Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mother Love

Tomorrow my mother is going to be ninety.

When she was born, Woodrow Wilson was president.

My mother was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of three children born to Hungarian immigrants who never learned English. When she was five, both of her parents died within six weeks of each other, of unrelated causes.

My mother has very few memories of her early childhood. She remembers calling her parents “Mama dear” and “Papa dear.” She remembers a doctor coming to the apartment to try to alleviate her mother’s asthma. She remembers holding a kitten and thinking, This is more happiness than I can bear.

When her parents died, her older sister Elsie was sent to live with Aunt Ella and Uncle Ernie. (I met Ella and Ernie once, when I was six. They were very old. Uncle Ernie pinched my cheeks until I cried. I thought, What kind of old man does this? My mother said he’d been doing it for years.) Her beloved brother Milton was sent to Bellefaire, a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland. My mother was sent to Michigan to live with an uncle and his five sons. All she remembers is hating it there and wanting to be wherever Milton was.

Eventually, someone took pity on her and she, too, was admitted to Bellefaire, where she spent the rest of her childhood. She still says it was the best time of her life. I have seen pictures of Bellefaire (which is now Bellefaire Jewish Children's Bureau , a non-profit agency providing an array of child welfare, behavioral health, and allied health services without regard to race, religion, sex, or national origin). If you had to be an orphan, Bellefaire was the place to be one.

Automobiles were still exotic when my mother was a little girl. She remembers that Bellefaire participated in something called Automobile Day. The richest men of Cleveland volunteered to drive the orphans to Euclid Beach, a local amusement park on the shores of Lake Erie. For many of the kids, the car ride to the park was more exciting than the park itself.

That, more than almost anything, underscores for me how long my mother has been alive.

Next weekend, we will celebrate her birthday with a family dinner in Monterey. I will drive nearly one hundred miles to pick her up, then another hundred to bring her to my house. She won’t think anything of it.

Ninety years isn’t long, in the grand scheme of things. But it is a staggering amount of time for one person to live.

My mother started life facing almost unimaginable challenges. The fact that she is still here—still healthy, still raging against George Bush, still nagging me to turn the heat down—is a triumph of heart and will and a spirit I can only hope to have inherited. I am so proud of her and so glad she is still with me.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Thinking About Beauty

I am working on a new YA novel. Whenever I write a book, I am reminded of how difficult it is to be a kid. I mean, it’s hard to be alive, period, but as an adult, you have resources, you have the benefit of your own experiences, you have credit cards. As a kid, you are so vulnerable to almost everything.

I try to remember back to a time when I had no experience. What did I have, back then? A good brain, unceasing and mostly unwanted parental advice, a certain fearlessness. Those seem like meager weapons in the face of all the bad things out there.

My book is about a girl who is beautiful. I’m so lucky, she thinks again and again.

When I was a girl, I wanted desperately to be beautiful. Not beautiful of spirit, not beautiful in an it’s-what’s-inside-that-counts kind of way. I wanted to be Christie Brinkley beautiful. Cybill Shepherd beautiful. (It was the early seventies.) I don’t think there’s a girl alive who doesn’t want that. And what it must be like to be one of the few who is truly, demonstrably physically beautiful! Even now, the idea of such a gift takes my breath away a little. What a different life such a child must have from the rest of us.

I was astounded when, as a volunteer in my children’s kindergarten classrooms many years ago, I realized that all five-year-olds are beautiful. It is absolutely true. But something happens to most of us by the time we’re nine. It’s subtle; it’s not as if we should be walking around with bags over our heads. But it is undeniable: we become part of the masses who are blessed with ordinary looks. Or, if we are more fortunate than most, we become someone described as “pretty” or “cute.” But most of us, sad to say, are not beautiful. It is maybe our first experience of having something important taken away. It takes many of us a long time to get over the unfairness of it all.

Being the curmudgeonly realist that I am, I don’t really believe that beauty confers happiness on anyone. To the extent that I am right, I think it must be difficult to be a beautiful young person, because people aren’t very patient with you if you’re beautiful and unhappy. They assume you are whining or fishing for compliments. They are also a little jealous, and probably a little bit glad to hear of your misery. Whether they know it or not, they are thinking, It serves you right. They are relieved to see evidence of cosmic retribution.

So I am writing about a beautiful girl who is unhappy. I have a lot of sympathy for her (as I must if I’m going to write anything interesting about her). Every once in a while, I allow myself to remember the way it felt to be myself at age twelve: not beautiful, wishing with all my heart that I was.

I know now what I never knew back then: there is no easy way to be young.

Sometimes being fifty-two sucks. But sometimes, I can’t help thinking, I’m so lucky.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Duck, Duck, Goose

Forty-four percent of the waterfowl using the Pacific flyway winter in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. So Robert and I decided to visit with our friends Roy and Josine.

(I have not thought a lot about birds in my life. My main thoughts about birds have been: 1) it is creepy when people keep them indoors in cages; 2) parrots are amazing; and 3) I am not crazy about pigeons.)

It was a beautiful day in Willows: cold (temperature: 48 degrees), cloudy, and foggy, rainless, windless. We inched along the public viewing road of the Refuge in the back of Roy and Josine’s truck, which is high off the ground and allows better views of the marshes, rimmed by tangles of cattails and reeds. We were the only people on the road, except for the occasional ranger.

In an hour and a half, we saw snow geese, mallards, red-shouldered hawks, buffleheads, red-tails, one kestrel, one enormous owl, several rabbits, a lone deer, and at dusk, a slouching coyote clearly looking for dinner.

We brought binoculars and stopped often, gazing out over what seemed an endless vista of waterways (the Refuge contains tens of thousands of acres) and watching countless flocks of ducks and coots and geese. I have seen these birds often enough in parks, but there was something magical about watching them here, where they are unbothered by kids running at them to make them scatter, where no one is throwing bread crumbs at them.

I am a particular fan of owls (as is my son), so it was especially exciting to spot one high in a tree. He was tall and fat and the tree was leafless, but he was still hard to see, until I trained the binoculars on him. Out here, you become aware of the power and beauty of camouflage. I know it’s science, but seeing it in action, I think it has the feel of the divine about it. God is protecting His creatures.

I do not understand how anyone can possibly enjoy hunting an animal with the intention of killing it.

After driving through the Refuge, we ate dinner at a local casino. (Roy and Josine have a senior discount.) At the table next to ours sat a group of young men who might have been truckers. (I am basing this on some pretty tired generalizations having to do with the sporting of flannel jackets and greasy pony tails. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps they were nuclear physicists.) Midway through dinner, we became aware that one of the young men was choking. Before any of us could move, one of his buddies ran around the table and began Heimlich-ing him. The young man coughed up whatever had been lodged in his windpipe. Then he sat, looking relieved and chastened. (Earlier, I had noticed him shoveling big forkfuls of macaroni and cheese into his mouth.)

It struck me later, how jarring it all was. One moment we were breathing in the gray, frigid serenity of the Refuge and, only an hour later, we were in a smoky, low-ceilinged cafeteria, surrounded by fluorescent lighting, women in hairnets, and all-you-can-eat trays of mashed potatoes and chocolate pudding, watching a young man struggle to inhale. Sufficiency vs. excess; animal nature vs. human. Peace vs. self-gratification.

We made a final tour of the Refuge today before heading home. The thing I will remember the longest is the sound of thousands of birds, set against a backdrop of silence. No engines; no people. Just the birds and the silence behind them.