Stairway F

H was in a mood today because she wasn’t feeling well, and we all suffered. She called out her former friend and said she wouldn’t participate in the therapy session (though she did) during the first class, and in the second class, she sat in the corner and wrote in her journal and did her work without a word.

When it was time to visit the school food bank before trekking home on the train, she was definitely not up to it. I looked at my recently-arrived Afghan girl whom H has been escorting to and from school every day, and H looked right back at me. They were both standing in Stairway F, not Stairway R, the one that leads to the food bank.

“Well… are you going to wait for R to go to the food bank?” (H’s sister and brother had already fled the premises and were five blocks down Louisiana Avenue, halfway home).

“We’re going home. She can’t go home alone.” It might have been a dirty look H gave me, an exhausted look, a middle-child look.

H is from Sudan and doesn’t speak R’s language. But she lives five blocks away from her, and even though the train takes an hour to bring them both to my school, I convinced R’s caseworker that it was worth her staying, that we have a food bank and a newcomer program with three hours of English and two hours of math and a summer program and therapists and patience, and this Sudanese family that lives five blocks away who could show her how to take the train… But what they wanted was an escort, a female escort, who would make sure that she would be safe.

(When we were learning past tense verbs yesterday via a story about a man who had a bad day, my para talked H through her horrible story about her bad day, where, just like the man in the story who missed his bus, she missed her train because R was late. And H is never, never late. And she nailed those past tense verbs, her long braids that her sister entwined spilling down her back like a river of emotion.)

I had to let them walk down Stairway F. (It was just a few years back that I discovered how many stairways are in our building. They go all the way up to X, if you were wondering how a school built a hundred years ago with three additions tries to fit the world into its walls. Stairway X is in the 1987 addition with the new gym and its fancy foyer and its secret passage up to the third-floor batting cage.)

I digress.

I let them go, and I walked the rest of my class down the second-floor hallway to Stairway R, to the food bank where my most-recently-arrived Afghan boy told me the whole story, through his broken English and broken heart and the translator app on his phone, about the series of scarred slashes on his arm.

“The Taliban?”

Scars so deep that they are still pink, as if cut by a suicidal knife, as if done yesterday. He has photos on his phone from the day of the event, less than a year back, when he was working in a pharmacy that the Taliban decided to bomb, shattering the glass on all the windows, sending the glass into his forerarm, his shoulder, his soul.

“Can you walk with me through the food bank and show me how to get the food?”

The patient Wash-Park mother was making a list of new students. He didn’t know just how to add his name, but his verbal skills are over-the-top amazing.
“How many people are in your house?” I asked because the form asks.

“Twelve. In two rooms,” he informed me, holding up two fingers to prove to me he understood.

“How many children? Adults?”

“Eight children and four adults.”

And before we had walked through, before we had picked out chai tea and lentils and halal meat and handfuls of fresh vegetables, filling not one or two, but three bags for him to carry across the city on two city buses, H appeared in front of me, cutting the line with R, exhausted and sick and putting her arm around her, making sure that she had as many bags of food that she could carry home to her huge family, and…

That is what it is like to teach Newcomer English. Find your H, take the right stairway, and fill your bags with food and hope.

For Kevin

Dear Family,                                                                                                   

It would be impossible to encapsulate in words Kevin’s indelible impact on everyone he met in life. I was lucky enough to know him as a young man—really a fearless, jubilant boy—who knew how to bring vivacity into every room. Below is an entry from my personal journal written when Kevin was about to graduate from DSA.

*******************************************************************************************

Thursday, 13 April 1995

It was Kevin and Hart (DeRose)’s senior showcase, a play called “On Tidy Endings” that the two of them wrote, directed, designed the set of and starred in. It had only two other minor characters, Wes (Zelio), and Elizabeth Horwitz. It was the story of a man who had died of AIDS, and it had Kevin playing his lover and Hart playing his ex-wife.

Their confrontation in his boxed-up apartment. I will never be able to even begin explaining how powerful that was, so I won’t even try. Let me just say that it was the best performance ever at DSA, and the best performance I’ve seen anywhere—on TV, the movies, or the theatre—since I first saw Dances with Wolves.

Kevin has grown up so much that I almost can’t believe he’s the same person I saw four years ago dancing a South Pacific scene with a hula skirt and coconut breasts. Kevin. I cried at the end, first for the characters in the play—their lives, their pain—it all affected me so much. And then I cried because I realized all too quickly, all at once, that he’s leaving, that soon the first graduating class of Denver School of the Arts will be gone, that soon that will even be me, me having to say goodbye, and now they’re leaving, and everyone leaves, and it hurt so much, but it was a good hurt, a cry that was filled with laughter and smiles, tears that were filled with hope and pride.

Standing ovation and then a room full of sniffling noses and unquieted sobs, everyone hugging each other, everyone loving each other like family, like a family that could never, by any means, be torn apart. I could not stop the tears from flowing down my cheeks for a long while, not until after we all eventually shuffled into the community room, not until after I hugged Cheryl and met Tad, not until after three glasses of punch and a piece of cake, not until after I hugged Devin, not until after Kevin signed my program, not until after talking to Olivia about senior year, not until after the toasts of many loved ones, not until after the pain of losing became the everlasting hope of gaining.

*******************************************************************************************

Kevin will always have a place in my heart. He was a genius in every way—through acting, writing, singing, and, most importantly, loving. He loved everyone in his life, and he will always be loved. I feel so fortunate to have known him and shared so many moments of joy and sorrow, whether we were out to lunch at the back booth of Pete’s Kitchen, sharing a shake at Gunther Toody’s, dancing in Cheryl’s living room for her sweet sixteen, or singing all the songs we ever knew while riding in a horse carriage downtown.

Every memory is sweet, precious, and filled with love. And I will cherish him forever.

Kevin’s high school yearbook page from 1995.

This Is Not Another Zucchini Post

I want this post to be about this zucchini. About this pathetic, limp, underdeveloped zucchini. The singular zucchini that grew in my garden this year.

That’s right. That’s accurate. And for any renowned gardeners, for any beginner gardeners, for anyone with a handful of zucchini seeds that sprout into the weed-like plant that I’ve always labeled zucchinis, for anyone who has, year after year, made enough zucchini bread to feed the entire nineteen-person English department and half of the block at Christmas, who has had enough zucchini to make pies and cakes and dinner every night for weeks, you could understand how painfully small and broken and brutally ugly this zucchini is.

And can’t I just sit here for forty minutes on a Monday night and cry over the singular garden zucchini that I chopped up and put into chicken marsala tonight, its flavorless flesh still so perfectly adaptable to any recipe?

No, I cannot. I cannot cry about how much I failed in my garden this year no matter how perfectly this pathetic zucchini encapsulates how much I have failed in my life.

What I am really writing about, English-teacher-symbolism be damned, is parenting. Or lack thereof. Mental health. Or lack thereof. Pain so deep, so dark, even a limp zucchini is too weak to be an accurate representation.

Oh no, you’re not gonna do this. You’re not gonna put that up for the whole world to see, are you?

I can already hear the critics. Like voices in the back of my brain, like cobwebs in the corner, telling me that We don’t talk about this.

And isn’t that the problem? Isn’t that exactly the whole problem? That it’s a secret? That it’s a faux pas? That we can’t say it out loud? That we can’t take that damn zucchini and throw it out into the middle of the street, ready for the next set of tires to splatter it, to expose its soft center and ready-for-next-spring seeds?

When they were little, and something broke like their finger nail or their Polly Pocket head or their sister’s promise to share, when they came to us crying, we knew just what to do. Trim the finger nail. Reattach the doll’s head. Have a conversation with their sister.

What about now? What about pandemic-social-media-climate-crisis-humanitarian-crisis-societal-collapse-adolescent-angst NOW?

Can we even say the words aloud, on a page, to each other?

What do you do when the one who is hurting your daughter is herself? With her thoughts, with a razor, with words on a page, with repeated mantras in her mind?

What do you do with yourself, Mama? How many times will you think, “If I had said this… If I had done this differently… If we weren’t in this situation… If I had listened… If I had stopped…” The ‘What-Ifs’ will haunt you worse than a Shel Silverstein poem.

But we’re no longer reading children’s poetry. We’re listening to screaming-guy music and painting our eyes as black as night and hiding in our rooms and holding dark secrets and shaking with bad news and confronting no one.

Especially ourselves.

Until someone confronts us.

I don’t have a picture of the courtroom. I don’t have a snapshot of me standing at my door at 2:30 in the morning last Friday, my husband out on a call for a telecommunications emergency while I dealt with the emergency that is my household, five and a half hours after calling 911, and the police officer bluntly telling me that a protection order against a juvenile is not likely to be approved in court, that I could invite him in for a criminal investigation if we’d like to file criminal charges, that if we miraculously got the order approved, then his job would be to protect and enforce it, that I could find the paperwork online, that

this

is

our

life

now.

I don’t have a picture of Monday morning, of how surprising it is how many people are out to breakfast in this diner downtown two blocks from the courthouse. Our consolation breakfast. Our after-filing-for-a-protection-order-against-one-of-her-best-friends breakfast.

Where did it start, and when? March 13, 2020, when we were all sent home for eighteen months of remote learning nightmares? The day we moved our kids away from everything they knew and placed them in a not-so-friendly classroom in Spain? The day we moved back? The moment she started high school? The moment she met this girl? The moment she stopped reading books in favor of Instagram? The day her period began?

This is my child:

This is my child:

This is my child.

And I want the world to know that I can grow zucchini. That I can have three beds overflowing with enough zucchini to feed the neighborhood. That it will fill every plate and erase the stress of holiday gift-giving, that it will easily blend in to any meal.

And that I can raise a child who isn’t lost, hurt by herself and others, threatened by the world in which we live.

That maybe I can’t. That maybe my garden and my parenting have failed me. That maybe I have failed her in a way I can never understand nor take back.

And that maybe, just maybe, the soil wasn’t right this year. The sun was too hot, the sky too dry. Maybe my daughter made the wrong friend. Maybe all of this is out of my control, and even though I only dug up one zucchini, and even though she’s lost, she’s not alone. She’s going to therapy and making progress. She’s smiling more. She’s setting boundaries with friends who she knows aren’t good for her. She’s saying no. She’s standing up. She’s not using the razor and instead finding her voice.

And maybe I fixed up her favorite meal tonight, chicken marsala, said zucchini still inside, and even though she had to work, I packed it up and put it in her black lunch bag with an apple and her favorite yogurt and a napkin and a fork and a spoon and no note.

Because she doesn’t need a note to know how much I love her. To know how much I feel her pain and want to take it from her. Every ounce. Every last seed.

And I want to plant it and start again. I want a new garden. A new tomorrow. Enough zucchinis for Kingsolver’s ‘Zucchini Larceny.’

Because we’ve been robbed. But we are not thieves. We are not victims.

We are gardeners. And someday soon, we will bloom again. And you won’t even be able to count how many loaves we will bake.

Road Trip 2021 Day Four (Immeasurably Perfect)

I couldn’t create the perfect day, but I found one today, as fresh as a fried perch straight from the lake. True, it started with my dog kissing my face at 5:20 in the morning, but I was already awake. We walked along the lakeshore trail, still moist from twenty-four hours of rain, as the sun made its way into the sky despite the looming clouds.

I fixed my tea and granola in this tiny cottage and put on my bike kit. Blue, blue, blue: helmet, jersey, bike—trying to fight those clouds. And though Google Maps has no idea what a hill looks like, promising me the ride would be “mostly flat”, I knew better. This is the same ride I did with my dad growing up, on my old BMX, my Huffy ten-speed, just nine or ten, and just like then, I pedaled my ass up and down the many hills on Lake to Lake Road.

Now, at forty-three, I can feel the weight of those hills. The weight of what is left behind at the lake or what waits before you when you make it home.

And I made it home. Though I have visited several times between moving to Denver at age eleven and today, this was the first time I came upon my tiny childhood town on a bicycle. On a bike, you can stop every ten feet. Every five feet. You can feel the mist in the air at the same moist moment that you feel the tears streaming down your face, so overwhelmed by how this little town is almost exactly, in every way shape and form, just as you remembered it. How you remembered walking up the hill to this elementary school built more than a hundred years ago. How your childhood was saving every last dime to buy a piece of 5-cent Bazooka gum or 10-cent fireball from this market. How the curve of the road meant the curve to Dewey Avenue, and this grandiose house built by the construction company two doors down that is Still. There.

How they painted it green now, how the tire swing is missing from the maple but the maple still stands, how the stone wall with the steps down to the street that froze over in the winter for a sledding hill will never be gone. How Flint Creek is as muddy as the day it was born, frozen in winter for ice skating, ripe with frogs and snakes in summer for endless wildlife fantasies.

And you could be here with me, reimagining those summer nights on the upstairs screened porch. Riding your bike up and down the hills, all the way to Canandaigua Lake. Living in a different time.

The perfect day doesn’t end at 9:00 a.m., when my teary-eyed, Amish-sighting bike ride concluded.

It continues with fresh biscuits and apple butter from yesterday’s farm stand. With my girls being agreeable with each other and today’s adventure: Sonnenberg (“sunny hill” in German) Gardens, another childhood favorite. With adventures through a Japanese, a pansy, a rock, an old-fashioned, a blue-and-green, garden.

Throw in a nineteenth-century mansion built by the founder of Citibank, and we have ourselves the perfect locale for beauty and peace, plants and prosperity.

On a road trip, they are together, not isolated in their rooms. They touch plants and share stories and talk, and it’s like they’re little even if we’re about to send one to college. And there is a magic in this walk that can’t be captured in a photo, in a blog post, but only in a grown-and-flown mama’s heart.

A magic that flowed through them as, surprise and joy to us all, we came upon a street fair in the center of Canandaigua. Mythili bought hand-made soap, Rio and Izzy found earrings, Bruce bought a new coffee mug, and I found the perfect wood-carved gift for Fabian. More than the gifts to local artists was the gift of a crowd. Post-COVID crowds, live music, the joy of being vaccinated and free from worry.

How hard it is to be an American, and how easy.

How simple, that within ten square miles, you can see scenes like this, tourist me, and scenes like this, Amish living their independent-yet-free lives.

And that is not the end of my perfect day. My perfect day is this lake where my mother, afraid of water because her parents never taught her how to swim, signed me up for swim lessons at age four. Not in a pool. Not in a rec center. In Canandaigua Lake, where today, the clouds broke free and listened to my blue-morning-beckoning, and brought you this lake, this view, this seventy-five-degree perfection of glacial meltdown between these perfect hills, my childhood hills.

That is my middle child, offering her perfect smile on this perfect day.

That is me, blue on blue on blue, offering my two fingers of peace from my Finger Lake, offering you this memory, this perfect day.

Take it. Tuck it away. Eat your Pontillo’s New York Pizza before it gets cold.

And travel the country, the world, while you still can, where you still can.

Find yourself your own perfect day.

Road Trip 2021, Day Three (Canandaigua Love)

words cannot describe 
how much these hills feel like home
(what was once my home)
an empty highway,
a rural life, cloudy skies
and. oh yes. this lake.
you can’t picture it.
so let me draw you a map.
my Finger Lakes love.
yes, it’s just a store.
you can only imagine
what a store could be.
Colorado born
yet half my childhood is
upstate New York bred
can you taste the plums?
fresh from the roadside farm stand
just pop them in. wait.
you’ll be here with me.
choosing the best ears of corn.
loving, loving life.