Tag Archives: growing up

Minding the Gap with Sophia

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Minding the Gap with Sophia

Herb and SophiaThis is your gap year, the year between your fourteenth birthday and fifteenth, between eighth grade and high school, between girlhood and young womanhood.

Born in late November, you, like your father and me, are one to two years younger than your classmates, a gap that was barely noticeable when you were in early middle school, but that has become much more apparent as you enter your teens.  This year abroad will help you bridge that gap, entering high school at the same age as your peers.

You are tall for your age, but still seem young among your classmates. At your graduation some of your peers crossed the platform to receive their diplomas in grownup dresses and suits with ties, already bearing the shape and heavy footfalls of the adults they will become.   You stood with your sunflower in your age appropriate white dress, an English rose in the California sunshine; the girl next to you wore a strapless white number and heels, looking as sleek and glamorous as a 26 year old, the illusion only broken when she rushed to her friends, shrieking with giggles.

in spain.pngA year sounds like a long time but here we are in May and you are three quarters finished with your gap year. Madrid, London, Rome, Geneva, Oslo…your gap year has been so packed with travel and study, it seems misnamed – Crammed Full of New Experiences Year is more apt (though unpoetical).

At 14 your passport has a lot of stamps in it; at the same age, I did not even know what a passport was, doing all of my traveling in books. At 14 the farthest I’d ever been from home was the Missouri Ozarks to visit my grandparents, where nothing much ever happened unless you count my mom (also at age 14) being crowned Carnival Queen.

girlsYou spent the fall in Madrid in full immersion language study, attending a Spanish middle school. I thought of you often during those months, wondering what life was like, totally surrounded by people speaking a language you had, at the time, only a beginner’s grasp of. I was glad your host family has a daughter your age. You shared pictures of your new friends, managing to look simultaneously reassuringly girlish and alarmingly grown up.

In your blue plaid Catholic school uniform, you remind me of my own self at the same age; our uniforms were green, but otherwise, the parochial school education I received three decades ago in the Midwest was pretty much identical to the one you are getting in Madrid this fall.

“There are no group projects, ever,” you informed us. “We just sit and listen to the teacher who stands at the front of the room and talks. “ This contrasted sharply with your progressive education in the San Francisco Bay Area, where student collaboration and leadership of their own curriculum are cornerstones of middle school education.

caceres.pngYou kept your blog dutifully if desultorily.   Your writing is direct, unadorned, reportorial rather than revealing. I suspect this is by design – you have always been a close one. You snapchat us funny selfies that show you looking leggy, unfamiliar and beautiful in your Spanish Catholic girl uniform; we send you pictures of Jake sleeping on your bed, videos of Jake romping in your beloved coastal headlands of California. In this way we stay in each other’s daily lives.

Jake misses you. If we say your name, his tail thumps, and he swivels his head toward the front door with hopeful expectancy.  While you gallivant around the world visiting the world’s largest supercollider, Picasso’s Weeping Woman, Vigeland’s Wheel of Life sculptures, Jake sleeps on your bed, sometimes with one of your stuffed animals between his  paws – usually the rabbit but sometimes the owl.  He never tears their eyes out.  He startles me sometimes, his brown head lifting up attentively as I walk down the hall very late or very early, past the open door to your room; for a second I think it is you and then remember, you will not be home for many months yet.

You have a two week respite between studies in London and Madrid, and to no one’s surprise you chose Norway, a wild landscape that seems to have captured your heart as completely as it did mine, and fits your father like an old favorite coat. It’s a lot like Michigan, he says, and indeed, with his Nordic complexion and habit of wearing all-weather gear and mountaineering boots he is mostly indistinguishable from the natives.

house2We are staying in a fairy tale house made of reclaimed wood with a traditional roof that has daisies and grasses growing from it, the Norwegian woods rising up all around us. For you this is a break from being studious, for me this is a break from working nearly non-stop for too many months in a row, so we don’t mind the pouring rain and have no particular plans other than to read in the morning and build a fire in the evening and make pancakes and coffee on the beach in the afternoon, weather permitting.

You were the only one to brave the freezing Oslo Fjord – even the Norwegian among us demurred, but, hardy herself as all Norwegian women seem to be, admired how you stayed in for a good long swim. I can’t feel my arms, you call out to us, laughing but undeterred.   In this you are like your father, seemingly able to withstand any amount of cold when immersed in something you love – not only not suffering but laughing with enjoyment.

Your sister flew in from Amsterdam to join us, and after dinner one evening we went for a walk. With your long hair blowing in a chill spring wind that brings fresh roses to your fair-skinned cheeks, the two of you remind me of Athena and Artemis taking a break from your goddessy duties to sample the rain-scrubbed air and giggle together.

In an age where parents commonly bemoan the sight of their children glued to their electronic devices, Snapchatting and watching You Tube videos, you can be found more often with book in hand than phone. Texts to you might go unanswered for days at a time, something both your dad and I find more reassuring than annoying.  You have always been a dreamy one, enjoying your solitude. At age 11, after a class trip to Joshua Tree your conversation was not about boys or what this or that friend said, but the periods of solitude in nature that you were able to find, even amongst the mob of kids.

Three years later you are not much changed in this regard; in our time in Norway, when not running the trails or visiting museums you can most predictably be found tucked away reading in a corner window seat. You are content here, the woods looming all around, the sound of the rain and wind and locusts and conversations in distant parts of the house humming just below your consciousness. In this we are alike: I spent most of my time at your age with my nose in a book, or sitting at the edges of conversational circles observing, alone but not lonely, a distinction you seem to instinctively understand and appreciate.

gulhallaI marvel constantly at your self-assurance in strange settings. You are utterly unintimidated by public transportation, and I watch with some amazement as you confidently consult the maps and route boards for train, tram, ferry, bus, subway and trolley, calmly working out the transfers and then announcing “We take the L1 on Platform 4 toward Spikkestad, or we can take the R33 toward Gullhalla then catch the Metro.”

I tell you about my own first experience with the subway, in London, with an entire crew of colleagues – some of them Ph.D. engineers – preferring to expensively taxi around rather than risk the subway, too impatient or simply unwilling to learn the unfamiliar.   At my indignant insistence that we travel as locals not tourists I strode fearfully but purposefully into Picadilly Circus and figured out the Tube, a nominal feat as it turned out, with everything color-coded so simply a child could learn. I was 29, nearly twice the age you are now, with half the mastery.

You found it hard to believe that something so naturally easy for you would be challenging for grown-ups and I smile inwardly, wondering if this is your earliest encounter in the inevitable disillusionment with adulthood all children must face: that age does not always confer wisdom or guarantee greater experience. That sometimes, the young know more than the old, and must lead the way. Watching you, I have no doubt you will be ready when that time comes.

I feel a bit sorry that she is spending so much time with old fogies like us, joked one of your gap year mentors. She is an energetic woman in her sixties, a brilliant professor who is retired now but still a tireless learner and treasured family friend. Friends are so important to kids at this age, she observed. But you have always been an ‘old soul’ in that regard, as comfortable being the only child in a room of adults as you are amongst your peers.

Near the end of our time together in Norway, before your father and I return to San Francisco and you jet off to England, we find ourselves in bustling Oslo Central Station. The platform is crowded with tired workers, newly arrived travelers and local shoppers, but you thread your way effortlessly through them to the correct platform.

norway 4It has rained steady and hard on our sightseeing day, and we are drenched and tired, the type of situation that brings out anxiety and crabbiness in most adults. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this (but more likely to simply rid himself of his last Kroner) your dad makes an almost unheard of purchase from a vending machine and we share around the booty: Snickers for him, Twix for me, you sampling each.

Wow I haven’t had a candy bar since last Halloween, you remark, then correct yourself: the Halloween before last, actually.   I reflect that perhaps this, as much as anything else, marks the end of your childhood – an indifference to candy and the American holiday that glorifies it.

We all perk up at the sugar, which helps us shake off the doldrums of a long day coming to an end.   On the trip home you gaze out the window, lost in thought, and I surreptitiously photograph you, something you notice no more than the constant furtive little glances of young men as they pass you on the street and in the shops.

fjord

You are as yet unaware of your beauty and the effect it has, another final remnant of girlhood. As I watch you, an image of you arises in my mind’s eye, your suddenly womanly form emerging dripping from the freezing Oslo Fjord, a sight whose loveliness will take the world’s breath away someday, but for now, is still the provenance of your girlhood and those of us lucky enough to witness the last of it.

 

 

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Singing to Sophia

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sophia bangsGo ahead, sing to her, he said, but I hesitated.  We got along well, you and I, but I felt like an intruder in these nightly rituals.  I am unused to the bedtime rituals of love, security and affection.  I am from a different place than you. My bedroom was a place of both refuge and punishment, my bed a place to hide from the tears and the fears that, both real and imagined, chased me into uneasy sleep.

Sing to her, he insisted, I love to hear you sing.  And so I found myself kneeling by the side of your bed, your face above the covers like a flower smiling up at me.    How practical you were.

“What songs do you know?” you asked, seriously.

I told you the titles, and you asked for a sample of each before deciding on which you wanted to hear.

I sang from an amalgam of selections from the musicals of my high school youth, Phil Collins and Elton John singles, and oddball radio hits from my childhood.  I sang:

Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me

 I sang slowly, remembering the words as I sang, remembering the scene in the movie, where Captain Von Trapp sang a song as novitiate Maria listened, the song a code for the joy he felt seeing her each day:

Small and white, clean and bright,

you look happy to meet me!

I like that one, you said judiciously.

Wouldn’t you agree,

baby you and me

got a groovy kind of love.

What does groovy mean, you wanted to know, and we discussed the intricacies of cool.

Somewhere, out there, beneath the pale moonlight,

someone’s thinking of me, and loving me, tonight.

What is that from, you wanted to know, and I told you about Fievel Mouskavitch from A Mouse’s Tale, how Fievel got lost from his immigrant mouse family, and how he and his sister perched on rooftops and sang about reuniting, to comfort themselves.

Why were they separated? you wanted to know. How did he find them? You, an only child, were charmed by the idea of a brother and sister singing up at the sky,

And even though I know how very far apart we are

It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star!

And when the nighttime starts to sing her lonesome lullaby

It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky….

Were they camping, you wanted to know – a recent love of yours,  you accepted as calm fact the idea of English-speaking mice dressed as Russian peasants, singing and camping in New York, a place you visit courtesy of your stepdad.

The story captivated your imagination so that we were sorely disappointed to find that it is no longer in circulation, not at Blockbuster, not at Netflix, not at Amazon (and why is that, movie creator  people? The Wild West sequel is stupid).

A favorite is The Onion Song, by groovy performance artist Laurie Anderson:

I don’t like snails or toads or frogs or

strange things living under logs

but mmmmmm

I love onions!

We sing it interactively, and I see your daddy’s shadow hovering at the door, listening, amused:

Me: I don’t like shoes that pinch my toes

You: or people that squirt me with the garden hose

Me: but mmmmmm

You: I love onions!

Soon it is a ritual, me singing to you, and when your daddy asked, Who do you want to put you to bed, me or Sandra? your answer rang my heart like a bell.

What new songs do you know, was now the question, and I surprised myself, how I’d wrack my brain scanning  my memory, and iTunes, for something you might like.

Your tastes are sophisticated. You like Bjork, she, appreciator of the mountains you are growing to love like your daddy:

We live on a mountain, right at the top

This beautiful view from the top of the mountain

Every morning I walk towards the edge….

And throw little things off

Like car parts and bottles and cutlery

Whatever I find lying around

It’s become a habit….

…but you sniffed indifferently at the Beatles, a song I was sure a 7 year old would love:

You say yes, I say no

You say stop, I say go go go!

 

I know that song, you said, and I was excited at your recognition.

Shall I sing it? I asked.

No, you said in a bored voice

The ritual goes thusly:

What shall I sing? I ask.

What songs do you have? you counter.

I run through the titles.

Do you have anything new? you ask.

I do, I say.

Let’s hear it.

Where are the simple joys of maiden hood?

Where are all those adoring daring boys?

Shall two knights never tilt for me?

Shall kith not kill their kin for me?

Oh where are a maiden’s simple joys?

That’s pretty, you say. Then: what’s a kith?

Or:

There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall

And the bells in the steeple too

And up in the nursery an absurd little bird

Keeps popping out to say cuckoo!

You liked that one. Cuckoo! Cuckoo! you sang along.

The romantic theme to Romeo and Juliet was judged nice, I think more for the melody than the words

A rose will bloom.

It then will fade

So does a  youth,

So does the fairest maid….

But the song in a different context:

There once was a man

Who loved a woman

She was the one he slew a dragon for!

And there once was a woman

Who loved a man

He was the one she took the poison for!

…….left you cold.  (on reflection, I’m glad.)

Other favorites include Take It Easy and Desperado, by the Eagles, and Daniel by Elton John.   I sing this last because your mom is from here:

They say Spain is pretty, though I’ve never been

Daniel says it’s the best place he’s ever seen

and he should know, he’s been there enough

Lord I miss Daniel, I miss him so much

That’s sad, you say, and I agree, wondering not for the first time if Daniel was one of those early ones who died of AIDS, a death hidden and unremarked on, immortalized in the days before a befeathered, platform-shoed Sir Reginald Dwight started selling ersatz emotion to Disney.

Sing the funny song, you ask, and I comply:

It’s a little bit funny

this feeling inside

I‘m not one of those who can easily hide,

I don’t have much money but

boy if I did

I’d build a big house where

we both could live.

Should I send daddy in to kiss you? I ask, and you say yes. What if he’s gone, and I can’t find him anywhere? I tease, and you say seriously We can live together here, and I wonder if you can see the shine in my eyes and I kiss your forehead.

Early on, you surprised me with your comprehension – you are not just hearing the songs, but listening.

What shall I sing, I asked, and you said, The little white flower song, please, though I never once explained to you that that is what edelweiss is, the national flower of Austria.

Not long ago, the news was filled with the tragic story of the death of Natasha Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, the actress who played Guinevere in Camelot, she the plaintive singer asking whereof the simple joys of maidenhood.

Natasha Richardson was exactly my age when she died. She had a skiing accident. These two facts, seemingly unrelated, have been flitting around my head like moths.  Perhaps because you and I have recently discovered camaraderie in skiing –  this past weekend I took you up on the mountain alone, and we had a grand time, and it was your idea and not mine to eat the peanut butter and jelly on the lift so we didn’t waste precious ski time at lunch in the chalet.

The lift to the top carries six, so we inevitably rode with others.  How are you girls doing, our lift chair compadres asked. They’d lean forward to get a peek at you, small in your pink parka and pink ski pants, your black boots and mittens and gaiter making you look like a scary sweet Ninja.

They grin at us, even the brash young boarders grin at us, happy to recognize kindred spirits twenty years their senior and twenty years their junior.  It’s all good! they shout into the blue sky, and you smile shyly ad kick your feet and ask me, can we ski the bowl this time?

My mind drifts to the death of the actress and I tell you again, never take your helmet off. Never, do you hear?

And you nod and say, not even when I’m going slow.

Good girl, I say, and the lift  moves us steadily up the mountain, higher and higher, our feet dangling over the pines and the snow spread out below us like a cloud fallen to earth, and I am suddenly, acutely aware of the passage of time, how small you are but how soon you will be the age of the snowboarders jostling and joshing on my left, and how none of you can imagine being my age, an age when, barring accidents, there should still be much to look forward to.

Did you hear, a friend asked. Did you hear, at the end? Her mother held her hand and sang “Edelweiss” and then they unplugged the machines, and she was gone.

That night you ask me, can you sing the little white flower song? I sing it for you, perhaps more slowly than usual

Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow

Bloom and grow, forever!

My voice is steady and sweet until the end when it wavers only a little, but you are asleep and so do not know.

edelweiss