You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2012.

Donn and Elliot were recently looking through old photos and he posted this one to facebook. Looking at it, I was unprepared for the flood of memories it produced. I had all the normal “my BABY is now a stinky hairy man!” emotions of a mother of a soon-to-be 17 year old male, but mostly I remembered the circumstances in which that photo was taken.

We’d just arrived in Mauritania. Elliot was 5. Colleagues met us at the airport—we’d been traveling 2 days at that point, and Ilsa was covered in airline food (she was barely 4, poor thing), and I still remember that hot dry air sucking the breath from my lungs as I stepped to the open plane door and went down the steps, and I wondered, “Can I do this? Am I going to make it?” It was only April, 10 p.m., the air filled with dust and smoke and still hotter than Portland usually gets in August.

None of our suitcases arrived with us. Colleagues met us at the airport, all smiles, sweeping the twins into their arms. They took us first to their house, where they fed us spaghetti, and then to the apartment where we’d stay while we looked for our own house. The apt had been rented by a single male who’d come for a year-long internship and would be leaving soon. He was the type of single male who is clean and neat and just does things a little differently than your typical woman, like lining the bedroom with wires to dry your clothes on. Since none of our luggage had come, we ran the washing machine (located in the kitchen) and it flooded the kitchen, the soapy water full of little dead bugs. We squee-geed it right out the back door onto the balcony, which seemed very strange to me. Who knew you did it like that? In my American kitchen, that was not how you cleaned the floor.

When our clothes were clean, we hung them round our bed (weird). We stirred briefly at the dawn call to prayer, unused as yet to the loudspeakers near our windows, then slept deeply till noon, when our new friend knocked at the door to take us to lunch. He’d brought us clothes to borrow from various people, including a family with small girls who live near us now in Oregon and are good friends, though at this point we hadn’t met them.

But our own clothes were bone dry, another mystery. How could they have dried in the NIGHT like that? It was a good introduction to the Sahara, where clothes hung on the line at 8 will be dry by 10.

We began to settle in, adjust. Donn and Dave spent a lot of time at the airport, where eventually most of our luggage showed up. We began to learn where we could buy what, and I realized that I could feed my family on what was available there. Every morning Donn would walk to a tiny storefront in a garage of a house nearby and buy bread, and we’d eat bread and jam and coffee for breakfast. The kids loved the mango juice in small bottles. We all hated the milk.

Donn and Elliot went to the market together on our 2nd or 3rd day, ostensibly to buy things for the house. They returned with a tea set, a large Senegalese drum, and a robe (dra:a) for Elliot. Not my idea of necessities, although that tea set got a lot of use. Elliot had a Coke and came home wearing his robe, saying “Salaam A’lauykoum, Mom!” as he walked in the door. We were so excited to be there, and so scared and overwhelmed at the same time. Mostly excited though. There’s nothing like your first overseas move.

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Well. Here we are at the end of June, and I’m as surprised as you are that this has happened already. Frankly, this caught me off guard, but my calendar is backing my editor up on this.

So without further ado, here’s what:

I ALREADY READ THIS MONTH SO FAR:

An Unmarked Grave: This is the 4th in the Bess Crawford series, the one about the WW1-era nurse/amateur sleuth, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like this series and recommend you read them if you haven’t already. Bess is a very sympathetic character–she’s strong-willed and practical and kind and just the sort you’d want to nurse you back to health. In this one, it’s 1918 and the Spanish flu is decimating soldier and medical personnel alike. Just before she succumbs to the dread disease, Bess realizes that one of the bodies awaiting burial in the shed didn’t die from wounds or disease, but was instead murdered. She recognizes him too–a family friend. When she’s recovered, she starts on a trail to find the killer, and ends up putting herself and her family in great danger. What I like about these books is that they’re not just murder mysteries or historical fiction, but they really look at life in that time and those circumstances, and the huge effect of war on those whose lives are touched by it. Go read it! This month I also read, and loved, book 3 in the series, A Bitter Truth.

Listening to Africa: This collection of poems was written by a woman who went on a long safari through several East African countries. She’s a good writer and I enjoyed them.

The New Republic: A very interesting novel. Deals with truth vs. media manipulation, and also with hero worship and what it means to put someone on a pedestal, both for the hero and the fan. Well done and gives you LOTS of food for thought. You could discuss this novel for hours! It’s also cram-jam packed with puns, just to bring some brightness to your life.

Game of Secrets: This is the sort of novel that makes you want to write fiction. It’s filled with lush descriptions but it doesn’t lose the sense of plot, and keeps things moving forwards. The center premise is life in a small New England town, and it’s told from the perspectives of 3 women–Marne, her mother Janie, and Ada, who was once the lover of Janie’s father and whose husband is popularly supposed to have killed him. (Did you follow that?) It’s a novel of family secrets and cover-ups, but also of growing up, of coming to forgive and show grace, and of allowing the past to stay there.

When Capt. Flint was Still a Good Man: Really enjoyed this book. It’s sort of a coming-of-age novel, with some Shakespearean references thrown in, not to mention great descriptions of the Pacific NW. How much is too much to pay to preserve a way of life for an entire town? Cal is 15 and unprepared for the answer his father gives to that question. Go read my review for more, and then go read the book.

Between You and Me: I pretty much fail at pop culture, but even I could see that this book referenced a lot of the events of Britney Spears’ life. Written by the authors of the popular Nanny Diaries, this  book contains their trademark humour and snark, but also gives a devastating look at how life on the top takes a huge toll on those who get there. I ended up feeling a lot of sympathy and compassion for the character of Kelsey Wade (the one who references Spears). The story is told from the p.o.v. of her cousin, Logan Wade, who becomes Kelsey’s manager. A good summer read, especially if you like pop culture.

WHAT I’M READING RIGHT NOW! AS YOU READ THIS!:

The Voluntourist: Ken Budd is having a major mid-life crisis. His own father just died suddenly, and he’s facing the fact that he’s not going to be a father himself. He deals with it by deciding to give something back to the world, and begins to volunteer in places as diverse as Costa Rica, where he and his wife Julie teach English for a couple of weeks, to China, where he and a friend work with autistic children, to Ecuador, where he works with an environmental group. Budd’s a good writer and I enjoy his introspection and inherent honesty. I’m not quite halfway through–he’s got at least 3 more trips to make. I lived overseas myself and I recognize that popping in for 2 weeks here and there does a limited amount of good, but I like that Budd himself realizes this.

Abdication: This book takes place in England in 1936, and contains many actual historic figures (you can figure out two of them just from the title!), living in a world peopled with fictional characters. It’s interesting and it’s a fine book but sometimes it’s apparent that the author has done her research almost too well–in other words, it occasionally reads a bit like an article on what life was like at that time.

Four Quartets: Somehow I had never read these. I know! Of course I LOVED them. I think I am going to memorize parts of “Burnt Norton” and “Little Gidding.” (I know, you already did, in college. I’m such a loser)

And on the enormous stack of TO BE READ:

The Soldier’s Wife: I like Joanna Trollope as an author, and I think this should be an interesting look at the complexities of modern marriage when 6-month tours of Afghanistan are added to the mix.

Bullying Decoded: The Economics of Abuse: Long-term readers may remember that we’ve dealt with this in our own family, so I thought this looked interesting.

Where We Belong: I wasn’t going to read this one but they sent me the first chapter and I was hooked. Looks like intelligent chick lit.

Double Time: A memoir of raising twins. WHY DIDN’T I WRITE A BOOK? Sigh. Anyway, my interest in this topic is obvious.

Year Zero: The aliens have been hooked on earth music since the 70s, and due to copyright violations, the Earthlings now own everything. Supposed to be a zany combo of Douglas Adams and Jasper Fforde.

Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family, and Survival in the New Iraq: Sigh. I don’t have time to read this. I was at Powells to pick up something for Elliot and I got sucked into a vortex swirling round the Middle East section and a zombie ate part of my brain AND held a gun to my head so I had to buy this, and also a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot. I could do this because I sold a bunch of books, in an attempt to stop having to triple-book each shelf of the bookcase. This is the story of 2 Iraqi sisters and 2 American aid workers and it’s about a clash of traditional Arabic/Islamic values with American-style feminism, supposedly, but it’s all personal stories and it actually looks really good. Really good. Who knows when I’ll get to it?

Skios: A Novel: supposed to be a humourous send-up of academics, captains of industry, ambitious social climbers and dotty philanthropists (I am modifying this from the back cover). Set on a private Greek island. I want a private Greek island too.

There you have it, aside from a few that I’m forgetting. What about you? Is it raining with you too? And what are you reading, in rain or shine?

Donn: (showing F online proof of the reason for his traffic ticket) See, here it shows that you didn’t stop at all for the red light. You just turned right without stopping.

F: But no cars were coming.

Donn: That’s not the point. You always have to stop for a red light.

F: (thinking) But this is my first ticket.

Donn: Well not all intersections have cameras.

F: So I just have to learn which intersections have cameras.

Donn: NO! You have to stop for a red light.

F: Which intersections have cameras?

Donn: Besides, if a cop sees you, he’ll pull you over and give you a ticket, whether or not there’s a camera.

F: So I have to be really careful and look.

Donn: NO! You have to stop for all red lights!

F: But if I’m really careful…

Donn: Just stop for red lights.

********

Me: (helping a young woman transfer from one community college to another. She has missed the deadline. I have ordered her transcript, applied online, created passwords and recorded her SSN, etc.) So, tomorrow we just need to call this number and see if they have room in the classes. They’re willing to let you in if the teachers agree.

L: Will you come with me?

Me: Well we just need to call. I can call but they might want to talk to you to get an idea of your English level. So we should be together. We need to call between 8 and 4. I can come over and we can call. What time is good?

L: Noon?

Me: Ok. Maybe a little earlier would be better. But I know you’re not up in the morning. (Aside: we have learned that, when visiting this family, it’s best not to show up before 2 p.m.)

L: You can come at 8, or 9, and I will get up and let you in.

Me: Ok. Why don’t we just do 11. You can still sleep in, but we’ll catch her before she goes to lunch.

Next Morning. I am late, because (long story) Donn is taking F to traffic court and we are sharing a car because my brother is in town (YAAY!) and has borrowed mine for the day. I knock on L’s family’s door at 11:15. No answer. All is still. I knock again. The third time produce’s L’s mother, in her nightgown, hastily adjusting her headscarf as she opens the door. “L?” I say. “Come in,” she says, waves me to a couch, and goes to L’s room.

I sit. She comes back, makes me tea, does her ablutions, prays towards Mecca. She brings her breakfast (bread dipped in date paste and cream) over to me on a tray and we both sit on the floor while she eats, since I’m not hungry. I sit some more.

L appears at noon.

I call, but the woman is at lunch. I leave a long message. “She may call us back at 12:30,” I say, so the 3 of us sit, the only ones awake in the house (there are 3 more asleep), in the drafty, spotless living room. We sit there till just after one, watching an Arabic cooking show on youtube, chatting occasionally about their neighbours (they recently moved), the school, the classes I’m going to give L if she doesn’t manage to get into summer term at the community college. No one calls us. Eventually I leave.

The woman never does call us back. I left her both our phone numbers, so she could choose who she wanted to talk to. Nothing. Which means she’s all set for fall, right?

*****

M: I had something happen the other day. Some Jews came by with a Torah in a box to talk to me about their religion.

Me: Are you sure? Jews don’t usually go door-to-door.

M: I think so. They had a Torah in a box. They were from Syria and they spoke Arabic and they knew our names. They said, “Are you M?”

Me: Hmmmm. (It is niggling in my mind; I should be able to figure this out. It didn’t sound like Mormons. Have you already figured it out?)

M: They came in and I gave them tea.

Me: You don’t have to let them in. I know that is rude in your culture, but here, if someone you don’t know comes to your door, wanting you to buy something or wanting to convince you of something, you can just be polite and say “no thank you” and close the door. It is not rude.

M: Really?

Me: Yes.

M: They had papers for me. They wanted to talk about their religion.

Me: I’m really sure they were not Jewish.

M: They had a Torah.

Me: Oh I know–Jehovah’s Witnesses! That’s who they were!

(Did you figure it out?)

I’m peeling Granny Smith apples for a blackberry-apple pie, my husband’s favorite, when I suddenly flash on a memory of my father. I slice myself a thin piece, pale green peel still on, and sprinkle salt, something he used to do. The flavor takes me back to sunny afternoons on the prairie, in the small Canadian town where we lived from when I was 7 to when I was 12. It is here that I have the most memories of my father.

He would put salt on watermelon too. He had tales of getting water from a well. In some ways, he was a foreigner in our family, culturally dominated as we were by our Welsh mother. To us, growing up in North America, it was normal to put boiled eggs in egg cups, with a tiny crocheted egg cozy to keep it warm, and to have a cup of tea after school with a scone or biscuit. He was the anomaly, squashing his egg onto his plate, drinking his own concoction of instant coffee mixed with cocoa and sugar.

My father was born on those prairies although far south, in a small town in Kansas that I have never visited that I remember, in the years just before the Great Depression. He was one of 10 children, 9 of whom survived to adulthood. He left it as soon as possible, moved first to LA, then to Canada, then to Ethiopia, England, Lebanon. He was a bit of an adventurer. He spoke 7 languages to varying degrees, loved to read and study. I’ve heard stories from his old friends, men now dead, about his work in Ethiopia, and how he had to write his sister using a disappearing ink recipe from their childhood and get her to communicate with someone back in the US that it wasn’t safe for him to return to Ethiopia. There were other stories, of trips into unsafe areas, risk taken and adventures sought and found.

Why didn’t I write them down at the time?  They’re fuzzy now, and I have no one left to ask. He was 47 when I was born, already grey. I was a great shock to both my parents, but although now I imagine the news of pregnancy would have been greeted with mixed emotions at best, they always swore that they were thrilled, nothing but thrilled, at my arrival. I never doubted their absolute love for me and joy at my existence.

He died when he was 62, suddenly one night after a lifetime of perfect health. He was fit and trim, his doctor happy, never sick, suddenly dead. I was 15. I will spare you the details of that night.

When you lose a parent as a child, your entire world collapses around you. It remains the worst experience of my life, and I am forever changed by it. I can still recount in painful detail how slowly, oh so slowly, our family recovered and healed; that first Father’s Day, first birthday and Christmas, my friends clumsy around my grief because they were so young and had no experience with it themselves. I was the only child left at home–my brothers were adults and out of the house. My mother leaned heavily on me for a long time and we developed some fine co-dependent attitudes that were hard to break. When I lost her 3 years ago, it was totally different. For one, I was an adult with family of my own. She had Parkinsons for years and I knew it was coming. I grieved her in stages; now she can’t walk long distances, this will be the last time she travels to see us, she’s forgotten the recipe for Grandma’s salad dressing, etc. Her death a release for her.

For years, as a young adult, I almost forgot about my dad. At my wedding, my oldest brother walked me down the aisle. He returned in sharp focus when I had my own kids (he would have been amazed at the twins!), and again when we went overseas, following in his footsteps, hoping to live an extraordinary life of our own.

Our relationship never had the chance to develop and that’s what I hate the most. I look at his relationship with my brothers and I envy it, bitterly, because I was still a child and they had the chance to know him as older teens and adults. (They also went round the entire coast of Africa on a tramp steamer, when the family moved from Ethiopia, because they were leaving and it wasn’t much more expensive and it was a great chance and they took it. I wasn’t born yet. I resent this, illogically, because that is just so cool, and I have no claim to it.) When my brothers were in college, they’d bring huge groups of friends home, and I’d notice the young people staying up late in the night to talk to my dad. They sensed a wisdom about him, some of them told me later.

When he died, he was working as a high school teacher at the same school I attended. (He had many different jobs; he taught high school, university, and was a pastor as well) Last year, I reconnected with someone on Facebook who remembered him from that high school. “I still want to be your dad when I grow up,” he told me. I have very few people in my life who knew him; he died in May of my 10th grade year and the next fall I went to another school in another city. Donn never knew him. This, as much as anything, helped me make my peace with Facebook.

I believe death is unnatural and that is why it is so horrible. We were not originally meant to die. But it’s also good to have left such a mark on the world that people still miss you nearly 30 years later. And it’s good to know that someday, we will reunite and catch up on the intervening years, which will turn out to have passed in a blink of an eye.

So we went to the rhododendron gardens with an Iraqi couple. The sun was shining. We wandered round for a while. Here are some photos:

Even though it was getting a little late in the season, there were still plenty of blooms, although it was probably even better two weeks earlier.

So I’ve lived in Portland a long time (total), and yet this was my first visit to the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Gardens. I knew where they were; we used to live not that far away. But for some reason, I never went. Rhodies aren’t my favorite flower, and that probably prejudiced me. But of course, there’s so much more. Lakes and ponds and waterfalls (this is Oregon; we don’t lack water), not to mention bridges and decorative trees and lots of birds, from geese to songbirds spiraling high into the sky.

I really enjoy the couple we were with. They’re older–both mid-70s–but they have a great sense of adventure and style. They are unabashedly enthusiastic about their new home. “We wish we had come here years ago!” they told us. They’ve admitted they were afraid to come. Huge movie enthusiasts, they learned of American culture from Hollywood, and they pictured us as a land where everyone is packing heat, a place where one must pay attention walking down a sidewalk in case of car chases spreading over the curb, cities where buildings explode daily, in slow motion. They didn’t know what to expect!

I actually kind of love this. There’s so much misinformation going both ways between Americans and Arabs. Americans see a woman wearing a headscarf walking down their suburban street and they’re afraid she might spontaneously explode. Arabs are afraid to come here because they worry that life will reflect our movies, that we’re violent and dangerous or that their kids will turn into super-obnoxious brats who never listen to their parents. (Although, that’s really a case of the pot calling the kettle black…just sayin’)

Afterwards they insisted on taking us for a late lunch. They insisted on paying. Donn tried to sneak the waitress some cash, but they caught him out and scolded the waitress–they’d already told her they were paying! She was amused.

When they were younger, they traveled all over, took long car trips from Iraq to Europe, camped out and drove round France and Germany and Italy. They collected souvenirs from their trips, all of which they had to leave behind. But they don’t complain; instead they buy things at Goodwill and garage sales and proudly show me their new finds with each visit.

We sat outside and ate sandwiches and pickles, and they looked around at the trees lining the street. “It’s so clean here,” they said, and I laughed. We were just coming off several days of rain. “That’s because we are constantly washing it,” I joked. They talked of days-on-end of sandstorms, how their son in Iraq tells them on skype of how bad things are. I’m sure they miss him, but they smile at me, happy to be here, to be enjoying another new adventure.

Really, I’m fine, just writing posts in my head and forgetting you’re not there in my head with me. Also I need to download some photos.

In the meantime, here are some snippets of my life:

Conversation with Iraqi Friend:

Her: My friend tell me if you go into the doctor here in America early when pregnant, like the first or two month, the doctor can change and you can choose, boy or girl.

Me: Um, no.

Her: Only very early. First, two months. You choose. Boy or girl.

Me: No, that’s not possible. The baby is already a boy or a girl at that point.

Her: Really?

Me: Quite sure.

(I wonder if she is taking about gendercide, and discuss that, but no, she is convinced that American doctors can change the sex of the fetus–only in the first trimester though!)

Her: In Iraq, you can go to the dr and he can tell you which month will give you a boy or a girl.

Me: Um, no.

Her: One month, girl, next month, boy.

Me: No. What about the man’s part? It determines boy or girl.

Her: Yes. That is right. Don’t forget the man!

Thespians in the House:

Last Wednesday, I got a phone call while I was driving around with Elliot while he applied for summer jobs. (Nothing so far, thanks for asking). It was a very nice girl from the kids’ high school, informing me that the Thespian Society would be coming to kidnap Abel that Friday. “We’ll come at 5, so please leave the door unlocked or if someone is up, you can let us in,” she told me. Um. I can hardly imagine how well I would have slept had I left my door unlocked, wondering if the noises I heard all night were the Thespians creeping in or someone with less pleasant intentions. So, with a sigh, I set my alarm clock for 4:50 a.m.

Also let me clarify that I’m the one who used the loaded term “kidnapping.” The very nice girl on the phone didn’t. I imagine they’ve had some nervous parents in the past. These are interesting times we live in.

I didn’t sleep well that night, because I never do when I have to get up unusually early. I was not happy when the alarm went off, but I got up anyway and went downstairs to wait for the Thespians. I waited. And waited. And waited. Several times, I considered simply leaving the door unlocked and going back to bed, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep, so I sat and read a book.

Finally, at 5:50, they arrived–10 minutes before the kids would start getting up anyway. They were very nice, very wide awake and well made-up (the girls, anyway). I heard them go into Abel’s room. “Wake up, Abel! You’re a thespian!” they announced. “Wha…???” was his intelligent response, followed shortly by “Awesome!”

They allowed him 3 minutes to get dressed, and it only took him 40 seconds. He’s a boy. They took him off to a celebratory breakfast and a day of extremely mild “hazing” (again, that word is avoided at all costs), such as wearing a cape and a goofy hat, and having to say “They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard” every time someone other than a teacher said his name. It was a great success in his mind. In mine, not so much.

Tonight:

Some friends stopped by this evening and I made them Turkish coffee at about 8 or so, so we’re still up at midnight. Many of the Arabs that we know here in Portland go to bed at about 3 a.m. and get up at noon. It can be hard scheduling anything before 1 or 2 in the afternoon. The other night when we were visiting some friends, we were about to leave at 10:30 p.m. when some other people stopped by. The party was just starting! Meanwhile, our kids were giving us the stink eye, the “Mo-om! I still have homework and it’s late!” look across the room, so we said our goodbyes and came home.

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