New York memories

I was up at 6:30 the last two mornings, running in Central Park — the same route I used to follow most mornings before work back in 1987, when I lived in a one-room studio on the upper West Side. Being in my old neighborhood this week felt a bit like time travel — there, as always, were the dogs, cavorting in an an exhilarated frenzy of sociability, their bleary-eyed, solitary owners sipping cups of take-out coffee; there were the serious runners, buff men and lean women in coordinated spandex, speeding by me as I loped along in my t-shirt and yoga pants; there were the bikers, usually in pairs, hunched over their handlebars, slicing through space; there were the old folks, sitting on benches with the Times folded into thirds and breakfasts in brown paper bags.

My feet knew just where to go, each turn giving rise to a view that was at once surprising and utterly familiar. I’ve always loved running in the park, where the early-morning city vibe, coupled with my passion for people-watching, carries me much further than any sense of determination I ever manage to muster on the quiet back roads of New Hampshire. Put me down at the corner of 60th and 5th, just as the city’s waking up, and I can run easily for an hour.

But it’s been nearly twenty-five years since I could call myself a New Yorker, and as the years roll by I find it harder and harder to believe that this really was once my life, this city my home, and that I used to be one of those striving young twenty-somethings making my way and trying to figure out where I fit in the grand scheme of things.

“She’s ambitious,” a senior editor once said, warning my boss, I think, that he should watch his heels, that I might be after his job. The comment stung at the time; I thought of myself as hardworking, eager to please, dedicated and wanting to do well — but not ambitious. That word connoted cold-blooded calculation, a willingness to do anything to get ahead. It made me cringe. A small-town girl with no connections, I’d already concluded that the only way I could survive in the world of New York publishing — and still like myself — was to do it on my own terms.

I knew I wasn’t the smartest young editor in midtown, or the most brilliant manuscript doctor, the best dealmaker, or the most desirable party guest. But I was pretty thrilled to have landed in the big city, pretty thrilled with my job, and I was more than willing to give it my all. At the same time, well, I was determined to be a nice person. I hoped that, in a town that could be tough and a business that was often more about names and numbers and who you knew than about literature, there might be some like-minded souls. Other young people who loved the written word and who felt grateful, as I did, for the opportunity to work with authors to make good books even better and then bring them into the world. Turned out that there were, and we found one another.

I was earning $11,500 a year and just barely managing to get by: an English muffin and a grapefruit half for breakfast, an expense account lunch (those were the days when even a junior editor was expected to be wining and dining somebody between the hours of twelve and two), and a cup of soup for dinner. My good friend Jamie Raab was in the same boat, trying to pay the rent and have a life on an editor’s salary that afforded no extras. One Saturday we agreed that we’d both had it with trying to iron skirts on our kitchenette counters; we went to the hardware store together and treated ourselves to two tiny, apartment-sized ironing boards. I remember this purchase vividly because it seemed, at the time, both an enormous splurge and a significant step into adulthood.

I thought of those years as I ran through the park this week. Looking back, I realize now that the older editor who called me ambitious wasn’t entirely wrong. But what she didn’t know was that my yearnings were not so much for a place at the top as they were for a life that would one day be connected to a place. I didn’t want to succeed in business nearly as much as I wanted to succeed in creating a life that felt like a fit with who I was inside. A life in which I would feel that I was truly at home. I knew even then that New York was an experience, a chapter, an important part of my coming-of-age story. And I also knew that I would never have roots there, that my deepest, truest ambitions would ultimately call me elsewhere — to a husband and children, to a slower pace, a quieter way of being, a connection to nature, solitude, a world far from the fast lane.

The wonderful thing is that the very path that led me away from New York all those years ago has now, in middle-age, circled round and brought me back there as a regular visitor. My dear friend Jamie, who counted pennies with me back in the early ‘80s and who set the standard for decency and kindness and intelligence in publishing, stayed the course and is now running Grand Central Publishing, publisher of The Gift of an Ordinary Day. If there is such a thing as a publishing family, Jamie has created it, and I am a lucky relative. Yesterday morning, I had breakfast with my editor, who has also become a dear friend in the years since we first talked about motherhood, the passage of time, and the joys and sorrows of children growing up and leaving home. Karen and I are exactly the same age. Our sons are the same ages. And our lives, which seem at first glance so very different (she represents, most certainly, the road not taken) turn out to be, in the ways that really count, remarkably similar. I may not be attending editorial meetings, doing deals, or racing for a train; she’s certainly not shooing turkeys out of the yard, facing a blank page, or taking long walks at dawn with her dog. But we understand and empathize deeply with the challenges of one another’s days and, what’s more, we share the even more visceral challenges of age, empty nests, grown sons, shifting expectations and new priorities.

It is a stint as a literature panelist that brings me to New York every few months now. What’s different of course is that I come as a visitor, often accompanied by Steve and a son or two; I do my work, savor all the city has to offer, and leave again. It is a wonderful opportunity, to move so easily after all these years between two worlds, to renew an old love affair with the city without questioning for a moment choices made or paths followed. New York has never looked better. I cherish every high-intensity moment that I spend there, and then I sigh with pleasure as I walk back through my own door — exhausted, sated, full of images and impressions and ideas, grateful to have gone, grateful to be home again, grateful to have a life that allows for such contrasts.

“I am rooted,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “but I flow.” Yes, I think, that is exactly right.

Letting go, again

The lilacs bloomed this week, and tulips appeared like magic all through the front garden (it was quite a surprise to see the purple ones come up, as if part of some carefully orchestrated color scheme). Summer is nearly at hand, and it seemed that the shape of things had begun to emerge. I’ve been cleaning closets, reorganizing rooms, preparing myself for a full house again. After a long winter, I’m more than ready to trade the quiet of two for the high energy of four, imagining a party for the 4th of July, the pleasure of holding hands around the table, watching movies, retelling all our old jokes, getting everyone out to pick strawberries in June. I’ve even been thinking about how thrilled our dog Gracie will be to have both her boys around for games of catch.

Having sent out resumes, gathered references, and completed more than a few job applications over the winter, our son Henry found himself a month ago facing the grim realities of the economy and the tough job market for budding musicians. For the first time since he was in high school, it looked as if he’d actually be home for the summer. So, he shifted from Plan A (a job playing piano somewhere) to plan B (an opportunity to do anything else). He got busy and applied to become a full-time volunteer for the Obama reelection campaign, one of 55 young people who would be trained to start setting up infrastructure in New Hampshire. A phone interview later, he was hired.

My son, the self-proclaimed homebody, goes to college in Minnesota, spent January term in London, and has been under this roof for all of about eight weeks out of the last two years. So it was easy to look at the fact that he didn’t get the piano job in Maine, or the paid internship at the musical theater in St. Louis, or the teaching job at the summer camp, as a blessing in disguise.

In the Mother’s Day letter he sent me last Sunday, Henry wrote about how much he was looking forward to family dinners, hikes up Pack Monadnock, concerts at Apple Hill, taking runs with me, and having weekends off to spend hanging out at home. He thought there might be time to take an on-line class at Berklee, maybe go to a Red Sox game or two. I loved getting that letter, for of course I’d been looking forward to the exact same things. Hard as it seemed to believe, he’d be home in two weeks — right here, sleeping in his own bed, every night till the end of August.

And then Tuesday came, and a call from Henry. He’d gotten an offer, he said, to play piano and to be the assistant to a musical director in Maine. It was the summer job he’d wanted most and hadn’t gotten, but now something had shifted, someone else wasn’t coming, and they wanted him after all.

“I’m not sure what do,” my son said. “I’ve already committed to the volunteer job. And I’ve been so excited about finally just getting to be at home with you guys. But it sounds as if they really want me to come up there. And I’ll get to play a lot. I know I’ll learn a lot. And the money’s really good.”

Sometimes the hardest part of being the parent of a grown-up child is remembering that my job is still to be somewhat more grown up than he is. Which, in this case, meant finding the wherewithal to listen and ask questions and listen some more, without jumping in and telling my twenty-one-year-old son what I thought, what I wanted, and how very much I’d been looking forward to having him around.

Could he weigh the commitment he’d made to work for free against the opportunity to pursue his musical career in the job he’d hoped for all along? Could he give up the attractions and comforts of home, and some time off, in favor of a contract that ends four days before school starts in the fall? Could he work this all through, find clarity in the midst of confusion, and make a decision that would feel right to him? I had to trust that he could.

Meanwhile, Steve and I had our own long talks. We confessed to each other how disappointed we were that the family summer we’d been envisioning might not happen after all. We pulled the plug on the family vacation we were in the midst of planning. We discussed the fact that our son really is an adult now, and that being an adult means going to work and creating a life that is separate from ours. And then we promised ourselves that if he ended up in Maine, we’d drive up to visit, to hear him play the opening night show. We reminded ourselves, not for the first time, that there is love in letting go.

Next week, I have to make a trip to New York to serve on a panel. Henry will fly in after his last final exam and meet me and Steve in the city. We’ll have a great dinner, see “War Horse” at Lincoln Center, cram into one hotel room for the night, and make the long drive home with all his stuff. A few days later Jack will be home, too, and then we’ll have four days of being together before Henry packs his bag and leaves for his summer job in Maine.

“Live your own life,” Tao scholar William Martin advises parents, “with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul. There is no need to live theirs. They will do that wonderfully for themselves.”

They do.

Happy Mother’s Day

Every year, I tell my sons what I’d like for Mother’s Day: a letter. Something written from the heart and offered freely rather than bought from a store and wrapped neatly. I don’t always get my wish, nor do I always take the time to write to my own mother. (Yes, it really is so much easier to buy a card, choose some flowers, indulge in a nice dinner out.)

This year will be a first — my boys will be in two different states on Mother’s Day, my mom and dad will be away together, and I’ll be driving home from a writer’s workshop in Massachusetts. Thinking of the many friends who have already lost their mothers, and the few who have lost children, I am deeply grateful that what separates us, for now at least, is merely distance. It won’t always be so, and there is no way to prepare for that fact other than to appreciate the moment that is. My sons know that they can please me on Sunday with a phone call or an e-mail, and that much as I love their words, the very best gift they can possibly give me is their own happiness, the very fact of their busy, full, well-lived lives.

Still, knowing that my years of receiving breakfast in bed and hand-drawn Crayola cards are over, I do feel the bittersweet bruise of change upon my heart. The truth is, I sort of miss being the center of the universe to two little boys. And this manufactured holiday can be a bit painful, a bittersweet reminder of what was, what is no longer, what will never be again.

I wonder if my own mother ever felt nostalgic for the passing of my childhood. I wonder if she realizes that she is still at the center of my universe and always has been. I don’t often pause to think about it, but of course she is the one person who has been right there, at my side and on my side, from the moment I drew my very first breath. How to ever fully appreciate the woman whose presence and love and example have shaped me into the adult I am? How to capture even a small part of the sharing, sacrificing, and support she has given me over the years?

I can’t possibly do you justice, Mom, nor give voice to all the memories, but here are just a few that come to mind:

I remember the bracelet, dark red and blue shoe-buttons strung on elastic, that I made for you in kindergarten when I was five, the first Mother’s Day gift fashioned by my hand. I remember seeing it for years, tucked in the corner of the jewelry box on your dresser where you kept it, loved and treasured if not worn.

I remember soft pajamas with feet and Sunday night suppers served on TV trays in the living room. You gave us Welsh rabbit on Saltines, milk in gray plastic mugs with brightly colored rims, The Wonderful World of Disney, and a bedtime that was the same every night. I remember lullabies and “Mairzie Doates,” and “Tell Me Why the Stars Do Shine” and the comfort of knowing, because you told me again and again, that I was good and well-loved and would always be taken care of.

I remember the first deliberate lie I tried to get away with, and how you somehow saw right through it and gave me time to figure out for myself that the truth would be better.

I remember that I could not, would not, put my face under water at the Air Force pool. I remember that, to my huge relief, you didn’t make me do it. And I also remember two small Dutch dolls, a girl and a boy, with wooden shoes and painted faces. I remember you giving them to me on a hot summer day for no reason at all, except, perhaps, because that was the afternoon when I finally coaxed my terrified self all the way into that pool.

I remember peeking through the keyhole of your bedroom door late at night, hoping for a black and white glimpse of Danny Kaye on TV, and hoping I wouldn’t get in too much trouble if you found me crouching there. I remember you taking me by the hand and leading me back to bed and tucking me in with a kiss.

I remember the only good part about being sick: your cool hand on my forehead as I knelt in front of the toilet bowl, retching up dinner. The comfort of being held. A cool washcloth. Clean sheets, a night breeze through the window, peace.

I remember a bedroom done over, just for me,

I remember a bright pink corduroy jumper that you sewed on the green Singer, and a shirt with daisies growing up the front, and playing dress up in your filmy blue nightgown and pearls, tottering down the driveway in your shoes, feeling like a princess in your grown-up things.

I remember Easter baskets and Easter dresses and your hand on my knee in church. The ting-a-ling on Christmas Eve, the tiny bronze angels pinging against the hot chimes as you read the story of Jesus’s birth from the book of Matthew. I remember watching you stuff turkey after turkey after turkey, a lifetime’s worth of turkeys roasted and holiday meals served and cleaned up after. I remember the kitchen table set with plates and silverware and folded napkins, every single night of our lives.

I remember finding your most precious books in a chest in Grammie Stanchfield’s attic, studying your careful, girlish penmanship, absorbing the shock of your maiden name inscribed all those years ago on the faded inside cover of “Black Beauty.” I remember being stunned by the realization of your childhood, the fact that you had once been a little girl yourself, and that you had had a whole, complete life before me.

I remember summer evenings, you reading out loud as we sprawled on John’s bed, scratching at mosquito bites and patches of poison ivy. The Family Finds Out, The Borrowers, Misty of Chincoteague. I remember wishing the books would never end, that you wouldn’t turn out the light, that the day didn’t have to be over so soon.

I remember that you always called your mother on the day of the first snowfall of winter. I remember the day you lost her.

I remember when you allowed me to buy “Magical Mystery Tour” and bring my phonograph outside on the back deck and play The Beatles really loud. I remember being in the back seat of our red Plymouth Fury as you drove along, eyes on the road, and explained to me about sex. And I remember being disappointed that it sounded so weird and unfun. I remember, cringing a bit even now, the first bra you bought me and how embarrassed I was — by the color (red!!), the name (“Little Me”), the prospect of wearing it, the very possibility of breasts.

I remember countless long walks in the woods and one picnic lunch on the stoop of an abandoned house, and an early morning breakfast we carried up into the low, embracing branches of a special tree. I remember admitting to my best friend at school that you were my best friend.

I remember how good you looked on a horse. Back tall and straight, hands quiet, heels down. I remember how nervous you were about riding and that you did it anyway. I remember the day you flew a plane by yourself — and I remember thinking, “I will never do that.”

I remember confiding in you ahead of time that I was going to sleep with my boyfriend, and then realizing that you might have preferred not to know. I remember wanting to tell you all about it the next day and forcing myself, for your sake, to keep quiet.

I remember going out to lunch, just you and me, the day before I left for college, at a long-gone place called The Avocado, and ordering a drink, and feeling sadness and excitement all mixed up together, already missing you on the one hand and, on the other, just itching to be gone.

I remember that you filled a house with hearts and flowers on Valentines Day, when you thought my lukewarm romance needed a little push, and that I was mortified and touched and then had to give you credit. (Would I be married today, if not for those ridiculous cut-out cupids and candy hearts and strategically placed love poems?)

I remember the two of us, eating lobster and drinking wine, two nights before my wedding, and how much fun we had picking flowers and making bouquets for every single guest room. I remember a moment just before the ceremony, when we stood in the bedroom in the house in Maine, and said something that felt like a good-bye and a hello at the same time. I remember your funny, relieved curtsey in the kitchen on the morning after, when every wedding task was done, and I was finally married to the right man, and you could relax at last.

I remember when Henry was born, how you somehow managed — despite your dread of city driving, despite not having any idea where the hospital was — to get there anyway, to be right at my side when I became a mother myself. I remember how completely, utterly glad I was to see you.

And I remember the night, three years later, when my water broke and I told you not to hurry, there was plenty of time. I remember that you ignored me and jumped in your car and came anyway — just in time, of course, for Steve to rush me to the hospital.

I remember all the ways you have loved and cared for my children these last twenty-one years, how gracefully and joyfully you became a grandmother. How much I’ve needed you to help me through the hard days of motherhood. And how, when there is something wonderful to report, you are always the first person I need to tell.

I remember — and I know this still — that you have always believed in me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself. We have believed in each another, taken care of one another’s hearts, and shared one another’s joys and sorrows for half a century. On this Mother’s Day, I rejoice in our good fortune, the blessing of each other and of our lives as mother and daughter.

Today, I wish for myself, for all mothers, the simple gifts of love and gratitude. May we remember that in living our own lives well, we offer our children the gift of good lives, too.

From The Parent’s Tao te Ching

Words of Life
–by William Martin

You can speak to your children of life,
but your words are not life itself.
You can show them what you see,
but your showing and their seeing
are forever different things.

You cannot speak to them of Divinity Itself.
But you can share with them
the millions of manifestations of this Reality
arrayed before them every moment.
Since these manifestations have their origin
in the Tao,
the visible will reveal the invisible to them.

Don’t mistake your desire to talk for their
readiness to listen.
Far more important are the wordless truths they
learn from you.
If you take delight in the ordinary wonders of life,
they will feel the depth of your pleasure
and learn to experience joy.
If you walk with them in the darkness of life’s mysteries,
you will open the gate of understanding.
They will learn to see in the darkness
and not be afraid.

Go for a slow and mindful walk.
Show them every little thing that catches your eye.
Notice every little thing that catches theirs.
Don’t look for great lessons or seek to teach great things.
Just notice.
The lesson will teach itself.