Friday, October 24, 2014

Confessions of a Kindergartner’s Personal Assistant

I realized today that I am the personal assistant to a diva celebrity without any of the implied benefits. I don’t get hand-me-down designer handbags, a big bonus at Christmas or tag along on fancy vacations because she has a movie to promote. I don’t get to sleep in my own private living quarters, or take advantage of her personal chauffeur or private chef. 

I am the personal chauffeur. I am the private chef. I am the vacation. I. Am. Christmas.

Five-year-olds. They're just like us.
My mornings all begin the same. We wake at 7 a.m., no later and sometimes much earlier if she’s “in a mood.” She usually wants homemade pumpkin pancakes, but you can’t use eggs because those are “yucky” so we sub in some apple sauce (“only with cinnamon, not plain!”) and while she catches up on what the kids at Ever After High are wearing, I make sure the pancakes are irresistibly crisped at the edges, not burnt but not too soft either. They should appear like they have been glanced by a flame, but not really because she doesn’t like any fire source near her. In her rider, she has clearly stated that she can’t stand cigarette smoke, doesn’t like fire drills and prefers to take the stairs instead of the elevator “just in case.” We do not talk about fire. It's like fight club, people.

After she has eaten a few bites of her breakfast, more like a caterpillar might eat a few dots out of a leaf, we begin the process of picking her clothes for the day’s events.

Like many other personal assistants, I have tried to curtail this whole dramatic process by setting up various costume changes the night before. I lay them out meticulously. I offer options. There are wardrobe concepts for both cold and warm weather, indoor and outdoor play, school and home.

Typically, though, after picking at her homemade breakfast, she looks at all I’ve come up with and, if she’s feeling generous, she might say, “Oh, I like this one,” and simply put it on. If she’s feeling less than generous (most days), she will scream and kick and start ripping clothes from her closet and drawers with a fever I have not seen since the Velveteen Rabbit took one for the team.

Once she’s officially dressed, we’re ready for transport.

It starts as a slow whine: “Where are my blue kitty cat shoes? I can’t find my blue kitty cat shoes.” 

This whine begins to build, “I said I wanted the blue kitty cat shoes! No, not the pink shoes. Blue shoes. Blue shoes! Noooooot pink-ah!”

Whining gives way to higher pitched screeching, sometimes with or without intentional spitting, “Blue shoes! I want the blue shoes!” There is further enunciation of the words,  “Kit. Eeeeee. Cat!” as though she thinks I am stupid or suddenly only speak Italian.

Sometimes, even when the blue kitty cat shoes have been located, she decides at the last minute that really the pink ones were the right choice to begin with and will match the tutu and leggings combo she’s chosen much better. So, there we are, on our way to some event and she stops in the doorframe to collapse with grief, “No, I want pink shoes instead. I want the pink shoes now. I don’t want these anymore. Take them! Take them a-waaaaay!"”

I have read memoirs about people who have lived this life. But most of them were paid lots of money to do it. Most of them sometimes found themselves mistakenly photographed by the paparazzi. Some of them even had illicit affairs with their charge’s leading men. But I digress…

This is my life as the personal assistant to a kindergartner.

Did I mention that I am also her handler? I handle her backpack, her coat and her lunch. 

It usually goes like this: She does not want to walk. No, she actually thinks her legs have forgotten how to walk. They cannot physically get from point a to point b even though she has barely moved them so far this morning. She is already tired. Scratch that. “Completely exhausted!” She needs a break. This will all be ok if I can just carry her the whole way there.

Sometimes I have a lot of bags to carry. I might even have my own purse to contend with. Oh, and did I mention she has a younger sister that I sometimes bring along to my job as her personal assistant? During these high-stress times, carrying her seems like a last resort. Often it is the only resort though.

So, I carry her, I push her sister in the stroller (or sometimes I will carry her sister and push her in the stroller) and we begin our route to her first appointment, school.

The whole way to school she is usually telling me that she’s uncomfortable with something. Her tights hurt. Her shoe is itchy. Her hairband is scratching her head. Any number of things could be the dilemma and so we stop whatever we are doing to attend to her imminent need.

We are always late. No matter how hard I try to do my job, we are always running about five to ten minutes behind schedule. I am somehow always to blame for this. Everything is my fault. The weather. The itchy sweater. The fact that she has to pee.

Somewhere in between all of this, she will proclaim she is hungry. No, “starved.” I will rifle through her lunch box for an appropriate snack and here she will sneak in the reminder that she hates everything I’ve packed for her to eat.

I’m usually sweating as we near her school. We dodge the paparazzi crew that's inevitably waiting outside, barrel through the front door of the building and rush up the stairs.

We finally get to the door of her classroom. I am panting now as her teacher greets us. Without missing a beat my little starlet of a child, the diva turns on a zillion-watt smile, practically dances into her classroom and says in a sing song-y tone, “Good morning Ms. Sarah!”

This is when I collapse and begin to look for my other child, the second child, who is probably fending for herself near the water fountains and trash cans. 

This is my job. Perks or not, I am a personal assistant to a kindergartner.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Go ahead. Judge Me. I Dare You.

Several months ago, I got into a mini-shouting match with a woman while I was walking with my two daughters. Okay, I'm not proud about the fact that I eventually gave the woman the finger, but here's what happened:

At the time it was still pretty cold in New York and my youngest was not a fan of hats. I kept two wool baby skull caps in our diaper bag and would sort of rotate them as we walked. Inevitably, she would let me put it on her for a few minutes only to toss it off or on to the ground just a bit later. 

This game of cat and mouse was getting old and I knew we only had two more blocks to go before the grocery store. So, I decided to give the hat -- and myself -- a rest. 

Enter evil old witch lady. Okay, that's being harsh. But, she was old. And female. I think.

She yelled across the crosswalk, "Put a hat on that baby. She's cold." 

Here's where I pause to say that nothing rattles me more than perfect strangers trying to tell me how to care for my own children. And then here's my tiny addendum: There are certainly many, many times when I am ridiculously appreciative of the random help of strangers. Doors get held open while I try and navigate two kids, a scooter, a stroller, bags and a shoe that is "falling off my foot right now mommyyyyyyy!" and I'm thankful. I'm thankful for the woman who gave me money so I could fill a parking meter when my youngest daughter was screaming and needed a nap and I couldn't find a convenient place to make change. I'm grateful that one day when I was too sick to leave home and my spouse was traveling, my daughter's teacher offered to pick her up for school. I'm grateful for people that let us cut in line at the bathroom when they see my kid doing the pee-pee dance. Point is: I am most of all grateful that it takes a village to raise a kid and most of the time, that village shows up.

So, what was it about this particular exchange? It was her tone that really irked me. And I was tired. And yeah, it was f***ing cold. And I had one kid who didn't want to wear her mittens ("They're itchy!") and another who had just flung her hat off a block earlier. 

So, I yelled back, "Mind your own business!"

She mumbled something and started to approach us.

"What's that lady saying?" My oldest daughter asked. 

"Who knows..." 

She got closer. And here's the part that I found hilarious. She was in fact wearing one of those giant fur Ushanka hats. The kind you'd see a Russian spy or trooper wear on TV. It was like she was saying, in her very dress and manner, "You suck as a mother. And I obviously am rocking this cold weather thing like a mo-fo!"

She got close to us, leaned over the stroller and said so both my kids could hear, "You should be ashamed of yourself."

I said, "You should be ashamed of yourself!" and kept walking.

And then, she screamed back at me, "Well you should be a better mother!"

Cue The Bird. And yeah, I might have said something else that I won't repeat here.

Later, the sane and well-rested part of me figured that she probably just thought she was being helpful and that I'd be eternally grateful for her quick ability to point out my shortcomings.

But, that's where she and anyone else who intentionally or unintentionally judges a mom or dad is wrong.

I have said it before and I will say it again. This parenting schtick is super duper hard. No matter how you come to it. 

And here's the other part: You never know what kind of day has preceded whatever moment you are witnessing between child and parent. 

I should take my own advice, I know. Whenever those stories go viral about parents leaving their kids in the car while they run errands or get gas, I totally judge. But really in the end, all I can say is, "Okay, well, it's not the way I would do it. But I don't need to condemn them for it."

And I can keep airing the dirty, dark secrets of how I raise my girls. Hey, last night they ate SpaghettiOs (which is indeed written like that and defined as "an American brand of canned spaghetti featuring circular pasta shapes in a cheese and tomato sauce and marketed to parents as 'less messy' than regular spaghetti," on Wikipedia.) and watched three episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. While the combo of these things (heck, one of them by itself) makes me feel nauseas, they loved it!

I am not super strict about bedtimes or how early my kids potty train. I let my kids sleep in my bed when my husband is out of town and they watch a lot of TV when I'm working on a piece of writing. On the other hand, I'm psycho about putting on sun block, installing a car seat and probably a little to crazed about possible choking hazards. But I will never, ever tell you to put a sunhat on your kid because he might get a sunburn. Promise.

So, go ahead. Judge me. I dare you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Who Is That Man In The Photo, Mommy?"

Two months before I got married, my father fell off of a treadmill. A trip to the ER led to some testing and the testing led to a diagnosis of late stage lung cancer. Just a few days after he walked me down the aisle, he fell into a coma and on the night I returned from my honeymoon, he died.

I’ve struggled for years to write about my Dad, the father who raised me. While I’ve nearly completed a memoir about my birth father--who I really only got to know later in life--I have rarely written about Anthony (Tony) Franco.

Dad was ever present, nearly omnipresent. In fact, when I was in first grade, he told me he was a magician and therefore could see everything I did during the day. A note had just come home saying that I was "too social". For the next week or more, I barely spoke at school. I kept imagining Dad as this sky high presence in the classroom, hovering above our desks. 

Later, when I strayed too far while selling Girl Scout Cookies in our suburban Detroit neighborhood, he somehow found me. I will never forget his big boat of a car pulling up in a driveway I didn't recognize. "Time to come home, Meredith," he said. And I knew he would always be there.

He raised me as his own and never failed to tell anyone who might listen that he felt like he brought me “home from the hospital.” He said this frequently in front of me I think to very clearly state the point that he loved me wholly, completely and without conditions. He tried for years to legally adopt me, but my birth father wouldn’t sign the papers.

And, then, as Dad was essentially dying from lung cancer and we were planning a wedding, we decided to finally make my adoption official. At 23 years of age, I got adopted and changed my name legally.

I appeared in court, Dad via phone from Florida, and we explained our situation. He had raised me from the time I was 4 years old, 3 if you count when he was dating my mom, and he had been responsible for me since then.

Even when I pushed and fought against some of his conventions (an early curfew in high school or his suggestion during my heavy 'grunge' phase that I not dress “like a hobo” come to mind) he still so clearly provided that initial base for me where and when my birth father could not. 

He took the time to talk through any problem I was considering. He argued and debated with me. He cheered me on. Growing up, I was one of nine children, but he still made sure he had the funds to pay for college, to help me buy a car when the time came and to facilitate a move to New York City.

You always knew where you stood with my Dad - which meant that when he was disappointed in you, you knew it. When he was excited or happy with something you were up to, he was a loud and passionate cheerleader. He used to tell me pretty regularly that I had more talent in my little finger than he had in his whole body. He was also fierce about the fact that I could be anything I wanted, that moms could also work and provide for their families, that women were tough as nails and that I should always seek the best for myself.

When he died, it was like the world fell apart for a little while. The glue that held everything together in our blended family melted. What was left were broken apart pieces of a puzzle I still can’t quite put together.

So, for years, it was hard to recall much of anything without breaking down. The pain was just too raw.

But lately my daughter has been asking, “Who is that man in the photo, Mommy?” And I’ve started to answer her. Sometimes her retention of what I’ve said is humorous (she recently told my brother that I said Dad was "in space now.”) and some are downright halting, “Mommy, do you ever just miss your Dad?” And yes, then the tears start to flow.

There are some that would claim that because his blood does not coarse through my veins, that because we share no biology, he is not really mine to claim. But when Eva asks me if unicorns are real I say, “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Kind of like love. You can’t see it all the time. But dear lord, you know it’s there.

I may not be Italian, but I feel Italian (just come to my house one night for linguine alle vongole). I may not have been born a Franco, but I am one. I may not have had the conventional father set-up growing up, but I still know I was claimed, loved, renamed and worried over.

Happy Father’s Day to every father out there, no matter how you came to know fatherhood or love your children. And happy day Dad, wherever you are.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

So, That Happened. First Chapter of My Memoir-in-Progress...

I wrote first thing in the morning today. Okay, technically, it was just a Facebook status update. But in that tiny status update, probably only read by a handful of people, about the so-called sacrifices I make daily in order to pursue my passion, there's a lot more brooding between the lines. 
In the spirit of trying to finish what I start, I've recently been taking out my memoir-in-progress to work on it again. I think the story still needs to be told. At the very least, it will be shared with my kids. 
Here's the first chapter. Maybe it's superstitious to post it here, but I think the most we can ever hope for as creative artists is to 1) have an audience and 2) be taken seriously as an artist. 
Okay. Go. (And she tears off the Band-Aid.)


Chapter One: Chiaroscuro
“I went to the end in order to return to the beginning without knowing where I was going trusting eye and hand day by day.” -Author unknown, a note scribbled on one my father’s index cards

            I did not expect to hear from my father unless he was deathly ill or already a ghost.  I wasn’t sure what I would do in either case, but one thing was certain: we would not speak until then.
            I imagined myself going there, to his smoky sixth-floor walk-up in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Just to check on him. I had musings of surprising him with a puppy or kitten.  Maybe a few balloons.
I dreamed of him too. He chased me or leapt out at me from pure darkness. Stout legs, hairy arms, a bald and shiny head. His face adorned with a well-trimmed mustache. He usually wore army green camping shorts, muddied hiking boots. Sometimes he wore blue jeans. He looked fit, aware and strong. He did not look like someone about to die.
August 4, 2003
The Jamaican women at the Kings County morgue were watching One Life to Live when I arrived to identify the body.
            “Turn that down, you,” one of them said. She wore long hoop earrings and acrylic nails with lightning bolts painted on them.
A woman in tight jeans muted the TV.
The room was the size of a two-car garage. Shiny file cabinets were shoved up against exposed brick walls behind a desk on one side, some of their worn labels now replaced with alphabetized post-it notes. The air smelled like my 8th grade gym locker room. Wet dogs, sweaty feet and cooked eggs.
The woman assigned to my case sat at the desk; her name tag read “Veronica”. Her hair was pulled smoothly into a bun, the earrings brushing the side of her neck. Save for a black ribbed turtleneck, she gave off the allure of a gypsy. She struck me as someone who had 'been there, done that.'  Something about this comforted me.
Pete, by now my husband of a year, sat next to me. Silent and stoic. He held my hand in his lap.
I sat waiting for Veronica to find my file and imagined the four walls of the office falling outward, myself and the other two women exposed on a movie set. This was a place no one ever wanted to go. I would walk out of here today. My father would not.
What happened to all those people who died with nobody to claim them? What if I had decided to let someone else take care of him?
“Do you want a cup of coffee?” Veronica asked abruptly.
“Sure, that’d be great,” I settled my hands on my lap.
Veronica gestured to a squat card table near the door. “Behind you,” she said.
I slid the chair out, causing an awkward screech, and went over to where three pots were lined up on burners in front of a Bunn coffee machine. On the other side of the room, the woman in tight jeans now flipped through a gossip magazine. Her legs were crossed, one foot tapping the linoleum floor. A television hung above her head like a halo. It looked like it might easily fall on her, causing this day and this appointment to be cut short and to enter into another version of tragedy.
I pulled a Styrofoam cup off the table and reached for the pot of coffee that looked the freshest. I tossed a packet of sugar and a sleeve of powdered creamer into the cup. The coffee quickly turned the color of diarrhea.
I sat back down.
“There now, better?” Veronica said. I looked in her eyes, painted dark with too much eyeliner. Maybe those were fake eyelashes.
“Yes, thanks. It’s been a long morning,” I said, taking a tentative sip.  My hands were shaking, my fingernail polish chipped, reduced to colorful confetti. I had chewed off most of the pink lacquer the night before.
The phone rang.
“Just a moment,” Veronica held up one of the lightning bolts, “I need to take this.”
A list ran through my head. Vital information about the dead. Hair color. Eye color. Height. Weight. Address. Occupation. Mundane details, yes. But, they made up a life. In the case of murder or unexplained death, they might solve a crime or a mystery. I knew I wasn’t the first person to look for answers here.
Veronica’s voice grew louder as she spoke more deliberately to the person on the other end of the phone. “I cannot process the claim if you do not come down to the morgue. That’s what I’m trying to say to you, ma’am,” she fingered the telephone cord, her lightning bolts taking on a life of their own.
More vitals. Mother’s date of birth. Father’s date of birth. Date of death. The words fell in my head and slipped through an imaginary sidewalk crack.
Next of kin. Where I lived. Just in between the Next and Kin. I was the of. The line my father must have filled in at some point, on some form in an office like this, knowing I would be here someday to deal with this.
Next of kin. I repeated it to myself.
That's why there was no one else. I was the next of kin.
I didn’t know the man I was claiming.  He was a stranger to me, a ghost of someone I had buried long ago in my child’s heart. 

But yesterday, everything had changed.
You have one new message. Message One. Received Friday, August 3rd, at 1:34 p.m. “Hi, this message is for Meredith Franco. I, uh, this is Stephen Greene. I am a friend of your father’s. I have some news for you. If you wouldn’t mind calling me back. It’s pretty urgent. Call me at home anytime. Thanks.”
When I first heard the message, Stephen’s name sparked nothing. Stephen had a 718 number. He lived somewhere in Brooklyn.
            Two rings. A man with a high-pitched voice answered the phone.
            “Is this Stephen?” I said.
            “Yes.” The voice was raspy.
            “Stephen, it’s Meredith, Albert Werder’s daughter.” I said, feeling like an impostor. I hadn't said his name in a long time.
            “Meredith. You don’t remember do you? I live in your father’s neighborhood.”
            I didn’t remember.
            He continued, “I met you once when you were a teenager. You wanted to go to some party downtown and your father asked me if it was safe. I had just biked over. We were standing outside his building,” He said this last part with desperation in his voice, like if I didn't recall these details he had nothing left.
            Thankfully the muddied photograph turned clear. Stephen, Stephen Greene the painter, the guy my father always secretly thought I’d end up with. He was a few years older than I—enough that it wasn’t appropriate for us to date when I was sixteen, but my father hoped we might get together later maybe once I’d moved to Manhattan and finished college. Stephen, yes Stephen. I had wanted to go to a warehouse techno party.  “A rave?” my father had said jovially, “What a great fucking name for a party!”
            Stephen thought Al should accompany me. So that night, my father took me to the party and made strange air signs with his arms as the bass pounded us into the floor. We stayed out dancing until five in the morning. Al took me for pancakes afterwards.
            I told Stephen that I remembered now. I was starting to remember it all.
            “You're a pretty tough person to find,” he cough laughed here. It wasn't a real laugh but the kind you make when you're just trying to make light of something. To keep it relatively upbeat.
            “Sorry about that,” I wasn't sure how to respond.
            “Did your boss tell you I called the office?”
            I told him yes, that I was surprised he was able to track me down there. The truth? I had erected stronghold after stronghold during the past years in order to prevent my father from finding me.
            Stephen said he had Googled me and finding my name on a web page that was maintained by my office, he had followed me to my job as an administrator at Columbia University.
            So I had left a breadcrumb. One footprint in the snow between me and my father. My name, in eight point font at the bottom of the grants submission web site, had been the difference.
            I didn't tell Stephen that my boss had mentioned his phone call. Instinctively I had known that his call was very likely about Al being sick or dead, but part of me worried it might be a trap of sorts. Al had done crazier. The time he sent me a dozen roses to an earlier job in Manhattan sprung to mind.
            It was not out of the realm of possibility to think he could have asked a friend to call me and scare me a bit so that I'd finally get in touch with him. After my boss had told me of his call,  I'd stepped outside for my lunch break. It was raining on Amsterdam Avenue. I stood, umbrellaless, and wondered how  it had gotten to this point. How did we so easily slip from innocence to the point of no return? From a powdery baby in her new father's arms, to millions of miles of arms between us?
            Back in my apartment, there was an awkward silence on the phone. Stephen and I both knew he didn’t have pleasant news and we couldn’t go on reminiscing or chitchatting.
            So, he got right to it.  My father was dead.
            I screamed once, hollowly, like a distressed animal. Then, I began to cry.
            Stephen told me the rest of the story. The neighbors had complained of a wretched smell and the building manager, who was also Stephen’s father, asked his son to check up on Al.
“He was supposed to be in Cape Cod for the weekend,” Stephen kept saying, “He was supposed to be in Cape Cod.”
 He thought nothing of Al’s car parked outside on Hicks Street. My father typically got a ride to the Cape with friends.
Stephen described the flies (“all those fucking flies”) and the smell of the body. He said that when he finally opened Al’s door to discover the worst, he figured the body had been rotting for about four days. He noticed his feet first. They were hanging out of the bedroom doorway. It looked as if Al had a heart attack and couldn’t get to the phone. His medication was scattered on the floor, like he'd attempted to open a pill bottle.
He repeated, the flies were all over the apartment—everywhere. Awful. Beyond Description.
            He said the cops were holding some of Al’s belongings at the station. His wallet. His keys.
“They even took his money clip,” Stephen said, starting to cry, “He loved that money clip. It was the Native American one he got in Arizona. Man, the police were such fucking assholes. They pulled couch cushions up to see if there was money underneath them. They took fucking change from under the couch cushions. Fucking assholes. I was standing right there, looking at my friend.”

Veronica hung up the phone. “I’m sorry about that. Shall we?”
I nodded.
“Now, lady. Your father is very bad, very bad. You know what I mean?” Veronica’s eyes wandered over my head to the clock just above the door.
            “Yes, I know,” I said, “I spoke to the coroner a few hours ago.” 
Veronica leaned closer, her earrings glinting, and placed a manila envelope in front of me. On its longest edge were printed two words and an initial.
            Werder, Albert D.
            So, this is what we become. A phrase, a few words, a thing to be separated by a comma or some other appropriate border between the living and the dead.
“I’m gonna show you the photos now, ok? Then, if you need to, we can look at his body in the other room.”
            Veronica opened the envelope with a long fingernail and pulled out three Polaroids. Quickly, she organized the photos like a casino dealer in one hand, splayed out like playing cards with their dark, metallic backs facing me.
            “I need to warn you miss, ok? Your father is badly decomposed.”
I picked a spot on Veronica’s desk and tried to focus. It was a smudge, maybe from old leftover gum.  I picked this spot and I focused, knowing that if I did not, I would start to cry.
“Badly decomposed. You understand? Yes? No?” Veronica stared at me—her eyes pleading for a sign of recognition.
            I straightened in the hard-backed chair, “Just so I can prepare myself, what exactly does a decomposed body look like?”
            “Oh, that’s tough, very tough. I’d say it gets black like fruit. You ever see a rotted peach or plum? It’s dead, you know? The skin gets black and there’s nothin’ to hold it up so it just caves in. It just gives out.” With that, Veronica made a flimsy attempt with her lips to imitate the sound of something giving way – like a balloon losing air. “Like that, see?”
            Deep breath, deep breath.
            She explained that dead people typically grow hair on their faces after just a few hours. My father might look changed and his facial features could likely be unrecognizable, but she had seen to it that his face was pulled into a dignified smile. I would be able to recognize dental features. She thought I might like to know too that the forehead and hairline are great place markers.
“That’s usually a good place to start. You can make the identification from there,” she said.

“Don’t forget to look for landmarks,” my father had whispered in my ear many years ago as he was teaching me how to read maps, “When you’re lost, they come in handy.”

I nodded and she flipped over the photos.
Then, the rat-like white whiskers on his face, the strange way he seemed to look happy, not at all defeated in the pitch blackness of it all.  I tried to focus on his hairline, the dark, rotten balding lines that marked his face and gave it an outline.
I knew I would never forget these things.
So, I began to cry.
“That’s him, right? I think that’s him,” I said to no one at all.  
I had brought a photo with me. My father, Al, standing in front of a townhouse in Brooklyn somewhere. He is wearing an army jacket.
“Yes, that’s him. That’s my father.”