As I walked the dogs this morning, I got an idea for a new garden tour that could feature my place. The last one was “Why You Need Us Tour”, to be sponsored by local commercial landscapers and I’m still disappointed that they never took me up on it. This one (possibly endorsed by the Nature Conservancy) would show homeowners how to expand their natural habitat areas. It doesn’t matter if it was a well thought out decision or just that an older daughter who is skilled on the rider mower moved to Maryland. Either way, the grass now taller than me (no comment, please) provides shelter for lots of dear creatures.
I still mow some pretty big areas with a push mower, taking it in rounds of five days of 45 minutes each, followed by a couple days break, then starting over. This cycle works unless it rains (yet again) and if that goes on too many more days the garden tour will last long enough to offer lunch midway through.
Part of this new habitat is a pasture that once had our horses and then a neighbor’s cows, but the cows kept getting out and I dreaded seeing an injured longhorn on the road or an angry person with a smashed truck. My sympathy would have gone to the cow and is it necessary to drive 50 mph on a gravel road? I think not.
The pasture has become a meadow, full of all sorts of grasses and wildflowers and is my favorite stretch of the daily dog walk. I often use my time to reflect on such concerns as whether I can get an educational institute to give me a free download of Microsoft Office before my 30 day trial runs out (so far no luck) or if I might have accidentally offended a friend by suggesting she could save money by mowing her TINY yard HERSELF.
Lately, however, I’ve been working on “living in the moment” and “mindfulness”, phrases used so much they’ve become clichés. There’s a saying “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t following you” and likewise, just because something is a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pondering.
So today in the meadow while young dog Finn was catching multiple cicadas and chewing them up, and arthritic dog Kosmo was trying to catch just one, I stopped and looked closely at the flowers. I use the term “flowers” here for anything growing with more than a stem and leaves because, really, isn’t that what flowers are?
Some had such an array of subtle colors that I later made them into a special color palette on my illustration program.
A tiny pick flower was covered in white dots only visible up close.
And a bug eaten Black-eyed Susan (I do know a few names) held up its blossom to the sky.
I’m imagining a brochure that goes with the garden tour in which I give numbered steps for mindfulness, to be practiced on the walk through my expanded natural habitat. So far I’ve only come up with two and maybe that’s enough:
- Just like the first step to changing a bad habit is admitting it’s bad (for example, judging a friend who could easily mow her yard), the first step to living in the moment is recognizing that your mind is somewhere else.
- The next step is to bend down and look at the sweet flowers, nestled in among the grasses by the side of the path, the white petals perfectly and wonderfully arranged around their bright yellow centers.
Aside from taking on-line IQ tests (Scores so far: 161, 105, 134 with the first one congratulating me on my above genius status and suggesting I buy their book), I have been tracking Helen on the iPad she gave me before taking off with Ian for Maryland. I followed their move from my driveway all the way back East. I felt relieved when I saw that they stopped for the night in Indiana but worried when the little circle with H in the middle seemed to be sitting on the side of a highway in West Virginia. Stopping to let dog Daisy pee was the best guess I could have and let’s not go into the worst. This is when it was time to take a break, get a glass of wine, and try another IQ test. Sure enough, when I looked again, that little circle was advancing.
Mothers must have been a lot tougher years ago. I’m talking about the days without cell phones and Face Time and Find My Friends. I’m talking about my own mother. At 23 I set off for Australia with a two-year teaching contract. Communication was a letter twice a month and on rare occasions brief phone calls. And even more frightening for her would have been when I left there at 26 to travel overland through Asia with an American girlfriend. To her dying day, thank goodness my mother never knew about the middle of the night taxi rides with male drivers who spoke no English (where were they taking us???), the mule ride up to the top of a volcano to look over the edge at sunrise (pretty cool), or the drug deals going down in the next room in the boarding house (we decided the student guide to Asia on $5 a day needed updating). Which reminds me that there are certainly advantages on both ends to not have those tracking devices.
I don’t remember if my mother and I had any last week mother/daughter bonding event, but Helen and I went and got matching tattoos. They are small and on the outside of our right heels, a dragonfly in two shades of blue. It was fun though Helen experienced a lot more pain than I did. I thought she was just being a bit of a wimp (she did often say some bone was broken and make me take her to the doctor’s when it was a mild sprain), but then on the way home she said her foot was burning and throbbing while I felt nothing. Now mine seems to be fading so maybe that high pitched sounding needle didn’t go deep enough? But even if it fades to look more like another varicose vein than a dragonfly, it was worth it. Perhaps one day Rose and I will do the same. I’d like a small bluebird on my left shoulder, one of those that looks in flight, as birds are meant to be.
I assume my IQ is somewhere between 105 and 161 and closer to the low end. But I’m not sure I put much faith in even the most valid (which means not one that wants to sell me something) IQ test. All those colored squares in weird sequences and when is the ability to problem solve tested? Surely that correlates with intelligence, although these days problem solving can get help from Ms. Google. When my iPad started showing the circled H on a grid with no map, I used her first suggestion—-power off and back on—it worked!
Often the most obvious and simplest answer is the best. I believe my mother lived by that rule and with only common sense, experience, and a good heart to help her. She knew her children were on loan and at some point had to go explore the world, whether that meant a new job in a neighboring town or traveling around the world. She treated it with sincere smiles, good wishes, and all the support she could gather.
Getting a tattoo may not be an indicator of intelligence but knowing how to say goodbye to your grown children should be. It’s one of those things mothers have been saying forever. It’s the way it’s supposed to be, and is still tough, even if the wave of a phone can show me in panoramic view how my encaustic pictures are already hung up and a text photo brings to life a first dinner, complete with Daisy posing in front of a small table and two chairs.
Fortunately, the answer as to how to say goodbye is simple.
Take care, my dear Helen, and know I’m here if you need me. I’m proud of you…..oh, and don’t forget that the next time you’re back in Kansas we should see if I can get my tattoo touched up. I’d like to have that day together all over again.
Rose left for New York City Friday. It’s quite a jump from our Manhattan, Kansas “Little Apple” to the “Big Apple” and a bit scary, for both of us. She went with other high school students to see Broadway shows, tour the sights of the city, and go to seminars on human trafficking–all part of a church trip. On the drive to Topeka to connect with her ride to the K.C. airport, I heard Rose question why she thought she wanted to do this trip, why six months before it had seemed like such a good idea, why she wanted to be so far away from all that was familiar.
I was older than Rose, in my mid thirties, and traveling with a group of art faculty and students from K-State. Two of my favorite teachers and mentors, Jack and Terri, were going and a younger friend and undergraduate art student, Mike.
First the first time in years, I reread the book, put together with journal entries and sketches made during the trip, along with postcards and brochures.
Thursday, June 11, 1987
We leave Manhattan early and find out in the car that no one has gotten more than three hours sleep. We stop for juice and coffee and then start to wonder if we’ve allowed enough time—Terri tells Mike to “spin leather”. On the plane I start to relax and look across to Mike, who has never been out of the Midwest, never seen the ocean. I remember the trip I took at twenty-one to Paris, with many firsts like him. As we start to get close to New York, I feel foolishly frightened. I feel like I have never traveled before and wonder why I wanted to spend so much money on this trip. I feel again a little like I felt at twenty-one.
After landing and getting our luggage we get into two taxis. Our driver is friendly but can only identify two buildings on the Manhattan skyline. “That’s the Chrysler Building and that the Empire State Building,” he says again and again. He dodges in and out of traffic at what seems like a reckless speed as Jack tries to get more information from him and Terri squeezes my hand.
We unpack in the tiny rooms with bunk beds and views of pipes and walls and set out walking and suddenly I realize that this is just a city of people and not so unlike Sydney. The subway station smells of urine, but the cars are clean and filled with posters advertising cosmetics, roach control, birth control, the dangers of drugs, and even tolerance to AIDS victims. Lunch is a hot dog from a sidewalk stand near the Serra Wall. I find the idea of the wall interesting but the color and texture dull. We leave it to spend the rest of the day walking—halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge, through the crowded sidewalks of the Wall Street District, and down to Battery Park, where mothers push baby carriages by the water. I feel that I have seen this view in a dozen movies. We walk up to Chinatown where we have a so-s- dinner and then walk and walk and walk. It seems that in one day we have already seen half of Manhattan.
Friday, June 12, 1987
At the Whitney at the Equitable Center we see late de kooning (boring) and early Stuart Davis “New Mexican landscape” with subdued color, and a beautiful Alexander Calder—something different and early—a cat in wood. This is the first of many Calders I will see in N.Y. and with most I am very impressed. This wood carving is perhaps my favorite piece here in this museum.
I also enjoy the show of children’s work and recognize that many of the great contemporary artists have tried to capture the same childlike quality in their work.
At the Whitney, again Calder is one of my favorites, with the detailed circus figures and appeal to children. I also am fascinated by the tiny Mexican structure by Charles Simonds and think of being in the 5th grade and making tiny little villages out of pebbles and twigs during recess. I like things that bring back childhood memories.
Saturday, June 13, 1987
Caught a taxi down to the Staten Island Ferry Station. Had to run to get the ferry and got on free because I couldn’t find change and the booth lady let me in. We got over and missed the next one back. The “girls” sat and ate and chatted while the “boys” pitched pennies against the wall with some locals—a highlight for Jack after he’d made “a trip to hell” by using the public toilet. But the trip back was my highlight—standing at the front of the boat, the cool night wind blowing, and watching the Manhattan lit skyline get bigger and bigger. We walked and walked, often lost, in lower Manhattan, with almost no one in sight, steam coming up from subway holes, and I felt I was in some futuristic movie, expecting to see gangs with chains at any moment.
Sunday, June 14, 1987
After a deli breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, Terri, Mike and I go to St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church—rather a high-class church and likely with wealthy people in the congregation. The minister was celebrating his anniversary there (15 years?) and spoke about what a minister needs—compassion, to make himself present and vulnerable, to speak out. He talked about how the church was involved in housing for the homeless and AIDS and how there was always some resistance. The music was beautiful and being there peaceful.
We walked all over. The Strand Bookstore was closed and we couldn’t find the Art Cinema. Walked through the Bowery—lots of men sitting around. Earlier we had a beer at a famous old speakeasy. Interesting graffiti on the bathroom wall—something about life being like a penis, but now I can’t remember all of it.
Monday June 15, 1987
Degas’ “At the Milliner’s”, a pastel with such richness of color, in the same room with Van Gogh’s “The starry Night”. As Jack said out in the sculpture garden, “It’s an overload—I had to take a break.”
Matisse’s sculpture “The Serf” in bronze and next to it “Male Model”. These two pieces seem to go together—they are so human. They could be any man, but remind you of a certain man, so sympathetic and loving is the description.
Almost ran through contemporary section—by 3:30 I’ve had enough! Got caught in rain, letter waiting, almost feels like I’ve been here a month and plan to stay a month longer. Long nap then dinner with Mike and Terri at an Italian/Greek place three blocks away.
Tuesday, June 16, 1987
“Art Against AIDS” pieces in many galleries. Sign over gallery: Put food out in the same place every day and talk to the people who come to eat and organize them.
Leo Castelli—he was being interviewed and videotaped in back room of gallery while we were there. Two new Stella pieces. Big business. I think of value and what it is. Is this stuff really that much more valuable than things that bring $100? What is success? How would it really feel to have a big name?
2:30—We lose Jack and the rest of the day keep an eye out for someone with a fast walk and an Art for AIDS bag.
Wednesday, June 17, 1987
A man tried to pickpocket me while getting on a bus this morning. The steps are crowded and when I look down, he has his hand in my purse. I’m too shocked to say anything—I just look at him. His hand comes out, he looks up at the driver and says, “Is this the No. 5 bus?” and is quickly gone. I don’t feel frightened at all. His face is harmless and not mean. He’s doing his job and this time has failed.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Balthus–“Nude in Front of a Mantel”–this is the painting that Jack pulled a chair up in front of–this postcard reproduction just doesn’t show what it’s really like. You just want to go on looking at it forever.
We approach the Rembrandt room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Terri is ahead. Suddenly she starts running from painting to painting. She runs to the door, her tongue sticking out and arms waving, “Mike, Ann, Rembrandt!” and then dashes back. She calls his surfaces “buttery”. There is “Self Portrait” with so much subtle variation of color in the face, “Lady with a Pink….” very dark but very rich background, “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” with wonderful texture. I somehow think that Terri never completely recovers from this room. And for the rest of the trip we notice that whenever anything excites her, her tongue comes way out and her arms start to wave.
We wander around Lincoln Center, eat fish and chips at an “expensive cheap” place and then walk to the Plaza Hotel—a place full of elegance and wealth and again I feel a desire to be part of all this. I feel the conflict of respecting and liking the idea of a simple life with few possessions and yet am also drawn to this life of success and the good taste that money can buy. We walk some more and come across a group of white jazz musicians playing on the street, and they’re good, but then a black group sets up across the street and they really get going. We cross and listen and soon a large crowd is gathered around listening to “The Heavenly Hummingbirds.” Their instruments duck and sway as they do and the music gets better and better and I feel that this is the very best that New York City has to offer—to walk down the street at night and happen on to music like this. A large, older man with a little white dog stops in front of Terri and does a little jig. We walk on and get our picture taken in front of a stand-up life size picture of Reagan, then on to Rockefeller Center, where a bum is told that he must sit up or move on, though told politely. He argues, then sits up, then moves on. It is a city of extremes.
Thursday, June 18, 1987
Thompson Square, 3:30. We are back at the same park where we were this morning but now it is more alive. Lots of old men sitting around and people sleeping on benches. We walk past a food line with gospel music playing from a nearby stand and a big sign that says, “Get High on Life”—perhaps a church line. The men seem friendly and are quietly waiting and many (most?) are young. I want to take a picture but am embarrassed. They seem to have a lot of dignity and I don’t know if my camera would take some of that away from them. We later talk to “Big Bob” and give him money for “the Vietnam Vets”. I silently hope he uses it to have a nice meal.
We have beer and bagels at a nice deli, see a transvestite with blue hair, go to the top of the Empire State Building and have a beautiful view. At dinner we all talk about learning about sex as children and talk too loudly. An older couple nearby keeps looking at us.
Friday, June 19, 1987
“A Drop of Dew Falling from the Wing awakening Rosalie Asleep in the shadow of a Cobweb”
“Hair Pursued by Two Planets”
On the second floor, a show by Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez-Bravo. At beginning of show: “The photographer’s absorption with poor Mexico involves no propaganda or sentimentality, however. His peasants sleeping are neither victims nor comic stereotypes but dreamers, suggesting how poetry is made by everyone.”
Later we go to a country western bar on Second Ave.—a strange thing to see in the middle of Manhattan. But the music is good and everyone seems to be having fun. We leave but I insist we stay for one more song, “You were always on my mind”.
Saturday, June 20, 1987 (free day)
I sleep late and Terri, Mike and I eat breakfast at a place where a nice, shy man listens to our orders (all are different) without writing anything down, then brings the wrong food (the same for everyone). We eat is anyway, it tastes good, and we leave a big tip. We stroll (no fast Jack to follow) up to 57th St., stopping in a few shops but buying nothing but postcards.
Sunday, June 21, 1987
The Brooklyn Museum
The Botanical Gardens next to the museum are wonderful—lanes with overhanging trees, a rose garden with endless shades of reds and pinks, a Japanese pond, and a mother duck with a string of ducklings that look like pull toys.
Jack and I see a good off Broadway show, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (Tom Stoppard)—excellent acting and it seems that this is most important here, unlike the Broadway show. We later walk though Chelsea, a very pleasant residential area, and see a tall woman in a long black coat, with black hair, walking three white dogs.
Monday, June 22, 1987 (free day)
We shop at Macy’s where it seems that there are endless racks of clothes on sale. It’s raining and we run to a coffee shop across the street for lunch, the get a subway to Coney Island. We don’t pass much of beauty or interest in Brooklyn except a huge graveyard–the headstones very close together and going on and on. I draw a woman sitting across from me who’s fallen asleep.
Coney Island is sadly rundown, dirty, and cheap looking, but because it is cloudy and cool the beach is uncrowded—in fact almost nobody. We walk along it and it’s still beautiful—it’s hard to spoil an ocean. We meet an old man who is from the Polar Bear Club and he asks us about the Prairie Grass National Park and the farmers in Kansas. Then he talks about the women in his retirement home and how, during the last election, they quoted from the Bible to show that Reagan should be voted for. “Just hear the authority is his voice,” they said. The Polar Bear man shakes his head as he talks about this. “And those people vote!” he says. “There should be a test they have to take first and then only get a percentage of a vote if they’re not smart enough.” As we leave he is wading back into the water, after telling us that in winter his swimming trunks freeze on him when he gets out of the “brine”. Soon after that a girl is pulled from the water but is revived. We are too far away to see much.
We treat Jack to dinner at “Mimi’s” and he gives out funny masks. We walk to Michael’s Pub, where Woody Allen sometimes plays, and look in the window—it looks very upper class. We walk some more and come upon the sky tram to Roosevelt Island. We take it, swinging out over the river. We stop for one last drink in New York City and go back to pack.
Tuesday, June 23, 1987
We sit in the coffee shop one last time and I wonder if our waiter will miss us. Every day he has smiled when we arrived and when we left. Somehow again we are rushed and the rest of the group scramble into two taxi cabs, worried they’ll miss their plane. I take a taxi to Penn Station, where the air conditioner must be broken and the signs are confusing. I am very relieved to get my ticket and realize I don’t want to stay here alone. The stairs to the tracks are too crowded and I imagine falling and being crushed. I look around and am amazed at how calm a couple carrying three small children are. My suitcase has become very heavy with books and a man with a backpack carries it on the train for me. I assume he’s looking for company but he then walks to another car with a boy, probably his son, and I feel guilty for not sensing he just wanted to help me. I check for the 10th time that I have everything as the train pulls out. It is not long before we are out of Manhattan and nothing looks familiar—the buildings are too low and too far apart. I think about what the sky tram operator said to Terry last night when she asked him if he liked living in New York. “I love this city,” he told her. “It grips you by the throat and you know you’re alive.”
Before Rose got on the plane to go to New York I sent her a text:
I love you. And so glad you have a chance to have this adventure. I wouldn’t give up my adventures for anything. And often the things that are the hardest to do have the biggest rewards.
Rose has sent some texts back from the Big Apple though not as frequently or as detailed as I’d like. That’s okay as she’s having a great time and finding the city as fascinating as I did 31 years ago. I hope her life is full of things that make her know she’s alive. And I hope she remembers that there’s a lot to be learned from the people she may meet on the street, or in the sky swinging out over the East River. I certainly have.
The most unusual answer I ever got to “What are you going to do over the break?” was “Write a novel.” This from a friend who was quite sincere at the time. I was in awe of her hugely ambitious goal and couldn’t imagine how she’d do it (she didn’t). This year, as the winter break drew near, I made my own list of goals:
- Clean the whole house.
When I wrote this down, I was being a little like the friend with her intended novel. In the end, my cleaning consisted of dusting the shelf above the stove. Helen was much better as she wanted to show me how well her new vacuum worked. Now I want one but I’m not sure how much I’d use it. Thinking of cleaning seems to bring my mother’s words to mind—“Honey, you need a nap.”
2. Reapply for a social security card (I have no idea where mine is).
I don’t even know why I thought this would be a good time to sit holding a number for an unknown amount of time and seeing if I could read the signs in Spanish.
3. Find my living will so I can send it to my doctor.
This request has something to do with turning 65, along with the questions on the Medicare wellness checkup forms, things like do you have trouble dressing yourself (no, but I have trouble deciding what to wear, just as I did when I was THIRTY!) and do you need help feeding yourself (not in the least, thank you very much). The disappearance of this rather important document is as troubling as the missing social security card.
4. Go through all my poems and organize a chapbook on aging and mortality.
I think I kept forgetting about this one.
5. Back up all my files.
If you know anyone who would live in a trailer behind my house in exchange for computer work, can you contact me?
6. Put up a Christmas tree.
The tree never got put up and it started to depress me until I strung some lights around the living room. I did plug in the outdoor tree lights most nights. Twice I went out to find the cord pulled out of the socket. I wanted to believe it was a racoon but Helen insisted it was a person and got out our trail camera to catch him or her. The camera is still on the dining room table, but the lights have been staying on lately and my new theory is that a deer kept tripping over the cord.
7. Update my website.
See number 5.
8. Take down Christmas stockings and indoor lights January second.
They really can seem rather cheery if left up a bit longer.
I could also make a list of the things I did do:
1. Walked the dogs every day.
It was so cold I couldn’t watch people on TV wearing short sleeves without thinking they were idiots. How can people live in Minnesota? They must be really tough.
2. Helped Helen buy a car by co-signing for the loan and also wheeling and dealing—okay, just a little, but certainly more than she would have done.
This was quite rewarding as I could brag to Helen about my high credit rating and also the car place sent cookies with their postcard survey. I liked the salesman but not the business man who kept pushing the extended warranty. Was it a mistake not to take that out?
3. Worked three jigsaw puzzles, two repeats from previous years.
I believe I’m getting better at this all the time though I now prefer the ones with easy grip pieces.
4. Bought a 40 pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds to feed the birds.
I can’t lift 40 pounds anymore but Orscheln has the nicest guys who help me. How do birds survive in Minnesota?
5. Watched 32 episodes of Friends on Netflix starting at the beginning.
I love this show as it makes me laugh but I’m envious of their constant fun gatherings. Helen reminded me that it was quite unrealistic and when were they ever at work? Usually that’s the kind of thing I say to her about the shows she likes.
6. Watched the first five episodes of Stranger Things 2.
Rose watched this with me even though she’d already seen it and kept saying, “This is where it gets weird.” but I couldn’t see the difference.
7. Stayed out of the way when the girls made frosted sugar cookies and applesauce bread so they could have some sister bonding time.
The cookies are rather cute but still uneaten and I should throw them out. The two loaves of bread came out very flat as I forgot to tell Helen to double the recipe. She continues to remind me of this. Rose claims Helen was as bossy as ever.
8. Spent a morning on the phone with Helen while she sat in O’Hare airport.
It seems that her connecting flight was overbooked and nobody would agree to get off. So instead of pulling someone off (I wonder why?) the airlines had to find a bigger plane. Apparently they couldn’t make up their minds and changed gates four times. I just kept thinking of some tired mother dragging her young children back and forth. I have too many airplane stories from when the girls were little. Like the time Helen threw up on her shoes and we had to run halfway across the terminal to catch the next flight and her flip flops were sliding around as we didn’t have time to clean them up. But I really should save that story for another time. I was just glad Helen had me to talk to and glad they found a big enough plane.
9. Did face masks with Rose.
These little premixed packets were a present to her from Helen. I used the mud one and Rose said it made me more bright and youthful looking. I did notice a certain glow afterwards. She did one with paper that peeled off and I told her it made her skin smooth.
10. Spent a day with a good friend who was having a chemo treatment.
I’d never been in a room where the chairs were lined up like that. And I don’t think I’d ever entered a room of strangers where so many looked me in the eye and smiled. The youngish woman sitting next to my friend offered me gum. I also took some of the candy by the coffee machine until I saw the sign that said “Treats for patients only. Please be respectful.” The grandmotherly woman on the other side talked about her two breast cancers but not as much as she talked about her craft projects. She had some with her to show us.
I need to make a new list for 2018 that includes all those things I didn’t get done over the holiday. I could start on item 1 today. Helen’s vacuum cleaner is still in my laundry room, after all. But I think I’ll take the dogs on a walk instead. It’s hard to resist the eager way they are standing at the door. Kosmo looks awfully cute in his red coat and Finn acts like he must have been born in Minnesota instead of Oklahoma.
I’m not sorry about how the break turned out. If I ever write a novel, it won’t be about vacuum cleaners but it just might include the sweet lady with breast cancer and craft projects. My friend bought one of her knitted dish scrubbies —the one that was periwinkle blue. We all agreed it was a wonderful color.
“Stop the car! I want to get out!” Yes, I’ve said this with one of my children at the wheel. Well, in my head anyway. What I have said is, “Stop the car! I’m going to drive!” but that’s just not the same, is it? Because then you have to get back in the car with the teenager who is mad at you, mad at herself, or both. Helen claims I always unlocked my door when she was driving so I could bail at any time but that is NOT true. Gripping the door handle so tightly that I sometimes wonder if it’s what caused this pain in my right hand and not arthritis, yes. Stomping the imaginary brake, yes. Never, ever taking my eyes off the road, yes. Well, except the one time in Colorado, going up the winding gravel road to the dude ranch, when I looked down at a red, itchy spot on my arm and wondered about poison ivy and there was almost a head on collision. But in all fairness to Helen, the too-old-not-to-know-better male driver in the other car also wasn’t taking precautions with that curve and therefore blind stop. By the way, more about blind spots needs be on the test, and not how many feet you should stay behind an emergency vehicle that is a minimum of 10 seconds at 30 mph and a minimum of 6 seconds at speeds of 60 mph (answer 500).
When I learned to drive we practiced first on large simulation machines in the darkened annex of Topeka High School. With screens where every possible obstacle would jump out in front of you. With the teacher saying, “Eric, you just ran over an old lady and a kid on a bicycle.” That teacher was Willie, the basketball coach, who had us take him on errands and once had us drive him to his house where he stayed inside 30 minutes while we waited in the car. I imagine he was telling his wife tales about us, or taking a short nap, or maybe having a much needed shot of whiskey. But at the time we decided he and his wife were up to no good, as in funny business, because, well, we were teenagers. I remember how I kept speeding up instead of slowing down around corners as my foot couldn’t decide which pedal was which and how he said, “Annie,” (a nickname I liked but was seldom called) “please don’t do that anymore—you’re scaring me.” And there was none of this “50 hours of recorded time with a licensed adult in the front passenger seat with at least 10 hours after dark” business. No, I would try to get my parents to go out driving with me but they always seemed suddenly very busy when I asked. They probably didn’t like the way I killed the car in the middle of intersections, the big green Plymouth with the manual transmission and heavy-duty clutch. I didn’t either and I wasn’t going to get a car anyway so was in no great hurry to practice. I caught a ride to school with my friend Kathy. Her windshield wipers didn’t work and when it rained I stuck my hand out the window and moved them manually. Were there seat belts back then? When did that begin? But this is starting to sound like one of those stories old people tell.
Rose just completed her driver’s education class and now has things to say about all this. Things like, “You drive slow, Helen drives fast, Wayne drives crazy—I have no good role models.” Although I wisely chose not to respond to this remark at the time, I will state here that I drive at the speed limit or even slightly above unless it’s rainy or snowy or dark or dusk when the deer are out or when the sun is in my eyes or when driving on unfamiliar roads or when I don’t seem to be focusing well or am drinking tea from my thermos with the leaky lid. Helen and Wayne’s driving I won’t comment on, except to say that two out of three times the young among us speak the truth.
Each time we go out driving, I am supposed to record the time (seems like an eternity), driving conditions (abundant anxiety), weather (windy of course–it is Kansas), and skills practiced. Skills practiced?? I thought that should be obvious. Driving so as not to have an accident and thereby raising the parent’s already high auto insurance. But I wrote down “staying on the right side of the road”, even in downtown Riley where there are no yellow lines and hardly any other cars, come to think of it. How do people learn to drive in big cities? This question has puzzled me for years.
We really should list the skills to be practiced by the parent in the car. Things like trying to remember what it’s like to be fifteen. Things like keeping in mind that this is a huge step toward adulthood and it’s our job to help. That, however hard it seems, we need to calmly and patiently talk through the stop signs, the lane changes and merging traffic, the parking (oh, God, the parking), and yes, staying in the right lane, even when it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to someone who’s driven, what, 50 years, and knows how to manually work the windshield wipers.
It’s all a far cry from easy, no matter which side of the car you’re on. But it’s something that has to be gotten through, a kind of rite of passage. In the end there’s a license with a photo that admittedly (no matter what you tell her) should have been retaken. And there’s a young person ready to be more independent. We need to be happy about this, even though a part of us still wants to be in the driver’s seat, where we think we have some control over things. Where we think we can keep everyone safe. When really, all we can do is smile and hang on for dear life. And keep the doors locked. Jumping out just isn’t an option.
Several years ago I felt quite pleased with myself for overcoming a sensitivity to annoying noises. I decided it must be from having children around. Like getting allergy shots, all the exposure made me immune. It sounded logical but then I started to get irritated with the opposite problem. Why did my children have to turn the TV volume so low? It was ridiculous and yet they kept doing it.
When I was in my mid 40’s, I was at a small indoor concert in winter, feeling very warm, while all those around me hadn’t bothered to shed sweaters and jackets. The concert was well underway before it occurred to me that the others must be reasonable people (after all, it was bluegrass music) and so maybe, just maybe, the odd person out was me. Having my first hot flash was almost as bad as being told I needed bifocals, when I remember thinking, “Tell me I’m going blind but, dear God, not this!”
I now accept that my hearing isn’t that great and try to find humor in my odd interpretations of what is really said, though I seem to be the only one in the family laughing. It also comes in handy, as in, “You told me this morning I need to drive you and Winona to the mall after school? I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear that and now I’ve made other plans.” In all fairness to myself, I try not to take advantage of this and many more times than not (call it selective hearing if you want), I really didn’t catch what was said.
Aside from the hearing loss, there are the knees that hurt and the heartburn and the test results that show bone loss. And with each new sign of aging there is at first shock. We know it happens but we don’t expect it yet. All this leads to what I call “late middle-aged” crisis (“elderly” should apply to only those past 90 and “mature” unfortunately doesn’t work for all the over 60’s). If mid-life crisis is about frustration and disappointment at where one is at 40, this later crisis is more about a grieving process. It’s the recognition that there are things you always dreamed about that really aren’t going to happen—as in really aren’t going to happen. At 40, the likelihood that I would gallop a pinto pony over the hills of Kansas was very remote but still, one never knows, right? Now the idea of falling and breaking a bone becomes much more of a real possibility, and I have to recognize that it’s not to be. And the loss of that dream I have had since childhood goes deep. Very deep.
We of a certain age are told to compensate these losses by enjoying “the little things”, which my 101 year old uncle, once a missionary in Africa, certainly knows how to do. He is still able to write a very coherent longhand letter. In the most recent one, the words a bit wobbly since his stroke, he states, “I still enjoy the good food Krista prepares for me each day and I seem to have adjusted to the medicine I take for a daily bowel movement, for which I praise the Lord.”
One can laugh at this—I certainly did—but it doesn’t mean my Uncle John’s life is only about such things or that it no longer has meaning. He certainly still affects my life by his thoughtful and detailed letters. I send a small check when I write back, telling him to buy a treat. He always lets me know what he bought (usually ice cream) and I am touched by this communication. Like all of us, at any age, he has a story to tell. And it’s important to listen.
What is not funny is the way so many things just aren’t easy. If I have to conduct business on-line I steel myself for a hike in blood pressure and hope the dogs are outside when I throw whatever is handy across the room. I don’t know why my smart phone keeps telling me I have “important” upgrades which apparently aren’t important at all, and I pray that at some point in a call about a health insurance claim I can get a real person to talk to me. Aside from feeling outdated by all this, there’s a sense of being pushed to a state of decline before we want it, even if well intentioned. Rose, at 14, associates the name Via Christi with a nursing home where we visited an elderly woman (yes, in her 90’s) and where her middle school choir sang holiday carols. She didn’t know it is also the name of other health services, one of which sent me a notice about needing to schedule an appointment. She saw it, open on the kitchen table with the letter head showing, looked at me, and quite sincerely said, “Oh, Mom, congratulations! You’ve been accepted into Via Christi!”
I have recently added closed captions to some of the shows I watch and figure it can’t hurt my reading skills. My children seem to be more tolerant of my need for repetition, though is there really any good reason for them to mumble? I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I won’t be bungee jumping (though bless those, like a friend’s aunt, who celebrated her 80th birthday by getting a tattoo and skydiving), but I do expect my life to continue to have adventures and challenges and all those emotions that make us know we are alive. Fortunately, life doesn’t end with the final goodbye to Flicka. And I think I can still hear her whinnying as she gallops off.
My Uncle John as a young man and then in his late 90’s. Below is his father on a dairy run. John helped on the farm and later delivered milk in Kansas City by truck. He was known to be rather wild behind the wheel. This is a just a part of his story.
It’s August 7th and my yard wouldn’t qualify for one of those garden tours you can sign up to take. No, it wouldn’t even be on a runner up list. Unless it’s a different kind of tour—“Wild and Free” or as a promotion tour “See Why You Need Us”.
This hasn’t been the case all summer. The larkspur were lovely and lush in June, their pink and lavender blossoms making a great color combination with blue flax and yellow lilies. But it would appear that all that larkspur, which has now gone to seed, crowded out others and what I have left are large patches with little but weeds (interesting that the term “weeds” refers to any plant in the wrong place at the wrong time). Meanwhile, the wildflower beds by the road are bedraggled from the extended heat wave. And the vegetables in the three raised beds don’t look much better. One tomato plant has that “failure to thrive” appearance and the only cucumber plant even thinking about producing is a volunteer from last year. At least I have a good crop of green peppers on the way and have harvested three (!) zucchini. I used one to make two loaves of bread, quite good toasted with butter or cream cheese and that reminds me that I still have a loaf in the freezer. It was my mother’s recipe and I always hope the benefit of the zucchini might cancel out all the oil.
But back to the flowers, an area I like to think I’m good at. This morning I took my tea and sat down on the bench by the decorated tree stump. Fat cat Noel joined me and tried to distract me from my assessment of the situation. The black-eyed Susans are on their last legs. The dianthus are trying to make a late summer come back without much success. The straggly petunias I put in last week in the hope of adding some color (end of year half price clearance) are not likely to spread at this point. And the six foot tall dill plant is badly bent over from a storm and hasn’t managed to straighten up. I didn’t cut it back as it feeds caterpillars in late summer. As I sat there, stroking Noel, feeling quite deflated, I noticed something on one of the few petunia blossoms. It stood out with dark wings and blue, white and orange spots—a western black tailed butterfly and that would mean….I searched the dill and there, carefully camouflaged, I found one, then two, then three caterpillars. Suddenly my efforts seemed more worthwhile. I enjoy sharing all these plants and since nobody is coming for a garden tour…
…though perhaps if I advertised having a fairy garden, and I could even expand it next year—maybe a little pagoda and a labyrinth, though someone suggested that fairies are not really in need of meditation devices.
The fairy garden has been a plan of mine for some time and this June it seemed like the perfect excuse to postpone checking off items on the “to do this summer as I didn’t get it done for the last five summers” list. I knew exactly where I wanted it—a sheltered spot under some juniper bushes in front of the porch. And so I set out.
First came a pebble road lined with a twig fence (Rose helped me find the right sized flat stones and sticks), then two wading pools, very cleverly placed under a hanging plant to catch the run off from watering. A little arched branch ended the road which would lead to a house…a house. Huh….a house. If I was trying to follow the idea of using only natural materials, then little sticks seemed appropriate but several attempts at making the house actually stand on its own had me looking on-line for Joann’s coupons. Helen told me all I needed was a hot glue gun and she was right. I found one that I’d bought for all the craft projects she used to beg for, noting that I had another comeback to those popular articles about decluttering. And I found that a glass of red wine seemed to help, especially if working in the evening.
Helen also suggested using Popsicle sticks and for a person who NEVER finished ANY of her craft projects, she does have some good ideas. Those made the frame and really can’t be seen from the outside and, dear fairies, forgive me, if when you enter in, you are offended by these man-made sticks—well, also the twine and the pottery parts and all that glue. But somehow I can’t picture fairies being easily offended.
I had my setbacks, as with the swing, which still stays twisted. And whenever I go to straighten it out I step on some of the fencing. The last addition was a picnic area and it seems a mole has burrowed underneath, perhaps searching for a few leftover crumbs. Then there’s the wading pools where roly poly bugs have some kind of suicide pact about drowning. I know it may not last through the winter and I’ve thought of bringing in the house, but I love the idea of seeing snow on the roof. I do wish the dill plant was nearby. I can picture those caterpillars meandering down the pebble path. The fairies wouldn’t mind sharing. They are that kind of folk.
I will admit to sometimes having a little envy of those carefully mulched and weed free gardens, but I wouldn’t trade mine for them. I love the wildness and all the variety, the way every summer something different gets to have its glory days. I love the caterpillars that will eat the dill plant and the fairy garden already in need of restoration, the way those patches of bare earth give me reason to plan for next year. I won’t likely be on any tour that I’ve ever known about. That’s O.K., but I would like to share my garden, with whoever wants to come and visit. I want to be that kind of folk.
To see more about fairy gardens:
I have big horned cows in my pasture. They’re not mine and I don’t know their breed but they have big horns—really big horns—so I just call them big horned cows. A farmer brought them over to chop down the grass and weeds in the pasture. He’s done this several years in a row and we call it an even deal. His cows get some grazing for a month and I keep the usually unused pasture maintained. Last year he brought what he called “ugly” cows but I found them rather cute. The young ones had curly bangs over their eyes and they liked to come to the gate and stare at me. Perhaps they even thought of me as the cute little old lady. The current ones are interesting in their own way, and the mama manages to give her baby a bath without spearing him, proving once again that animals are often smarter than we give them credit for.
I thought it was the farmer’s job to make sure there was always water for them and that the electric fence was working. So when I went out several days ago to find the tank almost dry and the fence not “hot” (I certainly didn’t touch it but one of the cats did with no sign of discomfort and cats are not known to let such feelings go unmentioned), I decided I’d better do a daily check. I walked up to the hydrant and turned it on then walked back and placed the hose in the metal tank. It takes a while to fill up and for some reason if I walk away the hose mysteriously is back on the ground (do the cows pull it out as some kind of bovine humor?), so you have to stand there and watch the water slowly inch up the side. The baby approached the tank and took a gulp then came toward me. The big guys were nearby and I thought of walking over to them. There is one bull and the farmer had told me not to worry as “He’s very tame,” but I have memories of being chased by a bull on my grandmother’s farm.
As I stood there I thought about the horses we used to have and how much I missed the sight of them in that pasture, the sound of their hoofs crossing the wooden bridge at dinner time, the way I would go look for Penrod (quite elderly and terribly thin in spite of much grain and every possible supplement available) when he didn’t come in after dark, thinking I’d be relieved to see him lying dead, instead filled with joy when he came crashing out of the trees toward me and my flashlight. Winter night feedings were something I’d dread with all the clothes to put on and getting up off the warm couch, but then as I stood there, listening to their contented munching, seeing the frozen mist from their breath glistening on their muzzles, walking back to the house and looking up at the stars—well, sometimes it seemed it just couldn’t get any better than that.
My parents let me have dogs as a child (they drew the line at cats) and of all the things I am thankful for about their parenting, that one is high on the list. The rules were strict with few exceptions—the dog got walked twice a day, rain or shine. I still do that (O.K., once a day) even when the prairie wind is like a blast furnace or something resembling a trek across Antarctica. Even when the woods are full of ticks and later spiders that love to make their webs at head level (my head) across the path. It’s a job I do because it is my responsibility, but the truth is I get back much more than I give. I’m not sure how often I’d get out on our country road or down into the little woods without them. And who else shows me that kind of appreciation, and don’t suggest it’s teenage children.
That’s what I told myself as I looked at those cows. They give me a little time each day to be still and take in the land I live on, the cats that gather around me, the creek bed now dry but still beautiful. As it turns out, I’m glad the farmer doesn’t always get around to checking on things. I like standing with the cows. I like making sure they always have water.
“Do you think you could make this? I need them for my science project at school.” Alex stood beside me with an origami book opened to a page showing a diagram of an airplane. I was finishing dinner at a gathering of Circles, an organization with a goal of moving families out of the cycle of poverty. I and some college aged women (I gladly take the role of grandmother to the grade school aged kids) do childcare while their parents attend meetings on Tuesday evenings.
I was more than a little flattered that he’s asked me over those college girls (Who wouldn’t be?) and quickly agreed that I would try. I can’t see an origami book without thinking of my dad and the hours we used to spend together when I was young. Once I wrote a children’s story based on those times with him:
Some People Call Me Daddy’s Girl.
On Saturday mornings my daddy and me go to the bakery where they sell day old bread but my mommy and my brother call it used bread. I wear overalls and my daddy wears his brown jacket that’s too tight when he zips it up. The man there always gives me something free, like cupcakes. Daddy says it’s because I smile at him. He says I could get anything with that smile. He says it like I do that way on purpose but I just smile at that man when he smiles at me.
Sometimes, on Saturday afternoons we walk to the drugstore. We’re supposed to be on “errands” but we like to sit at the counter and have root beers. When we’re walking home my daddy says, “Now if your mother asks if you had something, you tell her, but you don’t have to tell her if she doesn’t ask.” He always says that but my mommy never asks.
I got an origami paper folding set for my birthday and my daddy and me sit at the kitchen table and try to make something. I read the directions and we do what it says. Sometimes it makes you fold up the paper and then unfold it. It says, “Now return to your basic shape.” My daddy always acts mad when it says that, like the book is silly. We’ve made a basket and a bird, and the polar bear up to step four.
Sometimes we paint with my watercolors. I painted three horses while my daddy did one giraffe. He had to paint it with hundreds of tiny brown and yellow dots– for “shading” he said. He still hasn’t finished it and keeps saying, “Where is that giraffe? I’m going to finish it one day.”
When a new catalog comes in the mail, me and my daddy look at it, page by page. We have a game that on each page you get to pick out one thing you want. Even if it’s just towels, you get to pick out the color. My favorite is the flower catalog because sometimes we really order things. We never order the towels.
When I make doll clothes I take them to my Daddy. I say, “What grade does this get?” Then he looks at my doll clothes real careful, first on the outside and then on the inside. If there’s a loose string hanging, he points to it and looks at me with his mouth turned down. Then I say, “Oh, Daddy, that’s just a little string.” And then he gives me an A minus and says, “Pretty good,” and I sigh like I wish I would get a plain A, just once.
Three times my daddy and me went to the dog pound to get a dog. We didn’t see any dogs in the cages that were right but I was sad about all of them anyway. On the third time the lady there said she had a special dog and she had it at her house. She said she was waiting for just the right people to get it. We went to her house and the dog whined and shivered when I petted him, but the lady said he was just happy. We named him Sandy. The first day he wet on the carpet but then he never did again so maybe he was nervous. My mommy says she doesn’t know who loves that dog more, my daddy or me.
Every night at bedtime my daddy and me plan our farm. My daddy wants a big garden and I want a horse. Sometimes we talk about how big the pasture will be. Sometimes we talk about if we want any cats or only Sandy and one other dog, to keep him company when I’m at school. Sometimes we talk about how we have to trick my mommy and my brother to go out there cause they say they don’t like farms. We whisper when we talk about that part.
In the summer I help my daddy water the plants. I put my finger over the hose nozzle so it sprays like rain. My mommy says why don’t we buy a sprayer attachment cause they’re cheap and her friend Vera says they work real good. My daddy says this works better. When his begonia puts out little buds he says she’s pregnant and then in a few days he says, “The mother and babies are doing find but I’ve put them in the intensive care unit.” That means he’s put them near the house where they won’t get too much wind or rain.
When it gets cold again we play games at night. My daddy is smart but he’s not very quick at games. When I win he says he owes me a candy bar and do I want to play for double or nothing. Now he owes me 256 candy bars but I don’t think I’m going to get them.
Once in a while my brother and I do get candy bars at the grocery store. He eats his right away but I save mine. I take it out later and eat it real slow. If my daddy sees me he says, “Now I know this is hard to believe, but once there was a little girl who was so selfish she wouldn’t share her candy bar with her nice daddy.” My mommy says, “Ignore him,” but I give him a little bit anyway. Every time I do that.
Sometimes my daddy says when he gets old I’ll trade him in for a new model, like you do with a car. I don’t like it when he says that, but he says it all the time, anyway. I tell him not to say such things, but then I kiss him and tell him never.
Never will I trade my daddy in for a new model.
He died on this day, sixteen years ago. He gave me his time and attention and a model of what it is to be a good father. But more than that, he gave me something that seems rare in this world: I can’t remember a single time when he wasn’t glad to see me or hear my voice or when he acted like he’d rather be somewhere else. And although I felt this way about him as a little girl, later I was often impatient to be finished with his company, eager to be somewhere else.
Alex and I sat on the floor and made airplanes. The only paper we could find was thick and bulky and we had trouble figuring out the directions (Though it never said “Now return to your basic shape.”). My knees hurt and other boys kept interrupting. But we managed two planes that stayed aloft and seemed to please Alex. From what I know, he has no father at home.
With ten minutes left before the session was over, he asked if he could go out in the hall and test his science project. Halfway to the door he turned back and looked at me. “Can you come too?” I just hope, as we stood at the two ends of the hallway, with him sending the airplanes off and me marking the landing sites, that he could tell there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
“So what was the day you adopted me,” Helen asked me recently. Not unlike many things children ask their parents, or indeed parents ask their children, it was a trick question. She thought I’d forgotten the day she officially became my daughter. And I sort of had, which sounds terrible. February, 1998, and the 26th—no wait, maybe the 22nd or the 24th? Luckily for me, she asked this over the phone and I happened to have my calendar handy, where I’ve penciled in all important dates. “It’s February 24,” I replied with that tone of why-would-you-ever-doubt-me and I couldn’t tell if she was happy I’d remembered or sorry she hadn’t once again caught me out.
It’s very common for American adoptive parents to have a yearly celebration for their children’s adoption days. It’s certainly a nice tradition and when Helen was young we would go out to dinner, sharing a grownup meal between the two of us, then maybe a trip to the park or to get ice cream. But after Rose came along, four years later, it was harder to manage the birthday parties and holidays and two adoption day celebrations and so this nice tradition somehow got lost along the way.
But there’s something else going on here. I don’t think a lot about the exact date when those papers were signed. It all began so much sooner, as it does with all parents who have gone on this journey to find their sons and daughters. My journey started in the spring of 1996, when I first researched overseas adoption. In the late summer of that year, very soon after Helen was born as it turned out, I knew that China was my destination. And with each passing day, the good ones and those not so good as well, my child’s presence grew stronger.
August 14, 1996
Dear Camille, I’m out weeding and mowing—have a garden group coming over for a potluck tonight. With all the recent rain my flowers look pretty darn good, if I do say so. My best success story is a small bed of wildflowers, grown from seed—I think watering them twice a day at first made the difference. Also my goldfish in the backyard pond had babies and I’ve trained them all to come when I slap the water. Perhaps if teaching ESL at K-State gets too much I’ll get a job at Sea World!
I’ve been trying to sort out adoption papers and what I need to do next in this process….still have doubts and it doesn’t help when I hear negative things about adoption—from people who don’t know I’m thinking of doing it. Makes me want to mention the high rate of divorce and DOES THAT STOP ANYONE FROM GETTING MARRIED? Anyway, sometimes I think maybe these bad stories are a sign that I shouldn’t go ahead….then I think, but maybe by having to climb over obstacles, my resolve is just getting stronger.
Yes, I too wish we could be neighbors. Then we could share plantings—remember the “monster plants” I brought back on the plane from Chicago? They’re about ready to bloom. Hope to see you again soon. Ann
October 12, 1996
This morning I was reading something about a side trip. Side trip made me think of side car and suddenly I had an image. I was on a big motorcycle, buzzing down a country road, and in a little red seat beside me sat Helen. Her black, straight hair was streaming out from behind. And we were both screaming with joy.
January 3, 1997
Seems like I can wake up and breathe easier once it’s the first of the year. I had recorded the documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” and watched it late into the night. I can’t seem to look at a picture of the Viet Nam War Memorial without getting teary eyed. I didn’t know anyone who died there, and very few men who served, yet it seems so much a part of who I am, that terrible war. I remember, as a teenager, trying to cover my ears, walking past the living room TV, filled with shots of bombings and bodies returning, of demonstrations with the old against the young, like a civil war. But here was a 21 year old Chinese American woman who had a remarkable design for healing. And she stood up in her hat, like a young Eleanor Roosevelt with a round face, and spoke to those who hated her idea, who hated the fact that she was a woman, and Asian descent at that. I believe Helen knows what courage is. And I thought about my little Chinese girl as I watched this other strong young woman.
February 9, 1997
It’s about time to have some lunch. At 2:00 some of the teachers are coming over for a “garden sharing tea” but really I want them to come over here so I can demonstrate my Taiwanese tea and so I can show them Helen’s little Chinese outfit with the red dragon shoes. And the blue, green, and white sweater that I just finished. And the bookshelf filled with things supposedly for her but as much for me—to make it all seem more real. Sometimes there’s the panic. But other times, now, there’s a feeling that’s similar to being in love. It gives me a happy feeling, deep inside, knowing there’s something to look forward to. Something that’s beyond the ordinary kind of thing to look forward to. And, like being in love, I feel open to share others’ happiness. Without so much envy, without wondering what’s wrong with me that I don’t have what they have. But I think now in preparation for the garden get together I’ll lay out the Chinese tea things. And I think I’ll lay out all of Helen’s things on my bed. They’ll be easier to see that way.
August 25, 1997
Tonight I came home and watched Mr. Rogers. I always found him insipid but today I saw Helen watching him and she liked him. I saw her turn to me and laugh, while I read the paper and my mail. I think Mr. Rogers might be O.K. Then I ate my corn on the cob and homegrown tomatoes and tofu pups fried in a little olive oil and salsa sauce (from Costa Rica via Carlo and his wife). And I thought about Helen and how she shouldn’t be a picky eater and I would get her started out right. Then I imagined her plate of food, with the tofu pups cut up small so she wouldn’t choke.
I keep thinking I’m not ready, that I never can be ready. But maybe I’m getting about as ready as I can get.
December 31, 1997
I am looking at a colored printout, downloaded from email, first viewed on a computer screen. She is a child of the 21st century, my little Ying. “Ying” meaning clever or bright, “Helen” meaning the bright one. She is Bright Bright. Did I mention she is beautiful?
I came back from my visit with Marsha and Tony and saw the blinking light on the answering machine. “Maybe this is it,” I thought. But I’ve thought that so many times. But it was, a message from Linda, that congratulations were in order, that she is gorgeous and that she is a little younger than I wanted.
She is 18 months, 30 pounds. I thought I must have heard wrong. That must be big for an American child of that age. 18 months? I listened again. I crouched by the phone and cried, from shock and joy. This was my child. I knew that.
How funny things are. I have spent months worrying that she would be older than I had asked for. And here she is, hardly older than the infants coming out. Her birthday is July 2, 1996. She was abandoned at seven months. She is a little Chinese warrior staring out of the picture, boyish with her short hair. When I first saw her on the screen, I said, “Her hair is black!” and then realized what a silly thing that was to say.
I practice saying her name with a touch of sternness. “Helen Ying, that’s enough.” And what I have of her is a piece of paper from an email:
Date: Mon, 29 Dec 1997
Subject: Ann Carter’s baby.
January 3, 1998
Another quote from Journey of the Heart by Melody Beattie:
Remember the words you were told when this last adventure began, the words
whispered quietly to your heart: Let the journey unfold. Let it be magical.
The way has been prepared. People will be expecting you.
Friends are planning showers. I don’t like showers of any kind but I must admit it’s more exciting and fun to be on the receiving end. Is it possible that I’m almost 46 and this will be my first?
I got a phone message from Linda wanting me to fax my acceptance of Ying (I just wrote her name without thinking.) When I heard the message and couldn’t reach my agent, I thought maybe my fax wouldn’t get there in time, maybe they would give her to someone else. But finally I convinced myself to calm down. Why would they give away my child? She just didn’t belong to anyone else. She never has.
Helen Ying Carter will be expecting me.
February 22, 1998
I’ve thought of some things Helen and I can do. We can walk down to the lobby and look at the whirling ball in the water. And surely we can take a walk outside. And she can look out the window. And play with balloons in the room. I can give her a bath and try on her clothes. Maybe I’m not ready because I see her as some wild angry child, out of my control, kicking the door and maybe me. But when she calms down I wash her little face. I can change her diaper. I can keep her hands away from dangerous things. I can hold her on my lap and comb her hair. And after I comb her hair, she can comb mine. When I looked in the mirror tonight, my hair seemed ugly and thin, but maybe Helen won’t think so. Maybe she will find my hair beautiful. Maybe she will even like me.
February 23, 1998
I sit here in the hotel room waiting, sipping green tea made from a bag I brought, thinking I should stop worrying about how expensive this place is. I went out wandering, looking for a place to buy cheap snacks and juice. I didn’t find a juice place, but instead a department store with wonderful little shoes and so inexpensive—felt like buying five pairs. Maybe I can buy one (or two) for now and several she will grow into.
This seems like a very lonely thing to go through alone—like being in the delivery room without anyone else there. No one to yell at, no one to pat me. No one to say, “You know, it’s normal to feel this way.” But hey, whiners aren’t really very likable people. I’ll have to remember to tell Helen that.
Sitting here reminds me a little of waiting for a blind date or first date to appear—the nervousness about the unknown. It seems strange to compare the two, except when I think that I often held to the idea that “this guy” could be “the one,” therefore changing my life forever. Poor Helen has no choice in this, however, and I guess I don’t either—not at this point. We’re going to have to get along. But God, let this turn out better than those blind dates.
February 23, 1998
Well, Helen isn’t combing my hair—yet. I guess she’s too young for that. When they brought her in (the director and assistant director and driver from the orphanage) I can’t say that I felt an instant bond. She looked so big and so boyish. I continued to think she was indeed very fat until I began to take off layers—four tops and four pants in all, many padded. I haven’t weighed her yet, maybe tomorrow, but I’m betting about 26 pounds. Now she is calmly sitting in her crib, eating a cracker. Before that she fell asleep in my arms, looking out at the lights of Nanjing. But let me say this, no matter how much you can intellectualize about a toddler’s reaction, it just doesn’t bond you to someone when they reject you. You like someone because they like and need you. Well, that doesn’t sound like a good mother’s view. She stayed calm about five minutes after they left (people who obviously loved children) but then there was a look on her face that I will never forget. It was a look of someone happy who suddenly realizes a terrible thing is happening to them. And she cried, her face screwing up and big tears rolling down two of the roundest cheeks I’ve ever seen. She let me wipe her hot face with a cool cloth and almost seemed to welcome it, but then just cried harder. Then she fell asleep, standing up, leaning against the bed, where I lifted her and where she slept an hour. “That wasn’t so bad,” I told myself. But when she woke up she started again, standing by the door, great howling cries, enough to make me wonder if the neighbors would complain. And I did feel helpless, not knowing what she’d eat and one look at me making her cry even harder.
But I must say this, in all her grief and outrage, she never kicked or struck out at me and somehow, through the worst moments, I sensed she knew I had her best interest at heart. There was a sweetness and yes, even appreciation, behind the outrage. Once when she was a little calmer she let me feed her Cheerios, one by one, and the soft feel of her little lips reminded me of how I feel when Turtle, my cat, eats grass out of my hand.
And I just went over and did the mother thing. I checked to see if my baby was breathing. And yes, thank you God, for I believe Helen has what I wanted most in a child, in my daughter. I believe that little Ying Ying has a good heart. And indeed, she has courage. And tonight, as we sat looking out at the lights of Nanjing, I told her that.
February 28, 1998
Was I a little bored at times in the company of a more demanding but happier child today? Sometimes. Do I want to go back home and pretend this was all an interesting trial? That life as a single parent is going to be too much? I can’t imagine thinking that. There is no choice now. Because strange and unknown little lives have joined forces, never to be the same again. Did getting Turtle and adjusting to her help? Very much, for it takes experience to know that only rarely and perhaps never does it not take time to love others and to not be afraid of them, of what they might be. When Helen is restless or loud or gives me a funny look, I catch myself thinking, “What if she really is a monster child in hiding?” I know she is not. But it’s also O.K. to think that sometimes. It is the way I am. Maybe it is some need in me to imagine the worst and get through it in my mind, only to come out on the other side to face the lesser evils of reality. For if orphanages can produce these beautiful children, maybe there is hope for this world. And today, day six of knowing Helen, I had fun dressing her up (she’s very proud of her new shoes). And we went down to the lobby and admired the water fountain. And once, when sitting in my lap, she stroked my hair, and I swear she thought it was beautiful.
You see, Helen, I do remember, but not so much the date I signed the stack of papers. That was just a formality. It all started when I set out to find you. But for the record, it’s February 24th. We should go out to dinner. Maybe get some ice cream later. And not just on adoption day.
Note: Excerpts taken from the book “Spiders from Heaven”. To learn more, visit annlcarter.com and www.facebook.com/AnnLCarterAuthor