On Eagles’ Wings

backlit dawn foggy friendship

I’ve never been so glad to lose a child. If only they could give you this feeling on graduation day or move-in day, a feeling where what is happening matches what you are actually feeling. Maybe it is the quarantine, or the disease, that has brought my heart to its knees. Or the long months of cancelled life, so very unnatural. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, Ellie is leaving. Stranger still, Ellie has somewhere to go. Her beloved Camp Hanover, like so many residential camps in the time of Covid-19, has closed for the summer. Done and gone. But then, almost in the same breath they released an idea that surely came to someone in the middle of the night on the wings of prayer: The Isaiah 40 project. Brilliant. Here is the description of the program off their website and, if I can manage it, a video is attached. On it, Ellie’s voice introduces what will be the next 11 weeks of her summer, and among the more transformative weeks of her life.

The Isaiah 40 Project is an opportunity during this unprecedented summer to practice love of God, neighbor, and self at Camp Hanover. For 10-11 weeks, participants will establish an intentional community focused on service, spiritual growth, and personal development. Service may include grounds-keeping, painting, cleaning, gardening, animal care, trail maintenance, demolition, light construction/repair, leading alternative summer programs, and other community service. In the evenings, team members will share a meal and spend time in devotion and leadership development. The schedule will also include times of sabbath and worship. Living arrangements and work assignments will be coordinated with best practices for health and risk mitigation in light of COVID-19.

You don’t often hear the word “light” in the same sentence with this disease, which for months has brought darkness and isolation. But I believe there will be a lot of it. For one, Ellie’s name means light, and as a baby, it was her first recognizable word. Two, this is a brilliant idea, a viable solution to the CDC and governor’s orders and every other restriction out there that begs the obvious question: how do you do “socially distant” residential summer camp for children? Can you even imagine? Hiking would be okay, so long as no one stumbled or needed a leg up. But campfires? Cabin chats? Canoeing? The mud pit in a mask? What is more “body-in” than a bunch of eight-year-old boys on a campout–a world federation Jello wrestling match maybe, but it’s close.

This project, announced weeks ago in the midst of every “no,” was our first recognizable joy. The first possibility that something could be restored and even hope to approximate its fallen original. This one well might have. In any case, it is exciting to ponder after she submits the application, is contacted from her hospital bed (appendectomy, last month’s adventure), and then Zoom interviewed when she gets home. An “intentional” community with loads of manual labor “focused on service” shared by small team who comes together in the evenings and–because of Covid-19–a certain measure of “just don’t know” and “adapt as you go” call for creativity and adaptability? HELLOOO — college girl here. Sure enough, she is just the sort of candidate they are looking for. Now, two weeks and an emergency room visit resulting in surgery later, I can’t believe we made it to this day. I feel almost victorious, defiant. Take that, you %$#@! disease. Stripped of every fun thing for months and now, this mainway to hope. To life. The thank you, Lord leaks out of me like breath and sometimes tears.

Up to this day I wanted to put her in a glass jar and keep her safe, germ free and unbroken. My whole being is on quarantine, afraid to live, move or have our being before she gets her answer. Before she goes. Sophie asks to go to the beach with friends and I explain the situation–like I want to nail the rest of us into our upstairs bedrooms for fear of anyone else bringing it in. All us air sharers who can’t even agree on a family movie: notice, it is joy and disaster that connect us, at our core. The rest of the days, some of them, like you are providing free rent to strangers plucked off Craigs List. I tell you what. One bad thing, my daughter, could pull us all over the edge. Didn’t you see the rope? Just as, now, one good thing will lift us all to soar. And soar we will. We made it and she is leaving, taking with her all that goodwill, can-do and helpfulness that a project such as this will need. But not her toothbrush. That I will have to mail.

For the first two weeks they will live in isolation. Even more than Thoreau-boy in our backyard, I gather. Each of the seven will have their own cabin, their own table in the dining hall (seats 10) and their own sofa on “couch porch.” Remember the last time any of them ate in this dining hall it would have been teeming with 250 noisy, sweaty campers clattering trays and silverware. Now these young adults will sit like silent islands unto themselves. Putting the word experiment right up on the table with socially distant. As we are all learning in this new “re-opening” time, viewing is not the same as visiting. Even Zoom preserved the distance and therefore eliminated the decisions. I don’t know about you, but have you chatted with a neighbor from 20 feet away, had lunch with a friend you’re used to hugging and touching, been around people whose personal space could hold a small parked car? Serving up some serious awkward these days. Fussing with the placement of a facemask and praying your invisible force field extending from you six feet in every direction will hold, for their sake and yours. These are some strange times. Seven of them on 600 acres, they will have quite a personal spread. Their work jobs will be solo–part chain gang, part parallel play, part infectious disease. Got my bug spray, my pillow, and m’ hazmat suit. Did they ever in a million years think to add “M-95 mask” to the packing list? On the YouTube videos we can see Ellie in the woods, clearing a trail, picking up sticks and brush, hoeing in a garden, masked and apart. They say this is holy ground, as each Christian community has one: Holy in the sense of “Take off your sandals for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Holy in the sense of set apart. But I know as truly and deeply as the realization dawns: not this sort of apart.

After the two weeks are up they will come together in one house and one group to live out the summer as a  “quarantine community” — no one leaves and no one comes in. But also — no masks and no distance. Only the “socially” left standing. What does it look like? Hugging. What does it sound like? Singing. What does it feel like. Family. When you live with adolescents and young adults for that brief gulp before jumping, the world is constantly besting the family and its meagre offerings. It is outgrown, outmoded, at best a worn-out relic in the young person’s drive to autonomy. Maybe they are kind to it, patting it on the head on their way out the door, or maybe they kick or shun it in full-blown rebellion, either way it slips from the top of the list. If you raise some independent souls, maybe it doesn’t have far to fall. But with the pandemic, and the hunker-down, world-a-threat for weeks on end, the family got dusted off and restored. In the rubble of our times: Look! Here’s one. Will this work? Is that Sophie girl at my dinner table??! Why, I haven’t seen her in months! Second child, blur-girl whose most permanent mode these past two years was “just on my way out.” Now someone bigger than us has cranked her dial to “here.” And “wow, still here.” When it goes to “here indefinitely” this mother’s heart mourns with her, for though it is nice it is surely not natural. She was the ghost of the upstairs. Still is, preferring her room, but now there are vestiges, passing glimpses, and all-out pauses of her at the dinner table, coming to help me fix supper, or even playing a card game afterward. For several weeks I have pinned all three to their empty plates with a read-aloud time. What is this?! Does an adult child even know how to push back but not get up from the table immediately after dinner? Yes, be still. Last time this family read aloud with all of them in the same room? Well, as Will is more than four years younger than Sophie, maybe never.

In quarantine she comes back into focus gradually. I see the outline and the limbs first, and then as more of her is spent here she fills in….I get to relearn and re-see. Her face. Her smile. Her scowl as you say/do/suggest/breathe a thought displeasing to her. Gives a whole new meaning to “Learn at Home.” It is like a parents’ remediation, a time with my grown and gone people I never thought I’d get, not in my wildest dreams. Maybe because I am not prone to particularly wild dreams, accepting what comes and trying to make the best of it. (Okay, then, family for one? I’ll take it.) When Ellie graduated two years ago, on a high as high as this summer has been low, I remember thinking —finally. Now we would be that postcard family of four, coming and going as one, fitting more comfortably in the car that would carry us to such fun family adventures –hiking and camping and visiting historic Virginia sites and expensive outdoor adventures. While others were mourning the breach of the family, created when a first-born moves away, the “never again” of the nest-keeper, I felt a small relief that I wouldn’t have to struggle so hard. We never got that time. Second daughter slipped out while the door was still open. Licensed that summer before the ink had dried on her hourly driving log, she was gone. Tell you what. I have not cleaned many closets this quarantine. I have not taken up Ukulele, origami, needlecraft or learned a new recipe or done more than pass by a silent piano and left it mute. But I have certainly learned a new skill: Family.

Family. The only institution made stronger by its attrition. Ellie is ecstatic. Her camp is closed in a way that is wholly open and new. She knows the people coming, has worked with each of them in different capacities in summers past. It is the biggest “Yeah, but” I’ve heard so far that stands against the disease and its constant threat, its big black marker over the calendar of our lives. I listened to the “Why not?” of her sister’s beach trip, which seems so much on the fast track to disaster that the beach they are going to is called Corolla. For real??! I’ve heard the “Virus?? What virus?” shrugs of the unmasked people at the grocery store or lined up outside Home Depot, but this is the first response to the situation that humbles itself before a very real health threat and offers a responsible alternative to hermetic isolation and xenophobia, two new outfits I’ve frankly been trying on that fit me quite well. But, no…this cannot be. Life forever changed cannot paralyze forever. Ask the colleges, already studying the broken pieces for what new thing they will build. Slowly, this startling camp project rouses me from day-less stupor and tugs me gently away from denial. There will be light. Let there be. They will go back to school in the fall. Dorms will open. People will work all summer to make college campus an experiment in strange new light. UVA welcome packets each will contain two “personal masks” and a vat-sized jug of hand sanitizer. I’ve been so busy staying alive from it I haven’t wanted to live with it.

Standing in the gravel parking lot at camp, Ellie gives and receives her last hug for a while. I, the grateful recipient. My girl. She is slow in leave-taking and already exudes that “intentional” calm the project calls for. Must be a strange thing, for a girl who as a tot took forever to leave the pool because she had to hug everyone goodbye. Everyone. Her physicality was part of her being and her communion. She could barely swim, so she would just sort of float about and try to propel herself into random strangers’ swim space to tell them “goodbye” and give them a hearty embrace. Without the hugs, I know for a little while she will be emotionally mute, a handicap she will compensate for with words, and soon, with looks from behind a mask. They all will, this intentional community. You can do a lot of living with your eyes.

I will miss this girl as I do every summer, but now with an added reservoir of gratitude. No more bumbling over back roads to retrieve her on a Wednesday night off so she can come for dinner and I can carry her back late the same night. No more sneaking on to campus with a surprise care package and a hope to glimpse our girl in action. There’s no barbed wire circling the grounds as I drive her in, but I know in my heart she is gone to us. Eleven weeks. Has been since they put this proposal out there and asked, How would you like– … You know how the world is closing down? How would you like to close down with us, in this most open embrace of God’s provision? It’s dramatic, no doubt, but driving away without her I feel a little of that “Ellis Island” emotion I told you about. Girl going on ahead, rising up from the ruins of our current life with a situation that is safer, better, certainly whole-r than the one she leaves. That is what feeds a parent even more than their company.

She came to us three months ago today, off a plane from her grandmother’s whirlwind girls’ weekend that kicked off spring break. Unfortunately, somebody kicked a little too hard and spring break never ended. I remember being excited with news that we would have her a few extra days while her college figured out what to do. I don’t know who threw what transpired on the table, but it was a preposterous plan. College girl, sophomore, on the cusp of all her good, now relegated to remote learning from her old bedroom. But she did it. She jigsaw puzzled and pounded out papers and she found new projects and powered her academic life by laptop. She powered our home with grace. It was extended to all of us, and I am a grateful recipient.

An Eagle, like a hawk and most raptors, is a solitary bird. You don’t see them in pairs like swans or flocks like geese. When they soar, their air space seems entirely created for them alone. It’s actually a strange choice of themes for this new project at camp. Why uphold the solo or emphasize the majestic heights one can soar alone? The eagle is hardly an image of family or corporate living. So I am curious about the mis-fit between the description of the project and its chosen credo. I once saw a bald eagle in the wild, soaring (is there another verb?) over a cornfield in rural Virginia. The reality struck me first with wonder (Could that be…? Is it really?), then with awe, the slow certainty of its aerial circles like it was scribing time itself with majesty and grace, a supernatural presence and an assurance of the highest order. When you see something that rare and spectacular, you don’t question it, so much as you question yourself: Where am I? Am I really here? Is this really happening? And with the awe comes the strength to go on.

Here, then, is what the Isaiah community at camp this summer will share: an assurance that our weakened, watered-down living in quarantine and stumbling along is not reason to faint. That fear and despair will not prevail. If you read the beloved words of Isaiah more closely, it’s there: Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. The metaphor, beautiful and eternal as it is, is just that: a metaphor. Like or as will never occupy the essence of that to which it is compared. Once again, a slight grammatical underpinning that makes all the difference. So, those “wings” are “like” eagles and they function as powerfully “as” an eagle’s, but the strength and hope and they bring does not come from a bird. Rather, with hope we will be granted the sensation of soaring like an eagle, on whose wings we can be sure: His.



ISAIAH 40: 1-31

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD ; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” 9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. 12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? 13 Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor? 14 Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding? 15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. 16 Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings. 17 Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing. 18 With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him? 19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. 20 A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple. 21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? 22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. 23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. 24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff. 25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. 27 Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.


The Freedom Machine

brown home printed rug beside door

Every morning around seven, I hear the downstairs door crash open and Will comes bounding into the kitchen. Through the left-open door the birds that woke him sign off with their melodious shrill and my “me time” is shattered. I’ve usually got my tea by then, seated at the kitchen table or computer. Boy attacks me with a spontaneous hug–messy, sudden, all limbs and a grin. His backyard nap has ended with the dawn racket of squirrels and birds just starting up their day. Morning makes a fine alarm clock.

Today marks six weeks since Will moved out to live in a tent. Half his quarantine thus far lived with this spin: alone in the woods. Social distancing to the extreme. Did I expect anything less from this boy? For the first two weeks while the world was cleaning closets, gardening, looking up obscure recipes and tackling fix-its that broke in a different millennium, Will was busy, too–digging a hole. It will leave that metaphor where I found it. The hole is there still–an 8′ by 10′ crater about 6′ deep. He dug for four and five hours at a clip until his shoulders disappeared, and then his head, a 90-lb human excavator. Little heap-fuls of dirt up over the edge of his man-made abyss as I watched out the kitchen window. We will have to keep digging still to get to the why.

But it kept him busy. And like all good prequels it points irrevocably toward the main movie. On his way for a bigger/better shovel to continue his digging project, he comes across a 6-man tent all folded and neatly packaged and put away in our shed. It was there, mom, so I had to. I wanted to see if I could set it up all by myself. I guess he could. Today, it is still neat, but it is decidedly not “away.” It is a tidy homestead, nestled between trees, rain fly overhead and hopeful 50-foot extension cord plugged in, powering the electronics world that woodsman Will has enjoyed creating and having dominion over these many weeks. Don’t tell me your family camps without a heater, a fan, desk lamp, TV/VCR unit and a hand-me-down-Wii?? What? You left your Captain American décor and show-library of books that won’t get read at home? For shame! For a while there was even a Lego bin under his cot. Life’s essentials there, Thoreau. I notice he’s hung an American flag out back and is using the tether ball pole to hold a clothesline. Whole place has that “We’ll leave the light on for ya” appeal to it.

Now, almost three months later, it may be that the Ozark Trail 6-man special has come to an end. Over the weekend we watched a scary family movie. Like, ghastly scary. I left the room to go re-up my membership to the Bad Parents’ Club. It was late when the movie ended, and Will decided that the bed in his room looked pretty good to him. Felt good, too, as he stretched out in it showered and changed, so changed. I sent a boy into the woods and he came back this mix of all things, like the Lego box that’s under the bed he’s in: Dozens of kits that are supposed to be built one and only one way, blown apart and broken down to multicolored elements. Then reassembled into something so creative, less predictable and weird looking. But those are the beautiful ones. The kinds of Lego creations that come with a story, not just a label and a picture on the box. That’s boy. Boy in his own bed tonight. It was strange, having new breathing in the house. My headcount going up and down our stairs that night (which I do every night–Who’s here, who’s in his or bed this night?) increased by one. And a hundred. Tell me your story, son…

The next morning he still came crashing down the stairs like ten men being chased by an elephant. Noise and boy are one. I notice with a start that he is growing. Shaggy head well past my chin, arms hung loose like they’ve cranked his shoulders out a few clicks and he’s getting used to it, not that gorilla swing of some men, but definitely like he’s constructed of loose parts till they begin to grow into each other. At random times throughout the day his silver mouthful breaks into a smile. Mom, I’m so happy. Why am I so happy? I wouldn’t begin to answer the question of the biochemical explosion that we lovingly call Boy, but I have my theories. For one, homeschool is ending and he has, for the first time in his textbook-less world a true sign of mastery: A huge pile of school papers that he completed all by himself. For two, he’s been off a cell phone since last November. Corona didn’t invent social distancing, that thing did. For three, look at his real estate: a home among the trees with birdsong your first and last company in a day.

The woods in the late afternoon/evening are luminous green. They glow with being. The undergrowth simmers with a whispered an invitation: Come… Come and see. Take a walk with me…. When they were little, real little and going out anywhere presented itself a logistical effort (it still does) the appeal of those woods was so easy: just take a walk. Who needs a fancy park or offsite green space for a juice-box, sunblock, time-constrained play date? We live in one, for car-seat tantrum’s sake. I could take them to the woods for the same effect without going anywhere. Now, with this unseasonably cool and delicious spring like I haven’t seen in Virginia for 20 years, the natural world has reasserted its comfort value. No wonder boy chose new digs (get it??!) in the midst of a global pandemic. I realize that we have given him something that doesn’t come out of a can, or Alexa, something that can’t be scripted or programmed or paid for. It is something we are all experiencing: the taste of time. Raw time, unprocessed. It’s how we grew up. Outside by day, in by night, with a whole day gone to… to what? I couldn’t say. So far as possible, he has turned time into a verb.

Those early “homeschool” days were hard. Digging through the rubble to find a motivator. Something that would power boy through the work they sent and sustain learning without his teachers or his naggy mom. Day in, day out, rain or shine, holed up in a tent doing home school. Those were some strange and wonderful days. Many of the inventions of “Learn at Home” were not even on the curriculum–the squirrel trap, the UV light radiation chamber (into which we feed eggs, mail, a gallon of milk). The skateboard swivel chair. The fake gas mask/hazmat get-up. The laptop from Uncle Skip, which Will parlayed into a two-week seminar on computer programming. And his most recent industry: lights on his go-kart, his crowning glory. In honor of the upcoming Memorial Day holiday, Will is outfitting it with flags for a one-man parade up and down our street. Sporting new turn signals and brake lights from an electrical engineering course he self-registered for these past two weeks, the kart has been deemed roadworthy. Will plans to motor through the neighborhood as a tribute to our nation and our fallen heroes.

We have a deadline here: Memorial Day. He has decided to decorate, locating the few places on the little metal frame without lights or wires where he can install flags. Late one evening I find he and Bill strapping “Angler’s Mate” fishing rod racks to the sidebars and back of the kart (See Burk Emporium: Think I May Have One of Those). Into the chrome tubing they mount American flags that tower over the cart–two on each side and one off the back. Even at low speed the one in back, big as a tablecloth, unfurls and waves out in glory behind him. The effect is really quite something. In full patriotic regalia, he slowly motors down the driveway bound for the open road, parent film crew hurrying behind him, looking every bit from the back like an errant rider from Hell’s Angels hurrying off the rejoin the band. It’s not a go-kart. It’s a freedom machine.

We had to give up on reading Walden, which is sad but my people found it archaic and over-worded. What?!! That explains why they don’t read my blogs. 🙂 So after dinner we have been reading My Side of the Mountain instead, about a boy pioneer who holed up in a tree and lived completely off the land. I knew a boy like that in our backwoods, waking at dawn those early days in March, scrounging sticks and tinder to light a fire to cook his own breakfast. The gloom and hardship lifting slowly, like a dew, just aching for the next success and yet quietly stripping down to survival mode in case one didn’t come. It was, for no other word will do, a denoument into essence, into what really matters, the mother of all “Learn at home” that will outlast this quarantine. Haven’t we all been back to school just a little during these days? In a culture where “success” has been so measured by ridiculous sticks — “happiness,” “achievement,” “material excess,” and now, the most recent inanity — “likes” and “friends,” I am glad all three of mine have been relieved of these lies. For everything this pandemic and quarantine have taken away, it has given a few truths I am delighted to rediscover. In different ways our children have each opened up their survival kits to see what’s in them and found more than they expected. And for once school taught what life always has on its curriculum, Heraclitus 101: Know What you are Made of. This is why you have 43 nights alone in a tent by a boy who was afraid of the dark.

This past weekend with the spring weather he’s decided indoor tent living is too posh for him, and has strung a hammock between two trees. Now it’s boy completely preposition-less–nothing under him, over him, nothing around him but the night air and the darkness. A gray and orange ENO doublenest. I can see the little nylon cradle out my balcony door as I ready for bed. I can’t make out whether it is moving or still, but it hangs full and heavy between the trees. Like the squirrel trap: I got one! A nice fat one. I imagine him sleeping there. The night air, thin and cool, steeped in a lullaby that lacks the shrill din of the morning, he will hear murmurs and cooing that blend and woo him to sleep. When we turn out the lights and go to bed the house and yard will be pitch black on this starless night. And boy swaying ever so gently in his barque bed, suspended in night. Suspended in time. Free.

When he comes in the next morning, it is earlier and the dew still wet. Something so raw about undomesticated sleep. Backyard sounds like a tropic aviary for all the bird racket. Who could sleep in that? Still the bang of the downstairs door and the bounding strides that bring him into the kitchen. I try to hold off on my battery of questions (Sleep well? Warm enough? Back hurt?) till he has poured half an entire box of cereal into a bowl. After all, creatures like Will don’t come inside for fun, but for fuel. He is humming while he scoops up the fallen cheerios and tries to pile them back in the bowl. My hammock sleeping boy. He is tee-heeing in telling me how one uses the lavatory in the middle of the night without leaving the hammock and grossing me out. Then this:

“I’m so happy.”
Well that’s good. Why are you happy, son?
“I dunno. I like looking up at the sky.”

Memorial Day 2020. The ride of glory takes place on the edge between dusk and night. With its new lights, his vehicle will be visible to other cars, and he is excited to be able to signal, to communicate with his fellow motorists. He follows the rules of the road. He goes the speed woman. I don’t bother to explain that going 21 mph in a frameless vehicle 4″ off the ground in total darkness is a problem for me at any speed, not to mention illegal in our neighborhood. I let him go. Twenty minutes later I go outside to the bottom of the driveway, where the air is beautiful and the night is still and cool. No sound, no cars. I listen for the sound of the kart puttering along. I stand in the middle of the empty street, my gaze a half mile in both directions. Look up the street at the wide dark road and then down, where, in the distance, way down in the cul-de-sac I can see a winking light where it would be if he stopped to talk to neighbors. Who lets their kid go out for a ride at night? Come on mom, that’s why I rigged up all the lights! Sure ‘nough. It’s tiny as a firefly and far away, but it grows brighter as it grows closer, until it is aimed right at me and as unmistakable as an oncoming train. Growing with it comes the knocking rattle hum of a HP Briggs Stratton and of metal on road. The chain is loose, the sprocket is spitting out bolts like broken teeth, but he’s made his run. Over the racket I hear another sound. He is singing. And coming home.

Today is Will’s graduation party at our house. That would be Will, the rest of his family, two cats and a dog. Party of five. I’m calling it the “No one Goes inside Party” in honor of our woodland boy. That means no leaking inside to cell phones or bugless world after putting in an obligatory appearance at the dinner table. Instead we do things a boy dreams of. Shall I hand you a shovel or a spark plug? There are so many activities I don’t know how we will fit them in. Croquet. Badminton. Cook outside together. Of course, any party with Will’s name on it will involve fire. It’s Pentecost as well, so an inferno–er, bonfire, is warranted. Will has an annual tradition of burning his school notebooks and papers after every long year. Somehow marshmallows and hot dogs taste better smoked over civics or math. Our final activity? We will re-watch the launch of the SpaceX shuttle which took off Saturday. Seems fitting, to observe in action something whose speed and beauty are so perfectly aligned, symbol of possibility and hope. Brave new world. And tomorrow, out of the blue he will zip up that tent for the last time and find his way home.





My Grandma sent me a Radar Gun

close up photo of gray concrete road
Photo by Max Andrey on Pexels.com

William loves to drive. He learned to ride a bike at four–right across our front yard, careening past trees. I remember him grinning and clinging to the handlebars, sheer will squeezing out tears as he tried to keep the bike aright. The intention could have powered the SpaceX Shuttle. Took about ten tries and we were off! He’d cut his teeth long before that, “steering” a Craftsman riding mower seated on his dad’s lap. He used to fuss and howl so much as a toddler when he heard the engine start that we would have to wait for a nap or factor in the extra time it took mow the lawn with a koala bear at the wheel, ear protection clamped on either side of his chubby cheeks, same eyes of determination and delight. By age seven (I’m sure this is an exaggeration yet when I count backward I can get to this point) he had taken over. If he sat forward he could just reach the gas and the brakes, so he started mowing for us. Half his life he’s been behind the wheel. Now, in quarantine, he sometimes cuts the grass twice a week, just for something to do, and he takes his time because that’s what the day is handing out in spades.

I’ve already told you about moving the cars. That’s a real job at our house. He knows where the keys are to all three vehicles, and he knows how to drive stick. So he moves the cars around our driveway, parking and re-parking. Heaven forbid someone suggest she is going to unload groceries or load suitcases for a trip or wash a vehicle right where it sits. What?! Call the car mover! Yesterday he asked to hook the trailer up to the lawn tractor and drive it through the woods. No mention of picking up sticks or clearing brush/debris or really anything that would warrant the gas. Just for practice, mom.

The vehicle with the highest mileage on the property is Manco 400 go-kart, which boy will describe to you with love in his voice: “6.5 horsepower engine, no suspension, 4″ off the ground and very small.” What it lacks in size it makes up for in might. Take note of that “no” suspension. This means (a) you and I are not hopping on for a ride any time soon and (b) we may save on orthodontics after the teeth are rattled clear out of his head. This little red tubular beauty came from the neighbors when they moved away. Hauled (another) non-working item onto our property knowing our boy would one day love it. Understatement on turbocharge. In third grade we let him skip for a “homeschool day” unit study on small engine repair. He and Bill took apart the engine, bit by bolt, cleaned it, and put it back together. They took pictures so they could get it right. Will was fascinated, that “anatomy of parts” thing right up his alley even then. Carburetor, gas can, spark plug, clutch. The name of each part uttered in the same breath with what it does, identity and function one and the same. They set up two card tables side by side on the driveway and carefully laid out each part, naming it, studying it, wiping, cleaning. I remember his hands, still chubby with boyhood and more used to Legos, learning by automotive Braille. Handling each part with the reverence as if it was a live organ. Because it was.

But after hours of it, the kart still did not run. Turns out you can have all your bits in the right place and still not go. Then does your teacher turn from speed to patience, from consternation to contemplation and from frustration to final good. We ordered a new engine, billed him the next six months of his lawn mowing money and this time waited for a weekend to put it in. It was the first setback of so many. They ought to measure MPH not in in terms of time driving, but in time poured into keeping an engine running. Hours of tinkering, trying, testing, tempering the driver while the vehicle sat idle. That Will’s wheels have spent more time on the trails than in the shop is a testament only to boy’s staying power and not to any reliability of this ol’ lemon. All that week he waited for the new Briggs Stratton “Predator” special. What I remember along with the grease to his elbows on the day it came was the electrified hope and anticipation barely containable, like Christmas in the garage. I would go to put the trash out and find him just sitting on his machine, dreaming of the day when horsepower would meet metal frame and explode into freedom.

Ellie — fun fact from Instagram — “The first ever speeding ticket was issued to Walter Arnold on the 28th of January 1896 in Kent England, where he was blitzing through the town at 8 mph (four times the legal limit). He was chased for five miles by a police officer on a bicycle and was fined one shilling when he was finally caught.”

Like most boys, Will is obsessed with speed and has been since he was high-tailing it away from me as a toddler. Even riding along in his car seat he was tracking. Half-pint backseat driver, he used to ask me if I was “going unner the speed woman.” (See Christmas blog of same name, 2009). I would assure him that I was. Who would break the law with a baby on board? Even though everywhere I went in those days was on the fly, totally rushed and harried, the question served to slow me down and make me think. The speed woman? Of course. “Yes, William.” He would proceed to tell me that’s good, because if you don’t drive under the speed woman “then the poe-weese will pull you down.” Where is getting this stuff? I remember thinking. Not the last time I would ask that question, to be sure.

They got the go-kart running, and Will spent his weeks learning a new language of speed and turns, and how to lose the ground beneath him. Little rattler ripping though our woods, giving him that gas powered high as he drifts around trees and along the wooded paths he blazed. It’s been seven or eight years now and three engines later. Like I say, half his life as an unlicensed driver. By now we have thousands of hours, tens of thousands of runs speeding through the back 40, in all seasons, in all weather, in all stages of boy. It is a grand teacher, starting with that first yank of the pull cord. Sometimes it starts, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it runs, sometimes it stalls, or sputters to a half-hearted and exasperating end. It always seems to need an adjustment of some sort and like life, all manner of things can go wrong. The chain can fall off. A friend can drive it into a tree and bend the frame, so one axle doesn’t hold a tire straight. This can ruin your sprocket. When your mom goes on her morning walk she can find, along the roadside the bolts, and nuts and washers, scattered up and down the street like parade candy.  From time to time the carburetor will clog, or the clutch will slip, or the engine will flood and then you’re done for the day. On good days it puts back into the universe everything it has taken and hums like the fine automobile that he imagines it to be. Low to the ground it soars over the trees, this little boy-machine.

It didn’t take long for the yard and woods to grow small and for driving boy to yearn to for the open road. He takes a daring spin from time to time, ostensibly to “get the mail” but really just testing the asphalt. For weeks I’ve been fussing about it. That’s it’s so dangerous, even on our quiet subdivision street. Even in quarantine-time traffic, which is nil. He’s too low to the ground, cars can’t see him, he goes too fast, the road is too hard, too straight, the sky is too blue, he’ll put his eye out. That sort of thing. Mom jam. I never think boy is listening until later, when I discover that my fret has found its mark: boy with a brain and a helmet on his head protecting it. I watch the YouTube video he’s cut in our garage. “Yeah, so my mom wanted me to be safe so I got this great idea to put lights on my go-kart…” Over a week he’s spent reading and researching, looking up schematics, studying wiring configurations. To make it truly road worthy he’ll need brake lights and turn signals, because his mom wants him to be safe. Says that right in the clip. He said the word “mom” on YouTube. That’s me! My XO for this boy goes viral.

On last month’s laptop he looks up and researches dozens of lights, switches, wiring packages. The switch comes several days before the other components and he carries it around with him in his pocket, pulling it out every so often to admire it. “Look, mom, see…look at this cool switch…” In the meantime, this mama getting what she needs. Boy studies. Boy reads. Boy tinkers and solders and tests and tweaks. Then, because this is starting to look like a natural terminus for boy: he teaches. Don’t pass by our garage laboratory in the days such as these or you, too, will be fully versed in wiring after-market turn signals and brake lights to a circa 1997 go-kart. The tutorials are in direct proportion to his enthusiasm–over and over he hauls me into the garage for show and tell. He purchased two LED turn signals and a handsome red bar brake light. Those he wired to a blinker relay, so the turn signals would actually blink. Then he needed a power source, which he finds in an 18-volt cordless drill battery, which will work great if he can purchase and connect a step-down converter to 12 volts. The fistful of color coded wires and wire nuts he has stuffed into an old diaper wipes container, which he is busy mounting on the back of the cart with wood slats and some bungi cords. Did I know this much about electrical circuitry before? Did I want to? Did I know this much about inner workings of a boy? Ah…Did I want to.

Does it matter that the brake lights are not, in fact, engaged with the brake pedal? Instead they are operated manually, like the turn signal lights, by a fancy little toggle switch he all but sleeps with under his pillow when it arrives (if he even uses a pillow anymore). Reminds me of a fake video camera I’ve seen hanging in the upstairs bathroom or above his tent. Will ordered that online for April Fool’s day (see Master in Crime), and the virtual nature of its being doesn’t seem to faze him in the least. Let’s face it, quarantine friends, virtual is the new reality. And anyway, the intention was pure. The lights are an attempt to communicate with other drivers, half to strut his stuff and half to indicate his next move. He is eager for cars to come by, not so he can drag race them or get run over, but so he can participate in the dialog that goes on between vehicles of the open road: slowing, stopping, turning left. He wants to have a voice plucked from Amazon and his own garage so he can be part of that great conversation of things that go.

Then the test runs. After all this time at the workbench, you’d think he’s be bustin’ to burn a hole in something. Rip up the woods with the reward of his labors. But no. Will is uncharacteristically patient. And slow. Bill and I both think there’s something wrong with the engine, so slowly does he motor about the yard and house. Looks like he’s out for a Sunday drive. I am more accustomed to the little dust cloud that follows behind him as he screams through the woods full throttle, head back, grinning his silver smile and howling with joy. Then I realize, he is listening. His ears attuned to every pop, rattle, and sputter of that engine. Got the lights on and working fine but there’s other stuff giving him grief. The throttle. The choke. The clutch. So much to go wrong in such a sophisticated and interconnected little machine.

He spends a whole day working on it while Bill is away at church. Back and forth, from the shed to the garage. Back and forth. What could he possibly be working on? The mood sours as the day wears on. Finally I hear a terrific yell, not like a scream or cry of pain, but a deep burst of anger and frustration. The kind usually accompanied by slammed doors or flying hammers. I don’t know this until the next day, until the heat of anger has dissipated, but something went terribly wrong with the apparatus he and Bill constructed to hold the lights. The copper tubing, which was so perfect, slipped and rattled during his test run. Will detached them to cut a little brass bolt off the end. But he put the copper tubing in a vise to hold it and the copper crimped shut, as copper will do. Then he couldn’t slide the bars back on the go-kart. He tried to tap another rod into it and the copper bent. He shakes his head ruefully, remembering the anger that possessed him. “So there I was with that copper pipe and a hammer in my hand,” he says, giving me a sheepish smile. “You can guess what happened.” I know months from now we will find those little running bars twisted beyond recognition and pounded paper flat, but for now, Will is content with the replacement set. He even let his dad help him. More importantly, he has out-manned his anger. He has owned and surrendered it. “Mom, you can write about the go-kart,” says Will. “You can write about it, but you gotta let me read it so you get it right. Sometimes you don’t get it right.” Oh, really? Well I am writing about stuff I do know. The schematics of the heart.

The finishing touch comes in the mail, from his grandmother who lives in New England and has a project for boy. Hearing of all the wiring and soldering work and his new degree in electrical engineering, she wants to know if Will can solder some wire clips back onto the motherboard of a little garden cart she has owned for about as long as boy has been alive. It’s a one of a kind cart, and according to her as she carefully packages the broken bits and calls her grandson, the ONLY one like it on the PLANET! The stress slides right off Teflon boy and clings to me. You don’t get going 35 mph in a densely wooded residential lot by spending your day in pointless worry. Sure, Mamie, I can do that for you. No problem. Does he know what a diode is? Does he really know how to solder? One of our soldering irons, I’m told, gets to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Put this next sentence in CAPS: Is there no end to the potential for disaster in a single five-minute span around here??? Nevertheless, I get out of the way. I figure my own mother well knows his “Yup,” because she would have heard it before. Many years ago. Close to 40, in fact, when she would have had a similar garage-dwelling creature. She once let my brother take apart a clothes dryer that needed fixing–and quietly went drip dry for months afterward. I seem to remember her also letting him take a stab at her car, but perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Though we did have a rental for a while.

Tucked in the box is an odd gadget Will does not recognize at all. But heck, it’s a device, so its name is less important than the delicious fact it comes with cords, wires and buttons and a tiny tantalizing screen. It’s a radar detector, circa 1982. Boy is fascinated. What is it? once again so closely linked to What does it do? And onto this age-old question Will’s new generational spin: What can it do beyond what it is supposed to?  For his dad and me, it’s perfectly heartwarming to have a few terms my post-millennial kid doesn’t know, to have a few random bits of info he deems useful. “Fuzz buster.” His eyes widen as he hears ancient tales of his parents as teen drivers. Within 30 minutes he’s looked it up on Google, determined its value on Ebay, read the print manual cover to cover, and gone through the house finding radio-transmitting items to test out the radar strength and get the thing to go bleep. I now have an APB out on our TV remote.

Also in the box is some little bicycle gadget, like a clip to hold a water bottle and a pump to the frame of your bike. Clearly mom was cleaning out the garage and everything has found its way into the same box, like carrier parasites. This Trojan Horse gifting–coming in looking like a Christmas or birthday present and containing the purge of her hall closet or some other shelf she’s stripped–is classic Mamie. Here, have the entire contents of my Goodwill bags. My mom doesn’t actually bother with the Goodwill. She just drives it up to the Post Office addressed to us. Will studies this other gadget, too, turning it in his hands. It’s how I know he is growing up. That, besides the stretched frame and clothes that fit funny these days, his paddle hands that appear suited for a larger man. Plus his analysis of parts is finally giving way to a causal curiosity: From what? to how? and why? evolving into a study of how individual parts relate and the relationships between things–there grows a boy to man. I stand back to watch the process and give it the full welcome of a mother’s heart, which is something. Analysis must mature into synthesis for a man to be made whole. Then I realize he is not quite tracking; for all his techno-smarts and internet savvy, his “what-if” mind has gotten ahead of itself and made a crazy connection. His eyes light up and his delightful boyish innocence is back. He studies the radar detector again in one hand and the waterbottle-clip-bicycle-attachment thingy in the other. A synapse misfires. “Oh so, you could use this on a bike?”

I think life with any child makes you travel faster than you like. As his mom, maybe I will always be nudging him into the middle lane, trying to keep him at a sane travelling speed. Maybe. The middle lane, son. That’s where you find moderation and contentment, two more words for your budding vocabulary and two more ways of being you haven’t learned yet. It’s where you drive to be adaptable, ready for anything that can happen on the open road. I’d like to teach him that being safe is more than being seen and heard in darkness, but I think life will do that. It’s a start of wisdom, anyway. For now, I will be walking along the same road, picking up the bits and parts that have fallen off and carrying them home in a pocket like loose change. I will be there for the show and tell, and for the failures. I will duck when the hammers fly (or was it a mallet?). I want him to know that, unlike engine parts, your identity is so much more than your function. And that, like engine parts, you can have it all together and still not run. Life if like that sometimes. I am grateful for the time spent in Will’s Tire and Auto. All that industry, disappointment, wild joy and drive. And, in a strange way I am grateful for this time, the quarantine, for slowing us down, and for grounding us in more ways than one.






The Little Family That Could


One of our favorite children’s books from years ago is a Yiddish folktale about perspective. And humble contentment. And a little about gratitude. Since these are things that come in quite handy in a quarantine, I thought I would try my hand at parody. If you aren’t familiar with the original tale, it is here:

It Could Always Be Worse

The title popped into my head recently as the fridge broke and froze all our lettuce, a downstairs faucet failed entirely and demanded to be replaced or ruin the wall, a car engine knocked, an emergency appendectomy came calling, and the ups and downs of sitting quarantine with teens grew weary. After ten long weeks we are all weary. I thought a little humor might be just the thing.

It Could Always be Worse
(with acknowledgement to Margot Zemach)

Once upon a time, a relatively fortunate man lived in a modest suburban home with his wife, two children, two cats, and a dog. Because their lives were modern the schedule was very busy; the man and his wife quarreled, the children squabbled, the dog chased the cat and the cats howled night and day. All day long they came and went and went and came until nobody ever knew whether he was coming or going anymore.

Finally, the man went to seek the advice of the reigning Pandemic, which had grown quite powerful in the land. “We are so busy and there is so much noise,” pleaded the man. “Please, oh mighty Pandemic, can you help us?”

“Ah,” said the Pandemic, “I see.” The Pandemic pulled at his mask and rubbed his gloved hands thoughtfully. At last, he said, “Have you a college student you could move back in indefinitely?”

The man said that yes, he did have a college student. He moved her back in. The college student used the Wi-fi, wrote papers night and day, and sang out loud when she washed the dishes. She did extra chores and made large piles of the things she did not want in her bedroom anymore. Still the man was not happy. The children quarreled over the bathroom, the college student used the Wi-fi and wrote papers night and day, and the senior was miserable because she could not go to school.

“Perfect!” Said the Pandemic. “Have you any major trips you can cancel, anything fun you’ve been looking forward to or have paid with a non-refundable deposit?”
“Yes!” Said the man. “We have planned a momentous, costly family mission trip in honor of the graduating senior, and my wife has booked a once-in-a-lifetime mother-daughter trip. My older daughter has her heart set on a concert of great significance, and my son has been training diligently for a 100-mile hike with his scout troop during spring break.

“Spring Break?” said Pandemic, feeling feverish with a slight cough, “What is this?”
So they canceled it all and were the most unbusy they had ever been. When some days or a week had passed, life in the moderately-sized suburban home was even worse. Still the man was not happy. Now the children squabbled, the dog chased the cat and the cats howled night and day and none of them went anywhere at all. Ever.

“Oh, mighty pandemic,” cried the man, “Please help me! It is worse than ever. My life is a nightmare!” The Pandemic thought for a moment and a gleam appeared in his eye. “My poor, relatively fortunate man. Is it possible you have any special celebrations or upcoming milestones–years in the making–that you might expunge from your calendar? Have you, in fact any calendar at all that you can destroy beyond recognition?”

The man realized his calendar was chock full of fun upcoming events, field trips, concerts, awards, honors, parties and celebrations, and so he cancelled them all and spent the time wiping down doorknobs and watching You-Tube. Still the poor man’s house was so tense and stressed out. The children ate in their bedrooms and their son moved out to live in tent. Now with the squabbling, barking, yowling and fighting, there was wailing over the lost events and life milestones. The cats freaked out because there were too many people and the dog was annoying as only a dog can be. The poor man could hardly believe his misfortune. In desperation he went back to the Pandemic and begged him to help.

“I am sorry to hear this,” said the Pandemic, “perhaps you are too socially distant. Have you a Zoom platform with which to connect virtually to all the meetings that kept you away from your family before? Have you, perhaps, the ability to conference call over unimportant matters at the most in-opportune time when your family needs you or dinner is being served?” “Yes?” said the man. He went home with a heavy heart and installed an arsenal of new technology which tanked his Wi-fi and his bank account.

Now the poor unfortunate man felt he was losing his mind. The children quarreled, the cats chased the dog, the wife wailed over the empty calendar, the ZOOM took up hours of the day or crashed entirely, and everywhere his house was bursting with misery and despair. “Holy Pandemic save me! The end of the world has come! It’s worse than a nightmare!”

The Pandemic listened and thought. He sized up the man carefully, and he thought some more. At last he spoke. “Ah, my poor relatively fortunate man. Have you, per chance, any hope? Any faith that though you are not in control, God is?

“Why, yes!” said the man, because though he was certain the situation was dire and his family had lost much, they did have that one thing left. “Good,” said the Pandemic. “Very good. Then you must go home and practice it.”

So the man did. He went home to wife and children and two cats and a dog and he sheltered in place–with faith. Slowly, the house returned to normal. Only it was not normal. It was new. The live stream dried up, the Zoom video platform left the meeting, the empty calendars evaporated, some refunds trickled in from cancelled stuff they might not have enjoyed anyway, and the freed time called them into the backyard. The back yard was quiet and unseasonably cool. The children stopped squabbling and played badminton. The wife stopped crying over a stripped calendar and called for carry-out, the dog decided to chase squirrels instead, and the cats moved out to size up the tent. The college student finished her virtual semester with a 4.0, the high school senior made peace with social distancing, and the son, in his glory, decided to live in the tent forever. Life was sweet again for the man and his family.

The very next day the relatively fortunate man went running back to the Pandemic. “It is a miracle! You have saved me!” cried the grateful man.” Now my children play barefoot in the back yard, my wife has spare time and my family laughs together. “Oh, holy Pandemic, thank you.”

The Pandemic smiled though his mask and winked at the fortunate man. “My good man,” he said, “You are most welcome. Now…have you any toilet paper?

Going to Ellis Island

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The back seat of my car is actually pretty comfortable. I have my shoes off, my glasses off, even my mask, and I have located a few towels and picnic blanket to use as a pillow. My cell phone I clutch to my chest as I drift in and out of consciousness in the wee hours, waiting on a text or call from Ellie. She is on the inside, where I brought her three hours ago, and I am on the out, curled up in a ball in the back seat of my vehicle in the parking lot of the ER. “Increased unexplained abdominal pain,” I told the front desk lady from eight feet away, both of us only eyes at each other. If I sound medical, will they take her sooner? “Four days, no fever, loss of appetite, distended abdomen, lower right quadrant.” Ellie is standing by my side. Trying to look grown up. Trying to look polite and not in pain. Wanting relief and a diagnosis, but probably not so keen on the process it’s going to take to get that. She and I have both been on WebMed for days and our brains are full of bad news. I’m with you daughter, let’s go home and sleep it off. Front desk lady wants my credit card and insurance information and that-will-be-all-have-a-good-night. We are both staring at her racoon-faced. So that’s that, then. Ellie squeezes my hand. “S’okay Mumma. You can go home.”

It’s 1:47 a.m. and I am going to walk out this ER lobby, surprisingly peopled and well-lit, and go home? The thought is absurd. For a while I stand on the sidewalk outside the large bay windows looking in, while my girl, in pain, sits stiffly in the waiting area for the first hour. Then I move from the sidewalk closer to the building and stand in the mulch and boxwoods at the base of the window. Watching her gaze until it meets mine. She looks at me with sad eyes and a smallish smile behind her mask. I am trying not to lose it right here in the bark mulch. Made worse when I realize she is not waving back, with that little hand motion she is shooing me away. “S’okay Mumma. S’okay. Go home.” I always dawn slowly. But I want to honor my girl, so I put my head down, hands in pockets and move away. Two masked nurses at a little card table out front, eyeing me funny standing in their shrubbery. With their gun-shaped forehead thermometers and foaming hand sanitizer, looking like they’re out there at 2 am to hand you an “I voted today!” sticker as you depart. Saying with their eyes, don’t go there. I want to rip the little cardboard “STOP” sign off their table and wave it like a flag for the world to stop. Stop this disease. Stop the madness. Stop the pain and give me back my kid.

I climb back into the car and just sit for a while. Awaiting word, which is what you’re supposed to do at a hospital. Normally in stiff lobby chairs or at the patient’s bedside, but you wait on a word. On news. From her college world I am well versed on all the information I cannot get here, all the decisions I cannot make, all the ways my daughter’s health and body are her own. Came out o’ my body and been cutting that cord ever since. For some reason, here at the hospital it’s easier. Once you do get past the voter registration gals, the ER personnel are speaking humanity and common sense: “Mom, we tells you whatever she tells us we can tell you.” I am nodding and trying not to tear up eyes that are suddenly so, so tired. That’s a relief. Good policy. Still, it will be her and her alone reading disclaimers and legal papers alone. It will be her alone signing all those pre-op forms that spell out the rare complications of paralysis or death. It will be girl alone getting herself into a little gown for all the tests and evaluations, her alone who waits all these hours on a doc to come through with a diagnosis, and Ellie, my girl, they will put on a gurney bed and wheel to pre-op, all alone. I wait, a valet in want of more relevant employ, dozing in the back seat of my car.

Luckily I briefed her on this reality on the way to the ER. Crash course in (what little I know) on being an adult in a hospital. Crash course in (little I know) on being an in-patient. Extra lesson on changes to procedure in the time of Covid, which is like nothing any of us know. Like, Ellie, you will probably go this one alone. They probably aren’t going to let me in there. “It’s ok, Mumma,” she says, riding with her head back, eyes closed, both hands clamping her tummy that has been hurting for days. “I got my mask.” She holds up the container of Chlorox wipes she grabbed on the way out the door and gives me a weak smile,” I’ll be fine.” I am so sorry that the second time this child has left the house in ten weeks it is accompanied by germ killer and pain. What is this? I did not pack those. Did you pack those? Of all the Phase I outings I have been imagining and fun things we can do now, this was not on the list. Not at all. I sink down helpless and exhausted in the front seat of my car. Who does that? Who drops off their kid at the emergency room and goes home? Honestly! My mind goes to snacks and a book to read. Things I should have thought of to bring for her to do/have while waiting. I think about popping home to pack her a little tote with her favorite items and coming back. I think about those days way long ago, when I dropped her at nursery school and picked her up three hours later. Hi honey! How was your day at school?

I loved the days of planning and caring for them at home. So much of our wee ones’ world was of our own creation. Nasty ol’ world kept at bay. Each day orchestrated and what I didn’t plan, didn’t happen. Then they grow, gradually disabusing you of the notion that you have any control or say in the matter. Then the teenage years when exactly everything I planned did not happen. That was good weaning from my delusions as a parent. Although…now that the world is ponying up its plans for the day, acute appendicitis with an under-threat of Corona, I have to say mine are better. Let’s go home, Ellie, and back to bed so we can go strawberry picking tomorrow.

From my outpost I watch the night. It’s a soft spring evening and the air is mild. Ambient lighting from the planters and industrial landscaping glows warmly from below, could almost be deck lighting to a luxury hotel. The place is surprisingly alive for two am. Cars come in and leave again, or slowly drive through the parking lot, driver peering up at the wall of windows of the hospital, some lit, some dark. From where I sit the front of the building looks a little like a Zoom gallery view. Nameless tiles on a grid–some on, some off. There are three ambulances in the bay, stationary with lights flashing. Are there patients inside them, waiting for a bed? Is Ellie still waiting? I peer through the layers of glass (windshield-doorway-waiting room lobby) to the last place I saw her, but the chair is empty. Oh please, oh please turn on video.

As the sounds settle and I grow accustomed, I realize many of the cars around me are occupied by one or maybe two just like me. Maybe not worried mamas, but probably the people their patient put down as “next of kin.” We are all waiting, vigil-like in our cars in this virtual waiting room. From time to time I can hear talking, low voices, sips of a cell phone conversation. I can hear rustling and an occasional cough. As it grows quieter still, I can hear other people breathing. It is a soothing sound. That’s when I decide to stay, slip off my shoes and climb into the back seat for my little bed. Waiting rooms are supposed to be a little uncomfortable, yes? I stretch out as much as a Rav 4 will allow and think, this one is actually pretty comfortable. As I drift off to sleep a text comes through from Ellie. She is being seen. Twenty minutes later, she is waiting on lab results. Forty minutes later. They’re prepping her for a CT scan. Neither of us will sleep this night. Now the results are in and they’re waiting for an attending physician to attend. I’ll do it! I’ll attend. Better than you, buddy. I’m on this one like glue. Another hour I get this text: “Okay so it’s appendicitis. They’re keeping me overnight and I’m having surgery in the morning. You can head home.” Huh. How about that. See those paramedics moving round the ambulances over there? I suppose I can also clock one of them over the head, steal a uniform like they do in the movies and sneak into the ER, but neither option is very appealing. In the end, I decide to go with Ellie’s request and drive home.

This is not my girl’s first solo trip. Ironically, I just detailed a couple of those in a previous post. They may get good at going alone, but a parent never gets better at taking leave. For this “trip” as well, Ellie is connected to me by her cell phone, a six-year-old Samsung $159 phone. Mine is not much better. Tonight it is our lifeline. I have learned the hard way that even it can fail. Sidebar: Things you do not text your mom while crossing DC on your first solo metro trip to meet your family, involving multiple line and station changes on a busy Friday evening: “I’ll have to turn my phone off now. I only have 15% battery left.” Whaaaat?! Bill hadn’t even pulled the car over three lanes of city traffic before I am leaped out into a sea of people and headlights of Farragut North because I saw that one fuzzy head in the crowd. Technology is a crutch. I’ve drawn them both paper maps, written out instructions, directions, hammered them orally as if I am programming their innards to know and function without fail, should circumstances arise and technology go down. For the past nine weeks I’ve been thinking it was high time for the Ellis Island lesson, or at least a refresher, and I’m sorry I didn’t give it to her before loading her into the car tonight. It is this: Child of mine, you are deeply-prepared and well-launched. You carry with you my every pride, every hope, every prayer. The years, the moments leading up to this one, they are in you, and this is your time to draw on them. Trust the God who made you and loves you, and GO. Your life seems huge to me, Ellie, I wrote at her graduation two years ago. Like every smitten mother on the planet, mine is the best. She is. You are well-launched, daughter. Here is my blessing: Go on without me. Go on. I’ll be along.

I don’t know why this sentiment is so strong in me. Melodrama of the parking lot mood lighting? Mostly tonight I just want to be in that hospital room with all its weird smells and strange equipment. I want to be by my daughter’s side. She wouldn’t ask me anything, and she would tell me less, but I could be there. When Sophie went through a blood transfusion in the middle of the night at the pediatric ER at MCV, I all but climbed into the bed with Chester the therapy dog. I couldn’t angle myself close enough to cradle my child once again and she was all limbs and long bones in the bed. But I tried. In sickness sometimes they let down their guard and give up on de-momming you. I don’t like to miss those moments, as they are so rare and few. Later when I text with Ellie not long after her surgery, they have brought her broth and ice cream, catering to the two patients in the bed: the young woman and the 6-year-old.

The Ellis Island story (and its attendant moral) is this: Once upon a time a mom and three children met grandma in the city, the BIG city, NYC for a field trip on the way to New England for a spring break. It was a cold rainy April, and we had our raincoats on the whole ride out on the Staten Island ferry. Windy and cold. The views of the Manhattan skyline pricked the fog as we approached the Statue of Liberty. We toured the island. Lots of crowds and milling people. We went inside the immigration building and made our way through the human stream, headed for the informational video as our start place. Big, boisterous four year old needs a potty, doesn’t want another second of sitting in the dark hearing about the potato famine and has blown through his lollypop hold-over. I go out with him, leaving grandma and girls in the theater. Of course we will meet them when the movie is over. Of course they will come out, my three, and we will continue the visit through the various galleries and exhibits laid out in the large hall teeming with people.

But they don’t come out. The minutes tick. The throng swells. No Mamie, no girls. Theater has long emptied. The building we’re in is three floors tall, with several levels that hold galleries at each end. Think gigantic train station with exhibit bays. No walls, just a vast open space. You can see almost everywhere over the heads of the crowd, unless they’ve started through the galleries. Or unless they’re under four feet tall. Thousands of people, including three I am quite fond of. Where are they? I decide to go it alone, with boy. We will start through the exhibits and either catch up with them, or they will catch up with us. We’ll keep our eyes out (so out it will be as though they are detachable from our heads), knowing they will keep an eye out for us, and we will each of us, in our party, make our way through and rejoin at the end. Such was my thinking. I trusted their resilience, I trusted them to handle the sitch like mini pragmatists, concerned about mom but also carried away by all the cool information and stuff to learn. I knew that my school-teacher mother would have no problem guiding them through, educating solo and probably happier to do so. I knew they wouldn’t separate from her. Would they?? 

The quick end: Eventually I spy Ellie across the entire building, high up on the second or third tier, holding Mamie’s hand and preparing to go down the metal stairs. She is so far away! Will is too heavy to lift and carry and so I shout across the throng. She sees me and waves! I see her! I see them! “Mamma!” And then in flash, she breaks free of my mother’s hand and is bounding down the stairs–alone! Three flights of stairs into a sea of people. Once she reaches the ground level she is gone from view again, the crowd swallows her up. Frantically I descend with William the stairs on our side and weave-push-excuse-me my way through the lobby to the other side. When I reach it, breathless, I push into mom and Sophie, but now, no Ellie. My nine-year-old has disappeared. This time I don’t try for calm. I let the panic and anger and desperation, big as the Hudson Bay, wash over me. Mom undone. Until I catch sight of the back of her and spin a her around for a fierce lecture. But I cannot take a swing–I can’t get leverage for she is clinging to me too tight.

The trauma that day became a lesson for me, and I hope for my girls. I call it the “Ellis Island lesson.” It is this: Stay the course, even if the variables change. You were fine. You were safe. I had wanted them to go it alone with their grandma. I had expected they would. To dig deeper into the disaster and find a way through. To put aside the unchosen reality and persevere, even manage to thrive (Hell-o, quarantine!), still look at the exhibits, still learn, still engage, and finish the purpose for which we came. To go on ahead without me and be well. To know that I would be along. It is every parents’ desire.

Back in the day we used to sharpie their bellies. Their name, my name and a phone number. Trusting the world not to take them, but to keep them for us till we got back. Like an indelible luggage tag right their under their T-shirts. Disney dream vacation tip #57. Sophie was mortified when I proposed the same during our trip to France two summers ago, but by then she was 17! She also didn’t speak or understand a word of French and wanted to go it alone on the ramparts and through the narrow streets of St Michel. Really? Must we? What is it about the go-solo years? Sure ‘nough, when our touring group of six gets to the end of the tour and realizes Sophie has straggled (or has she run ahead?) and is gone. Oh great, I think, the human traffickers have finally won the day. Read page 104 of the manual, girls. Daughters should daughter. Not flaunt their “me free” in your face. I was so scared my beautiful blond American would be the victim of my ghastly thoughts that I had her carry a little piece of paper. Je m’appele Sophie. Je suis perdue. Si’il vous plait, aidez-moi. With Camille, little French wildman who could have easily come loose in Kings’ Dominion or on the streets of Washington DC, I wrote out the same little paper for him in English. (Don’t tell him but in his case I put the wrong phone number!) Hello, adult I’ve known from birth. Know this: I will love you to the ends of the earth, and I will never leave you.

I believe that 10 years and some since that trip Ellie has learned the lesson. There are signs. She text-fusses at me to go home. “It’s late Mumma, go home and get some sleep.” She is being shuttled around the bays of the ER, blood tests, urinalysis, finally a CT scan, hours between these and then some more for the results, and what is she worried about? Her old mother out there in the parking lot. I so wanted to be the friend or relative–or parent, for goodness sake–by her side taking notes and making sure to record everything the doctor said. Ellie’s quickly donned that hat as well, and her texts are filled with medical terms and results. “I didn’t know what he meant by that so I looked it up.” You go, Ellie my one. Of course you did. A+ on your Ellis Island project. I am nothing but a spot warmer in the parking lot digging for my keys to drive home.

Later that day I get a video call from the patient in Room 2110. She is watching crime shows and eating chipped ice for her on-fire throat. It is very sore from the anesthesia tube. In a raspy “Hey you! bring me a martini” voice she tells me about her nurses, what their names are, what they are like, when they came on and when they go off, what they have done so far, what she remembers about pre-op and about when she woke up. Mainly, she is fretting about an oral presentation which is her final grade in French on Monday. Both of us such pragmatists, we briefly (briefly!) considered running back up the stairs for her notes and study materials to take to the hospital. It was clear that night she wasn’t running anywhere, and clear now from the pain meds that French will be en retard. “Mom, can you pick me up at nine tomorrow?” Can you come right at nine or earlier, so I can maybe come home and take that test? If I don’t log in by 10:15 I’m late.” Oh, my dear sweet daughter who’s just passed a life test on how to be an adult in the ER, you have much studied. Much covered. Tomorrow’s lesson on “Ins and Outs of Discharge” will have to wait. On video chat she shows me all the tubes and wires still connected to her, saline drip, the pain meds and the milligrams and what they gave her last night and this morning when, shortly after I got out of a shower and crawled into bed around 4 am, she woke up across town in sudden unmistakeable pain that consented to and confirmed the impending surgery. In that crucible she turned from anxious to decided, from denial to determined: Bring it on. Like life, what pain did then: it opened the door to the unknown and without looking back she stepped through it.

Once home, I first text my daughter, who demanded it (“so I know you’re safe”). I make sure my ridiculous cell phone is charging; I set my alarm so I ‘ll be awake when my daughter goes under the knife across town. Will I get to talk to her? Will a doctor call and will I ever meet her? Or him? Will they wheel her out 24 hours later and park her on the sidewalk, fully discharged, a light rain just beginning, to wait for mom’s camp-n-ride shuttle to pull up out front? The answer to all of these questions is Yes, but I do not know that yet. For this night, I, too, fall open to the unknown. Mom undone. Is it significant that my last heroic action that night was to burst from my car, rip the battery charger from my phone and carry it like a live organ into the ER (same bouncer nurses giving me the ol’ Covid shuffle at 3 am!) and approach a new lady at the desk? “Can I see her?” Negative. “Well, can you give her this?” Lady goes in the back to flush out Ellie’s nurse. Trey. Got his 20 oz Coke and a set of jangly car keys in hand and an “I’m almost off” stance. Here is the nurse who’s tended Ellie for the past three hours, who has been where I could not go. I resist the urge to hug him, grab his arm, break down, wipe his nose, bake him a cake. Mom reflex firing in random overdrive. “Oh, that’s good, mom,” he says. What?? Do I have the word stamped on my forehead? “Sure, I can take her that. She’s good. She’s a little emotional right now. If you been texting her, that’s good. Keep doing that.” I look at him like he slipped a knife in my gut with this talk of my daughter suffering. Cue the music, roll camera and make sure you get a close up of “mom” hurdling the desk and storming the inner chambers of the ER.

But then I remember, the Ellis Island Lesson has two parts, not just one. The child must go on, trust the world to be good to her. Must have the courage and the confidence not to miss anything by looking back. But the parent has a job, too. To trust the process. To come along. And to let go.


Good Humor

writings in a planner

In the 25 years we’ve lived here, in this house and neighborhood there has never been an ice cream truck come through. The houses are spaced far apart. The driveways are long. Ask your feet at Halloween, when you’ve put in 10,000 steps for your next Mars Bar and your little ones are begging to go home. Plus the neighborhood is old and not teeming with children. We have a Santa come through every December on a hook and ladder, sirens blaring to basically a mailbox salute, but no ice cream truck. Until today.

Ellie doesn’t recognize the sound at first. Cultural gap. She’s at the dining room table pounding out a philosophy paper. I think it must be an app, or an alarm on one of their phones. Where is that sound coming from? Is that an ice cream truck?? If you can recall that bubbly, annoying tune you will be thinking, Who in their right mind would load that on their phone? and you would be right. But it’s growing louder, clearly outside our house. Just up the street. I open the front door and the garish, saturated music is unmistakeable.  It’s the real thing all right, as real and incongruous as everything else this season — masks in the grocery store, hand sanitizer in every room, social calendar about as busy as the underground life of a Cicada (See ya in 17 years!). And here we are, postcard-perfect May day in suburban Virginia where the lawns are tended twice a day, and we have an ice cream truck making its way down our street. “New,” “novel,” no-match-for-this Corona virus … meet normal.

I stand for a single moment at the door, incredulity and delight mixed, and then move into steps imprinted long ago: Find wallet. Find wallet empty. Race through house searching for cash. Accost household members in the midst of their otherwise normal moments: Got any cash? The new twist here? Grab mask and gloves. Race from house. Chase truck. Grown adult, gray-haired, spectacular spring day, horrible music, chasing a moving vehicle down the street. Waving. The combination is one my college kid hasn’t seen before, I am sure of it. I don’t try to explain as I dash about like a nut job, and she doesn’t try to stop me. We needed a little excitement around here anyway, mid-dead-afternoon on day 54 of quarantine. For me, the prize is worth it. I’m going to score us all a little taste of normal. Got crisis? It’s a job for provider-Mom. I can at least bring them a sampling of the way things used to be. I remember running for the ice cream truck a billion years ago. Goes well with bare feet, pig tails, summer heat, second-grade smiles missing teeth. What that clap-happy tune promises the little window delivers: colored pictures all laid out, each one too tempting to choose. That is how life should be. Delightfulness on a stick.

Truck does a little turn in our cul-de-sac, giggling and puttering along and heads back my way. I wonder as I pull on my latex gloves if the driver will be wearing his. I wonder, like most things I plunge into, Is this a good idea? Is it safe? Can you get Covid-19 from a push-pop? Once I stop running the second doubts catch up, like a wake smacking me from behind. Then Ellie does for real. I am waiting on the corner when college girl arrives, breathless at my back, shaking her head and smiling. She also has jogged the half mile.  She is sock-footed. I like that she got the memo: RUN! One needs know how to behave in all life’s pantheon events, especially the unexpected ones. She, too, has thought to grab gloves and a mask. Good protocol, Ellie. Safety before shoes. “Mom!” she gasps, “I thought you were going to get kidnapped.” Whaaaat? Now it’s my turn to be confused, until I realise the generation gap going on here: what is the essence of innocence to me shows up in her world as a threat. Ambiguous icon, for one who’s watched way too many crime shows and scary movies on Netflix. Send in the clowns.

My little truck is a harbinger of more than summer. More than a symbol of normal American life. It brings with it a bomb pop of hope. Yesterday we get the news that George Mason is working out in-person classes for the fall. In person! Can it be true? The news comes with the droplets not dry on our masks, sanitizer in every room, the very first indicator that life could be, if not normal, then liveable by the fall. I read the signs. I put my rocket science degree on hold to have a family; but happily you don’t need one of those to see that things are loosening, softening, easing back into “normal” life. On Friday we get the sweetest of all unexpected deliveries: a letter from Hanover County Public Schools outlining three graduation ceremonies with dates and a few details. Not one plan. Not one date. But three. Finally. A response to a crisis as large as the crisis and as delicious as hope. There you go, daughter. We will get you through this. It will not be what you expected. It will not be what you wanted. It will not be what any of us wanted. But it will. Not. Be. Nothing.

The word “plan” has been a four-letter word since early March, when one by one, they fell. I remember almost crying as I finally opened my calendar to begin erasing the wonderful events our spring would have ushered in: band concerts and trips–even bowling field trips had me bawling. With not one, but two graduates in the house, the “last one” aspect of so many of these cancelled milestones is hard to swallow. Nobody likes a “last chance” that is never extended. An overdue notice that comes after the bill and just before the “no-due” notice. You know what? Never mind. We’re not holding that anymore. Most of these events came with the life-structuring THE in them–the eighth grade band trip to Kings Dominion, the spring concert featuring music Will has been relegated to play alone in his upstairs bedroom these past nine weeks, THE senior prom. Definitive article. Definitively gone. Events for which, there was only ever one of them, significant enough to gird life. Without them, our core is shaken. Yes, I realise this is ridiculous self-pity in light of the true destruction, illness and war-zone conditions people have lived through. I knew it then, too, but it didn’t do anything to dull the pain of having to erase page after page of our “But, wait! But–maybe! But no!” lives. The taste of desperation still in my mouth.

Sophie is out on a run when he comes beeping and boogying through our neighborhood. I’m surprised she didn’t pass him. Crawling at a pace slow enough for a trike to catch and playing that ridiculous music to the air. No children around anywhere. Will and his dad have just left for yard work at church. Afternoon routine. Boy will be sad to have missed this unexpected diversion. It’s one of the few things lately I would have enjoyed showing him for the first time, instead of the stuff I do: “pandemic” and “quarantine,” “social distancing” and other firsts you wish the world would not indoctrinate your child to. Ellie and I, we stand at the little counter, six feet away. I will just have to educate her. Okay honors girl, shoeless one, listen up. No college degree is complete without…. She is still smiling in disbelief and–admit it, Ellie–childish delight. This is fun. This is fun. While she ponders her choices, I remark to the man inside the truck that in all the time we’ve lived in this neighborhood his novelty-mobile is a novelty indeed. “Really?” he looks at me like folks do, increasingly like a dinosaur with two heads. I can’t tell if he’s struck by what I’m telling him, or the fact that I’ve noticed. Kept track. “Really? Well, you know what? I’ll be back next Thursday. And every Thursday after that. Watch for me.

The man takes our order, happy to sell five ice creams to two customers and make off with what has to be a ridiculous mark up. Three nutty buddies, an ice cream sandwich, and one of those red-white-and blue rocket jobbies for Bill. Bill likes those. $12.50. What?! Side road robbery. I tip him anyway, sign of gratitude and almost childlike exuberance. Give it away. Live large. My girls have something to look forward to, a slimmest, thinnest grin of beginning before the world smiles summer large. Maybe tastes so much better than no, not ever. “Do you want the junior size,” asks the man when I order my confections, “or the extra large?” Hmmm, let me think. Graduation? Video celebrations and diplomas and dates?? The possibility of a prom? I get to celebrate life’s milestones and carry them with me, altered or not, after all? Life is back on the calendar. What do you think?

Later, when we are regaling Bill and Will about the events of the day, Will doesn’t seem sad he missed the grand event. “Geeze, mom, I’ve seen an ice cream truck before.” He is just glad we thought of him in our hyper-ecstatic moment and explosion from the house earlier. He’s probably relieved he did not have to witness his mother thundering down his bus route in Crocs, yelling and waving. Happy to have an ice cream cone while he shelters in place with the people he still likes best. In not quite a week he will ask me, “What day is it?” Tuesday, son. He’ll look at his online Schoology calendar, modern kid. Stepping over the assignments I’m sure are posted on there to announce, “Remember Mom, Thursday. The ice cream man comes on Thursday.”

Got any cash?





Carry On

photo of heart shaped balloon

Ellie came home two months ago with a suitcase and a smile. She had walked out of class on a Friday afternoon at the start of her spring break, and made her way across the big city by shuttle and metro to National Airport. She had flown out of DC going the wrong direction, north to New England, and a nice four-day weekend with Grandma. Between the two of them, my two Roses, tearing up the roads and “calm” country life, they kept a steep itinerary. My mom, so eager to get her hands on college girl and my daughter, agreeable and intrigued about the prospect of a solo trip, a little “preamble” to her college break. Three movies, two theater plays (one of which was a compilation of ten plays), several puzzles, new recipes, and a shopping spree later, Ellie was exhausted by octogenarian life. Then she flew home to us. Five days of sleeping late and seeing friends, nice Easter dinner and whoop! she’s off on the train back to school. At least that’s the itinerary I planned as her travel-agent mom. I think they call that kind of ticket (Washington to Hartford to Richmond) an “open jaw” and I thought I was genius when I came up with it. Now, my mouth is still hanging open.

In the great boomerang BTS, she never left. Looking back, I get the sense that world leaders (and maybe super villains) were meeting behind closed doors all that week and canceling life while we were all perusing the candy aisle for Peeps and jelly beans. Piece by piece, the walls of life’s new tiny house fell into place: Here. You can live here. A little like Will’s tent, which is 54 square feet: my bed bone connected to my table bone’s connected to my chair bone’s connected to my computer bone’s connected to my….. and that’s IT. Pretty circumscribed little life. She got in the air to fly home, probably passing her future in transit, as that was also up in the air.

As think tanks on the growing crisis, the universities seemed to move in fits and starts as how to handle it. They extended break for a week to get online learning up and running, then extended it to April 3, then Easter. The big non-gift of the bunny that week was the devastating news that GMU, like the others, was closing for the rest of the semester. Meanwhile, Sophie’s news came like hail pelting us in already troubled skies: No school! No senior skip day! No senior trip! No Prom, no senior assassin, no AP, IB, awards, ceremonies, and noooooooo graduation. Like that funny Far Side comic on teaching, with increasingly strict rules chalked up on the blackboard finally resorting to “No thinking, no moving, and no breathing.” I didn’t want to cling to any one thing for fear of the emotional whiplash. The process was exhausting. I remember being excited that I was going to have college girl home a few extra days. By the time Easter came it was clear: the furthest mileage we would see for the next three months was hunting eggs in our back woods.

To say Ellie is a minimalist traveler is already an overstatement. She’s made two flights solo and one across the Atlantic, and each time, she is a TSA model citizen, reading the online guidelines and procedures, making suitcase manufacturers proud that somebody actually uses all those storage compartments and doesn’t stuff the thing like a Moe’s burrito. Her few articles of clothing neatly folded, maybe a spare pair of shoes and a few books, toiletries all regulation and sardine line in their see-through baggie. Who travels like this? I never heard of hauling a “carry-on” smaller than lawn tractor, bursting at the seams and able to dislocate a shoulder as you heave it onto the plane. “Gate check that for you, ma’am?” cheery flight attendants usually ask me at the gate, but I am suspicious of their smiley concern. Probably code to baggage dudes: See this one? Leave this brick sitting on the tarmac. Wasn’t that Ellie slowly backing away from me in Charles deGaulle airport as we tried to go through security coming home from France? Our little stuffers woefully overweight, necessitating a little “redistribution” right there on the floor of the airport. Both girls looked on in horror, trying to distance themselves (or die, either one) as Mom appeared to have a full body mud-wrestling contest with her suitcase to get it shut. Ellie is simply more efficient and considerate of the things she’ll truck.

She doesn’t pack it because she doesn’t own it. Takes the same minimalist approach to her room each time she comes home, as if it is a hobby: de-nesting. Dismantling. Carefully combing through her stored stuff to peel away another layer, purging with new ideas and older eyes that probably have more resolution on the future now, so she looks differently on the treasures of her youth. Like TSA, like this current situation, each pass through is more restrictive. Each time she comes home, more of her leaves. I am grateful it’s gradual. This time, the time none of us imagined, we try to make her nest a little less “kid” and a little more “college.” She’s always wanted a day bed. Okay Alexa, day bed. (We don’t really have one of those but it feels that way when a handsome metal bed frame shows up in a giant box two days later). We order another foam pad for the rock hard mattress, since hers is giving the ghosts a goodnight’s sleep up at GMU. She unpacks the little suitcase and puts her toothbrush in the kids’ bathroom. Her belongings fill a single drawer. Now her break’s been extended by a another week and they’ve added two weeks of “online learning” before students can go back. Good thing I never bought that return train ticket.

Though she has been wearing the same four shirts for the past eight weeks, I am amazed at what she packed into that bag. My girl, she packs light but she travels deep. Each day she appears in a new outfit. Some days it’s her GMU attire, dressed and ready for the day, wearing “can-do” and “okay” fresh pressed from the wash. Other days it’s sweats and a tie dye T-shirt she is particularly fond of, wearing “i’ll try” and “if you want” and “i guess so.” Some days she runs out of clothes and then it’s the comfy bathrobe she left behind. Picture that Mary Poppins carpet bag, but who needs a standing lamp? Out comes everything we do need here at the Burk house: Patience. Kindness. Industry. Cheerful help. Weird humor and an endless inventory of “fun facts.” College girl knows just what to wear to every occasion. Mandatory family outing when you wish to be alone? Family movie when you have a paper due online in three hours? Unwelcome project, chore, activity or crazy idea from Mom the minute you wake up and come downstairs? In all of these occasions she pulls the clothes out of that little carry-on and greets the day anew. You know those anxiety dreams where you show up to school buck naked only to find you have a major exam you forgot about? She may be having those dreams but in our home, she is the best dressed of all.

Though she balks when her name is added to the infamous “Burk Family Chore Chart,” in a day or two Ellie is pulling her own weight and then some. I already told you about the furniture. She and I repair and refinish furniture in the early April sunshine and warmth. She is all over it, as the news is over us. And those first weeks of shut down in March we gardened, digging and pruning, and I suppose minimalizing the accretions of the seasons. She cleans the kitchen every night. As the weeks go by, she puts her signature on our moments, showing us videos of fish in the Venice canals, researching the components of my agent orange dishwashing soap and Googling which tea bags I can compost. My education leaps exponentially. She brings me hilarious memes, shares posts on her environmentalist websites, has me edit Philosophy and Criminology papers that make my head hurt. Like every maternal unit in quarantine I am pretty mommed out. One day recently, I pass by our bedroom and notice that the bed is perfectly made. It was not so this morning. Who re-made bed? Who does that? Only someone who cares very deeply and notices everything. It is uncanny. Startling. And so very welcome.

I know she is tending our world as she tends hers, the one away from us. I know she misses her people, terribly. She misses the midday and nightly diversions of campus life, dorm life, social circles un-distanced. I wonder when the reality kicked in that she would not see them again this school year. The cancellations come like blows. Spring Break extended. School cancelled till April. Ooops, nope, school cancelled for the rest of the semester. I appreciate the way the university releases the news, their glass half full—of what, hemlock? “Online learning extended!” is just a fancy way of saying You know that yawner of a philosophy class you signed up for on Friday mornings, with a prof you love to hate? Well, that’s all done. You get to live in your childhood bedroom indefinitely and miss attending even the worst day in his class. So when the “ONLINE LEARNING EXTENDED THROUGH THE SUMMER!” message came through, we both wept at the “good” news.

Now the beloved Camp Hanover is on the chopping block, as though all the world’s a freaking revolving door–opening not opening, opening not opening, opening….not. Understandably, no one can conceive of cabin life in the time of Covid. If this camp piece goes I know her heart will break. Or will it? Apparently she brought something to wear for that occasion, too. Must be her “can do” or regroup.” Boldly she registers for an online summer class. French. “If camp doesn’t happen,” she tells me, “I’m going to register for two more and call it a semester. Then I can still get a double major and still study abroad.” It’s not the worst thing that could happen, Mom, says college girl, wiping the counter and cleaning up after dinner. It’s pretty bad but it’s not the worst. I know it’s not. Man, I need to get me some new clothes.

Coming home to us that Tuesday in March was an adventure unto itself. Her return trip was not a direct flight, so of course I had Philly on my mind and how daughter might navigate a connection if something went wrong. Years ago, the same Disney trip where I was nearly approached by Child Protective Services for putting Will on the Yeti ride from hell, I also got so carried away with the Euro-themed Epcot and the wanderlust piped out of speakers hidden in the planters there, that I let Ellie and Sophie–aged 9 and 11–go it alone through the park! They were doing the “Kimpossible” mission, bopping from country to country, and Dad and I (and little brother) were just heavy baggage. So I handed Ellie my trusty flip phone of dubious cell service and instructed them fiercely to accept no help from anyone who wasn’t (a) uniformed or (b) a mother with children. We gave them both a meeting place and time, instructed them if they had any trouble to Go to France. Go to France and just stay there until we find you. And then they were gone. There were 11,000 other people in the park that day. Eleven thousand people and my children, like balloons on a string I let go of, gone with the life breeze. Irretrievable by anything in my power. Got the same feeling in the pit of my stomach now, as Ellie’s Hartford flight sits on the runway through her first connecting flight out of Philadelphia. I know this because she is texting me about the delay, asking what to do and I am advising, “RUN! Run like crazy, Ellie, just pick up your suitcase and run through that airport like it’s on fire.” Who does that? “Mom,” she says. “Mom. We’re still on the runway. Plane hasn’t landed yet. Hasn’t even taken off.” Ooops. Truly, a parent’s advice is not always useful.

She gets to Philly in time for her second connection to take off. Probably passed it on the runway. I look up American online and see that there are only two more flights bound for Richmond that night. On any airline. Put that low-boil panic on a back burner and just start ‘er cookin’, while me and the internet become new besties (Hotels near the airport??… Rental car?… UBER?… The mom & pop roundtrip special, leaving NOW?) till she gets a plane to Richmond. Finally she lands 16 minutes before take-off of flight #3. Still I advise her to run. Like the wind, Ellie, just GO! Imagine it? First time making a connecting flight and she’s probably close to cardiac arrest. I once raced through Chicago O’Hare with two toddlers, Sophie on my shoulders, dragging Ellie alongside me like a rolly suitcase with a busted wheel, desperate to make a connection to Denver. Very bad call to put the potty-training one on my head. Racing through the terminal (rhymes with interminable) to get to our gate. Had the same flood of tears and desperation that washes over Ellie as she arrives at her gate of the just-departed Richmond flight. When she calls me back she is more composed, settled in at the new gate with her book and a little snack, with forty minutes to wait on the last flight out tonight. I collapse in the kitchen as my pot runneth over.

This week, week eight of quarantine, we get best news thus far: George Mason University is going to in-person classes this fall! It’s a welcome bookend to the one thunked down in March. No more talk of online learning. Of shuttered dorms and partial refunds. Of extensions and suspensions and closures, cancellations–the world of “well, actually, NO” we’ve been living in all these long weeks. Of course, the new normal will need to adhere to social distancing measures and CDC guidelines. I have no doubt Ellie will look up the website and read every word. She travels light but never unprepared. In an afternoon, the ordeal with no knowing is transformed to an ordeal with knowing or at least hoping, and the assurance that the same world leaders (this time without super villians) are conspiring to bring her home.

At some point in the not-never future, we are going to dust off the little suitcase and put college girl back into the stream of life. Her travelling in concrete terms is a head-smack metaphor for the journey she is on in life. A thousand open jaws. Know this: you do not land back where you took off. You take a carry-on not only because you are too cheap to check a bag or because it means you can up and race from a plane to your connecting flight, but because it symbolizes an economy of travelling. A trust that the world will have extra toiletries if you forget something, that by simplicity you are truly present to the flux and transit of life and not hung up on your gear. Nothing but the clothes on your back somehow has a way of communicating everything in your heart.

If school really does open this fall, it will be close to six months since she set out on Spring Break. How many college kids move out twice in a year? Okay, how many move out twice for the first time? Picture that back-to-school, the one we got comin’, three more months away. This time I will wave good bye for all I’m worth, because of this “family extension” we’ve all been granted. We will never be able to fit all that she gave us during this time in quarantine. The patience. The cheer and good humor. The little window into her study world and the signs of her becoming. The privilege of being part of that and witness to a world that wouldn’t have otherwise included me. Oh, the seeping comfort into a parents’ confidence and peace that your child, your child, has a place in the world. It is like sweats and a favorite hoodie for your heart every day of the week.




Landing the Helicopter

low angle photo of trees and flying birds

I’m taking it as a good sign that when he rotated the tent today—oh yes, pulled up all the stakes and cords and rotated it 180 degrees—the front door is now facing our house. Before this, in the random, because-it-was-there way of woodsman Will, tent got plunked down with the door facing the woods and its back to us. Our homeowner is now in week three of life outdoors, and apparently today was “spring cleaning” day. I went out for a walk mid-morning by way of the backyard and tent was bustin’ with activity, all the furniture hauled out and décor piled up like a flash yard sale. Or sudden eviction. Stacks of all the stuff he had tucked into there like clowns out of a Volkswagen.

Boy is very intentional about his 54 square foot home. Hasn’t cleaned his bedroom since 2017, but this little nook is tidy and spare. No shoes allowed. His Amish approach to housekeeping (a place for everything and be still my heart everything in its place) is both inspiring and, in light of past years and personality, slightly jarring. As with the new orientation: pointed toward us rather than away. Send a boy-rebel out to the woods and what comes back is taller, calmer, somehow more composed. Like the printer setting changed from draft to full.

Storms this week tested my ability to let go. One night, with the wind rushing and the trees swaying overhead, I kept waking to worry. We slept with the sliding door to our balcony open, and though the rain never came, I was waiting for that confirming clap of thunder or slice of lightning that would have me hurrying out to the tent to pull him in. I lay in bed hearing the wind and peering out at the trees. Are they supposed to bend like that? Some of them looked as though they would reach right over and smack the tent flat. At one point, just before five, I bolted from bed, searched around for shoes and marched out across the back yard, mom with a purpose. I was going to wake and rescue him quietly, without question and, though I can no longer carry him, I was going to word-urge him upstairs to his warm bed and all of us go back to sleep. Mama knows best. Once I got outside, though, the pre-dawn stillness silenced me. The wind was warm and strong, but it was not raging. Not the stuff of my nightmares. The air in the yard was stiller, more apprehensive than it had seemed to me inside the house. I was halted, no longer sure of my plan. Quietly I stood in the dewy grass watching the little tent, zipped up tight and silent. No sound from within. I hesitated a moment more, and then I turned and crept back to the house. Some storms, said the groggy daylight as it eased into the wood a couple hours later and winked at me, some storms are worth waiting out.

Once when Will was five we took a trip to Disney. He was a 50-pound dare-devil, but he was also 47.999 inches tall so he couldn’t go on the bigger rides. He actually cried when he couldn’t ride “Tower of Terror,” which has an elevator that plummets 11 stories going 60 mph. Such a bummer. Being relegated to Buzz Lightyear’s Astro-blaster for nine consecutive rides (no lines!) suited me fine while Bill and the girls risked life and limb. But our boy hungered for more. That “more” was Expedition Everest, an ancient-looking rust bucket roller coaster careening backwards in the dark at heights rivaling its namesake and speeds defying safe digestion, all the while being stalked by a terrifying Yeti. I cut myself off after four rides on this little charmer, so William went alone with Ellie. A five year old!! What was I, nuts? Watching the little train depart with boy and his sister buckled chummily into the second to last car, I panicked. His little head looked so far away and so tiny, clearly the youngest rider and clearly a terrible call. Strike one for motherhood. I looked around for the parenting police to escort me from the park and take my son away from me.

I fixed my eyes on the little train as it chugged its way up one of those teeth-rattling slopes that is always a precursor to the hell the rest of the ride will deliver, knowing what was in store and terrified this would be the one run that malfunctions, a tale too sad to tell in Drama in Real Life. Did she get his roll bar down? Could he fall through it? Could he? Is he frightened? Is that their car waaaay up there, what—three miles away? Is that theirs? What about that one—is that middle car beginning to derail? My own personal Tower of Terror, right here on the ground. Then I became like a little Himalayan troll woman myself, scurrying back and forth from the entrance line to the exit booth to the viewing station, staring up those “mountains” and finding out quite helplessly that to be off the ride while your prides and mostly joys are on the ride is even more terrifying. I think maybe I was even muttering aloud to myself, just a little as I scurried. Crazy for his safety and beside myself till his little action sandals hit solid ground, which they did. Unscathed. William is still talking about that Yeti.

Left to his own devices, boy takes risks. Sure as a bear does her business in the woods. Always has. But during this seismic shift called global pandemic, apparently when there is enough risk from the outside, what do you suppose occurs? I could not have seen it coming, not in a million years. Left to his own devices, Will risks himself. Not away, but toward. He steps onto the grid, testing it first with a big toe. Homeschool takes a giant leap for boykind. You’re reading? Oh that’s nice son. Wait, what? You’re just sitting out here in your tent reading? A BOOK? Without being asked?? You’re done with three of your subjects for the year? Well, that’s great son. You’re re-doing your civics project to make it better? You’re not happy with it? (cartoon springy eyes boing-ing out of my head in utter amazement). And those stacks of handwritten notes are for your GT project on the book you downloaded from the public library so you could listen to it while you cleaned your apartment? Huh. How ’bout that. Will —- do you think I could take your temperature, son? You feeling okay? The word “unprecedented” they’ve been flinging around comes to settle holographically over the little tent. I am studying him for birthmarks to be sure that this is truly my son and just some type-A poser who switched places in the middle of the night. The dance Will has done with schooling for the past eight years has often left her standing on the dance floor alone. Now he’s rewriting notes, looking up stuff on a Kindle Fire for his science assessments, working solo and overtime and once or twice missed the lunch bell. All on a handwritten schedule pinned to the tent wall. I didn’t even know he knew how to do what he is supposed to do. Full-blown tango going on.

Got to be careful where I land this here helicopter. I have been hovering, like many other parents today, but now, I don’t want to slice through those tent wires. Took everything in me not to go out on day two when the rain was preventing his breakfast fire. The wood was wet, he was wet, everything was wet and cold and just as dismal as could be—’bout the last place a cheery mom with a breakfast alternative belongs. Single snapshot of a lone boy in the rainy woods, head down wandering around searching for sticks and tinder dry enough to start a fire while I stood at the stove boiling water and making toast. The whole helpless overage of a parent to a child who will not be spoon fed. Heck, this one won’t even eat store-bought food: wants to slay the dragon himself. Takes everything in me not to sheath the knife (on the floor by his bed, strategically placed each night), bemoan the hole (eight feet wide and six feet deep, involving hours of otherwise perfectly useable time), or ask to check his language arts. Will gets futzy if I even touch his dirty clothes on the floor. Apparently, I am to stand on the ground looking up, having said yes to the ride of a lifetime. It’s just not natural to be this laissez-faire. Even the bears let their mamas get their panties in a wad when junior’s in trouble. Then again, a mother deer all but abandons her fawn so he can remain scentless and dappled in the underbrush, perfectly invisible to predators. That’s me. I am so self-restrained I could take on a Yeti.

After the Monday homeschool in the pouring rain I produce a hand-me-down laptop Uncle Skip sent last October. Will is ecstatic. Mine? Can this be mine? Boy has blown through two ipods, two or three digital cameras, a Kindle Fire and a Nano or two in his young life. All hand-me-downs, all (if there was money exchanged) at his expense. If he didn’t buy the thing he destroyed I charged him to replace it. Closed universe approach. His new-to-you iphone was taken away November 2019 (I can tell from the life 360 battery alert) for poor performance and unacceptable behavior at school, so he is about as “plugged in” as a 1987 Walkman prototype onto which he has loaded (what else?) the hit list from your junior prom. C’est bizarre.  So trust me when I tell you this laptop was a good idea. He is beside himself, like Christmas has come to the woods. Rain schmain. He spends the afternoon getting to know his new device. I do not mean games. I mean the way he gets to know most of his world: by studying what it is made of. Now, he spends hours downloading updates, researching software, manually re-installing the graphics card he deleted by mistake–conducting the sort of programming I could pay $200 for in a fancy schmancy STEM class for youth at the U of R. Boy has self-educated to the level they teach in Freshman computer basics, I’m sure of it. All the while listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In a tent. In the rain.

Homeschool now runs with a noticeable upgrade. Will tells me that “my” method wasn’t working for him. Chip away at each subject a little bit each day. Instead he prefers to finish the do-able, clear his desk and delve into one subject at a time for those larger projects. Not all of the curricula is approved. For that matter, much of it’s not even assigned. That’s the kind of kid William is. I am still trying to contact an Australian astrophysicist who popped in the news a few weeks back for having had to undergo emergency surgery to remove tiny magnets from his nasal cavity. Bored in his lab because of quarantine, he was trying to invent a wearable alarm that would warn people when they absently went to touch their face. In the article, Dr. Adolescent mentions having read about the same unlikely mishap happening to an eleven-year-old boy and I think, he’s talking about my son! That’s my eleven-year-old boy! Will had a slightly less heroic “experiment” go as disastrously wrong at school one day. (See previous blog —”William’s Day”) Last April. Four months later we go to get his braces put on and boy is all kind of tuned-in and inquisitive when the orthodontist escorts us to her little office to view X-rays of his mouth and jaw. Will is studying the screen with the eye-lock of a med student, so attentive and voicing questions I remember thinking, Hmm. Future in orthodontists, maybe? Then he asks, “So if, like, there was any metal in my head I could see it on the X-ray, right?” and I realize the incident was still with him. Very much with him.

I repeat: Not all of the curricula is approved. Today, instead of tackling items 1-4 on the list, he and Bill knock something off the list that hadn’t even made the list: the ACME five-gallon hands-free squirrel trap, strategically placed at the foot of our bird feeder. Physics unit study. It’s an elaborate design, really, made out of a 5-gallon paint bucket featuring a hinged, self-latching lid and boobie-trapped bait and trigger method that may well catch one of the furry pests–in a few years when the man scent wears off. Will is discouraged when it doesn’t yield a Heffalump an hour after they set it up. Physics unit study quickly morphing into character lesson on patience. Cue the parent-speak: Good things take time, son. Think of fishing, right? Fishing is all about time. You have to wait a really long time. Sometimes you don’t catch anything at all. Think about hunting. Think about home schooling. Sometimes you don’t see any progress at all…

After six weeks of home school and two weeks of tent life, I get my squirrel. Trap swings shut on this little line, a beauty that will last me a week, a quarantine, a lifetime. He has come downstairs from his nightly shower, armload of clean laundry for the week ahead and a headlamp, minion-like, around his forhead. He turns before exiting the room to clomp down the last steps to the door and announces, smiling and shaking his head like even he doesn’t know where he’s coming from, “I am so excited for school tomorrow. I’ve been so BORED all weekend. SO bored! At least I’ll have something fun to do.” I stare at him, stunned. I would close my mouth manually but I am paralyzed by laughter on the inside that rivets me to the spot, dumb receiving smile on my face, probably nodding my dotty head. Where’s a neodynium magnet head alarm when you need one? I am ’bout fall over. Will—son…? Do you suppose I could videotape you saying that? That’s just something I would like to remember…. Forever. 

I am a strong proponent of the gradual nature of education. After all, that line was eight years in the making. If I wanted results from this experiment sooner I was, well, out of luck. “Nosce te ipsum,” said Heraclitus, the Greek father of education. Know thyself. Great philosphers and educators have debated the nature of knowing and learning for centuries, and we think we’re going to benchmark, SOL, AP, IB, XYZ it out of them today? Right now? Frozen in time, my son might not recall his birth date, his middle name, or what he ate for lunch. But given time he can explain in detail how he just spent the last two days downloading the installer software to upgrade the graphics card manually to restore the five hours of set-up he deleted in a single stroke until my head hurts. A man never steps in the same stream twice (also Heraclitus, probably his most famous line that his mother might have videotaped, had she been thinking) translates to a boy never thinks the same thought twice. I guess there’s a reason they call it a current. A friend tells me the great leaders and successful people of today were C students because while they were in school earning mediocre grades they were busy thinking about all the great and novel stuff they were going to tackle when they weren’t. “Well,” says Will getting up from the lunch table and leaving every dish, crumb and spill for mom to deal with, “back to my fish.” He did. He really said that after my spiel. I clear his dishes. What’s a little coddling for a boy who speaks metaphor?

The journey to self-awareness is long and steep and is not to be confused with today’s narcissism. It may involve terrifying heights, precocious ambition and some hair-raising segments going backwards in the dark. But there is no way, no way, you can self-discover under the top-down involvement of another. My curricula is not thy curricula….Anymore than it can be measured, marked, tested, assessed. Read the metaphors, people. We are not loading a gun (Bang! you’re educated!) or coding a computer program. We are planting seeds, growing; we are conducting an orchestra that begins in singular cacophony and ends in symphony, we are following a recipe with a lifelong list of ingredients that need to simmer and meld. Every metaphor used to describe education is organic. Living. Dynamic and flowing. We are training up a child in the way he should go. Not testing him on the way he is. We are not parking him on some arbitrary finish line and grilling him what he knows. I’m glad the guy who invented the SOL sleeps easy at night but he or she has ruined critical thinking, creative exploration, wonderment and failure–thereby cancelling any hope of true learning. Time to clean house. If this pandemic takes with it all the static, life-sapping clutter of assessment we will have emerged healthier, whole, and ready to learn. For real.

What does boy want? License to do whatever he wishes, buckets of used electronics, snack food and free data? Endless rounds of World of Tanks on his new laptop? Not so much. Maybe the over-indulged 8-year-old dreams of these things. But my son wants the self-maker stuff of freedom and autonomy as pure and classic as a coming of age novel. He wants respect, unconditional love, and a confirmation that we (his folks) have thought through our somewhat conservative rules, that we live by them ourselves, and that we are brave enough to love when our children choose to do otherwise. He wants a blessing on his little patch of space and time that he can call truly his, and tend it his way, and become. He wants to know himself. He will study and read and do the lessons assigned him, but he’ll learn best what he can own. He wants me the %$#@! away from that tent, so he can discover and thus truly learn that knives cut, fires burn, computers crash, the ground is hard, and the pre-dawn breeze through the trees outside is a beautiful music that can soothe your fear of an impending storm.

I like the new arrangement. Little homestead looks like a magazine ad for tent living, out there beneath the trees. Well appointed and tidy. I can stand at the kitchen window and look out on the homey little abode, little mud mat porch with his sneakers and boots neatly parked outside, and through the nylon walls a little light on. It is somehow more inviting now I’m not staring at the backside. Screen window coverings unzipped, I can see the silhouette of him, working a way at his homemade desk. Zipped closed again, the two halves of the front door and the lower panel look like a face, rain-fly eye brows slightly raised, smiling with utter contentment, satisfaction and self-awareness.







Three Chairs

white and brown lighted cabin tent at woods

I can think of a million reasons why setting up a six-man tent in the side yard late on a Sunday afternoon is a bad idea. It’s too complicated. It’s just more stuff to haul out, and he hasn’t finished or put away the “bike repair” project littering the garage. I don’t care if we’re in quarantine, it’s a school night. I want him to get a solid start on Monday learn-at-home. Rested. Focused. Not distracted by a backache from sleeping on cold packed ground a hundred yards from that modern convenience, the house. More reasons: The sky is blue. Actually the sky is not blue. It is growing darker by the minute, cooking up a predicted storm. So there, this is a terrible idea. It’s supposed to rain and storm all week, Will. You could put your eye out. Son? He is ignoring me, bent over the instructions, the long tent poles like an armload of whiskers. Where does this one go? I say, squatting down to help.

Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.” Truly, I did not see this coming. Several hours later I see his head passing back and forth in front of the window, going from the garage, to shed, to tent. Over and over he passes, settin’ up camp in his woodland “apartment.” Bill and I helped moved the tent into the woods out back, in a little clearing that was, well, tent-sized. Over top of the whole area Bill lashed a 20′ tarp to keep out rain and deflect any falling branches. A reverse safety net. I sleep easier looking out from our bedroom balcony and seeing the hopeful little homestead with its poles, stakes and tethers, lashed down like an air balloon straining to be away. Like a very small boat adrift in a wide dark sea.

In 1854 Henry David Thoreau built a small house, by hand, in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts at the edge of a pond. A teacher neighbor loans us the book when she hears of Will’s wilderness experiment: Walden. Writes the well-celebrated naturalist: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” No danger of that here. We have the essentials, all right: By the end of the day Will has “fronted” quite a bit.

I will give you the fifty-cent tour he is perfecting on YouTube: Enter by invitation only, once Will has removed the laminated steel padlock (joining tent zippers) and you have removed your shoes. European custom. There is no footwear allowed inside. What?! I’ve tried that for 20 years in my “tent,” son, and nobody paid a whit of attention. Most people mulch their gardens. This time of year I mulch the front hall and stairs. Dog and boy help me mightily. But I digress. It’s just delightful seeing how boy sets up his house after years of destroying mine.

On our left, we have a long plank desk supported by two stepladders, fully rigged with a power strip at each end–one for his sound system and the other for the heater we haul out there with strict instruction not to leave it on unattended or while sleeping. In one corner he has made nice nooks for a water cooler, a wastebasket, several beach towels rolled and stashed “in case” it rains. Under the desk, a milk crate holds his school binders, in daily use and more organized than I have ever seen them. Like, Where is my son and what have you done to him? organized. The south wall of this little study hut is lined by a large dump-bound bookcase. It has quickly become an indispensable piece of furniture and “fronts” all kinds of “essential facts of life”–books, clean clothes, socks and underwear neatly laid on lined shelves, two sticks of deodorant, a shelf of kitchen gear, BBs, a power drill, and a drybox (Lunchmate cooler) containing bluetooth speakers and a fire starter. He stands back, surveying his work. “Yeah,” says boy, “I think I’m going to be real happy here.”

Apparently, this will be a permanent residence, so the “settin’ up” period takes all day. The stuff he chooses is amusing to me. I notice some of the knick-knacks from his room have followed him: framed picture of his pets that Sophie made and several statues of Captain America. A little metal desktop sax player. A Captain America Jack-in-the-box?! Beyond that, make-do mode is in overdrive: two stepstools and a board for the perfect desk, milk crates for a bookcase, a large blue throw rug re-directed from a Goodwill pile. The Burk Emporium fairly weeps with joy as it produces some of its finest treasures: a TV/VCR unit (and the VHS tapes to go with). A six-foot long wooden garage shelving unit Bill had in his first house (30 years ago) with the legs rotted off that expired on Craigs’ List “free.” (Weeping smiley-faced emoji here). Will is very happy with the bedside table I find for him: the vehicle console out of our old van with handy compartment and cupholders. To complete the décor he asks for one of the Easter lilies we used for Sophie’s (non) Prom. I kid you not. He was helping decorate and actually used the word heavenly. Now the flora stands by the bedside table, scenting the entire tent. Boy is here to stay.

Like any homeowner, Will keeps busy with improvements and repairs. The roof leaks. A porch flap is sagging. A window zipper needs waxing for it to glide more smoothly. I think it must have been the little “port” and the picture of a plug on the outside of the 6′ x 9′ Ozark Trail “Vacation Cottage” (that’s what it says on the package) that gave Will the idea, but like any millennial teen worth his salt, the hours that go into electronics improvements are “essential.” Thoreau would definitely have to turn a blind eye to the layout here: a Kindle fire hooked up to a portable keyboard (school work), an old ipod docking station and two computer speakers compatible with his Nano (music), and his state-of-the-art audio visual configuration: part yard sale, part genius, involving a lot of wire to connect the TV/VCR, a DVD player, and fully operational Wii console with half a dozen new games. Neighbor cleaned out next door and trucked over a huge bin. (Um, thanks??)

Everybody knows the contest between parent and child on his way to manhood is about just this: the essential. And other definitions, like what does it mean, to “suck the marrow out of life”? I say school work. He says, I wonder if I can rig this Wii station to a 1997 VCR/TV unit. I say good night’s sleep. He says, maybe there’s a way I can run the heat and the sound system without blowing out the fuse box of a midsize home. I say brushed teeth, clean underwear and a solid 60 minutes of reading each day. He says think I’ll cut down on showers (He did really say that, planning for a hot, dirty week at camp last summer). Let’s face it, Henry, essential is relative. Said by Thoreau himself: Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

For three weeks prior to playing mountain man, Will was digging a hole. A very big hole in the back woods, slightly beyond the tent at the base of a large tree. I would estimate it at 8 to 10′ wide by almost 6′ deep. He dug for four, sometimes five hours a day. His head had disappeared below ground level so when I looked out the kitchen window all I could see was the shovelfuls of dirt flying up out of the ground. Why? I’m telling you, “why” is not a term we use around here. Not a relevant question. In the land of boy. Do you know how this tent thing happened, anyway? Ask Will. He was on his way for a particular shovel (for the hole) and there it was. So he got it out to set it up because he wanted to know how to set it up. It was there, Sir Edmund, so he climbed it. Yeah, he admits sheepishly, surveying the inside of his stuff palace: I was just gonna set up my two-man and just, like, sleep out in it in a sleeping bag. I don’t actually know how all this happened. I do, boy. The pursuit of the essential.

Thoreau: “It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessities of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them….For the improvements of the ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence…”

On the first morning of this “frontier life” I get a phone call at 7:30 from Will. From his flip phone. From the tent. I’ve been watching the goings on for near an hour, the “gross necessities” of begetting one’s breakfast. His foodstuffs are 25 feet in the air, hoisted into the trees each night in a “bear bag” (in this case a large blue Coleman cooler) because of the bears (??!). Large, non-native carnivores are not his first setback to a meal this morning, but rain is. I am amazed 40 misty minutes later to see the flames and smoke issuing from our firepit. He asks me how long to boil an egg. In my mind, of course, burners and stove dials. He did not ask me how to start a fire in the rain, but apparently the culinary hurdles were more daunting than the logistical ones. He is a boy scout after all. And a man’s pride is bigger than his stomach. He takes the variables all in stride–predators, weather, pesky housebound muggles. Sure ‘nough, an hour and ten minutes later breakfast is served: hard boiled eggs and Ooodles of Noodles. He calls me crowing with pride. “Mom! The eggs came out perfect! I can fit two just perfect and they boiled up just great. By accident I dropped the noodles, though, but I picked them up. There’s only a little leaves and dirt but that’s okay!” You’re exactly right, my boy. That is okay. Well done, son. And may you always think to call home with your perfections and your fails.

“For a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” says Thoreau, describing whole days of simplicity and calm. I think he must have been speaking the language of adolescent boy when he penned this: “Our life is frittered away by detail.” And so it goes. Teeth brushing is simply not an “essential.” And Oodles of Wood Dirt and two perfect eggs makes a manly breakfast, indeed. By the third and fourth morning he’s learned to maintain a fire in the rain, how to keep his wood dry, and that a propane flame thrower is a handy addition to any kitchen. Let’s face it, Generation Z. True sustenance was always something Alexa couldn’t supply. By the end of the week he asks for a cast iron skillet and cooks us some sooty looking pancakes that taste like campfire and I-did-it. Have you ever eaten I-did-it? It is like ambrosia to a mother’s heart. Feast of kings to a developing boy. He proudly marches them across the lawn into the house (shoes on) and ceremoniously lays them on the kitchen counter. The cakes are gray and paper-thin. “Well,” says boy, “That’s the best of ’em.”

Lately he’s decided he doesn’t need to cook a hot breakfast every morning, realizing that an hour or more at a single egg or even boiling water is probably not the most time efficient way into the day. Did I mention he is gathering his own wood before starting the fire to boil the water to cook his egg? Since the next logical step would be to erect a forge to sharpen the saw that cuts the wood to start the fire to cook the breakfast….(all for the tent that Will built), I have to say I can relate, what with my grocery expeditions of late. Three times in the past seven weeks–gloves, mask, zombie-like parade down the aisles six feet apart, all that. It is in these times I fantasize about going out to milk a cow in the backyard or poke a chicken for an egg. Having the raw materials on hand rather than suffer the hardships of procuring their product. And to some extent we’re all on this line of thinking. We’re on Google and Pinterest learning to make our own masks, sanitizer, wipes. Don’t tell me you haven’t stood at the fridge surveying its randomly thinning contents and thought How do I make cheese? There’s no yeast to be had in the tri-state area, as apparently we’re all at home baking bread. Or digging holes, depending on your idea of “essential.” If 13-year-old boys were the primary shoppers in this pandemic we would not be out of yeast, or sanitizer or even toilet paper. Instead the shelves would be woefully bare of lighter fluid and sour patch kids. Sometimes in the morning he comes creeping in to the “midst of our outward civilization” to use the bathroom and stoops to a bowl of cereal from the cupboard. Just open box and pour. There’s no shame in that son, I say.

Midway through the week I find I’m really missing wilderness boy. The dog has relocated as well, finds he likes a sunny spot halfway between the house and the woods and there reclines, sphynx-like, squinting into the afternoon sun. I know he is guarding boy. One night late Gus comes in soaking, as if from a bath and we realize. It is pouring. Has been for hours. Dog is laying out there guarding the tent. Ellie gets up from the lunch table with her dishes and a comment: Sure is quiet around here without Will. She’s right, it is. For all intents and purposes, he has moved out. He comes in at chore time, to take a shower, eat dinner with his family. Sometimes he watches a movie or plays a game, but mostly the pull back to his one-man abode is too strong. What does he do out there? Well, for the first 2 1/2 hours of the day (after Breakfast Prep 101, which really ought to come with academic credit) he does his school work, as agreed. Then he listens to audiobooks, pulls a giant tub of Legos from under the cot and makes busy with that, tidies his apartment, watches movies on a screen the size of a large index card. He told me he sweeps three times a day. But the rest of the time I’ll bet he sits in his chair or lays on the cot listening to the sound of the woods. The birds, the breezes, what a day sounds like without someone else’s claim to it. Let me tell you, it sings. And Will has always been good at music appreciation.

Henry David Thoreau aside, this pandemic and our quarantine sure has cast a truing light on our ability to use time. Or our relationship with it. For Ellie, the lists by her bed and post-it notes suggest that her use of time is little changed from what college girl does with it: alternately procrastinate and engage it, put it to good use or kick herself for not. The dance of the undergrad. Sophie, I can’t tell. There’s more denial going on up there. Out of despair. Marshalling the energy to exercise or indulge in a craft or hobby or even come to dinner seems to be as daunting as doing her Calculus. We don’t see her until dinner either, and she is not living in a tent in the back woods. Lately some of the sadness, the film over our days, seems to be wearing away to what’s left of her. And this is a grand thing indeed: stronger than steel and sweeter than honey, here she is. My Sophie girl. Girl from a way long time ago. Yes, it is punctuated by the weekly disasters–the prom date comes and goes, another outspoken scientist pronounces summer predictions, her graduation gown arrives in the mail, but each week these appear to have less of an effect on our girl. Still, the self-control is turned up high. She does not let down, does not let go, for fear, I think, she will come apart. For this reason, perhaps, a highly creative sort takes fewer diversions.

For Will, it is completely the opposite. Diversion is life. Time used to come calling and find him out. Now it prefers him, I think, to the rest of us. Time is no fool for seeking out fun. The day has 15 hours in it and each one is for a different thing that doesn’t need to happen and sometimes probably shouldn’t. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” writes the celebrated master….“But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” No one would call an 8th grade boy “wise,” and I wouldn’t say it’s the brainiest move to be shooting wasps with a BB gun from the inside of a nylon room, but it makes for an extraordinary study break. And there is a patient wisdom at growth out there, seeded when the first tent stake went into the ground. Hours retying knots on tarps, 90 minutes start to breakfast daily, two or more hours at school work all by himself in the rain in the woods? Long afternoons of solitude and silence? Will has completely lost his angry teen edge and, to some event, his Really, Mom? death glares. Now he rings me up me to say he’s taken out two wasps.

“I did not need to go outdoors to take the air for it came in to me…It was not so much within-doors as behind a door where I sat, even in the rainiest of weather. The Harivansa have a saying ‘an abode without birds is like meat without seasoning’….I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds, not by having imprisoned one but by having caged myself near them.”

Will says it’s the birds that wake him each morning and the last thing he hears before he goes to sleep. Somewhere up high in one of the trees, we have an owl. An uncanny noise, really. One night, on taking my leave I notice the knife under his bed and the BB gun by the door; I remember him showing me on the tent tour how he wired the other door shut and I realize… He’s the one who’s watched too many scary movies and has such an overactive imagination…He’s the one who wants to know who’s upstairs and/or when we are coming up to bed, who has to have his closet open by day and closed by night and the door to his room the exact opposite. Just thinking on his routine makes me reach back a thousand years to my own night fears and realize this boy is afraid of the dark. And here he is, sleeping out night after night in the middle of the woods. By choice! Asking us to turn out all the exterior lights (okay, so that three-bulb 600 watt spot was a little much). We are parents. Used to be we went around locking doors and closing up for the night. Now we check and double check that the back door is unlocked. If the Boogie Man does show up, I’ll bring him in and give him a snack just to keep him away from that tent.

Tomorrow marks a week in Walden woods at the Burk house. Will doesn’t seem any worse for the wear. I’ve caught him working many times, ostensibly bringing him snack, or a lunch, or just pestering, poking, tending–the way a mom does. The reason, probably, he now lives under separate roof. Each time I find him, books and papers spread out on his plank desk in the pouring rain or sometimes, Thoreau-style, just sitting in his chair, listening to the sounds of the morning wood coming alive. It’s peaceful there. I think of him often, making a life alone in the woods. He is gone for most of it, holed up in his little tent. Throughout the morning he calls or texts me from an old flip phone. Seven-dollar-a-month phone contract coming to good use now. He calls to tell me that he is working, or that he is not working, but plans to. This morning it was a 10-minute exchange explaining his progress, as if the fake video camera hanging in the trees is actually recording him and his parents are actually conducting surveillance. (I tell you what, helicopter parents, be careful. You can scar your kids for life!) Here is the gist of the call: I took a break but didn’t mean to. “The front porch flap was leaking again, so I went out to fix it, and then I realized the big tarp is resting on it and like, wicking the water, so I had to climb up and fix that, and then I realized it’s the wrong knot so I had to untie it and….” Yes, Will. I know that. Homeowners know that. It’s always something…. Not only that, all things are connected. Just look, son, we are connected where no data charges apply. 

On the second night I walked out to the woodland cottage with two mugs of cocoa and a game tucked under my arm. Dog was sprawled in the cot sound asleep and the little cave was so cozy, softly lit and warm. He gave me the camp chair and took the floor, and we just sat there sipping cocoa and listening to the rain patter on the leaves overhead. I sat thinking what a peaceful, cheerful little haven he has created in the midst of many storms. Adolescence. Family Life. Modern life. And now this.  Quarantine. Covid, the one nobody can ignore though the others have been raging longer. “I had three chairs in my house,” wrote Thoreau, who probably entertained more visitors than a dog and his folks: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” I survey the neatly kept cottage, drink in its warmth and stillness. Will has one chair but plenty of seating. Wake up, Gus, this here’s a three-chair evening.




Non Prom

plates and wine glass on table

She doesn’t want it posted or shared. She doesn’t want it acknowledged, much less celebrated–and she doesn’t want to put on the dress. Instead, on the day of her senior prom, Sophie stays in her room. The night before this she had agreed to a “fancy dinner” so that the day didn’t go “uncelebrated” and so that we, her family, could show “how much we love her.” The night before this it was little more than a heart-warming bouquet of flowers from Mamie, her grandmother, to recognize her special day and offer solace. Now, somehow (ah, Mooom??!) it is a grand affair–involving decorations, splendid meal, party attire, dancing and a concert (thank you, Lady Gaga) at 8. Such was the plan. Instead, Sophie’s tears and distress at 6 pm are the reality. She doesn’t want to disappoint. But dancing is the last thing she feels like doing.

The dining room is wonderland decorated: crisp white linens on a table sparkling with crystal and china, Christmas lights glinting, swags of tulle and silk flowers (attic, Burk Emporium) and fresh candles all around. Bill arrives home with the carry-out bringing potted Easter lilies from church, white bows and all, so then the smell matches the aura: heavenly. The room has been closed off all day while we work, a copy of the formal invitation taped to the door:

The Burk Family, two cats, and Gus

Cordially invite you to


Formal Attire


I should have called it “Prom-at-Home,” not mini prom. There’s nothing “mini” about my efforts to fill the vacuum here. Like our “learn-at-home,” Bill’s new “work from home,” our shop-from-home, Ellie’s satellite semester, indeed–all five of our of live-move-and-have-our-being at home. Everything, absolutely everything, at home. And not nearly as beautiful, if you catch my drift, of that “Together at Home” worldwide concert I watch later in the day. Just call me Mama boomerang — I did fling them out in the world, where they liked it very well, but then they came back.

She had agreed to a fancy dinner. A bit of cheer, Burk style, extended to grieving girl. Crisis energizes me, makes me want to solve problems, think outside the proverbial box, overwhelm disaster with creativity. So why does the line “I see ideas online” come out like “I see dead people”? I do. The internet is crawling with work-arounds, alternatives and why-not substitutes to all the traditional events we looked forward to, starting with prom right on through to graduation. Why, here are girls pulling themselves up by their $59 sandal strap and ‘doing it right’. Saw a girl in a cornflower blue ball gown who decided she would serenade neighbors and wave while traipsing around in her dress. My sister shares a pic of family with two prom-jilted girls who dressed up and danced in their driveway. Whole family rallying and the young ladies looking radiant.

I want this. We can do this. We are not a lovely tribe of fresh-minted friends–like a litter whose age, life experience, and hair lengths all match. We are a family, with decades of experience, generations of values, and by the time they are adolescents and young adults, much difference. Let’s just face facts. You can party in our history. Surely we could be of service here, prom-less one? I know the beautiful gown will be a push, but the rest? How many times have I tried to transform your world into one of your dreams and storybooks? Present unhappiness? Nothing a little Party City can’t fix. Daughter, I can make this moment touch your childhood and mine while it whispers a blessing to your future and beyond. Life moments are like that. Please, let’s have one.

Elie and Will are in on it. I thought they might be, and they are. Will is fascinated by all the china and silver he never knew we had. Guess life took over when he was born and I stopped using it. Sophie’s grandmother’s wedding china, her great grandmother’s silver and her great-great grandmother’s crystal champagne glasses that have never graced this table appear. To fill them? Her crazy parents’ 23-year old champagne produced from the garage. Isn’t everybody too cheap to part with unopened bubbly at the close up of their wedding festivities and too uninspired in over two decades to use it on something sooner? Much discussion among the decorators whether or not it’s real, whether or not mom is serious–that we’re serving minors at tonight’s fete.

Will helps with the strings of Christmas lights–six of them. Then he puts together the silver Mylar tabletop tree (Why not? It was something sparkly). Then he tries his hand at tulle and swags. He is climbing on furniture and inching around the walls like Spiderman, tsssk-ing at my pathetic electrical hook-ups and “fixing ” it all with new configurations. There’s a lot of masking tape involved. I teach him how to hang swags of tulle and silk garland, and truly you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a boy’s greasy, grubby outdoor hands “poofing” tulle. “Like this mom? This okay?” If we never get to the party tonight, I have been transported. Ellie’s on table, spread with white linen and cloth napkins. There are so many different sizes of plates to figure out she has to Google it: formal place setting, nine pieces. When the table is at last laid, we complete the look with fresh candles in the six crystal candlesticks and scatter the loose silk flowers as a centerpiece, topped with a glass basket of jelly beans. Easter bunny–er, Martha Stewart–eat your heart out.

Usually it’s just time standing in the way of polishing a festivity to its finest. Today? Bah!! I laugh in pools the time we have. I’m hanging a grand (bedsheet) curtain over the doorway, and Will is onto his next task on our checklist–make a playlist of songs to put on our large smart TV in the living room. What’s a party without music? “Geeze, that was easy,” says boy, back in a jiffy. He Googled “prom playlist” and within seconds has playing all the popular tunes. Our home is hip with the push of a button. I am delighted. Really? If only our moods and emotions these days were as readily scripted as a playlist. I would love to pluck my response to this whole situation off the internet and just follow that, rather than strapping into the roller coaster ride of my life every morning.

The not-gown is made of satin, long and flowing like the girl who would be in it. It’s as simple and understated as can be, sweet as a summer breeze. Floor length with delicate straps, gently draped bodice in the lightest, loveliest shade of champagne that warms her skin. In a word, it is perfect. I’ve only seen it on her once. For a while after its mail-order arrival into our home, it sat inside the package on her desk chair. Letting the Covid-19 die out, maybe? We have been alternately spraying, wiping or ignoring our mail for a couple days as part of germ control. But I wonder if her negligence is born of something else. Hesitation she would ever get to wear it, maybe? A resistance to commit to the hope she would? It’s a risky thing these days, committing to the hope. For me, I’ve always had a hang-up committing to the merch (especially something this expensive), so it crosses my mind we should return the dress, send it right back before the return window closes. Yet in this silent, one-mom conversation I’m having while standing in her bedroom saying goodnight, in another breath the voice is silenced. No return. Daughter, I would pay any amount to see you in that gown at your senior prom. And I would empty my bank account to keep it hanging in your closet, a little pilot light of hope.

This week I’ve been revisiting past proms and homecoming dances, where Bill and I were the ones in street clothes, sheepishly pausing our weekend garage projects to show up at a photo shoot for a group of girls who had been making beauty their weekend project. Last year this time we were on the steps of the state capital, gorgeous spring evening, historic venue, teeming with teens and their parent paparazzi. Already they had that airy, musical congregating of the celebrity down, laughing, smiling–looking at one another always with a glance or nod to the cameras. Wind in their long hair and their make-up perfect, so perfect. All the colors of spring and the dreams of youth suspended on the warm evening pulsing with happiness, pleasure, fun. So real you could see it pooled on their skin. Their ability to turn a high school dance into the night of their lives was no different than my dining room transformation, really. Polished, pink and glitzy–and eminently post-able.

I can admit to wishing for a more substantive life in those moments. As they tottered about in spiky heels aerating prim lawns, I couldn’t help it. It all seemed so image conscious. Superficial. Super selfie. A couple hundred photos…magazine spread or memorable evening?…hard to tell which. I can admit to reflecting sadly on their all-post, all out-there, all-publicized lives that seemed so vapid behind their smiles and fish pouts. I wished for them to know “real” life, larger worlds. Gosh, I prayed that for Sophie. So much so, that on a recent walk reflecting on our situation and its far-reaching ramifications it sprung to mind: Did I bring this down on our heads, wishing for authenticity for our young people? Did I? Oh dear Lord, I said “depth,” not disaster. I said “meaning,” not misery, I said “purpose.” How in the world did you get “pandemic” from that? I take it back, Oh I take it back.

Ironically, tonight it is me running for the selfie stick. I issued printed invitations to this affair, spent the day looting the attic for décor, thinking through our formal wear choices. I want a record of our fun. I want to immortalize our clever approach. Such magicians and dream weavers those Burks–staring down devastation, looking loss in the eye and turning a few dusty silk flowers into a night gala. Bibbity Boppity. Boo. It’s not a replacement prom or a wishful place-marker, it’s an event all its own, bent on healing and hope. My very own “at home together” concert. Instead, it has plunged our girl into despair. Content to stay the day in her room working on calculus and ignoring the hours as they ticked away, willing the day to end, she is now confronted with smiling party guests, expectation to perform and appreciate, and the terrible line that sticks: formal attire. “Mom,” she says in a tiny, terror stricken voice, “If I put on the dress tonight, I’m afraid I’ll never wear it again.”

Okay then. Casual it is! I meant “normal” attire, people, not formal. After drying tears and comforting Sophie, we coax her off the bed and invite her to a “fancy dinner” as if we have just thought of it. Ellie and Will, mid-dressing in their rooms, have received the memo that somehow osmosed through closed doors and are hastily pulling on jeans and tee shirts and yanking their comforters over their fancy duds laid out (Will’s dress socks and black oxfords which he polished and shined for the occasion are still at the foot of his bed when I go up with him hours later). We escort her downstairs to the first ever street-clothes gala and draw the curtain to reveal our magic kingdom of denial: Le Dining Room. Such a venue! Will has lit all the candles and now that it’s dark outside the room fairly glows. No, it is on fire, alive with hope and promise. This promise: It will be okay. I see a little light go on in her eyes, and then a smile. Just a little smile, bigger on the inside than the part you can see. A silent goodbye to the gown, and just as quickly, so quickly I almost miss it she slips into something more comfortable: acceptance. Depth. Meaning. Purpose. Ah, my Sophie girl. It will be okay. It really will.

After our delicious Chinese carry-out we take a walk (prom-enade) in the even more beautiful spring evening, and after that we open our fortune cookies and the champagne. My kids, they’ve seen too many movies where the cork rockets out of the bottle, followed by cascading liquid and bubbles spraying everywhere. Ours? Aged in the garage by dreams and now a fine “vintage”? It comes out with a hopeful little “poof”–still bubbly, though less sparkling, a darker ale color. Tastes…well, ah, three of the five of us have no reference point so what’s the difference? Maybe if they think it’s ghastly (it kind of is) they won’t go for it any time soon. That’s okay. Nothing else tonight is here is as expected, either. I have a Christmas tree in my dining room, icicle lights taped to the wall molding, and my 13-year-old is knocking back old champagne out of 100-year old etched crystal like we are doing shots. I tell you what. You can’t make this stuff up.

There was nothing “mini” about the Burk Family Prom 2020, and I am happy to report that the effects far outweigh the effort. Her fortune?

“There is a gradual improvement. Healings are sweet and tender.”