What It’s not about

Here is what it is not:

It is not about school doors (how many or whether they were open or closed).

It is not about school safety officers (armed or not, competent or not).

It is not about making sure safety drills are carried out regularly.

It is not about how long it took the S.W.A.T. team to arrive.

It is not about social media failing to flag dangerous posts.

It is not about more mental health resources available for people who are sick.

It is not about kids spending hours in dark rooms playing violent video games.

It is not about single parent homes or lack of money any more than it is about middle-class two-parent homes.

Here’s the only thing it is about:  An eighteen-year-old child was allowed to buy two weapons of war that killed children and teachers in a manner so gruesome that it took DNA samples to identify their innocent bodies.

Until we stop changing the subject and admit the truth, we are lost. No more thoughts and prayers. I can’t even stand to watch your mouths move anymore.

Grief Envy

            The weeks my mother spent in hospice, I discovered—probably too late—that our family was not good at dying. This came to me as I watched the other people on our floor, whose lives now intertwined with ours every day, who were much better at it than we were.

            In this hospice (at least before the pandemic) there was a lot of room for creativity as you mourned and waited. I guess the sentiment was: Hey, you’ve got nothing to lose. I could see that the other families had made up their minds to send their loved ones off with panache. We sat in Room 312, frozen, making small talk, pretending it wasn’t happening. If you can be jealous of the way people grieve, I was.

            The family in Room 310 brought in one or two of their pets every day. The silence in our room was often punctuated with a lusty bark or the anguished meow of a cat who clearly thought it was at the vet. One morning, I passed by their open door and heard a parrot saying (repeatedly), “I love you, Gram.” And once they got off the elevator with a pot-bellied pig on a leash. We chatted about that—how could you not? His name was Pinky. They seemed surprised that everyone didn’t bring their pig to hospice. How much they didn’t know about us.

            On the other side, in Room 314, the family was Italian. Their noisy room was packed with people laughing and crying, and the smell of garlic. Their Nonna had stopped eating a while ago, so they were just waiting. And while they waited, they cooked. They brought in an electric frying pan and made meatballs and sauce. “We want her to remember how her kitchen smelled,” her son told me.

            Priests and ministers and rabbis came and went, smiling at us politely as they passed in the hall. The sweet hospice chaplain knocked and came in one day, just to sit and chat with my mother. He may have been too used to patients who were making peace with their God, though. My mother treated him as she might a timeshare salesman, and I could see this didn’t happen to him very often.

            Like Nonna and Gran, my mother had plenty of happy memories and a family who loved her, but she wanted nothing to do with the outward grieving that was taking place in other rooms—pets, culinary, or otherwise. So, we sat by her bed and took her lead.

            Three days before my mother died, my favorite nurse and I were talking in the coffee room. She said, “I saw your mother do the rope thing last night.” I had no idea what she was talking about, so she pantomimed it for me—raising both arms in the air over her head, looking up, and moving her hands as if she were climbing an imaginary rope. She didn’t think it was a religious thing, she told me, just the person getting ready to go. She said, “Some people do it and some don’t. You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to die.”

          I’d spent my weeks feeling bad we weren’t doing it the right way, and all along, my mother was just doing it her way, as she had done life. She didn’t become a 1950s housewife like every woman on our block because she had a career. She didn’t go to church or play Bridge or cook worth a damn because she had other things to do. She was loved and she loved, but at the end, there were no squawking pets or meatballs simmering. She did the rope thing. There was something waiting on the other side, and she was impatient, as always, to see what it was.

A Small story

I watch too many YouTube videos for a person my age. I’m prone to following Twitter wars from the sidelines and staying to see the bitter end. And—okay—I once went on a Facebook search for someone who took me to a school dance. In 1968.

To ease my guilt, I remind myself that I don’t watch anything violent or completely useless. I’ve never fallen down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole, or “done my own research” on vaccines. But I waste too much time, the one thing I really can’t squander. Once in a while, though, I find a gem online, and I’m forgiven. That’s what happened today.

He is a Black man, about 30, telling his camera what happened as he was driving alone in his expensive new car with temporary license plates. As soon as he heard a siren and saw the police officer behind him, he pulled over. “No big deal,” he says, “happens all the time.” He means, of course, that it happens to people who look like him, but not to the white woman who is about to enter his story.

He’s told to wait on the sidewalk while the cop finds out if the man really owns the car. This takes a while, and as he looks idly around, he spots her.

She’s a gray-haired woman who’s parked across the street, holding her phone up, recording from her side window. He and the woman make eye contact, and she gives him a thumbs up. But she doesn’t move and she doesn’t put her phone down.

“It came to me all at once,” he says in his video. “I have an ally! That old lady over there is watching out for me. She wants to make sure I’m okay.” When the officer finally tells him he’s free to go, he waves to the woman and gets in his car. Only then does she pull away.

It’s a small story, I agree, but these days little stories have a way of taking on much more, often without warning. I watched his video twice and wondered about myself, if I had been that woman who just happened to be in that place at that time. Would I have done that?

I come from a long line of people who paid a premium for staying in our own lane. My grandmother was famous for telling me, “Mind your own business, and for God’s sake, stop trying to change the world. It doesn’t work.” Now I’m as old as she was when she gave me that advice. She would have called it courtesy to avert your eyes. Today, it’s just the opposite.

Maybe, for a second, as that woman pulled her car over and hit record, she thought twice about intruding on a stranger’s life. Maybe she worried the situation would escalate and she’d be in danger. But she did it anyway.

Darnella Frazier was taking her cousin out for snacks that evening in Milwaukee. She could have kept walking when she saw George Floyd lying on the ground. The cops even yelled at her to stop recording. She did it anyway.

Maybe my chance will come, too. I’m sure I’ll hear my grandmother’s voice in my ear, whispering, “You can’t change the world.” But I’ll do it anyway. Because you never know anymore.

Breaking Up with My TV

As breakups go, it was oddly easy. No tears, no guilt, no ugly words. On January 21st, I simply woke up and realized I didn’t feel the need to turn on my television. I wasn’t in a sweat about what had transpired during the hours my eyes were closed. No CNN, no MSNBC. I didn’t even look at Twitter until much later in the morning. I just . . . breathed.

My preoccupation with having the news on constantly started as just curiosity on my part, five years ago, on the day of the gold escalator descent that turned into the Mexican rapist speech. Because I’m from New York, I knew all about the man announcing his candidacy, and, back in those good old days, I found him slightly amusing, the way I do the Kardashians. By the time his stump speeches had gained momentum and vitriol, I knew I had a problem.

I could not–for the life of me–walk away. I had to know everything. In real time. In excruciating detail. This was a lot of work on my part, but no one in my life seemed to give me credit. In fact, just the opposite. Friends became impatient: “Please let’s not talk about politics.” My children, who are under an obligation to love me unconditionally, became experts at changing the subject. By the primaries, I had fully enveloped myself in every dirty little detail of every day, and became aware I couldn’t stop.

So I retreated to my television and to Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, and Anderson Cooper, the only people who understood me. And the only friends who would let me in on every fact, opinion, nuance, and prediction I now needed to get by in this new universe. The nadir came when I began keeping the TV on all through the night. I knew if I heard Brian Williams say, “This just in . . .” I’d be roused from even the deepest sleep. I remembered a long ago boyfriend who worked in a psychiatric hospital and had a patient who suffered from extreme paranoia. The man was convinced that if his television were ever turned off, the people who lived inside it would start plotting against him. The hospital’s answer was to keep the TV in his room on 24 hours a day, which struck me as practical. What was the harm? Of course I knew they weren’t talking about me, but I worried that Brian, Anderson, and Rachel were talking about something I needed to know. And I needed to know it as it was happening. And if that seems crazy to you, then obviously you haven’t felt in charge of the free world the way I have. Count yourself lucky.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve been consumed beyond reasonable thinking for five years. I’ve made myself so tense at times that I couldn’t see straight. My daughter suggested I’m a sucker for a good train wreck. Maybe she’s right. The last four years have been a pile of twisted metal and smoke for me, and I couldn’t look away no matter what.

But January 20th came, and watching the day’s events, I slowly started to regain some balance. All the genuine hand holding helped. And Amanda Gorman. And Gaga’s dress. I felt freer and lighter by the time dinner came and I wasn’t tuning in to CNN while holding my breath. Of course, breaking up with Brian, Anderson, and Rachel may take a little more time. But it’s not them. It’s me. I’ve moved on.

Wish me luck. Wish us all luck.

The 2020 Christmas Tree

My father had a strict tinsel rule when it came to Christmas trees. You could only put tinsel on one piece at a time, which was excruciating for his three kids. I suspect he did it so we would tire of decorating quickly, and he could have the tree all to himself. I have spent the last decade or so feeling I wanted my tree all to myself, too, so I’ll blame him. I see pictures of families all crowded around, ornaments in hand, singing Christmas carols and having a whale of a time, but that was not for me. I like the control of putting things in just the right spot and waiting for guests to compliment my work.

I had every intention of doing it that way now that 2020 has made a mess of everyone’s lives. I find myself clinging to routine when I can, wary of all the uncertainties around us and heavy with so many sad stories. But the other day, one of my sons had come over and dragged my tree up from the basement for me. The next day, my two youngest granddaughters were over, and what is better when you’re three and five than being presented with a naked Christmas tree? Yes, I told them, of course they could decorate it, and I went in search of my collection of ornaments. As excited as they were at the thought of the project now in front of them, my mind had already fast forwarded to exactly how I’d fix it when they were gone. Thanks, Dad.

So they got to work. When they found a sturdy branch, they figured where one ball would do, five or six would be even better. They decorated as far up the tree as they could reach. Digging into the contents of the box was like uncovering a treasure chest. They were full of questions about where each ornament came from—intrigued when I told them the story, and equally disappointed to hear I’d bought some of them at half-price sales after the holidays. For an hour, the girls were in that perfect space of sibling nirvana where they kept complimenting each other’s choice of placement and going out of their way to take turns. For an hour, I kept seeing the tree decoration as a temporary distraction. After all, I am still my father’s daughter, and a tree only one third decorated would never do.

When they found the star, they excitedly brought it to me and insisted I place it at the top. I did, only to look up at it five minutes later and see that it had, miraculously, achieved a perfect Charlie Brown angle. It looked like it would just teeter over and fall to the ground.

But it held. Just like we have this year.

That was the moment I knew my Christmas tree would stay exactly as it is. Until January, I will pass it many times a day. I will admire it from every side. I will treasure those moments when those little girls were so proud of what they had created. It’s the most glorious Christmas tree I’ve ever had.

Take that, 2020.

To the New Mothers From an Old One

My father and his mother, the year she died

In 1978, when I was about to give birth for the first time, my mother-in-law and my mother were full of information I would never need. Motherhood had changed since their day, when babies were on strict schedules and parents believed that letting them “cry it out” was in everyone’s best interest.

We were the New Mothers, and we were reinventing the parenthood wheel. We had everything figured out by reading books, Lamaze breathing our way through labor, breastfeeding on demand, and raising children who might never know a critical word but would always have a room full of soccer trophies to call their own.

I know. I know. It’s a new day, and by now everyone knows that my generation didn’t make fewer mistakes than our mothers had —just different ones. Everything is again different when it comes to babies, and I wouldn’t dream of getting into a discussion about baby sign language or sleep training, because I’m just that far behind in baby trends.

But maybe there are a few things that never changed and never will. So because I can’t see any patent disinterest in your faces as you read this, here you go, New Mothers — truths from an Old Mother.

* You will be holding your newborn, maybe even your first day home, and you will have a flashback of yourself as a teenager. You’ll hear the exact vile words you uttered to your parents, and see yourself as you stomped out of a room, amazed by how truly stupid they were. When that memory comes to you, you’ll wish you could go back in time and smack yourself in your fourteen-year-old head.

* When you find yourself tacking a sign to the front door for the UPS delivery person: “Do NOT ring bell! Baby sleeping!!” you will recall all those conversations you had with friends that started with your saying: “Our lives won’t change after the baby.” You might wish you hadn’t been quite so specific about your plans to backpack through Colorado with your infant strapped to your chest.

* You will glance down at your beloved cat or dog, the one you bought Halloween costumes for and gave a pseudo baby name. Suddenly it occurs to you that it can’t talk. And it eats off the floor.

* Your baby will roll over or sit up for the first time, and you’ll say out loud, “That’s really early to do that, right?” You’ll search the Baby World Records Book to see if he is a contender. You will throw around the word “genius” more than once, even if it’s just in your head. The first Kindergarten parent/teacher conference might rein this in for you. (Okay, it did for me.)

* The word “poop” will grace nine out of ten conversations and you’ll wonder why you didn’t talk about poop more often before this. That’s how fascinating it’s now become. I am not kidding.

* Under oath, you will declare that you cannot possibly love a second (or third or fourth) baby the way you do your first. Then someone will place that new baby into your trembling arms, and you’ll realize that love can be divided in two without changing one molecule. It’s non-mathematical. It’s magical. And it will come over you that very first second.

* In the middle of the night with a screaming infant, you will long for that pregnancy heartburn you believed was the worst thing ever. And here’s a little sneak peek into the future: When your baby is seventeen and out somewhere driving with her friends, you’ll long for the nights she was in her crib, even if she was wailing away. In other words, there is always something coming.

* For the rest of your life, when you read a story about a person who has done something horrible — something despicable and beyond forgiveness — you will think, although maybe not right away, “That is someone’s child.” You will know at your core just what that sentence means.

* Some days will seem many miles long. But the culmination of them will whiz by while you’re looking the other way. Try to laugh as much as you can. It’s one of the few sounds your child will remember for an entire lifetime.

* You will ask, and you will ask this a lot: What did I do before this? How did I love before this? Why didn’t someone tell me?

You just couldn’t hear them until now. Welcome to motherhood.

Heartbreak. Vote.

This day began at a dining room table, over bowls of granola with a 6- and 3-year-old. After a spirited discussion of how grapes become raisins, they want me to know that Hanukah and Christmas are their favorite holidays. They know that they’re not the same, but they want me to know that they don’t like one more than the other.

What they don’t know is that my heart is breaking. Everyone’s heart is breaking.

My practical side knows that I’ve felt this way before. Almost all of 1968. September 11. Times when I knew the powers that be didn’t share my values, or (worse) didn’t have any. Times when I felt there was nothing I could do except muster up more kindness and not treat the unthinkable as normal.

So here we are. I’m still good with the kindness idea, and I know the amount of time I’ve spent angry in the last few days means I haven’t succumbed to any of this being ordinary. I keep hearing myself say Election Day.

My first Election Day memories happened when I was about eight. I was on my way to a friend’s house—walking, which shows my age. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Schwindt, was burning a small pile of brown leaves in the street in front of his house (again…my age).

He commented on the beautiful day we had off from school. Then he made a joke: “Are you leaving to go vote?” I’m sure I giggled. He said something about growing up and how important voting was. He told me one day I would understand.

Mr. Schwindt didn’t need to give me that patriotic little pep talk, and chances are he knew that, too, since my parents never missed an election, even a midterm, even a School Board referendum. My father voted the way he did everything in life—quietly but with purpose. Never calling attention to himself. Willing to listen to all sides of the argument even if it got a little painful.

My father was something of an arm-chair historian. He loved to follow politics, feeling, maybe, that as a WWII combat veteran, son of an immigrant, a dad and a taxpayer, he had a vested interest in being informed. My cousin, Anne, who used to have political phone calls with him weekly, says she has it on good authority that in Heaven both CNN and the New York Times are available. That makes us both smile.

So Dad, if Anne is right and by some quirk of the universe you can actually see my words as well as those of Maggie Haberman, you would just love this Early Voting thing we have now. There is so much that feels out of my control this week. But one thing that doesn’t. My heart is broken. But I showed up and voted. Thanks.

“It’s Just Lipton’s”

Young friends have a baby due soon. At their shower, I watched the mom-to-be unwrap soft blue outfits that made the room go, “Aww.” On still evenings this summer, I sat outside with the dad, talking about how life is about to change.

Now it’s time to start planning the dinner I’ll make for them. I have a signature dish for celebration and a different one for grief. I’m big on making food no matter what, a product of my upbringing. I grew up believing that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Apparently, I internalized that aphorism more seriously than my grandmother’s warning about giving away the milk for free.

For a new baby’s arrival, I usually go with Chicken Tarragon Crepes. It’s fancy but mild. It’s showy, but it’s only chicken, so how fancy can it be? I chop the tarragon and make the crepes from scratch. I blend the cream sauce—making sure it doesn’t curdle—thinking about the new mother and father in that space of wonder and trepidation that new life brings.

It’s something I do well. But as much as I love to cook for other people, I grew into the role shakily. There was a time my cooking could be almost scary.

In college I lived in an enormous off-campus Victorian that had been cut up into student housing. I had an apartment on the ground floor. The young men who rented the single rooms upstairs were poor and always in need of a good meal. Senior year, I began to fancy myself as the resident “First Lady of the Boarding House” and decided to give my very first dinner party. I hope I didn’t actually call it that because it was five starving college guys who were happy to be shoveling almost anything into their mouths at my kitchen table, which was about two feet from the stove and sink.

I bought a cookbook from the bargain bin at a drug store and trusted the author to guide me. I found a recipe for beef stew, something that sounded hearty and satisfying. I followed it word for word, the way a Fundamentalist might interpret the Book of Leviticus. I trusted every syllable. How hard could it be? The recipe told me to add ¼ cup of cloves to the beef and the vegetables. I did.

As the stew simmered on the stove, all those cloves made my apartment smell like what you’d think Thanksgiving in a Currier and Ives painting might smell like, but somehow it didn’t concern me. By the time my guests arrived, the clove smell was burning the inside of my nostrils. Still, it was food and they were game.

First bite. Up went their napkins to their mouths. There was coughing. Our tongues burned for days.

Years passed and I got better. Maybe a little cocky. So much so that I planned an elaborate Chinese dinner for my boyfriend. We had spent most of the summer apart, and this was to celebrate his homecoming. He had lived in Manhattan and had stories of “real” Chinese dishes he loved, so I had a goal. I did my research. I bought a wok and a rice steamer and got up to speed on ginger and hoisin sauce. The day of his arrival came, and I was in the kitchen chopping carrots and bok choy and picturing how impressed he would be.

The recipe called for four cloves of garlic. Somehow, I’d lived for 23 years thinking that a head of garlic was just another name for a clove of garlic, and in the pre-Google era, I was on my own. It took an hour to chop four heads of garlic, but somehow this didn’t alarm me. You can sort of picture the rest of the evening.

I don’t do stuff like that anymore. I’ve learned how to read recipes. I’ve learned to taste my food as I go. I’m a solid cook, a poised cook, sometimes an adventurous one.
But for all the great food in celebration that I’ve given and received, it’s a simple Mason jar full of hot soup—in grief—that is my strongest food memory. In January 1978, my brother, Rob, died suddenly. He was 26. My parents were out of their minds with grief. Lots of friends and family filled up the house, and it seemed everyone was talking, but nothing was registering.

The doorbell rang. It was our friend and neighbor, Joan, from across the street. It was the first time she and my mother had seen each other since the police officer had come to my parents’ door and opened his horrible, sad speech by telling them both to sit down. I don’t remember what Joan said, but I remember this: She handed my mother a Mason jar of soup across the front stoop. My mother was thanking her profusely. Joan smiled and said, “It’s just Lipton’s. I wanted to make sure you had something hot tonight.”

Sometime in the coming weeks, I’ll probably opt for the chicken tarragon crepes for my young friends when their baby boy is born. Lucky for this couple, there will be no cloves or garlic. But just like Joan’s gift on that freezing night so long ago, it won’t matter if it’s fancy and took hours, or if it’s “just Lipton’s.” I’ll want to make sure they have something hot. That’s all that matters. That’s all that ever matters.

Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring

I haven’t written in over a year. A few times lately, I see someone I know in a store or on the street (or even, once, at a friend’s wake) and that kind person will say, “I haven’t read anything from you lately.” I usually come up with the same response, which is pretty weak because my honest reaction is that the person is just being nice or wanting to soothe a writer’s fragile ego.

I most often say: “I ran out of things to say.” I guess I’m looking for a quick laugh, and usually I get one. But now after a year of not seeing my name in print, I feel little phrases or sentences forming when I least suspect it. I think: “I need to remember that. That’s not bad.” So maybe I haven’t run out of things to say after all.

This brings me to last Sunday.

A neighbor emailed. She had agreed to canvass for a political candidate we both believe in. She hadn’t exactly planned it; it just sort of happened. Would I go with her because if we went together it might not feel so terrifying? I said I would, and then spent three days picturing the angry people we’d meet—called away from their lunch or their televisions—slamming front doors in our faces. But for more than a year I’d been talking about the demise of the world as I saw it, and I thought maybe I’d feel better if I did something. (Yes, it’s all about me.)

On the designated day, it rained. Poured. All morning. The candidate sent out a group email saying that usually on a day like today, everyone would stay in the headquarters and make calls. But we couldn’t waste a day this close to the election. The last line said something like, “Grab your umbrellas and let’s make this happen.” I checked the temperature. It was cold. I convinced myself that people my age shouldn’t be walking out in the rain for hours. I convinced myself that life would go on without my contribution. I convinced myself that my neighbor would forgive me.

I bailed. But I promised the candidate I’d be there next week. And I was.

The local Democratic headquarters was full of signs and young people. I saw phone banks but no one sitting at them, so I ran right for my comfort zone, trying to sell the woman in charge that “I’d be really good at making calls.” I don’t remember if her answer was “Nonsense,” or “No, no, no, no,” or “Oh, please,” but she cut me off with a comment about the sensational weather and that they needed everyone to canvas.

She meant business. Within a minute or two, I had signed in and was being paired with a young man who was already scanning a map of the neighborhood we’d been assigned. As we got into my car together, I was relieved that he had done this before but a little shocked at how quickly I was now sitting in traffic with a complete stranger on our way to letting other strangers be rude to us at their front doors. Although I was rattled and thinking I was in way over my head, he calmed me. I asked him about his unusual first name, and he told me he is an immigrant. I asked him how long he’d been out canvassing. Since March.

The day was full of surprises. For one thing, it was hotter and more humid than I’d predicated and early on I regretted not packing something to drink. Yes, we were waved off a few times. Yes, we knew people were really home when they heard the bell but pretended they weren’t. But there was the young man in a Metallica shirt who listened intently and asked great questions. And the funny woman who petted her dog while she tried to give us some advice about what we were up against in her neighborhood. And the 89-old man who came out onto his stoop to talk and knew more about the issues than I did and—after a long and spirited discussion of the candidates—said, as he looked at my flushed face, “Let me go get you a bottle of water.”

I was conscious after a couple of hours that I was probably slowing my partner down. He kept telling me how much better it was to do this with another person. (And unsaid: “even if she’s red-faced and a little out of breath on the hills.”)

Here’s what I was left with, words that have been floating around my head since last Sunday. Words that got me to my desk this morning to write something after a solid year of no words. My favorite Leonard Cohen:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

I rang some bells. On a Sunday. For a few hours. Trying like hell to be just that tiniest sliver of light in a bleak time. Maybe that’s what you’re being called to do, too.