Even after many rewrites and revisions, my essay wasn’t Modern Love column worthy, so the rejection email from the editors wasn’t a surprise. Still, the writer in me was ready to test some version of my story with an audience. When my colleague who arranges for speakers at our weekly Upper School chapel wrote to me asking if I could step in on short notice to fill an unexpected vacancy, I jumped at the chance and got to work tinkering with my piece, reframing it in a way that I hoped would resonate with 300 or so ninth-twelfth graders and 30 ish adults. As I often do, I turned to trusted colleagues who knew the audience well, to test my thinking. While I’d taught quite a few of these students when they were in our Lower School, I did not know their teenage selves well.
When the moment to speak came, a calm came over me, replacing the nerves I’d worked to keep in check for the previous hour. After, as students filed out of the auditorium, and nearly every day since, I have heard from someone about what they heard, felt, thought. The feedback ranges from simple to stunning. And I am reminded of the power of sharing our stories.
A recording of the story I shared is here. My part begins around minute 19.
The children were writing sight words with their fingers on carefully sealed zippered baggies filled with a thin layer of paint. “As,” I heard the teacher say , stretching the letter sounds and repeating the word, while I wandered from desk to desk, saying hello and giving quick hugs to kindergartners who were busy tracing letters to create words and proudly showing their results to one another and their teacher. “Ready for another?” their teacher asked as they laid their bags on their desks and smoothed out the paint so they could start over. Their delight with the activity was evident in the enthusiastic “Yes” that most called out. “Is,” their teacher said aloud, again repeating the word and emphasizing each letter sound. Little heads looked down and fingers got busy on baggies. Determination and delight reigned the room as I slipped out the door.
The efficient voicemail message is brief and directive. “Three, for Saturday outdoors. Please call us back to let us know that you plan to be here.” I know that is what restaurants, where all tables are reserved weeks in advance, require, even in non-Covid times. And I dutifully call back, offer my name to the voice on the other end, and confirm that our party of three will indeed be there at noon on Saturday. It’s an ordinary moment, sandwiched between back-to-back meetings in my packed workday. Except that the lunch I am confirming and the three of us who are attending are about to experience something that is far from ordinary. Three middle-aged siblings who have never met. All of whom thought they were two of two. Two who thought they were the eldest of two. One of those is now a middle child, the other the eldest of three. One of us thought he had one older sister but now has two. Yes, we will be there at noon on Saturday and we’ll follow all the expectations for our table at this popular spot. Meanwhile, we will navigate a moment for which there are no guidelines and which none of us ever imagined.
He and I find our seats at table four with the parents of the bride, virtually the only people we know other than their four daughters and spouses. The father of the bride’s sister sits to her brother’s right, directly across from me. I study their visages, making a mental inventory of similarities and differences in their features, wondering who is older and what their relationship is like. They lean toward one another for a brief, easy exchange I cannot hear. Though she is blonde and he grey, and her lips are adorned with an appealing shade of mauve, they share a facial structure, have similar, well-earned crinkly lines at the sides of their eyes, and their smiles are nearly identical. There is no denying they are brother and sister.
I first knew family resemblance when my oldest daughter was born. I was 31. And though she favors her father’s side, our eyes and brows, and smiles are similar. There’s no denying we are mother and daughter.
I take a bite of salad, look beyond the brother and sister across from me, and scan the room to locate the four daughters who look so similar and are clearly their mother’s daughters. And I think about you two, and me, sitting together next weekend, meeting for the first time, taking each other in, looking for what we share that is nature and what differs because of nurture, and I wonder if someone will look our way and think, “There’s no denying those three are siblings.”
Who am I kidding? It’s been more than six months. Finding time for creative endeavors like writing has not been easy. For a brief moment at the end of the last school year and the start of this summer it seemed as if life, and school/work, would no longer be dominated by Covid. I did a few things that felt familiar and normal. I ventured occasionally into stores with my mask on my wrist rather than my face. With a mix of caution and excitement, I booked a flight to visit my daughter in October (a flight I am currently on, masked and feeling somewhere between mildly uneasy and desperate to breathe fresh air and not be in this crowded, closed space with hundreds of humans whose habits and vaccine status I do not know). My mother and I took a carefully choreographed trip to New York City.
And then Delta took hold and there was once again little that I did, thought, or made decisions about that wasn’t about Covid. The difference was, more than 18 months in, I was no longer running on adrenaline. The spring of 2020, when we all hunkered down, was about learning how to do school without being at school. It was novel and exhausting and strange but we knew summer was coming. We could see the goal post. Except summer wasn’t summer. There was no time to marvel in what we’d done, albeit imperfectly for the previous three months. Summer was 70 hour workweeks reimagining and rebuilding school so that we could pull off a miracle- in person and online school all at the same time for the 2020-21 school year. We dug deep, we persevered, we had grit. So much grit. We climbed Everest. Or so it seemed. And in June of 2021, we thought we’d reached the summit. We were ready to sit back, fill our glasses with something bubbly, and celebrate.
COVID had other ideas.
And so we continue upward. Navigating another strange year. Supporting young children, some of whom have now lived almost half their life masked, sanitized, and distanced. Too many of whom hold big worries rather than childish thoughts. Working with tired, stressed families who do not want to keep their child with sniffles home one.more.time. Avoiding network and cable news programs that leave one feeling more anxious than informed. Trying to create a sense of normalcy while keeping everyone safe.
We need vaccines for children. We need adults to get vaccinated. We need hugs and high fives and happy days. We need to see the summit through the clouds and to know that from here to there is a shorter distance than the climb we’ve made to date.
She loves to tell the story of meeting my father. It was a Thursday night. They were introduced at a reception at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C. He invited her to have a drink after the reception. She says she went home that night and announced to someone or maybe nobody that she had just met the man she was going to marry. They had another date over the weekend. And on the following Monday he invited her to lunch at a French restaurant and asked her to marry him. Three dates in four days. They discussed a ring. They discussed the fact that her mother was not going to receive the news well. She didn’t. My grandmother chose to ignore the situation. They decided with my grandfather’s blessing to marry quietly. And then, just a few weeks before that was to happen, my grandmother sat down for breakfast one morning and asked my mother what sort of wedding she wanted. With just a few weeks to plan, options were limited. My mother wore an elegant knee length dress. They had a reception at home. In the end, my grandmother loved my father fiercely. It’s a good story.
From the moment I could understand words, maybe even before, she told me the story of my becoming. She told me that on a Thursday, several years into the journey of trying to start a family, she got a call. “You can pick up your baby girl on Tuesday,” she was told. On Friday her doctor told her she was expecting a baby. On Saturday my father returned from out of town business. She told him he was going to be a father. Twice. She told me he sat down in disbelief. She told me they’d dreamed for so long of having a family. That suddenly they might actually become a family of four. Or a childless couple. She told me they held their breath and prayed like hell. She told me all about that Tuesday. That the nuns placed four week old me in her arms and told my parents they had named me Mary Ellen. That I had round cheeks and soft curls of hair. That she and my father had no idea what to do with a baby. They’d had no time to prepare. That they stopped at the grocery store on the way home for provisions and that she waited in the car with me while my father went inside, hopelessly confused until a neighbor spotted him and helped him gather what he needed. That when they arrived home she called her mother, with whom her relationship was strained, to share the news, and her mother who had not been speaking to her declared, “Your father and I will be right over.” She told me my grandmother marched into the house, took me from her arms and told my mother she wasn’t holding me properly. She told me that from that day on, her mother was again speaking to her. She told me what she knew of my biological parents, which wasn’t much. She told me that she and my father chose Lisa for my first name and Siobhan to honor my Irish Catholic heritage. She told me I could ask questions though she might not have answers. She told me, over and over, how much she loved me from the moment she saw me. She tells me that still.
My goal this March has been to write as much as I could about one subject- trying different craft moves and structures while staying on the same topic. My subject has been my mom. Today I‘m returning to the familiar “Since last March,” structure.
She’d insist otherwise, but she’s a bit shorter now. Her shoulders, no longer strong and broad, take a little less space in the decades old sweater.
Since last March, her days are slower and more quiet, now without the Sunday concert series, seasonal lectures, occasional gatherings with friends, and monthly garden club meetings.
The old dog who is her constant companion is slower too since last March, and grayer, and more diminished. Their daily walks are short and she has to talk him into it. Sometimes I think she talks herself into it too.
She hasn’t seen her grandchildren, her nieces and nephews, her friends, or her hairdresser since last March.
She and I canceled a trip to New York, gave up tickets to Hamilton for one of the last shows before the city shut down, stayed in different houses when I went to visit her last summer, spent a quiet, careful Thanksgiving together, and both got our vaccines since last March.
Her home is filled with everything from the one before. And what she’s kept from my grandmother’s. Memories and stories in every room and all directions. The smaller-than-a-loveseat sofa where I curled up and slept on weekend afternoons while my dad, in a nearby chair watched football or golf on the small television. The refilled and recovered down comforter that still adds a layer of warmth to my bed each night when she turns the thermostat down. The Steinway whose Ivory keys are worn and slightly concave, where I spent thirty minutes a day practicing without enthusiasm until the instructor kindly informed my mother there was no hope. My parents’ wedding china, the cobalt faded, on which we still eat each night. The pink towels that used to seem large and be plush and hung in the bathroom my sister and I shared when we were small. A large, formal portrait of my grandmother. My father’s books. My great grandmother’s etched crystal glasses. The rug that was my grandmother’s, then my sister’s, that now covers part of the floor in the room where my mother spends most of her time. Throw pillows with intricate needlework made by my uncle’s mother-in-law. Drawers full of black-and-white phots of three generations back and files of newspaper clippings and letters written long ago. Stories and memories all around.