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.”

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Just call me Strega Momma!

Last night, somehow amid the commotion of caring and disciplining two small children, I ended up with a bowl of spaghetti on my head. I'm not naming names here (EVA!), but I had to take a breath and really reel it in in order not to throw a pile of pasta right back. As I've already admitted to my friends, I mostly didn't send another plate flying because I didn't want another mess to clean up, not because I was trying to be a good example.

When I had taken all of the My Little Ponies away, cancelled bath time (yes, I have one of those kids who loooooves bath time) and put the iPad in a closet (after threatening in scary mommy voice that it would stay there for a week), I put the kids to bed and I opened a bottle of wine and got to thinking.

It's not my job to make nice all the time.

I love my kids, but I have never ever felt they should be the center of the universe (even though, let's face it, they usually are).

This morning, I told Eva about Strega Nona, the wonderful 1975 book by Tommie dePaola. She listened with wide eyes and I think, a little bit of fear, as I explained how Strega Nona (which means Grandma Witch) had too much work to do and she needed Anthony to help her watch the pasta while it cooked. She gave him very specific instructions, but he didn't listen and then the whole town ended up covered in spaghetti and Strega Nona had to fix it all with her magic.

I told Eva that the next time she throws food, I'm going to have to make her stir the pasta pot all night. And if she stops, it will start to take over our house and then maybe all of Brooklyn. Then I had to stop, because she really was looking at me like I had just told her Maleficent was about to become her new mother.

This all made me remember when my first grade teacher, Mrs. Gavette, first read Strega Nona to us. I was partly scared ("so let me get this straight -  a grandmother who is also a witch makes this guy watch over a pot of pasta, he forgets about it and then the whole town is in grave peril and the grandma who is also a witch is ticked.) and partly amazed by her very clear resolve.

A friend of mine once told me that she struggles being a parent most on the days when she feels like all she does is reprimand her kids. No real praise. No warm fuzzies. Just a lot of, "No, I said not to do that," "I'm taking away the candy," "No more TV if you keep acting like that," and so forth. But then she reminds herself, "It's not my job to be their best friend. It's my job to make them into good people."

My grandmother could whip out a witch hat if I was up to no good. She once left me a note on my bed when she was visiting that said she "had a bone to pick with me." To this day, I make my bed every day! When my mom was growing up, Grandma frequently told her that it wasn't her job to be my mom's friend.

Today, I decided I'm pulling out my inner Strega Momma. Let's face it, we all need to be a Momma Witch sometimes.

So yeah, baby girl Elise, when you want to go running across a busy street near the park and I hoist you over my shoulder and exclaim loudly that, "I'm stronger than you!," you'll know you've just been schooled by Strega Momma!

Just call me Strega Momma. Momma. Strega Momma.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

You Might Be A Mommy Or Daddy If.....

**You might be a mommy or daddy if...

1. You know what MLP stands for.*

2. Needy interlopers sometimes take over your bed in the middle of the night.

3. Your living room often looks like a bad day at Chuck E. Cheese.

4. You can define any of the following: Beaba, nipple shield, sleep sheep.

5. Sweat pants are a fashion choice, not a faux pas.

6. You now rank bodily functions like this. #1 Pee (totally manageable). #2 Poop (Depends. But usually, this can be handled.) #3 Vomit (All bets are off. Get out the hazmat suits people).

7. You have a bejeweled anything (bonus points if your laptop is bejeweled).

8. You've ever dealt with this (see photo).

9. Your wallpaper is part-sticker-part-crayon.

10. You can speak Cranky Toddler. (It's a lot like Yoda speak only angrier. Example: "Me need bunny now!" "Me no like peas!")

11. You know all the words to "Let it Go" (Bonus if you know exactly when Elsa throws off her cape. Triple bonus if you know when she sheds the gloves.).

12. You have uttered these words, "No, we don't eat pancakes with our feet."

13. You've answered the question, "Mommy/Daddy what happens when you eat poop?"

14. You sometimes speak in the royal "we" as in: "First, we're going to go pee pee. Then, we're going to wipey. Then, we'll flushy."

15. You have wiped boogers onto any part of your physical person.

16. You've wiped a lot of little butts.

17. Amazon sends you requests to rate "season four of Blue's Clues."

18. A trip alone to the grocery store is heavenly. No really, you're ready to set up shop in the cereal aisle and take a nap.

19. You've broken a sweat installing a car seat.

20. If you've gotten five straight hours of deep sleep in the past few years it's because you were having surgery or in the hospital.

21. You no longer use an alarm clock.

*That's My Little Pony for you newbies.

**I'm sure these lists have been done before, but this is my personal take on it.

Thursdays With Marthe

This is a photo of me with my friend Marthe.  We share a lot in common.  Our mothers are best friends, we're both married to total rock-steady guys and we're (more or less) stay-at-home moms to pre-school children.  We’re also the same age.

But Marthe, whose name is the French version of Martha, has the added complication of living with advanced ALS, the eventually deadly “Lou Gehrig's disease.  At present she can only move her right arm and her head.  She uses a 400-pound motorized wheel chair to get around, her home has been re-modeled to accommodate her increasing disability and she gets her nutrition twice a day from a feeding tube in her stomach.

The joy of her life is her two-year-old son August, born before she knew that the occasional foot drop she suffered was the harbinger of a deadly disease inside her.  He is the picture of healthy, like a cover-of-a-cereal-box boy.  He is playful, outgoing and exuberant and loves his ”Mama” more than he can actively express.  He goes to daycare five days a week now as it's impossible for his mom to care for him and she really can't safely be alone with him.

Her greatest fear is that he'll grow up without really knowing her and so every Thursday afternoon she and my mom spend a few hours together so that my mom can write up her life story.  So that when August is 15 or so and hates high school, or doesn't make the basketball team, or thinks he's met “the one” he can reference his mom's experiences and feelings at the same age.

And what a slew of experiences she has had. My mother has transcribed her experiences running marathons; training as a paratrooper in ROTC; leaving the business world to go back to school to become an ICU neuro-nurse, learning to fly a plane. 

Sadly, these are just memories now as the disease progresses.  Marthe suffers seizures from time to time, the worst when she's alone.  But she knows the signs of an impending “grand mal” and can open the necessary medication with the help of her teeth.

I saw Marthe in Atlanta a few weeks ago.  We met with our kids at a playground, Marthe and company arriving in a wheelchair-equipped van.  Her mom came to help and my mom came along too.  We laughed about the normal day-to-day stuff you deal with as parents.  I told her how my Eva had recently gotten a karaoke machine and then wanted to test it out at our local Applebee's. 

She told me how she deals with the restrictions of her "handi-capability" as she terms it.  She has come up with her own strategies for handling her active son. "I rig up a baby walker with a rope and can cart him around the house on my wheel chair," she told me.  Sometimes she will throw gold fish crackers in the path that she wants him to follow in the house, or if she needs him to get away from something. 

When he is doing something that he's not supposed to do, Marthe has a way of getting him to pay attention.  She says she read it in a book once, but can't remember where. She will raise her voice slightly, in a different “mommy tone” entirely, and say, “August, look at me.”  He stops whatever he's doing and rushes to her feet.  He places his hand on her lap and listens to what she has to say.

Why do I write about Marthe?  My mom friend? My contemporary? My inspiration?  Because I don't know what else to do.  When I am frustrated, when I question why God would do this, to this family, to these people, I have to write.  It's the only way I know.

I complain about wrangling two kids at the playground on a daily basis.  Marthe doesn't complain at all and she can't wrangle one bit.  I complain when our dishwasher needs to be emptied or there's a pile of laundry on my bedroom floor.  Marthe has to wake her husband up at night if she wants to change positions in bed. 

Marthe will tell you she most likely will not see August start Kindergarten. She talks very honestly about her death, how she wants to be memorialized and where she wants her ashes spread.

She is a reminder, I think, that we must appreciate what we have.  I don't mean to sound trite, but there's a reason the cliches work when you're talking tragedy or rites of passage.  They are the most appropriate way to acknowledge what's happening. So, this mother's day especially, I'm grateful for friends like Marthe. And, it should be noted, for my own mom and her place in all of this. My mom, who first got to know Marthe's mom and then Marthe, and now is helping Marthe get her story down on paper.

While we were at the park that day, August picked a flower and handed it to her.  Then, my daughter Eva followed suit and returned with a flower for me.  We were calling them our “mommy flowers.”  When we took this picture, Marthe asked me to place her flower in her hand.  She couldn't reach, or move her arm to do it.

We smiled, and later decided to keep our already wilting “mommy flowers.”  I'm not sure where mine fell later that day.  Eva asked for it back at one point while we were driving in the car and I acquiesced.  Then, later, I couldn't find it.  But just before I handed it to Eva, I remember thinking that even though the petals were already drooping, their vivid color remained so vibrant.