Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Navy Blue

Twenty-one years ago tomorrow, at 8 a.m., the phone on the wall in the kitchen rang, and I picked it up. The caller greeted me briefly and then asked for Dad, who was also in the kitchen, having some coffee. They had an even briefer exchange that finished with, “thank you for letting me know,” and him handing me the receiver to replace in the cradle.

He told me you were gone.

I nodded and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. Emotions in the house had long since been forbidden, although we weren't allowed to tell you that. It had been a somewhat sleepless night, the remnants of the burger I'd attempted to eat the night before at Applebee's churning restlessly in my stomach to the soundtrack of Nona's wailing at your bedside as your fever kept creeping up and your organs shut down. Of course I didn't know that then. I've skimmed the surface of the memory a few times in the past 21 years, afraid to wallow in its depths, of losing myself and becoming that awkward 17-year-old again.

I'm no longer afraid.

I told Dad that I'd let Jeremy know, although why I volunteered to do so is beyond me. I approached his double bed with trepidation, not sure what to say or how to say it, only that I knew I was creating a memory—a horrible one—that we would have to share for the rest of our lives. I echoed Dad's phrase and told Jeremy that you were gone, and he cried. I had a nervous smile that I couldn't shake, which caused me to feel embarrassed and guilty for almost a decade, until I read in a psychology textbook that that was sometimes a normal reaction to delivering bad news.

The memories of the rest of that day are a wash of smell and and color. Your bloated face lying against a stark white bed pillow. The smell of urine that permeated the halls of the nursing home, pungent as I walked that final time to say goodbye. The navy-blue bodybag. The heat of the funeral home.

The sequence unravels somewhat after what I can logically impose as a grown-up, knowing what I know about what happens when there is a “death in the family.” I know we all got dressed. I know we drove to the nursing home to say goodbye. I know we went on a long drive to the funeral home—this was before Weil followed the Jews to the northeast part of Cincinnati—to plan the funeral itself and to learn what would happen. I know that Uncle Jack and Uncle Matt were there for part, or maybe all, of the day.

Oh god, and I had to buy shoes. I had forgotten about that. After all the planning was over, I had to go to the mall, of all things. I had had nothing to wear to the funeral, and I couldn't very well ask you, “Hey, Mom, what should I wear to your funeral in a few weeks?” Fortunately, Margaret was either back from Luxembourg or hadn't left yet, so we attacked the mall and she helped me find a navy suit. It was the first suit I ever owned. It had a peplum, which was so “in” back then, and four large blue-and-gold buttons. The skirt was a little long and the waist was a little snug, but as I knew I wasn't going to have much time, it was going to have to do. I can't remember if I had it altered, and as it has long since made it to another woman's closet, I have no way of verifying.

But I possessed no navy shoes. I had red and yellow flats, courtesy of Bat Mitzvahs in the mid-1980s. I had black shoes. I had white Keds, thanks to showchoir. I even had black character shoes. But nothing that would go with a navy suit.

I had been working at the JCC that summer, and was filling my evenings with a summer production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—anything to escape the reality of what was going on with you. I hadn't had time—hadn't made time—to buy shoes. So I found myself at the mall on the day you died, frantically searching for navy shoes to match my new, almost-fitting suit.

Within five minutes of being there, I had run into Marla Sudman, one of my co-counselors from camp. She immediately asked how you were, and I was faced with a quandary. Should I lie and say that you were “hanging in there”? Or should I tell her that you had died that morning? If I told the truth, how would that make me look, being at the mall on the day my mom died? But if I lied, and the truth came out later, which it inevitably would, then I would have to explain why I lied. Why did I have to run into her? And why I had waited so long to get shoes? And why was this happening to me?

I told her that you had died that morning, and explained my dilemma about the shoes. Rather than judge (What sane person would judge? the grown-up me wants to interject here), she expressed her condolences, asked if there was anything she could do, and directed me toward Pappagallo for shoes. I thanked her and made a beeline for the store, hoping to enter and exit without running into anyone else I knew.

I found navy shoes in Pappagallo for $75—they were the most expensive shoes I'd ever bought, but I figured I didn't have much choice. It was the closest store to where I'd parked and I didn't want to go any farther into the mall than I had to. I wrote a check, tucked the box under my arm, and headed out the door.

The shoes had clip-on accessories—that had been one of the saleslady's selling points. One set were bows and the other rosettes. I wore the rosettes to the funeral, as the bows seemed too festive, but the teeth that clipped them to the shoes ended up snagging my pantyhose and digging into my feet—definitely a design flaw.

You would have steered me better. You would have taken me to L.S. Ayres or Lazarus and had me try on a dozen pairs, walk in them all, and asked me which was the most comfortable. You would have told me that neither the bows nor the rosettes were appropriate for a funeral. You would have probably insisted that we shop for the shoes at the same time as the suit, even if I was tired, to make sure that we got a good match, since the shades of navy can be so different. And you probably would have had a purse I could have borrowed.

Despite the shoe faux pas 21 years ago, I have learned, Mom. We have a wedding to go to in a couple of weeks. I bought a navy dress. I found silver-gray sandals that look just lovely with it, and I found a purse on sale at Marshall's (you would love Marshall's, it's just like T.J. Maxx) to match. I know what jewelry I'm going to wear, and I've got a little wrap in case it gets chilly, even though it's August and we're in the middle of an insane heat wave. I know, I know, you never know.

I hear echoes of your laugh in my laugh, you know. It catches me off-guard, but it no longer makes me sad. I'm happy that I carry a piece of you with me, and that piece of you comes out at the moments when I'm the most unguarded, the happiest, the most carefree.

Twenty-one years feels like a lifetime ago in some ways. So much has happened since then, it would take the rest of my life to fill you in, and then I'd miss what's going on right now. So instead I pause on this anniversary and acknowledge the gifts you gave me—life, unconditional love, and others too many to name—and say thank you. I miss you and I love you.

Friday, July 22, 2011

From Harry Potter to News of the World

“So Mom,” my eight-year-old daughter queried from the back seat of the car. “Is Rita Skeeter evil, or is she just, like, doing bad stuff?”

My daughter has been listening to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on CD for the past few months. We read the first three books in the series aloud together, but apparently, I wasn't quick enough for her on the fourth book. And really, despite my best efforts, who can compete with Jim Dale?

After being subjected to her begging and begging, I allowed her to watch the fourth film one day early this summer. We had seen the first three, the pattern being after we finished one book, we would watch the film together. Goblet on film proved to be a bit much—not because (spoiler alert) Cedric dies, but because she didn't much like having to watch Brendan Gleeson's rolling magical eye. I can't say that I blame her.

But her queasiness for the effect did not dampen her love of the story, and despite having finished listening to the tale at least once already, she has returned to the beginning and is having another go. Occasionally questions surface about plot details: “Was the Moody Dumbledore met at the beginning of the term at Hogwarts the real Moody?” and sometimes she's analyzing things on a deeper level, such as wondering what makes Rita Skeeter tick.

I immediately jumped into English teacher mode and turned the question back to her. “Well, what do you think, Syd? Do you think she's really evil? Or do you think she's just doing bad stuff and making bad choices?”

There was silence and I waited. I waited a while, and I remembered that she was only eight, and that wait time in elementary school is infinitely longer than in high school. And I felt fortunate that I didn't have to rush her along because there were 19 other students in the classroom, competing for my attention, exhibiting off-task behavior, or doodling in books.

Well,” she said, finally, “I think she was just doing bad stuff. Making bad choices.”

Interesting,” I responded, wondering how long I could stretch out this literary discussion without her losing interest. “Why?”

I'm not sure,” she said, after a few seconds. “But didn't she put a spell on her Quick Quotes Quill? So it wasn't really her making bad choices?”

Hmm, I thought. Very literal interpretation. But she's eight.

That's one way to look at it,” I said. “And I would tend to agree with you—I don't think she's evil.” I left out the diatribe about whether characters (and people) could be purely evil for the moment, as I don't think I can really get into that with an elementary-aged student. “But I do think that Rita will do anything to get the story. And that's where she gets in trouble.”

Like where she knew about Hagrid? And no one knew how she knew about Hagrid?” Syd queried.

Exactly. How did she know about Hagrid?”

There was silence, and I wasn't sure if my daughter didn't remember the plot, or didn't put two and two together. “Well,” I said, putting my teacher hat back on. “What's her full name?”

Rita Skeeter,” she said.

Yes,” I said. “Do you know what 'Skeeter' is short for?”

No,” she said.

I sighed ever so slightly. This is where her being too young for the series comes in sometimes.

It's a nickname for a mosquito. Do you remember at the end of the story? Hermione figures out that Rita Skeeter can transform herself into a mosquito. And that's how she knows about Hagrid—she was a mosquito at the time, so she was able to buzz around and overhear him talking to Madame Maxine.”

Oh,” she said. “I get it.”

But I wasn't sure if she did. After all, she does fall asleep to the CDs, and Hermione's revelation comes near the end of the novel. Maybe she'll hear it on her next time through, now that she knows what to listen for.

I decided to try for one more angle. “Rita Skeeter is a journalist, Sydney. Do you know what that means?”

I know what a journalist is!” she retorted.

Okay, okay!” I laughed.

And you know how journalists always have to tell stories, right?”

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw her nod.

Well, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about getting a story. It's called 'ethics,' and it has to do with how a journalist gets the information for her story. Rita Skeeter did it the wrong way.”

Like with the quill? When it wrote down the things that didn't happen?”

Exactly. She made things up, and she listened in to conversations that she wasn't supposed to. And I think that J.K. Rowling....”

Rowling.” Here she corrected my pronunciation, and I had to laugh.

Rowling, by this point in writing the series, was so tired of journalists making things up about her, or taking one little story and blowing it way out of proportion, that she invented Rita Skeeter to get back at them. To poke a little fun at them. Do you get it?”


So is Rita evil, Sydney?”

No, I don't think so.”

We sat for a moment, digesting all of this, and then I decided to push my luck one more time. “You know, there is a story in the news right now about journalists getting information in an unethical way. In England. A newspaper—a tabloid—just shut down because some of the people who work there hacked into people's cell phones.”

What do you mean, 'hacked'?”

Like, listened into, without permission.”

How did they do that?” she asked.

I have no idea, and to be honest, I don't want to know, because I would never do anything like that.”

What did they hear?”

Who knows?” I said, not liking the direction the discussion was taking, but trying to roll with it. “Maybe what color shoes Miley Cyrus was wearing, or where somebody else famous was getting coffee.” I certainly wasn't going to give her details about what Rupert Murdoch's employees intercepted about a slain 13-year-old girl. “The point is, they didn't get their information in an ethical way, and now the newspaper is shutting down. Done. Finito. Kaput.”

Why does anyone care what color shoes Mily Cyrus wears?”

Exactly,” I said, exhaling. I didn't realize I had been holding my breath. “I don't know. But some people do care about those things. Some people care about what famous people are wearing and who they are dating. And they want to see pictures of those people. And that's what Rita Skeeter was representing.”

She was quiet for a moment, as traffic picked up a little and we crawled somewhat closer to our destination.

Are we there yet, Mom?” she asked.

Oh, I think so,” I said, smiling at her in the rearview mirror. “We've definitely arrived.”