After three weeks away and an 18-hour drive home, the kids and I pulled into the driveway. I unlocked the doors and opened the back hatch, handing bundles to the boys as they made their way inside. There, in the waning light, I saw several dandelion plants nearly as tall as the 11 year old dragging a suitcase up the front steps. Long green blades of grass – not grass I had planted – poked up between the paving stones and around the azaleas, visibly proud of how quickly and well it had grown. And even the enthusiastic grass had nothing on the tomatoes: they had grown exuberantly, abundantly, outrageously, and then, exhausted, had laid their heavy branches down on the sidewalk, creating a thick verdant obstacle course for passersby. The plants were out of control.

I paused, arms laden with the miscellaneous car detritus that appears at the end of a long road trip, and shook my head slowly – as if I could somehow reconcile this sight with Andre’s text from last night: “I did some trimming of the garden so you wouldn’t be totally horrified, but you will still want to get out there to rip stuff up.”

I was, in fact, totally horrified.

As I stood, rooted to the spot, our neighbor Mike came over to welcome us home. I sputtered something about giant dandelions and he laughed, “Yeah, Andre didn’t get a lot of gardening done while he was home*.” Mike had watered the plants while we were away, and he’d kept at it even once Andre came home because Andre had to work. Now, together, we stared at the wild tangle that occupied the space previously known as the front yard.

“Girl,” said Mike, “get in there and get some sleep. We can deal with this tomorrow. I’ll help with the tomatoes.”

Saturday arrived, hot and humid. I rummaged through the shed and found stakes, twine, a small garden fork and a large yard waste bag. The morning was for pulling things. Out came the dandelions (really sow thistle), carefully culled so that their fluff didn’t spread seeds everywhere. Up came the grass – and more grass and more grass and many little bulbs. What was this stuff? I wiped the sweat from my forehead and checked my phone: nutgrass? nutsedge? Who cares? I ripped it out ruthlessly. 

I paused for a long walk and a short lunch. The afternoon heat was more than I could handle, even with water, but after dinner Mike showed up, as promised. We staked one tomato plant after another, slowly clearing the sidewalk as we discovered dozens of green orbs hidden in the leaves. For a while he tied and I weeded. Then he weeded a little, too. Then I weeded some more. By the time the sun was setting, we had overfilled the yard waste bag and were both happily dripping with sweat. I wiped a dirty hand across my face, stood up and stretched, high and long. 

“It looks good,” I declared. 
“That it does,” he agreed.
“I’ve got more to do tomorrow.”
“Yes, you do. It’s a good job done for today, though.”

We surveyed the yard – tomatoes upright, paving stones visible, azaleas able to breathe – and said goodnight. I went inside and washed off the dirt, then fell asleep knowing that all that uprooting really meant coming home.

*To be clear, the house was immaculate and he’d left cold beer in the fridge and lovely treats for us to discover, so I’m not complaining. Not everyone is a gardener.

At the cafe

I only planned one museum visit for this trip because I knew that Eric would not likely be a big fan. Still, I love the Musee d’Orsay, and I haven’t been to Paris in 15 years – 15! – so I couldn’t resist. We had tickets for the earliest admission time and, after an extremely quick walk through the temporary Gaudi exhibit, we headed directly for the Impressionists to take advantage of our morning energy and the relatively smaller morning crowds.

Eric didn’t last long, Monet be damned. In fact, he quickly determined that he preferred the benches to anything else. (Granted, the benches are art in their own right – “Water Block” by Tokujin Yoshioka – but I’m pretty sure that’s not what attracted Eric.) He looked at the paintings for a room or two, then raced ahead to the end of the exhibit. There, he waited a few minutes, then returned to complain politely, then went ahead again. This cycle repeated several times. Each time, I showed him one piece or offered one idea; he listened & then left.

Portrait of an 11 year old at the Musee d’Orsay

On his third return trip, Eric told me that a) he needed something to drink and b) there was a cafe at the end of the exhibit and c) it opened at 11. I agreed that we could go, suggested that my mom catch up to us after she looked at some more art, and wandered towards what I assumed would be an overpriced bottle of water and a Fanta at a museum kiosk thing.

A casual glance upended my expectations: sunlight spilled into a large, open room through the giant clock that dominated the far wall – a reminder that the museum was originally a train station. The yellow walls seemed luminous and everywhere bell-shaped pendant lights covered in golden squares glowed. As Eric dragged me into line – of course there was a line – I worried briefly about what I had just agreed to.

The photo from TripAdvisor is better than what I took

Minutes later the cafe opened, and we were shown to a table. Since we were among the first to order, we snagged some of the croissants and pain au chocolat to accompany our drinks. Our server poured our drinks with a flourish, teasing Eric, and we felt well looked-after. As I finished my tea (Eric’s Orangina was gone in a flash), an older man at the next table asked my mother, in French, if Eric was her grandson. I translated, she said yes, and the man told her that he was beautiful – he repeated it carefully in English, to make sure she understood. He struck up a conversation – much to his young nephew’s chagrin – and, although he was from Brazil, insisted on speaking French to Eric. Eventually, we called for our bill, and as we left, the gentleman told Eric that he must see Manet’s The Fifer before he left.

Was it the croissant? the cafe? the man who took the time to notice Eric and talk to him? I don’t know, but we managed to enjoy another hour of the museum – statues, models, and paintings, including, yes, The Fifer – before it was time to move on. My guess is that Eric will remember the setting and the conversation for at least as long as he remembers the artwork. I suspect I might, too.

The setting, the kid & the croissant
Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this weekly space for teachers to write and share.

Family Reunion

What I want to say is that it is a terrible idea to start a 17-hour drive the day after the school year ends. And that this is the reason we somehow forgot my suitcase. And that I had packed all the toothpaste, among other things. And that I had to replace everything which is part of the reason I was fussy until about four hours ago.

What I want to say is that 18 people in one house is, more or less, 12 too many, even if one of them is my adorable 13 month old niece who, for reasons none of us can quite fathom, is basically happy all of the time.

What I want to say is that South Carolina is hot, even at the beach, and that most of us are ridiculously sunburned even though we’ve only been here three days. And we were too far away to really appreciate yesterday’s fireworks, and what were we celebrating, really, since each day the beach appears to be full of straight white couples and Roe has been overturned and there were 21 mass shootings in the US between July 1st and 4th and as we drove down here we passed within spitting distance of at least two of them.

But then I meet my sister’s partner, a woman who makes her very happy and who, as it turns out, makes a delicious daiquiri. And my Cuban sister-in-law is tucked away in the shade, reading and cooing at the baby. And my brothers are on the beach, kicking a soccer ball with my son while my partner plays in the ocean with my nephews. And I marvel that my family has dealt with addiction and divorce and depression and suicide attempts and miscarriage and abortion and money troubles and the list goes on and on. Some of us own guns; some of us abhor guns. Some of us are vegan; some of us are enthusiastic meat-eaters. Some of us have MDs; some of us never finished college.

By all rights, we should not get along at all, and sometimes we don’t, but for the week of the family reunion, day after day we laugh and love and find the things we have in common. The grill sets off the fire alarm – again – and the kids try to fill the pool with water balloons and then, after dinner, we have a birthday cake to celebrate birthdays we’ve missed. Tonight, we are all in the main room with the baseball game on mute while Jamie and Donna serenade us with old time bluegrass music and about half the family sings the chorus.

This family reunion – so many of us joined in such unexpected ways – doesn’t fix everything, of course, but it’s not nothing. Some nights, once I’ve recovered from the long drive and the end of the school year and all its attendant fatigue, I think it might be (almost) everything.

Many thanks to Two Writing Teachers, whose weekly Slice of Life keeps me writing and thinking.