PEACHES ARE RIPE

The day is too pretty for a funeral. We file in and nod to everyone we know, which is everyone, slide into a pew next to my father. I’m glad he’s here. In the middle of the front row – exactly where I was sitting six months ago – is a grieving son. A neighbor. I wonder if he’s memorizing the weave of his suit trousers. I know the threads of my grey dress slacks by heart. But then the minister’s saying something about Uncle Harry’s hands. Was she inspired by my own sort of ode to my mother’s? Or is this something people always remark on at funerals? I look at my own hands; small, square, simple. I see no secrets in them.

Harry and Pauline owned the little market at the center of my world. I remember Harry’s big, rough hands counting out penny candy for me into tiny brown paper sacks. Years later I went to the store to interview him for a book. We sat across from one another, two shy people looking anywhere but up. I felt like a little girl again with my mother nudging me ahead of her and forcing me to speak. He beat me to it. “I don’t have anything to say.” Not exactly the lively interview I’d hoped for. He told me Pauline was the cook and I wondered how many years ago Pauline had died, if she’d make a better interviewee at this point. The man was known for his baking. People swooned before his strawberry pie. He must be able to at least contribute a recipe for the book.

When I said that he stood abruptly and walked away. I thought I’d made him mad. It occurred to me I might be asking for the family secrets. But he came back with Pauline’s recipe book – an old photo album with those plastic covered sticky pages filled with hand-written recipes and pages torn from magazines. “I miss her every day.” We went through the book together, with me asking about recipes, trying to draw the area’s culinary history out of him, and him making noncommittal grunts. I put my finger on a yellowed index card labeled Fried Catfish. “Aw, you don’t want that.” Yes, I did. People here don’t cook like that anymore. I asked if he’d ever eaten eels. He looked directly at me, narrowed his eyes. My grandfather used to catch eels for his mother. Granddad told me she hated them because they seemed to come back to life, wriggling in the fry pan, but she never turned away anything they caught.

“People ate what they had. Catfish, eels, rabbits…”

“Groundhogs?”

“Wouldn’t you like a pie recipe? Everyone likes pie.” Everyone does like pie. At least here, they do. I copied Pauline’s recipe for pecan cream. Brief and to the point, it was a recipe for those who already know how to make a pie and just need an ingredient list. It reminded me of him. So much left unsaid.

“So much was left unsaid” the girl at the podium is saying of her grandfather. I think of my own. The conversation about the eels comes back with his descriptions of when they were easiest to find – the morning after a heavy rain – commingling with stories of rabbit hunting and plucking chickens. “People used what they had. They didn’t talk a lot. They worked.” This was said as we chatted comfortably on his front porch, sharing a peach pie. As an advantage of either hauling produce for decades or being good friends with the owners of the orchard or both, a trailer full of peaches was left down in the drive every summer. Granddad picked up the phone and shouted at us all. The first call was gruff, but generous. “Peaches are ripe. Come get ‘em.” Click. With eight children and umpteen grandchildren I don’t know how he knew which of us had come and which hadn’t but believe me, he knew. He’d say your name like it hurt. “Get down here and get these damn peaches!” I always got that second call and sometimes a third, the fire of which would burn your eyes if I were to write it here. Now these were not first-quality peaches. They’d been dropped, bruised, were found flawed or inferior. They were unsellable. Then they sat in the sun a few days. Soft peach flesh turned to hot molten goo. The bees loved it. So, days late, I’d climb into the trailer to pick through damaged peaches, fending off gnats and angry wasps. I earned a sting for every peach wrested from the bees. From the porch Granddad made a disappointed clucking sound and called to the kitchen for my grandmother. She’d have a paring knife in her apron pocket and, impervious to bees, take a knick or a slice off this one and that until I had a bushel of the best second-rate peaches a body ever saw. She knew how to make the most of what she had.

Is it wrong to sit at a man’s funeral and wish he’d left you his strawberry pie recipe? After my grandmother’s we all stood around at the grave unsure what to do next. Her death had been unexpected; there were things left unsaid. We took the only comfort we could in doing what we knew she would have done. We gathered the flowers off her grave into bouquets. She wouldn’t have let those blooms go to waste.

The young girl at the podium takes her seat. She has neat little hands and I wonder how much she has of Pauline and of Harry in her. Leaving the Gothic lines and dark sanctity of the church, we step into sunlight. In the parking lot a truck from the orchard has PEACHES ARE RIPE painted on its sides. Life goes on. Make the most of it.

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The Talk

 

Driving home, we were talking about… I don’t know…. everything… when he said “It seems like adults hide a lot of things from kids.” I felt the sting of accusation.

“It’s not that they want to hide anything good from you. It’s to protect you.”

“Protect us from what?”

“Bad things. Hurtful things. Sad things. We remember the carefree happiness of childhood and want the same for you.” He gave me a funny look. “Or some of us had short childhoods and want our kids to have more than we did.”

“I never used to think adults could feel like kids do. I didn’t think they could be sad.” I glanced at his face, so serious.

“All adults were kids once. Every one of them. Some things you don’t lose. We feel – just like you; just as irrationally (smile) and deeply. Most of us learn to hide it as we get older. This is what I mean. This is what changes. The sadness – it eats away at childhood, at innocence, and we have to protect ourselves. We try to protect you, too.”

“So you cover up your feelings?”

“It’s like putting on armor, I guess.”

“Oh.” He stared out the window and I wondered what was on his mind. Death? Divorce? Sex?

“You can always ask me anything. I’ll tell you the… I’ll tell you what you need to know.”

I stopped the car and he turned to me. “Is Santa real?”

Growing Up

 

Yesterday was Mom’s birthday. I spent some of it feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t know how to order flowers to take to the cemetery. I didn’t know what  to take to the cemetery. A wreath? A spray? A simple bouquet? My mother was competent. She knew these things.

When I was young – a teenager, really – embarrassingly old – Mom sent me to the grocery. She wrote a list. This was a necessity. I am a daydreamer. I wander off. So she wrote out a list. At the store I pulled it out. On the top in large letters she’d printed: ROAST. We were in trouble already. I looked at the meats. (Yes, I know – I couldn’t believe I’d found them on my own either!) They looked bloody and gross and disturbingly identical in their grossness. I picked gingerly through, trying to find a roast while not actually coming in contact with a roast. I thought I might be a vegetarian. I was surely not a cook. What the heck was a roast? I had no idea. Seriously. Chuck… Sirloin…. Brisket… Rump… Rump?  Finally I went outside and found a pay phone. Apparently “What is a roast?” is a stupid question to ask. A roast is a roast, I was told. Roast meat. “But none of it is roasted. It’s all raw.” I kept the “and bloody” to myself. She told me to just get a roast. But what kind??? There was ham, chicken, Lebanon bologna… My mother screamed into the phone.

“Just get a !@#$ roast!”

Okay.

Sheesh.

I imagined my mother saying the same thing about the flowers. “Just order flowers.” And I phoned the florist down the road. The day she died a huge bouquet arrived almost immediately, arranged and delivered by them. The simple beauty of it struck a chord in me when I walked through the door that night. Green-white hydrangea, white daisies, and deep green boxwood; it filled the entire table. White daisies were Mom’s favorite. How did he know?

“At the customer’s request, this number has been temporarily disconnected.”

Florists take vacations? I dialed the florist we’d used for the funeral. Then I started crying again and making incomprehensible noises at the poor man on the other end. I blew my nose. He asked me how much I wanted to spend. “It doesn’t matter. They’re for my mother. I want something nice.”

I phoned back. “Maybe not quite that nice. It does matter, a little.”

I phoned back. “White daisies. Did I say white daisies?”

I phoned back. “No lilies. More demure. De-mmm-your. Modest. Unpretentious. Un-pre- yeah, that’d be great. Whatever you think.”

I phoned back. “It’s me. Nothing garish. Only white daisies, no yellow or red. Stock, bells of Ireland, statice, viburnum, something pink…”

Someone told me recently it’s only when you lose your parents that you truly grow up and I think that’s right. There is, finally, no other choice.

Fat Tuesday

 

Fat Tuesday and we’re feeling fortunate. I’ve made too much pancake batter, throwing in frozen blueberries by handfuls, the Fashionista cracking the eggs and pouring in half the bottle of vanilla. I sprinkle cinnamon until the batter is splotched with brown. We rub the griddle down with butter and the pancakes start to pile onto the platter. The syrup is lumberjack sized and there’s an audible “whump” when it makes contact with the table and a sweet relief when the strain is gone from your arms – that’s how big it is.

Fat Tuesday and we’re talking about how much we have and how little we’re willing to do without. They’re talking. I’m listening. The Boy says he’ll give up pancakes for Lent and I take another bite, wondering what’s wrong with them. But they taste great and I remind myself that this child means what he says. He’s enjoying them so much right now it’s hedonistic. He’s become a gourmand and he knows it’s wrong. He’s a good kid. I don’t know where he came from. The Pixie – who gave up triangles last year – swithers. “Flowers. Actually, not flowers. Cats.” Someone points out the fact that we have three cats and she can’t pet them for forty days. “Forty days!” she cries, and I’m right there with her. Forty days without the bristly feel of Huck’s head or Tom’s soft, furry belly? “Purple,” she says “or maybe pink.”

Pink? I see my beloved pink tartan handbag, the pink scarf I wove for myself, remember the favorite pink pearls. Pink? Maybe. It’s only forty days.

Thursday and I’m sliding into a booth seat in a diner, shedding my coat and scarf. It’s late and we’re giggling. The waiter comes to take our order. I ask for a Coke, no ice. “I thought you quit drinking soda.” I say I did. I know they’re bad for me. “What was that – yesterday??” and we laugh. It’s good to be out late. It’s good to be laughing with a friend. It’s good to be alive and I don’t want to give up anything. Not for a day, not for forty days, not forever.

Last Week

 

After breakfast the table was cleared and supplies laid out: cardstock, colored pencils, glitter, glue… it was valentines day.

I struggle against the store-bought ones. I don’t know why. They’re adorable and so alluringly easy; just fill in the blanks. But I remember too well the red hearts on white paper doilies, carefully cut and lovingly (if sloppily) pasted in place. The red and pink ovals folded and woven together – over, under – into one heart. It just doesn’t get more poetic than that.

I read the first name on the list of the pixie’s classmates. “No” she said. Excuse me? Everyone gets a valentine. Forget all that stuff about love or even his cousin, like. I’m not about to let her hurt anyone’s feelings. Everyone gets a valentine. “NO. I’m going to make mine first.”

(Yours? They’re ALL yours! You’re the one making them! Who else’s could they be?)

Biting my lip hard, I looked up. She was writing her name across an envelope in red. She was making herself a valentine! And she was making it first. What a strange and wonderful creature she is.

This was not, of course, my first thought. I started Catholic school at a very impressionable age. My first inclination was horror. “Vanity!” I heard Sister Mary Something cry. But she is not vain. Precocious, but not conceited. She simply knows enough to love herself.

Politics

 

My five-year-old is a Republican. “Obama is a bad President.” she says. Of course I tell her he is not. It’s a hard job and I wouldn’t want it. “Yes he is,” she insists. “Grandma said.” I laugh a little at this and she gives me a stern look. “He makes bad rolls.”

Rolls? She must mean rules. She clearly thinks I should be taking this more seriously and so I ask why his rolls are bad.

She shrugs. “They’re probably moldy. Are you going to make lunch?”

Yes, but I hope Mr Obama hasn’t made the bread.

Forever

 

“Where are we going?”

A direct question that should have an easy answer, but nothing’s been easy lately.

“Grandpa’s.” A glance in the rear-view mirror at her wrinkly brow makes me explain. She has two Grandpas. “Mom Mom’s Grandpa. We’re going to Mom Mom and Grandpa’s house.”

Silence. I may be off the hook. She is only three.

“Ellie and Evie and I know Mom Mom died.”

Deep breath. Breathe again. The anger and hurt – the grief – wells up suddenly and I ease it back down the way I survived childbirth. Only deep breaths and let them out one at a time.

“Do you remember Mom Mom?”

“Yes.” I wonder if she does. She’s only three and saw her so seldom. Mom called her Baby when she forgot her name. “She brought me candy.” Yes.

She is only three. How long will that memory hold? The tears are running free now, but she needs me to talk. Passing my mother’s house, I ask if she knows what it means to be dead.

“Can she open her eyes?” I picture them as I saw them that day.

“No.”

“Well then what does she do all day?”

I want to say she sings and she dances. I want to say she’s with the angels. I want to be reassuring and motherly and all that comes out are tears and shallow, gasping breaths.

“She loves you.”

“All day?”

“Forever.”

Is that enough?

Sensible

 

We have a dark and quiet hour together every morning before my son goes off to school. I don’t wake the girls till he’s gone and we have the chance to talk, just the two of us, or not talk and sit in companionable silence instead. I set his plate before him this morning with eggs, bacon, bagel, and the directive: Drink your juice.

“Mom! You sound just like Dad. I don’t want—“

“And I don’t want to get bitched at because you didn’t drink it!”

Oops. Things can get a little heated over the orange juice at our house. I fought the urge to cover my mouth. I am adult. I keep telling myself.

“You owe me a nickel.”

“I’ll give you a quarter if you’ll drink your juice.”

“Plus the nickel?”

“Don’t push it.”

He downed the juice in one long swallow. I laid a quarter by his plate. Why isn’t everything this simple?

An hour later I’m serving the same meal to the girls. It is not quiet. The Pixie complains she can’t eat her bagel because of her snaggletooth. Her front tooth is dangling crookedly and she looks like Nanny McPhee. I sit by her and tear the bagel into bites she can chew on the side. “Better?” She nods her head. It’s a good morning and I decide to try the juice bribe. As if anything involving girls could be simple.

“Why do I have to drink orange juice?”

“It’s important to your dad.”

“Why? What does he care? Why’s he always yelling about it?”

Beats me, but he is and someone is drinking this juice. (probably me, after she leaves)

“Scurvy” I say instead.

After a discussion of Scurvy: Causes and Effects, the oldest daughter looks frightened and drinks her juice. Her younger sister is still dubious. “My teeth are already loose – SEE?” and she bares her teeth at me, the front one jutting out drunkenly as if to prove her point. I tell her about Captain Cook circumnavigating the globe (“What?”) and staving off scurvy with a steady diet of sauerkraut and Tropicana orange juice (“So?”), hoping to distract and take her by surprise when I swing the conversation back to the glass on the table. I pretend to be a brilliant military strategist but, as you probably guessed, I’m not. I get lost in my own story and the girls are gone. Finishing the Pixie’s orange juice I consider Captain Cook. He explored the South Pacific – Can you imagine? Leaving England and finding Tahiti?  – and went home. Went home! How grown up and sensible. How incredibly dull. 

A friend once told me she hadn’t had a hot meal or her own plate in years. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner – even in a restaurant – consisted of whatever her boys hadn’t eaten. At the time I didn’t have kids of my own. I couldn’t imagine. It made me angry. Not so much allowing others to invalidate your needs, your very existence as a person, but to do it to yourself! I would never!

And yet, here I am. The kids have gone off to learn, to explore, to circumnavigate the globe, and I sit drinking leftover juice, nibbling the crust of cold toast from someone else’s plate.

How grown up and sensible. How incredibly dull.

School Days, part two

My girls had their first-day back-to-school outfits laid out well in advance. The spanking new jeans, faux tartan top, motorcycle jacket, and FEDORA were enlisted to dazzle the masses like so much sparkling vampire flesh. The Pixie’s choice of Cinderella dress and silver slippers looked downright dull in comparison. But, given the fact that it was still very much summer at the time, my young fashionista went off to school the first day wearing an emo looking vest with cheerful skulls over a t-shirt with shorts and bright blue high top sneakers, to which I said: Whatever. We’ve already established I’m fashion challenged.

She loved her outfit, loved her school, her new teacher, her friends. She left excited. She came home disgusted. The fourth grade teacher read The Little Engine That Could to the class. To be fair she’d been a kindergarten teacher up until that day. She’s since overcome her first-day faux pas by being “the nicest teacher in the whole world” and my daughter continues to go off to school eagerly every morning in adorably bizarre outfits with hair styles culled from teen magazines.

Her brother? I have no idea where he goes each morning or what he does there all day. He’s a closed book. His sister had been the intermediary but now they’re at different schools. I have him mostly to myself at the crack of dawn and have been trying new conversational tactics. Direct questioning rarely works. Instead I shock him into talking with references to health class or by teasingly poking his armpits and asking if he remembered deodorant. Deodorant has become a big issue here. My ever-helpful husband picked some up for the kids. Did he buy some for himself so I could have mine all to myself? No. But the boy and girl got theirs. Adidas – very sporty – for her and Axe for him. Yes, Axe. I had to sneak out to the store for something prettier smelling for the girl and something just plain less smelling for the boy. I glanced over my shoulders, surreptitiously sniffing deodorants like someone deranged. For the record, Teen Spirit is my favorite. Axe? No. Not so much.

The Pixie needs no prompting. She comes off the school bus talking, although it’s usually about someone else.

“I have something really, really, really, really bad to tell you.” Dramatic pause wherein I imagine she’s been expelled already. “Two boys had to go to the office today.”

Whew. “Why?”

“How should I know?”

“You are polite to your teacher, aren’t you?”

“Yesss. But guess what. One girl in class cries like a baby. All day.”

“That’s awful. Do you try to cheer her up?”

“No. She wants her mommy. She’s not the only one either.”

“Do you miss me at school?”

“No. Silly. What’s for dinner?”

The first day of kindergarten I was dutifully snapping pictures while she waited for the bus. There are several shots of her hand blocking the lens. It made me feel old. Unnecessary. The bus came and she got on. No hesitation, no glances back. I remembered my cousin’s daughter on her first day of kindergarten eleven years ago. She climbed on the bus and turned back to wave to her mother. My Pixie walked straight to her seat, sat facing directly forward, and waited. I wondered if I should cry. And then I realized: She was on an adventure.

It occurred to me her teachers are on an adventure too, they just don’t know it yet. When she came back that afternoon she was full of guess-whats and guess-what-elses. But the first thing to come out of her mouth? “Kindergarten has a LOT of rules!” I wasn’t too surprised to find a note from the teacher in her backpack a moment later. Apparently one of the rules is that you must wear shoes. I immediately bought her shoes with laces, hoping to slow down the kicking off of shoes at every opportunity. The next day was spent showing off her shoe tying (and untying) expertise. Everything is an adventure when you’re five.

School Days

 

Tomorrow the Pixie will go to school. She’s ready. All paperwork has been filed, immunizations given, pink butterfly book bag appropriated. Gymboree, Gap, and her sister’s dresser drawers have been picked clean. She knows the alphabet and can read and write a handful of words. Mostly our names – including MOM, proof of which is in black permanent marker on the kitchen counter. Yes, she wrote MOM in big, black letters and then grew wide-eyed when I asked her who did it. She looked from one sister to the other as if in horror they could even contemplate such defacement. What an actress! Luckily, I have a pretty good sense of humor and my husband is a cabinetmaker so, like the cobbler’s barefoot children, our kitchen is a serious candidate for Extreme Home Makeover. My faked signature adds character. Because, you know, we didn’t already have enough.

Tonight she’s sleeping with the pink butterfly book bag and matching lunch box. If she’s sleeping at all. Giddiness came free with the set and she skipped through the house all afternoon singing about the joys of owning a book bag – set to the tune of Polly Put the Kettle On. From the top bunk her sister is probably still trying to convince her not to humiliate her, not to ruin her life, not to wear the Cinderella dress and silver sparkle slippers on the first day of school. She’d like her to wear something grown-up and fashionable. A tunic. Not a shirt, a tunic. With leggings. This discussion’s been ongoing the past few days and has made a few people ask what a tunic is. The idiots. She rolls her eyes. I asked if the item in question weren’t more of a swing shirt rather than a tunic and got a glare so hot my skin peeled. My daughter is a fashionista. Do not mess with her.

The Fashionista is fun to shop with though, assuming you have enough money. She loves clothes. She loves to accessorize. She loves to love the clothes I hate. I’m told this is my fault. I have no fashion sense. Possibly true, since she’s not the first to say so. What’s fun about shopping with her is that she’s enthusiastic. She spots a black motorcycle jacket and gauzy red plaid tunic and has to have them. Has to. I hadn’t even noticed them, but now they look kinda cute together. “See? See? Mom! They’re adorable! I can wear this jacket with everything. I can wear the tunic by itself. I can wear them the first day of school. No, it’s not too hot. It’s never too hot to be stylish. And look! The zipper is asymmetrical! Asymmetrical, Mom! Can you believe it?” Before long I want a black motorcycle jacket with a diagonal, asymmetrically placed, unbelievably cool and hot zipper. What’s not fun is shopping with her with the rest of the clan in tow. And they must be towed. They are not willing participants. The Pixie gambols through shops like a young gazelle, leaping in the air and crashing down, clearing shelves with a delighted shriek. Or she drags herself behind us, sullen, sweeping her arms out idly now and then to clear the shelves. She’s unpredictable. It’s like carrying a lit fuse in your purse. She may seem like a perfect little lady at the moment, but you’d be wise to remember she has dismantled window displays and been caught dancing with mannequins. It’s only a matter of time. The Boy is completely predictable. He is not a shopper. We spent days searching for clothes and he liked one shirt. A wide striped one he wanted to buy in six colors so he wouldn’t have to shop anymore. I had visions of Charlie Brown, wearing the same shirt forever. This would suit my son just fine since variety is not the spice of his life.

The first day of school he wore an old t-shirt anyway. The Fashionista deemed this so cool it was uncool, as if he cared. The first day for them came a week ago and that made the Pixie wail. All summer long she’d been waiting and now she had to wait a little more. The day is almost here though and I’m excited for her. I hope I can sleep.

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