Beside me, my sister is asleep. The golden tiled fireplace in the corner of the bedroom heats radiates heat throughout the room. I get out of bed as quietly as I can, make my way into the freezing cold of the next room, and out into the hall. I put on my jacket and step into my boots, pull my wool cap low over my forehead and stuff my hands into mittens.
It is just a few weeks before Christmas. Uncles, aunts, and cousins are to gather at our house. Today is the day of the pig slaughter. There is a large table set up outside between the water well and the grape arbor. On it are several large bloodied knives. I am glad that the pig was killed before I woke up.
I walk from one group to another, but no one pays any attention to me. I stop to watch the men burn the pig over an open fire. They rub the pig’s skin with salt and cover it. The ham and the chops and the ribs get placed in separate pots. Some will be ground, some will be smoked and some will be used for the midday and evening meal.
The women prepare a lunch of polenta and thick slabs of bacon. Fast food before the making of sausage. They shoo me out of the way.
My sister awakes and the other cousins arrive. Now there’s a bunch of us underfoot. We are given little things to do, such as taking firewood to the smokehouse and turning the handle on the sausage-making machine until our arms seem about to fall off.
The men finish with salting and burning the skin. They mix the meat with fat for storage over the long winter months. They help the women with the sausages and line up every piece of meat that is to be smoked next to each other in the smokehouse.
When the long day nears to an end, the men make a makeshift table running the length of the yard. We sit and have a last meal together of fried sausage and mashed potatoes, pickled peppers and black bread. Everyone is tired, yet merry. We eat and drink until we’re stuffed. Someone mentions that it’s time for each family to their own house.
And then just as people start to leave, it begins to snow. The snow shimmers and sparkles and settles over the yard. My sister and I beg our dad to pull us on the sled, but he is too tired, and the snow is not deep enough.
With promises of sled rides in the morning we get sent to our warm bed, where I am sure we fall asleep right away. And so ends another day of a childhood that seems so far away.
All children have expectations of their parents. The seeds of expectation are planted in a child’s infancy, by the first cry. From the first: I am hungry, feed me; I am wet, change me; I am scared, protect me; I am hurting, love me, expectations are watered daily, and they grow. The roots go deep. Far into the earth. And whatever the outcome, disappointment follows.
I know all about disappointment, dashed expectations. Mines were dug out, set fire to, and destroyed soon after I turned nine. That’s when my childhood stopped. One day I was a child and the next I wasn’t.
It wasn’t anybody’s fault.
When my parents came to the United States in 1981, with five children clinging to their legs ranging from two years old to nine, they worried more about what things to bring in their allotted two suitcases, than about how they would function in this country. Functioning in the United States, in fact, was never an issue. To their minds they were not the first immigrants and they would certainly not be the last. Besides, they had family here, to secure them a furnished rental house, an automobile, even a job for my father. Within a year or two, with hard work and many economies, they would even be able to buy their own home. So many immigrants with a strong work ethic did it. They would too.
And they did. My father had two, three jobs at a time. He worked from four in the morning to eleven at night. Monday through Saturday. Week after week after week. For years and years. He did this while my mother raised us five, gardened and cooked and drove us to school and to church and to wherever else we needed to go. All because they were determined that their children have a better life than they did. That they’d have better opportunities.
But it was the lack of English skills that they bumped against every single time they stepped out of the house: at the grocery store, at the bank, at the doctor’s office. And as the oldest child in the family, I became their interpreter. A parent to them, in a sense. Their confidant. The one privy to all their secrets and moles and blood clots and financial situations. I had more control over their lives than I understood. And maybe even more than they understood.
While my sisters and brothers chased each other in the rows of vegetables and fruit trees, while they splashed in a plastic blue kiddie pool in the shade of the backyard pomegranate tree, or read books, or played with bits of wood they imagined as dolls and action figures and cars under the scented lemon trees of the front yard, I was translating insurance forms or waiting on the line for the electric company. That’s when the seeds of responsibility were planted. One. By. One.
I did not know any better. I was raised to respect my elders.
If there was any resentment toward them, if there was any resentment that I didn’t have the freedoms of my siblings, it was buried deep within my body, somewhere in my toes, I think. It was the toes that always itched to run away when I heard my name called.
But I never ran. Responsibility had become a vine and I was ensnared within it.
As teens, my sisters and I would roll our eyes whenever my dad or mom would bring forth the subject of their courtship. It seemed such an old fashioned concept, and we were more than slightly embarrassed by it. Normal people’s parents had dated, not courted. According to my dad, mom had quite a few suitors and she couldn’t make up her mind between them. One night she’d meet one of them for a walk down the linden city center streets, stopping somewhere for a beverage or dessert, and the next, together with her girlfriends, she’d run into another at an ice cream parlor.
Apparently these meetings carried on for a while, and dad was losing patience. Christmas was approaching, and he was playing the trombone in a brass band that visited the surrounding village churches. He would be gone for a while every Saturday and Sunday and those were their designated days to walk the promenade, coyly flirting, my mom in her tailored miniskirt and kitten heels and dad in his well-cut suit. On a cold November Sunday he demanded that she choose between him and the other man. Who would it be?
I can just imagine my mom looking up at him surprised. What was his hurry, she had probably murmured in her soft voice. My mom is very soft spoken. She couldn’t be rushed, she had most likely added. She was just twenty-one. And so my dad did what every honorable man of his time did. He paid a visit to my grandparents, laden with gifts and asked for my mom’s hand in marriage.
The only problem was that another of her suitors had beat him to it, and while she hadn’t been promised (as the decision was solely my mom’s), my grandparents prayed that she would choose the kindest of the two.
My mom took a while. She could see herself having a future with either of them. Finally she decided that she’d leave it up to fate. She’d pick the one she would first encounter, unplanned. She got herself ready, her long dark hair in a topknot popular in those days and went to meet a girlfriend. And whom should she meet on the way there? My dad, of course! Was it planned, a coincidence perhaps, or was it really a sign from God? No one’s telling. And my grandmother had a saying she loved to repeat over and over whenever I pressed her about it: God’s not into magic tricks.
A month later my parents were married, and almost two years after that I came along, the first of five children. Now, as they are preparing to celebrate their 42nd anniversary together, on New Year’s Day, I am praying for their long, happy marriage to continue, in good health and in love, side by side.
Happy New Year, to you all, my lovely friends. May the journey through 2012 be a blessed one, filled with joy, love, peace, good health, and prosperity.
It is dark when mom awakens us from our nap. The rose painted walls are softly lit by the white world outside. Mom comes in and closes the wood shutters, turns on the chandelier overhead. The room is cold, the fire in the tiled corner fireplace, low. We bundle in our itchy woolen sweaters and follow mom into the hall. Dad comes in, snow glistening on his shoulders, dragging behind him a tall evergreen. He positions it into a corner of the square-shaped room where it will keep watch for the next few weeks.
The box of fragile ornaments is brought in from the attic, as well as a box of baked goodies, and one of oranges recently received from the States. I am given permission to select an orange, which dad then peels and hands to us in slices. The citrus taste, so unexpected and refreshing, overtakes my taste buds. I am in love with this taste. In my seven I have never tasted anything this good. Of course I want more. We all do.
But mom counts the oranges, making sure she has enough for the carolers stopping by. She lines them up, threads them and hangs them on the tree. After the oranges comes the ribboned, golden walnuts, then the foil wrapped home-made chocolate, followed by the Christmas candy in its fancy paper, and finally the jewel-toned glass baubles. Mom does all the work. The rest of us are her audience. The last waxy candle is clipped to the branches and lit, and dad turns off the lights. We stare in silence at the enchanting beauty before us.
My dad starts an ancient carol about the holy mother and golden pears and silver apples. When his voice trails off my mother starts one she’s learned at her grandmother’s knee, about lambs, treasure and holy men. We end the carol singing with “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
The candles are extinguished and the light turned on. Even dimmed in its glory, the tree holds us spellbound. In the other room the table is set. The carolers are on their way.
This is what I want to be. A confection. Even if I feel like a slice of whole wheat most days, nutritious, necessary, boring, I want to be dessert. And not just any dessert, I want to be a Parisian macaron.
I don’t know when it was that my profession became my identity. Perhaps a long time ago, and I just hadn’t noticed, or perhaps more recent, but all the frivolity and elegance is gone. I am serious and dependable, which can also translate as anxious and exhausted. And for what? My kids are growing. And the passing years act as though they’re in a race. Before I know it my kids will be in college and I’ll be contemplating a face lift. I don’t want to be staring at myself in the mirror wondering where my life went, not recognizing the lined face staring back.
Can anyone tell me, how do I go about becoming a Parisian macaron? Or at least, how can I find some balance?
(And if you’re in Portland and haven’t stopped by Nuvrei on NW 10th and NW Flanders, what are you waiting for?)
When I was a little girl, I loved sneaking looks into my mom’s or aunts’ purses. Treasures awaited. Every little scribbled note was a mystery, a secret message. The backs of wallet photos were especially important. I was looking for hearts and xo’s and I love you’s. Zippered compartments with their spare change, ticket stubs, receipts, and discarded candy wraps were scrutinized with suspicion. Perhaps I was just looking for candy. Or perhaps I was looking for something more, something deeper. A look inside the hearts of these women so dear to me.
I was remembering all this as I cleaned out my purse today. It was starting to weigh me down, starting to slow my walk. And I got to thinking about the things I carry with me and within me. How much is treasure, and how much is trash? Hoarding wrappers and unacknowledged addictions, receipts and guilt, lists and forgotten dreams, photos and great love, love notes and memories. Getting rid of the junk, and keeping the real.
It was surprisingly easy to let go.
I haven’t been feeling all that great the last several weeks, dead tired by nine, fast asleep by ten, and wide awake at three. The world is quite different at three in the morning. Every sound magnified, every shadow lengthened. I make my rounds in the dark, check on sleepy heads, careful not to trip over blankets dragging on the floor. In the kitchen I turn on the lamp, settle myself in the big chair and reach for my journal or laptop. Journal usually wins. Because blogging at three in the morning isn’t always wise.
But right now, I feel like blogging, because after dinner last night I picked up Night by Elie Weisel, thinking I’d read a chapter before sleep, and an hour and a half later, I finished the book, tearful and exhausted. There was so much I wanted to say, and don’t know if I’ll remember it all, but all I could manage then was a good cry over all the suffering that goes on in the world. I was so tired, I fell asleep before I even wiped my tears away.
For the last five hours I’ve dreamt only of stifling hot cattle cars and of digging in the cellar for my family’s treasures, my mouth clamped shut over my gold-crowned teeth, afraid the evil dentist was somewhere in the darkness, ready to yank the gold out. It seemed so real! I awoke relieved it was a dream, and that I had no gold anywhere in my mouth.
When I was twelve and reading The Diary of Anne Frank, the pastor at my church - whose daughter was my age and probably reading the same book with her seventh grade class - said that the Holocaust was God punishing the Jews for crucifying Jesus. What shocks me now is that I wasn’t shocked then. I remember that Sunday, the slant of the sun coming in through the windows, the heads in the audience nodding in agreement. All those nodding heads, lacking their own method of reasoning, believing what they were told without question. Just like me, afraid to challenge what I heard lest I lose friends or I become confused.
When I see how strong the need is to be liked and popular and when I see how much effort it takes to think for oneself, I am not surprised how idly we stand by, how we distance ourselves from the suffering of those different than we are, and how quickly we find reasons to defend our apathy. It’s tragic and I hate it. And I realize that as a mother my role is to teach my children HOW to think, and not WHAT to think. Because there will be plenty of people to tell them that.
I still remember that early cool morning, the first day of the rest of my life. There I was, dressed in one of my two blue and white checkered school uniforms, ready to go before either of my parents were even awake, my white collar stiff, my royal blue apron not a wrinkle. Tante Marie, my mom’s aunt, and accomplice in all things exciting for a child, got me ready, giggling with as much anticipation as I had. When my mom awoke, the first thing she noticed was that I hadn’t washed the sleep from my eyes, nor brushed my teeth. Breakfast was a hurried matter, a necessity to ensure I wouldn’t starve before school let out at noon.
With my Tante running to keep up with me, I picked up my brown imitation-leather satchel and slung it across my shoulders, skipping across the cobblestones. I was thrilled at the prospect of opening it and showing off - to my yet unknown classmates - my carved pencil box with its lid etched with red poppies, that slid across the top. I loved my pencil box, and I loved the smell of the pencils I filled it with, pencils received from my uncles and grandmother in the States. I longed to sharpen them all and to scribble away in my composition book.
As the days of summer ebbed away and autumn came with its wind and rain, and soon after winter with its deep, cold snow, I learned my math and practiced my reading and writing far into the evening hours. More than anything, I feared to be called to the front of the class and not know my lesson. Humiliation came in the form of a ruler rapped across an open palm, or across the fingertips. A reminder for the rest of the classmates of what awaited each and every one.
Maybe I was really smart, but most probably my mother kept the teacher well supplied with cigarettes and bubble gum, because I was rarely called to recite any lesson or perform any math equation. And because I didn’t have to prove my knowledge, neither was I disciplined. Still, the knots in my stomach were ever present, even when it became apparent that I was the teacher’s pet.
I think of all this, on the eve of another school year, the first for my daughter. She can’t wait for it to start. She has been counting down the days, morning and night. And I am so happy that she can go on growing in her self-confidence, in her love of learning. For a child there is nothing worse that the expectation of failure. Be it through a parent, a teacher, oneself.
And so in closing, I want to wish a happy and successful school year to all the children. Oh, and for the parents and the teachers, patience and wisdom, cause God knows, we’ll need it.
My mother firmly believed in children taking naps. Her day was busy. The two hours we were supposed to be sleeping was the only time she could dedicate to herself without interruption. She would shut the shutters and pull the drapes, making the bedroom as dark as possible, then line each of us in the big bed in order of age. Being the oldest, I was the last to get in.
I hated napping. I didn’t need much sleep. Everything has changed the minute I gave birth, of course. Now I can sleep and sleep, but don’t have the time.
Sometimes my mother would sit in one of the chairs and wait for us to fall asleep, scolding us to close our eyes or we would “get it.” Getting it, probably meant a spanking or a slap. I don’t know. We never actually “got it,” although we always expected to. The rest of my siblings would fall asleep, and I would listen to their gentle snores and pretend that I was asleep as well. Then she’d leave the room and shut the door, turning the key and locking us in. I know. I can hear you all thinking: Inhumane. But back then everyone and their grandmother did it.
The bedroom had a glass door covered by a lace curtain. It looked right into what would be called the living room, but what was actually a fancy sitting room that also doubled as a guest room. My mother would sit and read or sit and entertain her girlfriends who’d come visit. I would get out of bed as quietly as I could and make my way to the door, crouching there, waiting to see what would happen. I wonder if she ever suspected me. If she read, there was nothing to see, as soon enough she’d fall asleep herself, and she was not a light sleeper. That’s when I would explore the bedroom’s every nook and cranny for the stashes of chocolate I knew were hidden. My mother rarely came to check on us once she had locked the door.
If her girlfriends came, she would serve them something sweet, and they’d sit around the table talking and laughing. The mother I observed then was a stranger to me. There was nothing serious about her. She was all smiles. I would study her friends’ shoes and clothes, their mannerism. Some were pretty and I was sure they were nice. The not so attractive ones, I was convinced they weren’t. I believed in fairy tales and that outward beauty equalled inward beauty.
Although she never left us home alone, I knew that some of her friends did leave their children to go to work, or stand in long queues for scarce food items. In different cultures people do different things. I used to have a French neighbor here in the States, who’d leave her three year old napping at home, while she’d run her errands. I wonder if that little girl slept the entire time her mommy was gone or if she woke up crying, terrified. But then I realized that it was the American in me thinking that.
If I would get too lonely during nap time, I would pinch the baby whose wails would wake up the others and send my mother rushing in. I would feign sleep. Surprisingly I was never caught; my brother was too young to tell.
Now I wish I had a designated time of day to nap. My children aren’t nappers. My son stopped napping soon after he turned one. He gets by on less than ten hours of sleep. My daughter napped until she turned three, and then just stopped. But I wish I could turn down the bed in the middle of the day and slip between the cool sheets. The room dark and quiet. Ah. Bliss.
The silvery light of the full moon gets trapped inside my bedroom and wakes me up. It’s 3:30 am. The house is silent and asleep. The air outside so still, almost as if the world is holding its breath. I feel restless. I want to go and make myself some coffee, curl up in the armchair in the kitchen, read my book. But I don’t think I can still my mind enough. Down the hallway, through the open door of her bedroom, I hear my daughter grinding her teeth. I wonder what she’s dreaming of, this child of mine made of light and laughter. I want to go and curl my body around her small one, hold her tight, my nose buried in the softness of her hair. Instead, I say a prayer for her. A prayer for my son. My sweet, sweet boy. More than anything, still wanting the approval of his parents.
I feel a sadness deep inside. Threatening. I don’t know what or why. I remember my mother back when I was a teenager. How I would wake up in the night and hear her praying. I understand her now. Her fervent wishes for her children. Her need to know that we would be all right.
I think of how as parents we have all these expectations of our children. And they of us. Nothing profound in that. But when I think about it, I wonder if our expectations are ruining the greatness within them. Perhaps making them feel imperfect, insufficient. Because our aspirations for them aren’t all justified, are they. Most are purely selfish. What we had wanted for ourselves. And what does that teach them?
Twice, this past week, I felt a tightness in my chest, as though I was about to burst. Light headed, my breaths rushing out, the sound of my heartbeat deafening in my ears. It’s probably nothing. It isn’t the first time I’ve scared myself silly, thinking I’m about to die. It isn’t the first time I’ve idealized my worries.
I took the children out to pizza for lunch, the other day. It had snowed with thick snowflakes early in the morning. Chunks of clouds falling from the sky. By noon the day had cleared, the sun stinging my eyes with its brightness. We dressed warmly and walked. We took the train to Powell’s and lost ourselves within its walls. On our way back, I saw a girl on a pink bike, wearing a pink satin skirt. She was at a stoplight, waiting her turn in the car line. Her face was upturned to the sun. There was a stillness about her. A joy.
All these disjointed thoughts swirling through my head. They don’t make much sense, I know. And come the light of day, I may cringe at how foolish they seem, and delete them all.