Weight

jmLZGRuzQZOqu7i9MrDcxAMy son sits on my stomach and bounces. He’s not a light kid. At 20 months, he’s 29 pounds, tall for his age, and strong. He’s at that stage where his enthusiasm can get twisted with physicality and he’ll slap me across the face while cooing “Mama” and then burst into laughter. He’s bitten and pinched and punched me. He loves to kiss me open mouthed, teeth banging into mine. He threw a matchbox car at a kid at Daycare. I expected him to be kicked out or at the least, there’d be some kind of daycare detention (my kid, in a corner, with one of those hand exercisers, reciting the alphabet over and over again while the drug dealers and hacky sackers and class skippers mocked him).  Miss Kim just laughed and said ‘it’s this age. He’s stretching his muscles”

This afternoon I sat with him under the Christmas tree we put up yesterday with a Spotify playlist of “Classic Christmas Songs” playing through our house.  “Joy To The World” came on and the memory of my father leaning down next to me in church and singing the descant harmony loudly over the mumbling Catholics punched me hard in the chest.  I could hear his staccato laugh, see his straight-backed smile, surrounded by the entire family at Christmas Mass, then later at midnight, just us at his Methodist Church because everyone else had bailed after champagne and shrimp, too tired to stay awake, everyone but me. I didn’t want my Dad to be alone at his own church, the abandoned Protestant in a sea of Irish Catholics.  Last year I was with my husband’s family and they decided to go to a Christmas Eve service at a small Methodist Church down the street from their home on the river. There were only about 20 people in the church and we doubled the size of the congregation with our family. I missed my father so much last year even though he was alive and well just a thousand miles to the north with my mom. Homesick, I wrote that night that what I missed the most about not spending Christmas with my family was singing Joy To The World with my father.

This afternoon, grief came in on the harmony and I could not breathe. My son sat next to me, laughing, then plopped down on my lap and slapped me on the cheek. Then he leaned his head into my chest while I sobbed into his white blonde hair.

In front of me on my desk as I write this is a photo of my father from July. He’s in all whites, holding his tennis racket, at the Sea Colony Indoor Tennis Club at Bethany Beach, Delaware. We’d gone on Wimbledon Sunday to play a doubles match. My husband partnered with my brother Danny and I was Dad’s partner. Dad and I beat them. Dad was slow but his serve was still wicked. A punch. A twist. No weight. Lighter than air, the ball just whispered over the net then took a quick dive and barely bounced so that it was almost impossible to predict where to catch it.  Dad had woken up at 7am that morning and donned white shorts and a white t shirt, white tennis shoes and white socks pulled halfway up his calves. We had breakfast at Wimbledon together for the last time, watching one of the longest and most historic matches ever and I knew it would be his last.  The photo: that afternoon, Dad would play his last game with me. We won. He high fived me with a toothy grin, his thin upper lip stretched across his teeth. He was thin, almost gaunt, but he was smiling.

Someone took that picture and now I can see how thin he was. The bones of his shoulders through the thin t shirt. He looks worn out by the effort to smile. To make it an event and to keep it light. He was in pain. I realize that now. But he was determined to have a good day. Determined for us all to have a good day.

Now, only 5 months later, I look at this photo and I cannot believe, still, that he’s gone. It’s not yet 2 months since he died, and I was holding his hand as he took his last breath, I heard his last words, me, the oldest daughter, I was the witness, the journalist, the scribe, waiting beside him to remember it all for everyone else. I still cannot believe he’s gone. I keep expecting him to call.

On my desk, behind that photo is an older one, over 30 years old, Dad and me at my college. At the football game tailgate. He’s smiling, young, his cheeks are full and red. I’m smiling with my feminist undergraduate haircut, my oversized scarf over the too-large college sweatshirt. Dad is happy and proud. 30 years younger. He’s 52 there. Maybe. He’s my age there.  My stomach grips again.

Grief comes in like a knot in my throat

Like a weighted fishing line

Like a piano key that’s stuck

Like cold fingers in a drafty house

Like the ache in my elbow and the ringing in my ears

I miss my father so much I don’t even know where to put the missing sometimes.  It’s like water. Mostly, I love the water. I love to float. I love to swim. I feel at home, safe, alone in water. I’m left to my own skin and current and don’t have to ask permission to move. I watch my arms, white in the sunlight stream through the lakewater and I’m amazed at how beautiful skin can be. Water this silken is weightless, freeing.  But I’ve dove into dark murky depths and lost my breath in a panic that lays like a cinderblock on my ribs and chest, grabs my heart and my throat and threatens to drag me down into the feathering foam, the fingers of the weeds that would tie around my ankles and hold me underwater. That water is mammoth.

The missing, the grieving, is what Kundera must have meant in the phrase the “unbearable lightness of being.” My father slipped away so fast I almost forget what the skin of his hand felt like as it loosened in my palm. And yet, I can hear the sound of his throat clearing from that 30 year old photo in the sunshine as if he’s standing next to me still, arm around my shoulder, me leaning into the weight of my father.

12/3/19
1:00a

Follow The Trail

IMG_1800I spent a few hours this morning hiking in the woods. It wasn’t planned. I was running an errand, delivering something that Jamey had forgotten, driving 40 minutes from home and happy to do it as the morning was beautiful and I didn’t have plans and I wanted to listen to a long podcast. I don’t mind long drives alone some days. But after I’d delivered the forgotten item, I realized that I was only 3 miles from the hiking trails of Percy Warner Park here in Nashville, on the west side, amidst gold and red woods.  So I diverted.

It was 30 degrees when I woke this morning at 7am. By 10am it was only a bit warmer. I was grateful that I’d grabbed the down vest and sneakers. I could have been warmer, another layer, a hat, real hiking shoes, but I was fine and it has been a long time, over a year, since I’ve done any hiking through woods.  I have a fantasy of being that kind of mother with a structured carrier on my back, Huck bundled up, me hiking a few times a week. But that hasn’t happened.

The frost had burned off the green grass when I got to the trailhead.  The mist was still lingering low on the fallen leaves. The air was brisk, a good kind of chill as I began the walk on the white trail, a 2.5 mile loop. My friend Mary, who introduced me to this park, told me that the trails here are for the poets, thinkers.  The ones who like to walk with silence.  You encounter dedicated benches along the paths claimed by plaquards, enscribed with names, birth and death years, a few things about the hiker: “James loved trees, music and golf.”  The few details that will define stranger to stranger.  I think of the men and women in the Dimensia Unit of the nursing home I took Huck to yesterday for Trick Or Treating.  Outside the doors of each room was a shadow box, filled with things that told the resident’s story.  One man displayed his army medals, his boy scout badge, a photograph of him on a green John Deere tractor in front of a barn probably in the late 70s. His black and white wedding photo. I do not know the people whose names adorn these benches along the white trail, but it would be nice to know a trail so well to want my name to live there after I’m gone. To have made friends with the trees and the dirt and the roots and the air. To have a trail that feels like home.

Today is November 1st. One month ago, I was sitting next to my father’s hospital bed, holding his hand. I’d been up the entire night when he sat up at about 4am and said, “I’ve got to…I’ve got to….”

“What Dad? What do you have to do?” I whispered.

“I’ve got to go down the trail…”

I squeezed his hand. I knew what trail. He’d had a dream about 10 years ago, the night before his identical twin brother died of a massive heart attack. The dream was that his brother and mother were walking down a trail and Dad was following them. Will, his twin, turned and said, “No, Dan. You can’t come with us. You can’t come on the trail.”

I said to my Dad, “You can go down the trail Dad, it’s ok.”

“I’ve got to go,” he said and looked at me with open eyes for the last time. Then he lay his head back down on the pillow and closed his eyes.

“I’m done,” he said.

A moment. A beat. I held my breath.

“I quit.”

Tears rolled down my face. He was still here, still breathing, but I knew that the end was close. In my entire life, I’ve never heard my father say “I quit.” If there’s one thing my Dad is NOT, it’s a quitter. Stubborn and determined. Competitive and relentless. Passionate and principled. Dad does not quit.

He died later that day, that evening, with me and my sister at his bedside. My mother had gone out for a short errand. We encouraged her to leave the house. Everyone said, “Get out of the house. Maybe he is waiting for that to let go.” We had all left the house, the room, from time to time. But this was the first time Mom went out alone. I sat next to the bed, as I had for 5 days, listening to the hum and the click of the oxygen tank. The hospice nurse had been in that morning to let us know that Dad was in “Active Dying” and what signs to look out for as the moment of death neared.  She said it may take 24 – 48 hours. We all groaned. We would give everything for more time. But not this kind of time. We wanted Dad to let go. To not suffer. He was suffering, that was clear. And this was not quality of life. It was time for our father to go. He was done.

In the seconds before he died, as we knew something had changed and that his heart was slowing to a crawl, I was sitting on the bed by his legs, holding his hand. Mom was still out on errands and we couldn’t reach her. My sister was at his head, her palm on his forehead. Maybe it was supposed to be like this, we said.  She was almost leaping up and down, “Go Dad Go! Go see Uncle Will! Go see Nana! Go Dad Go”. I was sobbing, whispering, “It’s ok, Dad. Let go. I love you so much. Let go.”

And then, he took one gasping wide-eyed breath, that was so sharp and sudden that at first I wondered if he’d been shot or his heart burst.  But his light blue eyes were wide as if he saw something familiar and then, for a brief second, they fixed into a soft kindness, an openness, a willingness that I knew it was less pain than joy, or something close to acceptance.  Lighter than pain. More like an awakening. He gasped, lay his head back down and within seconds, his pulse stopped. His carotid artery pulsed fiercely for a beat or two and then just stopped. Lee lay her cheek on his forehead. I just stared at his pale face on the pale pillow on the pale sheets above his pale t shirt under the pale blanket, hoping to witness the exact moment when the soul leaves the body. I wanted to really see it as an event, a thing, to know it. Scientifically. Anatomically. Spiritually. To believe it.  But I saw nothing of the mystical sort. I didn’t see anything in particular that felt like a human being crossing from one side of the river to the other.  Truly, I don’t know what I wanted to see, but I was hoping for something awe-inspiring, the real meaning of the word awesome.  I wanted the clouds to part and a light to beam and trumpets to blare. Or at least to just feel a shiver or a breeze. Instead, it was simply quiet, normal. The noises the oxygen tank made had stopped but the clock still ticked as if to remind me that time just kept going.  But as I watched, his face just seemed to lose muscle. His cheeks seemed to sink and his mouth opened just a tiny bit. His eyes sank a bit behind the lids. The lids parted a bit, so that from my angle, his eyes seemed open with nothing behind them. A light had gone out. I said to my sister, “He’s gone. He’s gone.”

This morning as I walked, I had a thought that this was no coincidence, me having the morning free, Jamey giving me an excuse to be out this way, this near to these hiking trails.  I’d had a thought about 2 weeks ago that I should get here. Someone said to me that grief is best moved through outside in nature. Was it something I read or something someone said? I can’t remember. The last month has been a blur. All I know was that I was dressed warmly enough to be able to take advantage of the impulse to walk the woods on a chilly morning and there I was. Walking in the woods on a chilly morning a month after my father died.

As I began, I casually thought of the years of hiking with my Dad. In the woods as a kid, leaf collecting.  In the woods behind our cabin.  In the woods behind their large log home, hiking up the acres of trails my father had marked with paint on trees to link to the ones of the State Park adjacent to their wooded property.  The memory was light and pleasant.  I felt like I was skating above something deeper. I kept walking and remembering.

The smell of a campfire from many Girl Scout summer camps. The smell of the fire from a charcoal grill outside our pop up camper in Glacier National Park. The crunch of our feet following my Dad through the Montana trails. The words “conifer” and “deciduous.” The difference between pine and mahogany. The weight of the rocks in my hand from the creek behind their log house. The stone fireplace you could stand in. The fireplace of their home now that goes on with a remote control.

Not even five minutes into the hike, I started to cry. Then bawl. I let the tears flow, my nose run. I didn’t care. A dam had been opened. I thought of my Dad in his dark blue wool jacket, his pigskin hat.  I could see his smile. I could hear his laugh. I could see him on this path with me, in younger years when he could walk for miles without effort. And so, I conjured him and I let him stay with me. I started to talk to him. His image was so clear, so present. The small gap between his two front teeth, slightly yellowed from coffee and age. The way his blue eyes crinkled when he laughed and smiled. The way he walked with a slow authority, no reason to rush. He would look up at the sky through the yellow and green leaves and smile and not share the secret of whatever made him do so.  I put my hands on the bark of the trees and look up. I’d look down at the fallen leaves and began picking them up, collecting them: a maple, an oak, an elm.

And then, there it was. The black gum tree. A straight tall trunk shooting up to the sky. Blackened skin, mottled into deeply grooved squares that look almost coffee-stained, fire-stained. I lay my hand on the side of one and work my fingers into the ridges. I say to it, “Black Gum Tree. I know you are this.” And I am talking to my father but I am talking to the tree and I am talking to God and I am crying. I say to my father/tree/god, “what am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to know what it is I’m supposed to do” and this question was vast, wasn’t about this hike, wasn’t about grief, was more about what is next. I am 51. I have a child. I know that has changed me and I want to lean into family now because life is brief and time is moving fast.  And I know, too, that as much as music moves me and it was music that first gave me God, the business of maintaining music as my source of income is not exciting to me anymore. It’s not even that fulfilling. The making of it and sharing it will never not be something I love. But I have been grooving the same path for 20 years and do I want to keep following the same road (and groove too much and it becomes a rut and I believe it is now a rut)? Maybe I was asking the forest to show me the next path. Where to put my feet.

“Dad, what do I need to do right now that you would tell me to do?” I cried.

I looked ahead. And there was the white square trail marker painted on the side of a tree. I laughed and said outloud:

“Follow the trail. Just follow the trail,” in my voice that was my father’s voice that was truth.

My father died one month ago today. One of the last things he said to me was “I’ve got to go down the trail.” This morning, almost by accident, I found myself following a trail, and rather than fighting grief, or being swallowed by it, or pretending like it shouldn’t be with me, that “I’ve got this” syndrome I’m really good at, I decided to try something new today. I invited grief.

And this morning, Grief walked by my side as I followed the trail.

 

 

What A Wonderful World

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July, 2019

Dad was nestled in the corner of the soft white couch in the soft white room filled with wicker and bamboo furniture and heavy glass tables, framed pictures of shells and mermaids in light pastels hung sparingly on the walls, white and stretching to the sky, white fans in the center of each room, the wall of glass open to the dark sky with the sea just a few steps away.

He was resting his aching legs on that glass table, too tired to eat, too tired to do much of anything but he wanted to be surrounded by us and had stayed up late to enjoy the chaotic play of the grandchildren. Huck would sneak up to him and a string of babbling nonsense would play off his lips and Dad’s eyes would dance with joy. “Pop” we thought we heard him say. We hoped.

Someone began to create a playlist. The “Deep Creek Mix”, a callback to the cabin in the woods from long, long ago with the stone fireplace and the maple leaf trail walks, the forests and the lake: our childhood.  We all began to call out songs:

“Sweet Caroline”

“Song Sung Blue”

Dad would nod, “Both” he’d say. Then he’d raise his pointer finger to the ceiling.  “Anne Murray,” he’d say and we’d add “Snowbird” to the list and play it.  All of us, arms around each other, singing along to these songs, knowing only a quarter of the words to some, and then surprising ourselves with how many of the words to others we knew.

“Ring Of Fire”. “Precious Lord” sung by Elvis. “We Didn’t See A Thing” by Ray Charles from that album of country duets (“Hey Ray, by the way, do have that hundred bucks you owe me?” and Dad would perk up saying that phrase with a smirk, pointing his finger at me to join in, erupting into an eye-glistening howl of joy).

Take It Easy by the Eagles. Most of the words.

The Devil Went Down To Georgia. All the words. At least, Adam and Matt.

The Gambler, Kenny Rogers. Dad knew all of them.  I told them of the time last year I paid $2 to go to The Five Spot at 6pm to hear the writer of that song, Don Schlitz, sit on a stool and sing his songbook and when he got to The Gambler, every body in that bar sang along.  I wished my Dad could have been there.

And then we chose a few that we just needed to hear. “Lovely” sung by Frank Sinatra (the real title is “Just The Way You Look Tonight” and “Just” may or may not be part of the title, but it certainly isn’t “Lovely” because it took us a while to find that song on Spotify. Regardless, it’s “Lovely” to us and we found it).  Lee and Dad danced to this at her wedding over 20 years ago.  He got up from the couch, Lee held out her hand to steady him and we cleared some space and watched them dance, cheek to cheek as they did so long ago. He’d twirl her around and I’d catch a glimpse of the tears running down her face while she held a smile as if it was her duty to all of us to hold joy above the grief.

Next would be “The Shadow Of Your Smile” because that was the song Mom and Dad danced to at their wedding, 52 years ago, but Mom started to cry and shook her head. She couldn’t get through that one.  So, we chose another and Mom joined Dad on the dance floor and they held each other tightly, Dad leading, small steps, a tight swing beat. Dad was always an amazing dancer. Graceful but not showy. Small movements with little kicks of the beat in his step or the movement of his partner from her shoulders, gliding and kicking, like a high hat. Gene Krupa of the ballroom step.

Everyone called out for my wedding song.  Three years ago I married Jamey along the Tennessee River and Dad and I danced in the gravel to “What A Wonderful World” sung by Louis Armstrong, but I couldn’t dance this night. I just let the song play and stared into my father’s eyes, singing along. His welled up, his blue eyes now slightly yellowing, the loss of weight, the loss of future, shading the glint. Tears started to fall and mine stayed put in my eyes, refusing to fall. I started to fall backwards a bit into my consciousness, a beautiful detachment that happens when I get overwhelmed. I go numb and paint a smile in order to pretend I’m still in the present moment, that I’m not letting go, which is a lie because I’ve let go of the now and I’ve fallen backward into a place I can’t feel much. I step out of being in the play and instead I hover, writing the script. I observe from a vantage point away from my physical body. I have been doing this all my life. I try to make sure I don’t go so far that my father feels I have let go of our connection while we sing this song to each other.

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…

“I love that song” he says, smiling, when it is over.

I wonder if this is the last night all of us will gather with my father singing along. I think to myself, yes. This is it. It has to be it. If I were writing this movie, my father would begin failing quickly once he came home from this vacation, knowing that you can’t top a scene like having every single one of your children and grandchildren and their spouses in one room singing all the favorite songs everyone knows and loves from childhood, arms around each other in celebration filled with laughter and joy and grief and fear all held in one rented beach house in the same little village we’d all been coming to for many many years, the same sand and ocean that my mother grew up kicking her feet through, the same night time air that held crabs and Old Bay spice and laughter and Yahtzee calls and arguments and storms and sunrises and proposals. If I were writing this movie, the next time the family would gather as a whole would be my father’s funeral.

I have a photo on my desk in front of me as I write this. My father is in his suede cap, a blue wool peacoat and a red and black checked scarf around his neck. His smile is wide under the mustache.  He has a nametag clipped to the breast of his jacket, my college’s insignia. He’s holding a ¾ full plastic cup full of amber liquid, most likely bourbon. I’m wrapped in his one arm to his side, an oversized grey sweatshirt, a brightly colored scarf around my neck, short henna-gold hair. A squinch nose gummy full teeth smile. Behind us, a football field, smaller than my high school stadium, small like a preppy New England college of only 2500 students where the athletics of the game is secondary to the gorgeous Massachussetts Fall afternoon of a Parent’s Weekend tailgate. My father is probably my age now then. We are both so happy. I am with my Dad and I am clearly ecstatic to have him here, at Amherst. He is full of pride, his chest is full. His daughter  will graduate later that year. He has paid for most of it with his own success. None of this would have been possible from the vantage point of my 11 year old father, burying his own father then burying his teddy bear, growing up in a house without electricity or plumbing, joining the football team to have access to the school showers, having to wrangle spiderwebs in the outhouse in the middle of the night. My father who bought himself a Schwinn bicycle in his 40’s because he never had a bike as a kid.

I am his age then and I wrap my arms around my 15 month old son as we sing “Song Sung Blue” and “I Am, I Said” and I keep repeating “Pop” to my son, hoping that amongst his new babble that word will stick and he will look at my own father one day very soon, in time, and call my Dad by name.

 I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

__________________________________________________________________

I wrote this a few weeks ago. On October 1, my father died of pancreatic cancer surrounded by family. He was 82 years old. I was holding his hand. A playlist was playing. Right after he passed, I realized Willie Nelson had been singing “Pancho and Lefty” and the next song on that playlist? “What A Wonderful World” sung by Louis Armstrong. 

 

 

Both Feet On The Ground

NO DEPRESSION

I wrote a song to Huck when I was pregnant. I’ve not been writing lately so I thought I’d share with you this article about me in No Depression Magazine which features a video montage of photos of my new family with the song “Both Feet On The Ground” playing.

Ok. That’s not true. I’ve been writing a lot. Pages and pages this week, but I’m not ready to share, so this is what I can share right now.  Life is a beautiful and painful and beautiful thing and I am grateful for all of it.

 

Runaway

imagesWhen I was 12, I ran away from home. It was a failed excursion but I remember it so well. My family was moving from Minnesota to Pennsylvania and, for some reason, we were not taking with us my beloved dog, Numpy, so my parents drove him off one afternoon (did I go? I don’t think so) to his new owners. Before they left he had been given a Milkbone, but only ate a chunk of it and I took it and put in a tin box I had that held things like friends’ notes passed in class, dried flowers, beach stones and Girl Scout pins.  I was heart-broken. A loner, my best friend was this dog and I didn’t accept his leaving. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t come with us to wherever we were moving. We always moved, I thought. Every 5 years. Why not take the dog with us? But there was no answer, it was no and so, after a night of crying, a plan emerged and, at the edge of the following night,  I packed a few sandwiches, stole the change out of the top of my father’s drawer, and snuck out, not having a clue where “the big farm” existed where Numpy now lived. I walked the streets of the neighborhood for a few hours trying to remember where all the “farms” were outside of our town. I sat down and ate a sandwich and felt unsure, but something else too. Free. Like at this point, I could actually just keep walking. It wasn’t about my dog anymore. It was about being ok out there, anywhere, on my own.  Of course, at 12, I still had a fear of my parents’ wrath, so I bailed before they’d wake up for breakfast and went home, dejected. But the planning of the escape was such a rush. There was a moment whee I thought “if I take a right onto the street that leads to school, I think it gets to the highway and then it should just be north and I can hitchhike to the place where farms are.” (Side note: there’s something charming to me looking back at my little girl self thinking about a place where farms were. As if my world was divided into utilitarian areas. Where our house is. Where the school is. Where the farms are.) Even just wandering through my neighborhood as the sky was still dim with dawn, knowing I was all alone out there and I could go anywhere – I felt free.

Thus, I began a chase of that feeling.  Chasing the elusive freedom but alone. Never with others. Had to be alone.  I’d hike, ride my bike, play piano, play with my dolls, sing or paint or draw. All alone. In groups, I’d feel constricted and small. Not free. Alone, I could expand into everything I knew I was.

When I was in college, I spent a summer riding trains alone in Europe.  I was supposed to travel with my friend Erin. The plan was to meet in Toledo, Spain on a certain day and from there go to France. I flew into Paris and spent a few blissful days there alone, walking, sitting in cafes with my journal open, writing down everything I observed. I had no interest anymore in the original plan. I was on a Hemingway journey.  I took an overnight train to Toledo, met a bunch of other Ivy League gypsies and Australians on walkabout who were headed to Africa and invited me.  So I got off at Toledo for the night, and told my friend I would meet her 2 weeks later in Barcelona because I was going to go to Morocco first.  The boys told me their next stop was Sevilla and so I hopped a train there, threw open the Let’s Go Book and started walking toward the hostels and found them at the 3rd. We drank sangria in a plaza and sang and laughed with other travelers from Mexico and Portugal and then three of us went to Morocco for a week. I never did meet back up with my friend.  She diverted somewhere along the way to Italy and I spent the summer following the next boy on the next train and then after a while, i didn’t need the boy, just the train and I was free. Down to Africa, up to the cathedrals of Sevilla over to the beaches of Sitjes south of Barcelona to drink horchata in Valencia north to run with the bulls in Pamplona and then drink sangria with a crowd of youths speaking different languages until we all just dropped on the grass or in the nearest ATM vestibule to sleep, and then, hungover,  to Avila to pay homage to St. Teresa, a mystic I was fascinated by, and then, finally, to Madrid, where I called my parents, told them I’d be taking a leave of absence from Amherst College in order to ‘find myself’, to whit my father said, ‘Over my dead body.’ 

All through my life I have dreamed of being somewhere other than where I was. My only goal as a child was to end up an artist of some kind in Greenwich Village as I had ingested the stories of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Beat poets, the Folk Revival, The Judson Theater and The Wooster Group, Patti Smith and Sam Shephard. A restless seeker of myth and meaning, I was an actor a playwright a director. I was a singer a musician. I loved history and poetry and sociology.  I was a temp secretary and waitress and personal assistant and a raconteur at Cafe 9 on St. Marks Street.  For years, I lived the exhausting bohemian life (i.e., poor) in The Village, a hyphenate artist-type: actor-director-playwright-songwriter-folkie with a variety of dayjobs we could quit if we had to, endless auditions, open mics with our original music, folk clubs, poetry slams, meetings with Casting Directors and Agents which never really amounted to much and then, voila! A leading role off off way the hell off Broadway in the Lower East Side Somewhere, oh, and it doesn’t pay but it’s SHAKESPEARE and so I took it and loved it and ate Ramen Noodles and didn’t have cable tv or a car. I’d borrowed a guitar and started putting my words to melodies to chords my ex boyfriend had taught me before he went on tour and slept with someone named Jennifer which I only knew because he wrote a song called My Jennifer Cup (“I keep her filled up”…I mean….come on?).  And then I’d written 3 songs and was invited to play a show and then another show with 5 songs, then 8 and then after a year of being rejected by every major label in town who told me I was too folky and that I sounded like Joan Baez or Judy Collins, I was signed to a record label by Judy Collins and started touring. Escaping my 500 square foot Avenue A apartment for the open road was a Kerouakain dream come true. And thus, began my career, which has taken me all over the world, playing my music in dark cafes to hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes a handful, depending upon the night. I wouldn’t trade it for a 401K plan. Most days. 

But in the spring of 2017, touring in Europe, I reached a breakpoint. I was getting tired of being alone. I was 49 and had been at this for over 15 years and was realizing how untethered I was. No matter how seemingly successful I was, I still felt like I wasn’t. I still felt dissatisfied.  There were mountains to climb and time was running out. I’d sacrificed every relationship, a marriage, holidays and birthdays and my best childbearing years. Also, I was newly married and homesick, maybe for the first time.  I wanted to get back to Nashville. I wanted to go home. 

Don’t get me wrong. The road can be romantic as the mythology. A different town every night. Different stages. Short intense conversations and friendships and, sometimes, romantic encounters that can be left behind in the rear view mirror. These are incredible things, connections, it’s like a constant summer camp peak experience where nobody has commitments or ties (even if they do) and we all wallow in our own poetry and music and Grand ideas and dance until the moon and the sun change places and we loose track of time and our bearings and we fall into each other and then wake, like the midsummer dream, and realize camp is over, the festival is over, the tour is over.  And we pick up our truths and we shuffle back to do laundry.  And then repack and do it again. It’s exhausting. And thrilling. And it can make a young man old quickly. Add to that the haze of booze and pills and smoke and man, it’s a dangerous utopia. One day you wake up and the Eden you think you’re lying in is just another Motel 6 with sandpaper towels and your only breakfast option is Waffle House.

And so there I was in Europe at 49, alone, newly married, and on the verge of beginning the journey of trying to have a baby.   One night on this tour, I was staying in an attic apartment in Aachen, Germany. The bells of the cathedral were tolling and keeping me awake. I’d been told that Charlemagne was born and died in this town and that his bones were interred in that Cathedral. And so I wrote. I wrote about the journey, the truth of my life, the touring, the endless cycles of intense conversations with strangers in halted English. The boredom rubbing up against the still very urgent desire to leave something Great behind. Those writings eventually became the song “Me and the Ghost Of Charlemagne” and the centerpiece to my newest record, which releases today. 

During my pregnancy I had insomnia many nights and I’d write until dawn cracked the sky. Rambling run-on sentences of alliteration, trying to make sense of this nesting that was happening inside me. I had nobody to talk to about the specific challenges of being literally on the verge of 50 and pregnant. So I wrote to myself.  Because the choice to have a child was also a choice to figure out how to land. And I was not very adept at landing. I was terrified I’d never create again, never make a record, never tour. I was uniquely unqualified to do anything else, despite the college degree in English LIterature from forever ago. I had no resume. Had never held a ‘real’ job. I knew only the road. And here I was: a beached whale in a suburbs of Nashville in a home I now owned with a man I married who had a ‘real job’. I was finally, at nearly 50, in a place where I didn’t want to run. I wanted to stay. But to arrive there I had to surrender a few things, mostly, my need for validation outside of myself. It’s a dirty secret and feels like a big confession: to let you know how unhappy I was, how much I needed other people to tell me how I was doing. Crippling insecurity coupled with insatiable ego: ahhh the inner life of most artists.

I also have to admit I still carried more than 20 year old student loans, which made me feel like a failure. I was literally only paying interest on them. I didn’t have any kind of savings for retirement. It wasn’t an option. I wasn’t thinking ahead more than 5 years at all. Then I got pregnant and panicked about these things. And with a big lump of cash that came in to help fund some of the record, I just sent it off to pay the Student Loan because I couldn’t stomach moving forward into my 50s with that hanging over my head. It felt like the same gurgling up in my gut of needing to sell one of my guitars becuase it had been acquired in a rather shady way, a dishonest way, and I wanted that to not be inside my home when my son would be born. It served me well and wrote a bunch of wonderful songs, but it needed to go to someone else now.

I looked in the mirror and I still saw the runaway. The one who couldn’t shake the feeling she didn’t belong. That she really WAS pretty but was never considered one of the pretty ones in school. Or the smart ones. Or the popular ones. I was fringe all of it. I was one of the singers, but there were 3 or 4 world class singers in my high school so it wasn’t like it was obvious I’d be able to do this with my life. Stefanie Sikora and John Goodman seemed like they were the ones. if I placed 1st chair at Regional Choir, it would have been a surprising upset. And so, I felt like wherever I was at the time was not the place I was really meant to be. Janet our choir director gave me mixed signals: you’re great! Don’t get stuck up! You’re wonderful! The solo goes to Stefanie! I couldn’t figure out how to bend to her ego (looking back, I realize I was dealing with a controlling narcissist who was brilliant but maybe emotionally abusive). So I didn’t ever really KNOW. I wanted to run away. I wondered if I just left for New York City, would something happen there, like Annie. Could I just show up and sing “NYC!”  And someone would recognize my genius?

I did end up in NYC and I did end up standing on stages singing and for years I carried a shame of failure at every college reunion as my peers gained law firm partnerships and PhD’s and wrote books or managed hedge funds and I was still crawling up the art scale, rung by rung, slowly, poor, alone. I made records. People came to my shows. I got signed. But I still was a runaway at heart. I looked in the mirror and saw Not Enough in my eyes. I worked 3 jobs, I scraped by for rent in my own studio because I finally was able to find a place on Avenue A that I could barely afford. I learned to exist on no sleep and little food. I existed on dreaming. Which, maybe then was still a kind of stationary runaway bike. Because I was running from choosing but I was running in place.

Although, I think about the afternoons I’d sit at the Anglers & Poets CAfe on Hudson and Morton and just write what I saw or felt, thinking if I just kept writing, I’d eventually write into something that would become something – a story, a play, an essay, a poem. These became early song lyrics. I fell in love with the act of writing and letting the pen smear up a page with overheard conversations and details of the spoon that sat in the platter under the coffee. Or the way the waitress always smelled like gardenia and espresso beans. This was an erotic running away for me and this was the New York City I’d come running to.  What I found, though, was I had no money to be a dilletante poet wasting time in cafes. I had to make rent and loan payments and I had to get busy.

When I came, years later, to Nashville, I’d been around the world with music, with my career, still writing in journals in cafes alone, still thinking myself a younger Joan Didion, lurking in a corner like a spider to catch some glimpse of heaven or hell and put it on paper. I’d stopped running away externally. I lived now in Nashville. I could travel with my work. But that was not running away. It was changing motels and time zones. But to sit somewhere foreign with an open book and be a scribe, that was my new flight.

And all it took was time and a bourquioise selfishness.

Then I fell in love at 47 just when I was content with me and my dog. Then I got married. Then, at 49 I got pregnant. It was planned. It was scientific and it took a while but I had my son right after I turned 50. And I panicked. I couldn’t runaway. Ever. I was never going to be alone again. I could but wouldn’t divorce my husband but I could not ever divorce my son. I realized the depth of this choice almost as they were wrapping him in a swaddle and laying him down next to my drugged out head after pulling him out of me. “My baby, my baby boy, my Huckleberry, I love you I love you I love you “ and I knew I would never leave. I knew I had landed.

It’s been almost 18 months now and Huck is walking and babbling nonsense and his favorite song IS “Itsy Bitsy” which he asks for by waving his little hands and saying “bidibidibidi”. I’m writing this to you while I’m having coffee in London. It’s Release Week for my new CD, “Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne” and I’m over here to do a few shows and a festival. I’ll be flying home to Nashville in a week to play the Americana Music Festival and then start my tour. I still make my living away from home, but this time I try to only work Thursday through Sundays and Huck comes with me (with the help of a nanny) sometimes. I honestly had no idea how to do this but, like most things, you just figure it out. You say yes, leap into the unknown and somehow the universe sends a support team. A label. A manager. A nanny. In laws who have been invaluable.  I’ve learned to write in 20 minute bursts while my son naps.  I write more with less time and I feel more fluid because I literally don’t have time to wallow in insecurity anymore.  Having a baby took away my ‘give a fucks’ to be frank. Once you’ve had a team of doctors elbow deep into your cervix over the long labor, or leaked milk from your nursing breasts anytime another baby cries while shopping at Target (or onstage), you just stop caring so much about the things you used to care so much about. Including what other people think of you. And, especially, the big bad Music Business. Which is a relief. One of my heroes once told me that I had my priorities upside down. He said, “Here’s the key Amy: Sobriety, God, Family, Career. You’ve got it upside down.” And so I got sober, I found something greater than just my ego to hang onto, I committed to another human being and made space for a child, and then, only then, was I able to really have a healthy relationship to Career without clinging to it for dear life. I guess, in a sense, I stopped running from anything. I decided to stay.

The Downhill Side of the Slope

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And so, time does move quickly, as everyone warned. I look at the chubby face of my son with his white blonde hair and long lashes and compare it to the bald chubby face of him one year ago and I see the same boy. Longer arms. Longer legs. More hair. But it’s still him, still the same little human that IS now that only WAS emerging then. But I see the NOW in the THEN. Does that make any sense? I remember holding him in the first few months and wondering who he was becoming, what would he look like. Now, I look at those photos and see my 17 month old already emerging in the eyes, the cheeks, the upturned bow lip. The fireworks smile, a head-thrown-back laugh. He points at things now and everything is on the “boh/bah” spectrum of vowels.  He can say “hot” and he lands hard on the “t” with a staccato punch like he’s trying out a new flavor. He watches intensely: me, the cars that speed by on our front street, Flo, our dog. He is all tornado energy, so sometimes I admit I sit him down in front of our tv and put on a Netflix series called “Little Baby Bum.” It’s crack for babies: a series of brightly colored cartoon videos set to nursery rhymes played on a casio keyboard sung by bubble-drawn animals and children of all colors. He sits and nods to the music and I am guaranteed at least 15 minutes of his attention so that I can go to to the bathroom, wash my face, maybe put on clothes or make myself breakfast without having to balance him on my hip.  I can write this.

The changes are slow, but they seem so fast.

There are changes in me, too. My body. A body that birthed a human being cannot expect to stay the same after such a trauma. My hairline, always high exposing a broad forehead, now has even higher peaks. I am losing hair. The thick mane made thicker by the progesterone flowing through my body has now lost volume.  I am crowned by soft short pieces, sticking out, not wanting to be contained in the almost ubiquitous top knot I pull it into to get my long hair away from my son’s pulling. I have retired most of my jewelry and all earrings. I have a friend that used to say my style was shorts, boots and dangling earrings. No longer. My legs are unexercised and wobbly. The boots hurt my feet. And Huck pulls any dangling things off. I embrace the uniform of the new mom, though. Leggings, long t shirts that hide things, slip on shoes and hair pulled tight like a ballerina.

Also, I pee a little when I laugh or cough or sneeze. Mothers out there will nod appreciatively that I admit this. But I personally had to check in with my sister last month about this because I was concerned it was an aging thing, not a post-pregnancy thing. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Welcome to being a mom.” News to me, though. Considering the fact that I’d had a C-section that left my lady parts intact, I didn’t think things would be, um, loose down there, but, as it turns out, yep. We all pee a little from time to time.

I find this information very comforting actually. That I can let go of any pretense of glamour or cool and be a human being who sometimes needs to change my underwear if I laugh too hard. Since, in my 20’s and 30’s, I was a woman who had no problem sticking my finger down my throat in restaurant bathrooms to puke up a too-rich desert, or late-night at bars (or, admittedly, against a sidewalk tree on the Upper West Side) puking up the tequila shots done on a dare. So what. I’m 50. I pee when I laugh. I also once shat myself while running and just kept running until I could throw the clothes away and my body in the shower. I simply thought, well, that marathon runner did that too, so what.  We all poop. And if my son can roll around in a dirty diaper happily, then I can finish a 4 mile run as well. I’m only human.

Also, my belly. Let’s talk about that. Not just mine, but, collectively, ours. Can we all just stop holding our breaths? Aren’t there more important things to do than suck in our guts our entire lives? I always envied the flat plank abdomens of women in magazines and at the YMCA pool. The skinny girls with bodies like 14 year old boys, small A cup breasts that fit tidily inside tiny triangle bras of their bikinis, while my D cups spilled out of the sides and my pooch stomach never saw sun as I never thought I could wear a bikini.  Well, hell. Last month I was at the beach with my entire family and my size D boobs and my belly that hadn’t seen a sit up for 2 years but had birthed a baby at 50 and I just handed the woman at the bathing suit shop my credit card while she told me to NOT get a tankini or a skort but to freaking buy a bikini and show off my body. And so, I bought two. And I love them. This week, I wore one to the YMCA pool and strutted right by the 20 something mommies with their flat stomachs and I didn’t hold anything in and I felt beautiful holding the hand of my little boy.

I am in the beginning stages of my record release, a record I made while pregnant with Huck, that really wraps around the notion of The Dream. How it’s kind of a lie. In the most beautiful way. That when you find out that it’s a mirage, you can actually just get to work telling your truth. It’s my mantra these days. Tell you the poop story. It’s true. Not dress it up in finery. I spent my life trying to fly above the crowd and then fell hard on my ass only to find that life is just way easier if you connect. That doesn’t mean giving up on making something Great. It just means stop faking it. So today, I’m writing an article for a mother’s magazine about Having A Baby At 50 and my Career and I realized that this is really what I’ve been writing about all along here. I’ve been reading and eating up all the usual self-help guru goddesses of the moment: Brene, Cheryl, Liz, Glennon. And they all inspire me. But I want to add something to the conversation of what makes us become enlightened. Because yes, vulnerability is important. So is badassery. So is creativity. So is truth.

But honestly, how about this. Wait until you’re 50. Seriously. Turning the corner of 50 takes away a lot of the fucks you used to give.

Bammo. There it is. My big advice. Just get to 50. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t fuck someone else’s lover. Wear a condom. Eat well. Don’t eat so much (or any) meat. Do yoga. Find a meditation practice. Find a spiritual practice even if you’re atheist. Be of service. And for fuck’s sake. Get to 50. I swear, it all gets better on the downhill side of the slope.

Five Fingers

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I wrote this last year, September 2018. It lands with a bit more weight for me these days…

I remember falling asleep on the edge of the woods in Frederick, Maryland in a large log home my parents lived in until the woods became too much woods for my father to take care of.  My father: slowing down, breathing heavier.  A house my father built.  This house smelled like a campfire: pine logs and woodsmoke. One wall was entirely stone, a fireplace you could stand inside that would heat the house from September through March. The rain would rattle the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out to acres of tall deciduous trees, long smooth stems reaching skyward that would bend to and fro in the Autumn winds like a yoga class of lean women, reaching up, reaching over, in a slow-motion current.  Things would drop and clang on the roof: acorns, branches, squirrels. Sharp pings, loud thuds, scattering claws. This was my father’s dream home – a large log cabin, the bookend to the smaller one he had built when I was about 1 or 2. That was Timbuktu. This was Timbuktwo. Complete with a carved wooden bear on the stone front stoop holding a welcome sign (or, the flip side: “Get Out,” rarely used, but used a few times my mother doesn’t like to talk about: a joke gone bad). My parents were to grow old here, shaded by the maples and elms. We would bring our families to the large open living room to sit in front of the stone fireplace on chilly days, play Scrabble, pass the years in the same woods we had passed our childhoods.

I always had this dream that one day one of my songs might make enough money that I could pay off the house for them and buy their worry off their back with my dream that they helped pay for when I was much younger. That never happened, at least, not in time.  The economy fell, their stocks fell, their retirement shrunk, my retired mother went back to work as my father could not and they did what people do: they downsized. My mother’s colon was removed so that she carried part of her insides on the outside in a small pouch. Always bird-like, she shrunk to brittle.  In the hospital, I was the only one of us to ask to see the stoma, which surprised my mother as I’m the most squeamish, but it felt like an amends to her, to see the thing we all feared and it surprised me that it looked less like a grotesque monster of an aging organ and more like a rose colored petal. Just a small opening to my mother’s side. Her own stigmata, I told her and she laughed.  My father had been having a series of “episodes” as they called them and I wasn’t sure what they were – stroke-ish? Clogged artery heart skips? Or vertigo but not cute like the vertigo a kid feels on the edge of a cliff. A vertigo that makes reality swirl and unbalance you and you go from retired but active to just, well, retired.  My father’s blonde hair finally went grey when 80 approached, his beating heart beat more slowly and he shrugged his dream to inevitability, selling and giving away much of what they had collected in their 50 year marriage, having outlived every one of his siblings. They sold the log cabin and moved into a smaller home nearer to town with a fraction of what they had before, a few paintings, smaller furniture, a small gas fireplace you could turn on and off by a wall switch.

For years while touring, I’d detour to Frederick for an evening off to come to the cabin and have dinner with my parents, watch an old movie in front of the fire no matter the season, and listen to the falling rain on the large windows that look out to the creek and the acres and acres of trees through which, when I was much, much younger, my father might have taken me on walks in order to collect and classify the leaves to identify the trees, shadowing the forester.

***

A few weeks ago, my parents came to Nashville to visit to spend time with my family, my husband and my 6-month old son, their last grandchild, the miracle from their eldest daughter who was never meant to have a child. My father’s tired blue eyes light up in the presence of my son and years melt away in his face as Huck smiles and babbles to him from one of the various brightly colored bouncy toys full of noise.  We call one of them ‘the office’ and my father delights in the narrative I’m improvising – Huck in his regional office, impatiently waiting upon his associate, the fictional “Johnson,” who is forever late or absent, most likely a drinking problem, I say, Huck very patient as Johnson was his mentor before getting old and forgetful, he lost his wife, you know, and it’s been a hard year.  “Has Johnson called in?” my father will ask, fully playing along with our game.  “Poor Johnson,” my mother will chide. My father reaches to my son, held upright in the sling of the bouncy thing. My son reaches his small hand, stretching his fingers and my father places his palm against his grandson’s, each on the other side of an imaginary glass pane, reaching across time.

We take an afternoon to go visit Andrew Jackson’s home. A plantation, a history lesson.  We walk the estate, my mother and I ahead of my father, who ambles at his own pace. “Is he all right?” I ask. She smiles her patient nurse-like smile. “Your father is slowing down” she says gently, matter-of-fact. We in my family deal with aging in a plain-spoken, no frills manner. There is no romanticism about it. We slow down. We accept the dying of the light.  My father, who just a few years ago could whip my ass at tennis, who ran circles around men 10 years younger, who would forever be the architect of fun and games for our extended family – my father is now…old. I hesitated there, can you tell? I wrote that word and a lump surprised me and caught my breath and I am refusing to let tears fall down my face as I let this sentence spill slowly in order to relax into this feeling that makes me uncomfortable. We are born. We age. We die. This is fact. We watch those we love and count on become those who weaken and we hope for more time, knowing whatever time we are granted is only gift. That I am here walking this path with my father who is in his 80’s, having outlived his entire family, with my own son who is 6 months old who was miraculously born to me at age 50…this is more gift than I deserve.

But still: I would give the world for more time. I would give everything for my father to watch my son grow into a man, or even for him to be there for Huck’s 5thbirthday. I would love for my father, a forester once, to teach my son about leaves and trees and to tell him about the time Aunt Betty’s boyfriend who drove a convertible took Dad and his identical twin Will and their mother Charlotte on a fast drive through the Elkton farmlands with the radio turned up loud, my grandmother’s Baptist stoicism breaking into unexpected laughter. Or to tell him about the time his own father lay dying, his last wish that his youngest sons take care of their mother and that after the funeral, these tow-headed 7 year olds burned their teddy bears in a backyard ceremonial pyre as a promise to their father.  Or about the time ten years ago he held his twin brother’s failing heart with his own hands as Will lay unconscious and dying on a surgical table, his chest cavity held open by metal tongs.

I would give the world for more time.

I slow down to wait for my father. He is standing in front of a tree, looking up. I stand next to him. “Red Maple,” he says. “You can tell by the leaves. Five fingers,” and he spreads his own five fingers out, laying the leaf flat on his palm.  Three large fingers with two smaller ones at the bottom of the leaf.  We walk a bit. Next tree. “Black Gum,” he says. I look closer at the mottled bark, in small square patterns. If I were a child, I’d put my fingers in the cracks, or nudge a stick in between. I put my flat palm on the side to feel the bark. Rough – circles and squares. Black – tall and straight. We walk. He stops in front of one that’s on its own, taking up space.  He smiles. It is a wide tree, smooth papery bark, branches like a wing span, arms held out in embrace. The lobed fat leaves a canopy that seems perfect for picnicking or leaning your back up against the trunk with a book. It is the kind of tree you can imagine in stories where the boy falls asleep against the side, hat over eyes. A lone tree in a yellow grain field.

“Sycamore,” he says and looks at me. His grey-blue eyes seem greyer and I think there’s a mist clouding the color. “We had this tree on our farm. This is my favorite tree of all,” and he clears his throat of emotion, looks once more, shakes something off, and continues on the path. I don’t ask any questions, just let that statement sit in the air like a prayer.

What lingers in the air today, on this path, is my history. A small farm in Eastern Maryland, a few cows, a vegetable garden, five children and a widow in plain dress.  A black leather bible with my father’s initials embossed in gold on the front. A dapple mare in the fields. Faded scalloped-edge photos of two blonde boy scouts in the 1940s. 1970 Ocean City July’s with our cousins and that uncle who was the gentle version of my father, softer-spoken. My aunt who looks remarkably like my own mother so that my cousins look like siblings. Today, my mother ahead of us on the path, a leaf twirling between her thumb and forefinger, pushing the stroller with my sleeping baby, her own mother having giving birth in her 40’s, who lived to 103, who loved me more than anyone has loved me and spoke poetry and stories to me as I slept in her Baltimore row house. My mother’s mother, also a widow, her husband a sailor on the Atlantic, sea salt and cinnamon at the Baltimore harbor, the smoke from a pipe, a red leather chair, and a grief that hung like a loose garment on rose-scented skin.

These are things that I am made of: talcum powder and Jean Nate, the afterburn musk of a campfire, a bushel of hard shell crabs slathered in Old Bay on a Bethany deck, the hum of my now 18 year old niece when she was the size of my forearm cradled in warm bath water while I sang to her thinking I’d never have my own child to bathe, the Boston accent that slipped and slid from my grandmother’s words, oyster stew and lemon meringue pie, a hound leaning on my knee and letting go, an oversized Red Jesus Bible, a Maryland rain lullabye and a five finger spread against a red gold leaf flat against the mottled palm of my father.

Father’s Day

In 1847 Christina Potts Moore had a baby at 50.

In 1857 Margaret Ripple Wirick had a baby at 50.

In 1858 Catherine Elizabeth Rowe Dribble had a baby at 50.

All were by natural conception.

In 2015, singer Sophie B. Hawkins had a baby at 50 by IVF. Her own eggs. I think.

In 2017, Janet Jackson had a baby at 50. She claims it was by natural conception.

In 2016, at 72 years old, Indian Daljinder Kaur had a baby by IVF with donated eggs. In fact, it seems there are a bunch of women over 50 and up to almost 70 (and sometimes over) who live in India who have had babies at seemingly impossible ages.

I thought I was special. But, as my sponsor likes to remind me, best to see myself as a beige used car. Because I have spent my life seeing myself as a Pinto disguised as a Ferrari. 

The Crone and The Mother. At the same time. Woven together. I worry about how old I’ll be when my son goes to college. If I’ll still be here. I worry about car accidents and world destruction and cancer and spider bites. I worry about things differently than I did a year ago. I was slightly worried about Climate Change. Now I’m terrified.

I’m terrified about President Trump. I would be anyway, because he’s the Worst Person In The World. In Huck’s Baby Book there’s, of course, a “Current Events Of When You Were Born” section, printed in super fun cartoony squiggly scroll with balloons and kittens (because these kinds of books are supposed to be full of joyous things and memories for our children to cherish) and at the top of the page it asks “Who Is President?” and leaves a line to fill in the name.  That day I decided to begin writing in his book, my pen poised above that line, I gripped it tighter as I gritted my teeth. Jamey saw what was happening with me and said, compassionately, “I know…just write the name down and leave it be so.” I felt this impending apology to my son, having to read this someday, knowing that he was born into a world where that joker was voted into the highest office in our country. I would have loved him to have been born during Obama’s presidency. I’d even have taken one of the Bush’s. Which Is shocking. But Trump? The worst.

50 is the middle of 100. Which is what I assume, always, that I will make it to, as if that’s a goal. It seems fitting. A good mile marker. Even numbered. Outpacing the national average. I assume, too, always, that I will make it there coherent and agile, still walking and reading, and, like my own 103 year old grandmother (who had my mother at 42 in the 1940s and this is a fact I quote often to whomever will listen), mentioning things like “Proust must be read in the original French”. I assume I will be alone. At least husbandless and loverless. That used to be a given but now it makes me sad (and given that Jamey is younger than I am, I’m sure he’ll outlive me anyway).  That I would out-age everyone in my life. Me with my collection of photos and journals, perhaps a dog, not a small one, and god forbid a Paris Fleamarket apartment collection of cats. No. But I could live in a city again surrounded by youth and noise. Alone. I’d drink again. Martinis this time. Alone. Champagne too. I’d be cranky and arrogant and I’d affect an indiscernible accent. Who would question me? I’d tell stories like my old drunk queeny acting coach Jimmy Tripp would tell in his Chelsea apartment in the crowded living room, walls painted a bold green, red Persian rugs under the black baby grand piano that took up almost ¾ of the room, a silver double decker Samovar cart with crystal jars of red and amber liquid.  We few, we happy few would gather there at night for a private session which inevitably ended with Jimmy putting on vinyl 78 records of Rosa Poncelle singing Verdi, and tell us stories of acting with his idol Stella Adler on Broadway. In the 1950’s. That she was known to play pranks, like opening her skirted legs wide to him, the apprentice, stage left, a full beaver shot that the audience could not see, so that he would have to reckon with the hairy, wet, lips-parted vagina of an acting legend and keep his shit together.

My father is dying. Cancer. This came out of nowhere. I knew this would be a consequence of having a baby at my age, that my own parents would be very old. But my father is ageless. He is eternal youth, despite his 82 years. He thought he’d live to 100. So did I.

But he won’t. And he will most likely not be here as this year folds into the next. And my son will most likely never remember him.

It is June. It is Father’s Day and I have flown to my own father with my own son to spend it with him, possibly for the last Father’s Day. I hate having these thoughts, the “lasts” but there they are and I try to pretend they aren’t while advance mourning the whole way through. We laugh and cry and we tell stories from the past and he says, “Now that I have nothing to look ahead to, I will look back in these next few months” and I think, I will write it all down, Dad. Like I always have.

 

Braids

Unknown

My grandmother’s bay window had a large white sill that was full of small painted pots on matching saucers. Each one held an African Violet. Like dolls posed to sit in the sun all day, facing West. I used to think of them as mine. Violets were my flower, she’d say, because I was born in February and February’s flower was a violet. They had soft furry green leaves, thick and puffy. Forehead high, I’d stand on tiptoe and stare through the violet pots, through the tryptic window decorated with suncatchers made in the oven, colored glass, beveled by heat, one strawberry, one plum, one a star.  I’d stare through those Saturday afternoon craft catchers of light through the window with the white sheer lace curtains pushed aside and held by brass hooks, through to the narrow shared side-yard with stone round lily pad steps, across the lone birch tree, over to Mrs. Philes white clapboard house with black shutters, hoping to catch a glimpse of her peering through the sheers.

Mrs. Phile was the Wicked Witch of the West. Childless widow. Stern and tall. Scoldy. I imagined her locked inside her house most days, no husband, no children, no laughter. She seemed dark and sad and disapproving. My mother told me when she was a young girl, she’d call her “Phile Babes” behind her back, and that became a running joke in our family. Even my grandmother, Roro, would laugh out loud, then, catching herself in gossip, stop the giggle with a “sntch” through her lips and teeth that was directed at us and with feathery fingers make a quick sign of the cross just in front of her chin and chest.  “Don’t call her Phile Babes, children,” and hearing the name in my grandmother’s Boston accent brought a fresh round of giggles.

That was the time of the cicadas. Baltimore, 1972. They emerged, flew and filled the sky black and loud and then fell again, leaving the backyard a wasteland of empty amber shells, a graveyard.

The money tree plant leaned up the shared chainlink fence in the long backyard. On the other side lived the neighbors who once had a girl my age come visit for a few weeks. We’d play hopscotch in the alley out back, right in front of Mrs. Daniels’ garage. Money trees. Skin like a Bohrain drum, round like a mirror, like the mirror the lady on the television held up at the end of that show to look through and call out names of boys and girls and not once, not ever, did she say my name.

I loved to stomp the crunching carcasses in my patent leather maryjane shoes before church. I loved the word “cicada”. I loved that the “c” was an “s” sound and that some people would mistakenly say a “ch” sound, “chicada,” which was a much less threatening word.  In my memory, they covered the gnarled roots and stone steps up the alley so that no grass was seen for an entire summer, like a strange picnic blanket. Magicicada. Supernatural skeletons.

Every 17 years they’d emerge from the damp earth, adults. A storm. I would be old by the time the cicadas came back, I thought. Old like Roro.

When I moved to Nashville in 2009, the Autumn I was 41, I had left a marriage but was still legally tied to a man I had fallen out of love with, or, more accurately, had never loved him as he deserved to be loved. He didn’t know this (or maybe he did and held his tongue) and tried hard to win me, even as we were clearly just an exoskeleton of a marriage, me silent and he with his 11th hour attempts of somber wooing by cooking and cleaning and not asking any questions.

I left finally, and, in the leaving, I kind of forget to get the paper that said we were no longer, but I acted as if we were no longer. It would take me 5 years to remember and by then it was complicated as in Jersey somebody had to blame somebody, you couldn’t just tiptoe backwards out the door and leave the china.  I just wanted it over, so I offered my neck on the block.

In East Nashville, I rented a small blue cottage built in 1911, slanted wood plank floors, large windows and a wide front porch with a faded wooden swing held up by rusted chains that squeaked as I rode it each morning, rocking back and forth, sipping my coffee. I had drawn it in my notebook before I saw it.  The ad in Craig’s List was a magical paragraph of wonder written by a loving couple moving to China who wanted someone artistic and similar to care for their home. When I knocked on their door, they asked how I’d found them because, as they told me, they had taken the ad down months ago.

I named the house Brigadoon for it’s disappearing act, waiting for me. I’d watch the morning unfold under the large Hackberry tree filled with buzzing cicadas, swooping the scales like a steel guitar, louder than my sadness.

By the time I moved South, Roro was dead. She lived to be 103 and was clear to the last few weeks, still telling me that I should read Proust in the original French someday, as it would never be the same in English. I was the only one in the family who wasn’t present at her passing. But after, she followed me for years, like a breeze, whispering in my ear. I was alone and in love with another man who couldn’t choose me and impassively letting my youth slide away in a wine-soaked ambien haze.

Roro got married in her 40’s and had my mother in her 40’s and lost the love of her life only a few years later and so, spent her entire life talking to the birds and gathering violets and dried palms that were tucked behind the blond, blue-eyed Jesus who hung in her bedroom, in the center, above the two single beds with eyelet lace bedspreads, where she and my grandfather used to sleep and where I, when visiting would sleep next to her, just a breath away as we dreamt. She went to Mass most days of the week and told me she missed the Latin. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis. Fidelium animae, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen.

There’s a picture of my mother from childhood. She stares at the camera in black and white, long brown thick braids on either side of a moonface. My mother in a white dress and white veil, her gloved hands brought together under her chin at her chest her heart in a prayer. Her first communion. She was probably about 7, because that’s how old I was when I wore a white dress and a veil and posed in color outside our Maplewood Lane house on the corner of Route 99, speeding trucks and cars to Baltimore a half hour away, and across from the vast cornfield where we buried Midnight the Cat and where I went looking for the grave with our favorite babysitter Laura Shoda, who also had two long brown braids, and where we stumbled upon 3 gravestones, partially buried in the dirt, with dates from the 1700s.

My mother cut her braids off when she was 13. She had grown her hair all the way down her back and to the curve of her rump. She saved them in a wooden box. I never saw the braids, but I knew of their existence, as I knew of her diary’s existence in which she wrote every day and where one entry was written that year she was 13, in pencil: Daddy died today.

A few years ago, my parents were selling their home, a large log house, a beautiful cabin on 5 acres that abutted a State Park full of hiking trails, deer, eagles, snakes and fallen leaves. Their home backed up to a small creek and my father had built stone landing above the creek with chairs around a fire circle. He also built a wooden staircase down the bank and a curved bridge over the creek. It was an enchanted place for their grandchildren, and my nieces and nephews who grew up near them loved it there. My parents planned to live out their lives there, in front of the stone fireplace you could stand in, looking out the cathedral windows floor to jutted ceiling to the tall pines outside leaning to and fro in heavy winds over the woods of Western Maryland, Land of Mary, where we all come from.

Before they had to sell the cabin, my mother told me she went down to the patio above the water and lit a fire. She said she took the small wooden box that held two pairs of braids tied with ribbon, and she laid all four on the fire.

The other pair was Roro’s. She had cut them off when she was 13.

I never saw my mother or my grandmother with long hair. My grandmother was already old with a Robert Frost face when I was small, brown spots dotting her porcelain skin, her eyes drooped with hanging lids over the outside of the almond, weighted with grief and devotion.

My son’s eyes are almond and blue, bright blue like his fathers. I see the Romanian girl of his egg in the shape of his eyes, none of the Irish of mine. We are baptizing him next month in the Episcopal Church where Jamey took me on our first platonic outing. He sat next to me, the Church of Christ raised man who found God again in this foreign ceremony, led by a barefoot woman preacher. I closed my eyes to take in the frankincence breeze and Roro put her hands on my cheeks, whispered in my ear “Princess,” and I wept for the homecoming.

We braid together our sad pasts, our greying hair, our eyes, through generations, through late-blooming choices to become mothers after our prime. My grandmother, my mother, myself. All of us, braided like bread, woven in the incense that wafts like clouds above the flickering tea lights under the Great Mother, her arms outstretched marble, the blue cape faded in the cathedrals’ sunlight.

On Mother’s Day, 2019

 

Dog vs. Baby

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Dog Vs. Baby. Baby wins every time.

I have done the unthinkable. I have abandoned my dog. She lay in her bed, her snout on the pillowed edge, her nose hanging over, her hound eyes expertly wrinkled into disappointment and despair. Hounds look this way most of the time, but she can really exaggerate it. She whines, looking up at me longingly.

I put on my pink running sneakers, new in the past few months, as I have made a promise to myself. The minute the laces start tightening, she is up, shaking off the doldrums, panting, jiggling the jingly things on her chain, aroused and expectant for the run she knows is to come, as it always did in the past after those laces were tightened. Alas, she will be left behind. Abandoned to the Baby Jogger, a tripod off-road thing with wide knobby wheels, perfect for me and him, too much to add a dog to the mix. Balance is everything.

She was my baby and she’d curl up in my bed beside me, not waking till I woke, snuggling her long fur-red body against my lonely one. Then HE came, the man, the love and he took up so much room, she slept on the floor, in her own bed, whining at the injustice.

And now this. The baby. I have read of this abandonment. I swore I’d never be that mother. But I have become that mother. The dog is no longer a canine facsimile of a nurtured child. The dog is now a dog.  May as well throw her in the garage and put a doghouse out in the yard.

I call Huck Flo. I call Flo Huck. My mother would do this with the four of us, a string of a one named thing to at least catch which one of us was in motion to be stopped: “Amyleemattdanny!” Now I do it with the dog and the baby. And I mix genders, “here good boy” to the dog, who is a girl. “Cmon girl” to the boy who is, well, a boy.

13 months. He’s waking in the middle of the night again. Teething, I suspect. But last night blood curdling screams out of the monitor and we shot up in bed and Jamey went to him. I fell back into the soft pillow, barely aware of the time, the dark, the sounds, as if underwater. I woke again at 5:30am with a toddler perched on my chest, smiling and cooing, ducking his nose into my breast like that cuckoo doll that dips it’s red top-hatted head into water.

We are, again, sleepwakewalking, forgetting words, snapping at each other for silly things. Overreacting, overtired. We are, it seems, back at the beginning. Just an endless wheel again of routines we have carved being upended by a growth spurt some app has explained. Neurobiological changes each month. I followed these like astrology at first. I’ve abandoned all of my apps now to an inner guidance of “I’ll figure it out if I need to.” Maybe it’s a built confidence after a year of keeping him alive and well. I’ve figured it out already. I steered the ship through the shallows and we all survived.

I think about starting a new business for new mothers. What would I have needed? It would have been nice to have a mobile truck come by, like a Mommy Wagon, to take over for an hour, force me to nap, take a bath. To clean our bedroom, the bathroom, deliver us some healthy food, but not gross healthy, yummy healthy. Take me to yoga. Bring yoga to me. A Mommy Wagon that delivered me a Lactation Consultant, a real one, a kind one, who would check in on me after a week of being home and bring me Lanolin. Or, a service for mothers that would be a nursery I could have dropped off Huck while I went to yoga for an hour or 90 minutes, as I could never figure that one out. I just started back after 13 months, because I’ve finally gotten the rhythm of the Mommy’s Day Out schedule.

What if the Mommy Wagon brought information on Low Cost Childcare, Mommy’s Day Out Programs that are nearby, places that offer free childcare, like the YMCA where you can drop your baby off for an hour and go sit in the sauna, or just check your laptop on the couch. No need to even break a sweat.  What if the Mommy Wagon was also a food truck and a place to register to vote or a free dental clinic for mother’s who forget to get their teeth cleaned within the first year of their child’s life. The Mommy Wagon would for sure be stocked with Diapers and Wipes and bananas.

I think of angels that showed up in my life, people from my faraway past that sent swaddles unasked for that worked! Or the college friend turned Mommy author who sent a book on parenting. The emails of lists of things to pack when flying with a baby. The woman who just did my registry for me because she knew what I’d need and what was bullshit.  I think of the generosity of my older parents showing up 3 days before Huck was born to get my mind off things and then stayed at our house while we stayed at the hospital for 3 days after, my mother cooking casseroles and freezing them for us and cleaning our house, my father making an organized list of all of the trees on our property and what state of health they were in. And then, graciously leaving after 2 days to leave us with our baby alone.

I think of the friend who sent us a gift certificate for one of those meal services we could choose a weeks’ worth of food from. I think of the people who stopped by and left after a half hour (Jamey called them “Professionals”).

My parent’s in-law who drive 2 hours to come visit, to take Huck when I need to work, which means I have to travel away for a few days, and they happily take him to their river home which he loves and they love having him.

I also think of the first smile, the first sound, the first time he opened my eyes and really saw me and his face lit up, his first roll over, his first crawl, his first step, his first walk down the hallway.

We went to a friends’ 1st birthday party a few years back and I remember thinking “Oh this is a lot for a 1 year old. We don’t need to do this.” And I swore I’d keep it to just my parents who were flying into town and Jamey’s family who are in Tennessee. But the closer we got, the more people I wanted surrounding us to celebrate Huck’s first birthday. The more people I wanted to show off that we kept him alive. The more people I wanted to fill our home with warmth and celebration like it felt the day after he arrived when our friends and family spilled into the hospital room overjoyed to meet our new son. Huck smashed his hand through the cake and then smeared the blue icing across his face, his first taste of sugar. Then Kira just put her hands in the cake and grabbed the corner and Megan took a chunk out of the center and before you knew it, we were all just hand-eating the cake, smearing it on our faces and laughing in joy.

The dog even licked the blue icing off the wood floors and when Huck got out of the high chair and wobbled around like a little drunk munchkin, Flo licked his face and Huck squealed with delight. They are becoming friends, dog and boy. Flo has decided Huck can stay and Huck loves to stumble over to Flo’s bed, lay down in it and curl up like a puppy.

I never thought I’d have a family. I figured I’d grow old with a dog. Here I am, with a husband, a dog, a baby and a house with my name on it. And although to many people this is the no-big-deal normal life, to me this is gold. To me this is ‘making it’. This was harder fought for than any spotlight applause I’ve ever received.

Dog vs. Baby. I win.