Friday, August 24, 2012

Carpeting

I toured the empty rooms one last time. There were the drops of nail polish – in Barbie pink – that were never removed. Over there, the horrible dark oily stain of a lava lamp gone rogue. Foot prints, cleat prints, tap shoe prints… they were all there. The ugly faded beige carpeting in the upstairs bedrooms that held so many memories had arrived at its final day. Old and worn when we moved in 18 years ago, the carpet was washed and vacuumed insistently in a futile attempt to return to its once glamorous days. It never did. Rather, it served as the setting for innumerous doll plays and Lego buildings for one season, and later on for laying on to listen or play music, whisper with friends and do homework. The ugly carpet has held onto those memories as it did dog hair and dust. By a corner is a coffee stain left by a now deceased grandmother, next to the windowsills is oopsie paint blotches of an art project, and yet in another spot are the burn marks by a forgotten hair straightener. A young man gingerly pulls up a swath of the carpeting and rolls it up to one side, and the past unravels just a bit more and fades a little further. Soon, the floors will gleam with newly polished hardwood. No longer will I be able to stealthily tip toe into the rooms, the wood floors echoing our every steps. Goodbye, horrible carpet. I’ve dreamt of this day for so long! But first, let me take a moment to honor the memories, the secrets, the stories you witnessed and absorbed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Go Lakers!

I’ve never had fine china or crystal. My cupboards are filled with a mish mash of comfortably used and familiar crockery. There’s the chipped Peter Rabbit bowl in which I mixed my children their first baby cereal, a favorite coffee mug my sister gave me…well, you get the picture. I won’t be asked to entertain the folks from Downton Abbey any time soon.

Tucked in the glass cupboard though stands an odd piece, odd even for me. It’s a tall drinking glass with a gaudy Lakers logo – basketball and all. It was obviously a gas station giveaway when gas stations still did that sort of thing. But there it is. And I find it so comforting knowing it is there and will use it when I need an extra dose of grounding.

I’m not sure how this glass came to arrive in our home, but a few days after our eldest daughter was born, my grandmother came to visit. One of the first things she did was march into the kitchen, select the Lakers glass and announce to the world, “This is my glass. Nobody drink from it or you’ll get old”. Although a strange pronouncement to many, this was expected in my family. Wherever Abuelita (little Grandmother) went, she claimed items. Drinking glasses or cups, a towel, a comb. After observing her for a bit, I realized she would scope out whatever item seemed seldom used, old or odd, and set it aside.

Abuelita’s reasoning was that she was old and somehow or another, she didn’t want us catching it. Standing at about 4 and a half feet, she would greet us children with a kiss on the top of our heads. If you were taller that her, then she would kiss you wherever her face met your body. That meant getting kissed on the stomach, arm, chest, or the hand. If you made the mistake of leaning down to get a kiss on the cheek, she would protest and then scold, “What? You want an old lady kiss and get old like this?” And she was a master at squirming from getting your kiss on her cheek. She’d offer us her forearm, a sleeve even.
Abuelita also shrouded herself with Maja talcum powder, in an effort to cover up her “old lady smell”, convinced that somehow or another her aging would speed up ours.

For the longest time I couldn’t understand my Abuelita’s fear and shame of being old. And then one day as I watched her playing “house” with my then 3 year old, I stumbled onto a possible explanation.
Perhaps Abuelita was not so much disdainful of aging as she was enthralled and protective of youth.

By the time Abuelita was in her late teens, she’d run off with a much, much older man and begun a family. The seven children she had came quickly, one after another. Before she’d had a chance to notice her own growing up, her house became even fuller with the sound of grandchildren. Abuelita went from being a na├»ve 16 year old to a grandmother in a blink of an eye. Is it any wonder she marveled at our youth? She finally had a chance to see it up close and study it, and there was no way she wanted to mar it. Even if it meant drinking out of a tacky gas station gifted cup or drying her hands on the rattiest towel in the house.

I love my Lakers glass. It’s a little piece of Abuelita who has been gone many years now. She left her mark on us all – all seven of her children, her many grandchildren, scores of great-grandchildren and now great-great-grandchildren.
The way our family rallies around each other, dropping everything for the one who is faltering. She taught us that.
The way our women are stronger than strong, determined, feisty and resilient. She gave us that.
The way we lean on God, confident in a faith we do not pretend to understand. She lived that.

It dawns on me that I am now the age Abuelita was when I first remember her in my life.
And so I drink from her cup.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dreaming Bahamian

Today is Michael’s birthday. He must be 17 years old now. I see the reminder on my electronic calendar, put there by my better half. He also has made note of Natasha and Shelley’s birthdays as well. A simple reminder, a little detail, but it’s a dagger in my heart. A wound that although scarred over, still aches.

Six years ago our little family joined several other members of our church on a mission trip to the Bahamas. Before you begin picturing sandy beaches and palm trees swaying to the beat of calypso music, let me emphasize “mission” trip. We were on our way to a week at All Saints AIDS Camp, a once leper colony now converted to housing for Bahamian AIDS sufferers.

The place was located in a desolated area outside of Nassau, with a checkpoint at the entrance to ensure safety, I suppose. The camp itself was a collection of ramshackle wood shelters that housed one, sometimes two adults. The men were separated from the women, but all ages were mixed. These were the forgotten. Here was the hemorrhaging woman, the paralytic by the pool, the Samaritan woman by the well. People arrived at the camp not necessarily by choice, but usually dropped off by family members or friends once the diagnosis was given. AIDS is a cruel disease. In the Caribbean, it is hateful. Many people still believe you can catch the virus by breathing the same air or touching an infected person. So here, at All Saints Camp were the diseased, the ostracized and the reviled.

We arrived with children in tow, men and women ready to take on what we could. We scrubbed their kitchen, weeded their stony gardens, cooked meals, and repaired what structures we could – all in what seemed to be bazillion degrees. We sponge bathed some of the residents, and washed and braided hair. We took them for walks (those who were ambulatory), planned a party with cake and ice cream and spent time in their suffocating rooms listening to their stories.

We anticipated all this. We felt called to serve this community in this way at this time.

What we could not have imagined was that we would also fall in love while there.

You see, the camp housed children as well. Some were HIV positive, some were there with a parent, some abandoned. Michael, Natasha and Shelley were siblings ages 9, 7 and 5. They had different dads, but their mom had been a resident of the camp. HIV positive, she had a problem with drug addiction and prostitution, and so had been asked by the camp director to either clean up her act or leave. She chose to leave. And left her babies behind.
When we met the children, we played and talked and cuddled. Oh, how they loved to cuddle. At first shyly and then with increasing confidence, they would follow us around asking to help, asking for a hug, asking about our lives back home and yes, asking for yet another hug.
After a week, my better half and I knew what we needed to do. We didn’t really even have to talk about it, we arrived at the same conclusion and voiced it to one another almost simultaneously. We wanted to look into the possibility of adopting the children.
Although the time to go home cam quickly, we promised to keep in touch and so we did. And began the process of formal adoption. Another trip to see the children was made which included taking them for a full medical workup and beginning all the paperwork with a Bahamian attorney.
The children were excited, we were thrilled and our daughters began to make plans for welcoming their new little brother and sisters.

After three intense months of constant negotiations with embassies, physicians and lawyers, the children’s mother surfaced and claimed her children. Through a local attorney she made it known to us that she would be willing to “sell” us her children for specified amount.

And that was that.

Just as quickly, the door slammed shut. The conversation ended with her demands. The possibility evaporated when she suddenly picked the children up from the camp she had abandoned them as infants and disappeared.

Although we tried every way we could, we never were able to track Michael, Natasha and Shelley down. But we never forget. We never forget the three children who could have been raised in our home, children we love deep in our hearts and whose names we whisper in our prayers.

I try to imagine myself with a 17-year-old son and two little girls in the throes of adolescence. And I can’t. It’s almost as if God wiped that bit of my imagination away so as to soften the blow.

But that’s okay. I’ve learned to let go. And yet I’m still silently singing happy birthday to dear Michael, Natasha and Shelley. And always will.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Christmas Letter

Christmas letters were a lot of fun to write when my children were little. I mean, really little. “So and so took her first steps this year. Sure to be the beginning of an illustrious future as a track and field star!” Or, “6 year old you-know-who received a perfect attendance certificate at school this year. Hope they give those out at Harvard! Ha ha ha!” Those were the years of suppositions and projections.

I remember the year I stopped writing a family Christmas letter. Actually, I wrote one that year and wrote our family truth in it and, as I always would do, showed it to my comrades in arms at the homestead. The letter was met with unanimous silence; a disapproving silence and promptly shelved.
It was a banner year for the Maxim clan and I was compelled to share it in all its glory. It went something like this:

“Greetings family and friends! Whew! What a year! Let me give you the lowdown on what’s been happening in our little nest.
Eldest child finally came out of the closet (bet you didn’t see that one coming, ha ha!) and promptly became a pseudo goth/punk high school freshman. That ought to help her make loads of friends, don’t you think? She’s played ‘I’m A Creep’ a few thousand times each day this year; we’re really getting to appreciate Thom Yorke.
Our youngest once again failed math, but hey! At least she’s consistent! We’re hoping her deep interest in brushing her Barbies’ hair prepares her for future in either dog grooming or beauty school.
Dear husband’s parents are living with us for the next year! Doesn’t that sound awesome?! Yep, that’s the same mother-in-law who wished me dead, but, hey – this will give us time to bond!”


Yeah… that letter never went out.

And the subsequent years haven’t engendered any letters for one simple reason.
Not because there haven’t been projections or dreams or illusions. I could never have imagined the blessed life I have been gifted with, the marvelous unfolding of my children’s lives and the treasure of their accomplishments.

Simply put: I cannot begin to capture the wonder and surprise that is life.

How do I explain the life-giving conversations with my daughters while we cuddle in bed? Or the profundity of looking at my spouse of almost 30 years and still feeling dizzyingly in love with him? Or the privilege of having my parents and sister near me, of the wonderful times we share? How do I express my satisfaction of seeing my little girls grow up to be remarkably well-adjusted women?
Not only am I feeble at finding the words to write, but what a boring letter.

No, you won’t be getting a family Christmas letter from me. Probably not until grandkids start arriving and taking first steps and I get caught up in exclamation points once again. Until then though, know that life – as usual and unusual – goes on with us. In all its glory.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Killing Cathy

Shortly after arriving in this country, someone – probably my parents – gave me my first doll. She was Chatty Cathy, a large size hard plastic doll with a pull string in the back of her neck, blond wavy hair, unreal blue eyes and a fixed smile.

My greatest joy was that Cathy spoke to me personally, in my language. When I pulled her string, I became convinced that among her many utterances, she stated in a clear loud voice, “Que rico Colombia!” (loosely translated to “How wonderful is Colombia!) I look back now and realize the complete nonsense of my belief. There was no way Mattel was going to personalize Chatty Cathys for homesick immigrant girls.

I know I ran around pulling that string like crazy, demonstrating to anyone who would listen how brilliant my doll was that she was able to know where I came from and how wonderful it had been there. My parents humored me and nodded with what I assumed was melancholy for the homeland but was probably pity for their clueless child.
There were naysayers, well meaning folks who’s greatest desire was to educate me who were quick to point out that Chatty Cathy was American and therefore only spoke English, that she could only repeat 11 English phrases, that I needed to listen carefully and so on.

And so I did.

Eventually. I pulled the string over and over, listening closely to Cathy’s message to me and it suddenly dawned on me that no matter how many times I pulled the string, she was no longer saying “Que rico Colombia”.
She said “I love you”, “Take me with you”, “Can I have a cookie” and other meaningless phrases, but she no longer said what I needed to hear.

I remember that evening undressing Cathy and without my parents knowing, took her in the bath with me. A strictly forbidden activity because of her talking mechanism. I’m not sure what I was thinking or if it was intentional. But that was the night I silenced Cathy.

For a few days afterwards she gurgled a bit when her string was pulled, but eventually she just smiled silently at me. A little mockingly, I believe.

Chatty Cathy was relegated to a shelf in my room. At one point I took her down and with a marker scribbled something on her forehead and put her back on the shelf.

I never had another doll again.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

All American

It’s Thanksgiving Eve and the three matriarchs of the family are busy slicing, dicing, stuffing and baking. My mother is queen of the turkey. Tonight she is lovingly marinating the bird and preparing her now famous stuffing. The entire time she’ll worry the bird is much too big and there’s no way any group of human can nor should consume this amount of food. My dad awaits his cue; it arrives tomorrow. He is the mashed potatoes man. Simple, easy, yet those creamy peaks of buttery goodness are his domain and he knows he has us salivating from the moment he brings the dish to the serving table.
Meanwhile, 5 floors down in the same building, my sister will be creating her signature contributions to the table – the world’s most exquisite pies. Pecan, apple, pumpkin. A little something for every taste, she has perfected these sweet offerings over the years to the point where no other pie can compare. And woe to whoever should try!
A few minutes away, I am in my kitchen watching the cranberries jump and split, thinly slicing shallots, stuffing sugar pumpkins… I am the side dish lady. Saddled with two vegetarians in my household (who of course bring along other vegetarians on this fowl centered holiday) I was delegated the vegies. Each year I try something a little different, hoping to sate the obvious loss those vegetarians must feel upon seeing the gloried golden bird arrive.

What’s funny about this family scenario is that Thanksgiving was a complete mystery to my family of origin when I was growing up. It was labeled as “an American holiday” by my parents, and they seized the wonderful advantage of not having to work their assorted jobs and shifts but that was it. Turkey? Heavens no! That was for Christmas! Cranberries? Mija! They look poisonous.
At some point, either my sister or I insisted on something special for the holiday and my parents began taking us to Wan Q for dinner on Thanksgiving.
A Polynesian themed restaurant, you couldn’t have designed a kitschier stereotype of all things Asian. But they had cloth napkins. You ordered from a menu, family style. And so it was deemed “our special Thanksgiving”.

We did this for many years until one year my mom’s baby sister, who had come to live with us and was a freshman in college, somehow convinced my parents to join the millions of other November-turkey and cranberry eaters of the country. I don’t really remember that meal. What I do remember was missing the fake tiki torches and canned ukulele music from Wan Q. I missed the fried rice (hold the peas and carrots ‘cause who puts that in their arroz con pollo?), the crispy won tons with unnaturally red sweet stickiness and the mysterious fortune cookies.

Tomorrow afternoon we’ll gather around my parents’ dining room table; my sister and I contributing not just our culinary offerings, but husbands to help in the cleanup; my 98 year old father in law missing his beloved wife; my daughters with their special friends. We will all hold hands as we say grace, thankful for another year of blessed bounty and unity.

And I will be remembering Wan Q and a season of thankfulness in a strange land.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Baby turns older...

There is no other reason for my absence from the blogging world than sheer unadulterated laziness. Plain and simple. Having confessed, I will await absolution.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my 25 plus years of parenting. I’ve been blessed with two remarkable daughters, each one unique and beloved, each one extraordinarily gifted and singularly quirky. I’ve savored each season, every phase of being their mom. Some were sweet, others tart … but regardless, each one molded and shaped me into the person I am today. It also gave me an appreciation of then and now, the richness and profundity of what has been, but also the wonder and excitement of what will be.
Last night, my eldest (now 25) came home with a friend after having dinner out. They came home in a most grown up way – to have a cup of tea and chat. And although the evening began that way, soon my daughter was hiding in a large box breathlessly waiting to jump out and scare her dad when he arrived. I could hear her breathing heavily, suppressing giggles inside the box while her friend hid in the bathroom also laughing.
I recognized this young woman, professional graphic designer and musician, as the same little girl who would devise complex mazes and art installations for her father to inspect and experience when he came home from work.

Today we’re celebrating my youngest daughter’s birthday.

In years past, that would have meant baking a Barbie cake, and making a pan of homemade macaroni and cheese. There would be two presents to her from us– a “need” (usually a winter coat) and a “want” (Barbie and her accouterments). There would be significant cuddling and a retelling of the day of her birth. It was a perfectly sunny but crisp Monday morning, yes Dad was in the delivery room, no it wasn’t as long as her sister’s delivery, yes I got to hold her right away, no she didn’t cry but instead looked around the room inquisitively and yes – yes! She was the most beautiful little baby in the whole entire world, absolutely perfect in every single way.
This would usually lead to a round of tickling and more cuddling, perhaps even a viewing of old videos of her as a baby, learning to walk, babbling in her made up language and of course, the now famous (in our little world) of her at 6 years old, twirling at her friend’s house declaring “I’m the most beautiful girl in the world!”
Now, at 23, my little girl will come to dinner with her sweetheart. Her menu of choice includes spinach risotto and halibut steaks in a balsamic pomegranate reduction. Gifts will be practical per her instructions and there will be little to no twirling. Although her large expressive brown eyes still twinkle with laughter, she is more reserved, thoughtful and will converse about her upcoming college graduation, month-long trip to Venezuela and other future goals.

And there will be cuddling. Oh yes, plenty of it. There always will be.