Take a moment and read this chilling, brilliant essay:
“A VISIT FROM CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES CHANGED HOW I PARENTED MY TEENS”
Take a moment and read this chilling, brilliant essay:
Admittedly, I tried to talk Julia out of her mission. Day and night. For three weeks. But as any parent can tell you, talking an eight-year-old out of what they consider to be their mission is a hard lift.
“But mommy, I really want to sell my artwork outside of our building!”
“I’m not sure that’s possible,” I said and kept saying. “I’m sure I’ll have to get permission.”
(New York City condos and co-ops are funny that way.)
But the greater truth was this: I didn’t want to go out in the world and sale anything.
To be clear, it wasn’t that I thought my daughter’s artwork was lousy. I just didn’t want to sit in front of my building beside a child with a hungry look in her eyes, pimping paintings. Granted Julia’s plan could yield her vital confidence building skills. Still.
But then came a bright beautiful Sunday. We head to church, for the first time since June when Sunday school classes went on summer hiatus. I heard a nice, motivational talk. We had a nice brunch with Aunt Carmen, and another church friend, at Regional, our favorite eatery. Mommy had a mimosa or three. The golden sunlight was lovely against the cobalt blue day, perhaps last warm Sunday of September if my memory holds. So, after Julia said our goodbyes and we headed home. As a warm breeze whirled around us, and Julia’s braids bounced in the wind, I turned to her and said, “Let’s go to the park and sell your art work…”
“Yippee!” Julia yodeled and ran into down the block and into our building.
“Where is she going so fast?” the doorman said.
“To get her artwork.”
Carlos’ brows arched.
While Julia retrieved her portfolio, I headed to the sideboard and pulled out a colorful tablecloth to use as a backdrop for her work, my second halfway decent idea. Then I grabbed my tote bag, a glass jar, bottles of water and my courage.
“How about we set up at the entrance of Central Park? Where there’s lots of foot traffic…”
I fluttered the bold patterned tablecloth over an emerald-green bench. Julia placed her work in two neat rows. I sat down and said a prayer in hope things would land on the plus side: “Please God please let her sale at least one drawing and keep people from being mean to my kid.”
Within a minute or two an older man behind a sturdy walker came to a stop in front of the display and asked, “What are you raising money for?
“Myself,” Julia announced.
“The homeless… we’re giving part of our proceeds to the homeless.”
“Well, I don’t want a drawing but I’ll make a donation,” he said.
And with that he flipped open his wallet, pealed out two-dollar bills and placed them into her tiny hands.
Julia’s eyes widen. A stranger had just handed her cold hard cash, “Thank you!” Julia said then stuffed the bills into a glass mason jar that we’d brought for the occasion.
Well, maybe this won’t be so bad.
As soon as I released that thought, like a ball player who acknowledges a hitting streak, we fell into a dry spell. A long parade of dog walkers hustling their four-foot-footed chargers, and stroller’ moms who cast down disparaging looks that read thusly, “Why would I buy the same crap from your kid that’s on my fridge!”
Julia was crestfallen. “Mommy, nobody’s stopping,” she moaned.
“But I told you not everybody is into art, some people walk with headphones on, and some people are in a hurry.”
“Mama, let’s get up and walk around with the park with the pictures…”
“Nooooooo.” I said and started yodeling, “Artwork for sale!”
Julia joined in, “Get some art work!”
A pale guy, with neat-cropped hair, slowed his roll down the path, and pointed to a flower drawing. “How much is this one?”
“A dollar…” Julia said.
“A bargain!” he said, his hand dove into his pocket, pulled out a buck, and placed it into Julia’s palm.
“My fiancé loves sunflowers. And she’s on tour right now…this’ll be a nice welcome home present.”
An older woman came out of nowhere, picked up a blue painting and said, “I’ll take this one …and I’ll make you my princess of water. I love what you’re doing.”
Julia was back in business. About this time, I noticed the extended sound of water coming from a nearby fountain. There stood a woman, slim and brown- skinned, holding an object that she ran an under the low, arched stream. She rinsed and swished the water over the cloth. Then she twisted the water out, and tucked the cloth into her pocket.
Maybe she got ice cream or something on her clothes, I thought.
But she welded an urgency in her movements, focused and tight. I didn’t think much about the piece of cloth, until she pulled another item out of her pocket, until she started running it under the water.
I read once that objects under a microscope when observed moved differently. A testament to the energy of observation. Once she noticed me noticing her, the energy around us shifted. Like her moves, the air became tight. She turned her head towards me but kept her hands moving and scrubbing and twisting, and said flatly and clearly, “I’m sorry I have to do this here.”
Do this? Do what?
Then all the details like a paint by number canvass filled in.
She’s washing her clothes in the water fountain.
A blinked at the sight, almost unbearable to take it in. Like a super nova, it hurt my eyes.
Maybe I should pack up and move… I don’t want Julia to see.
Then a new thought dawned, as bright and opulent as the day, and just as undeniable.
Well, we said we were going to give money to the homeless. And there’s a homeless person. Our giving just became easier.
“Let me see that jar, Julia.
It held, maybe eight dollars. I pulled out four.
“Go give this to that lady, Julia.”
She tepidly walked over to her…and announced “Here….”
The woman extended a wet, soggy hand,
took the cash and tucked it under her shirt, into what I could assumed was her bra. “Thank you,” she whispered.
I watched the scene, the girl giver, the receiver lady, in a matter-of-fact-stunned silence. This day was going its own way.
“You’re lucky that your mom and supports your art,” I heard a male voice say. I turned and saw a tall, lanky dreaded guy with warm brown eyes standing over the assortment. “My mom didn’t support me and I’m still an artist.”
He was a man but I could still see the little boy hurt in his eyes. The cute girl beside him angled her head up towards him and smiled. I hadn’t seen a woman look at a man with such love in her eyes in a long while.
Until that moment I didn’t realize how much trying to give your child their hopes and dreams, really served as an on ramp to solving the mysteries of your childhood. I thought of how my mom managed my regular excursions to the Detroit Institute of Arts from our Westside home, once I fell in love with the mural by Diego Rivera in the 3rd grade. In my freshman year of art college school, when I invited her to go to the museum to see a show did I learn something new about my mom. “No, thanks,” she said. “I hate the museum”
“Then why did we go so often?” I asked shocked at her omission.
“Because you wanted to go.”
“You’ve got a great mom,” the girl with the loving eyes said, cradling a drawing.
I have a great mom, too. I thought. She exposed me to the act of art that freed me art but as a child selling goods had crushed me. As a kid, I was petrified of selling Girl Scout cookies. Annually, my troop called upon every girl during the cold hard months of February to meet a specific dollar amount by selling sweets. That way every girl could attend camp regardless of her family’s economic status. My stomach started knotting up in January.
After selling cookies to my neighbors, and my immediate family, my proceeds of 30 or so dollars still fell far short of the goal. Still, no matter how much my parents hounded me, I refused to pimp anymore cookies. Just couldn’t do it. The humiliation. The hawking. Aggh. In the end, every year around March, my father wrote a check and gave it to the Troop leader. My family and I ate from the cases that lined the walls of the dining room for until it became shorts weather again.
So, as Julia plotted to sell her work, my childhood traumas blazed back. Fear that people would be mean to my kid. Or even worse, fear that they would dismiss her efforts. Dismiss her. I hadn’t known it until I sat on the faded green bench just how much I feared having Julia out in the world, feared her laying it all out there.
As a creative person, I do it all the time. But frequently a cocktail comes at the end of a particuluar bad mission. In grad school, during one tough season, if I received notes back on my writing in the morning, I’d hold off my review until the end of the day. So, I could crack open a Cabernet, and read with a glass of comfort.
As Julia expanded the territory of her sense of self through her creative efforts and shared them with the world, I had to sit there and bear witness to it, a sort of reverse art therapy that left me in a stunned-silence. In that moment, the realization hit of all the beauty I would’ve missed by refusing to let go of the past.
“I’ll take that colorful one,” a man with crown of curly hair said, “You’re quite the artist. It matches my tattoo.”
“Look how much money I have Mommy!”
The mason jar was fully a vibrant green.
“That’s great Julia, let’s go give some more money to that homeless lady.”
We looked towards the fountain. And then down the path that led deeper into the park. She’d vanished.
“I see her down the street!” Julia said.
We gathered the remaining drawings, the tablecloth, glass jar and ran out of the park then down the street.
We thundered up to her. She jumped back on the bench, a little startled.
“Hey, I bought lunch meat and cupcakes with the money you gave me…” she said, almost as if she felt she had to report to us what was purchased with the cash we’d given her.
“That’s great, here’s some more,” I said, pressing dollars into her hands.
She smiled at us, her thin face seemed to fill in a bit, maybe it was the light of being seen, fully seen by another human being, not stepped over, ignored. Then she pointed that gleam at Julia. “Would you like a cupcake?” she said.
Julia’s eyes met mine.
“Don’t you dare,” ny glare read.
“Well, can I have a treat at home?”
The writer Paolo Bacigalupi once said, “I’m particularly interested in black swan events: unprecedented surprises that destroy the conventional wisdom about how the world works.”
Through Julia I’d experienced my first black swan in a long while. All the beauty and kindness of the day, I nearly missed, delivered by the bravery of an eight-year-old. And as Julia put her hand in mine, and we headed home, I felt the burn of salt across my eyes, a wash that threatened to appear, but I kept at bay, at least until we reached home.
For me, music has always resonated deeper than just a collection of notes and tones. As the daughter of a Detroit record shop owner during the age of Motown, it would seem destiny. What I couldn’t count on was the rite of passage that would mark the alteration of that relationship.
Aretha Franklin was the Frida Kahlo of music. Like the great Mexican painter, she put her blood into her work. In a 1998
PBS American Masters documentary, a studio musician that worked with Ms. Franklin revealed that, as she recorded tracks, sometimes, Aretha wept. But as a brown-skin girl, growing up in my Westside Detroit home, Aretha Franklin was just a lady I, on occasion, saw in church, in the first pew, a fairly common sight.
In fact, “I’m the lady next door,” is how Ms. Franklin described herself to Gwen Ifill during a 2015 PBS interview. Ifill scoffed and smiled. I chuckled and nodded. During my growing up years, she was Clarence and Edward’s mom, the two suited-up boys my brothers and I sat beside in Sunday School at New Bethel Baptist church. By the early 1970s Aretha Franklin’s musical star had super nova-ed. Still, I remained a clueless kid and she remained the enviable Preacher’s daughter. Her father, Rev. C. L Franklin was the bigger draw. He pastored with a booming voice that welded so much bass, my family and I could hear his sermons from our West Philadelphia home, across the street. In fact, my dad typically slipped out of donning a Sunday suit and joining us by informing my mom, “Annie, I can hear the talk from the sofa.”
I don’t recall of Ms. Franklin ever joined the choir. I do recall liking the choir. One Sunday morning, parked in the pew beside my mom, my crinolines scratched against my thighs I deflected the itch my bouncing my leg to the beat.
“This isn’t music to dance by,” she chided and pressed my leg still with the flat of her palm.
I finally understood what my mom meant, in 1972. Throngs of fans gathered at outside the brick walled church to soak in the secular songs Aretha practiced before recording her gospel album, Amazing Grace. My mom, dad and two brothers perched of the gray concrete steps of our home, held to the hymns. As the organ music and her alto voice throbbed in my chest, the thought dawned that Ms. Franklin was more than Clarence and Edward’s mom, she belonged to something greater, she was something greater.
When I reached my teens, I had begun to hold up in my bedroom, studying life at the altar of Prince, Earth Wind and Fire, of course, Aretha. My mom made sure her music was on steady rotation in our home. But as I managed the stress of attending Cass Tech, a competitive college preparatory school, the world of dating and terminal acne, I heard the song Think, and its powerful refrain R-E-S-P-E-C-T, anew.
During college I moved to New York City to study art from Kahlo to Kandinsky, at Parsons School of Design. I took Aretha with me, first on cassette tape, and later on CDs. I held church, far from home, with a recording of Amazing Grace, the very music I first experienced from my parent’s porch.
By the age of 25, I figured out what Aretha meant when she sang, You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. Later, her track Ain’t No waycounseled me in how to handle the break-up. The energy behind vowels and consonants seemed to slip around me and explain the mysteries and limits of relationships.
Around that time, I flew back to Detroit for a family event. Before I returned to Manhattan I headed to church. By some miracle, in the first pew, once more sat Ms. Franklin. Halfway through the sermon, the call to the altar came. “Would those in need of an additional blessing please step forward.”
I stood up, slipped out of the pew, and headed down the red carpet. As I closed in on the end of the cue, as the parishioners headed to the left, up the steps to the altar, I tucked in close to the edge of the first pew. There was The Queen, clad in a beaded dress, classic church hat and cleavage.
“Excuse me, Ms. Franklin just want to thank you for all your work. My mom played your music to me as a child. But, as a woman, I finally understand what you’re singing about.”
She smiled and nodded her head, once.
I floated back to my place in the pew.
Young girls need role models. And as the mother of a young girl that goal is mine every day. But Aretha Franklin was much more. She was therapist. Confessor. Healer. My parents guided me down the road of adulthood. But Aretha Franklin translated all the bumps, pot holes and dead ends. Aretha told me what my mother couldn’t. That sometimes men fall short. Sometimes they take the women they love with them. Sometimes it was up to you to find your way back on to the road, wheels straight and drive on.
Aretha Franklin showed women how to be brave. I, for one, sweated it out when the announcement came that she would fill in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti singing the classical aria, Nessun Dorma, at the 1998 Grammy telecast. I feared Black Girl Magic wouldn’t stretch quite that far. Two bars in, I decided that was the last time I’d doubted the magic. Or Aretha.
“I’ve been crying like a baby,” the text from my friend Julie read, “Got the news about Aretha.” It was the first of many from my black female friends. As the world mourned the Queen of Soul, women and in particular African-American women, mourned the loss of something greater. Aretha helped us as much as the poetry of Maya Angelou, the afro of Angela Davis, and the sight of Michelle Obama’s image in the National Portrait Gallery. She taught us how to stand proud in our own skin when no one else seemed to care. Because we knew, no matter where Aretha was, she was with us on what mattered. Now she’s gone. And I still have to figure out how to do it for Julia.
More than a week ago, on August 31st, I mourned and celebrated the life of Aretha Franklin with the world. It’s a rite of passage to bury your elders. But even as a mother who manages a mortgage, I don’t feel ready for this adulthood. But I know it’s come. I suppose that’s when you know the baton has been passed to you. When you’re no longer afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. When you stop looking to songs for those answers. I still enjoy the richness of music. But I look more now to the lives of women rather than just the songs they sang to guide me. Remembering that Aretha was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and that sometimes the wheels move slow, but our accolades, in time, come. That with her amazing career she still managed to have a family. That Aretha Franklin left the world with 80 million dollars banked, without the IRS on her heels like many, many artists, are great fact to start telling Julia now.
# The Queen of Soul
“You haven’t written anything on your blog in a long time,” Renita said through the Memorial Day heat.
“Been trying to fit it in, but I’ve been busy,” I said then ran through my lists of must-dos-and-get-it-dones: Julia’s chess tournaments, Julia’s first grade graduation, Julia’s ballet and tennis classes, every Saturday, all the moving parts of my single mommy hamster wheel.
Since Julia I and were only in Detroit for the long weekend, Renita got right to the point, something she’s done since we were in the 5th grade:
“I was thinking that you can write about how your mom and Julia are getting older, at the same time, in different ways…and how, at this point in your life… you’re watching those two things happen at once.”
It’s always funny when non-writers give writing prompts. Sometimes I discount them, into the-been-done-seen-it-before category. But more often than not, some ideas work their way back into my brain, like a great old tune I can’t keep off rotation spin.
And so, it did. And so, I did.
At the moment I stand at the intersection of lack and overflow, of a mother who is shutting down her vocabulary, paired with a daughter ripping the throttle open up on hers, each coming by it from her nature. Yet when I spot people in their nineties still chatting away and cruising through Central Park, in movie lines, at Trader Joe’s, seniors with more than ten years on my mom, I slam into the unfairness of it all. But when I think of my friends that have already lost their mothers, some before my friends reached adulthood, one that lost her mom and her step mom to cancer, all before my girlfriend reached the age of 25, then my pity-party-whine-a-thon shuts down. Sometimes, to ease the sadness in my heart of my mostly silent mom, I allow the wave of words that spring from Julia the moment she opens her eyes, carry me.
“Do you know when I go to sleep away camp, that’ll be the longest time we’ve ever been apart?” Julia said as we slid stacks of clothes into her purple roller case at crack of dawn Saturday morning.
Sure, I’d thought of it. I just wasn’t sure she thought of it.
“Yeah, that’s true Jules, but I’ll be here when you get back. Plus, you are going to have a ton of fun at camp.”
For the final month leading up to this milestone Julia quizzed me on my kid camp experienced. I told her about the marshmallow roasting, the bellicose singing that took place on overnight hikes, of seeing a darken sky so jammed with stars my eyes darted around in wonder identify constellations, patterns, beauty unseen in the city of Detroit.
Julia nodded and then said. “Okay, so what did you do on the second day?”
As I gathered the last of Julia’s things she bounced some much off the walls, so hard, I had to banish her from the apartment. “Go downstairs and wait for RPs parents, wait with the doorman!”
She happily bolted. If allowed she would have run all the way to Connecticut. By the time I came downstairs hauling one last pair of swim goggles, water shoes, and an errant backpack, the sea green SUV was packed tight with luggage, kids and RP’s parents. One space left for me. I tucked in. And we took off for I-95.
Two and half hours later, I settled Julia into her bunk, tucking the sheets and blanket on to her bed with the help of the camp counselor.
Julia, was already embroiled in a game of Go Fish.
I stood in awe of knowing that through the recommendation of my friends I had made a good choice for my daughter. This would be her best summer ever. We said our good-byes. I hugged Julia tight. From the corner of my cracked eye, I saw three small heads, one in braids, one blonde, one brown curled, pulling a Sheryl Sandburg, leaning in, heavy. As my arms unfolded and released my daughter, a small hand reached in and grabbed Julia’s wrist.
“C’mon Julia we’ll show you the woods!”
And the threesome vanished.
I skipped down the steps of the bunk, took a right turn through the woods and headed down the paved path, sending a text to RPs mom along the way.
“All done, headed to the car.” I felt good leaving Julia in a place where she’d already made friends, where it was so green and lush.
As the road sloped down, I admired the light though a thick stand of trees. I heard a small voice rise up behind me, “Mommmmmyyyyyy….”
I froze. I turned. There was my spud of a girl, gaining on me.
“Mommmmmyyyyyy….,” she yelled with a mix of longing and love.
She ran up, arms and braids flying. “Mommy, why are you still here?”
I let out a snort from shock and hilarity, then said, “Jules, I’m walking as fast as I can back to the car.”
“Okay,” she said and skipped off.
As I neared the parking lot I met a couple that described pealing their kid off them to leave, I felt doubly grateful for my happy girl.
And that gratitude would extend further, 45 minutes later into our drive back to the city, on the outskirts of New Canaan, on a sleepy road, when RPs Dad’s car malfunctioned. I won’t go into the details here. I’ll want to do a deeper dive on this event later. But suffice to say that when the tow truck driver later surmised that it was a “Good thing we weren’t going 65 miles an hour when it happened because you guys would have flipped over,” his words held whole heap of weight.
That night, even after servings of medicinal wine, I dreamt about how the whole thing could’ve gone bad in so many ways. At breakfast, I dined with the ghost of that event, too.
“Not your time,” my friend Joi texted.
But what I heard in my head was Julia’s words:
“Mommy, why are you still here?”
Sure, raising Julia to adulthood is high on the list. And I need to get my daughter ready for school on a different level of work next semester. But beyond sending writing projects out into the world that I’ve hung on to, I know there’s other stuff that I need to tend to. But what?
Since that transformative experience on the Merritt Parkway I’ve made it my mission to catch up with old friends. I’ve been to Brooklyn twice in one week which is a record for me. I’ve had extraordinarily good time reconnecting, even running into an old friend I haven’t seen in three years, randomly, in a restaurant, while on a catch-up dinner. I haven’t eaten out this much in my own town, since like, never.
But I know it’s time to focus.
“Mommy, why are you still here?”
All I can think of to do is listen.
Mostly I hear silence. It reminds me of my mom. She seems attentive some days and some days not. But she’s still here, her mission complete. For more than 25 years in the Detroit Public School System her goal was to free as many Special Ed. Kids as she could through attentive, focused education, to get them back into mainstream classrooms. She filed her retirement papers three times. And twice new parents came to her classroom and begged her to wait until their kid passed through her classroom.
“We hear your goal is to get kids back into regular classrooms.”
And twice my mom pulled those papers back.
“You can’t save all those kids,” my dad told her again and again over, at times, tense dinner table discussions.
My mom’s response was always the same, “Well, John I’m going to save as many as I can.”
And she did.
My friend Jenny had a take on the stating of things: “Your mom did everything she wanted to do and saw that you and your brothers, and your kids are in a good place. Now maybe she just wants to eat what she wants and talk when she wants. She’s done so much for all of you.”
I heard Jenny all the way from Boston. And her edict will have to do because it gives me something else to think about other than hoe much I miss the sound of my mother’s voice. Now maybe I just need to listen. Then move my feet in the right direction. Whatever the heck that direction is.
Plenty of single moms have made, culture-altering achievements: J K Rollings created the character Harry Potter entertaining and delighting the world. Bette Nesmith Graham invented liquid paper saving typist tons of time and making herself wealthy enough to fund other single moms and artist. (If you haven’t read her bio check out at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/obituaries/bette-nesmith-graham-liquid-paper.html
I just hope God doesn’t tell me to move to India and open up a writing school for girls or something, at least not until Julia’s in college. Her school is just too good for us to leave just now.
While I get back into my blogging seat check out K Js work. She has a wonderful blog that you can register for at the end of this shared post. Enjoy this wonderful insight to the joy of moving the ball down the family field, everyday.
In my previously, pre-mommy life, I would have no words for the Amazon Echo. None would be needed. I’ve always favored Crayola’s over computers, even while growing up beside two Joy-stick-addicted brothers in a middle-class Detroit home. I maintained my creative bent right into attending undergrad at Parsons School of Design, thanks to the support and financing of my parents. No A.I. for me, thanks.
When motherhood arrived through the adoption of an eight-month-old Ethiopian girl, my position didn’t alter. When my twenty-something nanny nudged me toward internet-ready lullabies, I declared my Manhattan apartment a techno-free zone and clung to the human version. My daughter’s toys weren’t low tech, they were no tech. However, my brother Jeffrey pushed me past my semi-luddite tendencies regarding the TV.
“You’ll be watching more movies at home…so will Julia. You need to upgrade to a flat screen and surround sound.”
I huffed into the phone,” Alright, only because I get a good deal through work.”
Days later when the system arrived, I called him tech support back in Michigan.
“Great, let’s get it hooked up now!” Jeffrey said, his voice all amped up from tech-induced adrenalin. An hour later, I plopped in a disk, grabbed the remote and clicked on the DVD button. Sound boomed from the speakers, twin dark maws, atop the TV cabinet. Images whirled across a screen so bright, so big, it seemed the neighboring apartment across the way had a good shot at enjoying, Aliens, too. “Wow,” I mumbled.
Jeffrey chuckled. “Welcome to the new world.”
But one flat screen TV does not a revolution make. My eight-month-old blossomed into a classic American kid, one captivated by all things electronic. I banished PlayStation and Nintendo determined to guard my seven-year-old against mind-numbing entertainment.
On an evening in June as hot as August I entered the cool of a West Side apartment to the twang of techno. My daughter and her seven-year-old pal tumbled across the Serapi styled rug in the living room. Silvered light slid through the west windows. All seemed beautiful, until, on a side table, among books and bowls of snacks, I spotted the source of the music, a dark tower, about two feet high.
“You have an Echo!?” I said jabbing the air.
“Sure,” the mom said.
“Don’t your kids talk to that thing non-stop?”
“Nah, they mostly play music.”
Unconvinced, as Dee hunted down loose socks and crumb-coated bowls across the living room, I quizzed her husband.
“Andy only asks about sports scores, hasn’t figured out that he can do anything else.”
“Don’t you want him to find information on his own?” I asked with a tone that implied the fall of democracy wasn’t far behind.
He smirked. “Why not both?”
Julia and I made our good-byes then headed home. But as she skipped over a subway grate, her long, lean brown legs twisted and thrilled in the simmering heat. Her mind was still back at the Richardson’s apartment.
“Mommy, can we get an Alexa?”
“We don’t need it.”
“But mommy, I lovvvvvve music and I can’t play it.”
“I know Julia.”
In the days to come I thought of how Julia, as a baby, crooned in her crib, creating her own music, of how my own musical DNA, formed by the foundation of my dad’s Detroit record shop, had been shelved once when I became a Single-Mom-in-Chief.
The parcel arrived two days later. Inside, the always-on, Bluetooth speaker. Built Artificial Intelligence. But not enough to assist me in hooking it up. After thirty-minutes I called for backup.
“Try unplugging and replugging it Ma’am,” the Amazon tech said.
Getting Ma’am, did not help matters.
“Try reinstalling your Wi-Fi password.”
I groaned, and put the Echo in a choke hold.
“Ma’ma, let us update the software from here…don’t talk to Alexa for at least an hour,” he said.
I stared at my cell. Did he just refer to a machine using a proper noun?
“Sure, I can do that.”
Three days later Julia looked up from her morning bowl of Honeynut Cheerios and asked, “Mommy, is Alexa ever going to work?”
I’d spent my days eying the shipping carton in my closet, considering sending the Echo back to the Mothership. Tech support had been a bust. Jeffrey, the early adapter, didn’t have an Echo. Besides, I needed a smart kid, not a smart home. But as I regarded my daughter’s pleading eyes, I felt something different. Something new. Shame.
I clicked off the flat screen, re-juiced the Echo, then tapped the app on my cell. I reinstalled my Wi-Fi password and preferences, then studied the setup video. Again.
“Give Alexa a prompt,” the final super read.
I winced. “Alexa, what’s the weather?”
“It’s 72 degrees in New York City.” A female voice alto. Strong yet warm. Ish.
Julia’s spoon clanged to a halt. “It’s working!?”
I smiled and nodded.
Julia squealed and said, “Alexa, play ‘Shake it Off!’”
“Playing Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, from the album 1989.”
And with that she jumped up and launched into a frenzied dance of gratitude.
The next morning, I awoke, in bed, alone. A rarity. I don’t have an alarm clock. I have Julia. I slipped on my robe, crept down the hall, and found her twirling around the living room in the pale sunlight, to the strain of strings; The Nutcracker Suite.
“Look Mommy, I’m doing ballet!”
“And Mommy watch this…Alexa…what’s your favorite color?”
“Julia honey, it won’t…”
“…My favorite color is… infra red.”
Clearly, the Echo programmers were parents.
That evening when Julia mentioned a book she’d read at school “Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop,” I realized Parker’s music could round out the story.
“Alexa, play the best of Charlie Parker,” I bellowed from the kitchen, over the rattle of pots.
Be-bop bounced through the air. A vitally important example of intelligence, I now shared with my daughter. A teaching moment was underway along with dinner. As bedtime approached, Julia absently, slowly, gathered her shoes and dolls from the floor, I looked to Alexa for help. “Alexa, play the Barney Clean-Up Song.” Barney bumbled on. Julia picked up the pace. I marveled. Muscle memory is a beautiful thing.
The writer Arthur Clarke declared that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Julia would agree. Alexa is lending a hand in providing resources for daughter’s creative passions. That’s help I welcome. And since the world has made tuning into the news a cautionary pursuit, I value Alexa in new ways. Once the goal was to protect Julia from senseless video gaming. Now I need to shield her from a world where even nature has turned conflicted and violent. Alexa is magic. Just not magic I thought I’d need. Even depend on. Perhaps, that was Clarke’s point all along.