Teeter Totter

Last night I was rubbing one child’s back while I read The Mysterious Benedict Society aloud to both kids. His muscles were tighter than I expected in a 9-year-old, and my thumb jittered off one particularly knotty spot and settled with a shudder into a softer space. “Sorry,” I interrupted my reading, “that must have felt weird.”

He considered. “I kind of liked it. Can you do it again?”

I could not recreate the exact sensation for him, so I went back to reading and continued to rub his back.

After that moment, though, I wasn’t concentrating on the read-aloud as much as I should have been. Instead, I found myself reliving summer moments on the teeter totter in my neighbor’s backyard. We were far too old for teeter totters: I didn’t even move to South Carolina until the summer before 5th grade, and I’m fairly certain the teeter totter didn’t arrive until sometime after that summer. What sort of self-respecting 6th grader plays on a teeter totter? And why on earth did the neighbors have one in their backyard when the oldest of their three children was also at least 11? I can no longer answer these questions, but I know for sure that for at least part of one sticky hot Southern summer, the neighborhood kids ate watermelon and rode on a teeter totter in the Pinckney’s back yard.

I really was far too old for this and, as the oldest in the group, too big, too heavy, too cool. And yet, I couldn’t resist. Rion was big enough to balance against me – or we could put together some combination of the littler kids with the bigger ones to balance things out. Up and down we rode, day after day, laughing, dripping watermelon juice and gleefully spitting out the seeds.

If I close my eyes, I can still remember being the one down on the ground, looking at Rion on the other end of the board, trapped in the air… waiting… waiting… and then – now! – I push off hard and whoosh up to the top where I stop with a hard bounce against the board. Now I am suspended, looking down at Rion, knowing she will push soon…but when? waiting… waiting… and then, whoosh back to the ground where the seat hits with a hard juddering thump. Sometimes we hold each other suspended for breathless seconds between each motion; sometimes we find a rhythm and go up and down up and down with unthinking regularity. One way or another, the fun of it is in the motion, the unpredictability, the sense that where we are is not where we will be, and that we will have to cooperate to keep it going.

Sometimes, in a tiff, one child would hold another high high high in the sky and then, all anger and meanness, hop off the bottom altogether so that the other person would come down fast with a jolting, horrible whomp. Fights ensued. Teeter totter might be soothing in its regularity or wonderfully unpredictable, but abandoning someone to fall on their own was the unforgivable end of the game.

“That HURT!” we raged, eyes nearly streaming with tears because it did, in fact hurt, or it could have hurt or it might hurt next time, or maybe just because the game was over for at least a few minutes and everyone had to content themselves with the dullness of predictable gravity.

My memories were interrupted when the chapter I was reading ended; it was time for bed. Up and down, up and down. We had had a good day, I knew, though some parts were noticeably less good. This whole time has been like that, really.  Up and down: now I can make a list of the good bits – waking later in the mornings, snuggling longer with my children, working out most days – and the bad ones – missing my friends, not seeing my students regularly, feeling like a failure for some part of most days. I give my son’s back one more rub, wondering if I can rediscover the teeter totter, remember the joy in  the waiting, the whoosh and the whomp that are all part of the ride. Use my memories to make my present more bearable. Maybe. Maybe. But not tonight. Tonight it’s time for sleep. I shoo the boys off the bed and head towards their rooms to tuck them in and sing some songs.

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Relax

Kindergarten naptime followed a routine so clear that I can remember it more than 40 years later. First, all of the children went to the box and got out one of the colorful sleeping mats. Then, we put them in a circle on the taped lines. Something calming and comforting came next – did Mrs. Kay read to us? sing? I can’t quite remember, probably because I was getting sleepy. What I remember very clearly, however, is the final step: relaxation check.

We lay very still on our mats and relaxed. Mrs. Kay, whom I adored, walked quietly around the circle, gently picking up the hand of one kindergartner after another. If we were relaxed, our arm would fall easily back to the ground. By the time she was finished, most of us were asleep.

Except for me. Oh, I was plenty tired – I’d started kindergarten “early” and was the youngest in the class, so I needed my rest – but the relaxation check drove me to distraction. I simply could not remember if I was supposed to keep my arm up or let it fall down when Mrs. Kay lifted it. I would settle onto the mat, and my senses would go on high alert. I listened for my beloved teacher’s soft step and strained to hear if the other children were letting their arms drop or keeping them up. As Mrs. Kay approached, my body tensed. I held my breath. Would I get it right? Up or down? Up or down?

I must have figured this out over time. I know I napped because I remember waking up. It’s possible, even likely, that these anxious moments only occurred for a week or two near the beginning of the year, but emotion makes memory and I remember the desperation of wanting to relax in the right way more than I remember relaxing.

This memory surfaced as I read aloud to the kids tonight and my older son postured and played and then stuck his arm straight up in the air. “Settle your body,” I said and he giggled, then relaxed into the story.

After the kids were in bed, I immediately started thinking about just a few more things that I needed to get done. “Settle,” I told myself sternly, “relax.” But somehow I’m forever back in kindergarten, wanting to please, wanting to sleep, trying to remember whether my arm should be up or down. Up or down? Up or down?

If only Mrs. Kay were here to shake my arm gently, lean down to me and whisper in my ear, “It’s ok, Mandy. Let go. You can sleep now. ”

 

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Dutch Baby

My younger son trudges sleepily into the kitchen, still snuggled in a brown minky blanket. “‘Morning, Mama,” he says, as he shuffles over to give me a hug. Up close, he contemplates me for a moment, then apparently decides to go for it, “Can you make us a Dutch baby this morning?”

It’s Tuesday, but COVID19 and closed schools mean there’s no particular rush to get out the door, so it’s easy for me to say yes, even though I made this yesterday. I stretch away from the kitchen island where I was trying to sneak in a little work before the kids woke. Then, I begin a series of actions so familiar that I do them without thinking.

I wash my hands and turn to the oven: preheat to 425. Open the drawer by the stove and pull out the middle-sized bowl. Scoop half a cup of flour – no need to be too precise – and use the same measure for half a cup of milk. Find a fork. Mix – or not. Crack in four eggs and mix again.

Shoot! I forgot – again – to put the pan in the oven. Ah well, there’s still time. My son picks his head up from the counter as he sees me rummaging for a pan. “Can you use the small one?” I produce our smaller cast iron skillet, “Sure.” Lately, he’s liked a denser pancake; for a while we used the bigger skillet to get really airy ones.

Now, butter in the skillet – 1 Tbsp? 2? I don’t know or care: I just eyeball it – and skillet in the oven to preheat while the butter melts.

A few minutes later, I pull the pan out, swirl the melted butter to coat the bottom and sides, and scrape in the eggy mixture. Everything goes into the oven, and I head back to my seat to finish a few final minutes of my own work before the parenting work takes over for the day.

My mind wanders briefly to my high school friend, Julia, whose blog post nearly a decade ago brought this recipe into our house. I regularly think of her while I cook this. It’s funny, I muse, the people who change our lives. So often, I think about the big picture: “Who was your biggest influence? Who is your hero? Which person changed your life?” When I answer, I rarely think of my daily routine, the small things that make up the bulk of my life. But how many times have I made Dutch babies in the last decade? Easily a hundred; probably many more. I bet my boys will grow up to make these for their families. Our lives are better because of Julia. I doubt she even knows. Later today I will make tagine and think of my friend Erin, remember a moment in her mother’s kitchen when she showed me how accessible couscous recipes really are; then, as I add salt, I will think of an ex-boyfriend’s mother who told me once that when she’s cooking soups or stews she usually adds as much salt as she thinks she’ll need and then just a little more. Works like a charm.

My older son straggles into the kitchen, bed-headed and groggy. “Dutch baby? Sweet!” he  plunks himself down in a seat at the table.

The 9-year-old has set up vigil in front of the oven. He loves to watch this simple pancake puff to enormous proportions. Somehow, the flour, milk & egg transform themselves into a glorious airy breakfast concoction in a mere 12 minutes. Soon enough, perfection:

 

Perfection in the form of a puff pancake. What a gift! And who knows? Maybe you will read this post, make a Dutch baby for breakfast someday soon, and find that your life has changed just a little bit, too.

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Mango

Every time I eat a mango, I’m transported back to an afternoon in Strasbourg, France. My friends and I had spent our junior year abroad perfecting not only our French but also the art of the picnic lunch. We would pool our money and visit an epicerie for some cheese, saucisson, fruit and, naturellement, chocolate. Then we would stop at a boulangerie for a baguette and wander towards a park somewhere, maybe along the river Ill, maybe in the Orangerie. For this particular picnic someone- not me – had chosen a mango as one of our fruits.

I knew what a mango was, or at least I felt like I did. I had the sense that I liked it, but I couldn’t remember eating one. This seems odd now, not having had mango, but at the time, mango was an exotic fruit and could not be easily procured at the grocery store. This was a time before we expected so much to be available so often, when the one Vietnamese restaurant in my small town billed itself as “Chinese” but made Vietnamese if you asked. Coconut came only in plastic bags, shredded and sugary, and no one had even imagined pomegranate juice.  I knew what a mango was, but only in a distant way.

We settled onto the grass – had we brought a blanket? did we sit on our lightweight sweaters? I can’t remember – and laughed as we tore chunks from the baguette and wrapped the crusty goodness around soft Brie. Someone cut some slices from the mango and passed them around.

The smooth orange flesh of the fruit slid across my tongue and my eyes widened. Sunshine. Laughter. Something like distilled happiness. I swallowed and glanced around. What magic was this? I took another bite of the sweet, tangy fruit. Again, I was gone. Where was I? I closed my eyes. Happiness, happiness and so warm. I felt tears well up. What on earth was happening to me?

I retreated into my own sphere, still with my friends but far from them, too; far from France, far from the moment. I savoured the sweet smoothness and heard the echoes of bird calls. I breathed deeply, overwhelmed, and then… just like that, I knew: Panama. I had eaten mango when we lived in Panama, the country we left when I was only three years old. The country I couldn’t remember at all. It was the only explanation – those sounds, those senses, that feeling of freedom.

Another deep breath and I was back with my friends. I didn’t say a thing about what I’d experienced. What would I say? Who would believe that a single taste could have such power? I didn’t even know how to describe it. Instead, I laughed and chatted and walked back to classes when we finished our lunch. That night, I called my mom. I asked my mother: did we eat mango? did we eat mango in Panama? “Oh yes,” she was matter-of-fact, “you loved them, but Daddy is allergic to their skins, so I never looked for them when we came home.”

Mango. Now I can have them almost any time I want. In fact, I just had one with lunch. And for a moment, I was 19 and in France, I was 3 and in Panama. And then I was in my kitchen again.

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The early train: Slice of Life 23/31 #SOL20

This morning, I woke knowing what day it was. My mother-in-law had posted this message to remember her son, my brother-in-law, D’Arcy:

12 years ago today, my son boarded what I have come to think of as “the early train”.  You know the train – the one we all inevitably, eventually board.  To those of you who have recently, or are about to, undergo a loss that stuns and overwhelms you:  I can’t tell you how, or why, or when, but for me the time came when thoughts of my son turned from searing hand-on-the-stove kind of pain to a flooding of tenderness with the embrace of the deepest love I have ever known.  I suspect that time will come for most of you. It won’t come quickly, though you might feel it in brief waves, early on. Hang in, hang on, reach out. 

Year after year, I am touched by how she expresses herself on this day. She shares freely what is often hidden and, though I know she will scoff, I feel that her sharing has become wisdom. She will say it is simply what it is – we don’t get much choice in situations like this. He is not here; we are. We must continue to live.

Today, I am sharing a poem. It makes me quake in my boots because I am *always* nervous about poetry – and obviously this is one I just wrote this morning, so now I’m sharing a draft! That said, I am inspired by the way fellow bloggers Not The Whole Story or Reflections on the Teche or Nix the Comfort Zone express themselves in poetry (not every day, but often). And an old friend suggested that poetry is a good way to deal with uncertainty.

I can’t quite explain why all of this came together for me in this way, but there it is. And, I want to be clear: the death in the middle is not my child but my brother-in-law. We miss him every day.

Untitled for now

My first son came slowly.
He hesitated, reluctant to be rushed.
“Push,” the midwife urged me, “you’re going to have to push.”
Wait wait wait
I was focused, determined
Pushing, pushing, pushing
Against the waves, with the waves of urgent pain
My world for as long as I could remember
My world forever
My world for mere moments
Receded then returned as
A flooding of tenderness, as the deepest love I will ever know.

Today, the snow falls lightly
White white white
A thin covering over the gray, dirty snow we wish away.
For a few minutes, a few hours, forever
The world is purified.
We remember the beauty of Winter
While we long for a Spring we imagine, beautiful.
And Spring will come
Messy, muddy, melting until the rotted remnants of life
Revealed as death under the dirty snow.
Spring will wake
Wet, insistent, unrelenting with its green promises.
Spring will force us to accept the hope
Concealed by this thin white cover .

Twelve years ago today we woke to a changed world
Because twelve years ago today he did not wake.
No fresh snow covered the gray.
Spring’s muddy mess pushed forward, pushed forward
And he did not.
That year we fought hope forever, for mere moments.
Yet Spring came, unrelenting.

My second son came quickly
His will to be in the world overwhelming.
“I’m pushing,” I cried, though I had just sent the midwife for medicine.
Now now now
Animal, insistent
Pushing, pushing, pushing
Against the waves, with the waves of urgent pain.
My world for as long as I could remember
My world forever
My world for mere moments
Receded then returned as
A flooding of tenderness, the deepest love I will ever know.

Today, the snow falls lightly
A reminder that last week, last month, last year
We played in this cold, wet miracle.
Tomorrow, the rain will come.
We will revel in the messiness of Spring,
The searing pain of the memories transformed
To a flooding of tenderness,
The deepest love we will ever know.

The pain is really the briefest sense of undertow as we play in the waves of his presence.

 

And here is the poem my mother-in-law wrote this poem a few days after D’Arcy’s death:

The Early Train

some are travelling northbound
their cheeks flushing pink with the cold
some are travelling sideways
moving west or moving east
some lose tickets, miss the gate
either way, theirs is to wait
and some    are bound for the early train
one      has taken the early train

copyright © mls March 29 2008

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On futons, spiders & memories: Slice of Life 20/31 #SOL20

Today we managed to get the futon frame out of the basement and into the guest room. Our “guest” is our exchange student from the Netherlands. His dad was an exchange student with my family when I was in high school. Given the current state of the world, this exchange is a *little* different than anyone was anticipating. The current state of our house isn’t making things any easier. Luckily, Pieter is very good natured and has not complained about sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor for a few nights. Unluckily, the futon frame – once we found it and got it upstairs – was very dusty and home to more than a few spiders. Pieter and Andre cleaned it up and put it together and then, over dinner, I regaled them with a spider story from possibly the craziest overseas trip I ever led – the time another teacher and I took ten students to Cameroon. 

After dinner and bedtime, I dug up the email I sent from that day, about twenty years ago. Here is a slightly edited letter from my past self to the parents who trusted me (age 20-something – aka *not old enough*) to take their children to Africa for a few weeks. Just re-reading it makes me gasp and smile. (The editing is that I removed the kids’ names, though I doubt any of them would care. We were two chaperones, ten kids from our school in the US, plus five from the local Cameroonian high school.)

Why hello there.  Did you miss us? Have you been sitting at home wondering what in the world your children have been doing?  Well, they are all alive and well and they are not bored.  Let me tell you about it…

As I recall, I left you at the end of the day Saturday – we’d been to the village and the lava flow.  Sunday morning we woke up bright and early and continued our exciting experiences of Cameroonian roads as we headed up to Bimbie, a town not far from Limbe. Our first order of business was hiking the Bimbie Nature Trail which runs through an old growth lowland rainforest – the only one left between Limbe and Douala. We split into two groups and made our way into the dark, humid interior. We walked by fig trees that have adapted to place their fruit on the ground so animals can get it more easily; we saw ebony trees and smelled their wonderfully aromatic flowers – and learned that you can eat the berries inside the flowers, though I found them bitter; we slopped through a mangrove and thanked the heavens once again for hiking boots that the mud couldn’t suck off our feet (though it tried); we saw a tree whose heartwood rots out leaving space for all sorts of creatures, including hundreds of bats; we even saw a four or five hundred year old tree. The hike was lovely and quite a success.

Upon our return to the road, we realized that the car that had been left for us was not big enough for everyone to get back to Camp Saker, the camp where we were staying in the rainforest.  So a LOT of people crowded into the first car, and the other half of us walked. Eventually, the car came back for the rest of us and we all got to the camp, sweaty but happy.

After lunch, we headed back into the forest with researchers from the Botanic Gardens and we learned how to do a wildlife transect to study a forest.  One student got to use the Global Positioning System (super-technology in the middle of the forest) and the rest of us served as recorders, measurers, tapers and spotters. We spotted lizards, caterpillars and birds’ nests as well as lots of crab holes, but we didn’t see much large wildlife because, in addition to the fact that we were crashing through the forest with about 20 people, these forests have been hunted to the point that almost no large wildlife is left.  Sad, but true. A few sweaty hours after we started our transect, we made our way back to the road and then back to camp.

We spent the early evening at the little beach near our camp. The Cameroonian boys all played soccer on the beach and some of our students joined in. Stella, our cook, was supposed to be making us dinner but, unbeknownst to us, our driver accepted a private deal and was, as a result, several hours late. So Stella was stuck in town, and couldn’t get to us. We realized something was wrong as we got hungrier and hungrier, but we really weren’t sure how to cook for 17 in a camp in the middle of the forest with only rudimentary cooking supplies. When I explained to the kids that we didn’t know what was going on, one of the Cameroonian girls stepped up and promptly took over, cooking a delicious bean stew over an open fire in an outdoor kitchen while I made rice (over a gas stove in an indoor kitchen). Let me just say how seriously impressed I was with her ability to take over and cook. Just as we began to serve, Stella arrived with soda (the height of luxury), and even she was impressed that we’d managed a delicious dinner on our own.

After dinner, some of the students organized a coconut feast (the guides had shown them how to get coconut milk on the morning hike). A few kids gathered the coconuts; everyone worked on opening them; one boy even used his baseball skills to throw coconuts at rocks until they burst.  We all loved the fresh coconut meat, which the kids observed tastes nothing like what you get in the grocery store.

Just before bed, I had to get help from my co-chaperone because a GIANT spider had taken up residence on the ceiling over my bed – not quite as big as my hand, but nearly…  I just couldn’t bring myself to sleep underneath it. He chased the enormous thing about until it gave up and dropped directly into my hiking boot – not my ideal outcome. As you can imagine, this made it very difficult for me to put my boots on the next morning. We decided to keep the spider incident quiet because we didn’t want to tell the kids and “creep them out” (many things “creep people out” around here), but then we learned of the lizard in the boys’ toilet and the various critters in the girls’ room, so we shouldn’t have worried. The night was also stiflingly hot, and Camp Saker doesn’t have air-conditioning – or even fans – so we all had a restless night and people looked a little worse for the wear Monday morning.

Today we are having a symposium (which I am late for as I type, so I’m about to sign off) and this afternoon will be spent at the beach with a beach barbecue for dinner. Tomorrow we have an optional hike to Bomona waterfall. It’s optional because it involves starting at 5 am and a 2 hour uphill hike – but the falls are supposed to be beautiful. As soon as the hike is over, we head to Yaounde. Thursday morning we will meet with the American Ambassador and show him our work painting the education center (which the embassy helped fund) at the Zoo and then we go to Douala. All of this is to say that I will probably email tonight, but after that I can make no guarantees. In addition, please limit your emails to your children to a line or two tonight as I won’t be able to get them the actual text, and this is probably the last time you should e-mail.

Hope all is well in DC and that you are out from under the snow.  More information as I can write.

Amanda

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Ice, Ice, Baby: Slice of life 16/31 #SOL20

I grew up in southern climes. My father was in the Air Force and we lived in Panama, Texas and California before we settled in South Carolina. Even my “far away” university was below the Mason-Dixon line. As a result, until I moved to Ottawa, I had little experience with seriously cold weather. I refused to agree to move here until I had visited in the winter. My then-boyfriend now-husband was so anxious about this that, when I arrived in mid-February, he met me at the airport, bundled me into a taxi, looked at me and asked, with absolute sincerity, “So, do you think you can handle the cold?” I said yes. This is what love will do to you – even if you’re a Southern Girl.

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Ice ripples

I didn’t see snow fall until I was in the 5th grade. That summer, we had moved from California to South Carolina, not exactly a bastion of cold weather, but colder than what I knew. One day in February, someone yelled, “SNOW!” and we all ran to the window to see it until Mrs. Rish called us back in her quavering voice: “Sit down! Sit down, children! It’s not like you’ve never seen snow before.” I turned to her, eyes wide with wonder and said, “I haven’t.” Bless her for saying, “Well then, Mandy, you can stay there.” I pressed my face to the cold glass and watched in amazement for long minutes before I returned to my seat.

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Ice near yoga class

You can imagine my first few winters in Ottawa. I had to learn everything anew, not least of which was how to dress myself – and then babies – for cold weather. None of the coats I owned were even close to warm enough. I did not have winter boots. I was pretty sure that no gloves in the world could keep my fingers warm in February. Sometimes I tried to stay inside for days, despite Andre’s gentle insistence that going outside at least once a day was healthy.

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parking lot ice

 

Eventually, time and the kids got me outside. After all, I didn’t want to miss the fun of building snowmen or turning the back porch into an epic sledding ramp. When the boys started parent-child skating lessons, I went to the rink and tried to pretend that, like the other parents, I was mostly there to hold the kids up when, in fact, I was learning, too. Now I can lace skates – theirs and mine – stand up from a fall, and even race my kids down the frozen canal in February. I’ve come to love snowshoeing and have taken a ski lesson to get over my fear of downhill skiing. I still don’t love it, but I can get down a hill.

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This icy dragon is breathing fire

The more I played outside in the winter, the more I got used to the cold. Sure, I wear hats and gloves starting in October and straight through to April, making “real” Canadians laugh, but in last year or two I’ve caught myself “just running to the car” in slippers & a bathrobe even when the temperature is well below zero (Celsius – think maybe in the 20s Fahrenheit). Yet none of this prepared me for my recent fascination with ice.

ice from below
Ice stalactites from a roof

Canadian kids have some built-in knowledge about ice. They know which patches are likely to be slippery and which ones they can careen across without a second thought. My children tear down the sidewalk, sure-footed, running ahead while I slide my feet tentatively across every potentially slick patch, always unsure of what is safe. I am not ice-savvy; I’m not sure I ever will be. Perhaps this is why I started examining the ice all around me as I walked. It was as if my brain concluded “If I can’t intuit things about ice, maybe I can observe my way into this important knowledge.”

Much to my children’s disgust, instead of becoming a savvy winter walker, I’ve slowed down even further. The more I look at the ice, the more I fall in love. These days, I stop on the sidewalk, pause in parking lots and wander through parks, looking at the ice the way I once looked at the falling snow, in absolute wonder at the unexpected beauty of winter.

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