of graham crackers. Even so, crossing from East to West on the 96th Street transverse (starting around Madison Avenue especially)  is crossing from great luxury to a place where people don't wear Hermes scarves. You re-enter a world of many skin colors and income levels and you leave a world of polished streets and shining sidewalks, marble staircases and fancy doormen.

Oh yes, the egg cups. Adelina asked if I wanted 12 blue porcelain egg cups. I said yes, because why say no? They were so adorable and perplexing. My husband and I lined them up on the top shelf of our insanely tiny kitchen and stared at them, pondering what we would do with them. We would never have 12 people over for eggs. And further, what type of egg were they meant for? They were so little. Too little for poached, we decided, not that we ever poached eggs. Too little for hard-boiled. My husband finally decided they were meant for soft-boiled eggs. He knows about these sorts of things: varieties of egg preparation, from years of watching cooking channels. But he acknowledged they seemed a bit small even for that. Maybe they were for canary eggs? Or those fancy quail eggs they now sell at Whole Foods?

They were the only utterly useless item we kept in our house until we moved years later. We loved their uselessness and their uniformity. We loved how pretty and silly they all looked lined up together. We loved having a visual punch line for guests. But mostly I loved the cups because they represented the softer side of the East Side. I suppose one could argue that giving your cast-offs to the help is not an act of kindness, but even that Adelina didn't want to put things on the trash heap just because she was finished with them meant that her soul was not, perhaps, completely lost. She told me it mattered to her that these things find a home and that she was thrilled for newlyweds to have them. And I chose to believe her.

My remaining time with the Wagners was punctuated by more ups and downs: ups mostly with the girls, downs mostly with their mother as she settled back into life on Fifth Avenue. Ultimately my realization that my beloved Ariana was lost to the forces of Nightingale Bamford and Hampton Jitneys broke my heart and led me on a path to finding new employment.

But the kindness and humanity of people I feel are mostly lost is particularly powerful. It's like Westley in The Princess Bride being mostly dead. The difference between mostly dead and all dead is all the difference in the world. Just ask Miracle Max.

I don't know where those egg cups went. I fantasize that toddlers of all income levels and colors and New York City neighborhoods are using them for hats, just as Eloise does. I love a good bit of irony.

Eloise in her hat wear of choice. 

*All names have been changed. A lot.
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Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Soul Hunter

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September 2008, Notes from a Nanny's Diary...

It's a Thursday afternoon in late September. Autumn arrived an hour ago, very suddenly, the way it does sometimes. I have finally persuaded little Ariana Wagner, 4 years old, all curls and blue eyes and peach skin, to put on a cardigan before we stroll to the library branch two blocks west of her 17th floor apartment overlooking Third Avenue. She has agreed to a cream cashmere sweater with pearl buttons down the front and lace at the cuffs. We place it over her pink fairy princess dress and ride down to the enormous lobby. To the left of the concierge desk is a swimming pool and an exercise room. To the right is a large closet in which to hold the countless packages that arrive daily for the residents of the luxury high rise.

The Wagners are slumming it here. They are renting while their Fifth Avenue home is under renovation and it won't be ready until the first of December. Adelina sighs when she tells me of the struggles of squeezing two girls into one bedroom and having only two bathrooms and no powder room for the entirety of Autumn. I nod sympathetically as she complains that their espresso maker won't fit on the marble kitchen counter. I wonder if a few laps in the swimming pool would help her unwind.

We walk across 96th Street and a sharp wind picks up. It plays with Ariana's curls as she runs ahead of me. She stops to grab a small broken tree branch on the sidewalk that must have snapped in the wind and fallen to the ground. Stick in hand, she dances toward our destination, looking every inch a bohemian Tasha Tudor illustration. She is adorned by the emblems of youth: sticks, tutus, windblown disarray and an easy lack of self-awareness that cloaks her like a magic veil bestowed for a precious few years.

She generates a lot of admiring stares and I bristle protectively as a woman calls out to tell her how pretty her dress is. (Now that I have my own little girl, I know even more the invasive dagger a shouted compliment can be to a young child, a private moment shattered can feel like anything but goodwill.) Ariana is a wood nymph skipping toward the public library.

Once there, we choose the Story of Babar and she settles into my lap. Should I skip the part about the hunter shooting Babar's mother? Should I shatter her East Side fortress with a fusillade of bullets? I decide to read the story as is.

Children's eyes actually do widen. When Ariana stares at the picture of Babar's fallen mother, her body wet with tears from her baby elephant's eyes, I realize I have broken our trust. She asks me to read that part of the story again, a sure sign I have erred mightily. She asks me for a third reading, and trying to repair the damage to her psyche, I insist we move ahead to the next part of the story, in which Babar runs off to the "city" and makes an almost comically speedy recovery as he's doted on by a little old lady with deep pockets and a fondness for elephants.

Both Ariana and I are relieved to be ensconced in Babar's new cosmopolitan life. He has a bathtub, a bed, and a wardrobe quite literally fit for an elephant. He travels to the countryside in his own red sports car. Babar has landed in a nest of material comforts and evenings with wealthy intellectuals, and in addition to the companionship of his sugar mama his days are filled with self-improvement and the finer things.

Ariana asks to go back to the scene with the hunter. I oblige. I tell her elephants are sometimes shot by heartless, bad people but that no elephants will ever be shot on the Upper East Side. I tell her that her mommy will be home at five when we return and that while I make dinner she will tell her own mother about her day. This seems to quiet her obsessive anxiety and we close the book. I gently pry it out of her hands.

Midway through the story, Babar does remember his mother and cries again over her loss. He decides to return to the land of the elephants: sentiment wins the day (although he brings along the fancy sports car and all the other material treasures.)

Jean de Brunhoff wrote this story many years ago, first reciting little episodes to his children at bedtime. It is a dated book, an odd book with an almost nonsensical story line that picture books today usually lack. He never considered that a child ought to be shielded from the reality of hunters. Some have accused the story of imperialist overtones, even white supremacy, but I think it is merely a fanciful, rambling bedtime tale spun in a different, less enlightened era.  At any rate, it is a story about an elephant who loses his mother and cannot rid himself of grief despite the palace in which he finds himself recovering.

Ariana was troubled by Babar's grief far more than she was interested in his material acquisitions. I thought about her dozens of Madison Avenue sweaters and dresses and tutus and boxes upon boxes of games and dolls and french flash cards and blocks of all color and material and the many expensive "enrichment classes" she attended each week and I thought of Nightingale Bamford waiting to devour the childlike sweetness of her mind that right now was feeling for the baby elephant and shocked by his plight.

I wondered how many years of living among closets stacked to the brim with cashmere jackets and American Girl dolls and baby mink coats it would take to shift her heart's attention from Babar's grief to his fancy red car? At some moment I knew it would happen -- her soul would skip away like a dried leaf rustling in the suddenly sharp Autumnal wind. No cashmere sweater can warm a body from whom a soul has departed.

I hug Ariana in the library. I don't know how many such moments with her remain.

An East Side luxury high rise just off the park. 

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