Counting Colors

“Cerulean”: Caroline’s go-to blue Crayola crayon.

“Cerulean”: From Latin caeruleus “blue, blue-green,” perhaps dissimilated from caelulum, diminutive of caelum “heaven, sky.”

“I had trouble sleeping last night, Mommy. So I counted the colors of the rainbow; then I counted the letters of the alphabet, and then I said, aaagh, I’m just tired.” Must be the engineering gene from her father’s side— Caroline’s got a knack for numbers. My head hits the pillow and churns in the way of an English major’s; sleeping comes second to sifting through the stories of the day. But I appreciate the cut and dry of numbers and am glad Caroline has found them. Mathematics, for me, is crazy Mrs. Carrazone jumping on tables singing of vectors, planes, and angles of inclination. It’s an 8 a.m. class in college I didn’t get too very often. It sometimes involves counting on my fingers. I joke with Dave that sooner not later, he’ll need to help the girls with their math homework.

For now I’m okay with shapes and sorting. Read the rest of this entry »


Jogging Memories

I could do this with my eyes closed, this jog around Wayne, Pennsylvania, though I’ve lived away from here half of my life. A step onto the front porch, and it could be any year, the trees are lush and big; the June heat thumps, even early in the morning. The two dogwoods in the front are gone, due to a recent storm. A burly maple fell from across the street, sparing my dad’s house by inches, but the front hedges and the dogwoods did not fare as well. There are no bushes on the side either to separate our lawn from the lawn of my dad’s “new” neighbors, who’ve been there at least five years. We needed those bushes when we were growing up next to “Ginny,” the old lady who threatened to shoot our golden retriever if he crossed onto her property, which he did often. Dan and Matt would play football in the front and purposefully toss the ball over the hedges, then make diving catches through them. It was not the dog that Ginny had to worry about—but she knew that; for some reason she just couldn’t threaten to kill the boys. We had a lot of action in the backyard, too, but the front seems a more poignant place, I think, as I stretch to touch my fingers to my toes: the place of prom picture posing, of chats with neighbors. It’s where I would sit to see my brothers coming home from big league baseball games, to see my dad coming home from work. It’s where my college-graduate sister stood, carrying a backpack bigger than she, before leaving for Europe. When my mom was home with hospice care before she was completely bed-ridden, she asked me to lead her to the front door. She sat there in her wheelchair, quietly taking in the view.

Sidewalks are a little worn, though that crack at the foot of our driveway—the one that would get skateboards airborne—has long since been repaired. A turn left would lead me up a small hill to the old bus stop; but a turn right is the running route, and my feet start mechanically in that direction. Two houses down from Dad’s is the big tree carved into a bear, the tree which was just a tree when I was growing up, but is now a 15-foot Flyers fan—an orange hat perched on its head—and a big favorite of the Lenehan girls when we take walks around Pop Pop’s neighborhood. The teenager who lives there now mows my father’s lawn every Tuesday. The teenager, Tommy Walters, who lived there before him also used to mow my dad’s lawn. Tommy was a quiet kid with a quiet father and a lovely, loving mom, and on Mother’s Day years ago, he called home from a pay phone as he was dying from a knife wound.

Lisa lived across the way, and when we were growing up, we were rarely separated. I’m not sure what I contributed to the relationship, but she had a Barbie and a three-speed bike. We often swapped bikes: hers for my single-speed, which by now may be en vogue, but back then, at least for me, having more of anything was better than having less. As I run by the military academy parking lot, I see the small wall I flipped over while road-testing Lisa’s three-speed. I may have totaled her bike, but I’m sure at the time the focus was on me and the “calamity” involving the “great wall”—at least that’s where I would have demanded the focus to be. My brothers called me “Bratty” for substantiated reasons.

I am heading towards the middle school, across Lancaster Avenue towards Aberdeen, the road to freedom, the road to Mary Kate’s house. We gossiped, spent our parents’ money tying up phone lines. We passed notes in homeroom. It was all wonderfully safe and cliché. Matt had a nickname for her as well, and as I was sifting through old letters in my childhood room, I found written in my brother’s scrawl on a scrap piece of paper a phone number next to the name “Mary Brat.” The school is unrecognizably new—no more roofed walkway attaching two aged buildings. Once when I was an 8th grader I was waiting for the bus outside of the main building when I saw a girl I thought to be my friend Sandra nearing the annex. I yelled something sassy about her questionable choice in outfit (maybe it was a dress-up day?) and realized only when she turned around looking bothered that it was not Sandra. That may have been an initial moment of adult awareness: I should keep some thoughts to myself…and get my eyes checked.

The public library across from the middle school looks the same on the outside; though built in the 1970’s, the building is still too modern a place to be attractive. I remember a summer reading contest when I just bled books. If I could have spent my middle school years in the library or at the piano, I would have. But the mean-girl stuff was an ever-present concern, and I was not always at the receiving end, I’m afraid. I was a worrier, a bit of a follower, some of the things I’d like my Caroline and Lexi never to be. I remember success in the classroom, though—a project in math involving a slab of wood, nails set in a geometric pattern, and colored yarn. Of course English: I spent hours working on one of Mrs. Santee’s projects, sitting in our backyard sketching a robin, observing blades of grass, identifying cumulus clouds, writing poetry. It is no wonder Thoreau struck a chord in college. It is a wonder listening to Caroline repeat Shel Silverstein’s “Sleeping Sardines” by heart and seeing Lexi at work on “Melinda Mae.”

I’m circling the town of Wayne, rather than heading into its hub. I like the perimeter. There were kids who’d hang out in town, but I always went there with purpose: for slices at Real Pizza, for a movie at Anthony Wayne, to Kaleidoscope to buy stationery or the Paisley Shop to buy post earrings. WaWa is now so close I can smell the Amoroso rolls, as I again approach Lancaster, heading back towards North Wayne. I am stopping to pick up coffee for Dave and me, so once I cross the street, I’m free to walk, but I sprint to the finish in case there are any old boyfriends around. I leave WaWa, a sweaty mess balancing two massive cups of caffeine in a 4-cup carry tray.

The last time I was in the Baskin Robbins to my left was when cancer had destroyed much of Mom’s appetite, but in true Regan form, she still loved her ice cream. We left the house for a root beer float and then a pedicure, and we happened to see Mrs. Walters at the nail salon. I’d not seen her in years. She looked older and sadder, but then again, so did I. I felt like since we used to go to her Christmas party each year, since I used to babysit her kids, that I should explain to her why my mom was now so thin. I should tell her how sorry I was about Tommy. But the moments passed, and she left, and Mom and I came home from the last outing we ever had together.

True Value, next to Baskin and Robbins, is now South Moon Under, but the hardware store served a higher purpose by connecting me with my future husband. I worked there half a summer in college, inventorying paint among other things, and a neighbor of mine walked in one day to buy a gallon of Smoky Mauve exterior. He told me I could make a dollar more an hour painting houses and that’s all he needed to say. I quit before we completed our conversation and was enjoying prime tanning, listening to WMMR, and taking long lunch breaks before I could say “Phillips Head or Flat Blade?” The only person obstructing my way to a stress-free summer was the foreman, Dave Lenehan, that guy from my swim club and church who had attended a neighboring high school. Mom said something about him having a nice family because she played tennis with a friend of his mom’s, but Dave was a tad too attentive to his job to get a lot of attention from me. He was not unfriendly and kind of cute, so I married him 15 years later.

He must be in desperate need of coffee by now, I think as I cross North Wayne Avenue for the sidewalk under the train tracks. The walls beneath the tracks are smooth and black like tar; I’d forgotten. The thought of touching them was always slightly alluring, and when I did, I found them to be dry and cool, not slimy like they looked. When I was feeling brave as a child, I would avoid the street altogether, opting for the tunnel path underneath the tracks. Rumors of dead-people buried, smells of urine, darkness, and sounds of approaching trains all triggered imagination, which would without fail, cause me to quicken my pace when I took the tunnel. I am close now: past John’s Market, where hoagies flow; past the big evergreen where neighbors would gather to sing Christmas carols; up the street that winds with the crooked creek. Two more blocks to Dad’s, and the coffee’s still warm.

**********************

As we leave to return to Annapolis, Caroline walks off of the front porch slowly. She and Lexi had collected leaves and pinecones for Pop Pop and left them in a pile on the porch. She eyes them now then turns around and raises those blue eyes up to scan the house before her. She grabs my hand: “Oh, Mommy, this is such a beautiful home. Why does Pop Pop live here all alone?”

When my mother was first gone, I shared the same concern, but I feel differently today. There was nothing solitary about my morning run. I had plenty of company. My dad reads the paper; he goes to work; he cooks a pork chop; he watches the Phillies; and I’m sure there are moments when he feels alone, possibly lonely, but I understand why he stays put. He’s easy to locate on Woodland Avenue. Memories know just where to find him.


Cleaning House

Whenever I go home to Philly, I find something old in my dad’s refrigerator. This time around, it was yogurt. Expiration date: March 2009. It was Thanksgiving. I scowled, made fun of him, told him I’d rather not hospitalize my girls, made fun of him some more, and eventually dumped the goo into the sink. He muttered, “What can happen to yogurt anyway?” and I shook my head, feeling sorry for this man who keeps old food in his fridge.

He’s actually doing just fine. He’s been taking care of his house on his own for these seven years, since my mom’s been gone. And he’s always taken care of us. Though he’s from a family of lawyers, he has spent his professional life in education. He knew right from the start that he wanted to teach. Who really knows what they want to be when they grow up? My dad did at age 20. 40 years as a college professor, and he still talks about his students with humor and respect, as if he enjoys going to work each day. He spent his younger years playing sports and will be the first to tell you how good he was at quarterback and point guard. He follows Philadelphia and Villanova teams with intense interest, but he’s forgiving—he doesn’t lose his mind when his team loses a game. He’s a patient fan, a patient man. When my siblings and I were growing up, Dad would get a certain angry look that we called “The Face.” When my dad was about to blow, one of my brothers would make snide verbal note of “The Face,” and Dad would inevitably break, accepting it was just much easier to laugh it off. He tells funny stories; he has funny friends. He sings a lot, and he whistles—as a kid, I always knew when he was home from work.

Despite all of this, I can find the good in most everyone I know, but in those I love most—like my dad—I sometimes chip away at the not-quite-good-enough. Poor guy. I’ve been doing it to him for years. So when I was last home for Thanksgiving, I gave a cursory glance towards the newly paved driveway; I appreciated the renovated master bath; and I acknowledged his attempt to keep plants alive—but I wouldn’t let the old yogurt die.

Then, I took the two-hour drive back to my own messy house.

***************

On the first Sunday of Advent, I sat in my hometown church between my dad and my daughter, Caroline. She was relatively entertained by softly knocking her knees against the pew in front of us, so I was able to catch a few lines of the sermon. The priest was suggesting that we clean our houses. I thought it was a little funny that he was going there until I recognized—from somewhere in my distant, distant past—the use of metaphor, and I attempted to stay focused long enough to see this thing through. We probably would be attentive to our homes, yes, as we cleaned and straightened and organized for the holidays. But what the priest encouraged us to do as well, was to ready ourselves—our minds, our hearts—and clean up the inside spaces, so that we could welcome all that Christmas represents. Do some interior de-cluttering. Make room for love.

Though he meant metaphorically, I also thought I’d take the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas to tidy our place up a bit. Sanitizing the soul is one thing, but it couldn’t hurt to organize the Tupperware drawer, right? I thought the priest was really onto something—a clean, quiet approach to Christmas—but I also thought that in order to prepare for the birth of Jesus, it would be helpful if I, quickly, became a much better person. I would do it all—but contemplatively. I would get my shopping done without spending a lot of money. I would forego the Biggest Loser finale and instead spend time reading a book on the couch, occasionally glancing up at the Christmas tree because that’s why the tree is there, to enjoy at night, rather than chastise during the day when it’s blocking all natural light from entering the living room. I would get those holiday cards together early, and then spend time writing actual notes, connecting with my faraway family and friends. After all, it’s only once a year that I check in with some of these people—the very least I can do is put pen to paper and sign a name.

If I were to lose my mind completely—if that were to happen—my guess is that I’d be shopping around for institutions starting . . . right about now, during this time of year. It’s so cliché—like setting a horror flick at night in a deep, dark forest. Peter Benchley set his scary story on a beach in the middle of a bright sunny day, and when Jaws snatched its first bikini-clad victim, that freaked us all out with originality. That’s the kind of crazy I would like to be. I’d prefer to go nuts on a Tuesday in April. But, I’m a lemming when it comes to increased anxiety levels during this season of lights and giving. I can see it in everyone else’s eyes at the mall: stress, confusion, disbelief. I was walking with Caroline and Lexi through a parking lot the other day and a woman was screaming into her phone, “That’s beside the point, what are you trying to say to me????” She was ripping mad. Thankfully my girls looked at her strangely, like they’d never seen a lunatic yelling loudly before.

I’ve begun to feel a slight tightness in my chest, and for some reason, I’ve started barking at Dave in response to any question he may have for me. As my to-do list triples in size, I contemplate the use of spreadsheets in order to get my literal and figurative houses ready. Meanwhile, homemade holiday projects pop into my periphery, floating around like sugar plum fairies: Yet-to-be-framed photos of the kids; cute (but still, concrete) stepping stones for the grandparents; an as-yet-unused “World’s Best Cookie Press.”

I’ve scoured the earth for a purple doggy because it is the only thing Lexi wants for Christmas. I have not yet found one. There’s that tightness again. My left eyelid is twitching.

***************

This morning, instead of putting out an All Points Bulletin for a purple doggy, I turned on my iPod. I defy anyone to stay stressed out while listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” I danced—socks gliding, butt shaking, hands waving—the best I can. (And in my own kitchen, without anyone watching, that’s some good dancing!) Cleaning house while Stevie’s getting down and dirty—probably not what the priest had in mind, but I snapped out of my holiday funk by getting funky. We’ve got to do what it takes to make room for what’s important. Room enough to answer Caroline’s “Mommy, how ‘bout a snuggle?” with an “Absolutely”; time enough to count hugs with Lexi: 1 to 20, and 1 to 20 all over again; space enough to bundle up the girls, take a walk downtown, and point at all of the sparkling lights on the boats, on the buildings, and in the sky.

***************

At Thanksgiving dinner, Dad said grace. He had us all with him: kids and grandkids. He had a gorgeous meal in front of him and great wine. He didn’t have his wife, but he was gracious just the same, thanking God for our many blessings. He added, “If you don’t mind, we’d really like to keep it this way.”

My dad, he’s always found a way to get through. He just gets there most of the time—to optimism, hope, calm, resolve, faith, patience, and ultimately, to happiness. He finds that place. He’s been tidying himself up for as long as I’ve known him, uncluttered and wide open with love, with room to spare. And I am so proud of him, for doing what he has done in the space my mom has left behind.


Questions: Too Many to Count/Answer: Baseball

It’s been many nights now that I’ve gone to bed worrying about the flu and what effect it could have on my little girls if they should get sick with it. Unsettled doesn’t quite describe how I’ve been feeling, especially at night. (I can get dark when it’s dark outside.) I woke up the other morning mildly refreshed. The light was breaking through our bedroom blinds, and with that came a brighter outlook, but I’d had a dream about disease, and I just couldn’t completely shake it off. Dave had had a dream, as well. A “nightmare” he called it—that the Phillies were down by 7 in the bottom of the 1st during Game One of the World Series.

And there it is: The basic difference between Dave and me. I worry. I imagine the worst and wallow in it. Dave does have serious concerns (not that Phillies versus Yankees isn’t serious!), and he of course loves our kids and thinks about them as much as I do, but he doesn’t allow himself to go down the hideous roads. He stops and turns around, back to the busy places, populated by friends and family, activity and positivity.

I’ve been an over-thinker all of my life; that gene came directly from my mom. My dad is the optimist—feet planted firmly in the clouds, he says. I’ve tried often during these last few years to imagine my mom and dad as young parents. They obviously had different approaches and concerns than we do. They laid babes on their tummies not their backs. They wrapped them in cloth diapers. I’m sure there were issues to debate and products to buy, but it just seems like today there is so much out there to trip us up as new parents: milk vs. formula, work vs. stay-at-home, vaccines, mercury, bpa-free, advanced degrees in car seat installation.

I didn’t even have a baby yet, when Dave and I took a forty-five minute trip to Great Beginnings in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in order to buy, among other things, a … chair. We walked into the store, new initiates into a secret club, one I never before imagined existed. There were pregnant women everywhere, some with presumed husbands by their sides, some aiming scanning guns at strollers, cribs and matching bumpers. I wondered, Did I really just drive an hour for—not a “rocking chair,” but— a “glider”? At the same time, everything around me looked so . . . little, so . . . pastel, so darn cute (everything I could identify, that is).

Shopping for a glider was akin to test-driving cars, and believe me, it was the right thing to be doing while I was eight months pregnant. It was a testament to each rocker how comfortable it was, how smoothly it handled, and how its foundation didn’t instantaneously collapse under my weight. I could get up from each chair, too, which felt miraculous at the time. We went with blue and white, and that blue and white glider and I spent quality time together during the girls’ first months. I remember sitting in the chair, often at 4 a.m., nursing a baby while looking outside the window. All the neighbors’ homes were dark. I was sleepy, and though everyone in the world was, in fact, sleeping, I was okay with that. I felt a bit lonely, but at peace, and strangely safe there with a new little life in my arms. Not a lot of questions or worries swirled around in my head at that hour or stage. It was all I could do at the time, to sit on a rocker at 4 am.

Lexi’s now two and Caroline, three. The glider is now a spot for reading while snuggling. It is something for the girls to fight over, giggle on, and hide under. And just the other day, for Caroline it became a “thinking chair.” I was trying to persuade her to get off of the rocker, find her princess underwear and put on, well, anything, so we could go down for breakfast when she said, “Just a minute, Mom, I need to think about something.” I was in Lexi’s room, wishing for a spare jaws-of-life so I could extricate “Pink Doggie” from her grasp long enough to put her strong little arms through her shirt sleeves.

Caroline said, “Mom? How do tattoos go away?” We’d gone to a fireman-themed birthday party the previous weekend, and both girls still had remnants of a red truck stamped on their right hands. I explained that her tattoo rubbed off and then went into a short vocabulary lesson comparing “permanent” to “impermanent,” and she seemed satisfied with the answer. “Mom? How does water move?” I went with the ice-atop-mountains approach, mentioning the word “gravity” just for kicks, wondering if what I had said was confusing or even wrong, but she gave me that one as well. “Mom, I’m going to think some more.”

Lexi has an old man laugh, like she’s been smoking for years, a sputtering engine. I had finished wrestling her into a clean diaper and outfit, and I had her in prime tickling position when Caroline asked from the other room, “Mom? How do we talk?” Little sister chuckled at me from her purple pillowed perspective.

So it seems Caroline and I have entered a new phase. There’s a give and take that wasn’t there before, as I await her next question more and more eagerly, not even attempting to guess what will come next, but rather, taking life in from her funny little perspective. Though I will never know all of the answers, I am now going to be asked all of the questions. Every single one of them.

**********

These days I do have the opportunity to sleep about eight hours a night. But, worries and questions branch and multiply like a family tree, now that the girls are getting older. It’s not just about feeding them every four hours; it’s about raising them. It’s about squashing bad manners, teaching concern for others. It’s about using good grammar, nurturing interests, providing safety, getting outside. And the irony is, as opposed to my teaching days, I’ve got nary a lesson planned. Each day in the classroom, I knew what I was doing. Each day in the home seems off-the-cuff and improvised. I ask big questions wanting big answers: How do I get my kids vaccinated if there’s no vaccine? When will I go back to work, and what will I do? Is Caroline sometimes shy because I’m overprotective? Do I give Lexi enough attention? Can I, please, keep them safe, forever?

**********

The Phillies are down three games to one in the World Series. All I can do is watch them play. But it feels like the right thing to be doing, wine glass in hand, lucky blanket wrapped around my perennially cold feet. Though I have the opportunity to sleep eight hours a night, I’ve been depriving myself of it during the last few weeks, not because of parenting concerns swirling around in my head, but because of baseball. It’s been nice to shift focus. I still have questions and concerns as I sit there in front of the television—“Shane looks tense. Did Ryan touch the bag? How clutch is Jason Werth? (But why the facial hair?) Did that really just happen?” I am Caroline, blurting out what’s on my mind, commenting on the here and now—on what is right in front of me.

There may not be a lot I can do to save the Phillies, but I think I’ll have Dave bring down the glider tonight for Game 5. That chair’s brought us nothing but good fortune since we brought it home. I’ll just toss a red throw over it (to cover up the blue and white) and hope for the best.