Thursday, December 30, 2010

Do You Remember?

D. and I went out for our weekly Silver Diner dinner with my father tonight, Thursday, because we'll be away in Provincetown this weekend. Dad was very quiet, but I didn't have any reason to think he was unhappy. In the car on the way there, I asked him if he had any New Year's resolutions, and he said he couldn't think of any. Then later at dinner, D. asked him again, and Dad said, not with irritation but with a small, shy chuckle, "You asked me that before—I can't think of any." (I can't either!) It's sometimes surprising what he remembers from moment to moment.

After we said good night to him, we popped in to say hi to Mom in the memory-care wing. We weren't sure she'd be up, as it was 8:30, but we found her poking around the hall in her nightie and slippers. We took her back to her room and turned on a CD to get her relaxed. It took only a few minutes to coax her into bed as the music played. We kissed her good night; D. said "I love you" and told her we'd see her in the morning—a lie
but a benign one. I had told her I'd see her "in the daylight," unnecessarily staying on the factual side of the fence. We will see her in the daylight, just not tomorrow's.

Here's a picture of me and my father tonight in our tissue-paper crowns after opening some British "Christmas crackers" D. had brought.

And here's what we left playing when we said good night to Mom:

Dearie, do you remember when we
Waltzed to the Sousa band?
My, wasn't the music grand?
Chowder parties down by the seashore
Every Fourth of July . . .

Dearie, life was cheery
In the good old days gone by
Do you remember?
If you remember,
Then Dearie, you're much older than I.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Dear Friends

I had to edit my holiday letter down at the last minute when I realized that the type, reduced to fit on one page, was too hard to read and there really was just too much of it for anyone to put on a mantelpiece with the other cards. But maybe not too long for this mantelpiece. Here is the unedited version (and yet also slightly expurgated for the purpose of my semi-anonymous blog), which gives a fuller picture of my experience of 2010 than the version my friends and family received in the mail. Happy New Year to anyone reading this.


This is the first holiday letter I’ve ever written, but all the kids seem to be doing it now and since I continue to resist Facebook, it’s the least I can do to update you in a more substantive way than my brief notes of years past. 
Sometimes it seems it seems my whole life is dictated by the cyclical nature of my job. For about a week and a half every month, work is very intense. My job is almost completely portable, and I often work in the evening or on weekends during those periods. When people express concern about getting a late-night e-mail from me, I say that editing with a fire in the fireplace, a cup of tea, and my dog at my side beats working in a spooky, abandoned office at 11 p.m. I think of my job as solving problems, small and not so small, which is very satisfying.

I continue to teach, though I’ve been on a break since June and will return in March. I’ve come to believe my true calling is more as a teacher than as a writer. I did, however, complete an essay in November and have already had it rejected. So—two accomplishments checked off my list (ha ha).

In the spring, I had grand jury duty, which took me out of the office three days a week for two months. Even I’m a little amazed I managed to get my job done. It was an educational experience despite the fact that 75 percent of it was repetitious and tedious. Also despite the fact that most of the other 22 jurors were cliquish and sophomoric. We heard nearly 200 cases, almost all drug-related, many presented in less than 15 minutes. I was most surprised to learn that prosecutors in DC Superior Court are, by and large, just as young and attractive as they are on Law & Order.

During this time, my mother—who has had dementia for 13 years and been in assisted living since 2008—fell and broke a bone while wandering at 6 in the morning. After rehab, she moved into “memory care,” which has turned out to be a mostly positive step for her and she’s doing well relative to the unrelenting nature of her condition. Dad lives in the building’s general population and can see her whenever he wants, as can I and my siblings. My partner D. and I take him to the Silver Diner every weekend. I’ve slowly become better at not measuring the success of such an outing by Dad’s talkativeness or silence or by any particular words of appreciation but by the pleasure with which he devours his All American Burger Basket and the curiosity in his eyes as he surveys the people, lights, and activity around him. 
Both of my parents have passed age 90, and my father’s own dementia, which began more recently, has started to progress more noticeably. It occurs to me that my brother and two sisters and I are now the caretakers of our parents’ memories. With most of Mom and Dad’s pasts lost to them or jumbled, we likely know all we will ever know of them—their childhoods, their travels, our own births. These stories we’ve memorized or simply absorbed over the years are entrusted to us for safekeeping as surely as the snapshots of fuzzy-headed toddlers on beaches, the letters and diaries, the pictures of a newly married couple slicing a cake nearly 60 years ago. 
The four of us have been getting the family house ready to sell sometime in the near future—sorting through possessions, holding a yard sale, making repairs. One thing I know for sure: I’m lucky to have siblings I get along with, and I can’t imagine how such tasks would be bearable otherwise. 
My partner D.’s older sister passed away in November, and if I didn’t already appreciate the gift of having siblings I love and respect, D.’s relationship with her would be a lesson. He was her caregiver for the last 11 years since he moved her up to Washington from Florida, just as he had been for a period in the 1980s when he moved her to be near him in New York. One of the first things he ever told me when we met three years ago was that she protected him when they were kids, and he owed her the same when she became sick. That’s when I knew he was a generous and worthwhile man.

We’ve had a lot of fun this year, from seeing the extraordinarily moving and imaginative play War Horse in London (coming to Broadway in the spring) to trips to three of our other favorite places—Provincetown (three times, with another coming up at New Year's), Vermont, and New York City—to trolling flea markets and antiques shops whenever and wherever we can. His job as a dance professor and director of the arts scholarship program keep him very busy, and he’s a much-loved mentor to many young people present and past.

D. and I each have homes we love—his house in the suburbs (less than five minutes from where I grew up) with its lovingly tended gardens, my House at Pooh Corner condo in the city. I recently sent Doug a passage from a New York Times article about this year’s National Book Award winner in fiction, Jaimy Gordon: “Ms. Gordon, 66, has taught writing for almost 30 years at Western Michigan University and lives by herself in a two-story house next to a lake here. Her husband, Peter Blickle, 17 years her junior, teaches German at the university and lives by another lake, about a 20-minute walk away. His wife goes over there most evenings with her dog and they have a glass of schnapps.”
The subject line of my e-mail was “See, we’re not so strange.” D. replied: “I wish we had the lake and the 20 minute walk instead of a 20 minute drive! Let’s do the schnapps.” The truth is we’re not schnapps drinkers, but we share a pot of tea every time we get together.

This month marks the end of my first year of being vegan—the most fun and profound development of the year, full of discoveries, creativity, and good food. Like many, I never thought I’d be able to be vegan, even as it became harder to argue against it. Then I read the nonfiction book Eating Animals by the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. The fact that Foer may not even be vegan himself (he never says so, though he is vegetarian) speaks to the power of his writing in that it had the effect of changing my life. I sensed before reading it that it was what I needed to make the leap. I wanted the push. 
In some ways, my life feels more expansive than ever, in others more stripped down. Without denying the stresses and uncertainties of life, both impressions feel welcome. I wish you happy endings and beginnings of your own.

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