27 July 2008


I have a lot of friends with kids. Sibs with kids, too. Only here's the thing: Peter and I were pretty much the first among us to have a child. So I feel compelled to share with you all that I am currently in the throes of what feels like a solar wind (you know, that phenom of waves that engulf the Earth and cause Northern lights?) Like, a momentary swirl of energy that seems to be changing everything. And in my case, accelerating it.

I have a son who is taller than me. He's grown 6 inches in 6 months, blink and you'll miss it. I just flipped through a bunch of photos I had posted on Facebook, and in none of them is he taller than me (or his older sister, for that matter). Suddenly, now: young man. Will shares a bunk bed with the thankfully-still-small Des, and when I go in to check on Des before I go to bed...there's this hulking guy whose feet don't fit in the lower bunk! Ack! Oh. Right.

Then there's this college business. I know, I wrote about this before. I've written a lot about Zoe this year. But from the slow, tortuous agony of getting applications in and visiting campuses and whatnot, I find myself the mom of a young woman ready to go to the next stage. She's not chomping at the bit, nor is she packing yet (she's my daughter, after all). But I tell you she is ready. Composed, whole, and so prepared to immerse herself in art-making and learning. This summer, she's juggling two jobs. In light of my own work-juggling life, this means we are the proverbial passing ships. I'm shaking my head because, again, it's as though a wand had been waved. Swoosh! Presto-chango.

And about those two youngers who are perpetually called youngers? Lydia is getting astonishingly tall and self-confident. She is comfortable with herself. I find myself wondering now whether that is the quality that sent all of her care providers into a she-needs-to-be-tested mode. She's just not like any of her peers. Never was, never will be. And as she ages, she inhabits that knowledge beautifully. There's awkwardness about her, don't get me wrong. But I am filled with pride at her emergence.

Desmond is still my "huggy!" guy. Unlike the others, his growth spurts have been modest (although size 6 pants are waaay in the past now). When he hugs me, he's still at my waist. His tangle of curls is right at the level of my hand to tousle it. He loves it when I do that. Still, stay tuned. The potential energy in him is vast. :)

I am changing, too. (That's the understatement of the year.) It roils me and thrills me. But as with the Northern lights, my bursts of color and creating feel as though they are out of my direct control...they're happening because they must. Also, to complete the family-unit analysis, none of my life changes can occur without the complaint-free adaptations of Peter. He is demonstrating grace and quiet support that I have seen many, many times: with my grandfather; in the labor room; during Mom's illness (and before it became obvious); pretty much every day, dealing with an absorbed, spacey, enthusiastic, broody wife. Peter = rock. I learned that in CCD, and it's still the truth.

01 July 2008

Inspiration station

So far I've thought of a few clever catchphrases to launch this entry. I will share them in the aggregate, because I don't think any single one is clever enough to carry the weight:

I started a store, that started the whole world...shopping....
When the going gets tough, the tough open a store.
Nessa Reifsnyder: writer, editor...business owner.

Perhaps that last one is the best summation of what I'm trying to say here. With a business partner named Erin whose enthusiasm is, paradoxically, calming; and a collection of ideas that are designed to spark creativity in others (and in us); I have been incredibly fortunate enough to become a small-business owner.

Presenting...our logo:

Supplies, kits, workshops, ideas, digital printing, genealogy/heritage projects, support, inspiration: that's our business plan in a nutshell.

I think it's safe to say that I've never felt the mix of emotions that are brewed by this entreprenurial activity. I'm composed and serene, while also roiling with concern and anticipation. I'm ready and, simultaneously, unprepared. My creativity is feeling colorfully and texturally stimulated, yet my left-brain is wide awake (with columns of numbers and tax-code laws dutifully lining up to be analyzed and tabulated).

Erin and I went on a buying trip last week (feels like last month, that's how crammed every day is right now!) On the Internet, I had found this fantastic resource for fabric and goodies in Paterson, NJ:

Needlecraft is a wholesaler with 77,000 bolts of fabric and a helpful, supportive staff presence in their warehouse. We spent a whole day there, selecting fabrics and notions, learning about many different lines and designers, and discussing the business with Sam, Paul, and Jen.

Paterson is also the city where my grandmother Hazel resided for a number of years until her death in 1966. So I was able to merge this buying trip with some much-needed genealogy...setting my heart right, so to speak.

At day's end, Erin and I had three cartloads of fabrics:

(Incidentally, we have toyed with calling the store Naivete. And our secret superhero identity: Chicks with Bungees.)

Yesterday the wealth of fabric arrived at our store space, representing our first influx of stock. Nothing else to say about that, except yay yay yay!

I called this post "Inspiration station" because our enterprise is located in a remodeled gas station (at left). I adore that incongruity...but maybe it's not so incongruous: a building that sits at the center of our village, which for decades served a deeply practical and unifying function, is now repurposed--yet still has the potential to unify and lead to tangible outcomes. Okay, so art/craftmaking is not always practical, but when you set about gathering materials into a new object--and that object was created using your memories, emotions, and skills that have been handed down over centuries...well, yeah. Not a gassed-up or repaired vehicle, but it might take you places anyway. And quilts can sure warm you up come January.

17 June 2008

Leap, and the net will appear

I haven't posted a blog in months, because I unexpectedly became preoccupied with my occupation. It happened like this: suddenly in April, I learned that I was no longer classified as a writer/editor at my full-time, 14-years job. Instead, I was placed in a middle-management kind of slot, unceremoniously, with one boss instead of the variety of co-workers who've traditionally asked me for written pieces or editorial help. (And when I say variety, I mean it. I used to thrive on that constant swirl of interactions and work styles. I crave writing in different voices, for different audiences.)

This change-of-circumstances walloped me hard. I was stunned, actually, by the intensity of my emotions. I kept wondering: Who am I, really, to think that I should have any say in my professional fate? People get reassigned--and worse, downsized--all the time. I should be glad they want me at all; who cares what the position is. Right?

But it did not work that way. Try as I might, I could not convince myself that I was all right with this abrupt shift. I agonized, I seethed, and I felt bereft. And it took me weeks to really grasp why. I had held on in this office setting for 14 long years, through 10 bosses, unbelievable dramas, grueling deadlines, and demanding fundraising goals. At every turn, during each upper-level shake-up--and there were plenty--I was the one who would advise my co-workers, "Hold the boat." I'd say that with calmness and reassurance, and I meant it--because back then, I was a writer. Not the kind of writer that my kid-self had vowed to become...but at least I was a writer. Having made a career out of that skill was important to me and my self-esteem, down to my core. My surety had been grounded in it.

As this spring went along, it was clear that the change in my job was non-negotiable, and I despaired. I confided in some folks I know in our hometown, who don't work for my employer, and they described other professional opportunities that I, quite simply, had not allowed myself to consider. Liberating opportunities. Daring, also. And with no warning, I knew in an instant: I was ready.

I leapt.

Today was my last full-time day at the new-old job. I drifted through a day of mundane meetings, notes, hallway conversations, and strategizing. I didn't cry until I started writing this. But even though I'm sad to have moved on from a workplace as familiar as my own house, I'm proud that I made a momentous choice. Moreover, my family is supportive in every possible way, especially my older kids, whose own artistic selves are watching me closely. I won't describe my next-steps in detail, because it's all so new and evolving. Suffice it to say, creativity is at the heart of every choice I've made. My creativity. That was the net that was waiting for me, which I did not know when I decided to leap.

02 April 2008


Page one: I am a mom. I look at any one of my children and my heart immediately fills with warmth and reaching, nurturance and ridiculous pride. This particular page has been written four times, in the whirling effort of labor and delivery. It was forged under fluorescent hospital lights, where a tone of worry and protectiveness was overlaid. It drives me like no other compulsion. On a weeknight, weary from the working world, it pushes me to stand at the stove, and when my children eat with gusto, this page’s work is momentarily done. It is the hunter-gatherer seeking affordable clothing that will be just cool enough.

Page two: I am an authority figure. More to the point: I’m like a football coach. In my head at all times is a game plan for each child (maybe not with all those x’s and o’s and arrows—though it would be cool if their lives were diagrammable like that). Strategy, rationale, the urgent need for success: all of these are in my mind with every parental mandate I deliver. And I’m not an easy coach, I know that. Sometimes my dictates seem far too frequent and pitched for my liking: I mean, fussing over fourth-grade homework assignments? Page three (see below) really does not want to care whether a kid achieves dominance over tricky mathematical word problems. Lord knows I never did. But it’s all part of the plan, isn’t it? What gates must my child go through before s/he can be deemed whole, successful, ready for adulthood? Which scouts does s/he need to impress? Which linebacker might take my child down? (See, this is where the football analogy may crumble, because I can’t say for sure if linebackers are those massive tackle-delivering guys, or what.)
Page three: I am a friend. Each one of my children’s faces inspires automatic, companionable devotion. I pine for their happiness and their satisfaction, and above all—because this is a guiding principle for me—I want them to seek joy and eschew strife. I love spending time with them as a friend would—you know, at the beauty salon with a daughter; at a museum with a dinosaur-loving son; on a train with every one of them (because we’re all train geeks). I love that we laugh at the same goofy things. I love that my iPod reflects their musical tastes as well as mine, and that there’s more overlap there than I ever imagined possible. I will offer advice as a friend whenever and however asked. I believe that each one of them knows this, but I understand that not always can they take me up on it. So in a sense, this friendship has vulnerabilities and potential pitfalls, because rejection is entirely possible. I am not deterred.
Page four: I am a writer. I watch the lives of four young people take shape, emerge, shift and grow, and as with everything else I encounter (literally), I am constantly taking notes. These people fascinate me. I know the genetic legacies they’re carrying—the personalities and appearances that resonate up from previous generations—and I’m just watching it all unreel with amazement and interest. The previous pages all lean on this page, though. They demand that I attempt to intervene and help lead these four stories. And with tearful intensity, they desire a happy ending for each. I wish they understood that once I sit down to write, I have no idea what will happen to my characters.
Page five is the person I was before these children were born. Before I met their father, even. It’s less a page than it is a film of places, people, times, and motivations that are quaint and nostalgic, now. The ill-starred fashion choices! The bumbling attempts at romance! The conversations with people I don’t see anymore! In a number of cases, in fact, those people are dead now, and I’m left to change and adapt. Thus, all of the above pages now lack the backup of some of my closest advisers and loved ones. I am forced to draw from reserves of strength that, in my youth, I had no reason to believe I would have.
All of this reflection has been prompted by a rejection letter from a college to my treasured oldest daughter. Every page of my being is challenged and affronted by this turn of events. Even more so, because the college decision and its implications for my daughter’s future—well, it’s not my game. It’s hers. I have to sigh and hope and believe (and I'm experienced in all of these). But there are tears in my eyes, regardless.

22 March 2008


Yesterday was one of the proudest days of my life, both maternally and personally. Let me explain....

This weekend, I am a con mom. I've traveled to Boston with Zoe as she makes her debut at the Artists Alley of Anime Boston (http://www.animeboston.com/)--a huge annual gathering of the tribes (i.e., tens of thousands of costumed, role-playing aficionados of Japanese manga and anime, 98% teenaged). Artists Alley is a selling-place for amateur artists, and Zoe has been working for months on her wares...posters, buttons, postcards, all featuring her art. Yesterday morning the piece de resistance arrived here from the printer's: Mahou Shounen, an actual 20-pp booklet (she calls it a mini-manga) with her own original story, characters, and inventive, accomplished artwork. The moment that we huddled together over the box and extracted the first book is engraved on my memory. (I meant to keep that first copy, but later on I showed it to another con mom in the hotel elevator and she bought it on the spot!) So we finally have a published person in our family. Self-published, in this case, but that doesn't detract at all from the achievement therein...and in fact, it allowed us a great deal of quality control and editorial say-so. I'm so proud of my artist-girl!

Originally, we were planning to send Zoe down here solo. This past week, though, it became abundantly clear that mountains of details and the heft of her baggage were going to defeat that idea. Hence, my (expensive but necessary) presence in Boston. While we are plunked right in the middle of the city's tastiest retail district, I really wasn't looking forward to a weekend of H&M envy (you know, that wistful cruising through stores whose merchandise is priced above my head and sewn below my size?) A little pre-trip websurfing, though, reassured me that I would have another option: the New England Historic Genealogical Society is a few blocks away from here.

So I spent yesterday afternoon in my element, idly paging through dusty books in search of nuggets. To access this library, it's most cost-effective to join the Society, so I signed up onsite for an annual membership. (Speaking of proud, this means I'm now a member of two noteworthy genea-orgs...the other being the Association of Professional Genealogists. Ooh, I quiver just writing that!)

I perused books and basked in the researchiness of it all, then came back to the hotel. After awhile, I logged onto the NEHGS' website to look over their databases, which the membership coordinator had mentioned to me earlier. Turns out that therein lurked the final pieces of my most resistant genea-puzzle: the early marriage days of my great-grandparents, Blanche Guillotte and William Paquin. Peter has brought me to so many town halls and archives trying to recapture the stories of their lives...but this was a "brick wall" with shame and discord for mortar, so breaking through it has been near-impossible. Their daughter, my Auntie Winnie, sat with me for an interview 10 years ago (which I blessedly have on tape), but she remembered little of the father who'd abandoned them, and the mother who did the same by tossing her five kids into orphanages when money got tight. Winnie gave me surreal half-tales, and I've spent the ensuing decade giving bones to that flesh, slowly but determinedly.

The NEHGS database brought me closure, as I finally, finally found Blanche and William's marriage record (under William's alias, William J. Benson), and then, amazingly, the birth record of their first child, a stillborn son, two months after the wedding day. Winnie remembered hearing about that son and even visiting his grave as a little girl, but she knew nothing about when or where he was born. Well, the "when" is actually a key part of the story, for he was obviously conceived out of wedlock, and he was born and died, tragically, on Christmas Day 1908.

What bitterness and grief did that engender? How did such a horrible loss on a usually joyous holiday mark Blanche and William for life? And did it feel, deep down, as though their union might be cursed? because from that point on, the stories I've heard suggest that it was.

In a brief blog setting, I can't begin to tell you the sadnesses I've discovered on both sides of my dad's family. Untimely deaths, poverty, alcoholism, thwarted dreams, loveless marriages. But I can tell you that I have been driven, urged, pushed to seek and find. I realized fairly early into this that no one else in my family was going to be able to find the facts and stitch the quilt. I don't mean that to be self-aggrandizing; it's just that for most of my life leading up to these discoveries, I've been unwittingly assembling a series of skill sets that I now can deploy to find the answers. Somewhere inside me, I know now that that those answers want to be found. Last night's puzzle pieces convinced me of that. The ancestors speak, many genealogists say. They guide us. What I would add is: They want us to know them and understand them. To tell their stories. Their sadnesses and life lessons must never be for naught.

I am proud to know them.

16 March 2008

Who Am I?

Last night, the Criterion Theatre hosted a Celtic Music night. I am on the board of this theatre and I felt a certain responsibility to attend, let's say (because, while I'm a huge consumer of Irishness in general, I sometimes feel that the whole Celtic subculture can be a shade inauthentic. Sometimes even exploitative.) Lydia agreed to accompany me because one of her favorite things to do, inexplicably, is clean the theatre after an event. :: shrug :: As a board member, I'd be remiss not taking advantage of that. Plus, I have so few opportunities to bask in Lydia's personality.

Much to my amazement, this evening rocked me to the core, serving up revelation after revelation about myself, my genealogy, my daughter, and my theatre. The artists were Jennifer Armstrong (http://www.jenniferarmstrong.com/) and Ladies of the Lake (http://www.ladiesofthelakemusic.com/). At no point did either act strike an inauthentic nerve--they were interpreting the songs and instruments of the past, not shaming them. And they were all incredibly skilled multi-musicians. I learned:

1) Bagpipes and tin whistles are guaranteed to make me cry. (More about that soon.)

2) Lydia absolutely loves this kind of music, and identifies strongly with female musicians.

3) After the Jacobite Wars of the 18th century, the English banned bagpipes, the Gaelic language, and other cultural mainstays. Because bagpipe melodies had always been conveyed from master to learner as sung phrases--with words standing in for notations--the instrument endured through this ban and was readopted immediately after the ban was lifted, with the songs still handed down intact. Scots women singing as they went about their chores helped sustain the melodies.

4) The Criterion Theatre is inspirational, period. I've been dedicated to it for months now, but as a venue, it's a powerful and historical house.

When I got home from the show, I was a little crazed to capture all the emotions I was hauling around. Scrapbooking? poetry? blog? Couldn't choose. Finally, between 2 a.m. and ten minutes ago, two poems emerged to bring peace to my insides. Indulge me, if you will. It feels so good to have named these feelings that are as familiar as bread.

At the Celtic Music Concert

Bagpipes and tin whistle
make me cry
for people I will not meet
but whose breath I know,
whose blood is mine.
At some point,
every single family line
had this moment:
the ship, the coast,
the home behind,
the uneasy sea,
the unknown ahead.
My French soul,
my Irish heart:
jigs and reels
tug me home
to heal.

Who Am I?

I grew up in the 1970s
when heritage was optional,
when families whose ancestors had only just arrived
chose “Colonial” as a kitchen décor—
not seeing the irony in copper-clad pots
and faux hearths.

Marooned on the desert island
of a tiny Queens apartment,
my mother, brother and me:
sole survivors of a shipwrecked marriage--

another union of Irish and French,
litany of arguments and poverty and drunkenness
relived    not conquered    
we never learn if we don’t grasp the past
They didn’t grasp the past.
Thus I was robbed of my tongues:
mumbled Québécois French
of rosaries and gossip,
crooned Gaelic
of mothers at the sideboard and fathers stumbling home.
Rootless in a neighborhood of new-arrived ethnics.
Strangely blinded to me, myself, I.

And so my search began.
Denied faces, stories and names,
discouraged from connecting,
I quested for them far and wide.
Thirty years later, I am here to report:
I have found them

in scrawled handwritten records, city directories,
and photo albums of distant cousins.
Their souls reach to me.

I feel their troubles, their joys, their births, their journeys
keenly, deeper than my heart, where mothering takes hold.

Genealogy is their embrace,
a compulsion for reunion.
(I will go anywhere to be in a room full of cousins.)
Grass and farm and factory and church.
It is standing where they were baptized
(I have)
and kneeling where they were buried (yes)
my knees dampened by eternal sod.
I am not in Queens anymore.


22 January 2008


Motherhood is on my mind. Perhaps a ludicrous statement coming from a mother of four...but mostly, my mothering is instinctive, without forethought or deep reflection. Well, I'm deep-reflecting because my dear friends Doug and Bridget have just welcomed little Jak-Jak into the world, and coincidentally, I spent hours yesterday flipping through stacks and stacks of old photos. (Remember those? Those slippery rectangular paper moments, shiny in the light, that require some sort of clear-paged album to gather them into a chronology?)

To flip through photos in this house means to revive babyhood for four distinctive personalities. You end up looking at these baldy little people; only their eyes and the occasional familiar facial expression belie who they became later. But of course, beyond that, I'm emotionally yanked there for each picture: The sleep-deprivation. The joy of their first communication (each of our kids first said ahhhh-gooooo before anything else). The ceaseless teething. The napping-on-my-shoulder. All the feedings (cumulatively, I breastfed for nearly 6 years).

Of all my kids, the last child summons the most immediate set of memories. Perhaps that's an of-course thing, but I'd like to use that immediacy here to evoke what it feels like to be a mom. Because I don't often write about it (see above...instinctive.) And because I love my motherhood, every day.

In hindsight, I guess it’s good that I wasn’t fixating on Desmond as my last baby when he was an infant. Because, truly, that thought never entered my mind--and I’m glad, because it might have distracted me from the heady, commonplace joy of mothering him. That rush when I lifted him up under the arms, and his hands and arms reached and circled upwards automatically, so that he could embrace my neck and hold on with chubby hands. That mutual move, of course, leads directly to the baby’s head being right near your face, so you can breathe deeply and take in the intoxicating scent of his softsoft skin, the halo-fuzz of his baby hair right against your nose. Meanwhile, his angled legs and toes in footie pants bounce and kick against your stomach gently. One of your hands is clutching stretchy terry that covers a clowny, plastic-diapered bum. The other feels his shoulder blades, the hollow of his back. You are all protection at this moment: a tiger with a gushing full heart.

When you look at his face, he has the tiniest mouth you’ve ever imagined: an ooh shape that you must supply with milk--and in these early days, the next meal always seems to come sooner than you were expecting it, which keeps you dizzily unhinged from routine and reality. After three breastfed babies, my fourth presented some unique issues. Let’s just say that my feeding vessels were extraordinarily out of size-sync with his wee hungry mouth. Thus, feeding Desmond was a daily ritual of initial searing pain and calming-down gradually; multiple times a day, for four months straight, until I healed and toughened.

Never once did it occur to me to connect the pain of feeding Des to him, personally; nor to give up this wacky breastfeeding idea and go for the instant, mutual gratification of bottles. Never once. It may be that, buried deep in my subconscious, I did know that this was the last hurrah for my feeding capacity--which had served everyone so well for a decade that I wanted to let the glands do what they did best, like a thoroughbred. Plus I adored the flow of communication--that’s truly what it is, silent communication, an exchange of needs and warmth--that occurred between me and this baby.

Des adored it, too. Clearly, any early challenges with his feeding did not affect him. In fact, he refused to have anything to do with any other mode of feeding than me, for almost a full year. Never did a bottle make it past his clenched lips; he wouldn’t consider it. And then, even as solids and sippy-cups dribbled into his life, I remained his go-to for two more years. Sure, it dwindled to just morning and night. No, he never asked for it by name in public, ever, or hoisted my shirt or pointed. But I knew when he needed it...and somehow, he knew I still needed it, too.

At intervals, seeking to be practical, I took "weaning vacations" of 3-5 days’ duration (and if I thought my feeding vessels were sizable before, those vacations swelled them into boulders). Since I went on actual trips--the only way I could break the feeding patterns--those ended up being my first adventurous forays away from home and family in four years. Felt great to tentatively reclaim my identity, but a low buzz of distraction persisted throughout each trip. As soon as I returned home, set down the luggage, and hugged everyone else, Des and I would sit down into the nursing posture (because, according to the clever books, this was the ah-ha moment that I would say, “Sorry, honey, Mumma’s milk is all gone"). I’d brace myself for that inevitability--his disappointment, my apology and the hug that would follow it. Then Desmond's head would cradle against the inside of my elbow, and--shazam!--what?!--a meal would be there again! defying any engineered attempts to alter the timing of weaning.

A few months later, Des’ nursing ended without any fanfare at all. No efforts on my part. Just: done. I believe it was a Monday night, just before bed. He wriggled in my lap in his blanket sleeper, newly turned three, and his eyes looked up and confronted me. He did not angle his head to nurse. He smirked a tiny bit with that familiar mouth. Yup, I get the message, Des. And no boulders afterward, either. So we were both done. Painlessly.

I can never fathom where the years went, between the suspended-in-time early months of Des’ life, and the backpack-toting blond wonderment who clambers onto the bus every morning. But when his gray-blue eyes assess me--when we’re talking or reading or getting pajamas on, and our eyes meet--it’s all there. The connection. The gratitude. And things that don't change, in the midst of childhood growth spurts and inevitable transitions: boy to bigger boy.

15 January 2008


If you have an older sibling, then you have someone in your life who has known you for as long as you have known yourself. (This becomes more acutely evident when both of your parents are gone.) Furthermore, if you're lucky as I was, your older sibling is your hero.

Youngers everywhere, reminisce with me. Remember that feeling when you were little, and your sib got some awesome toy or other that had pieces you'd probably choke on, or instructions you couldn't comprehend--and you stood alongside breathing that little-kid refrain, "Cooool..." ? Remember trailing after your sib on some mundane errand and copying his stance, his gait, his very bearing? After that, every time your sib wanted to do something or go out, you'd pipe up with those words you had compressed into an urgent tumble: "CanIgotoo?" When your sib was in the room, you worked triple-time to make him laugh. (Really, for a while there I was like his personal clown.) When your sib wasn't in the room, you picked up some more-expensive-than-your-toys possession and imagined yourself old enough to do whatever this object did. In my hand, the tactile memory is of painstakingly constructed gray battleships, with spindly pieces sticking this way and that, labels lined up and stuck down with precision, random parts painted with calm care, everything miniaturized, and so, so tempting to prod with a chubbed-up kiddo finger.

My brother was (and is) cooler than just his toys. He embodied unerring musical taste, the best Levi's jean jacket ever (which I still own), an easy demeanor with his friends, a sensible temperament shot through with a creative spirit, and a steady hand at draftsmanship and drawing, not to mention the most perfect handwriting anywhere. He had teenage ambition, but it was never obnoxious. And his persona: resilient, cheerful, almost always nonplussed. His work ethic surpasses mine (just ask about the difference between a dish rack of his washed dishes, versus mine. I'll give you a hint: mine = iwwwww).

Much of what I am depends on the example he set. I am not implying perfection on his part, because a) I am not a fan of perfection, and b) the best heroes are flawed and human (cf. Han Solo and Mulder). My brother's tribulations, such as they have been, have galvanized him into someone better. Some of the things he's taught me, I learned not to do by his example. But mostly, I selected from his attributes because I admired and emulated them. When I obsess over a quilt square or a scrapbook page, it's my attempt at that model battleship--a hobby that results in something tangible, that says this is me. I made it my business to gather pop-cultural ephemera as a younger person, and it turns out I'm a veritable font of trivia (the next stage of my personal-clown service, basically).

When I left home for college, a handful of dear people were responsible for the wings with which I flew. Mom, obviously. My summer boyfriend, who urged me forward despite his yearnings to keep me home. My best friend D.J., my champion and confidante. My grandparents, whose home state I was headed for, proudly. And then there was Sean. I knew he was encouraging me at every step: "Go, go, go."

I came home a few months later for my first extended vacation. I couldn't get to a record store fast enough to buy King Crimson's Discipline, because it was the soundtrack of my fraternity that fall, and its angular, schizo sound would appeal to my older brother, I just knew it. Well, in fact, he disdained it with a hand flip. Which stunned me. And then, almost instantly, made me feel a little more adult than I had before. Indeed, I had graduated.

Sean came around, by the way, sheepishly admitting that Adrian Belew wasn't as destructively cheesy as he had once thought. I was waiting there, because now my sib and I had become more equal. Friends, with our own spheres that overlap in places. To this day, we fling new bands and TV shows at each other eagerly. I've honed the personal clown thing (ask my husband), and Sean's pretty good at it, too, so we can always crack each other up. We're both parents, and we trade information and advice. Okay, he learned to drive at 30-something, and I've still ducked that. His first vehicle was a bitchin' Camaro (could there be any more of a cool-older-brother car?) I have a bigger iPod, though.

Equals we may be...he's still my hero. In writing this, I'm amazed to see how my brother is threaded through my memories, a constant in many times that needed constancy. I'm still counting myself lucky.

09 January 2008

The door

Posted in honor of my eldest child, who is filling in line after blank line, crafting personal essays, imagining herself on a campus, becoming. And in honor of a friend, whose first-ever spring break is beckoning. While my initial instinct in writing this was to capture specificity for remembrance's sake, I find myself wondering if there is any universality within its lines. And thus...I blog.

The door is painted a gloomy forest green, reminiscent of the ancient, heavy pines that hem in the Bowdoin College campus. At eye level, he has posted a sign, a scrap of wood on which he’s burned deliberate words with his blowtorch. “OFFICE OF THE REV,” it says. And underneath that: “Come in and sin.” For an Irish-Catholic freshman girl, this is too laden with irony to even contemplate. Best not to think about it.

And so, as her foot scrapes across the threshold, she doesn’t. Nessa wonders why this mysterious junior has befriended her. He is a biochemistry major, an obvious genius, though he is far too much of a partier to be a true science geek. Also, he’s got a mess of curly red-brown hair which never looks as though it’s been combed (she will learn that it is, in fact, combed diligently each morning after his mandatory wake-up shower…it just springs into disarray as soon as the air starts to dry it). She is not impressed with the hair, at first. She likes Peter Frampton-esque, Rex Smith-y hair, that tumbling-onto-the-shoulders thing. David’s seems too unruly for her lust. It’s only later that she begins to covet its hidden swerves and swirls, lose her fingers in it, adore its nonconformity.

David dabbles in mind-alteration with serious intent. He needs to know; he is a scientist. She avoids such loss of control as seriously, having watched friends and family members melt into uselessness with substance intake. She does, however, drink. Prodigiously. After a party, as she lays in her miserably flat dorm bed, she’s prone to bouts of the spins that make her gleefully giddy. (Silently, of course--it’s a creepy, unwelcoming dorm, after all.) David is the first person who will ever hear her giggling after the party’s over. He’ll sling an arm around her neck and take the joyride with her.

But first, he needs to let her know that he’s interested. And being David, he’s not quite certain that he is. Inscrutability is his hallmark in this fraternity he lives in, and he even finds himself inscrutable on occasion. Oddest of all, he’s fashioned a bedroom out of a storage room down in the basement...right alongside the bar. Easier that way, staying up till all hours and just drifting a few feet over to your bedroom. A number of times since he set up the Office of the Rev, he’s been accompanied by a random woman as he heads for the bed. Now he squints at this, well, inscrutable freshman and wonders if she’ll be next. Nessa has long brown hair, an essential trait for Dave. She smiles all the time, but not in a vapid way--it’s a never-ending string of in-jokes that you just want to be in on. That’s the first thing that’s drawn him in. Oh, and she has a noteworthy ass, which sways in hipster Levi’s.

Here’s what he’s heard about her in the two months since she joined his co-ed fraternity: there’s a boyfriend back home, but it’s pretty much over. Someone in the house says she’s slept around a lot since arriving at Bowdoin. Dave’s studied Nessa these past few weeks, and he doubts it. She definitely was dating another freshman there for awhile--Dave saw her get into his massive ’69 Chevy one Friday evening, and then there was that house party when he saw them dance for hours. At one point they were back to back, swaying in time, heads tossed back with abandon. That made Dave wonder if maybe the rumors were true. But no, she’s Catholic, he heard her say that. He knows the M.O. of the shiksa, and usually it’s never more than pretend, dance floor come-ons. But he wants a try at that move, oh yes. He knows Nessa is more than a tease because he’s talked to her. She’s a storyteller and a deep listener. Not a typical freshman...an old soul.

Here’s what she’s heard about him in the two months since she joined his co-ed fraternity: Dave is a freak. He’s weird and even somewhat dangerous, prone to laboratory explosions and electrical mishaps. This does not jibe with the persona she’s encountered, like that one night when she was upset about Mike, the back-to-back-dancing freshman who had dumped her twice in one month. Broody from rejection, Nessa found Dave lolling around after a party had dissipated, watching TV. He was buzzed nearly beyond recognition, but he listened avidly to what she was saying. And he reassured her, at length. In two months of Bowdoin life, there’s been very little comforting that was delivered as sincerely as that. Also, Nessa knows that David has a cat, a fluffed-out beige male coon cat who comes and goes as he pleases. Malthus, his name is--his fur looks wild, but his eyes are deep. He reminds Nessa completely of his owner, and she’s equally endeared when she thinks of either one of them. No, she can’t believe that a single guy who owns a cat can be all bad, or even half-bad. Nessa thinks David is very sweet, and only a little scary.

And now she’s in his room. Just visiting. She’s asked to see his LP collection, because she’s heard a lot of his music during basement parties--when Dave’s stereo serves as the house sound system. The records are stored in crates at a right angle to his bed. She pulls a few square albums out of the row, and backs up a little--boom, sitting on the bed. A quick glance at the sidetable to her left reveals three things:

—an electric-blanket controller
—a fetal pig in a jar
—a contact lens case

She tries really hard to piece together meaning from these items, but it’s not cohering. Hmmmm. Nessa peruses the albums, flips them one by one. Definitely wants to tape Men at Work and the Police. He recommends the Moody Blues and the Dead. She’ll think about it. She hands him the LPs and picks up the fetal pig, peers into the jar.

“It’s like some kind of weird snow globe,” Nessa says absently. And if you swish the jar just a little, the well-preserved miniature pig swirls around. She stops moving the jar and looks intently at the specimen as it slows. She’s not a scientist, but she is absolutely fascinated by science. The pig’s snout is tiny and perfect, its back rounded as if in slumber--the suggestion of a spine under the skin. And there’s a delicate curlicue of a tail. “Wow,” Nessa says aloud, not meaning to.

She never asks him where this pig came from, and at no point does she ever find it strange that he sees fit to display the pig right next to his bed.

A week elapses. The College is heading into the restlessness of Thanksgiving: students anticipating a quick shot of home life while dreading winter and exams, and drinking more to combat the onset of dark, dark evenings. On one such ink-black night, a Monday, Nessa has wandered over to the fraternity. Schoolwork languishes in a pile on the edge of her desk, and true to form, Nessa is studiously avoiding it. She has vowed that she will not make party nights out of ordinary weekdays, but her college career will, in fact, be marked by her propensity to fashion a party as if twirling a paper wand in a cotton-candy machine. One flick of the wrist--instant festivity.

There is no festivity at Alpha Delta Phi on this doldrums Monday. Nessa sighs as she spots upperclassmen sprawled at tables, on sofas, by the fireplace, actually working. Pencils are poised above books, and eyes are narrowed in concentration. Bah. She makes her way into the TV room, where an uninteresting program flickers on the screen. Parks herself on a couch, because this is better than facing the workload and the dormitory.

A commercial interrupts the police drama, and she sits bolt upright. Pizza. A slice being pulled from a pie, fresh from the oven, cheese stringing. There are a handful of people in this room all facing the screen, and to none of them in particular she says, “Man, I haven’t had good pizza since I left New York.”

David rises and swivels to look at her, which startles her--she didn’t even know he was there. He’s sitting closer to the TV than she. “We’ll go in a little while, then, after I finish this assignment.”

Nessa reels a little but covers it. Instead of “Huh?” she says, “Okay.” She wonders what the others in the room think of his bold statement. No one has noticed.

True to his word, in a half-hour Dave slams shut a book and stands up, turning to face her. “Shall we?”

“W-where?” she manages, standing up slowly.

“Pizza Hut,” he states firmly.

They have to bundle into puffy jackets, for the weather has turned the final corner into stark winter. Somehow this shared activity in the front hallway takes the date-like sheen off the event, and Nessa relaxes. They head out into the night, away from the driveway...she realizes they will be walking. And a long walk it is from the center of town to the outskirts strip where Pizza Hut’s logo looms. They converse as they walk, in a manner that suggests they already know the basics about each other--which they do not, in any way. But Dave seems to believe they’ve crested some hurdle of getting-to-know-you, and Nessa never has trouble speaking openly.

Her hands are jammed into threadbare flannel pockets, craving warmth. He gestures with his hands as he talks--they are sheathed in practical, dense gloves. She finds herself coveting them, envying his seasoned understanding of what a Maine college student should expect on a night like this. A hat wouldn’t have been a bad idea, either. The occasional rush of frigid wind sings in her ears.

Dave has led her to the train tracks, which meander towards the busy drag on the way out of town. Sometimes they balance on the steely rails, then they step along the wooden ties. It feels childlike, though the total darkness belies that notion.

Dave’s steps slow momentarily, and Nessa comes to a stop, wondering. She can’t see his face, really, just the blocky shadow of his outline.

“Do you want to wear my gloves?”

“Yes,” she breathes. They are beyond warm, and her hands slip in with room to spare. “Thank you--I was so cold.”

“I know.”

Ahead of them, setting the sky aglow, are neon signs and streetlights of the main drag. It’s an epic sight, making the whole walk feel like an expedition.

Nessa did not know it was possible to close a Pizza Hut. They sit for three hours in the warm-smelling, deserted restaurant, hands almost touching as they gesture across the red-checked tablecloth. They talk about childhood and ambitions and siblings and trivia. Dave is smiling in an open-hearted way; Nessa feels as though she’s passed through some portal of his persona. She is amazed by what she finds: a companion. Dave is not so amazed, because he meant to connect with her. But he is impressed that his plan has worked so well. In fact, it’s morphed from, well, a come-on, to a bonding of kindred spirits.

After walking back to campus through sleepy intown streets, Nessa and Dave spend the night together. In a computer lab. As if testing her, he has brought her back here while he finishes a problem set. She will do anything to sustain this feeling of contentment, so as he pecks at the chunky keyboard, she sits alongside like an eager Yoko. Illuminated formulas march across a black screen. If she stares, it becomes a monotone Light-Brite pattern. That’s as much meaning as she could ever derive from the advanced math he’s studying, anyway. Above them, buzzing fluorescent tubes betray the hour: 2 a.m. She has never been in this room before, and she will never be in it again.

He walks her home at 4:30--just a little ways across the quad. The air has thickened with a cold fog, and they’re both shivery as she unlocks the door to her room.

It’s a double, actually; her roommate claimed the inner room (more privacy) and Nessa has her bed and a sofa here in the outer room. Anne’s door is closed, which is the most privacy Nessa can get. She leads Dave to the sofa, and they sit next to each other awkwardly, as if it were a porch swing. They speak in phrases, with long silences between them.

“So glad we went for pizza.” Him.

“Can’t believe it’s almost Thanksgiving.” Her.

His hand nudges hers gently, clasps it.

“I’m glad you asked me, um, to go out tonight.” Her, again.

“I am, too.”

Longer silence.

“Would it be all right if--can I kiss you?” Suddenly, he is unsure of himself.

She leans towards him, completing this role-shift, and as she nears, says, “Yes. I...yes.” It’s the most innocent first kiss either one of them has ever had. Still, they manage to make it last for a long time, savoring.

In exhaustion, they gradually recline together on the sofa, fully clothed, warming each other, giggling. This is how Anne finds them at 6:30 a.m., and her face registers disgust as she tracks through Nessa’s room in her slippers and robe, clutching a bucket of toiletries. The outer door slams, and Nessa and Dave giggle more, an in-joke they haven’t even voiced. She reaches up and touches the curve of Dave’s face, then finds his hair, tangling in the curls. A gray dawn begins to limn her things: the bed with its rainbow-striped comforter, her shoes alongside it, the pile of books teetering on the desk. Nessa knows, right now, that she will never need to stay in this room again.