Twelve Days

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I have twelve days until I turn 40. Twelve more days until the sun rises on a person who feels half that age. Well, if not half, at least a quarter.

I don't know why forty looms large on my horizon. Honestly, as much as I dread it, I have no doubt it will be anticlimactic. I will wake up and it will be...Sunday. With work the next day, friends in town, breakfast to make, maybe some champagne to drink. And then...I'll go to work on Monday, remember I have a parent-teacher conference, and the year will continue to cycle through.

But I'll be forty.

Maybe it's because at my age my mom had two daughters out of the house and was going back to school. I remember how proud I was of her - at her advanced age - going to college. Now? I don't feel like forty is at all advanced.

Maybe it's because at my age my grandma was, well, a grandma. Complete with knitted booties and glasses.

Maybe it's because I thought by the time I entered my fifth decade - is that right? fifth?? - I would know something, anything. Am I wiser than I was when I was twenty? Undoubtedly. Am I wiser than I was at thirty? Maybe?

I know I'm less likely to care what other people think. That was something that came somewhat gradually. It started when Chad gave me the courage to draw boundaries in my twenties and continued when he moved out and suddenly my life was spread out naked, a light shining unrelentingly on its imperfections. I couldn't hide behind the screen of family happiness any longer and instead, the world - or my world - saw every stretch mark and lump, ever fold and crease. And it was okay. I still have moments of panic when I wonder if I'm enough for the people in my life, but the feeling quickly passes and I realize I'm who I am and that's more than okay. I own the things that make me me. I'm someone who is always late, will never remember birthdays, forgets to take the trash to the curb, and can't find her way out of her own neighborhood if she takes a wrong turn.

Still...I suppose I thought I'd be an adult.

But what is an adult?

I have a job, children, a car. I pay my taxes, own matching furniture, and serve good wine at dinner. I argue with insurance companies, research braces, and take deep breaths when my children get on my last nerve. Is that an adult?

Because I also still like to swing on the playground, turn clumsy cartwheels on the grass, run into the ocean, finger paint, and think knock knock jokes are awesome. I bounce in my seat when a new episode of Doctor Who is announced and talk in depth about the Marvel Universe with Joseph. I play video games, cheat at Monopoly, and can't keep my houseplants alive. I believe in Santa.

I read somewhere that there is no such thing as grown ups. That some people just pretend with more authority. I wonder how well I pretend.

What I've Discovered While Coloring

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I'm not usually one for lists. Except when I am. But as I filled in a leaf in my new grown up coloring book, I realized some things I'd forgotten:

Coloring is fun.

Coloring allows my cerebral cortex to wander while my hypothalamus switches on.

Coloring gives me a sense of creative accomplishment while I'm bogged down in re-writes and beta edits.

Coloring opens my ears to the chatter of my children, discovering previously unknown insights to their lives.

Coloring turns me into an eight year old who doesn't want to share her pretty book with anyone.

Coloring makes me remember simpler times when life is getting too complex.

Coloring is relaxing.

Coloring reminds me that for all the urges to color outside the lines, sometimes it's nice to stay within them.

While I'm not sure how long this little fun project will hold my attention, as the dog days of summer wilt my garden and melts my brain, while the chaos of school starting and work kicks into gear, while I plan and plot parties and trips, and while I come to terms with my last month of my thirties, coloring is a welcome relief from the chaos.

Ninety White Flowers

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"I want one million flowers!"

"A million, huh? That's a lot."

"Gran loves flowers."

Instantly I resolved to find one million flowers. Or, at least, as close as I could get with a budget and two day's notice...
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"Gran? It's Chad. Mandy said yes!"

"Tell my new granddaughter welcome to the family." Warmth infused me, bubbling up to join the crazy-love feeling of the newly engaged.
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"This is in LA." I took the picture from Gran's hands and studied it. A striking brunette sat on the sand, her eyes squinting into the sun while two boys, all angles and elbows, played nearby. One of those boys grew into my children's grandfather.

"You're beautiful," I tell her. And so young. Doing a little mental math, I realized she must have been in her early twenties that sunny day on the beach. She laughed my words away quietly; always quiet when I knew her.
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I lay Joseph gently in her arms, a cloth draped over her shoulder. I hovered over her, exhausted, swollen, sweaty. She was tiny and birdlike, but her arms cradled his fragile body with a confidence I didn't feel. She told me of her mother's death from childbirth fever and of her aunts putting a tiny baby in her eight-year-old arms, telling her the baby was her responsibility now. She'd been holding babies for more than seventy-three years. I relaxed and breathed.
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Elizabeth led her around by the hand. Up and down the sidewalk to the play house. She went inside and poked her head out to Gran, giggling at their game of peekaboo. "Do you want me to take her?" I asked, sure Gran was getting tired.

"No. She's fine." And the game began again and again.
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"I'm going to go live in Gran's guest house."

"Is she cool with it?"

"Yeah. I think it'll be for the best. The kids can come over on the weekend." My heart constricted at the idea that this was our new normal. Three nights a week, the kids would leave me to be with their dad. I looked at Elizabeth playing nearby. She wasn't even two and her dad was struggling. On his best days, his idea of cooking dinner was a can of beans and tortillas. How could I let him take my babies? How could I not?

Gran will be there. I reminded myself. Gran will make sure they have vegetables and salad, milk and eggs. Gran will make sure they eat all three meals and take naps.
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Elizabeth came home from her nights with Chad bedecked in costume jewelry. "Where did you get that?"

"Gran!" Her smile was wide above giant gems and between dangling clip on earrings. Her wrists were covered with bracelets and her hair, her beautiful hair, was a mass of perfect ringlets.

"Who fixed your hair?"

"Gran did it." Later, I asked Chad about it and he said she sat with Elizabeth after her bath and twined each curl around her finger, holding it until it set and then moving on to the next one, sometimes taking an hour of patience and love to get it perfect.
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I knew Gran was getting older. It was evident in our conversations. She started to forget things, got quieter, if that was possible. Still, she didn't look older. It was as if she was frozen at 75.

And then she fell.

I'd heard that's how it starts. A broken hip, a surgery, a long slide. She rallied. This was the woman, after all, who still hiked when I met her while she was in her seventies. She got more forgetful, more frail.

Chad worried about her, worried taking a job that would require him to move wouldn't be a good idea. Four years had passed since he'd moved into her guest house. He was stronger, happier, stable. He feed the kids salads and made sure they have milk. He put sunblock on their little bodies and signed them up for classes. He was ready to leave the nest. She was ready for him to move forward.

Then, another fall, a broken back.

We were told she wasn't going to be able to come home. At work, friends who have been through this before tried to tell me, but I didn't understand. Gran was always there: on the couch during holidays with her camera held to her face; at the table next to Chad at Thanksgiving, dishing tiny bits of food onto her plate; following the kids as their growing bodies outpaced her.

She fell again on Elizabeth's birthday.

And then, on Sunday, August 9th, Gran passed away.

I shouldn't have been surprised. And yet, as I listened to Chad with the phone in one hand while the forgotten hose hung limp in my other, flooding the garden while the world shifted a bit.

I feel my awkward position. A part of Chad's family - thanks to the love of my in-laws who, even if they didn't understand, accepted the way Chad and I have decided to move forward - but still, not quite a full member. My first thought was for the kids who have lived part of each week with her for four years. Was it a blessing, I wondered, that she'd been in a home for three months, allowing them to slowly begin to say good bye - even if they weren't aware of the shift?

And, at the same time, I know the last few months have been particularly rough on the adults. Chad told me she was hallucinating, seeing people who had died years before, seeing her children and grandchildren at much younger ages, but still recognizing those around her.

Oddly, it makes me feel better.

Death haunts us all. It's the specter over our shoulders with the long black robes. Still, if death comes with the visage of loved ones, with the peace of being in a happier place in your timeline, surrounded by those who love and have loved you, there's peace there. And maybe, maybe, a small amount  of joy in a life long lived.
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"I changed my mind."

"You did?"

"I want ninety flowers. One for every birthday."

"I think that's a lovely idea, Elizabeth."

"White ones to match Gran's new wings."

Elizabeth is Six

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She stands beside me, her hands expertly flipping through skirts on racks taller than she is. Her face is serious, her eyes scanning the spinning display of fabric. Whereas I touch first, for her it's all about patterns and color, folds and style.

"This one!" She pulls it out, holds it up to herself and smiles with satisfaction. I keep from cringing, just barely, at the garish pattern.

"Are you sure?" My voice is carefully neutral.

"Yes. This is the one."

With an internal sigh and the very real fear she owns nothing that will match it, I walk with her and pull out my credit card. She skips beside me, her treasure held tight to her chest. "Can I pay for it?"

"Of course." I know she wants to sign my name, her version of my signature filled with swirls and dips.


She gets home with her prize and sets about putting together an outfit. She lays it on the floor, the skirt, the top, the shoes, the jacket, the jewelry, the headband. And somehow, someway, it looks, well, right.

More than right.

Perfect.

I've given up on buying her clothes, on picking out preppy outfits. She's got her own tastes, her own sense of style that far exceeds my "buy it off a mannequin" approach and it extends beyond her own clothing choices.

I walk by the bedroom to see Joseph standing, long suffering on his face, as his sister buttons and then unbuttons his shirt. He's a life-sized doll for her to dress up, a perfect project with his inside out shirts.

"Not those shoes, Mommy." She runs into my bedroom and comes out with a pair of shoes that defy my own fashion rules. I put them on to humor her. She's right.



Paper fills her shelves. Big piles of pictures and drawings resisting any sense of organization. In desperation, I buy her art journals, hoping to keep the mess contained. Instead, they join the piles, page after page covered with flowers and butterflies, chickens and fairies, and painstakingly perfect letters. All signed with her name in block print in the corner. Boxes of pastels and pencils, pens and watercolors jumble and fall from their place while clay sculptures stand next to Lego figures.

She makes her world beautiful in a chaotic, crazy mess.


"Point her in the right direction," I'm counseled. "She will fly."

I want to laugh. She points herself in a direction. Too easy and she loses interest. She seeks out the difficult. Once her fear leaves her, her focus is both awe inspiring and scary for a mother who is utterly fascinated by the creature she birthed.

She hangs upside down, her calloused hands gripping the rings while her legs split. Lifting them, she points her toes into a beautiful line and then, slowly, shifts her entire body to the side, suspended by the strength of her arms. She spins down in a heart dropping flip and turns to grin.

She crawls into my lap, not content unless she's tucked tight against the people she loves. Her legs twine with her brother's while she draws, her head rests on my chest while we watch a movie. And we indulge her love of touch. How can we not?


I see bits and pieces of myself in her: the quick comment, the justifications of actions, the nervous chatter. But where I'm earth, she is pure fire and how lucky am I that I get to be in the glow of her light.

She's independent, feisty, mischievous, funny - so funny, and sweet with a gentleness that draws others to her.

"I wish I could have thirty of her," her teacher tells me. "The other girls are drawn to her. They want to be her friend."

She's sassy and ridiculous. She can't keep a secret, instantly spilling the beans and then telling me she wasn't supposed to say anything.

She's amazing, my Elizabeth. So utterly amazing.

And she's six.




Into the Woods

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It took us weeks of daily work to get the house exactly the way we wanted it. Weeks of sweat dripping off our foreheads as we pushed and hauled with single-minded determination. Weeks of delays as rain turned the ground to mud while we stood and wondered if it was worth the risk of damaging what we'd already accomplished to finish a day or two early. But finally, it was done.

We bent, hands on our knees, and surveyed the completed project.

Morning glories and blackberry vines twisted and knotted around overgrown hedges forming an opening that beckoned. We got on our hands and knees and crawled into our summer home, sitting on an old rug last seen in the basement by the washing machine, orange and brown Tupperware cups stacked neatly on a dented box. Sunlight filtered through and danced on the slightly damp earth while flowers shifted in the breeze. Sitting cross-legged in a circle there was just enough room for five small girls - four sisters and a neighbor.

It was our house, our secret place in the woods. And it was perfect.


Last weekend I took the kids camping. It's been a while. Five years, actually. As long time readers and friends know, camping was something Chad and I did with regular frequency all those years ago. After our marriage ended, I packed up the camping gear, stored on a shelf in the garage and thought, to myself, I should really go on my own.

Then, life got in the way.

Trips across country, trips to islands, the business of life made it easy to say no to the work involved with camping. And, I must admit, I was overwhelmed with all it would entail to take the kids into the woods on my own. Still, when I got a lead on a campground that had recently opened last spring, I sent out an email and waited to see who would take the bait. After a bit of shuffling, the kids and I found ourselves heading back into the woods with Steve and Tara and her kids by way of a familiar winding cliff side highway.

If you've never been to Big Sur, it's hard to explain the journey. The pastures giving way to towering redwoods, the ocean stretching in three directions as you ease your car around yet another switchback, the idea that you are lifting, rising though you never actually get more than a few hundred feet above sea level.

Our campsite was beautiful,impeccably maintained in only the way a private campground can be. The ground was softened with ferns and needles, making me realize we were away - away from home, away from the world in a place where cell reception and internet service was spotty and haphazard.


It was a lovely weekend filled with laughter and Dutch oven peach cobbler. There was time to walk, to read, to play. It was different than camping with the kids as babies. Less to do, more to do. Just different. They took care of themselves, walked themselves to the bathroom, needed to be entertained by more than the smooth rock and sharp pine cone that would have entranced them and toddlers.


I realized something, though.

I've had friends and family rib me about my style of camping. "Glamping" as it's most commonly referred to. Tent camping in name only without down comforters and air mattresses and a tent big enough to sleep a dozen people.

At nearly forty, I'm still putting homey touches on little shelters surrounded by trees and flowers. I'm still building forts in the woods.

Pentimento

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We went back to the Getty.
Every curve of sidewalk exposed a teasing glimpse of her destination. Wild sage scented the air until it felt almost holy. The path widened, finally opening to a panoramic view of the mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west. Homes hugged the ocean side cliffs north and south while in the distance, streams of cars moved their occupants through smog filled life. They'd created a building where a person could transcend the mundane and leave reality behind. 
When we first visited, I'd promised myself I'd return within six months to wander the galleries and fill myself with the beauty of the paintings. Instead, it's been over a year.

I can't speak intelligently about art. I don't know the words or the proper descriptions. It's like poetry, I suppose. I read a poem and ponder if there is more meaning behind the words. I wrinkle my forehead and concentrate on the meter and tone and still, it eludes me like a whisper in the breeze while around me others see symbolism and metaphor.

Even with the amazing Bill as our guide, I can't really do much more than stare in wonder and feel the deep ache in my heart at the beauty.From Van Gogh's Irises which makes my throat tighten with tears to the ballet dancers of Degas and their flimsy pale costumes hinting at depth and color, I stand in awe at the idea of so many viewing something once created in private and the artists who likely doubted their impact.

I wonder about their stories, how they must have felt. I think of their passions, their fears, their joys. They fell in love. Their hearts were broken. They got colds and blisters and had backs that ached when they woke in the morning. To see the common in the unique while standing in the glow of their unfading light...it draws me back again and again.

We roamed into a room blanketed with Andrea del Sarto's sketches, his studies. Here a line drawing of a cherub's round cheeks. There an arm with each tendon stretched and etched to perfection. In the center of the room, over six feet in height, was the finished painting. I stood next to Bill and puzzled over an extra leg extending like a shadow. Pentimento, he told me. The artist had changed his mind.

I stared at that shadowed leg, thinking of del Sarto's quest for perfection, his reputation as "faultless" and, centuries later, the revelation of the imperfections he tried to hide. The weight of time pressed on me. Almost five centuries of eyes on this very painting. Could he have known when he mixed his paints that he'd achieve immortality through those brush strokes and fine lines? Could he have realized we'd eventually see his mistakes? And, once visible, laud them?

Pentimento.

It's a beautiful word for what is, in essence, a mistake. It is from the Italian pentirsi which means "to repent".

I returned home to a pile of paper six inches high, the edges no longer crisp but rolled and folded, the steady stream of black and white smeared with red. So much red. Whole pages are ruthlessly slashed, the words deleted, the ideas discarded and then repainted to hide the mistakes.

I have no illusions of greatness. I'm not writing the Great American Novel. No one will ever read my stories and liken them to master works. I am not even the Thomas Kincaid of writers. Still, the internal pressure to produce something "faultless" weighs on me.

I have two chapters to go, two chapters to finish. And like a painter who tries to paint over a mistake, I wonder if anyone will see my errors. Or, like del Sarto, will they rise like ghosts from the story, exposing my lack?

In the beautifully lit room, surrounded by red lined sketches, I remind myself pentimento can be a beautiful thing.

Now I just have to believe it.

Head of an Infant in Profile to the Right
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