“Everything is happening good before my birthday!” said my 6-year-old daughter.
”I learned how to blow bubbles with gum,
“Frankie went on me when I whispered into here,” pointing to the cat’s ribs, “‘Please go on my lap, Frankie’ and he did!
“And my tooth fell out — and now I have one grown-up tooth and 3 wiggly teeth — and only 2 days ’til my birthday!”
And today, the day she turned 7, she put on a blue party dress with yellow flowers and a big ribbon in her hair, and it was raining, so her friend wore a mask, and they ate pizza in an empty restaurant.
“I have to wait ’til Saturday so my dad can see me open my presents,” she told her aunt on the phone, and after dinner she shared the remains of her Birthday Cake gelato with her brothers and they took turns taking spoonfuls until it was all gone.
“The whole reason that there are so many dandelions is because of the wish thing,” Mark, 12, tells me. Diana, 6, gets off her bike, lets it thunk to the ground, and bends down to pick two blowballs from a patch of grass — one for me, one for her brother.
“Thank you,” I say, and look with admiration and repulsion at this perfect sphere, this geodesic dome built of fluff, the bane of gardeners everywhere. I blow mine, feeling like a vandal, wishing the seeds will float to the street, not to innocent yards behind me.
When I try to pull one up in my garden, gathering all its arms and legs and yanking it by the neck, its body remains in the earth and soon will grow a new head like some kind of mythological monster.
Mostly I’ve given up, now just popping off the flower heads when they’re young and yellow and leaving the rest, as if accepting a colony of stray cats as long as they don’t make babies.
Whose wish is growing between the bricks by the Lilies of the Valley? Who planted the desire in between the sidewalk and our front gate?
Are the dandelions in our gravel driveway proof that my children had dreams? And I, thinking only of neatness and order, behead them on my way to accomplishing something else. Sometimes I stuff the heads in my pocket, for lack of a place to dispose of them, then find them again, drawn up and clean, in a freshly laundered pair of jeans.
They don’t want to be yanked out of the earth. They do everything they can to stay anchored there, shooting their tap roots down like arrows, saying ‘I belong here!’ They could survive the worst drought, flood, or heat wave, when the basil I coddle in a pampered plot will die if not offered a drink of water on a hot day.
Is it because those untold wishes are more tenacious than anything you can buy or plan? My mom used to drop her wedding ring around a candle on her birthday cake before blowing out the flames to make her wish come true.
Today Diana asked if she could pick our first cherry tomato, the only one this season that has made the journey from yellow star to rosy globe while escaping the catbird’s eye.
She cradles it in her hand and says, “Let’s do a ‘sermony’ or whatever you call it,” and I know she means the way we take the garden’s first fruit, a single blackberry or strawberry or sugar snap pea, and place it on a sliver plate until dinnertime when everyone is seated, and after presenting the specimen, slice it into as many sections as people around the table, placing the morsel on our tongues, tasting all at once the watering, the weeding, the coaxing, the staking, the shooing, the clearing, the sunlight, the rain, the worms, and the wishing.
“Feel it,” Diana holds out the little ball. It’s plump and firm, round and warm.
“It’s like a wedding ring,” she says and runs inside, climbs onto the hutch and reaches up to get a small white bowl, placing the orange globe in the center by itself, like a ring of gold that seals a pact of love.
Later this morning Luke will celebrate his 10th birthday with one friend, one present, one pizza, and one scoop of salted caramel gelato in a paper cup. No candle, perhaps because of that article in the newspaper that asked whether it was dangerous to blow germs all over a dessert.
He will be upstairs putting together the Star Wars Black Ace imperial Lego spaceship he just unwrapped when his dad will come home from work, take the ragged mass of keys out of his pocket and his wedding ring off his finger, and drop them, Ching-a-ling!, into the silver tray on the counter, and then pop the single cherry tomato in the little white bowl into his mouth.
There is no ceremony when we blow off the globe of downy hair from a dandelion puffball until the seedhead is completely bald, plucked and pock-marked like an unfeathered chicken. No ceremony except for the long in-breath and the closing of eyes and the fantasy spinning into color. No ceremony except for the parachute seeds dispersed into the wind, onto the rolling lawns and sidewalk cracks, over the blue spruce hedges and under buckling blacktop driveways. Secret wishes that won’t let go.
The first time we went to the pool this summer, we could only stay 20 minutes. Mark had math class on the living room computer, and I thought we’d hop in the car right after and make it for most of our slot, but he had a quiz and said it was going to take him a long time, but we said, of course we’ll wait.
Luke and Diana and I sat on the porch in our bathing suits with sunscreen on, listening to the crows caw and distant lawnmowers rove, and after a while we opened up the pool bag and looked at the hotdogs all wrapped in foil, and then we unwrapped them one by one and the mustard was so tangy, the buns so soft, and then we opened the box of carrots, and then the container of potato chips, and when Mark came out, he looked white and said there was no point, but we piled in the car and got there just in time.
But this morning Mark doesn’t have math, and we got a 2-hour reservation, and the water is sparkling like turquoise gold. The kids throw off their shorts and pull on their goggles and fast-walk to the deep end, and they’re so happy, and Sofia is coming home today, and everything is fine. So why do I feel like sitting on this vinyl lounge chair and crying?
Was it the email that came in this morning declining the invitation to celebrate Luke’s 10th birthday at an amusement park, or the shame I felt for having even asked? Is it because the thing he really wants is a bike and I can’t find a single 24-inch bike in stock to give him?
Maybe it’s because of all the money we lost on the canceled trip to Florida, or that yesterday the mayor was supposed to announce how schools would re-open but then called off the press conference, and Houston and Atlanta and L.A. and Montgomery County have already announced that school will be online this fall.
Or was it that when Virginia said she didn’t mind if her senior year was all virtual because she’s over high school, I saw a black computer screen replace her life and my redemption, my last chance to be the mom she wanted me to be, to trust her, to let her do more when high school was still high school and kids still loitered around the convenience store and rode buses and bought dresses for dances and roamed around looking for parties after football games.
“When are you going to get in?” the kids ask me, the tips of their noses dripping, their eyelashes like star points, and I tell them, “Later, I’m not hot enough yet,” but what I really mean is I’m not happy enough.
Maybe it’s because today is the day we would have flown back from Italy, bleary from too many nights out and visits to cousins and early morning cappuccinos and our suitcases would be jammed with stained sink-washed clothing and plastic bags of shells, brochures, and tiny bottles of Italian shampoo swiped from hotels.
Is it because my children have each other, but I spend my days alone, and even though I am consuming this solitude like one wide-open mouth, I feel that somewhere people are hugging and laughing and locking eyes and I’m here caught in a wind tunnel of air, so much air, fresh non-human air.
At the diving boards, kids line up to do can-openers and back dives, and I feel like a traitor, dry and motionless on my chair. I don’t know what to do with this sadness. It makes me feel soft, rich, babylike. To mourn the loss of things that others have never held.
But how does it help to not let myself cry? I become a steel drum with a welded top, my precious dangerous stuff kept in. And everyone else kept out.
After the whistle blows the long looping whine that means “get out,” lifeguards block the main entrance and masked bathers file out of the side exit by the chain link fence. I too am wet — the kids convinced me to stop wrestling with my sorrow and jump in. Near the snack bar, an enormous stack of pool chairs has been constructed, hundreds of different types and sizes that once made this a place to gather have been fitted together into one giant mass, as if ready to make a bonfire.
The remaining few set sparsely around the pool. So I couldn’t sit near anyone and pretend that I was happy. Spaced apart so that the air would fill with silence instead of chatter. So that sadness had a way to spill out and join with the rest and finally be washed away.
Diana’s legs disappear in the caramel-milk creek. She won’t climb up the fallen log because a spider with orange spots has already claimed it. Water bugs skitter over the skin of the creek, and a powder-blue moth flutters all around her and the log, its wings like pages of a book in a storm, flapping open and closed as if dying to spill its words.
“Tell it to go away!” Diana says, closing her eyes and batting the air. “I think it likes you,” I say from my position crouching on the muddy bank.
Mark and Luke run with high knees through the creek toward the highway and Greg says, “Come back and put your shoes on — there might be nails down there. People throw all sorts of stuff off that bridge!”
Diana now looks like a cross, her arms straight out, hands balled into fists. “I want the butterfly to get on me.” The boys run back, digging sticks into mud and finding truck tires in the bank. The butterfly tumbles through the thick Ohio July until it alights on Diana’s head. Its wings, the shape of a lopsided heart, the color of blue enamel, fold into one.
As Diana walks straight, barely moving her neck, the butterfly points skyward like a crown. It clings to clumps of her maple wet hair, even as she grabs onto a branch and climbs out, even as she runs to keep up with her brothers through the pasture to the Dairy Hut on Route 50 to get a chocolate-vanilla swirl cone.
“The butterfly got your message,” I say, when I see her coming around the bend toward the house, soft-serve smeared all over her cheeks, the butterfly clinging to her bangs like a barrette.
I can feel the skeptics in the family bristle. “There must be a perfectly rational explanation,” they would say. “The salt in the creek water, the perfume of her shampoo, the hue of her skin.”
Just before Diana’s grandmother calls her inside, the butterfly lets go and flicks around the patio. “At least you brought it up to the house, “ Luke says, “and now it can pollinate the flowers.”
Every time I pass a Black person on the street now, the encounter is charged with meaning. I look in their eyes and I feel myself saying things they cannot hear, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I didn’t look hard enough, I didn’t want to see, It’s too horrible, I don’t know what to do, Please don’t hate me, I’m sorry,” and sometimes they look at me back and all I hear is silence.
Three marches and a vigil, movies about race with my teenage daughter, podcasts, readings, newspaper articles. It took one man dying in a global pandemic for me to open up and see. Slavery did not end — it mutated into different forms. As an Equal Justice Initiative speaker said after a Juneteenth march, “Oppression didn’t end, it just rhymed,” finding other brutally creative expressions — aggression, repression, suppression, dispossession.
Mostly it’s white women who take pictures of my kids and me with our protest signs, but one time riding the Metro, a Black woman asked if she could snap one of the boys, who were holding onto the poles with their “Silence is Violence” and “End Police Brutality” signs. “You’re so cute,” she said as she held them in her phone’s eye, and “Thank you for your support,” and I felt like maybe this is going to work. This is a beginning.
I tell my African-American neighbor when she walks by one evening that I finally understand why she told people not to call the police on the kids loitering around the smoke shop because teens of color are usually targeted, and it becomes a way to round them up. Or why it would make sense to legalize marijuana and sex work because criminalizing them gives more reasons to lock people up when all they’re doing is trying to live, to cope.
Last week we were walking home from the grocery store, and I heard someone yelling. I turned around to see a Black man running towards us, holding something bright blue. He thrust it towards us, and I said, “Oh, thank you!” and to my son, “Mark, you forgot your umbrella!”
The man’s eyes are like those of a 9-year-old boy’s, and I say something trying to figure out what to do next, and he says, “I was panhandling outside the store,” and that was all I needed, so I fish around in my wallet and hand him a 5 dollar bill, and I look into his eyes, trying to erase everything I’d learned before and see him for him, and I say, “Thank you for your time,” and he takes it, looking down and says, “God bless you all,” and I feel dirty, like a Tammany Hall mayor, to live in a world where a grown man can tell you God bless you because you gave him a 5 dollar bill.
And I feel sick about my privilege, and I think I have to give away everything I own to make it better but even this would never make it right, and then I start to see how many people don’t feel this way, don’t feel this way at all, and in fact, feel the opposite, and I want to hide from this mess, to run away so I won’t be crushed by the massiveness of this hate, this despair, this rage, this disaster.
To be a child again, to go back to when I didn’t see any of this, before I noticed how some people were treated like animals, before I felt the dread, before I knew I was part of it, before I saw how it gouged deep canyons into our society, gorges so tall and steep, so rough and craggy you don’t dare to try to climb out.
But I cannot go back. I cannot curl up into a ball and roll back to a place where everything is smooth and soft. I must not let myself. It will never feel okay to be okay with this. And it’s okay not to feel okay. Humans are not meant to feel constant comfort and ease — we are meant to feel anguish and joy, grief and elation, struggle and triumph. We are not meant to collapse like roly-polies into little balls, winding into little gulleys until the scary guys go away.
“Black Lives Matter, huh?” an African-American man says to 6-year-old Diana, who is holding her hand-made sign as we all wait for the Metro shuttle bus in a patch of grass on Connecticut Avenue. Diana looks at him with her pug nose and brown eyes and nods.
He tells us he was at a Juneteenth march that morning, and I tell him about ours, and I feel weird about it because I feel so white and new, and on the bus, we realize he is good friends with my son’s middle school coach, and that his kids graduated from my daughters’ high school.
He mentions that he lives near the zoo, but on the other side of Rock Creek Park, which he said divides D.C. from rich and poor, white and Black, good schools and “bad” schools, and I say, I know. He went to the zoo so many times when he was little that he says he doesn’t want to go anymore — he’s all zoo-ed out, and I laugh and it feels good to laugh with him, and he tells us how he hears the lions roaring every morning, and how he wonders “if those bad boys will get out one day,” and I used to be afraid of lions escaping the zoo and jumping through my window too.
One time a few years ago I served jury duty with a group of Black and white people from all different neighborhoods over the city. By the end of the week and a half, we felt like a band of oddball cousins, eating lunch together, sharing boxes of doughnuts, and lending each other Metro cards. We cut each other slack when some of us were late, we knew each other’s quirks — Chelsea was addicted to chapstick, Rebecca packed avocado sandwiches, and Mattie stayed awake with Hot Tamales because she had quit coffee. We weren’t allowed to talk about the case, so we talked about everything else — how yellow dye #5 is made with toxic waste, whether selfies make noses look 30% wider, and why not to drink tequila in tattoo parlors.
I want to be in the room together. Not on opposite sides of the court. American life makes it so easy to separate. Thank you God for jury duty, post offices, public schools, protests, and city buses. Please help me find more ways to sit across a table and laugh about tattoos on butts and lions roaring in the morning. I want to be riding the same bus — not walking past each other on the street, exchanging cash, or looking at one another from opposite sides of the gorge.
Seek out people of color to learn from — yoga teachers, writers, academics, film-makers, meditation teachers. Don’t fall into easy grooves, limiting my circles to people who sound like me, think like me, look like me, and grew up with the same advantages as me. Remember how reaching out a hand feels better than sitting on it. Be brave, be kind, and know that you are capable of holding big terrible beautiful things.
This week I watched the documentary 13th with my 16-year-old daughter Virginia. I highly recommend this powerful film about how America has come to have 25% of the world’s prisoners even though it only makes up 5% of the global population. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that slavery is outlawed “except as the punishment for crime.” It’s now showing for free on Netflix and YouTube.
On the last day of school, our high school senior was in bed in her room by herself. On Monday she had turned in her last assignment and on Wednesday she Zoomed with her last class.
While her younger siblings were having end-of-year slideshows, scavenger hunts, and superlative awards on Microsoft Teams, the last two days of the school year were spent like so many before, sitting on the living room couch next to her abandoned knitting, watching YouTube videos with headphones on.
The mayor ended the distance learning school year even before the canceled prom, senior awards, and club parties, events whose colorful blocks in our Apple calendar will float by like toy boats.
On the last day of school, I look at her by herself on the couch and feel quicksand in my chest. There were no hugs outside the front doors for her, squeezing each other with your past and your future all at once.
There were no locking eyes with the teachers that believed in you, or last glances at the ones that you didn’t care for, as if to fix them in your scrapbook too. No names being called down the hallway, some names you’ll never hear again, no clearing your locker of gross and strange things, dusty souvenirs from journeys you thought would never end.
There would be no signing of yearbooks with Sharpies, no snickering during auditorium ceremonies, no trying on of caps and gowns in the bathroom. No high fives, no last chances, no watching crushes as they walk away.
A high school career that, instead of exploding, disintegrated. Like a favorite song on the radio suffocated by waves of static as you drill into the long road ahead. Like a candle extinguished, not with a cakeful of others, but little by little in the morning damp.
The main thing that has changed is who makes lunch and who does the lunch dishes. Making school lunches used to be the weekly rotating job of Mark (12 years), Luke (9 years), and Diana (6 years). Based on ingredients I would leave out, every morning before school one of them would fill 5 plastic bento boxes, each with a lid of a different color. (Although in recent times, Virginia, 16 years, got tired of the salami sandwiches and brie with crackers and said she’d pack her own salads and smoothies.)
Now that all the kids are home during the week, the former lunch person sets the table and pours drinks at lunchtime, and the kids take turns making the meal for everyone except for Virginia, who is now vegan and usually makes her own lunch. (My husband, Enrico, works more than ever and is out of the house from early morning until late at night in his job as a hospital administrator and physician.)
When it’s Mark’s week to set the lunch table, it’s Luke’s week to clean the litterboxes (on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), and Diana’s turn to empty the dishwasher in the morning. Then the jobs rotate, although Luke sometimes tries to get Diana to trade dishwasher for litterboxes, which only has to be done 3 times a week instead of 5.
Another new routine, suggested by the teens when schools closed and adopted at a family meeting, was that each person would do their own lunch dishes, and the person who prepared the lunch would clean the pots and pans and countertops.
Sofia (18 years) makes lunch on Monday, Luke makes lunch on Tuesday, Diana on Wednesday, Virginia on Thursday, and Mark on Friday.
The teens used to get the younger 3 kids ready for bed at night, until they traded that job for making an extra dinner per week, so I make dinner on Monday, Virginia on Tuesday, Sofia on Wednesday, me on Thursday, and on Friday, we order out from a neighborhood restaurant, one of our new pandemic traditions.
Sofia sets the table for dinner on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and vacuums the kitchen after dinner on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and Virginia sets the dinner table on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and vacuums after dinner on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
On the weekends Mark and Luke set the table and vacuum the kitchen after meals. Mark sets the table on Sunday lunch and vacuums after Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner, and Luke sets on Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner and vacuums after Sunday lunch.
The boys also take out the trash and recycling and bring the dirty laundry down to the basement, alternating week by week. I do the laundry on the weekends, and each person bring their clothes up and puts them away.
We usually have 2 dishwashers to load and unload every day, so the afternoon shift is done by Mark and Diana on Monday and Thursday, and by Luke and Diana on Tuesday and Wednesday, and only Diana on Friday.
Dinner dishes are washed by Virginia on Monday, Sofia on Tuesday, Mark on Wednesday, Luke on Thursday, and Diana on Friday (although Enrico or I usually do them for her because she still needs a stool to reach the faucets).
On the weekends, Enrico finishes meals first so he usually jumps up and does the dishes (minus the pots and butcher knives, which I usually do) and he also unloads the 4 to 5 dishwashers per weekend (except for the weird stuff — mixing bowls, whisks, carrot peelers, and baking sheets, which I do).
I make lunch on Saturday and Sunday and Sofia makes dinner on Saturday night and Virginia on Sunday night.
On Sunday, the weekly turns end and new shifts start on Monday. Monday also begins a new bathroom schedule — Mark, Luke, and Diana are assigned different bathrooms each week to get ready for bed because all that used to happen in the kids’ bathroom was playing and fighting. I usually stay with the person in the basement bathroom because no one wants that one, except for Diana who likes that bathtub better.
Diana takes a bath every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and Luke every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they both take one on Sunday, except when they’ve convinced me they don’t have to, or I’m too tired to make them.
We only have 1 TV which was not a problem before the lockdown (except on weekends when Sofia and Virginia sometimes wanted to see different movies), and no one was allowed to watch on school nights anyway, unless they watched in Italian. But without friends, play practices, meetings, swim lessons, and babysitting jobs, the rules relaxed and it became clear that we needed a pandemic schedule for the TV too. It was decided that Virginia gets the TV on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night, and Sofia gets it on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night, and they alternate Sundays.
For other occasional and semi-regular jobs, like taking out the compost, cleaning baseboard moulding, and weeding the garden, we rely on our point system, where unwanted behavior (such as potty play, teasing, and bedtime-flouting) results in points which can be cancelled by doing one job per 3 points.
After riding her bike on the sidewalk in front of our house, Diana, 6, stops at our weeping cherry tree, grabs some of its small bitter fruits, and says, “Now I’m going to do my spitting-far practice.”