The Grownup Table

At family dinners when I was growing up, the adults always sat together at the actual dining room table, and the kids always sat in the living room, at a rickety card table surrounded by folding chairs and random other chairs from my grandparents’ house. All of the food and drink was at the grownup table; our parents would fill up our plates from there, and bring them to us out in the hinterlands of the living room.

For the duration of the meal, we at the kids’ table were supposed to be quiet, behave, and stay in our seats. If we needed anything, we called to our parents; we were never, EVER to approach the grownup table, and if we did, the conversation there would end abruptly, and one of our respective parents would quickly figure out what we wanted, get it for us, and shoo us away. Usually my sister and I were at the kids’ table with our cousins, all boys, who were not what one would call scintillating conversationalists; they spent their dinnertime hunkered down over their plates, shoveling it in, so we only really saw the tops of their heads. But even if they’d been chatty, it wouldn’t have made a difference to me. All I wanted was to sit at the grownup table.

The way I saw it, the grownup table was the real deal; from our table in the living room, we could hear them laughing and whispering and shouting. We could hear glasses being filled, and plates being passed around. The grownup table was where the action was. It was where the GROWNUPS were, and I desperately wanted to be one of those. Grownups got respect. People listened to them. Nothing was hidden from grownups — and most important (at least, to me), they got to tell and hear all the good jokes and stories.

I remember asking my parents when I might get to sit at the grownup table; my mother informed me she didn’t get to sit there until she got married. That didn’t work for me. My plan (at the time, anyway) was to never get married, to live in a house by the ocean with a hundred cats. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say “independently wealthy.” So, how was I going to graduate to grownuphood?

Eventually, as my cousins and I got older and bigger, and our parents and grandparents got lazier about setting up the card table (or somehow realized how to add a couple of extra leaves to the dining room table), the kids’ table was left behind. But I never forgot that feeling of being a second-class citizen, that sense that I was missing out on all the good stuff. All the REAL stuff.

Now, when I write, I continue to recall that sense of longing, and I try to give young readers all the respect and attention and honesty I know they deserve. I save all my best stories for them — especially the dark, surprising, funny ones, because I know those are the ones I always liked to eavesdrop on.

Unfortunately for them, the reality is that they’re going to have to sit at the kids’ table for a few years. That’s just the way it is. But while they’re there, I’m going to pull up a folding chair, and let them in on a few secrets, including this one:

Sitting at the grownup table gets old fast. As do we all.

Image from The Graphics Fairy.

Not Out of the Woods Yet

This past weekend, while it seemed just about everyone was taking their final vacations and hosting Labor Day cookouts and getting their kids ready to go back to school, I was hunched up in my house, struggling with the first major revision of my work in progress. The first revision seems to be the hardest for me — not because of all the changes and cuts that need to be made. It’s because of all the text I have to add. I’m pretty good at cutting away and rearranging; I’m not so eager to tease out new scenes. And this time, I needed to add four new chapters, most of which were filled with a lot of action. Sporty action. Gaah.

So I did it, slowly and painfully, and emailed it and printed it out for my Trusted Readers. You’d think I’d feel a sense of exhilaration and relief at this point, but no. Because this is just the beginning. I’ve reinforced the major, structural stuff, but I know I still have plenty of dangling threads. Wait, is that a mixed metaphor? I think I’m too tired to care.

On the upside, my family in CT got their power back late last week, so the cheese and chicken are no longer in danger. My grandmother is now gearing up for her trip to Florida, where she will stay until May, and where she can keep her food cold and the rest of her house un-airconditioned, the way she likes it. FYI, Cousin Joyce will be staying in CT, though I’m not sure anyone has broken the news to her yet. If she had a face, I’m sure it would register disappointment.

I’m gearing up for the Providence Arts Festival this Saturday, where I’ll be participating in a storytelling session at the ROOTS Cafe from 12-5 (my slot is at 3:20pm) and selling and signing my books. I’m looking forward to focusing on stories that are finished and published and out in the world, for a change. Will I see you there?

Photo by “dan.”

Cheese and chicken

We got very, very lucky, and Irene decided not to wreak too much havoc here. Three tree limbs fell just shy of our garage, and we got a little water in our basement. That’s it. (The above photo is just the pile of smaller branches we pruned. We’ll be taking a chainsaw to the tree limbs later this week.)

Not so lucky? My family in Connecticut, who still don’t have power. And my mother and sister are responsible for my incorrigible 90-year-old grandmother, who refused to put in her hearing aids and kept defiantly standing near windows and trying to go outside amidst the storm. Several hours after the power went out, my uncle got around to bringing over a generator, but my grandmother has been complaining that they’re using it to power the lights; she only wants it used to keep her freezer going. Her freezer, clearly on loan from the set of an Albert Brooks movie, is filled with nothing but frozen cheese and chicken. I guess when the apocalypse arrives, cheese and chicken will become our new currency.

My heart goes out to those who fared worse than we did. Best wishes for easy cleanup, dry basements, hot showers, and manageable (if not fully appreciative) loved ones.

Stormy Weather

So, apparently we have a little bit of rain coming to the east coast.

As we wait for Irene to make her appearance, I can’t help thinking about another big hurricane: Gloria, in 1985. I was a freshman in high school, and I remember baking a Boston cream pie right before the storm hit. We lost power for a few days and most of the food in our fridge went bad, so we ate that pie at just abut every meal. Now, I have a hard time with even Boston cream donuts; they seem less filled with cream and more with desperation.

One photo exists of me from just after that storm, where I am posed next to a tree that crashed through the fence in our backyard. I am wearing a Chicago concert t-shirt and Jordache jeans and a red bandanna tied in my awkwardly-feathered hair. I am smiling like a fool, my braces glimmering in the post-hurricane sun, as if I fancy myself a big-game hunter standing next to a recently-felled elephant.

I don’t remember being afraid at all when Gloria came to town, probably because I trusted that my parents would keep us safe. When the eye of the storm passed over us, its false sunshine filling our neighborhood, I insisted on going outside, despite my mother’s protests. I knew the storm was coming back, but there didn’t seem to be any sense of immediacy to it for me. Maybe it was because I had such a sheltered childhood, I just never imagined anything could hurt me.

Over the past couple of days, as the reports of Irene have grown more and more serious, I have developed a growing sense of anxiety. I’ve toggled between every known weather channel and news service, I’ve watched as #hurricaneirene has trended on Twitter, and I’ve read all the heartless comments from those who hope that the east cost is wiped off the map, who think the rain will cleanse us of our sins, who blame everything from Bush to Obama. I’ve made lists of emergency phone numbers, planned our inventory of non-perishable items and batteries and bottled water, mapped out a list of responsibilities for myself and my husband to accomplish before the storm hits (me: clean the house, do the laundry; him: set up the basement water pump, store anything in the yard that’s not nailed down). And then, last night, on our way to Target to stock up, I had a bit of a meltdown.

“I’m…really…worried,” I managed, hyperventilating while holding back tears.

My husband was reassuring, but I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: what the heck was wrong with me? I’ve been through other storms over the past twenty-six years, and I’ve weathered many, many other disasters of equal or greater malignancy.

And maybe it’s just that. Maybe I’ve just had enough, for now, of that feeling of impending doom, of being exposed to the elements, like an already-battered lawn chair someone forgot to pull into the garage. I’m through with “battening down the hatches.” I just want to feel the sun on my face for a while.

But life is never just a series of sunny days, not for anyone, and certainly not when you’re an adult, with your own life and your own responsibilities. And being a grownup can be TIRING. You can’t just bake a Boston cream pie and listen to your Chicago albums while the storm rages and your parents tape up the windows and fill the bathtub with water; you actually have to deal with adversity head-on, again and again and again. You can no longer trust that someone else is going to keep you safe, and while that autonomy can be empowering and exhilarating, it can just as easily leave you feeling unsettled and vulnerable and facing a panic attack on the way to Target. It’s all dependent upon how the storm tracks.

Ultimately, I suppose I can only do my best, and hope for the best. To that end, my latest goal is to eat all the ice cream in my freezer. When the power goes out, it’s all going to melt, anyway.

Umbrella photo care of The Graphics Fairy.

Lucky moi

Above: Card from my grandmother. Yes, I just got this over the weekend, and not when I was twelve.

Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes. I’m still processing the events of the past weekend, which included trips to Connecticut and NYC, an all-star cast of friends and family, a deluge of prosecco, a red velvet cupcake (consumed yesterday at exactly 2:58pm, the very minute I was born), and one VERY thoughtful husband.

Also, I purchased a little something for myself: a signet ring with the date of my birthday engraved inside. It’s my new favorite thing.

I’m feeling very lucky, very loved, and very young at heart. And I’m grateful for all of you, who continue to make all three possible.

Late Summer Nostalgia

I grew up on this beach, in Milford, Connecticut. More accurately, my grandparents owned a cottage there, and my mother and sister and I would make the 20-minute trip from Stratford each summer morning, and stay for the day.

If we were really good, and pestered our grandparents just the right amount, they’d let us SLEEP OVER. The Sleepover was the funnest of the fun, and often involved not sleeping at all, but instead peeking through the slats of the guest room door at episodes of M*A*S*H or Taxi or whatever other “mature programming” our grandparents happened to be watching.

The neighborhood of the beach was populated with unique characters. A big white house right on the beach was inhabited by the Chichester Sisters, three spinsters who could be seen going for a swim together each day in their old-fashioned bathing suits and caps. There was Jaya, a big woman with a kind face who taught me how to float and hold my breath underwater. Mrs. Imbimbo, who sat on the beach all day, slathered in baby oil, drinking from a sweaty can of Tab cola while her big, black Labradors ran up and down the shore. Mr. Stüller, a little bespectacled man who fixed watches and clocks. Miss Virginia, the esteemed ballet teacher who lived next door to my grandparents. Janet, a woman who was deathly afraid of bees, and had a teenage daughter named Lenore who took me under her wing and enjoyed playing me her Peter Frampton albums. My great-Aunt Dorothy and great-Uncle Gorzy, who lived across the street; from my grandparents’ cottage window, we could see them stick an American flag in the mailbox next to their front door when they wanted us to come over for coffee.

And those were just a few. The cottage and the quaint neighborhood and most of its inhabitants are gone now, though I feel blessed that I was able to spend time there with them, at least for a while. The memory of it all inspires me to create other havens like this in my own stories. Not just for my readers, but for myself.

Cousin Joyce

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending an annual creative retreat hosted by my agent. Some other writers and I stayed up one night telling stories. This was mine…

WARNING: The faint of heart should read on at their own risk.

My grandmother lives in Florida for most of the year, and comes home to us in New England for a few months each summer. When she arrived in May about a year or so ago, she brought with her a doll.

The fact that my nonagenarian grandmother has recently developed a penchant for dolls and resin ballerina figurines and stuffed animals is another story for another time. This story is about this particular doll, and the fact that it possesses the following attributes of increasing creepiness (photos supplied for non-believers):

1. Not satisfied with the doll’s original wardrobe, my grandmother went out and bought it actual toddler clothes and shoes. To wit, a pastel windsuit and dirty white sneakers.

2. Not satisfied with the doll’s original pigtailed hairstyle, my grandmother took it to a friend of hers in Florida who worked as a hairdresser. The doll now sports a layered ‘do, and a big pink bow in its hair.

3. The doll is posed with its arms up, elbows bent, and it’s meant to be leaned against a wall with its back to the viewer, as if it’s counting down for a game of Hide and Seek. Or serving a harsh sentence of Time Out.

4. And, most important, and disturbing…

…the doll has no face. And has white stumps for hands.

(I’ll pause here while you all go and change your underwear.)

While the rest of us were disturbed by this new addition to our family, and its position in the front room of my grandmother’s house (so it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the door), my grandmother could not be prouder. She named the doll “Joyce,” because, as she says, “She brings me so much joy.” As a coping mechanism, my sister and I jokingly refer to the doll as “Cousin Joyce.”

And when we stay at my grandmother’s house, we sleep with the lights on.

Photo credit: Jenna LaReau (who took one for the team in getting this close)