new york city kid in arkansas
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My junior high students and I watched the 2010 outdoor London production of “Into the Woods” on Digital Theatre during our first week of “distance learning.” If you’re not familiar with this beautiful piece of theatre, it takes all the best fairy tales and puts the main characters into a story together. Act One is hilarious; Act Two is tragic. (I saw the 0riginal Broadway production as a high school junior and did not understand why everything had to go so wrong. A sign of age, I guess, is accepting the second act.) Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel and others are being pursued by a giant and life as they know it has ended. In a particularly devastating moment the Baker hopes for a better future when he sings:

“No more giants
Waging war.
Can’t we just pursue our lives
With our children and our wives?
‘Till that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes,
The reverses,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?”

These same students have been rehearsing a one-act play all semester about modern technology replacing personal interaction. As I sit at my dining room table running lines with them on Google Hangout, an optimistic gesture at best, I’m reminded of one of the better lines in the play:

“Face to face is so yesterday.”

Here’s what’s today: Our guest room has been delightfully transformed into Mr. Troy’s Songtime music studio as he entertains young and old alike with pop-up Facebook concerts during the long days. Huck, our introverted homebody, is keeping himself on a tight schedule of school work and tea-drinking downtime without any plans to ever return to the outside world. Sunny has been displaced from her usual spot (see opening sentence about guest room) but is genuinely relieved to have her pack at home 24/7. And while I miss normal life and feel for everyone who is terribly affected by this giant pandemic, hitting the pause button on regularly scheduled events has been really good for me. Still, I seem to get teary eyed pretty easily lately. We were supposed to be driving to Austin today to join friends from San Francisco, New York City and Texas at Shannon’s house for a few days. We’re meeting on Zoom tonight instead.

Just like everyone else.

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Huck just celebrated his 15th birthday the usual way: with lemon-lemon cake & Aunt Jeni. Her yearly March visits are family highlights, and we are once again left wondering if she will spend March 7th with him for the rest of his life. We had no way of knowing back in, say, 2008, that he would be a high school freshman counting down the days until her visit. (Actually, looking back at pictures maybe we did have a way of knowing.) This time around we got sunburns, ate Indian, settled Catan, killed werewolves, ignored the news, drank tea, got steps and celebrated musical theatre. You know, the usual.

In a terrifying world, it’s pretty great to have an Aunt Jeni.

March 2008

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“And it’s not the thought that she must miss them, but that she’s no longer capable of missing them, that makes me sad. What we miss – what we lose and what we mourn – isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.”

This quote from Sigrid Nunez’s book THE FRIEND makes me think of my mom, who moved into a memory care facility last week following a very terrible month. My nearly 50 year old body with super-ability to feel stress released my childhood chickenpox virus into the nerves of my arm, shoulder and upper back, adding intense pain and an impressive rash to all the terrible. My sisters and I share a text thread that could probably be made into a movie of the week. There have been many unexpected drives (and even flights for Jeni) to Kansas these last four weeks, and we’re all a little touchy and tired. When we start laughing, it’s terrifying.

Last Thanksgiving my dad secretly handed me a bottle of perfume he’d found in the trash, and I recognized it as a gift I’d given to my mom a few birthdays ago. He then dropped his voice to a whisper, took me into a dark room like we were hiding from the police and told me that one of my Christmas presents was an expensive Starbucks coffee cup he also found in the trash. “She had just bought it for herself. I don’t know why she throws everything away. I thought you’d like it.” When we were all in the hospital together in January and things weren’t looking so good, my mom said to no one in particular, “Janelle never required love and affection.” It’s not true; of course I did. But it was like a drunk person saying something crazy and you know they kind of mean it. Everyone in the room slowly turned their eyes to me as I smiled awkwardly.

Toward the end of her second hospital stay when she was finally stabilized and ready to move on, my sister Lori found her a new home, relieving my dad of being her one and only caregiver. My parents’ sons-in-law did the heavy lifting and moved her bed, night stand and dresser into her new room. Now my parents are 97 miles apart, and I’ve lost the ability to sleep. The three of us made a very quick trip from Arkansas this last weekend to see her, sing to her, give her chocolate, reminisce, laugh, thank her for the many letters she’s written lately, answer her questions and urge her to eat. We met her fellow residents (all of whom make her seem very youthful) and aides, and we may have set off an alarm or two. I predict that by the end of the week she’ll be helping the staff run the place. As Troy (with ukulele in hand), Huck and I began our goodbyes right after lunch on Sunday my mom smiled and said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” causing Troy to give a brief Shakespeare lecture and my arm to ache.

I pretty regularly wear that perfume and drink from that cup.  Sweet sorrow, indeed.

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Troy and I were just watching old home movies from Christmas 2006 when Huck was a few months shy of two years old, and there’s a moment when Max the dog comes right up to the camera and looks at me with his excited, anxious eyes. It was doubly heartbreaking to see both my old dog and my old baby in forms I’ll never see again. Not to mention our 36 year old forms that we’ll also never see again.

New Year’s Eve will break your heart every time.

Much easier to look back twelve months; everything is more recognizable. This year started with Huck on an exciting school trip to Florida and ended with him happily at home drinking cup after cup after cup of tea. If given the choice, he will always choose the latter. Other noteworthy moments of 2019 included “Hamilton” in Chicago with the Tacketts, our new orange Subaru, “The Wolves” at TheatreSquared, a spring break friends’ reunion here in Fayetteville, birthday Adirondack chairs for the well-used back yard, goodbye to viola, a summer off for all three of us, a short film called “Animal,” high school for Huck, a wonderful new head of school for us, piano and choir, the start of a book club and a GSA and a writing group, Troy’s daily swims and my daily dog walks, a fun-filled hay ride with the Nickels, more trips to Kansas than usual to be with my parents, Troy writing and illustrating his children’s book, and the first ever Christmas morning in matching PJs (thank you, Mama Judy).

May 2020 bring peace and joy and lots of laughter to us all!

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Merry Christmas Eve from the three of us, happily tucked into our cozy living room with a gift-filled tree, a roaring fire before the afternoon turns spring-like, coffee, tea, books, candles and the anticipation of this evening’s present-opening. Though Huck is taller than me, he’s still the same Christmas Loving Child that is bound by tradition and can hardly concentrate due to his excitement. He’s just like his Aunt Jeni and me: Christmas Eve is the best day of the year.

This season was short and sweet and filled with all the usuals: Huck’s choir and piano performances, festive fun with friends, town square lights, Eureka Springs, The Magical Forest, finals stress, hygge evenings by the fire, and the mailing of 100 Christmas cards. This year’s (the 28th) reveals a shrinking mother and a sky full of beautiful math equations, which perfectly sums up the year. With Huck, every conversation is a Wonderland. (And if you don’t hear from us for a few days it’s because we’ve promised him a Christmas Break Settlers of Catan Marathon. Please send provisions.)

Merry Christmas!

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On Thanksgiving night Huck coined the phrase, “My tummy’s taken a tumble,” and I’ve been using it ever since. ‘Tis the time of year when our tummies take tumbles, and maybe our hearts and minds, too.

We spent the holiday week in Kansas, first with the Salina Hottmans and last with the Wichita Schremmers. There were tumbles down Memory Lane, in more ways than one, tumbles of laughter, nine year olds and dogs. My mom’s 75th birthday resulted in several family members across Kansas making the trek to Marc Street to celebrate, including a very special 18 year old KU college freshman. We decorated my parents’ Christmas tree, watched George Bailey remember his wonderful life and helped my mom remember hers. The Wichita portion of Thanksgiving included games galore, a massive family reunion and a hip hop workout. The whole week was filled with Huck reading “Romeo and Juliet” for English class, often saying things like, “Finally you guys are able to help me with my homework.”

One of my favorite parts of every year is Thanksgiving morning. All I really want out of those hours is a comfy place to sit with a never-ending cup of coffee, a fire roaring, the Macy’s Parade on TV and people I love nearby. It doesn’t always work out quite right, but this year it did.

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A late afternoon neighborhood walk with Sunny …

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For Halloween this year Huck dressed as himself: a tall, slender 14 year old high school freshman full of homework anxiety, prone to migraines, excelling in every class. Scariest costume to date! Standing next to him, I was the Incredible Shrinking Mother.

This glorious month of October was all about Huck losing his iPhone, a fun fall visit from the Nickels, a production of “101 Dalmatians” starring 63 small children, a lovely high school choir concert, six adorable home grown pumpkins from Troy’s patch, more fireplace fires than I can count, binge watching “Dark” on Netflix, exciting parent/teacher conferences, much practicing of Kabalevsky’s Op. 1, No. 13, 3rd mvt on the piano, the purchase of a “new” iPhone, the breathtaking beauty of the changing leaves, and the absence of a Halloween costume.

As if to bring the message of Change home loud and clear, on Halloween Eve we arrived from work & school with plans to carve our three pumpkins, only to discover that Troy’s & Huck’s had been taken right out of our yard. Huck had lots of homework anyway and wasn’t sure he could afford the break, and since I can’t stand carving pumpkins Troy inherited mine and created his yearly work of art without us.

On this last night of October, we three visited the square and watched families trick-or-treat like we used to do before heading into Tiny Tim’s for our traditional special occasion dinner, followed by a gathering with old friends and too much candy.

Not such a different Halloween after all.

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This is a picture of my mom and little sister Jeni, circa 1978-ish. My mom still wears her hair like this and still chooses that same spot on a now less plaid-covered sofa, but Jeni has finally stopped showing her undies in every picture. My sister found this in an old album last week during her stay with my mom while her husband Nathan took my dad to the Grand Canyon for a bucket list trip of a lifetime. The Tacketts are two of the most selfless people around – ask anyone who knows them – but what they did for my parents last week will forever live in my heart as their biggest act of love yet.

My sister Lori worked over Labor Day weekend so she could join them mid-week, bringing flowers and cooking lasagna, and I was able to come for the very tail end of the week. I found two happy women waiting for me, one lavished with delicious home cooked meals, daily pedicures, nightly movie fests, and non-stop one on one attention. The other full of stories of their wonderful week so far together.

On Sunday my dad returned from his vacation also full of stories. This was pretty special for a man who can no longer leave town, but I knew he was relieved and happy to be home with his companion of over 50 years. Plus he didn’t fall into the Grand Canyon even once.

We’re all back where we belong now, a little more tired and a little more grateful. Happy birthday, Nathan, and thanks for the idea.

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Huck’s in High School! Aside from his bus being over an hour late on the hottest afternoon known to humankind, he and his 500 pound backpack had a fine first day. Back when he started kindergarten I channeled all my anxiety into his lunch containers. Oh, those were the days!

The older Huck gets, the more vivid my memories are of being his age, and I remember high school (and my discovery of almost everything I love) very well. His school is gigantic – nearly 3000 students – and I’d like to take this moment to thank the upperclassman who helped him find his way from Room 1907 to Room 3907 on day one. His freshman schedule includes Pre-AP Algebra II, AP Human Geography, French, Choir, Pre-AP Biology, Pre-AP English and my favorite … Virtual Health & PE.

PE ON A COMPUTER! (I tried to talk Huck out of this decision until I realized it would have been my dream come true back in the eighties.)

At our school last week, we were treated to a talk by clinical psychologist, New York Times best selling author, and standup comedian Wendy Mogel who begged us not to ask our kids horrible questions with one word answers such as, “Do you like your teacher?” and “Are you excited for school?” Instead she suggested six words to get a real conversation going: “I thought of you today when …”

That’s easy.