Last Sunday

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My foster grandson will turn three in less than two weeks. I unexpectedly got to spend the day with him last Sunday. I had planned to attend my longest-time friend’s ballroom dance competition that day, as it was the first time it worked out that I could finally see – and celebrate – what has been her passion for several years now. As grandson D is an easy-going child who sees wonder everywhere, he has accompanied me on many great adventures in his young life. I decided to bring him along.

He was fascinated by riding in the glass elevators at the Hyatt, likewise the oversized lobby furniture he scrambled into with great triumph. As it happened to be the day after Halloween, the lavish costumes of the dancing couples didn’t strike him as particularly noteworthy or unusual. He sat upright in his chair, watching the dancers attentively. After each brief dance was over, he clapped heartily, hopped off of his chair, and said with enthusiasm, “Is it over? Can we go back to the car and go home now?”

Each time, I said, “No, not yet! Just a little while longer, OK?”

On the drive back home, he chatted about the trains we passed, the differences between various construction vehicles, and where the passengers waiting on the train platforms might be going.

He was clearly headed in a philosophical direction at that point. And make no mistake, the following conversation was deeply philosophical, with all the curiosity, underlying wonder, and joy at the ability to reflect that entails.

“Tiabuela (which is what D calls me, as in a Spanish conflation of aunt/grandmother), do you know what I’m doing right now?”

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“No, D, what are you doing?”

“I’m picking my nose! Do you like to pick your nose, Tiabuela? Do you do it very often?”

“Um, sometimes I pick my nose. Not very often really.”

“I love to! It’s a really good thing to do! If you don’t pick your nose, how do you get your boogers out! You have to get your boogers out!”

“Well, usually I get a Kleenex, and then I blow my nose into the Kleenex.”

“Hmm. I blow my nose sometimes. It’s way better to pick it.”

“I’ve noticed that you do it quite a bit.”

“Know what I’m doing now, Tiabuela? I’m eating my boogers!!”

“Uhhhhh, D, yuck! Don’t they taste yucky??”

“No! They don’t taste yucky! They taste good in my mouth! I like the way they feel inside my mouth! And they don’t make my stomach hurt! They’re not yucky, and they don’t make my stomach hurt.”

“So, some things make your stomach hurt?”

“Yes, but not boogers!”

There was a brief lull, as D gazed out the window and…seemed to be chewing.

“Well,” he said. “What about eye boogers! Do you pick those?!?”

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art, top to bottom: Henri Matisse, Robert Henri, Pablo Picasso

4th of July, 2013

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Summer days, and summer holidays in particular, bring about the most magical feeling – as if time is endless, and the warmth of the air, the stretch of the daylight, the celebratory relaxation will go on and on forever.

My first-ever officially-diagnosed back spasm has laid me low for six days now, causing me to cancel any 4th of July plans in favor of a day of rest, broken up only by a four-mile walk along my hometown’s lakefront.  Evanston, Illinois takes the 4th of July very seriously.  Neighborhood parks are overrun with children participating in a myriad of games, events and activities that have been organized by the city.  The granddaddy of all small-town parades runs for a two-mile stretch along Central Street, in what is a time-honored, quirky, charming (arguable), tediously long (inarguable) display of every single Tom, Dick and Harry organization that wants to march the route and wave to the delighted crowd.

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The beaches are jammed; every lifeguard the city employs is called to duty all day.  And the gorgeous stretch of lakefront park that runs from very near my home in the southeast corner of the city all the way to Northwestern University nearly two miles to the north, is packed with picnickers, large extended families who have staked out their turf, settled in for a long day that will be capped with the exhilarating fireworks display around 9 or 9:30.

This July 4th was a glorious day, one of the very best I can remember in my 30 years in my house.  The sun peeked in and out, perhaps to the dismay of beachgoers, but to the thrill of parade-goers and picnickers who most often wilt, or even faint in large numbers, on a typical Evanston 4th.

According to the most recent figures available, the general population of Evanston, Illinois is 65% white, 18% African-American, and 17% all other groups (as self-defined).  Because Evanston attracts so many families, the demographics of the public school system have always been quite different: 2012 information states that the elementary school system is currently 42% white students, 26% African-American, 18% Hispanic, with the remaining 14% all other.

A visitor would never have gleaned this yesterday, had they been walking with me.

The magical Evanston beaches, where I took my children nearly every day, and where they later served as lifeguards and beach managers, require a season pass to be purchased for any person over the age of 1, or a daily fee of an astonishing $8.00!   Yesterday, the exuberant beachgoers were comprised almost entirely of small groups, at least 85% of which were white.  Children and parents waited in long lines to buy popsicles, hot dogs and treats, just as I did with my kids.  By contrast, the picnickers cramming the park space for a solid two miles were at least 85% Hispanic, and comprised almost entirely of large extended families laden with grills, chairs, and what looked to be an amazing array of lovingly prepared food.

The United States is, truly, the greatest country in the world in so many ways.  Or perhaps it is more correct to say, it is so many different countries, existing side by side.

We have so much more to do.

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My Brother Missed His Son’s Wedding

When a family member misses such an important life event, the air in every room is noisy with his absence.

He was not in the car when his wife picked me up a the airport, nor was he waiting back at the house, in the kitchen, with that slight frown of intense concentration that always accompanied his slow, deliberate, quietly jubilant cooking adventures that lasted full days.

His wife threw a party the day before the wedding, her sisters-in-law abuzz with busy helpfulness. Both sides of the family gathered, old friends, new meetings, hearty hugs and rich laughter abounded. The hum of celebration grew large, peals of laughter regularly piercing through. Still, the roar of my brother’s absence remained.

He did not see the expression on his son’s face when he saw his bride for the first time, coming down the aisle of the sweet chapel on her father’s arm. He missed it all.

As my daughter and I sat in the first row, waiting for the ceremony that would make my brother’s son a married man, my daughter whispered to me. She asked me if I missed him.

Oh yes, yes I do.

My brother Roy died on December 6, 2001. He died in Ecuador, on the side of a mountain very near its summit, immediately and without warning. And I think it would not be false to say that his absence, and my missing him, has been with me since. The loss of him, of a living brother, the little boy who was already there when I was born, the skinny, freckled, snake-catching, marble-collecting, bow-shooting, cowboy-playing, fly-tying person whose living presence told me that my own life and experience were true. He helped me know who I was. Every day he did this. Just by being alive.

I read this poem, by Rilke at his funeral:

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You don’t survive in me
because of memories;
nor are you mine because
of a lovely longing’s strength.

What does make you present
is the ardent detour
that a slow tenderness
traces in my blood.

I do not need
to see you appear;
being born sufficed for me
to lose you a little less.