Tuesday, October 2, 2018

To Daddy on The Eve of What Would Be Your 75th Birthday

Dear Daddy,

Happy Birthday! You'd be 75 tomorrow. Yesterday, on the phone, Mommy reminded me that you're like another, Jack - Jack Kennedy. You are forever 44 - youthful, handsome, and full of promise. We never saw what became of your life. Then again, you never saw what became of ours. I've never written to you before, even though it's been suggested that I do. At first, my reluctance had to do with a fear that you wouldn't hear me. Now it's clear to me that I didn't write because I'll never get an answer. For me, the hardest part of growing up without you has been wondering what you would think of me and if I made you proud. People have been kind enough to say that you would be, but really, what do they know about your hopes and dreams for me? I wish you were here to see my children and let us throw you a birthday party. I'm really good at that - birthdays. Everyone in my house gets breakfast cake - because birthdays are special and they should start out special from the very beginning of the day (before something terrible happens threatening to ruin the whole day). At least we had cake. At least...
Your birthday party is in the Tap Room at the New York Athletic Club. Through the lobby, up the stairs on the left, and behind the swinging leather doors. I rented the whole place for the evening. They're all here for you. Now that I am not the 7-year-old girl you knew, I am allowed in there. And women, we're full members now and we drink at the bar just like the men. It's fall in New York - that season that smells like leaves, freshly sharpened pencils and stale wool that's been hiding in a closet for months.  It's much more intimate than the over 400 people who showed up at your funeral but these are the people who are closer.

I went with plain white tablecloths; the centerpieces are mums. I agonized over this decision because I think they aren't the nicest flowers, but you liked them and they remind me of a day we spent in Cold Spring Harbor. What were your favorite flowers? One more thing I just don't know about you. The menu - that was easy - NY Sirloin with potatoes and root vegetables. Three sauces will be served on the side (Bernaise because even though everyone is on cholesterol medication now, it's delicious and Mommy insisted, Bordelaise because I remember your ordering it once at Ottomanelli's, and Peter Luger's because the best is always the best). Cesar salads sans anchovies will be plated before people sit down. For some reason, I think your cake should be dark chocolate with white lettering. Instead of table numbers, I have pictures of you at different times in your life. Mommy is terribly nervous and giving the event planner a hard time. She'll settle down once everyone is eating. I've already warned the service staff to remove the empty glasses from the table before she notices they are empty. She never re-married. "Why would I?" she always asks.

I hired an Irish band to play and you will sing along. Since it's my imagination and money is no object, I managed to invite Willie Nelson, too. Alas, TSA gave him a hard time and he's probably not going to make it in time. He's still alive. When I lived in New Orleans, near the train tracks and the River, I thought of you and his songs every single day. Willie played a rally for a Senate candidate in Austin over the weekend (I live in Texas now). I didn't go because I went to a dinner party instead. While I try not to judge myself - I do. So I sent the candidate more money and crossed my fingers that he wins. Please don't hold that against me. Nobody's perfect. Not even you - even though my memory of you is one of perfection.

I'd love to talk to you about my imperfections - maybe you could help me gain some perspective on them. If I could just hear you say, "You did the right thing..." Just once. This is when I feel my faith failing me. When people told me you were looking down from Heaven and smiling - I'd smile politely but want to punch them. They didn't know any better than I did where or what you are. I am only sure of the love I felt when we were together. That is real. It is real because, I miss it so much, at times I can't even bring myself to breathe. I hold the hurt in my lungs until I imagine them bursting. My eyes open and I gasp as if I've been under water. Grief is not water, instead of drowning once, you drown again and again.

We've filled the room with people from different stages of your life - Uncle Brian and Aunt Jane are with their respective families at one table. Grandma and Uncle Tom have died but Tom's family will all join us. I used pictures of you as children that your siblings were kind enough to send me after Grandma died. While I try my best to keep in touch, I get angry that they never call me first. Death makes things awkward. I think Theresa and I were hard for Grandma.

How do you watch the children of your child grow up when your own child is dead? She gave me a pair of gold earrings from Tiffany's when I graduated from Holy Cross. Did I mention that I went to Holy Cross, like you? Beaven Hall is made up of classrooms now - I think I took logic in a room where you might have slept. I received a tremendous education there but went for the wrong reasons. I never found you there. For me, it's a place filled with ghosts and I struggled socially. You were right that I was a weird kid. Now, I've grown up and I am eccentric - which is much better than being weird. So I've got that going for me.

At the Holy Cross table, some of your friends managed to come down from the Cape and in from Long Island with their wives. The photo of your doomed-from-the start rugby team sits in a small frame. They'll drink beer and consider the state of the world today. Speaking of which, Donald Trump is the President of the United States. Remember his TV commercials from the 1980's? "You're the King, You're the King of the Castle. Trump Castle Hotel and Casino, Baby, Baby do we know..." Well, he's the President now. I hope you don't have to watch the dumpster-fire that is American politics these days. People voted for the Atlantic City casino guy. A whole lot of people voted for the Atlantic City Casino guy!

After that happened, I was a captain for a group of Junior League women in the Women's March. Women all over the world took to the streets. We were peaceful - very few arrests, no violence. I wore the pearls Grandma gave me. Lately, I am furious at the power struggle with men and wonder if we women should have burned our cities to the ground. Then again, we have our children and their futures to consider - we won't destroy the world. We keep it safe because we play a long game, a different game. This long game is the one where we protect the Earth from polluters, save a little money so the kids don't drown in debt, and give health care to everyone. It's the Earth where not only do we believe that education can fix things but also we believe in it enough to pay to fix education. The politicians on either side care for none of this. Instead, they spend time arguing about people who have the temerity to exercise their right to free speech (Both sides are not doing well on the free speech front - but that's another letter entirely. I never went to law school so my views are probably not as nuanced as they should be).

My children are at your party but will leave early with a sitter. Like you, I don't think that children after 8 p.m. are the same adorable creatures who wake smiling at 6 a.m.  Ellie is 9. She has dark blond hair, blue eyes, a great smile and intelligence that scares me ( I haven't told her that she's smarter than me - I'm not ready to give her the upper hand).  She is asynchronicity at its best - she wants to be a physicist and has me looking up the Higgs Boson particle and the Hadron collider one minute and she can't figure out why a friend found her constant interruptions during conversation annoying the next minute. I worry that she will be lonely, or more lonely than most people. I was lonely. I am lonely. What's different now is that I suspect everyone is lonely, even if they don't admit it. Our own minds are a complex universe that we can only share with others in small amounts. Only you know your thoughts at 3 a.m.  Would you be appalled, if you could hear mine?

My little son, Jack, is 2. He is playing with his diggers under a table. I popped the collar on his blue blazer and he has charmed the socks off of all the grandmothers.  How do I bring up my son not to be part of the problems I see in the world, not to take advantage of the advantages conferred upon him by birth as a white male? How do I tell him that while patriarchy is the problem, he is good and kind and doesn't have to be part of the problem? I guess I'll tell him about how you stood up for your daughters to a church that says we can't be leaders simply because we are women. It's not enough, but I'll take whatever help I can get. Remember how you told me, in our country, we prefer 100 guilty men to go free vs. 1 innocent man wrongly going to prison? Also, remember that you told me picking on someone who's weaker than you is so much worse than picking on someone in general? Turns out - these things really hard for people to grasp. I wish I could ask you about what's happening in the Courts. I hope to believe that you have the same opinions of how a Supreme Court Justice should conduct himself, but I wish I could be sure.  Then again, I am sure. Having spent so much of my life unsure of things, I am now here, almost forty, and quite sure of several things.

  1. The whole world must play the long game. I will do my part and play the long game. Sometimes, this will mean my family pays higher taxes - that is nothing compared to the sacrifices parents make on an individual level for their children every single day. I will watch my carbon footprint and reduce my consumption of red meat. My priority is my children. I will pretend to be an optimist until I am one.

2.  Our children (ALL CHILDREN) deserve better than they are getting. They always have. The degree to which children are forced to grow up early and suffer for the convenience of adults is a collective failure. We adults need to do better. Children deserve to play and discover, to fall and get back up, and to laugh until the milk comes out their noses.

3. When I take my children to the beach, I feel closest to you. We joined the Swordfish Cub in Westhampton. I think of you and I climbing on the jetties that were almost over my head. Now, those same jetties are completely buried in the sand. Like everything else that time covers over, the core of the memory is there, underneath the sand, holding us together.

4. Wire hangers from the dry cleaners, left alone in dark closets, breed like rabbits.

5. Thinking matters - and we don't do enough of it. New technology has emerged so that no one reads the whole paper anymore - we get news in filtered soundbites and don't know how to question anything. Also TV commentators opine on the issues of the day as if they are reporting news. People don't know the difference between news and Op-ED. As such, the audience hears small details without context and live their life accordingly. People are so crazy that science is totally up for debate. Fact is allowed to be a matter of personal opinion or belief. I am glad you don't have to see this.

6. I will always miss you. Also, I miss me with you. I miss knowing that the world may be a hard place but that you would always love me, no matter what.

Back to your party - I skipped the paper invitations, even though I love printed paper because people don't really do that anymore. We have put all the money into really good red wine and cognac. I keep whisky in the house just in case your ghost shows up one night. We'll open that bottle of wine with your name on the label. Mommy saved it even though she laughs and said it was "just an exercise in vanity." We're pouring some of my favorite Sonoma wines. My husband ( I married a great man and we've been married longer than you and Mommy were married- 15 years in May) and I lived in San Francisco and fell in love with the small wineries on route 12. Napa is beautiful but you're not likely to meet the winemaker in the driveway. San Francisco changed since you lived there. It became too expensive and too crazy - so we moved to Austin, TX. I think you'd like it.

As I write this, a bell on my porch is ringing - it's from Arco Santi. We kept the bell you bought there on the porch for years until Mommy sold the house and moved into a nice condo. I read about urban planning - something that had become a passion for you before you died. It's fascinating. It's also humbling - I live behind a gate, in a big house, on the edge of a nature preserve. It's beautiful and I love it - but I don't see things. I don't see poverty like I did as a child growing up in New York City. My children don't know how to ride public buses ( working on that - I promise). Someday, I want to go to Arco Santi.

In the mean time, I spend time working part-time, volunteering at schools and in the community. It feels scattered and unfinished and I hate answering the question, "What do you do?' because my answer is not succinct and the messiness bothers me. You wanted me to accomplish so much - I want to accomplish so much too. I think I just need a little more time - a luxury never afforded to you and one that worries me everyday. That imaginary hour glass hovers over me. I hate being late and I am constantly afraid of running out of time. That is my fear - that I won't have enough time and my children will be left without me, constantly aware of my absence.

Well, it's time to blow out your candles. Everyone is singing and a waiter volunteered to take the pictures. Happy birthday - we can't celebrate three quarters of a century or even half a century. Instead, we can celebrate our capacity to love and remember. You are not forgotten. When you died and I went to say a prayer at your coffin I promised I wouldn't forget you. I kept my promise. You promised you'd always love me and never leave - sometimes I think you broke that promise. Today, I'll find some way to believe you.

Don't forget to make a wish.

All my love,


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Hyde Park, November 1978 - On Becoming A Mother, Again

The back of the photo reads, “Hyde Park November 1978.” I flip it over it hoping to find some secret to my parent’s pre-child existence inside the curling and peeling white border. Mommy in tartan trousers, a navy wool sweater with her monogram, RAF, in the center and her omnipresent pearls stands near the top of a rolling green-brown hill.  I can’t see the pennies in her loafers but I know they are there. She’s bearing her teeth with clenched jaws like she does in all photos – incapable of generating a friendly-looking smile if she says “cheese.” Her underbite gives the distinct impression of perpetual annoyance at the photographer.
In the foreground, I see Daddy’s long shadow. His legs balance, tree trunks planted in his two-feet under two-knees, under two-hips stance- perfected during his time on the USS Orriskany. I imagine he’s wearing Levi’s and an Aran fisherman’s sweater – his weekend uniform. His pre-Top-Gun Ray Ban aviator sunglasses are on top of his head. Daddy died young. It never occurred to me that this photographer’s error would later become emblematic of his presence in all of our lives – a shadow. The sun must be close to setting but my parents’ bodies indicate mid-afternoon – no fatigued slumping hinting that the autumn day is nearing its end. Even the dark fall blue of the sky is lightened and faded adding to the illusion of midday, nowhere near rest.
That’s how I remember them when they were together, always in mid-action. Mommy puts on diamond and emerald earrings while Daddy adjusts his green bow tie for the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick ball; Mommy leans back in her chair while Daddy drags on a Marlboro Red in mid-sentence; Mommy puts her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand while Daddy takes a slow sip of Remy Martin and smiles at her. When Daddy was home there was always music playing on the Hi-Fi – it was always silent when only Mommy was home. They reserved a certain silence just for each other, dancing to silent music and speaking silent languages only they could hear. I felt like an intruder or a spy whenever I watched them in these everyday moments. The normality of their interactions had the effect of heightening their intimacy. What does my marriage look like to our daughter?
Hyde Park, FDR’s house on the Hudson, sits atop a steep hill overlooking the Hudson River.  It’s a museum and National Park but it still feels like a family home. Years later, well after Daddy died, Mommy and I drove up to Hyde Park and spent the day there. It’s her favorite house in the world. I can see how it impacted her own personal brand of Irish-Preppy interior design – a club chair covered in chintz perfectly at ease next to a country French arm chair, both angled around a slightly nicked wooden coffee table.
My mother is pregnant with me in the photo, but not showing. I marvel that she climbed that hill and then realize they probably started at the top. She started a stir in the extended family by deciding not to tell anyone she was pregnant with me until she was in her third trimester. She doesn’t like attention for what could be perceived as weakness.
My hand reaches down to my own newly pregnant belly. Was she afraid of things like spina bifida, trisomy 13, 18 or 21? Noonan’s syndrome, Turner syndrome, fragile X? Did they even tell anyone to fear things that happen 1 in 120,000 people? For now, these are my own secret worries. Will my teeth strain to grin in photos now?
My eyes trace the edge of the hill in the photo. After the nuchal translucency ultrasound, the tech did not smile at me. Rather, she said, “You can get dressed, the doctor will want to talk to you in his office.”  Apparently, an enlarged sac of fluid behind a fetus’ neck could mean anything from no problems at all to a fatal birth defect. The renowned maternal-fetal medicine specialist, wearing reefs and a shark tooth necklace (these are the times I want to be back in New York with a slightly patronizing doctor wearing a tie and wingtips) asked, “Could be cardio-vascular. What runs in your family?”
“Well, umm.” Came out instead of,  “My father died of a cerebral aneurysm complicated by smoking and Von Willebrand Disease.” My six-year-old daughter was sitting in the chair next to me because I couldn’t get a sitter. Her face looked like mine should have. I had to be brave and matter-of-fact for her sake. Thanks to modern genetic testing, we already knew that we’re having a boy. “Well, I guess we’ll schedule the amnio. Thank you for your time.”
As I walked out the door, Dr. Waiting-to-hit-Mavericks said, “Good luck.”
I place the photo on the table and ask my mother, “Was this at the FDR museum?”
“Yes. That was probably after the Holy Cross game at West Point. We took a lot of road trips that year. I was pregnant. It was nice to escape the city sometimes.”
“But you had that great apartment in The Village.”
“Yes, I did.”
“It was the Carter years, Kate. No one knew what the hell was next.”
She’s right though, “no one knew what the hell was next.” She probably expected a long happy life with my father. Instead, she was widowed at thirty-eight with a small freckle-faced eight year-old. If nothing else, it explains the reactionary political climate in her house. What the hell is next?
Is that her way of telling me as mothers we are always at a loss to know our children’s fate? We are hurling through space without at map, doing the best we can and nothing about parenting has really changed? Or, is she simply trying to avoid my tendency to over-analyze everything?
What I would give to be able to tell her that I am afraid of having a boy. I am afraid that he will have inherited some curse to die young – that I will love him and have to say good-bye too soon. No parent can imagine anything worse than something happening to his or her child. My fears for this boy extend beyond his nuchal translucency. What if I put a ticking time bomb in his brain? You can’t see that in a blood test, on an ultrasound screen, or even when he’s born with ten perfect fingers, ten nubby toes and electric blue eyes just like his sister.
All biological parents give their children DNA, that’s how the whole thing works. Yet I feel responsible for infusing his DNA with some unknown danger he never chose. Even worse, this risk marker could mean be nothing at all. How do I cling to the 80% chance that nothing is wrong instead of the 20% that something is indeed a problem? Why are genetic counselors allowed to call anything “normal?” My mother would tell me to stop “spinning.” She’d be correct but she never gave me the DNA that knows how to do that, as if such a thing exists.
That’s the full extent of our conversation. My mother isn’t one to reminisce. She has a way of ending her sentenced with a special kind of period – hers are extra final. No more discussion welcome here. Go do something productive with your time instead of noseying around my old photos.
Like my life and belly, she is in perpetual forward motion. Then again, according to physics – so is the Universe – expanding into infinity and rarely looking back at the dark matter trapped inside it and pushing it ever outward.
What will this new child see in photos of me? Huge sunglasses and an imperfect Us-Weekly pose? Will he know that I picture him with his older sister learning how to build a block tower on a sunlit afternoon, running while he laughs with mouth wide open? Will he know that all the knowledge we’ve gained since 1970’s, while miraculous has served only to make me more afraid for him? Will he know he is loved, even now when he resembles a microscopic round sea-horse swimming inside me? Perhaps it doesn’t matter because I know these things. For now, that’s all the assurance I can give.
EPILOGUE - 20 weeks later

John (Jack) Thomas Thome was born with 10 fingers and toes two weeks ago. We lived through an amnio, some concerns over my health, and a “very long” labor for a second child. He’s sliding right into our family of three and we are thrilled to have him here. Somehow, I know he knows he is loved. Welcome little one.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ghosts and Citronella Candles - A Parenting Lesson from My Father


When I was in the second grade, Halloween fell on a Saturday which meant that as a family, we could escape the city for the weekend for our cottage in Westhampton Beach. The best part of this was trick-or-treating with my best friends who lived next door. After that, we went to a party at the elementary school complete with apple bobbing, hanging marshmallows, and a terrifying haunted house courtesy of those larger than life sixth graders. My neighbors dressed as bunnies. I dressed as a bumble bee. Another friend was a “ballerina fairy.” Such was the simplicity of little girl costumes.

That was the last Halloween I spent with my father. He died that winter. I still remember his walking with my friends’ mother, keeping a safe distance and a close eye on the little girls collecting their pennies (yes, pennies), candy corn and pop corn balls at each neighbor’s house.

The ballerina fairy, who had been left in the care of my parents for the weekend, refused to wear a jacket over her costume. A litigator, my father knew better than to negotiate with a child. Without raising his voice, “Claire. Just. Put. The jacket. On.” Then he walked away. She hurumphed but put the jacket on. For some reason, this is one of my most vivid memories of his “parenting style.” It’s probably because I struggle with it. Perhaps I’d say, “Claire, the temperature is falling, put your coat on, please.” I would open the door for the inevitable, “I’m not cold.”

Jack Lowe parenting lesson #1 — Don’t open the door for discussion. We don’t negotiate about coats with seven-year-olds.
Even years later, when something just had to be done (say snow boots with that Betsey Johnson miniskirt in high school), those of us who watched Claire’s coat battle would say, “Claire. Just. Put. The Jacket. On,” and dissolve into giggles.

Even then, I knew there were ghosts everywhere. Many houses on the street were already closed up for winter, haunted with the summer before, suspended in time until the days grew longer and the owners returned for another season. Ghosts hid in the unraked leaves crunching under our sneakers, in the tunnel underneath the giant rhododendron in the front yard, in the little red shed with the spider web covered windows out back. What I didn’t understand were that the ghosts, figments of my imagination, would persist and co-exist in my life as memory and dreams. When they used to hold just enough power for me to fear them, now they hold the power to ground me. They come when I least expect them, but most need them. Halloween holds magic for children — it’s different than other holidays because they invent it for themselves as they dress-up and decorate homes. They are the characters, not some abstraction in a red suit. This year, my own daughter will dress up as Laura Ingalls Wilder. She’s been waiting for this for weeks. Our yard has a “friendly” ghost hanging from a tree that has the effect of scaring me every time I see it out of the corner of my eye.

This morning, as I went to wake six-year-old Ellie, the smell of her citronella shampoo took me back to that house. My mother lit the evenings eating on the porch with yellow citronella candles in metal buckets. I remember that Halloween and can only hope that she’ll remember this one some day. That smell is the ghost of that house and those days, just back for a brief visit. Happy Halloween!