Sunday, October 31, 2010

Our winged friend

It seems we have a new friend.

He found us last weekend. He flew down and perched upon our window sill-- the ornate French- style window sill, it's actually more like a guard bar to protect children from falling out-- and tilted his head and pecked the window a few times.

He seemed impatient. As if we should have been expecting him. 

"Do you think he heard the music," I said.  I had just downloaded, much to Ian's chagrin, the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof. We were cranking it, the girls had scarves on their heads, singing along to Matchmaker.

"Maybe!" Esther said, her eyes lighting up at the possibilities of such a thought.

"It sure looks like he's listening," I said. "And it looks like he's watching us."

We all stood there, watching him through the wavy glass, frozen, afraid to make any abrupt movements for fear of chasing him, this unexpected, but very welcome, visitor away.

"I think he's hungry," Esther said.

She ran to the kitchen and came back with a handful of raw oatmeal. I passed her in the hall, searching for my camera.

Ian slowly opened the window and the bird didn't move. He was definitely used to being around people.

"Hello, Crow!" I said.

"Mom, he's French," Esther said.

"Bonjour, Monsieur Corbeau."

We spent the next twenty minutes in silence, occasionally chirping or making clicking sounds with our tongues. I'm  not sure what we thought that was going to do, but none of us speaks any bird around here. We mostly just breathed, shallowly, and took in the sight of this wild, jet -black bird almost in our house.

His feathers were ruffled. He looked a bit as if he had recently taken a bath in some oily water. His eyes are pale, wolf blue. I don't think I realized, until now,  that a bird's eyes could be blue. Especially a crow's.

When he came back the next day, this time to find Esther and Ian out in the back garden, I couldn't help but feel he was looking for us. Or at least for Esther, whose hand he ended up eating out of.  I also couldn't help fantasizing, somewhat morbidly, that he had recently lost a human friend and was looking for a new one.

My mind has been obsessively returning to the recent news that the mean, cracking gunshot, I heard ripping through the dull air the other morning as I stood in the kitchen had been the sound of an old man taking his own life.

Could this crow have been his friend? Absurd, maybe. But somehow it is a fantasy I need to help me process this sad news.

Then again, considering the music that was playing when he arrived, could he be a prince in disguise? Those eyes make me think of the beast in beauty and the beast, such a light contrast to his inky blackness are they.

Since last weekend he has been back almost every day. Sometimes he stays up on the roof, or in the treetop above our house, twitching and cawing and making this sound that sounds almost like a baby crying.

Esther says he's being cheeky, just trying to get attention. She calls him Blackwing. It's a good name.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Well, how did we get here?

It's day one of the October school vacation (Toussaints) and, already, I'm on the verge. I knew it was going to be a long day when Isla asked me for a chocolate cookie immediately after breakfast.

Then there was that little regrettable instant when I tried to help her into her tights-- she was trying to go outside bare-legged, it's frigid. The kid still hasn't learned that tights go on much faster, and with help from a friendlier, more patient mommy, when you "POINT (pieds longs), rather than flex, your toes!"

By lunch time, when the girls realized I wasn't in a playful, playdough, cookie- baking mood--  I'm just not-- they decided to do a bit of playdough playing on their own, praise the lord, and commenced to arguing in French about who was the most beautiful as they sculpted. "Non. C'est moi qui la plus belle." "Non, C'est moi."
"Non. Tue est le plus moche," Isla said, which Esther tells me, means ugly.

It stopped when I pointed out that Isla had made a beautiful penis cake. It was a lovely blue cake with a baby phallus on top. It's not the first time she has made a penis cake. She might have been trying to make a birthday candle. I'm not sure. 

All of this is an overlong segue into what on earth we are doing in France in the first place. Really, what are we doing here?

Why I ever thought it was a good idea to pick up and move to France, temporarily, I’ll never know.

When the opportunity for Ian to renovate his sister's house in Burgundy surfaced out of thin air, it seemed like the escape we both had been waiting for. Ian and I have always had itchy feet. We've always lived with our mental bags packed and kept near the front door, just in case.

Here was our chance, as parents now, for an adventure. Something cool, bold, intriguing, hip, swaggerific. Something to talk about other than how many times our kid pooped or what was for dinner.  Here was a fresh new coat of paint to whitewash our predictably beige lives with. 

Our kids would learn French--they have. I would learn French-- I’m trying, but, if I”m honest, I have as well. I can pick up the paper, or a children’s book, TinTin, read a recipe, or turn on the radio and actually understand the words, follow the thread, even when it’s a poetic one, I love that.

I can make a phone call, make and cancel appointments, and make small talk about the weather with the postmistress. The other day, in what turned out to be a very expensive French lesson, I found myself wandering into a clothing boutique and trying on several pairs of overpriced pants and an amazing soft, green cardigan, chatting, all the while with the no-longer threatening saleslady. There was a time, must half a year ago, when I would have avoided that whole scene for fear of having to speak too much French. I'm not sure if this is good or bad.

Most importantly, I know how to pronounce the words properly, for the most part, though I’m still working on the pesky word for number one. "Un" is my least favorite word in the entire French language. One is the ugliest number and I avoid it like the plague. Like many an English speaker, I will even order two croissants rather than one to avoid sounding stupid.

“Unh, unh, unh”, sounds like a caveman having sex.

But, if I am in a good mood, French is a truly beautiful language no matter how resistant I’ve been to embrace it. I’ve made major progress. Progress.

But, I tell you, when my girl brings home her schoolwork and asks for help learning the historical timeline of the formation of the European Union, and the fundamentals of a feudalistic society, in French, I start to quake a bit. Math is bad enough in any language, but at least the numbers are the same.

And the temporary transience of our lives: our things, much of them are still in bags and boxes, with limited closet space and the constant sense that we might up and move again at any minute, drives me slowly nutty. One must stay forever in the now. I have nothing to cling to. No past here, no familiar landmarks or pastimes, just the here and now. I am like a practicing Bhuddist. Or is it something else?

And if I'm honest, if I'm really present, I have to admit to a constant, pervasive feeling of homesickness. An absent sense of place. A missing limb. It's not the "I want my mommy" kind of homesickness, but just an underlying thread of loneliness, displacement. It lingers on my tongue, and in my nose, under my skin, in my bones, and just underneath my eyelids, clouding everything I see.

It's stunningly beautiful here. But it isn't mine. None of it is mine. Why that matters, I'll never know. But it does. It matters, deeply. (Some day I'll write about my attachment, the true origin of my umbilical cord, to Vermont.)

We had hoped to live in the farmhouse as Ian renovated it. Now, one year and a half, or more, later, we have little hope of getting in there before Christmas, our second since we’ve moved to France.

I'm dying to get in there. If only for the bragging rights. "Ah yes, we live in a French farm house in Burgundy." Can you hear the snobbish, clenched jaw in my tone? I won't mention, however, that the farmhouse does not belong to us.

But I have to say, a year and a half in, my entire perspective of what is happening here, what we are gleaning, and possibly losing, our sanity?, from this experience, has changed several hundred times.

I don't regret our being here. And there are times I am genuinely smug about what we are giving our children in the form of exposure to foreign language and culture. There are others when I wonder,.what for?

Will we not go back to Vermont, eventually, and will they not promptly forget this lovely, aside from that one word, new language they have learned? Will they not forget everything?

Only time will tell.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hot burn the baby

Dragging Isla's burn story out of the archives for enlightenment's sake. 
This is not the same version I wrote for BabyCenter. The accident happened four years ago this month. Warning: high word count and high drama.

On a not-so-ordinary Autumn afternoon, my baby girl, not yet walking but intent on discovering life above floor level, pulled a scalding-hot mug of herbal tea onto herself while my back was turned.

Looking back to that day, I should have seen disaster coming. It hovered above our home like a large, ungainly bird.

It was lunch time. With Esther, then four, watching a video, I plopped Isla, 11-months, into her high chair, and started putting dishes in the dishwasher. Isla stood up, leaned forward against the tray of her high chair, which wasn’t latched correctly, and dove like a skydiver, tray and all, to the wooden floor below. First came the colossal clatter, then came the bloated silence every mother recognizes, then came the wailing.

Esther, the ever-vigilant big sister, reached her first. “Isla, No, Isla,” she screamed, pulling her little sister into her lap. Isla was unharmed, just frightened. I knelt down and held them both until they calmed down. While down there on the floor, I couldn’t help noticing how dirt and dog hair clung to the numerous spots where something sticky had been spilled who knows how long ago. 

Once calm was restored, I resumed my frantic flight patterns around the kitchen. I gave Esther a tuna sandwich and Isla, back in her high chair, ate yogurt. While reaching for a tea towel in the bottom of our corner cupboard, I yanked open the sticky wooden door directly into my right eye.

“Jesus!” I shrieked, tears welling up in my eyes.

I shrank to the floor, frustration, pain and anger pouring out of my throat in pathetic sobs. Once again, Esther came running. She squatted down and put her arms around my neck.

“I’m okay Honey,” I lied. “I just need some ice.” There is something simultaneously heartwarming and embarrassing about being consoled by your own child.

Esther went back to her video, followed by Isla, and I stood at the sink applying ice to my bruised eye-brow bone. As I looked out the window,  I pushed the thought of bad things happening in threes to the back of my mind and switched on the electric kettle. Once the water had boiled, I poured myself a mega-mug of peppermint tea.

“You’re a spaz," I remember thinking, "Why can’t you just slow down, relax, and be with your children?”

Normally a black- tea -with- milk drinker, who has a tendency to forget things, my tea is almost invariably luke warm. Not that day. While I had been waiting for the water to boil, Esther called in from the living room for a glass of orange juice. I poured it and left it on the counter.

I carried my tea into the living room, placed it on the edge of the coffee table and sat down, cross legged, on the floor right next to it. I have no recollection of where Isla was at that moment. Most likely she was standing at the edge of the couch trying to get her big sister’s attention away from the TV screen. But she could have been right there next to the coffee table. I’ll never know.

Just as my rear end hit the carpet, Esther’s voice called out,

“Where’s my orange juice?”

Ever dutiful, to the point of being robotic, I switched gears, stood up and walked back into the kitchen to get the forgotten glass of juice.

In an instant, the time it took for me take 20 steps back into the kitchen, our home became the set for a medical drama.

The moment Isla’s cries reached my ears, I realized what I had done. Time slowed. I searched my mind for a rewind button and I bargained with an invisible power for a do-over. I pushed my way through a thick fog of disbelief to where my baby girl sat, screaming, in a puddle of hot liquid.

I picked her up, carried her to the kitchen sink and struggled to splash cold water on her wounds. I set her down on the floor and gingerly peeled her one-piece pajamas off her.

Melting skin rolled down her torso in thin sheets.

Afraid to touch her, I paced the floor like Jemima Puddle Duck, chanting, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,”  while Esther, strangely calm now, stood by and quietly watched her mother and baby sister come undone.

Calling 911 wasn’t my first instinct. Calling 911 meant relying on other people. Calling 911 meant telling the world that I had put my baby in danger and lost control. I called 911, only after getting a busy signal, three times running, from the pediatrician’s office.

Within minutes of making that call, a local woman from First Response stepped into my kitchen. (I am in awe of these people.)

Another female first responder arrived moments later and asked where Esther was. I never noticed her leaving the house. They found her in the garden, picking cherry tomatoes as bright red and smooth as Isla’s new layer of raw skin, in the cool October afternoon. When they brought her back inside, she tried to give the tomatoes to Isla.
Leaving our sleepy village in an ambulance,  I watched the blur of green and orange leaves out the back window and assessed my crime, again and again.  Each time the verdict, “guilty,”  was delivered, I cried.

The emergency technician and the first responder, both mothers, read my mind.

“It’s not your fault, Mom,” they said. “Focus on your baby. She needs you.”

Isla’s pain was immeasurable. Her cries quieted each time the ambulance driver sounded the siren. In the midst of suffering, her curiosity remained. The women in the ambulance with me shared stories of their own domestic crimes as parents:  swallowed bottles of Advil, hot irons, broken glass.

In the ER, the nurses scrambled to get an I.V. line into Isla’s tiny veins and administer Morphine while I stood back in the corner, useless and guilty. The sight of me, the sound of my voice, agitated her. I imagined everyone in the room was wondering what kind of mother could do this to her child.

When the morphine finally hit her bloodstream, her crying stopped and her blue eyes took on the glazed softness of chemical bliss. She held tight to one of the E.R. nurse’s fingers and looked calmly into her face.  The nurse, who later told me she was pregnant, had tears in her eyes.

 When the Medevac helicopter came to take her to a burn center, one of the onboard doctors approached me:

“I’m a mother,” she said. “I want you to know that this exact thing happened to my son, except it was coffee. These things happen. ” Then she flew away with my baby, leaving me on the ground.

I had originally thought I was going. They told me I couldn't fly with them because of weight limits. 

I watched and wept as that big strange bird lifted off into the darkening sky. The sound of whirring propeller blades bouncing off the surrounding mountains was the exact same sound an unborn baby’s tiny beating heart makes when heard through a Doppler instrument.

While waiting for my husband, Ian, in the E.R. family room, an elderly hospital ambassador came in to check on me. She told me her son had set himself on fire with a road flare while his little sister looked on. He was 11 at the time. She had been in the house, oblivious to what he and his little sister were doing.

Just three hours from the time I poured that boiling water into the mug, four different women, all total strangers, had shared their maternal shortcomings with me. Their words, their confidence, the fact that they had survived these nightmares and still carried on with their heads held high, gave me a twinge of hope.

On the way to Boston life felt fragile. I was sure we were going to sail off the road into the dark river that snaked alongside us. Part of me wanted to. Ian drove too fast and I imagined he was angry and disappointed with me. I still don’t know if he might have been.

The accident played over and over in my head. I worried about Esther, who had stayed behind with my sister. I remembered, to my horror that at one point, upon seeing Isla’s melting skin, I said, “she’s going to die, she’s going to die.” I told Ian this and saw his mouth turn down.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I was scared,” I cried over and over again. Ian held my hand, firmly. in his. It started to rain.

My breasts ached by the time we reached the hospital. We found Isla meticulously wrapped in white bandages, sleeping peacefully in a stainless steel crib.  The original 101 Dalmations played quietly on the television. I hate that movie. Everyone calls each other idiots.

Isla woke up and whimpered. I struggled with the tangle of wires and I.V. lines and held her, sheepishly, to my breast. She nursed weakly, dozing off every few minutes. We stayed like that, in a rocking chair, for most of the night while the lights of downtown Boston shone through the rain-splattered window.

I was wearing sweat pants and an old, balding pair of Birkenstock clogs that don’t normally leave the house. Tomato seeds were stuck to the shoulder of my shirt.

The next 20 days were a blur of changing prognoses and excrutiating dressing changes. At first the doctors seemed to think Isla’s wounds were not too deep to heal on their own. As time passed, it became clear that she would need skin-graft surgery. Initially, I cried during each dressing change. Gradually I became the poster girl for stoicism, more coach than mother. 

When Isla’s wounds hadn’t healed almost two weeks later, she had skin-graft surgery. I held her relaxed, little body in my arms in pre-OP as the oral morphine kicked in. In the O.R., I held her foot and watched the anesthesiologist put the mask over her sweet face.  “Kiss her goodbye. We’ll take good care of her,” the anesthesiologist said as the nurses shooed me out the door. In the hallway, I held my big sister as three weeks worth of tears flowed from my eyes.

Today, Isla, my baby, wears my flaws like a badge on her chest. I am confronted with them every day, when I help her out of her clothes and see her scar, which forms a perfect map of Africa. I look at the proud new layer of flesh-colored skin and scar tissue and feel the bumpy skin on her thigh, the site where the skin for her graft was taken from, and I see an fragile, imperfect world. I also see an amazing display of modern technology. There was a time, before Shriners hospitals and other burn centers were founded, when a child might not have survived this severe a burn. 

And I know this accident, and this scar, won't define her. She's far too strong for that. But it will always be with her. Always. And it stays with me too. I'm trying to be as strong as my girl. Every day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What happens when we turn off the TV

This is the Firebird who flies with wings of flame.

And this is Prince Ivan, the only other living thing in the tangled wood...

Prince Ivan has to do a dance to tame and catch Firebird

It works... he's caught it in his hands. 

Firebird flung itself against Prince Ivan's hands, but it could not escape.

Oh Prince of Russia, set me free, a magic gift I will give thee.. (It doesn't really look as if she's struggling too hard here.)

Firebird flew free, shaking her tail feathers as if to say, "Na na na na na na, You can't catch me."
It takes courage, endurance and perhaps a touch of masochism to say "No" to the television and movie requests that start piling in as soon as the weather turns cold. Who am I kidding, with Isla around, the requests are constant and insistent, in any season or time of day. Enter house, beg for TV or movie.
(I don't differntiate between TV or movies. Either way, we're staring at the TV screen.)

But after a recent TV trauma-- I turned it off sooner than Isla preferred, which is to say, at all, and Isla commenced to hyperventilate--we had to lay down some scary rules.

After the television set spent some time on the front step in the dribbling rain, purportedly waiting for the garbage man to come and make it disappear from our lives, I decided it was time for ...... a TV schedule.

This the mom who can't even tell people if she is available a week from Saturday so afraid of commitment is she.

The rule is, Only on Fridays. Have we broken that rule? Of course, but only on Wednesdays.
But, transgressions and all, things have gotten remarkably calmer, and the requests, that's a euphemism for relentless badgering and death threats, for TV have almost disappeared. Almost.

As a result, I get treated to spontaneous displays of childish artistry. Sometimes in the form of graphic art, but recently in the form of dance/theater. Would they do this even if I let them watch more TV? Probably, but there would be much, much less time and incentive. And their characters would be sneaking in product placement left and right. (Mom, I need a Coke can.)

The irony is, if it weren't for this five- part video on YouTube, of the complete ballet version of Stravinsky's Firebird, they might not have had such dramatic moves in their repertoire. But the inspiration originally came to us in beautiful book form. 

More evidence that I lean precariously towards the Luddite can be found here.  

Special thanks to Jane Yolen for some of my lifted caption copy. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Found pictures

Isla looking ever so much like her daddy. Was this child really ever in my house? I'm loving the one Cinderella shoe and princess dress hanging out of the closed trunk in the background. I'm wondering where the pumpkin is.

That's Boomer, a friend's dog. He's no longer with us now. I'm seeing yet another princess shoe, a frilly plastic one, the ones I like to throw out, in this shot.

Mom's eye view of Isla. She still has those crazy swirls on top of her head. It's as if three cows were licking her head at the same time. It makes for tricky hairdressing. I can still imagine the way her hair smelled and the way she stroked my side with her velvet paw when she was nursing. She's going to be 5 really, really soon.
Dancing in the soon-to-be loft in our then-unfinished barn which is now finished and filled with hay and very, very far away back in Vermont. Sniff.
The problem with being married to a photographer is he gets all the best shots, uploads them on his computer then doesn't remember to show them to me. But I went searching for a baby picture of anyone the other day and stumbled upon some really fun, nostalgia-inducing stuff.

And this is just Isla. There's so much more.

What strikes me the most is it's like looking at someone elses' life. Was that me? Is that us? Were we there? Is that our baby? My meadow? My sky?

The beauty of our home in Vermont bowls me over. Especially in the fall just before winter is about to settle in and rule over the land with a bitterly-gorgeous hand. Sometimes I think the whole point of our being here in France, aside from the amazing cultural experience, foreign language experience and pure adventure of it, is to make me realize, once and for all, just how lucky we are to have all this waiting for us back home.

God I hope the Dead heads living there don't burn it down.

Deep breaths

Long sighs






It's hard to believe, from looking at that precious face, by age four, this kid would have nothing but poop on her mind.