The brisk days of fall are my absolute favorite time in the Northeast.
New York really showed off the last few weeks -- boasting warm sunny Indian Summer days and clear (starry!) nights well into November.
In the last week of October, a huge waxing moon rose right outside our living room window each evening, and for awhile on Halloween night, as it waned, its melancholy Man could be distinctly seen looking down, with his sad clown smile, at the city, right over the spire of the Empire State Building.
He seemed to be looking right at me, and I took the rueful look very personally, as disappointment in me for once again back-burnering an essay I've been chipping away at for weeks; this time, in order to make the kids’ Halloween costumes. I go a little overboard on these. I don't do this because I'm vying for the mother of the year award; it's just displaced creativity finding a welcome outlet, a good excuse. Also, I remember how fun it was as a kid to be utterly transported by putting on a costume. I still get that feeling from the perfect outfit.
The following are two things I don't do:
1) Dress up for Halloween
But the week before Halloween, in celebration of my sister's 40th birthday, I found myself in a small dark room in Koreatown at 3 a.m. with a microphone in my hand, and damned if anyone could get that thing away from me. Turns out I LOVE Karaoke, and when I wasn't hogging the mike, my sister and I performed rollicking versions of such karaoke classics as Bohemian Rhapsody and the whole Pat Benatar/Bonnie Tyler Songbook.
So, on that - er - note, we decided that this year we would dress up for Halloween -- as Ann & Nancy Wilson from Heart (loosely interpreted).
I'm sure glad we did, because in the days just prior to October 31st I suffered three maternal humiliations of a sartorial nature, the sort whose only redress is heavy eyeliner, high boots and big hair:
1) On a chilly morning I went to yoga dressed in attractive athletic wear, plus warm woolly socks with Birkenstocks. Afterward, I picked up 8-year old Violet from a friend's house. As we walked home together she suddenly said, "Mom. Those socks with those sandals? Not the jam." Not. The. Jam.
2) That same week, on "Family Friday" at school, I was crouched down beside her at one of those little kiddie tables, working on a story together, when I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned and smiled at the adorable little girl who had approached me. "Excuse me, Violet's mom," she said. "Your panties are showing."
3) Halloween afternoon, as my sister readied her 3-year old daughter for Trick-or-Treat and a party at our place, my niece said, "Mommy, what are you going to be for Halloween?" My sister answered, "Aunt Jenny and I are going to be rockstars!" To which that saucy little minx replied, "You can't be a rockstar! You're a mommy!" (I can only assume she meant me, as well.)
WHAT, I ask you, is more ROCKSTAR than having your panties showing at an elementary school event?
Anyway - here we all are on Halloween:
It was a warm evening and because it was a Saturday, the revelry went on into the night.
But then, we turned the clocks back and suddenly the next day it was dark before five. This always catches me off guard. Now the sun dips low by 4:30, down behind the Highline and all the shiny new west side high-rises, and further and further south along the Hudson as the days shorten.
The air chills so quickly in the city as the skyscraper shadows grow that I walk along the sidewalk hugging close to the south-facing buildings to feel the radiant heat off the red brick that's been sun-soaked all day.
The orange sky makes me lonely for Topanga, and its summer sunsets.
The long winter is coming. A girl needs a cocktail.
I've made this little number the last two summers in Topanga, and have served it to many LA friends who came to nibble salad and cheese on the patio, have a drink, take a dip, watch the sunset. I also made it for Happy Hour this Thanksgiving weekend; even though it’s more of a summer drink, the savory note of basil and the addition of a splash of brown liquor are warming enough for an autumn night.
(Or maybe I’m just hanging on…)
I call it the
Strawberry-Basil Vodka Lemonade
A generous handful of fresh basil + 4 sprigs reserved
2 cups vodka
2 shots bourbon
1 cup fresh strawberries
2 cups lemonade (a tart one is best if you prefer drinks not too sweet)
Place a handful of fresh basil leaves and 1/2 cup strawberries in a mason jar and cover with 2 cups vodka; seal tightly. Refrigerate. Infuse for 24-48 hours. Strain. Discard the basil and strawberries.
Mix it up:
Place 2 strawberries in the bottom of each of 4 rocks glasses. Muddle a bit.
Add ice (I like one jumbo cube, but a few regular size work well)
Pour “3 fingers” of infused vodka over the ice
Add lemonade to taste
Top with just a splash of bourbon
Garnish with a sprig of basil
Enjoy with friends at sunset, in any season.
The first week of November, we took our annual fall foliage trip to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, though this year, alas, it was after there were any leaves left on the trees. But we did get to see the first real frost.
Every fall, we rent a tiny cabin on Lake Ashmere. It's a cozy, peaceful weekend of family time. Times like these -- in contrast to when they're, say, reproaching me for what I'm wearing -- the kids still feel little, and close.
We play croquet and build campfires and roast things like marshmallows and hotdogs and occasionally a piece of clothing by accident. Eric has been known to fall in the lake while kayaking. We read by the wood stove, and play games. (It was there, in fact, that I first learned to play my favorite game, Bananagrams, and, it must be said, to soundly whup the asses of the whole family at it. Ok, so some of them are 10 and 8 -- but there's Eric, who can beat almost anyone at Scrabble. So. Let’s just say, I'm known around certain parts as Chiquita Bananagram. And now that I'm into dressing up for Halloween again, that may be next year's disguise… though it may be hard to locate the karaoke version of her theme song.)
We’ve been doing this trip since Violet was a few months old. The first time, as we drove by the Stockbridge Bowl I got the old James Taylor song, Sweet Baby James, in my head –
Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike
on account of that frostin’
with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go....
Ever since, it’s been one of the lullabies I sing them at bedtime –
So, goodnight, moonlight ladies
Rockabye sweet baby James
Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose
Won't you let me go down in my dreams?
And rockabye sweet baby James
Somehow these trips also bring into sharp relief how fast our children are growing, and how it seems to be speeding up. It fills me with an aching awareness of how little time, really, we’ll still have them as “ours.” As much as I crave more time to work, the knowledge that it will come because these small people aren’t hanging around so much anymore -- not to mention the host of worries that accompany the teenage years -- casts a long autumn shadow over me. I almost cannot bear it. It’s no good reminding myself that genuine empty nest is a decade away… because I know, for all its frustrations, how fast the first ten years have gone.
At eight, Violet is in many ways mature for her age, and yet she still loves to be my baby. She’s at my hip constantly, talking talking talking, and every time we walk out the door together, her hand, with its chipped purple sparkle nail polish, immediately finds mine. Even if I'm carrying a load of groceries, she hangs on. Sometimes it's frustrating. And then I think, one day before long I'll reach for her and she'll stuff her hand cooly in the pocket of her skinny jeans -- Remember this.
Hutch, who will turn 11 in a few days and started middle school this fall, feels it. He's enjoying his new level of independence, getting very cool. Let’s face it, this was probably the last Halloween he’ll dress in a real costume, one neither scary nor gross (mama no do Freddy Krueger); after this he’ll want to menace the neighborhood and beg candy in baggy jeans, a crummy sweatshirt and pantyhose over his head. Still, in moments, he breaks my heart with his perceptiveness, his emotional intelligence, his palpable sense of his own imminent adolescence, and the very present and tender half of himself that's clinging to boyhood.
One night recently, as I was putting them to bed, Violet, who has a terrible time falling asleep (owing in part to a condition which has beleaguered generations of my family – the jumpy legs) planted herself in my lap. I rocked her for a few minutes and then gave her a kiss and sent her to her bunk bed. I sang the last few bars of some lullaby and was about to tiptoe out, when, from the dark, Hutch’s voice interrupted.
“Mama?” he said. “Can I do that for a little while?”
And then my giant soccer playing, guitar plucking, parent sassing, cologne wearing big kid climbed into my lap and fell asleep as I rocked him, and choked my way through Sweet Baby James.
On a trip to France this past August, Hutch had the time of his life exploring our friend's 500-year old water mill on an island in the middle of a river in Brittany, walking the walls of Mont St. Michel and fortified cities on the north coast, visiting various Chateaux in the Loire Valley -- our day at Chinon inspired the Sir Lancelot costume. He disappeared into a world of historical fiction of his own imagination. (My own story of our France trip -- part of our "Summer | unscripted" adventures -- is halfway written, waiting to be told in blog form – it’ll happen sooner or later).
Paris, in Hutch's mind, is a pastiche of actual memories and the fantastical tales he dreamed up while we were there. He could act the urbane adolescent, talking football scores in a café with English speaking barmen, but strolling the Seine of an evening, he was still a guileless enough young boy to carry a toy sword in his belt, and unabashedly transform into a knight with a worthy foe under every bridge.
We came home from Paris, and days later he was a slightly jaded junior high schooler.
A few weeks ago, in one of his sulky tween moods, he said to me, "Do you think I'll ever see Paris again?" (Please. The theatrics.) Then he said, "I need to go back before I’m in high school. While I still make up all those stories in my head.”
Oh man, that slayed me -- his instinct that within the next couple years his access to a child’s imaginative world will close; the magic Wardrobe will turn out, after all, to just be a dark stuffy closet full of dusty coats and mothballs, Narnia a dream.
"Oh buddy," I said. "I hope you'll ALWAYS make up those stories in your head. Your imagination is a muscle like the ones in your legs; if you want to play soccer, you have to run and practice skills. As you get older, if you want to keep your great imagination, you must keep telling yourself stories.”
Only a few days later, the Paris terror attacks flooded the news.
It's always hard to know how to talk with kids about these things. How much can they digest of a toxic stew of political, religious and historical information, scary images and headlines, relentless media coverage? How much is it healthy for them to know? And particularly in this case, it felt like something I wished so hard I could protect them from.
For three months Paris has existed in their minds as Heaven on earth; a land of pain au chocolat, baguette and jambon and creamy fromage, winding stone streets to meander, Mona Lisa and Winged Victory, book stalls brimming with souvenirs and cards, beautiful bridges and fountains, rose windows, tinker toy towers in the sky.
We turned the newspapers inside out to hide the front page, until Hutch told us that they’d discussed it at school.
Social media became a patchwork quilt of everyone’s most beloved Paris moments. I loved looking at them, even as they were tinged with sadness, outrage, and helplessness now. Lovers kissing on bridges, friends eating and drinking at cafés, posing in front of Great Works of Art, and my favorite, my friend nursing her baby under the Eiffel Tower. Is there a sounder affirmation of enduring beauty, vitality, new beginnings, light in the City of Light, inextinguishable joie de vivre? Life. Happening. As we remember it.
I dragged a whole bunch of our summer photos into Facebook, but never posted them. I don't know why. Maybe I was afraid that in my mind it would color those happy images with grief and fear. Maybe I wanted to keep them apart, safe. Maybe I felt slightly dodgy about holding our idyllic summer reminiscences up as a defense against a brutal fall reality – as if their insufficiency might be revealed in withering ways.
I just kept thinking that Hutch is thoughtful enough to intuit a personal metaphor. Not in the attacks themselves (a subject I’m not equipped to go near, and certainly would not touch for literary purposes) but in the kind of consciousness, the weighty sense of things as they are, that a cataclysmic event – or even a little thing, like noticing the coarsening hair on your son’s legs -- can engender. For adults these are familiar reckonings, but for a ten-year old it may be a first awakening; a difficult and timely lesson in change, in the slippery and ephemeral; in growing up and knowing too much but still understanding too little; in the power -- and the impotence -- of story; the inability of memory to protect us from reality.
Our most luminous moments and snapshots live side-by-side and mingle with our imaginations to create our memories; that’s the beauty and the fallibility, the fragility, of nostalgia. In the worst of times it can all just seem like an old Halloween costume -- still shedding glitter all over the place years later, but without the beaming kid in it anymore.
On the other hand, I’m thinking -- and I haven’t worked this all through yet – that our memoires, our stories -- even our historical fictions -- are necessary touchstones in a disquieting present, and perhaps after all, our best, or only, redoubt in the face of an intimidating future. We look to and retell and curate the past to assure ourselves that... good and beautiful things have happened, and they endure. And if they do, then others will come too, and last.
Sunsets and autumn of course are roughly the same metaphor. And now that I think of it, the waxing and waning moon is a close relative. A wistful denouement, tinged with melancholy, with knowing, followed by a bleak, dark, fallow, uncertain time… and yet, too, a well-founded belief in the coming sunrise, spring, longer days, warmer temperatures, growth spurts, graduations, grandchildren, rediscovering oneself, other beguiling lunar wonders...
The night before Thanksgiving Eric called us all to the living room to witness the newly full moon, perched pertly atop the radio tower of the Empire State Building like a lollipop. We dallied just a minute, and missed the moment; it had already drifted to the side of the spire, where I’d seen the Man in the Moon on Halloween.
Can it already have been a month since Sir Lancelot and Glinda the Good Witch paraded the streets fully in character, blissfully lost in their Neighborhood of Make Believe?
In Chelsea, the Halloween festivities are, to use a favorite word of Hutch’s, boss. People go wild with the decorating and the candy. Children from all over the city crowd these blocks and there’s music, masks, mayhem and a lot of sugar.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York on October 29th. For five days, in our section of the city, there was no power, no cell service, no connection to the rest of the world. We live half a block from downtown’s mandatory evacuation zone; only 100 yards from home the flood damage was staggering, but our house, miraculously, was almost unharmed.
On Halloween night, two days after the storm, the locals who were riding out the blackout at home carved pumpkins and sat outside with modest bowls of Kit Kat and Milky Way; a handful of neighborhood kids dressed up and trick-or-treated by flashlight in the muddy, detritus-strewn streets. No one had fancy costumes that year; the whole thing only lasted an hour. We went inside and played Twister by candlelight. Later we put the kids to bed and the adults played poker till the wee hours. We’ll always remember it as an enchanted evening, we joked about the fun of roughing it Little House style; but in our own small way it felt like an act of defiance, a celebration of resilience.
It was three more days before the lights came back on, the TV and the internet, and we turned on our screens and saw for the first time shocking images of devastation all around us, learned of friends who had lost almost everything.
So sometimes the situation -- and the metaphor -- is inside out; or rather, like a reversible sweatshirt, has no right side, but a built-in contradiction.
Sometimes awareness doesn’t come till dawn and the darkness acts as a warm, comfy blanket, sheltering us for a time from what sunrise will bring to light.
Sometimes the darkest moment we can imagine is a bright September morning.
Sometimes awareness itself creates its own dusky mood.
Sometimes the dark really is very black -- the news scary, the night cavernous, the fears about the future overwhelming. And when a little light finds a way in -- Mr Moon visible in an urban sky, candlelit games in a blackout, a grown child cuddled in your lap in the straining rocker at bedtime -- you take the mental snapshot, remember this.
I very resolutely do not subscribe to the notion that the world is getting worse or more frightening. We're more aware in a way, because we're exposed to information everywhere we look; but it has ever been thus -- a pretty dicey place. Our memories, ultimately, are pretty short. That's good and bad. We're mostly able to feel and respond to what we actually experience, those stories we have lived.
I get really afraid of this next phase of the kids growing up, and wonder about what they'll face at a personal and global level. Our nighttime ritual of reading and singing and yes, still rocking them sometimes, and breathing them in deep as I kiss them goodnight or goodbye for the school day, and the holding of hands, and even the making of elaborate halloween costumes, is for me as much as for them. My touchstone, my stronghold. They know this, I can tell. I guess I'd call it the practice of presence as a foil to awareness.
I also take (ask Eric) an astonishing number of photos. It's not that I'm constantly photographing everything, I'm not; but when I decide that something is picture worthy I take a million shots trying to get it just right. It's also not that I'm a good photographer; I'm not. I'm about as good as a four-year old Android smartphone camera will let me be (don't even talk to me about it).
They say the camera doesn't lie - but that's nonsense. At least, it doesn't tell the whole truth. The photo is never as good as the memory, or the story we tell ourself about the memory. Have you ever gotten a satisfying picture of the Man in the Moon? Or of the precise moment when your kids dissolved in laughter over some potty joke? Or the magical instant of transformation into Glinda the Good Witch? Can you ever prove it was how you remember it?
When I sing to them at night, this -- in my mind, in my memory -- is the cowboy my song is for:
"Goodnight, my moonlight [babies]..." I sing.
When Hutch was a baby, one of his first words was "moon." (Wow, I'd forgotten this till this very minute) He wouldn't go to sleep without seeing it. So if the moon wasn't visible out the window, we'd bundle him in the stroller and walk around the block until he found it. He'd point and say, "moon!" and then we could go to bed.
That all feels so long ago right now. Before I know it, he'll venture out on the range; he'll meet girls, and drink beer, and that'll keep him warm for awhile. But I know that especially for a kid as sensitive as he is, it will inevitably be lonely and dark sometimes.
I hope his vivid imagination and memory making -- those stories he tells himself -- will be a glowing campfire or at least a sturdy candle to him then; and that he'll remember to actually take the time to observe the moon rising, take comfort in its phases, smile back at the Man; to notice how even reflected light can push away the shadows, soften the night.
During the blackout after the hurricane we discovered something amazing about our house. On each landing, at waist height, there is a little arched alcove. I always assumed they were just decorative; I change the displays from time to time -- a pretty urn, a family picture, fresh flowers, boughs and ornaments at Christmas.
In the blackout we put candles in them, just to guide our way upstairs. But lo and behold, these original c.1846 features are perfectly engineered to reflect the flame in every direction so that the walls and ceilings glow, and the shadows dance; a single candle in each one floods the entire house with light.
12/2/2015 04:25:35 am
G'morning! I hope I'm not crossing a line but, you mentioned that Violet has a terrible time falling asleep because of the jumpy legs, my mom and I have the same issue (Restless Leg Syndrome) and we take some Vitamin E about an hour or two before bed and it's helps us sleep.
Janny Koster- van Dam
12/2/2015 09:59:58 am
Once again I really enjoyed reading your blog! Thank you for sharing your stories and talent!
12/2/2015 11:53:09 am
I love this post, Jenny. It brings back so many memories of when you and your sisters were little, things I should have written down but didn't. I love all your posts, but this one is particularly poignant. xo
12/23/2015 06:04:24 pm
This. Yes. Favorite.
9/10/2022 02:26:43 am
Leave a Reply.
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2021 -- All rights reserved.