Yep, #amwriting; still at it. So, yep, it’s going to be another re-run post this week, albeit with just a few tiny edits. But before we get to that, I have a few random happy things to share, apropos of nothing, really. Good things are just good things.

Three Things Worth Sharing This Week

  1. Kid President’s new book. So I have a friend who used to be one of my partners in a PR firm and who now works on a celebrity circuit and who met Kid President in real life and posted a picture of it on Facebook, making me green with envy. And when I wrote to tell him how jealous I was, he said, “hey, I’ll send you the book!” And he did. It arrived Thursday, to my daughter’s and my delight. If you don’t know about the KP, well get thee to YouTube with haste because, well, #awesome; you’ll see. And then buy the book, ideally from your local independent book seller. Then you can read as a group at the dinner table and feel (you know it) awesome.Kid President book
  2. Skimm Reads book recommendations. So, surely you know by now that I cherish theSkimm, the bright spot in my oh-so-early morning wake-up time. What? You don’t get theSkimm? Sign up here (you’re welcome), and then you’ll get not only the best and funniest weekday news but also the book reviews and recommendations (again, #awesome) which recently included The Girl on the Train, Dead Wake, and All the Light We Cannot See, all three of which will keep you from watching TV, cooking dinner or doing anything else until you’ve finished reading them. Yes, they’re all on other lists, too. But all the other books on the other lists aren’t anywhere near as good as these three, which is why theSkimm picked them. theSkimm is a filter, get it? Again, you’re welcome. And if you’re all like “I SO already get theSkimm” or perhaps “I’m SO the one who invited you to theSkimm in the first place” (you know who you are), then share the goodness with another friend today because sharing good things is good.breakfast of champions
  3. Salted brown butter Rice Krispie treats. So if you live in Memphis you can buy these squares of heaven at Muddy’s. If you don’t live in Memphis or just want to indulge in more than one square in the privacy of your own home, then here’s the recipe, adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s version (I think more salt and less cereal makes a better end product): 1 stick butter, 1 10 oz. bag of marshmallows, a generous 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, and 4-5 cups crispy rice cereal. In a large heavy saucepan, melt the butter and let it brown (stirring and watching, stirring and watching; do not let it burn). Turn off the heat and stir in the marshmallows and salt; stir until the marshmallows are melted then add the cereal and stir to combine (yes, I know you already know how to do this part). Turn the mess out on a sheet of parchment paper and press into whatever shape suits your fancy. Chill in the refrigerator for a bit and then cut into pieces. Try not to eat all of the pieces in one sitting.

Happy week.

Tight Lines and Sister Tales, originally published July 10, 2013

Caught on the 4th of July

My son caught his first fish on a fly rod last week. He had begged for years to go fishing; he had seen all my gear in the hall closet and wanted me to show him how to use it. Finally last week, thanks to an invitation from a dear friend, he got his chance. His first experience, catching 8″ bass and bluegill on a 3 weight rod in a little skiff on a Mississippi lake, was entirely different from mine but with the same result: he can’t wait to go again.

The first time I went fishing, and by fishing I mean fly fishing, I was in my mid-twenties going to visit my sister in Wyoming. A week earlier I had been with my friend Jack, a photographer, helping with a photo shoot that he called something like “Main Street Maoris.” He asked three business people to suit up in their finest Brooks Brothers and then have their faces painted like Maori warriors. For the photo they were seated at a board room table, Montblancs in hand, tongues fully extended. I have no idea what became of the shot or if it made the fortune in the stock photo market that Jack hoped for. When he asked if I wanted to come look at the proofs the following week, I told him I couldn’t because I was going to visit my sister who had just moved into the shelter of the Grand Tetons.

“You’re going to Jackson? No way! You gotta go fly fishing!”

(blank stare in response)

“No really, you’ll love it! I can teach you how to cast and you can borrow my wife’s fly rod.”

24 hours later we met for a brief casting lesson at the yacht club, and by yacht club I mean a rickety pier in the backwash of the Mississippi River where approximately seven people kept boats. After about 45 minutes, Jack patted me on the shoulder, handed me his wife’s gear, and said, “you’ll be fine; it’ll be a blast,” by which he meant “you pretty much suck at this, but you should give it a try anyway.” Off I went.

I traveled frequently for work then, and I always dreaded airports because I was a magnet for the airport crazy people. It was long before 9/11 and security was very different. There were always random wanderers, and the strangest of the strange ones made a beeline for me. As I walked through MEM with that long silver case in my hand on the first leg of my trip to Wyoming, however, the only people who spoke were ruggedly handsome men who seemed completely normal.

“Where ya headed?”

“Um, Jackson… Wyoming.”

“Oh, you’re gonna fish the Snake!”

“Uh, yeah, the Snake….”

“That’s a great river. Probably late for mayflies though, right?”

“Uh, yeah. You bet.”

The same conversation was repeated at least six more times during my layover in Denver. I was definitely buying one of these things when I got home, even though fishing was going to be a stretch for me.

In our youth, my sister had been more outdoorsy than I was. She and Daddy used to hike and fish on occasion. I think she even went camping, in a tent. Outside. I, on the other hand, liked to cook and sew and read fashion magazines. I did not fish, hike, or do anything that involved going to the bathroom in the woods.

As we entered our 20s, however, my outdoorsy medal-winning swimmer of a little sister was teaching ballet while her girly-girl non-athletic older sister was playing tennis and running trails. I had even, on a long run, ducked behind a tree for a health break.

To me, the Jackson of the 1990s was paradise. Although Harrison Ford’s daughter was a student in one of Margaret’s classes, the town wasn’t yet overrun with swimming pools and movie stars the way it is now. It was big enough to have an airport, small enough to feel cozy and authentic enough still to have real cowboys in the Cowboy Bar.

My sister hated Jackson. She thought the Western quaintness of The Rancher and the antler arches were cute, but she found nothing in common with the people she met and swore there was nothing fun to do. After six weeks she was lonely and depressed, which is why I went to visit. I thought if she had a buddy to experience some of the beauty, beauty, beauty out there, she might actually start to enjoy it.

On the ride from the airport to her apartment I told Margaret I had booked a guide to take us on a day trip down the Snake River. She was agreeable but surprised. When I told her that the fly rod was the magic talisman that warded off crazy freakshows, Margaret suggested maybe I should just buy one, carry it around, and skip the whole get-in-a-boat-and-catch-fish part. We debated that idea but agreed we might as well give actual fishing a fair shot.

We headed to the Orvis store to confirm the details of our trip and procure the necessary supplies. I remember very little other than handing over an enormous sum of money and hoping Jack was right about how much fun we would have. At the suggestion of a crusty old guy sitting next to the counter, I also bought disposable hand warmers, despite the fact that I heard him mumble under his breath something unflattering about sissy Southern girls.

Early the next morning we rose hours before any human being should ever get out of bed and drove to the town dump, the rendezvous point for meeting Carter, our guide. The dump had plenty of parking and was well-marked, so Carter thought it would be easy for us to find. As if I could make that up?

Jackson WY 1993

We drove upriver, got a quick lesson and set off downstream. It was a crisp, beautiful fall day. We floated a bit, stopped for snacks and lunch, then floated some more. In our six or seven hours in the boat I caught 954 fish, give or take. Margaret caught one. I think Power Bait may secretly have been involved, but I could never prove it.

We climbed out of the boat around 4:30, just as the sapphire sky was just beginning to darken. We walked to our car, a happy big sister and a grumpy little one, sunburned, tired and cold, having depleted every damn one of those hand warming pouches. We went to a diner and inhaled warm food. We went home and slept like rocks. Right before we nodded off, Margaret said, “You caught more fish, but I saw your butt when you went pee.” Things only your sister, your only sister, can say.

For the rest of the weekend we hiked and shopped and did every touristy thing there was to do in Jackson. We did not discuss the epic adventure now known as Margaret’s one fly fishing expedition, although I couldn’t stop thinking about when I could go again.

We learned a bit about ourselves and a bit about each other on that trip. We learned that on any given day one person may catch more fish than another, that new adventures are more fun with your favorite sister, and that at the end of a long cold day, food helps. A lot.

Jackson WY 1995

To this day Margaret will tell you that she hates stupid dumb good-for-nothing fly fishing but still loves being outdoors. She changed her tune about Jackson after she met a ruggedly handsome transplanted Yankee. He taught her how to ski, something I never could master. Now a mother of four, she’s even discovered she likes to cook and sew and read fashion magazines sometimes. And despite having dragged her down a cold, fishless Snake River 20 years ago, I’m still her favorite sister.

I have multiple rods, reels, waders and flies, all of which traveled with me to countless trade show for years after that first trip. I went back to Jackson several times and even caught a ruggedly handsome man of my own, albeit one who hates to fish. I still like to cook and sew and read fashion magazines, and I still prefer a hotel to a tent. I did go camping in the Black Hills once, though, just because Margaret asked me. She is still my favorite sister, always.

The village people

Here’s what my village people are saying: sit down and finish writing the damn book.

Here’s what I love about my village people: they are right. So, no new post this week; but here’s one from the past that maybe you’ll enjoy. Happy week.

Starting Over. (originally published January 15, 2013)

Our good neighbor

She’s a Savannah girl, transported to Memphis to follow her true love. They met at Duke, years ago. Later they would tell different stories about their early romance, but the common narrative was that they married other people, had families, lived lives apart and then rediscovered one another, each newly single, during a reunion weekend.

By the time we met Harriet and Alfred I was 38, and they’d been married longer than I’d been out of college. When we moved in next door to them our fledgling family was struggling to cope with the recent loss of my mother and an accelerated move into a century-old home with its renovation only half complete.

Their house was built on a sliver of property once a side lot to our newly acquired Money Pit. It sat back from the street and was the only one on the block with a flat patch of grass suitable for playing catch and racing through sprinklers. A respectful few days after we unloaded the last boxes, they knocked on our door with a warm welcome and firm set of instructions: our children must play in their front yard. The children who ran circles in the yard when they first moved in, Harriet explained, were now grown. Ours would have to take their places because, she said, nothing was more enjoyable for old people than watching young ones frolic.

Memphis, April 2006

We wandered over tentatively at first, but we quickly realized they meant what they said. To prove it they routinely rewarded the children’s arrival with sleeves of Thin Mints, pitchers of lemonade and loads of ice cream sandwiches.

We had landed on the block in February, when the peppermint camillias were just beginning to bloom. Harriet taught us how to care for those camillias and later, in the early summer, she did the same for our oversized gardenia. Her only request was that she might take a cutting here and there, as camillias and gardenias were her very favorite flowers.

Alfred became our son’s first employer, not knowing the child was only three at the time and perhaps too young even for the task of daily newspaper retrieval. Every Sunday afternoon Alfred lumbered through the yard to deliver the child’s weekly pay, complete with a handwritten note of encouragement on the envelope.

5th birthday party

They took great interest in the children’s schooling, asking about their studies and sending special congratulations for good report cards. They brought us See’s candies for Christmas, and we cooked them brisket for Rosh Hashanah. Their social and travel schedules made us dizzy, and their fond affection for one another made us smile.

Halloween morning two years ago Harriet awoke to discover that Alfred had taken his final rest. In the days after his funeral we promised her children, who lived far away, that we would watch over her so she wouldn’t be afraid living alone. In truth it was we who were terrified of her moving, of losing our steady touchstone.

In the spring, having inherited the newspaper delivery employment enterprise, Harriet announced with great flourish that she was promoting our son to CEO and appointing our daughter CFO, responsible for coming next door every Wednesday to collect. Their new positions came with increased wages. When the children told her they would gladly bring her paper to the door each day without being paid, she became indignant. She looked me squarely in the eye and said I should never forget that a job well done must always command a fair salary. “Your mother has some things to learn, but she’ll get there,” she told the children with a wink.

By summer she was traveling again, taking classes and going out with friends when she was home. The part of her that withered when Alfred died took on a new sparkle, like she wore both of their spirits together. One evening she came over unexpectedly to tell me she was going on a cruise, leaving in less than a week. She hadn’t told anyone any sooner because she was afraid someone would talk her out of it or make her afraid or somehow spoil the fun. She was nervous and excited, and her excitement was so contagious that I forgot I’d left a skillet full of butter on the stove and almost burned the house down. “Oh, my dear, I’m rubbing off on you!” she exclaimed, and I thought what a wonderful thing that would be if it were true.

Yard tag, Memphis, 2011

Harriet returned from her long trip in time to wish my son good luck at the start of his fourth grade year. She had been a fourth grade teacher and said emphatically that fourth grade was the best year of all. Within a month he was furious that she had lied to him, furious that fourth grade was, in fact, the very worst of all possible years. She laughed and promised by the end of the year he would see she’d been right. And then she took to checking on me, not him, every few weeks. By the end of the year he would be a different child, an older and more mature child, she assured me.

He was. They all were, my son, my daughter, and their contemporaries on our block. They’d graduated from sprinkler chasing to street tennis, bike riding, school sports and the much-dreaded video games. They were little people who went to sleep-away camps and summer programs and on out-of-town trips with friends.

In November Harriet told us she was moving. Her granddaughter was expecting a baby, the first great-grandchild, and she wanted to be there. Her people, her real tribe, were all in California. She wanted to join them while she still felt energetic. In a matter of weeks the house was swept, prepped and sold, ready for transfer early in the new year.

On Sunday she had everyone over for cake and ice cream, as she had for Alfred’s 85th birthday the April before he died.

This afternoon our block’s matriarch will hand her keys to a betrothed couple who were born the year she and Alfred moved into their first and only house together. Tomorrow, after a visit to the cemetery, she’ll board a plane and head west.

“It’s right, isn’t it? Am I doing the right thing?” she fretted.

“It is right,” I assured her, and I kissed her cheek and walked home.

My Jewish Mother

Post Script: My son and I visited Harriet in California last summeVisiting Harriet June 2014r. She was thrilled to see us, ever her delightful, smiling self. She told me gray was the new blonde and that I should keep letting it grow out. She said I should try to remember that I was a good mother, that even good mothers think they are terrible mothers. Also that The Goldfinch wasn’t really worth the effort. She told me, once again, that she keeps a printed copy of this post in the drawer of her bedside table. I couldn’t wish for anything more.


The unconditionals.

Here’s what I know about love:

All genuine love is unconditional; there is no other possibility.

mother daughter profile

Ours was not an “I love you” kind of family. It was loving, to be sure, but it was governed with the restraint of good manners, tact and patrician reserve. “I love you” was, in our tribal lexicon, a private set of words, exclusive to the universe of romance, unsuitable in any other situation. Showing polite affection was encouraged. Putting those feelings into words, though, was considered unnecessary within our home, gauche and inappropriate outside of it.

You know by now, if you’ve been reading here for any length of time, that all 62 inches and 100 pounds of my mother loved my sister and me fiercely. Deep, powerful, unconditional love. But when she talked about love to me as a child it was always either in the context of finding either true love (a mate) or finding passion in work (“do what you love; the money will follow”).

The first time a grown friend said, “I love you” at the end of a long catch-up phone call, I remember stumbling awkwardly for an appropriate response, foreign words tangled in my mouth. I did love her, quite dearly; still do; will always. But I struggled to say so.

I thought about it for days. Silly, perhaps, I agree; but I recognized it as a handicap nonetheless. Words without meaning are useless, but feelings without words are, too.

So I decided to start saying “I love you” to my children on a regular basis, to practice letting these three words roll off my tongue with the people for whom these words would always be true. I’ve never required that they say these words back to me, and I never will. That’s not the point of this practice.

It’s working, I think, the way being mindful of something always does. The three little words live easily these days in our house, in our family vocabulary, in my personal comfort zone. My Mother’s Day card from my son last year read, “Dear Mom, thank you for loving me even when you’re mad at me.” Can’t hope for better than that.

While we’ve been working on our words, I’ve also been thinking about what it means to love another person, about the different kinds of feelings that could accompany the words and how best to explain them to my children: romantic love, motherly love, sibling love, friendship – all of these are worth reflection. While I share my mother’s wish for my own children, that they may find true love in both a romantic partner and in life, I hope they may see a bigger picture.

Love is love, it just gets paired with other things, looks different in different places. But in every place, every different context, I believe the same truths hold.

  1. Genuine love is unconditional; there is no other possibility.
  2. The feelings that may accompany love will repeatedly cool and reheat over time, but the love itself is constant.
  3. Loving others at one’s own expense is not love but need.
  4. Love does preclude anger, disappointment, or dissatisfaction.
  5. Love’s kindness and patience are not limited to marriage or to any single partnership; in fact, these qualities are not limited at all.
  6. Words become thoughts which become actions, so the words of love are the reality of love. Practicing the words makes them easier to say.

May you be fortunate to love someone today, this week, always.

Happy week.