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
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.
The marathon that is motherhood has many runners in the relay, but few water stations and shade. So, I when received a new newsletter from the writer KJ Dell’Annonia about the value of ignoring some of your kids rants and raves, I had to look beyond the unwashed pot of mac and cheese, loose socks and rings of crushed Cheetos in the carpet, and click on this value advice.
Julia’s verbal skills are off the charts. So, therefore, so is her ability to launch an epic and relentless Whine-a-Thon: “The corn on the cob is too hot…. The subway car is too cold…Why can’t I have marshmallows for breakfast.”
And her biggie:
“Mommy, why can’t I have a brother, or a sister, or dog or a dad,” she said breaking it down for me as we walked to the subway station, headed to her pre-school. “Everyone in my class has at least three living things in their house. And I’m the only one…”
“Julia, that’s not true.”
“It is true mommy!”
I countered with the two other two single parent adopted kids in her class: one mom, one kid, one house.
“Theo has a dog, and Tamir just got two cats,”
I came back with the one single, divorced Mom in Class 715.
“Okay, Olivia lives with her Mom…”
“…And her Abuela.”
Not only did she use the Spanish word for grandmother for her Latina pal, Julia locked her argument with a closer, “I would have asked for a cat but I know you’re allergic.”
Two days later I gave in a got her three fish, Pinkie Pie, Blueberry and Cory, adopted from our local Petco. Three Beta fish. Two years later, only Pinkie-pie is still standing, or, umm swimming.
“You put three Meta fish in one tank,” my co-worker bellowed.
“No one at Petco told me you couldn’t! They just took my American Express Card.”
Today, it’s a sense of pride that the nicest, least-aggressive fish is the lone survivor.
Thanks to Pinkie Pie and KJ’s words, now I’m taking that same tack. I’m just trying to stay ahead of the whinny barbs, ignore more and talk less, and wait for the tide to turn. I penned a note of KJ to thank her for the assist.
“It’s not easy,” she wrote back.
Boy, was she right.
Then I remembered something I heard Whoopi Goldberg say on The View some years ago. That her kid was such a crier she used ear plugs to tamp it down.
“But what if she needed you?” another host asked.
“I could hear her enough,” Whoopi said.
Since we live in New York City, with a bottomless supply of audio assaults, screaming sirens, dog wars, and buildings that multiply conversations, so clearly I can hear every word from my bed, eight floors above, I’ve used Mack’s Soft Ear Plugs for years. Soft, pliable, and effective, they can be had at Amazon for $2.25 for six pairs.
Now I employed my sleep support as Mommy sanity support.
So, on the third day when the whining and whirled, I left Julia on her metaphorical soap box in the living room, headed down the hall into my bedroom, grabbed my ear plugs from my night stand and jammed them into my ears. Then I smoothed my hair down to conceal them. Then I grabbed her gear for day camp: tennis racket, lunch box, water bottle (half ice, half water) then I palmed my door keys and shouldered my purse and work tote.
“Okay, let’s go.”
“I don’t want to go to tennis, it’s too hot.”
“The bench is hot, and the other kids have a towel to sit on, I don’t have a towel. I don’t want to take one of our black towels because nobody has a black towel. They all have towels with Sponge Bob and Mulan and Trolls on them…”
“And Coach Simone makes us play too long.”
“Julia did you just complain about playing a game too long, I’ve seen you hang at the playground for hours…”
“But Mommy, that’s different.”
Back to radio silence.
These wonderful ears plugs got me to wonderful Harlem Junior Tennis Program, 30 minutes away by subway and bus, with a much larger portion of my sanity intact for a morning drop off. As we entered the park, Julia bolted away to join her pals warming up with rackets and bright, techno yellow fuzzy balls. I pried the plugs from my ears and popped them into my purse.
“Good Morning,” Coach Simone said, her beautiful brown glowing skin luminous in the sunlight, framed by her hot pink tennis dress. A handful of brown, pink and tan kids whacking balls into nets, some over the wide white band. The orderly pale lines of the court. The rich green field. Why hadn’t I noticed this in three days.
“Yes, it is a good morning,” I said, and smiled, wished and well, and walked away with my secret.
To receive KJ Dell’Annonia weekly email on “raising a family, having a life and loving (almost) every minute of it,” in your inbox, subscribe now, http://kjdellantonia.us12.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=101be682cae125f8735451df8&id=80abd93691
Time is a definable point, which we note from our cell phones, computer screens, wrist watches, and for some of us, through our children. Over the past year I’ve been engrossed with the outside world through the march of time, with Julia and I leaving our old Pre K school and entering the next one, a K-12th grade institution for the long haul, with monitoring the election, the debates, and then mourning the aftermath.
The last post I wrote back in last Spring, the one I never posted here, regarded Julia’s view of transgendered folks along and the anti-transgendered laws in North Carolina, a funny story that happened to us having brunch. When it came together back in March or April of 2016, the essay seemed funny and wise. In the next moment, within a few days, as the political rhetoric rose, and the insults piled up, my post seemed quaint considering what was at stake in the world. Now with the transfer of power, America has bigger issues to weather than what facilities people are permitted to publicly pee in.
So I’ve spent months away from the interior world of my blog. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed sharing some of the crazy things that Julia has seeded into the world. I regretted not writing about my new mommy gaffs at our new school. But the competition was so stiff, my blog fell off.
But it does not mean I haven’t been hard at work on other projects. I’ve had two essays accepted into notable literary journals, as well as a piece published in an anthology that centers on writers views of psychotherapy: https://www.amazon.com/How-Does-That-Make-Feel/dp/1580056245
Still my blog stayed dark.
It’s happened before. During the summer months when I spend more time shuttling Julia from camp to camp, I stop. Then reawakened in September when the school bells start up. But this September new worries had nudged in, set down big stakes.
Words seemed to matter so much more. But they weren’t words I’d crafted. But certainly they mattered. And the truth, well like my blog, that’s taken a hit, too.
I thought about that after the election, as we headed to the holidays, especially while watching the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. I love the film so much I own a copy of the DVD. But I didn’t have a chance to see it at home, way too much to do, in way to short a timeline. So when a work friend announced they’d booked a large conference room to gather a group for a Friday potluck lunch to watch this gem, I was honored to join them.
I know the film so well, I could act it out with hand puppets. But this year as I watched George Bailey’s life unfold for him with a new view. And it I received one too.
Deep down, after the election, I feared that I might have made a huge mistake. I brought my daughter to from Africa to America. To a new land. Now I feared for what this country could become, for how it would treat a brown skin girl, especially one that could be considered an immigrant. My greatest prayer has always been to live long enough to raise my daughter into womanhood. But what kind of America would comprise her world? One that disenfranchised her American dream?
But that afternoon, I sat in the cave of the conference room, silvery gray images flashing on the screen, along side 20 or 25 or so other people gathered around the long wooden conference room table, I saw my life, anew. George Bailey had just fished Clarence the Angel out of the icy water, saving himself. But he just didn’t know it yet. And as Clarence peeled back the layers of George’s life, showing him the value that could not be seen under the weight of his responsibilities or the pressures of outside forces working against George, he realized, on the bridge, in his tears, that no matter what he faced, it is a wonderful life. And in that momment I found that I, too, remembered the same.
I turned my face towards the white wall, hiding my tears from my co-workers, supressing sobs. I realized that no matter who sits in the White House, Julia and I have a wonderful life. A good life. One made of a family of two, with Lego’s and a My Little Pony and Cheerios, seeding the living room carpet, a bathroom sink that greets my some of my mornings with a line up of her freshly shampooed dolls, the shocking joy of listening to her read a sign or a book, featuring words I wasn’t aware that she knew; Julia’s extraordinary sense of humor. Yes. Right in the here and now, It is a Wonderful Life.
Twenty or so years ago, after the sudden death of the man I loved from pneumonia at the age of 26, when I returned to work after dark mourning, someone pressed the above Op-Ed piece from The New York Times into my hands.
The original, writen to mark the New Year, has fallen apart, But this aged photocopy holds a place of honor in my office. On Friday morning I realized the clipping cast a new relevance. We have 342 days left to 2017. All of them blank pages. And the essay so wonderfully points out, “there’s no way to know what will appear on them eventually. No way at all.”
“May you live in interesting times,” the English translation of a purported Chinese quote goes. As it’s often been noted, one can never tell if it’s a blessing or a curse. Let’s see together.
Time flies. And then there are days that seem jet propelled. And in months that I haven’t written I’ve: visited ten independent New York City schools, attended 30 related events‑open houses, parent interviews, child interviews…opps I mean play dates, diversity nights, curriculum nights—mixed in with Christmas shopping, then the holidays with friends and family, and fought to assembled a two thousand piece, three-foot-tall My Pretty Pony Castle that Santa brought, and won.
( Okay, I was Santa, and it wasn’t that bad, in fact it’s pretty cute.)
Cooking Christmas dinner for my family, hosting the Holmes Family Annual Jenga Tournament on New Years Eve, MLK Day, Presidents’ Day, and tax filing. So the time and attention that frequent went to my blog, went to, say, my life.
Then came 100 day at Julia’s school.
A day I’ll never forget. Not because I’m a closet arithmomaniac, but for the creation Julia and I made for the event.
“Remember Mommy we have to make our 100 project,” Julia reminded me at breakfast, in celebration of 100 days of school.
“I do. I’ll have Natasha pick up the materials to make our project.” Then I grabbed my purse, plucked out my wallet and pealed out twenty bucks then slid the bill on to the dinning room table‑‑for the purchase of a Mylar balloon and a bag of 100 count cotton balls.
We would make the sky.
The only hard part of the day I anticipated was ditching my annual co-op board meeting so I’d have the mental bandwidth to work with Julia. The meeting is held in the building’s lobby. And there’s one way into the building, through said lobby. So one has to do the walk of shame past the board members and the other owners, just to get home, to your child, to your second job.
The hardest part of being a single parent is my inability to divide myself. And while I wanted to attend the annual meeting which covers a deep dive into the building’s finances: how many gallons of heating oil the boiler burned this winter, healthcare costs of the doormen, future projects and more all that data would have to wait for me to receive the published report.
I had a date with my daughter.
I came in the house ready to dive in. As Natasha gathered her coat and purse, she said, “I purchased quick dry glue to make it easier,” then she headed to the front door.
I couldn’t image why she’d bought glue since we had glue in the house. About twenty cotton balls in, I understood. Cotton is surprisingly unwieldy. After an hour of teamwork, and the support of a glass of Cabernet for mommy, the blue sky with clouds was really taking shape. Another half an hour, Team Holmes had completed the job. By then Julia’s bedtime had arrived. Pajamas on, teeth brushed, when I went to tuck her in, I found her room empty.
“Where are you?” I called out.
I heard her patter down the hallway and pop into her room, all smiles. “I was saying good night to the sky.”
The next morning Julia shook me from sleep with a latest balloon report, “I checked on the balloon sky,” she said. “It’s dry!”
Quick dry glue indeed.
We had breakfast and dressed, then I searched for a large enough plastic bag to transport our work of art to school.
“No! I want to carry it,” Julia said, hugging the cloud to her tiny chest.
“It would be easier to carry in a bag.”
“No, Mommy, pleaseeeeee.”
Minutes later Julia was clutching the balloon like a baby seal walking out of the elevator into the lobby.
“Oooohhh, I like your balloon,” Carlos the doorman crooned.
“Mommy and me made the sky!” Julia announced.
Then we walked out of the building and into the bitter cold March morning. Our twelve minute walk to the subway station on Broadway wasn’t looking so fun.
“Let’s take a cab,” I said.
Seven minutes later we prepared to exit the cab in front of the school. The building is very close to the Hudson River so it’s always quite windy, even on mild days, a fact that I forgot although the taxi was being pushed and shoved by an invisible gale.
I passed the driver a twenty then instructed Julia to “get out and go to the curb,” while I waited for my change. And few seconds later I heard the sound of screams blasting against the taxi’s windows. Julia. I leapt from the cab and found her hopping up and down on the cement in a frenzy. No blood in sight. But silvery tears streaked her brown face, as she pointed down the block, at the sight, the Sky Balloon, tumbling and falling down west 120th street in the gale.
I’ve seen some shocking things of late: The rise of Donald Trump in his own global reality TV show, Pluto’s demotions from a planet into a plutoid, and Bruce transforming into Caitlyn the Vanity Fair Magazine pin-up girl, but seeing my child’s 100 day project manhandled by the wind, hemorrhaging cotton balls across the sidewalk, my daughter sobbing, crushed me beyond belief.
“Grab it!” I yelled.
Julia and I took off after the blue balloon tumbling across the grey cement. For a good fifteen feet I scrambled to collect the white wounds as the battering winds shoved The Sky towards Claremont Avenue, towards the destruction that passing car tires would levy. Fear clutched my throat. I quickened my pace. Julia would not recover from seeing the death of her Sky. I had to stop it. I sprinted harder. But The Sky was too fast for me.
I spotted a man standing at the corner waiting for the walk signal, about twenty feet ahead. “Hey, HEY!” I yelled. “Grab that balloooooonn!!!!”
The man snagged the sky like a soccer ball, scooping it into his arms. I ran up to him and had to fight the urge to thrown my arms about him.
“Thanks so much!”
The man nodded, smiled then moved away. I sensed he was a parent, he knew the baby bomb was about to go off.
“It’s ruined!” Julia moaned, her face reddened and wet. “I’m the only one who won’t have a project!”
“No! I brought the glue! I can put them back on!”
“But it won’t be 100 cotton balls,” she sobbed.
I reached into the pocket of my jacket, and pulled out a wad of white.
“No, I got them all,” I lied, eyeing a few victims trapped in the near by storm drain.
Ten minutes later, after I dried Julia’s face and dropped her at the gym with her class, I was hard at work reapplying lost bits of cloud, using the top of her clubby as a work station. Passing parents eyed me curiously. I hardly noticed, my mind focused on the thoughts running like bulls through my mind. One in particular stood out, the most important balloon lesson of all: There will always be something, a lost balloon, a lost job, seemingly lost chances. There will always be something that threatens to upset the day, the child, the mom. Such is the life of a parent, especially a single parent. All I can do is make sure I have glue, and good prayers.
Twenty minutes later, I slid into The Big Sing, a monthly event the school holds, just in time to applaud the last two songs the children sang with my sticky, shiny, gluey hands. When the Head of School announced it was time for the grown ups to leave, and the children started singing and the “Goodbye Grown-Ups!” song, I made my way through the throng of people over to where Julia’s class sat.
“Have a great day, your project is on top of your cubby.”
“Why I didn’t see you here before?” Julia asked.
(Well her last name is Holmes, but still I found the question surprising.)
“I was upstairs fixing The Sky for you.”
“The whole time?”
“Yes, the whole time…Can’t be in two places at once, Jules.”
She thought about it for a moment.
“Well I guess putting the sky back together is more important than The Big Sing.”
I wanted to tell her that she would use that observation to put many things back together during her life, that she would use her spiritual glue to repair broken dreams and smashed goals. That she would one day again watch another beloved tumble way from her, trampling heart, and would have to decide whether to chase it down. Or let set it free. That wild winds would blow her good away, along with her faith in right and proper outcomes. And that she would have to make a choice every single time. Let it go. Or get out her bottle of glue and remake the sky.